FUTURE FACTS - FROM THINK LINKS
DID YOU KNOW THAT--
- 5 technologies will define the urban experience in the next decade.
- Brain-shrinkage rates among the elderly are likely to be the result of dietary patterns, and not just an association.
- In 2016, U.S. special operations forces were deployed to 138 nations, 70% of the world’s countries.
- The world’s largest hedge fund plans to replace managers with artificial intelligence within 5 years.
by John L. Petersen
Big Change Continues
The 45th president of the United States was inaugurated last week. The ascendency of Donald Trump is only the highest profile and latest of a growing cascade of serious, structural changes that are combining to enable the implosion of the old, familiar world and the emergence of a new one.
As is always the case, great change threatens elements of the status quo, and they fight back. The efforts of the “powers that be” to derail the Trump election and then inauguration are rather amazing, if you’ve grown up in this country and presumed that “things like that don’t happen in the U.S.”.
One example, of course, is the effort to besmirch Trump with the story that somehow the Russians had swung the election away from Hillary. That the major US (and international) media would parrot that story without any attempt to analyze the credibility of the claim was, in itself, rather amazing.
Fortunately, former UK ambassador Craig Murray and quite a few other “alternative” analysts did question the underlying logic. It doesn’t hold together. Here’s Murray’s take on it.
By the way, there’s an interesting problem with this link. It will not forward to the website by clicking on it – even though I have tried multiple times to cut and paste it from my browser into this piece. All of the other links work . . . but this one won’t. Think about that. So you’ll have to cut and paste it into your browser in order to read the whole article, which is quite good.
Unconvincing Forgery, The Alleged Donald Trump “Manchurian Candidate”: The Steele Dossier or the Hitler Diaries Mark II
Analysis by former UK Ambassador Craig Murray
The mainstream media’s extreme enthusiasm for the Hitler Diaries shows their rush to embrace any forgery if it is big and astonishing enough.
For the Guardian to lead with such an obvious forgery as the Trump “commercial intelligence reports” is the final evidence of the demise of that newspaper’s journalistic values.
We are now told that the reports were written by Mr Christopher Steele, an ex-MI6 man, for Orbis Business Intelligence. Here are a short list of six impossible things we are asked to believe before breakfast:
We now know a bit more about how the intelligence services are (seemingly) escalating their access to everyday communications. Facebook now reports that government account data requests have increased 27% in the last year.
US Government Can Legally Access Your Facebook Data (And Now We Know How)
Data concerning government abuses of power has begun pouring in. According to Facebook’s Global Government Requests Report, government’s requests for Facebook account data rose 27 percent in the first half of 2016.
Facebook’s official announcement explained that requests for user data went from 46,710 in the last half of 2015 to 59,229 in the first half of 2016. At least 56% of these requests, Facebook added, “contained a non-disclosure order that prohibited us from notifying the user.”
Law enforcement agencies from across the globe, Facebook continued, often send restriction requests demanding Facebook remove content from its forums. Fortunately, these requests dropped substantially this year, from 55,827 in the last half of 2015 to 9,663 in 2016 — an 87% drop. Most of the 2015 requests revolved around “French content restrictions of a single image from the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks.”
Additionally, Facebook used its report to disclose for the first time what the company does when law enforcement agencies request “snapshots” of a user account that might be relevant to law enforcement for undisclosed reasons.
But the good news is that there are some interesting events that suggest that a different, positive new future might be emerging. The fact that there is a bipartisan bill in the Congress to jettison the Patriot Act is good news indeed.
Police State USA Finally Gains the Attention of Congress, Bipartisan Bill Will Kill PATRIOT Act
Washington, D.C. – Last week, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 1466, to completely repeal the PATRIOT act. The bill would reform the National Security Agency (NSA), and dramatically revamp America’s overall espionage apparatus and posture. Read more.
Also, when China cans 104 coal burning power plants, then you know that a significant attitudinal shift – in environmental terms, at least – has taken place over there.
China Air Pollution Update: Government Halts Construction Of 104 Coal Plants For Green Alternatives
The Chinese government ordered the suspension of 104 new coal power plants from being built, signifying the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gasses commitment to curbing air pollution in the country, the Reuters reported Tuesday.
The country’s National Energy Administration said it would invest $365 billion into renewable energy alternatives. Read more.
Finally, friend Kingsley Dennis has done his usual, insightful analysis of the new world that emerging. His piece, describing A New Map, is quite encouraging.
We have entered times of incredible change, readjustment, and upheaval. There are many contrary forces pushing through our diverse societies and straining to breaking point the incumbent structures and institutions that, in many cases, are no longer functional for progress. Politics – politikos, ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’ – is in a sense the science of community. It is also an expression of the science of the soul; it reflects the state of human consciousness, and the political sphere provides a vessel for the growth and transformation of the human being. Our social communities are the incubators for the enhancement and expansion of human consciousness. Read more.
The 5 Technologies That Are Going to Define the Next Decade in Cities – (Tech Crunch – September 23, 2016)
The next wave of real-time technologies that will define the next decade are software (rather than hardware) upgrades to the city that will nonetheless transform the way we work, play and live in our physical environments — our “brick and mortar” cities. And these technologies, each transformative in their own right, when used in combination to develop new products and experiences, will have a multiplying effect on the rate of change we see in urban environments. (And clearly, in the future, all technologies will have two-letter acronyms.) The five technologies are: 5G, CV, MR, AV, and AI. If you’re not familiar with all of these acronyms, check out the article.
