Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it is on the cusp of flying humans to space.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it is on the cusp of flying humans to space. But where does space begin?
By  Christian Davenport
Dec 11 2018

As soon as Thursday, Virgin Galactic plans to fire the rocket motor of its spacecraft and fly to an altitude of more than 50 miles. If it accomplishes that goal, it would proclaim it has reached the edge of space, and that its pilots are the first astronauts to launch from United States soil since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

But the test flight would also crystallize a long-simmering debate over where space begins. The Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration have awarded astronaut wings for pilots who have made it to 50 miles or above. But to many, the edge of space begins not at 50 miles, but at 62 miles, or 100 km, at the so-called Karman line, named for Theodore von Karman, one of the founders of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As Virgin Galactic — the company founded by billionaire Richard Branson with a goal of taking tourists on suborbital trips high into the sky — prepares to eventually fly its first customers, the question remains: Where does space begin?

“It’s an interesting question,” said Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. “There isn’t any agreed upon international definition.”

The Karman line is used by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the World Air Sports Federation, a record-keeping organization that promotes aeronautical activities around the world. And it was the measuring stick in the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition in 2004 — the first spacecraft to pass that altitude twice in two weeks won. As a result, it widely became accepted as the boundary of space.

[Companies in the Cosmos: How entrepreneurs are leading a new space race]

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, also plans to fly its customers 62 miles or more. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space, hit an altitude of 116 miles during his 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961.

The recent flight by astronaut NASA Nick Hague shows how tricky the issue is. In October, his flight to the International Space Station was aborted due to a rocket failure. Initially, NASA said in a statement to The Post that he is still considered to have made it to space because “he scraped the edge of [62 miles], which is the theoretical boundary of space.”

But then it backtracked, saying that Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin actually reached an altitude just short of the Karman line at approximately 93 km, or about 58 miles. It added that it considers him to be “a flown astronaut because he launched and landed in a spacecraft; he was fully trained and prepared for the launch and mission to the International Space Station.”

There is no precise definition of where space officially begins in international law. Unlike a body of water, the atmosphere doesn’t end at any precise point. Instead, the air gets progressively thinner the higher the altitude.

Many countries prefer that ambiguity, allowing them to fly spacecraft, such as intelligence satellites, over a foreign country without crossing into another nation’s airspace.

“If you’re flying an aircraft, national sovereignty matters,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. “But if you’re a satellite, they can over fly pretty much anywhere they want without getting permission.”

Weeden is in the camp that believe the lower threshold should suffice. “From a technical perspective, [50 miles] is a good working definition,” he said.

It’s the definition used by the Air Force, which in the 1960s awarded astronaut wings to the pilots in the X-15 program who flew the jet 50 miles or higher.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation also uses 50 miles in awarding what it calls “Commercial Astronaut Wings.” That definition put it in line with the military, and the FAA has said it would also help it promote the commercial space industry, part of the agency’s mandate.

In 2004, the agency awarded astronaut wings the pilots in the Ansari X Prize. And it also plans to honor Virgin Galactic’s pilots should they reach 50 miles or more, according to Gregory Martin, the FAA’s assistant administrator for communications.

Recently, there has been pushback against the 62-mile boundary. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has argued for the 50-mile definition based on a mathematical analysis of objects flying through the upper layers of the atmosphere.

He keeps a list of astronauts and said if Virgin Galactic’s pilots crest 50 miles, they’d earn the honor of astronaut.

“My plan is to count those people as astronauts and to include them on my list,” he said.

And the FAI has also said it would revisit its decision to use the 100 km definition, citing “many scientific and technical discussions around this demarcation line for the ‘edge of space’ and variance around this as a boundary condition for recognition of ‘astronaut’ status,’” it said in a recent statement. As a result, it called for an international workshop “to fully explore this issue with input and participation from the astrodynamics and astronautical community.”


America’s New Religions

America’s New Religions
Political cults are increasingly filling the empty space in our lives left by the decline of organized faiths
By Andrew Sullivan
Dec 7 2018

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. (There’s a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God.)

