Volume 18, Number 3 – 2/15/15

 Volume 18, Number 3 – 2/15/15


  • A team of physicists at the University of Glasgow have slowed the speed of light.
  • A new quantum equation predicts that the universe has no beginning.
  • Harvard researchers crack DNA storage and manage to cram 700 terabytes of data into a single gram.
  • The number of children in the United States relying on food stamps for a meal spiked to 16 million last year – that works out to roughly one in five children.

by John L. Petersen

Air Shepherd

Did you know that 40,000 elephants were killed by poachers last year? Yes, 40,000.

It’s a guess, but a very informed guess. Between 2011 and 2013 100,000 elephants were killed, with 25,000 slaughtered in 2011, 35-40,000 in 2012, and at least 40K in 2013. At that rate all of the elephants in the wild will be essentially extinct within 10 years.

The same is the case with rhino, by the way. Over 1200 were killed in South Africa alone last year.

They’ll all be dead in a decade, too.

For me, this is a really big deal. Because Chinese and Americans like ivory and Vietnamese like rhino horn, these majestic animals will all die within a decade . . . unless something is done about it.

Well, we’re doing something about it. I’m the chairman of the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation, and with our Air Shepherd program we’ve figured out how to combine supercomputer-based predictive analysis of where poachers will be on any given night (with an historical accuracy of over 90 percent!), with small aircraft drones with night-vision cameras that can see a poacher before he kills. We radio nearby rangers of the threat and the poacher gets arrested before he kills.

The program has been tested for over 600 missions and there has been no poaching anywhere our drones have flown. It works. It’s interesting how we’ve designed a highly effective system.

We’re raising money to spread this all around Africa. You can find complete information at Check it out. Help us out.


David Stockman: The Global Economy Has Entered The Crack-Up Phase

There’s big change in the wind coming from a number of different directions. Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity newsletter has a very interesting summary of an interview with David Stockman about the future economic situation. It begins thus:

Few people understand the global economy and its (mis)management better than David Stockman — former director of the OMB under President Reagan, former US Representative, best-selling author of The Great Deformation, and veteran financier.

David is now loudly warning that events have entered the crack-up phase, which he predicts will be defined by the following 4 developments:

  • Increasingly desperate moves by the world’s central banks
  • Increased market volatility and losses
  • Deflation in industrial and commodity prices
  • Decreasing demand due to Peak Debt

As the crack-up phase gains momentum, he predicts an increasing number of “financial breaks” that will add to the unpredictability and instability of the environment for investors. Even ‘dancing close to the door’ sounds excessively risky at this point. (Read complete article)

Sim card database hack gave US and UK spies access to billions of cellphones

We also learned this week that the NSA had hacked almost all cell phones in the world. Of this event, The Guardian said:

The stolen encryption keys would allow intelligence agencies to monitor mobile communications without the approval or knowledge of telecom companies and foreign governments.

Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Guardian the hack would allow spies to “put an aerial up on the embassy in Berlin and listen in to anyone’s calls in the area”. Calls made on 3G and 4G mobile networks are encrypted. But with the keys, which a GCHQ slide described as living “in the phone”, spies could access any communication made on a device unless its owner uses an extra layer of encryption.

Soghoian said the latest Snowden revelations meant that it was difficult for anyone to trust the security of a mobile phone. “It is very unlikely that this is an issue that is going to be fixed anytime soon,” he said. “There is no reason for people to trust AT&T, Verizon or anyone at this point. Their systems are hopelessly insecure.”

“The real value of this is that it allows bulk surveillance of telecoms without anyone getting caught,” Soghoian said of hacks like the one at Gemalto, which he said would allow the spy agencies to target “whoever they wanted”. (Read complete article. For more detailed coverage, read this article.)

You didn’t hear about this? There could be a reason.

Perhaps this explains it.


ABC News executive producer Ian Cameron is married to Susan Rice, National Security Adviser.

CBS President David Rhodes is the brother of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.

ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman is married to former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

ABC News and Univision reporter Matthew Jaffe is married to Katie Hogan, Obama’s Deputy Press Secretary.

ABC President Ben Sherwood is the brother of Obama’s Special Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood.

CNN President Virginia Moseley is married to former Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Secretary Tom Nides.

And this is only what we know.

So, have a good day . . .



How YouTube Changed Journalism – (Atlantic – February 14, 2015))
Ten years ago today, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, three former employees of PayPal, registered a new company devised around a simple idea: that there should be one website where people can upload and watch videos. At the time, this goal was ambitious. Finding videos online was a pain, something  Karim discovered when looking for footage of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl and that year’s Indian Ocean tsunami. YouTube is now the third most viewed website in the world, boasting over one million viewers who watch more than six billion hours of footage each month. Each minute, users upload 300 hours of video to YouTube’s servers. And despite its reputation for hosting clandestine home videos that go viral, 29 of the site’s 30 most watched clips are professionally produced music videos. For popular music fans, YouTube is this generation’s MTV. Seven years after Jawed Karim’s failure to find video footage of the Indian Ocean disaster, the 20 most popular YouTube videos showing the 2011 tsunami in Japan were viewed nearly 100 million times. The following year, the Pew Research Center found that 39% of all videos used by news organizations depicted raw footage shot by civilians. Amateur video has provided news consumers with valuable information from Syria, a country whose violent civil war has driven professional news organizations away. YouTube videos have played a significant role in many major world events. In Iran, footage of the death of Neda Soltan, a young protester, went viral and accelerated the country’s anti-government demonstrations in 2009. More recently, the Islamic State has relied on Internet videos for propaganda purposes.

