Volume 13, Number 16 – 8/30/10

Volume 13, Number 16 – 8/30/10


  • Vitamin D has been found to influence over 200 genes, highlighting links to disease.
  • The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this summer its sea ice is melting at a near-record pace.
  • Defying their reputation as a scourge of households, bedbugs are creeping into a growing number of office cubicles, break rooms and filing cabinets..
  • Physician-guided robots routinely operate on patients now at most major hospitals, but the next generation robot could eliminate a surprising element: the doctor.


Crowd Sourcing Looses Steam – (Newsweek – August 9, 2010)
In the history of the web, last spring may figure as a tipping point. That’s when Wikipedia-a site that grew from 100,000 articles in 2003 to more than 15 million today-began to falter as a social movement. Thousands of volunteer editors who write, fact-check, and update all those articles, logged off-many for good. For the first time, more contributors appeared to be dropping out than joining up. A deep and enduring truth about human nature may account for it: most people simply don’t want to work for free. They like the idea of the Web as a place where no one goes unheard and the contributions of millions of amateurs can change the world. But when they come home from a hard day at work and turn on their computer, it turns out many of them would rather watch funny videos of kittens or shop for cheap airfares than contribute to the greater good. Even the Internet is no match for sloth.


Supermassive Black Holes Discovered Devouring Whole Galaxies – (Daily Galaxy – August 25, 2010)
Black holes -Stephen Hawking’s enigmatic “bad boys of the Universe”- have been discovered to have the ability to strip massive galaxies of the cool gases required to form new stars, leaving ageing red giants to fade out of existence with no stars to replace them.


Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime – (New York Times – August 24, 2010)
Cell phones now make the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience. The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

Are Boom-and-Bust Cycles Hardwired in Human DNA? – (Daily Galaxy – August 25, 2010)
Over three billion years ago, bacteria had a cycle of boom and bust built into their DNA. A single bacterial colony the size of your palm contains seven trillion individuals – more than all the human beings this planet has ever seen. All working in concert, pooling their talents and their data and communicating with a chemical vocabulary. Bacterial metropolises are discovery machines. That’s why they are breakthrough generators and the first life form to experience boom and bust, a cycle of exploration and digestion, of expand and then consolidate. Similarly, the cycle of boom and bust is built into our DNA.

Vitamin D Found to Influence Over 200 Genes, Highlighting Links to Disease – (Science Daily – August 24, 2010)
It is estimated that one billion people worldwide do not have sufficient vitamin D. This deficiency is thought to be largely due to insufficient exposure to the sun and in some cases to poor diet. As well as being a well-known risk factor for rickets, there is a growing body of evidence that vitamin D deficiency also increases an individual’s susceptibility to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, as well as certain cancers and even dementia.

Teen Hearing Loss Rate Worsens – (Discovery News – August 18, 2010)
The prevalence of hearing loss in teenagers rose by nearly one-third in recent years compared with the rate in the 1980s and 1990s, a new study shows. The findings come as a surprise to the study’s authors, who had expected overall hearing to improve thanks to publicity about the risks of exposure to loud music and the advent of childhood vaccines against meningitis and pneumonia that can prevent many ear infections. Scientists report that the portion of U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 19 with any hearing loss rose from 14.9 percent during the 1988 to 1995 period to 19.5 percent in 2005 and 2006. While noise exposure is a known culprit, diet, medical care, lack of exercise and obesity may also play a role.


The Sun Also Surprises – (New York Times – August 15, 2010)
It’s been 90 years since the last super solar storm, but scientists say we are on the verge of another period of high solar activity. Though less frequent than large hurricanes, significant storms have hit earth several times over the last 150 years, most notably in 1859 and 1921. High-voltage transformers are the most sensitive part of a grid; a strong electromagnetic pulse can easily fuse their copper wiring, damaging them beyond repair. Even worse, transformers are hard to replace. They weigh up to 100 tons, so they can’t be easily moved from the factories in Europe and Asia where most of them are made; right now, there’s already a three-year waiting list for new ones.

“Zombie” Ants Controlled by Parasitic Fungus for 48 Million Years – (Guardian – August 18, 2010)
The oldest evidence of a fungus that turns ants into zombies and makes them stagger to their death has been uncovered by scientists. The gruesome hallmark of the fungus’s handiwork was found on the leaves of plants that grew 48m years ago near Darmstadt, Germany. The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas. The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

Did Life on Earth Evolve Twice? – (BBC News – August 18, 2010)
Life on Earth may have begun around 90 million years earlier than scientists had previously thought, a new fossil find suggests. Dr Adam Maloof of Princeton University explains the importance of his discovery in this audio clip – but he is doubtful that life evolved twice on earth.


