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FE Archive Volume 19, Number 2

Volume 19, Number 2 - 1/15/16 Twitter  Facebook  JLP Blog  


  • Though Wikipedia has long been one of the Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity..

  • Scientists have identified clusters of genes in the brain that are believed to be linked to human intelligence.

  • At least a hundred thousand military, civilian, and contractor personnel at the Defense Department have been subjected to a “continuous evaluation” or total surveillance (meaning 24/7, on and off the job) of their electronic activities and communications.

  • Of the 600 million packages delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas, about 10%, or 62 million, are expected to be returned in January.



You May Be Powerless to Stop a Drone from Hovering over Your Own Yard – (Washington Post – January 13, 2016)
For decades, the issue of who controls the nation’s air didn’t matter much to everyday Americans. Planes, after all, typically must stay hundreds of feet above ground while in the air. But drones that can take off or land almost anywhere -- and the tech companies who dream of using them to deliver goods to your front porch -- are igniting a debate over who exactly owns the air just above ordinary homes and lawns. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, every inch above the tip of your grass blades is the government’s jurisdiction. “The FAA is responsible for the safety and management of U.S. airspace from the ground up,” said an agency spokesman, echoing rules laid out on its website. But common law long held that landowners' rights went “all the way to Heaven.” The rise of air travel initially sparked questions about where those rights end and flyable space begins. The issue reached the Supreme Court during the 1940s in a case called United States v. Causby after a farmer brought a suit against the government over low-flying military planes taking off and landing from a nearby airport. The planes, he said, forced him out of the chicken business -- and he wanted compensation. The Court gave it to him -- and said that a property owner owns “at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land.” But even then, the justices didn’t clearly define a precise aerial boundary for landowners -- leaving a gray area. But if companies are going to deliver goods to the yards of customers, there will need to be clarity on exactly where a drone can fly. Could a drone, delivering a package to your neighbor, fly over your yard at 50 feet? Or would it need to descend vertically from hundreds of feet in the air to avoid trespassing on your airspace?

At 15, Wikipedia Is Finally Finding Its Way to the Truth – (Wired – January 15, 2016)
Wikipedia is now 15 years old. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of the Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity. The site’s defining moment, it turns out, came about a decade ago, when Stephen Colbert coined the term “Wikiality.” In a 2006 episode The Colbert Report, the comedian spotlighted Wikipedia’s most obvious weakness: With a crowdsourced encyclopedia, we run the risk of a small group of people—or even a single person—bending reality to suit their particular opinions or attitudes or motivations. “Any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true,” Colbert said, before ironically praising Wikipedia in a way that exposed one of its biggest flaws. To prove his point, Colbert invited viewers to add incorrect information to Wikipedia’s article on elephants. And they did. In the end, this wonderfully clever piece of participatory social commentary sparked a response from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and figurehead-in-chief. At the 2006 Wikimania—an annual gathering of Wikipedia’s core editors and administrators—Wales signaled a shift in the site’s priorities, saying the community would put a greater emphasis on the quality of its articles, as opposed to the quantity. But there was a problem. Although this crackdown may have improved the quality of the encyclopedia in some ways, it pushed many would-be editors away from Wikipedia. As site administrators fought to maintain quality, they created an environment that led to steady decline in the size of Wikipedia volunteer community. The ultimate irony is that, as fewer and fewer people edit Wikipedia, we run the risk of a small group of people bending reality to suit their particular opinions or attitudes or motivations. Wikipedia is a balancing act. It works because such a large number of people are allowed to participate, because it’s a democracy, if an imperfect one. (Editor’s note: We highly recommend this article for its analysis of opensource/crowdsourced democracy with all its benefits and all its flaws.)


What Can a 45,000-year-old Mammoth Carcass Say about Human History? – (Christian Science Monitor – January 14, 2016)
New research suggests anatomically modern humans may have lived remarkably far North in central Siberia as early as 45,000 years ago, a feat that would mean our ancestors were more technologically advanced than we previously believed. And this finding could have significant implications for the history of human migration, including the peopling of the Americas. Scientists announce this discovery based on clues from a strange source: a dead mammoth. The researchers unearthed mammoth bones with distinctive cut marks that suggested this animal fell victim to a band of hunters. Bits of stone, as if broken from a weapon, were even embedded in some of the slices. This isn't the first time scientists have discovered evidence that humans lived in Siberia at the time. In 2014, scientists sequenced the genome of a 45,000-year-old man discovered in western Siberia, but he was discovered around the 57 degrees North latitude line. The new find extends that populated region to nearly 72 degrees North. This discovery could actually help explain the peopling of the Americas. The researchers' findings situate human populations quite nearby, or perhaps along, the path that humans took from Eurasia to the Americas. What is now the Bering Strait was a strip of land during the last Ice Age, as the glaciers drew water out of the oceans, lowering sea levels. The so-called land bridge stretched from Siberia to present-day Alaska.


Illumina’s Bid to Beat Cancer with DNA Tests – (Technology Review – January 10, 2016)
The world’s largest DNA sequencing company says it will form a new company to develop blood tests that cost $1,000 or less and can detect many types of cancer before symptoms arise. Illumina, based in San Diego, said its blood tests should reach the market by 2019, and would be offered through doctors’ offices or possibly a network of testing centers. The spin-off’s name, Grail, reflects surging expectations around new types of DNA tests that might do more to defeat cancer than the more than $90 billion spent each year by doctors and hospitals on cancer drugs. The testing concept being pursued by Illumina, sometimes called a “liquid biopsy,” is to use high-speed DNA sequencing machines to scour a person’s blood for fragments of DNA released by cancer cells. If DNA with cancer-causing mutations is present, it often indicates a tumor is already forming, even if it’s too small to cause symptoms or be seen on an imaging machine. Illumina didn’t invent the idea for the tests, which were first developed by academic centers including at Johns Hopkins University (see “Spotting Cancer in a Vial of Blood”) and in Hong Kong (see "Liquid Biopsy"). But Flatley says only recently has gene-sequencing become inexpensive enough to try to make the cancer screening tests affordable.

