Volume 20, Number 10 - 07/15/17 Twitter  Facebook  JLP Blog  


  • According to a Wall Street Journal tally, more than 50 acts of violence, including murders, suicides, and sexual assault, have been broadcast over Facebook Live since the feature launched 13 months ago.

  • China is building a forest city to fight pollution with the power of a million plants.

  • A people-sized drone is the next step toward a flying car (think: flying Uber).

  • About 70% of Netflix users binge-watch (watch at least five episodes in a single viewing session) at least one series each month.



Bill Gates's 7 Predictions for Our Future – (World Economic Forum – May 9, 2017)
Gates correctly predicted the rise of smartphones and social media, and a wealth of evidence suggests his latest predictions could be on the right track, too. Here's what Gates envisions for the future of our world. 1) Bioterrorism could wipe out 33 million people in less than a year; 2) When it comes to food, Africa will become entirely self-sufficient; 3) By 2030, the world will discover a clean-energy breakthrough to power our world. And see four others (some surprising, some not) in the article – all with further details.

Algorithms Are Failing Facebook. Can Humanity Save It? – (Quartz – May 7, 2017)
According to a Wall Street Journal tally, more than 50 acts of violence, including murders, suicides, and sexual assault, have been broadcast over Facebook Live since the feature launched 13 months ago. Early in the company’s history, Zuckerberg referred to Facebook as a “utility,” a piece of “information infrastructure.” In a letter to potential shareholders in 2012, he compared the social network to the printing press and the television. But television manufacturers and printing press makers have no reason to understand the difference between a historical photo and a piece of pornography, to consider how to classify photos of breastfeeding mothers, or to debate whether an exception should be made for Donald Trump’s hate speech. They merely make the tools for distributing content. Facebook, on the other hand, built both a content-distribution platform and a global community—”social infrastructure,” as Zuckerberg more recently described it—and its role in that community ended up being both toolmaker and governing institution. Facebook doesn’t just enable communication, but sets the boundaries and rules around it. And its influence—whether on culture, on elections, or on anything else beyond its own digital borders—means that those decisions impact us all, whether or not we use Facebook. Had Facebook been thinking about Facebook Live as more than a neutral technology product, it may have anticipated what Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at University of North Carolina who studies online speech issues, told the New York Times that she anticipated: “It was pretty clear to me that this would lead to on-camera suicides, murder, abuse, torture,” she told the paper. “The FBI did a pretty extensive study of school shooters: The infamy part is a pretty heavy motivator.” Basically the task of removing harmful content from Facebook is too complicated for current technology (algorithms can identify objects, but not the context in which an object appears and thus be able to judge its character) and the scale is too big for a team of humans.


The Mere Presence of Your Smartphone Reduces Brain Power, Study Shows – (Science Daily – June 23, 2017)
In a new study from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin, Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and co-authors conducted experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users in an attempt to measure, for the first time, how well people can complete tasks when they have their smartphones nearby even when they're not using them. The findings suggest that the mere presence of one's smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they're giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand. "We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants' available cognitive capacity decreases," Ward said. "Your conscious mind isn't thinking about your smartphone, but that process -- the process of requiring yourself to not think about something -- uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It's a brain drain." (Editor’s note: The data from this study is fairly conclusive: having your cell phone nearby reduces your cognitive capacity, but we’re not certain that the reason is that you are diverting some brain power to “not to think about it”. Or perhaps that’s just another way of saying that the phone is subconsciously distracting – and it’s the distraction that reduces your brain power.)

Why Modern Mortar Crumbles, But Roman Concrete Lasts Millennia – (Science – July 3, 2017)
Modern concrete—used in everything from roads to buildings to bridges—can break down in as few as 50 years. But thousands of years after the Roman Empire crumbled to dust, its concrete structures are still standing. Now, scientists have finally figured out why: a special ingredient that makes the cement grow stronger—not weaker—over time. Scientists began their search with an ancient recipe for mortar, laid down by Roman engineer Marcus Vitruvius in 30 B.C.E. It called for a concoction of volcanic ash, lime, and seawater, mixed together with volcanic rocks and spread into wooden molds that were then immersed in more sea water. History contains many references to the durability of Roman concrete, including this cryptic note written in 79 B.C.E., describing concrete exposed to seawater as: “a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and everyday stronger.” What did it mean? To find out, the researchers studied drilled cores of a Roman harbor from Pozzuoli Bay near Naples, Italy. When they analyzed it, they found that the seawater had dissolved components of the volcanic ash, allowing new binding minerals to grow. Within a decade, a very rare hydrothermal mineral called aluminum tobermorite (Al-tobermorite) had formed in the concrete.


Scientists Push Back Against Controversial Paper Claiming a Limit to Human Lifespans – (Gizmodo – June 28, 2017)
This article is an interesting peek-behind-the-curtain at one instance of how the scientific community operates in terms of research methods, peer reviewed publishing, and academic dialog. Last year a team of researchers said that the maximum human lifespan has plateaued at around 115 years of age. Some individuals might live to be older, but those are outliers. When the scientists published their research in Nature last October, it sparked a lot of press coverage. It also brought debate, accusations that the study was flawed, and questions as to whether it was based on enough data. Today, the journal Nature is publishing five rebuttals from researchers who have problems with the original study—who think that a harder look at the data is warranted, and that the authors’ original conclusions might be incorrect. Essentially, last year, researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York collected the ages of the single oldest people to die in a given year in the United States, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, based on information in the International Database on Longevity. When they crunched all the data, it appeared to them that the maximum reported age of death increased until the 1990s, and has plateaued since then, averaging out at 115. They did other analyses looking at the second through fifth oldest ages at death, and added data from other sources. The paper’s authors concluded we may be hovering around the limit to human longevity. Then Nick Brown from the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands and his team, as well as four other teams, re-analyzed the Nature paper and found lots of problems. On top of all that, an investigation from Dutch journalist Hester van Santen found that the acceptance of the original paper into the journal Nature itself was fishy. None of this means that original conclusions were necessarily wrong, just that people didn’t agree with their methods. But most people would probably still agree with the original article’s closing statement: “the real important thing is we need to put more money into drugs and interventions that really work against aging—no longer [just] against individual diseases.

