Volume 18, Number 20 – 12/15/15

 Volume 18, Number 20 – 12/15/15


  • The US Navy is creating “smart” E. coli to combat a variety of disorders faced by military personnel.
  • A typical two-bedroom home in Africa or South America with a toilet, a kitchen, and a living room can be constructed with approximately 14,000 plastic bottles and costs a quarter of what a conventional house would.
  • A growing number of former prison inmates in Illinois are being sued by the state to force them to pay a lump sum towards the cost of their incarceration, sometimes seeking many tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Right now there are 102.6 million working age Americans that do not have a job.

by John L. Petersen

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Biggest Breakthroughs In Science in 2015

Here’s a very nice, quick video summary from the National Academy of Science of the biggest breakthroughs in science this last year. Quite interesting what’s happening around us – especially when you step back from these things and imagine what they might turn into.

The Dawn of the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil has made popular the notion of “the singularity” – an extraordinary event (or closely related series of events) that fundamentally reorganize the underlying fabric of how we live. The underlying notion is one of exponential change with the singularity being that place on the curve where it heads vertical.

The good folks at always have great infographics that attempt to provide context and continuity to some of these big issues. Here’s one on the singularity.

It’s one thing to mention these things in text, but the rate of change and significance of it all becomes much clearer when you can see the projected contributing events laid out on a timeline.

Click on the graphic below.

This chart explains everything you need to know about inequality

While we’re doing charts, here’s a great one from the Washington Post that clearly shows how this country is becoming increasing inequitable.

Read complete article

The Empire Files: ‘This Ship is Sinking’ Says Former Bush Official

When Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, one of his key advisors was Larry Wilkerson, then a lieutenant colonel. Larry was a friend of mine back then and I always was impressed with the clarity of his thinking. When Powell went on to become Secretary of State, he asked Larry to come and be his chief of staff. In that role he helped to write Powell’s famous speech arguing that the Iraqis had acquired weapons of mass destruction.

Soon after that, when he saw from his insider position how the administration was encouraging and supporting torturing, he decided that he could no longer remain quiet about the larger picture that was becoming clear to him and began speaking out in public about the situation.

Recently, Wilkerson was interviewed by Abby Martin and I thought his overview of what was happening to the United States was particularly compelling. I commend it to you.

Watch interview

The World’s Largest Animal Cloning Center is Under Construction in China

Here’s one of those stories that just kind of “pop-up” in surprise and then, after you think about it a bit, you say, “Yeah, that could easily have been predicted”. But, think a little more about what this might mean . . .

Scientists from China have announced that they will establish a commercial animal cloning center in the Tianjin Economic and Technological Development Area (TEDA), a government-sponsored business development park. Here, they will clone various animals, including dogs, cattle, and horses. The purpose of this project isn’t strictly scientific. Indeed, a large part of the rationale is to provide for China’s ever increasing food demands, thanks to the burgeoning population. When completed, it is slated to cost approximately $500 million, and will include a research laboratory, a gene bank, and also a museum.

The center should be operational by mid-2016. Read the complete article.



Cyberbullying Insurance? That’s a Real Thing One Company Is Offering in the U.K. – (Washington Post – December 11, 2105)
It’s no secret that online trolling can be disruptive. 73% of American adults online have seen someone be harassed online and 40% have personally experienced it, according Pew Research center study released last year. Some of its most extreme forms like swatting — where a harasser fakes an emergency to get police to raid a victim’s home — are real world safety threats. Now a insurer is offering some customers in the United Kingdom benefits to help offset the costs of trolling. Chubb insurance will include cyberbullying coverage as part of its personal insurance package — providing up to 50,000 pounds, or roughly $75,000, that could be used for things like help from online experts for victims and counseling, or even covering lost income if the victim is off work for more than a week due to the harassment. The company defines cyberbullying as “three or more acts by the same person or group to harass, threaten or intimidate a customer.”

Crowdfunding Justice: How to Raise Money to Hire a Lawyer – (Naked Law – April 1, 2015)
Crowdfunding has finally hit the legal industry. People who cannot afford attorney fees can now use crowdfunding sites similar to Kickstarter or Indiegogo to raise money for legal fees. Several sites offer legal-specific crowdfunding, and generic crowdfunding sites are also being used to raise money for legal needs. The article goes on to offer 5 crowdfunding options for legal issues and gives some basic “do’s” and “don’ts” advice.


Scientists Just Proved a Fundamental Quantum Physics Problem Is Unsolvable – (Futurism – December 11, 2015)
Scientists have proven for the very first time that one of the most fundamental problems of particle and quantum physics is mathematically unsolvable. In short, they show that regardless of how perfectly we can mathematically describe a material on the microscopic level, we are never going to be able to predict its macroscopic behavior. Never. The problem goes back to the spectral gap, which is the energy required for an electron to transition from a low-energy state to an excited state. Spectral gaps are important because they’re a central property of semiconductors, which are crucial components of most electrical circuits. Ultimately, physicists were hoping that they’d be able to discover whether a material is superconductive at room temperature simply by extrapolating from a complete-enough microscopic description. But an international team of scientists has now shown that proving that a material has a spectral gap is what’s known as “an undecidable question”.

