Volume 17, Number 16 – 8/31/14

 Volume 17, Number 16 – 8/31/14 Twitter  Facebook  JLP Blog



  • A new “tumor paint” gives malignant cells a bright fluorescent sheen, so that surgeons can easily spot them in the operating room.
  • Your iPhone can finally make free, encrypted calls.
  • Suppose coal were free; Australian power stations still couldn’t compete on price with on-site generated solar power.
  • NASA approves ‘impossible’ space engine design that apparently violates the laws of physics and could revolutionize space travel.

by John L. Petersen


This week in the U.S., the news has been dominated by the sounds and images of revolt in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. An unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer . . . and then the place erupted in demonstrations followed by looting and other provocative behavior.

The Ferguson police responded with extraordinary force – military style force, with armored vehicles, cops in battle gear and all kinds of exotic war-surplus weapons. That just fanned the flames of rebellion and rapidly ignited a national debate about the appropriateness of the “militarization of police”.

The law enforcement community has all of this military gear because the Defense Department has given it to them as part of the disposal of unneeded equipment left over from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This militarization has proliferated to the lowest levels of our country. Even the sheriff of the small county in which I live in rural West Virginia (population 15,000), has a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team. During the last election he defended it by explaining that he had activated it on at least six occasions.

As it turns out, in most cases across the country, these highly armed and armored units are mostly used to break into homes and other buildings looking for individuals who are using or dealing in illegal drugs.

Many Americans believe that this armoring-up of the local police is in preparation for large-scale, broad based, economically driven riots that the law enforcement community believes are inevitable. With all data showing the crime rate decreasing across the U.S. over the past decade, it is easy to see why some people might believe that that is the only justification for this trend.

Of course, even though this is probably mostly about economics, there are many who characterize the issue in racial terms. That too is easy to understand, as higher percentages of blacks and Latinos are poor.

However you characterize it, this is a serious issue, with police departments increasingly behaving more like soldiers and much less than the peace officers they claim to be. It has become acute enough that now, even Conservatives (historically law-and-order types), are questioning this expansion of government.

Here are a number of thoughtful critiques of the situation. As you read these, you might think about this situation from a futures and high-level evolutionary point of view. From that vantage you might see it all as the effort of the status quo – the controlling institutions – to use anything they can find to maintain the eroding system as it has been. Without an effort to deal with the underlying issues of poverty and lack of jobs, there inevitably will be more attempts like these to control the increasingly volatile situation.

To Terrify and Occupy: How the Excessive Militarization of the Police Is Turning Cops Into Counterinsurgents

The REAL ISSUE Behind the Ferguson, Missouri Police Response

Protest Is Treated As Terrorism In America Today

U.S. and Israeli Military Tactics Used Against American Citizens … Gazans Tweet Tips to Help AMERICANS On How to Handle Tear Gas

Militarized Police and the Threat to Democracy

Cops Should Be Cops—Not Combat Troops

The Economics of Police Militarism

Is Ferguson the start of a ‘libertarian moment’

Federal Officials Rethink Giving Excess Military Gear To Police



Google Glass: The Gadget’s Biggest Test – (BBC News – May 5, 2014)
Technical problems may not be the biggest barrier to Glass catching on. A backlash against Glass has been rapidly gathering pace for entirely different reasons in recent months. for many, one of the most significant concerns is that Glass allows users to record photos and videos of others without their consent. Unease about covert image capture has caused Glass to be barred from a string of bars, restaurants and other locations. This hostility has even led to the coining of a new pejorative, “glasshole”, to describe users who don’t respect the personal space of others. In other words, perhaps the greatest obstacle Google faces if it wants us all to adopt Glass is its potential to disrupt existing social norms and aggravate our interactions with one another. Laura Freberg, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University and Google Glass owner, believes society will develop a new etiquette for using head-mounted technology in social situations, but it will take time. People will need to work out where and when the use of such devices is acceptable to others. “It’s a learning process for the person who is wearing it as much as it is for the people around you. I think developing good manners will help us work through a lot of these problems,” she said. Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, also believes it will take time for society to evolve the social norms around wearable computing technologies, in a similar process to the establishment of mobile phone etiquette. He notes additionally that with more and more gadgets like smart watches and intelligent wrist bands under development, tech companies are under growing pressure to engage in debates regarding privacy and other social issues related to such technology.

Is Ferguson a Social Media Victim? – (Nation of Change – August 24, 2014)
Activists, journalists and pranksters all have access to the same bag of social media tricks—and they all know how to make a story go viral on social media. We’ve seen the people’s buildings, stores, places of employment and reputation wrecked for decades — Watts in 1965 and Newark in 1967. In both cases, demonstrations set off by long-simmering grievances attracted violence and those who feasted on it. What’s different this time is the role of social media in changing both how the story is told and the story itself. Twitter has made a bad situation worse — letting loose an indifferent mix of truth, lies, manipulation, good intentions and evil ones. There are those who disagree. Media critic David Carr hailed the explosion of Twitter traffic early in the conflagration as a golden age of citizen journalism. Whereas CNN was focusing on the death of Lauren Bacall and U.S. action in northern Iraq, he wrote, Twitter feeds were showing where the real news was. But it’s not difficult to tweak the “real news” for those who know how. This article describes the “how”.

How the Web Became Our ‘External Brain,’ and What It Means for Our Kids – (Wired – August 6, 2014)
Search YouTube for “baby” and “iPad” and you’ll find clips featuring one-year-olds attempting to manipulate magazine pages and television screens as though they were touch-sensitive displays. These children are one step away from assuming that such technology is a natural, spontaneous part of the material world. They’ll grow up thinking about the internet with the same nonchalance that I hold toward my toaster and teakettle. Adults can resist all they like, but for the generation under five, the revolution is already complete. According to the memeticist Susan Blackmore, just as Darwinism submits that genes good at replicating will naturally become the most prevalent, technologies with a knack for replication rise to dominance. These “temes,” as she’s called these new replicators, could be copied, varied, and selected as digital information—thus establishing a new evolutionary process (and one far speedier than our genetic model). Blackmore’s work offers a fascinating explanation for why each generation seems less capable of managing solitude, and less likely to opt for technological disengagement. UCLA’s Gary Small is a pioneer of neuroplasticity research, and in 2008 he produced the first solid evidence showing that our brains are reorganized by our use of the internet. See the article for the details of his research.


Homni: The New Superorganism Taking Over Earth – (BBC News – July 2, 2014)
Is our species evolving into something new? This article makes the provocative argument that it is – and it is already having a huge effect on life on our planet. It suggests that the entirety of our species, Homo sapiens, is evolving into a superorganism; call it Homo omnis, or ‘Homni’. Homni can influence the biosphere, and has needs – currently, it uses 18 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy at any time, 9,000 billion cubic meters of water per year, 40% of global land area for farming, and a plethora of other natural and mineral resources. Increasingly, individual people are less and less able to function independently in modern society – we rely on the superorganism to feed, clothe and power our many tools, to inform and heal us, even to help us reproduce through surrogacy or IVF. In coming decades, it is likely that access to the internet will have reached almost every part of the globe and, as we become more cohesive as a networked society, individuals who remain outside of the new superorganism will find themselves isolated culturally and technologically from what it means to be a human in the Anthropocene. Only time will tell if Homni will be a benign caretaker, or a monster that destroys life and itself. But there are clues. The article goes on to explore them.

