Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What are Mars Analogue Missions Really Studying?

While various parties argue back and forth about whether humanity has progressed far enough technologically to colonize Mars, technology alone will not determine the success of such a venture. Interpersonal relationships and how the first colonists are able to work together to augment their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses will also be an incredibly important element in producing success. With this in mind NASA and other space-based organizations have undertaken occasional training experiments or analogue missions in an attempt to simulate a mission to Mars. These missions typically take place in specific locations in Hawaii or Antarctica, which are suitable for simulating Martian environment as far as Earth can simulate Mars; however, do these analogue missions have the appropriate goals and tasks for the participating individuals to properly simulate a Martian colonization party?

The major goal of these simulation experiments is to access how different individuals interact with each other over a fixed continuous time period in a confined space, simulating conditions in both travel to Mars and after landing, in effort to understand and predict potential positive and negative behavior among the colonizing party. However, the environment these individuals are commonly thrust into is not similar to that which will be faced by the initial colonists. While the inside habitat-outside habitat transition is properly simulated through the use of space suits, the activities of the participants within the habitat are more focused on specific scientific studies, not on building and developing the operational structure of the shelter. In short these experiments focus too much on simulating a developed Martian habitat versus a developing one.

For example one of the first major issues for a Martian colonization mission is that there is little to no food growth on site. The first colonists will bring a significant amount of food with them when first traveling to Mars, but almost every expert is in agreement that the development of some means to grow sufficient amounts of food on Mars will have to occur soon after arrival for it is too costly to continue to re-supply from Earth. Unfortunately these simulations experiments do not appear to be modeling this critical element for Mars colonization. This lack of planning is a missed opportunity because there are questions to what is the most effective way to grow food on Mars and various simulations starting from scratch could produce important information to determining which method would be the most successful in a real colonization mission. Every scientist and engineer knows that laboratory simulations/conclusions and in-field simulation/conclusions can differ radically.

One of the sub-questions on this issue is what type of food growth system would be optimal for Martian colonization both in the interim and for expansion. Various options, such as hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, cultivating Martian soil, etc. exist and analogue missions would be an effective means to produce higher quality costs, effort and efficiency estimates of these system, both alone and in cooperation with each other, apart from ISS analysis and laboratory hypotheses. Aeroponics is NASA’s leader in the “clubhouse”, but would it work well as the initial on-site food provider for the first Martian colony?

Furthermore due to the significant reduction in gravity on Mars, colonists will have to engage in a rigorous exercise program to reduce the potency of negative physiological effects associated with the loss of this gravity. Simulating the necessary exercise in these analogue missions cannot help study how it influences health on Mars due to the lack of similar gravity, but it can help study how such levels of vigorous exercise would influence energy levels and food consumption along with interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately this potentially valuable information is not acquired in these simulations because the participants are not instructed to exercise in such a way.

Another important connective element that is lacking in these simulations, due in large part to the lack of these above elements, is the changes in stress that would accompany this behavior and these goals. While it is not ethical to emulate the life threatening conditions that failure would bring, general failure to complete necessary tasks would create tension and stress through challenges to the pride of the individuals involved, thus would better emulate real Martian colonization conditions. In these moments of stress, potential problems within the group dynamics can be identified that would not exist when stress levels were not increased leading to a better understanding of how to manage failures in the real colonizing party.

In the end analogue missions are important for various reasons and while human factor elements are certainly important to study and general simulation research strategies have their place, there needs to be more simulations that mimic what colonists will experience when first landing on Mars to better create a methodology regarding how to maximize success for the Martian colonization mission. Overall without expanding the scope of analogue missions to reflect the realities of Martian colonization, one wonders what the point of conducting these missions in the first place actually is, for they are certainly not preparing colonists for the most important part of the colonization, establishing the environment and behaviors to increase the probability of long-term survival.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Wanted: Reasonable and Intelligent Gun Policy

One thing that cannot be argued is that the number of gun deaths in the average year in the United States, including various mass shootings, has demonstrated that current gun policy does not work. The delusional idea harbored by some members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that an effective means to address gun violence, which would involve weakening existing gun laws in effort to arm more “good guys” with firearms to combat the bad guys, demonstrates a genuine lack of intelligence and/or caring for the problem. While the specific intricacies of gun policy are better left to those with more experience, there are certain elements that appear to be “no-brainers” of sorts when producing effective and meaningful gun policy in effort to limit the number of violent gun-related deaths.

