Volume 21, Number 4 - 2/15/18 Twitter  Facebook  JLP Blog  


FUTURE FACTS - FROM THINK LINKS

DID YOU KNOW THAT--
  • The Mexican axolotl salamander 32 billion base pairs of DNA, more than 10 times the number of base paid in human DNA.
  • Google has packed its headphones (in combination with the Pixel 2 phone) with the power to translate between 40 languages, literally in real-time.
  • So-called “security companies” now quietly operate around the world. G4S, for example, is the third largest private employer on Earth, yet most people have never heard of it.
  • In twenty years, there will be nothing that is not a computer.


PUNCTUATIONS
by John L. Petersen

ROBERT DAVID STEELE COMING TO TRANSITION TALKS

Former clandestine operator and international alternative media star, Robert David Steele, knows what he’s talking about. From an extraordinary network of sources around the world he puts together a credible – and shocking – picture of what it is that holds the present system together . . . and what it will take, practically, to build a new world.

Fresh from personal visits with very highly placed sources in Japan and China, and stopping by Tehran on his way home, Steele represents one of the best alternatives to the mainstream media: very bright, articulate, deep contacts, brilliant ideas, and the ability to stitch it all together to paint a real picture of the present that will change forever how you think of politics, banking and finance, the leadership of the free world, the overall influencers of life on this planet. You’ll also see a new world that could clearly be built from the presently crumbling one.

Our upcoming event in Berkeley Springs promises to be a very special – and provocative -- afternoon with a very special speaker. If you come to Robert’s talk on March 17th, I promise you that you will go away seeing the world in a very different way. Your eyes will be opened to very important things that you didn’t know.

So, do come to hear Robert David Steele. You can find complete information at www.transitiontalks.org. It will be a great afternoon.

Let me tell you more about Robert:



And then check out this interview:





THINK LINKS



INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE

AI Used to Face-swap Hollywood Stars into Pornography Films – (Guardian – January 25, 2018)
Advanced machine learning technology is being used to create fake pornography featuring real actors and pop stars, pasting their faces over existing performers in explicit movies. The resulting clips, made without consent from the women whose faces are used, are often indistinguishable from a real film, with only subtly uncanny differences suggesting something is amiss. A community on the social news site Reddit has spent months creating and sharing the images, which were initially made by a solo hobbyist who went by the name “deepfake”. While simple face swaps can be done in real time using apps such as Snapchat, the quality of the work posted by deepfake required much more processing time, and a wealth of original material for the AI system to learn from. But the computer science behind it is widely known, and a number of researchers have already demonstrated similar face swaps carried out using public figures from news footage. The creation of face-swapped pornography rapidly scaled up in late December, when another Reddit user (going by the name “deepfaceapp”) released a desktop app designed to let consumers create their own clips. While not easy to use – the app takes eight to 12 hours of processing time to make one short clip – the release of the app galvanized the creation of many more images. “I think the current version of the app is a good start, but I hope to streamline it even more in the coming days and weeks,” deepfakeapp said. “Eventually, I want to improve it to the point where prospective users can simply select a video on their computer, download a neural network correlated to a certain face from a publicly available library, and swap the video with a different face with the press of one button.” See also: Pornhub Is Banning AI-Generated Fake Porn Videos, Says They're Nonconsensual.

Facial Recognition Is Accurate, If You’re a White Guy – (New York Times – February 9, 2018)
Facial recognition technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Some commercial software can now tell the gender of a person in a photograph. When the person in the photo is a white man, the software is right 99% of the time. But the darker the skin, the more errors arise — up to nearly 35% for images of darker skinned women, according to a new study that breaks fresh ground by measuring how the technology works on people of different races and gender. These disparate results, calculated by Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the M.I.T. Media Lab, show how some of the biases in the real world can seep into artificial intelligence, the computer systems that inform facial recognition. In modern artificial intelligence, data rules. A.I. software is only as smart as the data used to train it. If there are many more white men than black women in the system, it will be worse at identifying the black women. One widely used facial-recognition data set was estimated to be more than 75% male and more than 80% white, according to another research study. Joy Buolamwini, now 28 and a doctoral student, after studying as a Rhodes scholar and a Fulbright fellow, she is an advocate in the new field of “algorithmic accountability,” which seeks to make automated decisions more transparent, explainable and fair. Her short TED Talk on coded bias has been viewed more than 940,000 times, and she founded the Algorithmic Justice League, a project to raise awareness of the issue.



NEW DISCOVERIES

Researchers Who Made Praying Mantises Wear Glasses Discover a New Type of Vision – (Washington Post – February 8, 2018)
Praying mantises do not perceive the world as you and I do. For starters, they're not very brainy — they're insects. A human brain has 85 billion neurons; insects such as mantises have fewer than a million. But mantises, despite their neuronal drought, have devised a way to see in three dimensions. They have a unique sort of vision unlike the 3-D sight used by primates or any other known creature, scientists at the University of Newcastle in Britain discovered recently. The scientists say they hope to apply this visionary technique to robots, allowing relatively unintelligent machines to see in 3-D. Using the beeswax like glue — in a way that did not harm the insects — the researchers affixed lenses to their faces. The lenses, similar to old-fashioned 3-D movie glasses, had one blue filter paired with one green filter. The mantises then were placed in front of a screen — an insect cinema, the researchers called it. “For the mantis, it looks like [targets] have to be moving. But they don't have to be matching,” Nityananda said. This is a previously unknown type of vision, the scientists concluded, one that is based on motion over time and rather than image comparison, which is what humans use to determine visual depth.

