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Botanists Around the Globe Floored by a Priceless Collection Gone Up in Smoke

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 09:58 AM PST

Last year, Australian bureaucrats facilitated the destruction of a priceless, irreplaceable, scientific collection of plant materials on loan to their country's scientists from France. Apparently the actual destruction was carried out by an "external contractor", but that in no way absolves the bureaucracy.

Jeanson had received a message from the director of the Queensland Herbarium in Australia that was abrupt to the point of being blunt. It told him that a package of 105 botanical specimens of Australian plants owned by the Jardin des Plantes – and gathered by an intrepid French botanist more than 200 years earlier – had been destroyed by Australian biosecurity officials.

To this day, Jeanson can't quite believe what happened, and nor can scientists and museum directors from around the world who have followed the story with horror.

The specimens were both priceless and irreplaceable. How could anyone, let alone government officials, incinerate such artefacts? It was simply beyond Jeanson's comprehension. It remains so, even after post-mortems and investigations conducted in both countries, by scientists and bureaucrats, after diplomats stepped in and compensation negotiations were undertaken.

The specimens destroyed were part of the catalog of the world's plants and were a part of a base for pharmacy, agriculture, and any kind of science based on plants.

Source : 'Would you burn the Mona Lisa if it was sent?': Our horror bureaucratic bungle


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Blockchain Nears Peak Hype: UK Politicos To Probe Crypto-Coin

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 08:26 AM PST

Title: Blockchain Nears Peak Hype: Uk Politicos To Probe Crypto-Coin

Hot on the heels of Bitcoin's dramatic rise and fall - and rise, British parliamentarians have decided to launch an inquiry into digital currencies.

The Treasury Committee, one of the more influential of the House of Commons' talking shops, today confirmed it will investigate the impact of cryptocurrencies and how they can be regulated.

[...] "Striking the right balance between regulating digital currencies to provide adequate protection for consumers and businesses, whilst not stifling innovation, is crucial."

[...] Many regulators and government bodies - from the European Commission to the US Securities and Exchange Commission - have made no secret of their disdain for Bitcoin.

[...] But the committee also plans to investigate the potential benefits of cryptocurrencies and the underlying distributed ledger technology, for instance in boosting security or disrupting the economy or work of the public sector.


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U.S. law to Snoop on Citizens' Info Stored Abroad

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 06:59 AM PST

Original URL: US state legal supremos show lots of love for proposed CLOUD Act (a law to snoop on citizens' info stored abroad)

The attorneys general of 35 US states on Wednesday signed an open letter calling for the quick passage of the Clarify Lawful Overseas Use of Data (CLOUD) Act – with some qualifications.

[...] In effect, it means the FBI can ask, say, a California court for a subpoena to obtain files from a San Francisco upstart's servers hosted in France, sidestepping French privacy laws and legal system. The act's wording also does not limit the Feds to serving orders for communications on US companies and entities – agents would be able to demand information from whomever they wished, if a US judge approved.

The draft law also allows foreign governments to ask for non-US-citizens' personal data stored in America, under new sharing agreements that would be worked out by the White House.

The CLOUD Act was drawn up in part as a result of the ongoing court battle between Microsoft and US law enforcement: Uncle Sam wants a Microsoft customer's email messages stored on a Microsoft-run server in Ireland. The Feds went to a judge in New York for the information, but Redmond wants prosecutors to go to Ireland and ask an Irish judge for permission.

Microsoft, essentially, is arguing that, because the data in question is stored on servers in Ireland, the g-men's request – made under the 1986 US Stored Communications Act – is invalid. The US Supreme Court will consider the case this year.

[...] "The Act also creates incentives for our foreign partners to enter into bilateral agreements that will facilitate cross-border criminal investigations, while ensuring that privacy and civil liberties are respected."


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Scott Pruitt Cited the Bible to Defend his Oil-friendly Policies

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 05:23 AM PST

In a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Scott Pruitt, EPA Chief, said that the Bible tells people to use all the resources available to us, including fossil fuels:
"The biblical world view with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we've been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind".

According to Vox: "But as far as his biblical assertion goes, Pruitt's words reflect a wider trend among American evangelicals, who largely have not embraced scientific thought on environmentalism or global warming."

The Trump administration has used a variety of excuses to legitimize its record-setting rollbacks on environmental protections: calling global warming a hoax, or arguing that the economic consequences of increased regulation would outweigh their benefit.

The latest justification? The Bible.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a media outlet that also seems to double as a propaganda arm of the Trump administration, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said his Christian convictions led him to conclude that America should use gas and coal freely because natural resources exist purely for man's benefit.

[...] That's why evangelical groups have, therefore, been historically resistant to environmentalist causes. Creationist lobbying groups frequently fund initiatives like the Louisiana Science Education Act, which mandates a "balanced" (and climate change-denying) approach to teaching environmental issues in public schools.

