Volume 20, Number 07 – 05/01/17

Volume 20, Number 07 – 05/01/17       


On the low end, one new robot can replace roughly three workers.

Scientists convert spinach leaves into beating human heart tissue.

A recent study predicts that in the next five years, more than one-third of Americans will not be able to afford their water.

The upper level of the oldest shopping mall in America has been repurposed into tiny homes.

by John L. Petersen



How Many Robots Does It Take to Replace a Human Job? – (Atlantic – March 31, 2017)
Recently, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he wasn’t worried at all about advancing artificial intelligence taking over jobs anytime soon. In fact, he said, he wouldn’t be worried about it for another 50 to 100 years. However, many experts would disagree with the notion that displacement—or at the very least, shifts—in the labor market due to automation are that far afield. Recent studies from McKinsey and the economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimate that around 45% of workers currently perform tasks that could be automated in the near future. And the World Bank estimates that around 57% of jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. In a new paper, two economists—Daron Acemoglu, of MIT, and Pascual Restrepo, of Boston University—endeavor to answer the question of what an increasing number of robots will mean for workers. Acemoglu and Restrepo look to the (recent) past, studying how the increased use of industrial robots affected local labor markets between 1990 and 2007. These robots, defined as machines that are fully autonomous and can be reprogrammed for a variety of tasks, from welding to painting, increased fourfold between 1993 and 2003 in the U.S. and Europe. According to some estimates there are now more than 1.5 million such machines operating in just these two continents—a number that could grow to between 4 to 6 million in less than a decade. Those numbers prove that changes are already happening, and those changes can be instructive for the future. On the low end, this amounts to one new robot replacing around three workers. (Editor’s note: We particularly recommend this article.)

Cyborgs at Work: Employees Getting Implanted with Microchips – (Star Telegram – April 3, 2017)
Swedish startup hub Epicenter offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand. The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.”The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter. As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it. “It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.” The technology in itself is not new. It’s just never been used to tag employees on a broad scale before. Epicenter and a handful of other companies are the first to make chip implants broadly available. Epicenter, which is home to more than 100 companies and some 2,000 workers, began implanting workers in January 2015. Now, about 150 workers have them. A company based in Belgium also offers its employees such implants, and there are isolated cases around the world where tech enthusiasts have tried this out in recent years. The small implants use Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, the same as in contactless credit cards or mobile payments. When activated by a reader a few centimeters (inches) away, a small amount of data flows between the two devices via electromagnetic waves. The implants are “passive,” meaning they contain information that other devices can read, but cannot read information themselves.


New Wave-like Cloud Finally Wins Official Recognition – (BBC News – March 23, 2017)
Twelve “new” types of cloud – including the rare, wave-like asperitas cloud – have been recognized for the first time by the International Cloud Atlas. The atlas, which dates back to the 19th Century, is the global reference book for observing and identifying clouds. Last revised in 1987, its new fully-digital edition includes the asperitas after campaigns by citizen scientists. Other new entries include the roll-like volutus, and contrails, clouds formed from the vapor trail of airplanes. Now, embracing the digital era, the new atlas will initially be available as a web portal, and accessible to the public for the first time.

Octopuses and Squids Can Rewrite Their RNA. Is That Why They’re So Smart? – (Washington Post – April 6, 2017)
The intelligence of octopuses goes far beyond escape artistry. They can unscrew glass jars from the inside and solve other complex mechanical problems. They play. Some are capable of body-contorting mimicry. All of this is to say that cephalopods — the spineless, many-legged creatures including octopuses and cuttlefish — stand out among their fellow mollusks. Cephalopods do not follow the normal rules of genetic information, according to research published in the journal Cell. Their RNA is extensively rewritten, particularly the codes for proteins found in the animals’ neurons. Cephalopods use tweaked RNA to generate new proteins. Rather than one gene producing one protein, this type of RNA editing, called recoding, could allow a single octopus gene to produce many different types of proteins from the same DNA. In the new report, scientists measured rates of RNA recoding in several cephalopod species. They found that squids, cuttlefish and octopuses — the smartest kinds of cephalopods — frequently edit RNA, in about one out of every two transcribed genes. What’s more, RNA editing most often targeted cephalopod genes related to nervous system functions. “It was making tweaks that really make a neuron a neuron,” Rosenthal said. The study did not provide conclusive evidence that RNA recoding was the reason for cephalopod smarts. But it offered “tantalizing hints toward the hypothesis that extensive recoding might have contributed to the exceptional intelligence”.