Gene Therapy as Cancer Treatment — 'a True Living Drug' — Gets FDA Endorsement – (Chicago Tribune – July 13, 2017)
Food and Drug Administration advisers have enthusiastically endorsed a first-of-its-kind cancer treatment that uses patients' revved-up immune cells to fight the disease, concluding that the therapy's benefits for desperately ill children far outweigh its potentially dangerous side effects. The unanimous recommendation from the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee means the treatment could be approved by the FDA by the end of September, forging a new path in the immunotherapy frontier. Novartis, the pharmaceutical company behind the CAR T-cell therapy, is seeking approval to use it for children and young adults whose leukemia doesn't respond to traditional treatments — a group that numbers 600 or so patients a year in this country. But the approach also is being tested for a range of diseases from non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma to solid tumors. When a patient is treated under the Novartis process, T cells are extracted from a patient's blood, frozen and sent to the company's plant in Morris Plains, N.J. There, the cells are genetically modified to attack the cancer, expanded in number, refrozen and shipped back to the patient for infusion. Once inside the body, the cells multiply exponentially and go hunting for the CD19 protein, which appears on a kind of white blood cell that can give rise to diseases, such as leukemia and lymphoma. The turnaround time for manufacturing the therapy, called "vein-to-vein" time, will be an estimated 22 days, Novartis officials told the committee. From the outset committee members made clear that they were not concerned about the treatment's efficacy, which has been well established — 83% of patients went into remission in the pivotal Novartis trial. Rather, the panel homed in on how to best to handle possible short-term toxicities, as well as long-term safety risks and manufacturing quality.


One Man’s Ambitious, Insane Plan to Use An Iceberg to Bring Water to the Middle East – (FastCompany – May 9, 2017)
In the United Arab Emirates, where the population more than tripled between 2000 and 2015, groundwater could run out in less than 15 years. Desalination plants, which strip salt from seawater, might be the solution in the future, but today they’re both expensive and energy-intensive. One Abu Dhabi company hopes to bring the country water from another source: melting icebergs. “An iceberg can hold 20 billion gallons of water, which is enough for a million people’s drinking water for five years,” Abdulla Alshehi, founder of National Advisor Bureau Limited, the Masdar-based company pursuing a plan to haul icebergs to the Middle East from Antarctica. (Because icebergs are made from snow, they contain freshwater and not saltwater.) Alshehi is not the first to consider hauling icebergs to places that need drinking water. As early as the mid-1800s, small icebergs were towed from Antarctica to Chile for use in breweries, and another entrepreneur suggested towing icebergs to India. By the mid-1900s, oceanographer John Isaacs proposed iceberg towing as a less energy-intensive alternative to desalination. In the 1970s, researchers from the RAND Corporation analyzed how it could work, envisioning a train of icebergs wrapped in plastic to keep them from melting (they also proposed using a floating nuclear power station to feed power to propellers on each iceberg). To date, no one has succeeded with large scale icebergs. But towing does happen regularly on a smaller scale. When 100,000-ton icebergs drift toward offshore oil platforms in Canada, the industry tows them away. Alshehi is still in the process of finding investors for the trip, which he hopes to begin in 2018. If the project moves forward, the company would choose an iceberg using satellite images, wrap it in insulating material to lessen melting, and tie it up and connect it with ships and barges. Once the iceberg is 25 kilometers offshore of the UAE, the company plans to crush the ice, fill up floating tankers, and bring it to land. Though the process hasn’t happened before, Alshehi is optimistic. “We will be the first, inshallah,” he says. (Editor’s note: A large iceberg has just become available….)


Facebook Can Track Your Browsing Even after You've Logged Out, Judge Says – (Guardian – July 3, 2017)
A judge has dismissed a lawsuit accusing Facebook of tracking users’ web browsing activity even after they logged out of the social networking site. The plaintiffs alleged that Facebook used the “like” buttons found on other websites to track which sites they visited, meaning that the Menlo Park, California-headquartered company could build up detailed records of their browsing history. Clicking on the Facebook “like” button on a third party website – for example, theguardian.com – allows people to share pieces of content to Facebook without having to copy and paste the link into a status update on the social network. When a user visits a page with an embedded “like” button, the web browser sends information to both Facebook and the server where the page is located. The plaintiffs argued that this violated federal and state privacy and wiretapping laws. US district judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California, dismissed the case because he said that the plaintiffs failed to show that they had a reasonable expectation of privacy or suffered any realistic economic harm or loss. Davila said that plaintiffs could have taken steps to keep their browsing histories private, for example by using the Digital Advertising Alliance’s opt-out tool or using “incognito mode”, and failed to show that Facebook illegally “intercepted” or eavesdropped on their communications. To address privacy concerns, Facebook introduced a way for users to opt out of this type of advertising targeting from within user settings.

