Fossil Fuel Death Count

We are on the cusp of ending our reliance on energy sources that kill us and kill the planet. But the cusp often feels like the longest part of the journey. Even as we can envision, and are materializing, a world where the majority of inputs to the power grids are clean and renewable, many are still choking on the dirty air of the carbon age — and choking at different rates, depending on circumstances beyond their control.

We received the highest cost estimate of pollution from fossil fuels ever, in brand new research that says 8.7 million deaths a year occur from particulates generated by diesels, gasoline-powered vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel-based energy and transportation sources. The researchers point out that this 8.7 million death toll (based on analysis of 2018) is much higher than previous estimates, and is “roughly equal to deaths attributed to smoking.” 

Particulate pollution is ubiquitous. Not only that, it moves around, ignoring human conceived borders. Its mobility is partly attributable to the fact that the particles “hover in the atmosphere ‘up to one to two weeks,’ and can therefore “be transported long distances.” And it doesn’t take much: even a little bit of particulate pollution can be deadly. That’s a newer finding — we had never really asked before how much it takes to be linked to mortality.

But now we know. And, combining this new information with our existing knowledge, we also know that most of the people who will die from fossil fuels will be poor. The most concise statement of this disproportionality comes from the United Nations Environmental Program, citing the World Health Organization. 

“The poor,” UNEP says, “tend to be priced out of the leafy suburbs where there are fewer highways and air quality is better.” This disparity can be found at all scales: municipal, regional, national and international. 

A post by the Borgen Project goes into greater detail, explaining that it’s not just location, but the entirety of inequality — material inequality — between rich and poor. “Even when both affluent and impoverished people experience the same exposure,” the post reads, “air pollution affects the health of the impoverished more.” This is because of other differences that compound exposure or which are comorbidities, like access to healthcare and the likelihood of working in hazardous or polluted environments. According to this Atlantic article, In China, a vast portion of urban workers are internal migrants or disproportionately outdoors in very polluted cities like Beijing. Workers delivering messages and packages via bike, walking or public transit, or those who work in industries with poor air circulation, will breathe a lot more of those particulates than executives working in air-filtered and environmentally-controlled offices. 

A shift to renewables will make things better eventually, but in the meantime large infrastructure projects, automobile traffic, and the burning of coal — among other things — continue to produce more deadly particulates. And, building the infrastructure for renewables still produces particulates, along with (ironically) CO2. 

What’s clear, however, is that the problem we are contending with is not simply the use of fossil fuels but environmental racism and classism, as well as the refusal to give up long outdated and toxic forms of production, construction, energy use, and transportation. With new indications that the death toll of fossil fuels is even greater than we thought, a transition to renewable and non-toxic energy sources is all the more urgent. 

Edgy Science Roundup

The lifeworld and deathworld meeting and overlapping; viruses evolving into unique protective bodily organs; ethical questions raised by VR communication “with the dead”; a nation’s official insistence that it isn’t building a time machine. In this post, we look at some recent science on the edge — or several edges — of lifeworlds and deathworlds, of the possible and impossible. 

First, we have the placenta, which is unlike any other organ, and which evolved from a retrovirus over a hundred million years ago. One of the coolest science pieces I’ve ever read describes a scientist’s early experience watching a birth and being fascinated by the placenta, and then subsequently learning that “once upon a time some retrovirus infected an egg-laying vertebrate. And by chance, that virus settled into that animal’s egg cells. And it just so happened that that particular infected egg was fertilized. The baby that was hatched — whatever kind of protomammal it was — now had copies of that virus’ DNA in all its cells.” What this shows is that things can be both agents of breakdown/death and incubation/birth — that’s what edgy science is all about. 

Second is the rumor (substantiated by some weird documents) that Chinese researchers are messing around with time. “Earlier this month,” according to Popular Mechanics, “unsubstantiated documents began circulating online that seemed to suggest the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics is partnering with the private Ruitai Technology Development Technology on something called the ‘Space-time Tunnel Generation Experimental Device.'” The article then includes a series of leaked documents including a powerpoint presentation about a device that can allegedly “distort time and space, control the flow rate of time,” and be used to travel through time. The documents include mention of a “base” for the experiment eventually being built at some select location in China. 

