One of Alaska’s warmest springs on record is causing a dangerous thaw

One of Alaska’s warmest springs on record is causing a dangerous thaw
By Sarah Kaplan
Apr 19 2019

UTQIAGVIK, Alaska — Bryan Thomas doesn’t want any more “wishy-washy conversations about climate change.”

For four years, he has served as station chief of the Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory, America’s northernmost scientific outpost in its fastest-warming state. Each morning, after digging through snow to his office’s front door, Thomas checks the preliminary number on the observatory’s carbon dioxide monitor. On a recent Thursday it was almost 420 parts per million — nearly twice as high as the global preindustrial average.

It’s just one number, he said. But there’s no question in his mind about what it means.

Alaska is in the midst of one of the warmest springs the state has ever experienced — a transformation that has disrupted livelihoods and cost lives. The average temperature for March recorded at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observatory in Utqiagvik (which was known as Barrow before 2016, when the city voted to go by its traditional Inupiaq name) was 18.6 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

Fairbanks, Alaska, notched its first consecutive March days when the temperature never dropped below freezing. Ice roads built on frozen waterways — a vital means of transportation in the state — have become weak and unreliable. At least five people have died this spring after falling through ice that melted sooner than expected.

“Climate change is happening faster than it’s ever happened before in our record,” Thomas said. “We’re right in the middle of it.”

Utqiagvik set daily temperature records on 28 of the first 100 days of this year, according to the Alaska Climate Research Center.

In early February, residents awoke to find the landfast ice that usually clings to the shore until summer had been swept out to sea by strong winds — a sign the ice wasn’t as thick or well-grounded as it used to be.

“It was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never seen that before,’” Thomas said.

“It was surprising in a human way,” he added. “But not necessarily surprising in a science way.”

The Barrow observatory has been monitoring climate for more than 40 years. Thomas knows where the trends are headed.

Two hundred miles to the south, Marc Oggier, a graduate student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, returned this month from conducting field work to find the city completely clear of snow. It was the shortest-lived snowpack in recent history.

Oggier wrinkled his nose at the vegetal, springlike scent in the air.

“It smells weird,” he said. “It smells like rain.”

This time of year, he explained, “you shouldn’t be able to smell anything.” The ground should still be frozen solid.

The historic warm temperatures this spring are linked to vanishing ice on the Bering and Chukchi seas west of Alaska. Both areas set records this year for their lowest amount of ice in March.

Climate change in Alaska: Coastline disappearing at a rate of 30 football fields per year

Warm weather threatens subsistence whaling — a centuries-old tradition in and around Utqiagvik, said Kaare Erickson, the North Slope Science Liaison for the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, which manages Inupiat land and provides services to the community. Though the sea ice near the city refroze after the February wind event, many are concerned about whether it can provide a stable platform from which to hunt.

On Shishmaref, the barrier island where he grew up, “it’s an even heavier impact,” Erickson said.

When ice forms later and melts earlier, it leaves coastlines vulnerable to erosion from fall and spring storms. The shoreline on Shishmaref has retreated more than 100 feet in Erickson’s lifetime, and the town has voted to relocate to a new site farther from the sea. Residents who subsist on seal and walrus meat must navigate an increasingly unreliable ice pack as they search for food.

Unstable ice has already claimed lives. Two men died of exposure in late March when their vehicles fell through the frozen Kuskokwim River near Bethel, the Division of Alaska State Troopers said.


US facial recognition will cover 97 percent of departing airline passengers within four years

US facial recognition will cover 97 percent of departing airline passengers within four years
Biometric Exit is already used at 15 US airports
By Jon Porter
Apr 18 2019

The Department of Homeland Security says it expects to use facial recognition technology on 97 percent of departing passengers within the next four years. The system, which involves photographing passengers before they board their flight, first started rolling out in 2017, and was operational in 15 US airports as of the end of 2018. 

