Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government

American elections in 2007 and 2008 were plagued by issues with the voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Solutions, formerly a subsidiary of the U.S. ATM manufacturer Diebold. Because of concerns ranging from hacker access to dropped votes, citizens were uncertain if their preferences for representatives had been properly recorded. Imagine, then, the panic that would have ensued if the voting had been not just for congressmen and city officials, but for entire methods of political rule.

Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. Courtesy of Amazon.

This type of world, in which each citizen would be free to choose his or her own governmental system, is the subject of a new book by Zach Weinersmith titled “Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government.” Weinersmith, best known as the creative behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is fascinated by the continual explosion of choice and customizability in human life as facilitated by technology. As 3-D printing enables custom-printed houses and online dating services let people easily sort through thousands of potential mates,  he wonders how government will respond to the tendency toward personalized life experience.

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

Although the author’s discussions of inter-anthrostate relations and personal choice in a polystate society are thoroughly fleshed out, the book leaves a number of vital issues unresolved. Weinersmith separates most of these “potentially insoluble objections to a polystate” into the short third section of the book, but they are (perhaps inevitably) some of the most interesting points raised. How might a polystate deal with contested ownership of sacred locations? How could anthrostates maintain continuing projects such as social security with continually fluctuating populations and demographics? And, most importantly, how would this society become established in the first place? A short story from the perspective of a polystate citizen (an idea briefly considered in a footnote) could have done much to bring the theorizing of the book to life, as well as grounded the work in the larger tradition of books such as B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Thomas More’s “Utopia.”

Still, “Polystate” provides a thought-provoking hypothesis of how the future of government may develop. As Weinersmith writes in the introduction, his work of “poli sci fi” is meant to encourage reflection on future possibilities, giving readers the chance to consider the implications of current trends. His “educated speculation” is well worth the time and is sure to spark discussion amongst thoughtful readers.


Just How High? – The Difficulty of Drug Testing

The recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado has proven to be an economic boon for the citizens of the state. From the $98 million in pot sales and excise taxes expected by the state government in the coming year to the $5 million collected by dispensaries in their first week of sales, the drug promises a lot of dollars for stakeholders in the industry. Even the young entrepreneurs of the Girl Scouts found profits in catering their cookies to hungry smokers (until an official pronouncement by the organization barring sales outside of weed stores).

A drug testing vial, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

For the average marijuana user, however, the threat of personal economic ruin due to employment drug testing may outweigh these societal benefits, even in states where recreational or medicinal use is legal. In one well-publicized example, a quadriplegic customer service representative for DISH Network, Brandon Coats, was laid off in 2010 after testing positive for the medical marijuana he consumed to manage his chronic pain. Although Coats lived and worked in Colorado, where the medical use of the drug was legal at the time, DISH lawyers successfully contended that the continued illegality of marijuana use under federal law meant that his consumption was unlawful.

Importantly, nearly all drug tests commissioned by employers, including the one that led to the firing of Coats, do not detect the presence of marijuana’s active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This molecule, which causes the general changes in consciousness associated with the drug, is completely metabolized by the body within three to eight hours. Therefore, most tests detect the presence of non-psychoactive compounds formed by the breakdown of THC, which stay in the body far longer than the four to ten hour window of impairment from marijuana use.

Detection times vary widely based on a user’s past history with the drug and body type; metabolites such as THC carboxylic acid (THC-COOH) are fat-soluble and thus remain in the systems of people with more body fat for longer periods. Urine tests, the most common analysis method, can generally detect frequent use for 10 to 21 days after the drug was last ingested. Hair tests, however, can indicate previous marijuana intake for months after the last use.

Most legal entities fail to distinguish between the previous use detected using these tests and the current impairment that might be of danger to society. The detection of THC-COOH in urine samples from DUI cases, for example, is often used as evidence for the presence of THC in the bloodstream at the time of arrest. Yet this conclusion may be incorrect, as the test could be measuring drug use from weeks before the incident. Only six states (including Colorado) have established limits for actual THC in drivers, which is measured using a blood test.