Please read the linked article as it explains the connection between contempt for science and protecting the environment and the beliefs of evangelicals.


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A Keen Sense For Molecules

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 03:51 AM PST

Arthur T Knackerbracket has found the following story:

Laser physicists from the Laboratory of Attosecond Physics at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have developed an extremely powerful broadband infrared light source. This light source opens up a whole new range of opportunities in medicine, life science, and material analysis.

Infrared light has a keen sense for molecules. With the help of this light, researchers are able to go in search of the small particles which shape and determine our lives. The phenomenon, in which infrared light sets molecules in vibration, is pivotal in this search. Scientists are exploiting this phenomenon by using infrared light to analyze the molecular makeup of samples.

[...] In the hope that this analysis can become even more exact, the laser physicists from the Laboratory of Attosecond Physics (LAP) at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich and the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ) have developed an infrared light source that has an enormously broad spectrum of wavelengths. This light source is the first of its kind worldwide and can be used to help detect the smallest amounts of molecules in liquids like blood.

When infrared light encounters molecules, they begin to vibrate. In this process, each particular type of molecule is brought into motion by a very specific set of different wavelengths in the range from 3 to 20 micrometers.

By examining the wavelengths of the light being emitted after this excitation, researchers are able to derive the molecular composition of the sample. The more powerful the source of infrared light and the more wavelengths utilized, the higher the chance of determining the sample composition, in for example breath or blood.


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Japan Approves Single-Dose Flu Treatment

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 02:19 AM PST

https://www.wsj.com/articles/experimental-drug-promises-to-kill-the-flu-virus-in-a-day-1518264004

As Americans suffer through the worst influenza outbreak in almost a decade, a Japanese drugmaker says it has developed a pill that can kill the virus within a day. But even if the experimental drug lives up to the claim, it likely won't be available in the U.S. until next year at the earliest.

A late-stage trial on Japanese and American flu patients found that for the people who took the Shionogi 4507 1.41% & Co. compound, the median time taken to wipe out the virus was 24 hours. That is much quicker than any other flu drug on the market, including Roche AG's RHHBY -0.34% Tamiflu, which the trial showed took three times longer to achieve the same result. Quickly killing the virus could reduce its contagious effects, Shionogi said.

Also, Shionogi's experimental drug requires only a single dose, while patients need to take two doses of Tamiflu a day, for five days.

Both Shionogi's compound and Tamiflu take roughly the same amount of time to entirely contain flu symptoms, but Shionogi says its compound provides immediate relief faster.


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How Facebook Rewards Provocative Ads

Posted: 26 Feb 2018 12:47 AM PST

Antonio García Martínez at Wired writes about the effects of scaled pricing based on algorithms in Facebook's advertisement auction. Just buying advertisements in the auction does not guarantee that the ads get through to the target audience so the "clickbaitiness" of the ad is estimated by algorithms which adjust the price. Ads estimated to be "clickbaity" by the algorithm get lower prices so more can be purchased with the same money. The more problematic the ad, the more cost effective it is for the buyer.

A canny marketer with really engaging (or outraging) content can goose their effective purchasing power at the ads auction, piggybacking on Facebook's estimation of their clickbaitiness to win many more auctions (for the same or less money) than an unengaging competitor. That's why, if you've noticed a News Feed ad that's pulling out all the stops (via provocative stock photography or other gimcrackery) to get you to click on it, it's partly because the advertiser is aiming to pump up their engagement levels and increase their exposure, all without paying any more money.

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook's click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone's screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.

Thus the advertisement auction algorithms themselves were yet another major factor in the results of the 2016 US election.

See also: Trump and the weird attention economy of Facebook


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Worldwide Smartphone Shipments Slip For First Time Ever

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 11:15 PM PST

Arthur T Knackerbracket has found the following story:

The global smartphone market is shrinking for the first time as choosey buyers in emerging markets hang on to their mobiles for longer.

In Gartner's Q4 sales stats, Samsung maintained a narrow lead in global volume shipments of smartphones – but every major (top five) vendor outside of those based in China saw unit shipments slip.

Some 407.84 million handsets found a new home in the quarter, equating to a 5.6 per cent slide or 24.29 million fewer phones sold than the prior year.

Several major factors caused the market shrinkage, said Anshul Gupta, research director at Gartner. "First, upgrades from feature phones to smartphones have slowed right down due to a lack of quality 'ultra-low-cost' smartphones and users preferring to buy quality feature phones.

"Second, replacement smartphone users are choosing quality models and keeping them longer, lengthening the replacement cycle of smartphones. Moreover, while demand for high quality, 4G connectivity and better camera features remained strong, high expectations and few incremental benefits during replacement weakened smartphone sales," Gupta added.