Clearly the lingering holes in the requirements for legally required background checks are unacceptable in any reasonable gun policy. Private sellers, i.e. individuals who “claim” they are not engaged in the business of selling guns, should be required just like all licensed federal dealers to perform background checks outside of legal gun transfers to other direct family members (i.e. father to son, sister to brother, etc.). The reason most arguments that private sellers should not be subjected to performing background checks fall flat is that a vast majority of these transfers occur at gun shows or online where it is much easier for individuals who know they would fail a background check to acquire a firearm. It is a matter of public safety first and foremost; also there is no “right” to sell a gun without any type of legal condition or restriction. Overall there is no rational argument against requiring a private dealer to conduct a background check.

Another reasonable step in the right direction would be the repel of the Tiahrt Amendments, which make it much more difficult for authorities to access and use gun trafficking data to pursue criminals and prevent criminal activity, especially via a dealer that is knowingly and willingly violating the law. Eliminating the Tiahrt Amendments would allow authorities to require dealers to conduct inventory of their stock (more than likely annual accounts would be appropriate) to increase the probability that unaccounted for inventory is detected much sooner than currently occurs. Also federal agencies will be able to maintain completed gun background checks for longer than 24 hours increasing the probability that authorities discover, arrest and convict straw purchasers (i.e. individuals who commonly purchase guns for individuals that would not pass a background check).

Hmm, all of these changes seem completely reasonable, especially the last one for a background check is not like DNA, authorities will not be able to utilize an existing background check to “set-up” someone as a criminal when they are not one, to think otherwise is to simply give in to paranoia. Furthermore allowing the ATF to create an electronic database of gun records that is easily searchable will dramatically increase the ability of proper authorities to manage and address gun-related issues more efficiently especially criminal activity. As long as this database is not made public there should be no issue with its existence. Just as a point of note, most of these issues were addressed in both The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2011 and The Fix Gun Checks Act of 2013.

Another good policy choice is to expand to the federal level the procedures and policies contained within the Maryland Firearms Safety Act of 2013. While this policy has numerous positive and practical elements, one of the most important is requiring certification for firearms training before legally being allowed to purchase a handgun. Note that with this expansion the law would be akin to policy associated with the National Minimum Drinking Age Acts in that states would not have to abide by the law, but they would not receive certain levels of federal funding if failing to do so. Therefore, if state x did not want to legal mandate that residents had to have firearm certification training before purchasing a gun it would be allowed, but state x would also not receive some significant percentage of federal aid.

Arguments against the policy of this bill both in Maryland and to any federal expansion of it range from the paranoid to the ridiculous. For example one argument against requiring gun training for the purchase of a weapon has been to analogize it to requiring an individual to have training in public speaking in order to speak in public. It is rather self-explanatory to why such an analogy is foolish. However, for the sake of completeness why is this “point of argument” ridiculous? The chief difference between guns and speech is an issue of public safety. A significant portion of gun use results in negative public health consequences, including death, whether or not the acquisition of the gun was legal versus both the assumption and the reality that almost no portion of speech is expected to or produces negative public health consequences.

Also like the 2nd Amendment, the 1st Amendment is not universal in its protection, in that not all speech is protected. For instance one cannot falsely yell fire in a crowded theater or other venue nor can an individual use speech to incite a group of individuals to “string up” some Jews, Blacks or Christians, etc. Furthermore the use of speech occurs at a far greater level than that of gun use, thus making it far more inconvenient for both society and individual functionality to require public speech course requirements versus gun training requirements.