Just Four Vague Pieces of Info Can Identify You, and Your Credit Card – (Science Daily – January 29, 2015)
Just four fairly vague pieces of information — the dates and locations of four purchases — are enough to identify 90% of the people in a data set recording three months of credit-card transactions by 1.1 million users. If someone had copies of just three of your recent receipts — or one receipt, one Instagram photo of you having coffee with friends, and one tweet about the phone you just bought — would have a 94% chance of extracting your credit card records from those of a million other people. This is true, MIT researchers say, even in cases where no one in the data set is identified by name, address, credit card number, or anything else that we typically think of as personal information.


Scottish Scientists Have Slowed the Speed of Light – (Wired – January 23, 2015)
A team of physicists at the University of Glasgow sent photons through a mask to change their shape and then raced an altered photon against an unaltered one. Over a distance of one meter the team observed that the altered photon was slowed by up to 20 wavelengths, demonstrating for the first time that light can be slowed in free space. “The results give us a new way to think about the properties of light,” said professor Miles Padgett from the University of Glasgow’s optics group. The research was carried out in conjunction with Heriot-Watt University with the findings being published in the journal Science Express. The speed of light in free space is 186,282 miles per second, which until now was thought to be a constant. While light slows down when passing through water or glass, it returns to the speed of light when it comes out the other side. In this experiment the speed of a photon remains slightly slower. “The delay we’ve introduced to the structured beam is small, measured at several micrometers over a propagation distance of one meter, but it is significant,” said Daniel Giovannini, one of the lead authors of the paper. Importantly the experiment is only applicable over short distances. The researchers explained that the effect was biggest when the lenses used to create the beam of light were large and the distance travelled was small. This means our fundamental understanding of how the universe works remains unaltered, but our understanding of light has changed.

No Big Bang? Quantum Equation Predicts Universe Has No Beginning – (PhysOrg – February 9, 2015)
The universe may have existed forever, according to a new model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The model may also account for dark matter and dark energy, resolving multiple problems at once. The widely accepted age of the universe, as estimated by general relativity, is 13.8 billion years. In the beginning, everything in existence is thought to have occupied a single infinitely dense point, or singularity. Only after this point began to expand in a “Big Bang” did the universe officially begin. Although the Big Bang singularity arises directly and unavoidably from the mathematics of general relativity, some scientists see it as problematic because the math can explain only what happened immediately after—not at or before—the singularity. “The Big Bang singularity is the most serious problem of general relativity because the laws of physics appear to break down there,” Ahmed Farag Ali at Benha University and the Zewail City of Science and Technology, both in Egypt, told Ali and coauthor Saurya Das at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, have shown in a paper published in Physics Letters B that the Big Bang singularity can be resolved by their new model in which the universe has no beginning and no end.


Google Is Making Human Skin As Part of Research into Wristband That Can Detect Cancer – (Independent – January 31, 2015)
Google has been making synthetic human skin as part of work to create a wristband that can detect cancer, impending heart attacks and other diseases. Scientists in the life sciences division of Google X laboratories in California needed to create arms that were as realistic as possible to test the technology. Dr Andrew Conrad said the system, which is still in the early stages of development, would detect cancer cells when they first appear by using nanoparticles that “search” the body for disease. It would theoretically allow diagnosis long before any physical symptoms appear, enabling early intervention to reduce the fatality rate of illnesses. Patients would swallow a pill containing nanoparticles tailored to attach to markers for different conditions, such as cancerous cells or chemical levels linked to disease. Google believes it will be possible to make cells “light up” so the magnetic wristband can detect them as they pass through the arm in the bloodstream. “We have (the nanoparticles) circulate around your whole body looking for those cells and we collect them using a magnet and basically ask them what they saw,” Dr Conrad explained.

Placebo Effect Influenced by Perceived Cost, Study Finds – (L.A. Times – January 28, 2015)
How do you convert a simple saline solution into a useful treatment for people with Parkinson’s disease? Tell them it’s a drug that costs $100 per dose. And if you want to make it even more effective, tell them it costs $1,500 instead. That’s what researchers from the University of Cincinnati discovered in an unusual clinical trial. Instead of testing a placebo against an actual drug, they pitted two placebos against each other. The only difference between the two sham treatments was their purported price. The team from the University of Cincinnati and their colleagues recruited 12 patients with “moderately advanced” Parkinson’s and asked them to participate in a clinical trial of a medication described as “a new injectable dopamine agonist.” The study volunteers were told that there were two versions of the experimental drug and that both were believed to work equally well. The main difference, the story went, was the way they were made. As a result, one version cost 15 times more than the other. Both of the placebos improved motor function compared with a base line test. But when patients got the $1,500-per-dose placebo, their improvement was 9% greater than when they got the $100-per-dose placebo, the researchers reported. In another test, 67% of the patients were judged “very good” or having “marked improvement” after they took the expensive placebo, compared with 58% of patients after they took the purportedly cheap placebo. The researchers also used functional MRI scans to assess the patients’ brain activity and found that the “cheap” placebo prompted more action than the “expensive” one. To the researchers, this was a sign that the patients expected less from the placebo they believed cost less, so their brains responded by doing more work.

Telomere Extension Turns Back Aging Clock in Cultured Human Cells – (Stanford University – January 26, 2015)
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a new procedure that uses modified messenger RNA to quickly and efficiently increase the length of human telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are associated with aging and disease. Treated cells behave as if they are much younger than untreated cells, multiplying with abandon in the laboratory dish rather than stagnating or dying. Skin cells with telomeres lengthened by the procedure were able to divide up to 40 more times than untreated cells. The procedure will improve the ability of researchers to generate large numbers of cells for study or drug development and may lead to preventing or treating diseases of aging, the scientists say. The researchers used modified messenger RNA to extend the telomeres. RNA carries instructions from genes in the DNA to the cell’s protein-making factories. The RNA used in this experiment contained the coding sequence for TERT, the active component of a naturally occurring enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase is expressed by stem cells, including those that give rise to sperm and egg cells, to ensure that the telomeres of these cells stay in tip-top shape for the next generation. Most other types of cells, however, express very low levels of telomerase. The newly developed technique has an important advantage over other potential methods: It’s temporary. The modified RNA is designed to reduce the cell’s immune response to the treatment and allow the TERT-encoding message to stick around a bit longer than an unmodified message would. But it dissipates and is gone within about 48 hours. After that time, the newly lengthened telomeres begin to progressively shorten again with each cell division.