Cloaking Chemo Drugs in Cellular Bubbles Destroys Cancer with One Fiftieth of a Regular Dose – (GizMag – January 15, 2016)
The chemotherapy drug paclitaxel is commonly used to treat breast, lung and pancreatic cancers, slowing their growth by preventing cancerous cells from replicating. But once administered the drug is attacked by the body's defenses, necessitating larger doses that result in complications such as joint pain, diarrhea and an impaired ability to fend off other infections. Researchers have now discovered a way to sneak the drug through to the tumor with its entire payload intact, a technique that could make for more effective cancer treatments with fewer side effects. In investigating ways cancer drugs may be able to slip through the body's defenses, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were experimenting with exosomes. Derived from the body's white blood cells, these tiny bubbles are made from the same material as cell membranes and help to protect against infection. "By using exosomes from white blood cells, we wrap the medicine in an invisibility cloak that hides it from the immune system. We don't know exactly how they do it, but the exosomes swarm the cancer cells, completely bypassing any drug resistance they may have and delivering their payload." Putting the new technique to the test, the team used exosomes taken from mouse white blood cells, loaded them up with paclitaxel and put them to work against multiple-drug-resistant cancer cells in petri dishes. The team observed that they only need one fiftieth of the commonly used dosage of paclitaxel to have the same cancer-killing success.

Pioneering artificial pancreas to undergo final tests – (Univ. of Virginia – January 4, 2016)
A device developed by University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers to automatically monitor and regulate blood-sugar levels in people with type 1 diabetes will undergo final testing in two clinical trials beginning in early 2016. Favorable results from these long-term clinical trials examining how the artificial pancreas works in real-life settings could lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other international regulatory groups to approve the device for use by people with type 1 diabetes, whose bodies do not produce enough insulin. Approximately 1.25 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal of the artificial pancreas is to eliminate the need for people with type 1 diabetes to stick their fingers multiple times daily to check their blood-sugar levels and to inject insulin manually. Instead, the artificial pancreas is designed to oversee and adjust insulin delivery as needed. At the center of the artificial pancreas platform – known as InControl – is a reconfigured smartphone running advanced algorithms that is linked wirelessly to a blood-sugar monitor and an insulin pump, as well as a remote-monitoring site. People with the artificial pancreas can also access assistance via telemedicine.

At C.D.C., a Debate Behind Recommendations on Cellphone Risk – (New York Times – January 1, 2016)
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines 18 months ago regarding the radiation risk from cellphones, it used unusually bold language on the topic for the American health agency: “We recommend caution in cellphone use.” The agency’s website previously had said that any risks “likely are comparable to other lifestyle choices we make every day.” Within weeks, though, the C.D.C. reversed course. It no longer recommended caution, and deleted a passage specifically addressing potential risks for children. Mainstream scientific consensus holds that there is little to no evidence that cellphone signals raise the risk of brain cancer or other health problems; rather, behaviors like texting while driving are seen as the real health concerns. Nevertheless, more than 500 pages of internal records obtained by The New York Times, along with interviews with former agency officials, reveal a debate and some disagreement among scientists and health agencies about what guidance to give as the use of mobile devices skyrockets. Although the initial C.D.C. changes, which were released in June 2014, had been three years in the making, officials quickly realized they had taken a step they were not prepared for. Health officials and advocates began asking if the new language represented a policy change. One state official raised the question of potential liabilities for allowing cellphones in schools. C.D.C. officials began debating how to back away from their recommendation of caution, internal emails show. One official proposed saying instead that other countries — “specifically the United Kingdom and Canadian governments” — recommended caution. Others suggested pointing to determinations by agencies in Finland, Israel and Austria. Ultimately, though, no other country was mentioned.

Scientists have discovered brain networks linked to intelligence for the First Time – (Science Alert – December 22, 2015)
For the first time ever, scientists have identified clusters of genes in the brain that are believed to be linked to human intelligence. The two clusters, called M1 and M3, are networks each consisting of hundreds of individual genes, and are thought to influence our cognitive functions, including memory, attention, processing speed, and reasoning. Most provocatively, the researchers who identified M1 and M3 say that these clusters are probably under the control of master switches that regulate how the gene networks function. If this hypothesis is correct and scientists can indeed find these switches, we might even be able to manipulate our genetic intelligence and boost our cognitive capabilities. "We know that genetics plays a major role in intelligence but until now haven't known which genes are relevant," said neurologist Michael Johnson, at Imperial College London in the UK. "This research highlights some of the genes involved in human intelligence, and how they interact with each other." The researchers made their discovery by examining the brains of patients who had undergone neurosurgery for the treatment of epilepsy. They analyzed thousands of genes expressed in the brain and combined the findings with two sets of data: genetic information from healthy people who had performed IQ tests, and from people with neurological disorders and intellectual disability. Comparing the results, the researchers discovered that some of the genes that influence human intelligence in healthy people can also cause significant neurological problems if they end up mutating. "Eventually, we hope that this sort of analysis will provide new insights into better treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases such as epilepsy, and ameliorate or treat the cognitive impairments associated with these devastating diseases," said Johnson. "Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence, but that is only a theoretical possibility at the moment – we have just taken a first step along that road."