As support for marijuana legalization continues to grow, it will be vital for law enforcement to establish methods for separating impairment from previous use. While no equivalent to the Breathalyzer exists for pot, police could seek the advice of workplace human resources managers, who are developing rapid cognitive tests to determine impairment. Such tests will strike a fairer balance between individual liberty and societal protection.

Follow the Label – The Rise of “Gluten-Free”

What if your health could be improved instantly, in every possible way, by eliminating gluten from your diet? It sounds like the exact inverse of a pitch for a 19th-century patent medicine: instead of consuming an exotic mix of ingredients as a panacea for your ills, omit a common component of bread and other grain products, the “base” of the old USDA food pyramid. But this unlikely recommendation has garnered surprising cultural weight, driven largely by Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the bestselling “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugars—Your Brain’s Silent Killers.

Is the gluten in this basket of bread delicious or deadly? Courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Dr. Perlmutter argues that up to 30 percent of people may be sensitive to gluten, with consequences ranging from Alzheimer’s to ADHD, from skin disorders to depression. To counteract this danger, he proposes an inversion of the food pyramid known as the “paleolithic diet,” a distribution of food supposedly closer to that consumed by humanity’s prehistoric ancestors: high in saturated fats and proteins from animal sources, low in carbohydrates from agricultural sources.

Similar diets have proven effective for the treatment of celiac disease, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own natural defense systems turn against the gluten protein. But celiac disease only threatens 1 to 2 percent of the population; is a gluten-free diet necessary, or even desirable, for the vast majority of eaters? While a limited number of studies have recorded improvements in mental issues such as epilepsy and dementia due to a gluten-free diet, integrative medicine practitioner Chris Kresser emphasizes that “just because a low-carb diet can help treat neurological disorders, doesn’t mean the carbs caused the disorder in the first place.”

Dr. Perlmutter claims that a high-carbohydrate, high-gluten diet represents a deviation from the norm that humans are equipped to handle, but both evolutionary and anthropological evidence contradict that assertion. Humans possess more copies of the AMY1 gene, which codes for the alpha-amylase protein that breaks down starches, than do closely related primates such as chimpanzees. What’s more, human populations that have traditionally consumed more grains, such as the rice-eating Japanese, contain more copies of the gene than do hunting and gathering populations such as the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo. The human genetic code is not static but evolves over time to handle changing conditions like the rise of agriculture. Many traditional cultures also seem to function well on high-carb diets. Kresser points out that the Tukisenta people of New Guinea consume over 90% of their calories as carbohydrates while possessing some of the lowest recorded rates of neurological disorders.

Regardless of the evidence, food manufacturers are rushing to benefit from the skepticism surrounding gluten and carbs in general. Gluten-free products represented a $4.2 billion dollar industry in 2012, and new FDA guidelines allow products whose original formulations never contained gluten, such as vodka and bottled water, to be marketed as gluten-free. Consumers should beware the hype and instead focus on eating a balanced, scientifically supported diet.

Internet Roundup – Olympic Science in Sochi

The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are now well underway, to the enjoyment of millions of viewers from around the globe. In a recent post, I discussed the science behind the snow machines that are making Sochi, normally a subtropical resort town on the coast of the Black Sea, a winter paradise for skiers and snowboarders. But science also underlies many of the competitions taking place during the Winter Olympics, and the following collection of articles discuss some of the concepts that athletes must consider, whether by intellect or instinct, during their events.

The Winter Olympics in Sochi involve a surprising amount of science. Courtesy of PLoS.

Today Health: Why don’t figure skaters get dizzy? (Trick question. They do!) – With athletes spinning up to 40 consecutive rotations, it’s a wonder that figure skating is as nausea-free as seen on TV. Jordan Gaines explains how skaters exploit physics to reduce the strain on their stomachs.

Scientific American: Is the Quintuple Jump in Figure Skating Physically Possible? – The height of figure skating prowess is currently the quadruple jump, which entails four complete spins in midair. Laura Poppick consults physicists and biomechanists to see if skaters might ever exceed that impressive feat.