Scientists Use Stem Cells to Grow New Human Hair in the Lab – (KurzweilAI – January 28, 2015)
A method for initiating human hair growth — using human pluripotent stem cells to create new cells — has been developed at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. The idea is to coax human pluripotent stem cells to become dermal papilla cells — a unique population of cells that regulate hair-follicle formation and growth cycle. (Human dermal papilla cells on their own are not suitable for hair transplants because they cannot be obtained in necessary amounts and rapidly lose their ability to induce hair-follicle formation in culture, the researchers explain.) “The method is a marked improvement over current methods that rely on transplanting existing hair follicles from one part of the head to another,” said Alexey Terskikh, Ph.D., associate professor in the Development, Aging, and Regeneration Program at Sanford-Burnham. “Our stem cell method provides an unlimited source of cells from the patient for transplantation and isn’t limited by the availability of existing hair follicles,” Terskikh said. “Our next step is to transplant human dermal papilla cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells back into human subjects. We are currently seeking partnerships to implement this final step.”

Placenta Cells Could Reverse Stroke Damage – (Times of Israel – January 13, 2015)
Israeli biotech company Pluristem says its PLX technology could potentially treat and repair damaged nerves. The findings indicate that PLacental eXpanded (PLX) cells, produced by Pluristem, protect PC12 cells – rat-derived cells that behave similarly to and are used as stand-ins to study human nerve cells. The study also shows PLX cells protecting the PC12 cells from death after oxygen and glucose deprivation. Such deprivation is an important factor in stroke, thus indicating, that there is a good chance that PLX cells could prevent, or even reverse, the damage caused by stroke or other neuronal disease. The ability to reverse stroke damage is just another of the unique properties of human placental cells, which research indicates is much more effective in dealing with many conditions than the regular stem cells that therapies currently rely on. According to the research, the placenta contains mesenchymal-like adherent stromal cells, which have been found by researchers to have significant therapeutic potential. The cells promote tissue repair, possibly by secreting biologically active substances, including cytokines, that modulate immune response, along with factors that enhance the growth of blood vessels. These cells stimulate the body’s own mechanisms to heal damaged tissues. Pluristem acquires placenta at a hospital in northern Israel, where they are donated by women undergoing caesarean section births.

MakerBot 3D Printer Used to Create Tracheal Cartilage – (GizMag – January 30, 2015)
Researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research have successfully created cartilage using a MakerBot 3D printer. The team made use of the technology to quickly and affordably prototype and refine the bioprosthesis, and even used it to create a low-cost bioreactor to facilitate the growth of the cells. Traditional tracheal surgery methods are limited, particularly in children, by the amount of the trachea that can be removed to make room for reconstruction. If too much of the trachea were to be removed, then the level of tension on reconnected ends would be too great, resulting in potentially disastrous complications. “Making a windpipe or trachea is uncharted territory'” said Todd Goldstein, an investigator at the Feinstein Institute. “It has to be rigid enough to withstand coughs, sneezes and other shifts in pressure, yet flexible enough to allow the neck to move freely.” The new method tackles the problem by employing tissue engineering, in which cartilage is grown from a mixture of cells called chondrocytes, nutrients to feed the growth, and collagen to hold the whole process together. While this is an established method of making cartilage, getting it to grow into the correct shape for treatment is rather more difficult. The team used a MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printer to create a scaffolding that was then covered in a bio-ink consisting of the mixture of collagen and chondrocytes. The PLA-constructed frame provides structure to the mixture as it grows into cartilage.


Enjoying Winter? Or Have You Had Enough Snow? – (Safe Share – no date)
Here’s a short video clip of some rather spectacular footage: a train plowing through deep snow in Arthur’s Pass, British Columbia. The scenery is gorgeous – but the train engineer has absolutely zero visibility at times.

Mass Death of Seabirds in Western U.S. Is ‘Unprecedented’ – (National Geographic – January 23, 2015)
In the storm debris littering a Washington State shoreline, Bonnie Wood saw something grisly: the mangled bodies of dozens of scraggly young seabirds. Walking half a mile along the beach at Twin Harbors State Park, Wood spotted more than 130 carcasses of juvenile Cassin’s auklets—the blue-footed, palm-size victims of what is becoming one of the largest mass die-offs of seabirds ever recorded. “It was so distressing,” recalled Wood, a volunteer who patrols Pacific Northwest beaches looking for dead or stranded birds. “They were just everywhere.” Cassin’s auklets are tiny diving seabirds that look like puffballs. They feed on animal plankton and build their nests by burrowing in the dirt on offshore islands. Their total population, from the Baja Peninsula to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, is estimated at somewhere between 1 million and 3.5 million. Last year, beginning about Halloween, thousands of juvenile auklets started washing ashore dead. Since then the deaths haven’t stopped. Researchers are wondering if the die-off might spread to other birds or even fish. “This is just massive, massive, unprecedented,” said Julia Parrish, a University of Washington seabird ecologist who oversees the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a program that has tracked West Coast seabird deaths for almost 20 years. “We may be talking about 50,000 to 100,000 deaths. So far.” The gruesome auklet deaths come just as scientists around the globe are seeing a significant uptick in mass-mortality events in the marine world, from sea urchins to fish and birds. Although there doesn’t appear to be a link to the virus that killed tens of millions of sea stars along the same shores from California to Alaska over the past 18 months, some scientists suspect a factor in both cases may be uncharacteristically warm waters. The U.S. Geological Survey and others have performed animal autopsies on several of the emaciated Cassin’s auklets. They’ve found no evidence of disease or trauma—no viruses or bacteria, no feathers coated with spilled oil. The birds appear simply to have starved to death.

