Volume 20, Number 01 – 01/01/17

Volume 20, Number 01 – 01/01/17       


A new test can detect the human form of Mad Cow Disease with 100% accuracy years before symptoms appear.

A new ultrasound technique can image the inside of individual live cells.

The average age for American commercial truck drivers is 63 and rising, which makes autonomous trucks increasingly necessary.

The Andromeda Galaxy, barreling toward the Milky Way at 100 to 140 kilometers per second, is expected to collide with it in about 3.75 billion years.

by John L. Petersen

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Wired Founder Kevin Kelly on Letting Go of AI Anxiety – (Slack – December 6, 2016)
If anyone can calm fears of a robot apocalypse, it’s Kevin Kelly. Over the years — first as the founding executive editor of Wired, then as the author of books like What Technology Wants and Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World — he has become one of the 21st century’s most prescient theorists not only on the future of technology but also on our constantly evolving relationship with it. In his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future, Kelly writes about the unstoppable trends that we often fear when it comes to technological progress. In a recent interview (this article), he lays out his vision of the future of work and some simple reasons why we may want to reconsider some of our deep-rooted anxieties about it.


What the World’s Biggest Diamonds Hint About the Earth’s Mantle – (Christian Science Monitor – December 16, 2016)
Led by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and published in the journal Science, a new study drew on previous knowledge that larger diamonds are fundamentally different from their smaller counterparts in composition and structure, and explored how and where larger diamonds form that causes them to differ. “Some of the world’s largest and most valuable diamonds, like the Cullinan or Lesotho Promise, exhibit a distinct set of physical characteristics that have led many to regard them as separate from other, more common diamonds,” Wuyi Wang, GIA’s director of research and development, and an author of the study said. The GIA procured eight fingernail-sized chunks of left-over diamond scraps, which the research team cut open and ground up to look at using microscopes, lasers, magnets, and electron beams. They found that the inclusions contained a mixture of iron, nickel, carbon, and sulfur, encased in a thin layer of fluid methane and hydrogen. The metallic inclusions indicated that the diamonds were formed under extreme pressure, in oxygen-deprived patches of liquid metal. Furthermore, some samples also contained mineral inclusions that suggested the large diamonds form at much greater depths than smaller ones – as deep as 200 to 500 miles below the surface, (Smaller diamonds form at roughly 90 to 120 miles down.) The researchers say it is unclear if these pockets still exist, given the diamonds’ age: They range from 100 million years old to approximately 1 billion years old. Researchers once believed that the Earth’s mantle was a pretty uniform mix of oxygen-rich rocks. But the study of these huge diamonds, born in oxygen-deprived patches, suggests that theory needs rethinking.

Mesmerizing Deep Ocean ‘Symphony’ Finally Identified – (Huffington Post – December 16, 2016)
Scientists have been perplexed for years by a hypnotic, symphonic sound emanating from the deepest trench of the world’s oceans. Now they believe they have finally identified its source: elusive minke whales — but a type never before heard. The eerie keening and clicks first recorded in the Mariana Trench east of Guam in 2014 was dubbed by discoverers the “Western Pacific Biotwang.” The otherworldly “song” soars in frequency from 38 to 8,000 hertz. The sound is described in the researchers’ report in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America as a “moan with both harmonics and amplitude modulation, followed by broad-frequency metallic-sounding sweeps.” Nieukirk and her crew believe it’s the “novel” call of a minke whale, the smallest of the baleen whales. The singing is similar to other baleen whales but with an added unique signature. Researchers believe their recording of the call is the first time it has ever been heard. The five-part song, which lasts from 2.8 to 3.5 seconds, was recorded by an underwater robotic glider equipped with a sensor in the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015. The recorded call most closely resembles — but is not identical to — what researchers refer to as the “Star Wars” sound produced by dwarf minke whales on the Great Barrier Reef off northeast Australia. Minkes’ sounds are specific to certain regions. Besides the “Star Wars” sound, they emit what researchers refer to as “boings” in the North Pacific and low-frequency “pulse trains” in the Atlantic. Little is known about minkes because they don’t spend much time at the surface of the ocean, and travel largely in the more remote high seas. Now that Nieukirk believes she knows where the sound is coming from, she hopes new research will help determine its meaning.

Magnetic Force Pulls Baby Reef Fish Back Home – (Science Daily – December 21, 2016)
Baby reef fish have an internal magnetic ‘compass’ that directs them home at night, world-first research has revealed. Professor Mike Kingsford from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University collaborated with colleagues in Germany to find out how tiny Cardinal fish, the size of a fingernail, are able to swim towards home when there’s no sun or stars to guide them. “This study is the first clear demonstration that reef fish larvae possess magnetic senses to orient them at night,” says Professor Kingsford. “Up until now, we only knew adult birds, marine mammals, sharks and boney fish have this in-built sense of direction.” Reef fish hatch from eggs into a larval form and disperse for days to months in the ocean before either returning home or finding another reef to settle. Once they get to a reef they generally stay there for a lifetime. “The study tells us these baby fish actually have brains. They know where they are going and are strong swimmers. As a result they have some control over the reef they end up on. It’s not just about being led by the currents.” See also this article which questions the biological mechanism for detecting magnetic fields: Biologist disputes conclusions of recent papers on biological magnetism.