But the article goes on to say that shortly after the leak of the powerpoint, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics put the nix on the rumors (or at least tried to), denying the accuracy of the documents and calling the whole thing “false propaganda.” In fact, to make things weirder, one of the companies mentioned in those leaks, Ruitai Technology, was created at the end of 2020 — right on December 31. The documents also refer to a Nobel Laureate who doesn’t actually exist. Upon further investigation, it also appears that the processes upon which these phantom researchers are speculating aren’t so much “time travel” as hibernation — suspended animation so that people can “journey” into the future without getting old. That’s moving forward through time I suppose. 
Third and finally: though avatars of the dead are ubiquitous and pre-date digital technology, a new type of projection has been developed and parents of deceased children are now able to visit with those kids via VR. A company will collect data about the child, including their favorite places, aspects of their voice and personality, and other unique information, and program it into a visual image using a child actor as a model for the simulation. The grieving parent can then don VR equipment and visit with the child. It is, however, not very interactive… yet. But as Futurism.com asks: “how far can we be from a platform that lets anyone upload footage of a deceased loved one and then interact with a virtual version of that person? Years? Months? And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process?” The article notes that a handful of startups and entrepreneurs are collecting data on people, both generally and specifically, to create templates for eventual simulations, which might even include “robot clones of real people.” Naturally. Or, unnaturally.

Going-Where-No-One-Has-Gone-Before Roundup

Human flight is an iconic preoccupation throughout human history. Journey into inner space is lesser-known but still well-established in speculative science and literature. And human augmentation is part of both outward and inward super-travel aspirations. Combine that with the excitement of DNA research and Canadian ice-river rats and you have a cross section of bizarre and somewhat amusing technological advancements from the last couple of years — achievements that seek to put people where they haven’t gone before, even if they never leave Earth, or even their own neighborhoods.

Canadian Weedwacker Ice Jet!

Some humans like to take things apart and use the resulting components to make other things. 

Before we get into actual jetpacks, here’s a fun metaphorical one. A Canadian man made himself a “jetpack” out of some weedwacker fans to assist him in skating up an icy river. What a display of ingenuity!

Hovering Across the English Channel! 

Jetpacks are gadgets long-promised and, for the past several years, rather amazingly realized. They are examples of the congruence of imagination and feasible technology. Characters from Buck Rogers to Gilligan used them time and again, from the dieselpunk to atompunk periods. “We were promised jetpacks” is a joke that became a band name. Thus, humanity has been hard at work to deliver on that promise for a while now. 

2019’s jetpack across the English Channel story is still timely. An eccentric French inventor named Franky Zapata had been trying to cross the channel on a hoverboard for some time, coming up short at a refueling station platform in the middle of the journey once and splashing into the water for his troubles. But then he managed to get from Sangatte to Kent over a 22-mile stretch of the channel. 

The catch, of course, is that the hoverboard, a Flyboard Air model, only had enough fuel for about 10 minutes’ worth of flying before needing to be refueled. His first attempt was a close miss, so Zapata’s team used a bigger boat for the station the second time after negotiating its permittance with French authorities.

Inner space is just as exciting as outer space!

If channel flights or motorized ice skating doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe you’d like to inscribe something on strands of DNA. That’s what CRISPR (usually pronounced “crisper”) can do for you. The acronym is for a DNA sequence: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It’s also shorthand for the methods or “systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations,” such as what happened here. Somewhat whimsically (if you’re a nerd), bioengineers programmed a DNA sequence to lay out binary 1s and 0s to spell “hello world,” a longtime robot/android prototype opening line in robotics lore. 

These three incidental journeys are reminiscent of details golden age science fiction authors used as background details. The protagonists of Red Planet skate across frozen Martian canals. Jet packs and hoverboards are everywhere. And, literally or metaphorically, we shrink into inner space. Here we are in the future

Minecraft and Statecraft

Outschool, a supplemental class service for ambitious kids from k-12, is offering a course called Metrocraft. In it, students collectively design and build (in Minecraft) a city that they then govern. The class combines architecture, public administration, and politics. 