Climate Mythology: The Gulf Stream, European Climate and Abrupt Change – (Columbia University – no date)
A few times a year the British media of all stripes goes into a tizzy of panic when one climate scientist or another states that there is a possibility that the North Atlantic ocean circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is a major part, will slow down in coming years or even stop. Whether the scientists’ statements are measured or inflammatory, the media invariably warns that this will plunge Britain and Europe into a new ice age. The panic is based on a long held belief of the British, other Europeans, Americans and, indeed, much of the world’s population that the northward heat transport by the Gulf Stream is the reason why western Europe enjoys a mild climate, much milder than, say, that of eastern North America. This idea was actually originated by an American military man, Matthew Fontaine Maury, in the mid nineteenth century and has stuck since despite the absence of proof. We now know this is a myth, the climatological equivalent of an urban legend. A detailed study published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in 2002, demonstrated the limited role that ocean heat transport plays in determining regional climates around the Atlantic Ocean. Popular versions of this story can be found through links in the article. Using observations and climate models, the researchers found that, at the latitudes of Europe, the atmospheric heat transport exceeds that of the ocean by several fold. In winter it may even by an order of magnitude greater. Thus it is the atmosphere, not the ocean, that does the lion’s share of the work ameliorating winter climates in the extratropics. We also found that the seasonal absorption and release of heat by the ocean has a much larger impact on regional climates than does the movement of heat by ocean currents.


Harvard Cracks DNA Storage, Crams 700 Terabytes of Data into a Single Gram – (ExtremeTech – August 17, 2012)
A bioengineer and geneticist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have successfully stored 5.5 petabits of data — around 700 terabytes — in a single gram of DNA, smashing the previous DNA data density record by a thousand times. The work, carried out by George Church and Sri Kosuri, basically treats DNA as just another digital storage device. Instead of binary data being encoded as magnetic regions on a hard drive platter, strands of DNA that store 96 bits are synthesized, with each of the bases (TGAC) representing a binary value (T and G = 1, A and C = 0). To read the data stored in DNA, you simply sequence it — just as if you were sequencing the human genome — and convert each of the TGAC bases back into binary. To aid with sequencing, each strand of DNA has a 19-bit address block at the start so a whole vat of DNA can be sequenced out of order, and then sorted into usable data using the addresses.

Yes, Your Samsung Smart TV Can Listen to Your Private Conversations – (Washington’s Blog – February 10, 2015)
Samsung’s Smart TV can and will listen to your conversations, and will share the details with a third party. Here’s the actual language from the privacy policy itself: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” While the privacy policy statement is disturbing in its own right, the extent of how creepy it is has to do with the fact that this information will be shared with a “third party.” This begs the question, who is this third party? Corynne McSherry, the intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, suggests that, judging by the privacy policy, it seems Samsung is collecting voice commands mostly to improve the TV’s performance. “It looks like they are using a third-party service to convert speech to text, so that’s most of what is being disclosed here.” But, said McSherry, “If I were the customer, I might like to know who that third party was, and I’d definitely like to know whether my words were being transmitted in a secure form.” If the transmission is not encrypted, a SmartHacker could conceivably turn your TV into an eavesdropping device.


How to Create Commons-Friendly Neighborhoods – (On the Commons – December 4, 2014)
Battle lines are shaping up across American cities and suburbs today over urban density.  On one side stand neighbors and developers who explain that convenient transit, walkable communities,  environmental protection and continuing economic growth depend on welcoming more people-per-acre to our communities. On the other side stand developers and neighbors who plead that everything we cherish about our communities is about to vanish in the wake of hulking mega-projects. But there’s a middle ground in this conflict– which turns out to be quite a nice place to live. And a great example of commons-friendly communities. These are low- to mid-rise neighborhoods with high levels of density but a charming and convivial feel. Indeed the places many of us seek out on vacation, spending our scarce free time and travel budgets, are thronged with people: cosmopolitan cities, historic small towns, theme parks and state fairs. It’s the proliferation of cars we fear in big new developments, not the density of fellow human beings.  Density has become a dirty word is because we associate it with ugly gigantically-scaled projects that seem to spawn social blight.  But Edward McMahon, Senior Fellow at Urban Land Institute, believes “we can achieve tremendous density without high rises” by utilizing traditional designs such as two-to-four story walk ups that were once “common in cities and towns throughout America.” Look at suburban Berwyn, Illinois, full of tidy brick bungalows but with a population density greater than neighboring Chicago. Unfortunately the best methods of achieving this kind of low-rise, neighborhood-scale density are illegal under many current zoning codes: attic, basement or carriage house apartments; granny flats or garden cottages at the back of a lot; unrelated adults sharing a house; small homes on small lots; houses without attached garages; shops around the corner. Making such practices legal again would not only be good for urban vitality, historical character and the environment but also promote social justice, says Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, author of Unlocking Home: Three Keys to Affordable Housing.  “We have effectively banned what used to be the bottom end of the housing market,” he writes. See also: After Landing in ICU, This Woman Changed Her Lifestyle, and Built a Tiny House (a book review of The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir).