Scientists Open the ‘Black Box’ of Schizophrenia with Dramatic Genetic Discovery – (Washington Post – January 27, 2016)
For the first time, scientists have pinned down a molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia. The researchers involved in the landmark study say the discovery of this new genetic pathway probably reveals what goes wrong neurologically in a young person diagnosed with the devastating disorder. The study marks a watershed moment, with the potential for early detection and new treatments that were unthinkable just a year ago, according to Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute at MIT. The researchers, chiefly from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, found that a person’s risk of schizophrenia is dramatically increased if they inherit variants of a gene important to “synaptic pruning” — the healthy reduction during adolescence of brain cell connections that are no longer needed. In patients with schizophrenia, a variation in a single position in the DNA sequence marks too many synapses for removal and that pruning goes out of control. The result is an abnormal loss of gray matter. The genes involved coat the neurons with “eat-me signals,” said study co-author Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Children’s Hospital and Broad. “They are tagging too many synapses. And they’re gobbled up.” There have been hundreds of theories about schizophrenia over the years, but one of the enduring mysteries has been how three prominent findings related to each other: the apparent involvement of immune molecules, the disorder’s typical onset in late adolescence and early adulthood, and the thinning of gray matter seen in autopsies of patients. “The thing about this result,” said McCarroll, the lead author, “it makes a lot of other things understandable.”

Sunlight Offers Surprise Benefit: It Energizes Infection Fighting T Cells – (Science Daily – December 20, 2016)
Georgetown University Medical Center researchers have found that sunlight, through a mechanism separate than vitamin D production, energizes T cells that play a central role in human immunity. Their findings suggest how the skin, the body’s largest organ, stays alert to the many microbes that can nest there. “We all know sunlight provides vitamin D, which is suggested to have an impact on immunity, among other things. But what we found is a completely separate role of sunlight on immunity,” says the study’s senior investigator, Gerard Ahern, PhD, associate professor in the Georgetown’s Department of Pharmacology and Physiology. “Some of the roles attributed to vitamin D on immunity may be due to this new mechanism.” They specifically found that low levels of blue light, found in sun rays, makes T cells move faster — marking the first reported human cell responding to sunlight by speeding its pace. “T cells, whether they are helper or killer, need to move to do their work, which is to get to the site of an infection and orchestrate a response,” Ahern says. “This study shows that sunlight directly activates key immune cells by increasing their movement.” Ahern also added that while production of vitamin D required UV light, which can promote skin cancer and melanoma, blue light from the sun, as well as from special lamps, is safer.

New Test Spots Human Form of Mad Cow Disease with 100% Accuracy – (Scientific American – December 22, 2016)
Eating beef from an animal infected with mad cow disease can lead to an untreatable condition that attacks the brain and is universally fatal, but symptoms can take decades to emerge. Thankfully, a new blood-screening technology can spot the condition, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, with 100% accuracy, perhaps years before it attacks. Perhaps the worst outbreak of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease occurred in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s, when large swaths of the population were exposed to beef contaminated with mad cow disease. Since then, there have been 277 cases in the U.K. and an epidemiological study published in 2013 estimates that another 1 in 2,000 people there, about 30,000 in total, are silent carriers. While it is not clear how many of these people will go on to develop the disease, blood donations from silent carriers could jeopardize the country’s blood supply, according to Claudio Soto, a neurologist at McGovern Medical School at UT Health in Houston. The new screening test stands to alleviate the uncertainty, however. Soto’s team and a team led by Daisy Bougard of the French Blood Establishment in Montpellier, France ran the test on blood samples from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease patients in the U.K. and France. The two teams used slightly different methods, but the basic idea was the same: the test essentially mimics the progression of the disease in an accelerated, artificial environment. Between the two studies, the test was able to identify a total of 32 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease with 100% percent accuracy, and there were no false positives among the 391 controls, which included regular blood donors, patients with a different form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and patients with other neurological diseases. The results not only confirm that the test can accurately diagnose the disease, but also suggest that it may be able make the diagnosis before patients develop symptoms, which could be particularly important in places like the U.K. with a large number of silent carriers. The test will “improve the safety of our blood supply [by eliminating] any blood samples that may be potentially contaminated with prions,” says Soto.

Compact CRISPR Systems Found in Some of World’s Smallest Microbes – (Phys Org – December 23, 2016)
UC Berkeley scientists have discovered simple CRISPR systems similar to CRISPR-Cas9—a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized biology—in previously unexplored bacteria that have eluded efforts to grow them in the laboratory. The new systems are highly compact, befitting their presence in some of the smallest life forms on the planet. If these systems can be re-engineered like CRISPR-Cas9, their small size could make them easier to insert into cells to edit DNA, expanding the gene-editing toolbox available to researchers and physicians. “These are particularly interesting because the key protein in these CRISPR systems is approximately the same as Cas9, but is not Cas9. It is part of a minimal system that has obvious potential for gene editing,” said Jill Banfield, a UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary sciences and of environmental science, policy and management. In CRISPR-Cas systems, the Cas protein is the scissors. When targeted to a specific sequence of DNA, the Cas protein binds and severs double-stranded DNA. The new discovery nearly doubles the number of simple and compact CRISPR-Cas systems potentially useful as laboratory and biomedical tools. The newly discovered CRISPR-CasY system was found in bacteria from deep underground at Crystal Geyser in California.