Radioactive Materials Spreading from St. Louis Landfill – (RT – December 31, 2015)
Dangerous radioactive materials from a nuclear waste dump near St. Louis, Missouri have spread to neighboring areas, a new study shows. Storm water runoff from the site has also raised concerns and is being tested for radioactive pollution. According to a peer-reviewed study just published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, there is “strong evidence” that radon gas and water emanating from the West Lake Landfill are responsible for the anomalous levels of a lead isotope (210Pb), created by radioactive decay, in the surrounding area. Just northwest of the St. Louis International Airport, the West Lake Landfill is a repository of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project, the WWII effort to create the atomic bomb. The area was declared an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in 1990, but the federal government is still deciding how to clean up the waste. After analyzing nearly 300 soil samples from a 200-square-kilometer zone surrounding West Lake, the report’s authors concluded that “offsite migration of radiological contaminants from Manhattan Project-era uranium processing wastes has occurred in this populated area.” The study compared the levels of Lead-210 from 287 sample sites in the area to the baseline established by the US Department of Energy at the Fernald, Ohio uranium plant, which handled and stored the same concentrated nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project. Moreover, the levels of Lead-210 were not in equilibrium with other isotopes in the radioactive decay series, suggesting that its origin was in the “short-lived, fugitive radon gas that escaped the landfill,” the study says.

EPA Confirms Activists' Longtime Claims: Neonicotinoid Pesticide Threatens Honeybees – (Truth Out – January 6, 2016)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that a preliminary risk assessment of the pesticide imidacloprid shows that the chemical poses a threat to some pollinators, specifically honeybees. Imidacloprid is one of four neonicotinoid pesticides that honey producers and environmentalists have long suspected to be linked to rapidly declining bee populations in North America and beyond, a phenomenon widely known as colony collapse disorder. The EPA is in the process of reviewing the class of chemicals to determine whether they pose an ecological threat to pollinators, starting with imidacloprid. Neonictonoids are nicotine-like pesticides that attack the central nervous system of insects and are commonly used to protect seed stocks and kill unwanted foliage-eating bugs like aphids and beetles. The agency found that residues of imidacloprid with a concentration of 25 parts per billion or higher on flowering plants and their nectar are likely to have a negative effect on beehive populations. Data shows that flowering crops such as cotton and citrus are likely to have concentrations of the pesticide above the 25 parts per billion threshold, while other crops, such as corn and leafy vegetables, either do not produce nectar that attracts bees or typically have residue levels below the threshold. The European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2013 despite considerable pushback from pesticide manufacturers, and environmentalists have urged the EPA to take action to limit use of the chemicals for years.


Researchers Use Apple Watch to Pilot Drone, Control HomeKit Hue Lamps Via Hand Gestures – (Apple Insider – January 1, 2016) – (Apple Insider – January 1, 2016))
Engineering students at Taiwan's National Chung Hsing University demonstrated a clever use of the motion sensors in Apple Watch to interpret hand gestures, enabling them to remotely control real world devices akin to the science fiction fantasy depicted in Star Wars. Simply wearing an Apple Watch provides enough motion controls—thanks to the device's gyroscope and accelerometers—to allow the researchers to pilot a Parrot AR Drone 3.0 using hand movements, or alternatively turn on Philips Hue HomeKit lamps using a clap, then activate a given color by tracing the outline of a character (such as drawing out a "R" to turn the lamp red). Apple has been working on enabling technologies related to hardware motion sensitivity since the iPhone first appeared in 2007 with a proximity sensor, a 3-axis accelerometer (for tilt, motion and bump/shake detection) and WiFi location features. The company subsequently gave iPhone 3G full Global Positioning Satellite support, added a digital compass to iPhone 3GS, and then updated the motion-sensing accelerometer to a 6-axis gyroscope in iPhone 4, capable of determining pitch, yaw and roll (twisting movements).

Processor With Photonic Interconnects Built – (IEEE Spectrum – December 23, 2015)
Chip designers would love to use light beams rather than copper wires to move data between microprocessors. Such optical interconnects would overcome the bandwidth bottleneck inherent in the wires and take full advantage of the leaps in processor speed, but marrying two very different technologies—electronics and photonics—has been a high hurdle to overcome. Now a group of researchers has proposed a way to build transistors and optics on the same chip, doing so for the first time without a major overhaul of the chip-making process. And they used it to build an IC containing 70 million transistors and 850 photonic components, which together provide all the logic, memory, and interconnection functions a processor needs. Engineers at MIT, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado, Boulder started with a silicon substrate, then added a 200-nm thick layer of silicon-oxide, which acts as an insulator. Over that is the active layer—100 nm of crystalline silicon—plus a 100-nm layer of nitrides and a dielectric coating. The crystalline silicon includes a small amount of germanium to produce strain on the silicon and speed up the circuits. One key component to the photonics portion of the chip is a micro-ring resonator, a loop 10 micrometers across that’s coupled to a waveguide.


Lowline Project Aims to Turn Manhattan Trolley Station into Subterranean Park – (CBC News – December 29, 2015)
Finding space in Manhattan to build a new park is virtually impossible, so a team of designers has come up with a novel solution: build it underground. Tucked away in a warehouse on Manhattan's Lower East Side is a lush tropical garden that Dan Barasch and his team hope to one day transform into what they say will be the world's first underground park. Barasch is the co-founder of the Lowline project, which aims to do for an abandoned trolley station what the High Line did for a disused, elevated section of the New York Central Railroad, which was transformed into an urban park five years ago that has become popular with tourists and locals alike. The Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal is where the Lowline's creators hope to build a subterranean park. Abandoned in 1948, the site is visible from the current Essex St. subway station. "What we plan to do is install solar collectors on surrounding rooftops right above the underground site and then direct natural sunlight into the underground space," Barasch said as he gave a tour of the Lowline Lab, which demonstrates how the technology would work. Article includes video clip of the demonstration Lowline Lab.

Dezeen's Top 10 Houses of 2015 – (Dezeen – December 23, 2015)
If you’d like to see something a bit bigger than Lego pieces, take a look at these structures. Over 400 houses from all over the world have been featured on Dezeen in the past year. Architecture editor Amy Frearson picks her top 10, including a transparent home in rural Japan, a top-heavy residence beside a Chilean lagoon, and a concrete property built behind crumbling walls of volcanic stone.