Alexa: Who Dunnit? – (USA Today – December 27, 2016)
In what may be a first, police in Arkansas asked Amazon for recordings potentially made by an Echo device in connection with a murder investigation. Police in Bentonville, Ark., asked Amazon for audio and other records from an Echo digital assistant in the home of James Andrew Bates after Victor Collins was found dead in Bates' hot tub last year. Bates was charged with killing Collins on Nov. 22, 2015, according to court documents. The cause of death was strangulation with drowning as a secondary cause, according to police. Amazon declined to provide the data. Bentonville police sought information from the house's smart water meter because Bates is also accused of tampering with physical evidence by using a garden hose to wash blood off his hot tub and patio. The log from the smart water meter showing time of day and water consumption indicate that 140 gallons of water were used in the home between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. that day, a much heavier amount than normal, court documents said. But in a digital twist that raises questions about privacy inside the home as we increasingly surround ourselves with devices that track our movements, listen to our utterances and record our activities, the Bentonville Police Department requested "electronic data in the form of audio recordings, transcribed records, or other text records related to communications and transactions between An Amazon Echo device" located at Bates' residence and Amazon.com's services between Nov. 21 and 22, court documents show. See also: Amazon’s Alexa Started Ordering People Dollhouses after Hearing Its Name on TV.
2016's Best Bits: Breakthroughs in Science – (Guardian – December 24, 2016)
It came from beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud. The signal, a mere 20 milliseconds long, captured the moment when two black holes slammed together – a cataclysm that sent ripples through spacetime and onwards to Earth, where they made instruments chirp and scientists cheer. “We have detected gravitational waves,” said David Reitze of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo). “We did it.” The announcement ranked as the physics discovery of the year, confirming Einstein’s century-old theory of gravity and putting the Ligo team on course for a Nobel. But the real excitement is yet to come. For the first quarter of a million years, the cosmos was hidden from astronomers. Now scientists can build gravitational wave observatories and, with them, look back to the birth of the universe. We can study the moment of creation. Check out the article for other breakthroughs.
This Brain Region Keeps Growing in Adulthood – (Live Science – January 6, 2017)
The part of the brain that specializes in recognizing faces becomes denser with tissue over time, new research finds. The discovery is surprising to researchers, because brain development from childhood into adulthood was long thought to happen mostly through the pruning of synapses, the connections between neurons. In other words, the brain was thought to develop by becoming more streamlined, not by growing new tissue. The study also showed that these changes in brain structure correlated with the ability to recognize faces. In general, adults are better at recognizing faces than children are, said study leader Jesse Gomez, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Stanford University. The tissue that is growing is 'neural fill’ Gomez explained. Neural fill refers to the tissues surrounding the cell bodies, like axons, synapses and dendrites, the branched structures at the ends of axons that end in synapses. "If you can imagine a little garden, the garden itself isn't getting wider or growing in square footage, but the plants that are there are sprouting a few more branches or the leaves are getting fuller," Gomez said.
Bat Caves Are Noisy for a Reason — the Critters Like to Argue – (USA Today – December 27, 2016)
Like humans, bats are social animals. They live 20 to 30 years, settle in large colonies, and use vocalizations — or calls — for communication, possibly similar to other mammals such as dolphins or monkeys. Scientists have discovered the nocturnal creatures have a "language" they use to talk to each other, according to a new study. In a months-long analysis of almost 15,000 sounds made by 22 Egyptian fruit bats, researchers say the noises contain a surprising level of information, including the identity of the talker, the listener, as well as the context of the chatter. "We now know that the cacophony we hear when entering a bat cave is far from just noise," said study lead author Yossi Yovel, a Tel Aviv University neuroecologist. "We have found that bats fight over sleeping positions, over mating, over food or just for the sake of fighting." Yovel found the bats made different, specific sounds for each of those squabbles. "To our surprise, we were able to differentiate between all of these contexts in complete darkness," he said. The researchers were even able to identify different sounds indicating the greetings of a "friend" or a "foe." Although this was not the first study to look at bat vocal communication, it was "the first to use such a huge data set and to show that bat 'shouting' actually contains a lot of information," Yovel said.
Menopause Mystery: Why Do Female Killer Whales Experience the Change of Life? – (NPR – January 12, 2017)
Killer whales are one of only three species known to have menopause — the others are pilot whales and humans. Researchers have long wondered why it was that these few species evolved to have females that spend so much of their lives unable to have babies. Killer whales start reproducing around age 15, but stop having calves in their 30s or 40s, even though they can live for around a century. In these whales, the explanation may lie in a combination of conflict and cooperation between older and younger females, according to a report published in the journal Current Biology. A team led by behavioral ecologist Darren Croft of the University of Exeter decided to search for answers with the help of an unusual long-term study of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. There, since the 1970s, researchers have carefully collected information on the births and deaths of individual whales that live in family groups. Contained within the data is an intriguing clue about why female whales may stop reproducing later in life. When older females reproduce at the same time as their daughters, who live alongside them, the calves of the older mothers are nearly twice as likely to die in the first 15 years of life. But when older mothers had calves in the absence of a reproducing daughter, their calves did just fine. "It's not that older mothers are bad mothers, that they're not able to raise their calves as younger mothers," says Croft. "It's that when they enter into this competition with their daughters, they lose out and their calves are more likely to die." The competition may center on access to food, says Croft, because there's good reason to believe older females feel more pressure to share their precious fish with the others around them.
Mouse Study Hints at Why Obese People Struggle to Exercise – (Tucson – December 29, 2016)
Overweight mice may provide a hint as to why it's so hard to start -- and stick to -- your New Year's resolution to exercise more. Researchers found signs that the brains of obese mice may encourage inactivity. Alexxai Kravitz, an investigator in the diabetes, endocrinology, and obesity branch of the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, said, "There's a common belief that obese animals don't move as much because carrying extra body weight is physically disabling. But our findings suggest that assumption doesn't explain the whole story." Kravitz has theorized that the brain chemical dopamine is key to inactivity in mice. "Other studies have connected dopamine signaling defects to obesity, but most of them have looked at reward processing -- how animals feel when they eat different foods," Kravitz said. "We looked at something simpler: Dopamine is critical for movement, and obesity is associated with a lack of movement," he said. His team wondered if problems with dopamine signaling alone could explain the inactivity. For the study, researchers fed normal and high-fat diets to mice. The mice on the high-fat plan put on weight and slowed down. But they slowed down before adding pounds, raising questions about why things happened in that order. The study results appeared in the journal Cell Metabolism.