Attack of the Clones: Creature That Started as Pet Now Multiplying Out of Control – (Newsweek – February 5, 2018)
Most species of crayfish reproduce the same way that humans do. But one species of crayfish that evolved out of the pet trade can do something unique—clone itself—and this ability has led populations of the crustacean to spawn out of control. As reported in a study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers sequenced the genomes of 11 marbled crayfish, both from the wild and from the pet trade. They found that the genomes in all 11 animals were nearly identical, meaning that they don’t reproduce sexually, and that they are officially a different species than their North American mother species, Procambarus fallax. “Here we have an evolutionary event that has happened only a very short time ago,” according to Frank Lyko, Head of divisions of epigenetics at the German Cancer Research Center Lyko explained that forming a new species usually takes evolution thousands of years or more. However, it was only a few decades ago that the North American species of crayfish entered the pet trade, and now a different, exceptional species has emerged from them. P. fallax came to Germany as a pet, sold over the internet and in pet and aquarium stores. But at some point between 1990 and 1995, the animals evolved into a new species. The new species had marbled coloring, and it only existed in female form, spawning clones of themselves two or three times a year in a process called parthenogenesis. Because they spawn so quickly and easily, they’re easy to breed (clone) in captivity. That made them ideal for people selling the animals as pets, but it became a problem for people who only want one in their aquarium. “You put them into your aquarium and a year later you have hundreds of them,” Lyko explained. No dad required. Then what are you going to do? You can kill the others, sell them, or release them into nearby waterways. If the animals were once your pets, you might be inclined to release the extras—which, in turn, can create thousands more rapidly. That’s how the species became invasive to Germany and Madagascar where they were also popular pets. The scientists concluded that there are now millions of this unique but unstoppable creature crawling throughout Madagascar and constantly multiplying.

The Magnetic Field Is Shifting. The Poles May Flip. – (Undark – January 26, 2018)
We know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen. In the past few decades, geophysicists have tried to answer that question through satellite imagery and math. They have figured out how to peer deep inside the Earth, to the edge of the molten, metallic core where the magnetic field is continually being generated. It turns out that the dipole — the orderly two-pole magnetic field our compasses respond to — is under attack from within. The latest satellite data, from the European Space Agency’s Swarm trio, which began reporting in 2014, show swirling clusters of molten iron and nickel are gathering strength and draining energy from the dipole. The north magnetic pole is on the run, a sign of enhanced turbulence and unpredictability. A cabal in the Southern Hemisphere has already gained the upper hand over about a fifth of the Earth’s surface. If these magnetic blocs gain enough strength and weaken the dipole even more, they will force the north and south poles to switch places as they strive to regain supremacy. Scientists can’t say for sure that is happening now — the dipole could beat back the interlopers. But they can say that the phenomenon is intensifying and that they can’t rule out the possibility that a reversal is beginning. The Earth’s magnetic field protects our planet from dangerous solar and cosmic rays, like a giant shield. As the poles switch places (or try to), that shield is weakened; scientists estimate that it could waste away to as little as a tenth of its usual force. Already, changes within the Earth have weakened the field over the South Atlantic so much that satellites exposed to the resulting radiation have experienced memory failure. How bad could it be? Possibly very bad. The satellite timing systems that govern electric grids would be likely to fail. (This article is adapted from The Spinning Magnet: The Electromagnetic Force That Created the Modern World — and Could Destroy It, by Alanna Mitchell, recently published by Dutton.) On the other hand, you may want to take all this with a few grains of salt, possibly on the rim of a margarita glass. If so, see also: Doomsday Predictions about Earth’s Magnetic Pole Reversal Overblown.

Stone Tools from India Fan Debate over Origins of Cultural Complexity – (Scientific American – January 31, 2018)
Sometime around 400,000 years ago human ancestors went on an innovation bender. No longer content to make do with only the large hand axes and other hefty cutting tools that they and their predecessors had manufactured for more than a million years, they began fashioning sophisticated new kinds of stone tools. The novel tool types made more efficient use of raw material and were smaller, more portable, among other desirable traits. The shift was, by most accounts, a major technological advance, one that may have helped its makers push into previously impenetrable lands. For decades experts have debated which human species invented this new tool-making tradition—during what is called the Middle Stone Age in Africa and the Middle Paleolithic in Eurasia—and how it came to replace the preceding Acheulean tradition at locales across the globe. New findings from India add an intriguing data point to the picture. If the researchers are correct in their assessment, the Attirampakkam tools are by far the oldest Middle Paleolithic tools in India, besting the previous record holders by more than 200,000 years. And if people were making Middle Paleolithic stone tools as early as 385,000 years ago in India and other sites in Eurasia, and somewhat earlier in Africa, then the possibility of a far earlier dispersal of technologically advanced humans—perhaps H. sapiens—into India warrants consideration. But other archaeologists are not so sure about the Attirampakkam team’s interpretation of the stone tools.





GENETICS/HEALTH TECHNOLOGY/BIOTECHNOLOGY

Naked Mole-Rats Could Theoretically Live Forever, Study Suggests – (GizModo – January 30, 2018)
Some animals and plants, like species of jellyfish, tortoises, and trees, seem to have a sort of biological immortality. A recent study published in eLife provides more evidence there’s at least one more animal we should add to that list: the naked mole-rat. Scientists at Calico, a research firm under the umbrella of Google parent company Alphabet, have been studying more than 3,000 mole-rats for years. Armed with detailed birth and death records, they created a model of how likely an individual rat would be to die at any given point along its lifespan. Rats did die every so often, but the researchers couldn’t find any spike in the risk of dying as rats got older. The oldest mole-rat at the end of the study period was a smidge over 30. “This is the first mammal in which there is a lack of intrinsic mortality with increasing age,” study author Rochelle Buffenstein said. Over the 30-year-span they looked at, only around 400 mole-rats actually died of natural causes. They seem to only very rarely develop other age-related diseases, like cancer. And their behavior largely stays the same as they get older. All of which suggests to Buffenstein and her team that naked mole-rats could theoretically live as long as they’re lucky enough to avoid disease and injury. They also admit that there could be an upper limit where age starts mattering to mole-rats, but if there is, we haven’t seen the number yet. Buffenstein said the long term goal of this research is “to harness the information we glean from naked mole-rats to figure out ways to abrogate the aging process in humans.” Any discoveries Calico could make might not be as eagerly shared as you’d think, though, at least for a long time. Calico has been unusually secretive about its ongoing and planned research projects.

