How Dirt Could Save Humanity From an Infectious Apocalypse

How Dirt Could Save Humanity From an Infectious Apocalypse
By PETER ANDREY SMITH
Jan 14 2018
https://www.wired.com/story/how-dirt-could-save-humanity-from-an-infectious-apocalypse/

Nobody scours Central Park looking for drugs quite the way Sean Brady does. On a sweltering Thursday, he hops out of a yellow cab, crosses Fifth Avenue, and scurries up a dirt path. Around us, the penetrating churn of a helicopter and the honk of car horns filter through the trees. Brady, a fast-talking chemist in his late 40s who sports a graying buzz cut and rimless glasses, has a wry, self-deprecating humor that belies the single-minded determination of his quest. He walks along restlessly. Near the lake, we head up a rock slope and into a secluded area. Brady bends over and picks up a pinch of dusty soil. “Out of that bit of soil,” he says, “you can get enough to do DNA analysis.” He holds it in his fingertips momentarily, and then tosses it. Bits of glassy silica glisten in the sunlight.

Brady is creating drugs from dirt. He’s certain that the world’s topsoils contain incredible, practically inexhaustible reservoirs of undiscovered antibiotics, the chemical weapons bacteria use to fend off other microorganisms. He’s not alone in this thinking, but the problem is that the vast majority of bacteria cannot be grown in the lab—a necessary step in cultivating antibiotics.

Brady has found a way around this roadblock, which opens the door to all those untapped bacteria that live in dirt. By cloning DNA out of a kind of bacteria-laden mud soup, and reinstalling these foreign gene sequences into microorganisms that can be grown in the lab, he’s devised a method for discovering antibiotics that could soon treat infectious diseases and fight drug-resistant superbugs. In early 2016, Brady launched a company called Lodo Therapeutics (lodo means mud in Spanish and Portuguese) to scale up production and ultimately help humanity outrun infectious diseases nipping at our heels. Some colleagues call his approach “a walk in the park.” Indeed, his lab recently dispatched two groups of student volunteers to collect bags full of dirt at 275 locations around New York City.

We’re retracing their path back toward his lab, our shoes crunching down on potential cures for nearly any ailment imaginable. “It’s pretty amazing, right?” Brady says, drawing his words out. “Right here we can find all … the … drugs … in … the world. Pretty cool, I must say.”

At exactly the same time Brady and I are walking around Central Park, a 70-year-old woman arrives at a hospital in Reno, Nevada, with an infection no doctor can treat. The woman had fallen during a trip to India, and a pocket of fluid developed near her hip. She flew back to the US, and then, two weeks later, she was dead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the organism responsible for her death could evade 26 antibiotic drugs. The culprit, pan-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, is not the only superbug overpowering humanity’s defenses; it is part of a family known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. The carpabenems are drugs of last resort, and the CDC considers organisms that evade these antibiotics to be nightmare bacteria.

One problem with antibiotic resistance is that, for most people, it remains abstract—right now its lethal impact is relatively small. Few of us have lost loved ones—yet. (The headline-grabbing methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, kills 20,000 people a year in the US, compared to the 600,000 who succumb to cancer.) So it’s difficult to envision a future that resembles the pre-antibiotic past—an era of untreatable staph, strep, tuberculosis, leprosy, pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet and puerperal fevers, dysentery, typhoid, meningitis, gas gangrene, and gonorrhea.

But that’s the future we are headed for. The routine use of antibiotics and the reckless misuse in humans and animals accelerates resistance: We’re rewinding to a world where death begins in childbirth, where premature babies die, where newborns go blind from gonorrhea. Routine injuries become life-threatening infections. You could lose a limb, or your life, from a careless slip with a paring knife or an accidental fall in India. The risks of organ transplants and medical implants would outweigh any potential benefit. Go in for routine dental surgery and end up in a body bag. Explosive viral epidemics, such as the flu, prove especially lethal when they tag team with bacterial infections like strep. This is not the coming plague. It’s already upon us, and it spells the end of medicine as we know it. And that’s why Brady’s quest to revitalize antibiotic discovery is so crucial.

