Amendments to the U.S. Constitution
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The 2nd Amendment: How the gun control debate went crazy
The gun control debate has been at fever pitch for several years now, and as things fail to change the stats get grimmer. The New York Times reports that there have been 239 school shootings nationwide since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, where 20 first graders and six adults were killed. Six years later, 438 more people have been shot in schools, and for 138 of them it was fatal. Here, journalist and author Kurt Andersen reads the Second Amendment, and explains its history from 1791 all the way to now. "What people need to know is that the Second Amendment only recently became such a salient amendment," says Andersen. It's only in the last 50 years that the gun debate has gone haywire, and it was the moment the NRA went from reasonable to absolutist. So what does the "right to bear arms" really mean? What was a firearm in the 1790s, and what is a firearm now? "Compared to [the] many, many, many rounds-per-second firearms that we have today, it's the same word but virtually a different machine." Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
The 5th Amendment: Do not break in case of emergency
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution is often talked about but rarely read in full. The reason? Counterterrorism expert Amaryllis Fox explains that it has, these days, simply become shorthand for not saying anything in court to incriminate yourself. But the full text states how important the due process of law is to every American. So perhaps learning the full text, not just the shorthand, is an important step to being an American citizen. You can find out more about Amaryllis Fox here.
The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery—but it still remains legal under one condition. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Today in America, big corporations profit of cheap prison labor in both privatized and state-run prisons. Shaka Senghor knows this second wave of slavery well—he spent 19 years in jail, working for a starting wage of 17 cents per hour, in a prison where a 15-minute phone call costs between $3-$15. In this video, he shares the exploitation that goes on in American prisons, and how the 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue. He also questions the profit incentive to incarcerate in this country: why does America represent less than 5% of the world's population, but almost 25% of the world's prisoners? Shaka Senghor's latest venture is Mind Blown Media.
The 14th Amendment: History's most radical idea?
In 1868, three years after slavery was abolished, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting equal protection under the law to every born and naturalized U.S. citizen. For CNN news commentator Van Jones this amendment is, in his words, the "whole enchilada." It's not the most popular amendment—it doesn't get name-dropped in TV courtroom dramas, or fiercely debated before elections—but to Jones it is a weighty principle that was far ahead of its time. "It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're a lesbian. That's not what it says. It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're African American. That's not what it says. It says if you're in the jurisdiction you get equal protection under the law. That's radical. In 10,000 years of human history, that's radical." Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.
The 26th Amendment: The act of voting should empower people
Is a 55.7% voter turnout really enough? Bryan Cranston was disappointed with the 2016 presidential election, not for the outcome but for the process. According to Census Bureau figures it was a bumper year for voter engagement with 137.5 million total ballots cast—but is just over half of the eligible voters really that impressive? The Pew Research Center shows that the U.S. still trails behind most developed nations in voter registration and turnout. "I think we've devalued the honor and privilege of voting and we've become complacent, and maybe a bit cynical about our place and rights as citizens and our duties and responsibilities," says Cranston. The good news? Millennials and Gen Xers are on an upward trend in civic engagement, casting more votes than Boomers and older generations in the 2016 election. Cranston reminds us of how empowering the 26th Amendment is in granting voting rights to Americans over the age of 18. "We can't take that lightly," says Cranston. It's a timely reminder too, as 40 million people are expected to drop off that 55.7% figure for the midterm elections, mostly from the millennial, unmarried women and people of color demographics. Bryan Cranston's new book is the spectacular memoir A Life in Parts.
- Princeton physicist Hong Qin creates an AI algorithm that can predict planetary orbits.
- The scientist partially based his work on the hypothesis which believes reality is a simulation.
- The algorithm is being adapted to predict behavior of plasma and can be used on other natural phenomena.
A scientist devised a computer algorithm which may lead to transformative discoveries in energy and whose very existence raises the likelihood that our reality could actually be a simulation.
The algorithm was created by the physicist Hong Qin, from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
The algorithm employs an AI process called machine learning, which improves its knowledge in an automated way, through experience.
