Adonis Diaries

Archive for the ‘Safety’ Category

Black Friday Death Count

Tally of all the unfortunate deaths and injuries that have ruined the holidays for Black Friday shoppers.
 Violent shootings, pepper-spray accidents and shocking tramplings
7 deaths/88 injuries

Know Your Death Count: The New York Daily News has recently republished an article from 2008 leading many to believe it happened this year.

Deaths Injuries
2013                 Shopper Pepper Sprayed, Arrested in Argument Over TV at New Jersey Walmart 1
2013                 Thanksgiving Day bargain shoppers send 11 year-old to hospital 2
2013                 Teen returning home from Black Friday shopping fell asleep at wheel, killed in wreck 1 4
2013                 Man Stabbed During Black Friday Event at Carlsbad Mall 1
2013                 Newport, Arkansas Walmart employee injured during Black Friday sales 1
2013                 Scenes of chaos during chain store’s Black Friday sales in Ireland 1
2013                 Several injured in Black Friday-related shooting outside Kohl’s in Illinois 2
2013                 Black Friday: Virginia Man Stabbed In Walmart Parking Lot Over Space 1
2013                 Rialto Walmart brawl sends one police officer to hospital 1
2013                 Shopper carrying TV home from Target shot in Las Vegas 1
2012                 Father charged in crash that killed daughters after Black Friday shopping 2 5
2012                 Two People Shot at Tallahassee Walmart Over Parking Space 2
2012                 Black Friday Shoppers Hit By Suspected Drunk Driver In Walmart Parking Lot 2
2011                 Black Friday Worker Rescued From Canal After Losing Control Of Car Due To Exhaustion 1
2011                 Black Friday: Target Shoppers Step Over Walter Vance As He Collapses, Dies 1
2011                 Fights break out at Rome Walmart during Black Friday shopping 2
2011                 Woman Wounded in S.C. Black Friday Robbery Attempt 1
2011                 Off-duty police pepper spray NC shoppers 20
2011                 Shooting outside Calif. Walmart, 1 wounded 1
2011                 Black Friday pepper-spray attack at Walmart injures 20 20
2010                 Former Marine stabbed in Best Buy store by violent customer 1
2009                 Clarksville Woman Trampled During Black Friday Shopping 1
2008                 SoCal Toys ‘R’ Us Shooting Leaves Two Dead 2 2
2008                 Worker dies at Long Island Wal-Mart after being trampled in Black Friday stampede 1 4
2006                 10 Injured in SoCal Black Friday Mall Stampede 10
2006                 Salt Lake Tribune, The : Red-hot on Black Friday‎ 1

Can we Not lose control over Artificial Intelligence?

Scared of super-intelligent AI? You should be, says neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris — and not just in some theoretical way.

We’re going to build superhuman machines, says Harris, but we haven’t yet grappled with the problems associated with creating something that may treat us the way we treat ants

Sam Harris. Neuroscientist, philosopher. Full bio

I’m going to talk about a failure of intuition that many of us suffer from. It’s really a failure to detect a certain kind of danger.

I’m going to describe a scenario that I think is both terrifying and likely to occur, and that’s not a good combination, as it turns out. And yet rather than be scared, most of you will feel that what I’m talking about is kind of cool.

0:36 I’m going to describe how the gains we make in artificial intelligence could ultimately destroy us. And in fact, I think it’s very difficult to see how they won’t destroy us or inspire us to destroy ourselves.

And yet if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that it’s fun to think about these things. That response is part of the problem. OK?

That response should worry you. And if I were to convince you in this talk that we were likely to suffer a global famine, either because of climate change or some other catastrophe, and that your grandchildren, or their grandchildren, are very likely to live like this, you wouldn’t think, “Interesting. I like this TED Talk.”

Famine isn’t fun. Death by science fiction, on the other hand, is fun, and one of the things that worries me most about the development of AI at this point is that we seem unable to marshal an appropriate emotional response to the dangers that lie ahead.

I am unable to marshal this response, and I’m giving this talk.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.|By Sam Harris
It’s as though we stand before two doors. Behind door number one, we stop making progress in building intelligent machines. Our computer hardware and software just stops getting better for some reason.
Now take a moment to consider why this might happen. I mean, given how valuable intelligence and automation are, we will continue to improve our technology if we are at all able to.
What could stop us from doing this? A full-scale nuclear war? A global pandemic? An asteroid impact? Justin Bieber becoming president of the United States?

The point is, something would have to destroy civilization as we know it. You have to imagine how bad it would have to be to prevent us from making improvements in our technology permanently, generation after generation.

Almost by definition, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened in human history.

the only alternative, and this is what lies behind door number two, is that we continue to improve our intelligent machines year after year after year. At a certain point, we will build machines that are smarter than we are, and once we have machines that are smarter than we are, they will begin to improve themselves.

And we risk what the mathematician IJ Good called an “intelligence explosion,” that the process could get away from us.

this is often caricatured, as I have here, as a fear that armies of malicious robots will attack us. But that isn’t the most likely scenario.

It’s not that our machines will become spontaneously malevolent. The concern is really that we will build machines that are so much more competent than we are that the slightest divergence between their goals and our own could destroy us.