Scientists Found a New Way to Slow Alzheimer’s Progress – (Quartz – January 30, 2018)
One of the biggest tragedies of Alzheimer’s is by the time patients suspect something is wrong, there’s usually not a whole lot that medicine can do to help. The disease causes buildups of amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles that irreversibly degrade the brain, which leads to symptoms like confusion and forgetfulness. At the moment, there are only handful of medications available to treat the disease. Most are targeted at maintaining memory, and there’s nothing to stop symptoms from getting progressively worse to the point where they become fatal. However, in a recent pilot study, researchers at Ohio State University found a potential alternative: deep brain stimulation. Deep brain stimulation works by continuously tickling neurons in the frontal lobe of the brain with electrodes. Over the course of two years, three patients who had these electrodes implanted maintained more of their mental faculties than a group of control patients, who started out at similar stages of the disease. One woman in the test group even started making meals for herself—an ability she had lost in 2013. In the Ohio State study, the researchers targeted the frontal lobe, which is an outer region of the brain, and tends to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s much later in the disease’s progression. This is the region that we use to make plans, cook, run errands—essentially, the skills needed to live alone. “We chose this target that focuses on these cells that are still functioning pretty well, not actively degenerating like the memory circuits,” says Douglas Scharre, a neurologist and lead author of the paper. For reasons scientists don’t totally understand, “use it or lose it” is true when it comes to cognitive function. Stimulating these neurons with electrodes apparently keeps them active enough to slow down destructive chemical buildup around them.

This Biohacker Just Injected Himself With A DIY Herpes Treatment – (BuzzFeed – February 25, 2018)
Aaron Traywick was taking off his pants because, he explained to his audience, he needed access to his thigh muscles. Still wearing a suit jacket, he planted his bare left leg on a table and gingerly eased in a syringe. As the Facebook Live video rolled on Sunday afternoon, Traywick told the camera he was trying out a highly experimental, never-before-tested, gene-altering herpes treatment made by his own company: Ascendance Biomedical, a 20-person, largely self-funded biotech startup. In November, the Food and Drug Administration explicitly warned consumers about do-it-yourself gene therapies. But as Traywick took the stage at BdyHax, a biohacking and “transhumanism” conference in Austin, he didn’t look too worried about consequences. Traywick, Ascendance’s CEO, says his goal is to get potentially life-saving treatments out of the lab and into patients’ hands faster than pharmaceutical companies can. By making himself a public guinea pig for the company’s herpes cure — he caught the disease five years ago from a partner — he said he’s promoting transparency in science. He likened himself to Jonas Salk, who developed the first effective polio vaccine, and Louis Pasteur, pioneer of pasteurizing bacteria: “I’m a biohacker in the Salk or Pasteurian sense.” To others, such comparisons couldn’t be further from the truth. Ascendance has revealed few details about the science of its herpes treatment, and it hasn’t been tested on animals. Given that other gene therapies have taken decades to develop, experts are skeptical that this one actually works. In a couple weeks, Traywick will examine his blood samples to see if the treatment gene is present and whether the herpes virus has decreased. Later, a company scientist plans to stage a similar demonstration of a home-grown herpes vaccine. Ascendance’s public experimentation comes as proposed national legislation would give some patients access to non-FDA-approved drugs, and gene-editing technologies are entering the medical mainstream. Last year, the FDA approved the first gene therapies, which aim to treat or prevent diseases by inserting genetic material into a patient’s cells. But they come at a steep price. Luxturna, which treats a rare form of inherited vision loss, costs $425,000 per eye.

Researchers Discover 'Anxiety Cells' In the Brain – (NPR – January 31, 2018)
Scientists have found specialized brain cells in mice that appear to control anxiety levels. The finding, reported Wednesday in the journal Neuron, could eventually lead to better treatments for anxiety disorders, which affect nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. "The therapies we have now have significant drawbacks," says Mazen Kheirbek, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco and an author of the study. Kheirbek and a team of researchers discovered the cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain known to be involved in anxiety as well as navigation and memory. They did it by studying some anxious mice, Kheirbek says. "Mice tend to be afraid of open places," he says. So the team put mice in a maze in which some pathways led to open areas. Then the researchers monitored the activity of brain cells at the very bottom of the hippocampus. "And what we found is that these cells became more active whenever the animal went into an area that elicits anxiety," Kheirbek says. This activity didn't prove the cells were causing anxious behavior, though. So the team found a way to control the activity of these cells using a technique called optogenetics. The team set out to answer a simple question, Kheirbek says: "If we turn down this activity, will the animals become less anxious? And what we found was that they did become less anxious. They actually tended to want to explore the open arms of the maze even more." When the researchers dialed up the cells' activity, the mice got more anxious and didn't want to explore at all. The research is at an early stage and lab findings in animals don't always pan out in humans.

Cancer ‘Vaccine’ Eliminates Tumors in Mice – (Stanford University – January 31, 2018)
Injecting minute amounts of two immune-stimulating agents directly into solid tumors in mice can eliminate all traces of cancer in the animals, including distant, untreated metastases, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The approach works for many different types of cancers, including those that arise spontaneously, the study found. The researchers believe the local application of very small amounts of the agents could serve as a rapid and relatively inexpensive cancer therapy that is unlikely to cause the adverse side effects often seen with bodywide immune stimulation. “When we use these two agents together, we see the elimination of tumors all over the body,” said Ronald Levy, MD, professor of oncology. “This approach bypasses the need to identify tumor-specific immune targets and doesn’t require wholesale activation of the immune system or customization of a patient’s immune cells.” One agent is currently already approved for use in humans; the other has been tested for human use in several unrelated clinical trials. A clinical trial was launched in January to test the effect of the treatment in patients with lymphoma. Levy’s method works to reactivate the cancer-specific T cells by injecting microgram amounts of two agents directly into the tumor site. (A microgram is one-millionth of a gram). One, a short stretch of DNA called a CpG oligonucleotide, works with other nearby immune cells to amplify the expression of an activating receptor called OX40 on the surface of the T cells. The other, an antibody that binds to OX40, activates the T cells to lead the charge against the cancer cells. Because the two agents are injected directly into the tumor, only T cells that have infiltrated it are activated. In effect, these T cells are “prescreened” by the body to recognize only cancer-specific proteins.