Qin developed this algorithm to predict the orbits of planets in the solar system, training it on data of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, and Jupiter orbits. The data is "similar to what Kepler inherited from Tycho Brahe in 1601," as Qin writes in his newly-published paper on the subject. From this data, a "serving algorithm" can correctly predict other planetary orbits in the solar system, including parabolic and hyperbolic escaping orbits. What's remarkable, it can do so without having to be told about Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation. It can figure those laws out for itself from the numbers.
Qin is now adapting the algorithm to predict and even control other behaviors, with a current focus on particles of plasma in facilities built for harvesting fusion energy powering the Sun and stars.
Physicist Hong Qin with images of planetary orbits and computer code.
Credit: Elle Starkman
Qin explained the unusual approach taken by his work:
"Usually in physics, you make observations, create a theory based on those observations, and then use that theory to predict new observations, " said Qin. "What I'm doing is replacing this process with a type of black box that can produce accurate predictions without using a traditional theory or law. Essentially, I bypassed all the fundamental ingredients of physics. I go directly from data to data (…) There is no law of physics in the middle."
Qin was partially inspired by the work of Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose 2003 paper famously argued that the world we are living in may be an artificial simulation. What Qin believes he has accomplished with his algorithm is provide a working example of an underlying technology that could support the simulation in Bostrom's philosophical argument.
In an email exchange with Big Think, Qin remarked: "What is the algorithm running on the laptop of the Universe? If such an algorithm exists, I would argue that it should be a simple one defined on the discrete spacetime lattice. The complexity and richness of the Universe come from the enormous memory size and CPU power of the laptop, but the algorithm itself could be simple."
Certainly, the existence of an algorithm that derives meaningful predictions of natural events from data does not yet mean that we ourselves have the capabilities to simulate existence. Qin believes we are likely "many generations" away from being able to carry out such feats.
Qin's work takes the approach of using "discrete field theory," which he thinks is particularly well suited for machine learning, while somewhat difficult for "a current human" to understand. He explained that "a discrete field theory can be viewed as an algorithmic framework with adjustable parameters that can be trained using observational data." He added that "once trained, the discrete field theory becomes an algorithm of nature that computers can run to predict new observations."
Are we living in a simulation? | Bill Nye, Joscha Bach, Donald Hoffman | Big Think
According to Qin, discrete field theories go against the most popular method of studying physics today, which looks at spacetime as continuous. This approach was started with Isaac Newton, who invented three approaches to describing continuous spacetime, including Newton's law of motion, Newton's law of gravitation, and calculus.
Qin believes there are serious issues in modern research that stem from the laws of physics in continuous spacetime being expressed through differential equations and continuous field theories. If laws of physics were based on discrete spacetime, as Qin proposes, "many of the difficulties can be overcome."
If the world works according to discrete field theory, it would look like something out "The Matrix," made of pixels and data points.
Qin's work also coincides with the logic of Bostrom's simulation hypothesis and would mean that "the discrete field theories are more fundamental than our current laws of physics in continuous space." In fact, writes Qin, "our offspring must find the discrete field theories more natural than the laws in continuous space used by their ancestors during the 17th-21st centuries."
Check out Hong Qin's paper on the subject in Scientific Reports.
"This question has been bothering me for quite some time," says Aidan Milliff, a fifth-year doctoral student who entered political science to explore the strategic choices people make in perilous times.
"We've learned a great deal how economic status, identity, and pressure from community shape decisions people make while under threat," says Milliff. Early in his studies, he took particular interest in scholarship linking economic deprivation to engagement in conflict.
"But I became frustrated by this idea, because even among the poorest of the poor, way more people sit out conflict instead of engaging," he says. "I thought there must be something else going on to explain why people decide to take enormous risks."
A window on this problem suddenly opened for Milliff with class 17.S950 (Emotions and Politics), taught by Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science. "The course revealed the cognitive processes and emotional experiences that influence how individuals make decisions in the midst of violent conflict," he says. "It was extremely formative in the kinds of research I started to do."
