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My dream for the future of pandemic management – Ubiquitous Health Testing

Coronavirus poses a huge challenge to our modern society, but also forces us to consider how high-tech could potentially marry with medical diagnostics to give us much more knowledge over how pandemics are affecting us.

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The arrival of the Novel Coronavirus has upended lives across the globe.  Whilst humanity has had a long history of disease outbreaks, this episode is notable for the extraordinary population of humanity and our technological ability to cross national borders via air travel.  The virus has also resulted in a nearly-complete upending of much of our capitalist society, exposing deep cracks and weaknesses.  It has also highlighted the fact that most people, given suitable levels of safety and comfort, are decent, caring people.

The virus has also given many people time to think and reflect both on how we’re doing as a community, as a species, and how we might do better.  I’m an IT person by trade and you can forgive me for thinking of tech solutions to this issue – but I’d like to share a dream I have.  It involves the democratisation of technology, specifically, technology that I envisage would be affordable (indeed, maybe even made freely available as a sort of compact between state and citizen) and enable almost every human on the planet to not only probe their own health state but empower people to know more about themselves and their family faster, all without straining our diagnostic medical services.

Just imagine being informed that a new virus is in the wild. Instead of ALL OF US isolating and socially distancing, you’d calmly plug Device X (I’d call it a V-Corp, short for Vos Corporis, Latin for ‘you’ and ‘health’) into a standard port in your smartphone or tablet. The V-Corp powers up and you authenticate with a thumb or iris scan. If you’re an adult or child’s guardian, you read and accept an obligatory legal agreement – this device is not just about to give you information, it’d be legally required to send that information to relevant government and medical authorities if it finds certain conditions. Now all the device requires is a solid connection to the internet and off we go….

 

Tricorder

 

Left:  An image of the fictional ‘medical tricorder’ from Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  I confess without regret that that show inspired a sense of utopia about human’s future and devices like the tricorder play a big role in that.  In the show, authorities can detect (and sometimes fix!) almost any human ailment.  It is that device that inspires much of this post.

 

 

 

 

The V-Corp now fully activates and a small orifice open – you insert your thumb and on contact the V-Corp closes a small needle on your thumb. (Blood donors will know the drill) The needle results in a small amount of blood which falls onto a fully washable and reusable glass slide, which then retracts into the V-Corp’s body. Cue humming and flashes of light as the machines does its magic and analyses for a host of conditions revealed from the blood sample. After a few seconds, the V-Corp passes the mass of raw data to your smartphone/table. Special software massages that data into useful information and presents it to you in the form of a report – you can get the executive summary, the standard version of a fully-detailed expert’s guide to all the findings. If the machine finds medical conditions listed by authorities as having ‘mandatory reporting’, that information is now already with the authorities, the V-Corp’s software having sent it all off, suitably encrypted.

Imagine the V-Corp telling you that you have signs of some sort of virus…

During an epidemic or pandemic, this device could give users peace of mind (or as much as can be had for those who may already have comorbid health issues). Those with relevant infections know they need to self-isolate, just like now. The authorities would have almost real-time stats and know exactly where to target resources. You can imagine a ‘mission control’ centre (fully virtual, no one needs to gather centrally anywhere) where the executive version of the V-Corp software presents huge interactive screens, showing blooms of geographic infections, showing available medical practitioners, showing utilisation levels of nearby hospitals, etc, etc.

This is all a FICTION.

There are (to my knowledge) no devices that consumers could operate and could show presence of coronavirus from something like a finger prick blood test.  (Current COVID-19 testing involves taking swabs from back of throat, I understand)

My point is that if we ALL had the ability to self-test, we would be better informed and could have a more targeted approach to controlling the pandemic and indeed, flattening the curve.

And what of our experts? Our GPs? Our nurses and carers? I’d not want to sideline anyone – we will likely ALWAYS need their expertise, their skills and their practical, in-person care.  In addition, there is only so much software and AI can do to interpret medical findings.  Computers are notoriously blunt instruments and they’re as dumb as they are fast-processing.  A device can only do so much when our needs are often grounded in more basic wants – touch, tact, reassurance, conversation, company, etc.