Just think about how we relate to ants. We don’t hate them. We don’t go out of our way to harm them. In fact, sometimes we take pains not to harm them. We step over them on the sidewalk.

But whenever their presence seriously conflicts with one of our goals, let’s say when constructing a building like this one, we annihilate them without a qualm. The concern is that we will one day build machines that, whether they’re conscious or not, could treat us with similar disregard.

I suspect this seems far-fetched to many of you. I bet there are those of you who doubt that superintelligent AI is possible, much less inevitable. But then you must find something wrong with one of the following assumptions. And there are only three of them.

Intelligence is a matter of information processing in physical systems. Actually, this is a little bit more than an assumption. We have already built narrow intelligence into our machines, and many of these machines perform at a level of superhuman intelligence already.

And we know that mere matter can give rise to what is called “general intelligence,” an ability to think flexibly across multiple domains, because our brains have managed it. Right?

I mean, there’s just atoms in here, and as long as we continue to build systems of atoms that display more and more intelligent behavior, we will eventually, unless we are interrupted, we will eventually build general intelligence into our machines.

It’s crucial to realize that the rate of progress doesn’t matter, because any progress is enough to get us into the end zone. We don’t need Moore’s law to continue. We don’t need exponential progress. We just need to keep going.

The second assumption is that we will keep going. We will continue to improve our intelligent machines. And given the value of intelligence — I mean, intelligence is either the source of everything we value or we need it to safeguard everything we value.

It is our most valuable resource. So we want to do this. We have problems that we desperately need to solve. We want to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.

We want to understand economic systems. We want to improve our climate science.

So we will do this, if we can. The train is already out of the station, and there’s no brake to pull.

Finally, we don’t stand on a peak of intelligence, or anywhere near it, likely. And this really is the crucial insight. This is what makes our situation so precarious, and this is what makes our intuitions about risk so unreliable.

just consider the smartest person who has ever lived. On almost everyone’s shortlist here is John von Neumann.

I mean, the impression that von Neumann made on the people around him, and this included the greatest mathematicians and physicists of his time, is fairly well-documented. If only half the stories about him are half true, there’s no question he’s one of the smartest people who has ever lived.

So consider the spectrum of intelligence. Here we have John von Neumann. And then we have you and me. And then we have a chicken.

There’s no reason for me to make this talk more depressing than it needs to be.

It seems overwhelmingly likely, however, that the spectrum of intelligence extends much further than we currently conceive, and if we build machines that are more intelligent than we are, they will very likely explore this spectrum in ways that we can’t imagine, and exceed us in ways that we can’t imagine.

And it’s important to recognize that this is true by virtue of speed alone. Right?

So imagine if we just built a superintelligent AI that was no smarter than your average team of researchers at Stanford or MIT.

Well, electronic circuits function about a million times faster than biochemical ones, so this machine should think about a million times faster than the minds that built it.

you set it running for a week, and it will perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work, week after week after week. How could we even understand, much less constrain, a mind making this sort of progress?

The other thing that’s worrying, frankly, is that, imagine the best case scenario. So imagine we hit upon a design of superintelligent AI that has no safety concerns. We have the perfect design the first time around.

It’s as though we’ve been handed an oracle that behaves exactly as intended. Well, this machine would be the perfect labor-saving device. It can design the machine that can build the machine that can do any physical work, powered by sunlight, more or less for the cost of raw materials. So we’re talking about the end of human drudgery. We’re also talking about the end of most intellectual work.

what would apes like ourselves do in this circumstance? Well, we’d be free to play Frisbee and give each other massages. Add some LSD and some questionable wardrobe choices, and the whole world could be like Burning Man.

 that might sound pretty good, but ask yourself what would happen under our current economic and political order?

It seems likely that we would witness a level of wealth inequality and unemployment that we have never seen before. Absent a willingness to immediately put this new wealth to the service of all humanity, a few trillionaires could grace the covers of our business magazines while the rest of the world would be free to starve.

And what would the Russians or the Chinese do if they heard that some company in Silicon Valley was about to deploy a superintelligent AI? This machine would be capable of waging war, whether terrestrial or cyber, with unprecedented power.

This is a winner-take-all scenario. To be six months ahead of the competition here is to be 500,000 years ahead, at a minimum. So it seems that even mere rumors of this kind of breakthrough could cause our species to go berserk.

one of the most frightening things, in my view, at this moment, are the kinds of things that AI researchers say when they want to be reassuring. And the most common reason we’re told not to worry is time.

This is all a long way off, don’t you know. This is probably 50 or 100 years away. One researcher has said, “Worrying about AI safety is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars.” This is the Silicon Valley version of “don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

No one seems to notice that referencing the time horizon is a total non sequitur. If intelligence is just a matter of information processing, and we continue to improve our machines, we will produce some form of superintelligence.

And we have no idea how long it will take us to create the conditions to do that safely. Let me say that again. We have no idea how long it will take us to create the conditions to do that safely.

 if you haven’t noticed, 50 years is not what it used to be. This is 50 years in months. This is how long we’ve had the iPhone. This is how long “The Simpsons” has been on television. Fifty years is not that much time to meet one of the greatest challenges our species will ever face.