In his highly entertaining book, The Seven Types of Atheism, released in October in the U.S., philosopher John Gray puts it this way: “Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.” It exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.

This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.

Ditto history. My late friend, Christopher Hitchens, with a certain glee, gave me a copy of his book, God Is Not Great, a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely. But the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes — from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers — does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didn’t practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst. That’s what I told Hitch: great book, made no difference to my understanding of my own faith or anyone else’s. Sorry, old bean, but try again.

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.


More seniors, more foreigners: How Japan is changing

More seniors, more foreigners: How Japan is changing
The quickly ageing nation faces huge gaps in the workforce. Now, it’s taking historic steps to lower barriers for foreigners in a place that’s long been resistant to immigration.
By Bryan Lufkin
Dec 11 2018

When I lived in the Japanese countryside 10 years ago, I rarely came across other non-Japanese residents. Even in Tokyo, as a tall, white American, I’d sometimes get surprised glances from local residents.

But when I visited last month, I was struck by how much had changed. Hotels, shopping centres and cafés seemed to have at least one immigrant working there. Some of the young people staffing reception desks and video game arcades wore badges with non-Japanese names.

At one pub-restaurant in Kanazawa, a mid-sized city north of Tokyo, I saw a young Caucasian assistant behind the counter assisting the sushi chef. At another restaurant, we were served by a non-Japanese waiter from an Asian nation – and ended up communicating in English.

In short? Japan is internationalising – and this process is on the cusp of rapid acceleration.

The driving force is demographic change: Japan’s population is ageing rapidly and shrinking. Add in other factors including never-before-seen levels of foreign tourism, plus massive preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and the result is a nation that desperately needs more workers to fill jobs.

Japan has been aware of a looming demographic crunch for decades, but because successive governments have been reluctant to take major steps, the problem has become more urgent.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to bring in more foreign, low-wage workers. But his proposal to accept hundreds of thousands of people to fill blue-collar jobs by 2025 is highly controversial in a nation that has traditionally shunned immigration.

On Saturday, Japan’s parliament accepted that proposal in a contentious and unprecedented move to let in more immigrant workers than ever before – 300,000 throughout the next five years, starting in April. The new bill comes at a time of historic change in Japan. And how everything shakes out could shape the country for generations.

Spike in seniors, spike in foreigners

Bhupal Shrestha is a university lecturer living in Tokyo’s Suginami ward, a residential area known for its narrow alleys lined with second-hand clothing and antique shops. He’s lived in Japan for 15 years, but the road to a “permanent resident” visa hasn’t always been a smooth one.

He says he’s experienced “discrimination on basic things, such as searching for rooms for residences or businesses, opening bank accounts, applying for credit cards”. He also says it’s hard for immigrants themselves to have much say in the government policy that affects them.

“Japanese society is opening up to immigrants, but they are still conservative in some places,” he says. “I think it is due to the lack of chances [they have] for cultural exchange with immigrants.”

Originally from Nepal, Shrestha is one of the 1.28 million foreign workers living in Japan. It’s a record number, up from 480,000 in 2008. Yet the figure constitutes just 1% of Japan’s population, compared to 5% in the UK or 17% in the US. Almost 30% of Japan’s foreign workers come from China, with significant populations from Vietnam, the Philippines and Brazil.

The low figure is because immigration has traditionally been unpopular in Japan. An island nation, it was once fiercely isolationist. Up until the mid-1800s, those entering or leaving the country could be punished by death. Now, however, modern Japan views itself as homogenous, with a strong cultural identity.

Historically, domestic anxieties toward immigration stem from perceived job losses, cultural disruption and fears of spiking crime rates in what is a famously low-crime nation. 

But the big problem is this: the number of native Japanese is going down.


It’s time to look at the (political) science behind climate change

It’s time to look at the (political) science behind climate change
By Charles Lane
Dec 10 2018

This year, California recorded its deadliest wildfire in state history. The combined intensity and duration of the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans’ tropical storms and hurricanes reached a new recorded high. A group of researchers reported that worldwide fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to hit 37.1 billion tons in 2018, yet another annual record.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at the science behind these developments — the political science.