With this lens, Milliff began investigating questions anew, leveraging unusual data sources and novel qualitative and quantitative methods. His doctoral research is yielding fresh perspectives on how civilians experience threats of violence, and, Milliff believes, "providing policy-relevant insights, explaining how individual action contributes to phenomena like conflict escalation and refugee flows."
At the heart of Milliff's dissertation project, "Seeking Safety: The Cognitive and Social Foundations of Behavior During Violence," are connected episodes of violence in India: an urban pogrom in Delhi in which nearly 3,000 Sikhs died at the hands of Hindus, sparked by the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards; and the bloody, decade-long separatist civil war by Sikh extremists in Punjab that began in the 1980s.
In search of first-person testimony to illuminate people's fight-or-flight choices, Milliff lucked out: He located taped oral histories for a large population of Sikhs who had experienced violence in the 1980s. "In these 500 taped histories, people described at a granular level whether they organized to defend their neighborhoods, hid in houses, left the city temporarily or permanently, or tried to pass as Hindu." He also pursued field interviews in California and India, but didn't get as far as he'd hoped: "I arrived in India last March, and was there for two weeks of an intended three-month stay when I had to return due to the pandemic."
This setback did not deter Milliff, who managed to convert the oral histories into text and video data that he's already begun to plumb, with the help of natural language processing to code people's decision-making processes. Among his preliminary findings: "People typically appraise their situations in terms of their sense of control and of predictability," he says.
"When people feel they have a high degree of control but feel that violence is unpredictable, they are more likely to fight back, and when they sense they have neither control nor predictability, and more easily imagine being victims, they flee."
A Chicago launchpad
Milliff drew inspiration for his doctoral research directly from an earlier graduate project in Chicago with the families of homicide victims.
"I wanted to learn whether people who become angry in response to violence are more likely to seek retribution," he says. After taping 90 hours of interviews with 31 people, primarily mothers, Milliff shifted his focus. "My initial assumption that everyone would get angry was wrong," he says. "I found that when people suffer these losses, they might get sad instead, or become fearful." In unsolved homicides, family members have no perpetrator to target, but instead turn their anger at government that's let them down, or worry for the safety of surviving family members.
From this project, Milliff took away a crucial insight: "People respond differently to their tragedies, even when their experiences look similar on paper."
Political violence and its consequences seized Milliff's interest early on. For his University of Chicago master's thesis, he sought to understand how many long-running, brutal independence movements fizzle out. "I came away from this program believing that I'd enjoy the day-to-day work of being a professional political scientist," he says.
Two research experiences propelled him toward that goal. While in college, Milliff assisted in the National Science Foundation-sponsored General Social Survey, a national social survey headquartered in Chicago, where he learned "how a big quantitative data collection exercise works," he says. Following graduation, a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace immersed him in South Asian military conflict and Indian domestic politics. "I really enjoyed working on these issues and became greatly interested in focusing on the political situation there," he says.
Attracted by MIT's security studies community, especially its commitment to research with real-world impact, Milliff came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, primed to delve deeper into the subject of political violence. He first had to navigate the graduate program's thorough quantitative sequence. "I came to MIT without having taken math after calculus, and I honestly feel fortunate I ended up somewhere that takes the classroom portion of training seriously," he says. "It has given me new tools I didn't even know existed."
These tools are integral to Milliff's analysis of his singular datasets, and provide the quantitative foundation for informing his policy ideas. If, as his work suggests, people in crisis make decisions based on their sense of control and predictability, perhaps community institutions could bolster citizens' abilities to imagine concrete options. "Lack of predictability and a sense of control encourage people to make choices that are destabilizing, such as fleeing their homes, or joining a fight."
Milliff continues to analyze data, test hypotheses, and write up his research, taking time out for biking and nature photography. "When I was headed to graduate school, I decided to take up a hobby that I could do for 15 minutes at a time, something I could do between problem sets," he says.
While he acknowledges research can be taxing, he takes delight in the moments of discovery and validation: "You spend a lot of time coming up with ideas of how the world works, diving into a pit to see if an idea is right," he says. "Sometimes when you surface, you see that you might have come up with a possible new way to describe the world."