Humans Evolved to Get Better Sleep in Less Time – (Science Daily – December 14, 2015)
Humans get by on significantly less sleep than our closest animal relatives. The secret, according to a new study, is that our sleep is more efficient. Researchers from Duke University scoured the scientific literature and compiled a database of slumber patterns across hundreds of mammals including 21 species of primates — from baboons and lemurs to orangutans, chimpanzees and people. They found that humans are exceptionally short sleepers — getting by on an average of seven hours of sleep a night, whereas other primate species, such as southern pig-tailed macaques and gray mouse lemurs, need as many as 14 to 17 hours. What’s more, our sleep tends to be more efficient, meaning we spend a smaller proportion of time in light stages of sleep, and more of our sleep time in deeper stages of sleep. A dream state called rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, for example, makes up nearly 25% of our overall sleep. But in primates such as mouse lemurs, mongoose lemurs and African green monkeys, REM sleep barely climbs above 5%. The human sleep gap isn’t merely the result of round-the-clock access to artificial light from streetlamps and computer screens, the researchers say. A separate study of the sleep habits of people living in three hunter-gatherer societies without electricity in Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia found they get slightly less shut-eye than those of us with electronic gadgets. The researchers attribute the shift towards shorter, more efficient sleep in part to the transition from sleeping in “beds” in the trees, as our early human ancestors probably did, to sleeping on the ground as we do today. Once on the ground, Samson said, early humans likely started sleeping near fire and in larger groups in order to keep warm and ward off predators such as leopards and hyenas — habits which could have enabled our ancestors to get the most out of their sleep in the shortest time possible, i.e. safety and warmth allowed them to sleep more deeply.


World’s First IVF Puppies Born to Surrogate Mother Dog – (BBC News – December 12, 2015)
The world’s first “test tube” puppies have been born after years of attempts, say scientists in the US. The in-vitro fertilization success paves the way for conserving endangered breeds and could help in the fight against human and animal diseases, say researchers at Cornell University. The seven beagle and cross-bred beagle-spaniel puppies were born to a surrogate mother. Lead researcher Dr. Alex Travis, from Cornell’s college of veterinary medicine, said: “We have seven normal happy healthy puppies.” He added: “Since the mid-1970s, people have been trying to do this in a dog and have been unsuccessful. The researchers say IVF is a powerful tool to help endangered species of dog such as the African wild dog. It could also be used in the study of inherited human and dog diseases.Dogs share many similar diseases with humans – almost twice as many as for any other species.

Novel Chemical ‘Washes Away’ Alzheimer’s Plaque in Mice – (Live Science – December 8, 2015)
Scientists in Korea have found a small molecule that, when added to the drinking water of mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease, washed away the protein plaques associated with the disease and improved the mice’s learning and memory functions. The chemical, called EPPS — short for 4-(2-hydroxyethyl)-1- piperazinepropanesulphonic acid — posed no ill effect for the mice even at high doses. The scientists hope to conduct further studies to determine whether the EPPS is safe and effective for humans with Alzheimer’s disease. The Korean scientists, led by Young Soo Kim of the Brain Science Institute at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, investigated the ability of EPPS to attach to amyloid-beta clumps and convert them into simpler, smaller molecules. Through a series of experiments, they found that EPPS could break apart plaque in a living mammal. They also found the molecule could be added to drinking water yet still travel in the blood to the brain and cross the blood-brain barrier, which otherwise prevents foreign material from entering the brain. EPPS could penetrate the barrier because it is a relatively small molecule, Kim said. Scientists have debated whether amyloid-beta accumulation is a cause or an effect of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Kim said that because his group’s study showed that the mice’s learning and memory improved after the removal of the plaque, the research supports the view that amyloid-beta deposits are a direct driver of Alzheimer’s symptoms. John Hardy, a neurology professor at the University College, London — who in November won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize for his earlier work, discovering the genetic mutations that cause amyloid beta to accumulate — said the new study was “indeed interesting,” but cautioned not to assume the same results would be seen in humans.

‘Toxic’ Cells Thought to Drive the Late Effects of Radiation, Diseases of Aging Can Be Cleared with a Drug – (Science Daily – December 14, 2015)
Cellular senescence, the loss of cells’ ability to divide, normally functions as a tumor suppressive mechanism; however, senescent cells become “toxic” as they accumulate after exposure to radiation and with age. This is because they cause stem cell aging that reduces the ability of tissue regeneration and repair and drive chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. Since chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to be the root cause of some late effects of radiation and many age-related diseases, including radiation-induced long-term bone marrow injury and age-related osteoarthritis and atherosclerosis, eliminating senescent cells has the potential to mitigate radiation-induced late tissue injury and treat many age-related diseases. In the current study, ABT-263, a molecule initially developed as an anti-cancer therapy, was given orally to either normally aged mice or irradiated mice to induce premature aging of the hematopoietic system, the organs and tissues involved in production of blood. ABT-263 effectively depleted senescent cells, including senescent “stem cells” of the bone marrow and muscle. Depletion of the senescent cells appeared to reduce premature aging of the bone marrow caused by irradiation, and even rejuvenated the function of stem cells in normally aged mice. The results demonstrate that clearance of senescent cells by a pharmacological agent is beneficial in part by rejuvenating aged tissue stem cells. However, researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences pointed out, “ABT-263 was originally developed as an anti-cancer agent. It has toxic side effects that make it inappropriate for development as an agent for diseases of aging.” They added, “We are investigating next-generation small-molecule drugs that are optimized to clear senescent cells without drug-induced toxicity.”