Wild Elephants Sleep Just Two Hours a Night – (Atlantic – March 1, 2017)
They get less than any other animal, which leaves a jumbo-sized hole in theories about why animals snooze at all. In April 2014, Nadine Gravett tranquilized two female elephants and fitted them with actiwatches. These small devices—the scientific version of Fitbits—record movement, and researchers can use them to measure how well volunteers are sleeping. They’re usually worn around the wrist, but that’s not an option when your subjects’ limbs are literally elephantine. So Gravett had to implant them in the females’ most mobile appendages—their trunks. The skin around the middle of the trunk is so thick that the implants went unnoticed, and quietly recorded the animals’ movements for a month. By analyzing their data, and looking for five-minute windows when the trunks were still, Gravett could deduce when the elephants were asleep. And she found that they slept for just two hours a day on average—the lowest duration for any animal thus far recorded. Paul Manger from the University of Witswatersrand, who led the study, has been studying sleeping animals for almost two decades. He began with, of all things, the platypus, which turned out to get more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the type in which dreams occur—than any other animal. But most of that research involved captive animals, which enjoy plentiful food and an absence of predators. For those reasons, they sleep much more than their wild cousins. Gravett and Manger only studied two elephants, and both were adult matriarchs—the individuals who bear the burden of leading the herd. It’s possible that males, youngsters, or lower-ranked females might get more shut-eye, but it’s at least clear that in this particular demographic, sleep time is superlatively low. The researchers are planning follow-up studies on more elephants, including males.


Scientists Convert Spinach Leaves into Human Heart Tissue – That Beats – (Washington Post – March 27, 2017)
Spinach grows a network of veins that thread through its leaves in a way similar to blood vessels through a human heart. These leafy veins allowed researchers at Massachusetts’s Worcester Polytechnic Institute to give a new meaning to heart-healthy spinach. The tissue engineers, as they reported recently in the journal Biomaterials, stripped green spinach leaves of their cells. The spinach turned translucent. The scientists seeded the gaps that the plant cells left behind with human heart tissue. Heart cells, in clusters, beat for up to three weeks in this unusual environment. To meet the demand for donor organs, scientists have tried to create artificial organs through innovations such as 3-D-printing tissue. So far, however, no one has been able to print a perfect heart. Current technology cannot construct tissue dense enough to replace a damaged heart while also allowing for the tiny blood vessels needed to deliver life-giving oxygen. Rather than creating minuscule blood vessels, the scientists decided to borrow from what nature already evolved. First, they removed the cells from spinach leaves purchased at a local market. This leaves behind the protein matrix and structure. Left behind was cellulose, a plant material known to be compatible with mammal tissue, as well as the intact leaf veins. The scientists seeded the now-vacated cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells. After five days, the muscle cells began to beat.

A New Form of Stem-Cell Engineering Raises Ethical Questions – (New York Times – March 21, 2017)
As biological research races forward, ethical quandaries are piling up. In a report in the journal eLife, researchers at Harvard Medical School said it was time to ponder a startling new prospect: synthetic embryos. Soon, experts predict, they will learn how to engineer these cells into new kinds of tissues and organs. Eventually, they may take on features of a mature human being. In the report, John D. Aach and his colleagues explored the ethics of creating what they call “synthetic human entities with embryolike features” — Sheefs, for short. For now, the most advanced Sheefs are very simple assemblies of cells. But in the future, they may develop into far more complex forms, the researchers said, such as a beating human heart connected to a rudimentary brain, all created from stem cells. Such a Sheef might reveal important clues about how nerves control heartbeats. Scientists might be able to use other Sheefs to test out drugs for diseases such as cancer or diabetes. Established guidelines for human embryo research are useless for deciding which Sheefs will be acceptable and which not, Dr. Aach argued. Before scientists get too deeply into making Sheefs, some rules must be put in place. Dr. Aach and his colleagues urged that certain features be kept off limits: Scientists, for example, should never create a Sheef that feels pain. Even if ethicists do manage to agree on certain limits, Paul S. Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, Davis, wondered how easy it would be for scientists to know if they had crossed them. Spotting a primitive streak is easy. Determining whether a collection of neurons connected to other tissues in a dish can feel pain is not. “It gets pretty tricky out there,” Dr. Knoepfler said. “They’ve opened the door to a lot of tough questions.”


This Oil-absorbing Sponge Could Make It Way Easier to Clean Big Spills – (Chicago Tribune – March 6, 2017)
Federal researchers have created a new tool to clean up oil spills by tinkering with the kind of foam found in seat cushions. The modified foam can soak up oil floating on water and lurking below the surface, and then can be repeatedly wrung out and reused, the researchers say. Other oil spill sponges are already on the market, and modifying polyurethane foam for this purpose is not a new idea. But the researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago used a new procedure to coat the foam with a material that attracts oil but not water.

First Evidence Found of Popular Farm Pesticides in Drinking Water – (Washington Post – April 5, 2017)
Of the many pesticides that American farmers have embraced in their war on bugs, neonicotinoids are among the most popular. One of them, called imidacloprid, is among the world’s best-selling insecticides, boasting sales of over $1 billion a year. But with their widespread use comes a notorious reputation — that neonics, as they are nicknamed, are a bee killer. As the bee debate raged, scientists studying the country’s waterways started to detect neonicotinoid pollutants. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey collected water samples from streams throughout the United States and discovered neonicotinoids in more than half of the samples. And recently, a team of chemists and engineers at the USGS and University of Iowa reported that they found neonicotinoids in treated drinking water. It marks the first time that anyone has identified this class of pesticide in tap water, the researchers write in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Gregory LeFevre, a study author and U of Iowa environmental engineer, said that the find was important but not immediate cause for alarm. The Environmental Protection Agency has not defined safe levels of neonicotinoids in drinking water, in part because the chemicals are relative newcomers to the pesticide pantheon. “There is no EPA standard for drinking water,” LeFevre said.

