It’s Friday afternoon. Unwind with Motherboard’s needlessly comprehensive take on why a two-second video of a Turkish man yelling “MEOW” at an egg is the best thing on YouTube.
Bill Nye Talks About Canadian Oil and the Certainty of Climate Change
Yesterday, Bill Nye touched down in Toronto to attend the International Astronautical Congress, an annual gathering where space enthusiasts (where, as Nye says, the nerd factor is “turned up to 11”) share research papers. Since his mega-hit show, Nye has taken the reigns of the Planetary Society, an organization founded by Carl Sagan in the 1980s that focuses on science advocacy, research, and outreach.
As the CEO of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye is clearly using his powers as a celebrity scientist for good. During a keynote speech at the University of Toronto last night, he discussed a project the Planetary Society was developing to conquer the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth. Their solution? Laser bees. These “bees” are tiny robots that surround an offending asteroid and by using mirrors, “focus sunlight onto a spot on the asteroid” that can “gently move it.”
Anyhow, I caught up with Bill Nye before his speech to chat about Canada, the tar sands, and the Harper government’s muzzling of scientists.
Bill Nye: I’m hip with VICE, I’m down with the VICE.
VICE: Oh awesome, that’s good to hear. Let’s jump right into it then… Climate change has been immensely politicized. How do you respond to outside influences, like industry and government, that try and control the message of the scientific community?
The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil fuel industry. [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper is a controversial guy in the science community because [of] the policies, especially in western Canada, with regard to the production—that’s the verb they use, “producing,” but you’re taking old earth and burning it. [The production] of tar sands, oil shale… is there tar shale? Is there sand goo? Whatever.
I used to work in the oil field, albeit much farther south, in Texas and New Mexico. Oil is noxious, but it’s not that noxious as stuff to spill on the ground. However, when you start taking this tar sand and oil shale, where you’re you’re strip mining many, many tons of earth to get to this stuff, and then you have to burn a lot of it to make it soupy enough to pump. The environmental impact is huge! And there was some trouble with some train cars, and some explosions.
A town exploded.
Yeah. This is all stuff that could be controlled, but part of it, at least for me as an engineer, is that the extraction methods in that part of the world are so aggressive, it’s so hard to get this stuff to [a point where it’s] useful. The bad news, writ large, is that we’ll never run out of fossil fuels. There’s so much stuff, so much coal, so much tar sand oil shale everywhere around the world that we’ll never use it up. But we will use up the really easy to burn gasoline, easy to burn diesel fuel.
We Asked Doctors How Different Illegal Drugs Affect Your Sperm
Life is full of hard truths. One of the hardest is that you can only party for so long before your body starts asking you nicely to please chill out, or you accumulate so many responsibilities that drinking five beers and popping a molly just isn’t wise anymore. And when you decide you’re ready for the ultimate responsibility, having a kid, you’ll have to hope your genetic material isn’t so damaged from shoving coke mixed with Ajax into random orifices that your offspring have to suffer serious medical problems.
But what if you knew how badly you’re screwing your body up before it’s too late? Not to get all Daren the Lion on you, but I asked two reproductive experts—Dr. Ricardo Yazigi of Shady Grove Fertility Center in Maryland and Dr. David Nudell, a Bay Area-based male reproductive urologist—plus Fernando Caudevilla (also known as Dr. X, the drug whisperer) to explain the way drug use can negatively impact sperm. The general consensus is that the use of just about every illicit drug causes damage to the testicles and prevents the creation of testosterone—the linchpin substance for the entire male reproductive system.
For the purposes of this piece, we leaned heavily on a 2012 study called “The Insults of Illicit Drug Use in Male Fertility” from the American Society of Andrology’s Journal of Andrology, which is available here.
According to the 2009 National Study on Drug Use and Health, marijuana has the highest usage rate of any illicit drug in the United States, which means you probably have all or some of these problems with your sperm.
The cannabinoid compounds in marijuana are actually synthesized by the human body, so our cells have natural receptors for them. If the cannabinoids latch onto cells in the testes or the sperm themselves, some unwanted side effects could occur and ruin your day. According to Dr. Yazigi:
"About 33 percent of chronic users will have low sperm counts. Binding of the active components and metabolites of marijuana to receptors on sperm themselves has also been shown to lead to decreasing motility rates. What is less clear are the effects of more occasional users—no good studies have been done but the prevailing thought is that while these men will have rapid recovery to their sperm function with briefer cessation in use, they should avoid use when trying to get pregnant as well."
