Archives January 11, 2020

Installing Air Filters in Classrooms Has Surprisingly Large Educational Benefits

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015. The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children. And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

Welcome To Walmart: The Robot Will Grab Your Groceries

Walmart is testing back-of-store automated systems that can collect 800 products an hour, 10 times as many as a store worker. In the backroom of a Walmart store in Salem, N.H., is a floor-to-ceiling robotic system that the country’s largest retailer hopes will help it sell more groceries online. Workers stand on platforms in front of screens assembling online orders of milk, cereal and toilet paper from the hulking automated system. Wheeled robots carrying small baskets move along metal tracks to collect those items. They are bagged for pickup later by shoppers or delivery to homes. Walmart is one of several grocers including Albertsons and Kroger that are using automation to improve efficiency in a fast-growing but costly business that comes with a range of logistical challenges.

The backroom robots could help Walmart cut labor costs and fill orders faster and more accurately. It also could address another problem: unclogging aisles that these days can get crowded with clerks picking products for online orders. A store worker can collect around 80 products from store shelves an hour, estimated John Lert, founder and chief executive of Alert Innovation, the startup that has worked with Walmart to design the system dubbed Alphabot. It is designed to collect 800 products an hour per workstation, operated by a single individual, Mr. Lert said. Workers stock the 24-foot-high machine each day with the products most often ordered online, including refrigerated and frozen foods. Fresh produce is still picked by hand in store aisles.

‘I Oversaw America’s Nuclear Power Industry. Now I Think It Should Be Banned.’

Friday the Washington Post published an essay by Gregory Jaczko, who served on America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2005 to 2009 and was its chairman from 2009 to 2012. He says he’d believed nuclear power was worth the reduction they produced in greenhouse emissions — until Japan’s 2011 nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima power plant.

“Despite working in the industry for more than a decade, I now believe that nuclear power’s benefits are no longer enough to risk the welfare of people living near these plants…”

The current and potential costs — personal and economic — are just too high…. The technology and the safety needs are just too complex and demanding to translate into a facility that is simple to design and build. No matter your views on nuclear power in principle, no one can afford to pay this much for two electricity plants. New nuclear is simply off the table in the United States….

Fewer than 10 of Japan’s 50 reactors have resumed operations, yet the country’s carbon emissions have dropped below their levels before the accident. How? Japan has made significant gains in energy efficiency and solar power…. What about the United States? Nuclear accounts for about 19 percent of U.S. electricity production and most of our carbon-free electricity. Could reactors be phased out here without increasing carbon emissions? If it were completely up to the free market, the answer would be yes, because nuclear is more expensive than almost any other source of electricity today. Renewables such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power generate electricity for less than the nuclear plants under construction in Georgia, and in most places, they produce cheaper electricity than existing nuclear plants that have paid off all their construction costs…

This tech is no longer a viable strategy for dealing with climate change, nor is it a competitive source of power. It is hazardous, expensive and unreliable, and abandoning it wouldn’t bring on climate doom. The real choice now is between saving the planet or saving the dying nuclear industry. I vote for the planet.

Skype Audio Graded by Workers in China With ‘No Security Measures’

A Microsoft program to transcribe and vet audio from Skype and Cortana, its voice assistant, ran for years with “no security measures,” according to a former contractor who says he reviewed thousands of potentially sensitive recordings on his personal laptop from his home in Beijing over the two years he worked for the company.

The recordings, both deliberate and accidentally invoked activations of the voice assistant, as well as some Skype phone calls, were simply accessed by Microsoft workers through a web app running in Google’s Chrome browser, on their personal laptops, over the Chinese internet, according to the contractor. Workers had no cybersecurity help to protect the data from criminal or state interference, and were even instructed to do the work using new Microsoft accounts all with the same password, for ease of management, the former contractor said. Employee vetting was practically nonexistent, he added.

“There were no security measures, I don’t even remember them doing proper KYC [know your customer] on me. I think they just took my Chinese bank account details,” he told the Guardian. While the grader began by working in an office, he said the contractor that employed him “after a while allowed me to do it from home in Beijing. I judged British English (because I’m British), so I listened to people who had their Microsoft device set to British English, and I had access to all of this from my home laptop with a simple username and password login.” Both username and password were emailed to new contractors in plaintext, he said, with the former following a simple schema and the latter being the same for every employee who joined in any given year.