America’s prison catastrophe: Can we undo it?
The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
Prisons in America, specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses.
For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling.
And the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it.
People who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance.
The impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal.
There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them.
This prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis.
MARIE GOTTSCHALK: The United States is the world's leading warden. It has more people incarcerated in prison and jail, as in absolute numbers, and as a proportion of the population, than any other country in the world. So it incarcerates about 700 per 100,000 people in prison or jail. This is about five to 12 times the rate of other Western countries and Japan. We've got about 160,000 people who are serving life sentences in the United States now, and a number of them who are serving life in prison without the possibility of parole, in some cases, equals the entire prison populations of other large countries.
In my state alone of Pennsylvania, we're spending as much just to send somebody, keep someone in a state prison, as to send them to college, at some of the leading colleges or universities in the state for the year. There's a political issue about the legitimacy of the political system that locks up so many people, and disproportionately locks up so many people of color, and so many people who are poor. So often when we talk about prisons and jails, we talk about the numbers, how many people are in prison, or how many people in jail. What we overlook is that we have some of the most degrading, dehumanizing prisons and jails in any developed country.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: For an advanced society, the conditions in our prisons are quite appalling. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting HIV AIDS. Going to an American prison increases your chance of getting tuberculosis. Going to an American prison increases your chance of being raped, whether you're a man or a woman, and increases your chances of being raped either by prison staff or by other prisoners, and so on. I mean, it's just appalling what goes on in our prisons. I think it's completely uncontroversial that these things are appalling, you are not sentenced to AIDS, you are not sentenced to rape, you are sentenced to incarceration.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. You know, they're not gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing, so it's not like you're gonna see a real doctor or a real dentist. You know there's, at one point I've been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth. So I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are live in pain, or let him pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out. So I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain.
SHAKA SENGHOR: When I think about my journey through, in prison, I went through some very adverse experiences. I had some significant obstacles to overcome, including, you know, longterm solitary confinement, which they estimate is designed to drive a person crazy after 90 days. And what I found in that environment is that people figure out ways to cope and to, survive when they're forced to do so.
LIZA JESSIE PETERSON: The 13th amendment in the constitution, in the United States Constitution, it says that slavery is illegal. So we can't have slavery anymore, except for punishment of a crime. So everybody get your constitution out, look up the 13th amendment, and you see the clause that says except for punishment of a crime. So if you are committed- if you are convicted of a crime, then you're exempt from that 13th amendment saying that slavery, you know, is abolished. So that means that you're allowed to work as a slave. Slave labor, slave wages.
So you have people working for 10 cent an hour, 11 cent an hour, who are, you know, doing agriculture, working for huge corporations. You know, I don't want to name them because there's so many, but you know, a lot of the goods and services that we take for granted. Clothing lines, computer parts, airplane parts, military equipment, food that we buy, organically grown. These things are being manufactured in prisons, in prison farms, in prison factories, by inmates.
SENGHOR: Prisons in America specifically, are some of the biggest, most dysfunctional businesses we have in our society. When I was in prison, I worked for 17 cents an hour. That was my starting rate working in the kitchen. But there's also big corporations who invest in prison labor, because they can get this labor for $1.50 an hour, and then the sad part about it is that, in turn, they don't even hire these men and women when they're actually released from prison.
GOTTSCHALK: We have many people, not only do they serve their time, but once they leave, it's still as if they have an F, felon, as sort of the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives, because they've served their time, but they're not allowed to vote, they're not allowed to get welfare benefits, they can't get food stamps, they may not be able to get student loans, they may not be allowed to live in certain places, and they may not be able- permitted to get licenses for certain jobs, even jobs like hairstylist, which many people learn in prison. They learn how to be barbers and then they come out, they can't get licensed because they have a- a criminal conviction, and face extreme discrimination.
SENGHOR: I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism, despite being told by the officers that I will probably be back in six months. And when I walked out, I thought that I was returning to a society that would be a lot more forgiving, and a lot more open to me getting a second chance if I was willing to follow the rules of society. So, get out, look for a job, you know, prove that I want to work, volunteer in my community, you know, figure out ways to add value. And sadly and unfortunately, society is not really forgiving, and not really as open to second chances as I thought they will be. And it's really sad in the sense that 90% of people who are incarcerated will at some point return home. And we have a choice in how we welcome men and women back to our community.
I personally believe that there's not a human being that isn't without flaws, that hasn't had a bad moment. And nobody will want to be held hostage to that moment for the rest of their life. Once a person has served their time, that means that they should come out with a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. And if we want them to have a successful transition, it means we have to be willing to give them a true second chance, and not keep bringing up the past, unless they're, you know, repeating that behavior. But in most cases, most people want to just get out, move on with their life, find employment, find a safe place to live, and be free to enjoy the fullness of life.
JOHNNY C TAYLOR JR: :I'm a taxpayer, and anything that we can do to reduce recidivism, keep people off the rolls as an expense, a government expense and a prison, and as taxpayers, is a positive. So there's that part of me. You know, we have 7.3 million open jobs, and only 6 million people currently looking for jobs, which means we have a talent shortage. And if we could do anything to eliminate that talent shortage, that's 1.3 million people roughly. Every year, some 700,000 or so people are released from jails and prisons in America. So just taking a— we can use some of that population, that 700,000 person population to make a dent in that 1.3 million person deficit. So it's just practically smart.
And then the third part of me, which is more humanitarian-based, is people who have made mistakes should be deserving of a second chance. It is just, I mean, because all of us have made mistakes, some have been caught, some haven't, but these people have presumably paid their debt to society. And you know, if the idea is I make a mistake at 25 years old, I go to jail for five years, or prison for five years, and then I get out. What do I have to look forward to, if forever, I'm going to wear the scarlet letter, you know, convict to see, that says I'll never get another opportunity? Life is over there.