Tax Software Blamed for Cyber-attack Spread – (BBC News – June 28, 2017)
A global cyber-attack that affected companies around the world may have started via corrupted updates on a piece of accountancy software. Fingers, including those of Microsoft, are increasingly pointing to a piece of Ukrainian tax-filing software, MEDoc, as the source of the infection, although the company denies it. A growing number of security experts, including the British malware expert Marcus Hutchins - credited with ending the WannaCry ransomware outbreak - claim to have logs that reveal MEDoc as the source. Mr. Hutchins said: "It looks like the software's automatic update system was compromised and used to download and run malware rather than updates for the software." Alan Woodward, a computer scientist from the University of Surrey, observed: “The ironic thing about this situation (if it proves to be the case) is that we always advise users to keep their software up to date, ideally using automated updates. However, it assumes hackers can't take over the update process and misuse it. As users there isn't a lot we can do as we are in the hands of the software vendors."

Who Needs Film When You Can Store a Movie in Bacteria DNA? – (LA Times – July 12, 2017)
A team of scientists report that they have successfully embedded a short film into the DNA of living bacteria cells. The mini-movie, really a GIF, is a five-frame animation of a galloping thoroughbred mare named Annie G. The iconic images were taken by the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge in the late 1800s for his photo series titled Human and Animal Locomotion. Scientists had already shown that a great deal of information can be encoded and stored in synthesized DNA. For example, Shipman’s boss, George Church, a molecular chemist and engineer at Harvard, once converted an entire book into a strand of genetic code. “DNA has a lot of properties that are good for archival storage,” Shipman said. “It’s much more stable than silicone memory if you wanted to hold something for thousands of years.” In the new study, published in the journal Nature, Shipman wanted to see if bacterial DNA could be used to record the order in which new information was added to its genome. Coding five frames of a movie seemed like a perfect place to start. The researchers began the work by breaking each frame of the film into a grid of 36 pixels by 26 pixels. Next they developed a way to code the color of each pixel using the nucleotides A, C, T and G, which are the building blocks of DNA. They also included a code that indicated where in the frame each pixel belonged. They did not encode the order of the frames, however. “That was important to us,” Shipman said. “We wanted to see if when the bacterial DNA captures the new information, it captures it in order.”


China's Forest City to Fight Pollution with the Power of a Million Plants – (New Atlas – June 26, 2017)
The vision of Italian architect Stefano Boeri is starting to take shape around the world, with his so-called vertical forest towers going up in Switzerland and Milan. Now the Chinese region of Liuzhou will also play home to some of his handiwork, with construction underway on a so-called Forest City that is hoped to soak up some of the country's infamous air pollution. Commissioned by the Liuzhou Municipality Urban Planning department, the city will host some 30,000 residents and feature the hallmarks of a typical city, such as offices, houses, hotels, hospitals and schools. These buildings will draw on geothermal energy and rooftop solar panel for their power needs. The city will be clad in trees and plants – not just in the parks, gardens and city streets, but over building facades too. This will total 40,000 trees and almost one million plants, drawn from more than 100 species. It will absorb an estimated 10,000 tons of C02 and 57 tons of pollutants each year, plus it will produce a claimed 900 tons of oxygen annually. Construction is currently underway, with the Liuzhou Forest City expected to be completed by 2020. Article includes architectural representations of the new city.

Amazon Is Creating a Place for Hundreds of Homeless on Its Shiny New Seattle Campus – (Seattle Times – May 9, 2017)
Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that temporarily converts unused buildings into shelters for women and families in need, will soon have a permanent home — embedded in the heart of Amazon.com’s burgeoning Seattle domain. The nonprofit currently operates a shelter in an old Travelodge near the core of Amazon’s new downtown campus, a place where those who find themselves without a roof in an increasingly expensive city can get back on their feet, while staffers help them find jobs and housing. The average resident lives there for 86 days. The e-commerce giant, which owns the property, has let Mary’s Place use it for free since April 2016. But come October, the hotel will be torn down to give way to two new Amazon office buildings. As part of that construction, Amazon will devote half of one of the buildings to Mary’s Place — giving it a six-story, 47,000-square-foot shelter that will house more than 200 people in 65 rooms. The capacity is similar to the temporary shelter it will replace, but the space is about 10,000 square feet larger. It will be rent-free, with utility bills paid. Forever. “We finally got the keys to our own place,” said Marty Hartman, executive director of the nonprofit, showing off a large, golden key that Amazon’s head of real estate, John Schoettler, gave her — inside an Amazon shipping box — as a memento of the donation. In a meeting with reporters, Schoettler called the arrangement “permanent, until homelessness is solved.”

World’s First Cable-Free Elevator Zooms Horizontally and Vertically Using Maglev Tech – (Technology Review – June 23, 2017)
A new kind of elevator uses linear motors, similar to those in maglev trains and HyperLoop, to whiz its cabins through shafts, and will be able to move people up, down, left, or right. The German engineering firm ThyssenKrupp first announced the idea of a maglev elevator in 2014 to a mixture of excitement and disbelief. Now, three years on, it has performed its first public test of the technology in a dedicated elevator experimentation tower in Rottweil, Germany. The elevator, known as Multi, doesn’t use a cable at all. Instead, it runs on rails that act as linear motors, using magnetic fields to accelerate cabins along their length. When a cabin stops at a floor, those rails can rotate so that it can move off to the left or right rather than continuing up or down. ThyssenKrupp's vision is of a system of several such shafts placed next to each other, so software might plan routes that take cabins between shafts and around congestion, saving people time. The linear motor technology could also help side-step a major issue facing current skyscrapers: regular cable designs can only safely rise about 1,600 feet in one continuous stretch, so tall buildings have to have numerous lift shafts installed to get people to the top. Multi could solve that, which could free up space and also allow architects to design buildings in different shapes and styles. However, the cost is currently about five times more than a standard lift system.