Digital Trends: How the US Olympic two-man bobsled team teamed with BMW – American bobsledders put the German automaker’s expertise in aerodynamics and manufacturing to work in creating one of the most technologically advanced craft ever to skim the ice. Brian Kamenetzky recounts the hours of development and testing behind the US hopes for gold.

Inside Science: Winter Olympics Science Notes: Ski Jumping – Luca Oggiano is an aerospace engineer, but his interests lie not with planes or spacecraft, but airborne skiers. Chris Gorski interviews him and other sources for an overview of what jumpers need to know before they take flight.

NPR: Why Some Olympians Load Up On Salad Instead Of Pasta – The path to the podium may start at the pasta bowl for some athletes, but others are employing more sophisticated eating strategies. Eliza Barclay outlines some of the goals that Winter Olympians hope to accomplish with their dining and how they achieve them.

CNN: Science friction – understanding the thinking behind curling – Appropriately enough, the study of the game sometimes called “chess on ice” involves some serious physics. Matt Majendie discusses the efforts of researchers to determine how exactly a curling stone curls.

Additionally, NBC Learn has compiled an excellent collection of free short videos discussing the scientific concepts behind a number of winter sports that can be viewed here.

What’s That Smell? – The Language of Scent

Of all holidays, Valentine’s Day is perhaps the most intimately associated with the sense of smell: exotic perfumes, fragrant flowers and rich chocolates are easy hallmarks of February 14. But although the scents of these tokens of love may be distinctive, the vocabulary used to describe them is surprisingly limited. Both tulips and truffles might simply be called “sweet,” while perfumers resort to a language where a smell is named after the thing that produces it, like “vanillic” for (you guessed it) vanilla scents. English is obviously unwieldy when it comes to explaining what the nose knows, but do all languages share this problem?

The English language has issues in describing the experience of smell. Courtesy of Radical Botany.

According to Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhul, a pair of Scandinavian linguists, the problem of describing smells with language is not universal. The two report that the language spoken by the Jahai people of peninsular Malaysia is unusually rich in words for precise scents. For example, the Jahai word “itpit” describes the common element underlying fragrant sources such as “durian fruit, Aquillaria wood, and bearcat,” while another term indicates “a bloody smell that attracts tigers.”

Majid and Burenhul pitted a group of Jahai speakers against a group of English speakers in the Brief Smell Identification Test, an established protocol for comparing the scenting ability of different people. Just like a set of scratch-and-sniff stickers, the test contains a set of fragrant molecules contained in tiny spheres, called microcapsules, that break to release odor when disturbed by a fingernail. The panel of 12 smells includes seemingly distinctive aromas such as banana, rose, smoke and onion.

When the English speakers were asked to describe the smells, they often struggled to find the right word and resorted to “source-based descriptors,” the linguistics term for naming a smell as what it smelled like. One particularly flummoxed participant, when asked to describe cinnamon, responded as follows:

“I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? Ok. Big Red. Big Red gum.”

In comparison, the Jahai speakers could confidently describe each scent using abstract descriptors, or words that drew on the common elements from different smells. English has plenty of abstract descriptors for color: “red,” for example, is used for objects as different as fire trucks and brick houses. Yet for smell, the language draws a blank.

The difference in abilities between the two groups can be taken as support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory in linguistics claiming that the language available to people helps shape the patterns in which they think. The Jahai can rely on their advanced smell vocabulary to draw similarities between scents in a way that English speakers simply cannot, an ability vital to their livelihood as foragers. Of course, after this study, perhaps some of the Jahai will find work with Estee Lauder or Chanel.

Up to 155 – The Large European Acoustic Facility

As succinctly phrased by the tagline for “Alien,” the classic sci-fi horror flick, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The gasses found throughout space are present at densities that are simply far too low to propagate audible sound waves. However, getting out of Earth’s atmosphere and into the silence of the void can be an extremely noisy proposition. Even after the engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center installed a sound suppression system on the launchpads of the space shuttle, the roar of the rockets at ignition reached 142 decibels (dB), roughly twice as powerful as the loudest rock music ever played (139 dB, during a sound check by the heavy metal ensemble Manowar).

