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Another CASE award

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Good news: just learned that my cryonics piece for California magazine last year won a CASE award.

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Into the Deep Freeze

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My piece for California magazine on both the origins and future of the cryonics movement. This was a fun one.

Before launching the first cryonaut, they had sandwiches and coffee.

It was a Thursday afternoon in January 1967, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The ad hoc medical team—a physician, a chemist, and Bob Nelson, a voluble TV repairman and president of the newly minted Cryonics Society of California—huddled around the dead man’s bedside … All of them, living and dead, were about to make history. …

Four hours later the task was completed: They had frozen the first man.

At a triumphal news conference a few days later, Nelson, the TV repairman, explained the purpose of the professor’s “cryopreservation.” Bedford, he told the assembled reporters, “will be kept frozen indefinitely until such time as medical science may be able to cure cancer, any freezing damage that may have occurred, and perhaps old age as well.”

 

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An Asteroid Wiped Out the Dinosaurs—Will We Be Next?

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The new issue of California magazine has an apocalyptic theme: “This is the End.” I chose to write about planet-killing asteroids:

… at some point, an asteroid measured better in miles than feet will come for us all. According to a 1994 study published in the scientific journal Nature, we stand a 1-in-40,000 chance of dying in a “cosmic impact.” That’s more likely than perishing in a tornado, and less likely than in an airplane crash. At least in theory, the world possesses the technology to both detect and counter this threat. But as things stand right now, the next big impact might play out much as Chelyabinsk did: a short, sharp, and entirely unexpected shock—only with casualties in the millions or even billions.

Franck Marchis, a former UC Berkeley astronomer who is now a principal investigator at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, says “It won’t happen tomorrow. But it will happen. It’s a matter of time.”

(Illustration by Andrew Archer.)

 

 

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Wonk Stuff

I’ve got a couple of small pieces in the current issues of California and San Francisco magazines. One is on climate change, the other on health care. Wonky? Sure. But contentiously wonky.

The first, a short profile (.pdf) of former SF environment department director Jared Blumenfeld (who decamped to the EPA last month), is about climate change policy:

While most leaders who confront the climate crisis choose to accentuate the positive aspects of global warming–the “win-win” business opportunities, all the new green jobs and game-changing technologies on the horizon–Blumenfeld spikes the cheerleading with straight talk. He called carbon offsets a “con” when many environmentalists were hyping them as an environmental cure-all, and he is equally dismissive of the magical thinking at the heart of many green-jobs programs. And despite the strides we’ve made in greening our lives, he says, there’s almost no way we’ll be able to change course before the cataclysm hits.

(I went biking with Blumenfeld last year, too. That piece is here.)

The second is a review of Thomas Goetz’ new book, The Decision Tree, which posits a brighter future for our health care–not through legislative reform but through technology. Color me unconvinced.

Given the circuslike debate on Capitol Hill, you might have abandoned all hope of seeing our dysfunctional healthcare system improved. Thomas Goetz hasn’t. The executive editor of Wired (he also has a master’s in public health from UC Berke­ley) posits a hopeful future, one that combines “the lessons of technology and the rigor of public health” to person­alize and improve our health­care: Online tracking software and social networking will help us take advantage of an ever expanding stream of health data, DNA testing will offer snapshots of our genetic pre­dis­positions, and doctors will be able to detect disease before it strikes–or at least manage it better once it does. Goetz lays out the benefits of this more engaged approach in clear, commonsensical prose. But many of his fixes depend on Herculean efforts by tech-savvy patients, and it’s hard to see how they translate to the unwired bulk of our citizenry. Moreover, he barely mentions the pernicious “fee for service” model that rewards doctors not for fostering good health but for ordering expensive tests and procedures–a widespread practice that stands in the way of many of his preventive-care prescriptions. “Change is hard,” Goetz notes. That’s an understatement. While laudable, the sol­­utions he offers here feel less like revolutions than like workarounds.

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Ironing Out the Carbon Crisis

This month’s San Francisco magazine runs my small contribution to the debate over geoengineering. Despite the complicated name, geoengineering is at bottom a simple idea: it attempts to right our climate wrongs not by cutting carbon emissions but by manipulating the earth’s atmosphere via technological fixes. Long a favorite of green-hating rightwingers who didn’t want to modify their lifestyles, the field has edged into the mainstream as it’s become increasingly clear that the world isn’t likely to change its carbon-heavy ways anytime soon (witness the squabbling in Copenhagen). Researchers have proposed a welter of different approaches, ranging from the merely implausible-sounding (planting farmland with carbon-sucking minerals) to the downright Strangeloveian (launching fleets of tiny mirrors into space to block solar rays).

I write about a San Francisco startup, Climos, that wants to seed the Southern Ocean with iron, which is supposed to help pull carbon from the air. There’s plenty of promise, but the questions are legion. A few of them: Can it work? Is it safe? And even if we can cut carbon by messing with the atmosphere, should we? After all, messing with the atmosphere is how we got into this situation in the first place. As you’ll see in the piece, though, it seems worth trying to me. And as the years pass without any real global emissions cuts, geoengineering’s appeal is only likely to grow.

“You never want to be a company that succeeds because things are going terribly,” Dan Whaley says of his South Park startup’s apocalypse-ready product. “But here we are.” Whaley’s company, Climos, is peddling an idea that is elegantly simple in its outline, fiendishly complex in its details, and, at least at first blush, batshit crazy: It aims to fight global warming by seeding the ocean with iron.

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DNA’s identity crisis

Everybody knows that DNA doesn’t lie, right? That’s what CSI has taught us: Just “follow the evidence,” as Gus Grissom says, and you’ll find your perp. Well, what if the statistics we use to convict suspects (those one-in-a-million odds we hear in the courtroom) are off by orders of magnitude? What if some DNA “matches” are nowhere near as airtight as we’ve come to believe? Bicka Barlow, a San Francisco defense attorney, is asking just these questions–and the government is stonewalling her. I explore these questions in “DNA’s Identity Crisis,” a story that took me months to report and write, in the latest issue of San Francisco magazine.

Plus: “Anatomy of a DNA Match: Why finding a criminal through DNA testing is a much dicier process than you’d think.”

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