The device I have written about above does not exist. However, we already have very basic, very simple ‘self-health’ devices – the Fitbits, the heart rate detectors we strap on, the surgically-installed pace-makers.

In closing, I firmly believe that this Novel Coronavirus its huge impact are the catalyst for a new technological marriage; with the cutting-edge of health and medical diagnostics.  If this happens, well, we ‘aint seen nothing yet.

 

 

Daniel Verberne
(In isolation) @ Melbourne, Victoria
7/04/2020

 

My most fervent wish – teleportation

I wish, so damned much, that humanity could develop and master teleportation of complex amalgamations of matter like humans.

I wish we could do it as simply and as routinely as depicted in Star Trek – just step into this room here, stand on this particular region of the floor and don’t move too much and I’ll just pull this lever over here.  *whoosh*

Where would I teleport to?  Indeed, how would we know where to get the target destination for a given teleportation session?  Would we have some ability to cast out like some cosmic fishing rod, pointing some arbitrary number of light years distant and selecting a given ‘spot’?  Would we have to have visited the destination beforehand and placed some sort of receptable there for the teleportation to that location to work?

Forget about humans of indeed living organisms, what about energy?  Could we not also take aim at some mind-numbingly distant point in the cosmos where we know there is a constant stream of energetic particles, say the twin ejected beams from a spinning black hole (giving rise to the concept of a pulsar), and somehow engage a constant teleportation session from there to some location closer to humanity where we could then ‘harvest’ those colossal energies?  I know, it sounds incredibly unlikely, but just think, just imagine, what that level of technology would do for a species with huge imaginations and a constant need to fund those imaginations with energy.

Firstly, any industry based on fossil fuels would immediately see its business case and its raison d’etre evaporate.  (Bravo)

Presumably, by harnassing the energies of a some super-object, we’d have sufficient energies to ‘fund’ all of humanities activities for the forseeable future.  We’d be able to traverse the bodies of our solar system (again using our robotic emissaries first would make sense), but then we could ramp up to human exploits.  Being able to traverse the absolutely abyssal, unthinkable voids between the stars would open up humanities future in a way almost nothing else could.  Finally, we could be in a position to actually deliver an answer on whether we are alone in the Universe.  We could solve the Fermi Paradox, or at least whittle away at the large list of potential solutions, ruling some out and maybe adding a few more possibilities as a result of our groundbreaking explorations.

What would it *mean* to instantly transport oneself to a galaxy perhaps several billion light years from Earth?  We know from Einstein that the concept of linear time, of there being a Universal ‘now’ which we can all agree on, is a fantasy.  Instead, time is relative to motion and individual travellers can, when travelling at collossal speeds, travel into the future relative to other, slower individuals.  But how might that play out when teleporting ‘instantly’ across the impossible voids?  Would we be sure that upon return from a ‘subjective’ 2 hour soujourn by a robotic emissary, that the robot would indeed return to our time frame + 2 hours?  Might there be dramatic time implications to merely moving to a distant point in the Universe, even though that object did not travel fast to reach it, indeed did not travel at all?  Many unknowns.  Of course, we don’t even know if teleportation of anything other than bits of data is even possible.  Still, doesn’t stop me from dreaming.

My thoughts on a catastrophic bushfire season in Australia, climate change, deep time, evolution and a wish for the future

An epic post on climate change, bushfires and other threats to Australia, the planet and more.

Plus – some hopeful, magical thinking, expressing a wish for some way out of our problems.

Hello there.

Australia, the year is 2020.

Bushfires have touched vast amounts of this ancient dry continent in recent months.  Areas of Australia that hadn’t seen fire for centuries – forests normally to moist to suffer fire risk dried to tinder and burnt.  This bushfire season has been remarkable – setting undesirable records on a number of fronts – starting earlier, burning more area, burning more ferociously, the list goes on.  Climate scientists would not have been surprised at the vigor and fury of Australia’s fires.  Climate change is implicated in so much of the new ‘normal’ – as CO2 continues to increase in concentrations in the upper atmosphere, more of our star’s thermal energy is not just paying Earth a visit, but sticking around.

