Asteroids as Another Existential Threat

Do we best prepare for uncertain existential future threats by huge centrally planned government spending, or by allowing the flourishing of general purpose technologies and nimble entrepreneurs?

(p. C4) The most immediate threat isn’t from the largest or smallest asteroids but from those in between. Over the past two decades, asteroid hunters with NASA and other international space agencies have identified and tracked the orbits of more than 20,000 asteroids—also known as near-Earth objects—that pass through our neighborhood as they orbit the sun. Of those, about 2,000 are classified as potentially hazardous—asteroids that are large enough (greater than 150 yards in diameter) to cause local destruction and that come close enough to Earth to someday pose a threat.

The good news is that scientists don’t expect any of these known asteroids to collide with Earth within at least the next century. Some will come pretty close, though: On an unlucky Friday the 13th in April 2029, the thousand-foot-wide asteroid Apophis will pass a mere 19,000 miles from Earth—closer than the satellites that bring us DISH TV.

But here’s the bad news: Hundreds of thousands of other near-Earth asteroids, both large and small, haven’t been identified. We have no idea where they are and where they are going. On Feb. 15, 2013, a relatively small, 60-foot-wide asteroid traveling at 43,000 mph exploded in the atmosphere near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, sending out a blast wave that injured 1,500 people. No one had seen the asteroid coming.

We need to find and track these unknown invaders as soon as possible. But while NASA’s “planetary defense” budget has been steadily increasing over the past decade, the $150 million allocated in 2019 for asteroid detection, asteroid tracking and related programs amounts to less than 1% of the space agency’s $21.5 billion budget.

For the full commentary, see:

Gordon L. Dillow. “The Asteroid Peril Isn’t Science Fiction.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 5, 2019): C4.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 5, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

Dillow’s commentary is related to his book:

Dillow, Gordon L. Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth. New York: Scribner, 2019.

Biden’s Cancer “Moonshot Is 100 Percent Hype”

(p. A17) WASHINGTON — President Biden unveiled a plan on Wednesday to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years — an ambitious new goal, he said, to “supercharge” the cancer “moonshot” program he initiated and presided over five years ago as vice president.

Mr. Biden, joined by his wife, Jill Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris, also announced a campaign to urge Americans to undergo screenings that were missed during the coronavirus pandemic.

. . .

More screenings are not the answer — the only cancers for which screening has indisputably lowered the death rate are colon and cervical. Death rates for other cancers, like breast, have fallen, but a large part of the drop, if not all of it, is because of improved treatment, said Donald A. Berry, a biostatistician at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center who has spent decades studying these issues.

“Everybody loves early detection, but it comes with harms,” he said — principally, the harm of finding and treating tumors that do not need to be treated because they are innocuous. “The harms we know, but the benefits of screening are very uncertain,” he said.

If the age-adjusted cancer death rate were to plunge by 50 percent, it would have to be because cancers were being cured. Some treatments, like a drug that treats chronic myelogenous leukemia, have slashed death rates for that disease, but such marked effects in cancer are few and far between.

. . .

The White House billed the event as a fresh push by the president to “reignite” the moonshot program and “end cancer as we know it.”

. . .

Yet one Wall Street analyst who specializes in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals said that the time, money and effort might be better spent on initiatives to prevent cancer, like reducing smoking and rates of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says being obese increases a person’s risk of cancer. And reducing smoking is a proven way to cut the cancer death rate.

“This moonshot is 100 percent hype; this is the absolute wrong way to do this,” said the analyst, Stephen Brozak, the president of WBB Securities.

Presidents since Richard M. Nixon have sought to tackle cancer, of which there are more than 100 types of disease that can vary in how they grow, spread and respond to treatment. The cancer institute estimates that nearly 40 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with some type of cancer at some point during their lifetimes. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 1.9 million new cases of cancer in the United States this year, and more than 609,000 cancer deaths.

For the full story, see:

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Gina Kolata. “President Aims to Cut The Cancer Death Rate In Half Over 25 Years.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 3, 2022): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 2, 2022, and has the title “Biden Presents Ambitious Plan to Cut Cancer Death Rate in Half.”)

Amazon Warehouse Jobs Give “Economic Boost” to English Town

(p. B4) DARLINGTON, England—Many retailers in this old market town have long held Inc. partially to blame for the closures of a raft of local shops in recent years.

Then, Amazon opened a warehouse here.

The facility, which opened in early 2020, employs 1,300 full-time staff, making it one of the town’s biggest employers. It hired 500 additional seasonal workers during the end-of-year holidays. Wages start at £10 (equivalent to $13.25) an hour, above the legal minimum, and benefits include private healthcare and an £8,000 education allowance available in installments over four years.

The new jobs have all delivered an economic boost for the Northern England town of 100,000, while sparking a reassessment of the U.S. e-commerce giant. Nicola Reading, a gift-shop owner, still blames Amazon for the demise of the local retail scene but now sees an upside, too.

“It feels like Amazon employs half the population of Darlington now,” she said.