Google's New Startup Uses Energy from Your Lawn to Heat Your Home – (CNN – July 7, 2017)
A new startup called Dandelion, born from the secretive and futuristic lab "X" of Google's parent company Alphabet, says it will offer affordable geothermal heating and cooling systems to homeowners. Existing systems are typically expensive with big upfront installation fees, discouraging homeowners from adopting the technology. Home geothermal systems tap into the ground's energy. Because geothermal energy is generated and stored in the earth, these systems use plastic pipes in the ground and a pump inside the home. In the winter, water located inside the pipes absorbs heat from the earth. The pump then turns it into warm air. In the summer, the pump pulls warm air out of the home and the pipes disperse the heat back into the ground. Home geothermal systems tap into the ground's energy. Because geothermal energy is generated and stored in the earth, these systems use plastic pipes in the ground and a pump inside the home. In the winter, water located inside the pipes absorbs heat from the earth. The pump then turns it into warm air. In the summer, the pump pulls warm air out of the home and the pipes disperse the heat back into the ground. Installing the pipes -- called "ground loops" -- under someone's lawn is a traditionally invasive, messy process involving wide drills that dig wells more than 1,000 feet underground. Dandelion's drill is fast and lean, allowing for only one or two deep holes a few inches wide. The system will cost between $20,000 and $25,000, compared to conventional systems priced as high as $60,000. Installing the pipes -- called "ground loops" -- under someone's lawn is a traditionally invasive, messy process. It involves using wide drills that dig wells more than 1,000 feet underground. Dandelion's drill is fast and lean, allowing for only one or two deep holes a few inches wide. The system will cost between $20,000 and $25,000, compared to conventional systems priced as high as $60,000.


Workhorse SureFly Is the Next Step Toward a Flying Car – (Autoblog – June 21, 2017)
The flying car that was promised to us so many years ago has yet to arrive. Until it does, we'll have to make do with stopgaps like the recently revealed Workhorse SureFly. The compact, lightweight, and relatively affordable helicopter could just be the next toy for taxi drivers or bored members of the 1%. At first glance, the SureFly looks like a people-sized drone, with four arms and eight rotors rather than the traditional single-rotor helicopters that are common today. The end of each arm is sandwiched by two rotors. The SureFly uses a gasoline engine to power eight electric motors, one for each of the rotors. A pair of 7.5 kWh lithium-ion battery packs are used as a backup in case the gasoline engine fails. Together, they're good for about five minutes of power, enough time to land the SureFly. If that fails, too, there is a parachute mounted in the center. This works because the rotors are at the corners, not the center. Curb weight for the two-seat SureFly is 1,100 pounds. The maximum takeoff weight is 1,500 pounds. With only about 400 pounds of carrying capacity, Workhorse pictures the SureFly being used for local taxi service. Total range is about 70 miles or about one hour of flight time, but since it's powered by a gasoline engine, filling up the tank provides another 70 miles of range. There's no waiting to recharge a battery pack. The flight ceiling is 4,000 feet. Those interested can contact Workhorse to reserve one. Yes, it will set you back about $200,000, but for a personal helicopter, that doesn't seem too bad. That's Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo S, and McLaren 570GT money, but nothing beats traffic like a personal aircraft.


You Can Now Snort Chocolate — But Should You? – (Washington Post – July 4, 2017)
Meet Coco Loko, a “snortable” chocolate powder being marketed as a drug-free way to get a buzz. The product, created by Orlando-based company Legal Lean, includes cacao powder, as well as gingko biloba, taurine and guarana, which are commonly found in energy drinks. Nick Anderson, the 29-year-old founder of Legal Lean, says he heard about a “chocolate-snorting trend” in Europe a few months ago. He ordered a sample and gave it a try. “At first, I was like, ‘Is this a hoax?,'” he recalled. “And then I tried it and it was like, okay, this is the future right here.” That led him to invest $10,000 into creating his own “raw cacao snuff.” It took about 10 tries over two months to come up with the mixture, which was created by an Orlando-based supplement company. “Some versions, they just burned too much,” Anderson said. “Other times they looked gray and dull, or didn’t have enough stimulants.” The effects of the cacao-based powder, he said, last about 30 minutes to an hour, and are “almost like an energy-drink feeling, like you’re euphoric but also motivated to get things done.” But doctors say they’re not quite sure what to make of the brown powder, which hit U.S. shelves last month and is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The medical community has long raised concerns about the health effects of energy drinks — which often rely on caffeine, taurine and guarana, and have been shown to raise blood pressure and cause heart palpitations. Those effects could be magnified if a person inhales those stimulants. See also: Schumer calls for crackdown on ‘snortable chocolate’.


Debt Relief – Japanese-style – Could Work Here – (Nation of Change – July 4, 2017)
Let’s face it. The U.S. government is never going to pay back a $20 trillion federal debt. The taxpayers will just continue to pay interest on it, year after year. A lot of interest. If the Federal Reserve raises the Federal Funds Rate, which is the interest major banks charge each other for overnight loans, to 3.5% and sells its federal securities into the market, as it is proposing to do, the projected tab will be $830 billion annually by 2026. While the U.S. government is busy driving up its debt and the interest owed on it, Japan has been canceling its debt at the rate of about $720 billion per year. How? By selling the debt to its own central bank, which returns the interest to the government. While most central banks have ended their quantitative easing programs and are planning to sell their federal securities, the Bank of Japan continues to aggressively buy its own government’s debt. An interest-free debt owed to oneself that is rolled over from year to year is effectively void – a debt “jubilee.” As noted by fund manager Eric Lonergan in a February 2017 article: “The Bank of Japan is in the process of owning most of the outstanding government debt of Japan (it currently owns around 40%). BoJ holdings are part of the consolidated government balance sheet. So its holdings are in fact the accounting equivalent of a debt cancellation. If I buy back my own mortgage, I don’t have a mortgage.” If the Federal Reserve followed the same policy and bought 40% of the U.S. national debt, the Fed would be holding $8 trillion in federal securities, three times its current holdings from its quantitative easing programs. Eight trillion dollars in money created on a computer screen! Monetarists would be aghast. Surely that would trigger runaway hyperinflation! But if Japan’s experience is any indication, it wouldn’t. Japan had a record low inflation rate of .02 percent in March 2017. That’s not 2%, the Fed’s target inflation rate, but one 100th of 2% – almost zero. Japan also has an unemployment rate that is at a 22-year low of 2.8%, and the yen was up nearly 6% for the year against the dollar as of April 2017. Selling the government’s debt to its own central bank has not succeeded in driving up Japanese prices, even though that was the Bank of Japan’s expressed intent. Meanwhile, the economy is doing well.