U.S. Navy Recruits Gut Microbes to Fight Obesity and Disease – (Scientific American – December 16, 2015)
In 2014, Rice University synthetic biologist Jeff Tabor received a three-year grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to genetically modify a harmless species of Escherichia coli bacteria normally found in the human gut. The goal is to create an edible probiotic organism that can hone in on developing disease and stave it off, even before symptoms take hold. He has recently succeeded in engineering E. coli with sensors that can detect the presence of chemicals signaling disease—at least in the mouse gut. Tabor’s project is part of a larger program on the microbiome funded by the Navy to help U.S. naval forces be more robust in the face of stressors—changes in diet or environment, fearful situations, sleep loss or disrupted circadian rhythms from shifting time zones or living in a submarine. His ultimate aim is to design “a precision gut bacterium that manipulates the intestinal environment in humans to keep it healthy,” he says. This involves rewiring the genes of E. coli to transform the cells into predictable and reliable microbial medics loaded with engineered genetic circuits that can sense specific chemical disturbances and fire off a battery of molecules to neutralize them. The cells would live only a short time in the gut, perhaps six hours or so, “just long enough to do their job,” Tabor says. Then they would die naturally or self-destruct. Tabor’s work represents the fruitful collision of two hot fields: synthetic biology, the engineering of microorganisms to make useful products; and microbiomics, the study of the microbes living on and inside humans and other animals, collectively known as the microbiome.


Shaking out the Nanomaterials: A New Method to Purify Water – (Kurzweil AI – December 10, 2015)
A new study has found a novel—and very simple—way to remove nearly 100 percent of nanomaterials from water. Dongyan Zhang, a research professor of physics at Michigan Tech, led the experiments, which covered tests on carbon nanotubes, graphene, boron nitride nanotubes, boron nitride nanosheets and zinc oxide nanowires. Those are used in everything from carbon fiber golf clubs to sunscreen. “These materials are very, very tiny, and that means if you try to remove them and clean them out of contaminated water, that it’s quite difficult,” Zhang says, adding that techniques like filter paper or meshes often don’t work. We don’t have to wait until the final vote is in on whether nanomaterials have a positive or negative impact on people’s health and environmental health. With the simplicity of this technique, and how prolific nanomaterials are becoming, removing nanomaterials makes sense. Also, finding ways to effectively remove nanomaterials sooner rather than later could improve the technology’s market potential. The approach to extract one- and two-dimensional nanomaterials from contaminated water is based on a microscopic oil–water interface trapping mechanism. Results indicate that carbon nanotubes, graphene, boron nitride nanotubes, boron nitride nanosheets, and zinc oxide nanowires can be successfully extracted from contaminated water at a successful rate of nearly 100%.

Climate Change is Unfalsifiable Woo-Woo Pseudoscience – (YouTube – December 10, 2015)
Karl Popper famously said, “A theory that explains everything explains nothing.” So what do you make of the theory that catastrophic manmade CO2-driven “climate change” can account for harsher winters and lighter winters, more snow and less snow, droughts and floods, more hurricanes and less hurricanes, more rain and less rain, more malaria and less malaria, saltier seas and less salty seas, Antarctica ice melting and Antarctic ice gaining and dozens of other contradictions? This YouTube video clip shows pairs of mainstream news articles, each one contradicting the previous one.

337 Whales Wash Ashore on Chilean Coast in One of the Largest Mass Strandings Ever – (Independent – December 2, 2015)
Scientists say the discovery of the 337 beached whales is one of the biggest strandings ever recorded. Using aerial and satellite photography, biologist Vreni Haussermann and other scientists counted 305 bodies and 32 skeletons in the area between the Gulf of Penas and Puerto Natales in June. Ms Haussermann, the director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, which focuses on marine research, said it was “an apocalyptic sight”, adding that she expected to find more dead whales as the team had not yet reached every area. The cause of death of the sei whales is unknown, but human intervention has been ruled out. “They probably died at sea, we don’t know exactly where, but they didn’t just die by stranding,” said Carolina Simon Gutstein, a paleontologist at University of Chile who was part of the team. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the sei as an endangered species. Adults can be longer than 50 feet and weigh 18 tons or more. See also this potentially suggestive article: First brain scans of sea lions give clues to strandings.


LiFi Tested in Real World: It’s 100 Times Faster than WiFi – (Science Alert – November 24, 2015)
Expect to hear a whole lot more about Li-Fi – a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC) – in the coming months. With scientists achieving speeds of 224 gigabits per second in the lab using Li-Fi earlier this year, the potential for this technology to change everything about the way we use the Internet is huge. And now, scientists have taken Li-Fi out of the lab for the first time, trialling it in offices and industrial environments in Tallinn, Estonia, reporting that they can achieve data transmission at 1 GB per second – that’s 100 times faster than current average Wi-Fi speeds. Li-Fi was invented by Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 2011, when he demonstrated for the first time that by flickering the light from a single LED, he could transmit far more data than a cellular tower. Think back to that lab-based record of 224 gigabits per second – that’s 18 movies of 1.5 GB each being downloaded every single second. The technology uses Visible Light Communication (VLC), a medium that uses visible light between 400 and 800 terahertz (THz). It works basically like an incredibly advanced form of Morse code – just like switching a torch on and off according to a certain pattern can relay a secret message, flicking an LED on and off at extreme speeds (imperceptible to the naked eye) can be used to write and transmit things in binary code. The benefit of Li-Fi over Wi-Fi, other than potentially much faster speeds, is that because light cannot pass through walls, it makes it a whole lot more secure.