Although the designers of the course likely didn’t intentionally make this connection, the class is similar to Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy project, which attempts to re-think opinion polling and fold it into the deliberative process. Respondents are first given questions to answer, but then go through a deliberative process of discussing the issues and listening to different points of view. Then they’re polled again. 

The Metrocraft class is different from the CDD project in its level of sophistication.  It is nominally training people to think of themselves as “leaders” rather than just deliberative citizens (though the two are obviously complimentary). Still, they fall under a common umbrella: the idea that simulations, dialogues, debates, and involving people in deliberative processes are good things. They are educational, collectively pedagogical, and assume that people learn things and become better — collectively better, even. This is an optimistic course. 

The use of technology and, in particular, gaming technology is also a significant attribute of the Outschool class. We’ve always used games to teach and learn, and this might be the best example yet. The Guardian called Minecraft the best videogame of the 21st century, and that’s merely one among many mountains of praise it has received. Time ranks it the #6 video game of all time. With its simulations, walk-throughs, and parodies of other cultural artifacts, Minecraft is more a paradigm, a basic framework, than a game; and, it is premised on building. Combining construction and public administration, and teaching students to do so democratically and mindful of processes, might be Minecraft’s most socially useful application yet.

One of the myths that has driven the U.S. into a series of political dumpster fires, civil conflict, and political hostility has been the argument that government “doesn’t work.” Corporate donors have given hundreds of millions of dollars to think tanks over the past five decades to spread that myth and turn it into an axiom for half the country. It’s a curious conclusion, because “government” is nothing more than a collection of people working to achieve goals. If “government doesn’t work,” why do businesses work? Why does the military “work?” Is this an argument against all collective endeavors, or just public management? 
Participatory simulations of government can teach us governance experientially — students learn about processes and rules, but also about what they should and should not do themselves. They also learn what their own limits are — the things they enjoy or which do not interest them, the things they excel at or which are their limitations. Although such simulations might be competitive games with competitive pressures, they are more often cooperative, where incentives to “win” are not at other players’ expense; rather, the goal is to win in conference with those players. My guess is that a virtual classroom full of 13 year-old Minecraft players will run a smoother society than the one we’ve experienced lately.

Weird Musical Instrument Roundup

Have you ever heard of the Katzenklavier, or cat piano? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a design (and thankfully only a design) for a keyboard that sits “in front of a line of cages, each of which has a cat trapped inside.” Pressing a particular key causes pain to a cat, which then screeches accordingly. Different screeches across the scale produce different notes. This inhuman contraption was designed a few hundred years ago as a therapeutic device for psychiatric patients. Thankfully, it was never built (and, therefore, never used). 

What the Katzenklavier does do, however, is reveal how people do strange things with controlled noise. On the bright side, many of these auditory manipulations are beautiful, and many are even delightfully absurd (and harmless). Here’s a cross-section of strange, and often beautiful, musical instruments. 

Let’s begin with the Toha, designed to resemble the nests of the now-extinct weaver birds of southern Africa. Weaver nests have a totem-like quality and are tall and filled-out as they are built in close-knit bundles to create communities of bird dwellings. The Toha looks tall and full, and it has 44 strings divided into two sections of a diatonic scale, each section containing three octaves. It can be played by two people, facing one another and is a perfect “improv instrument,” meaning the two people playing can feed off of and respond to each other, thus creating a beautiful duet. It sounds blissful, like harp music, but also has a kind of aspirational, reach-to-the-heavens sound when the lower octave notes and the higher octave notes seem to be in dialogue. It’s a deliberative instrument that thrives on interactivity. 

While the Toha is a contemporary instrument built to emulate ancient birds and celebrate timeless harp music, the Hornucopian Dronepipe is actually a celebration of the future we inhabit. It is entirely 3D-printed and has a weird shape that has been described as “dystopian.” It sounds like a deep, cyberpunk didgeridoo. Pictures and videos of the Hornucopian Dronepipe remind me of musical scenes in sci-fi classics, like the Cantina scene from Star Wars. The instruments therein — the Dorenian Beshinquel, the Fanfar, the Ommni Box, Bandfill, Kloo Horn and more — are detailed here. The Dronepipe would be an appropriate addition to this musical scene, though not for every song as its music is not particularly bouncy or upbeat.   