Coke is, of course, the legendary “boner killer,” in that it causes vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood cells), which leads to erectile dysfunction. It’s difficult to pinpoint what else it does, because any studies done on human beings are going to be complicated by the fact that cocaine just makes you want to party more. I asked Dr. Yazigi why we don’t have more information on coke’s effects, and he responded that human tests aren’t pure “because most of the time there’s coexistence of the use of cocaine along with alcohol and cigarettes and other drugs, so the single cocaine users are almost a rarity.” Also, he reminded me that you can’t force a group of people to do cocaine and then reproduce. You know, ethically.
Miami Is Drowning, and the Corals Couldn’t Be Happier
In Miami Beach people shop for produce at two feet above sea level. The setting for this activity is a Whole Foods in South Beach. This particular Whole Foods was built on what is now the lowest inhabitable plot of land in Florida. In the surrounding area, only a few feet higher and resting on dredged-up land that was once deep-blue saltwater, is a sprawling assortment of condos, hotels, schools, parks, and small businesses that withstand flooding that grows worse every year.
The common denominator is that every square inch will, at some point, succumb to the ocean.
One mile south of the Whole Foods is a small strip of the bay known as Government Cut. The waterway was dredged and formed in the early 1900s to allow easier access to the Port of Miami. A century later, the port stands as the 11th-largest shipping-container destination in the United States. Despite the port’s continued success, the dredging ships have returned to dig up more—their gigantic steel claws scooping up chunks of seabed like a sludgy arcade-game prize.
Across the water, on the mainland, stands the deserted but still imposing building that formerly housed the Miami Herald. The half-demolished and dilapidated structure is perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay, at a relatively impressive elevation of five feet.
In 2011, the Malaysian conglomerate Genting Group, the parent company of Resorts World Casinos, expressed its intention to build a new casino on the property, even though it is still illegal to operate one in the state of Florida. Fueling the controversy was a rumor that the casino would be accessible only by boat or helicopter, which some people took to confirm suspicions that Genting’s proposal would merely serve as a playground for the rich.
Leading Anti-Marijuana Academics Are Paid by Painkiller Drug Companies
As Americans continue to embrace pot—as medicine and for recreational use—opponents are turning to a set of academic researchers to claim that policymakers should avoid relaxing restrictions around marijuana. It’s too dangerous, risky, and untested, they say. Just as drug company-funded research has become incredibly controversial in recent years, forcing major medical schools and journals to institute strict disclosure requirements, could there be a conflict of interest issue in the pot debate?
VICE has found that many of the researchers who have advocated against legalizing pot have also been on the payroll of leading pharmaceutical firms with products that could be easily replaced by using marijuana. When these individuals have been quoted in the media, their drug-industry ties have not been revealed.
Take, for example, Dr. Herbert Kleber of Columbia University. Kleber has impeccable academic credentials, and has been quoted in the press and in academic publications warning against the use of marijuana, which he stresses may cause wide-ranging addiction and public health issues. But when he’s writing anti-pot opinion pieces for CBS News, or being quoted by NPR and CNBC, what’s left unsaid is that Kleber has served as a paid consultant to leading prescription drug companies, including Purdue Pharma (the maker of OxyContin), Reckitt Benckiser (the producer of a painkiller called Nurofen), and Alkermes (the producer of a powerful new opioid called Zohydro).
We Need to Stop Killer Robots from Taking Over the World
Nick Bostrom’s job is to dream up increasingly lurid scenarios that could wipe out the human race: Asteroid strikes; high-energy physics experiments that go wrong; global plagues of genetically-modified superbugs; the emergence of all-powerful computers with scant regard for human life—that sort of thing.
In the hierarchy of risk categories, Bostrom’s specialty stands above mere catastrophic risks like climate change, financial market collapse and conventional warfare.
As the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, Bostrom is part of a small but growing network of snappily-named academic institutions tackling these “existential risks”: the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge; the Future of Life Institute at MIT and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute at Berkeley. Their tools are philosophy, physics and lots and lots of hard math.
Five years ago he started writing a book aimed at the layman on a selection of existential risks but quickly realized that the chapter dealing with the dangers of artificial intelligence development growth was getting fatter and fatter and deserved a book of its own. The result is Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. It makes compelling—if scary—reading.
The basic thesis is that developments in artificial intelligence will gather apace so that within this century it’s conceivable that we will be able to artificially replicate human level machine intelligence (HLMI).