Monsanto Weed Killer Roundup Faces New Doubts on Safety in Unsealed Documents – (New York Times – March 14, 2017)
The reputation of Roundup, whose active ingredient is the world’s most widely used weed killer, took a hit recently when a federal court unsealed documents raising questions about its safety and the research practices of its manufacturer, the chemical giant Monsanto. Roundup is Monsanto’s flagship product, and industry-funded research has long found it to be relatively safe. A case in federal court in San Francisco has challenged that conclusion, building on the findings of an international panel that claimed Roundup’s main ingredient might cause cancer. The court documents included Monsanto’s internal emails and email traffic between the company and federal regulators. The records suggested that Monsanto had ghostwritten research that was later attributed to academics and indicated that a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency had worked to quash a review of Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, that was to have been conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.


This Low-power Chip Could Make Speech Recognition Practical for Tiny Devices – (Kurzweil AI – March 17, 2017)
MIT researchers have built a low-power chip specialized for automatic speech recognition. A cellphone running speech-recognition software might require about 1 watt of power; the new chip requires 100 times less power (between 0.2 and 10 milliwatts, depending on the number of words it has to recognize). That could translate to a power savings of 90 – 99%, making voice control practical for wearables (especially watches, earbuds, and glasses, where speech recognition is essential) and other simple electronic devices, including ones that have to harvest energy from their environments or go months between battery charges, used in the “internet of things” (IoT), says MIT professor Anantha Chandrakasan whose group developed the new chip.


The Oldest Mall in America Is Turned into Gorgeous Tiny Homes – (LifeAspire – March 3, 2017)
The Providence Arcade is the oldest shopping mall in America, but now has a whole new purpose. Although it was bankrupted and abandoned for quite some time, this National Historic Landmark is open for business once more. Developer Evan Granoff bought the property in 2005, with the hopes that he could restore the beautiful building to its former glory. And he did exactly that! He converted the upper levels into 48 tiny apartment homes, while the lower promenade is reserved for boutique shops. No major chain stores allowed! The smallest units (about 225 square feet) only cost $550 per month, which is a steal for downtown Providence, Rhode Island. See 15 minute embedded video clip showcasing a number of the units – they’re pretty cool.

This Skyscraper Is Out of This World – Literally – (CNN – March 28, 2017)
Clouds Architecture Office has unveiled plans for a futuristic skyscraper dubbed the “Analemma Tower.” The building would hover majestically above the ground because it would be attached — wait for it — to an actual asteroid, in space, that is forcibly put into orbit around the earth. As a tenant, your exact address in this pendulous pad could be anywhere on Earth. The tower will be suspended via high-strength cabling and placed in “eccentric geosynchronous orbit”. In other words, it would be always moving — residents and visitors would take a daily journey between the northern and southern hemispheres with a prolonged visit over a main “home” point like New York City or Dubai. Advances in space tech could make the vision a reality. In 2015 the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission successfully landed on the surface of the comet Churyumov-Geraismenko showing that it is possible to interact with such smaller bodies in space. NASA’s “Asteroid Redirect Mission” is scheduled to send a robot to collect a boulder off an asteroid and then place that boulder into a stable orbit around the moon. In like fashion, CAO plans to use an asteroid harnessed with high strength cabling reaching towards earth to hold the skyscraper along its journey. Analemma Tower’s designer Ostap Rudakevych told CNN that the tower could be made of durable and lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and aluminum. Advances in cable engineering would be needed to achieve the cable strength required to support the structure. Power would come from space based solar panels that have a constant exposure to sunlight. Water for the tower will be captured from clouds and rainwater and maintained in a semi-closed loop system. As proposed the top of the tower sits at 32,000m and would be expected to reach speeds of 300mph as it travels through the sky.


Let There Be Light: German Scientists Test ‘Artificial Sun’ – (Associated Press – March 23, 2017)
Scientists in Germany have flipped the switch on what’s being described as “the world’s largest artificial sun,” a device they hope will help shed light on new ways of making climate-friendly fuels. The giant honeycomb-like setup of 149 spotlights — officially known as “Synlight” — in Juelich, about 19 miles west of Cologne, uses xenon short-arc lamps normally found in cinemas to simulate natural sunlight that’s often in short supply in Germany at this time of year. By focusing the entire array on a single 8×8 inch spot, scientists from the German Aerospace Center, or DLR, will be able to produce the equivalent of 10,000 times the amount of solar radiation that would normally shine on the same surface. Creating such furnace-like conditions — with temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Celsius (5,432 Fahrenheit) — is key to testing novel ways of making hydrogen, according to Bernhard Hoffschmidt, the director of DLR’s Institute for Solar Research. Many consider hydrogen to be the fuel of the future because it produces no carbon emissions when burned, meaning it doesn’t add to global warming. But while hydrogen is the most common element in the universe it is rare on Earth. One way to manufacture it is to split water into its two components — the other being oxygen — using electricity in a process called electrolysis. Researchers hope to bypass the electricity stage by tapping into the enormous amount of energy that reaches Earth in the form of light from the sun.