Major Mental Illnesses Unexpectedly Share Brain Gene Activity, Raising Hope for Better Diagnostics and Therapies – (Science – February 8, 2018)
Mental illness affects one in six U.S. adults, but scientists' sense of the underlying biology of most psychiatric disorders remains nebulous. However, a large-scale analysis of postmortem brains is revealing distinctive molecular traces in people with mental illness. This week, an international team of researchers reports that five major psychiatric disorders have patterns of gene activity that often overlap but also vary in disease-specific—and sometimes counterintuitive—ways. The findings, they say, might someday lead to diagnostic tests and novel therapies, and one has already inspired a clinical trial of a new way to treat overactive brain cells in autism. Five years ago, for example, the global Psychiatric Genomics Consortium found that people with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder frequently share certain DNA variations. But that 2013 study did not say how those genetic alterations might lead to symptoms. Dan Geschwind, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who spearheaded the new work, wanted to know what happens at the molecular level in the brains of people with these disorders. He, his UCLA colleague Mike Gandal, and their team analyzed gene expression patterns from the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer, of 700 postmortem patients with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or alcoholism and compared the patterns with those from the brains of 293 matched healthy controls. For another control, they also looked at cortical gene expression in 197 patients with inflammatory bowel disease, which should help exclude general disease processes shared by non–central nervous system conditions. The analysis revealed that certain psychiatric diseases are more similar biologically than their characteristic symptoms indicate – and that other diseases that one might expect to be biologically similar are not.

You May Soon Be Able to Regrow an Arm Or Leg – (Armstrong Economics – January 30, 2018)
The Mexican axolotl salamander can regrow lost limbs in a matter of weeks including bones, muscles, and nerves. When scientists sought to map its DNA to figure out how it does it, to their shock, it turned out to be more than 10 times bigger than that of human DNA. Indeed, it had 32 billion base pairs of DNA making it the largest genome ever sequenced. A gene called PAX3, previously considered to be essential to the development of an organism, was completely missing from the genome. Instead, the related gene PAX7 appears to have taken over those critical functions. What researchers discovered was several genes unique to axolotls and other amphibians that are linked to regeneration. While they may be still decades away from regrowing limb, this DNA sequencing may lead to the development of new methods to heal wounds faster.




ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES/CLIMATE

Cape Town Faces Day Zero: What Happens When the City Turns off the Taps? – (Guardian – February 3, 2018)
In 10 weeks engineers will turn off water for a million homes as this South African city reacts to one-in-384-year drought. The rich are digging boreholes, more are panic-buying bottled water, and the army is on standby. T he head of Cape Town’s disaster operations center is drawing up a plan he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the frontline of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps. “We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” says Greg Pillay. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario.” The plan – being drawn up with the emergency services, the military, epidemiologists and other health experts – is geared towards Day Zero, the apocalyptically named point when water in the six-dam reservoir system falls to 13.5% of capacity. The head of Cape Town’s disaster operations centre is drawing up a plan he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the frontline of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps. In place of piped water, the city will establish 200 water collection points, scattered around the city to ensure the legally guaranteed minimum of 25 liters (6 gallons) per person per day within 200 meters of every citizen’s home. “A bigger concern is to ensure the economy doesn’t collapse. We need to keep business and jobs going … Clearly, there could be a severe impact. It depends on how long it continues,” said deputy mayor, Ian Neilson, who adds that he has not had a bath at home for a year. Neilson stresses that Day Zero can be avoided. A lowering of pipe pressure and a public information campaign to conserve water have cut the city’s daily water consumption from 1,200 million liters to 540 million liters. If this can be pushed down another 25%, the taps should stay open to the start of the rainy season in May. But this is no guarantee. Three consecutive years of drought have made a mockery of normal seasonal patterns. “We’re in a critical transition period where the past is no longer an accurate guide to the future,” says Colvin. (Editor’s note: We highly recommend this article which goes on to cover multiple societal aspects of this situation.) Follow up: On February 9, 6 millimeters of rain, or about 0.24 inches were recorded at Cape Town's Slangkop Lighthouse overnight. But one night of rain is far from what Cape Town needs to avoid the looming water crisis. “Day Zero” has now been pushed back to May 11.



COMMUNICATIONS/COMPUTING

Early Facebook and Google Employees Are Planning to Lobby Against Tech Addiction – (Quartz – February 4, 2018)
A new alliance made up of former Silicon Valley cronies has assembled to challenge the technological Frankenstein they’ve collectively created. The Center for Humane Technology is a group comprising former employees and pals of Google, Facebook, and Mozilla. The nonprofit hopes that it can raise awareness about the societal tolls of technology, which its members believe are inherently addictive. The group will lobby for a bill to research the effects of technology on children’s health. It was drafted by US senator Ed Markey, who was also an author of the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, better known as COPPA. On Feb. 7, the group’s members will participate in a conference focused on digital health for kids, hosted by the nonprofit Common Sense. Tristan Harris, who worked at Google for three years as a design ethicist, is one person who has been a vocal critic of his former employer. He’s also the founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit that he calls a “movement” to rethink how people use their time online. His new organization moves away from helping people take control of their time, and focuses instead on raising awareness of what he believes are the manipulative design techniques of, as he put it in a recent Bloomberg interview, a “civilization-scale mind-control machine.”