The Holy Grail of this would be if we could identify people who are six months, a year away from release, and begin giving them transitional skills. You know, work skills, life skills. Think about this. I was just meeting with someone who's been incarcerated for 25 years, the cellphone as we know it didn't exist then. So when they come out, they're gonna have to get adjusted to all of that the world has literally transformed in 25 years. So in an ideal state, we'll begin helping them transition back into a world that sort of they pushed the pause button two and a half decades ago. And we've got to catch them up pretty quickly so that they acclimate, and don't recidivate. That's number one. But once we do get them out, the most important thing we can do is get them back to work—housing and work. And they're sort of inextricably intertwined, you know, but housing is critical. And we've got to find places for people to have a permanent place. Mind you, they've had housing for some significant period of time, and on the outside, absent that there's an instability that makes them more vulnerable, and then you've got to pay for that housing, which is where the job comes in.
We employers have to reach out to this population, and let all of our biases go away. And we really do have to overcome our own biases. You know, we talk about implicit bias, unconscious bias, people think, "Oh, that's just in the context of race and gender." Well, the fact of the matter is we have a lot of biases, one of which is a bias that we have against the formerly incarcerated. And maybe it's because of television, and everything that we see in movies, and the characterizations of people who are in jail, but all of that comes through whether we're conscious of it or not, when we are talking to someone who we know has been incarcerated. We have some interesting research that says roughly 80% of HR managers say, "I'm interested and would be willing to hire the formerly incarcerated." Cherm's research says there's no bias at that level. Where we get into the bias and have had it, and seen it historically, was customers and other employees. Those are the biggies. You know, there's this NIMBY concept which says, "Yeah, I like the idea of hiring a formerly incarcerated, but not to sit next to my daughter at work." So, "Not in my backyard." That's the NIMBY concept. And so, we've had to work on that. Fortunately, we have some new research that says employees themselves, as a result of this narrative changing, and we're re positioning the formerly incarcerated, have said, "I'm okay." Three quarters of employees have said, "I'm okay with you bringing people into the workplace for nonviolent crimes."
Similarly, about three quarters of customers have said, "For nonviolent crimes, I'm willing to buy from a company that openly hires the formerly incarcerated, a product or a service." They're willing to do that. Those were two major hurdles in the past. And what we're seeing is, as a result of us changing the narrative, these are not bad people, they're people who made mistakes, and that every one of us has made them, and is e- entitled to a second chance, we're changing the narrative around hiring formerly incarcerated.
GOTTSCHALK: The public, and my students, this often happens, right? The logical thing is we lock up more people, we should reduce the crime rate, because there are fewer people who are out on the street to commit crimes. What we have found, myself as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Incarceration, we studied the best data. And in fact, the impact that incarceration has on reducing the crime rate is quite marginal. And the more people you incarcerate, the even less of an impact it has on reducing the crime rate, and it actually may increase the crime rate because people who serve time in jail, the conditions in jail and prison may actually make people more criminogenic. And also, you destabilize many communities by taking so many young people at the prime of their lives out of those communities.
So one of the first things the public has to realize is locking more people up doesn't necessarily increase the safety of their communities, and it actually may decrease the safety of the communities, and that a better solution is to not lock people up in the first place. Now, does that mean that it's a perfect world where no one will go out and ever commit a heinous crime? No, that- there's always that possibility, but we can never promise everybody a perfect world. If we wanted a perfect world, we would lock everybody up. And we're not going to do that, but this is not a risk that is a huge risk that we shouldn't be taking for many of the people, and if you talk to many wardens or superintendents of prisons, you talk to them informally off the record, they say they can go through their prison, and probably identify 30 or 40% of the people who really don't need to be there.
ROBERT PERKINSON: What needs to happen is we need to have, as a central goal, not just trying to make conditions of confinement more humane or help people who are released from prison—there's like 750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they're tossed out on the street with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated than they were before. They didn't get much treatment behind bars. So there's a lot of emphasis on reentry right now, as well there should be. But in my view, there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this out of control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it's unlike other types of government waste.
I mean, if we have a contract to build a highway and it gets double billed, or air marshals, take air marshals, for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in has been a totally useless government program. They haven't committed any crime. There's been an average of four arrests a year. But it's relatively benign. People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it, and maybe there's a little bit of public safety. So it's more or less- it's wasteful. It's irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it's not harming anyone. Prison is very different. It actually is- most people think that it is responsible maybe for 10 to 20% of reducing crime in the United States. There are many better, cost-effective ways to reduce crime, and we haven't done them, and we need to start kind of changing direction. There are signs that's happening, and there needs to be changes at every level of the system. We need better indigent defense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to addiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with, crime and poverty problem rather than as a solely criminal justice issue. We need to think about better ways to let more people out of prison, especially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.
GOTTSCHALK: People age out of crime. So that the most criminogenic years, as I tell my students, is often the late teens and the early 20s. So locking somebody up for 30-40 years for a crime that someone's done in their 20s doesn't socially, morally, financially make a whole lot of sense. What we also know is that someone who's committed a serious crime has been released, eight- usually eight years after they've been released, their profile, the likelihood that they will commit another crime is the same as someone who's never committed a crime before.
PETERSON: I think that we're at the precipice of another great shift in society, where you have a small group of people who say this prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis. Something needs to be done. You have a large swath of people who say, "Oh, they're just criminals. This is, we have to have prisons, right?" But I have faith in that small voice of people who believe in humanity becoming louder, and louder, and louder.
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
- How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure | Shaka Senghor - Big Think ›
- The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline - Big Think ›
- Should Philosophy Be Taught To Prisoners? - Big Think ›
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A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
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Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."