Of course, increased heat and bushfires is not the sole predicted effect of climate change – we’re seeing signs of mass disturbances in climate generally.  For example, whilst freshwater is not in short supply on this planet, the distribution of that freshwater can most definitely be.  There are regions of Earth where freshwater has long been scarce – think the dry valleys of Antarctica, the rain shadows of various mountain ranges and the interiors of the regions of China, Australia and Africa.  Those regions often have established, pre-climate change reasons for being dry.  What I’m referring to is a newer, more dynamic and unpredictable whereby rainfall patterns themselves are being disturbed.  Taking Australia as an example of this, we’re seeing frequent drought periods, bushfires, followed by heavy flooding, sometimes in areas not known for regular floods.  These floods can be overwhelmingly positive in some cases (parched lands do often benefit), but they can also be damaging in their own right – stripping away valuable topsoil (already vulnerable to loss due to erosion from the loss of trees loss in bushfires), muddying waterways, flooding dams, drowning lifestock, etc.  As an article in ABC linked below shows, heavy downpours can wash vast amounts of sediment into waterways, robbing the waterways of dissolved oxygen and leading to fishkills:

ABC Australia article on recent fishkills due to heavy rainfall and sediment

As I see it, Australia faces a number of ecological/environmental threats now and into the near future from climate change and from sustainability issues in general:

  • Loss of breeding populations of wild life (and lack of genetic diversity of the populations in captivity)
  • Loss of soil structure due to erosion and loss of trees to bushfire.  Regions of Earth like Australia could become known for dusky red skies as ever more soil is lost to erosion.
  • Loss of trees full-stop.  Trees in themselves aren’t a panacea for climate change, from what I’ve read, but they photosynthesize like most plants and thus have a role in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and building it into their tissues.  Mass tree planting is a great thing to do and we should do it, but I understand it won’t be straighforward because any plant seeking to become established will have high demands on soil nutrition and water, something large parts of arid, parched Australia may struggle to provide.
  • Our oceans hitting a ‘limit’ in ability to absorb some of the effects of greater atmospheric CO2 and temperature, leading to a ramping up of climate change effects.
  • Continued melting of sea-ice exposing materials with a low albedo below, i.e. rock or seawater.  (Low albedo, low reflectivity of light, greater absorption of that light, greater heating)
  • Australia (and other regions of Earth) becoming places where physical activity cannot comfortable occur during summer.  I know that many regions of Earth are uncomfortable for humans in the extremes – but again, this will be new.  Thiss would indeed be a new normal, where it may become positively harmful to human (indeed most warm-blooded creatures) life to be outside during such seasons.  We are seeing the early glimpses of this, but I suspect it could get far worse.

Among the many questions I have about the future and climate change is this:

What chance do living organisms on this planet have to adapt to these rapidly changing conditions?

Earth life has endured some vast calamities since it emerged some 3 billion years ago, as the fossil record suggests.  Archaeologists and Geologists will show us rocks and mineral grains and trapped gases of a primordial Earth that surely attest to a deep past where atmospheric conditions had swung violently – ice ages, Snowball Earth, jungle-like temperatures even at the poles, even periods where the planet’s atmosphere was entirely free of oxygen; to name but a few.  The asteroid that is believed to have impacted Earth some 65 million years ago in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula near Mexico stopped the long period of dinosaur dominance of Earth and arguably paved the way for the arrival of mammals and ourselves.

Given all that hellish historical precedent, it is impressive that life on Earth endures to the our moment in time.  Yes, most species are extinct, but their lineages often endure as the subtle effects of evolution by natural selection exert pressures to favour certain adaptations and mutations generation by generation in a constant quest to survive to reproduce.  Clearly, life is tenacious, stubborn.  If life ‘wants’ anything, it wants to make more life.  The question then becomes, to what extent can life forms including ourselves hope to ‘adapt’ in the sort of compressed timescales involved with our current climate change trajectory?  When biologists consider the evolution or adaptation of species, they typically consider timeframes much longer than we are accustomed to – centuries, millenia, typically millions of years.  Are these timeframes condusive to the sorts of changes that some lifeforms might need to incorporate to survive the Earth 2.0 that we’re creating?