- The gender gap persists, as only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
- Here are just some of the women making lasting contributions in the fight against COVID-19.
- They include Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women across the world have made an enormous contribution to the global efforts to tackle COVID-19. Not only do women make up 70% of the world's health workers and first responders, women in STEM fields have been leading research into the virus, creating trackers and developing vaccines.
But the pandemic has had a disproportionate social and economic impact on women, as many have borne the brunt of childcare duties or lost jobs in sectors most affected – and this includes women scientists.
February 11th is UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science – and the theme this year is celebrating the women scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, including Dr Özlem Türeci, co-founder of BioNTech, which helped produce the first vaccine.
Women represent almost half the students at Bachelor's (45%), Master's (55%) and PhD (44%) levels of study, according to UNESCO's forthcoming Science Report – but only 33% of the world's researchers are women.
To encourage more girls and women to take up careers in the STEM fields, UNESCO is gathering some of the world's leading COVID-19 experts for a virtual event.
"We need science, and science needs women. This is not only about making a commitment to equal rights; it is also about making science more open, diverse and efficient," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
Here are just some of the women in STEM around the globe who have been making a difference during the pandemic.
Dr Özlem Türeci
Dr Türeci and her husband Dr Ugur Sahin co-founded biotechnology company BioNTech in Germany in 2008. In 2020, BioNTech and pharmaceutical firm Pfizer developed the first approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. They celebrated the news that it had 90% efficacy with a cup of Turkish tea, the pair told The New York Times. Recently featured on the cover of Time magazine, the scientists plan to produce two billion doses of the vaccine this year to help bring the pandemic to an end.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
A paediatrician and one of India's leading public health experts, known for her groundbreaking research on tuberculosis, Dr Swaminathan was appointed the World Health Organization's (WHO) Chief Scientist in 2019 and has been coordinating international work on vaccine development. She spoke about challenges women researchers face at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2020: "It is more difficult for women researchers to get their grants approved … and women also have difficulties in getting their results published, if you are from developing countries, in journals, because of perceived biases. I have faced those kinds of challenges and biases."
Within a night in March 2020, Ramida Juengpaisal and her colleagues at web design firm 5LAB in Bangkok, Thailand, built a tracker of COVID-19 cases, giving the city's eight million residents up-to-date news and information about the pandemic and helping to stop the spread of misinformation. She told Reuters the perception that girls are less suited to technology-based roles is gradually shifting: "We need more women in tech. One good thing about this crisis is that we have seen people – including women – come forward to create things that are useful to others, and be recognized."Ramida Juengpaisal built a COVID-19 tracker for Bangkok – overnight. Image: UN Women/Stefan Abrecht/BioNTech
Professor Sarah Gilbert
Prof Gilbert is the Oxford Project Lead for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, now recommended for use by all adults worldwide by the WHO. When the genetic sequence for the new coronavirus was published in January last year, she swiftly built on her work developing a vaccine for MERS, which used chimp adenovirus to deliver the spike protein into humans. Prof Gilbert is currently working on a new version of the vaccine to tackle the South African variant.
Faruqi and her all-female robotics team began developing a low-cost, lightweight ventilator using locally available, second-hand car parts, after the first COVID-19 case was reported in her home province of Herat in Afghanistan. She told UN Women: "Sometimes, families think science and tech are male fields and prefer that their girls don't enter them. We have less role models for young women in these fields, and that makes it more challenging for young women to enter this industry."
Kaseje is the Founder of Surgical Systems Research Group in Kenya, which seeks to rapidly expand access to health services by leveraging youth, technology and community health workers. Since May 2020, the group has helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in Siaya County, by combining digital tools and data science with the work of young people and community health workers to raise awareness about preventative measures.
Professor Devi Sridhar
American public health researcher Prof Sridhar is a leading authority on COVID-19 in the UK and Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University. She is known for her work on assessing the international response to the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa. Among her frequent media appearances, she spoke to the World Economic Forum's World Vs Virus podcast about why ethnic minorities in Europe and North America were at greater risk from COVID-19.