Finally, you may have heard of “road musicals,” movies from the mid-20th century combining long trips and hokey songs, but how about musical roads? Sometimes when driving and making contact with rumblestrips, I immediately notice the musical quality of the resulting sound. The rumblestrips clearly produce different “notes” and when one slows down, they play “lower.” I have long wondered whether I was the only one to notice this, but no more. Honda built a strip of road in California designed to play Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and it’s quite the project. It’s designed following a simple rule: “Closeup ridges give a high note, further apart lowers the frequency.” The tune is, unfortunately, quite off in places, and hitting the strip at 100 miles per hour sounds particularly weird, but one can’t help feel a little warm inside that a car company took the time to do something so gratuitously creative, based on the quirky idea that if rumblestrips’ effectiveness comes from their loud tonal qualities, why not experiment with those qualities? 

The ability to manipulate sound into music isn’t uniquely human, but music and sound form an inexorable part of human culture. And It is great to see that people are still innovating. 

Who or What Was the First Robot? A Debate

The definition of “robot” is quite controversial. The most common definition is that a robot is a machine capable of carrying out complex tasks or series of tasks based on programming from a human. But culturally, and in the science fiction literature, a robot not simply such a machine. It also has added character — traits that, if they don’t make the machine mimic a human, they at least make appear as some kind of distorted reflection of a human. Linguistically, “robot” comes from the czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor;” and, to labor seems to involve some degree of autonomous control post-programming and post-activation. 

According to these definitions, “robot” lies somewhere between a strict “it’s only a machine performing tasks” that would arguably make a photocopier (or sorter or stapler) a robot, and an anthropomorphic machine that isn’t quite an android. Humans have been making such machines for a very, very long time, but what was the first robot?

Hardcore prehistoricists, what we might call “ancientpunk” students of technological history, would argue that Archytas’s bird of 400 BC was the first documented robot. Born in Italy in 428 BC, Archytas belonged to the Pythagorean school of mathematics and was a friend of Plato. Archytas created a bird that flew up to 200 meters, powered on steam. Based on the minimalist definition, if we call flying a complex task, and acknowledge that the bird flew “on its own” after its initial release, and also give some recognition to historical relativity (nobody else was making machines that could be launched and then perform tasks at least momentarily independent of an operator), the mechanical bird was the first robot, as well as one of the first flying machines. 

Of course, this glorious bird was neither anthropomorphic nor semi-autonomous. In 1927, Ron Wensley created a humanoid-looking machine capable of performing a variety of simulated human-like tasks, including (eventually) speaking two simple sentences as well as listening to the speech of others and performing a very limited range of tasks based on what it had heard. The machine’s name was Herbert Televox, which only added to the already science fiction-like nature of the thing. Televox’s job was to operate a telephone switchboard. If we consider historical relativity, this was most certainly a full-fledged robot, and the first of its kind. Televox is my personal favorite, and definitely the archetype proto-robot of the early electrical era. 

Over time, however, the functional definition of robot departed from a conscious engagement with science fiction and evolved into full industrial and commercial telos. That’s why, if you ask many tech historians what the first robot was, they’ll say it was the Unimate, which was built by George Devol in 1954 and sold to and deployed by General Motors in 1961 to lift burning-hot metal pieces from die casting machines in its automobile plant in West Trenton, New Jersey. The robot’s tasks were both complex and dangerous. Unimate pulled the parts from their burning hot source, dipped them into cooling liquid, and then placed them into an apparatus for workers to trim and refine them. Significantly, the widely varied tasks were stored in Unimate’s memory drum. It is this distinguishing feature — a programmable memory enabling the performance of tasks contingent on commands and conditions — that made the industrial machine the “first” robot of its kind. 
In the end, my science fiction soul still believes that Herbert Televox was the first robot; but my analytic mind admits that Unimate was more robotic than Televox. In both instances, programmers made use of what were, for their times, elaborate “if-then” parametrics. Culturally, however, Televox is more likely to pop up in our minds when we mention robots. Perhaps Unimate would be more likely to pop up if we were to specifically think robotics — especially industrial robotics. Archytas’s bird gets an extremely honorable mention, because someone had to kick the whole trajectory off, and mechanical flight in the 4th century BC is nothing to shrug off.