The data show that, for all the evidence that climate change is real, manmade and dangerous, and despite wide public acceptance of those propositions, people in the United States do not necessarily want to stop climate change, in the sense of being willing to pay the cost — which is the only sense that really matters.

“The public’s level of concern about climate change has not risen meaningfully over the past two decades, and addressing the problem with government action ranks among one of the lowest priorities for Americans,” according to a comprehensive review of public opinion literature published in 2017 by Patrick J. Egan of New York University and Megan Mullin of Duke University.

In a series of open-ended Gallup surveys this year asking Americans to name the “most important problem facing the country,” environmental issues never scored above 3 percent.

Even before the recent riots against President Emmanuel Macron’s climate-change-related fuel tax hike in France, there was a quieter backlash of sorts in the United States: Anti-fossil-fuel referendums lost in Colorado, Washington state and Arizonaduring last month’s elections.

Undoubtedly, there have been well-funded efforts to sow climate-change skepticism in recent decades, as Egan and Mullin note. President Trump is now amplifying that message. This could not have helped the climate-change movement, even if scholars have yet to identify a “causal link” between such campaigns and individual attitudes, according to Egan and Mullin.

Of course, the climate-change movement was not exactly silent during recent history. What’s crucial, after accounting for the battle between the movement and its opponents, is the inherent nature of climate change as a political issue: It requires voters to accept “up-front costs that, if successful, will stave off never-to-be experienced long-term damage — policy for which election-oriented politicians can easily foresee receiving blame instead of credit,” Egan and Mullin note.

Slashing carbon emissions is a cause that “has no core constituency with a concentrated interest in policy change,” while “a majority of people benefit from arrangements that cause” climate change.

The United States, with its multiple veto points for various regional and economic interests, tends to postpone dealing with long-range crises even more than most democracies, as our failure to shore up the solvency of federal entitlement programs shows.

Climate change and environmentalism more broadly have gotten caught up in the partisan polarization corroding U.S. politics, with support for “green” policy increasingly a badge of Democratic Party loyalty, and opposition to it defining what it means to be Republican.

A Pew Research Center study this year found that the public ranked climate change 18th out of 19 possible top priorities for the Congress and Trump, with 46 percent choosing it. However, this was an average that included 68 percent of Democrats and only 18 percent of Republicans.

Democratic concern does not necessarily translate into support for specific, costly policies, however. Washington, a deep blue state, rejected a state-level carbon tax in a 2016 initiative and did so again in 2018, by large margins each time.

The most politically feasible climate-change proposals, Egan told me in an email, may be those which “address the problem in a more piecemeal and thus less visible fashion,” such as raising automobile fuel economy standards, or, at the state level, requiring that a minimum share of energy come from low-emission renewable sources.

It didn’t work in Arizona, where 69 percent of voters, obviously including Democrats and independents, opposed a measure this year that would have required utilities to derive 50 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

In California, though, voters this year did retain the state’s 12-cent per gallon gas-tax increase, which was enacted in 2017, possibly because Gov. Jerry Brown (D) defended it as a way to pay for better highways, not to fight climate change.


That was awkward — at world’s biggest climate conference, U.S. promotes fossil fuels

That was awkward — at world’s biggest climate conference, U.S. promotes fossil fuels
By Griff Witte and Brady Dennis
Dec 10 2018–at-worlds-biggest-climate-conference-us-promotes-fossil-fuels/2018/12/10/aa8600c4-f8ae-11e8-8642-c9718a256cbd_story.html

KATOWICE, Poland — President Trump’s top White House adviser on energy and climate stood before the crowd of some 200 people on Monday and tried to burnish the image of coal, the fossil fuel that powered the industrial revolution — and is now a major culprit behind the climate crisis world leaders are meeting here to address. 

“We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,” said Wells Griffith, Trump’s adviser.

Mocking laughter echoed through the conference room. A woman yelled, “These false solutions are a joke!” And dozens of people erupted into chants of protest.

The protest was a piece of theater, and so too was the United States’ public embrace of coal and other dirty fuels at an event otherwise dedicated to saving the world from the catastrophic effects of climate change. The standoff punctuated the awkward position the American delegation finds itself in as career bureaucrats seek to advance the Trump administration’s agenda in an international arena aimed at cutting back on fossil fuels.