‘Quantum Cheshire Cat’ Becomes Reality – (BBC News – July 29, 2014)
Scientists have for the first time separated a particle from one of its physical properties – creating a “quantum Cheshire Cat”. The phenomenon is named after the curious feline in Alice in Wonderland, who vanishes leaving only its grin. Researchers took a beam of neutrons and separated them from their magnetic moment, like passengers and their baggage at airport security. The cat (the neutron) goes via the upper beam path, while its grin (the magnetic moment) goes via the lower. The same separation trick could in principle be performed with any property of any quantum object, say researchers from Vienna University of Technology. In the world familiar to us, an object and its properties are always bound together. A rotating ball, for instance, cannot become separated from its spin. But quantum theory predicts that a particle (such as a photon or neutron) can become physically separated from one of its properties – such as its polarization or its magnetic moment (the strength of its coupling to an external magnetic field). To prove that the Cheshire Cat is not just a cute theory, the researchers used an experimental set-up known as an interferometer, at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France. A neutron beam was passed through a silicon crystal, sending it down two different paths. By applying filters and a technique known as “post-selection”, they were able to detect the physical separation of the neutrons from their magnetic moment – as measured by the direction of their spin.


One Doctor’s Quest to Save People by Injecting Them with Scorpion Venom – (Wired – June 24, 2014)
One of the most vexing problems in oncology is the fact that a tumor’s precise boundaries are nearly impossible to define during surgery. A preoperative MRI provides only a rough guide to a tumor’s fuzzy edges; the scans often miss slivers of cancer that seamlessly blend into the surrounding tissue. Surgeons often face a brutal catch-22: Either cut out any suspicious tissue, an approach that can lead to debilitating side effects, or risk leaving behind malignant cells that will eventually kill the patient. Pediatric oncologists Jim Olson may have finally found a solution. His laboratory at the renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle has developed a compound that appears to pinpoint all of the malignant cells in a patient’s body. It gives those cells a bright fluorescent sheen, so that surgeons can easily spot them in the operating room. Olson calls the product Tumor Paint, and it comes with a surprising twist: The compound’s main ingredient is a molecule that is found in the stinger of Leiurus quinquestriatus, more popularly known as the deathstalker scorpion. A scorpion-venom concoction that makes tumors glow sounds almost too outlandish to be true. In fact, Olson explains, that’s what troubled the big grant-­making organizations when he came to them for funding. But when those organizations dismissed his ideas as too bizarre, Olson started accepting donations from individuals—particularly the families of current and former patients—quickly raising $5 million for his research. It was a bold and unprecedented tactic: Though patients and their families are often asked to donate to foundations with broad goals, Olson raised money for one specific, untested technology—a much riskier gamble. But thanks to his efforts, Olson’s fluorescent scorpion toxin is now in Phase I clinical trials.

Synthetic Molecule Uses Salt to Trigger Self-destruction of Cancer Cells – (GizMag – August 13, 2014)
A team of international researchers has developed a molecule capable of triggering cancer cell death by carrying chloride into cancer cell membranes. The molecule flushes the cells with salt and causes them to self-destruct, potentially paving the way for new types of anti-cancer drugs. The international effort involves researchers from the UK, Texas and South Korea who have collaborated to develop a synthetic ion transporter with a chloride payload. Once it reaches the cancer cells, the chloride interacts with the sodium in the cell membranes and leads to its demise. “This work shows how chloride transporters can work with sodium channels in cell membranes to cause an influx of salt into a cell,” says the University of Southampton’s Professor Phillip Gale, one of the study’s co-authors. “We found we can trigger cell death with salt.” The survival of cells in the human body is reliant on the regulation of ions inside their membranes. Upsetting the balance causes them to self-destruct through what is known as apoptosis, a mechanism the body uses to dispose of dangerous or damaged cells. Apoptosis is the basis of a number of current cancer research efforts. The most recent being a cloaked DNA nanodevice that evades the body’s immune system to hone in on leukemia and lymphoma cells to activate the suicide switch. The chloride-carrying molecule is the first to demonstrate the effects of salt on cancer cells with the researchers also claiming it could bring benefits to sufferers of cystic fibrosis. One complication the researchers will have to overcome for its molecule to be used in cancer treatments is limiting it to cancerous cells. As it stands, the molecule triggers the death of both cancerous and healthy cells.

A Hair Salon Guru’s Next Big Thing: Ending Shampoo – (Wired – August 13, 2014)
“I honestly think in five years people are going to go, ‘Oh God, remember when we used to wash our hair with shampoo?’” says Michael Gordon. That’s a striking statement, given Gordon’s own history: He created the famed haircare company Bumble and Bumble in 1977, the spin off product line in 1992, and then in 2006 sold his stake to Estée Lauder. But he isn’t advocating for unwashed hair. He’s explaining Purely Perfect, his new product line that defies just about every expectation most consumers have when it comes to personal hygiene. The marquee product is a hair cleanser that has no detergents and doesn’t create a foam. Specifically, it’s free of sodium laureth sulfate, a chemical ingredient used in virtually all shampoos because it kills oils and leaves users with a squeaky-clean scalp. Problem is, that also dries out skin and hair follicles—a problem that most people treat by buying, without batting an eye, additional products like conditioners and hair masks. Instead, the Purely Perfect cleansing creme has aloe vera, rose flower oil, evening primrose oil, and peppermint oil. Using it feels nothing like shampoo: Massage the balm into your scalp, through your strands, and rinse it out. That’s it. No lathering, no rinsing, no repeating.

Organs-on-Chips Emulate Human Organs, Could Replace Animals in Tests – (Giz Mag – August 13, 2014)
The search for more efficient tests of pharmaceuticals without animal models is taking a stride forward, with a new technology called Organs-on-Chips. The new miniature platform and software, which mimic the mechanical and molecular characteristics of human organs, were developed by bioengineers at Harvard University. The device, about the size of a small computer memory stick, is created using microchip-manufacturing techniques. It features a porous flexible membrane that separates two channels at the center of the device. The channels are filled with living human cells and tissues cultured in a fluid that mimics the environment inside the human body. (See photo in article.) Micro-engineering and automated instrumentation allows the system to perform real-time analysis of biochemical, genetic and metabolic functions within single cells. The idea is to authentically replicate, or “bioemulate” in science-speak, the workings of human organs. This way, scientists and even clinicians without high-level expertise can determine the efficacy and safety of potential new drugs, chemicals and cosmetics, with no animal models in the process.

Scientists Discover Double Meaning in Genetic Code – (University of Washington – December 18, 2013)
Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s, scientists have assumed that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins. UW scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long. A research team led by Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos, University of Washington associate professor of genome sciences and of medicine, made the discovery. “For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways. The fact that the genetic code can simultaneously write two kinds of information means that many DNA changes that appear to alter protein sequences may actually cause disease by disrupting gene control programs or even both mechanisms simultaneously.”


California Halts Injection of Fracking Waste, Warning It May Be Contaminating Aquifers – (ProPublica – July 19, 2014)
California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state’s drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there. The state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.” The action comes as California’s agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released by the University of California Davis. See also: University of Colorado Boulder Scientists Link 10,800-Foot-Deep Fracking Wastewater Well to More than 200 Earthquakes.