New Hampshire Might Have Volcanoes One Day – (Gizmodo – December 16, 2016)
Sixty miles beneath the birch-speckled forests of southern New Hampshire, the rocks are hotter than they should be—much hotter. First discovered in the 1970s, the heat anomaly was thought to be the remnants of an ancient hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. Instead, new seismic measurements suggest it’s an area of active upwelling. And that has led geologists to an astonishing conclusion. In the not-too-distant future—geologically speaking—New Hampshire could have volcanoes. “I would not be surprised if, in a few million years, we had volcanoes again on the East Coast of the United States,” said Bill Menke, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The East Coast of North America is what Earth scientists call a “passive margin,” meaning the main thing happening is that sediment is slowly eroding into the sea. But it’s not the only thing happening. Case in point: the Northern Appalachian Anomaly (NAA), a 250 mile-wide hotspot centered in the upper mantle beneath southern New Hampshire. Analysis done by Menke and his students has led them to several conclusions. One, the NAA is about twice as hot as we thought, roughly 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,300 degrees Celsius). That’s comparable to the temperature inside small volcanoes in the western US. Two, the NAA’s shape and orientation suggest it is the result of hot mantle material rising toward the surface in the present day.

How Food Packaging Is Good for the Environment – (Economist – December 21, 2016)
Meat provides 17% of global calorific intake but it is costly in terms of both cash and resources, requiring a disproportionate amount of water and feed. And more land is given over to grazing animals than for any other single purpose. Overall the livestock sector accounts for as much pollution as is spewed out by all the world’s vehicles. Ruminant livestock, such as cattle and sheep, have stomachs containing bacteria able to digest tough, cellulose-rich plants. But along the way, huge volumes of methane are belched too—a greenhouse gas more than twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide over the span of a century. Wrapping meat in vacuum packaging prevents oxidation, extending its lifespan. It allows meat to stay on shelves for between five and eight days, rather than two to four when simply wrapped on a polystyrene tray or draped behind a counter. This pleases big grocery chains, which stand to save thousands of dollars a week if less meat has to be either marked down or thrown out. It also delights aspiring chefs, as vacuum-packed meat is more tender. An environmental tradeoff exists, however. Packaging itself requires resources to produce. But the emissions from creating it are less than those associated with food waste. According to estimates, for every ton of packaging, the equivalent of between one and two tons of carbon dioxide is released. For every ton of food wasted, the equivalent of over three tons of carbon dioxide is emitted. (Editor’s note: While vacuum packing may be more environmentally beneficial, this article also explains why meats spread out in the butcher’s case are going to be fresher.)


Google’s Translation AI Created its Own Secret Language — All On Its Own – (Unknown Country – November 25, 2016)
Google recently announced that its new AI-based translation software, Neural Machine Translation (NMT), has developed an internal language of its own to facilitate its translation of certain languages — and Google can’t explain how it did it. Instead of having all of its programmed skills provided by its initial programming, NMT was taught to learn languages through experience — hence the “neural” part of its name. Initially, Google taught the program to translate between English and Korean, then taught it to do the same with English and Japanese. They then tried to see if it would translate between Japanese and Korean, without having to resort to using its previous experience with English to use as a go-between — and it worked perfectly. What NMT’s programmers found was that the program used what they’re calling “interlingua,” an internal language that NMT used to go between Japanese and Korean, but that it devised this internal language all on its own — a language that Google’s programmers can’t understand.

Smiley Faced Success for Japan’s Emoji Creator – (Phys Org – December 16, 2016)
From a humble smiley face with a box mouth and inverted “V’s” for eyes, crude weather symbols, and a rudimentary heart—emoji have now exploded into the world’s fastest-growing language. There are now about 1,800 emoji characters—and counting. They cover everything from emotions and food to professions, are racially diverse and have become an integral part of the smartphone age. The digital hieroglyphics are regarded as so significant that New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is home to works by Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, is exhibiting the original 176 designs. Shigetaka Kurita, the man who created these characters, is still surprised by the success of his idea, but says he was meeting an obvious need. Keenly aware of how text messages could be misconstrued, he wanted to create visual accompaniments to help articulate tone. Among Kurita’s ideas for original emoji was a pile of feces. “I made poo. It’s childish but I thought it’s good to have something that makes people chuckle,” he said. “The company turned it down for the sake of its corporate image.” Today, a smiley-faced poop is one of the world’s most popular emoji, though according to the emojitracker website, a face with tears of joy is the symbol that is used the most.


