Toby Ord’s Posts

Don’t be Evil — and prove it.

A new angle has recently come to light regarding the unrest in Iran: well known western companies provided the technology the government are using to eavesdrop on its citizens. The Washington Times and Wall Street Journal have reported on the fact that Nokia and Siemens have sold special equipment to Iran's state-owned telecommunications company, which can be used to tap phones, read email messages and observe who is accessing which internet sites. This is not the first such case. In 2006, Amnesty International drew attention to the assistance Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google had given to Chinese authorities in their attempts to suppress free speech on the internet in China. Finally, the networking giant, Cisco, has been a key player in setting up the hardware that China uses to block foreign websites with its 'Great Firewall'.

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A ‘bonkers waste of money’?

The University of Oxford and the British government have come under fire for spending £300,000 on a study showing that 'ducks like water' (see e.g. The Guardian). The Taxpayer's Alliance has issued a statement pillorying this 'bonkers waste of money', and on surface it sounds like they're right. However, when you look deeper it becomes apparent that the type of research which was performed may well be of great value.

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Euthanasia and Perverse Incentives

Debbie Purdy is a British woman suffering from multiple sclerosis. Worried about her degenerating condition, she has planned to end her life at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas, which practices euthanasia for people with crippling medical conditions. The story entered the media when she challenged the British High Court to specify whether or not they would prosecute her husband if he went with her to Switzerland. Yesterday the High Court ruled that they would not provide any special advice about the likelihood of prosecution.

A key feature of this case is that the current law is creating a perverse incentive. Debbie Purdy has said that she is not prepared to risk the prosecution of her husband and thus in the absence of an advisory indicating he would not be prosecuted, she would travel to Dignitas by herself. However, since her condition is debilitating, she would have to undergo the travel and euthanasia at an earlier stage of the illness if she was to do it all by herself. The law would thus make things worse for her, as she would die while her life was still bearable and furthermore, she would die away from her husband. It would also be worse from the British Government’s point of view as presumably if they see euthanasia as bad, then premature euthanasia would be worse.

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Geo-engineering: an essential part of our toolkit

The current issue of the Royal Society’s journal (Philosophical Transactions) is devoted to geo-engineering. That is, very large scale engineering projects aimed at combatting global warming. For example, one proposal is to release sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere in order to increase the reflectivity of the earth and thus lower the earth’s temperature enough to offset global warming. Another proposal is to increase the reflectivity by producing more cloud over the ocean. This could be achieved with a large fleet of wind powered yachts, blowing a fine mist of salt spray into the air and thus seeding cloud formation. Such proposals offer a serious hope for avoiding most of the damage from significant climate change, and yet they are often rejected by environmentalists (for example see yesterday’s article in the Guardian by Greenpeace’s chief scientist). However, there is a strong case that these environmentalists are mistaken and should be encouraging this research.

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The truth about saving water

The last few years have seen some very bad droughts. In the UK, the drought of 2004-2006 was severe enough to nearly require the shutting down of domestic water in London and the fetching of water from public wells (called standpipes). Australia has been suffering from its own decade long drought with devastating consequences. As a result, water-awareness in both countries has been rising. People are at least dimly aware of ideas for saving water, such as turning off the tap while brushing one’s teeth. In Australia there was even a government sponsored advertisement recommending taking showers with someone else. However, as a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund shows, even if we stop showering altogether, we will still be using an unsustainable amount of fresh water.

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Are falling house prices good or bad?

House prices have been falling quickly in both the US and, more recently, the UK. Newspaper reports tend to use negative language to refer to this fall. For example, todays edition of The Independent says:

Today’s gloomy data, which is worse than economists had forecast, …

However, it is not at all obvious that low house prices are a bad thing.

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The world’s failure to fulfill its goals

The Guardian reports that the world is not on track for meeting the UN Millennium Development Goal to halt and reverse the increase in Malaria by 2015. While the funding for malaria prevention has increased up to $1 bn per annum, this is not enough to meet the declared goal. Indeed, while the figure sounds high, it is only $1 per person at risk or 0.002% of world GDP, which is not much for one of the UN’s major poverty reduction targets. Scientists at the Kenya Medical Research Institute estimate that 50% to 450% more funding is required to make the target. Sadly this situation with the malaria target is not unusual: the current estimates are that we will fail to meet every single one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

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Helping others to save the rainforest

The Congo basin rainforest is a natural resource of staggering scale, second only to the amazon in size. It stretches across six countries in the centre of Africa and provides shelter, food, income and fuel for millions of local people. However, like most of the world’s remaining forests, it is being destroyed at an unsustainable rate. Like all the world’s major rainforests, it lies in developing countries which are desperate for any small income it can provide. This adds to the sense of tragedy: these great resources are being destroyed for what is a relative pittance to conservationists in the rich countries. Happily, this tragic element is starting to be turned around and may give us our best chance at preserving the forest.

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Betting on bad health (with inside information)

Personal DNA testing is here. For $1,000 you can send off a DNA sample to an american company and find out your genetic predispositions to a wide variety of illnesses and problems, from male pattern baldness to cancer. The Telegraph is running a story by a woman who has just ordered such a test and has seen her predispositions. The story makes many of the issues quite vivid and shows how one can use the bad news in such tests, say a predisposition to a certain illness, to make special efforts to guard against that illness, or at the very least to be ready for the effect it might have on your life. There is, however, a problem with these cheap, voluntary tests. It is not a problem for the individual taking them, but a problem for society.

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The new asbestos?

Carbon nanotubes are tiny man-made fibers with an incredibly high tensile strength. They are one of the most promising nanotechnological developments with many potential applications in electronics, medicine and futuristic materials. However, a new study by a group of scientists from the US and the UK suggests that carbon nanotubes may cause health problems similar to those of asbestos. The problem comes from their similar shapes: both nanotubes and asbestos consist of hard microscopic fibers that can cause significant damage to the lining of the lungs. The study involved exposing mice to nanotubes and found that nanotubes of a certain size caused asbestos-like inflammations and lesions.

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