Already America’s second-biggest employer, after Walmart Inc., Amazon has been advancing in Europe and the U.K., investing €78 billion ($89 billion) since 2010 in a continentwide expansion that has significantly accelerated over the past few years. Amazon employs over 55,000 full-time U.K. staff.

. . .

Local officials in Darlington have applauded Amazon’s arrival, which they say has benefited the town, chiefly by creating jobs. Amazon’s presence is also encouraging young university graduates to stay in the town and attracting other companies, said Mark Ladyman, the Darlington Borough Council’s assistant director for economic growth.

For the full story, see:

Trefor Moss. “The Small Town That Amazon Upended, Then Saved.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, January 22, 2022): B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Jan. 21, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Technology Allows College Students to Stay Attached to Friends and Family at Home

(p. C5) I sometimes forget that my daughter has left for college. She Facetimes me on her way from the library to the gym. I see a small portion of her head, blue sky behind her, headphones dangling from an ear, part of a cup of coffee. She texts me updates on her failing quest to find the right edition of “The Waste Land” for one of her classes. I am still part of the dailiness of her life in a way that I am quite sure my mother was not in mine when I left for college in the last century.

My daughter also stays in close contact with her friends from home via group texts, Snapchat, TikTok, private Instagram stories. They are warm, vivid presences in her life that would likely have faded in a different technological moment.

While I remember high-school friends drifting, high-school boyfriends vanishing by winter break, many people she knows have romantic interests from home that endure. After all, their relationships with their new friends are also, to some degree, on the phone. With smartphones, physical presence becomes less important; it is no longer necessary to be with someone to communicate incessantly with them. The people in front of you comprise only one of many social situations you have access to.

. . .

Some part of me wonders if there aren’t benefits to this new way of being, along with the obvious downsides. My daughter is attached to her college friends and her friends from home. She is almost living in two places simultaneously; she is inhabiting more than one possible world.

For the full commentary, see:

Katie Roiphe. “Even at College, Our Children Are Home.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, January 29, 2022): C5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date as the print version, and has the same title as the print version.)

Could Principled Investors Make the Walt Disney Company Great Again?

Robert Nozick defended firms that maximize profits subject to ethical side constraints. Presumably the ethical side constraints include not capitulating to totalitarian governments that suppress free speech. The recent “meme” investors in GameStop and AMC sparked in me the question whether principled investors loyal to ethical side constraints could return the Walt Disney Company to the principled greatness of Walt Disney, the man?

(p. 1) It has been a year since Mat Bowen, who was the pastor of a small church in Gibson City, Ill., had the dream — the one where Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, urged him to buy Dogecoin.

Mr. Bowen had just begun to dabble in investing. He soon discovered WallStreetBets, the online forum on Reddit where throngs of small investors were plotting to buy shares of GameStop, the troubled video game retailer, in a bid to teach Wall Street a lesson. Some hedge funds had bet that shares of GameStop would fall. Instead, they took off, as the investors banded together last January to drive the price up more than 1,700 percent.

Caught up in the frenzy, Mr. Bowen bought GameStop, too. In July [2021], he quit the church to become a full-time trader, convinced he was joining a fight against financial injustice.

The beliefs underpinning last year’s meme stock phenomenon are stronger than ever. For a large number of individual investors, the stock market has become the battleground on which they join forces to right perceived wrongs and fight the powerful. So much so that when the stock market seesawed this past week, many small investors were undeterred. Falling prices were another opportunity to buy more shares of their favorite companies.

“The reason I am still in this, and the reason I am willing to ride these stocks to zero, is for my fellow citizens,” said Mr. Bowen, who received his master’s degree in divinity (p. 7) at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He cast the so-called meme stock fight in moral terms. “The battle of good versus evil is not just limited to the walls of a church or a synagogue or a mosque,” he said.

. . .

Jesus Gonzalez was drawn into the meme stock trade by what he saw as a power imbalance. Mr. Gonzalez, 22, had invested in stocks off and on as a teenager, but “AMC and GameStop are different from any other play in the stock market,” he said. “We have never seen a congregation of retail investors who have collectively come together on the internet and formed the largest, most powerful decentralized hedge fund in the world.”

Mr. Gonzalez, who graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in finance last month, is buying more shares of GameStop and AMC, even though his $220,000 portfolio is off 37 percent from its November [2021] high, he said.

His 34-year-old sister, Ruby Gonzalez, a behavioral health therapist who works at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and is studying to become a nurse, followed her brother’s lead and invested most of her savings in the two companies. “I want to change market manipulation,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Tara Siegel Bernard, Emily Flitter and Anupreeta Das. “How GameStop Turned into a Fight for Good vs. Evil.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, January 30, 2022): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 29, 2022, and has the title “Buy GameStop, Fight Injustice. Just Don’t Sell.”)

Robert Nozick’s libertarian masterpiece is:

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1974.

Open-Source Volunteers “May Not Have Sufficient Resources to Prioritize Security”

(p. A15) The recent discovery of a vulnerability in Apache log4j, a widely used open-source software tool, has exposed a significant security issue with our digital world.

. . .

