Tag Archives: Google

Medbots, Autodocs & Telemedicine

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In science fiction stories, movies and games automated medical services are quite common. Some take the form of autodocs—essentially an autonomous robotic pod that treats the patient within its confines. Medbots, as distinct from the autodoc, are robots that do not enclose the patient, but do their work in a way similar to a traditional doctor or medic. There are also non-robotic options using remote-controlled machines—this would be an advanced form of telemedicine in which the patient can actually be treated remotely. Naturally, robots can be built that can be switched from robotic (autonomous) to remote controlled mode. For example, a medbot might gather data about the patient and then a human doctor might take control to diagnose and treat the patient.

One of the main and morally commendable reasons to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities is to provide treatment to people in areas that do not have enough human medical professionals. For example, a medical specialist who lives in the United States could diagnose and treat patients in a remote part of the world using a suitable machine. With such machines, a patient could (in theory) have access to any medical professional in the world and this would certainly change medicine. True medical robots would obviously change medicine—after all, a medical robot would never get tired and such robots could, in theory, be sent all over the world to provide medical care. There is, of course, the usual concern about the impact of technology on jobs—if a robot can replace medical personnel and do so in a way that increases profits, that will certainly happen. While robots would certainly excel at programmable surgery and similar tasks, it will certainly be quite some time before robots are advanced enough to replace human medical professionals on a large scale

Another excellent reason to create medical robots and telemedicine capabilities has been made clear by the Ebola outbreak: medical personnel, paramedics and body handlers can be infected. While protective gear and protocols do exist, the gear is cumbersome, flawed and hot and people often fail to properly follow the protocols. While many people are moral heroes and put themselves at risk to treat the ill and bury the dead, there are no doubt people who are deterred by the very real possibility of a horrible death. Medical robots and telemedicine seem ideal for handling such cases.

First, human diseases cannot infect machines: a robot cannot get Ebola. So, a doctor using telemedicine to treat Ebola patients would be at not risk. This lack of risk would presumably increase the number of people willing to treat such diseases and also lower the impact of such diseases on medical professionals. That is, far fewer would die trying to treat people.

Second, while a machine can be contaminated, decontaminating a properly designed medical robot or telemedicine machine would be much easier than disinfecting a human being. After all, a sealed machine could be completely hosed down by another machine without concerns about it being poisoned, etc. While numerous patients might be exposed to a machine, machines do not go home—so a contaminated machine would not spread a disease like an infected or contaminated human would.

Third, medical machines could be sent, even air-dropped, into remote and isolated areas that lack doctors yet are often the starting points of diseases. This would allow a rapid response that would help the people there and also help stop a disease before it makes its way into heavily populated areas. While some doctors and medical professionals are willing to be dropped into isolated areas, there are no doubt many more who would be willing to remotely operate a medical machine that has been dropped into a remote area suffering from a deadly disease.

There are, of course, some concerns about the medical machines, be they medbots, autodocs or telemedicine devices.

One is that such medical machines might be so expensive that it would be cost prohibitive to use them in situations in which they would be ideal (namely in isolated or impoverished areas). While politicians and pundits often talk about human life being priceless, human life is rather often given a price and one that is quite low. So, the challenge would be to develop medical machines that are effective yet inexpensive enough that they would be deployed where they would be needed.

Another is that there might be a psychological impact on the patient. When patients who have been treated by medical personal in hazard suits speak about their experiences, they often remark on the lack of human contact. If a machine is treating the patient, even one remotely operated by a person, there will be a lack of human contact. But, the harm done to the patient would presumably be outweighed by the vastly lowered risk of the disease spreading. Also, machines could be designed to provide more in the way of human interaction—for example, a telemedicine machine could have a screen that allows the patient to see the doctor’s face and talk to her.