Less Shrinkage: This Is Your Aging Brain on the Mediterranean Diet – (LA Times – January 4, 2017)
The aging brain is a shrinking brain, and a shrinking brain is, generally speaking, a brain whose performance and reaction time are declining: That is a harsh reality of growing older. But new research shows that brain shrinkage is less pronounced in older folks whose diets hew closely to the traditional diet of Mediterranean peoples -- including lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil, little red meat and poultry, and regular, moderate consumption of fish and red wine. In a group of 562 Scots in their 70s, those whose consumption patterns more closely followed the Mediterranean diet experienced, on average, half the brain shrinkage that was normal for the group as a whole over a three-year period. To glean how diet might influence brain aging, researchers tapped into a large group of Scottish people who were all born in 1936 and had many measures of health status and lifestyle tracked from an early age. In recent years, studies have sought to tease out not only how great the benefits are, but how they work: whether healthier brain-aging is a function of better vascular health or preserved brain volume, and whether the diet’s advantages lie in its dearth of red meat, the positive effects of the fatty acids in fish or olive oil, or the combined benefits of its plant-based foods. Contrary to some research findings on the Mediterranean diet, the findings suggest that reduced brain shrinkage is not specifically linked to low intake of meat and high intake of fish. Maybe, the authors suggest (and many researchers believe this), the magic in the Mediterranean diet is all those plant-based foods, acting collectively to improve subjects’ cognitive health. Finally, the researchers wrote, the study’s design helps establish that the brain-shrinkage rates seen are likely to be the result of dietary patterns, and not just an association.
The End of Scars: Scientists Discovered How to Regenerate Human Skin – (Futurism – January 11, 2017)
A team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania believe they have found a way to do the previously impossible – allow skin to regenerate using fat cells. Adipocytes, the type of skin that regenerates after we get superficial cuts, is filled with fat cells that allow it to blend easily to the rest of your skin as it heals. Scar tissue (made up cells called myofibroblasts), which occurs as our skin heals from deep cuts, looks very different because it contains no fat cells or hair follicles. George Cotsarelis, chair of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains,”the secret is to regenerate hair follicles first. After that, the fat will regenerate in response to the signals from those follicles.” The scientists just had to figure out where the signals were coming from. They eventually identified a factor called Bone Morphogenetic Protein which instructs the myofibroblasts to become fat. “Typically, myofibroblasts were thought to be incapable of becoming a different type of cell,” Cotsarelis said. “But our work shows we have the ability to influence these cells, and that they can be efficiently and stably converted into adipocytes.” Currently the process has only been proven to work in mice and human skin samples. Achieving hair follicle growth in a wound attached to a living human might prove to be more difficult. The aging process leads to natural loss of these cells as well, which causes permanent wrinkling of the skin. These findings could pave the way for a safer, and possibly permanent, way to address these cosmetic concerns. (Editor’s note: If researchers can find a way to regenerate hair follicles, might they be able to reverse balding?)
CRISPR 'Kill' Switch Could Make Human Gene Editing Safer – (Live Science – December 29, 2016)
A weapon that viruses use in their never ending war with bacteria could be used to turn off the world’s most powerful gene-editing tool. That, in turn, could reduce the risk that the bacterial cut-and-paste system, called CRISPR-Cas9, snips the wrong genes and introduces runaway genetic changes into humans or other species in the wild. In a new study, scientists discovered that a tiny protein shuts off the system, and at least in a petri dish, the protein works in human cells, the researchers said. "It's just basically a single protein that we can make in the cell or deliver to the cell that will turn off Cas9, [and] stop it from binding and cutting DNA," said study author Joseph Bondy-Denomy, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. The CRISPR-Cas9gene-editing system has a problem: It still sometimes cuts the wrong DNA sequences. Cas9 also sticks around too long; it takes about 24 hours for half of the Cas9 to be degraded by a cell, giving it plenty of time to make off-target cuts to DNA, Bondy-Denomy said. Therefore, if Cas9 has an "off" switch, it would make the possibility of human genetic engineering safer, Bondy-Denomy said. He and his colleagues reasoned that viruses must have some way of switching off CRISPR/Cas9. The team found four anti-CRISPR proteins, two of which worked against the commonly used SpyCas9, the researchers reported. In a petri dish, these two anti-CRISPR proteins also worked in human cells to deactivate the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The team still has to prove that using the anti-Cas9 proteins reduces the off-target cutting potential of Cas9, and they don't know how long the protein lingers in cells. However, if they can show the protein works in vivo, the new discovery would have the potential to make gene editing safer by eliminating Cas9 quickly.
Online Calculator Cuts Farms’ Greenhouse Emissions – (Nation of Change – December 27, 2016)
It’s called the Cool Farm Tool (CFT) – an easy-to-use online calculator which helps farmers monitor their emissions of greenhouse gases. Agriculture accounts for about 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, though when fertilizer manufacture and use and the overall food processing sector are included in calculations, that figure is considerably higher. The CFT was initially developed by researchers at the University of Aberdeen in the UK in partnership with Unilever and the Sustainable Food Lab and is free for farmers to download. In 2010 PepsiCo sought to halve the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and water use arising from production at its Walkers Crisps factory at Leicester in the UK – the largest such plant in the world, producing five million packets of crisps (known as potato chips in the U.S.) every day. A central part of the PepsiCo project involved encouraging its potato suppliers to farm more sustainably through the use of the CFT and by using other devices to monitor and cut back on water use. New potato varieties with improved yields were also introduced. Within six years, the goal of halving carbon emissions and achieving a 50% reduction in water use was reached. Spearhead Potatoes, based near Cambridge in the east of England, is one of the UK’s biggest potato companies, and a major supplier to Walkers. John Addams-Williams, a director at Spearhead, says using the CFT and cutting back on water use has not only resulted in more sustainable farming practices but has also saved on costs.