Time Travel Roundup

Fittingly, for a year that many of us would like to fast-forward past or, alternatively, rewind and start different, 2020 has ushered in a massive shift in time travel discourse. Time travel into the past, once thought to be theoretically impossible, became theoretically possible thanks to advanced math and simulations. 

Retiring the Grandfather Paradox

Thus far, assumptions about time travel into the past have included the “grandfather paradox,” wherein one’s ability to alter the course of events culminating in their own origin (like killing a progenitor or ancestor) meant traveling into the past involved a poenial internal contradiction. Whether stepping on a butterfly or distracting your mother from your dad’s courtship, the classical assumption has been that if you alter the causal arrow’s path, you could cease to exist. An ordered universe couldn’t allow that to happen. 

As it turns out, the universe is more elastic than previously thought. Researchers at the physics program at University of Queensland, longtime leaders in time travel research, produced a paper explaining mathematically what we can also explain through narrative analysis: if you go back in time and “try and stop patient zero from becoming infected with Covid-19,” something else will happen to result in the same outcome. For example, you may get the virus yourself, or someone else would. Ultimately, something will happen that’s “close enough [to what did happen] so that the time traveler would still exist and would still be motivated to go back in time.” 

Queensland scientist Fabio Costa explained this concept earlier this year, though not in easily accessible terminology. His paper’s abstract explains that “complex dynamics is possible in the presence of CTCs [closed-time-like-curves], compatible with free choice of local operations and free of inconsistencies.” Another member of the Queensland team explains, “Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts the existence of time loops or time travel,” and this suggests that “space-time can potentially adapt itself to avoid paradoxes.”

This is a huge development as, up until now, the paradox (and not the mechanics) seemed to rule out backwards-directed time travel altogether. We are still left wondering why, if it’s possible, we haven’t yet been visited by travelers from the future (perhaps we have), but that’s a question for another time. 

Professor Mallett’s Time Machine

The Queensland work suggests that Einstein’s “time loops” contain the seeds of backwards time travel. University of Connecticut physicist Ron Mallett not only agrees, but has built an experimental device to test the theory. Fascinated with H.G. Wells and haunted by the death of his father, Professor Mallett takes, as a starting point, Einstein’s observation that “the stronger gravity is, the more time will slow down.” Gravity isn’t so much a “force” as a bending of space by large objects. If space can be bent, Mallett reasons, it can also be twisted. In other words, wormholes, wherein one can travel both into the past and back to the future, are possible. The scientist and his time machine can be found here.

Time Travel Simulators Are A Thing

University of Queensland researchers have been at this for a while. A few years ago, they constructed a time travel simulator that “simulated the behavior of a single photon traveling back in time and interacting with an older version of itself.” This provides more concrete evidence that reality will stretch to fit our time travel scenarios. This is the advantage of quantum mechanics over classical physics. One article compares quantum time travel to classical time travel by using the examples of the Avengers: Endgame and the Back to the Future movies. The latter series “represents time travel through classical physics,” where Marty’s alteration of events threatens to erase his own existence, while “Endgame is a model of quantum time travel,” where characters can manipulate events and it’s obvious that timelines are alterable.

It’s a long way from theory to practice, but it’s nice to know that we won’t be incurring any paradoxes when we finally decide to go back in time and warn people about Covid-19. 

Could Better Communication Fix Tesla’s Troubles?

Public communication is vital to business maintenance, and this importance only increases when a company’s products are on the cutting edge of its field’s technology. Why? Because edgy tech is . . . edgy. It doesn’t always work perfectly the first time and customers must be prepared to sign onto some degree of unpredictability. 

Maintaining a customer base requires updated information about them, and regular communication; this reality encourages us to ask whether Elon Musk and Tesla could do a better job containing some of their recent legal troubles with better communication and expectation management? 

In addition to the many hassles and image management problems Tesla has had lately, customer complaints about its products have become more intense. The company is facing class action lawsuits or complaints which are likely to become such lawsuits in the near future. One recent cause of action has been the failure of a critical instrument in the vehicle: the media control unit and touchscreen. In many instances, this hardware allegedly “froze, crashed or went black entirely” while the car was being driven. 