Answering that question depends another question – how much will the ‘normal’ of Earth 100 years hence diverge from the Earth of now?

Given that much of the climate change problem is so global, so seemingly intractable and potentially so dire, where’s the antidote to hopelessness?  Where’s the hope?

I am a pessimistic person and sometimes I edge close to being an out and out misanthrope.  I’m both a human aware of our failing planetary stewardship and I’m also party to it personally – my meat consumption, my heavy reliance on fossil-fueled travel, my packaged, shipped goods, my huge usage of oil-derived products, the list goes on.

As for hope, I don’t expect humanity to actually become extinct from climate change.  It’s dire, but not a death knell, although it could severely cap the number of humans our planet can support.  It also might indirectly lead to armed conflicts which have their own potential for disaster and suffering.  No, I think we’re plentiful enough (looking at you, China)  widespread enough and clever enough to find ways to endure.  I sometimes wonder, as a sci-fi buff, just what it would take for the truly, exorbitantly wealthy to put that capital to active use in the service of something vast.  What would it take for billoinaires to build spacecraft capable of carrying large volumes of us to another planetary body or even to keep us alive, off-world for some period of time?  What of our elected officials and our democracies?  Will they respond to absolutely dire, species-risking threats?  Would alternative political systems such as the centralized authority of the Chinese regime respond ‘better’ in terms of servicing the public in the event of a truly dire threat?  Would humanity come together, be truly united in the face of existential threats, or would battlelines be re-drawn as they have so many times in the past?  Such musing may seem dark, but it’s the bread and butter of many a disaster novel/movie/TV show and it seems only sensible to keep some dire scenarios kicking around in our heads lest we become utterly complacent about our species long-term survival risk.

Well, that’s it for this mega-post.

I’ll end with a wish.

I wish that humanity could discover how to teleport matter in a controlled, safe, reliable way. 

Just imagine what we could do as a species if we were able to move stuff, including sentient stuff like ourselves; across the yawning chasms of lightyears, to targeted locations.  Imagine ‘harvesting’ colossal energies produced every second of every hour from extremely energetic cosmic objects like fast-spinning neutron stars or black holes somehow funneling that energy source to where we can utilise it back on Earth.  (If indeed that’s where we chose to stay)  At a stroke, we would have solved all of humanities energy needs essentially forever, or at least for as long as our planet and that cosmic source of energy persisted.  Humanity would instantly be lifted in some cosmic guidebook to some arbitrarily-high level in the sentient creatures ranking, having secured such energy availability)  Business cases for the pillaging of any of Earth’s resources for energy needs would instantly become null and would be thrown out.  We’d close power plants and mines and we’d start to heal and balm the scars and wounds of our rapacious energy needs on this jewel of a planet.  Earth would begin to heal – wildlife would return to areas that we rehabilitate, akin to the inadvertent return to nature of places like Pripyat post Chernobyl.  In short, teleportation would change everything.

An aside for a moment.

One of my favourite films is “The Game”, directed in the late 90s by David Fincher and starring Michael Douglas.  At one point the film, Douglas’ character hits a low point in his life when he is dumped in Mexico seemingly stripped of all his worldly possessions and wealth, wearing only a torned and stained suit and his family heirloom watch on his wrist.  Seeking to return to his native North America at a Mexican consular office, he explains to a bureaucrat his plight – lacking any identification or passport or funds.  The consular official saves the day with some questionable ethics, noting the expensive-looking watch on Douglas’ character’s wrist:

“A man with a watch like that doesn’t necessarily have a passport problem”

And thus, selling the heirloom watch, Douglas’ character is given a route back to his home and perhaps to some sort of absolution.  And so it would be with us and Earth – if only, if only –  we had some magic trick, some high technology (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as Arthur C Clarke so famously observed) – a Get Out of Jail Free-equivalent – we’d be able to sort out almost all of humanity’s problems.

Just.    Like.    That.

*snaps fingers*

 

Divi Black Friday Sale + Win a Mac!

First of all, I’d love to win an Apple Mac PC.  I’ve hardly ever touched a Mac in my 30 years or so of using computers, I’ve always played with PCs and Windows.