Plastic-Bottle Homes Are Popping Up Around the World –(Take Part – December 10, 2015)
In the United States alone, 47 billion plastic bottles are discarded annually, and worldwide, enough plastic is thrown out in a single year to circle the globe four times. But a form of construction being used throughout Africa and Latin America is making a difference, not only by reducing plastic waste but also by taking advantage of the durability of plastic bottles to provide shelter for the homeless. The “bottle wall technique,” developed by German firm Ecotec Environmental Solutions, has been training people in Nigeria, where 16 million people are homeless, to build homes out of plastic bottles. The process is simple. Bottles are collected and filled with sand, then stacked on their sides and bound together with mud or a cement mix, creating solid walls. The structures are well insulated, incredibly strong (20 times stronger than brick), fire resistant, and even bulletproof. A typical two-bedroom home with a toilet, a kitchen, and a living room requires 14,000 plastic bottles and costs a quarter of what a conventional house would.


New Battery Can Store 10 Times the Energy of the Next Best Device – (Science Mag – November 27, 2015)
Industrial-scale batteries, known as flow batteries, could one day usher in widespread use of renewable energy—but only if the devices can store large amounts of energy cheaply and feed it to the grid when the sun isn’t shining and the winds are calm. That’s something conventional flow batteries can’t do. Now, researchers led by Qing Wang, a materials scientist at the National University of Singapore, report that they’ve created a novel type of flow battery that uses lithium ion technology—the sort used to power laptops—to store about 10 times as much energy as the most common flow batteries on the market. With a few improvements, the new batteries could make a major impact on the way we store and deliver energy.


Porsche to Build Electric Mission E Sports Sedan, Will Hit 80% Charge in 15 Minutes – (Extreme Tech – December 7, 2015)
Porsche has announced that it will invest $1 billion to build the Mission E, the company’s first 100 % electric car that debuted in concept form in September and is now scheduled for launch by 2020. The Mission E is roughly similar to the Tesla Model S on paper; it’s a four-door sedan (though not a hatchback) with four bucket seats and a combined driveline output of over 600hp, with a promised 0-60 under 3.5 seconds and range over 310 miles — putting it easily within striking range of the Model S. Porsche is designing an 800-volt charger that the company promises will be twice as fast as today’s quick charge systems, and that can deliver 80 % charge in just 15 minutes. It’s also planning a wireless charging system via induction coil beneath an owner’s garage floor, assuming the owner ponies up for the cost of purchasing it and having it installed. The instrument panel is fully OLED in the concept version, and we don’t see any reason why Porsche wouldn’t build that into the final product to one-up the Tesla Model S’s 17-inch capacitive touch screen. The panel also mimics the 911’s classic five-gauge cluster in OLED form. The car even has an eye-tracking sensor that will reposition the gauges and open up menus based on where the car sees you looking on the panel. And here’s a new one: There’s an emotion-tracking sensor in the rear view mirror that can sense how happy or sad you are, and the car tells you so with an emoticon on the dashboard. (Editor’s note: Why would someone want a car to tell them how they feel?)


Banana Extinction May Occur Due to Invasive Strain of Soil-Borne Fungus – (Nature World News – December 4, 2015)
Despite careful quarantine measures, an invasive pathogen known as Fusarium fungus is threatening Cavendish banana plants worldwide. This puts the popular fruit at risk of extinction, again. While Cavendish bananas are widely exported around the world, a tastier, bigger and more resilient banana known as the Gros Michel once filled supermarket shelves. But in the 1960s an incurable and invasive pathogen virtually wiped out the beloved fruits. That’s when humans turned to the more bland Cavendish bananas, which at the time seemed to resist the fungal infection responsible for what is known as Panama disease. But now, a new and stronger strand of the pathogen is wreaking havoc on Cavendish crops and researchers fear the bananas may face the same fate as their tasty ancestors did years ago. The new Fusarium fungus is known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4) and is a soil-borne pathogen that enters banana plants through their roots and kills them. When a plot of land is contaminated with the fungus it is no longer possible to cultivate there because new growth will become infected. The spread of TR4 has plagued plantations in Jordan, Mozambique, China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Australia. Currently, there is no way of combating the disease, so a farmer’s only hope is that quarantine methods will at least slow the rate of infestation. Wageningen University researchers recently analyzed DNA of infected specimens in an attempt to trace how Panama disease has spread so widely around the world. Their analysis revealed that each strain of the fungus is genetically identical, meaning they are clones which makes it increasingly difficult to control its diversification. Unfortunately, the Cavendish bananas are also monoculture, which means they too are clones of one another and lack genetic diversity. It follows then that since they can’t sexually reproduce, they also can’t evolve a defense against the devastating pathogen.