A Battery That Shuts Down at High Temperatures and Restarts When It Cools – (Kurzweil AI – January 11, 2016)
Stanford researchers have invented a lithium-ion battery that shuts down before overheating to prevent the battery fires that have plagued laptops, hoverboards and other electronic devices. The battery restarts immediately when the temperature cools. The design is an enhancement of a wearable sensor that monitors human body temperature invented by Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford. The sensor is made of a plastic material embedded with tiny particles of nickel with nanoscale spikes protruding from their surface. For the battery experiment, the researchers coated the spiky nickel particles with graphene, an atom-thick layer of carbon, and embedded the particles in a thin film of elastic polyethylene. To conduct electricity, the spiky particles have to physically touch one another. But during thermal expansion, polyethylene stretches. That causes the particles to spread apart, making the film non-conductive so that electricity can no longer flow through the battery. When the battery cools, the polyethylene shrinks, bringing the particles in contact again and causing the battery to generate power. The new battery design has up to 10,000 times higher temperature sensitivity than previous switch devices, and the temperature range can be adjusted by changing the particle density or type of polymer.

The Crazy, Brilliant Plan for a Huge Hydropower Plant in South America's Driest Desert – (Fast Company – January 15, 2016)
Stuck between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth. But the area's weird geography means that it will soon be home to a massive hydropower plant—the first step in a new system that could theoretically provide all of South America with 100% renewable energy. The new plant, called the Mirror of Tarapaca, will generate solar power during the day and use that to suck seawater up a tunnel to the top of a mountain, where the water can be stored in a natural reservoir. At night, the plant will drop the water back down, generating power as it falls. Unlike solar or wind power on its own, it's a guaranteed source of energy at any time of the day. The coastline of Chile is one of the few places in the world where the design can work. "Chile has the best conditions in the world for solar plants—roughly 15% better than Arizona," says Francisco Torrealba, co-founder of Valhalla, the company building the plant. "It's really stunning. But Chile also has the best conditions in the world for pump storage running with seawater. That means we can produce flat, steady power at a very reasonable price." Pumped storage—pumping water up and down, basically the equivalent of a giant battery—is usually used at dams. In Chile, the region's geography basically creates a natural dam, meaning little construction is necessary other than the tunnels.


The Ehang 184 Is A Human-Sized Autonomous Drone That Can Fly You Around Without A Pilot, But Don’t Get Excited Yet – (Tech Times – January 10, 2016)
The Ehang 184 is huge compared to most drones we see getting stuck in neighborhood trees. The Ehang 184 is the world's first passenger-ready drone, or PFV (personal flying vehicle). Of course, it is still a drone and will naturally fly itself. But will it really take off? Yes, it actually will. The Ehang 184 is equipped with a total of eight rotors pushing 142 horsepower. The eight rotors are grouped by two at the four corners of the passenger drone, lifting it up to as high as 11,000 feet while cruising at 62 miles per hour. Convenience is part of the main selling point of the Ehang 184. Passengers would simply slide into the drone, turn it on, tap their destination on the 12-inch tablet display and take off. Unfortunately, the Ehang 184 is illegal to operate in the U.S. since it hasn't been tested or approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. It has taken quite a while for the FAA to come up with rules and regulations overseeing unmanned aircraft systems. There are so many flying around U.S. cities and neighborhoods, the agency had to act before little drones started falling on our heads. There's nothing like the Ehang 184, and the Chinese company that builds it will have a bunch of hurdles to overcome before it can finally become airworthy in American skies.

The Future of Driverless Cars Isn’t Going to Look Like You Think – (Washington Post – January 5, 2016)
"Uber, their whole goal is to minimize the time from request to pickup, and to do that means you have to have a lot of vehicles," says Dave King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "And if they're the monopolists, maybe it’s close to being efficient. But they’re not going to be the monopolists." None of these companies will, he predicts. That's because autonomous cars will require the same market segmentation we already have today (whether consumers want to own these vehicles or share them or use some hybrid service in between). In the autonomous future, there may be a GM/Lyft fleet (the young, friendly brand), and a Ford/Google fleet (the utilitarian one), and a Toyota fleet ("dull and consistent," King suggests), and a BMW fleet (for luxury!), and an Uber one (for the shortest, most ruthless wait time mathematically possible). "For every firm to be profit-maximizing in going after their market in their own way," King predicts, "is going to lead to a tremendous oversupply of vehicles on our streets—way more so than we have now." That's the opposite of what many optimists are predicting: that in a world where we more efficiently use cars, we'll need fewer of them. (Editor’s note: We’re not sure King is correct: it may or may not lead to oversupply – depending on the corollary of individual consumer behavior. How does the scenario change if enough people no longer own any personal vehicle?)


USDA To Grant $3 Million For Robots To Roam Farmlands – (Modern Farmer – December 31, 2015)
The National Robotics Initiative is actually a multi-departmental program; plenty of agencies are included, from NASA to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to the Departments of Health and Energy. The USDA might seem a strange bedfellow with all those techie agencies, but robotics have been a huge part of agriculture for years. Just a sample: We’ve seen farms attended entirely by robots, a robot that can herd sheep like a border collie, a robot that can sort two tons of grapes in 12 minutes, and a Roomba-like robot that can distinguish good leaves (lettuce) from bad ones (weeds) and pick the bad ones. For example, At UC Davis, robots will be used to figure out low-cost, high-efficiency harvesting systems for orchards. At the University of Minnesota, home of the honeycrisp apple, a grant will go to creating algorithms so owners of apple orchards can use off-the-shelf robots to pick, fertilize, and plant. And at the University of Pennsylvania, the grant will go towards figuring out new ways to use UAVs, better known as drones, to gather and analyze farm data.