Run on 100% Renewables, Burlington, Vermont Powers Ahead (video) – (Good News Network – February 4, 2015)
Vermont is known for socially conscious politics, and geographically hosting the first 100 percent sustainably-run city is a huge milestone, not only for residents of Burlington, VT, but for all US cities – because it shows that sustainable energy is a possibility. PBS recently reported on the city’s milestone in William Brangh’s PBS NewsHour (article includes full transcript of the news report as well as the video clip). The city gets its energy primarily from wind farms, hydro-electric projects, and solar panels. Update: Burlington now gets more power from the sustainable grid than their residents actually use.

The Biobattery – (Fraunhofer Institute – January 26, 2015))
Biogas plants are an important element for decentralized energy supply. They produce electricity from renewable resources and can compensate for highly fluctuating wind and solar energy. There are already 8,000 plants in operation in Germany with an electrical output of 3.75 gigawatts in total, that is the equivalent to roughly three nuclear power plants. However, the plants have several disadvantages too: they only process a limited range of organic substances and are in competition with the cultivation of food plants. Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Energy and Safety Technology have now succeeded in considerably improving the efficiency of biogas plants. A “biobattery” process developed by them not only supplies electricity and heat but also high quality products such as gas, oil and vegetable carbon. These can be utilized as required, for example to produce electricity, as marine or aviation fuel, as an admixture for fuels or as a fertilizer. If further processed they even provide basic substances for the chemical industries. The biobattery is modular and consists of a pool of environmentally-friendly technologies such as biogas plants, thermal storage, carburettors and engines to produce electricity. The heart of the concept is thermo-catalytic reforming. This converts carbons out of organic material, for example fermentation residues from biogas plants and bioethanol production, industrial biomass waste, sewage sludge, straw, scrap wood or animal excrement. The result: oil, gas and biomass cokes. “The particular advantage of the biobattery is that we can utilize a number of raw materials which would otherwise have to be disposed of often at great cost,” explains Professor Andreas Hornung, Director of the Institute Branch in Sulzbach-Rosenberg.


Can’t Afford a BMW or Roller? Just Hack Its Doors Open! – (Register – February 2, 2015)
BMW has plugged a hole that could allow remote attackers to open windows and doors for 2.2 million cars. The flaws were found by the German motoring association ADAC in the ConnectedDrive technology that allows BMW, Mini and Rolls Royce drivers to access their wheels with a smartphone. BMW patched the flaw remotely, thereby improving the security of beemers, Mini hatches and Rolls-Royce models including Ghosts, Wraiths, and coupes. The flaw meant criminals could drive off with a luxury freebie if they combined the door-opening hack with a 2012 exploit that allowed the keyfob of BMWs produced before 2011 to be copied using a US$30 tool. Attackers could set up fake wireless networks to intercept and transmit the clear-text data to the cars but could not have impacted vehicle acceleration or braking systems. BMW’s patch also updated its patch distribution system to use HTTPS. Automatic delivery of the update could fail if a car’s battery was disconnected or the vehicle was located in a coverage black spot. That meant cars in underground long-term parking spots could be ripe targets. Here’s a link to a video clip that shows how the hack is done. See also: Report Sees Weak Security in Cars’ Wireless Systems


Sustainable Restaurant Awards 2015: Insects on the Menu as Chefs Look to the Future – (Independent – February 15, 2015)
Cricket fudge, insect canapés and cocktails with a conscience are some of the foods of the future being showcased at this year’s Sustainable Restaurant Awards (in the UK). Wahaca (restaurant) will be serving an experimental dish: pickled vegetable tostadas with grasshoppers. The Mexican chain successfully trialled grasshoppers at its Southbank restaurant in south London in 2013, later introducing them across its restaurants in the form of the salsa chapulines fundido. “Insects are very sustainable,” said Thomasina Miers, founder of Wahaca. “They have as much protein per gram as chicken or beef yet without the environmental impact. For me, an insect is just like eating a mollusc. I’ve been eating them in Mexico for 20 years.” Mark Linehan, managing director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, said: “From a sustainability point of view, we have to think of the future, but this is also about the innovation and creativity that goes into developing new products and recipes.” Grub UK, which will be serving cricket fudge at the awards, is a British firm specializing in sourcing and selling edible insects. As Grub UK says, some two billion people around the world eat insects every day.


British Army Creates Team of Facebook Warriors – (Guardian – January 31, 2015))
The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age. The 77th Brigade, to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, in Berkshire, will be about 1,500-strong and formed of units drawn from across the army. The brigade will be responsible for what is described as non-lethal warfare. Both the Israeli and US army already engage heavily in psychological operations. Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative. The 77th will include regulars and reservists and recruitment will begin in the spring. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought. An army spokesman said: “77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.” For further details, see this article in the Financial Times.

EFF’s Game Plan for Ending Global Mass Surveillance – (Electronic Frontier Foundation – January 26, 2015)
96% of the world’s population Live outside U.S. borders. They don’t get a vote in Congress. And current American legal protections generally only protect citizens, legal residents, or those physically located within the United States. So what can be done to protect the billions of people outside the United States who are victims of the NSA’s spying? For years, we’ve (EFF) been working on a strategy to end mass surveillance of digital communications of innocent people worldwide. Today we’re laying out the plan, so you can understand how all the pieces fit together—that is, how U.S. advocacy and policy efforts connect to the international fight and vice versa. The rest of the article discusses the various elements in the EFF strategy. (Editor’s note: we recommend this article for its thoughtful approach to countering mass surveillance through legal means.) See also: Mass Surveillance Will Not Stop Terrorism.