Major U.S. Food Stores Sell Shrimp Peeled By Slaves – (Huffington Post – December 14, 2015)
Every morning at 2 a.m., they heard a kick on the door and a threat: Get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No. 31 and his wife stood in the factory that owned them with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the United States. After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, they were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. Always, someone was watching. Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry, an Associated Press investigation has found shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia. The problem is fueled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities. Arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.


Tokyo Police to Deploy Net-Carrying Drone to Catch Rogue Drones – (NBC – December 11, 2015)
Tokyo police are hoping to snare rogue drones with a net carried by its own unmanned aerial vehicle. The police drone will enter service sometime this month. Its purpose will be to stop suspicious-looking drones that fly into restricted airspace near government buildings. The new line of defense comes after a drone with minute traces of radiation landed on the roof of the prime minister’s office in April. “Terrorist attacks using drones carrying explosives are a possibility,” according to a senior officer in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department. The drone will carry a net that measures nearly 10 feet long and more than 6.5 feet wide. Not only will it allow police to stop drones from entering restricted airspace, it will also prevent the offending drone from falling down onto the street below, where it could damage a vehicle or injure a pedestrian. Article includes video clip of the drone. (Editor’s note: After the Fukushima meltdown, there are “minute traces of radiation” everywhere in Tokyo. See this BBC News article: High level of radiation detected in Tokyo park.)

The New Nuclear Arms Race – (Washington Post – December 16, 2015)
William Perry was President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense. Perry took over at the Pentagon during one of the most fluid times in geopolitical history — between the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During his time in office, Perry was one of the architects of a strategy he called “preventive defense,” the goal of which was to reduce global threats rather than just contain them. The greatest threat of all was nuclear, as fears spread about such weapons falling into rogue hands. Perry has just written a new book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, in which he offers a dire warning: “Far from continuing the nuclear disarmament that has been underway for the last two decades, we are starting a new nuclear arms race.” This is not hyperbole. The Pentagon plans to spend $1 trillion over 30 years on “an entire new generation of nuclear bombs, bombers, missiles and submarines,” including a dozen submarines carrying more than 1,000 warheads, capable of decimating any country anywhere. In the meantime, President Obama has ordered 200 new nuclear bombs deployed in Europe. Russia has been at least as aggressive. Russian state media recently revealed plans for a new kind of a weapon — a hydrogen bomb torpedo — that can traverse 6,000 miles of ocean just as a missile would in the sky. On impact, the bomb would create a “radioactive tsunami,” designed to kill millions along a country’s coast. (Editor’s note: The article continues with more specifics, however, it does not even touch upon China’s nuclear ambitions, which are at least as great as those of the US and Russia.)


Charting Trump’s Rise Through the Decline of the Middle Class – (Washington Post – December 12, 2015)
For anyone trying to understand the emergence of Donald Trump as a force in this pre-election year, recently released research by the Pew Research Center provided some valuable insight. There has been a “hollowing out” of the middle class, as the study puts it. In 1971, the middle class accounted for 61% of the nation’s population; it now accounts for 49%. Today, there are slightly more people in the upper and lower economic tiers combined than in the middle class. During the past four years, incomes rose 3% for the wealthiest, 1% for middle-income Americans, and not at all for those with the lowest incomes. For those in the middle, the median income in 2014 was 4% lower than in 2000, according to the study. Among the various demographic groups examined, adults with no more than a high school diploma lost the most ground economically. This is where the report connects directly to what’s happened politically this year. Pair those last findings from the Pew study with what recent polling shows about who supports Trump. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found Trump leading his rivals overall, with 32 percent support among registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Among white people with college degrees, he was at 23% and led his nearest rival by only four percentage points. Among white people without a college degree, however, his support ballooned to 41% — double that of Ben Carson, who was second at 20%, and five times the support of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who were tied for third.

Illinois Inmates Increasingly Sued by State to Recoup Incarceration Costs – (Guardian – December 2, 2015)
A growing number of former prison inmates in Illinois are being sued by the state to force them to pay a lump sum towards the cost of their incarceration, sometimes seeking many tens of thousands of dollars. The practice is the latest twist on the “pay-to-stay” trend across the US where part of the public burden of funding the criminal justice system is pushed back onto offenders. The Illinois department of corrections has an established practice of sanctioning lawsuits, which are actually served by the state attorney general’s office, against inmates sentenced to decades for the most serious crimes, in order to recoup some of the prison costs. But it has recently begun suing former prisoners who served shorter sentences for lesser offenses – particularly if the individual has received a windfall. That windfall could be an inheritance or proceeds of a legal settlement, for example. In one case the authorities demanded a large portion of the money a man had earned and saved up from his prison job, while in another a man was sued for more than the amount he had actually just won from the department of corrections for inadequate medical treatment in prison.