Once again, we seem to be failing to have an appropriate emotional response to what we have every reason to believe is coming.

The computer scientist Stuart Russell has a nice analogy here. He said, imagine that we received a message from an alien civilization, which read: “People of Earth, we will arrive on your planet in 50 years. Get ready.” And now we’re just counting down the months until the mothership lands? We would feel a little more urgency than we do.

Another reason we’re told not to worry is that these machines can’t help but share our values because they will be literally extensions of ourselves.

They’ll be grafted onto our brains, and we’ll essentially become their limbic systems. Now take a moment to consider that the safest and only prudent path forward, recommended, is to implant this technology directly into our brains.

this may in fact be the safest and only prudent path forward, but usually one’s safety concerns about a technology have to be pretty much worked out before you stick it inside your head.

The deeper problem is that building superintelligent AI on its own seems likely to be easier than building superintelligent AI and having the completed neuroscience that allows us to seamlessly integrate our minds with it.

And given that the companies and governments doing this work are likely to perceive themselves as being in a race against all others, given that to win this race is to win the world, provided you don’t destroy it in the next moment, then it seems likely that whatever is easier to do will get done first.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, apart from recommending that more of us think about it. I think we need something like a Manhattan Project on the topic of artificial intelligence.

Not to build it, because I think we’ll inevitably do that, but to understand how to avoid an arms race and to build it in a way that is aligned with our interests. When you’re talking about superintelligent AI that can make changes to itself, it seems that we only have one chance to get the initial conditions right, and even then we will need to absorb the economic and political consequences of getting them right.

13:44 But the moment we admit that information processing is the source of intelligence, that some appropriate computational system is what the basis of intelligence is, and we admit that we will improve these systems continuously, and we admit that the horizon of cognition very likely far exceeds what we currently know, then we have to admit that we are in the process of building some sort of a God. Now would be a good time to make sure it’s a god we can live with.

State of Emergency declared by Palestinian Red Crescent:

14 ambulances targeted by Israeli force

77 Palestinian youth fell by live bullet in a single day of demonstrations

Scores detained on administrative charges

PRCS Declares a State of Emergency following the escalation of the attacks against Palestinians and its ambulances in the Past 72 hours

(Al-Bireh-4/10/2015): PRCS declared a level 3 state of emergency in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in response to developments on the ground and increased attacks by occupation forces and settlers.

PRCS also activated its central Operations Room at its HQ in Al-Bireh, with all PRCS’ staff, teams and volunteers put on standby.

PRCS announced that fourteen attacks were carried out against its staff and vehicles by occupation forces and settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the past 72 hours, in a serious escalation of violations against PRCS, its teams and the humanitarian services they render.

Tanya Habjouqa shared this link

Amid a worrying escalation of violence in the West Bank, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society has declared a ‘State of Emergency’ following attacks against Palestinians and its ambulances over the past 3 days.|By Palestine Red Crescent Society

On Sunday the 4th of October, Israeli occupation soldiers attacked a PRCS’ ambulance in the line of duty in front of Al Quds University in Abou Diss, firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades at it. (Palestinian university students are shared the uprising, possibly a third Intifada)

On the 2nd of October, occupation soldiers attacked an ambulance in Al Eissawiyeh to the North of Jerusalem.

They then proceeded to arrest an injured Palestinian from inside the ambulance.

In Boureen (Nablus Governorate), settlers prevented a PRCS’ ambulance from discharging its humanitarian duty and smashed its windshield.

The next day, 5 PRCS’ paramedics were beaten up by soldiers in Jerusalem.

That same day, another group of soldiers attacked with their batons another PRCS’ ambulance in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Also on the same day, occupation soldiers severely beat another ambulance crew in Jabal Al Taweel (Al-Bireh), wounding two paramedics.

They then kidnapped an injured Palestinian from inside the ambulance, firing tear gas grenades and rubber bullets at it.

PRCS underlines that these practices constitute a blatant violation of key IHL provisions, mainly the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 on the protection of civilians in time of war, which legally applies to the oPt.

This Convention affords protection to the personnel engaged in the search for, removal and transporting of and caring for wounded and sick civilians.

It also calls for the respect of human life and dignity in times of military occupation. In particular, such practices constitute a crying violation of article 63 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that recognized National Red Cross (Red Crescent, Red Lion and Sun) Societies shall be allowed to pursue their activities.

PRCS urges the International Community, represented by the UN General Assembly and Security Council, to shoulder their responsibilities by taking the necessary steps to make Israeli occupation authorities comply with IHL provisions, and to put an end to the targeting of civilians and their properties.

It calls on these parties to compel Israel to respect IHL provisions regarding the respect of medical and PRCS’ emblems, and recalls that the occupying power is obliged to protect emergency, medical and relief personnel and to facilitate their safe access to the sick and wounded. End.

Note: 77 Palestinians injured by live, rubber bullets in 24 hours: Red Crescent
The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) says nearly 80 Palestinians have been injured from live rounds and rubber bullets in clashes with Israeli forces and illegal settlers in the past 24 hours.