China’s Huge, Eerie Tower Blocks That Will Soon House Millions – (Wired – December 13, 2016)
Venture to the outskirts of China’s biggest cities and you’ll find soaring towers and a barren landscape. One day, these futuristic high-rises will house the 250 million or so people the government hopes to move from villages into cities. For now, though, they remain all but empty. “They look like ghost towns,” says photographer Aurelien Marechal. “They’re suburbs in the middle of nowhere.” China’s relocation plan is designed to give those in poor, rural areas access to healthcare, schools, and jobs. To entice people into the cities, the government is paying people for their land and subsidizing their housing in gargantuan towers that stand 40 stories or more. Marechal, who has lived in Shanghai since 2012, noticed the developments during a train ride to Nanjing. He found their size and location intriguing and spent two years documenting their construction in 15 cities throughout the country. The images in Block look like an abandoned civilization, a dystopian vision of a city immediately and completely emptied. Exactly the opposite is happening as China’s plan to relocate people fills the standing suburbs waiting to house them. Article contains slides of various towering “ghost” projects, vacant at the time of photographing.


The Blockchain Energy System Is Going to Be Great for Consumers – (Fast Company – November 18, 2016)
“The energy system used to be linear: energy flowed from distant generators to consumers via long networks and was facilitated by wholesale markets and retail agents,” says David Martin, managing director of Power Ledger. “The system is more distributed now and energy flows in multiple directions. Yet we still rely on wholesale markets and retailer intermediaries to operate as they always have.” Several startups are now working on the trading aspect, including Power Ledger in Western Australia. It’s launched trials based on blockchain technology, which offers an inviolable internet-based record of transactions as they take place. In Australia, households currently sell surplus power to energy retailers for about 6 cents per kilowatt hour. But, when their battery runs low, and they need to buy power back from retailers, it costs them 25 cents per KWh. The market for excess solar power is closed: home-owners either accept the prices on offer, or the power goes to waste (assuming home-owners can’t store it). Power Ledger has three trials in the works. The first is at a local retirement facility and involves 15-20 homes; it will verify, record, and settle electron transactions virtually. The second, set to begin next year, involves 80 homes trading electricity across a network and settling transactions. The third, now being negotiated with an electricity distributor in Victoria will incorporate a wind farm and solar system.

The First Tidal Generator in North America Is Now Online – (Popular Mechanics – November 23, 2016)
The first tidal generator in North America has gone online in the Bay of Fundy, and is expected to generate enough electricity to power 500 homes. While most hydro generators harness the energy of falling water, or the energy of the waves, tidal power uses the energy of the high and low tides. At the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, which has the largest tides in the world, that energy is being harnessed to generate 2 megawatts of electrical power. In the Bay of Fundy, the difference between high and low tide is about 56 feet. Approximately 115 billion tons of water flow in and out of the bay every tidal period. This is actually the second attempt to pull this off. Back in 2009, the two developers attempted to install another turbine in the Bay of Fundy, but the tides were so powerful they destroyed the blades. This new turbine—5 stories tall and 1,000 tons—should hopefully be strong enough to withstand the powerful tidal forces. This is just a proof of concept, and currently the turbine is more expensive than other energy technologies like coal or solar. However, the team hopes that by building more turbines they can bring the cost down and make tidal power competitive.

Diamonds Turn Nuclear Waste into Nuclear Batteries – (New Atlas – November 28, 2016)
One problem with dealing with nuclear waste is that it’s often hard to tell what’s waste and what’s a valuable resource. Case in point is the work of physicists and chemists at the University of Bristol, who have found a way to convert thousands of tonnes of seemingly worthless nuclear waste into man-made diamond batteries that can generate a small electric current for longer than the entire history of human civilization. The Bristol team is using the nuclear waste from Britain’s aging Magnox reactors, which are now being decommissioned after over half a century of service. These first generation reactors used graphite blocks as moderators to slow down neutrons to keep the nuclear fission process running, but decades of exposure have left the UK with 104,720 tons of graphite blocks that are now classed as nuclear waste because the radiation in the reactors changes some of the inert carbon in the blocks into radioactive carbon-14. Carbon-14 is a low-yield beta particle emitter that can’t penetrate even a few centimeters of air, but it’s still too dangerous to allow into the environment. Instead of burying it, the Bristol team’s solution is to remove most of the c-14 from the graphite blocks and turn it into electricity-generating diamonds. The nuclear diamond battery is based on the fact that when a man-made diamond is exposed to radiation, it produces a small electric current. According to the researchers, this makes it possible to build a battery that has no moving parts, gives off no emissions, and is maintenance-free.

For the Cost of An iPhone, You Can Now Buy a Wind Turbine That Can Power an Entire House for a Lifetime – (The Usual Routine – November 1, 2016)
India is the world’s sixth largest energy consumer, accounting for 3.4% of global energy consumption. But federal governments in India, and the central government for that matter, are unable to bear the huge infrastructural cost required to bring electricity to remote villages. And therefore for a large percentage of the Indian population, electricity still remains a distant dream. Brothers Arun and Anoop George want to make India’s energy crisis a thing of the past. The duo has developed a new solution they say will not even slightly impact the ecological balance. Avant Garde Innovations, the initiative founded by the brothers from Kerala, has developed a low-cost wind turbine that can generate enough electricity to power an entire (Indian) house. The size of a ceiling fan, this wind turbine can generate 5 kWh/kW per day — with just a one-time cost of US$750. For the startup, opportunity is massive. The company launched its pilot project at a church in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in January this year. The small wind turbine prototype that it has developed is highly scalable for power capacities of 300 kW or even higher, Arun said. Their product won a spot in the Top 20 Cleantech Innovations in India.

