All posts by Mark Webster

Apple commentator and trainer, history writer, publisher

The Apocalypticon ~ The rich will eat us, facial recognition, surveillance, Google, Facebook, jobs, data breaches, all-time heat records


Yes, hello, I’m back from a  three-week holiday, sorry about that folks, but sometimes I just have to have a break. Still, the world keeps churning …
The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind, writes Douglas Rushkoff, describing what he learned from a high-paying speaking gig about the future of technology for “five super-wealthy guys…from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world.”The Event was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus or Mr Robot that takes everything down. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader…? This is the possible Survival of the Richest.
A new paper from the Center for Global Development says we are spending too much time discussing whether robots can take your job and not enough time discussing what happens next
Facial recognition ad surveillance — After all the concern, British Police have admitted no one was arrested during a trial of controversial facial recognition technology, which sparked privacy and human rights concerns.
But you can beat it. Die-hard fans of the rap group Insane Clown Posse have become accidental heroes for people concerned about facial recognition tech: according to Twitter user @tahkion, a computer science blogger for WonderHowTo, Juggalo makeup outmatches the machine learning algorithms that govern facial recognition technology.
One of many futuristic ideas Walmart has sought to patent is worker surveillance tech that ‘listens’ to them. There’s no guarantee that Walmart will ever build this technology, but the patent shows the company is thinking about using tech not just to facilitate deliveries or make its warehouses more efficient, but also to manage its workforce, which is the largest in the United States. [I prefer to call it ‘Apallmart, myself.]
Two privacy-focused organizations have accused German police of carrying out raids at their offices and members’ private homes on some pretty shoddy reasoning that makes no sense and hints at the police’s abuse of power. [Police abusing over? N-e-v-e-r…]

Jobs — Microsoft may move jobs abroad since Trump’s policies stop it finding the right workers: The Trump Administration’s tough stance on immigration has attracted a lot of criticism from big technology firms, which rely heavily on skilled foreign workers from around the world. Smith previously spoke out against efforts to stop the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – an Obama-era policy that provides legal protection for young immigrants brought to the US illegally as children. Microsoft has advocated the protection of DACA and more broadly supported immigration as a way to make sure US companies are hiring talented people. [The problem with DACA is simply Obama’s touch as far as the sensitive bully that Trump is concerned – but worthiness has never been a sop to him cutting off his orange nose to spite his orange face.]

Once more into the (data) breach – and hacks: The information operatives who worked out of the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, Russia did not stop at posing as American social media users or spreading false information from purported news sources, according to new details. They also created a number of Twitter accounts that posed as sources for Americans’ hometown headlines.
And another for the curse that is Google: According to The Wall Street Journal, hundreds of app developers have access to millions of inboxes belonging to Gmail users. The developers reportedly receive access to messages from Gmail users who signed up for things like price-comparison services or automated travel-itinerary planners. Some of these companies train software to scan the email, while others enable their workers to pore over private messages. [Honestly, Gmail users, do you need any more reasons not to use Google services? OK, here’s another …]
A user on Medium named Punch a Server says you should not use Google Cloud due to the no-warnings-given, abrupt way the plug is pulled on your entire system if they (or the machines) believe something is wrong. The user has a project running in production on Google Cloud (GCP) that is used to monitor hundreds of wind turbines and scores of solar plants scattered across 8 countries.
Apple is more secure, you know? And the free iCloud email that every Apple user can have FOR FREE is end-to-end encrypted by default. Apple just released iOS 11.4.1, and while most of us are already looking ahead to all the new stuff coming in iOS 12, this small update contains an important new security feature: USB Restricted Mode. Apple has added protections against the USB devices being used by law enforcement and private companies that connect over Lightning to crack an iPhone’s passcode and evade Apple’s usual encryption safeguards.

IBM and the cost of data breaches — IBM Security has released a report examining the costs and impact associated with data breaches. The findings paint a grim portrait of what the clean up is like for companies whose data becomes exposed – particularly for larger corporations that suffer so-called mega breaches, a costly exposure involving potentially tens of millions of private records.
Fracking companies use Facebook to ban protests — Facebook is being used by oil and gas companies to clamp-down on protest. Three companies are currently seeking injunctions against protesters: British chemical giant INEOS, which has the largest number of shale gas drilling licenses in the UK; and small UK outfits UK Oil and Gas (UKOG), and Europa Oil and Gas. Among the thousands of pages of documents submitted to British courts by these companies are hundreds of Facebook and Twitter posts from anti-fracking protesters and campaign groups, uncovered by Motherboard in partnership with investigative journalists at DeSmog UK. They show how fracking companies are using social media surveillance carried out by a private firm to strengthen their cases in court by discrediting activists using personal information to justify banning their protests.

All-time heat records have been set all over the world during the past week — So reports the Washington Post in the article Red-Hot Planet which was updated throughout the week with new all-time heat records.
From the normally mild summer climes of Ireland, Scotland and Canada to the scorching Middle East to Southern California, numerous locations in the Northern Hemisphere have witnessed their hottest weather ever recorded over the past week… [I know, as I was just in Canada – over 30°C for seven days in a row, who would have thought?]

And the good news? I had a break! A real break! But I’m back! (But goodness, isn’t it cold in New Zealand?!)

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Futurology ~ Mars dunes, Welsh sites, underwater jetpack, caffeine genes, electric spider flight, NZ colour x-ray, rats kill coral, multiple human origins


Ghost dunes at Noctis Labyrinthus. Boxes B and C show close-ups. (MacKenzie Day & David Catling/AGU)

Mars’ ghost dunes — In a recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, planetary geomorphologist Mackenzie Day and astrobiologist David Catling announced their discovery of about 800 “ghost dunes” – the imprints of ancient sand piles – clustered in two different locations on Mars. Examining these former dunes can tell us more about the red planet’s historic climate, and might contain more surprises as well.
~ I always wanted to be a planetary geomorphologist … OK, not really. So, what can we possible ‘Tel’ from these dunes? 

Hidden cropmarks revealed by the drought in Wales — Elusive ‘cropmarks’ now reveal the sites of long hidden ruins. From above, these cropmarks stand out starkly from the landscape—unmistakable squares and circles that outline settlements from as far back as the Bronze Age. In the past weeks, Driver has captured cropmarks across the Welsh countryside, including those made by a previously undiscovered medieval cemetery, a rare type of monument in this area, but they stand out much ore than usual thanks to the current unprecedented heat in the northern hemisphere.
~ Let’s hope Driver captures a load of these images so age old mysteries can be solved. 

Student 3D-prints a marine jetpack — A product design student in the UK created a safer way to travel under water with a jetpack that can propel a swimmer at speeds of up to 13kph.
Archie O’Brien says it took him a year to design and build a functional prototype of his CUDA jetpack, after learning that similar underwater propulsion devices can cost as much as new cars. Forty-five 3D-printed components could be quickly modified and reprinted as the engineering of the CUDA was continually refined.
~ You may be able to buy one as early as 2019, but I want to know ‘is it quiet?’ As man, do I ever hate on f___king jet skis! Way touring everyone’s summers, you jet-skiing a-holes!

Caffeine gene-control — A team led by Martin Fussenegger of ETH Zurich in Basel has shown that caffeine can be used as a trigger for synthetic genetic circuitry, which can then in turn do useful things for us – even correct or treat medical conditions. For a buzz-worthy proof of concept, the team engineered a system to treat type 2 diabetes in mice with sips of coffee, specifically Nespresso Volluto coffee. Essentially, when the animals drink the coffee (or any other caffeinated beverage), a synthetic genetic system in cells implanted in their abdomens switches on. This leads to the production of a hormone that increases insulin production and lowers blood sugar levels – thus successfully treating their diabetes after a simple morning brew.
~ Wait till they try decent coffee, then, I guess. 