How to ‘Think Like the Russians’: A Partisan Perception Chart for Improving US-Russian Relations – (Russia Matters – June 27, 2017)
U.S.-Russia relations have dropped to a low point reminiscent of the scariest days of the Cold War, and the risk of nuclear miscalculation is the highest it’s been in nearly 55 years. With passions flaring and recriminations flying, how can Washington and Moscow find a calm common language and ratchet down tensions? A negotiation tool called a partisan perception chart, can often be a useful way to advance dialogue in confrontational relationships. Such a tool proved helpful in U.S-Soviet “Track 1.5” dialogues on nuclear-risk reduction back at the nadir of the Cold War in the 1980s. This article offers a new version prepared for 2017, as we see a nuclear déjà vu with a risk of inadvertent war arguably even higher than in the 1980s. The chart seeks to represent important points of view in both countries as a tool to further dialogue. It is meant, in part, to counter some dangerous tendencies in the way human beings process critical information in adversarial situations according to extensive research in the field of negotiation—for example , to perceive one’s own side as more honest and morally upright, while seeing the other as untrustworthy, dishonest and seeking unilateral advantage. The sources for the points of view in the chart include official speeches, published articles and conversations with leading U. S. and Russian experts. (Editor’s note: This “partisan perception” chart offers surprisingly insightful perspectives.)

Saudi Arabia Experiments with Reform Amid Economic Downturn- (Der Spiegel – May 17, 2017)
Things are changing - even in what may be the world's most conservative country. The government has stripped the notorious religious police of their power and the more than 3,000 guardians of morality, who terrorized women for wearing makeup and arrested unmarried couples for walking next to each other on the street, are a rare sight these days. But what does it really mean that the Saudi king, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, has reined in his feared morals police? And why have the fundamentalists gone silent rather than lament the loss of values? The primary reason is the disappearance of Saudi Arabia's fairy-tale riches. The kingdom is in the midst of the deepest crisis it has seen since oil first began gushing out of the wells in the eastern part of the country in 1938. Low oil prices have led to a 50% drop in the country's revenues. In 2015, the government racked up a budget deficit of 90 billion euros, and the country began borrowing. Then there's the fact that Saudi Arabia was the pillar of a Middle Eastern order that now no longer exists, destroyed by the Arab spring and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. "Why" is a word that didn't previously exist in Saudi Arabian public debate. Suddenly, it can be heard all over the place, as if the economic crisis is forcing the country to undergo a kind of late-period enlightenment. Everything is being renegotiated, from benefits to the distribution of money, and the question of who will enjoy new freedoms and who will lose old privileges. In sum, the country's previous social pact - prosperity in exchange for submission - is being challenged. (Editor’s note: If you have time for only one article in this issue, we highly recommend choosing this one.)


Parent Fights to Keep Gender off Baby’s Birth Certificate – (Miami Herald – July 3, 2017)
A baby born in British Columbia, Canada is thought to be one of the first in the world not to be recognized as either a boy or a girl on their national health card. Searyl Atli’s parent Kori Doty, who is transgender and nonbinary, is now fighting for British Columbia to issue a birth certificate without any specific gender. Doty, who uses the pronoun their, said they don’t want to assign the baby a gender until the child can decide for themselves who they are. "I'm raising Searyl in such a way that until they have the sense of self and command of vocabulary to tell me who they are, I'm recognizing them as a baby and trying to give them all the love and support to be the most whole person that they can be outside of the restrictions that come with the boy box and the girl box," Doty said. Doty gave birth to Searyl in a friend’s home in November, so no “gender inspection” was done by a hospital. Canada did send Doty a health care for Searyl with a “U” on it instead of the typical “M” or “F” for male and female. “U” is thought to stand for “unknown” or “unassigned.” According to the ACLU, people in most U.S. states must provide proof of a surgical change of sex to make any adjustments to the sex listed on a birth certificates. To make a change on a driver’s license, some states don’t require proof of surgery.

Video Binge-Watching Trouble – (Baseline of Health – April 29, 2017
About 70% of Netflix users (and you can bet it’s the same with other subscription services) binge-watch at least one series each month. And by the way, binge-watching doesn’t mean watching two or three episodes back-to-back. To qualify as a binge-watch—at least by the standards of research organization Jumpshot, which analyzed clickstream data from over 100 million devices in 188 countries—you need to watch at least five episodes in a single viewing session. Then there are the power-watchers, who binge-watch not just one series, but multiple series every month. Thirty-three percent of Netflix subscribers do just that. Doing the math, that means that in a typical room of 10 people in the US, four have been spending five or more hours a night watching numerous episodes of Orange is the New Black, or Breaking Bad, or Sherlock, or Parks and Recreation, or whatever, at least a few nights a week. Two have been doing so a bit more often. And power-binging is on the upswing, with an 88% increase in the number of viewers binge-watching multiple series at least seven days per month over the past 14 months. So what’s the harm in binge-watching? After all, you find it a welcome relief to be laughing at Friends instead of dealing with the messy house, unpaid bills, or the disgruntled spouse. It takes the pressure off and lifts the mood. The problem is that binge-watching can become an addiction, replete with all the markers of addiction—denial, loss of interest in other things, poor performance at work, compromised relationships and so on.