Scientists Build Bacteria-powered Battery on Single Sheet of Paper – (Science Daily – December 21, 2016)
Instead of ordering batteries by the pack, we might get them by the ream in the future. Researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York have created a bacteria-powered battery on a single sheet of paper that can power disposable electronics. The manufacturing technique reduces fabrication time and cost, and the design could revolutionize the use of bio-batteries as a power source in remote, dangerous and resource-limited areas. “Papertronics have recently emerged as a simple and low-cost way to power disposable point-of-care diagnostic sensors,” said Assistant Professor Seokheun “Sean” Choi, who is the director of the Bioelectronics and Microsystems Lab at Binghamton. “Stand-alone and self-sustained, paper-based, point-of-care devices are essential to providing effective and life-saving treatments in resource-limited settings,” said Choi.


Google’s Self-Driving Car Company Is Finally Here – (Wired – December 13, 2016)
In October 2015, Steve Mahan, who is blind, became the first member of the public to ride in Google’s self-driving pod-like prototype, alone and on public roads. No steering wheel, no pedals, no human on board to step in should something go wrong. Google engineers say that Mahan’s uneventful, ten-minute jaunt around Austin, Texas—which they talked about publicly for the first time just recently—was a key milestone on the road to the news they’re now announcing. After eight years and 2 million miles, the tech giant has taken its self-driving car project out of X, its division dedicated to moonshots like internet-slinging balloons and delivery drones. Waymo,is now a standalone company under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. And that means it’s time to take the technology to market. Pushing Waymo into the real world is something of a catchup move for Google. The company once dominated the conversation about autonomy, insisting it was possible years before most companies took it seriously. But lately, that preeminence has faded. In the past year, Uber, Tesla, Baidu, Ford, and General Motors have announced aggressive plans to bring fully self-driving cars to market, with launch dates ranging from next year to 2021. By early 2015, Google cars were clocking full days at Google’s testing grounds without needing human takeovers. They had driven 1.2 million miles on public roads and could pull over for emergency vehicles. They could detect and brake for squirrels, and read hand signals from cops and construction workers. They knew when to honk politely (Just making sure you see me here) and when to blare it (You’re about to slam into me!). Then the team spent the next year putting another 800,000 miles on the fleet’s collective odometer, to fine tune everything. And it gave 10,000 rides to employees and “guests.” Google has long pitched self-driving cars as a way to cut down on traffic deaths (more than a million worldwide every year) and as a tool for those who cannot drive. It’s an altruistic spin on an industry whose potential value Boston Consulting Group pegs at $42 billion a year by 2025. See also: Michigan Just Embraced the Driverless Future noting that Governor Rick Snyder has put his signature on bills permitting automakers to operate networks of self-driving taxis in the state.

Amazon Looks to Develop an Uber-Like App for Booking Truck Freight – (Wall St. Journal – December 18, 2016) Inc. may be developing mobile technology so it can schedule and track truck shipments of its products with a few taps or clicks—the next step in the e-commerce giant’s bid to become its own global freight broker and compete with companies in the $150 billion business of booking transportation. Sources familiar with Amazon’s business said the company may be looking to acquire or build an application capable of matching available trucks to shipments, for instance, from a seaport hub to a distribution center or from a warehouse to a parcel-delivery facility. Analysts said if the service works for Amazon, the company’s next step could be to make it available for a fee to non-Amazon shippers as an easy-to-use option for business-to-business freight shipping. Major freight carriers, brokers and startup technology firms have developed software and mobile apps to try to make freight transportation as easy as booking a vacation online and provide real-time tracking while the goods are en route. Companies like XPO Logistics Inc. are spending millions of dollars to develop in-house booking and tracking platforms for freight shipments. Others have pursued acquisitions, including UPS, which last year bought Coyote Logistics, a freight broker with proprietary technology, for $1.8 billion. And the recent entrance of Uber Technologies Inc. into the freight sector is driving swift change in the technology matching trucks to available loads. For some information on commercial trucker drivers, see: Amazon’s Real Future Isn’t Drones. It’s Self-Driving Trucks which notes that in the US, trucks carry 10 billion tons of freight each year. That’s 70% of all goods shipped across the country, according to the American Trucking Association. The trouble is: there aren’t enough drivers, and their numbers are dwindling. The American Trucking Association says the driver deficit currently stands at 48,000, and if trends continue, that could reach 175,000 by the year 2024. The average age for an American truck driver is 63, and that’s only going up.


Handy Chart Organizes Fast Food Chains by Calorie Count – (Wired – December 13, 2016)
With two kids and a waning metabolism, statistician Nathan Yau was wondering: How does the distribution of calories vary between fast food chains? To answer that, Yau spent the better part of a day cutting, pasting and analyzing publicly posted menu information from 10 of the most popular fast food chains. What he came up with on his website Flowingdata was a calorie distribution chart. Each square corresponds to a menu item at the designated restaurant. The leftmost squares correspond to food with the fewest calories, the rightmost squares designate the most calorically dense. The result is a pleasingly pixelated peek into the fast food ecosystem. “The spreads match up nicely with how I perceive the restaurants,” says Yau. “The distribution really seems to reveal their marketing strategies.” At the top you’ve got Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box, the fast food chain’s fast food chains, with many unapologetically high-calorie items. Exhibit A: the American Thickburger. McDonald’s is more conciliatory, carrying something to appeal to everyone throughout the day. And don’t be fooled by Taco Bell and KFC’s positions near the bottom. Both restaurants push lots of calorie-light individual items, says Yau, perhaps betting that customers won’t do the math when they have to order five items to fill up on a meal.