Darwin’s theory of electric spider flight is finally proven — On Halloween in 1832, the naturalist Charles Darwin was onboard the HMS Beagle. He marveled at spiders that had landed on the ship after floating across huge ocean distances. “I caught some of the Aeronaut spiders which must have come at least 60 miles,” he noted in his diary. “How inexplicable is the cause which induces these small insects, as it now appears in both hemispheres, to undertake their aerial excursions.” Small spiders achieve flight by aiming their butts at the sky and releasing tendrils of silk to generate lift.
Darwin thought electricity might be involved when he noticed that spider silk stands seemed to repel each other with electrostatic force, but many scientists assumed that the arachnids, known as ‘ballooning’ spiders, were simply sailing on the wind like a paraglider. The wind power explanation has thus far been unable to account for observations of spiders rapidly launching into the air, even when winds are low, however. Now, these aerial excursions have been empirically determined to be largely powered by electricity, according to new research published Thursday in Current Biology. The study settles a longstanding debate about whether wind energy or electrostatic forces are responsible for spider ballooning locomotion.
~ It’s both, of course. 

New Zealand colour X-Ray breakthrough — A New-Zealand company has scanned, for the first time, a human body using a breakthrough colour medical scanner based on the Medipix3 technology developed at CERN. Father and son scientists Professors Phil and Anthony Butler from Canterbury and Otago Universities spent a decade building and refining their product, which enables high-resolution, high-contrast, very reliable images, making it unique for imaging applications in particular in the medical field.
~ Awesome!

Viruses may call Alzheimers — For decades, the idea that a bacteria or virus could help cause Alzheimer’s disease was dismissed as fringe theory. Not so much any more: a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School reported in the journal Neuron the latest evidence suggesting herpes viruses can spark the cascade of events that lead to Alzheimer’s disease, a fatal form of dementia that afflicts up to 80% of Australia’s 425,000 dementia patients.
~ Let’s hope a solution is possible. 

Rats also affect coral reefs — The much maligned rat is not a creature many would associate with coral reefs. But scientists studying reefs on tropical islands say the animals directly threaten the survival of these ecosystems. From a report:
A team working on the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean found that invasive rats on the islands are a big problem for coral reefs. Rats decimate seabird populations, in turn decimating the volume of bird droppings which acts as natural coral fertiliser. Scientists now advocate eradicating rats from all of the islands to protect these delicate marine habitats.
~ Of course, we’re not off the hook, as the rats were introduced by humans.

Humans did not originate from a single species — In the 1980s, scientists decided that all humans living today are descended from one woman dubbed Mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa between 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. This discovery, along with other evidence, suggested humans evolved from a single ancestral population, but this interpretation is not standing the test of time. The story of human evolution, as the latest research suggests, is more complicated than that.
By looking at some of the latest archaeological, fossil, genetic and environmental evidence, a team of international experts led by Eleanor Scerri from Oxford’s School of Archaeology have presented an alternative story of human evolution, one showing that our species emerged from isolated populations scattered across Africa, who occasionally came together to interbreed.
~ Humans emerged within a complex set of populations scattered across Africa. Take that, stupid white supremacists.

The Apocalypticon ~ Football narks, Hacking-tosh, Google, Japan, China, US flaming poo, Chile plastic ban


Spanish football app turns users into narks — With the World Cup just a few days away, everyone is trying to figure out the best ways to watch and keep track of their favourite teams. But before you download any apps, here’s something to think about: the La Liga app, the official streaming app for Spain’s most popular football league, has reportedly been using the microphones on fans’ phones to root out unauthorised broadcasts of matches in public venues such as bars and restaurants. [For God’s sake, is nothing sacred!?]

Apple hacks — For years, hackers could hide malware alongside legitimate Apple code and sneak it past several popular third-party security products for Mac computers, according to new research. This is not a flaw in MacOS but an issue in how third-party security tools implemented Apple’s APIs. A researcher from security firm Okta found that several security products for Mac – including Little Snitch, xFence, and Facebook’s OSquery — could be tricked into believing malware was Apple code, and let it past their defences. [But did hackers actually do this? Doesn’t appear so, so far.]

In the ‘yet  more to love about Google’ pantheon … Jarek Duda, the inventor of a compression technique called asymmetric numeral systems (ANS), dedicated the invention to the public domain. Since 2014, Facebook, Apple, and Google have all created software based on his breakthrough. But Google is trying to patent a video encoding scheme using Duda’s Public Domain compression technique! The inventor is fighting Google in the European courts and has won a preliminary ruling, but Google’s still trying for a US patent for it.

Japan, for once … A bullet train en route to Tokyo reportedly struck and killed a 52-year-old man on Thursday afternoon, but the man’s death wasn’t uncovered until some 32km later, where authorities made a grisly discovery. [Yuk!]

China to track cars, too — Under the plan being rolled out July 1, a radio-frequency identification chip for vehicle tracking will now be installed on cars when they are registered. Compliance will be voluntary this year but will be made mandatory for new vehicles at the start of 2019. [China says this is to improve public surveillance …oh, sorry, they said ‘security’.]
A Chinese-linked cyber-espionage unit has hacked a data centre belonging to a Central Asian country and has embedded malicious code on government sites. The hack of the data center happened sometime in mid-November 2017, according to a report published by Kaspersky Lab.

American trampers set forest on fire with their poo — No, really. Two campers were burning poop in a hole, you know, as you do … 500 acres went up in flames. [Well, this is a country that actually voted Trump into power, so I guess I should not be all that surprised.]
Revenge porn king sues Twitter for breaching his First Amendment rights — Craig Brittain, the creator of defunct revenge porn site IsAnybodyDown who is now running for Jeff Flake’s vacated Arizona Senate seat, is suing Twitter for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights by suspending his Twitter accounts. [Again, anyone surprised?]
Illustrated conflict calendar — Here’s what a mid-level government employee working in Leavenworth, Kansas, for the US Army’s Combined Arms Combat Development Activities division, noticed about the world in the first week of March 1981: the US embassy in El Salvador was attacked (again). Lent began. It was Sonny Park’s last day in the US Army, and Walter Cronkite’s last day at CBS. Kansas won the Big 8 Tournament. He had a “nice day with Liz.” All of these details, along with many more, were recorded in brightly coloured notes and illustrations in a government-issued calendar. [Aw – stick that on the fridge.] This dude had wide-ranging interests – he chronicled truckers, terrorism, snow at home and in Lebanon, the death of a Nazi collaborator, Reagan’s 72nd birthday, Israeli politics, football results, the first female Supreme Court justice swearing in the first female Secretary of Transportation, overlong budget meetings, full moons, vernal equinoxes, Beltane, International Women’s Day, a killer tornado, Tunisian riots, trade deficits and much more.Long-term planetary offending — New research shows that even our ancestors in the Bronze Age changed the chemistry of the soils they farmed over 2000 years ago. It’s some of the earliest evidence of humans having lasting a environmental impact on planet Earth. [Um, ‘go us’?]

In good news, Chile is the first country to ban plastic bags — Chile’s Senate has passed a bill that will prohibit the use of plastic bags in stores, with a vote in their House of Representatives overwhelmingly for the measure. The new law would give large retailers one year to phase out the use of plastic bags, and smaller businesses two years. This makes Chile the first country in the Americas to ban plastic bags, and officially recognise how important such a ban would be in the effort to reduce unnecessary single-use plastic waste. [But Chile has not banned plastic clothes, car parts, computers, containers, implements, devices, pegs, pens, cables, book covers, packing, binders, cable ties …]

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: “Supply networks [in an apocalypse] will immediately be effected by … losses to staff, clogged roads, damage to infrastructure, survivor trauma … usually, as soon as there’s a hint of disaster, people stock up. If citizens were already filling their cupboards before the disaster struck, with news reports that doctors feared a disease outbreak, or dramatic weather change, flooding, volcanic or earthquake activity, military action etcetera, supply may already have come under constraint before the full disaster becomes apparent.”