This is a characteristic of the emerging markets, where all the action is – not mature markets like the UK or USA.


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CDC Plans New Atlanta High Containment Lab

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 08:54 PM PST

A new CDC lab will cost up to $480 million:

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it needs to replace its aging high containment lab, which handles some of the world's most dangerous contagions.

The project would cost $350 million to build. But over three years, the total budget could reach $480 million, also funding campus infrastructure improvements, such as extending utility tunnels to support the new lab. The CDC is in the early stages of asking Congress for the funds.

In its current "high containment lab" (HCL), the CDC develops and performs diagnostic tests for the deadliest disease threats, including emerging influenza viruses and viral hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Lassa fever.

[...] Without investment, the CDC's current lab will be left with only a fraction of its current research space and the agency will fall behind in protecting, defending and responding to infectious disease threats. In the next few years, it faces a risk of an unplanned and potentially catastrophic shutdown.

Meanwhile, a CDC employee has been missing since he called in sick from work.

Also at Time.


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Stolen Degas Painting Recovered After French Customs Agents Search Bus

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 06:33 PM PST

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/24/588537379/customs-agents-search-a-bus-near-paris-and-discover-a-stolen-degas-painting

In December 2009, a small painting by Edgar Degas was quietly stolen from the Cantini museum in Marseille, France. Museum staff discovered Les Choristes was missing when they arrived in the morning, and the prosecutor suggested it could be an inside job because the painting had been unscrewed from the wall and there was no evidence of a break-in. An investigation was launched, but nine years went by and the 1877 painting — worth an estimated $1 million — wasn't seen again.

That was until last Friday, when French customs agents happened to check a bus parked at a highway stop about 18 miles east of Paris. The officers opened a suitcase in the luggage compartment, and there it was: vibrant pastels in red, orange, and yellow, depicting a chorus from the opera Don Juan. In the lower left hand corner: Degas' signature. The agents asked the bus passengers who owned the suitcase. No one claimed it.


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To Power the Future, Carmakers Flip on 48-Volt Systems

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 04:12 PM PST

Car companies, starting with Volvo last summer, have laid out plans to electrify entire lineups of vehicles. But the fine print makes it clear that the coming decade and beyond will focus not just on massive battery packs powering electric motors, but also on adding a little extra juice to the venerable internal combustion engine.

Increasingly, that juice will arrive in the form of new electrical systems built to a 48-volt standard, instead of the 12-volt systems that have dominated since the 1950s. Simpler than Prius-type drivetrains and less expensive than Tesla-scale battery power, the new electrical architecture both satisfies the demands of cars made more power hungry by their gadget load and enables the use of lower-cost hybrid drive systems.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/business/electric-cars-48-volts.html


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Amazon Plans to Open as Many as Six More Cashierless Amazon Go Stores This Year

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 01:51 PM PST

Amazon's much-heralded convenience store of the future, Amazon Go, may seem like a crazy experiment. But the company plans to open as many as six more of these storefronts this year, multiple people familiar with the company's plans have told Recode.

Some of the new high-tech stores are likely to open in Amazon's hometown of Seattle, where the first location is based, as well as Los Angeles, these people said. It's not clear if Amazon will open up Go stores in any other cities this year.

In Los Angeles, Amazon has held serious talks with billionaire developer Rick Caruso about bringing a Go store to The Grove, his 600,000-square-foot outdoor shopping Mecca, two of these people said.

And in Seattle, Amazon had identified at least three locations for additional Go stores as of last year, according to one source.

[...] News of the planned expansion of the Amazon Go concept is sure to set off fresh concerns about the great societal challenges that come with the type of automation that Amazon is inventing. Since the Amazon Go model does not involve customers checking out, there are no cashiers working in the stores.

Source: ReCode

Also Amazon reportedly plans to open more of its futuristic, cashierless stores this year


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Ecuador Blames Britain Over Julian Assange Impasse

Posted: 25 Feb 2018 11:44 AM PST

Ecuador's foreign minister has blamed Britain over the stalemate surrounding WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange following rekindled attempts to secure his safe exit from Quito's embassy in London.

"On the issue of mediation, I have to say very honestly that it has not been successful because two parties are needed to mediate, [sic]" Maria Fernanda Espinosa, the Ecuadorian foreign minister, told reporters Friday with respect to the Assange case, Agence France-Presse translated.

"Ecuador is willing but the other party is not," she added, referring to Britain, according to Reuters.

On the other hand, from the same source, and as we have already reported:

British authorities argue that Mr. Assange, an Australian, was under house arrest when he entered the embassy and should be apprehended for having breached his bail conditions if and when he exits.

Source: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/feb/23/ecuador-blames-britain-over-julian-assange-impasse/


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