Brazil Farmers Say GMO Corn No Longer Resistant to Pests – (Business Insider – July 28, 2014)
Genetically modified corn seeds are no longer protecting Brazilian farmers from voracious tropical bugs, increasing costs as producers turn to pesticides, according to a farm group. Producers want four major manufacturers of so-called BT corn seeds to reimburse them for the cost of spraying up to three coats of pesticides this year, said Ricardo Tomczyk, president of Aprosoja farm lobby in Mato Grosso state. “The caterpillars should die if they eat the corn, but since they didn’t die this year producers had to spend on average 120 reais ($54) per hectare at a time that corn prices are terrible,” he said. Large-scale farming in the bug-ridden tropics has always been a challenge, and now Brazil’s government is concerned that planting the same crops repeatedly with the same seed technologies has left the agricultural superpower vulnerable to pest outbreaks and dependent on toxic chemicals. Experts in the United States have also warned about corn production prospects because of a growing bug resistance to genetically modified corn. Researchers in Iowa found significant damage from rootworms in corn fields last year. Seed companies say they warned Brazilian farmers to plant part of their corn fields with conventional seeds to prevent bugs from mutating and developing resistance to GMO seeds. One problem: “There are barely any non-GMO seeds available, “said Ricardo Tomczyk.


U.S. Judge Orders Microsoft to Submit Customer’s Emails from Abroad – (Reuters – July 31, 2014)
Microsoft Corp must turn over a customer’s emails stored in a data center in Ireland to the U.S. government, a U.S. judge has recently ruled in a case that has drawn concern from privacy groups and major technology companies. Microsoft and other U.S. companies had challenged a criminal search warrant for the emails, arguing federal prosecutors cannot seize customer information held in foreign countries. But following a two-hour court hearing in New York, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said the warrant lawfully required the company to hand over any data it controlled, regardless of where it was stored. “It is a question of control, not a question of the location of that information,” Preska said. The judge said she would temporarily suspend her order from taking effect to allow Microsoft to appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case appears to be the first in which a corporation has challenged a U.S. search warrant seeking data held abroad. AT&T, Apple, Cisco Systems, and Verizon all submitted court briefs in support of Microsoft, along with the privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. The companies are worried they could lose billions of dollars in revenue to foreign competitors if customers fear their data is subject to seizure by U.S. investigators anywhere in the world.

Your iPhone Can Finally Make Free, Encrypted Calls – (Wired – July 29, 2014)
If you’re making a phone call with your iPhone, you used to have two options: Accept the notion that any wiretapper, hacker or spook can listen in on your conversations, or pay for pricey voice encryption software. Now there’s a third option: The open source software group known as Open Whisper Systems has announced the release of Signal, the first iOS app designed to enable easy, strongly encrypted voice calls for free. “We’re trying to make private communications as available and accessible as any normal phone call,” says Moxie Marlinspike, the hacker security researcher who founded the nonprofit software group. Later this summer, he adds, encrypted text messaging will be integrated into Signal, too, to create what he describes as a “single, unified app for free, easy, open source, private voice and text messaging.” Signal encrypts calls with a well-tested protocol known as ZRTP and AES 128 encryption, in theory strong enough to withstand all known practical attacks by anyone from script-kiddy hackers to the NSA. Test calls with an early version of the app, after a few false-starts due to bugs that Marlinspike says have now been ironed out, were indistinguishable from any other phone call. The only sign users have that their voice has been encrypted is a pair of words that appear on the screen. Those two terms are meant to be read aloud to the person on the other end of the call as a form of authentication. If they match, a user can be sure he or she is speaking with the intended contact, with no man-in-the-middle eavesdropping on the conversation and sneakily decrypting and then re-encrypting the voice data.

The World’s First Photonic Router – (SpaceMart – July 15, 2014)
Weizmann Institute scientists have demonstrated for the first time a photonic router – a quantum device based on a single atom that enables routing of single photons by single photons. This achievement is another step toward overcoming the difficulties in building quantum computers. At the core of the device is an atom that can switch between two states. The state is set just by sending a single particle of light – or photon – from the right or the left via an optical fiber. The atom, in response, then reflects or transmits the next incoming photon, accordingly. For example, in one state, a photon coming from the right continues on its path to the left, whereas a photon coming from the left is reflected backwards, causing the atomic state to flip. “In a sense, the device acts as the photonic equivalent to electronic transistors, which switch electric currents in response to other electric currents,” says Dr. Barak Dayan, head of the Weizmann Institute’s Quantum Optics group. The photons are not only the units comprising the flow of information, but also the ones that control the device. The main motivation behind the effort to develop quantum computers is the quantum phenomenon of superposition, in which particles can exist in many states at once, potentially being able to process huge amounts of data in parallel.

Nano-pixels Promise Thin, Flexible, High Resolution Displays – (SpaceMart – July 14, 2014)
A new discovery will make it possible to create pixels just a few hundred nanometers across that could pave the way for extremely high-resolution and low-energy thin, flexible displays for applications such as ‘smart’ glasses, synthetic retinas, and foldable screens. A team led by Oxford University scientists explored the link between the electrical and optical properties of phase change materials (materials that can change from an amorphous to a crystalline state). They found that by sandwiching a seven nanometer thick layer of a phase change material (GST) between two layers of a transparent electrode they could use a tiny current to ‘draw’ images within the sandwich ‘stack’. Initially still images were created using an atomic force microscope but the team went on to demonstrate that such tiny ‘stacks’ can be turned into prototype pixel-like devices. These ‘nano-pixels’ – just 300 by 300 nanometers in size – can be electrically switched ‘on and off’ at will, creating the colored dots that would form the building blocks of an extremely high-resolution display technology. Professor Harish Bhaskaran of Oxford University’s Department of Materials, who led the research, said, “We found that not only were we able to create images in the stack but, to our surprise, thinner layers of GST actually gave us better contrast. We also discovered that altering the size of the bottom electrode layer enabled us to change the color of the image.”

How to Enable the Internet of Things without Batteries – (KurzweilAI – August 6, 2014)
University of Washington engineers have designed a clever new communication system called Wi-Fi backscatter that uses ambient radio frequency signals as a power source for battery-free devices (such as temperature sensors or wearable technology) and also reuses the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure to provide Internet connectivity for these devices. “If Internet of Things devices are going to take off, we must provide connectivity to the potentially billions of battery-free devices that will be embedded in everyday objects,” said Shyam Gollakota, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering. So far, the UW’s Wi-Fi backscatter tag has communicated with a Wi-Fi device at rates of 1 kilobit per second with about 2 meters between the devices. The researchers plan to extend the range to about 20 meters and have filed patents on the technology.

The Shadow Internet That’s 100 Times Faster Than Google Fiber – (Wired – June 17, 2014)
When Google chief financial officer Patrick Pichette said the tech giant might bring 10 gigabits per second internet connections to American homes, it seemed like science fiction. That’s about 1,000 times faster than today’s home connections. But for NASA, it’s downright slow. While the rest of us send data across the public internet, the space agency uses a shadow network called ESnet, short for Energy Science Network, a set of private pipes that has demonstrated cross-country data transfers of 91 gigabits per second–the fastest of its type ever reported. ESnet, which is run by the U.S. Department of Energy, is an important tool for researchers who deal in massive amounts of data generated by projects such as the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project. Rather sending hard disks back and forth through the mail, they can trade data via the ultra-fast network. Since 2010, ESnet and Internet2—a non-profit international network built in 1995 for researchers after the internet was commercialized—have been leasing “dark fiber,” the excess network capacity built-up by commercial internet providers during the late 1990s internet bubble. And ESnet isn’t stopping there. The organization is already working on a 400 gigabit network; the long-term goal is a terabyte per second network, which about 100,000 times faster than today’s home connections.