Caution: Artificial Intelligence is a Frankenstein

In the late 1980’s, Artificial Intelligence programs relied on practicing experts in practical fields in order to extract the “How to, and how to go about when a problem hits the system” using a series of questions: “What if“. These programs were designed to foresee going many experts into retirement  and the need to train new comers with the least cost and hire the minimum numbers of new employees.

Artificial Intelligence has progress and branched into many fields and this time around it is the professionals in labs who are designing the sophisticated software.

An open letter calling for caution to ensure intelligent machines do not run beyond our control has been signed by a large and growing number of people, including some of the leading figures in artificial intelligence.

“There is now a broad consensus that (AI) research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase,” the letter said.

“The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of ; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable,” it added.

“Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

How to handle the prospect of automatic weapons that might kill indiscriminately, the liabilities of automatically driven cars and the prospect of losing control of AI systems so that they no longer align with human wishes, were among the concerns raised in the letter that signees said deserve further research

Scientists urge artificial intelligence safety focus

Jan 12, 2015

Roboy, a humanoid robot developed at the University of Zurich,at the 2014 CeBIT technology trade fair on March 9, 2014 in Hanove
Roboy, a humanoid robot developed at the University of Zurich,at the 2014 CeBIT technology trade fair on March 9, 2014 in Hanover, Germany

Scientists and Engineers Warn Of The Dangers Of Artificial Intelligence

January 13, 2015 | by Stephen Luntz

Fears of our creations turning on us stretch back at least as far as Frankenstein, and films such as The Terminator gave us a whole new language to discuss what would happen when robots stopped taking orders.

However, as computers beat (most of) us at Jeopardy and self-driving cars appear on our roads, we may be getting closer to the point where we will have to tackle these issues.

In December, Stephen Hawking kicked off a renewed debate on the topic.

As someone whose capacity to communicate depends on advanced computer technology, Hawking can hardly be dismissed as a Luddite, and his thoughts tend to attract attention.

The letter was initiated by the Future of Life Institute, a volunteer organization that describes itself as “working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.” The letter notes:

“As capabilities in these areas and others cross the threshold from laboratory research to economically valuable technologies, a virtuous cycle takes hold whereby even small improvements in performance are worth large sums of money, prompting greater investments in research.

There is now a broad consensus that AI research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase. The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable.

Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

The authors add that “our AI systems must do what we want them to do,” and have set out research priorities they believe will help “maximize the societal benefit of AI.”

Anyone can sign, and at the time of this writing well over a thousand people have done so. While many did not indicate an affiliation, names such as Elon Musk and Hawking himself are easily recognized.

Many of the other names on the list are leading researchers in IT or philosophy, including the IBM team behind the Watson supercomputer.

So much intellectual and financial heft may make their prospects good for conducting research in the areas proposed. Musk has said he invests in companies researching AI in order to keep an eye on them.

Musk worries that even if most researchers behave responsibly, in the absence of international regulation, a single rogue nation or corporation could produce self-replicating machines whose priorities might be very different to humanity’s, and once industries become established they become resistant to control.


Female socialist activist is gunned down by police during demonstrations on fourth anniversary of Arab Spring that ousted Hosni Mubarak

So far, 20 Egyptians died in this long day of demonstrations throughout Egypt.

Egyptian Arab Spring is still bringing its toll of brutal military dictatorship.

  • Shaima al-Sabbagh died of birdshot wounds in clashes with police
  • Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab vowed to ‘punish’ whoever is responsible 
  • Al-Sabbagh’s death follows that of an 18-year-old protester on Friday 

A female demonstrator was killed in clashes with Egyptian police during a protest in central Cairo today on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

A health ministry spokesman said Shaima al-Sabbagh died of birdshot wounds, which fellow protesters said were fired by police to disperse the march.

Al-Sabbagh, who was said to be 34-years-old with a five-year-old son, was shot while she peacefully marched towards the Tahrir Square to lay a commemorative wreath of roses.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said al-Sabbagh’s death was being investigated and vowed that ‘whoever committed a mistake will be punished, whoever he may be.’

Socialist Popular Alliance Party activist Shaima al-Sabbagh (middle) was shot and died of birdshot wounds during clashes with Egyptian police during a protest in central Cairo today on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak

Al-Sabbagh can be seen, right, hitting the ground as a fellow protester comes to her aide during the clashes

Al-Sabbagh can be seen, right, hitting the ground as a fellow protester comes to her aide during the clashes

Fellow protesters said Al-Sabbagh was shot by police trying to disperse those involved in the protest march

Fellow protesters said Al-Sabbagh was shot by police trying to disperse those involved in the protest march

Al-Sabbagh, a member of the party, was hit in the head with birdshot, and was taken to a hospital where she was declared dead.

The interior ministry said it was investigating the death, and suggested Islamist ‘infiltrators’ were to blame.

The clash took place hours before state television aired a pre-recorded speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to mark the fourth anniversary of the uprising.

He said: ‘I salute all our martyrs, from the beginning of January 25 (2011) until now.’

The speech appears to have been taped in the presidential palace before Sisi left for Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences over the death of King Abdullah. 