This Electronic Skin Can Heal Itself — and Then Make More Skin – (The Verge – February 9, 2018)
In a quest to make electronic devices more environmentally friendly, researchers have created an electronic skin that can be completely recycled. The e-skin can also heal itself if it’s torn apart. The device is basically a thin film equipped with sensors that can measure pressure, temperature, humidity, and air flow. The film is made of three commercially available compounds mixed together in a matrix and laced with silver nanoparticles: when the e-skin is cut in two, adding the three compounds to the “wound” allows the e-skin to heal itself by recreating chemical bonds between the two sides. That way, the matrix is restored and the e-skin is as good as new. If the e-skin is broken beyond repair, it can just be soaked in a solution that “liquefies” it so that the materials can be reused to make new e-skin. One day, this electronic skin could be used in prosthetics, robots, or smart textiles. This latest e-skin is special because it’s recyclable — and that’s an important added bonus if you consider that in the US alone, 16 billion pounds of electronic waste was created in 2014. All these circuit boards, transistors, and hard drives can contain toxic chemicals that need to be disposed of properly. The e-skin isn’t perfect. It’s soft, but not as stretchy as human skin. Xiao says he and his colleagues are also working to make the device more scalable, so that it’ll be easier to manufacture and embed in prosthetics or robots. But it’s the fact that the e-skin can be recycled that gets Xiao excited.

Google's Pixel Buds Translation Will Change the World – (Engadget – October 4, 2017)
Not to be outdone by Apple's Air Pods and their wirelessly-charging TicTac storage case, Google packed its headphones (in combination with the Pixel 2) with the power to translate between 40 languages, literally in real-time. The company has finally done what science fiction and countless Kickstarters have been promising us, but failing to deliver on, for years. This technology could fundamentally change how we communicate across the global community. The Google Pixel Buds are wireless headphones designed for use with the company's new Pixel 2 handset. Once you've paired the phones to the handset, you can simply tap the right earpiece and issue a command to Google Assistant on the Pixel 2. You can have it play music, give you directions, place a phone call and whatnot, you know, all the standards. But if you tell it to "Help me speak Japanese" and then start speaking in English, the phone's speakers will output your translated words as you speak them. The other party's reply (presumably in Japanese) will then play into your ear through the Pixel Buds. At a Google demonstration, there appeared to be virtually zero lag time during the translation, though we'll have to see how well that performance holds up in the real world with wonky WiFi connections, background noise and crosstalk. With these devices in circulation, the barriers of communications simply fall away. You'll be able to walk up to nearly anybody in another country and hold a fluid, natural language conversation without the need for pantomime and large hand gestures, or worry of offending with a mispronunciation. International commerce and communication could become as mundane as making a local phone call. The frictions of international diplomacy could be smoothed as well, ensuring that not only are a diplomat's words faithfully translated but that a copy of the conversation is recorded as well.

The Making of the Largest Satellite Constellation in History – (Motherboard – January 27, 2018)
Matt Desch didn’t set out to change the world, but he just might do it anyway. As the CEO of Iridium, the only company that provides satellite communications to every inch of the globe, he is at the helm of Next, a fleet of telecommunications satellites that is arguably one of the most ambitious space projects ever undertaken. By this time next year, Iridium will have sent 75 Next satellites into orbit. Each one will be replacing a first-generation Iridium satellite that has been in orbit for almost two decades. Once these new satellites are in place, they will establish radio contact with one another over thousands of miles of empty space to create the largest and most complex mesh network ever placed in orbit. Like the first-generation network, these Iridium Next satellites will provide critical phone and data services to everyone from scientists in Antarctica and military contractors in the Middle East, to drug mules in Central America and climbers on the summit of Mount Everest. But the Next constellation also comes with a suite of new features. Not only will it provide an orbital backbone for the expanding Internet of Things, the satellite network will also be tracking planes and ships in regions they’ve never been tracked before. Almost 70% of the Earth isn’t covered by radar, which is why the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight was able to disappear into the ocean in 2014 without a trace. Iridium hopes to make this impossible. (Editor’s note: The article is basically an infomercial, but it’s quite high on “info” and rather interesting.)



SHELTER/ARCHITECTURE

Heatworks Shrinks the Standard Dishwasher to Fit Inside Micro Homes – (Dezeen – January 26, 2018)
Heatworks has created a countertop, app-controlled dishwasher for small homes, which can also be used to sanitize baby products, wash plastic storage containers without melting, cook seafood, and even clean fruit and vegetables. Made in collaboration with design firm Frog, the compact Tetra dishwasher doesn't require plumbing to work – meaning it can be used anywhere that has a standard electrical outlet. To use the dishwasher, users simply load it with water and a small amount of detergent. Then, Heatworks' patented Ohmic Array Technology employs graphite electrodes and electronic controls to agitate the natural minerals found in water – causing it to heat up. The temperature can be controlled and monitored through an accompanying app, which also allows users to start washing cycles remotely. Although small, it can hold up to two full place settings – including plates, bowls, cups, and cutlery – or, alternatively, it can hold up to 12 pint glasses. The wash cycle lasts just 10 minutes and requires around half a gallon per load.



TRANSPORTATION

Gyrocar - Future Gyroscopic Public Transportation – (YouTube – August 30, 2017)
This videoclip is pure concept, looking for funding. One would certainly want to ask a lot of questions about the science behind the concept and the practicality of the products – some professional firefighters who commented on the fire engine prototype found it ridiculous – but there may be something of value here. At the very least, it’s whacky enough to be worth a look.