Futurology ~ New planets, stellar diamonds, Earth pictures, agile robot-swimmer, see-through WiFi, old languages, cars made from plants, Army ‘third arms’, ancient tiny bug


NASA has made 20 years of satellite imagery available

New technique reveals hidden infant planets orbiting a newborn star — Since the 1990s, scientists have detected thousands of exoplanets orbiting distant stars, but the discovery of baby protoplanets embedded within stellar expanses of gas and dust has proven to be a challenge. An international team of astronomers has used a new technique to finally discover not one, but three infant planets around a newborn star – an incredible finding that’s affirming long-held assumptions about planet formation.
~ My long-held assumption about planet formation was that it was all a mystery. 

Stellar diamond dust — New research published in Nature Astronomy suggests the interpretation that ‘anomalous microwave emissions’ detected in space were caused by a ‘new type of particle’ was wrong: it seems they’re caused by clouds of nanodiamonds located within embryonic star systems.
~ Jewellers salivate and start training for space travel…

NASA makes two decades of satellite images of Earth available to the public — The longest continuous daily satellite observation record of Earth ever compiled is now available for all of us to peruse.
Multiple instruments aboard NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, launched in 1999 and 2002, respectively, have kept close watch on the virtually the entire planet for nearly 20 years. Now, for the first time, the entire treasure trove of imagery and scientific information is available for exploration in Worldview, (main picture, above) an engaging, interactive web-based application.
~ And NASA didn’t forget New Zealand.

But wait, there’s more! You can now search your address across 750 million years of Earth’s history — Ever looked at a picture of the supercontinent Pangea and wondered where your current address would have been 250 million years ago? A new interactive map provides this very service, allowing you to see modern locations across 750 million years of our planet’s history.
This awesome 3D map is the brainchild of Ian Webster, curator of the supremely impressive Dinosaur Database.
~ No relation to me, as far as I know.
This is me 240 million years ago… looks nice, right?

Flexible fins makes for a very agile swimming robot — Festo’s new BionicFinWave robot isn’t the first underwater automaton that replicates the movements of creatures like cuttlefish or marine planarians. Robotics engineers have been working to replicate Mother Nature’s designs for decades, and when it comes to swimming, the undulating fin approach is one of the easiest.

Seeing you through walls with WiFi — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new piece of software that uses wifi signals to monitor the movements, breathing, and heartbeats of humans on the other side of walls. While the researchers say this new tech could be used in areas like remote healthcare, it could in theory be used in more dystopian applications.
~ Spies rejoice. China’s ‘government’ rejoices too. 

Disappearing Californian languages being saved thanks to optical scanning — Project IRENE is using cutting-edge optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore recordings of indigenous languages, many of which no longer have living speakers. The recordings were gathered between 1900 and 1938 when UC anthropologists asked native speakers of 78 indigenous languages of California to record their songs, histories, prayers, and vocabulary on wax cylinders. The Documenting Endangered Languages initiative, which has support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is hoping to save this important history.
~ And then to decipher them … nearly 80 just from California shows you how diverse the American First Nations languages were. 

Cars made from plants — Materials-science researchers are finding that plant fibres can add durability and strength to substances already used in the construction of buildings and in goods that range from toys and furniture to cars and aircraft.
A big bonus is that, because plants lock up carbon in their structure, using their fibres to make things should mean less carbon dioxide is emitted.
~ Not surprising, really, considering how long plant fibres have been adding durability and strength to, you know, trees and that. 

DeepMind has developed a self-training vision computer that generates a full 3D model of a scene from just a handful of 2D snapshots — The system, called the Generative Query Network, can then imagine and render the scene from any angle. GQN is a general-purpose system with a vast range of potential applications, from robotic vision to virtual reality simulation.
~ It has so far only been tested on simple scenes containing a small number of objects, but still. 

The US military is prototyping new wearable ‘third arms’ to enhance soldiers’ combat abilities — These include an exoskeleton similar to those being trialled for factory workers, and a prosthetic arm device officially named the Third Arm, meant to make heavy machinery feel weightless.
~ Innuendo alert! 

99-million-year-old bug in amber — Featherwing beetles are some of the smallest insects out there but a researcher managed to spot an ancient specimen in a 99-million-year-old chunk of amber. Just half a millimetre long, this Cretaceous period beetle had its signature fringed wings unfurled when it met its sticky demise.
No, not that big, unidentified insect at right; Jason is the teeny beetle at the very bottom.
~ Jason, found in Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar, is now the oldest known member of the featherwing beetle lineage. 

The Apocalypticon ~ Tech support, people, nature, Cheese Zombies, water


‘Tech support’ — A team of scammers recently sneakily filmed dozens of Australians by remotely accessing their webcams, then uploaded those videos onto YouTube, according to Australian news outlet ABC.
Unfortunately for customers of MyHeritage, a genealogy and DNA testing service, a researcher uncovered 92 million account details related to the company sitting on a server, according to an announcement from MyHeritage. The data relates to users who signed up to MyHeritage up to and including October 26, 2017 – the date of the breach.
Journalist’s data seized — According to The New York Times, the Department of Justice seized a New York Times reporter’s phone and email records this year in an effort to probe the leaking of classified information, the first known instance of the DOJ going after a journalist’s data under President Trump, according to The Hill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last year the DOJ had tripled the number of leak investigations it was conducting compared to the number under the Obama administration, which had already prosecuted more leak cases than all other administrations.
Zuckerberg grilled at angry shareholders meeting — One investor compared the social network’s poor stewardship of user data to a human rights violation. Another warned that scandal is not good for Facebook’s bottom line, and one advised Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to emulate George Washington, not Vladimir Putin, and avoid turning Facebook into a “corporate dictatorship.”
Apple set on ‘jamming’ Facebook — The next version of iOS and macOS will frustrate tools used by Facebook to automatically track web users. At the company’s developer conference, Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi said, “We’re shutting that down,.” He added that Safari – you know, the FREE SECURE BROWSER ON EVERY APPLE DEVICE (see below), would ask owners’ permission before allowing the social network to monitor their activity.
Apple also declared war on ‘browser fingerprinting‘.
Why you should ditch Chrome —
 Unlike Chrome, Firefox is run by Mozilla, a nonprofit organisation that advocates for a ‘healthy'” internet. Its mission is to help build an internet in an open-source manner that’s accessible to everyone – and where privacy and security are built in. Contrast that to Chrome’s privacy policy, which states that it stores your browsing data locally unless you are signed in to your Google account, which enables the browser to send that information back to Google … [Honestly, the amount of Apple users I have met who insist on using Chrome as a browser and worse, Gmail accounts when there’s privacy-protecting Safari on every Mac and Apple device already, and secure, encrypted free iCloud email! Grrr! Bloody madness!]
Psychopathic AI — A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a psychopathic algorithm named Norman, as part of an experiment to see what training artificial intelligence on data from “the dark corners of the net” would do to its world view. Unlike most “normal” algorithms by AI, Norman does not have an optimistic view of the world. [I almost wish that was running the US instead of Trump – at least there’d be some logic to it.]
Chinese government hackers have compromised the computers of a US Navy contractor, stealing massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare – including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on US submarines by 2020, according to American officials. The breaches occurred in January and February, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
At least five cryptocurrencies have recently been hit with an attack in the last month– one that used to be more theoretical than actual.
Carbon bubble burst will hurt — The existence of a “carbon bubble” – assets in fossil fuels that are currently overvalued because, in the medium and long-term, the world will have to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions – has long been proposed by academics, activists and investors. A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that a sharp slump in the value of fossil fuels would cause this bubble to burst, and posits that such a slump is likely before 2035 based on current patterns of energy use.