Proof That Moore’s Law Has Been Replaced by a Virtual Moore’s Law That Is Accelerating and Bringing the Singularity With It – (Lifeboat News – December 11, 2016)
Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors per square inch will double approximately every 18 months. This article shows how a number of technologies are providing us with a new Virtual Moore’s Law that proves computer performance will at least double every 18 months for the foreseeable future thanks to many new technological developments. For example: Nvidia’s CEO Jen-Hsun Huang noted, “AI is going to increase in capability faster than Moore’s Law. I believe it’s a kind of a hyper Moore’s Law phenomenon because it has the benefit of continuous learning. It has the benefit of large-scale networked continuous learning. Today, we roll out a new software package, fix bugs, update it once a year. That rhythm is going to change. Software will learn from experience much more quickly. Once one smart piece of software on one device learns something, then you can over-the-air (OTA) it across the board. All of a sudden, everything gets smarter.”
Best Buy Geek Squad Informant Use Has FBI on Defense in Child-Porn Case – (OC Weekly – January 4, 2017)
FBI agents and prosecutors usually strut inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, knowing they've focused the wrath of the criminal-justice system on a particular criminal. But an unusual child-pornography-possession case has placed officials on the defensive for nearly 26 months. Questions linger about law-enforcement honesty, unconstitutional searches, underhanded use of informants and twisted logic. Mark A. Rettenmaier is a prominent Orange County physician and surgeon who had no idea that a Nov. 1, 2011, trip to a Mission Viejo Best Buy would jeopardize his freedom and eventually raise concerns about, at a minimum, FBI competency or, at worst, corruption. Unable to boot his HP Pavilion desktop computer, he sought the assistance of the store's Geek Squad. At the time, nobody knew the company's repair technicians routinely searched customers' devices for files that could earn them $500 windfalls as FBI informants. This case produced that national revelation. According to court records, Geek Squad technician John "Trey" Westphal, an FBI informant, reported he accidentally located on Rettenmaier's computer an image of "a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck." Westphal notified his boss, Justin Meade, also an FBI informant, who alerted colleague Randall Ratliff, another FBI informant at Best Buy, as well as the FBI. Claiming the image met the definition of child pornography and was tied to a series of illicit pictures known as the "Jenny" shots, agent Tracey Riley seized the hard drive. (Editor’s note: We recommend this article for the legal issues it brings to light.)
Germany Considers Fining Facebook $522,000 Per Fake News Item – (Heatstreet – December 27, 2016)
The government of Germany is considering imposing a legal regime that would allow fining social networks such as Facebook up to 500,000 euros ($522,000) for each day the platform leaves a “fake news” story up without deleting it. In the name of combating harms from false news, the German government next year will consider the bill, which has bipartisan support, that will allow both official and private complainants to flag content that is considered “fake news”. The law would also force the social networks to create in-country offices focused on responding to takedown demands and would make these networks responsible for compensation if a post by individual users were found to slander someone. “If after the relevant checks Facebook does not immediately, within 24 hours, delete the offending post then [it] must reckon with severe penalties of up to 500,000 euros,” said Germany’s parliamentary chief of the Social Democrat party, Thomas Oppermanne. German lawmakers believe this bill will help tackle the possibility of Russia meddling in Parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. See also : A Single Fake News Story on Facebook Turned a Legitimate Safety Alert in Bangkok into a Bomb Scare.
Family Thrives in the Arctic Circle by Building Cob House inside a Solar Geodesic Dome – (Minds – January 7, 2017)
Few people can handle the frigid temperatures of winter, let alone contemplate what it must be like to live in the Arctic Circle. However, one Norwegian family has managed to not only survive, but thrive, up North, and has done so in sustainable fashion. Inhabitat reports that the Hjertefølger family has been living on Sandhornøya island in Norway since 2013, and has done so by living in a three-story cob home called the Nature House. Constructed from sand, water, clay, and other organic materials, the structure took just three weeks to build and is surrounded by a functional and solar geodesic dome. The SOLARDOME encasement is 25-foot high and completely encapsulates the five-bedroom, two bathroom abode. This building protects the six-person family from strong winds and heavy snow loads. Additionally, it helps to drastically reduce the heating bill. Because the geodesic dome extends past the cob home, there is room for a garden area which supplies the family with apples, cherries, plums, apricots, kiwis, grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, squash and melons – basically, much of their food supply. The family is able to subsist sustainably despite living without sunlight for three months every year. It’s been three years since the Hjertefølger family moved to the Arctic Circle, and they have no intention of leaving the sanctuary that’s been built. “The feeling we get as we walk into this house is something different from walking in to any other house,” Hjertefølger shares. “The atmosphere is unique. The house has a calmness; I can almost hear the stillness. It is hard to explain. But it would have been impossible getting this feeling from a house someone else has planned and built for us, or a house with corners and straight lines.” Don’t miss the photos in the article: the house and the location are quite beautiful.