New Police Radars Can ‘See’ Inside Homes – (USA Today –   January 20, 2015)
At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside. Those agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, began deploying the radar systems more than two years ago with little notice to the courts and no public disclosure of when or how they would be used. The technology raises legal and privacy issues because the U.S. Supreme Court has said officers generally cannot use high-tech sensors to tell them about the inside of a person’s house without first obtaining a search warrant. The radars work like finely tuned motion detectors, using radio waves to zero in on movements as slight as human breathing from a distance of more than 50 feet. They can detect whether anyone is inside of a house, where they are and whether they are moving. The device the Marshals Service and others are using [was] first designed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. They represent the latest example of battlefield technology finding its way home to civilian policing and bringing complex legal questions with it. Those concerns are especially thorny when it comes to technology that lets the police determine what’s happening inside someone’s home. For more along these lines, see also this summarized NPR report about The Pentagon’s massive Program 1033 to widely distribute military hardware to domestic police forces.


41 Men Targeted But 1,147 People Killed: US Drone Strikes – The Facts on the Ground – (Guardian – November 24, 2014)
A new analysis of the data available to the public about drone strikes, conducted by the human-rights group Reprieve, indicates that even when operators target specific individuals – the most focused effort of what Barack Obama calls “targeted killing” – they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November. Reprieve [focused on] cases in which specific people were targeted by drones multiple times. Their data, shared with the Guardian, raises questions about the accuracy of US intelligence. The analysis is a partial estimate. “Drone strikes … are only as precise as the intelligence that feeds them. There is nothing precise about intelligence that results in the deaths of 28 unknown people, including women and children, for every ‘bad guy’ the US goes after, ”said Reprieve’s Jennifer Gibson. The data cohort is only a fraction of those killed by US drones. Neither Reprieve nor the Guardian examined … the so-called “signature strikes” that attack people based on a pattern of behavior considered suspicious, rather than intelligence tying their targets to terrorist activity.

America’s Real National Security Budget — A Trillion Dollars a Year – (Medium – February 2, 2015)
On Feb. 2, the White House rolled out its military and intelligence budget proposal for 2016—and it’s a doozy. The administration wants $534 billion for the Pentagon’s normal “base” budget plus another $51 billion for combat operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. That’s $585 billion combined, $25 billion more than Congress approved last year. Washington conceals spending on the country’s 16 spy agencies—as much as $80 billion—largely inside the main Pentagon budget. But the official numbers don’t reflect the true cost of America’s wars and national defense. In reality, the United States spends closer to trillion dollars a year on its current and former soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, intel agents and their equipment—and also the paramilitary “homeland security” personnel whose equivalents in many other countries are uniformed troops. The U.S. Coast Guard, for instance. Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information—part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.—has helpfully crunched some of the numbers.


Young Americans Yearning for the Suburbs, Stuck in the City – (Atlantic – January, 2015)
One aspect of the Millennial mythos is that young people love cities. They love bike lanes and ethically-sourced coffee and rooftop gardens. Last year, a Nielsen study appeared to confirm the cliché: The percentage of young adults who live in cities is higher than ever. In fact, 62% of the poll’s Millennial respondents said they wanted to live near a medley of shops, restaurants, and offices. But it’s important not to mistake a preference for an urban lifestyle with a preference for cities themselves. It’s true that cities have a generous amount of the shop-restaurant-office medleys that young people desire, but it’s also true that metropolitan areas boast many of the highest-paying jobs—which is probably a bigger draw for a generation that was starting or just settling into their careers when the recession hit. It’s now the case that after young people live in a prosperous city for a few years, they’re finding it increasingly hard to get the economic foothold that would allow them to leave. Median wages have fallen for this generation almost across the board, which means young people have had a hard time saving money and building the good credit needed to secure a mortgage and buy a house elsewhere. This inability to flee from cities might be masking the fact that many Millennials still yearn for a house in the suburbs.


Russian Prime Minister Confirms the Existence of Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life – (We Are One – May 21, 2014)
Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently confirmed the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life in a short interview away from network cameras after an appearance on Russian television. This is a rare occasion when a currently serving Prime Minister of any nation has come forward to speak about this. Medvedev also served as President of Russia from 2008 to 2012. Translated from Russian: “I tell you the first and last time. Together with a nuclear suitcase the president has a folder, which is top secret and devoted entirely to the report by the Russian secret service which handles the control of extraterrestrials in our country. After the term, the two folders and a small nuclear suitcase are transferred to the new president. How many of them are among us I cannot say because panic might begin.” He also refers to a Russian documentary titled “The Men in Black.” He is not referring to the Hollywood film.

‘Crazy’ New Particle Could Unravel Dark Matter Mystery – (Wired – February 2, 2015)
A team of physicists and astronomers at the University of Southampton are proposing a completely new type of fundamental particle that may hold the key to unravelling the mysteries behind dark matter. Dark matter cannot be seen by telescopes, yet it is believed to compose up to 85% of the Universe’s mass. Its existence is attributed to its gravitational effects on stars and galaxies. The researchers are proposing that dark matter particles might actually be lighter than previously thought, with a mass of only 0.02 percent of an electron. They also discovered that while this fundamental particle did not interact with light like regular dark matter, it did interact strongly with normal matter. “Our candidate particle sounds crazy, but currently there seem to be no experiments or observations which could rule it out,” said coauthor of the study James Bateman from the University of Southampton. “Dark matter is one of the most important unsolved problems in modern physics, and we hope that our suggestion will inspire others to develop detailed particle theory and even experimental tests.” The researchers assert that unlike other candidates, this new light-weight particle may not even penetrate Earth’s atmosphere. So they’ve set their sights on a space experiment planned by the Macroscopic quantum resonators (MAQRO) consortium.