People — More than 50,000 union workers in Las Vegas are set to go on strike if new contracts are not settled and at the top of the list of concerns for the Culinary and Bartenders Unions is protection against robot replacements.
Suicide rates are up by 30% across the US — Amidst all the name calling and straw man arguments about the overall health of America, sometimes it helps to look at data from people who sacrificed everything based on their perception of reality. Whatever politics you subscribe to, the feeling of hopelessness is evidently real, and frightening. Suicide rates are up by 30% across the nation since 1999, federal health officials have reported.
Opioids caused 1 In 5 deaths of young people in the US in 2016 — A new study published by JAMA Network Open highlights just how devastating the crisis has been to certain age groups. In 2016, it found, opioid overdoses were responsible for a fifth of all deaths among people in their mid-20s to 30s — a fivefold increase from 15 years ago.

Nature — Biggest iceberg ever set to break up: the  iceberg is so large that even smaller chunks of it were behemoths in their own right. By 2014, the largest remnant was B-15T, which was so thick it kept running aground. One of those last-made icebergs, B-15Z, may now be nearing the end of its life. At the end of May 2018, the International Space Station crew captured an image of B-15Z that showed a crack running right down its middle. It’s ten miles by 5!
How microbes survive in ‘sterile’ spacecraft — Rakesh Mogul, a Cal Poly Pomona professor of biological chemistry, was the lead author of an article in the journal Astrobiology that offers the first biochemical evidence explaining the reason contamination persists. The research team analyzed several Acinetobacter strains that were originally isolated from the Mars Odyssey and Phoenix spacecraft facilities, finding that under very nutrient-restricted conditions, most of the tested strains grew on and biodegraded the cleaning agents used during spacecraft assembly …
Asteroid strikes Africa soon after it was detected — A meteor lit up the sky over Botswana, Africa, early Saturday evening local time. Scientists discovered the 2m-wide asteroid just hours before it reached – and struck – Earth.
Hurricanes are slowing down and that’s a bad thing. The pace at which hurricanes move across the planet is slowing, according to new research. This suggests Hurricane Harvey, which stalled over Texas last year, may not have been an anomaly, and that highly destructive, slow-moving tropical storms are becoming more common.

Finally, some good news: Cheese Zombies! In the late 1950s, a school district in Washington’s Yakima Valley received an excess of subsidized cheese. Faced with the abundance of dairy, the food services supervisor (or, by other accounts, a local cafeteria cook) invented a new sandwich that soon appeared on cafeteria menus: the Cheese Zombie.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: “There’s more to water than meets the eyes, of course. Cities like London, New York and Moscow have entire teams and systems dedicated to pumping water away from underground systems built deep underground.”

Futurology ~ Sterile Neutrino, life on Mars, New Horizons, medical monitoring, breast cancer advance, printed homes, Pompeii reanimated


Holland hopes to soon have 3D-printed homes

The Sterile Neutrino — Fermilab boffins in America are carefully speculating they may have seen evidence of a new fundamental particle: the sterile neutrino. The suggestion follows tests conducted by the Mini Booster Neutrino Experimen instrument, located near Chicago. Its mission is to detect neutrino mass through their oscillations. In the Standard Model of physics, neutrinos, like all particles, are initially assumed to be massless, but some observations, like neutrino oscillation, suggest there’s mass there. The experiment that possibly detected sterile neutrinos collected 15 years of data from its commissioning in 2002, and the results have only now reached pre-press outlet arXiv.
~ It just won’t be having any baby neutrinos. 

New Horizons is awake and ready — Pluto’s most famous visitor, the New Horizons spacecraft, has woken up after 165 days of hibernation. The probe is travelling onward to its next target, another mysterious Kuiper Belt object hiding in the far depths of the Solar System. Its nickname is Ultima Thule. which  is either one or two hunks of ice and rock, perhaps 32km in diameter total, but it’s 1.6 billion km beyond Pluto.
~ This will be the furthest object ever explored by NASA.

Mars’ organic matter — NASA’s veteran Curiosity rover has found complex organic matter buried and preserved in ancient sediments that formed a vast lake bed on Mars more than 3bn years ago. The discovery is the most compelling evidence yet that long before the planet became the parched world it is today, Martian lakes were a rich soup of carbon-based compounds that are necessary for life, at least as we know it.
~ Well, you know, not all life likes soup. I don’t. 

Your doctor monitoring you in real time — Scientists from The Australian National University have designed tiny optical sensors 50 times thinner than a human hair. These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health. The sensors could measure very small concentrations of gases (‘metabolites’) coming through your skin and breath, allowing doctors to keep track of people’s health in real time.
~ Doctors will never escape their work!

Woman’s advanced breast cancer eradicated in world first — It is the first time that a patient with late-stage breast cancer has been successfully treated by a form of immunotherapy that uses the patient’s own immune cells to find and destroy cancer cells that have formed in the body. Judy Perkins, an engineer from Florida, was 49 when she was selected for the radical new therapy after several rounds of routine chemotherapy failed to stop a tumour in her right breast from growing and spreading to her liver and other areas. At the time, she was given three years to live. Doctors who cared for the woman at the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland said Perkins’s response had been “remarkable”: the therapy wiped out cancer cells so effectively she has now been free of the disease for two years.
~ Scientists grew billions of her own immune cells in the lab, then reintroduced them. 

Netherlandish 3D homes — The Netherlands’ first functional 3D-printed home will be ready to welcome occupants as early as next year. According to The Guardian’s Daniel Boffey, the one-story, two-bedroom house is the first and smallest of five 3D-printed concrete homes set for construction in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. The five-year initiative, known as Project Milestone (main picture, above), aims to combat the country’s shortage of skilled bricklayers and revitalize the architectural industry.
~ Maybe they should be printing our bricklayers instead. 

Pompeii re-experienced — With the recent discovery of the poor soul that copped a boulder to the face during the Mount Vesuvius eruption, the one that buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, it seemed a good time to dig up this amazing, Melbourne-made animation that retells Pompeii’s story, packing 24 hours into eight, tense minutes.
~ OK, for a little more punch, I say add in boulder guy!

The Apocalypticon ~ China, surveillance, inequality, Face-oogle, data, Math Men


According to World Health Organization data, China has overtaken the United States in healthy life expectancy at birth for the first time. The data from 2016 finds Chinese newborns can look forward to 68.7 years of healthy life ahead of them, compared with 68.5 years for American babies.
The United States was one of only five countries, along with Somalia, Afghanistan, Georgia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where healthy life expectancy at birth fell in 2016, according to a Reuters analysis of the WHO data, which was published without year-on-year comparisons in mid-May. [I’m trying to get my head around 68.7-year-old babies.]
Maybe Americans should ask for more surveillance? A high school in Hangzhou City, Zhejiang Province located on the eastern coast of China, has employed facial recognition technology to monitor students’ attentiveness in class, local media reports. Three cameras at the front of the classroom scan students’ faces every 30 seconds, analysing their facial expressions to detect their mood. The different moods – surprised, sad, antipathy, angry, happy, afraid, neutral – are recorded and averaged during each class. A display screen, only visible to the teacher, shows the data in real-time. A certain value is determined as a student not paying enough attention.
Still sucks to be a girl, though. China’s gender gap is not confined to tech. The country’s gender parity ranking fell in 2017 for the ninth straight year, leaving China placed 100 out of 144 countries surveyed in a report by the World Economic Forum.
The country ranked 60th in terms of female labour force participation and 70th in terms of wage equality for similar work. Men on average had an estimated income of around $19,000, over $7000 more than women.
Samantha Kwok, the Australian-Chinese founder of the Beijing-based recruitment firm JingJobs, said clients often gave her two job descriptions: one to be published publicly and a second internal one that detailed requirements based on age or gender…
A greenhouse gas is billowing into the atmosphere from a source somewhere in East Asia that no one can identify at a rate scientists have never before seen, and it’s ignited a scientific dash to get to the bottom of it. In 2014, mysterious toxic plumes of CFC-11 – a type of CFC – began to drift across the Pacific Ocean. [And who left the question mark off that headline, left?]