The facial recognition system works by photographing passengers at their departure gate. It then cross-references this photograph against a library populated with facesimages from visa and passport applications, as well as those taken by border agents when foreigners enter the country. 

Facial recognition has identified 7,000 passengers who’ve overstayed their visas

The aim of the system is to offer “Biometric Exit,” which gives authorities as good an idea of who’s leaving the country as who’s entering it, and allows them to identify people who have overstayed their visas. Quartz notes that US authorities have traditionally relied on airline flight manifests to track who’s leaving the country.

Since the introduction of the current system, facial recognition identified 7,000 passengers who overstayed their visas on the 15,000 flights tracked. The US Customers and Border Protection (CBP) estimates that over 600,000 people overstay their visas every year, an offense that carries a maximum penalty of a 10-year ban from entering the US.

Critics argue that building up a database of millions of people’s photographs is a threat to civil liberties. Once you have the database, it would be easy to share it with other agencies, effectively turning it into a search tool for all law enforcement. 

The current iteration of the system first entered trials in 2017 on a single flight between Atlanta and Tokyo. It was originally planned to roll out more widely at the beginning of 2018, but its implementation was fast-tracked by the Trump administration and was expanded to more airports in the summer of 2017.

Report: 26 States Now Ban or Restrict Community Broadband

[Note:  This item comes from friend Robert Berger.  DLH]

Report: 26 States Now Ban or Restrict Community Broadband
Many of the laws restricting local voters’ rights were directly written by a telecom sector terrified of real broadband competition.
By Karl Bode
Apr 18 2019

A new report has found that 26 states now either restrict or outright prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. Quite often the laws are directly written by the telecom sector, and in some instances ban towns and cities from building their own broadband networks—even if the local ISP refuses to provide service. 

The full report by BroadbandNow, a consumer-focused company that tracks US broadband availability, indicates the total number of state restrictions on community broadband has jumped from 20 such restrictions since the group’s last report in 2018.

Frustrated by slow speeds, limited availability, high prices and terrible customer service, more than 750 communities across the country have built their own broadband ISPs or cooperatives. Studies have shown these locally owned and operated networks tend to offer lower prices, faster speeds, and better customer service than their private-sector counterparts. 

Instead of competing by offering better service—private sector telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T have routinely turned to a cheaper alternative: easily corrupted state lawmakers. In exchange for campaign contributions, lawmakers frequently and uncritically pass on model legislation written by industry and distributed by organizations like ALEC. 

Often the restrictions are buried in other, unrelated legislation to try and avoid public scrutiny. For example in 2016, AT&T lobbyists attempted to include community broadband restrictions in a bill intended to address regional traffic issues.

BroadbandNow’s report looks at each state’s restrictions individually, and found that while some states simply banned community broadband outright (a notable assault on voters’ democratic rights), others impose clever but onerous restrictions on precisely how a local network can be funded, who they can partner with, or how quickly (and where) they’re allowed to grow.

In Tennessee, for example, state laws allow publicly-owned electric utilities to provide broadband, “but limits that service provision to within their electric service areas.” Such restrictions have made it hard for EPB—the highest rated ISP in America last year according to Consumer Reports—to expand service into new areas. 

“During the 2017 legislative session, a bill considered by state lawmakers would have enabled municipalities to expand broadband infrastructure to residents,” the report notes. “Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that offers $45 million in subsidies to private Internet service providers to build the same infrastructure.”

The problem: throwing taxpayer subsidies at private ISPs often doesn’t fix the problem. A recent study by the Institute For Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) found that a combination of terrible broadband maps, local and federal corruption, and regulatory apathy often means funds are doled out to companies that not only fail to follow through with deployment, but face no meaningful government repercussions for not doing so.

Community broadband isn’t a magical panacea, and like any effort it depends on the viability of the underlying business model. But such efforts can often motivate private ISPs to improve local prices and service, as Comcast was forced to do in Tennessee. 