[snip]

Advertisements

Amazon won’t say if it hands your Echo data to the government

Amazon won’t say if it hands your Echo data to the government
The retail, cloud, and device giant stands as the least transparent of transparent tech companies.
By Zack Whittaker
Jan 16 2018
http://www.zdnet.com/article/amazon-the-least-transparent-tech-company/

Amazon has a transparency problem.

Three years ago, the retail giant  became the last major tech company to reveal how many subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders it received for customer data in a half-year period. While every other tech giant had regularly published its government request figures for years, spurred on by accusations of participation in government surveillance, Amazon had been largely forgotten.

Eventually,  people noticed and Amazon acquiesced.

Since then, Amazon’s business has expanded. By its quarterly revenue, it’s  no longera retail company — it’s a cloud giant and a device maker. The company’s flagship Echo, an “always listening” speaker, collects vast amounts of customer data that’s openly up for grabs by the government.

But Amazon’s bi-annual transparency figures don’t want you to know that.

In fact, Amazon has been downright deceptive in how it presents the data, obfuscating the figures in its short, but contextless, twice-yearly reports. Not only does Amazon offer the barest minimum of information possible, the company has — and continues — to deliberately mislead its customers by actively refusing to clarify how many customers, and which customers, are affected by the data demands it receives.

Businesses that evolve a rapid, customer-centric approach to application development and delivery are best positioned to innovate in their markets. These organizations can respond to market opportunities so fast that it becomes a competitive advantage….

ZDNet started covering Amazon’s then-lack of transparency and subsequently published reports when Stephen Schmidt, chief information security officer for Amazon Web Services (AWS), posted the debut report on the “AWS Security blog” late on a Friday night in mid-2015.

Since then, every report was put on an AWS subdomain page, which asks in the footer if you “want more information about AWS information requests?”

After its second report, we asked Amazon spokesperson Frank Fellows in July 2016 if the company would include data such as Echo audio, retail, and mobile service data in the future. He declined to comment.

Transparency reports came and went. We would occasionally contact an Amazon spokesperson for comment to provide context to data found in each report, but the company would either not respond or decline to comment.

Then, earlier this month, after  we reported a record high in government demands for data, Amazon spokesperson Stacy Mitchell emailed to say the report “actually focuses solely on Amazon” and not just on AWS as we had reported, and as we had assumed in previous reports. With that being the case, we asked which products, services, and divisions the data in the report related to, but the spokesperson would not say. The logic was that if the figures don’t solely relate to AWS as the first transparency report was billed, it was necessary to provide context to what the figures did in fact relate to. We pressed, but, clearly at an impasse, we reached out to another spokesperson, Grant Milne, for clarity. After a short back and forth, Milne also refused to say which products, services, and divisions were included in the report.

Lastly, we asked Ty Rogers, Amazon’s director of corporate communications, who also declined to comment.

[snip]

It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech

[Note:  This item comes from friend Robert Berger.  DLH]

It’s the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech
By Zeynep Tufekci
Jan 16 2018
https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/

For most of modern history, the easiest way to block the spread of an idea was to keep it from being mechanically disseminated. Shutter the news­paper, pressure the broad­cast chief, install an official censor at the publishing house. Or, if push came to shove, hold a loaded gun to the announcer’s head.

This actually happened once in Turkey. It was the spring of 1960, and a group of military officers had just seized control of the government and the national media, imposing an information blackout to suppress the coordination of any threats to their coup. But inconveniently for the conspirators, a highly anticipated soccer game between Turkey and Scotland was scheduled to take place in the capital two weeks after their takeover. Matches like this were broadcast live on national radio, with an announcer calling the game, play by play. People all across Turkey would huddle around their sets, cheering on the national team.

Canceling the match was too risky for the junta; doing so might incite a protest. But what if the announcer said something political on live radio? A single remark could tip the country into chaos. So the officers came up with the obvious solution: They kept several guns trained on the announcer for the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes of the live broadcast.

It was still a risk, but a managed one. After all, there was only one announcer to threaten: a single bottleneck to control of the airwaves.