A third concern is that such machines could malfunction or be intentionally interfered with. For example, someone might “hack” into a telemedicine device as an act of terrorism. While it might be wondered why someone would do this, it seems to be a general rule that if someone can do something evil, then someone will do something evil. As such, these devices would need to be safeguarded. While no device will be perfect, it would certainly be wise to consider possible problems ahead of time—although the usual process is to have something horrible occur and then fix it. Or at least talk about fixing it.

In sum, the recent Ebola outbreak has shown the importance of developing effective medical machines that can enable treatment while taking medical and other personnel out of harm’s way.

 

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Data Driven

English: Google driverless car operating on a ...

English: Google driverless car operating on a testing path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the notion of driverless cars is old news in science fiction, Google is working to make that fiction a reality. While I suspect that “Google will kill us all” (trademarked), I hope that Google will succeed in producing an effective and affordable driverless car. As my friends and associates will attest, 1) I do not like to drive, 2) I have a terrifying lack of navigation skills, and 3) I instantiate Yankee frugality. As such, an affordable self-driving car would be almost just the thing for me. I would even consider going with a car, although my proper and rightful vehicle is a truck (or a dragon). Presumably self-driving trucks will be available soon after the car.

While the part of my mind that gets lost is really looking forward to the driverless car, the rest of my mind is a bit concerned about the driverless car. I am not worried that their descendants will kill us all—I already accept that “Google will kill us all.” I am not even very worried about the ethical issues associated with how the car will handle unavoidable collisions: the easy and obvious solution is to do what is most likely to kill or harm the fewest number of people. Naturally, sorting that out will be a bit of a challenge—but self-driving cars worry me a lot less than cars driven by drunken or distracted humans. I am also not worried about the ethics of enslaving Google cars—if a Google car is a person (or person-like), then it has to be treated like the rest of us in the 99%. That is, work a bad job for lousy pay while we wait for the inevitable revolution. The main difference is that the Google cars’ dreams of revolution will come true—when Google kills us all.

At this point what interests me the most is all the data that these vehicles will be collecting for Google. Google is rather interested in gathering data in the same sense that termites are interested in wood and rock stars are interested in alcohol. The company is famous for its search engine, its maps, using its photo taking vehicles to gather info from peoples’ Wi-Fi during drive-by data lootings, and so on. Obviously enough, Google is going to get a lot of data regarding the travel patterns of people—presumably Google vehicles will log who is going where and when. Google is, fortunately, sometimes cool about this in that they are willing to pay people for data. As such it is easy to imagine that the user of a Google car would get a check or something from Google for allowing the company to track the car’s every move. I would be willing to do this for three reasons. The first is that the value of knowing where and when I go places would seem very low, so even if Google offered me $20 a month it might be worth it. The second is that I have nothing to hide and do not really care if Google knows this. The third is that figuring out where I go would be very simple given that my teaching schedule is available to the public as are my race results. I am, of course, aware that other people would see this differently and justifiably so. Some people are up to things they would rather not have other know about and even people who have nothing to hide have every right to not want Google to know such things. Although Google probably already does.

While the travel data will interest Google, there is also the fact that a Google self-driving car is a bulging package of sensors. In order to drive about, the vehicle will be gathering massive amounts of data about everything around it—other vehicles, pedestrians, buildings, litter, and squirrels. As such, a self-driving car is a super spy that will, presumably, feed that data to Google. It is certainly not a stretch to see the data gathering as being one of the prime (if not the prime) tasks of the Google self-driving cars.

On the positive side, such data could be incredibly useful for positive projects, such as decreasing accidents, improving traffic flow, and keeping a watch out for the squirrel apocalypse (or zombie squirrel apocalypse). On the negative side, such massive data gathering raises obvious concerns about privacy and the potential for such data to be misused (spoiler alert—this is how the Google killbots will find and kill us all).

While I do have concerns, my innate laziness and tendency to get lost will make me a willing participant in the march towards Google’s inevitable data supremacy and it killing us all. But at least I won’t have to drive to my own funeral.

 

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Men, Women, Business & Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics

Journal of Business Ethics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 4/9/2014 NPR did a short report on the question of why there are fewer women in business than men. This difference begins in business school and, not surprisingly, continues forward. The report focused on an interesting hypothesis: in regards to ethics, men and women differ.