IBM Develops a New Chip That Functions Like a Brain – (New York Times – August 8, 2014)
Inspired by the architecture of the brain, scientists have developed a new kind of computer chip that uses no more power than a hearing aid and may eventually excel at calculations that stump today’s supercomputers. The chip, or processor, is named TrueNorth and was developed by researchers at IBM. It tries to mimic the way brains recognize patterns, relying on densely interconnected webs of transistors similar to the brain’s neural networks. The chip’s electronic “neurons” are able to signal others when a type of data — light, for example — passes a certain threshold. Working in parallel, the neurons begin to organize the data into patterns suggesting the light is growing brighter, or changing color or shape. The processor may thus be able to recognize that a woman in a video is picking up a purse, or control a robot that is reaching into a pocket and pulling out a quarter. Humans are able to recognize these acts without conscious thought, yet today’s computers and robots struggle to interpret them. Today’s conventional microprocessors and graphics processors are capable of performing billions of mathematical operations a second, yet the new chip system clock makes its calculations barely a thousand times a second. But because of the vast number of circuits working in parallel, it is still capable of performing 46 billion operations a second per watt of energy consumed. The TrueNorth has one million “neurons,” about as complex as the brain of a bee.


Snowflake-shaped Hotel to Float off the Coast of Norway – (Dezeen – August 11, 2014)
A Dutch firm specializing in floating structures has unveiled plans for a hotel shaped like a snowflake with a glass roof so that guests can watch the Northern Lights while bobbing off the coast of Tromso in Norway. The design for the 86-room Krystall Hotel by Waterstudio has been proposed for an undisclosed site off the coast of Norway by developers Dutch Docklands International – who only build floating developments – and a group of Norwegian entrepreneurs. The floating structure, which will be built in pieces in dry docks before being assembled on location, is shaped like a snowflake and will be accessed only via boat. “Different to any vessel, this hotel is floating real estate and will not move,” said Dutch architect and Waterstudio founder Koen Olthuis. “The floating basis is very big and because of that also very stable,” added Olthuis. “You will not notice any movement. The shape provides most of the stability but additional technology with dampers, springs and cables is used to take away any acceleration.” The architect added that the design aimed to create the same look and feel as a luxury hotel on land, complete with a wellness center, spa and conference rooms.”The Northern Light is the main feature for the hotel. Without the light we would not have chosen this location on water. It is far enough away from disturbing city lights,” he said.


Steam from the Sun – (MIT News – July 21, 2014)
A new material structure developed at MIT generates steam by soaking up the sun. The structure — a layer of graphite flakes and an underlying carbon foam — is a porous, insulating material structure that floats on water. When sunlight hits the structure’s surface, it creates a hotspot in the graphite, drawing water up through the material’s pores, where it evaporates as steam. The brighter the light, the more steam is generated. The new material is able to convert 85% of incoming solar energy into steam — a significant improvement over recent approaches to solar-powered steam generation. What’s more, the setup loses very little heat in the process, and can produce steam at relatively low solar intensity. This would mean that, if scaled up, the setup would likely not require complex, costly systems to highly concentrate sunlight. The MIT approach generates steam at a solar intensity about 10 times that of a sunny day — the lowest optical concentration reported thus far. The implication, the researchers say, is that steam-generating applications can function with lower sunlight concentration and less-expensive tracking systems.

Moss Can Power a Radio, and Could Eventually Charge Your Phone – (Grist – February 25, 2014)
A team of scientists in the UK have decided to take the idea of “green” power very, very literally: They have developed a system to harness the energy generated by moss. Two scientists from the University of Cambridge have developed a way to use moss as a “biological solar panel.” Put simply, moss creates surplus electrons during photosynthesis. The collaborators have tapped into this electricity on a small scale — they’ve built a functional, moss-powered radio. Currently the radio only runs for a couple minutes at a time; so far, the scientists have only figured how to harness about 0.1% of moss’s energy. Apparently the scrubby little bryophyte is an especially good candidate for photosynthetic power-stealing. Other plants are more efficient at using the energy they generate, but moss makes electrons during photosynthesis that it doesn’t need. Moss has got a lot to give, if we can figure out how to ask nicely for it.

Generating Electricity from Water Droplets – (KurzweilAI – July 18, 2014)
But if you’re short on moss, here’s a method of generating very small amounts of energy from water droplets: a camping-cooler-sized device that could charge a cellphone in 12 hours. MIT researchers discovered last year that when water droplets spontaneously jump away from superhydrophobic (water-repelling) surfaces during condensation, the droplets can gain electric charge in the process. Now the same team has demonstrated that this process can generate small amounts of electricity, which could lead to devices that can charge cellphones or other electronics using just the humidity in the air. As a side benefit, the system could also produce clean water. The device itself could be simple, says MIT postdoc Nenad Miljkovic, Department of Mechanical Engineering NanoEngineering Group, consisting of a series of interleaved flat metal plates. Although his initial tests involved copper plates, any conductive metal would do, including cheaper aluminum, he says. The system is based on a 2013 finding by Miljkovic and associate professor of mechanical engineering Evelyn Wang that droplets on a superhydrophobic surface convert surface energy to kinetic energy as they merge to form larger droplets. This sometimes causes the droplets to spontaneously jump away, enhancing heat transfer by 30% relative to other techniques. They later found that in that process, the jumping droplets gain a small electric charge — meaning that the jumping, and the accompanying transfer of heat, could be enhanced by a nearby metal plate whose opposite charge is attractive to the droplets.

Solar Has Won. Even If Coal Were Free, Power Stations Couldn’t Compete – (Guardian – July 7, 2014)
Recently the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland, Australia fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day. For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar. “Negative pricing” moves, as they are known, are not uncommon. But they are only supposed to happen at night, when most of the population is mostly asleep, [and] demand is down. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office buildings are in use, factories are in production. That’s when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money. The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head. The impact has been so profound, and wholesale prices pushed down so low, that few coal generators in Australia made a profit last year. Hardly any are making a profit this year. State-owned generators like Stanwell are specifically blaming rooftop solar. The problem for Australian consumers [comes] in the cost of delivery of [electricity] through the transmission and distribution networks, and from retail costs and taxes. This is the cost which is driving households to take up rooftop solar, in such proportions that the level of rooftop solar is forecast to rise sixfold over the next decade. It is not clear how centralized, fossil-fuel generation can adapt. In an energy democracy, even free coal has no value. As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it’s used. Centralized, coal-fired power is over.


Intelligent Blinker Bracelet Automatically Gives Cyclists Flashing Turn Signals – (GizMag – August 12, 2014)
As any serious bicycle commuter will tell you, it’s important to let drivers know what you’re doing by signaling your intention to turn. Needless to say, the more visible your hand signals are, the safer you should be. That’s why a group of doctoral students at Switzerland’s EPFL research institute created the Intelligent Blinker. It’s a wrist bracelet that automatically starts flashing when the wearer raises their arm to signal. The device (which would presumably be worn as a set of two) contains an accelerometer and a magnetometer, to detect changes in the orientation of the bracelet. When the arm moves out laterally, those sensors trigger a set of integrated LEDs to begin blinking. Depending on how enthusiastic of a signaler they are, the user can adjust the Intelligent Blinker to kick in at more or less of an angle, as desired. The bracelet can be charged by USB, although it also has a built-in photovoltaic panel. In its present prototype form, its circuit board is too large for practical use, although the plan is to reduce the size of the device to that of a wrist watch, reduce its energy consumption, and add additional functions via more sensors. Not surprisingly, other people have already taken their own shots at flashing hand signals for cyclists. See article for a description of a number of these.