Variations on this general playbook for censorship—find the right choke point, then squeeze—were once the norm all around the world. That’s because, until recently, broadcasting and publishing were difficult and expensive affairs, their infrastructures riddled with bottlenecks and concentrated in a few hands.

But today that playbook is all but obsolete. Whose throat do you squeeze when anyone can set up a Twitter account in seconds, and when almost any event is recorded by smartphone-­wielding mem­­bers of the public? When protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a single livestreamer named Mustafa Hussein reportedly garnered an audience comparable in size to CNN’s for a short while. If a Bosnian Croat war criminal drinks poison in a courtroom, all of Twitter knows about it in minutes.

In today’s networked environment, when anyone can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, it would seem that censorship ought to be impossible. This should be the golden age of free speech.

And sure, it is a golden age of free speech—if you can believe your lying eyes. Is that footage you’re watching real? Was it really filmed where and when it says it was? Is it being shared by alt-right trolls or a swarm of Russian bots? Was it maybe even generated with the help of artificial intelligence? (Yes, there are systems that can create increasingly convincing fake videos.)

Or let’s say you were the one who posted that video. If so, is anyone even watching it? Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content pro­ducers? Does it play well with Facebook’s algorithm? Is YouTube recommending it?

Maybe you’re lucky and you’ve hit a jackpot in today’s algorithmic public sphere: an audience that either loves you or hates you. Is your post racking up the likes and shares? Or is it raking in a different kind of “engagement”: Have you received thousands of messages, mentions, notifications, and emails threatening and mocking you? Have you been doxed for your trouble? Have invisible, angry hordes ordered 100 pizzas to your house? Did they call in a SWAT team—men in black arriving, guns drawn, in the middle of dinner?

Standing there, your hands over your head, you may feel like you’ve run afoul of the awesome power of the state for speaking your mind. But really you just pissed off 4chan. Or entertained them. Either way, congratulations: You’ve found an audience.

Here’s how this golden age of speech actually works: In the 21st century, the capacity to spread ideas and reach an audience is no longer limited by access to expensive, centralized broadcasting infrastructure. It’s limited instead by one’s ability to garner and distribute attention. And right now, the flow of the world’s attention is structured, to a vast and overwhelming degree, by just a few digital platforms: Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube), and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

These companies—which love to hold themselves up as monuments of free expression—have attained a scale unlike anything the world has ever seen; they’ve come to dominate media distribution, and they increasingly stand in for the public sphere itself. But at their core, their business is mundane: They’re ad brokers. To virtually anyone who wants to pay them, they sell the capacity to precisely target our eyeballs. They use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to and what content will keep us clicking, tapping, and scrolling down a bottomless feed.

[snip]

Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You

[Note:  This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis.  DLH]

Alexa, We’re Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With You
By DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI and NICK WINGFIELD
Jan 15 2018
https://nytimes.com/2018/01/15/technology/virtual-assistants-alexa.html?referer=https://www.google.com/

SAN FRANCISCO — These days, you can find virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant in all sorts of things, from smart speakers and smartphones to washing machines and bathroom mirrors.

The challenge isn’t finding these digitized helpers, it is finding people who use them to do much more than they could with the old clock/radio in the bedroom.

A management consulting firm recently looked at heavy users of virtual assistants, defined as people who use one more than three times a day. The firm, called Activate, found that the majority of these users turned to virtual assistants to play music, get the weather, set a timer or ask questions.

Activate also found that the majority of Alexa users had never used more than the basic apps that come with the device, although Amazon said its data suggested that four out of five registered Alexa customers have used at least one of the more than 30,000 “skills” — third-party apps that tap into Alexa’s voice controls to accomplish tasks — it makes available.

But while some hard-core fans are indeed tapping into advanced features of virtual assistants, like controlling the lights in their homes, for the most part, “people are still using these speakers for very routine tasks,” said Michael J. Wolf, the founder of Activate. “It’s not clear that there is something that’s going to drive people to use these.”