BEAM's First Year on ISS Expands Potential of Inflatable Space Habitats – (New Atlas – May 28, 2017)
Blasting equipment into space is a costly venture, so finding ways to reduce weight and size is crucial. Last year, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was deployed to the International Space Station (ISS) to test how an inflatable habitat stands up to the harsh environment of space. Now, one year on, NASA has reported its initial findings. Over its two-year lifespan, astronauts will assess how well this softer structure stands up against radiation, micrometeoroid impacts and microbial growth, to help inform designs for future deep space missions. When it's all over, the module will be jettisoned from the station to burn up as it reenters Earth's atmosphere. The project is currently at the halfway point, and so far, the future of inflatable habitats looks promising. Since it was first expanded, astronauts have entered the BEAM nine times to collect air and surface samples of microbes and swap out radiation monitors, which were then sent back to Earth to be studied. So far, the prototype has performed well: dose rates of Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) are about on par with other, more rigid space station modules, and the external walls have managed to keep debris from penetrating through, despite multiple possible collisions with micrometeoroids.

Cold War-era Nuclear Tests Created Belts of Charged Particles Around the Earth – (Discover Magazine – May 17, 2017)
Up until 1963, both the U.S. and Soviet governments conducted over 500 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. They blew up these weapons anywhere from 16 miles above Earth to 250, well into space. The resulting fallout is estimated to have raised levels of thyroid cancer across the country, and could one day even serve as a marker for the Anthropocene—the age of humans. But the effects of these tests spread far beyond the surface of the Earth. A nuclear explosion creates a storm of charged particles similar to those emitted by the sun, with the added benefit (to scientists) of being created right near us. Researchers recently discovered that the particles from nuclear tests were lofted into belts circling the Earth, causing geomagnetic storms and even damaging a few satellites. Led by a scientist from the University of Michigan, the researchers say that the plasma created in the explosions interacted with the planet’s magnetic field and created an artificial version of the Van Allen belts that encircle the Earth. These belts are formed when particles emitted by the sun get caught up in our magnetic pull and form eddies around the Earth. Particularly strong waves of particles can interfere with communications satellites and even knock out power grids on Earth — one uncommonly potent storm in 1859 even caused sparks to fly from telegraph machines. The nuclear explosions, harnessing the same fusion that takes place in the sun, caused similar phenomena temporarily. For a time, the researchers say, the particles from the blasts formed belts of charged particles around the Earth, lasting weeks or even years. The nuclear explosions, harnessing the same fusion that takes place in the sun, caused similar phenomena temporarily. For a time, the researchers say, the particles from the blasts formed belts of charged particles around the Earth, lasting weeks or even years. The recently declassified results were published in Space Science Reviews.

Controversial Theory Says Expansion of Universe Is Driven by Quantum Fluctuations—Not Dark Energy – (Newsweek – May 16, 2017)
A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, Canada, has proposed a radical new theory about the expansion of the universe. Scientists do not know exactly why the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating pace, but the most popular theory is that this growth is being driven by dark energy, the theoretical force thought to make up 68% of the universe. However, the University of British Columbia researchers have another theory—that quantum fluctuations of vacuum energy are responsible. Scientists discovered the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate in 1998. The discovery led to the widely accepted theory that the universe is filled with dark energy, which is constantly pushing matter further and further away. But this explanation comes with problems. At present, there is a disconnect between our two best theories to explain the universe—quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What we see on a quantum level cannot be explained by general relativity. When we apply quantum mechanics to vacuum energy that exists throughout the universe it results in a huge density of energy and, because general relativity says this energy would have a strong gravitational effect, it would likely result in the universe exploding. But the universe is still here, and expanding at a relatively slow rate. In a study published in the journal Physical Review D, Qingdi Wang and colleagues sought to solve this problem.

“What Lies Beneath is Breathtaking!" --NASA Peers Below Jupiter's Clouds – (Daily Galaxy – May 26, 2017)
The early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought. Scientists working on NASA's Juno mission say its initial observations at Jupiter's poles have been breathtaking since the probe arrived on 4 July last year, and has been making a close pass over the gas giant every 53 days. "Think of a bunch of hurricanes, every one the size of the Earth, all packed so close together that each hurricane touches the other," said Mike Janssen, a Senior Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with roles in the Cassini mission and the New Frontiers Juno mission to investigate the origin and internal structure of Jupiter."Even in rooms of hardened researchers, these images of swirling clouds have drawn gasps." Among the findings that challenge assumptions are those provided by Juno’s imager, JunoCam. The images show both of Jupiter's poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together.