SECURITY AND THE FUTURE OF WARFARE

Blackwater and the Corporate Mercenaries Who’ve Changed the Rules of War – (Nation of Change – February 1, 2018)
Mercenaries have gone corporate. The United Nations Mercenary Convention, signed in 2001, defines and places limits on what constitutes mercenaries. Although there are notable holdouts, the position of the UN is that mercenarism is against international humanitarian law. But this hardly seems to matter because, by exploiting loopholes in international law along with some creative “lawyering,” the modern mercenary now operates with impunity. The public remains largely unaware that these Companies like these often provide straightforward services such as prison or event security. But increasingly, the line between security and quasi-military operations has been blurred as corporations take on ever more military-capable assignments. Companies in this line of work staff themselves with ex-Special Forces, presumably for their skills in combat. Now, those same firms are lobbying to privatize war. Many recall Blackwater, a company that became notorious in the Iraq War when its “employees” murdered 17 Iraqi civilians. After re-branding Blackwater as Xe, then selling it in order to escape its universally bad reputation, company founder Erik Prince went on to create Academi (Blackwater 3.0). Prince, who is the brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, then had the audacity to propose that America’s ongoing war in Afghanistan be outsourced to private companies. Prince has detailed how the Afghanistan war of his fantasies would be funded — with potential profits from war in the Helmand province alone reaching more than $1 trillion. See also this recommended article: Erik Prince Has His Eye on Afghanistan's Rare Metals. The U.S. remains one of the notable holdouts of the 2001 UN treaty — known in full as the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries — and it is unlikely we will ever join. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq increasingly relied on private contractors, Blackwater being only the most infamous. During both wars, in fact, private contractors frequently constituted a majority of forces serving, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Fitness Tracking App Strava Gives Away Location of Secret US Army Bases – (Guardian – January 28, 2018)
Sensitive information about the location and staffing of military bases and spy outposts around the world has been revealed by a fitness tracking company. The details were released by Strava in a data visualization map that shows all the activity tracked by users of its app, which allows people to record their exercise and share it with others. The map, released in November 2017, shows every single activity ever uploaded to Strava – more than 3 trillion individual GPS data points, according to the company. The app can be used on various devices including smartphones and fitness trackers like Fitbit to see popular running routes in major cities, or spot individuals in more remote areas who have unusual exercise patterns. However, over the weekend military analysts noticed that the map is also detailed enough that it potentially gives away extremely sensitive information about a subset of Strava users: military personnel on active service. In locations like Afghanistan, Djibouti and Syria, the users of Strava seem to be almost exclusively foreign military personnel, meaning that bases stand out brightly. In Helmand province, Afghanistan, for instance, the locations of forward operating bases can be clearly seen, glowing white against the black map. Zooming in on one of the larger bases clearly reveals its internal layout, as mapped out by the tracked jogging routes of numerous soldiers. When “everything is listening”, data starts to show up in unexpected places. The base itself is not visible on the satellite views of commercial providers such as Google Maps or Apple’s Maps, yet it can be clearly seen through Strava.




TRENDS OF GOVERNANCE

As Trump Unfurls Infrastructure Plan, Iowa Bill Seeks to Criminalize Pipeline Protests – (Nation of Change – February 2, 2018)
The article’s title may overstate the Iowa bill – or it may capture exactly the underlying intent of the bill. The Iowa Senate has advanced a bill which critics say could lead to the criminalization of pipeline protests, which are being cast as “terrorist activities.” Dakota Access pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners and other companies have lobbied for the bill, Senate Study Bill 3062, which opens up the possibility of prison time and a hefty fine for those who commit “sabotage” of critical infrastructure, such as oil and gas pipelines. This bill, carrying a criminal punishment of up to 25 years in prison and $100,000 in fines, resembles the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, a “model” bill recently passed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That ALEC bill, intended as a template for state and federal legislation, was based on Oklahoma’s HB 1123, which calls for citizens to receive a felony sentencing, $100,000 fine, and/or 10 years in prison if their actions “willfully damage, destroy, vandalize, deface, or tamper with equipment in a critical infrastructure facility.” The Iowa State Police Association has also come out in support of the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa is against it. According to disclosure records, corporations lobbying for the Iowa bill include not only Energy Transfer Partners, but also Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute, Valero Energy, Magellan Midstream, and others. The bill has passed out of subcommittee and next goes in front of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill’s introduction comes as President Donald Trump called for Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill in his State of the Union Address, which according to a leaked outline of his proposal published by The Washington Post, includes pipelines and would expedite the federal regulatory permitting process for them, largely by simply removing environmental requirements.



LIFE STYLE/SOCIAL TRENDS AND VALUES

Not Just Boy and Girl; More Teens Identify as Transgender – (Associated Press – February 5, 2018)
Far more U.S. teens than previously thought are transgender or identify themselves using other nontraditional gender terms, with many rejecting the idea that girl and boy are the only options, new research suggests. The study looked at students in ninth and 11th grade and estimated that nearly 3 percent are transgender or gender nonconforming, meaning they don’t always self-identify as the sex they were assigned at birth. That includes kids who refer to themselves using neutral pronouns like "them" instead of "he" or "she." "Diverse gender identities are more prevalent than people would expect," said lead author Nic Rider, a University of Minnesota postdoctoral fellow who studies transgender health. The study is an analysis of a 2016 statewide survey of almost 81,000 Minnesota teens. Nearly 2,200 identified as transgender or gender nonconforming. The study found that these kids reported worse mental and physical health than other kids, echoing results seen in previous research. Bullying and discrimination are among possible reasons for the differences, Rider said, although the survey didn’t ask. Rider said it’s a study based on a statewide population of teens in ninth and 11th grades and that the results can be used to estimate numbers of trans and gender nonconforming teens in those grades across the United States. The survey Rider analyzed asked about the sex the teens were assigned at birth, and if they considered themselves transgender, gender queer, gender fluid or unsure about their gender identity. Kids were not asked if they had undergone surgery or other medical treatment to transition to the opposite sex. Dr. Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote in an accompanying opinion article in Pediatrics that the study supports other research suggesting that earlier counts of the trans population "have been underestimated by orders of magnitude." He said that the higher numbers should serve as a lesson to schools and physicians to abandon limited views of gender. "Youth are rejecting this binary thinking and are asking adults to keep up," he wrote.

Is Social Media Causing Childhood Depression? – (BBC News – February 10, 2018)
A group of US child welfare experts recently wrote to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg urging him to close down Messenger Kids - a messaging app developed for children - saying it was irresponsible to encourage pre-teens to use the platform. It cited evidence of adolescents reporting severe mood changes because of social media use and girls as young as 10 facing body image issues because of the pictures they are bombarded with on platforms such as Facebook-owned Instagram. A 2017 study by The Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) asked 1,500 young people aged 11-25 to track their moods while using the five most popular social media sites. It suggested Snapchat and Instagram were the most likely to inspire feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. YouTube had the most positive influence. Seven in 10 said Instagram made them feel worse about body image and half of 14-24-year-olds reported Instagram and Facebook exacerbated feelings of anxiety. Two-thirds said Facebook made cyber-bullying worse. The study led Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH, to call for three specific changes: pop-up notification when a young person has spent a certain amount of time online; a watermark on photos that have been digitally manipulated; and school lessons on how to use social media in a healthy way.



