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How Ida dodged NYC’s flood defenses

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How Ida dodged NYC’s flood defenses


“The problem is, we’re seeing these impacts and these changing storms faster, and adaptations are just not keeping pace,” says Lauren McPhillips, a hydrologist at Penn State University who studies urban flooding.

New York City has been relatively forward-thinking when it comes to preparing for floods, McPhillips says. For years, the city put in more permeable architecture, like green roofs and rain gardens, and upgraded pumps and drainage pipes. These improvements intensified after Sandy.

“We learned a lot of lessons from Sandy,” said New York governor Kathy Hochul in a press conference the morning after the storms. “We built back resiliency; our coastal shorelines are in much better shape than they had been. But where we have a vulnerability is in our streets.”

Sandy looms large in any discussion about flooding in New York City. But the difference between the 2012 hurricane and Ida illustrates the complex flood threat the city faces from climate change. Sandy caused an intense storm surge, where the ocean rushed into the city. Ida dumped inches of water all over the city in a short time—a problem that sea barriers and other coastal protections can’t solve.

While New York City and other coastal areas are more vulnerable to sea-level rise, any urban area can experience what’s called pluvial flooding, the kind caused by rainfall. “The way we’ve developed New York City has caused the flood problem,” says Timon McPhearson, a researcher in urban climate resiliency at the New School and a member of the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Impervious surfaces like concrete cause water to rush downhill rather than sink into the ground as it might in grasslands or forests. And if enough water runs together, the consequences can be deadly.

“We need to literally redesign the city to solve the problem.”

Timon McPhearson

With the input of researchers like McPhearson, New York City has developed plans to improve its defenses against storm-caused flooding. A forward-looking stormwater resiliency plan released in May 2021 included an assessment of flood risk across the city and proposed solutions ranging from social strategies, like educating local city councils on flood risks, to engineering techniques such as more green roofs and rain gardens.

And the city’s Department of Environmental Protection is considering plans for areas that are hit especially hard during the most intense storms. The Cloudburst Resiliency study, completed in 2018, examined strategies to deal with extreme rain events. Pilot plans in a frequently flooded area in Queens included green infrastructure like floodable park walkways, as well as a basketball court designed to hold water during major flooding.

But carrying out these or any other stormwater management solutions would require major funding, and some would require a decade to engineer. “We need to literally redesign the city to solve the problem,” McPhearson says. And he expects the price tag to be hefty—likely hundreds of billions of dollars. In some cases, he says, the research already suggests how to protect the city against flooding, but getting together the money and political will to act is still a hurdle.

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?


The tool is currently being trialed in a group of research volunteers and is not yet widely available. But I’m hoping it represents a move toward more transparency and openness about the real costs and benefits of egg freezing. Yes, it is a remarkable technology that can help people become parents. But it might not be the best option for everyone.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

Anna Louie Sussman had her eggs frozen in Italy and Spain because services in New York were too expensive. Luckily, there are specialized couriers ready to take frozen sex cells on international journeys, she wrote.

Michele Harrison was 41 when she froze 21 of her eggs. By the time she wanted to use them, two years later, only one was viable. Although she did have a baby, her case demonstrates that egg freezing is no guarantee of parenthood, wrote Bonnie Rochman.

What happens if someone dies with eggs in storage? Frozen eggs and sperm can still be used to create new life, but it’s tricky to work out who can make the decision, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.

Meanwhile, the race is on to create lab-made eggs and sperm. These cells, which might be made from a person’s blood or skin cells, could potentially solve a lot of fertility problems—should they ever prove safe, as I wrote in a feature for last year’s magazine issue on gender.

Researchers are also working on ways to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab, which could allow them to store and use their eggs without having to pause gender-affirming medical care or go through other potentially distressing procedures, as I wrote last year.

From around the web

The World Health Organization is set to decide whether covid still represents a “public health emergency of international concern.” It will probably decide to keep this status, because of the current outbreak in China. (STAT)  

Researchers want to study the brains, genes, and other biological features of incarcerated people to find ways to stop them from reoffending. Others warn that this approach is based on shoddy science and racist ideas. (Undark)

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A watermark for chatbots can expose text written by an AI

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


For example, since OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT was launched in November, students have already started cheating by using it to write essays for them. News website CNET has used ChatGPT to write articles, only to have to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Building the watermarking approach into such systems before they’re released could help address such problems. 

In studies, these watermarks have already been used to identify AI-generated text with near certainty. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, were able to spot text created by Meta’s open-source language model, OPT-6.7B, using a detection algorithm they built. The work is described in a paper that’s yet to be peer-reviewed, and the code will be available for free around February 15. 

AI language models work by predicting and generating one word at a time. After each word, the watermarking algorithm randomly divides the language model’s vocabulary into words on a “greenlist” and a “redlist” and then prompts the model to choose words on the greenlist. 

The more greenlisted words in a passage, the more likely it is that the text was generated by a machine. Text written by a person tends to contain a more random mix of words. For example, for the word “beautiful,” the watermarking algorithm could classify the word “flower” as green and “orchid” as red. The AI model with the watermarking algorithm would be more likely to use the word “flower” than “orchid,” explains Tom Goldstein, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved in the research. 

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


That’s why the team behind a new decision-making tool hope it will help to clear up some of the misconceptions around the procedure—and give would-be parents a much-needed insight into its real costs, benefits, and potential pitfalls. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk held a surprise meeting with US political leaders 
Allegedly in the interest of ensuring Twitter is “fair to both parties.” (Insider $)
+ Kanye West’s presidential campaign advisors have been booted off Twitter. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Twitter’s trust and safety head is Musk’s biggest champion. (Bloomberg $) 

2 We’re treating covid like flu now
Annual covid shots are the next logical step. (The Atlantic $)

3 The worst thing about Sam Bankman-Fried’s spell in jail? 
Being cut off from the internet. (Forbes $)
+ Most crypto criminals use just five exchanges. (Wired $)
+ Collapsed crypto firmFTX has objected to a new investigation request. (Reuters)

4 Israel’s tech sector is rising up against its government
Tech workers fear its hardline policies will harm startups. (FT $)

5 It’s possible to power the world solely using renewable energy
At least, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson. (The Guardian)
+ Tech bros love the environment these days. (Slate $)
+ How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Generative AI is wildly expensive to run 
And that’s why promising startups like OpenAI need to hitch their wagons to the likes of Microsoft. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Microsoft benefits from the ChatGPT hype. (Vox)
+ BuzzFeed is planning to make quizzes supercharged by OpenAI. (WSJ $) 
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

7 It’s hard not to blame self-driving cars for accidents
Even when it’s not technically their fault. (WSJ $)

8 What it’s like to swap Google for TikTok
It’s great for food suggestions and hacks, but hopeless for anything work-related. (Wired $)
+ The platform really wants to stay operational in the US. (Vox)
+ TikTok is mired in an eyelash controversy. (Rolling Stone $)

9 CRISPR gene editing kits are available to buy online
But there’s no guarantee these experiments will actually work. (Motherboard)
+ Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses? (MIT Technology Review)

10 Tech workers are livestreaming their layoffs
It’s a candid window into how these notoriously secretive companies treat their staff. (The Information $)

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