Islamists called for protests tomorrow to revive what they say was the ‘revolution’ that overthrew Mubarak. It also briefly brought to power Islamist president Mohamed Morsi who was toppled by the then army chief Sisi in July 2013.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said al-Sabbagh's death was being investigated and vowed that 'whoever committed a mistake will be punished, whoever he may be'

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said al-Sabbagh’s death was being investigated and vowed that ‘whoever committed a mistake will be punished, whoever he may be’

Morsi’s supporters often hold small rallies that police quickly disperse.

Yesterday an 18-year-old female protester was killed in clashes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Police had warned they would confront protests ‘decisively.’

Authorities have cracked down on the Islamists since the military overthrew Morsi after a year in power, and hundreds have been killed in clashes.

Scores of policemen and soldiers have also been killed in militant attacks.

The crackdown has also extended to leftwing and secular dissidents who initially supported Morsi’s overthrow but have since turned against the new authorities, accusing them of being authoritarian.

Today’s central Cairo protest was organised by the Socialist Popular Alliance party.

Egyptian policemen detain a supporter of the People's Alliance Party during a demonstration in Cairo's Talaat Harb square, near Tahrir square

Egyptian policemen detain a supporter of the People’s Alliance Party during a demonstration in Cairo’s Talaat Harb square, near Tahrir square

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood movement leave as security forces arrive to disperse a demonstration on January 24, 2015 in the Cairo district of Heliopolis
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Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood movement leave as security forces arrive to disperse a demonstration on January 24, 2015 in the Cairo district of Heliopolis

Party member Adel el-Meligy said: ‘The party decided to hold a symbolic protest to commemorate the anniversary of the January 25 revolution.’


Bird shot is designed to be used in shotgun shells and consist of spheres of metal, or bb’s, that can be packed into a shell and which separate when fired.

It was originally made from lead, but is now made from steel, tungsten and other materials.

The ammunition was designed for shooting birds but it can injure larger animals.

In 2006 American Vice-President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter with it. His victim was not severely injured.

Birdshot is used by law enforcement as a non-lethal alternative to shot gun pellets and is often used in riot and protest situations.

Police also replace the slugs with rubber bullets. (That should be a better idea)

He said police fired tear gas, birdshot and arrested the party’s secretary general and five other young members.

The 18-day anti-Mubarak revolt had been fuelled by police abuses and the corruption of the strongman’s three decade rule, but the police have since regained popularity amid widespread yearning for stability.

Activists, including those who spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt, have accused Sisi of reviving aspects of the former autocrat’s rule.

Sisi and his supporters deny such allegations, and point to his widespread popularity and support for a firm hand in dealing with protests, which are seen as damaging to an economic recovery.

The anniversary will be marked just days after a court ordered the release of Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, pending a corruption retrial along with their father.

Another court had dismissed charges against Hosni Mubarak over the deaths of protesters.

Archive footage of anti-Mubarak uprising in Egypt

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The Trouble With the Genetically Modified Future

Like many people, are you wondered about the safety of genetically modified organisms?

They’ve become so ubiquitous that they account for about 80% of the corn grown in the U.S., yet we know almost nothing about what damage might ensue if the transplanted genes spread through global ecosystems.

Mark Buchanan

this Nov 16, 2014

How can so many smart people, including many scientists, be so sure that there’s nothing to worry about?

Judging from a new paper by several researchers from New York University, including “The Black Swan” author Nassim Taleb, they can’t and shouldn’t.

The researchers focus on the risk of extremely unlikely but potentially devastating events.

They argue that there’s no easy way to decide whether such risks are worth taking — it all depends on the nature of the worst-case scenario.

Their approach helps explain why some technologies, such as nuclear energy, should give no cause for alarm, while innovations such as GMOs merit extreme caution.

The researchers fully recognize that fear of bad outcomes can lead to paralysis. Any human action, including inaction, entails risk. That said, the downside risks of some actions may be so hard to predict — and so potentially bad — that it is better to be safe than sorry.

The benefits, no matter how great, do not merit even a tiny chance of an irreversible, catastrophic outcome.

For most actions, there are identifiable limits on what can go wrong. Planning can reduce such risks to acceptable levels. When introducing a new medicine, for example, we can monitor the unintended effects and react if too many people fall ill or die.

Taleb and his colleagues argue that nuclear power is a similar case: Awful as the sudden meltdown of a large reactor might be, physics strongly suggests that it is exceedingly unlikely to have global and catastrophic consequences.

Not all risks are so easily defined.

In some cases, as Taleb explained in “The Black Swan,” experience and ordinary risk analysis are inadequate to understand the probability or scale of a devastating outcome.

GMOs are an excellent example. Despite all precautions, genes from modified organisms inevitably invade natural populations, and from there have the potential to spread uncontrollably through the genetic ecosystem.

There is no obvious mechanism to localize the damage.

Biologists still don’t understand how genes interact within a single organism, let alone how genes might spread among organisms in complex ecosystems. Only in the last 20 years have scientists realized how much bacteria rely on the so-called horizontal flow of genes — directly from one bacterium to another, without any reproduction taking place.