In the data wars, Google is reminding organisations to review how much of their Google Groups mailing lists should be public and indexed by Google.com since sensitive data is being exposed. The notice was prompted in part by a review that KrebsOnSecurity undertook with several researchers who’ve been busy cataloging thousands of companies using public Google Groups lists to manage customer support and in some cases sensitive internal communications. Google Groups is a service that provides discussion groups for people sharing common interests. Because of the organic way Google Groups tend to grow as more people are added to projects – and perhaps given the ability to create public accounts on otherwise private groups – a number of organisations with household names are leaking sensitive data in their message lists.
Once, the Mad Men ruled advertising. They’ve now been eclipsed by Math Men: engineers and data scientists whose province is machines, algorithms, pureed data, and artificial intelligence. Yet Math Men are beleaguered, as Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated when he humbled himself before Congress, in April. Math Men’s adoration of data, coupled with their truculence and an arrogant conviction that their ‘science’ is nearly flawless [which has more to do with its money-making potential, I suspect], has aroused government anger much as Microsoft did two decades ago.
Unknown third parties appear to be exploiting the Chrome Store’s ‘theme’ section to offer visitors access to a wide range of pirate movies including Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Rampage. When clicking through to the page offering Ready Player One, for example, users are presented with a theme that apparently allows them to watch the movie online in ‘Full HD Online 4k’. Of course, the whole scheme is a dubious scam which eventually leads users to Vioos dot co, a platform that tries very hard to give the impression of being a pirate streaming portal but actually provides nothing of use.
That’s why we all trust Google to build military drones, right? No? Coz that’s what’s happening. In March, Google signed a secretive agreement with the Pentagon to provide cutting edge AI technology for drone warfare, causing about a dozen Google employees to resign in protest and thousands to sign a petition calling for an end to the contract. Google has since tried to quash the dissent, claiming that the contract was “only” for US$9 million, according to the New York Times. Internal company emails obtained by The Intercept tell a different story: the September emails show that Google’s business development arm expected the military drone artificial intelligence revenue to ramp up from an initial US$15 million to an eventual US$250 million per year.
Meanwhile, users in Europe have already filed complaints against Facebook and Google, saying the tech companies are in violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Apple approves Telegram update even after Russian government demands Apple shut the app down — Amidst a contentious battle with the Russian government over demands to pull Telegram, the encrypted message app, from the App Store, Apple has approved an updated version of the messaging app having seemingly blocked such changes for two months.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: Essentially, there are many threats that could wipe out huge numbers of humans. It’s worth recalling the dinosaurs were on the planet for around 60 million years before volcanoes and an asteroid wiped them out – Homo Sapiens has only been around for about 200,000 years. Yet, numbers of us may survive an apocalypse: we have done many times before.

Futurology ~ Eyes on the sky, new braille, biohybrid robotics, American ice age emigration


A single biohybrid robotic finger at work. The contracting and expanding muscles are those pink things at the top of the device

Incredible results from telescope aimed at black hole — Our own galaxy’s black hole is called Sagittarius A* and is four million times the mass of the Sun. The EHT scientists analysed 2013 data, which included the first southern hemisphere telescope added to the EHT’s network. Even using just this old data, scientists are getting really close to seeing the black hole. These are not the results of the impressive 2017 observations but even still, the scientists detected hints of structures near the black hole, at a distance three times the radius of the black hole’s event horizon.
~ I wonder what a black hole will look like … if only the name was more descriptive!

Hololens as a visual prosthesis — New research shows that Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented-reality headset works well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions. TechCrunch reports:
The researchers, from Caltech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it.
~ But will it help you sit down in it? 

Microsoft and Apple collaborated to make a new braille standard — The non-profit USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) has announced a new standard for braille displays. It was developed in cooperation with Microsoft, Apple and other tech industry leaders. The USB Human Interface Device (HID) standard will make it easier for blind or low vision users to use braille displays across operating systems and hardware. It will also remove the need for specialised or custom drivers and simplify development.
~ Good feelings. 

Robotics combined with living cells — By growing muscles on an artificial skeleton, researchers from Japan have constructed an agile and surprisingly durable ‘biohybrid’ robotic finger joint. The breakthrough could eventually lead to more life-like robots and advanced prostheses.
~ Weird feelings.

Ancient coastal route to to America — The first people to cross into North America from Eurasia did so by travelling through the Bering Strait, or so the theory goes. A new theory has emerged proposing a coastal route into the continent, but evidence has been lacking. A recent analysis of boulders, bedrock, and fossils in Alaska is now providing a clearer picture, pointing to the emergence of a coastal route some 17,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence places humans in Chile around 15,000 years ago, and in Florida some 14,500 years ago yet the retreating ice sheets didn’t yield an interior pathway until about 14,000 years ago.
~ In Home Sapiens history – around 200,000–300,000 years – that’s still relatively recent. 

Ice Age Americas meet-up — As the last Ice Age was coming to an end, and as the first settlers arrived in North America, two distinct populations emerged. One of these groups would eventually go on to settle South America, but as new genetic evidence shows, these two ancestral groups – after being separated for thousands of years – had an unexpected reunion. The finding is changing our conceptions of how the southern continent was colonised and by whom.
~ But nothing prepared them for the Spanish. 

The Apocalypticon ~ Trump security, malware, gamers, climate, Robots, Hitler’s teeth, cockroach milk, NZ monster


Trump hates handing his phones over for security checks — US President Trump has at least two iPhones, one dedicated for making calls and another one for Twitter. But a new report states Trump is often reluctant to hand the phones over to the White House security team to check for vulnerabilities. The president reportedly calls it “too inconvenient.” Trump’s Twitter phone has gone for as long as five months without a security assessment.  [That just makes us all feel so much safer. Thanks Donald!] But he can’t block people on Twitter.US District Judge Buchwald issued a 75-page ruling [pdf] clearly articulating why Donald Trump cannot block Twitter users: in short, it violates their First Amendment rights.

Speaking of malware, the FBI says reboot your routers — Researchers from Cisco’s Talos security team first disclosed the existence of the malware last Wednesday. The detailed report said the malware infected more than 500,000 devices made by Linksys, Mikrotik, Netgear, QNAP, and TP-Link. Known as VPNFilter, the malware allowed attackers to collect communications, launch attacks on others and permanently destroy the devices with a single command. The report said the malware was developed by hackers working for an advanced nation, possibly Russia, and advised users of affected router models to perform a factory reset, or at a minimum to reboot, and the FBI concurs. [I reboot mine pretty much every day anyway, as thanks to my ISP Vodafone, the bloody broadband disconnects almost every day, forcing a router restart to get the connection back. This has only been going on for a few years, though …]
AMD thwarted — A group of German researchers have devised a method to thwart the VM security in AMD’s server chips. Dubbed SEVered (PDF), the attack would potentially allow an attacker, or malicious admin who had access to the hypervisor, the ability to bypass AMD’s Secure Encrypted Virtualization (SEV) protections.
Banks and ransomware — A new report from cloud security specialist Carbon Black, based on responses from CISOs at 40 major financial institutions (including six of the top 10 global banks) seeks to better understand the attack landscape. Among the findings are that 90% of financial institutions report being subject to ransomware attacks in 2017.
Cisco Systems has warned that hackers have infected at least 500,000 routers and storage devices in dozens of countries with highly sophisticated malicious software, possibly in preparation for another massive cyber attack on Ukraine. A federal judge in Pennsylvania gave the FBI permission to seize an internet domain that authorities charge a Russian hacking group known as Sofacy was using to control infected devices.
But in good news, Cambridge Analytica has filed for bankruptcy.