Video Shows the Absurdity of the War in Syria in One Single Blown-up Humvee – (Washington Post – November 17, 2015)
The video embedded in the article, reportedly recorded outside of Aleppo, Syria and posted online, features rebels from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army firing a U.S.-supplied anti-tank guided missile at what it is clearly a U.S.-made Humvee. Rarely do the weapons and equipment of a conflict come together in a single video to highlight how America now fights its wars, but there it is. According to the caption on the video, the strike killed one occupant. The now-destroyed Humvee was mounted with a 14.5mm anti-aircraft gun. It is unclear if the U.S. Humvee is one that the Islamic State might have captured from Iraqi security forces during its blitz across parts of northern Iraq last year, or if it’s from U.S.-supplied Iraqi militias who have since entered Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s fledging forces. One thing is for certain: that truck was built in the U.S.A. As the war enter its fifth year, the number of deaths crest well over 250,000.


Inside the First VR Theme Park – (Technology Review – December 15, 2015)
The Void is a new entertainment center being built in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. It combines virtual reality with elements of the real world, like walls, wind, and sprays of water. You walk around and touch things that match up with any number of fantastical worlds you see through a VR headset. Led by Ken Bretschneider, a tech entrepreneur who previously created the Internet security company DigiCert, the company is building an eight-acre gaming center in Pleasant Grove, Utah, possibly the first of several around the country. Groups of six to eight headset-clad visitors will pay $34 apiece to explore virtual reality together for 20 minutes at a time, roving 60-by-60-foot stages filled with dense foam walls, replete with effects like water and wind. Though the full-size version of the Void isn’t slated to open until August or September, the company is already selling out time slots at a beta center connected to its office in neighboring Lindon. There, curious visitors pay $10 apiece to try out the first interactive experiences, which at this point span just six or seven minutes and are set on a stage that’s just 30 by 30 feet. The author of this article who tried out the Lindon mini-version said, “I’m entranced, and the dozen pounds of electronics weighing me down seem to melt away.”

In Virtual Reality, Exercise Bike Becomes a Race Car – (Technology Review – December 16, 2015)
So how about bringing that virtual reality theme park home? A new stationary bike from Boston startup VirZoom requires an unusual accessory while you’re pedaling: a virtual-reality headset, so you can turn your workout into a virtual adventure. Virtual reality has long been used for rehabilitation, including exercising. A 2011 study from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, for instance, found that when people thought the intensity of a virtual-reality workout increased, so did their motivation. Initially, VirZoom will be compatible with three forthcoming virtual-reality headsets—the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive—all of which track head movements to make the leaning motion translate into movement within the game. The bike itself tracks how fast you pedal and can add more resistance based on what avatar you take on or what type of land you travel over. The platform will eventually open up to developers, but for now VirZoom is building its first five games from scratch because its team worries the types of motion in existing games could make users motion-sick. For now, VirZoom is only planning to sell its bike to people who want to use it at home. Headsets will likely be too expensive and delicate for gyms to lend out to attendees in a spin class at a gym, and I’m guessing people may not be too keen on sharing sweaty headsets—the author says that his felt pretty gross when he was done with his workout.

Why Manicured Lawns Should Become a Thing of the Past – (Washington Post – December 2, 2015)
Many folks, not to mention homeowners associations, cling to that model of the American yard as one of clipped foundation shrubs, groomed lawns and trees with mulch circles. Naked soil must be blanketed spring and fall with shredded mulch. Fallen leaves are treated as trash. The real gardening world left this fusty model years ago, embracing soft groupings of perennials, grasses and specimen trees and shrubs in a celebration of plants and a closer communion with nature. Thomas Rainer and Claudia West are two young plant designers who cut their teeth on this aesthetic and are among a new wave of influential practitioners who are pushing this naturalism to the next level. They reject the popular approach of using indigenous plants exclusively to redeem a wilderness because such a place no longer exists: We’ve spent four centuries on this continent erasing it. Instead, we can bring a natural idiom to all the green places that we live with. Because more than 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, that means rooftops, city gardens, old suburban yards, parking lots, utility easements, highway medians and the rest. If we accept that nature as we imagined it resides in the past, they argue, we are free to turn all these immediate spaces, including our gardens, into naturalistic landscapes that will be more satisfying and less work than the lawn and manicured-shrubbery approach.


The Geysers on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Are Mysteriously Losing Steam – ( – December 16, 2015)
The famous geysers on Saturn’s icy, ocean-harboring moon Enceladus aren’t what they used to be. The 330-mile-wide Enceladus hosts a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy shell. This ocean stays liquid because Saturn’s powerful gravity twists and stretches Enceladus, generating internal heat through tidal forces. (This tidal heating also provides the energy that powers the jets.) The geysers, which blast material from Enceladus’ subsurface ocean into space from the moon’s south polar region, were first spotted by NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft back in 2005. Now, a new study of Cassini data shows that the geysers’ output has dropped by 30% to 50% since then. This finding does not imply that Enceladus’ jets are shutting down, said lead author Andrew Ingersoll, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. But, he added, it’s unclear what, exactly, is going on. It’s possible that the fissures through which the geysers spray are narrowing as more and more material accumulates on their walls, Ingersoll said. “But why they would all act together is totally beyond me,” he said. It’s also possible that the water pressure in the reservoirs feeding Enceladus’ jets varies considerably over relatively long time spans, Ingersoll added, though he said it’s hard to imagine how such a scenario would work in practice.