Engineer Kees van Zijtveldt and the largest horn of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Those metalheads would be unusually envious of the engineers of the Large European Acoustic Facility. Located at the European Space Agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the LEAF is capable of producing sounds in excess of 154 dB — easily enough to rupture human eardrums. For safety purposes, the facility’s speaker horns can’t even be enabled until all of its doors are securely closed, and a set of half-meter-thick concrete walls and rubber pads keep the volume away from the rest of the research building in which it is housed.

Although these features keep the scientists in charge of LEAF from headbanging to Iron Maiden until the early hours of the morning, they have more important work to conduct: testing spacecraft and satellites against the sound stresses encountered in the violence of a rocket launch. Sound is carried through the air as waves of pressure, and higher dB values represent larger variations of pressure. When buffeted by these waves, the intricate components of the technology being launched into space can be disrupted, affecting the success of important scientific or economic missions. The LEAF technicians expose spacegoing vessels to extreme levels of noise and check for any mechanical or electronic failures, insuring launches against pricey (and embarrassing) mistakes.

The ESA claims that exposure to the LEAF system, when running at full blast, would be enough to kill a listener, but that boast may be slightly exaggerated. While permanent hearing loss might occur, the noise wouldn’t be quite loud enough to damage the internal systems of the body; the threshold for lung rupture and embolism is approximately 200 dB.

Blizzard Beach – Making Snow for Sochi

The 22nd Winter Olympics are set to begin tomorrow in the Russian vacation hotspot of Sochi, promising two solid weeks of the world’s finest skiing, snowboarding and skating. Yet Sochi’s reputation as a resort comes not from its slopes, but from its beach; the city is one of only a handful in Russia to boast a subtropical climate. As in Florida, low temperatures in Sochi rarely reach the freezing point, and highs in summer can exceed 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit). How, then, is this summer paradise being transformed into a winter wonderland?

Collage of the sights in Sochi; note the palm tree in the lower left. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

The answer lies in an army of snowmaking machines overseen by Mikko Martikainen, the Finnish businessman hired by Olympic organizers as the official snow expert of the games. Martikainen’s company, Snow Secure Ltd., will employ a combination of on-demand snow creation and giant piles of premade snow to ensure that the problems which plagued the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver do not occur in Sochi.

Although the first snowmaking devices, invented in the 1950s, were no more complicated than hoses that shot cold water into the air, current technologies use better physics to ensure that powder production is more effective. A modern snowmaking machine first breaks the water apart into miniscule droplets of 200 to 300 microns (roughly 1/100th of an inch) in diameter. These particles are then supercooled, a process that allows water temperatures to dip below freezing without the liquid turning into ice. By ensuring that the water contains no impurities and is stored in a perfectly smooth container, snowmakers provide no places for ice crystals to start forming (a process called nucleation).

The machine then introduces the necessary impurities by disturbing some of the droplets with small amounts of compressed air. The resulting mixture, when sprayed out of the snowmaker from a set of specialized nozzles, immediately turns into ice crystals that catalyze the freezing of the supercooled water being sprayed simultaneously from another ring of nozzles. In the five to ten seconds that the water is airborne, it turns into a snow of white frozen pellets that make a fine surface for winter sports.

Martikainen and his team have already made nearly 450,000 cubic meters (16 million cubic feet) of snow, which they have stored, perhaps counterintuitively, under a system of high-tech blankets. The first layer consists of a thermal foam covered in aluminum foil, much like duct insulation wrap, which keeps the cold in and the heat out. The second layer, a geotextile that encourages the evaporation of humidity, keeps the snow dry until needed. Martikainen hopes this backup plan won’t be necessary, but his company’s snow movers are ready to fill out the ski runs at a moment’s notice.

All this technology comes at a price, contributing to the record $50 billion cost of the Sochi Olympics; Vancouver’s games, for comparison, cost only $7 billion. Martikainen has managed to bring the blizzard to the beach, but future Olympic organizers may want to consider venues where Nature will do most of the work.