Congressional Research Service on Defense R&D – (Public Intelligence Blog – December 22, 2016)
Nearly half of all federal research and development dollars go to the Department of Defense, a new report from the Congressional Research Service observes. The Pentagon research budget is more than twice that of the next largest recipient, the Department of Health and Human Services. The structure of the DoD research budget, which has “its own unique taxonomy,” is described in the new CRS report. See Department of Defense Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) : Appropriations Structure, December 13, 2016. (The Congressional Research Service prepares reports for members and committees of Congress.)


The U.S. Government Is Collecting Student Loans It Promised to Forgive – (Bloomberg – December 19, 2016) The U.S. Department of Education has two quite different roles in the lives of indebted former students. The same bureaucracy that must safeguard taxpayer dollars by collecting $1.1 trillion in loans also oversees the nation’s largest-ever effort to forgive student debt. These dual roles have culminated in a strange situation. The Obama administration has repeatedly promised that borrowers eligible to have their student loans cancelled would be reimbursed for “every penny.” But for months, the Education Department has been actively working to collect on federal student debt owed by tens of thousands of former students at Corinthian Colleges Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in 2015 under a cloud of fraud investigations. It is clear that government officials, working under their own guidelines, have reason to believe at least some of these same debts should be forgiven. The Education Department is effectively disregarding records it obtained earlier this year—a development not previously reported—that identify former Corinthian students eligible for debt relief under the administration’s criteria. Instead of halting collections, however, the department has outsourced the work of informing these borrowers to budget-strapped state attorneys general. This account of the government’s inconsistent actions toward distressed borrowers is based on records and interviews with more than two dozen borrowers, former federal regulators, current state prosecutors, public interest attorneys, and others working on student loan issues. The government stands to gain from muscular collection tactics. Eliminating the debt of those who are eligible could cost the federal government nearly $4 billion, according to Education Department estimates. That’s enough money to fund one year of Pell Grants for more than 600,000 students.


‘Make This My Dream as Well’ — In Historic Appearance, Palestinian Offers One-state Vision to a NY Temple – (Mondoweiss – November 30, 2016)
Recently, a suburban New York temple hosted a Palestinian leader making the argument for one democratic state between the river and the sea. And the Jewish audience did not contest his description of human rights atrocities. Additionally, his Jewish hosts thanked him for opening their eyes to new ideas. If there is a glimmer of hope that the American Jewish community can be redeemed from a tragic course, and that the peoples of Israel and Palestine can be freed from a blind alleyway of history, there it was, at Temple Israel in New Rochelle. (Editor’s note: We recommend this article.)


At Disney World, the Future Is Already Here – (Economist – December 24, 2016)
EPCOT Center and the other Disney theme parks are a proving ground for new technology—but not in the way Walt Disney imagined. In place of tickets, most families receive a rubber wristband when they book their holidays to Disney World. The device, which is smaller and lighter than a fitness tracker, contains a radio chip that unlocks hotel rooms, serves as an entry ticket to the parks, lets people onto rides and allows them to buy food and drinks. Disney photographers stationed around the park will tap the wristband and later send the images to a connected mobile app. It is so seamless as to be barely noticeable. It is the sort of technology that Apple and Google have been striving to bring to the wider world. More than 10m of the things have been given out. Like much modern technology, it is also creepy. Sensors scattered around Disney theme parks allow its computers to keep track of everyone in the park. Each band is personalized. At the main gates, visitors submit fingerprints that are tied to the bands. Yet the families and children at the “happiest place on earth” barely seem to notice. The bands ease movement and transactions—it is easier to spend money when all it requires is a wave of the wrist. It isn’t quite what Walt had in mind. But with its blend of technology, commerce and entertainment, he would approve.

Hard-wired: The Brain’s Circuitry for Political Belief – (Phys Org – December 23, 2016)
A USC-led study confirms what seems increasingly true in American politics: People become more hard-headed in their political beliefs when provided with contradictory evidence. Neuroscientists at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC said the findings from the functional MRI study seem especially relevant to how people responded to political news stories, fake or credible, throughout the election. “Political beliefs are like religious beliefs in the respect that both are part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong,” said lead author Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself.” To determine which brain networks respond when someone holds firmly to a belief, the neuroscientists compared whether and how much people change their minds on nonpolitical and political issues when provided with counter-evidence. They discovered that people were more flexible when asked to consider the strength of their belief in nonpolitical statements – for example, “Albert Einstein was the greatest physicist of the 20th century.” But when it came to reconsidering their political beliefs, such as whether the United States should reduce funding for the military, they would not budge. For the study, the neuroscientists recruited 40 people who were self-declared liberals. The scientists then examined through functional MRI how their brains responded when their beliefs were challenged. During their brain imaging sessions, participants were presented with eight political statements that they had said they believe just as strongly as a set of eight nonpolitical statements. They were then shown five counter-claims that challenged each statement. Participants rated the strength of their belief in the original statement on a scale of 1-7 after reading each counter-claim. The scientists then studied their brain scans to determine which areas became most engaged during these challenges.