“Lost Galaxies” of the Universe – (Daily Galaxy – December 5, 2015)
We know of about two dozen runaway stars, and have even found one runaway star cluster escaping its galaxy forever. As of this past June, astronomers have spotted 11 runaway galaxies that have been flung out of their homes to wander the void of intergalactic space. An object is a runaway if it’s moving faster than escape velocity, which means it will depart its home never to return. In the case of a runaway star, that speed is more than a million miles per hour. A runaway galaxy has to race even faster, traveling at up to 6 million miles per hour. Igor Chilingarian (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/Moscow State University) and his co-author, Ivan Zolotukhin (L’Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie/Moscow State University), initially set out to identify new members of a class of galaxies called compact ellipticals. These tiny blobs of stars are bigger than star clusters but smaller than a typical galaxy, spanning only a few hundred light-years. In comparison, the Milky Way is 100,000 light-years across. Compact ellipticals also weigh 1000 times less than a galaxy like our Milky Way. Prior to this study, only about 30 compact elliptical galaxies were known, all of them residing in galaxy clusters. Their search identified almost 200 previously unknown compact ellipticals. Of those, 11 were completely isolated and found far from any large galaxy or galaxy cluster. Not only were the newfound compact ellipticals isolated, but also they were moving faster than their brethren in clusters. “We asked ourselves, what else could explain them? The answer was a classic three-body interaction,” stated Chilingarian. For example,a hypervelocity star can be created if a binary star system wanders close to the black hole at the center of our galaxy. One star gets captured while the other is thrown away at tremendous speed.


Impossible Odds in Mass Murders and Terrorism – (Want to Know – December 11, 2015)
Impossible odds surrounding recent mass murders and terrorist events are being entirely ignored by the media and official sources. I will show here that the statistical odds against several key events happening the way they did are greater than seven billion to one. In reporting on many major mass murder and terrorist events in the US and Europe in the last 15 years, including the recent Paris massacre and killings in San Bernardino, CA, respected media sources have revealed that by “coincidence” a drill was being held the same day and in the same city of the event. Not only that, the drills were practicing for what actually happened. As a result of these multiple, amazing coincidences, those involved in these drills were then able to immediately go from the practice drill to secure and control the scene of the actual event. The astronomical odds against this being coincidence suggest that almost certainly something else is happening here. The article provides links to the mainstream news articles that reported on the coincidence drills at the times of the various terrorist events.


Drone Giant DJI Teaming With FLIR On Aerial Thermal Imaging Camera – (Fast Company – December 09, 2015)
China’s DJI, the world’s largest maker of drones, has teamed up with FLIR, a leader in thermal imaging technology, on an aerial camera capable of detecting subtle differences in heat signatures. Every day, people use drones for a wide range of aerial photography, from weddings to surfing to motocross, and much more. Aerial imaging also has broad commercial uses in industries like transportation, real estate, construction, and others. With DJI’s new Zenmuse XT, based on FLIR’s Tau 2 camera core that can identify heat, even in total darkness, or through smoke, dust, or light fog, you can add firefighting, agriculture, inspection, search and rescue, and other industrial use cases to that list. The Zenmuse XT will work with DJI’s high-end Inspire 1 and Matrice M100 drones, and integrate automatically with DJI’s gimbal stabilization system and its mobile app and across its Lightbridge live video downlink system. That means users can see real-time photos and video through the app that identify small variances in temperature that can indicate hot spots due to fire, the location of an injured person in a disaster area, or differences in crop health. Thermal imaging is used widely by the military and law enforcement, but DJI decided not to promote the camera for such uses, a spokesperson told Fast Company, due to the concern some in the U.S. may object to a Chinese company selling technology in those fields.

Recyclable, Sustainable Petroleum-free Bioplastics – (Kurzweil AI, December 4, 2015)
The textbooks and journals (and especially the oil companies) said making a completely recyclable, biodegradable, petroleum-free polymer couldn’t be done. But Colorado State University chemists have done it — paving a potential new road to truly sustainable, petroleum-free plastics. Just reheat is for an hour and it converts back to its original molecular state, ready for reuse. Their starting feedstock: a biorenewable monomer that previously been declared non-polymerizable, meaning it could not be bonded into the large molecules (polymers) typically required for use as a material. Colorado State professor of chemistry Eugene Chen said, “The big drive now is to produce biorenewable and biodegradable polymers or plastics. That is, however, only one part of the solution, as biodegradable polymers are not necessarily recyclable, in terms of feedstock recycling.” There are several biodegradable plastics on the market today, chief among them a starch-based material made from polylactic acid, or PLA. Compostable cups, cutlery and packaging in dining halls are made from PLA. They’re biodegradable, but they’re not truly recyclable — once made, they can’t be completely reconstituted into their original monomeric states without forming other, unwanted byproducts.


Right Now There Are 102.6 Million Working Age Americans That Do Not Have a Job – (InfoWars – October 5, 2015)
For the month of September, the federal government told us that 142,000 jobs were added to the economy. If that was actually true, that would barely be enough to keep up with population growth. Sadly, the truth is that the real numbers were actually far worse than that. The unadjusted numbers show that the U.S. economy actually lost 248,000 jobs in September and the government added more than a million Americans to the “not in the labor force” category. When I first saw that number I truly believed that it was inaccurate. But you can find the raw figures from data prepared for the St. Louis office of the Federal Reserve Bank right here. According to the Obama administration, there are currently 7.9 million Americans that are “officially unemployed” and another 94.7 million working age Americans that are “not in the labor force”. That gives us a grand total of 102.6 million working age Americans that do not have a job right now. At this point, the labor force participation rate is the lowest that it has been since 1977. And the labor force participation rate for men is at the lowest level ever recorded. The only way that the federal government has been able to get the official unemployment rate to go down so much is by pretending that hundreds of thousands of Americans that have been unemployed for a very long time “leave the labor force” each month.