Some of the Most Delicious Foods in the World Are Disappearing – (Slate – January 11, 2016)
Excerpted from Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, out now from HarperOne. Nearly every historic fruit and vegetable variety once found in the United States has disappeared. For millennia, we’ve made decisions about what to grow or not grow—and what to eat or not eat. That’s what agriculture is: a series of decisions we, and our ancestors, have made about what we want our food and food system to look and taste like. But our ability to make these decisions—and indulge in our pleasures—is being compromised in ways that are unprecedented. While some places in the world are experiencing an increase of diversity in certain parts of their diets, the general trend is the same one we see in phones and fashion: standardization. Every place looks and tastes more similar—and the country that sets this trend is America. The refined carbohydrates, animal proteins, and added fats and sugars that make up the majority of our diets have also become the template diet for the world. For example, in one Walmart (the No. 1 grocery chain in America), the author counted 153 different flavors of ice cream and eight different brands of yogurt. But the choices are superficial—primarily in flavor and secondarily in brand, most of which are owned by the same company. In addition, more than 90% of every container of yogurt, milk, and ice cream is made with milk from one breed of cow, the Holstein-Friesian, known as the highest-producing dairy animal in the world.


US Prisoners Released Early by Software Bug – (BBC News – December 23, 2015)
More than 3,200 US prisoners have been released early because of a software glitch. The bug miscalculated the sentence reductions prisoners in Washington state had received for good behavior. It was introduced in 2002 as part of an update that followed a court ruling about applying good behavior credits. State officials said that many early-release prisoners would have to return to jail to finish their sentences. "That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening," said Washington's governor Jay Inslee at a press conference. The Washington Department of Corrections (DoC) added that it was made aware of the problem in 2012 when the family of one victim found out that the offender was getting out too early. Despite this, the faulty software was not corrected until a new IT boss for the DoC was appointed, who realized how serious the problem had become. Analysis of the errors showed that, on average, prisoners whose sentences were wrongly calculated got out 49 days early. One prisoner had his sentence cut by 600 days. Local police are now helping to round up those who still need to spend time in jail. Five people have already been returned to cells. An independent investigation has also been started to find out how the mistake was left uncorrected for so long.

‘Insider Threat’ Program: Hundred Thousand Pentagon Personnel Under Total Surveillance – (ShadowProof – January 7, 2016)
At least a hundred thousand military, civilian, and contractor personnel at the Defense Department have been subjected to a “continuous evaluation” or total surveillance (meaning 24/7, on and off the job) of their electronic activities and communications. The surveillance is part of the department’s “Insider Threat” program and raises concerns about the extent to which whistleblower communications are being intercepted. According to a 2015 report to Congress, “The total surveillance of personnel with access to classified information makes it possible to conduct “insider threat analyses” of “law enforcement, personnel security, human resources, counterintelligence, physical security, network behavior monitoring, and cybersecurity activities.” There is only one small mention of the issue of privacy and civil liberties in the report. It relates to the issue of having experts who will help the “senior agency official” in charge of “insider threat detection and prevention.” One of the experts is to advise on “privacy and civil liberties” concerns related to information technology, data analysis, and systems engineering. Beyond that, it does not appear the Defense Department believes total surveillance of personnel raises any constitutional questions. Senators Chuck Grassley and Ron Wyden wrote a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on June 18, 2014, where they argued there should be “constitutional, statutory, and prudential limits” to any monitoring of personnel. “Any monitoring of employees’ ‘electronic behavior on the job as well as off the job’ needs to include safeguards to prevent the chilling of legitimate whistleblower communications and protect the confidentiality of any legally privileged information,” the senators maintained. Despite concerns from whistleblower advocates and U.S. senators, like Grassley and Wyden, who have served on oversight committees, the House of Representatives passed a bill in November to expand the “Insider Threat” program to include total surveillance of credit, criminal, and social media activities of Department of Homeland Security personnel.

Robotic Falcon Can Capture, Retrieve Renegade Drones – (Kurzweil AI – January 11, 2016)
Mo Rastgaar, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, and his team have developed a drone catcher that can pursue and capture rogue drones that might threaten military installations, air traffic, sporting events, and even the White House — as startled Secret Service officers discovered when one crash-landed on the White House lawn last January. It’s a simple system (see embedded video clip): a launcher shoots a big net attached to a large drone by a string. After an intruding drone is spotted, the drone catcher takes up the chase and fires the net at it from a distance of up to 40 feet (perhaps more spider than falcon). Because the net is so big and can be deployed so quickly, it can overwhelm even the fastest, most maneuverable small drone, the engineers claim.Once trapped, the net swings down below the drone catcher, which ferries its cargo to a safe location. The system can be autonomous, controlled by a ground-based human pilot, or a combination of the two. “If the threat is a drone, you really don’t want to shoot it down — it might contain explosives and blow up, says Rastgaar. “What you want to do is catch it and get it out of there.” Other potential applications include foiling spy drones, smugglers, and terrorists, and supporting the recent FAA announcement requiring drones to be registered.


Spy Agencies Resist Push for Expanded Scrutiny of Top Employees – (Washington Post – December 31, 2015)
U.S. intelligence agencies recently fought off a move by Congress to require the CIA and other spy services to disclose more details about high-ranking employees who have been promoted or fired, despite pledges to be more open and accountable. The disputed measure was designed to increase scrutiny of cases in which senior officers ascend to high-level positions despite problems ranging from abusive treatment of subordinates to involvement in botched operations overseas. The CIA in particular has come under sharp criticism in recent years for promoting operatives who faced investigations by the agency’s internal watchdog or the Justice Department for their roles in the brutal interrogations of prisoners or badly mishandled operations to capture terrorism suspects. Under a provision drafted by the Senate Intelligence Committee this year, intelligence agencies would have been required to regularly provide names of those being promoted to top positions and disclose any “significant and credible information to suggest that the individual is unfit or unqualified.” But that language faced intense opposition from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., according to officials involved in the matter. As a result, the wording was watered down by Congress this month and now requires Clapper only to furnish “information the Director determines appropriate.” See also: Spying on Congress and Israel: NSA Cheerleaders Discover Value of Privacy Only When Their Own Is Violated