Americans Keep Having Few Babies as US Birthrates Hit Some Record Lows – (LA Times – June 30, 2017)
For the second year in a row, the number of babies delivered in the U.S. fell, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics. For some groups of women, the birth rate reached record lows. The total number of babies born in the U.S. last year was 3,941,109. That’s 37,388 fewer babies than were born in the U.S. in 2015, which represents a 1% decline. The number of births tends to rise as the population rises, so statisticians like to make historical comparisons by calculating the general fertility rate. This is the number of births per 1,000 women considered to be of childbearing age (between 15 and 44). In 2016, the U.S. general fertility rate hit a record low of 62.0 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. In 2015, the general fertility rate was 62.5. Another useful statistic is the total fertility rate. This is an estimate of the total number of babies that 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes, based on the actual birth rates for women in different age groups. In 2016, the total fertility rate for American women was 1,818 births per 1,000 women. That’s the lowest it has been since 1984. Birth rates for women 30 and older hit their highest levels since the 1960s, and women in their early 30s had the highest birthrate of any age group. In 2016, there were 102.6 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 30 and 34. The last time it was that high was 1964. (Editor’s Note: Patterns that are 30 and 50 years old are apparently recurring. But statistics don’t, in and of themselves, explain anything. What this article doesn’t do is put forth any hypotheses concerning the larger social issues that may be driving these statistics. If we come across any of those possibilities, we’ll reference them in future issues of FE.)


Tool for Journalists: FotoForensics, for Verifying Images – (Journalism – February 22, 2017)
Here is a tool that analyses digital images, showing the areas where they could have been altered. Cost: Free for a basic report for images in JPEG and PNG format. A Lab version with additional features is available at a cost. How is it of use to journalists: Verifying information from social media is becoming a key skill for journalists today. You can find many helpful guides for verifying images sourced online – the process involves multiple steps including geolocating the photo, checking whether the person who shared it online is the creator of the image and contacting them whenever possible. FotoForensics can help along the way by providing analysis of the digital image that could help you work out whether the photo has been altered or not. The site is free to use and you don’t need an account to check a particular photo – you can upload your file from your device or using a URL, and you will receive a report that includes information such as metadata and error level analysis. One thing to consider when using this tool is that it cannot give you a verdict on whether or not an image has been edited. It can provide information you can use to make up your own mind. When assessing images sourced from social media, it’s also important to remember that it’s possible they have been reposted a number of times, and the image quality has deteriorated with every share.

Graphene-based Computer Would Be 1,000 Times Faster Than Silicon-based, Use 100th the Power – (Kurzweil AI – June 15, 2017)
A future graphene-based transistor using spintronics could lead to tinier computers that are a thousand times faster and use a hundredth of the power of silicon-based computers. A team of researchers at Northwestern University, The University of Texas at Dallas, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Central Florida discovered that by applying a magnetic field to a graphene ribbon (created by unzipping a carbon nanotube), they could change the resistance of current flowing through the ribbon. The magnetic field — controlled by increasing or decreasing the current through adjacent carbon nanotubes — increased or decreased the flow of current. A cascading series of graphene transistor-based logic circuits could produce a massive jump, with clock speeds approaching the terahertz range — a thousand times faster.* They would also be smaller and substantially more efficient, allowing device-makers to shrink technology and squeeze in more functionality, according to Ryan M. Gelfand, an assistant professor in The College of Optics & Photonics at the University of Central Florida. The researchers hope to inspire the fabrication of these cascaded logic circuits to stimulate a future transformative generation of energy-efficient computing.

"Mind Reading" Technology Can Now Decode Complex Thoughts – (New Atlas – June 27, 2017)
In the past, "mind reading" systems have been able to guess what single-digit number a person might be thinking of, but deeper thoughts have been beyond the technology's reach. Now, a team from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has developed a way to accurately read more complex concepts from a brain scan, and even piece together entire sentences. The CMU team found that the "building blocks" the mind uses to construct thoughts are made up of concepts, rather than being based on words themselves. That suggests the brain processes concepts in a universal way, regardless of a person's language and culture. The study tested how the brain codes complex thoughts, and how an fMRI scanner, with a little help from machine learning algorithms, can decode them. Meaningful components like person, setting, size, social interaction and physical action are processed in different parts of the brain, so CMU's system can pick out the general category of what's on a person's mind. Marcel Just, lead researcher on the study, said, "A next step might be to decode the general type of topic a person is thinking about, such as geology or skateboarding. We are on the way to making a map of all the types of knowledge in the brain."


Robots Are Eating Money Managers’ Lunch – (Bloomberg – June 20, 2017)
Obscure assets may be the human investor’s last refuge. Rishi Ganti used to help manage the personal fortunes of hedge fund founders David Siegel and John Overdeck, whose quantitatively driven strategies turned them into billionaires. Ganti, 45, says he’s glimpsed the future of his industry. A wave of coders writing self-teaching algorithms has descended on the financial world, and it doesn’t look good for most of the money managers who’ve long been envied for their multimillion-¬dollar bonuses. To survive, Ganti says, money managers should look beyond the multitrillion-dollar stock exchanges, bond-trading platforms, and big deals backed by private equity and venture capital. To a greater or lesser extent, computers can see all those markets, assess how they’re performing, and start detecting patterns that could reveal profitable trading strategies. Ganti’s answer is to look for what are known in the industry as esoteric assets—the most obscure stuff he can find. He’s arranged alternative funding for charter schools in the U.S. and paid cash up front to collect judgments due at Brazil’s supreme court. His team also has purchased nonperforming loans at a discount in Portugal and partnered with local experts in Mexico to fund government infrastructure programs. It’s even provided interim financing for refugee camps in Italy. The point about these investments, he says, is that they require “high human capital” to manage, even if they’re plentiful. “It’s like dark matter,” Ganti says. “They dwarf the visible stuff lit up by markets.”