We’ve had security issues with open-source software occur every couple of years, including the Heartbleed Bug in 2014 and the npm Left-Pad Vulnerability in 2016. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in 2020, two of the most routinely exploited information-technology vulnerabilities were related to open source.

One of the primary reasons for these vulnerabilities is that popular open-source software such as log4j is often maintained by volunteers who may not have sufficient resources to prioritize security. But these volunteers aren’t to blame. What appears to be an esoteric technical problem is actually one of funding and the sustainability of the entire digital ecosystem. While some open-source projects are supported by companies and nonprofit organizations, other pieces of code are maintained and released by people who struggle to monetize their work. The open-source security problem is, at its core, a tragedy of the commons. When the underlying health of our digital infrastructure is unsound, the whole system suffers.

For the full commentary, see:

Eric Schmidt and Frank Long. “Protect Open-Source Software.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, January 28, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 27, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

China’s “Establishment of an Absolute Political Totalitarianism”

(p. A1) The young woman in Beijing began her post complaining about mobs gathering online, where recluses vent misogynistic insecurities from the safety of desk chairs. As provocative as it was, it might have passed unnoticed except that she added another beat.

She mocked the toxic masculinity of users imagining themselves as Dong Cunrui, a textbook war hero who, according to Chinese Communist Party lore, died valiantly during the civil war that brought the party to power in 1949.

For that passing reference, the woman, 27 and identified in court only by her last name, Xu, was sentenced last month to seven months in prison.

Her crime: violating a newly amended criminal code that punishes the slander of China’s martyrs and heroes. Since it went into effect in March, the statute has been enforced with a revolutionary zeal, part of an intensified campaign under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to sanctify the Communist Party’s version of history — and his vision for the country’s future.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, which polices the country’s internet, has created telephone and online hotlines to encourage citizens to report violations. It has even published a list of 10 “rumors” that are forbidden to discuss.

Was Mao Zedong’s Long March really not so long? Did the Red (p. A6) Army skirt heavy fighting against the Japanese during World War II to save its strength for the civil war against the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek? Was Mao’s son, Mao Anying, killed by an American airstrike during the Korean War because he lit a stove to make fried rice?

Asking those very questions risks arrest and, now, prosecution. “It is a sign of the establishment of an absolute political totalitarianism,” said Wu Qiang, an outspoken political analyst in Beijing.

China’s Communist Party has long policed dissent, severely restricting public discussion of topics it deems to be politically incorrect, from Tibet to the Tiananmen Square protests. The new law goes further. It has criminalized as slander topics that were once subjects of historical debate and research, including Mao’s rule itself up to a point. Since March, the law has been used at least 15 times to punish people who slight party history.

. . .

The campaign has inspired vigilantism, with internet users calling out potential violations.

The Jiangsu branch of China Unicom, a state-owned telecommunications company, came under investigation after a public uproar started when its Weibo account posted a recipe for fried rice on what was Mao Anying’s birthday. It is not clear whether the company faces criminal charges, but its account was suspended.

For the full story, see:

Steven Lee Myers. “Mocking China’s Heroes Can Lead to Jail Time.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 3, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Nov. 15, 2021, and has the title “Shutting Down Historical Debate, China Makes It a Crime to Mock Heroes.”)

Centenarians Can Be “Cognitive Super-Agers”

(p. D7) Fewer than 1 percent of Americans reach the age of 100, and new data from the Netherlands indicate that those who achieve that milestone with their mental faculties still intact are likely to remain so for their remaining years, even if their brains are riddled with the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Findings from the Dutch study may eventually pave a path for many more of us to become “cognitive super-agers,” as researchers call people who approach the end of the human life span with brains that function as if they were 30 years younger.

One day everyone who is physically able to reach 100 may also be able to remain mentally healthy. By studying centenarians, researchers hope to identify reliable characteristics and develop treatments that would result in healthy cognitive aging for most of us. Meanwhile, there is much we can do now to keep our brains in tiptop condition, even if reaching 100 is neither a goal nor a possibility.

These hopeful prospects stem from the study of 340 Dutch centenarians living independently who were tested and shown to be cognitively healthy when they enrolled. The 79 participants who neither died nor dropped out of the study returned for repeated cognitive testing, over an average follow-up of 19 months.

The research team, directed by Henne Holstege at Vrije University in Amsterdam, reported in JAMA Network Open in January that these participants experienced no decline in major cognitive measures, except for a slight loss in memory function. Basically, the participants performed as if they were 30 years younger in overall cognition; ability to make decisions and plans and execute them; recreate by drawing a figure they had looked at; list animals or objects that began with a certain letter; and not becoming easily distracted when performing a task or getting lost when they left home.

Even those with genes linked to an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease were able to perform well on the tests.

Nearly a third of the participants agreed to donate their brains after death. Brain autopsies of 44 of the original centenarians revealed that many had substantial neuropathology common to people with Alzheimer’s disease although they had remained cognitively healthy for up to four years beyond 100.

For the full commentary, see:

Jane E. Brody. “Living to 100 and Staying Sharp.” The New York Times (Saturday, June 22, 2021): D7.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 21, 2021, and has the title “The Secrets of ‘Cognitive Super-Agers’.”)