When Robots Take Bad Jobs – (Atlantic – February 27, 2017)
There’s a reason the trucking industry has trouble finding workers: The jobs are low-paid and grueling. Average compensation for a new driver ranges between $35,000 and $45,000 a year, and truckers spend long weeks away from their families, often doing tasks for which they don’t get paid, waiting for loads or delivery appointments. Workers for many companies last, on average, six months, according to Steve Viscelli, the author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Some manage to stick it out for a full year, but often only because they owe the trucking schools tuition money plus interest, he said. The 800,000 or so workers employed by long-haul truckload carriers are often classified as independent contractors and are barely making ends meet. In the not too distant future, these jobs may be a thing of the past. The White House released a report in December predicting that 1.3 million to 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck-driving jobs could disappear because of automation. That’s 80% to 100% of all truck-driving jobs. Though the White House did not specify over what time period this replacement would take place, some of the technology that will automate truck driving is already in use. David Alexander, an analyst with Navigant Research, anticipates that most truck companies will gradually introduce automated driving technology in the next five to 10 years. Automated trucks will still need people in these trucks, at least at first. But the jobs will be for people who can handle these systems’ on-board computers and fix problems that arise. “It will be less involved with physically driving the truck, and more with monitoring the truck,” he said. But the problem is that those new jobs are not ones that those low-skilled workers can easily fill, and those people are now out of luck. This, in turn, exacerbates inequality, said James Bessen, a lecturer at the Boston University School of Law who studies innovation. See also: U.S. workers face higher risk of being replaced by robots. Here’s why.

Pirelli Debuts Smart Tires That Relay Crucial Information Through an App – (The Drive – March 12, 2017)
At the Geneva Motor Show, Italy’s Pirelli presented its Connesso tire that sends data – including pressure, wear and temperature – to a smartphone app via the cloud, and could soon be included on a car’s dashboard. The Connesso System comes equipped with a computer chip in the tires that weighs only a few grams and provides the driver with a wealth of information. According to Pirelli, the Connesso System will be available on the P Zeros and Winter Sottozeros. The chip embedded into the sidewall of each tire will send information to the Pirelli cloud and then to an app on the operators cell phone. The app will provide the operator with information like tire pressure, tire temperature, vertical load, tire wear and number of kilometers driven per tire. The app will also alert users if the tire wear or tire pressure has reached a dangerous level. Unfortunately, the tire will only be offered as an aftermarket tire in 19 inches or larger to begin when sales start in the summer. Pirelli says tires will be available as replacement to the stock tires on high-end cars. Eventually, Pirelli hopes to expand the range of tires with this feature and they want to work with manufacturers to integrate the chip into car’s infotainment systems.

This New Stationless Bike Share System Lets You Lock The Bike Anywhere – (Fast Company – March 13, 2017)
When a new bike share startup called Spin studied a year of use of Bay Area Bike Share, the numbers were surprisingly low: On an average day, each bike is used only 1.7 times. Bikes in Seattle and Boston systems are used only slightly more, roughly twice a day. The problem, the startup believes, is that the bikes are tied to stations that may or may not be near where you actually have to go. In Spin’s system, which recently launched in Austin, the bikes are stationless, so they can be parked anywhere there’s a bike rack. In theory, one of the bikes will always be minutes away. The stationless system is straightforward: the company aims to have enough bikes on the street that one will usually be in sight, and if you don’t see one, you can find it on an app. When you walk up to the bike, you scan it with your phone, get an unlock code, ride wherever you’re going, and then lock it to a rack and end the trip on the app. Spin charges consumers directly: a half-hour ride costs only a dollar.


Domino’s Will Begin Using Robots to Deliver Pizzas in Europe – (Bloomberg – March 29, 2017)
Starship Technologies, the London-based company that has created six-wheeled self-driving delivery robots, will begin taking customers Domino’s pizzas in Germany and the Netherlands. Starship, launched in July 2014 by two former Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, will whisk pizzas to customers’ doors if they live within a one-mile radius of certain Dominos pizza shops in “select German and Dutch cities,” the company said in a statement. Domino’s Pizza Enterprises Ltd., the world’s largest franchise licence owner of Domino’s Pizza, with operations in markets across Asia and Europe, has formed a group called Domino’s Robotic Unit to oversee the project. “With our growth plans over the next five to 10 years, we simply won’t have enough delivery drivers if we do not look to add to our fleet through initiatives such as this,” said Domino’s Pizza Enterprises Chief Executive Officer Don Meij. Starship’s battery-powered robot is designed to operate autonomously on sidewalks, not roads, and has a maximum speed of four miles per hour carrying loads up to 20 pounds. Its cargo hold, which customers unlock with a code sent to their mobile phones, is insulated and the pizzas will also be placed inside a special hot or cold bag similar to the ones used for motorcycle-based deliveries. “Dependent on size, we can carry up to eight pizzas on a delivery or a variety of combinations of pizzas, sides and cold drinks or dessert products,” the company said. (Editor’s note: The delivery robot, roughly the size of a large baby stroller, is cute, but we wondered how theft-proof it really is.)