So this competition is exciting for me and a chance to shout about Divi Black friday sale, courtesy of Elegant Themes!

Everything you need to know is contained here:  https://www.elegantthemes.com/black-friday-2019/

Go get a good deal, you might even win a Mac!

Israel Folau and religion as a source of hate

I’m not religious, I call myself an agnostic-atheist, in that I lack a belief in a deity, but of course cannot ever truly be certain either way.

I’ve mostly got no problem with people who are religious, indeed most people still area, but believers like footy player Israel Folau – they concern me.

If you hadn’t heard, he’s Christian, grew up Mormon, now “Assemblies of God”.  Anyway, his views on homosexuals and others (including the likes of me) are pretty fire and brimstoney.

But the thing is – Folau didn’t emerge from his Mum’s womb holding these extreme viewpoints – they were taught to him, by adults representing a particular religious organisation that (like all the others) felt they were in possession of the real story.

Their book obviously states that homosexuals etc are going to hell and Folau and other adherents just swallow all of that and consider themselves positively virtuous for having done so.  Indeed, many may see themselves as defenders of Christ for pushing back against things like homosexuality.  It’s noxious stuff.

For many years, public and private figures have been using their religion, perhaps not intentionally, but as a way for others to understand (and forgive) their views.

Same with Folau, from Wikipedia, emphasis mine:

Image

I wonder if the days are numbered for any religious belief that teaches such extreme and judgmental things about people based on sexual orientation, gender, etc?

ScoMo partially sees the light on One Nation

Well, it was bound to happen, given the mood of the people.

Our Australian Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison (ScoMo) has partially buckled to pressure and decided to put the One Nation political party almost last — behind the Australian Greens.

Wait?  What, the Greens worse than One Nation?  Well, to hear it from our PM, the Greens are a ‘threat’ to Australia – to our security, apparently, for refusing to support the Coalition on a number of measures ostensibly to keep us safer.  I happen to be unconvinced by that argument and even if were true, I still think One Nation are a fount of vile divisiveness, a living, breathing horde of human ignorance and mistrust of the ‘other’, wrapped up in Australian flags and so-called ‘straight talk’.

I won’t give One Nation another thought – to me, their views may have appeal amongst some in Australia, but I don’t want politicians to simply mirror the views in society, but to try and get us to collectively rise above our petty divisions and tribalness and direct us to a better future.

The right-wing terrorist may not have intended it, but his extremist act of horror has brought many of us together, united against hate speech, speech that has somehow become semi-acceptable in Australian political and social discourse over the past few years.  We must roll this back – the so-called “Overton Window”, which defines what is and what isn’t acceptable discourse in a society and its politics, must be moved, reframed, to exclude rhetoric that is divisive along racial, ethnic or religious lines.

To me, this change starts now, but the May election will see many of us take real action.

Q&A on ABC Last Night – Quotas in political parties

Fascinating Q&A on ABC last night.

One of the topics was the dire lack of female representation with the Coalition.  In Australia, the Coalition is a centre-right/right grouping of the Liberal Party (conservative) and the National Party (also, conservative)

There was a female Liberal Party member Senator Hume on the show last night and her opposition to a proposed quota system was interesting — she suggested she got her preselection on ‘merit’ and ‘hard work’.  Hard to dismiss this — I’m sure she has worked hard.  However, it’s also surely true that inter-generational cultural and unconscious biases can make it hard to change the landscape of gender within many institutions, political parties being one of them.

I suggest a quota for females in the LNP and maybe even increasing their ethnic diversity, would be a good thing.

Religious chaplains in Australian state schools

Fascinating article RE religious chaplains by the ever-reliable Mike Seccombe in The Saturday Paper.

I’ve been following this on social media for years thru my membership of the Australian Atheist Foundation.
The core, “pythonesque” attribute of this program has always been these two requirements:
1) The counsellor must be religious
2) The counsellor must not proselytize
Hilarious! Like so much I rail against, it originated with John “I feel like fucking with society” Howard.
Thankfully, the rationalist/humanist movement includes not a few who care enough and are trained in the dark arts of the law and have challenged the law on several occasions.
I love Seccombe’s closing observation- right-wing religious reactionaries hate compulsion, except when it fits their religious beliefs

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Source article($) : https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2018/05/19/the-final-challenge-religious-chaplains/15266520006255

The Australian National Broadband Network (NBN)

Just a few quick thoughts.

