🌎 #299: How to save 1.3 million lives
Plus: What does Mexican beer have to do with climate change?
Welcome back, Shit Givers.
As we barrel towards the end of the year, we're going to take our foot off the pedal a bit to take a breather and also finish up some other big projects.
Your usual Friday newsletter will come a couple more times, but will also be occasionally replaced or complimented with fun end-of-year content — our 2nd annual gift guide, annual wrap-up, and more, plus our new limited-series with Rewiring America.
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Around the world in one bullet list
As world climate leaders (and a bazillion fossil fuel lobbyists) continue to slog through negotiations at 🇪🇬 COP27, here's a round-up of concurrent global climate news:
Fuck around and find out, episode XI:
- Al Gore's graduated from Powerpoint slides to satellites that catalog 72,000 polluters in real-time, WITH LASERS (alright there's no lasers but just imagine)
In climate finance:
- The EU and UK will help finance Vietnam's $11 billion transition away from coal
- A year ago, the world's biggest banks committed to phasing out fossil fuel funding. Most of them are not doing that.
- Turns out Japan is quietly the largest public financier of new fossil fuel projects
- Billions in "loss and damage" money to low-income countries is still very much in flux as rich countries drag ass, to put it kindly
- One idea: Overhaul the World Bank and IMF
- High interest rates have thrown a wrench in renewable energy financing
- The UK will spend tens of billions of pounds to reduce energy demand by 13% by 2028
Hit the road:
- Indonesia will produce more than 50,000 battery packs for new electric two-wheelers
- France will require parking lots with more than 80 spots to be covered in solar panels
- South Sudan's recurring floods have created some of the first permanent climate refugees
- Extreme drought continues to crush the Horn of Africa
Minerals, metals, and trees:
Moral of the story: We've come a very long way, and have equally far to go. The wind's (literally) at our backs. Sun's out, guns solar panels out (you get the point). Meetings like COP are a waste of time if we can't get real commitments out of them.
⚡️What We Can Do: 51 Democratic senators in the US Congress doesn't make up for (barely) losing the House but still goes a hell of a long way towards the US being able to stand by international climate commitments.
Like I've been saying
👀 Look up: I've been running the Vaccine Equity Update in every newsletter for almost a year. I've talked to global health pros online (here and here) and offline to understand why we haven't vaccinated the world, and what we can do about it.
The receipts are in: A new study out of the UK cross-referenced global excess mortality and vaccine availability info to understand how deaths might have been different had vaccines been equitably distributed, and the theoretical number is absolutely brutal.
The failures are myriad -- logistically and politically complicated (listen to the convos above to get more context), but the morals are not.
I don't have to explain to you that not only were 1.3 million lives sacrificed, but in not vaccinating everyone everywhere, we paved the way for variants like Omicron to tear through countries like the US where shots were plentiful, if often wasted.
We can't go back in time, but we can do better right now, and we can use this info to plan better for the next pandemic.
⚡️What We Can Do: Check out Biobot's wastewater monitoring program for local governments and then take it to your next city council meeting.
FOOD & WATER
Please Don't Go
💦 Water runs dry isn't just the 2nd best Boyz II Men song (fight me): it's the future if we don't get our shit together.
Another round-up (I've been off for a minute, you're welcome):
- Mexican brewers sold $5 billion in beer exports last year, but drought threatens nearly all of it
- Big Tech, having a rough ride as it is, is finding water needed to cool massive data centers in short supply
- California's reconsidering desalination plants and how to capture runoff from future megastorms
- Kenya (see Horn of Africa link above) reversed a ban on drought-resistant genetically modified crops, and some folks aren't pleased
- The Mississippi River -- used to transport 92% of the country's ag exports -- is drying up even faster, leaving 70% of the Great Plains in drought and now reaching the southeast
- The new SWOT satellite can measure an incredible 95% of Earth’s water and collect a "complete sample on surface waters" every month (I can't make time to vacuum my air purifiers once a month)
On a planet more or less covered in undrinkable water, we have made ourselves quite the pickle. Decarbonization cannot happen fast enough.