NASA’s New GIPHY Channel — View Massive Andromeda Galaxy Zooming Towards Collision With The Milky Way – (Daily Galaxy – December 13, 2016)
According to recent research the Andromeda Galaxy may be destined to collide with the Milky Way. Right now, the Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way at 100 to 140 kilometers per second. It’s expected to collide with the Milky Way in about 3.75 billion years. Our solar system should survive the cataclysm — space is mostly space, so we won’t collide with other stars, and our sun isn’t supposed to turn into a red giant and consume the Earth until about 5 billion years from now. But we could also be flung away into space to become a rogue star system, our former galaxy fading into the distance. Either way, our night sky will be completely changed. Observers on Earth would see an incredible show.

Interstellar Human Hibernation — Science of Deep-Space Travel (Daily Galaxy – December 22, 2016)
Hollywood has long used suspended animation to overcome the difficulties of deep space travel, but the once-fanciful sci-fi staple is becoming scientific fact. The theory is that a hibernating crew could stay alive over vast cosmic distances, requiring little food, hydration or living space, potentially slashing the costs of interstellar missions and eradicating the boredom of space travel. Atlanta-based Spaceworks Enterprises is using a $500,000 grant from NASA to leverage techniques used on brain trauma and heart attack patients to develop “low metabolic stasis” for missions to Mars and the asteroid belt. “It takes about six months to get out to Mars… There are a lot of demands, a lot of support equipment required to keep people alive even during that period,” said SpaceWorks CEO John Bradford. Hospitals lower the core temperature of trauma patients by around 10 degrees Farenheit to achieve a 70 percent reduction in metabolism, although they are “shut down” for a couple of days rather than the months astronauts would need. The aerospace engineer said that his company was adapting the medical technique of induced hypothermia to astronautics. “We’re evaluating it. We think it’s medically possible,” Bradford told journalists.


3 Reasons Why Half of American Workers Are Not Using Their Vacation Time – (CNBC – December 20, 2016)
Some 52% of Americans say they won’t be using all of their paid time off this year. They’re often leaving seven days or more on the table, especially in regions like the South and the Midwest. Is America’s culture of “workaholism” to blame? Partly, the survey shows. The good news is that the top reason workers claimed they did not use all of their vacation days in 2016 was because they were saving them to use in 2017. About a third of respondents said that they plan on taking advantage of the fact that their company lets them roll over unused days. (Though, who knows? They may have said that last year too.) The other reasons given confirm that many U.S. workers feel bound to their jobs. About a quarter of workers say they simply work too much and can’t afford to take time off, while just over 15% say they actively enjoy working and prefer it to vacation. Seven days is the minimum amount of vacation time most often left unused.


Carbon Nanotubes Make Water Freeze Solid at Boiling Temperatures – (New Atlas – November 28, 2016)
Researchers at MIT have found that, when contained inside the tiny cavities of carbon nanotubes, water can actually freeze solid at temperatures well above its usual boiling point. This finding may have applications in creating proton-conducting “ice wires”. Temperature alone isn’t the sole factor in determining when water shifts between a solid, liquid and gas. As demonstrated in a Cody’s Lab video, pressure plays a big part as well, allowing water to effectively be boiled until it freezes by lowering the pressure. The researchers expected to see changes in the temperature at which water boils and freezes, but were still surprised by the results. The changes were far more pronounced than they’d anticipated, and in the other direction – the freezing point increased instead of lowering. In one test, water froze in a nanotube at a temperature of between 221° F and 304° F. The researchers found, for instance, that changing the diameter of a nanotube by as little as 0.01 nanometers could alter the freezing point of water by dozens of degrees.

Verily Created a Spoon That Helps People with Movement Disorders Eat Independently – (Fast Company – December 22, 2016)
It’s called the Liftware Level and it’s part of Verily’s program to develop assistive technologies for people with impaired movement. In 2009, Stephanie Putnam was in a swimming accident that left her paralyzed from her shoulders down to her hands. “Besides breathing, one of the most important things in human life is being able to feed yourself,” says Putnam, who travels with her service dog, Pez. Without the new spoon, she has to be fed by a caregiver or sip food through a straw. “There would be times when my parents would try to feed me, and I’d take it so personally and refuse to eat.” Putnam has been providing feedback on the spoon, called Liftware Level ($195), for about two years. “Stefanie was involved with the whole process,” says Verily’s technical lead, Anupam Pathak, who manages the Liftware project. “We would have three or four versions for her to try out, and then we’d incorporate a lot of things that she asked for.” The spoon was released to the public on December 1 of this year, with an accompanying fork attachment for an additional $34.95. The spoon integrates sensors on both sides of the handle to allow for a variety of hand movements, including twisting and rotation, while staying level. A strap on the end of the device is designed for users like Stephanie who can’t close their hands easily. These days, Putnam carries the spoon with her everywhere and eats out with friends without thinking twice. Recently, it occurred to her to ask her father if she could feed him for a change. “I took the spoon and started taking the coffee out of his cup,” she says. “It dawned on me in that moment that I could have a family. I could have children someday and be able to take care of them.”