Of course, it’s not enough for the malfunction to occur; that won’t get a plaintiff into court, even if it happens often. Allegations Tesla “was well aware of the widespread malfunction,” on the other hand, will; and such an allegation is quite a dangerous one.

The allegation essentially suggests that Tesla was already aware of the issue prior to receiving consumer complaints about it. This forces us to ask the following questions: what if Tesla had immediately acted to fix the problem once they allegedly became aware of it? What if that commitment were accompanied by frank and direct communication, both with the public and with individual drivers who experienced the malfunction? It’s likely that Tesla having done so would have opened it to damages liability, but those damages would have realistically been far less than those from a class action suit argued before a jury. 

Furthermore, what’s happening presently seems to be part of a larger pattern that’s characterized Tesla. In China a few months ago, “Model 3 owners discovered last week the company had quietly downgraded the computer chip inside their vehicles to an older generation” — a deliberate stealth replacement and public misrepresentation. Tesla even half-apologized for it, blaming coronavirus, asserting the global pandemic led to a slowed production rate that somehow “forced it to ship with the old chip.” Given the outcome — Tesla executives had to go before Chinese government officials and explain themselves, and they had to give consumers a free upgrade anyway — all of this communication and concession could have occurred in a more open framework in the first place. 

And even after all that, Chinese Tesla drivers are still considering a class action suit, exacerbating any of Tesla’s losses associated with this dilemma. Getting out in front of mishaps means really getting out in front of them, and that requires a proactive communicative strategy, as well as an underlying values commitment. In this example, Tesla displayed neither. 

It will be interesting to see the outcome of current local hearings in a municipality of Germany, where Tesla is facing public objections to building a new plant. This, of course, is something auto manufacturers routinely have to deal with. Again, however, Tesla is a different target, because their technology is more audacious and their leadership less conciliatory than in the rest of the auto industry. 
Part of the good faith efforts that companies like Tesla can communicate to clients is their regulatory compliance. What is true of product liability and class action law is also true of Big Tech and New Auto Tech: claims must be accurate, regulatory compliance must be evident, and there must be clear and proactive demonstration that a corporation is not trying to skirt the law. Tesla appears to dismiss the law in many instances, and its attitude could easily be perceived as mocking, or “scofflaw.” A different communicative ethics could result in fewer antagonistic relationships for the company.

Will Ransomware Threaten Municipal Election Security?

Lucas Ropek put up a moderately long piece on Governing last week on the threat of ransomware attacks on state and local government websites, and the specific threat such attacks may pose for elections. Ransomware comes from the world of cryptovirology, the use of cryptography to design troublesome and powerful software that can create “trapdoor” scenarios where only the attacker can undo the damage they create. Lucas dives deep into the problem, interviewing Aman Bhullar, chief information officer for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. 

The piece also cites Andy Kroll’s thorough treatment at Rolling Stone last January that expressed strong concern about foreign elements throwing the election into chaos, allowing the incumbent president to claim it was rigged and clog the electoral system up with litigation rather than conceding. But Kroll’s piece also contains a grain of hope: although the current administration is not fully prioritizing cybersecurity, and the Senate won’t “vote on bipartisan bills that would require transparency by tech companies on advertising spending and make paper backup ballots mandatory in elections,” government security agencies have still accomplished a lot on their own, unencumbered by an administration that doesn’t really know how they can prohibit what they are refusing to prioritize.

But Lucas’s Governing story is really about local elections, which remain a concern because of paid cyber hitters. Federal law enforcement agencies can chase down those bad players after the fact, but there is currently no national cybersecurity system in place covering municipalities, or even state governments. 

Granted, there is a federal Election Assistance Commission that hosts a website on security and election preparedness, but the content is primary advice and the site does not provide much in terms of additional resources. There are articles like “Using your procurement process to improve security,” which ignores the lack of meaningful procurement power for many municipalities in the wake of devastating losses in income thanks to anti-tax ideology and Wall Street shenanigans. Municipalities are seemingly all alone in this fight — they had been on their own through the Obama administration, and are on their own even more so now. 

