The Need for Seamlessness

Question: How do we rid ourselves of the “car or nothing” mindset?

Geoff Wardle: If you’re going to ask people to use an alternative to the car, or maybe the car is only part of their journey and they use other means of transportation as well, it has to be as seamless as possible.  So people need to know that if they use their car for the first mile of the journey to the railroad station, or the transit station that they can just drive straight there, find somewhere to park, and then they can step pretty much straight onto the next transportation system.  They need to know in advance whether there are likely to be any hiccups in the service.  Passengers need to know that they are in control of the journey.  The physical environment has to be safe.  The physical environment has to be comfortable, and these are quite large tasks. 

But multi-model transport works a lot in established cities already.  If you go to the east coast, New York or some of the European or Asian cities; London, Paris, Tokyo, people do have a lot of options in multi-model transit.  In those cities, there are a lot of people who choose not to own a vehicle because they know they have an array of buses or subways, other forms of transit, which they can hop, on and off and it all connects well.  It surprises a lot of people to know how much public transit there is, for instance, in Los Angeles.  And I have to say that there are huge efforts going on in Los Angeles to make it work better.  There’s a way to go yet.  But the issues in the past have been that each part of the system, whether it’s the surface buses, or the light rail system, they operate as autonomous systems and they don’t speak to each other.  So, we’ve got the multi-model transit, but what we haven’t got is the seamlessness of being able to go from one to the other and knowing very easily how to get from point A to B in the city even if you’re not particularly familiar with the city. 

Question: What do you see as the future for hybrids and electric plug-ins?

Geoff Wardle: Well, I think there’s an inevitability that we’re going to see a lot more hybrid vehicles of various categories and plug-in electrics.  There are people who have significant doubts about them and then there are other people who think they are the holy grail of automobiles at the moment.  The plug-in electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, makes total sense when the source energy that creates the electricity to charge them up is clean and totally renewable and when the batteries which store the electricity for the duration of the journey, also have life cycle analysis that are totally ecologically clean.  And we’re a ways away from that right now. 

The vehicle companies that are investing a lot of money into R&D in hybrids and plug-in hybrids are doing the right thing because they are discovering a lot of aspects of these technologies that will be a great help later on.  I run a hybrid myself and have done for a long time.  I figured I’d better put my money where my mouth was and see what it means.  If I were to do a complete life cycle analysis of the hybrid vehicle, it’s a little touch and go as to whether it’s better than a regular car.  But I feel that in some ways that as a consumer, I’m contributing to the knowledge curve of building these.  There are a number of advantages, of course, of battery electric vehicles or hybrids.  The point of the vehicle itself has much lower emissions, they’re much quieter, which actually is causing a little bit of a debate now because they are too quiet.  But in the long run, I think there is a great future.  But as I said, it’s really dependent on the future of our source energy generation and the ability to develop batteries, which are clean and completely recyclable. My gut feeling is I have some optimism that we will see a lot more of these. 

And the other thing that we have to remember is that whilst the car industry has done a fantastic job, admittedly under some protest in the beginning, to clean internal combustion engines up, the fact is that we are arguably at or beyond peak oil and quite soon the cost of oil-based products is going to start going up and up and up; at least going through a state of volatility as well.  And so we really do have to figure out how to eek out the oil that we’ve got left much more efficiently than we have up to now.  We’ve kind of been spoiled because a liter or a gallon of gasoline or diesel oil contains so much energy compared to it’s equivalent weight of a battery that its hands down the winner in terms of energy efficiency.  The problem is, we’ve squandered it and we have used it in applications where we’ve assumed that we have finite supplies of it.  That isn’t the case any longer. 

So I think we’re going to see forms of hybrids which inevitably going to use internal combustion engines for a while, but in ways that greatly reduce the amount of gas consumption of those engines while they are in use. 

Question: What modes of transportation have we been ignoring that we should focus on collectively? 

Geoff Wardle: Well, I would say all of them really because there is not one answer that fits all.  As I say, we have some cities that function quite nicely with alternative transportation systems now.  If you visit a lot of those cities you’ll find that those systems are quite old.  They’ve been so successful that they are pretty tired because of the economic and political climate that we live in, in say Europe and particularly in the United States, there hasn’t been so much political or economic will to invest public money in keeping those systems up to scratch.  So we’ve been ignoring those in some ways. 

I think we’ve been definitely ignoring in the U.S.A. the role that trains can play in the total landscape.  Trains are not necessarily the most energy efficient way of getting people around under certain conditions compared to other forms of ground transportation, but on the other hand, they have the opportunity to being quite convenient, safe, and clean where I think they do have an opportunity is against air traffic particularly for cities that are only 200 or 300 miles apart using a high speed train between two cities becomes quite compelling compared to using aircraft.  

Buses, I would say, offer significant opportunities, particularly in somewhere like Southern California which the predominant infrastructure are roads and highways, where it is very difficult to retrofit light rail or subways for a variety of reasons.  We need to make much better bus systems.  Unfortunately, compared to Europe or Asia or perhaps even on the East Coast where people are more comfortable using buses, in Southern California people would rather do penal servitude in Venezuela than actually ride on a bus.  And yet, there are huge, huge advantages from a systems point of view of introducing bus fleet.  And one must take their hat off to MTA in Los Angeles; they’ve been doing a fantastic job of building better bus systems and bus routes for us all to use.  We need to keep on doing that.  

We need to make it easier for people to make those journeys which really, they shouldn’t be using an automobile, not particularly convenient to use a bus, and certainly doesn’t make sense to use a subway.  We need to consider those.  And lots of people have been working with the question of the first and last mile of journey; so, helping people use bicycles, or electric bicycles, or Segways, or other very personal systems to help make those journeys.  And of course we shouldn’t forget that actually the best way of getting around from a health – an ecological point of view is to walk.  And we need to get better as we redevelop cities and as we build new cities to make it much more compelling for people to walk. 

Of course, you can look at some cities that have done this very well, if you look at cities like Montreal, or Toronto in Canada where, of course, they have very severe winters, it’s still possible to walk around downtown, underground.  It’s important.  We need to make sure that people feel not only able to, but quite interested in the idea of walking.  And again, I’m sure our listeners are familiar with certain cities or town in their life where it’s fun to walk places, or it’s fun to cycle somewhere.  And then there are other places where it either feels threatening, or it feels dangerous, or there’s no facility to be able to walk.

Question: What are the major challenges in the realm of goods transportation? 

Geoff Wardle: Well, probably the biggest challenge is, as the global economy proceeds, the cost of energy is going to, as I said earlier, is inevitably arise and it will start to make, in some ways, less and less economic sense to ship goods that are being made in one continent halfway around the world to the other.  It’s already part of the daily conversations about the wisdom of drinking water that has been bottled in Fiji when you live in California or Paris, or somewhere like that.  But it could also apply to a lot of other things. 

So, I think with transportation, we may see a reduction in a few decades of a lot of long-distance transportation of goods as we get better and better at producing goods and food much closer to where we live.  So, I think the cost of energy is going to be one of the challenges.  And we see it already.  Most people who complain that the cost of food in the supermarkets is going up think it’s all a conspiracy against them.  It’s probably because the costs of actually transporting the goods let alone the raw materials, which have to be transported as well, are increasing quite dramatically. 

Recorded on February 4, 2010

Can consumers rid themselves of the "car or nothing" mentality?

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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