New Ultrasound Technique is First to Image Inside Live Cells – (Science Daily – December 21, 2016)
Researchers at The University of Nottingham have developed a break-through technique that uses sound rather than light to see inside live cells, with potential application in stem-cell transplants and cancer diagnosis. The new nanoscale ultrasound technique uses shorter-than-optical wavelengths of sound and could even rival the optical super-resolution techniques which won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. This new kind of sub-optical phonon (sound) imaging provides invaluable information about the structure, mechanical properties and behavior of individual living cells at a scale not achieved before. In conventional optical microscopy, which uses light (photons), the size of the smallest object you can see (or the resolution) is limited by the wavelength. For biological specimens, the wavelength cannot go smaller than that of blue light because the energy carried on photons of light in the ultraviolet (and shorter wavelengths) is so high it can destroy the bonds that hold biological molecules together damaging the cells. Unlike light, sound does not have a high-energy payload. This has enabled the Nottingham researchers to use smaller wavelengths and see smaller things and get to higher resolutions without damaging the cell biology.


How to Save at Least 32,000 Lives Each Year: Replace Male Doctors with Female Ones – (LA Times – December 21, 2016)
Doctors from Harvard have an intriguing suggestion for saving 32,000 lives each year: Make sure all senior citizens who wind up in the hospital are treated by female doctors. After examining the medical records of Medicare patients from across the country, the Harvard researchers calculated that 10.82% of those treated by physicians who were women died within 30 days of being admitted to the hospital. Among patients treated by male physicians, the 30-day mortality rate was 11.49%, according to a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. That gender gap persisted even after the researchers accounted for factors like the age, gender and income of patients, how sick those patients were when they first checked into the hospital, the resources of the hospitals and the experience of the doctors. In that analysis, the Harvard team found that 11.07% of patients treated by women died within 30 days of being hospitalized, compared with 11.49% of patients treated by men. The results held up across a wide range of medical conditions, according to the study. Controlling for as many variables as possible, the differences across of number of admitting diagnoses were still too large to be due to chance, the researchers reported. An all-female doctor corps isn’t likely, so a more practical goal is for men to have the same patient outcomes as women. This will require more research, since it’s not clear what useful things women are doing that men aren’t. Notably, the results counter the idea that male doctors — who outnumber female doctors by a margin of 2 to 1 — deserve the higher pay they typically receive, according to an editorial that accompanied the study.

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

How Science Uncovered $80 Million of Fine Art Forgeries – (Wired – December 20, 2016)
Something was wrong with the Jackson Pollock. For one thing, 3-D images from a stereomicroscope revealed that the signature was traced with a needle—forged. And, working with a hyper-precise Raman microscope, a tool capable of analyzing sample areas as small as a thousandth of a millimeter across, Jamie Martin identified the presence of Red 170, a pigment that wasn’t widely available until decades after Pollock’s death. The painting was a fake. When art historians, museum curators, or law enforcement officials suspect that a work of art isn’t genuine, they call Orion Analytical, Martin’s one-man “microniche materials analysis and consulting firm.” Over the years, he has examined everything from Egyptian artifacts to rare bottles of wine, searching for the tiniest flaws. “We’re analyzing samples so small they’re invisible to the naked eye,” Martin says. In his investigations, he relies on research, his vast knowledge of art history, and a collection of highly specialized tools—microscopes, cameras, spectrometers—to answer questions like: Did the forger paint over another painting? Are the materials consistent with the era? Were any elements added later? Is the signature real? As it turns out, that fake Pollock was one of nearly 40 forgeries created by a Chinese artist in Queens, New York, and sold or consigned by Manhattan’s prestigious Knoedler Gallery between 1994 and 2008. Martin examined 16 of the paintings himself, discovering flaws like anachronistic materials and marks from an electric sander. The scam, totaling some $80 million, is the biggest in American history. Earlier this year, Martin’s detective work landed him in court as an expert witness in a $25 million case over a fake Mark Rothko. (A lawsuit involving the Pollock is ongoing.)


Tiimelapse – (Google – no date)
Timelapse is a global, zoomable video that lets you see how the Earth has changed over the past 32 years. It is made from 33 cloud-free annual mosaics, one for each year from 1984 to 2016, which are made interactively explorable by Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab’sTime Machine library, a technology for creating and viewing zoomable and pannable timelapses over space and time. Using Earth Engine, it combined over 5 million satellite images acquired over the past three decades by 5 different satellites. The majority of the images come from Landsat, a joint USGS/NASA Earth observation program that has observed the Earth since the 1970s. For 2015 and 2016, we combined Landsat 8 imagery with imagery from Sentinel-2A, part of the European Commission and European Space Agency’s Copernicus Earth observation program.


Humanity’s greatness is not in what it has achieved, nor what it is, but in what it can become. – Kingsley Dennis

A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Peterson, 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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A Vision for 2012: Planning for Extraordinary Change
by John L. Petersen

Former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart has said “It should be required reading for the next President.”

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