Researchers Unveiled the First Chicken Meat Grown without Chickens – (Futurism – April 17, 2017)
Memphis Meats is no stranger to engineered meat: last year the San Francisco startup made the first engineered meatball using bovine cells. They also announced that they intended to create turkey meat in a petri dish. Their goal? To give the world a safe, sustainable, and more humane way to supply the global demand for meat. While they haven’t exactly managed to produce their lab-grown turkey yet, they did develop the world’s first chicken and duck meats from self-producing cells. For years concerns about the environmental implications of the meat industry have taken a backseat to the more visible effects of climate change. However, a staggering 51% of global greenhouse-gas emissions are believed to be caused by animal agriculture, according to a report from the WorldWatch Institute. The main barrier for adoption — aside from the cultural resistance to eating something that was grown from a petri dish — is cost. When Memphis Meats first produced its engineered meatball, it cost $18,000 a pound to produce. The company has managed to bring cost down with its new technology, and they estimate that producing their chicken mean would now cost less than $9,000 per pound. Cutting the cost is a great achievement, but there’s still a long way to go if lab-grown meat is to become the preferred alternative over traditional livestock. There’s still time, though: the company hopes to see its cell-produced meat products on the market by 2021.


Pentagon Sued Over Gitmo Cancer Outbreak – (District Sentinel – April 12, 2017)
A lawsuit has been filed that alleges that the Department of Defense failed to account for hazardous waste at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, which has contributed to high cancer rates of personnel onsite. The legal actions were brought by attorneys who work out of the facility’s Camp Justice—the hub for military commission proceedings. The suit notes that nine individuals who have worked at the camp have been diagnosed with cancer. Three have since died. “For years, personnel have raised concerns regarding conditions and environmental contamination in and around the buildings and temporary structures at Camp Justice,” the lawyers said in their filing. The Pentagon’s Inspector General was notified of the potential health hazards at the site in July 2015, following a tip from a former commission attorney. Although the initial review of Camp Justice was inconclusive, the living quarters were still deemed “habitable.” A subsequent October 2015 inspection, however, turned up asbestos-containing floor tiles, lead paint chips, and mold growth. When an environmental assessment was finally conducted on the site, air samples tested positive for carcinogens, including formaldehyde and mercury. Despite those findings, the lawsuit states: “Defendants took no steps to protect military commissions personnel from the risks associated with the carcinogens found at Camp Justice.”


Gang of Thieves: DEA Stole $3.2 Billion in Cash from Innocent People in Only a Decade – (Activist Post – April 5, 2017)
A bombshell report from the Inspector General (IG) at the Department of Justice has exposed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for the colossal thieves they are. According to the report, DEA seized more than $4 billion in cash from people since 2007, but $3.2 billion of the seizures were never connected to any criminal charges. That figure does not even include the seizure of cars and electronics. This thievery is possible through the insidious practice of civil asset forfeiture (CAF), where law enforcement can seize cash and property on the mere suspicion of being involved in criminal activity. Originally developed in the 1980s to go after organized crime, CAF has mushroomed into a source of revenue for cops across the country – from local to state to federal – in what’s become known as Policing for Profit. (Editor’s note: As much as this article seems to be sensationalist and is featured on a clearly non-mainstream website, the U.S. government report from the Inspector General at the Department of Justice (see link above) is in fact as damning as the article would suggest. Ditto for the “Policing for Profit” article. The abuse of civil forfeiture laws is apparently more widespread than most of us could have imagined.)


Canadians Adopted Refugee Families for a Year. Then Came ‘Month 13.’ – (New York Times – March 25, 2017)
One year after Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country, a reckoning was underway. Ordinary Canadians had essentially adopted thousands of Syrian families, donating a year of their time and money to guide them into new lives just as many other countries shunned them. Some citizens already considered the project a humanitarian triumph; others believed the Syrians would end up isolated and adrift, stuck on welfare or worse. As 2016 turned to 2017 and the yearlong commitments began to expire, the question of how the newcomers would fare acquired a national nickname: Month 13, when the Syrians would try to stand on their own. This article is the revealing story of one Syrian family and the Canadians who “adopted” them. Liz Stark, a no-nonsense retired teacher, and her friends had poured themselves into resettling Mouhamad and Wissam al-Hajj, a former farmer and his wife, and their four children, becoming so close that they referred to one another as substitute grandparents, parents and children. But the improvised family had a deadline. In two weeks, the sponsorship agreement would end. The Canadians would stop paying for rent and other basics. They would no longer manage the newcomers’ bank account and budget. Ms. Stark was adding Mr. Hajj’s name to the apartment lease, the first step in removing her own.

