The UN gets clever people to look at important issues sometimes, and what they said recently is “Gee, all this land being used to rear cattle is being used quite poorly for the planet – if we start deforesting the rainforest because everyone wants to eat cows and dairy, that’s going to suck, so maybe don’t eat quite so much of that stuff”. They also noted that people don’t like being told to eat less beef. Then, just a few days later, farmers in Brazil started burning down the Amazon rainforest and people got upset about it. (IPCC, Nature) 
Looking at far away stuff, like galaxies, requires bending light from distant objects in such a way that it makes them look big enough for us to see. Doing this with glass or polished mirrors can cost billions of pounds and a lot of work. The Earth’s entire atmosphere bends light from celestial objects too. So by setting an “eyepiece” out at roughly the distance of the moon, David Kipping from Columbia is suggesting just using the whole planet as a telescope instead. (MIT TR)
A nuclear explosion happened in northwestern Russia during a weapons test and some people got very badly poisoned from radiation. Radiation is just atoms breaking apart and spewing their bits everywhere, and because those atoms can pretty easily get from one place to another, radiation poisoning is somewhat contagious. At the hospital to which the patients were brought, no one told doctors or staff that the patients were in a nuclear blast, endangering doctors and their other patients. It’s also hard to tell how serious this is, because Russia stopped two radiation monitors from giving accurate data about the magnitude of the blast. (BBC)
The last time people were testing lots of nuclear weapons, scientists and philosophers like Einstein and Russell got together to kick up a fuss and say “Can you please not,”. In fact, it helped contribute to some non-proliferation agreements and won the movement a Nobel Peace prize. The world has lots of other problems today and since trust in scientists is slowly rising, some people want them to start kicking up more fuss in an organised way again. (Nature) 
To work out where someone was, you can gauge their location with the mobile phone towers that supply signals, by checking which tower their phone was connected to. If you record that information, you can share it with the police to help work out of someone was implicated in a crime. That’s only useful if you actually correctly match the phone tower data to the phones when making your police database, and when you don’t, you might end up providing incorrect evidence to 10,000 criminal justice cases, as happened in Denmark. (NYTimes) 
Burning dead bodies isn’t great for the environment, and sticking them in boxes under the ground isn’t either. But decomposing them into compost for plants would be nice, if we could get microbes to do so. One of the problems is getting enough oxygen to all the microbes around the body it so they can eat it properly. The solution? Rotate the body in a vessel like a doner kebab to ensure airflow and spread microbes and heat around properly. (CBC)
 Public engagement:
For reasons only somewhat related to my own ego, I read a lot of stuff about how scientists need to engage with the public, share recommendations with policymakers, be advocates etc. And I was amused by this particular quote from one of the co-chairs of the IPCC working group, Hans-Otto Pörtner, – “We don’t want to tell people what to eat… but it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health.”
I’m willing to wager that telling people what to eat is one of the few things he would, in fact, rather like to tell people. Perhaps even the thing he’d like to tell people the most.
There was a similar tone adopted in the EAT-Lancet commision’s report earlier this year which, similar to this IPCC report, got lots of clever people to sit down together, review all the evidence and unsurprisingly (but quantifiably and demonstrably, which is the important thing here) found that eating a lot less meat and a lot more plants would be good for the planet and, if done properly, likely better for most people’s health. But the entire wording of the commission goes just as far as saying “You see, it would be really good if people in rich countries stopped eating as many cows. Like, about as good as all the CO2 emissions prevented from using nuclear power,” as opposed to “STOP EATING BEEF NOW OR WE ALL DIE.”
I’m amused by the more conciliatory tone of voice because it very neatly plays the “don’t be a climate alarmist” card that a lot of climate communication strategists are now pushing for. And probably rightly so! Few people like a downer, or a doomsday-er or anyone who tells them after a long and hard day they have more work to do. So, spin it positively, I guess.
But there’s a broader sentiment here beyond talking about the climate, to anything that science bears on that has an effect on people’s lives. Every year the NHS publishes guidelines on how to not ruin your own body via drinking and then people, annually and habitually, get very angry about it, with the UK’s own health secretary calling them “diktats”. As though telling you how not to die early is a nuisance.
Which is why the Nature editorial calling on scientists to band together like the Pugwash days of anti-nuclear proliferation, to me, seems frankly dated and off the mark. If you can’t get the man down the pub (and I don’t say this disparagingly but as an example of the kind of actual, existent person that research often fails to reach) to take a positive interest in preserving their own health, then constructing a globalist cabal of scientists who organise to routinely chastise society about the climate… well it’s not the best PR move.
Which is not to say anyone doing research in a field with a direct impact on public well-being should shut up, or not produce reports like the IPCC/LANCET ones and tell people about it. Nor would I disparage someone like Greta Thurnberg for telling it like it is.
Simply that, as I mentioned in Attempts #3 and #4, the way that people are influenced and come to learn things is radically different from the ‘50s and like anyone wanting to effectively communicate anything, you have to tailor a message to its audience. Including high ranking politicians.
Fortunately, since then, there has at least been a bit of research on what gets people to do things that are good for themselves and for society. And while I agree that there’s an unspoken paternalism (and perhaps insidiousness?) behind organisations like the Behavioural Insights Team (which has become semi-independent from the UK government since its inception), I think one of its advisors, who helped set it up, has a good point.
“If you want people to do something, make it easy.”
Interestingly, there was another Nature editorial piece this week that seemed to push for exactly that.
 Dodgy databases
There is, rightly, a lot of concern about how machine learning algorithms are being applied in the public sphere, and in particular the criminal justice system.
And I agree, we should be scrutinising algorithms that claim to predict reoffending, identify individual with facial recognition in public spaces and try and assess whether someone is lying from their facial expression (currently being trialled in European airports). All of that stuff has a lot of ethical controversy, demonstrated dubiousness and lack of transparency behind it (as mentioned in previous Attempts).
But then a problem like this comes up and reminds us we are far from living in the future. Or if we are, it’s of the William Gibson “unevenly distributed” sort. Recording data properly and transferring it without something going wrong is the perennial task of most computing. Hell, copying data from one place to another is literally what the internet was invented for!
So when this happens –
“The authorities said that the problems stemmed partly from police I.T. systems and partly from the phone companies’ systems, although a telecom industry representative said he could not understand how phone companies could have caused the errors.”
– it gives one pause for thought. Like, sure, worry about all these newfangled technology issues coming up everywhere related to machine learning. But worry more fundamentally about the usual problems with technology that haven’t gone away, even if they’ve changed form and scale, over the last 50 years.
We know that improperly represented data is often, in fact, one of the biggest problems with training a deep learning algorithm so perhaps I’m artificially separating concerns about the two problems when they are in fact the same thing. But it’s still worth bearing in mind that the old addage from the ‘60s still applies to many (if not most) modern problems with technology: Garbage in, Garbage out.
As a matter of fun historical note, no less than Charles Babbage (inventor of the analytical engine, the first mechanical computer) was actually saying as much in the 1800s:
“On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”
Or to translate to modern vernacular “If you put a bunch of junk into my machine, what on Earth makes you think it’ll give you anything useful, you dimwit?”