Gamers on — Swatting gamers indicted A federal grand jury has indicted the gamer accused in Wichita’s fatal swatting as well as the two gamers involved in the video game dispute that prompted the false emergency call.
School shooting game [really!] Just a week after the Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas that saw 10 people fatally shot and 13 others were wounded, Valve came under fire for a Steam school-shooting game that encourages you to “hunt and destroy” children. Active Shooter, which has been live on Steam and due for release on 6th June, is described by its developer as “a dynamic S.W.A.T. simulator.” The idea is you’re sent in to deal with a shooter at a school, but you can also play as the actual shooter, gunning down school children. There have been 22 school shootings in the US since the beginning of this year.
Robots that train themselves in battle tactics by playing video games could be used to mount cyber-attacks, the UK military fears. The warning is in a Ministry of Defence report on artificial intelligence. Researchers in Silicon Valley are using strategy games, such as Starcraft II, to teach systems how to solve complex problems on their own. But artificial intelligence (AI) programs can then “be readily adapted” to wage cyber-warfare, the MoD says.

Planet warming — sea rise blamed on ‘falling rocks’: Mo Brooks is just a plain-spoken man from Alabama with some theories on climate change. Since everything is terrible, he’s a congressman and sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee so he has a platform to float some of his entirely unfounded ideas like, for instance, sea levels are rising because rocks keep falling in the ocean. [Hey, America, maybe you should just IQ test everyone running for office? The world would surely thank you.]
The diminution of rice — As humans expel billions of metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere and raze vast swaths of forests, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our air hurries ever higher. That has the potential to severely diminish the nutritional value of rice, according to a new study published this week in Science Advances. For people who depend heavily on rice as a staple in their diets, such a nutritional loss would be devastating, says Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington.
Cost of missing climate goals to cost $20 trillion US — There are trillions of reasons for the world to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5C, the aspirational target laid out in the Paris climate agreement, according to a new study. If nations took the necessary actions to meet that goal, rather than the increasingly discussed 2C objective, there’s a 60% chance it would save the world more than $20 trillion, according to new work published this week in Nature by scientists at Stanford.
Giant worms invading France — In a Peer J study published on May 22, Giant worms chez moi! zoologist Jean-Lou Justine of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, entomologist colleagues, and Pierre Gros, outline a discovery that “highlights an unexpected blind spot of scientists and authorities facing an invasion by conspicuous large invasive animals.” About 100 citizen scientists ultimately contributed to the assessment of this alien invasion, identifying five giant predatory worm species in France that grow up to 10 inches long. [More blackbirds, maybe?]

Robots, Hitler’s teeth, cockroach milk and NZ monster — Members of the Culinary Union, who work in many of Las Vegas’ biggest casinos, have voted to approve a strike unless a deal is reached soon. On June 1, the contracts of 50,000 union workers (bartenders to guest room attendants) expire, making them eligible to strike. They want higher wages, but the workers are also looking for better job security, especially from robots.
Hitlers teeth showed cyanide — It looks like Hitler did indeed ingest cyanide, with an inspection of the fuhrer’s teeth revealing “bluish deposits” that “could indicate a ‘chemical reaction between the cyanide and the metal of the dentures”. [I thought he shot himself? I guess he wisely hedged his bets.]
The teeth are authentic, there is no possible doubt. Our study proves that Hitler died in 1945,” said professor Philippe Charlier. “We can stop all the conspiracy theories about Hitler. He did not flee to Argentina in a submarine, he is not in a hidden base in Antarctica or on the dark side of the moon.”
And speaking of cockroaches, some researchers believe insect milk, like cockroach milk, could be the next big dairy alternative. A report in 2016 found Pacific Beetle cockroaches specifically created nutrient-filled milk crystals that could also benefit humans, the Hindustan Times reports. Others report producing cockroach milk isn’t easy, either – it takes 1000 cockroaches to make 100 grams of milk, Inverse reports, and other options could include a cockroach milk pill.
New Zealand’s ‘saurian monster’ — At the slaughter yards of Frankton Junction, near Hamilton, New Zealand, in October 1886, workers found a sheep picked clean to the bones. Some creature, they reported, had taken the carcass from the hook where it hung, eaten its flesh, and then departed, leaving only a strange trail of footprints unlike any other they had seen. Men gathered their guns and revolvers and kept watch for its return.
These, New Zealand’s Daily Telegraph reported, were the “undoubted traces of a saurian monster.” The word ‘saurian’ means lizard-like – other papers concluded this monster must be an alligator or crocodile, despite New Zealand’s smattering of living reptiles being, without exception, only a few inches long.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: “Whereas people will undoubtedly panic, this panic reaction is often overstated in the popular perception and, besides, short-lived. In most cases, according to sociological studies like that of Quarantelli and Dynes, people react immediately to the disaster and its effects. People come together along familiar lines (ie, family and friends) then move as needed to larger groups with which they associate (to religious, sporting or other societal groupings, for example).”

Futurology ~ Wayward asteroid, exoplanet hunter, EM Drive, gel-bots, snail memories, NZ connection to Nessie, T-Rex smarts


TESS can look at brighter stars than its predecessor, Kepler, could, and it can also capture dim red dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 or Proxima Centauri (image via Gizmodo)

Asteroid from another star system found orbiting wrong way near Jupiter — Astronomers have spotted an asteroid orbiting our sun in the opposite (retrograde) direction to the planets. The 3.22km-wide (2-mile-wide) asteroid, 2015 BZ509, is the first “interstellar immigrant” from beyond our solar system to remain, according to the study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
~ Where are traffic wardens when you need them? 

NASA’s new exoplanet hunter releases incredible first image — On the way to its final orbit around Earth, NASA’s planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) sailed past the moon and snapped its first picture of space. TESS should be able to look at 200,000 stars in the 300 light-years around the Earth – and maybe this new shot (main picture, above) will show you what that really means.
~ I think that star 66th from the left, 1049 down bears closer examination… 

German test reveals that magnetic fields are pushing the EM Drive — Researchers in Germany have performed an independent, controlled test of the infamous EM Drive with an unprecedented level of precision, and it turns out the thrust is coming from interactions with the Earth’s magnetic field.
~ We have all long awaited the ‘magnetic WTF thruster’ so this is exciting. 

Gel-based robots can dance — Engineers at Rutgers University have started 3D-printing gel material that could one day give us softer, arguably less frightening robots. And to show off their so-called “smart gel,” they made it dance. It’s not just cute – the reactive synthetic might have far-reaching applications for the future of automation.
The printable ‘smart gel’ moves in response to electric stimuli. Made of a special polymer that reacts to electric impulses, the gel can be formed into a variety of shapes to perform tasks such as grabbing objects or moving them around.
~ Less frightening? I think a killer robot trying to kill me is not necessarily cuter if it’s made of gel, myself. 

Scientist transfer memories from one snail to another — UCLA neuroscientists have transferred a memory from one snail to another via injections of RNA, a startling result that challenges the widely held view of where and how memories are stored in the brain. The finding from the lab of David Glanzman hints at the potential for new RNA-based treatments to one day restore lost memories and, if correct, could shake up the field of memory and learning.
~ But how fast, though? 