One widely used argument in favor of gun training licenses have been a comparison to automobiles in that if one has to have a license to operate an automobile it makes sense that one should have to have a license to purchase a gun. Opponents have countered this analogy by stating that one does not need a driver’s license to purchase a car, thus one should not need a license to purchase a gun. On its face this counterargument seems to have value, until looking deeper. It breaks down rather quickly in the realm of practicality for almost no one purchases a car without the intention of it being driven, either by the buyer or someone else, and the same logic is applied to a gun, who spends hundreds of dollars on a gun without the prospect of using it at some point in the future? The only common instance where the purchase of either a car or gun is made without the prospect of using it is for collector purposes, which entails older models. It would not be difficult to create a hard cap on a date of purchase; i.e. all guns older than 1970 or some other year decades ago, which would not require a license.

Others would stubbornly avoid the issue of public health and practicality and argue that gun purchase is a right, but car purchase is not, thus the above analogy is irrelevant because Maryland policy violates the Constitution. The problem with this counter-argument is that firearm purchase is not a guaranteed universal right, the courts, both of conservative and liberal leaning, have ruled numerous times that government in all its forms can place reasonable restrictions on arms purchase and possession. Requiring the acquisition of a training license for the purchase of a particular type of firearm in a clear and transparent way, with no additional requirements beyond existing current training methods, does not produce an unreasonable burden for the purchase of a weapon, which is exactly what the Maryland and federal courts have ruled regarding the Maryland law.

One point of interest is why pro-gun individuals are so knee-jerk against even reasonable and intelligent gun policy? The best possible explanation appears to be simply “slippery slope paranoia”. They believe that giving any type of power to the government to restrict access to weaponry for private citizens will eventually lead to an environment where government restricts access to all weaponry.

Of course such a belief is incredibly foolish on two separate grounds. On legal grounds this belief fails because the Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller basically created a floor regarding what the government can do with respects to limiting private access to weapons. On non-legal grounds if a tyrannical government ever arose in the U.S., the idea that private citizens would be able to effectively fight against it (and the U.S. armed forces) without vast levels of support from foreign nations is laughable and utterly delusional, thus any “restrictions” on private firearm access established by this new tyrannical government would be irrelevant. Overall all slippery slope paranoia is doing for pro-gun individuals is making them indirectly responsible for more people dying due to gun violence.

The issue of creating a training course is not a significant hurdle because numerous training courses of varying degrees already exist. The only additional requirement beyond the standard training course would be the necessity of live fire training. Basically to purchase a gun the training course would require individuals to fire that type of firearm, given if it has a different firing capacity. For example firing a Beretta is significantly different from firing a type of shotgun, but not significantly different from firing a Desert Eagle. Basically individuals should actually know how to use the weapon they intend to purchase versus simply just “thinking” they know how to use it. For most training courses this live fire requirement is already addressed.

The length of time that a purchase license would last is an interesting question because too long and the general acquired skills that comprise the purpose behind gaining the license diminish, but too short and individuals may be pressured into purchase out of fear that the license will expire. Overall the total time period would be up to the states, but it stands to reason that between 1 to 5 years for license length would seem most appropriate. The issue of renewal is of limited importance because most individuals do not purchase a large amount of guns period, let alone over a long period of time; therefore there is little concern for any “annoyance” factor that may involve having to renew a license for a fourth gun purchase x years from the first purchase.

In the end anyone who cares about reasonable and effective gun policy, which should be almost everyone because continued gun violence does not serve a positive purpose for any law-abiding citizen, must realize that both closing background loopholes and ensuring that gun purchasers have proper training are important elements to accomplishing this goal. Some may argue that background checks are too slow and training is an inconvenience to buyers; however, purchasing a gun should not be a spontaneous action. Whether the gun will be used for hunting or self-protection, either motive is not short-term critical, but long-term thus the inability to acquire the gun immediately from the buyer on the same day does not produce a burdensome disadvantage opposed to the benefits background checks and training provide to society as a whole. Overall a certain portion of the population has to realize that some measures to ensure appropriate and responsible distribution of firearms will NOT result in the loss of any appropriate firearm access. Continuing to oppose such rudimentary and reasonable policy does nothing but increase the probability for more death.