“In a time when communities need as much investment as possible to build strong economies, these states are more focused on protecting the monopolies that are investing too little,” ISLR’s Christopher Mitchell told Motherboard in an email. “Many of these states are actually using taxpayer dollars to subsidize privately owned networks when they will not let local taxpayers decide to build their own network—which is often done at no cost to the taxpayer!”


It’s been exceptionally warm in Greenland lately and ice is melting a month early

It’s been exceptionally warm in Greenland lately and ice is melting a month early
By Matthew Cappucci
Apr 18 2019

You might have heard about the exceptional heat this year in the northern hemisphere and around the world. March was just declared the second warmest on record globally

Records have been shattered in Alaska. Scotland hit 70 degrees in February. Winter warmth has torched the U.K., Netherlands and Sweden as well — coming on the heels of Europe’s warmest year on record. But they’re not alone.

Greenland is baking, too. In fact, its summer melt season has already begun — more than a month ahead of schedule.

Marco Tedesco is a professor in atmospheric sciences at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. He monitors behavior of the cryosphere — the part of earth’s water system that is frozen. He says melting of this extent shouldn’t begin until May. “The first melt event was detected on April 7,” he wrote in email.

“Air temperature anomalies were up to more than 20 degrees Celsius [36 Fahrenheit] above the mean,” noted Tedesco. His team has been eyeing Greenland’s southeast coast as ground zero for the early-season thaw. “Surface air temperature jumped to 41 degrees on April 2, up from minus-11,” he said. Temperatures dropped below freezing briefly before again soaring into the 30s, where the mercury has held steady for most of the past week.

What’s been sling-shotting this balmy air northward?

“The subtropical jet stream,” wrote Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. It’s teamed up with the polar jet to “transport warm, moist air from near Florida northward into southern Greenland,” she explained. “Locking this pattern in place has been a strong ridge — a northward bulge in the jet stream — just east of Greenland.”

A lack of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean north of Scandinavia gave this bubble of warmth a bit of an extra boost, intensifying its warm conveyor belt into Greenland.

Going forward, “[t]hese types of patterns are expected to occur more frequently,” Francis wrote, citing climate change as the culprit. “Arctic ice cover continues to dwindle and temperatures there soar.”

But advection — the transport of air, in this case warm, from somewhere else — is just half the battle. Adding insult to injury is a shortage of cloud cover in recent weeks over Greenland. The high pressure “block” that Francis described has also helped clear the skies, allowing more sunshine to pour in and heat the ground further.

“Incoming solar radiation reached a value similar to ones we observed in August last year,” wrote Tedesco. That heats the ground even more. It’s a vicious cycle of positive feedback, indicating just how unstable — and delicate — the Arctic is.

“I call this ‘melting cannibalism,” explained Tedesco. And it could get even worse, as it preconditions the ice to be more vulnerable to melting in the summer.


Are Red Carpet’s $3,000 First Run Movies At Home The Best Future?

Are Red Carpet’s $3,000 First Run Movies At Home The Best Future?
By Brad Templeton
Apr 17 2019

A new service, called Red Carpet, aims to offer first-run home theatre movies at an extreme price,   That price includes being vetted, installing a $15,000 DRM box in your home and paying $1,500 to  $3,000 for a 36 hour rental of a movie on the day it opens.

That insane price is aimed at the 0.1%, and there are enough of them.  Surprisingly, other attempts to do services like this have failed, not for lack of customers but because of resistance by studios and pushback from cinema chains who don’t like encroachment on their negotiated monopoly (as an industry) on first run.

They should worry.  With my 4K HDR TV, I go to the cinema perhaps once a year now, and only because it’s a social event.   But that should not stand in the way of this being much, much cheaper.   Hollywood has resisted efforts from silicon valley, which it views as the enemy.  Red Carpet is a Hollywood insider venture.   They should not view Silicon Valley as the enemy.  Their industry grew to $43B, while cinema ticket sales have shrunk, and all that growth is thanks to the high-tech world.