World’s First Solar Road Opens in France: It’s Ridiculously Expensive – (Ars Technica – December 23, 2016)
The world's first solar highway has been opened in France, in the not-very-sunny village of Tourouvre au Perche in Normandy. The roadway is just one kilometer (0.6mi) long, but that still works out at 2,800 square meters of photovoltaic cells—enough, hopefully, to power the village's street lights. The road was built by Colas, a large Anglo-French construction company. Colas has apparently been working on its own solar road tech, called Wattway, for at least five years. Wattway has been tested in car parks, but this is the first time it has been used on an active road. There will now be a two-year test period, to see if Wattway can withstand the rigor of being pounded by thousands of cars and trucks per day, and whether it can actually provide a useful amount of electricity. One of the main selling points of Wattway is that each panel is just a few millimeters thick, and can thus be installed on top of an existing road, which in turn massively reduces construction costs. Having said that, the 1km road in Normandy cost €5 million to build. And that's for a single lane of a two-lane highway! This is essentially a proof of concept project. The actual efficiency is unknown. Colas says that Wattway's photovoltaic efficiency is 15%, which is pretty good (commercial panels that you might put on your roof are at about 20%). But that doesn't take into account the fact that the solar panels are flat on the ground, rather than angled towards the sun's trajectory, significantly reducing efficiency at higher latitudes. Heavy traffic could also block sunlight; as could snow, mud, and perhaps standing water after rain.
Dutch Trains Are World’s First to Run on 100% Wind Power – (Nation of Change – January 12, 2017)
The Netherlands is now operating 100% percent of its electric trains with wind energy. As of Jan. 1, 600,000 daily train passengers have been traveling completely carbon neutral, according to an announcement from the Netherlands’ principal passenger railway operator, NS. Dutch electric trains are running on 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of wind energy supplied by sustainable energy supplier, Eneco. A decreasing and relatively small number of Dutch trains are still running on diesel. According to Eneco, the power used by the carriers comes from newly built wind farms in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Belgium. By tapping into both domestic and foreign sources of wind power, it “[ensures] that there is always sufficient green power available on the grid for rail companies, even if the wind is not blowing,” the company explained. As Eneco’s account manager Michel Kerkhof pointed out, the “key objective is to avoid procuring energy from the limited existing number of sustainable energy projects in the Netherlands, thus promoting renewable growth both domestically and Europe-wide.”
Volkswagen’s Electric, AI-Equipped Microbus Will Drive You into the Future – (Futurism – January 10, 2017)
Powered by two electric motors, Volkswagen's sleek, futuristic upgrade to one of the company’s most iconic models, the Microbus can travel up to 270 miles on a single charge and accelerate from zero to 60 mph in five seconds. The I.D. Buzz is the namesake of Volkswagen’s artificial intelligence (AI) system, I.D. The AI is said to have the ability to discern between drivers to automatically customize things like seat position and other environmental factors — it can even choose the appropriate music to play. The windshield features a heads-up display, and the center console is a detachable tablet that can be used outside of the vehicle. The vehicle is also fully autonomous, relying on lidar, radar, ultrasonic sensors, and cameras to work with GPS to guide the vehicle. The car is also able to keep track of live traffic updates and to record and provide data to make driving safer for other autonomous vehicles.
USDA to Reimburse Farmers in Order to Expand Organic Farming – (Nation of Change – December 27, 2016)
Costs associated with either transitioning to or maintaining organic certification are the biggest barriers farmers face when trying to operate an organic farm. Many times farms do produce organic produce but are unable to officially label their products as such because they cannot afford to be officially certified by the USDA. Starting in March of 2017, farmers will be able to apply for financial assistance from the USDA for organic certification. Both farmers transitioning to organic farms and maintaining organic certification will qualify to apply. There will be 2,100 USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) locations that farmers can apply at for reimbursement. According to FSA Administrator Val Dolcini, the current USDA program reimburses organic producers up to 75% of the cost of certification, but the process is complicated and only “about half of the nation’s organic operations currently participate.” Dolcini states: “Starting March 20, USDA will provide a uniform, streamlined process for organic producers and handlers to apply for organic cost share assistance either by mail or in person at USDA offices located in almost every rural county in the country.” Farmers are eligible for the program if they have paid fees to the USDA for organic or transitional certifications, including fees related to applications, inspections, required arrangements, travels and per diems for inspectors, user fees, sales assessments and postage fees.
SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE
Could Amazon Stop a Ron Swanson with a Gun? A New Patent for Drone Protection Shows the Retailer is Trying – (Salon – December 30, 2016)
We’ve all thought about it after learning about Amazon.com’s ambitious effort to fill the skies with its unmanned delivery drones. What happens if someone tries to take one of these flying merchandise-hauling contraptions down? The idea was famously touched upon in an episode of NBC political comedy “Parks & Recreation,” when stanchly libertarian Luddite Ron Swanson (played by Nick Offerman) shoots a delivery drone with a hunting rifle. But anyone plotting against Amazon.com’s Prime Air Delivery drones, which began a pilot run in the U.K. this month, will encounter robots that have been designed to detect and evade attacks and to collect as much data about the incidents — and even quickly alert local authorities if someone is firing a weapon. “The UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] may be exposed to various threats that may compromise the UAV,” says a 33-page patent filing recently published on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website, citing numerous potential threats. For example: “An adversarial person may use a weapon to inflict damage to the UAV.” The patent outline the type of threats Amazon anticipates and how it plans to counter them. The protection system includes numerous sensors and internet-of-things-type technology aimed primarily at keeping the drone on its pre-determined flight path regardless of attacks from, say, wireless signal jammers trying to confuse and cajole the drone from its flight path. The backbone of the system is called a “mesh network” that allows the drone to communicate with other drones, or use satellites signals, radio towers or even the sun to orient itself in the event it gets confused by a hacker’s attempt to jam its primary navigation system.
U.S. Sold $40B in Weapons in 2015 – (MSN – December 26, 2016)
The United States again ranked first in global weapons sales in 2015 (most recent data available), signing deals for about $40B, although the total size of the worldwide arms bazaar dropped to around $80B in 2015 from $89B a year earlier. The study, "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008-2015," was prepared by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress.