CONTACT AND THE EXPLORATION OF SPACE

Scientists Use Microbes to Convert Human Waste into Space Food – (Zee News – January 31, 2018)
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University outlined a method to break down solid and liquid waste for producing protein and fat-rich substance from human waste in their study. The study was published in the quarterly scientific journal Life Sciences in Space Research. "We envisioned and tested the concept of simultaneously treating astronauts' waste with microbes while producing a biomass that is edible either directly or indirectly, depending on safety concerns," said Christopher House, professor of geosciences and director of the Penn State Astrobiology Research Centre. "It's a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite, where you are eating a smear of microbial goo," Xinhua said quoting the professor. Food supply is a major hurdle when planning lengthy space flights. Recycling waste into nutritious food is one solution to this problem. According to House and his colleagues, the method involves anaerobic digestion, a process that refers to the breakdown of materials in the absence of oxygen. It is considered an efficient way of breaking down biodegradable matter. The researcher said while their method is not ready for application yet, it provides a new model for creating food on board a spacecraft.

Galaxies That Move Together Have Cosmologists Stumped about Dark Matter – (LA Times – February 1, 2018)
Astronomers have discovered that the smaller satellite galaxies around Centaurus A are engaged in a coordinated dance that seems out of sync with our understanding of the large-scale structure of the universe. The discovery could push physicists to redefine our understanding of dark matter, that mysterious stuff that forms the universe's cosmic web. Dark matter can't be seen or touched. And yet we know it must be there because there's so much of it that its gravitational influence affects the spinning of galaxies. There's more than five times as much dark matter as there is normal matter — normal matter being the stuff that makes up the stars, the galaxies, Earth and every living thing that inhabits it. There are a lot of theories to explain what dark matter is. Currently, the prevailing idea is that "cold dark matter" forms giant clumps connected by dark matter filaments in a cosmic web. The results of this research mean that our ideas about dark matter need to be tweaked — or perhaps even revised entirely, study coauthor Marcel Pawlowski, an astrophysicist at UC Irvine, said. Perhaps dark matter doesn't exist, and there are simply changes to the behavior of gravity in different situations that make it seem like some kind of invisible mass is at work. But modifying models of how gravity works is much easier said than done.



STATISTICS/DEMOGRAPHICS

Caveat Emptor: Science vs. CDC on Scary Flu Shot Promotions – (Collective Evolution – January 28, 2018)
Flu shots are big business: industry analysts estimate that within the next five years, the U.S. flu vaccine market will be worth almost $3 billion annually. And profit margins are growing as manufacturers increase price premiums for the newer four-strain vaccines. The U.S. expects to distribute roughly 166 million doses for the 2017-18 flu season, up from 146 million doses in the previous year. Using spokespeople like Paul Offit and Peter Hotez as well as its extensive media partnerships and captive bureaucrats at CDC, the pharmaceutical industry has effectively banished the scientific debate about flu shot safety and efficacy from the public square. And what are the scientific facts about the flu shot? The science indicates significant risks and low efficacy, both in the U.S. and internationally. In 2010, for example, Australia suspended its influenza vaccination program for children under five after one in 110 children experienced convulsions and other serious reactions within hours of getting their flu shots. In Italy in 2014, authorities suspended half a million doses of an influenza vaccine containing a proprietary adjuvant after 13 suspicious deaths occurred in people who got the shot. Closer to home, local news includes a steady stream of reports about healthy individuals acknowledged to have died on the heels of receiving their flu shot in recent years. See also this article from Time magazine: How Effective Is the 2018 Flu Shot? Here's What You Should Know, which notes that “Early findings from Canada indicate a 17% effectiveness against the viral strain, known as H3N2, that’s been the main culprit of flu in the U.S. this winter.”



NEW TOOLS/NEW PROCESSES

China Creates a Laser of Mind-Boggling Power – (Daily Galaxy – January 25, 2018)
Inside a cramped laboratory in Shanghai, China, physicist Ruxin Li and colleagues are breaking records with the most powerful pulses of light the world has ever seen. At the heart of their laser, called the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility (SULF), is a single cylinder of titanium-doped sapphire about the width of a Frisbee. After kindling light in the crystal and shunting it through a system of lenses and mirrors, the SULF distills it into pulses of mind-boggling power. In 2016, it achieved an unprecedented 5.3 million billion watts, or petawatts (PW). The lights in Shanghai do not dim each time the laser fires, however. Although the pulses are extraordinarily powerful, they are also infinitesimally brief, lasting less than a trillionth of a second. The researchers are now upgrading their laser and hope to beat their own record by the end of this year with a 10-PW shot, which would pack more than 1000 times the power of all the world's electrical grids combined. This year, Li and colleagues intend to start building a 100-PW laser known as the Station of Extreme Light (SEL). By 2023, it could be flinging pulses into a chamber 20 meters underground, subjecting targets to extremes of temperature and pressure not normally found on Earth, a boon to astrophysicists and materials scientists alike. The laser could also power demonstrations of a new way to accelerate particles for use in medicine and high-energy physics. But most alluring, Li says, would be showing that light could tear electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, from empty space—a phenomenon known as "breaking the vacuum." It would be a striking illustration that matter and energy are interchangeable, as Albert Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation states.



ECONOMY/FINANCE/BUSINESS

A Strategist’s Guide to China’s Belt and Road Initiative – (Economy+Business – January 22, 2018)
China’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), formerly known as One Belt, One Road, is a vast, interconnected infrastructure project that spans at least 65 countries with a combined population of 4.4 billion and about a third of the world’s economic output. The plan is notable not just for its scale, but for its time frame. Its first phase focuses on infrastructure development, specifically in transportation, communications, and power. The second phase will involve softer sectors such as e-commerce, healthcare, education, and financial services. The first projects are just starting now, and the whole initiative is not expected to conclude until at least 2050. Already, the rail elements of the plan alone rank as one of the biggest infrastructure pushes ever undertaken. The total estimated value of its 18 planned Chinese high-speed rail projects — of which five are under way — comes to US$143 billion, according to calculations by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank. The BRI’s goals are multipronged. The initiative will provide markets to absorb China’s industrial over-capacity and facilitate trade with and between participating countries, while also potentially strengthening China’s diplomatic relations across its six economic corridors (four overland, two maritime). It could also help internationalize the renminbi. Finally, it will enable China to gain global recognition in developing complex transnational infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail networks. The BRI is not the only comprehensive initiative of this sort emerging in the 21st century, however. (Editor’s note: This is a long article, strongly oriented to the international business community. But even if the business development aspects are not relevant to you, we recommend the first third of the article simply as a means to grasp the very far-ranging vision behind the BRI. It makes US infrastructure plans look puny indeed.)