Toyota Is Investigating Cars That Hover Above the Road – (The Verge – June 9, 2014)
Hiroyoshi Yoshiki, the managing officer with Toyota’s technical administration group, said recently that the company had been studying a similar idea of flying cars at one of its “most advanced” research and development areas, but cautioned that the concept was not like actually flying around in three-dimensional space. Instead, he said, the plan is to get the car “a little bit away” from the road to reduce friction, similar to a hovercraft. Following the interview, Yoshiki declined to elaborate on when the company began investigating the idea, how far along it is, or if it ever plans to bring it to market. (Editor’s note: A number of publishers picked up the same information given above and, as they all note, Yosiki refused to elaborate further. But somehow, Motoroids managed to scoop a photo that the article implies is the vehicle in development.)


Spider Venom May Save the Bees: New Bio-Pesticide Could Preserve Honeybee Populations – (Science World News – June 4, 2014)
The research, led by a team at Newcastle University, has tested the insect-specific Hv1a/GNA fusion protein bio-pesticide – a combination of a natural toxin from the venom of an Australian funnel web spider and snowdrop lectin. The new pesticide is actually safe for honeybees, despite being highly toxic to a number of key insect pests. In fact, scientists found that even acute and chronic doses only affected honeybees slightly; these doses were far beyond those that the bees would experience in the field. “This is an oral pesticide so unlike some that get absorbed through the exoskeleton, the spider/snowdrop recombinant protein has to be ingested by the insects,” said Erich Nakasu, one of the researchers. “Unlike other pesticides, Hv1a/GNA affects an underexplored insecticidal target, calcium channels. These are more diverse than commonly-targeted insecticide receptors, such as sodium channels, and therefore offer the potential for more species-specific pesticides.” The researchers found that although this new pesticide was carried to the brain of the honeybee, it had no effect on the insect. This suggests that the spider-venom toxin doesn’t interact with the calcium channels in the bee, which are associated with learning and memory. See also: Not Just Bees: Controversial Pesticides Linked to Bird Declines.

Food: Thou Shall Not Waste – (Nation of Change – July 29, 2014)
“Only two years ago, the soup kitchen was serving 50 meals a day. Today the number has almost doubled and, what is even more worrying, we have started receiving families with children,” says Donatella Turri, director of a soup kitchen in Lucca, Italy. “It means that the poor are no longer the homeless, the mentally ill, and the drug addicts. More and more often we get requests for primary goods from families that simply cannot reach the end of the month with their salaries,” she said. However, while access to food is also becoming increasingly difficult for the low-income class of developed countries, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that Europeans and North-Americans waste between 209 to 253 pounds of food per capita every year, while in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia the number drops down to only 6 to 11 kg a year. “Food loss and waste are dependent on specific conditions and local circumstances,” Eliana Haberkon from FAO’s Office for Communications, Partnerships and Advocacy, explained. “In low-income countries, food loss is mainly connected to managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage, transportation, processing, cooling facilities, infrastructure, packaging, etc. … and food waste is expected to constitute a growing problem due to undergoing food system changes and due to factors such as expansion of supermarket chains and changes in diets and lifestyle.” Studies by FAO estimated a yearly global quantitative food loss and waste of 30% of cereals, 40-50% of food crops (fruits and vegetables), 25% of oil seeds, meat and dairy products and 30% of fish.

British Supermarket to Power Itself Solely on Food Waste – (Nation of Change – July 24, 2014)
It’s good to refrain from wasting energy, but it’s even better to procure energy from items that you otherwise would have to throw out because the foods are not purchased and thereafter deemed unsuitable for charitable donations or for the creation of animal feed. That’s the thinking behind the latest announcement from the second largest chain of supermarkets in the United Kingdom. The chain’s Cannock location will soon be powered solely by the company’s own food waste. Waste management and recycling firm Biffa has partnered with the store to use its advanced anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities and a power link that allows the Cannock store to use the waste generated from the chain’s (Sainsbury’s) other locations. “This groundbreaking project helps to close the loop on food recycling and [allows] Sainsbury’s to continue to send zero operational waste to landfills,” reads the chain’s announcement. The store uses an advanced “anaerobic digestion” process to break down the waste in a process Sainsbury’s compares to the human stomach. The gas generates electricity, which supplies the Cannock store through a nine-mile cable. Any surplus energy returns to the national electricity grid.  However, energy is not its first choice for using the company’s food waste.

Pennsylvania Department Backs Seed Library Protocol as Reaction Grows – (Cumberlink – August 5, 2014)
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture sees its new protocol for seed libraries as an opportunity to safely regulate them while saving an organization or person from liability. Proponents of seed libraries, however, see the department’s efforts as a way to effectively shut down movement to grow and maintain local seed varieties. The issue at hand stems back to April 26, when the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library opened a seed library, in which it would allow residents to “borrow” seeds and then offer seeds back to the library to start the process over again. It’s the second part of that process that caught the attention of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which then contacted the Cumberland County Library System to rectify what it saw as a violation of the Pennsylvania Seed Act of 2004. When the ensuing discussion between the two entities and the resulting protocol on how to operate the seed library became public, the news went viral, catching the attention of seed libraries across the country and Canada. Through discussion with the library system, the department’s Bureau of Plant Industry developed a protocol that seed libraries should follow. There are 333 seed libraries across the country, with another 170 on the way.


Hackers Infiltrated the Power Grid in U.S. and Other Countries – (Recode – July 1, 2014)
Hackers operating somewhere in Eastern Europe have penetrated the networks of energy companies in the U.S., Spain, France and several other countries and may have gained the ability to carry out cyber-sabotage attacks, according to researchers at the security company Symantec. In what’s being described as a departure from typical hacking attacks that are intended to steal intellectual property, the attackers gained access to industrial control systems used to maintain power grids and oil and gas pipelines and had the ability to take over operations or even damage them. Symantec says it “bears the hallmarks” of state-sponsored operations, but does not identify any specific country. It nicknamed the attackers “Dragonfly,” and said the only clue to their identity was the fact that they were operating during standard business hours in a time zone that includes the countries of the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, but also the United Arab Emirates. Another clue: They used an attack tool that appears to have been modified by a Russian-speaker. The attacks started last year with well-understood techniques that included spear-phishing, or sending legitimate-seeming emails bearing attachments infected with malware, and waterholing or redirecting people from a legitimate Web site to another serving malware. Targets of the Dragonfly group included personnel at energy grid operators, electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and energy industry industrial equipment providers. The majority of the companies targeted were in the U.S., Spain and France, but also included companies in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Romania, Greece and Serbia. Symantec contacted all the companies involved and postponed publishing this report until after the problems were addressed by the affected companies. More than 70 companies were affected in the U.S., more than 70 in Spain and more than 20 in France.