TRENDS OF GOVERNANCE
The Year of the Commando – (Nation of Change – January 6, 2017)
For America, 2016 may have been the year of the commando. In one conflict zone after another across the northern tier of Africa and the Greater Middle East, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) waged their particular brand of low-profile warfare. “Winning the current fight, including against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other areas where SOF is engaged in conflict and instability, is an immediate challenge,” the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), General Raymond Thomas, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year. SOCOM’s shadow wars against terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) may, ironically, be its most visible operations. Shrouded in even more secrecy are its activities – from counterinsurgency and counterdrug efforts to seemingly endless training and advising missions – outside acknowledged conflict zones across the globe. These are conducted with little fanfare, press coverage, or oversight in scores of nations every single day. From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces – Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them – were deployed to 138 countries in 2016, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. This total, one of the highest of Barack Obama’s presidency, typifies what has become the golden age of, in SOF-speak, the “gray zone” – a phrase used to describe the murky twilight between war and peace. The coming year is likely to signal whether this era ends with Obama or continues under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. (Editor’s note: We highly recommend this article for its extensive and well supported specifics.)
Media Ignores US Rigging of Russia’s Elections As CIA Struggles to Prove Russian Hacking – (FreeThoughtProject - December 14, 2016)
Twenty years ago, TIME Magazine exclusively reported on the feats of American political consultants who’d managed — much to the joy of the United States government — to ensure Boris Yeltsin won re-election to the Russian presidency. The original article, Rescuing Boris used the following as its opening précis of the article: “The Secret Story of How Four U.S. Advisors Used Polls, Focus Groups, Negative Ads and All the Other Techniques of American Campaigning to Help Boris Yeltsin Win.” While the U.S. decries “fake news” and dismisses the successes of alternative media’s reporting on corruption in the Democrat Party by collectively deeming it “Russian propaganda,” it would seem the entire country has forgotten American exploits in Russia in 1996. In fact, these American advisors literally meddled in the Russian election that year — and as TIME, itself, points out, changed the course of the country’s politics forever. “The outcome was by no means inevitable,” TIME’s Michael Kramer penned on July 15, 1996. “Last winter Yeltsin’s approval ratings were in the single digits. There are many reasons for his change in fortune, but a crucial one has remained a secret. For four months, a group of American political consultants clandestinely participated in guiding Yeltsin’s campaign. Here is the inside story of how these advisers helped Yeltsin achieve the victory that will keep reform in Russia alive.”
Silent Partners – (Nation of Change – January 1, 2017)
Left angry by these diplomatic compromises, popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, were Israel and Saudi Arabia, major regional powers with their own reasons for opposing the deal and Iran generally. Although they still don’t have official diplomatic ties, the two countries have secretly grown closer in recent years, primarily in opposition to the Persian nation. Behind the scenes cooperation between the two first came semi-officially into public view in the summer of 2015 when representatives of both countries appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and admitted as much. As reported by Bloomberg, the two speakers at the forum claimed their governments had met in secret at least five times in previous months to discuss ways to check Iran’s growing power and influence. While Iran’s theocratic Republic leaves much to be desired in terms of individual rights and the government’s public rhetoric is often harsh, it’s unfair to call the country “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” as so many Western politicians and journalists do, leading the general public to assume that this is true. Surely this dubious distinction should go to the Saudis, who, in promoting their own austere brand of Islam, Wahhabism, by funding religious schools and mosques throughout the world, have, at the very least, contributed to the radicalization of many Sunnis. More importantly, many private individuals in the Kingdom are known to give support to terrorist groups, some of whom, like ISIS, target Shia civilians as apostates. While less obvious than the financial support and arms given to many of the groups fighting the government in Syria by Saudi Arabia and its allies, Israel has also worked to help overthrow Assad through airstrikes on government targets and, more covertly, by providing medical assistance to the insurgents, including many who would be called terrorists in any other context. It has been obvious from the beginning of the bloody quagmire in Syria that the Obama Administration was having its arm twisted from within by pro-intervention officials like UN Ambassador Samantha Power and by allies outside, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. As a former official in the administration recently said under condition of anonymity, the Obama administration was hamstrung diplomatically “because of the direct U.S. military interests at stake in its alliances with those three states: the Saudis effectively controlled U.S. access to the naval base in Bahrain, Turkey controlled the airbase at Incirlik and Qatar controlled land and air bases that had become central to U.S. military operations in the region.” (Editor’s note: we recommend this article for its ability “to connect the dots”.)
LIFE STYLE/SOCIAL TRENDS AND VALUES
Finland Is Giving 2,000 Citizens a Guaranteed Income – (CNN – January 2, 2017)
Finland has started a radical experiment: It's giving 2,000 citizens a guaranteed income, with funds that keep flowing whether participants work or not. The program, which kicks off this month, is one of the first efforts to test a "universal basic income." Participants will receive €560 ($587) a month -- money that is guaranteed regardless of income, wealth or employment status. The idea is that a universal income offers workers greater security, especially as technological advances reduce the need for human labor. It will also allow unemployed people to pick up odd jobs without losing their benefits. The initial program will run for a period of two years. Participants were randomly selected, but had to be receiving unemployment benefits or an income subsidy. The money they are paid through the program will not be taxed. The Finnish government thinks the initiative could save money in the long run. The country's welfare system is complex and expensive to run, and simplifying it could reduce costly bureaucracy. The change could also encourage more jobless people to look for work, because they won't have to worry about losing unemployment benefits. Some unemployed workers currently avoid part time jobs because even a small income boost could result in their unemployment benefits being canceled.