Lensless Space Telescope Could Be 1,000 Times Stronger Than Hubble – (GizMag – January 27, 2015)
The Hubble space telescope has given us decades of incredible images, but it’s reaching the end of its service life and the question is, what will come after? One possibility is the Aragoscope from the University of Colorado Boulder, which uses a gigantic orbital disk instead of a mirror to produce images 1,000 times sharper than the Hubble’s best efforts. The principle is based on using a large disk as a diffraction lens, which bends light from distant objects around the edge of the disk and focuses it like a conventional refraction lens. The phenomenon isn’t very pronounced on the small scale, but if the telescope is extremely large, it not only becomes practical, but also extremely powerful. When deployed the Aragoscope will consist of an opaque disk a half mile in diameter parked in geostationary orbit behind which is an orbiting telescope keeping station some tens to hundreds of miles behind that collects the light at the focal point and rectifies it into a high-resolution image. The Aragoscope is similar to the starshade being developed for NASA, which uses the same telescope and giant floating disk architecture. But where starshade uses the disk to create artificial stellar eclipses to aid planet hunting, the Aragoscope turns the disk into a gigantic diffraction lens. The team sees the Aragoscope as a way to penetrate farther into the universe to observe phenomena like black hole event horizons, or turned on the Earth to pick out objects the size of a rabbit. (Editor’s note: Does this mean that a similar telescope could be mounted permanently to face Earth?) The next phase of the project involves testing the concept. This will involve laboratory work using a one-meter disk set several meters from a telescope. If this is successful, a more dramatic demonstration will use a disk set on a mountain top while a telescope mounted on a helicopter tries to focus on the star Alpha Centauri.


One in Five U.S. Children Now Rely on Food Stamps – (Reuters – January 28, 2015)
The number of children in the United States relying on food stamps for a meal spiked to 16 million last year, according federal data, signaling a lopsided economic recovery in which lower income families are still lagging behind. The roughly one in five children who received food stamps in 2014 surpassed pre-recession levels, when one in eight or 9 million children were on food stamps, according to the U.S. Census survey of American families recently released. But early last year, lawmakers proposed $40 billion in cuts from the program over 10 years. The final farm bill signed into law trimmed $8.6 billion from the program, eliminating benefits for about 850,000 people, according to estimates by anti-hunger advocates. Other findings of the survey show a rapidly changing America in which more children are being raised in single-parent homes and more young people are delaying marriage. Of the 73.7 million children under 18 in the United States, 27% were living in single parent homes last year, tripling the 9% in 1960. The number of marriages also dwindled last year with less than half of households in America made up of married couples, compared to three-quarters in 1940, the survey found.

Life in the Sickest Town in America – (Atlantic – January, 2015)
Along with neighboring counties, Buchanan County, Virginia has one of the highest percentages of adult disability recipients in the nation, according to a 2014 analysis by the Urban Institute’s Stephan Lindner. Nearly 20% of the area’s adult residents received government SSDI benefits in 2011, the most recent year Lindner was able to analyze. According to Lindner’s calculations, five of the 10 counties that have the most people on disability are in Virginia—and so are four of the lowest, making the state an emblem of how wealth and work determine health and well-being. Six hours to the north, in Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties, just one out of every hundred adults draws SSDI benefits. But Buchanan county is home to a shadow economy of maimed workers, eking out a living the only way they can—by joining the nation’s increasingly sizable disability rolls. People in Buchanan County die about five years earlier than they should. About a third of people smoke, and a third are obese. A quarter of the people live in poverty, compared with about 11% in the rest of the state. These Appalachians, many of them former coal miners, are among the nearly nine million American workers receiving disability payments today, compared with 1.4 million in 1970. Spending on the program has risen nine-fold over the past four decades. Critics say the program’s expansion is partly driven by Americans who are perfectly capable of working but are unwilling to do so. Since the mid-1980s, government spending on the elderly and disabled has ballooned, even as tightened eligibility rules have slashed welfare aid for needy mothers and children. Even advocates of “big-government”-style welfare acknowledge that some people use the program because it’s the only form of income available to them. But visiting a place like Grundy reveals a more complicated picture. There are undoubtedly some who exaggerate their ailments in order to collect their checks. But many of the coal workers here have experienced horrific on-the-job accidents and can’t go back to the mines. Other residents have been battered by diabetes, obesity, and tobacco. Others still suffer from severe depression and intellectual disabilities that would preclude most kinds of work. And most importantly, there are no other options here: no orthodontist’s office where someone can work the front desk; no big firms brimming with entry-level secretarial jobs. It’s not even clear how a person would go about calling around for a job here: The author’s iPhone stopped working a few miles outside the county line.


Scientists Develop Biological Safety Lock for Containment of Modified Organisms – (GizMag – January 26, 2015)
It’s been the premise of many a sci-fi/horror movie … a genetically-modified organism is created in the lab to help the human race, but instead it gets loose and wreaks havoc in the outside world. Well, scientists from Harvard and Yale are working to make sure that such a scenario can’t take place – at least, not with one of the bacteria most commonly used in biotech research. Teams from both universities have produced genetically-altered E. coli bacteria that can’t live without special amino acids, which can only be obtained from a lab. In separate studies, both teams used an already-modified strain of E. coli developed by a group led by Harvard’s Prof. George Church. First announced in 2013, it was officially “the world’s first genomically recoded organism.” Using different methods, the teams further modified that strain to incorporate synthetic amino acids in numerous locations throughout its genome. Although the bacteria relies on these acids in order to survive, it can’t synthesize them on its own, nor can it find them in the environment – only labs working with the modified E. coli can produce the acids. This means that if the bacteria were to escape from the lab, it wouldn’t survive for long.