Could the FBI See Your Selfies? – (US News – July 8, 2014)
The FBI is preparing to launch a facial recognition database that includes photos of people without criminal records. The bureau’s database, called the Next Generation Identification system, or NGI, builds upon the government’s fingerprint database and is slated to be operational this summer, according to the FBI. This database will contain photos of anybody who sends images as part of an application for a job that requires fingerprinting or a background check – even if that person has no criminal record – according to research by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital privacy advocacy organization. The FBI expects to have 52 million face images by 2015, according to the EFF. Facebook, by comparison, processes more than 350 million new images each day from its 1.28 billion monthly active users. Facebook’s DeepFace facial recognition system has a 97% of efficiency. That’s considerably better than the FBI’s new system, which so far promises an 85% chance of identifying a suspect from a photo, according to the EFF. The social network is appealing a court case from 2013 that might allow the FBI to request some of Facebook’s facial recognition information as it uses biometrics to follow targets. Last year a New York judge ordered Facebook to turn over nearly all of its account data on 381 people, including pages they liked, their messages – and perhaps most dangerously – their photos. Facebook is arguing this broad use of warrants for data requests violates the Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable searches by the government. The warrants led to 62 charges in a disability fraud case but the government may keep the seized data indefinitely. (Editor’s note: When I went last month to renew my driver’s license, I was told that I had to remove my glasses for the new photo. The reason given was “otherwise the camera has trouble with glare”. It’s never been an issue before. My just-expired license shows me wearing my glasses and it seems unlikely that newer cameras would be less functional. The reasonable presumption is that the states are sending all their license photos to the FBI for inclusion in its database and that that software has trouble identifying faces wearing glasses.)

US Now Faces Threat of US-Made Weapons in Iraq – (Nation of Change – August 24, 2014)
Never mind that the vehicle is a boxy, lumbering, second-hand set of wheels with a top speed of just 60 mph. To some of the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. M1117, aka the Guardian Armored Security Vehicle, has become their favorite ride. Or so says Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, who has monitored propaganda sites for reports of jihadis toting, towing or tooling around in some of the millions of dollars’ worth of U.S.- and other foreign-built military equipment that ISIS captured after it swept into northern Iraq in early June. A video of the first U.S. airstrikes shows a U.S.-made F/A-18 Hornet, which cost roughly $61 million, bombing what appears to be a U.S.-made M198 towed howitzer, which cost $527,000, in the hands of insurgents. Two military experts both said the artillery piece was clearly identifiable in the video.


Pentagon Preparing for Mass Civil Breakdown – (Guardian – June 12, 2014)
A US Department of Defense (DoD) research program is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies. The multi-million dollar program is designed to develop immediate and long-term “warfighter-relevant insights” for senior officials and decision makers in “the defense policy community,” and to inform policy implemented by “combatant commands.” Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD ‘Minerva Research Initiative’ partners with universities “to improve DoD’s basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US.” Among the projects awarded for the period 2014-2017 is a Cornell University-led study managed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research which aims to develop an empirical model “of the dynamics of social movement mobilization and contagions.” The project will determine “the critical mass (tipping point)” of social contagions by studying their “digital traces” in the cases of “the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey.” Twitter posts and conversations will be examined “to identify individuals mobilized in a social contagion and when they become mobilized.” In questions to a key project researcher that went largely unaddressed, The Guardian raised some troubling issues: “Does the U.S. Department of Defense see protest movements and social activism in different parts of the world as a threat to U.S. national security? If so, why? Does the U.S. Department of Defense consider political movements aiming for large scale political and economic change as a national security matter? If so, why? Activism, protest, ‘political movements’ and of course NGOs are a vital element of a healthy civil society and democracy — why is it that the DoD is funding research to investigate such issues?”

Government Agents Directly Involved in Most High-profile US Terror Plots – (Guardian – July 21, 2014)
Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the “direct involvement” of government agents or informants, a new report says. Some of the controversial “sting” operations “were proposed or led by informants”, bordering on entrapment by law enforcement. Yet the courtroom obstacles to proving entrapment are significant, one of the reasons the stings persist. The lengthy report, released by Human Rights Watch, raises questions about the US criminal justice system’s ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases. It portrays a system that features not just the sting operations but secret evidence, anonymous juries, extensive pretrial detentions and convictions significantly removed from actual plots. Access a detailed summary of the report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” from the Human Rights Watch website.


America Is the Only Country with a Favorable View of Israel – (Washington’s Blog – July 25, 2014)
Americans – living in a huge country which has never really been invaded, and as the sole superpower – are famous for being out-of-touch with how the rest of the world thinks. So my fellow Americans will probably be surprised to learn that the U.S. is more or less the only country in the world which has a favorable view of Israel. Specifically, a 2012 BBC poll found that the U.S. and Nigeria were the only countries of those polled in which the majority of people had favorable views of Israel. A year later Nigeria swung negative in the 2013 BBC poll, leaving the U.S. alone of all countries polled. Indeed, that poll showed that Israel is the fourth least popular country in the world, trailing only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. One reason may be that Israel has violated United Nations resolutions more than any other country in the world. Article includes charts of the BBC poll and list of violated UN resolutions.

Israel Flagged as Top Spy Threat to U.S. in New Snowden/NSA Document – (Newsweek – August 4, 2014)
Israel was singled out in 2007 as a top espionage threat against the U.S. government, including its intelligence services, in a newly published National Security Agency (NSA) document obtained by Edward Snowden. The document also identified Israel, along with North Korea, Cuba and India, as a “leading threat” to the infrastructure of U.S. financial and banking institutions. In a section of the document headed “Foreign Intelligence, Counterintelligence; Denial & Deception Activities: Countering Foreign Intelligence Threats,” Israel was listed as a leading perpetrator of “espionage/intelligence collection operations and manipulation/influence operations…against U.S. government, military, science & technology and Intelligence Community” organs. Under a section headed “Mastering Cyberspace and Preventing an Attack on U.S. Critical Information Systems,” Israel also appears on the list of countries believed by the NSA to be “enabling” electronic warfare “producers/proliferators.” The new document again underscores the schizoid relationship between the U.S. and Israel, which cooperate closely in military and intelligence operations but also aggressively spy on each other. A previously released Snowden document said that “one of NSA’s biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services, like Israel.” Another revealed that a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate ranked Israel as “the third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S.,” behind only China and Russia.


Coffee Shop Staffed by Homeless People – It’s Working – (Nation of Change – August 12, 2014)
“If you’ve been homeless and have a gap on your resume, people don’t give you a chance,” Seth Kelley, co-founder of RedTail Coffee in Fort Collins, told ThinkProgress by phone. “It’s a cycle that’s really hard to shake.” That’s why Seth, along with his wife Kelly, opened RedTail Coffee in May: to provide job opportunities to homeless and low-income applicants. The coffee shop is located alongside a new housing development that’s being built for homeless and low-income tenants called Red Tail Ponds. The Kelleys had attended a neighborhood meeting earlier this year and were surprised to find people upset at the idea of low-income housing being built in the area. Rather than tell their neighbors why they shouldn’t fear poor people, the Kelleys set out to show them. Even with its altruistic motives, the Kelleys are still running a for-profit business, and doing a remarkable job in the process. Just three months in, RedTail Coffee has already accomplished a highly unusual feat for any new start-up: it’s turned a profit. See also: three German musicians with a different approach to the issues of homeless people.

Internet: How Websites are Experimenting on You – (BBC News – August 1, 2014)
The internet is one big experiment, and you’re part of it. Every day, millions of trials are manipulating what you see when you browse online, to find out how to keep your attention, make you click more links – and spend more money. And these experiments are often secret. You’ll probably never know you were part of them. This is all thanks to something now well-known in the tech industry, called A/B testing. It means that the web pages served to you are not necessarily the same as those shown to the next person – they might have slightly different colors, an alternate headline or, on social networks, you could be shown different personal information about your friends and family. The phenomenon of A/B testing began as a relatively benign, even mundane, way of improving websites. It’s largely used for something called “Conversion Rate Optimization” (CRO), which is a measure of how well any website is able to engage users. What has made it so powerful, however, is that sometimes it throws up results that nobody would have predicted otherwise. Earlier this year, for example, a Google executive revealed that using a different shade of blue for advertising links on search result pages caused more people to click on those links, boosting the company’s revenue by $200m. Similarly, travel site TripAdvisor has used A/B testing to discover that certain colors draw some people in more than others. If people have arrived on a TripAdvisor page from a Google advert, for example, they’re more likely to click on a blue button. Other users navigating from within the TripAdvisor site, however, prefer yellow.