Legend of Loch Ness Monster to be tested with DNA samples — For hundreds of years, visitors to Scotland’s Loch Ness have described seeing a monster that some believe lurks in the depths. But now the legend of ‘Nessie’ may have no place left to hide.
A New Zealand scientist is leading an international team to the lake next month, where they will take samples of the murky waters and conduct DNA tests to determine what species live there. University of Otago professor Neil Gemmell says he’s no believer in Nessie, but he wants to take people on an adventure and communicate some science along the way.
~ Besides, he says, his kids think it’s one of the coolest things he’s ever done. 

Dinosaur-killing asteroid rewrote avian history — The asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago didn’t just suck for the big lizards. Shockwaves likely knocked down the trees, fires would have burned up entire forests, and less light would have meant fewer plants. Goodbye to homes for birds, then.
New research shows how the strike would have decided which species made it and which species didn’t. Without trees, only ground-dwelling birds would have survived. This surely would have had a profound impact on the kinds of species still around today – a bottleneck in evolution’s history that changed the course of life forever.

So, how smart was T-Rex anyway? Palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Steve Brusatte shares his expansive knowledge by providing a concise and highly accessible overview of the dino era. Though extinct now, these remarkable creatures had a tremendous run, dominating the planet’s ecosystems for tens of millions of years. Dinosaurs flourished for over 150 million years, far, far longer than humans have been around, and they utterly dominated the planet and evolved into some of the most incredible feats of biology the world has ever seen. Many dinosaurs had big brains, implying high intelligence.
~ But could T-Rex bang a gong? 

The Apocalypticon ~ China and isms and Trump, battle bots, mugshot extorters, working deaths, Ebola, bums, book excerpt


Trump completely flip-flops for Chinese company — US President Donald Trump has made a big fuss out of economic competition with China. He’s even threatened a trade war! But suddenly he came out to bat for the Chinese smartphone manufacturer ZTE, which basically ceased to exist after the US Department of Commerce slapped it with a seven-year ban on buying or using components from US companies over allegations it violated sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The reason that Shenzen-based ZTE was forced to suspend most of its operations in the first place was because the Trump administration accused it of violating the sanctions on North Korea and Iran. So this is a massive reversal of both official US policy and Trump’s own talking points, seemingly at a whim and with no clear indication of whether the president got anything in return. [Oh yeah, that doesn’t sound like collusion …]
Chinese company to dispense with drivers attractiveness ratings of passengers. [No, really!] China’s ride-sharing behemoth Didi is trying to make its platform safer for users after a 21-year-old woman was allegedly murdered by one of its drivers. For starters, its carpooling service, Hitch, will no longer let drivers and passengers rate and tag the appearances of each other. Drivers have reportedly given female passengers tags like ‘long legs,’ ‘adorable girl,’ ‘goddesses,’ and ‘beauties’ … [So, welcome to the end of the last century, China.]
China fudging its GDP — China, Russia and other authoritarian countries inflate their official GDP figures by anywhere from 15 to 30% in a given year, according to a new analysis of a quarter-century of satellite data. The working paper, by Luis R. Martinez of the University of Chicago, also found that authoritarian regimes are especially likely to artificially boost their gross domestic product numbers in the years before elections, and that the differences in GDP reporting between authoritarian and non-authoritarian countries can’t be explained by structural factors such as urbanisation, composition of the economy or access to electricity. Martinez’s findings are derived from a novel data source: satellite imagery that tracks changes in the level of nighttime lighting within and between countries over time. [Gosh … (feigns surprise).]

Battle bots evolve — Chomp looks like a regular BattleBot on the outside, but inside there’s a secret trick: Artificial intelligence. This killer attack is called Auto-Chomp and it blew audiences away back in 2016, Chomp’s debut season on BattleBots. The feature then represented an AI-powered BattleBot on a basic level, as the weapon was automated but didn’t necessarily think for itself. Now, Chomp is getting smarter, and BattleBots as we know it could be evolving in a fascinating way.
[You know, ‘fascinating’ in that it might one day outwit and kill us.]

The alleged owners of Mugshots.com have been charged and arrested — These four men Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan only removed a person’s mugshot from the site if this individual paid a “de-publishing” fee, according to the California Attorney General on Wednesday. That’s apparently considered extortion. [I apparently also consider extortion to be extortion.]

Bird scooters ruining Venice, California — The first Bird electric scooters appeared in Venice and there, the flock is thickest. Bird’s founder and CEO, Travis VanderZanden, says, “We won”t be happy till there are more Birds than cars.” Aside from road safety, Bird is also tearing away at the fabric of society. In Venice and Santa Monica, where Bird is centralised, thousands of people live on the streets, which helps explain the scooter’s popularity. With a press of a throttle button, one can be whizzing along, leaving it all in a blur. Bird calls this solving the “first/last mile” problem. So now, to walk through Venice is to understand that human misery exists just outside the frame of your Instagram feed [Ouch, Nate.]

Working harder physically leads to earlier death — Researchers in the Netherlands claim that a “physical activity paradox” exists, where exercise may only be good for you if it’s done outside of your job. Manual labourers may be physically active all day but that doesn’t actually help them. In fact, the research claims it might actually increase their risk of dying early. “While we know leisure-time physical activity is good for you, we found that occupational physical activity has an 18% increased risk of early mortality for men,” says Pieter Coenen, public health researcher at UV University medical centre in Amsterdam. “These men are dying earlier than those who are not physically active in their occupation.” [Really, that took hard research to figure out?]

Ebola is back, this time in an urban area — This is really scary. Ebola has once again resurfaced. Today, the World Health Organisation reported that there have been at least 34 suspected cases of the viral disease and 18 deaths since early April in the Bikoro District of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But Ebola’s resurgence, hardly unexpected, can’t help but bring a question to mind: Why haven’t we found a surefire way to cure or prevent it yet?

On a more positive note, here’s why we have bums.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: Apart from the act of killing something, butchery is an unforgiving science – if you get it wrong, the meat becomes corrupted from ruptured intestines. Then any ‘good’ meat may have to be hung, cured, parts cooked immediately … it’s a very far cry from picking up a vacuum pack or a chicken from the supermarket. 

Futurology ~ Star gobbler, Mars helicopter, robo-varieties, Tesla power, 100,000 Einstein gamers, ancient pollution in Greenland


A fleet of 7-metre (23-foot) neon-orange sailboats will catch the wind with a solid wing more durable than a cloth sail, collecting extensive ocean data

Back Hole gobbles suns — This bloated supermassive black hole has an equally bloated name, QSO SMSS J215728.21-360215.1, or J2157-3602 for short. At 12 billion light-years away, it’s not close, so we’re observing this bright behemoth not as it is today, but as it existed some four billion years after the Big Bang.
Observations show that J2157-3602 is the size of about 20 billion suns, and it’s growing at a rate of 1 per cent every million years. Every two days, this black hole devours a mass equivalent to our Sun, gobbling up dust, gas, bits of celestial debris, and whatever else it can suck in using its powerful gravitational influence.
~ ‘J2157-3602’ for short? I prefer Ancient Sun Gobbler.

Ninth planet — Astronomers have realised that the motions of the objects past our eighth planet, Neptune, imply the existence of the ninth planet we deserve (compared to demoted Pluto, which is smaller than our moon). The theorised planet would be 10 times the mass of the Earth and take a long, eccentric orbit around the Sun. And just this week, scientists reported another strangely moving rock that bolsters the evidence for a ninth planet’s existence.
The new object, called 2015 BP519, takes an elliptical journey around the Sun spanning from 35 to 862 times the radius of Earth’s own orbit. But while the eight known planets orbit the Sun on the same plane, like slot cars on concentric tracks, 2015 BP519 orbits at a 54-degree angle to that plane.
~ Poor Pluto, you were just too little. 