FAA Regulating Business on the Moon – (Reuters – February 3, 2015)
The United States government has taken a new, though preliminary, step to encourage commercial development of the moon. According to documents obtained by Reuters, U.S. companies can stake claims to lunar territory through an existing licensing process for space launches. The Federal Aviation Administration, in a previously undisclosed late-December letter to Bigelow Aerospace, said the agency intends to “leverage the FAA’s existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investments in space systems by ensuring that commercial activities can be conducted on a non-interference basis.” In other words, experts said, Bigelow could set up one of its proposed inflatable habitats on the moon, and expect to have exclusive rights to that territory – as well as related areas that might be tapped for mining, exploration and other activities. However, the FAA letter noted a concern flagged by the U.S. State Department that “the national regulatory framework, in its present form, is ill-equipped to enable the U.S. government to fulfill its obligations” under a 1967 United Nations treaty, which, in part, governs activities on the moon. The letter also points to more legal and diplomatic work that will have to be done to govern potential commercial development of the moon or other extraterrestrial bodies. The United Nations Outer Space treaty, in part, requires countries to authorize and supervise activities of non-government entities that are operating in space, including the moon. It also bans nuclear weapons in space, prohibits national claims to celestial bodies and stipulates that space exploration and development should benefit all countries.

Meet the Woman You Can Hire to Be Your Bridesmaid for $1,000 and Up – (Business Insider – February 6, 2015)
Jen Glantz is the cofounder of Bridesmaid for Hire, a company that offers “undercover bridesmaid” and personal assistant-type services to brides and their wedding parties.  She founded her company after seeing how well people responded to the Craigslist ad — which she decided to write when her roommate dubbed her “the professional bridesmaid.” “I was a bridesmaid more times that I could count on two hands; I was even asked twice in the same day!” she recalls. “So, when my roommate said that, I thought, ‘Maybe I can actually do that. Maybe I can help brides who aren’t my friends,'” says Glantz, author of All My Friends Are Engaged. Based in New York City, the 26-year-old Florida native says she noticed a gap in the $51 billion wedding industry somewhere around her sixth stint as a bridesmaid, and decided to fill it. She offers three different packages ranging from $300 – $2,000. There’s the “Virtual Bridesmaid,” which includes one-on-one consultation sessions via video chat; the “Ultimate Bridesmaid,” which offers maids-of-honor and bridesmaids behind-the-scenes assistance plus in-person ground support at pre-wedding events and day-of events; and the “Bridesmaid By Your Side,” which includes everything from the Undercover Bridesmaid package, plus actual participation as a bridesmaid or maid-of-honor in the wedding party.


A Brief History of Happiness: How America Lost Track of the Good Life—and Where to Find It Now – (Yes Magazine – February 5, 2015)
Consumption has not always been king in the United States. It became a national preoccupation beginning in the 1920s when business leaders began worrying that Americans were satiated, that they had all the appliances and consumer goods they wanted. Executives and pro-business politicians thought the economy would stall if people chose to spend time enjoying life rather than working more and buying more. So the advertising industry joined forces with Freudian psychologists to channel our desires—to link the universal wish for status, love, and self-esteem with the new “Gospel of Consumerism.” “Wants are almost insatiable,” claimed President Herbert Hoover’s report on the economy, published just months before the 1929 crash. “One want satisfied makes way for another…. We have a boundless field before us; there are new wants that will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied… by advertising and other promotional devices, by scientific fact finding, by a carefully predeveloped consumption, a measurable pull on production has been created… it would seem that we can go on with increasing activity.” The modern advertising industry systematically set out to redefine our beliefs about happiness. Today, an iPad, the right vacation, or the latest sneakers have become prerequisites for getting respect. Certain brands of beer are synonymous with friendship and a sense of community. An oversized house points to status and proof of your earnings and ability to provide for a family. But buying all this stuff has real consequences: the debt, the extra work hours required to pay it off, and the resulting time away from friends and family. “Who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior,” said media scholar George Gerbner. “It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell.” The conversation about sources of fulfillment and joy has been colonized by the advertisers that manufacture the mindset of the consumer culture. So where can we find sustainable happiness now? This article goes on to suggest answers to that question.

4 Things You Probably Know about Poverty that Bill and Melinda Gates Don’t – (Fast Company – February 3, 2015)
Bill and Melinda Gates just released their annual letter, “Our Big Bet for the Future,” with their thoughts on the current state of global poverty and the suite of projects they are funding to tackle it. While their hopeful tone and a good deal of what they are proposing is excellent, the story they tell about poverty obscures far more than it reveals. These are not “big bets,” but rather small technical fixes that can’t solve the real, underlying problems. This matters, because the Gates have an incredible amount of power to go with their wealth. What they say carries tremendous weight with policymakers and affects what millions of people think. If their story is accepted, we all get tricked into accepting relatively small actions as solutions to big problems. Their basic story goes like this: we can break the cycle of poverty—the big bet—by introducing new elements into the mix, like mobile banking, more vaccines, and different agricultural technologies. They say that by taking actions like this, extreme poverty can actually be eradicated by 2030. But they leave out anything to do with why it exists in the first place, and who and what causes it, and so end up ignoring the things that matter most to actually breaking the cycle of poverty. For example, Poverty Fact #1: Poverty is made by people. It is not just part of nature.


Fireworks – (YouTube – January 3, 2013)
Just past Valentine’s Day and the Chinese New Year, here is one of the most artful displays of fireworks that we have come across. A completely unofficial source has said that this display of fireworks occurred in the Hunan Province town where fireworks were invented. We don’t know if that is accurate or not. In fact, we’re not even certain that these fireworks happened “in real life” – but they are stunningly beautiful. See for yourself.


Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. – John F. Kennedy

A special thanks to: Jack DuVall, 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 2 – 1/31/15

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