Disaster at the Top of the World – (New York Times – August 22, 2010)
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this summer its sea ice is melting at a near-record pace. The sun is heating the newly open water, so it will take longer to refreeze this winter, and the resulting thinner ice will melt more easily next summer. At the same time, warm Pacific Ocean water is pulsing through the Bering Strait into the Arctic basin, helping melt a large area of sea ice between Alaska and eastern Siberia. Scientists are just beginning to learn how this exposed water has changed the movement of heat energy and major air currents across the Arctic basin, in turn producing winds that push remaining sea ice down the coasts of Greenland into the Atlantic.

Responding to Threats of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes – (Kennedy School, Harvard University – October 19, 2009)
This paper first discusses the state of current knowledge and the defining characteristics of potential climate change mega-catastrophes. It goes on to present a qualitative analysis of three options for mitigating the risk of climate mega-catastrophes-drastic abatement of greenhouse gas emissions, development and implementation of geo-engineering, and large-scale ex-ante adaptation-against the criteria of efficacy, cost, robustness, and flexibility.


Computer Scientists Build ‘Pedestrian Remover’ – (Science Daily – August 5, 2010)
Google Street View currently blurs faces and license plates from its images. Nevertheless, clothes, body shape, and height combined with geographical location can be enough to make some pedestrians personally identifiable even if the face is blurred out. A new system developed at UC SanDiego removes pedestrians and replaces the holes in the images with an approximation of the actual background behind each pedestrian. These corresponding background pixels are pulled from the image taken right before or right after the image in question. However, the system does generate an occasional curious image: imagine encountering a dog on its leash without a dog walker or shoes filled just with ankles.

Cell Phone Sees in the Dark – (Discovery – August 20, 2010)
Now, materials engineers have come up with something that could replace current night vision technology. And it’s everything the current technology isn’t: small, light and cheap. Most standard night vision devices work by converting photons into electrons that hit a phosphorous screen and produce an image you can see. This requires lots of electric power and heavy glass components. The new idea uses a detector made up of layers of an organic semiconductor connected to an LED array. The best part is that the device is about the size of a nickel and can be made of plastic. The researchers say adding it to a cell phone should be inexpensive. It also could be added to eyeglasses or automobile windshields.

‘Spintronics’ Breakthrough Holds Promise for Next-Generation Computers – (Science Daily – August 25, 2010)
Using powerful lasers, researchers have discovered a new way to recognize currents of spinning electrons within a semiconductor. “We have been using the charge of the electron for several decades,” said Zhao, principal investigator. “But right now the size of each device is just 30 to 50 nanometers, and you don’t have many atoms remaining on that tiny scale. We can’t continue that way anymore because we’re hitting a fundamental limit.” Instead of using the presence or absence of electronic charges, “spintronics” relies on the direction of an electron’s rotation to convey data.

McEliece Cryptosystem Resists Quantum Fourier Sampling Attacks – (ArXiv – August 13, 2010)
Quantum computers can break the RSA and El Gamal public-key cryptosystems, since they can factor integers and extract discrete logarithms. If we believe that quantum computers will someday become a reality, we would like to have \emph{post-quantum} cryptosystems which can be implemented today with classical computers, but which will remain secure even in the presence of quantum attacks.


Next Generation Surgical Robots: Where’s the Doctor? – (Science Daily – July 20, 2010)
As physician-guided robots routinely operate on patients at most major hospitals, the next generation robot could eliminate a surprising element from that scenario – the doctor. Feasibility studies conducted by Duke University bioengineers have demonstrated that a robot — without any human assistance — can locate a man-made, or phantom, lesion in simulated human organs, guide a device to the lesion and take multiple samples during a single session. The researchers believe that as the technology is further developed, autonomous robots could some day perform many more simple surgical tasks.


Huge Tidal Turbine Arrives in Orkney – (BBC News – August 21, 2010)
A device thought to be the largest tidal turbine of its type to be built in the world has arrived in Orkney for testing. Atlantis Resources unveiled its AK1000 at Invergordon last week ahead of it being shipped to Kirkwall. The device stands 73ft tall, has a rotor diameter of 59ft, weighs 1,300 tons and has two sets of blades on a single base. It has been designed to harness ebb and flood tides and could generate one megawatt of power – enough electricity for about 1,000 homes.