AutoNation Just Decided to Stop Caring About Pot Smoking – (Bloomberg – January 29, 2018)
The largest U.S. auto-dealer chain has lightened up on lighting up. AutoNation Inc. no longer refuses to hire job applicants who test positive for marijuana in drug screenings, Chief Executive Officer Mike Jackson said in an interview. The shift, which Jackson said was made quietly two years ago, shows that corporate America’s hiring practices are evolving along with pot’s legal status. AutoNation will still bar anyone who tests positive for other illegal drugs, including cocaine, Jackson said. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based company, which is largely controlled by Bill Gates’s Cascade Investment LLC and hedge fund billionaire Edward Lampert, employs 26,000 people. AutoNation may represent the first wave of a coming trend as marijuana becomes more socially acceptable and companies vie for workers in the tightest labor market in 17 years. A Gallup poll in October found that 64% of Americans are in favor of legalization, the most since the firm started asking the question in 1969, when only 12% supported it. “Companies recognize that they don’t screen for alcohol,” said John Challenger, co-founder of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based employment firm. “So why would they do it for pot? As the war for talent grows and gets fiercer, it makes no sense to rule out a whole segment of candidates on something that just is no longer relevant.”



PROVOCATIVE IDEAS

Michio Kaku Described What Life Will Look Like in Twenty Years – (Futurism – February 11, 2018)
Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, futurist, and popular science communicator, spoke on the topic of “Change” at the World Government Summit in Dubai. According to Kaku, in the next twenty years, things are going to get really weird. From toilets that read our proteins to walls that talk to us, Kaku painted a staggeringly beautiful (and somewhat comical) picture of the world of tomorrow. Kaku began by noting that, as the years pass, our vernacular will evolve, keeping pace with advances in technology. What does this mean, practically speaking? That we’ll lose “computers.” No, we won’t literally lose them, but we will lose that term. “The word ‘computer’ will disappear from the English language,” he said, adding that we will no longer say “computer” because the devices will be truly ubiquitous. From our bodies to our streets, everything will be a computer. There will be nothing that is not a computer. Your house will be more than a place to call home — it will be a tool in and of itself. Oh, and you will also talk to your wallpaper. Wait, what?

AI May Have Finally Decoded the Bizarre, Mysterious Voynich Manuscript – (Science Alert – January 30, 2018)
For centuries, it's been the book no human can understand, but we may finally now be able to read it – thanks to machines invented a half-millennia after it was written. The Voynich manuscript, often called the world's most mysterious book, consists of some 240 pages of cryptic text written in an intricate, unknown language, accompanied by strange diagrams and illustrations. It even has fold-out pages, which is pretty nifty for a medieval tome dated to the early 15th century. It's been owned by alchemists and emperors, before surfacing in modern times in the early 20th century, when a Polish book dealer called Wilfrid Voynich chanced upon it in 1912, unwittingly lending the mysterious book his name. Since then, any number of cryptographers, codebreakers, and linguists have attempted to unravel the secrets of the Voynich manuscript, but the obscure code contained in its pages – along with the strange drawings of plants, symbols, and bathing women – has defied explanation. Now, Canadian computer scientists may have a new lead in the case. "The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script that encodes an unknown language," the authors write, "which is the most challenging type of a decipherment problem." University of Alberta researchers employed artificial intelligence to decode sections of the ancient manuscript, using a technique called algorithmic decipherment to reveal the underlying, encrypted language hidden behind the strange book's words.



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

U.S., UK Government Websites Infected With Crypto-Mining Malware: Report – (Reuters – February 11, 2018)
Thousands of websites, including ones run by U.S. and UK government agencies, were infected for several hours recently with code that causes web browsers to secretly mine digital currencies, technology news site The Register reported. More than 4,200 sites were infected with a malicious version of a widely used tool known as Browsealoud from British software maker Texthelp, which reads out webpages for people with vision problems, according to The Register. The news comes amid a surge in cyber attacks using software that forces infected computers to mine crypto currencies on behalf of hackers. The prevalence of these schemes has increased in recent months as the volume of trading in bitcoin and other crypto currencies has surged. The tainted version of Browsealoud caused inserted software for mining the digital currency Monero to run on computers that visited infected sites, generating money for the hackers behind the attack. See also: BBC News article, Russian Nuclear Scientists Arrested for Bitcoin Mining Plot. The suspects had tried to use one of Russia's most powerful supercomputers to mine Bitcoins.



JUST FOR FUN

Train Driver's View: Winter on the Flåm Line – (YouTube – December 5, 2017)
Winter has finally hit the steepest normal gauge railway in northern Europe. With its gradient of 1:18 (55‰), the Flåm Line goes from Flåm to Myrdal in Aurland, Norway where it connects to the Bergen Line. Flåm is located 2m (6.5ft) above sea level and Myrdal is located 866m (2841ft) above sea level. The line is 20.2km (12.6miles) long. The winter scenery is beautiful and you have the best view of anyone on the train. Sit back and enjoy the ride.



A FINAL QUOTE

The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine." -- Nikola Tesla



A special thanks to: Chas Freeman, Ursula Freer, Diane Petersen, Gary Sycalik, Steve Ujvarosy and all of you who have sent us interesting links in the past. If you see something we should know about, do send it along - thanks.
johnp@arlingtoninstitute.org




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Edited by John L. Petersen
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