Two Glimpses of a Grim Post-American Future – (Atlantic – March 22, 2017)
As the United States under President Trump recedes from world leadership, things are not looking so good elsewhere on earth. Two new books—with similarly morbid titles—have arrived to warn of big trouble ahead for both the European Union and the emerging economies of Asia. The End of the Asian Century by Michael Auslin offers a point-by-point debunking of the “Asiaphoria” that gripped so many imaginations a decade ago. James Kirchick’s The End of Europe tours a continent in which democratic and liberal forces are losing ground to Russia-infatuated extremists of right and left. The conclusion left behind by a reading of the two together: The post-American world predicted by Fareed Zakaria a decade ago is shaping up as an exceedingly unstable and uncomfortable place. The two writers speak little about the United States, but both are speaking to the United States. They write to warn American decision makers and concerned citizens of sources of trouble in the world system—and they do so because they take for granted America’s role as the ultimate guarantor of global peace and security. Both books went to press before the outcome of the 2016 election was known. Now the U.S. suddenly looks to be a less predictable and less reliable partner, decreasingly concerned for peace and stability, more intent on its own immediate advantage (“America first”). With these two books, we are left to contemplate how the problems they describe can be addressed in a world in which it is not only Asian prosperity and European stability that have come into question, but also the future of the great republic that enabled them both.


High-Tech Condom Ring Coming Out to Measure Personal Performance – (Huffington Post – March 3, 2017)
Coming soon: a condom ring to measure almost everything guys have wanted to know about their sexual performance. The i.Con bills itself as the “World’s First Smart Condom.” (“Welcome to the future of wearable technology in the bedroom,” notes manufacturer British Condoms.) In fact, the device is a ring that men can wear with a condom during sex to track a number of pertinent facts. More details in the article. It’s not actually on the market yet, but the company is taking “early bird” registrations around the world for the product, which will sell for about $75 once it’s released sometime in 2017.

What Is It Like to Live without Running Water? Detroit Families Know. – (Yes Magazine – April 11, 2017)
44-year-old Catherine Caldwell, her husband, and two young grandchildren have been living without running water in their Detroit home for over four months. Every two weeks, they receive a delivery of water from a local nonprofit, We the People of Detroit. It’s the second time they’ve been without water services in the three years they’ve lived at the current residence. The short of it is this: They can’t afford to pay the bill, and the water company shut off their water. Detroit has a 40% poverty rate, and residents have seen water bills double over the past 10 years. But more often now, it’s not just Detroit; stories of people living without water are coming from other cities—Toledo, Ohio, Baltimore, and Houston. In Philadelphia, 4 out of 10 water accounts are past due. Two years ago, a survey of 30 major U.S. cities found that water bills rose by 41% between 2010 and 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average American family of four uses about 400 gallons of water a day, and that households should expect to pay 4.5% of their income on water. A recent study predicts that in the next five years, more than one-third of Americans will not be able to afford their water. The authors, Michigan State University professors Elizabeth A. Mack and Sarah Wrase, warned that the days of affordable water are coming to an end for most communities, from rural to urban. Different cities face different water issues. Decaying infrastructure contaminates or leaks water. Climate change conditions make water more scarce. Conservation and efficient technologies mean less demand for water. Each of these factors drives up the rate. And then there’s this: When low-income families can’t afford their bills, cities raise rates even more to cover losses. (That puts middle-income people at risk for unaffordable water bills, too.) “The percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9 percent to 35.6 percent,” the study says. Today, between 10,000 and 20,000 homes in Detroit are without water.

From Diet Pills to Underwear: Chinese Firms Scramble to Grab Ivanka Trump Trademark – (Washington Post – March 8, 2017)
Ivanka Trump was popular in China even before the election, admired for her fashion sense and what Chinese Netizens call her “goddess” good looks. Chinese companies have been scrambling to add her name to their products since her father won the U.S. presidential election in November. There’s even a new Chinese cosmetic-surgery firm offering the chance to look a little more like her. An astounding 258 trademark applications were lodged under variations of Ivanka, Ivanka Trump and similar-sounding Chinese characters between Nov. 10 and the end of last year, records at the China Trademark Office show. None appear to have a direct business link with the U.S. president’s daughter. The trademark applications cover a dizzying array of products, including diet pills, anti-wrinkle cream, spa services, massage machines, cosmetic surgery, underwear and sanitary napkins. Then there are applications for women’s blouses, jewelry, swimwear and towels, as well for a whole range of products that seem to bear little relation to the business executive and former model: milk powder, canned food, honey, candy, coffee, wine and beer; mirrors, mattresses and sofas; medical equipment; and even agricultural technology.