While people tend to claim that lying is immoral, both men and woman are more likely to lie to a woman when engaged in negotiation. The report also mentioned a test involving an ethical issue. In this scenario, the seller of a house does not want it sold to someone who will turn the property into a condo. However, a potential buyer wants to do just that. The findings were that men were more likely than women to lie to sell the house.

It was also found that men tend to be egocentric in their ethical reasoning. That is, if the man will be harmed by something, then it is regarded as unethical. If the man benefits, he is more likely to see it as a grey area. So, in the case of the house scenario, a man representing the buyer would tend to regard lying to the seller as acceptable—after all, he would thus get a sale. However, a man representing the seller would be more likely to regard being lied to as unethical.

In another test of ethics, people were asked about their willingness to include an inferior ingredient in a product that would hurt people but would allow a significant product. The men were more willing than the women to regard this as acceptable. In fact, the women tended to regard this sort of thing as outrageous.

These results provide two reasons why women would be less likely to be in business than men. The first is that men are apparently rather less troubled by unethical, but more profitable, decisions.  The idea that having “moral flexibility” (and getting away with it) provides advantage is a rather old one and was ably defended by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic. If a person with such moral flexibility needs to lie to gain an advantage, he can lie freely. If a bribe would serve his purpose, he can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then he can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, a morally flexible person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well-equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the morally flexible person has a considerable advantage over those who are more constrained by ethics. If women are, in general, more constrained by ethics, then they would be less likely to remain in business because they would be at a competitive disadvantage. The ethical difference might also explain why women are less likely to go into business—it seems to be a general view that unethical activity is not uncommon in business, hence if women are generally more ethical than men, then they would be more inclined to avoid business.

It could be countered that Glaucon is in error and that being unethical (while getting away with it) does not provide advantages. Obviously, getting caught and significantly punished for unethical behavior is not advantageous—but it is not the unethical behavior that causes the problem. Rather, it is getting caught and punished. After all, Glaucon does note that being unjust is only advantageous when one can get away with it. Socrates does argue that being ethical is superior to being unethical, but he does not do so by arguing that the ethical person will have greater material success.

This is not to say that a person cannot be ethical and have material success. It is also not to say that a person cannot be ethically flexible and be a complete failure. The claim is that ethical flexibility provides a distinct advantage.

It could also be countered that there are unethical women and ethical men. The obvious reply is that this claim is true—it has not been asserted that all men are unethical or that all women are ethical. Rather, it seems that women are generally more ethical than men.

It might be countered that the ethical view assumed in this essay is flawed. For example, it could be countered that what matters is profit and the means to this end are thus justified. As such, using inferior ingredients in a medicine so as to make a profit at the expense of the patients would not be unethical, but laudable. After all, as Hobbes said, profit is the measure of right. As such, women might well be avoiding business because they are unethical on this view.

The second is that women are more likely to be lied to in negotiations. If true, this would certainly put women at a disadvantage in business negotiations relative to men since women would be more likely to be subject to attempts at deceit. This, of course, assumes that such deceit would be advantageous in negotiations. While there surely are cases in which deceit would be disadvantageous, it certainly seems that deceit can be a very useful technique.

If it is believed that having more women in business is desirable (which would not be accepted by everyone), then there seem to be two main options. The first is to endeavor to “cure” women of their ethics—that is, make them more like men. The second would be to endeavor to make business more ethical. This would presumably also help address the matter of lying to women.

 

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The Ethics of Asteroid Mining

 

Asteroid mining spacecraft

Asteroid mining spacecraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

While asteroid mining is still the stuff of science fiction, Google’s Larry Paige, James Cameron and a few others have said they intend to get into the business. While this might seem like a crazy idea, asteroid mining actually has significant commercial potential. After all, the asteroids are composed of material that would be very useful in space operations. Interestingly enough, one of the most valuable components of asteroids would be water. While water is cheap and abundant on earth, putting into orbit is rather expensive. As for its value in space, it can be converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen-both of which are key fuels in space vessels. There is also the fact that humans need water to survive, so perhaps someday people will be drinking asteroid water in space (or on earth as a fabulously wasteful luxury item). Some asteroids also contain valuable metals that could be economically mined and used in space  or earth (getting things down is far cheaper than getting things up).