Self-Cleaning Technology from Mars Can Keep Terrestrial Solar Panels Dust Free – (Science Daily – August 23, 2010)
“A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard decreases solar power conversion by 40 percent,” Mazumder explains. “In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India.” Working with NASA, Malay K. Mazumder and colleagues at Boston University initially developed the self-cleaning solar panel technology for use in lunar and Mars missions. The technology involves deposition of a transparent, electrically sensitive coating on glass or a transparent plastic sheet covering the panels. Sensors monitor dust levels on the surface of the panel and energize the material when dust concentration reaches a critical level. The electric charge sends a dust-repelling wave cascading over the surface of the material, transporting the dust off of the screen’s edges.


More Offices See Bedbug Infestations – (USA Today – August 20, 2010)
Defying their reputation as a scourge of households, blood-sucking bedbugs are creeping into a growing number of cubicles, break rooms and filing cabinets. Concerned about the swelling number of infestations in New York City, publishing giant Time recently brought in bedbug-sniffing dogs. The canines found a few cases, which Time had treated two weeks ago. The District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn recently discovered that they had the critters, as well, and exterminated over a weekend. The IRS had bedbugs in its offices in Philadelphia and Covington, Ky. It had exterminators into those offices and is still monitoring the situation.

The Bedbug Registry – (Bedbug Registry website – no date)
The Bed Bug Registry exists to give travelers and renters a reliable and neutral platform for reporting their encounters with bed bugs. Though most Americans have still never come across one, these retro pests are spreading extremely quickly across American and Canadian cities. Check out the map of infestations before you travel or report an occurrence. (Not guaranteed 100% accurate and certainly not complete, but still potentially useful.)


Wikileaks Encryption Use Offers Legal Challenge – (BBC News – August 19, 2010)
A novel use of encryption by whistle-blowing website Wikileaks could “challenge the legal system for years to come,” according to an influential observer of the hacking community. Some suspect the file – as yet unopened – contains further sensitive material. It has been reposted around the web and is available for anyone to download. So far, it has been downloaded 100,000 times. The website now says it will release 15,000 further sensitive documents related to US actions in Afghanistan, once it has completed a review aimed at minimizing the risk that the release could put people’s lives in danger.

Pentagon Disbands Network Warfare Shop – (Wired – August 10, 2010)
As the so-called “cyber” activities became more and more central to the military’s intelligence efforts and combat operations, IT became too important to leave to the techies. “Our networks are really weapons. We treat them as weapons systems,” said Defense Comptroller Robert Hale. “And if our networks aren’t organized in such a way – to be able to accommodate that, we’re disadvantaged.”

Anti-wi-fi Paint Offers Security – (BBC News – September 30, 2009)
Researchers at the University of Tokyo say they have created a special kind of paint which can block out wireless signals. The paint contains an aluminum-iron oxide which resonates at the same frequency as wi-fi – or other radio waves – meaning the airborne data is absorbed and blocked. By coating an entire room, signals can’t get in and, crucially, can’t get out. The makers say that for businesses it’s a quick and cheap way of preventing access to sensitive data from unauthorized users.


Top Secret Network of US Government and Its Contractors – (Washington Post – August 20, 2010)
Explore the relations between the various agencies and the types of work being done in what the Washington Post calls “Top Secret America”. Mouse over the chart for details: it goes down many layers.

Confirmed: Obama Authorizes Assassination of U.S. Citizen – (Salon – April 7, 2010)
The Obama administration has a “presidential assassination program,” whereby American citizens are targeted for killings far away from any battlefield, based exclusively on unchecked accusations by the Executive Branch that they’re involved in Terrorism. Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, acknowledged in Congressional testimony that the administration reserves the “right” to carry out such assassinations. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have confirmed that the Obama White House has now expressly authorized the CIA to kill American-born Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki no matter where he is found, no matter his distance from a battlefield.

Ramadan Kareem from the Netanyahu and Obama Administrations – (Intifada – August 17, 2010)
On the day before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, at 2:30 in the morning, workers sent by the Israeli authorities, protected by dozens of police, destroyed the tombstones in the last portion of the Mamilla cemetery, an historic Muslim burial ground with graves going back to the 7th Century, hitherto left untouched. In 1948, when control of the cemetery reverted to Israel, the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry recognized Mamilla “to be one of the most prominent Muslim cemeteries, where seventy thousand Muslim warriors of [Saladin’s] armies are interred along with many Muslim scholars. Israel will always know to protect and respect this site.” Now some 1,500 Muslim graves have been cleared in several nighttime operations to make way for a $100 million Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. (“Ramadan Kareem” is one of the greetings one offers to Muslims during Ramadan.)