Lost in Space: How Mars’ Atmosphere Evaporated Away – ( – March 30, 2017)
Mars may have once possessed an atmosphere about as thick as Earth’s, but then lost most of it to space due to solar wind and ultraviolet rays, a new study found. The new finding could shed light on the habitability of not just early Mars, but also distant worlds, researchers said. Mars is currently a frigid desert world with extremely thin air. The atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface is on average only about one-hundredth to one-thousandth that on Earth at sea level. (In comparison, the atmospheric pressure at the highest point on Earth’s surface, the top of Mount Everest, is about one-third that on Earth at sea level. In the thin air of Mars, water easily boils. Still, previous research has unearthed ample evidence that Mars was once covered in water, with features resembling dry riverbeds and minerals that could have formed only in the presence of water. This suggests that the Martian atmosphere was once much thicker than it is today, with seas that could have supported life billions of years ago. To learn more about how the atmosphere of Mars has changed over time, scientists in the new study analyzed data from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission. They focused on argon, a gas that almost never chemically reacts with other elements.


The Forces Driving Middle-Aged White People’s ‘Deaths Of Despair’ – (NPR – March 23, 2017)
In 2015, when researchers Ann Case and Angus Deaton discovered that death rates had been rising dramatically since 1999 among middle-aged white Americans, they weren’t sure why people were dying younger, reversing decades of longer life expectancy. In a follow-up to their groundbreaking 2015 work, they say that a lack of steady, well-paying jobs for whites without college degrees has caused pain, distress and social dysfunction to build up over time. The mortality rate for that group, ages 45 to 54, increased by a half-percent each year from 1999 to 2013. But whites with college degrees haven’t suffered the same lack of economic opportunity, and haven’t seen the same loss of life expectancy. We think of this as part of the decline of the white working class. If you go back to the early ’70s with its so-called blue-collar aristocrats, those jobs have slowly crumbled away and many more men are finding themselves in a much more hostile labor market with lower wages, lower quality and less permanent jobs. That’s made it harder for them to get married. They don’t get to know their own kids. There’s a sense that these people have lost this sense of status and belonging. And these are classic preconditions for suicide. The rates of suicide are much higher among men than women. And drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver death are higher among men, too. But the mortality trends are identical for men and women with a high school degree or less.


Graphene-based Sieve Turns Seawater into Drinking Water – (BBC News – April 3, 2017)
A UK-based team of researchers has created a graphene-based sieve capable of removing salt from seawater. The sought-after development could aid the millions of people without ready access to clean drinking water. Reporting their results in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, scientists from the University of Manchester, led by Dr Rahul Nair, show how they solved some of the challenges by using a chemical derivative called graphene oxide. Dr. Nair said, “Graphene oxide can be produced by simple oxidation in the lab. As an ink or solution, we can compose it on a substrate or porous material. Then we can use it as a membrane. In terms of scalability and the cost of the material, graphene oxide has a potential advantage over single-layered graphene.”

Ford Made a Crib That Acts Like a Car – (CNN – April 7, 2017)
Babies love car rides. They’re soothed by the vibration from the road and gentle the hum of the engine. For some tots, it’s the only thing that will make them go to sleep. But stopping everything to take them for a spin every time they’re fussy can be very inconvenient. Ford — yes, the car company — might have a solution. It has made a prototype of a new kind of crib that simulates all the best parts of a car ride without the exhaust. The Max Motor Dreams looks like a designer bassinet from the outside, except with a large FORD logo. A speaker under the baby plays engine sounds. The base of the crib slowly rocks from side to side, simulating the sensation of a moving car. The rim of the crib is lined with LED lights that turn on an off, like passing under streetlights. Experts say white noise and repetitive movements remind babies of being in of the womb. Unfortunately, the Max Motor Dreams crib is not actually available to the public. The crib was designed for Ford as part of an ad campaign to promote its Max line of cars. The car company is holding a raffle for the crib. However, due to popular demand, Ford says it is considering mass producing the crib. The Max design looks very similar to the Snoo, another crib released earlier this year. Created by renowned industrial designer Yves Behar, pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, and MIT engineers, the $1,600 Snoo also automates the rocking and white noise babies love.


Giants May Be Toppled As Amazon, Walmart War For Your Wallet – (Forbes – March 31, 2017)
The two largest retailers are engaged in a price war to capture a larger share of what Americans spend on everyday items. Both Amazon, with its aggressive algorithms, and Walmart, with low prices central to its DNA, are trying to be the cheapest, best place to sell to you online. For consumers, this may portend a new golden age of online commerce. But wars like this are rarely without casualties. And in this case, the big losers might be the suppliers of the very goods that the battle is being fought over: consumer packaged goods, a $600+ billion business. The implications for everyone from Procter & Gamble and Mondelez to Coke and Pepsi threaten to upend nearly everything about how branded goods are sold and could easily see the retail giants more powerful than ever — even if they lose billions along the way. As for everyone else trying to sell to those consumers, the trends say it’s going to continue to get worse. Amazon has been relentless at taking share from everyone. The Seattle giant accounts for as much as 43% of all online retail in the U.S. That figure includes third-party sellers who use Amazon’s site as their sales channel. (Editor’s note: All of retail commerce is about to change radically fairly quickly – think: Alexa.)


