Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste, Stanford researchers discover

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Goldstein.  Steve’s comment:”To boldly go where no man has gone before:” styrofoam meets the worm hole. DLH]

Plastic-eating worms may offer solution to mounting waste, Stanford researchers discover
An ongoing study by Stanford engineers, in collaboration with researchers in China, shows that common mealworms can safely biodegrade various types of plastic.
Sep 29 2015

Consider the plastic foam cup. Every year, Americans throw away 2.5 billion of them. And yet, that waste is just a fraction of the 33 million tons of plastic Americans discard every year. Less than 10 percent of that total gets recycled, and the remainder presents challenges ranging from water contamination to animal poisoning.

Enter the mighty mealworm. The tiny worm, which is the larvae form of the darkling beetle, can subsist on a diet of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene, according to two companion studies co-authored by Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford. Microorganisms in the worms’ guts biodegrade the plastic in the process – a surprising and hopeful finding.

“Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” Wu said.

The papers, published in Environmental Science and Technology, are the first to provide detailed evidence of bacterial degradation of plastic in an animal’s gut. Understanding how bacteria within mealworms carry out this feat could potentially enable new options for safe management of plastic waste.

“There’s a possibility of really important research coming out of bizarre places,” said Craig Criddle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who supervises plastics research by Wu and others at Stanford. “Sometimes, science surprises us. This is a shock.”

Plastic for dinner

In the lab, 100 mealworms ate between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam – about the weight of a small pill  – per day. The worms converted about half of the Styrofoam into carbon dioxide, as they would with any food source.

Within 24 hours, they excreted the bulk of the remaining plastic as biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings. Mealworms fed a steady diet of Styrofoam were as healthy as those eating a normal diet, Wu said, and their waste appeared to be safe to use as soil for crops.

Researchers, including Wu, have shown in earlier research that waxworms, the larvae of Indian mealmoths, have microorganisms in their guts that can biodegrade polyethylene, a plastic used in filmy products such as trash bags. The new research on mealworms is significant, however, because Styrofoam was thought to have been non-biodegradable and more problematic for the environment.

Researchers led by Criddle, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, are collaborating on ongoing studies with the project leader and papers’ lead author, Jun Yang of Beihang University in China, and other Chinese researchers. Together, they plan to study whether microorganisms within mealworms and other insects can biodegrade plastics such as polypropylene (used in products ranging from textiles to automotive components), microbeads (tiny bits used as exfoliants) and bioplastics (derived from renewable biomass sources such as corn or biogas methane).

As part of a “cradle-to-cradle” approach, the researchers will explore the fate of these materials when consumed by small animals, which are, in turn, consumed by other animals.


The Folly of Big Science Awards

[Note:  This item comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

The Folly of Big Science Awards
Oct 2 2015

ON Monday, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will go to a few scientists for work that untangles the intricacies of the human body and may advance treatments for cancer, heart disease or other major illnesses. The prize comes with a sizable check and virtually ensures that the winners’ research will be well funded for the rest of their careers.

Every recent recipient has undoubtedly deserved the honor. But that doesn’t mean that prizes for medical research are a good idea.

The Nobel, along with the Dickson, Lasker-DeBakey, Canada Gairdner and other major awards, honors the scientists who are usually in the least need of recognition and funding, which squeezes out opportunities for other scientists.

More important, by emphasizing the importance of scientific breakthroughs — serendipitous occurrences that rely on decades of research — these prizes play down, and diminish, the way that great medical advances build on one another.

All scholarship is, to some extent, built on prior work — but this is especially true in scientific research. Consider James P. Allison, the winner of this year’s Lasker-DeBakey prize in clinical medical research. His work helped clarify one way cancer cells hide from the immune system.

Around 1990, a team of scientists found a protein on the surface of immune cells and proposed that it stimulated the immune system. Dr. Allison’s lab and a third group suggested that the protein put the brakes on immune responses. A fourth group confirmed that it halted the immune system, rather than stimulating it. Dr. Allison later showed that blocking this protein with an antibody could unleash an immune response in animals that could lead not only to rejection of but also immunity to many kinds of cancers. A decade later, similar antibodies to this protein and other related ones were found to prevail against several types of human cancers.

Dr. Allison’s work is surely impressive. But it occurred alongside and in dialogue with a number of related findings. Researchers analyzed the citations that led to Dr. Allison’s drug and concluded that it relied on work conducted by 7,000 scientists at 5,700 institutions over a hundred-year period. Yet only he was recognized.

The prize industry contributes to a deeper problem in scientific research: We throw resources at a privileged few who have already achieved enormous fame.

One study that tracked funding for university professors and researchers over an eight-year period found that about 80 percent of research funds in basic medical sciences were concentrated among the top fifth of researchers. This is bad for the long-term health of the discipline: After top scientists retire, who will replace them? We should be giving more support to midcareer scientists whose work will contribute to major advances in the future.