Too Long Ignored – (New York Times – August 20, 2010)
Parental neglect, racial discrimination and an orgy of self-destructive behavior have left an extraordinary portion of the black male population in an ever-deepening pit of social and economic degradation. This trend of the failure of the Black lower class is a long one, with many explanations. None but the Black community itself can solve the key one, but the three that don’t get mentioned are the rise of the corporate virtual state, and its uninterest in job creation, the abject failure of public education, and the rise of the private human warehousing industry. It is in no one’s interest to have any of these trends continue.

But Will It Make You Happy? – (New York Times – August 7, 2010)
Practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could – as a raft of new research suggests – make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses. “We’re moving from a conspicuous consumption – which is ‘buy without regard’ – to a calculated consumption,” says Marshal Cohen, an analyst at the NPD Group, a retailing research and consulting firm.


Alien Hunters Should Look for Artificial Intelligence – (BBC News – August 22, 2010)
Seti, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has until now sought radio signals from worlds like Earth. Many involved in Seti have long argued that nature may have solved the problem of life using different designs or chemicals, suggesting extraterrestrials would not only not look like us, but that they would not at a biological level even work like us. However, Seti searchers have mostly still worked under the assumption – as a starting point for a search of the entire cosmos – that ETs would be “alive” in the sense that we know. But senior astronomer at the Seti Institute, Seth Shostak, has said that the hunt for alien life should take into account alien “sentient machines”.

Starchild Skull 2010 DNA Result – (You Tube – August 8, 2010)
The refinement of DNA analysis techniques seems to have caught up with the challenge of testing a 900 year-old bone sample. Preliminary new DNA results from the 900 year old “Starchild Skull” provide evidence that a percentage of the DNA in the bone may not be from Earth. The skull seems to be that of an offspring of a human mother and alien father, but formally and genetically it appears to be entirely alien.


The Geography of a Recession – (Cohort 11 – May, 2010)
According to the US Department of Labor, there are more than 31 million unemployed and under-employed people in the US. Here is an interactive map that shows the unemployment, by individual county, across the entire US on a month by month basis (rolling twelve month average) from January, 2007 to May, 2010 (most recent data available). The visual is quick, easy to comprehend – and chilling.

U.S. Census Bureau Releases Detailed Information on Nation’s Housing – RIS Media – August 20, 2010)
Issued jointly every two years by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the 2009 American Housing Survey is the definitive source of information on the quality of housing in the United States. Statistics are provided for apartments, single-family homes, manufactured housing, new construction and vacant housing units. A wide range of specific topics is covered, such as the presence of air conditioning, crowding, housing costs, special living services offered to older residents, safety equipment present, type of heating fuel used, satisfaction with the neighborhood, cost of utilities and size of the home. The survey also covers the demographic characteristics of the housing units’ occupants. The full survey can be accessed here.

The Ugly Demographic Reality that Dooms the US to Sub-Par Growth – (Business Insider – August 23, 2010)
The 45-to-54-year-old demographic rose every year during 1984-2010, but this key age group that often sparks the economy and the markets will decline every year to 2021. The last time sustained declines in this group occurred was 1975-83, an awful time for the economy and the stock market.


Does German Intransigence Threaten Europe? – (William Pfaff – August 10, 2010)
The excellent second quarter export and growth results reported by Germany have set that country at an increasing, and increasingly dangerous, distance from the other members of the European Union, with jeopardy to the EU and the euro — which many in Britain and the United States would like to see fail. Thus Germany’s success is tending to encourage market pessimism rather than international optimism, everywhere but in Germany itself, where complacency seems to reign, together with a certain amount of what the Germans themselves term Schadenfreude.

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

Preparing for the Next Black Swan – (Wall St. Journal – August 21, 2010)
A growing number of money managers and financial firms are rolling out investment products designed to exploit big declines known as “black swan” events. Most of the products are geared toward institutional investors such as pension funds, endowments and high-net-worth families-but black-swan strategies are trickling down to Main Street as well. The term black swan was popularized in a 2007 best-selling book by author and investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It derives from the ancient belief, once widespread in the West, that all swans are white-a notion that was proven false when European explorers discovered black swans in Australia. The gist: Anything is possible. In fact, big surprises are more common than people think.


Faces of Our Ancestors – (Discovery News – no date)
To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The models are on display at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. The oldest (one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found) is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed “Toumai,” who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. The article includes photos of the reconstructed models.


“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. “ – Albert Einstein

A special thanks to: Tom Burgin, Bernard Calil, Jackie Capell, Kevin Clark, Kevin Foley, Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Abby Porter, Joel Snell, David Treinis 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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Volume 13, Number 15 – 8/15/10

Volume 13, Number 17 – 9/15/10