Mars helicopter — NASA will be testing heavier-than-air flight on Mars by sending a miniature robot helicopter with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover.
The four-pound helicopter’s rotors will spin at 3000rpms, 10 times faster than helicopters here on Earth, according to a NASA release. That’s because the Martian atmosphere is only about 1% the density of Earth’s.
~ Well, it sounds more like a drone to me. Speaking of which …

Robo-sailboats — A start-up in California called Saildrone has built a fleet of robotic sailboats to gather tons of data about the oceans. The saildrones (main picture, above) rely on a hard, carbon-fibre sail to catch wind, and solar panels to power all of their electronics and sensors. Each drone carries at least US$100,000 of electronics, batteries, and related gear. Devices near the tip of the sail measure wind speed and direction, sunlight, air temperature and pressure, and humidity. Across the top of the drone’s body, other electronics track wave height and period, carbon dioxide levels, and the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. Underwater, sensors monitor currents, dissolved oxygen levels, and water temperature, acidity, and salinity. Sonars and other acoustic instruments try to identify animal life.
~ Hopefully they also have ship avoidance equipment. 

Flying robot-insect — One of the RoboBee’s creators has helped develop RoboFly, which flies without a tether. Slightly heavier than a toothpick, RoboFly was designed by a team at the University of Washington. One member of that team, assistant professor Sawyer Fuller, was also part of the Harvard University team that first created RoboBee. That flying robot receives its power via a wire attached to an external power source, as an onboard battery would simply be too heavy to allow the tiny craft to fly, but instead of a wire or a battery, RoboFly is powered by a laser.
That laser shines on a photovoltaic cell is mounted on top of the robot. That cell converts the laser light to just seven volts of electricity, so a built-in circuit boosts that to the 240 volts needed to flap the wings. That circuit also contains a microcontroller, which tells the robot when and how to flap its wings – on RoboBee, that sort of ‘thinking’ is handled via a tether-linked external controller.
~ It’s slightly larger than a  real fly.

Tesla power for  Europe — Tesla has unveiled a new large Powerpack energy storage project to be used as a virtual power plant for grid-balancing in Europe. It consists of 140 Powerpacks and several Tesla inverters for a total power output of 18.2 MW. Instead of using gas generators and steam turbines kicking to compensate for losses of power on the grid, Tesla’s batteries are charged when there’s excess power and then discharge when there’s a need for more power.
~ Hopefully they’ll make some money for the scattershot genius. 

100,000 gamers prove Einstein wrong — On 30 November 2016, around 100,000 people all over the world logged online and played a video game. The physics that govern the most basic aspects of our universe relies on maths that seems to work really well, but one concept, quantum entanglement, can seem downright upsetting. Entanglement confounded Einstein because of the way it seems to instantly send information faster than the speed of light. Einstein thought perhaps there were some hidden variables that would explain the entanglement without superluminal travel – if you just knew more about a quantum system, you’d be able to predict the properties of two entangled particles.
But the new experiment lead by Morgan Mitchell from the Institut de Ciències Fotòniques in Spain, called the BIG Bell Test, demonstrated that, sorry Einstein, your idea wasn’t right.
~ Because Quantum Mechanics is just weird.

Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome polluted, and the evidence is in Greenland — By drilling deep into Greenland’s ice sheet, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has chronicled the industrial waste produced by the ancient Greeks and Romans over a 1900-year period, linking pollution to economic booms, wars, and even plagues.
An indelible aspect of the ancient Greek and Roman economies involved the mining and smelting of lead and silver ores. The resulting emissions drifted up into the atmosphere, travelled thousands of miles, and eventually settled onto Greenland’s frozen surface. In a cyclical process that lasted for centuries, snow and ice covered this lead pollution, creating numerous sedimentary layers, and by consequence, a geological record extending for hundreds of feet into the ice.
~ Jeeze, imagine the mess our era has left a few layers above, then!

The Apocalypticon ~ Lady driver guns, Koreas, May Day, US & data, complaining plants, so do I


Life wasn’t easy for women in the early 20th century, as motorist Dorothy Levitt knew. That’s why she published The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Who Want to Motor in 1909. It tells women how to take care of themselves and their cars, and reminds them to always carry a gun.

Koreas: Honeymoon Island’s dark and bloody past — Nearly 90 flights a day leave Seoul for Jeju, a semitropical island 60 miles off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. With citrus groves, dramatic black-rock beaches, and waterfalls spilling into the sea, Jeju has earned the nickname Honeymoon Island. But many vacationers today may not remember the time when it had a very different reputation.
On April 3, 1948, an uprising pitted Jeju islanders against police, the US military and the newly formed South Korean government. In the ensuing conflict, up to 30,000 civilians lost their lives, and those who survived were branded traitors and communists. Nearly 800 historical sites are related to that period. Most are unmarked, untended, and virtually unknown, but one of the most significant is right where thousands of visitors arrive on the island – a mass grave under a runway of Jeju International Airport.
Probing the bowels of what he believed to be North Korean hacking architecture, American cybersecurity researcher Darien Huss found an outlier: iPhone software. It appeared at first glance to be a fairly mundane program, a mobile device management (MDM) tool. Such apps are typically used for businesses to remotely monitor and control employees’ phones. But, according to Huss, it’s most likely one of, if not the only, example of North Korean spyware for Apple’s smartphone.
Satellite analysis shows North Korea’s 2017 nuclear test literally moved a mountain — By combining satellite radar with seismic data, an international team of researchers has reassessed the effects of North Korea’s most recent nuclear test at Mount Mantap, offering disturbing new estimates for the strength of the device used and its influence on the mountain itself. The device could have been 20 times more powerful than the US bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

China chose May Day to shame debtors — While labourers all over the world spent May Day marching in the streets and demonstrating for worker’s rights, China’s government spent the holiday shaming citizens with outstanding debts by plastering their faces and personal information on giant screens.

Trump, data and all that — Measuring climate-warming greenhouse gases is crucial, and challenging to measure. In recent years satellite and aircraft instruments have begun monitoring carbon dioxide and methane remotely, and NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10-million-a-year research line, has helped stitch together observations of sources and sinks into high-resolution models of the planet’s flows of carbon. So, of course, President Donald Trump’s administration just killed the CMS. [There’s a good reason for this, actually: idiocy.]
It’s almost been a year since the White House held its last big tech summit. This week, it will reportedly host representatives from 38 of the biggest companies in the US to discuss the future of artificial intelligence and how the US government can help avoid disaster. [Good luck with that, as above, You just can’t reason with a powerful, egotistical idiot.]
3500 Russia-linked Facebook and Instagram ads released — Russian operatives used Facebook groups and targeted ads to influence the 2016 US election and sow discord in the United States. Facebook has declined to release the ads to the public, but now Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee have dropped a data dump of 3500 examples for your browsing pleasure. Be warned they come in a cumbersome PDF format and are split into batches that have to be opened one at a time.
Malicious Google apps get back in Play Store just be changing their names — Malicious Android apps that have been previously reported to Google are showing up again on company’s marquee Play Store with new names, security researchers are reporting. [Reeeal secure, there, Google. But don’t feel too good, Apple users – Signal’s”disappearing’ messages don’t actually evaporate on Macs.]

In slightly lighter news, plants ‘complain’ if neighbours get too close — Plants don’t like to be touched. For these immobile organisms, it means they’re likely growing too close to a neighbouring plant, and that their access to available sunlight is under threat. New research shows that touch-sensitive plants can communicate a warning message to their related neighbours, advising them to adjust their growth patterns accordingly.

And employers think over-50’s are ‘too old to learn new technology’. The good news is I know for a fact they are wrong.

Excerpt from my forthcoming book: The raw, vegan diet of the gorilla requires hours upon hours of eating plants to provide enough calories to support their mass. This can fill 80% of a 12-hour waking day … Humans, thanks to cooking, have many extra hours to devote to, building, helping one another and, let’s face it, chatting and socialising.