“There are two layers of U.S. action in Poland,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Clinton White House climate adviser.

One is the public support of fossil fuels, which Bledsoe said is “primarily aimed at the president’s domestic political base, doubling down on his strategy of energizing them by thumbing his nose at international norms.”

The quieter half is the work of career State Department officials who continue to offer constructive contributions to the Paris climate agreement that President Trump loves to loathe.

Which facet of the American presence proves more influential in Poland could have a big impact on whether this year’s climate summit, now in its second week, ends in success or failure.

Because greenhouse gases do not pay attention to national borders, a global front on climate action is crucial. The summit provides the only venue for countries to coordinate their push to curb ongoing global warming.

“This week is going to be telling,” said Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute.

Monday’s presentation came after a weekend in which the U.S. delegation undercut the talks by joining with major oil producers Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in blocking full endorsement of a critical U.N. climate report. The report, by some of the world’s leading scientists, found that the world has barely a decade to cut carbon emissions by nearly half to avoid catastrophic warming.

But the United States balked at a proposal to formally “welcome” the finding, setting off a dispute that, while semantic in nature, carried ominous portents that the United States could become an obstacle to progress in Katowice.

“The worrying issue is the signal that it sends,” Mountford said.


Two years after #Pizzagate showed the dangers of hateful conspiracies, they’re still rampant on YouTube

Two years after #Pizzagate showed the dangers of hateful conspiracies, they’re still rampant on YouTube
By Craig Timberg ,Elizabeth Dwoskin ,Tony Romm and Andrew Ba Tran
Dec 10 2018

A year after YouTube’s chief executive promised to curb “problematic” videos, it continues to harbor and even recommend hateful, conspiratorial videos, allowing racists, anti-Semites and proponents of other extremist views to use the platform as an online library for spreading their ideas.

YouTube is particularly valuable to users of and 4chan, social media sites that are popular among hate groups but have scant video capacity of their own. Users on these sites link to YouTube more than to any other website, thousands of times a day, according to the recent work of Data and Society and the Network Contagion Research Institute, both of which track the spread of hate speech.

The platform routinely serves videos espousing neo-Nazi propaganda, phony reports portraying dark-skinned people as violent savages and conspiracy theories claiming that large numbers of leading politicians and celebrities molested children. Critics say that even though YouTube removes millions of videos on average each month, it is slow to identify troubling content and, when it does, is too permissive in what it allows to remain.

The struggle to control the spread of such content poses ethical and political challenges to YouTube and its embattled parent company, Google, whose chief executive, Sundar Pichai, is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday amid several controversies. Even on the House of Representatives YouTube channel that is due to broadcast the hearing, viewers on Monday could see several videos peddling conspiracy theories recommended by the site’s algorithm.

“YouTube is repeatedly used by malign actors, and individuals or groups, promoting very dangerous, disruptive narratives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “So whether it is deliberate or simply reckless, YouTube tends to tolerate messaging and narratives that seem to be at the very, very extreme end of the political spectrum, involving hatred, bias and bigotry.”

YouTube has focused its cleanup efforts on what chief executive Susan Wojcicki in a blog post last year called “violent extremism.” But she also signaled the urgency of tackling other categories of content that allow “bad actors” to take advantage of the platform, which 1.8 billion people log on to each month.

“I’ve also seen up-close that there can be another, more troubling, side of YouTube’s openness. I’ve seen how some bad actors are exploiting our openness to mislead, manipulate, harass or even harm,” Wojcicki wrote. But a large share of videos that researchers and critics regard as hateful don’t necessarily violate YouTube’s policies.

False claims live on

The recommendation engine for YouTube, which queues up an endless succession of clips once users start watching, recently suggested videos claiming that politicians, celebrities and other elite figures were sexually abusing or consuming the remains of children, often in satanic rituals, according to watchdog group AlgoTransparency. The claims echo and often cite the discredited Pizzagate conspiracy, which two years ago led to a man firing shots into a Northwest Washington pizzeria in search of children he believed were being held as sex slaves by Democratic Party leaders.