World Class Journalist Spills The Beans – (Collective Evolution – December 3, 2015)
Dr. Udo Ulfkotte is a top German journalist and editor, (formerly an editor for the major German daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and has been for more than two decades, so he knows the mainstream media and what really happens behind the scenes. Recently, Dr. Ulfakatte went on public television stating that he was forced to publish the works of intelligence agents under his own name, also adding that noncompliance with these orders would result in him losing his job. It’s important to keep in mind that Dr. Ulfakatte is not the only person making these claims; multiple reporters have done the same and this kind of truthfulness is something the world needs more of. One (out of many) great examples of a whistleblowing reporter is investigative journalist and former CBC News reporter Sharyl Attkisson. She delivered a hard-hitting TEDx talk showing how fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages. Another great example is Amber Lyon, a three-time Emmy award winning journalist at CC, who said that they are routinely paid by the US government and foreign governments to selectively report and even distort information on certain events. She has also indicated that the government has editorial control over content. Ever since Operation Mockingbird, a CIA-based initiative to control mainstream media, more and more people are expressing their concern that what we see in the media is nothing short of brainwashing. This is also evident by blatant lies that continue to spam the TV screen, especially when it comes to topics such as health, food, war (‘terrorism‘), poverty, and more.


Obama's Drone War a Recruitment Tool for Isis, Say US Air Force Whistleblowers – (Guardian – November 18, 2015)
Four former US air force service members, with more than 20 years of experience between them operating military drones, have written an open letter to Barack Obama warning that the program of targeted killings by unmanned aircraft has become a major driving force for Isis and other terrorist groups. The group of servicemen have issued an impassioned plea to the Obama administration, calling for a rethink of a military tactic that they say has “fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like Isis, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantánamo Bay”. In particular, they argue, the killing of innocent civilians in drone airstrikes has acted as one of the most “devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world”. The joint statement – from the group who have experience of operating drones over Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones – represents a public outcry from what is understood to be the largest collection of drone whistleblowers in the history of the program. Three of the letter writers were sensor operators who controlled the powerful visual equipment on US Predator drones that guide Hellfire missiles to their targets. The number of lethal airstrikes has ballooned under Obama’s watch. The Pentagon has plans further to increase the number of daily drone flights by 50% by 2019.


The Rise of Return-Anything Culture – (Atlantic – December 30, 2015)
Nowadays, many big and small online retailers, in an effort to remain competitive, offer not just free shipping on the front end, but generous return policies too, oftentimes covering the shipping costs on returns. One analysis from Granify, an online-retail consultancy, showed that a favorable return policy trumped even attractive prices when it came to online purchasing decisions. The National Retail Federation estimates that returns will add up to some $260 billion this year. And according to Marketplace, of the 600 million packages delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas, about 10%, or 62 million, are expected to be returned in January. Where do all these items go? Many shoppers might believe that they end up back on shelves, but most of the time they’re passed off to liquidators and resellers—or they’re thrown out, if that’s the cheapest option. The startup Optoro, as The New York Times reports, is handling returns for companies geared toward reselling returned products instead of creating waste. Optoro’s pitch is about reducing waste, but also about helping retailers recoup the cost of returned items by reselling them directly online. And it’s looking like the reach of return-anything culture will continue to spread. Perhaps the most extreme example: Target will provide Target gift cards in exchange for gift cards from 600 other retailers, though customers will only receive 85% of the original card’s value.

How ‘Do Not Track’ Ended Up Going Nowhere – (Re/Code – January 4, 2016)
Back in 2010, the Federal Trade Commission pledged to give Internet users the power to determine if or when websites were allowed to track their behavior. But five years out, the same agency whose Do Not Call initiative failed to stop unwanted telemarketing calls once again has little to show for its efforts, this time to control tracking on the Web. Last month, two members of Congress resurrected the plan. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., filed a bill that seeks to finish what the FTC started — giving consumers control over their personal information online and preventing companies from collecting data when users don’t want to be tracked. Blumenthal said,“People deserve to be empowered to stop trackers who collect and store their personal, private information.” Good luck with that. This article reviews just how the best intentions of FTC’s Do Not Track initiative went so wrong. For starters, by tapping the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that sets standards for the Web, to work out the details for implementing Do Not Track, the FTC relied on a group dominated by powerful Internet companies. These companies included Google, Facebook and Yahoo, whose businesses depend on online advertising, which require precision tracking of users. To put it another way, that’s like Sony Pictures inviting the North Koreans to run vulnerability tests on its computer networks.


Milky Way Grew from the Inside Out – (Discovery – January 11, 2016)
Scientists have made a cosmic growth chart of the Milky Way galaxy, an innovative blending of data collected by the ongoing Sloan Digital Sky Survey and a new technique to determine the ages of stars. As expected, the analysis shows the galaxy’s central disk formed from the inside out, with red giant stars as old as about 13 billion years clustered toward the center and younger stars about 1 billion years old closer to the disk’s edge, according to astronomer Melissa Ness, with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. Unique to the survey is its age-dating technique, which is based on a star’s size. Ness and colleagues used high-quality Sloan survey spectra, which reveals a star’s chemistry, with optical data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope to develop a model that can be used to pinpoint a star’s age. “This is somewhat revolutionary because ages have previously been considered very hard to get, particularly from stellar spectra. They’re important, but they’re difficult,” Ness said. The key was a newly discovered relationship between a star’s age and its ratio of carbon-to-nitrogen, concentrations of which can be ferreted out by analyzing a star’s spectra.