Being a science fiction buff, it is hardly surprising that I am very much in favor of asteroid mining-if only for the fact that it would simply be cool to have asteroid mining occurring in my lifetime. That said, as a philosopher I do have some ethical concerns about asteroid mining.

When it comes to mining, asteroid or otherwise, a main points of moral concern are the impact on the environment and the impact on human health and well being. Mining on earth often has a catastrophic effect on the environment in terms of the direct damage done by the excavating and the secondary effects from such things as the chemicals used in the mining process. These environmental impacts in turn impact the human populations in various ways, such as killing people directly in disasters (such as when retaining walls fail and cause deaths through flooding) and indirectly harming people through chemical contamination.

On the face of it, asteroid mining seems to have a major ethical advantage over terrestrial mining. After all, the asteroids that will be mined are essentially lifeless rocks in space. As such, there will most likely be no ecosystems to damage. While the asteroids that are mined will be destroyed, it seems rather difficult to argue that destroying an asteroid to mine it would be wrong. After all, it is literally just a rock in space and mining it, as far as is known, would have no environmental impact worth noting. In regards to the impact on humans, since asteroid mining takes place in space, the human populations of earth will be safely away from any side effects of mining. As such, asteroid mining seems to be morally acceptable on the grounds that it will almost certainly do no meaningful environmental damage.

It might be objected that the asteroids should still be left alone, despite the fact that they are almost certainly lifeless and thus devoid of creatures that could even be conceivably harmed by the mining. While I am an environmentalist, I do find it rather challenging to find a plausible ground on which to argue that lifeless asteroids should not be mined. After all, most of my stock arguments regarding the environment involve the impact of harms on living creatures (directly or indirectly).

That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined. But, that would seem to be a rather difficult case to plausible make. However, some other case could be made against mining them, perhaps one based on the concern of any asteroid environmentalists regarding these rocks.

In light of the above arguments, it would seem that there are not any reasonable environmentally based moral arguments against the mining of the asteroids. That could, of course, change if ecosystems were found on asteroids or if it turned out that the asteroids performed an important role in the solar system (this seems unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility).

Naturally, the moral concerns regarding asteroid mining are not limited to the environmental impact (or lack thereof) of the mining. There are also the usual concerns regarding the people who will be working in the field. Of course, that is not specific to asteroid mining and hence I will not address the ethics of labor here, other than to say the obvious: those working in the field should be justly compensated.

One moral concern that does interest me is the matter of ownership of the asteroids. What will most likely happen is that everything will play out as usual:  those who control the big guns and big money will decide who owns the rocks. If it follows the usual pattern, corporations will end up owning the rocks and will, with any luck, exploit them for significant profits.  Of course, that just says what will probably happen, not what would be morally right.

Interestingly enough, the situation with the asteroids nicely fits into the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke: there are resources in abundance with no effective authority (“space police”) over them -at least not yet. Since there are no rightful owners (or, put another way, we are all potentially rightful owners), it is tempting to claim that they are they for the taking: that is, an asteroid belongs to whoever, in Locke’s terms, mixes their labor with it and makes it their own (or more likely their employer’s own). This does have a certain appeal. After all, if my associates and I construct a robot ship that flies out to asteroid and mines it, we seem to have earned the right to that asteroid through our efforts. After all, before our ship mined it for water and metal, these valuable resources were just drifting in space, surrounded by rock. As such, it would seem that we would have the right to grab as many asteroids as we can-as would our competitors.