One, Australia had a chance with the NBN to do something truly nation-building – to rip up old infrastructure in the form of cabling and provide Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) for all properties in Australia barring the toughest of logistical situations.

Instead, our country was given an inferior option – the Coalition (Australia’s version of the Republican Party) came to power and their version of the NBN took hold – an arguably cheaper and quicker-to-deploy option based on Fiber-to-the-Node, which can be to street cabinets, etc.  Crucially, in some cases they’d not lay special optical fiber to premises but hang the service off existing copper or coax.

The reasoning they gave was cost and speed of completion.

I hated their argument then and I hate the result now.  Sure, internet speeds for NBN customers are almost universally much faster, but it could have been so much more.

At the time of writing, the airwaves and written media are filled with complaints from across Australia about the service, reliability and speed of the NBN.

Yes, the NBN is clearly massively-complex and it is extermely easy for the common person to fail to understand that a telco issue can cause issues for NBNCo and still have that person lay blame at NBN’s feet.  But irrespective of such misunderstandings, its clear that this rollout has been far from seamless.


 

From my point of view, roll-outs are buggy and hard to manage.  This, I can appreciate and deal with.  But it’s the underlying built-in limitations of the tech that piss me off.

I can totally see media outlets interviewing an aging Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott some years from now, asking them why they gave the nation a clearly-inferior solution that dogged citizens for years and arguably pushed us down the rungs of the global efficiency measures until a later, more complete overhaul of networking infrastructure was done by a party less concerned with an ideological point of difference with the Australian Labor Party.

 

Feeling depressed, misanthropic and the childhood of Anders Bering Breivik

Today, for some unknown reason, I’m feeling really down.

I’ve been close to tears and (then actual tears) on a few occasions and I can’t pinpoint why.

To be clear, this has happened to me many times before and seems part of the ‘usual pattern’ of being me.  I’ve taken my antidepressants as usual, I’ve eaten and drank (poorly) as usual, so I’m not sure what the difference is today.

At work, I feel overwhelmed, angry at my own lack of comprehension.

Earlier today, I read a fascinating online article about the early childhood of Norwegian, Anders Bering Breivik, who as an adult mass-murdered in the name of his brand of right-wing, pro-European, anti-immigration extremism.

Reading the article, I learnt of the so-called “third generation” theory of psychology, that you can have a grandparent, then their child, then their child’s child put at horrible risk of dysfunction when the previous two generations also had major issues.  In this case, Breivik’s mother’s mother was disabled and psychotic and mistreated her daughter.  Her daughter fled a rotten home situation and became pregnant and largely unsupported and detached from community.   She came to resent the growing child inside her and after birth, the child was clearly neglected – given a strange and toxic brew of love and dependency, abuse and isolation, a confusing mix for any human to process.

A young Breivik’s home life with his mother came to attention of Child Welfare in Norway, but apart from a stint away in care, the authorities returned him.  The damage, it seems, was done early to a young Breivik.  Early reports of his childhood interactions paint him as largely unemotional, without seeking the interaction of others, of being joyless with toys and clean and tidy well beyond his years.

The article had many photos of the young Breivik and as a father of two myself, I found myself feeling pain for the helpless child in the photo, clearly damaged, yet so identifiably a child and surely, still incredibly innocent.  It seems so harsh that this world, this reality, permits the range of suffering that it does.  I’ve never believed in a deity let alone one that had any kind of relationship with humanity, but still, it feels so awfully raw to live in a reality where, without oversight, pain seems the norm.

It takes a village to raise a child”, as the saying goes.

I’ve definitely needed the help of many others around me to help in raising my two beautiful children.  I’ve been a poor father and poorer husband in many ways.  Some of those ‘ways’ have been witnessed by my young children.  I hope they absorb the messages of love, humor and warmth that I’ve tried to instill in them.  I wish them to be wonderful and happy adults.