Black Hole ‘Missing Link’ May Have Been Discovered In The Milky Way – (IB Times – January 16, 2016)
Most galaxies have one “supermassive” black hole in their heart, and until now, only a handful of galaxies harboring two black holes have been observed. Now, just days after researchers at the University of Colorado in the U.S. said that they had spotted a double black hole-toting galaxy far, far away, a team of Japanese researchers, led by Tomoharu Oka, a professor at Keio University in Japan, have done the same closer home. In a statement released Friday, the researchers said that they had detected signs of a black hole with a mass of 100,000 times the mass of the Sun near the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Supermassive black holes can have anywhere between a few million and a few billion solar masses, and are present at the center of all galaxies. Observations suggest that these black holes are formed either due to the merger of smaller intermediate-size “seeds,” or a supermassive black hole seed from a giant star — about 100 times the sun’s mass — that ultimately forms into a black hole after it runs out of fuel and collapses. If the gas cloud named CO-0.40-0.22, located only 200 light-years away from the center of the Milky Way, does contain an intermediate black hole, it would provide scientists an opportunity to test the theory that supermassive black holes evolve from these lower-mass seeds. “These results open a new way to search for black holes with radio telescopes,” the observatory said, in the statement.

NASA Observes the Brightest Galaxy Destroying Itself – (Clarksville online – January 16, 2016)
In a far-off galaxy, 12.4 billion light-years from Earth, a ravenous black hole is devouring galactic grub. Its feeding frenzy produces so much energy, it stirs up gas across its entire galaxy. “It is like a pot of boiling water being heated up by a nuclear reactor in the center,” said Tanio Diaz-Santos of the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, lead author of a new study about this galaxy. This galaxy, called W2246-0526, is the most luminous galaxy known, based on data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). That means that it has the highest power output of any galaxy in the universe, and would appear to shine the brightest if all galaxies were at the same distance from us. “This galaxy is tearing itself apart,” said Roberto Assef, astronomer with the Universidad Diego Portales and leader of the observing team at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. “The momentum and energy of the particles of light deposited in the gas are so great that they are pushing the gas out in all directions.” The growing supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is the likely engine of the turbulence. As the gravitational pull of the black hole attracts surrounding gas and other matter, the material forms a structure around it called an accretion disk. The friction from this disk produces the intense brightness, making the galaxy shine like a combination of more than 300 trillion suns. The black hole’s event horizon is thought to be one million times smaller than the W2246-0526 galaxy, yet the energy emitted by the black hole’s swallowing of material affects gas thousands of light-years away from it.


When Are You Really An Adult? – (Atlantic – January 5, 2016)
If you think of the transition to “adulthood” as a collection of markers—getting a job, moving away from your parents, getting married, and having kids—for most of history, with the exception of the 1950s and 60s, people did not become adults any kind of predictable way. Age alone does not an adult make. But what does? In the United States, people are getting married and having kids later in life, but those are just optional trappings of adulthood, not the thing itself. Psychologists talk of a period of prolonged adolescence, or emerging adulthood, that lasts into the 20s, but when have you emerged? What makes you finally, really an adult? There is either no answer, or a variety of complex and multifaceted answers. But rather than offer a messy explanation, this author is offering a postmodern explanation. Those answers, such as they are, are drawn from interviews, most of them highly illuminating. For example, “At 28, I can say that sometimes I feel like an adult and a lot of the time, I don't. Being a Millennial and trying to adult is wildly disorienting. I can't figure out if I'm supposed to start a non-profit, get another degree, develop a wildly profitable entrepreneurial venture, or somehow travel the world and make it look effortless online. Mostly it just looks like taking a job that won't ever pay off my student debt in a field that is not the one that I studied.”


Super Strong, Lightweight Metal Could Build Tomorrow's Spacecraft – (UPI – December 24, 2015)
A new metal, a combination of magnesium and ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles, is promising to change how airplanes, spacecraft and cars are manufactured. Its inventors, materials scientists at UCLA, say the metal is super strong, but most importantly, lightweight. The metal's stiffness-to-weight ratio is what sets it apart from similar inventions. Researchers say the metal may be just the first of many groundbreaking manufacturing materials. That's because they've invented a new technique for infusing metals without nanoparticles without hurting the metal's structural integrity. The new material showed improved strength, stiffness, plasticity and durability under high temperatures. Previous research showed ceramic nanoparticles have a tendency to clump together when added to metals, making them stronger but weakening their plasticity. Researchers solved this problem by dispersing the nanoparticles in a molten magnesium zinc alloy.

How 3D Printing Threatens Our Patent System – (The Conversation – January 6, 2016)
Remember Napster or Grokster? Both services allowed users to share computer files – usually digital music – that infringed the copyrights for those songs. Now imagine that, instead of music, you could download a physical object. That is already becoming a reality. With a 3D printer, someone can download a computer file, called a computer-aided design (CAD) file, that instructs the printer to make a physical, three-dimensional object. Just as digital media challenged the copyright system with rampant copyright infringement, the patent system likely will encounter widespread infringement of patented inventions through 3D printing. However, the patent system is even more ill-equipped to deal with this situation than copyright law was, posing a challenge to a key component of our innovation system. Patent rights help keep competitors out of the market, allowing the patent owner to recover R&D costs. The owner also can use the patent to support efforts to commercialize the invention. If people can evade the patent, however, then its value is reduced, undermining these important incentives. 3D printing presents this potential. (Editor’s note: Patent protection is the “other side” of the open source approach to encouraging innovation. The real issue here is how to monetize innovation, particularly in areas that require high R&D investment. We can imagine something like an iTunes business model that allows developers to sell the 3D printer instructions.)