This Supermarket Came Up with a Brilliant Way to Keep Food from Going to Waste – (Elite Daily – July 16, 2014)
No one thinks about the fact that thousands of pounds of imperfectly shaped fruits and vegetables are thrown away by suppliers annually. However, Intermarché, the third largest supermarket chain in France may have found the answer to stop things like that from happening. The company launched a marketing campaign called “The Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables”, featuring produce that wasn’t perfect looking (perhaps even weirdly misshapen) – but was perfectly good and substantially less expensive. Check out the video link in the article for a closer look!

Britons Spend More Time on Tech Than Asleep – (BBC News – August 7, 2014)
UK communications regulator Ofcom said UK adults spend an average of eight hours and 41 minutes a day on media devices, compared with the average night’s sleep of eight hours and 21 minutes. Almost four hours a day are spent watching TV according to Ofcom’s survey of 2,800 UK adults and children. The annual Ofcom study also analyzed the media habits of those between 12 and 15 years of age. Only 8% said they used email, while just 3% said they communicated using a landline phone. Younger people were also found to have an advanced understanding of technology devices, with six-year-olds having the same level of knowledge as the average 45-year-old. The poll also indicated that those aged 16-24 are likely to do more than one task at a time, squeezing 14 hours and 7 minutes of media activity into each day, in just over 9 hours.


NASA Approves ‘Impossible’ Space Engine Design That Apparently Violates the Laws of Physics and Could Revolutionize Space Travel – (Independent – August 13, 2014)
In a paper published by the agency’s experimental Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA engineers confirmed that they had produced tiny amounts of thrust from an engine without propellant  – an apparent violation of the conservation of momentum; the law of physics that states that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Traditional spacecraft carry vast amounts of fuel with them into orbit in order to move about, using the thrust created by this fuel to move in zero gravity like a swimmer in a pool pushing off against a wall. This method works fine but it’s costly – both in terms of obtaining the fuel and then launching all that extra weight into space. Nasa’s engineers have tested an engine known as a ‘Cannae Drive’, a machine that instead uses electricity to generate microwaves, bouncing them around inside a specially designed container that theoretically creates a difference in radiation pressure and so results in directional thrust. All this might be theoretical no more however. Nasa’s scientists tested a version of the drive designed by US scientist Guido Fetta and found that the propellant-less engine was able to produce between 30 and 50 micronewtons of thrust – a tiny amount (0.00003 to 0.00005% of the force of an iPhone pressing down when held in the hand) but still a great deal more than nothing.

New Milky Way Maps Help Solve Stubborn Interstellar Material Mystery – (EurekAlert – August 14, 2014)
An international team of sky scholars, including a key researcher from Johns Hopkins, has produced new maps of the material located between the stars in the Milky Way. The maps were assembled from data collected over a 10-year period by the Radial Velocity Experiment, also known as RAVE. This project used the UK Schmidt Telescope in Australia to collect spectroscopic information from the light of as many as 150 stars at once. The new maps should move astronomers closer to cracking a stardust puzzle that has vexed them for nearly a century. The researchers say their work demonstrates a new way of uncovering the location and eventually the composition of the interstellar medium—the material found in the vast expanse between star systems within a galaxy. This material includes dust and gas composed of atoms and molecules that are left behind when a star dies. The material also supplies the building blocks for new stars and planets. In particular, the researchers focused on a mysterious feature in the light from stars, a peculiarity called diffuse interstellar bands, or “DIBS.” A graduate student who photographed the light from distant stars discovered these dark bands in 1922. Since then, scientists have identified more than 400 of these diffuse interstellar bands, but the materials that cause the bands to appear and their precise location have remained a mystery. Researchers have speculated that the absorption of starlight that creates these dark bands points to the presence of unusually large complex molecules, but proof of this has remained elusive. The nature of this puzzling material is important to astronomers because it could provide clues about the physical conditions and chemistry of these regions between stars. Such details serve as critical components in theories as to how stars and galaxies are formed.


1 in 3 U.S. Adults Have Debt in Collections – (CNN – July 29, 2014)
An estimated 1 in 3 adults with a credit history — or 77 million people — are so far behind on some of their debt payments that their account has been put “in collections.” That’s a key finding from a new Urban Institute study. It examined non-mortgage debt, including credit card bills, car loans, medical bills, child support payments and even parking tickets. The debt in collections ranged from as little as $25 to a whopping $125,000. But the average amount owed was $5,200. Geographically, no area of the country is untouched. Among the states, Nevada had the highest percentage of residents with debt in collections — 47% – as well as the highest average amount owed – $7,198. That was helped in part by the Las Vegas metro area, where 49% of residents had debt in collections. By contrast, North Dakota had the lowest percentage of residents with debt in collections at just 19%, while the District of Columbia had the lowest average dollar amount owed per person at $3,547.

Why One-third of Americans Aren’t Saving for Retirement – (Christian Science Monitor – August 18, 2014)
The answer in one sentence: For many Americans, more immediate financial needs are putting retirement savings on the back burner. According to a national survey by, 36% of US adults say they have not started saving for retirement. And it isn’t just the youngest adults: a significant swath of those on the cusp of retirement haven’t put anything away, including 14% of Americans 65 and older and over a quarter (26%) of Americans between ages 50 and 64.

I Thought The U.S. Was Christian/Jewish/Other. Wrong. Check Out This Surprising Map. – (Upworthy – no date)
The U.S. is more Christian than anything else, but this map shows the second-most popular religion in each state (data as of 2010). Islam is the second largest religion practiced in 20 states; Buddhism is the second most widely practiced religion in 13 states. Judaism is second in only 15 states.


Morphing Material Could Allow Robots to Switch Between Hard and Soft States – (KurzweilAI – July 15, 2014)
A new Terminator T-1000 robot-style material made of wax and foam — and capable of switching between hard and soft states — could be used to build morphing surgical robots that move through the body to reach a desired location without damaging organs or vessels along the way. Robots built from the material could also be used in search-and-rescue operations to squeeze through rubble looking for survivors, says Anette Hosoi, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics who led the research team. Controlling a very soft structure is difficult, compared to a rigid robot. It’s much harder to predict how the material will move and what shapes it will form. So the researchers decided to develop a material that can switch between a soft and hard state by coating a foam structure in wax. (Foam can be squeezed into a small fraction of its normal size, but once released will bounce back to its original shape.) The wax coating, meanwhile, can change from a hard outer shell to a soft, pliable surface with moderate heating. This could be done by running a wire along each of the coated foam struts and then applying a current to heat up and melt the surrounding wax. Turning off the current again would allow the material to cool down and return to its rigid state.