Walmart’s Imports from China Displaced 400,000 Jobs, a Study Says – (New York Times – December 9, 2015)
Imports from China by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and biggest importer, eliminated or displaced over 400,000 jobs in the United States between 2001 and 2013, according to an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive research group that has long targeted Walmart’s policies. The jobs, mostly in manufacturing, represent about 13 percent of the 3.2 million jobs displaced over those same years that the study attributes to the United States’ goods trade deficit with China. Walmart’s Chinese imports amounted to at least $49 billion in 2013, according to the study, which was based on trade and labor data. Over all, the United States’ trade deficit with China hit $324 billion that year. Walmart disputed the conclusions of the study, which is an update of estimates that the institute released in 2007. For one, many of the numbers used in the study rely on guesswork, because retailers do not generally release a breakdown of their imports. Some economists also point out that studies like these do not properly account for the jobs that imports can create in industries like transportation, wholesale and retail. Under pressure, Walmart in 2013 announced that it would increase its sourcing of American-made products by $50 billion over the next 10 years. But critics quickly rebuffed the initiative as a public-relations stunt, pointing out that the $50 billion made up just a fraction of the sales growth Walmart — which has annual sales of almost $500 billion — was likely to log over the next decade. Harold L. Sirkin, a senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group, said that America’s trade deficit with China had indeed led to net job losses. But as labor costs soared in China, that situation was reversing.


Who Will Fight the Islamic State? – (Tom Dispatch – December 10, 2015)
Who can’t feel that something’s in the air? Some mood of fear, panic, and pure meanness ratcheting up in the planet’s “exceptional” nation. Or at least exceptionally jumpy nation. San Bernardino was indeed a grim and grotesque event, but it was not the end of civilization as we know it. It wasn’t even the most horrendous shooting incident in twenty-first-century America. It does not represent an overwhelming danger to the American people as a whole. If you want to be fearful of anything, don’t get into your vehicle, since that’s where 32,000 Americans die every year. Above all, don’t arm yourself to fight off the Islamic State in your local restaurant, supermarket, or workplace, since the figures clearly indicate that it’s so much more likely you’ll pick up that weapon in a depressed or angry mood and kill yourself (or someone else). Put another way, this country, especially in the increasingly demagogic atmosphere of election 2016, is in danger of losing its bearings completely, as well as its collective sense of what’s truly threatening, what’s actually a danger, and what should matter most to us. Similarly, American policymakers seem to have lost their bearings in the Middle East, imagining a war and a set of “allies” that functionally don’t exist. Think of it as a double whammy of delusion, at home and abroad.

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

Researchers Have Developed Socks That Generate Electricity Using Urine – (Tech Times – December 11, 2015)
Researchers at the University of West England have developed a pair of socks that use urine to generate electricity. The socks use integrated tubes, and when the user walks, the urine is forced into microbial fuel cells. The new socks are able to store as much as 648 milliliters of urine, almost 22 ounces, using a network of integrated tubes. When the user walks, the liquid is forced through microbial fuel cells that contain bacteria that consume the nutrients in urine and create electricity in that process. In experiments, the researchers were able to use the socks to power a wireless transmitter, broadcasting a message every two minutes. It’s not a totally new idea to use urine in the generation of electricity, although the techniques involved normally use an electric pump to provide the pressure to force the urine through the fuel cell, making the process pretty inefficient. When the pressure is being created by the users foot, however, electricity isn’t being used in the process, only created. Of course, getting urine into the socks in the first place is another situation entirely. Thankfully, the team is avoiding the use of a series of tubes, and instead envisages clothing that already has urine incorporated.


Who Wrote This Amazing, Mysterious Book Satirizing Tech Startup Culture?- (Fusion – June 8, 2015)
A mysterious little book called Iterating Grace is floating around San Francisco right now. At least a dozen people have received the book in the mail—or in my case, by secret hand-delivery to my house. (Which is a little creepy.) The artifact itself consists of a 2,001-word story interspersed with hand-drawn recreations of tweets by venture capitalists and startup people like Chris Sacca, Paul Graham, Brad Feld, Sam Altman, and others. The story’s lead character, Koons Crooks, goes on a spiritual quest by contemplating the social media feeds emanating from the startup world. It leads him to a Bolivian volcano and a chillingly hilarious final act with some cans of cat food, a DIY conference badge, and a pack of vicuñas (which are sort of like llamas). The text of Iterating Grace: Heartfelt Wisdom and Disruptive Truths from Silicon Valley’s Top Venture Capitalists is included in its entirety (except for the hand drawn illustrations of tweets), at the end of the article. The small book has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and can be ordered from Amazon.


Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. ― Noam Chomsky

A special thanks to: Bernard Calil, Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, 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 18, Number 18 – 11/30/15

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