⚡️What We Can Do: Get deeper water news from our friends at Circle of Blue.
TOGETHER WITH MINI MUSEUM
The universe is incredible and at Mini Museum, we want to put a piece of that wonder in your hand.
Explore our gift center today to find awesome gifts from the deep history of our planet:
Real dinosaur fossils like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, meteorites from the edges of the solar system, and even pieces of modern history like the Apollo 11 mission!
Explore the collection today and use code BLASTOFF at checkout to save 10%!
HEALTH & BIO
Chatbots aren't your friends
CUT TO: Five years ago, when everybody (me) was plugging in video baby monitors and fun smart lights with zero consideration for how secure they were.
There's room for improvement: Those devices have become...somewhat...more secure, but telehealth apps, digital health apps, and health records in general are decidedly not.
- This will surprise you but mental health data and chatbots do not mix
- The Opioid Policy Institute and Legal Action Center dropped the results of a 16 month analysis of a dozen substance-use mobile health sites and they're...not private
- Russian cybercriminals hacked an Australian health insurer, accessing almost 10 million customers, releasing abortion and addiction info into (onto?) the dark web
- Oh, side note, if you're at the World Cup, DO NOT DOWNLOAD any of the official apps
We can actually fix this: Google just settled with 40 states for almost $400 million for continuing to track your location after you said "no thanks".
And a split Congress means the "Kids Online Safety Act" and "Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act" are technically still in play, once the feds figure how to best the best state-level bills.
⚡️What We Can Do: Every bit of leverage matters. Donate to Senator Warnock's December runoff campaign here, and the "Georgia Safe and Strong" alliance of local organizers here, so we can try and get ahead of this dangerous nonsense for once.
Let's be honest
The news: Took a minute off, and now GPT-4's around the corner and you can ask AI basically any science question, and it'll answer, culled from "48 million papers, textbooks, reference material, compounds, proteins and other sources of scientific knowledge."
This stuff is exciting as hell, but the usual caveats exist:
- AI isn't real, these are just models, do not trust anything without verification
- Confidence is a long-tail game and super technical stuff risks losing accuracy in the nitty-gritty
- AI doesn't have agency
- AI is not sentient
- It's an algorithm trained on a data set, not a robot, much less an independent one
- Any AI's capabilities are incredibly narrow, still
- Many (not all, but many) of the people and companies building these tools are seeking to raise enormous amounts of money (or already have), they are not neutral parties
- I cannot emphasize enough again an AI that can make "a picture of two dogs recreating the moon landing but this time the moon is made of vegan ice cream in the style of Dali" cannot also, for example, drive a car or read a mammogram
- Most of their creators have a relatively little understanding of how the hell they actually work
- But that doesn't mean they can just get away with hand-wavy bullshit: We bring ENORMOUS biases and blind spots to everything we build, including these tools. Humans set agendas whether we realize it or not.
- If we're going to acknowledge an AI's limitations, we should acknowledge our own, too (for example, we are 50% banana (and now I have to acknowledge that this statistic, while true, is incomplete, and I was just trying to make a point).
So yeah, be excited. But let's build with ethics, inclusion, and humility up front.
⚡️What We Can Do: Get free weekly updates on ethical AI from our friends at the Montreal AI Ethics Institute.
10 THINGS FROM MY NOTEBOOK
- Now we gotta figure out how to make mRNA shots work for everything else
- Frontier published a database of carbon removal knowledge gaps
- Will we edit the cholesterol gene?
- Intel says their deepfake detector is correct 96% of the time
- Is meditation as useful as Lexapro?
- Why is biopharma investing so unrewarding? Or is it?
- This is the first toddler to have been treated for a disease -- before she was born
- How to make corn more like cactus
- Break up the FDA
- The US may get another huge solar panel factory (thanks Ira!)
- PLUS: How daily walks help humans AND dogs with dementia, he types through tears
Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit. Have a great weekend.