The $15K anti-piracy box seems misplaced, and just there to give Hollywood the illusion that they are doing something.   Bootleg copies of just about every movie are already out there from people who bribe a protectionist or use some other means to sneak a camcorder into a cinema.  Small, high-quality 4K recording comes in every cell phone today.  No matter what encryption you put on a stream, people can camcorder their screen and get great audio.  A better approach is to fingerprint each stream individually so that there is always the fear of being caught.  Such fingerprinting can be done at the server, it does not need to be done in the home.  Yes, if somebody gets enough of the different fingerprinted streams, they could probably remove the fingerprinting, but it’s probably easier just to bribe the right cinema.

While I see no big reason to keep the cinemas happy — what exactly are they doing to do about it, stop running studio movies? — at even a tiny fraction of these prices you could require every renter to effectively purchase tickets and virtual popcorn and the closest cinema running the movie, or more simply pay them whatever profit they might lose.

At that point, why need it cost more than the cost of a movie ticket for every person in the room, or indeed less.  Forget $15,000 — a very cheap box could count the number of people in the room without needing to photograph (and certainly not store or transmit) images of the people.  You could probably do it with ultrasonics.

Yes, I can think of ways to defeat this.  Camcorder and re-stream the movie to a much larger room, for example.  Set a decent minimum viewership if this is a real problem, it’s not the sort of trick people really need to play.

Instead, they should embrace new ways to get movies to people, and to get them to pay more for them.   HDR is a good one.   The crazy people paying $3,000 to rent it should get it before it opens, not the same time.  For an extra $1,000, toss in a 5 minute video conference (other than opening night) with one of the supporting actors or crew — that will really impress their friends. Or pay more to get the director or a major star.  For $49.95, you can get the screenwriter.  (That’s a joke, or so I hope.)


Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking
How Julian Jaynes’ famous 1970s theory is faring in the neuroscience age.
Nov 9 2017

Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.

From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, when it finally came out in 1976, did not look like a best-seller. But sell it did. It was reviewed in science magazines and psychology journals, Time, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. New editions continued to come out, as Jaynes went on the lecture circuit. Jaynes died of a stroke in 1997; his book lived on. In 2000, another new edition hit the shelves. It continues to sell today.

Jaynes was sent to prison, where he had plenty of time to reflect on the problem of consciousness.

In the beginning of the book, Jaynes asks, “This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all—what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” Jaynes answers by unfurling a version of history in which humans were not fully conscious until about 3,000 years ago, instead relying on a two-part, or bicameral, mind, with one half speaking to the other in the voice of the gods with guidance whenever a difficult situation presented itself. The bicameral mind eventually collapsed as human societies became more complex, and our forebears awoke with modern self-awareness, complete with an internal narrative, which Jaynes believes has its roots in language.

It’s a remarkable thesis that doesn’t fit well with contemporary thought about how consciousness works. The idea that the ancient Greeks were not self-aware raises quite a few eyebrows. By giving consciousness a cultural origin, says Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, “Jaynes disavows consciousness as a biological phenomenon.”

But Koch and other neuroscientists and philosophers admit Jaynes’ wild book has a power all its own. “He was an old-fashioned amateur scholar of considerable depth and tremendous ambition, who followed where his curiosity led him,” says philosopher Daniel Dennett. The kind of search that Jaynes was on—a quest to describe and account for an inner voice, an inner world we seem to inhabit—continues to resonate. The study of consciousness is on the rise in neuroscience labs around the world, but the science isn’t yet close to capturing subjective experience. That’s something Jaynes did beautifully, opening a door on what it feels like to be alive, and be aware of it.

