Maybe Not the Most “Up” News Roundup Ever | Vol. 4 / No. 5

Normally I try to stick to more positive news stories, but it’s a mixed bag of truth and tragedy this week, with a climate satellite launch contract that may never happen, lip-reading AI, and the death of a much-loved actor. It’s the weekly roundup for Sunday, November 27.

 

Sea ice | Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, CC BY 2.0
Sea ice | Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, CC BY 2.0

SpaceX, NASA, and Global Warming

SpaceX has landed a really good contract to deliver NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography vehicle (SWOT) in 2021. The deal is for $112 million and it signals a lot of confidence in the still-new (and currently grounded) spaceflight company. That’s the good news. The bad news is that that money, as far as I can tell, would have to come from NASA’s Earth sciences budget, which — because of the intense climate change denialism in the Trump-led Republican party — looks to be eliminated. Not shrunk, reoriented, or refocused: Trump and his fundamentalist cronies want to stop NASA from studying Earth’s changing climate at all. As Phil Plait has said, “if this slashing of NASA Earth science comes to pass, it will be a disaster for humanity. This is no exaggeration: NASA is the leading agency in studying the effects of global warming on the planet, in measuring the changes in our atmosphere, our oceans, the weather, and yes, the climate as temperatures increase. They have a fleet of spacecraft observing the Earth, and plans for more to better understand our environment. That’s all on the chopping block now.” Apparently they’re cutting it because studying climate change is “politicized science,” which is true — because the Republican party has spent decades politicizing it. But hey, whatever, it’s not like it’s winter in the Arctic and the sea ice is still melting or anything. Oh wait. So anyway, congrats to SpaceX, but we’ll see if it actually happens.

 

Photo: DominÖ, CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo: DominÖ, CC BY-SA 2.0

Read My Lips

Google has announced that a team of Oxford scientists and engineers have used its DeepMind AI to create a program that can lip-read a hell of a lot better than well-trained humans can, after having it watch over 5000 hours of BBC programming like Breakfast, Newsnight, World Today, and Question Time. While the accuracy is still only 46.8% for individual words, the Verge reports that by comparison trained human lip-readers could only get it right 12.4% of the time (remember this is without context, which usually helps human lip readers greatly). The software isn’t likely to replace closed-captioning software, which transcribes based on sound (and at much higher accuracy rates), but it could perhaps be used to augment such software in the future, or could be used to try to caption video for which the audio has been lost or never recorded. Or, of course, it could be used by intelligence agencies to spy on your conversations. Time to close the blinds if you want to have a private conversation, I suppose. The study, “Lip Reading Sentences in the Wild,” is published over at arXiv.org.

 

Nathan Fillion and Ron Glass in 2006 | Photo: Raven Underwood, CC BY 2.0
Nathan Fillion and Ron Glass in 2006 | Photo: Raven Underwood, CC BY 2.0

The Worthier Part

Photo: Raven Underwood, CC BY 2.0
Photo: Raven Underwood, CC BY 2.0

The actor Ron Glass passed away on Friday at age 71, gutting a community of science fiction lovers who spent endless hours watching and re-watching as he played the earnest and humble Shepherd Derrial Book aboard the Serenity. While he was famous for many other roles — a detective in Barney Miller (1975-1982), one half of the 1980s Odd Couple reboot that cast black actors in the starring roles — for fans of Firefly he’ll always be the man of the cloth with the mysterious past who fell in with the wrong crowd, or, more likely, the right one. It’s an odd kind of immortality to achieve, being remembered by millions as a character you played, but it’s no less important for that. Glass was, I’m told, a Buddhist. I hope he gets a good stint somewhere in the next life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ICYMI

In case you weren’t following along from home, this is what we got up to here in this slightly irregular week:

If you missed any of them, go on and check them out. I’ll wait here.

 

Best of the Rest

It was a fairly quiet week, if you don’t count the dumpster fire that is the incoming US government’s denial of basic scientific facts like global warming and evolution. Here’s your weekly linkspam.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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