The Trauma of Facing Deportation – (New Yorker – April 3, 2017)
Uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome, is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugee children. The patients seem to have lost the will to live. “They are like Snow White,” a doctor said. “They just fall away from the world.” By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the condition. In the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Göran Bodegård, the director of Stockholm’s only psychiatric inpatient unit for children, at Karolinska University Hospital, described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” Sweden has been a haven for refugees since the seventies, accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation, but the country’s definition of political refugees has recently narrowed. Families fleeing countries that were not at war were often denied asylum.

Have Americans Given Up? – (Atlantic – March 5, 2017)
Americans have fallen in love with the idea of their entrepreneurial spirit. Innovation is the unofficial buzzword of corporate America, and news organizations heap praise on the zillionaire startup heroes of the Millennial generation. But this is a mirage, according to the economist and popular writer Tyler Cowen, whose new book is The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream. Americans move less than they used to. They start fewer companies. Caught in the hypnotic undertow of TV and video games, they are less likely to go outside. Even the federal government itself has transformed from an investment vehicle, which once spent a large share of its money on infrastructure and research, to an insurance conglomerate, which spends more than half its money on health care and Social Security. A nation of risk-takers has become a nation of risk-mitigation experts. So, what happened? Cowen’s thought-provoking book emphasizes several causes, including geographic immobility, housing prices, and monopolization. But America hasn’t completely lost the dream: rather, the only dreamers left are immigrants. (Editor’s note: We recommend this article for its analysis of changing social demographics, however we are not certain that the government spends more on health care and Social Security than on defense – it depends on how one does the math.)

Surviving Death – (author’s website – no date)
Not content with bringing her considerable journalistic skills to bear brilliantly on the fraught subject of UFOs, NYT best-selling author Leslie Kean has turned her talents toward the question of the survival of human consciousness following physical death. Kean’s new 400-page book, Surviving Death examines some of the best evidence in the fields of reincarnation research, near-death and out-of-body experiences, life between lives, afterlife communication, and other facets of this intriguing field of inquiry. (Editor’s note: An endorsement by Harold E. Puthoff, Ph.D., Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Austin, made us sit up and take notice: “With a keen eye and a no-nonsense approach, investigative journalist Leslie Kean explores what the actual data tells us about the question of survival past death. Examining the material with penetrating depth and insight, she takes us on an engaging, personal, and transformative journey that challenges the skeptic and informs us all.”)

Why FBI Can’t Tell All on Trump, Russia – (WhoWhatWhy – March 27, 2017)
(Editor’s note: We have no way to vet this article; it may or may not be accurate in whole or in part. But it is at least plausible and definitely, as the heading of this section claims, provocative. So here goes:) The Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot tell us what we need to know about Donald Trump’s contacts with Russia. Why? Because doing so would jeopardize a long-running, ultra-sensitive operation targeting mobsters tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and to Trump. But the Feds’ stonewalling risks something far more dangerous: Failing to resolve a crisis of trust in America’s president. This article provides the details of a two-month investigation in this 6,500-word exposé. The FBI apparently knew, directly or indirectly, based upon available facts, that prior to Election Day, Trump and his campaign had personal and business dealings with certain individuals and entities linked to criminal elements — including reputed Russian gangsters — connected to Putin. (Further note: In light of this article, FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor Trump adviser Carter Page in the Washington Post, and assuming that what is public information is only the tip of the iceberg, the article above may not be far off base.)

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

This Tiny Patch of Mold Cost One Lucky Buyer Nearly $15,000 – (NPR – March 1, 2017)
See photo in article of a capsule of the original mold from which Alexander Fleming made the drug known as penicillin, on view at Bonham’s auction house in London. The international auction house says it has sold a small patch of mold for $14,617. Encased in a glass disc, inscribed with the words “the mould that first made Penicillin,” and signed by Fleming himself, the little sample comes from the collection of Fleming’s niece, Mary Anne Johnston. Fleming himself, it seems, was distributing the original mold far and wide. Called “mold medallions,” little items like the one sold Wednesday were passed out to notable figures worldwide. Bonhams, the London auction house, says Pope Pius XII got one, as did Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, and the Queen Mother Elizabeth. However, the current auction’s buyer (whose name has not been released) at least got a better deal than the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which bought a similar sample for £23,000 in 1996, (about $51,000 when adjusted for exchange rate and inflation).


The Spectacular, Rip-Roaring Waves of Lake Erie’s ‘November Witch’ – (Wired – December 12, 2015)
A November witch is, as the name suggests, not something to trifle with. The colorful name refers to the particularly nasty storms that pummel the Great Lakes around that time of year. Most people wisely choose to stay inside, protected from the 30-mph winds whipped by storms so brutal they can make rivers flow backward. But Dave Sandford rushes headlong into the storm with his camera. Article includes photographs which are indeed spectacular.


Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A special thanks to: 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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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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