This seems to be one of the most effective ways that antibiotic resistance spreads among different species. Similar horizontal exchange might be hugely important for plants and animals. No one yet knows.

In other words, scientists are being irresponsibly short-sighted if they judge the safety of GMOs based on the scattered experience of the past couple decades. It’s akin to how, ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, analysts looked at 20 years of rising house prices and assumed they would always go up.

The honest approach would be to admit that we understand almost nothing about the safety of GMOs, except that whatever happens is pretty likely to spread.

Science is at its best when it acknowledges uncertainty and focuses on defining how much can be known. In the case of GMOs, we know far too little for our own good.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Buchanan at


Arguing with biologists about risk is exactly like arguing with George W. Bush about algebraic geometry.
This is by Mark Buchanan, a physicist.

True Hell: Wearing the Ebola designed suits in hot and humid Africa

Must be the additional Tenth circle of Hell in Dantes.

The suffocating weather, heavy and complicated suit, emotions, fears, desperation… and realization that about 50% of whom we are treating and getting attached to will die.

L’équipement de protection individuel se compose de différents éléments : des bottes, une combinaison, un masque, une cagoule, un tablier, des lunettes et deux paires de gants.

Pour revêtir cette tenue, il faut respecter scrupuleusement la procédure car aucun millimètre de peau ne doit être exposé.

« La chaleur devient vraiment insupportable. Il fait très humide et, vu mon état de fatigue, je ne tiens pas très longtemps dans ma combinaison de protection. La sueur coule sur mes yeux et fait crisser mes gants.

Nous devons nous rendre rapidement dans la zone suivante et placer les corps dans les housses mortuaires avant de nous sentir vraiment mal. »

C’est ce qu’explique Cokie, une spécialiste en eau et assainissement britannique qui travaille dans un centre Ebola de Médecins Sans Frontières.

« Si Dante avait imaginé un dixième cercle de l’Enfer, c’eût été celui-là. »

Cette bataille contre le virus Ebola, ce sont des hommes et des femmes qui la livrent. Car il n’existe toujours pas de médicament pour soigner les malades, aucun vaccin pour protéger les populations à risque.

La seule chose que nous pouvons faire, c’est dispenser des soins de soutien aux patients, pour les aider à gagner le combat contre le virus. C’est un travail extrêmement pénible.

Psychologiquement, c’est très difficile car malgré la meilleure prise en charge possible, la moitié des patients ne survivra pas à la maladie. Physiquement aussi, ce travail est terriblement éprouvant : sous la chaleur tropicale, impossible de supporter plus d’une heure les tenues de protection et aider les patients gravement malades à manger et à boire, les laver et les changer est épuisant.

À ces pressions psychologiques et physiques s’ajoute le risque de contamination. Le 14 octobre 2014, 21 collaborateurs de Médecins Sans Frontières, dont deux membres du personnel international, avaient été eux aussi contaminés par le virus. Seize d’entre eux sont décédés.

Ceux qui sont guéris et peuvent rentrer chez eux sont souvent confrontés à la peur, aux doutes et parfois même à la stigmatisation sociale. Ebola fait peur, même au delà de l’Afrique de l’Ouest.

Je veux montrer aux habitants de l’Afrique de l’Ouest que nous ne les abandonnons pas à leur sort.»Evita,infirmière

Pourtant, Médecins Sans Frontières n’a aucun mal à trouver des candidats prêts à partir travailler dans ses centres Ebola. Plusieurs centaines de MSF travaillent ensemble avec des milliers de collègues nationaux. Malgré les conditions difficiles, tout le monde est très motive.

« J’étais en mission en Afghanistan avec MSF lorsque l’épidémie d’Ebola a éclaté » explique Evita, une infirmière néerlandaise. « On se posait souvent la question entre collègues : “tu irais, toi ?”. Une fois chez moi, je n’ai pas tardé à prendre la décision. De partir. De venir en aide. De montrer aux habitants de l’Afrique de l’Ouest que nous ne les abandonnons pas à leur sort. »

Photo de couverture © Caroline Van Nespen/MSF. Photos © John Moore/Getty Images.


L’équipement de protection individuel se compose de différents éléments : des bottes, une combinaison, un masque, une cagoule, un tablier, des lunettes et deux paires de gants. Pour revêtir cette tenue, il faut respecter scrupuleusement la procédure car aucun millimètre de peau ne doit être exposé.

Il faut donc toujours entrer à deux dans la zone d’habillage, pour pouvoir se contrôler mutuellement. Une fois protégé par cette « armure », il faut travailler vite et bien, car au bout d’une heure, il faut déjà retirer sa tenue, tant le risque de « surchauffe » et de déshydratation est élevé.

Mais travailler vite et efficacement n’a rien d’évident avec cet équipement qui semble ralentir tous vos mouvements, qui vous fait ruisseler de sueur et qui exige beaucoup de concentration, ne serait-ce que pour respirer.

« Au début, on a vraiment du mal à se déplacer, » explique Charlotte, une infirmière française. « On se demande, Bon Dieu, comment arriver à faire son boulot sans fondre en larmes. Il fait une chaleur torride, le soleil brûle. Mais on finit par s’habituer. Les tâches à accomplir prennent le dessus et on finit presque par oublier sa tenue.