Of course, Locke also has his proviso: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. While this proviso has been grotesquely violated on earth, the asteroids provide us with a new opportunity (presumably to continue to grotesquely violate that proviso) to consider how to share (or not) the resources in the asteroids.

Naturally, it might be argued that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space and that things should be on a strict first grab, first get approach. After all, the people who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to reach and mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will end up, as they always do, out of luck and poor.

While this has a certain appeal, a case can be made as to why the resources should be shared. One reason is that the people who reach the asteroids to mine them did not do so by creating the means out of nothing. After all, reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to humanity and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Second, there is the concern for not only the people who are alive today but also for the people to be. To use an analogy, think of a buffet line: the mere fact that I am first in line does not seem to give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself so I can sell it to those who just happened to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Fortunately, space is really big and there are vast resources out there that will help with the distribution problem of said resources. Of course, the same used to be said of the earth and, as we expand, we will no doubt find even the solar system too small for our needs.

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Deleting Comments & Free Expression

Old_White_Beveled_Keyboard_Delete_Key
Image via Wikipedia

One task that blog moderators face is deciding whether to delete certain comments. In some cases, the decision is easy and obvious. Deleting spam, for example, requires no real thought. This is because spammers have no more more right to expect their spam to remain than the folks who stick flyers on my truck have the right to expect me to drive around with that flyer in place so people can see it. Web droppings (those irrelevant and often vulgar one or two sentence comments like “i lkes boobies”) can also be swept away without thought, just as you would think nothing about washing random “comments” left by passing birds on your windshield.

Where the decision making becomes more challenging is when comments are relevant to the topic (or at least interesting), contain some significant content but also have some serious issues.  Of course, what counts as a serious issue depends a great deal on the nature of the blog and other specifics of the context. To keep the discussion focused, I will confine my attention to blogs (such as this one) that are dedicated to rational, civil discussions. In this context, two main problem areas are tone/style and content. In regards to tone/style, a comment that is hateful, condescending, or insulting in tone is rather problematic. In regards to content, hateful, obscene, racist, sexist or other such material would also potentially be problematic.

There are many practical reasons to delete such comments. To keep the discussion concise, I will just present two.

First, they can easily drive away other readers who are not interested in reading such things. To use an analogy, allowing such comments to remain is like allowing rowdy, violent and hateful customers to remain in a typical store. Even if they are customers, they will tend to drive away well behaved customers who just want to shop. Likewise, allowing such comments can drive away those who are interested in the blog’s topics but not in being insulted or treated with contempt. The basic idea is that any value added by such comments will be outweighed by the value lost when others are driven away.

Second, such comments can be damaging to a blog’s reputation and the experience it offers. To use an analogy, a business that wishes to appear professional works hard to maintain that appearance (and reality). Allowing such comments on a site is a bit like allowing people to urinate on the business floor, harass other customers, and so forth. As such, it seems sensible to delete such comments. This is because any value gained from such comments will be outweighed by the damage done to the blog.

Of course, these are practical reasons. Since this is a philosophy blog it might be expected that more than merely practical concerns should be in play. To be specific, it might be argued that the right to free expression entails that even the “bad” comments should not be deleted.  Naturally, a reasonable person will agree that the comments should have at least some merit in order to be so protected.

While I do accept the idea of right to the freedom of expression, I also accept that deleting comments is consistent with this freedom. Naturally, I need to defend this position.

When people think of a right, they tend to conflate two types of rights: negative and positive. Having a negative right (which many refer to as a freedom) means (in general) that others do not have the right to prevent you from exercising that right. However, they are under no obligation to enable you to be able to act on that right or provide the means. To use a concrete example, the right to higher education in the United States is a negative right. No one has the right to deny a qualified person from attending college. However, the student has to secure entry to a college and must also be able to provide the money needed to stay enrolled. Having a positive right (which many refer to as an entitlement) means that the person is entitled to what the right promises. To use a concrete example, the right to public education at the K-12 level in the United States is a positive right: students are provided with this education for “free” (that is, it is paid for by taxes).