Dr Anggia Prasetyoputri
Dr Prasetyoputri was awarded the 2020 L'Oréal-UNESCO National Fellowship For Women in Science (FWIS) by L'Oréal Indonesia for her research on bacterial coinfections in COVID-19 patients using swab sample sequencing. COVID-19 patients whose immune systems are already weakened by the virus, are more susceptible to other viruses and bacteria. So Dr Prasetyoputri worked out a quick and simple way to identify these coinfections – and help doctors prescribe the right treatment.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
- The FDA and CDC recently authorized the distribution of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine.
- It will soon be the third vaccine available in the U.S., the other two being vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
- The new vaccine has a lower efficacy rate, but clinical data suggest its highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death.
A Food and Drug Administration committee is set to vote Friday (February 26) on recommending the approval of Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. If the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee recommends approval, the next step would be getting a green light from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could authorize the distribution of up to 4 million doses of the vaccine as early as next week.
Approval from the CDC would make Johnson & Johnson's vaccine the third available vaccine in the U.S., joining those currently being distributed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The U.S. government has already purchased 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
On Wednesday, the FDA released an analysis of clinical trial data on Johnson & Johnson's vaccine saying "there were no specific safety concerns identified in subgroup analyses by age, race, ethnicity, medical comorbidities, or prior SARS-CoV-2 infection," and that the vaccine was "consistent with the recommendations set forth in FDA's guidance Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccines to Prevent COVID-19."
So, what are the key differences between the three vaccines?
Credit: Mediteraneo via Adobe Stock
What makes Johnson & Johnson's vaccine unique is that it's effective after just one dose, while the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna require two doses administered over several weeks.
And unlike the other two vaccines, Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't need to be frozen during shipping and storage, it just needs to be refrigerated. That's because the vaccine protects against COVID-19 by delivering coronavirus proteins to the body through a common cold virus known as adenovirus type 26. In contrast, the other two vaccines perform a similar function, but they do it through mRNA, which is more delicate and requires freezing.
Not having to freeze the single-shot vaccine will make it cheaper and easier to distribute across the country, and it could result in many more people getting vaccinated.
But it's worth noting that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine doesn't seem to be as effective as the other two vaccines. According to the FDA analysis, the vaccine is about 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of COVID-19, "when considering cases occurring at least 28 days after vaccination." Meanwhile, clinical data show that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing severe cases of the disease.
Credit: peterschreiber.media via Adobe Stock
Still, that doesn't necessarily mean Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is inferior. The FDA analysis found that nobody who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was hospitalized or died due to COVID-19 (at least among cases that occurred 28 days after getting the shot).
So, while some people who receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may still contract coronavirus, the vaccine does seem to significantly reduce the severity of COVID-19. The same holds true for the other two vaccines: Getting the shot (or shots) won't completely protect you from the virus, but it does protect you from the disease, reducing the chances of becoming hospitalized or dying to almost zero.
COVID-19 vaccines and transmission
But what's less clear is the extent to which the vaccines prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Because the vaccines don't completely protect against infection, it might be possible for a vaccinated person to spread the virus. But COVID-19 vaccines might make transmission less likely.
After all, even if a person who gets vaccinated contracts the coronavirus, the virus would have a harder time replicating in their body, because the vaccine bolsters the immune response. So, one would expect that person to "shed" less of the virus out of their mouth and nose. In short: fewer infections means less replication, less shedding, and less transmission.
That's the theory, anyway.
Scientists are still working to understand how exactly these vaccines affect transmission. But early data is promising. In a preprint paper published on medRxiv, Israeli researchers measured the amount of coronavirus within about 2,900 people who had received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
"Analyzing positive SARS-CoV-2 test results following inoculation with the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine [the Pfizer vaccine], we find that the viral load is reduced four-fold for infections occurring 12-28 days after the first dose of vaccine," the paper said. "These reduced viral loads hint to lower infectiousness, further contributing to vaccine impact on virus spread."
But until the data on vaccines and transmission become clear, the CDC recommends that vaccinated people still wear masks and practice social distancing.
UPDATE: The CDC voted on Sunday to recommend the vaccine for the United States. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed off on the recommendation.