Mais après une heure, on est complètement trempé ; dans les bottes, la sueur ruisselle jusqu’aux chevilles et il y a tellement de buée qu’on ne voit pratiquement plus rien à travers les lunettes. À ce moment-là, on sait qu’il est temps de sortir. »

Une telle tenue vous rend méconnaissable. Beaucoup de médecins et d’infirmiers écrivent donc leur nom sur leur combinaison pour que les patients puissent reconnaître ceux qui vont s’occuper d’eux.

Ou alors, ils utilisent des symboles pour s’identifier, par exemple des fleurs. Ce n’est pas évident pour le personnel médical d’entrer en contact avec leurs patients avec ce costume anonyme et étrange.

« Lorsqu’un patient arrive dans le centre, nous ne portons jamais notre équipement complet pour l’accueillir, » explique Kathleen, une infirmière belge. « Nous n’avons que notre masque et nos gants.

Le patient peut ainsi nous voir et apprendre à nous connaître et nous pouvons nous présenter. Si le test sanguin confirme qu’il s’agit d’Ebola, nous expliquons au patient que nous allons le transférer dans une autre zone du centre. Et que nous les soignerons avec notre combinaison jaune. »

« Après trois jours, je connaissais par cœur le nom de tous mes patients, » explique Charlotte. « Appeler les patients par leur nom rend les choses plus humaines. Car cette combinaison jaune reste un obstacle physique au contact avec vos patients.

Il n’empêche que c’est terriblement frustrant pour une infirmière de ne pas pouvoir utiliser ses mains pour sentir la peau des patients qu’on soigne. Mais je ne peux pas, je dois songer à ma propre sécurité. »

« Il m’arrive parfois de vouloir m’asseoir à côté d’un patient et enlever ma tenue pour le prendre dans mes bras » explique Carlotta, une infirmière italienne.

« On a envie de lui donner un peu de chaleur humaine. Il va bientôt mourir et vous êtes le seul être humain qu’il voit. »

Photos © Peter Casaer/MSF


Une prise en charge de qualité permet de réduire à 50 % le taux de mortalité d’Ebola. Mais 50 % – un patient sur deux admis au centre – c’est énorme, surtout lorsqu’on est habitué à sauver des vies.

Les chances de survie augmentent aussi considérablement lorsque les patients se rendent au centre dès l’apparition des premiers symptômes.

Malheureusement, c’est rarement le cas. Les patients arrivent souvent lorsqu’ils sont en phase terminale de la maladie.

Il suffit parfois d’un regard pour savoir qu’une personne ne s’en remettra pas, explique Jolien, une infirmière belge. « Un jour, 28 patients sont arrivés en même temps. Un jeune de 14 ans qui ne tenait pratiquement plus sur ses jambes et qui regardait fixement devant lui, une petite de 6 ans, complètement paniquée, qui cherchait sa maman, un femme de 30 ans, à moitié nue, très instable, dont les yeux étaient injectés de sang et la bouche saignait… Je me suis alors rappelé ce que mes collègues m’avaient dit : “au bout de quelques temps, on reconnaît les patients Ebola à leur regard.” J’ai constaté que tous mes collègues avaient le réflexe de faire quelques pas en arrière pour s’écarter de cette femme. Cette patiente ne tiendrait pas le coup longtemps, elle avait déjà son billet pour la mort. Je dis les choses crûment, mais telle est la réalité : quand 28 patients arrivent, seuls les plus solides vont s’en tirer. Nous n’aurions même pas le temps de forcer cette femme à manger et à boire. Elle était une proie facile pour la maladie. »

Les chances de survie d’un bébé de quatorze mois sont très faibles, surtout s’il n’y a personne pour veiller sur lui. »

Sarah, médecin

Tous ceux qui ont travaillé dans un centre Ebola ont en mémoire des récits tragiques de patients décédés, de décisions difficiles à prendre. Le virus n’épargne personne, pas même les plus jeunes. Le plus difficile, c’est quand un enfant meurt. Un tiers des housses mortuaires achetées par Médecins Sans Frontières pour ses centres Ebola sont destinées aux enfants.

« Je me souviens de Kumba et de sa petite-fille, qui s’appelait aussi Kumba, » raconte Sarah, médecin belge. « La petite avait déjà perdu sa mère, contaminée sans doute par Ebola. Lorsque les résultats des tests sont arrivés, nous avons dû séparer la grand-mère et sa petite-fille, car la petite était infectée et pas la grand-mère. Mais les chances de survie d’un bébé de quatorze mois sont très faibles, surtout s’il n’y a personne pour veiller sur lui. »

« Un après-midi, en pénétrant dans la zone, j’ai vu que Kumba convulsait. Elle avait retiré sa perfusion. J’ai essayé de remettre en place la perfusion, ce qui était très difficile vu les convulsions. Une infirmière est venue me prêter main forte, mais nous n’y sommes pas arrivées. En plus le risque était élevé, j’avais vraiment peur qu’on se pique.