Google, Not GCHQ, Is the Truly Chilling Spy Network – (Guardian – June 18, 2017)
“Surveillance”, as the security expert Bruce Schneier has observed, is the business model of the internet and that is true of both the public and private sectors. Given how central the network has become to our lives, that means our societies have embarked on the greatest uncontrolled experiment in history. Without really thinking about it, we have subjected ourselves to relentless, intrusive, comprehensive surveillance of all our activities and much of our most intimate actions and thoughts. And we have no idea what the long-term implications of this will be for our societies – or for us as citizens. One thing we do know, though: we behave differently when we know we are being watched. our current experiment is cosmic in scale: nearly 2 billion people on Facebook, for example, doing stuff every day. Or the 3.5bn searches that people type every day into Google. All this activity is leaving digital trails that are logged, stored and analyzed. We are being watched 24x7x365 by machines running algorithms that rummage through our digital trails and extract meaning (and commercial opportunities) from them. By now, most internet users are aware that they are being watched, but may not yet appreciate the implications of it. If that is indeed the case, then a visit to an interesting new website – Social Cooling – might be instructive. It illustrates the way social media assembles a “data mosaic” about each user that includes not just the demographic data you’d expect, but also things such as your real (as opposed to your “projected”) sexual orientation, whether you’ve been a victim of rape, had an abortion, whether your parents divorced before you were 21, whether you’re an “empty nester”, are “easily addictable” or “into gardening”, etc. On the basis of these parameters, you are assigned a score that determines not just what ads you might see, but also whether you get a mortgage. (Editor’s note: We highly recommend the link for Social Cooling: it’s informative.)

Chimps Could Soon Win Legal Personhood – (Yes Magazine – April 28, 2017)
For the past three years, an attorney has been filing lawsuits in New York state on behalf of four chimpanzees named Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo. They are intelligent “persons,” he argues, and should not be kept in cages. Steven Wise, who is also president of the Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project, believes that the chimps should have the legal right not to be kept in captivity because they are intelligent and self-aware. In December 2013, he sued on their behalf, arguing in several lawsuits that the chimps were “persons” for legal purposes and therefore could not be confined in cages. He suggested that they be released to an outdoor animal sanctuary. The lawsuits are based on habeas corpus, a legal doctrine that prevents an accuser from imprisoning someone without bringing charges against them in a court of law. Two things make this case notable beyond the usual animal advocacy lawsuits. One, it comes at a time when legal rights of nature and broadening definitions of personhood are gaining traction worldwide. In the past few months, rivers in New Zealand and India were given constitutional rights normally reserved for human beings. Meanwhile, a judge in Argentina ruled in November that a chimpanzee named Cecilia had legal rights and ordered her release from a zoo. Second, the large legal and philosophical questions in this case hinge on a bit of grammar. A conjunction, to be precise.

111 Terminally Ill Patients Took Their Own Lives in First 6 Months of California Right-to-die Law – (Los Angeles Times – June 28, 2017)
A total of 111 people in California took their own lives using lethal prescriptions during the first six months of a law that allows terminally ill people to request life-ending drugs from their doctors, according to data recently released. A snapshot of the patients who took advantage of the law mirrors what’s been seen in Oregon, which was the first state to legalize the practice nearly two decades ago. Though California is far more diverse than Oregon, the majority of those who have died under aid-in-dying laws in both states were white, college-educated cancer patients older than 60. The End of Life Option Act made California the fifth state in the nation to allow patients with less than six months to live to request end-of-life drugs from their doctors. Physician-assisted deaths made up 6 out of every 10,000 deaths in California between June and December 2016, according to state data. Supporters of the law pointed to data showing that 191 prescriptions were written, but only 111 patients had taken the pills as of the end of December. But the findings have done little to calm the debate over whether allowing doctors to prescribe lethal medications is acceptable medical practice. California’s law still faces opposition from some corners. A judge ruled this month that a suit to overturn the law will be allowed to go to trial. Similar laws are being considered by several other states. In November, Colorado voters legalized the practice, bringing the percentage of Americans who live in states where the practice is legal to 18%.

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

1 out of 3 Dogs and Cats Is Overweight and Its Costing Us – (Forbes – June 27, 2017)
They say over time you and your dog may start looking like each other. Well, at first glance, dogs and cats seem to be just mirroring the human obesity epidemic. Over the past decade, dogs and cats have been getting more and more overweight, according to the recently released Banfield Pet Hospital's 2017 State of Pet Health. The Banfield report summarized their BARK Research Team's analyses of data on over 2.5 million dogs and 505,000 cats from Banfield's 975 veterinary hospitals that span 42 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Based on the report, since 2007, the number of overweight dogs has increased by 158%. And cat lovers have gotten more cat per cat with a 169% increase in the number of overweight cats. As with humans, obesity can increase the risk of numerous chronic diseases among cats and dogs such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, or various respiratory diseases. Indeed, the report found an 82% increase in arthritis and an 83% increase in tracheal collapse among dogs. Therefore, just like the human obesity epidemic, the dog and cat obesity epidemic is costing people more money as quantified by the Banfield report. Over a four year period, owners of an overweight dog spend 17% more in healthcare costs and 25% more on medications. That's a total of $2,026 more per year. For overweight cats, owners spend 36% more on diagnostic procedures and $1,178 more overall per year.


The Duke of Edinburgh’s Most Memorable Quips – (NBC – May 4, 2017)
Being politically incorrect on Twitter is relatively new, but being politically incorrect is certainly not. Britain's Prince Philip — who has announced that he is retiring from royal duties later this year — is renowned for his sometimes-offensive quips and putdowns. Here are some of the most famous (and infamous) comments attributed to the consort, who has been married to Queen Elizabeth II for 70 years. For example: "And what exotic part of the world do you come from?" the Duke of Edinburgh asked British politician John Taylor in 1999. Taylor, whose parents were from Jamaica, replied he was from Birmingham, one of England's biggest cities.


The future is purchased by the present. /i>– Samuel Johnson<

A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Gary Sycalik, Hal Taylor, 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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