So although Russia and China aren’t interested in state and local elections, individual “cybermercenaries” can be paid to mess things up, and they have the ability to do so. Bhullar concedes that “the incentive for criminal hackers to target county election offices is high.” 

Concern over county elections was amplified when cybersecurity company BlueVoyant released a report a couple of weeks ago. The report suggests that municipalities across the country vary greatly on experience, technical knowledge, and political prioritization of election cybersecurity. 

It’s important to note that the threat is not in the manipulation of vote counts. The real threat is public confidence in elections, and that threat is definitely already impacting US elections. In fact, it has done so since before 2016: long before the president claimed millions of undocumented immigratnts were voting, or investigations concluded that Russian hackers had interfered with elections. If this lack of confidence trickles down to municipal and state races, however, it could damage solid local bulwarks for confidence in democracy itself. 

One innoculatory force that writers on this topic aren’t considering is the role of candidates and campaigns themselves, and how they communicate with their voters. If it’s true that bad-faith or paranoid candidates can spread disinformation concerning the legitimacy of elections, its similarly true that good-faith candidates can use technology found in services like Accurate Append, deep canvassing tools, and their own technological portfolios to communicate with voters during election crises, or even talk about issues of election security before voting begins. It could be both provocative and hopeful to hear candidates explain election security challenges and also pre-empt their opponents’ irresponsible speculations about it.

Using High-Speed Rail to Help the Poor

It’s no secret that the U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in scaling its infrastructure. Now, recent news from China seems to have relegated the U.S. even further back. The South China Morning Post reported last month that “China’s unprecedented railway spending boom,” which has been going on for several years, will last at least another decade and a half. China’s railway conglomerate — the China Railway Group — is state-owned. In August, the Group published a blueprint that calls for another 200,000 kilometers (125,000 miles) of railways by 2035. This will be a stunning 41 percent increase over the status quo. 

The object here is development, and although China’s infrastructure boom has long been criticized for its environmental impacts, railway transit complicates this claim (more about that in a moment) and the most obvious impact of railway development has actually been poverty alleviation. For example, high-speed railway was partly responsible for lifting almost 1000,000 residents of Zhangjiakou, co-host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, out of poverty in the last several years. 

This isn’t just Chinese propaganda; the World Bank shares the optimism about high-speed rail as an essential part of a model for poverty alleviation. As Martin Raiser — the World Bank’s director for China — recently said, high-speed rail is a game-changer for economic development. It creates “changed patterns of urban development, increases in tourism, and promotion of regional economic growth.” 

But such extensive infrastructure investment could never happen in the U.S., right? After all, we’re told that people don’t like mass transit here. That would be discouraging if it were true; but, American voters in both urban and rural areas have, in fact, long expressed a desire for better mass transit. A 2018 survey showed “support for government funding of public transportation encompass[ing] every age group with 93% of millennials, 85% of Gen X respondents, 80% of baby boomers and 61% of seniors in agreement.” The survey also showed support exceeding 80 percent in every region of the country, including places like the Western U.S. with its wide open spaces.

In many ways, support for public transportation is a sleeping giant for political candidates seeking policy platforms that can help poor people, the climate, and those desiring economic revitalization. Collecting such opinions and dialoguing about them is something that political candidates in local and national races should do regularly. Otherwise, it’s easy for candidates to buy into the false narrative that public transportation is unpopular. The long-term trajectory of increased mass transit ridership is shockingly consistent and remains very different from what those opposed to transit funding want us to think. Recent decades have shown massive increases in ridership over time, outpacing growth in the number of miles logged by personal vehicles on the nation’s highways. 

This is the kind of information that can be gleaned from, or shared with, voters and campaign supporters using tools like data append services. Candidates can easily reach people who are among the increasing numbers of working class folks who rely on public transportation to get to work. Just as easily, they can reach those concerned with meeting their daily and long-term expenses and who see the advantage of ditching their cars in favor of buses and trains.  

Of course, voters are also concerned about the environment. What about the considerable carbon emissions that might come from building more railways and trains? After all, the climate crisis hurts poor people the most. But Raiser also points out that biting the bullet on train development now means potentially large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the future. Mass transit is one of the best ways to meet people’s needs and achieve massive carbon reductions at the same time.