« Alors on a décidé d’arrêter : le risque était trop élevé pour ma collègue et moi, et les chances de survie de la petite patiente infimes. Et de toute façon, nous n’avions plus qu’une heure pour soigner tous les autres patients. Je l’ai donc recouverte d’un linge et je l’ai déposée dans son lit, en prenant le maximum de précaution. Ce fut terrible pour moi de l’abandonner. Je savais qu’elle allait mourir. Et effectivement, lors de sa ronde, l’équipe qui avait pris le relais n’a pu que constater le décès de la petite. »

Ce fut terrible pour moi d’abandonner cette petite fille. Je savais qu’elle allait mourir. »

Sarah, médecin

Ce sentiment de frustration de ne pas pouvoir aider tout le monde est d’autant plus grand lorsque les gens arrivent à temps mais il n’y a simplement pas de place pour eux. Le centre d’Ebola de MSF à Monrovia au Liberia, était fin septembte 2014, encore le seul centre de toute la ville, en dépit des appels de MSF à ouvrir de toute urgence des centres additionnels. Par conséquent il y avait tellement de malades qui se présentaient au centre, que nous ne pouvions pas tous les admettre.

Pierre, anthropologue belge, s’était posté devant l’entrée de l’hôpital, pour refouler les patients.

Photos © Sylvain Cherkaoui/Cosmos


Dans un centre Ebola, l’une des tâches les plus difficiles est probablement la prise en charge des dépouilles. Une tâche qui revient notamment à Estifanos, un Éthiopien. « C’est en tout cas psychologiquement très pénible, » explique-t-il. « Je travaille habituellement avec des patients vivants. Et maintenant, je dois m’occuper des cadavres. Il m’arrive de devoir mettre dans une housse mortuaire le corps d’un patient qui me demandait encore de l’eau la veille. »

Confrontés à la fatigue physique et aux conséquences de l’impuissance, de la frustration et du chagrin, les collaborateurs sont très vite sur les genoux. Dans les autres projets, les gens partent en mission entre 6 et 9 mois, même dans les zones en guerre. Ce n’est pas le cas de ceux qui travaillent dans les centres Ebola : ils rentrent tous après quatre à six semaines. La fatigue fait commettre des erreurs, et chaque erreur peut avoir ici des conséquences fatales.

On vit ensemble, on travaille ensemble, on se sent très proches les uns des autres. »

Carlotta, infirmière

Hilde, médecin belge, intervient depuis 2007 lors des épidémies d’Ebola aux côtés de MSF. Elle a déjà dirigé à plusieurs reprises le volet médical de centres Ebola en Afrique de l’Ouest. « Si je pouvais, je prendrais chacun de mes collègues par la main et l’accompagnerais en permanence. C’est d’ailleurs la raison pour laquelle nous avons mis en place notre système de binômes. Mais je ne peux pas m’occuper de la formation de tout le monde. » Ce système de travail en binôme a d’autres avantages : il aide les membres de l’équipe à bien se connaître. « On se surveille mutuellement, on regarde si l’autre ne fait pas d’erreur, s’il ne se sent pas mal. Il faut faire un avec lui », explique Carlotta.

Mais les confrères et collègues ne sont pas seulement un soutien technique : ils assurent aussi l’indispensable soutien psychologique. « On ne peut pas travailler seul dans un tel contexte, » affirme Honney, infirmière philippine. « On doit vraiment pouvoir s’appuyer sur une bonne équipe, car le travail est très dur. Il faut pouvoir parler des patients, des problèmes qui se sont posés pendant la journée et de la façon dont on va les résoudre. »

« Dans une équipe, on sent qu’on fait partie d’un tout, » explique Carlotta. « L’équipe joue un rôle fondamental. On vit ensemble, on travaille ensemble, on se sent très proches les uns des autres.

Et quand ça ne va pas fort, on sait qu’il y aura toujours quelqu’un pour nous aider. Certains jours, on se sent au bout du rouleau, car les événements pénibles se sont accumulés. Lors de ces journées difficiles, ce sont vos collègues qui vous aident à tenir le coup. »

Nous ne pouvons pas nous prendre dans les bras sauf quand on a revêtu l’équipement de protection. » Véronique, infirmière

Mais ce soutien ne peut s’exprimer que par des mots. Car pour limiter au maximum le risque de contamination, nous ne pouvons jamais nous toucher. Ce qui n’est pas facile quand on aimerait tant prendre dans ses bras un collègue qui est à bout. « C’est très dur pour moi », explique Véronique, infirmière canadienne. « Habituellement, on se touche et on s’embrasse beaucoup. Et tout d’un coup, ces gestes sont interdits à cause du risque de contamination. Mais entendons-nous : c’est pour notre propre sécurité et celle de nos collègues.

Il nous arrive parfois de nous étreindre : juste avant d’entrer dans la zone à haut risque, quand on a revêtu l’équipement de protection. On peut alors se prendre un instant dans les bras. » Mais un bref instant, car une telle tenue ne peut être portée que peu de temps.

« Et ces gestes, on ne les fait qu’avant d’entrer, jamais à l’intérieur, jamais après, » poursuit Véronique.

Photos © Caroline Van Nespen/MSF, Sylvain. Cherkaoui/Cosmos, Peter Casaer/MSF.




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