One recent variation on that theory, which began spreading on YouTube this spring, claimed that Democrat Hillary Clinton and her longtime aide Huma Abedin had sexually assaulted a girl and drank her blood — a conspiracy theory its proponents dubbed “Frazzledrip.”

Although some of these clips were removed after first appearing in April and being quickly debunked by fact-checkers, a Washington Post review found that dozens of videos alleging or discussing these false claims remain online and have been viewed millions of times over the past eight months. YouTube’s search box highlighted the videos when people typed in seemingly innocuous terms such as “HRC video” or “Frazzle.”

YouTube does not have a policy against falsehoods, but it does remove videos that violate its guidelines against hateful, graphic and violent content directed at minorities and other protected groups. It also seeks to give wide latitude to users who upload videos, out of respect for speech freedoms and the free flow of political discourse.

“YouTube is a platform for free speech where anyone can choose to post videos, subject to our Community Guidelines, which we enforce rigorously,” the company said in a statement in response to questions from The Washington Post.


Australia’s war on encryption: the sweeping new powers rushed into law

Australia’s war on encryption: the sweeping new powers rushed into law
Australia has made itself a global guinea pig in testing a regime to crack encrypted communication
By Paul Karp
Dec 7 2018

In the hit US TV series The Wire police are initially baffled when the criminal suspects they are investigating begin to communicate through photographic messages of clock faces.

After several seasons of plots driven by the legalities and logistics of setting up telephone intercepts on suspected drug dealers, the police can’t keep up when overheard conversations are replaced by an inscrutable form of pictorial code.

The Wire cops eventually break the clock-face code but they’d have a great deal more difficulty in 2018 if they were chasing criminals using WhatsApp, Wicker, iMessage or other encrypted communications.

End-to-end encryption is a code so strong that only the communicating users can read the messages.

As a result, law enforcement agencies the world over are struggling with a wicked problem: what can they do when the suspect or target of investigation “goes dark”?

In Australia, the government claims to have found the solution to that problem in the form of a new law not necessarily to break encryption itself – as the equivalent United Kingdom legislation allows – but to co-opt technology companies, device manufacturers and service providers into building the functionality needed for police to do their spying.

The mind-bogglingly complex law, more than a year in the making, passed the Australian parliament on Thursday. The opposition Labor party shelved its plans to improve the scheme and waved it through in response to overwhelming pressure from the Liberal-National Coalition government, desperate to see it made law before Christmas.

But with digital rights and technology experts warning that government amendments are confusing or counterproductive, it’s questionable whether Australia has finally unscrambled the encryption omelette or set its law enforcement agencies and IT industry up to fail.

No back doors but a window into your digital life
The Telecommunications (Assistance and Access) Act starts with a golden rule about what law enforcement agencies cannot do: they cannot require technology companies to build a “systemic weakness”, or back door, into their products.

Instead, agencies gain new powers to issue notices for companies to render assistance, or build a new capability, to help them snoop on criminal suspects.

John Stanton, the chief executive of the Communications Alliance, said it was concerned about “the breadth and range of activities” law enforcement agencies could require companies to do.

The list of acts or things is long and includes: removing one or more forms of electronic protection, providing technical information, facilitating access to services and equipment, installing software, modifying technology, and concealing that the company has done any of the above.

With these compulsory notices subject to varying levels of safeguards police could, for example, send a suspect a notification to update software such as Facebook Messenger that in fact allows police access to their messages.

Agencies may not be able to directly decrypt messages, especially if they are located overseas such as the Russian app Telegram, a key weakness of the UK security architecture.

But using these notices, Australian agencies could install key logging software to enable them to see, keystroke by keystroke, what users type into a message. Similarly, software could take repeated screenshots that don’t break encryption but photograph everything going in and out of the communications app.

Other examples include: modifying a device such as an Apple Home or Amazon Alexa to record audio continuously; requiring a service provider to generate a false website that appears to be protected but isn’t, similar to a phishing email; or requiring companies to hand over more accurate phone geolocation data.