CONTACT AND THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE
You Won’t Believe What NASA Hid from Us This Year – (Ars Technica – December 29, 2016)
As the federal agency at the forefront of exploring outer space, NASA winds up being the front door for all manner of alien conspiracies. And so every year, to find out what the miscreants at the space agency have been keeping from the good, honest people of America, we like to Google the phrase "NASA hiding." 2016 did not disappoint. For example: Ever popular is the notion that the space agency manipulates the cameras aboard the International Space Station to prevent ufologists from identifying their quarry. This notion popped up again during 2016 when NASA cut a live video feed from the station in July. YouTube user Streetcap1 captured the nefarious NASA activity in a video posted July 9. He noted that, just as a UFO appeared to enter the Earth's atmosphere on the station feed, "the camera cut off when the UFO seemed to stop." Suspicious! We're embarrassed to report that this video has been viewed approximately 4 million times, with likes outnumbering dislikes three-to-one. In reality, the station periodically passes out of range of the tracking and data relay Satellites that provide high bandwidth capacity for video, voice, and telemetry from the station to the ground. When this happens the cameras automatically switch to a pre-recorded video or other programming. Here’s another example: When it wasn't busy obfuscating alien sightings aboard the International Space Station, NASA also worked in 2016 to cover up the strange world inside the North Pole. "NASA and the world's governments are trying to... completely hide the fact that there is something at our North and South Poles," a video by secureteam10 states. "And what they are hiding appears to be a massive entrance, or hole, to the inner Earth." For a response to that one, see the article.
New Study Shows Fewer Americans Are Practicing Organized Religion – (Fox News – November 24, 2016)
Americans have less faith in organized religion than they did nearly a decade ago, a new study shows. A staggering 21% of those surveyed said they don’t practice a “formal religion” — up from the 15% who said that in 2008, according to Gallup. “Religion is losing influence in society,” according to Gallup, which did not offer a reason for the decline. “This may be a short-term phenomenon or an indication of a more lasting pattern.” Overall, 74% of Americans identified as Christian and 2.1% said they were Jewish; 1.8% said they were Mormon and .8% identified as Muslim, according to the pollsters. Everyone else either claimed to be “none/ atheist / agnostic” or gave no response at all, researchers said. The number of true believers has dropped dramatically since the 1940s and 1950s, when less than 3% said they practiced no formal religion.
NEW TOOLS/NEW PROCESSES
Amazon Files Patent for Flying Warehouse – (BBC News – December 29, 2016)
Amazon has filed a patent for massive flying warehouses equipped with fleets of drones that deliver goods to key locations. Carried by an airship, the warehouses would visit places Amazon expects demand for certain goods to boom. It says one use could be near sporting events or festivals where they would sell food or souvenirs to spectators. The patent also envisages a series of support vehicles that would be used to restock the flying structures. The filing significantly expands on Amazon's plans to use drones to make deliveries. Earlier this month it made the first commercial delivery using a drone via a test scheme running in Cambridge. In the documents detailing the scheme, Amazon said the combination of drones and flying warehouses, or airborne fulfillment centers “ACFs", would deliver goods much more quickly than those stationed at its ground-based warehouses. The drones descending from the AFCs - which would cruise and hover at altitudes up to 45,000ft (14,000m) - would use almost no power as they glided down to make deliveries. The patent lays out a comprehensive scheme for running a fleet of AFCs and drones. It suggests smaller airships could act as shuttles taking drones, supplies and even workers to and from the larger AFCs. See drawing in the article for a sense of how the parts work together.
When a Beer Cooler Rolls up to Your Doorstep, the Future Has Arrived – (Washington Post – December 30, 2016)
Continuing the theme of automated delivery, the robotic-delivery invasion already has begun — in the form of machines that look like wheeled beer coolers scooting along the sidewalks. The robots — developed by a company with a name straight out of science fiction, Starship Technologies — will be showing up any day in Washington and in Redwood City, Calif. They may soon be found in up to 10 U.S. cities, ferrying groceries and other packages from a neighborhood delivery hub to your front door for as little as $1 a trip. A second company, TeleRetail, plans to test its sidewalk robots in Washington and other cities in 2017. Like driverless cars, the delivery robots use cameras, GPS devices and radar to navigate the urban environment. The robots are the first of what the companies foresee as a wave of inexpensive, high-tech alternatives to shopping and delivery trips whose cars and trucks contribute to gridlock and pollution. Urban futurists see the vehicles as part of a digitally based “smart city” landscape — although they come with privacy concerns. Starship Technology’s robots work this way: Customers use a mobile app to order an item. A text appears — “You have a robot waiting for you outside” — when the robot draws near. A person must be present to receive the delivery because only the customer has a unique code to unlock the robot’s box.
Holiday Shopping Season Is Losing Some of Its Power – (US News – December 24, 2016)
The holiday season is over, but this trend is on-going: November and December now account for less than 21% of annual retail sales at physical stores, down from a peak of over 25%, and experts believe it will keep dropping. Those extra percentage points would have translated into an extra $70 billion more in buying for last year, says Michael Niemira, principal at The Retail Economist. The season had steadily gained in importance and peaked in the early '80s, before the dominance of big discounters like Wal-Mart stalled its growth as shoppers began moving away from department stores. Still, the two-month period held its own through the mid-'90s, when online shopping for deals took hold. "There was a mindset even before online shopping," said Niemira, whose data goes back to 1967. "But this just accelerated it." In general, many people are shopping for the holidays all year long now, mirroring the trend for back-to-school items. Heavy discounting has diluted sales, and with big promotions throughout the year, shoppers no longer hold off making their biggest purchases until the holidays. Another factor is gift cards. Shoppers are giving more gift cards as presents, which skews holiday sales figures since they aren't booked as sales until they're redeemed. And most cards no longer have an expiration date. This holiday season, gift cards were ranked second as a top gift, behind only clothing, according to NPD. Gift cards sales accounted for about 25.4% of holiday expenditures last year, up from 13.5% in 2003, according to Goldman Sachs and The Retail Economist.