It’s a Xanax World: Investment Outlook from Bill Gross – (Janus Capital – January , 2016)
Bill Gross, once known as the “Bond King” for his stellar returns in bond investments, offers this wry and sobering look at the impact of global demographics on future global economy. His bond returns may or may not be impressive now, but he sits at a height from which he can take a long view. Gross opens with this observation: “The Romans gave their Plebian citizens a day at the Coliseum, and the French royalty gave the Bourgeoisie a piece of figurative “cake”, so it may be true to form that in the still prosperous developed economies of 2016, we provide Fantasy Sports, cellphone game apps, sexting, and fast food to appease the masses. Keep them occupied and distracted at all costs before they recognize that half of the U.S. population doesn’t go to work in the morning and that their real wages after conservatively calculated inflation have barely budged since the mid 1980’s.” He goes on, ” It’s a wonderful life for the 1% and a Xanax existence for the 99. But who’s looking – or counting – even at the ballot box. November 2016 will not change a thing – 8 years of Hillary or 8 years of a non-Hillary. Same difference. Central bankers, Superpacs, and K street lobbyists are in control.” As a member of the 1/10th of the 1%, he does know what he’s saying – and he does, in this article, eventually focus on demographics. (Editor’s note: This is an article worth reading for its perspective and it analysis. Where he may be crucially wrong is in underestimating the rise of robotic replacement of labor over the next 20 years; we may not need the same number of young workers to support each retiree as has historically been the case.)

Bitcoin Returns – (Bob’s Guide – January 8, 2016)
The fall in Chinese stocks at the start of this year boosted bitcoin above $450 as investors sought security in this currency after the Shanghai Composite index dropped by 7.3%. China is responsible for over 80% of global bitcoin trading and according to Charles Hayter from CryptoCompare, many are choosing this currency because of the recent renminbi depreciation. “The Chinese Bitcoin Exchanges are being used as a means to exit the renminbi and as a flight to safety. Bitcoin is living up to its name as a form of digital gold,” Hayter said. Despite being dangerously volatile, research completed by The Money Project reveals that the cryptocurrency was the best forming currency last year, which was evidenced by its increase of 35% against the dollar. The rise in bitcoin activity does not ensure that people are actually using this cryptocurrency to make payments, as according to company spokesperson Judd Bagley, transactions only account for 0.05 to 0.1% of the organization’s sales. “With basic payment applications, we do see usage creep up. But it’s important not to be overly optimistic there. It’s fairly clear that a American consumer – someone in a developed country – has a fair number of ways to pay for stuff already,” Bagley said. The daily price of one bitcoin relative to the US dollar can be found here. For another perspective on Bitcoin, see “Lead developer quits bitcoin saying it has failed”.


Why Evolution May Be Intelligent, Based on Deep Learning – (Kurzweil AI – January 11, 2016)
A computer scientist and biologist propose to unify the theory of evolution with learning theories to explain the “amazing, apparently intelligent designs that evolution produces.” The authors’ new approach offers an alternative to “intelligent design”, which negates natural selection as an explanation for apparently intelligent features of nature. The scientists — University of Southampton School of Electronics and Computer Science professor Richard Watson* and Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest) professor of biology Eörs Szathmáry* — say they’ve found that it’s possible for evolution to exhibit some of the same intelligent behaviors as learning systems — including neural networks. “A system exhibits learning if its performance at some task improves with experience,” the authors note in the paper. “Reusing behaviors that have been successful in the past (reinforcement learning) is intuitively similar to the way selection increases the proportion of fit phenotypes [an organism's observable characteristics or traits] in a population. In fact, evolutionary processes and simple learning processes are formally equivalent. By reinforcing correlations that are frequent, regardless of whether they are good, unsupervised correlation learning can produce system-level behaviors without system-level rewards. This can be implemented without centralized learning mechanisms. Taken together, correlation learning, unsupervised correlation learning, and deep correlation learning thus provide a formal way to understand how variation, selection, and inheritance, respectively, might be transformed over evolutionary time.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH - articles off the beaten track which may - or may not - have predictive value.

Gunmaker to Forge $1 Million Pistols from a Meteorite – (CNN – December 24, 2015)
Cabot Guns announced that its "extra-terrestrial pistols" will be forged from a meteorite as old as the Earth itself, and could sell for as much as $1 million at auction next year. Cabot, a four-year-old company located near Pittsburgh that's sometimes called the Rolls Royce of gun makers. The gun company plans to forge its "Big Bang pistol set" from a 35-kilogram chunk of the Gibeon meteorite, which crashed to Earth 4.5 billion years ago and was discovered in Namibia in the 1830s. The company's clients include actor Joe Mantegna, rocker Kid Rock and Twisted Sister's Dee Snyder. Cabot founder and president Rob BiaNchin said, "Meteor is rare, more so than terrestrial precious metals and I wanted to create a set of guns that were formed from a material that had intrinsic value." Cabot has fashioned a pair of pistol grips from the meteorite, and BiaNchin is now confident they can move on to building an entire gun. "We were not sure it was possible, but we have passed the critical stage of construction and we are confident these will be a fully functional set of left and right-handed mirror image pistols," he said. "Building each component has been a science experiment."


How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity – (New York Times – January 2, 2016)
A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information. How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking? For decades, a University of Missouri information scientist named Sanda Erdelez has been asking that question. Her qualitative data — from surveys and interviews — showed that the subjects fell into three distinct groups. Some she called “non-encounterers”; they saw through a tight focus, a kind of chink hole, and they tended to stick to their to-do lists when searching for information rather than wandering off into the margins. Other people were “occasional encounterers,” who stumbled into moments of serendipity now and then. Most interesting were the “super-encounterers,” who reported that happy surprises popped up wherever they looked. So how many big ideas emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs? One survey of patent holders (the PatVal study of European inventors, published in 2005) found that an incredible 50% of patents resulted from what could be described as a serendipitous process. The article goes on to discuss further research attempting to answer the question posed in the title: “How does one cultivate this art?”


Never confuse motion with action. - Benjamin Franklin

A special thanks to: A special thanks to: Bernard Calil, Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Todd Pierce, Gary Sycalik, Steve Ujvarosy and all of you who have sent us interesting links in the past. If you see something we should know about, do send it along - thanks.


Edited by John L. Petersen

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