Jaynes was the son of a Unitarian minister in West Newton, Massachusetts. Though his father died when Jaynes was 2 years old, his voice lived on in 48 volumes of his sermons, which Jaynes seems to have spent a great deal of time with as he grew up. In college, he experimented with philosophy and literature but decided that psychology, with its pursuit of real data about the physical world, was where he should seek answers to his questions. He headed to graduate school in 1941, but shortly thereafter, the United States joined World War II. Jaynes, a conscientious objector, was assigned to a civilian war effort camp. He soon wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney General announcing that he was leaving, finding the camp’s goal incompatible with his principles: “Can we work within the logic of an evil system for its destruction? Jesus did not think so … Nor do I.” He was sent to prison, where he had plenty of time to reflect on the problem of consciousness. “Jaynes was a man of principle, some might say impulsively or recklessly so,” a former student and a neighbor recalled. “He seemed to draw energy from jousting windmills.”

Jaynes emerged after three years, convinced that animal experiments could help him understand how consciousness first evolved, and spent the next three years in graduate school at Yale University. For a while, he believed that if a creature could learn from experience, it was having an experience, implying consciousness. He herded single paramecia through a maze carved in wax on Bakelite, shocking them if they turned the wrong way. “I moved on to species with synaptic nervous systems, flatworms, earthworms, fish, and reptiles, which could indeed learn, all on the naive assumption that I was chronicling the grand evolution of consciousness,” he recounts in his book. “Ridiculous! It was, I fear, several years before I realized that this assumption makes no sense at all.” Many creatures could be trained, but what they did was not introspection. And that was what tormented Jaynes.


A message from the future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A message from the future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
By Naomi Klein
Apr 17 2019

Today, The Intercept launches “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Set a couple of decades from now, it’s a flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, it offers a thought experiment: What if we decided not to drive off the climate cliff? What if we chose to radically change course and save both our habitat and ourselves?

What if we actually pulled off a Green New Deal? What would the future look like then?

This is a project unlike any we have done before, crossing boundaries between fact, fiction, and visual art, co-directed by Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt and co-written by Ocasio-Cortez and Avi Lewis. To reclaim a phrase from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s our “green dream,” inspired by the explosion of utopian art produced during the original New Deal.

And it’s a collaboration with a context and a history that seems worth sharing.

Back in December, I started talking to Crabapple — the brilliant illustrator, writer, and filmmaker — about how we could involve more artists in the Green New Deal vision. Most art forms are pretty low carbon, after all, and cultural production played an absolutely central role during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

We thought it was time to galvanize artists into that kind of social mission again — but not in a couple of years, if politicians and activists manage to translate what is still only a rough plan into law. No, we wanted to see Green New Deal art right away — to help win the battle for hearts and minds that will determined whether it has a fighting chance in the first place.

Crabapple, along with Boekbinder and Batt, have been honing a filmmaking style that has proved enormously successful at spreading bold ideas fast, most virally in their video with Jay Z on the “epic fail” of the war on drugs. “I would love to make a video on the Green New Deal with AOC,” Crabapple said, which seemed to me like a dream team.

The question was: How do we tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet?

We realized that the biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change the Green New Deal envisions is overcoming the skepticism that humanity could ever pull off something at this scale and speed. That’s the message we’ve been hearing from the “serious” center for four months straight: that it’s too big, too ambitious, that our Twitter-addled brains are incapable of it, and that we are destined to just watch walruses fall to their deaths on Netflix until it’s too late.

This skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more — precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown — is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. From most economists, we hear that we are fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units. From historians, we learn that social change has always been the work of singular great men.

Science fiction hasn’t been much help either. Almost every vision of the future that we get from best-selling novels and big-budget Hollywood films takes some kind of ecological and social apocalypse for granted. It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped believing that the future is going to happen, let alone that it could be better, in many ways, than the present.

The media debates that paint the Green New Deal as either impossibly impractical or a recipe for tyranny just reinforce the sense of futility. But here’s the good news: The old New Deal faced almost precisely the same kinds of opposition — and it didn’t stop it for a minute.