IBM Partners With Wall Street to Bring Blockchain to CDS Market – (Bloomberg – January 9, 2017)
Wall Street’s largest back-office processing service is partnering with IBM to upgrade how payments and record-keeping for credit-default swaps are handled by putting the system on a blockchain by early next year. Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. (DTCC), the New York-based utility that settles and clears all stock and bond trades in the U.S., is seeking to reduce redundancies and cut costs in the system that manages $11.7 trillion in outstanding credit default swaps (CDS). International Business Machines Corp., as well as blockchain startups R3 and Axoni, will help DTCC create the single network of credit-swaps users. Just over a decade ago in the credit-swap market, for example, backlogs of up to 17 days’ worth of trading built up before the market became electronic. Trade processing is now done electronically, but banks and money managers maintain their own record of trade details in private databases. That means details must be reconciled among the different users, which takes time and can be error-prone. A distributed ledger, on the other hand, allows all those users to share the same exact data so that confirmations, payments and other processing can be done in seconds rather than days. Distributed-ledger technology has captivated Wall Street executives because it could process virtually any kind of trade or money transfer in minutes rather than days. That vastly reduces the amount of capital that must be set aside until transactions are settled. Industries such as health care, supply-chain management and mining are also experimenting with the software to improve efficiency or ensure the provenance of diamonds, for example.
World’s Largest Hedge Fund to Replace Managers with Artificial Intelligence – (Guardian – December 22, 2016)
The world’s largest hedge fund is building a piece of software to automate the day-to-day management of the firm, including hiring, firing and other strategic decision-making. Bridgewater Associates has a team of software engineers working on the project at the request of billionaire founder Ray Dalio, who wants to ensure the company can run according to his vision even when he’s not there. The firm, which manages $160bn, created the team of programmers specializing in analytics and artificial intelligence, dubbed the Systematized Intelligence Lab, in early 2015. The unit is headed up by David Ferrucci, who previously led IBM’s development of Watson, the supercomputer that beat humans at Jeopardy! in 2011. The company is already highly data-driven, with meetings recorded and staff asked to grade each other throughout the day using a ratings system called “dots”. The Systematized Intelligence Lab has built a tool that incorporates these ratings into “Baseball Cards” that show employees’ strengths and weaknesses. Another app, dubbed The Contract, gets staff to set goals they want to achieve and then tracks how effectively they follow through. These tools are early applications of PriOS, the over-arching management software that Dalio wants to make three-quarters of all management decisions within five years. The kinds of decisions PriOS could make include finding the right staff for particular job openings and ranking opposing perspectives from multiple team members when there’s a disagreement about how to proceed. Automated decision-making is appealing to businesses as it can save time and eliminate human emotional volatility.
I Used to Be a Human Being – (New York Magazine – September 18, 2016)
I was a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users became as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone. If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being. (Editor’s note: This is a remarkably thoughtful essay about the ways in which the internet, and the smartphone in particular, invite us to get lost in the i-world anywhere, at any time, no matter what else we might be doing so much so that information now penetrates every waking moment of our lives. If your internet surfing leaves you time to read only one article here, choose this one.)
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH - articles off the beaten track which may - or may not - have predictive value.
What Does a Human Taste Like? – (Scientific American – December 19, 2016)
Looking for a cutting-edge foodie read, some vicarious cultural adventure or a glimpse into the shadows of a fundamental taboo? Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is scheduled to come out this February, and is the perfect literary entrée for those willing to contemplate mummy umami or Tex-Mex placenta while touring the history of animals and people eating their own kind. Schutt, a Long Island University biologist, is no stranger to the macabre and published his first book, Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures in 2008. Scientific American had the chance to ask Schutt a few questions about what inspired his latest book, and about cannibalism—and what we’re getting wrong about it. Article is a transcript of an interview with the author.
JUST FOR FUN
Artist Teaches Roots To Grow In Beautiful, Alien Patterns – (Wired – December 13, 2016)
The human race has a long history of bending nature to its will. The results of this relationship can be devastating—but they can also be strikingly beautiful, as German artist Diane Scherer skillfully proves with her low-relief sculptures made from plant roots. Scherer grows these works of art by planting oat and wheat seeds in soil, and then carefully, meticulously, warping the growth pattern. She prefers to train her roots into geometric patterns found in nature, like honeycomb structures, or foliate designs reminiscent of Middle Eastern arabesques. Scherer says, “Like the gardener is telling us he loves nature, but the garden has to look like what he wants it to in his mind. He has to crop and prune and use poison.” Scherer makes no claims to a nobler process. Her artistic impulse, she says, is to control the roots in her pieces. Scherer started contemplating what she calls root system domestication in 2012, during work on a series called “Nurture Studies.” She created those pieces by potting flowers in vases, allowing the soil and roots to congeal in place, and then breaking the vases. The root patterns were frozen in place and totally exposed, and Scherer says she became fascinated by the vast differences in growth patterns, colors, textures, and thicknesses. Scherer won’t say much about the technique she’s developed in the years since, other than it involves a “template,” which functions like a mold. Since late 2014 she’s worked with biologists and ecologists at Radboud University in The Netherlands, learning more about which types of roots grow fast and train easily (oats and wheats) and which ones grow slowly and with less structural conviction (daisies). This year, Scherer won the New Material Award from Het Nieuwe Instituut for the arts, in Rotterdam, for her textile-like pieces. Article includes slide show examples of Scherer’s work.
A FINAL QUOTE
Learn the past, watch the present, and create the future. – Jesse Conrad, British actor and singer
A special thanks to: Kevin Foley, Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Gary Sycalik, David Townsend, 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