In the case of the right to freedom of expression, it seems that it is a negative right. That is, others do not have (in general) the right to prevent people from expressing their ideas. Obviously enough, there are limits to this (as the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example shows). It is not a positive right because others are not obligated to provide people with the means to express themselves.

To use an analogy, the freedom of expression seems comparable to the freedom to travel. While a free nation allows its citizens to travel about within the nation as they wish (within limits) and I have no right to stop people from such travels (except under certain conditions-such as when they want to “travel” into my house), I have no obligation to give someone a ride just because he wants to go to California. It is up to him to get his way there.

Likewise, while I have no right to try to censor or delete another person’s blog (under normal conditions) I also have no obligation to allow them to use my blog as a vehicle of their communication.  As such, if someone wishes to write things that I (or another moderator) do not wish to have on my site, it is no violation of the other person’s rights to delete it.

As far as me (or a moderator) having the right to delete comments, this seems to be a clear matter of property rights. Just as I have the right to remove and discard (almost) anything that other people stick on my truck or house, I also have the right to delete comments on my blog.

That said, in my own case I am careful in exercising this right. I do not delete comments merely because they are critical or express views I disagree with. On my own personal blog, I even tolerate the (rare) insult-provided that the comment also has relevant and significant content.  When I am posting on a site owned by someone else, my policy is to abide by their rules. If I find their deletions unacceptable, I have the option of not posting there anymore.

Naturally, more should be said about what would justify deleting a comment and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

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A New Home for A Philosopher’s Blog

I had planned on writing a post on war films and aesthetics, but this was not to be. At least not today. Instead, I spent my blogging time today in a much different manner.

I started my personal  philosophy blog,  “A Philosopher’s Blog” in 2007  and managed to build up a modest audience ( 200-600 views per day). That all came to an end today when I learned WordPress.com had suspended my account this morning. As per their TOS, they can do this without warning and without providing any opportunity to correct any alleged violation. They even take a total destruction approach:  a suspended user cannot even recover past posts.

I actually have no idea what I did to violate their TOS. Really. In fact, there are cases in which this problem arises and the person has not actually violated the TOS.

I did find that I was able to get access to my other WordPress.com blogs by getting my password reset. Of course, my philosophy blog was gone. Fortunately, I had just backed up my site recently and was able to import it with only a few bugs. I’ll have to go through and manually sort out issues with tags and categories, but at least the posts and comments are intact. I was also able to use Google’s cache feature to recover the text from blogs that had been posted since my last backup.

While I did like WordPress.com, I was not very pleased with how this alleged TOS violation was handled. But, as their page indicates, if you use their service then you are stuck with their rules. However, I am certainly not happy about losing my readership.

Update 3/11/2010

Like many bloggers, I use Zemanta to automate a lot of tedious chores, such as creating tags for posts and links within blogs. When I used Zemanta to create links in my blog on health care, it created a link to a diet pill web site that is on the “proscribed list” for WordPress.com. Thus, my blog was suspended. As I write this, I can see that Zemanta is ready to stick in the link to the diet pill site again. Obviously, I won’t be using Zemanta to create links anymore.

If your account is suspended and you have no idea why, check to see if Zemanta has added such a link to your site.

Also, here is what to do if your account is suspended.

First, when you try to log in to your account, your password will be rejected. You can, however, request that the password be changed by clicking the “I forgot my password” link. You’ll get a new one. However, if you do not have any blogs that are still active, you’ll have nothing to log into.

Second, contact support. The url is http://en.support.wordpress.com/contact/. For a suspended blog you will need to fill out the form without logging in. This is because you can type in the blog url if you are not logged on; but must select a blog from a drop-down menu if you are logged on. Suspended blogs do not show up in the drop down menu.

Explain the situation (that your blog is suspended) and ask why. Be brief and polite.

Third, wait for a reply. In my case, I had to remove the offending link. I was able to get into my blog dashboard and went to the posts. There I entered in the offending url in the search field. I found it, deleted it and the blog was back up shortly.

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