3D-printing Objects Containing Multiple Metals and Alloys – (KurzweilAI – July 29, 2014)
Researchers at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and Pennsylvania State University have developed a 3D printing process that transitions from one metal or alloy to another in a single object. For example, they created a prototype of an improved telescope mirror mount. The part at the top near the glass mirror is made of a metal with low thermal expansion, so that it won’t shrink in space as much as most metals do. That prevents stress in the epoxy adhesive between the mirror and the metal. The bottom part of this mount is stronger stainless steel and could be connected to a stainless steel component of a spacecraft. Using a laser to melt metal powder, the researchers deposit layers of metal on a rotating rod, thus transitioning metals radially (from the inside out, rather than adding layers from bottom to top, as in the traditional 3D printing technique. One could separately make both halves of the object from their respective metals and then weld them together, but the weld itself might be brittle, so that the new object might fall apart under stress. That’s problematic on an interplanetary spacecraft where objects cannot necessarily be fixed once the spacecraft is deployed. One key use that NASA has identified is for making metal inserts with a low coefficient of thermal expansion for carbon-fiber spacecraft panels.


Amazon Launches 3-D Printing Store – (CNN – July 29, 2014)
The future of retail: manufactured by a 3-D printer, delivered by drone. That’s the sci-fi scenario Amazon is inching closer to with the launch this week of its 3-D Printing Store, which offers shoppers over 200 products, including toys, jewelry and home decorations. The items are produced via 3-D printer, and can be customized by size, color, material or with personal text and images. A “personalization widget” lets you play around with different designs and preview your purchase before you buy. “The introduction of our 3-D Printed Products store suggests the beginnings of a shift in online retail – that manufacturing can be more nimble to provide an immersive customer experience,” according to Petra Schindler-Carter, Amazon’s director for marketplace sales.


Scientists Find Hints for the Immortality of the Soul – (Huffington Post – June 17, 2014)
Some international physicists are convinced, that our spirit has a quantum state and that the dualism between the body and the soul is just as real to as the “wave-particle dualism” of the smallest particles. Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Dürr, former head of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, holds the opinion that the dualism of the smallest particles is not limited to the subatomic world, but instead is omnipresent. In other words: the dualism between the body and the soul is just as real to him as “wave-particle dualism” of the smallest particles. According to his view, a universal quantum code exists that applies for all living and dead matter. This quantum code supposedly spans the entire cosmos. Consequently, Dürr believes – again based on purely physical considerations – in an existence after death. He explains this as follows in an interview he gave: “What we consider the here and now, this world, it is actually just the material level that is comprehensible. The beyond is an infinite reality that is much bigger. Which this world is rooted in. In this way, our lives in this plane of existence are encompassed, surrounded, by the afterworld already. When planning I imagine that I have written my existence in this world on a sort of hard drive on the tangible (the brain), that I have also transferred this data onto the spiritual quantum field, then I could say that when I die, I do not lose this information, this consciousness. The body dies but the spiritual quantum field continues. In this way, I am immortal.”

The Pale Blue Dot – (YouTube – October 21, 2013)
In just under four minutes, Carl Sagan’s video clip puts the Earth and all human undertaking in sharp perspective.

5 Things the Dying Want Us to Know – (Huffington Post – August 1, 2014)
If quantum reality still seems a little fuzzy in your mind, here’s an article that focuses on the very here-and-now of death. Veteran journalist and author of Opening Heaven’s Door: Investigating Stories of Life, Death, and What Comes After explains what she discovered after spending five years researching how people cross over. Her conclusion: Perhaps the dying understand more than we do, and can offer us comfort, if only we could listen to what they’re attempting to say.

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

One of Science’s Most Baffling Questions: Why We Yawn – (BBC News – August 12, 2014)
Yawning has puzzled scientists for more than two millennia. But over the last few years, one underlying mechanism has emerged that could, potentially, answer the question “why?”. Andrew Gallup, now at the State University of New York at Oneonta, was first inspired with the idea during his undergraduate degree, when he realized that yawning might help to chill the brain and stop it overheating. The violent movement of the jaws moves blood flow around the skull, he argued, helping to carry away excess heat, while the deep inhalation brings cool air into the sinus cavities and around the carotid artery leading back into the brain. What’s more, the strenuous movements could also flex the membranes of sinuses – fanning a soft breeze through the cavities that should cause our mucus to evaporate, which should chill the head like air conditioning. The most obvious test was to see if people are more or less likely to yawn in different temperatures. In normal conditions, Gallup found that around 48% felt the urge to yawn, but when he asked them to hold a cold compress to their foreheads, just 9% succumbed. Breathing through the nose, which could also cool the brain, was even more effective, completely dampening his subjects’ urge to yawn. Perhaps the best evidence comes from two troubled women who approached Gallup soon after he first published his results. Both were looking for relief from pathological yawning attacks, sometimes lasting an hour at a time. Intriguingly, one of the women found the only way to stop the yawning attack was to throw herself into cold water. Inspired, Gallup asked them to place a thermometer in their mouths before and after the attacks. Sure enough, he saw a slight rise in temperature just before the yawning bouts, which continued until it dropped back to 37C.

Solar Storm Near-miss – (Register – July 26, 2014)
Two years ago this week the Sun let off one of its periodic solar flares, and a new analysis of its force shows that human civilization had a very near miss indeed. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado. On 23 July 2012, two coronal mass ejections (CME) burst out of the Sun’s surface within 15 minutes of each other and headed out into space at more than 3,000km per second. If they had erupted nine days earlier Earth would have been directly in its path. Instead, NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) satellite was perfectly positioned to record the blast. Scientists analyzed the data and found that the CMEs were the largest yet measured – and could even have exceeded the notorious 1859 Carrington event. Had they hit us, the resulting electromagnetic disturbance could have taken out most of the GPS network, communications satellites, electrical grids and some servers.

‘Whistling’ Volcanic Lightning Heard Halfway Around the World – (Live Science – July 24, 2014)
The Earth sings every day, with an electric chorus. With the right tuning, radios can eavesdrop on this sizzling symphony of crackles, pops and whistles — the melody of millions of lightning bolts. A listener in New Zealand can even hear a volcano in Alaska erupt, a new study reports. Lightning strikes unleash intense bursts of visible light and very-low-frequency (VLF) radio waves, among other kinds of energy. With a VLF receiver, anyone can listen to the constant chatter of Earth’s lightning, estimated at 8 million strikes every day. (Not every lightning bolt becomes a whistler.) Whistlers are pulses of VLF radio energy that have traveled into space, leaping from one side of Earth to the other along the planet’s magnetic field lines. Scientists monitor whistlers because the beautiful noise tells them about the planet’s protective bubble of charged particles, called the plasmasphere. Whistlers on Venus and Jupiter suggest lightning also crackles on other planets. Now, however, researchers have also linked a flurry of whistlers detected in Dunedin, New Zealand, to processes deep inside the Earth. For the first time, scientists have connected whistlers to volcanic lightning. Article includes audio clip of the sound.


Weird Al Singing about Grammar – (The Literacy Site – no date)
Weird Al parodies Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” to the jubilation of grammar sticklers everywhere! Although researchers have presented evidence that the use of textisms and incorrect word forms may not negatively affect written grammar test scores, people who deal with improper grammar on a daily basis aren’t convinced. Word crimes are being committed left and right (not “rite”) — but thankfully, biting satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic has enlisted his musically parodic skills, with the help of artist Jarrett Heather, to bring us a melodic riff on the importance of proper and effective linguistic communication. And you thought grammar was dull! Check out the video clip.


The future is purchased by the present. – Samuel Johnson

A special thanks to: Bernard Calil, Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Doug Kinney, Sergio Lub, Jeanne Mozier, Diane Petersen, 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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Volume 17, Number 15 – 8/15/14

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