Apple popularized the virtual assistant concept in 2011 when it introduced technology called Siri in its iPhones. About three years later, Amazon debuted the Echo, a speaker packed with microphones to capture and decipher what we’re saying to Alexa. Soon, various technology companies were betting that speaking to machines through virtual assistants would be an essential way for consumers to interact with devices and services in the future.

There is a reason tech companies think virtual assistants are so important: They want to control an indispensable “platform” — a crucial piece of technology other services or devices must rely upon.

Some believe virtual assistant technology can be that sort of platform, and the company with the most useful assistant will gain an advantage for their other services — like internet search or online shopping. Lose that competition, however, and a company could be at the mercy of its rivals.

With those stakes in mind, tech giants have been scrambling to make their assistants omnipresent. Since smart speakers are the main way for people to deal with virtual assistants, Amazon and Google stoked holiday sales with heavy discounts, dropping the price of their entry-level models to $30, from $50. At the same time, tech companies have been putting their assistants inside products of all shapes and sizes.

Before last week’s International CES tech conference in Las Vegas, Amazon announced a string of new Alexa partnerships. Hisense will put the assistant into its television sets, while Kohler said a new bathroom mirror will have built-in microphones so people can use Alexa to dim the lights and fill a bathtub using voice commands. PC makers like HP, Asus and Acer said they were integrating Alexa into their computers, while Panasonic, Garmin and other electronics makers will do the same for devices that go into cars.

Amazon also announced an agreement with Toyota to integrate Alexa into some Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Ditto for a new smoke alarm from First Alert. Google said LG Televisions, headphones from Sony and smart displays from Lenovo will tap into its Assistant.

[snip]

Creative thought has a pattern of its own, brain activity scans reveal

Creative thought has a pattern of its own, brain activity scans reveal
People who are flexible, original thinkers show signature forms of connectivity in their brains, study shows
By Ian Sample
Jan 15 2018
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/jan/15/creative-thought-has-a-pattern-of-its-own-brain-activity-scans-reveal

Donatella Versace finds it in the conflict of ideas, Jack White under pressure of deadlines. For William S Burroughs, an old Dadaist trick helped: cutting pages into pieces and rearranging the words.

Every artist has their own way of generating original ideas, but what is happening inside the brain might not be so individual. In new research, scientists report signature patterns of neural activity that mark out those who are most creative.

“We have identified a pattern of brain connectivity that varies across people, but is associated with the ability to come up with creative ideas,” said Roger Beaty, a psychologist at Harvard University. “It’s not like we can predict with perfect accuracy who’s going to be the next Einstein, but we can get a pretty good sense of how flexible a given person’s thinking is.”

Creative thinking is one of the primary drivers of cultural and technological change, but the brain activity that underpins original thought has been hard to pin down. In an effort to shed light on the creative process, Beaty teamed up with colleagues in Austria and China to scan people’s brains as they came up with original ideas.

The scientists asked the volunteers to perform a creative thinking task as they lay inside a brain scanner. While the machine recorded their white matter at work, the participants had 12 seconds to come up with the most imaginative use for an object that flashed up on a screen. Three independent scorers then rated their answers.

One of the barriers to creative thinking is the ease with which common, unoriginal thoughts swamp the mind. Some people in the study could not get past these. For example, when asked for creative uses for a sock, soap and chewing gum wrapper, less creative people gave answers such as “covering the feet”, “making bubbles” and “containing gum” respectively. For the same items, more original thinkers suggested a water filtration system, a seal for envelopes, and an antenna wire.

Reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study found distinct patterns of brain activity in the most and least creative people. In the highly original thinkers, the scientists saw strong connectivity between three networks of the brain. One, known as the default mode network, is linked to spontaneous thinking and mind wandering, while a second, the executive control network, is engaged when people focus in on their thoughts. The third, called the salience network, helps to work out what best deserves our attention.

The first two of these three brain networks tend to work against one another, Beaty said, each dampening the other down. But the scans suggest that more creative people can better engage both networks at once. “It might be easier for creative thinkers to bring these resources to bear simultaneously,” he said.

