By msmash from Slashdot's scientists-with-a-plan department
An anonymous reader shares a report: A blue-ribbon panel of researchers chaired by the University of Toronto's Barbara Sherwood Lollar assembled the report at the behest of the US Congress, which asked in a 2017 law that a "strategy for astrobiology" be developed to prioritize "the search for life's origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe." The 196-page report does not offer easy access to ET, but the steady drumbeat of scientific advancement it documents suggests an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what we know -- and don't know -- about biology on our planet and beyond. Indeed, the recently gained knowledge it highlights is the front end of a wave: Only the Viking mission in the 1970s hunted rigorously for signs of life on other planets, and now the first new NASA mission to do so, the Europa lander, is being designed. In the past four years alone, scientists using data gathered by space probes on Mars discovered evidence of past surface water, the presence of nutrients and organic molecules, and methane gas in the atmosphere that varies by season. This doesn't mean life exists now on Mars, but it is helping contribute to an understanding of astrobiology as a discipline that looks at physical and chemical processes over time to determine if the conditions for life once existed or may do so in the future. Much work on astrobiology is Earth-focused; it is the only place we know life exists and thus is our guinea pig for detecting life from a distance. The Galileo space probe found signs of life on our planet in 1990. The report stressed that recent discoveries of life on Earth that exists without the sun's energy, deep under the ocean or the ground, should inform what we look for on other worlds. Scientists are expanding their understanding of habitability beyond a binary and into a spectrum, which may sound trite, but previous research relied on blunt instruments and blunter assumptions about alien life -- starting with the idea that it would appear on the surface.Read Replies (0)
By msmash from Slashdot's remarkable-moves department
Starting with Firefox 64, RSS/Atom feed support will be handled via add-ons, rather than in-product. Mozilla's Gijs Kruitbosch writes: After considering the maintenance, performance and security costs of the feed preview and subscription features in Firefox, we've concluded that it is no longer sustainable to keep feed support in the core of the product. While we still believe in RSS and support the goals of open, interoperable formats on the Web, we strongly believe that the best way to meet the needs of RSS and its users is via WebExtensions. With that in mind, we have decided to remove the built-in feed preview feature, subscription UI, and the "live bookmarks" support from the core of Firefox, now that improved replacements for those features are available via add-ons. By virtue of being baked into the core of Firefox, these features have long had outsized maintenance and security costs relative to their usage. Making sure these features are as well-tested, modern and secure as the rest of Firefox would take a surprising amount of engineering work, and unfortunately the usage of these features does not justify such an investment: feed previews and live bookmarks are both used in around 0.01% of sessions.Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's cause-and-effect department
A new study published by the Entomological Society of America found that bees stop flying when the moon obstructs the sun during a total solar eclipse. "Using tiny microphones suspended among flowers, the team recorded the buzzing of the bees through all stages of the eclipse," reports Smithsonian Magazine. "The bees were active and noisy right up to the last moments before totality, the part of a total solar eclipse when the moon blocks all direct sunlight, and a night-like darkness settles over the land. As totality hit, the bees went totally silent in unison." From the report: The clear drop from buzzing to silence was the most striking change during the eclipse, but additional, smaller changes in the bees' buzzing could give the researchers clues about how the insects responded. As ecologist Candace Galen of the University of Missouri notes, the bees' buzzes lasted longer as it gradually got darker approaching totality. Increased buzz length suggests the bees started flying more slowly, they were taking longer flights, or some combination of both.
"The way I think about it is, if you're driving on a road and it gets foggy, you slow down," explains Galen. When there is less visibility, slowing down helps you process information and maintain situational awareness -- and like the bees did during totality, if there's absolutely zero visibility, you should probably pull over. Adjusting speed to acclimate one's senses to an environment that suddenly shifts is a common behavior in many animals, and it's been observed in bees when they fly before sunrise or sunset.Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's all-new-concepts department
MIT chemical engineers have reportedly designed a material that can react with carbon dioxide from the air, "to grow, strengthen, and even repair itself." According to MIT News, "The polymer, which might someday be used as construction or repair material or for protective coatings, continuously converts the greenhouse gas into a carbon-based material that reinforces itself." From the report: The current version of the new material is a synthetic gel-like substance that performs a chemical process similar to the way plants incorporate carbon dioxide from the air into their growing tissues. The material might, for example, be made into panels of a lightweight matrix that could be shipped to a construction site, where they would harden and solidify just from exposure to air and sunlight, thereby saving on the energy and cost of transportation. The material the team used in these initial proof-of-concept experiments did make use of one biological component -- chloroplasts, the light-harnessing components within plant cells, which the researchers obtained from spinach leaves. The chloroplasts are not alive but catalyze the reaction of carbon dioxide to glucose. Isolated chloroplasts are quite unstable, meaning that they tend to stop functioning after a few hours when removed from the plant. In their paper, [the researchers] demonstrate methods to significantly increase the catalytic lifetime of extracted chloroplasts. In ongoing and future work, the chloroplast is being replaced by catalysts that are nonbiological in origin.