Once HLMI is reached, things move pretty quickly: Intelligent machines will be able to design even more intelligent machines, leading to what mathematician I.J. Good called back in 1965 an “intelligence explosion” that will leave human capabilities far behind. We get to relax, safe in the knowledge that the really hard work is being done by super-computers we have brought into being.
Meet the ‘Testo Junkie’ Who Hacks Her Gender with Testosterone
In 2008, Beatriz Preciado published Testo Junkie, an unclassifiable essay that turned the academic world upside down and placed her as an international reference on what happens when you take testosterone outside a medical protocol or even outside a gender re-assignment protocol. She tests this thesis by using self-managed testosterone intake as a tool of “gender-hacking”—breaking into the gender codes that prescribe our social identities.
Testo Junkie was recently published in the US, which presented me with the perfect excuse to get in touch. Although Beatriz agreed to talk to me about her thesis, she’s not very fond of the press. As we head to a café she tell me that “VICE is the best of the worst.” I call her Beatriz and she corrects me: I should call her Beto. She smells like man and flowers—a gardenia in a suit.
VICE: Hi, Beto, thank you for agreeing to this interview. It’s an honour. Can you talk to me about your idea of using the body as an archive in Testo Junkie?
Beatriz Preciado: Thinking that the body ends where the skin does is ridiculous, and yet that’s how we think. Instead of talking about the “body,” I use the term “body archive.” I see the body as a cultural and political archive, with images, narratives and practices stored in it. Our body is small but the wider somatic apparatus is gigantic.
What happens when testosterone comes into play?
It is about your willingness to make your body a place of commitment. How you are perceived collectively, how you are built collectively—because, even if you independently decide to take testosterone, it’s never a completely individual act. There is a network involved; someone is going to smuggle it and you have to do it knowing that there will be side effects—that is, you will be viewed differently by society.
Obviously, when you take testosterone there are molecular changes taking place in your body, but above all there is a shift in your social position. So testosterone is to do with the management of your own body, but it goes way beyond that.
An Explanation From the Scientist Behind That Cat Poop Cancer Treatment
In a scientific discovery at Dartmouth recently hailed as “highly shareable” by the internet, cat poop is being mentioned in connection with a newly discovered potential cancer treatment.
Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite found in the guts of cats, has been used in a lab to treat cancer. It might, after enough testing turn out to be a viable cancer therapy. However, toxoplasma is a strange, shape-shifting organism, and the kind cats poop out won’t shrink your tumors one bit. Still, Dartmouth recently publicized the very promising discovery: A modified version of toxoplasma, when injected into mice with certain kinds of cancer, switched on an immune response that the cancer had deactivated, which then allowed the body to fight the disease itself.
David J. Bzik, Ph.D. of Dartmouth’s Geisel Medical School has been experimenting with toxoplasma for at least a decade. He says the discovery that an altered form of the parasite might cure cancer is a big deal, but that toxoplama is weird and wonderful microbe that still has surprises in store for humanity, none of which involved ingesting cat poop by any stretch of the imagination.
He also schooled me on some interesting trivia I thought I knew about toxoplasma. What follows is an edited version of my conversation with him.
Via Flickr user Yale Rosen
I’m reading a lot of headlines about cat poop curing cancer.
Oh of course. They’re sensationalist.
What should they be reporting?
We developed this strain of toxoplasma that doesn’t replicate.
Could you remind us what toxoplasma is?
It’s a protozoan. Its closest relative is malaria, it’s in the same phylum.
And what happens when it can’t reproduce?
It doesn’t cause disease in mice. It’s a great vaccine for toxoplasmosis [which], in AIDS patients is a really big disease. Also in cancer patients, when their immune systems are suppressed, they’re vulnerable to natural infections by toxoplasma. So having a vaccine is a good idea. This has not been tested as a vaccine yet in humans or cats, and we also haven’t tested the anti-cancer effects in humans either. This has all been mouse work.
VICE News host Thomas Morton swings from the trees with an international team of scientists in Panama that’s found a promising treatment for malaria, Chagas disease and breast cancer in the most unlikely place: The mossy fur of tree sloths. It’s yet another reason to not cut down rainforests. About half of all drugs brought to market from 1997-2006 came from plants, fungi and bacteria discovered by “bio-prospectors” in nature. And we see that sloths are just one of many new and unusual frontiers for this research.