Initial scans on men and women from the University of North Carolina were backed up by further scans in Austrian and Chinese volunteers. To make sure enough creative people took part in the study, the researchers recruited plenty of artists, musicians and scientists. Now, Beaty wants to look at brain activity in different creative pursuits, such as the arts and sciences, and investigate whether training helps boost creative powers.

[snip]

Predicting Crime in SF- a toy WMD

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Predicting Crime in SF- a toy WMD
Machine Learning 101: from Linear Regression To Deep Learning
By Orlando Torres
http://www.orlandotorres.org/predictive-policing-sf.html

When new technologies emerge, our ethics and our laws normally take some time to adjust. As a social scientist and a philosopher by training, I’ve always been interested in this intersection of technology and morality. A few months ago I read Cathy O’Neil’s book Weapons of Math Destruction (link to my review) and realized its message was too important yet neglected by data scientists.  

I started this project to show the potential ethical conflicts created by our new algorithms. In every conceivable field, algorithms are being used to filter people. In many cases, the algorithms are obscure, unchallenged, and self-perpetuating. This is what O’Neil refers to as Weapons of Math Destruction – WMDs. They are unfair by design: they are our biases turned into code and let loose. Worst of all, they create feedback loops that reinforce said models. 

I decided to create a WMD for illustration purposes. This project is meant to be as simple and straightforward as possible. The two goals are, first, to show how easy it is to create a Weapon of Math Destruction. Secondly, to help aspiring data scientist see the process of a project from start to finish. I hope people are inspired to think twice about the ethical implications of their models.

For this project, I will create a predictive policing model to determine where crime is more likely to occur. I will show how easy it is to create such a model, and why it can be so dangerous. Models like these are being adopted by police agencies all over the United States. Given the pervasive racism inherent in all human beings, and given how people of color are already twice as likely to be killed by police, this is a scary trend. Here’s how data science can make the problem worse.

The Data
The data used for this project is found as part of the open data initiative by the City of San Francisco, a great resource for data scientists interested in public policy. Hopefully more cities will continue follow this initiative and make their data public and machine-readable. 

[snip]

New Survey Reveals Staggering Number Of People Are Buying BitCoin On Their Credit Cards

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

New Survey Reveals Staggering Number Of People Are Buying BitCoin On Their Credit Cards
By Tyler Durden
Jan 12 2018
https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-01-11/new-survey-reveals-staggering-number-people-are-buying-bitcoin-their-credit-cards

A few weeks ago we presented anecdotal evidence from Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission, suggesting that people are taking out home equity loans and cash advances on credit cards just to purchase BitCoin in the hopes of getting rich quick (see: “It’s In The Mania Phase”: Securities Regulator Warns That “Mortgages Are Being Taken Out To Buy Bitcoin”)

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

“This is not something a guy who’s making $100,000 a year, who’s got a mortgage and two kids in college ought to be invested in.”

“You’re on this mania curve. At some point in time there’s got to be a leveling off. Cryptocurrency is here to stay. Blockchain is here to stay. Whether it is bitcoin or not, I don’t know,” Borg said in an interview with “Power Lunch.”

Now it seems that the speculation by Borg has been confirmed by a new survey conducted by LendEDU which found that, among other things, nearly 20% of people who have purchased BitCoin have done so using their credit cards.

First, more than half (51.78%) of respondents stated that they either used a credit or debit card to ​fund their account to purchase Bitcoin. Specifically, 33.63 percent of investors were using debit cards, while 18.15 percent were using credit cards.

Why is this concerning? The virtual currency exchanges where Bitcoin is bought and sold will charge conversion fees when either a credit or debit card is used to find an investor’s account. Coinbase, the largest of the cryptocurrency exchanges, charges a conversion fee of 3.99 percent when a user uses his or her credit or debit card to bankroll their account. ​

Obviously, this is not the most financially-savvy move on the part of of a sizable percentage of Bitcoin investors; no one ever wants to pay extra than what is necessary, especially when dealing with something as volatile as Bitcoin. The wisest and most frugal way to fund a virtual currency exchange account would be through an ACH transfer, which is completely free of charge. Only 18.60 percent of our 672 Bitcoin-invested respondents were paying for the cryptocurrency in this fashion.

[snip]