< article continued at Slashdot's all-new-concepts department
>Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's nothing-is-free department
Slate's Rachel Withers argues that "tech companies that profit from Wikipedia's extensive database owe Wikimedia a much greater debt." Amazon's Alexa, for example, uses Wikipedia "without credit, contribution, or compensation." The Google Assistant also sources Wikipedia, but they credit the encyclopedia -- and other sites -- when it uses it as a resource. From the report: Amazon recently donated $1 million to the Wikimedia Endowment, a fund that keeps Wikipedia running, as "part of Amazon's and CEO Jeff Bezos' growing work in philanthropy," according to CNET. It's being framed as a "gift," one that -- as Amazon puts it -- recognizes their shared vision to "make it easier to share knowledge globally." Obviously, and as alluded to by CNET, $1 million is hardly a magnanimous donation from Amazon and Bezos, the former a trillion-dollar company and the latter a man with a net worth of more than $160 billion. But it's not just the fact that this donation is, in the scheme of things, paltry. It's that this "endowment" is dwarfed by what Amazon and its ilk get out of Wikipedia -- figuratively and literally. Wikipedia provides the intelligence behind many of Alexa's most useful skills, its answers to everything from "What is Wikipedia?" to "What is Slate?" (meta).
< article continued at Slashdot's nothing-is-free department
>Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's do-it-yourself department
U.S. PIRG -- a non-profit that uses grassroots methods to advocate for political change -- found that 90 percent of manufacturers it contacted claimed that a third party repair would void its warranty. "PIRG researched the warranty information of 50 companies in the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) -- an industry group of notorious for lobbying to protect is repair monopolies -- and found that 45 of them claimed independent repair would void their warranty," Motherboard reports. From the report: PIRG poured over the documentation for 50 companies such as Bissell, Whirlpool, and Panasonic to document their warranty policies. When it couldn't find clear language about warranty and repair, it reached out to the companies via their customer service lines. The overwhelming majority of the companies told PIRG that independent repair would void the warranty.
The 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act states that no manufacturer who charges more than $5 for a product can put repair restrictions on a product they're offering a warranty on. In May, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, HTC, Hyundai, and ASUS for violating the act by threatening to void the warranties of customers who repaired their own devices. Within 30 days, many of the companies had complied and changed the language on their websites around independent repair. It was a step in the right direction, but the PIRGs survey of the AHAM members shows that there's still a lot of work to do.Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's easy-peasy department
An anonymous reader quotes a report from IEEE Spectrum: Over the past six months a small, publicly available genealogy database has become the go-to source for solving cold case crimes. The free online tool, called GEDmatch, is an ancestry service that allows people to submit their DNA data and search for relatives -- an open access version of AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Since April, investigators have used GEDmatch to identify victims, killers, and missing persons all over the U.S. in at least 19 cases, many of them decades old, according to authors of a report published today in Science. The authors predict that in the near future, as genetic genealogy reports gain in popularity, such tools could be used to find nearly any individual in the U.S. of European descent.
GEDmatch holds the genetic data of only about a million people. But cold case investigators have been exploiting the database using a genomic analysis technique called long-range familial search. The technique allows researchers to match an individual's DNA to distant relatives, such as third cousins. Chances are, one of those relatives will have used a genetic genealogy service. More than 17 million people have participated in these services -- a number that has grown rapidly over the last two years. AncestryDNA and 23andMe hold most of those customers. A genetic match to a distant relative can fairly quickly lead investigators to the person of interest. In a highly publicized case, GEDmatch was used earlier this year to identify the "Golden State Killer," a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s, but was never caught. In April, investigators were able to use a genealogy database to narrow down DNA data from crime scenes and identify the "Golden State Killer," a serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s.Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's expect-the-unexpected department
Yesterday, at a routine vote on regulations for self-driving cars, members of the European Peoples' Party voted down a clause that would protect a vehicle's telemetry so that it couldn't become someone's property. The clause affirmed that "data generated by autonomous transport are automatically generated and are by nature not creative, thus making copyright protection or the right on data-bases inapplicable." Boing Boing reports: This is data that we will need to evaluate the safety of autonomous vehicles, to fine-tune their performance, to ensure that they are working as the manufacturer claims -- data that will not be public domain (as copyright law dictates), but will instead be someone's exclusive purview, to release or withhold as they see fit. Who will own this data? It's unlikely that it will be the owners of the vehicles.
It's already the case that most auto manufacturers use license agreements and DRM to lock up your car so that you can't fix it yourself or take it to an independent service center. The aggregated data from millions of self-driving cars across the EU aren't just useful to public safety analysts, consumer rights advocates, security researchers and reviewers (who would benefit from this data living in the public domain) -- it is also a potential gold-mine for car manufacturers who could sell it to insurers, market researchers and other deep-pocketed corporate interests who can profit by hiding that data from the public who generate it and who must share their cities and streets with high-speed killer robots.Read Replies (0)
By msmash from Slashdot's hold-my-beer department
Two astronomers have asked a question for the ages: Can moons have moons? The delightful, if theoretical, answer is: Yes -- yes, they can. Sarah Laskow, writing for Atlas Obscura: As Gizmodo reports, this particular scientific inquiry began with a question from Juna Kollmeier's son. Kollemeier, who works at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, recruited Sean Raymond, of the University of Bordeaux, to help her answer the question. In a paper posted on arXiv [PDF], they lay out their case that moons can have moons. The conditions have to be right -- the primary moon has to be big enough and far away enough from the planet it's orbiting for the smaller, secondary moon to survive. But, even given these caveats, they found that moons in our very own solar system could theoretically have their own smaller moons. Two of Saturn's moons and one of Jupiter's are candidates. So is our favorite moon -- the Earth's moon. [...] One of the great challenges of talking about recursive places is deciding what call them. The prefix "sub-" can do a lot of work here: We can islands within islands "subislands," and in the arXiv paper, Kollmeier and Raymond call a moon's moon a "submoon." But there are other options. New Scientist notes that "moonmoon" has been put forth as a name for a moon's moon. For those of us who are less than fluent in meme culture: This is a reference to Moon Moon, sometimes described as the internet's derpiest wolf. Moon Moon was born in 2013, from a werewolf name generator, and soon started frolicking across Tumblr and all other places memes can be found.Read Replies (0)
By BeauHD from Slashdot's easier-said-than-done department
DARPA, the research arm of the U.S. military, has a new Machine Common Sense (MCS) program that will run a competition that asks AI algorithms to make sense of questions with common sense answers. For example, here's one of the questions: "A student puts two identical plants in the same type and amount of soil. She gives them the same amount of water. She puts one of these plants near a window and the other in a dark room. The plant near the window will produce more (A) oxygen (B) carbon dioxide (C) water." MIT Technology Review reports: A computer program needs some understanding of the way photosynthesis works in order to tackle the question. Simply feeding a machine lots of previous questions won't solve the problem reliably. These benchmarks will focus on language because it can so easily trip machines up, and because it makes testing relatively straightforward. Etzioni says the questions offer a way to measure progress toward common-sense understanding, which will be crucial. [...] Previous attempts to help machines understand the world have focused on building large knowledge databases by hand. This is an unwieldy and essentially never-ending task. The most famous such effort is Cyc, a project that has been in the works for decades. "The absence of common sense prevents an intelligent system from understanding its world, communicating naturally with people, behaving reasonably in unforeseen situations, and learning from new experiences,"https://www.darpa.mil/ Dave Gunning, a program manager at DARPA, said in a statement issued this morning. "This absence is perhaps the most significant barrier between the narrowly focused AI applications we have today and the more general AI applications we would like to create in the future."Read Replies (0)
By msmash from Slashdot's small-steps department
An anonymous reader shares a report: Today, a very popular app, Plex Media Server, gets the Snap treatment. In other words, you can install the media server program without any headaches -- right from the Snap store. "In adopting the universal Linux app packaging format, Plex will make its multimedia platform available to an ever-growing community of Linux users, including those on KDE Neon, Debian, Fedora, Manjaro, OpenSUSE, Zorin and Ubuntu. Automatic updates and rollback capabilities are staples of Snap software, meaning Plex users will always have the best and latest version running," says Canonical.Read Replies (0)