The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  Please note that this op-ed is from 2014.  DLH]

The five extra words that can fix the Second Amendment
By John Paul Stevens
Apr 11 2014

John Paul Stevens served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010. This essay is excerpted from his new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”

Following the massacre of grammar-school children in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, high-powered weapons have been used to kill innocent victims in more senseless public incidents. Those killings, however, are only a fragment of the total harm caused by the misuse of firearms. Each year, more than 30,000 people die in the United States in firearm-related incidents. Many of those deaths involve handguns.

The adoption of rules that will lessen the number of those incidents should be a matter of primary concern to both federal and state legislators. Legislatures are in a far better position than judges to assess the wisdom of such rules and to evaluate the costs and benefits that rule changes can be expected to produce. It is those legislators, rather than federal judges, who should make the decisions that will determine what kinds of firearms should be available to private citizens, and when and how they may be used. Constitutional provisions that curtail the legislative power to govern in this area unquestionably do more harm than good.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution placed limits on the powers of the new federal government. Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of the Second Amendment, which provides that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” 

For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.” 

When I joined the court in 1975, that holding was generally understood as limiting the scope of the Second Amendment to uses of arms that were related to military activities. During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything. 

Organizations such as the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and mounted a vigorous campaign claiming that federal regulation of the use of firearms severely curtailed Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Five years after his retirement, during a 1991 appearance on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” Burger himself remarked that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

In recent years two profoundly important changes in the law have occurred. In 2008, by a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home for purposes of self-defense. And in 2010, by another vote of 5 to 4, the court decided inMcDonald v. Chicago that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment limits the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. I dissented in both of those cases and remain convinced that both decisions misinterpreted the law and were profoundly unwise. Public policies concerning gun control should be decided by the voters’ elected representatives, not by federal judges.

In my dissent in the McDonald case, I pointed out that the court’s decision was unique in the extent to which the court had exacted a heavy toll “in terms of state sovereignty. . . . Even apart from the States’ long history of firearms regulation and its location at the core of their police powers, this is a quintessential area in which federalism ought to be allowed to flourish without this Court’s meddling. Whether or not we can assert a plausible constitutional basis for intervening, there are powerful reasons why we should not do so.”


Exclusive: The Pentagon Is Preparing New War Plans for a Baltic Battle Against Russia

Note:  This item comes from friend Ed Dewath.  DLH]

From: Edward DeWath <>
Date: September 18, 2015 at 19:18:14 EDT
To: Hendricks Dewayne <>
Subject: Exclusive: The Pentagon Is Preparing New War Plans for a Baltic Battle Against Russia

Exclusive: The Pentagon Is Preparing New War Plans for a Baltic Battle Against Russia
But the really troubling thing is that in the war games being played, the United States keeps losing.
By Julia Ioffe
Sep 18 2015

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia.

The Pentagon generates contingency plans continuously, planning for every possible scenario — anything from armed confrontation with North Korea to zombie attacks. But those plans are also ranked and worked on according to priority and probability. After 1991, military plans to deal with Russian aggression fell off the Pentagon’s radar. They sat on the shelf, gathering dust as Russia became increasingly integrated into the West and came to be seen as a potential partner on a range of issues. Now, according to several current and former officials in the State and Defense departments, the Pentagon is dusting off those plans and re-evaluating them, updating them to reflect a new, post-Crimea-annexation geopolitical reality in which Russia is no longer a potential partner, but a potential threat.

“Given the security environment, given the actions of Russia, it has become apparent that we need to make sure to update the plans that we have in response to any potential aggression against any NATO allies,” says one senior defense official familiar with the updated plans.

“Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine made the U.S. dust off its contingency plans,” says Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. “They were pretty out of date.”

Designing a counteroffensive

The new plans, according to the senior defense official, have two tracks. One focuses on what the United States can do as part of NATO if Russia attacks one of NATO’s member states; the other variant considers American action outside the NATO umbrella. Both versions of the updated contingency plans focus on Russian incursions into the Baltics, a scenario seen as the most likely front for new Russian aggression. They are also increasingly focusing not on traditional warfare, but on the hybrid tactics Russia used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: “little green men,” manufactured protests, and cyberwarfare. “They are trying to figure out in what circumstances [the U.S. Defense Department] would respond to a cyberattack,” says Julie Smith, who until recently served as the vice president’s deputy national security advisor. “There’s a lively debate on that going on right now.”

This is a significant departure from post-Cold War U.S. defense policy.

After the Soviet Union imploded, Russia, its main heir, became increasingly integrated into NATO, which had originally been created to counter the Soviet Union’s ambitions in Europe. In 1994, Moscow signed onto NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Three years later, in May 1997, Russia and NATO signed a more detailed agreement on mutual cooperation, declaring that they were no longer adversaries. Since then, as NATO absorbed more and more Warsaw Pact countries, it also stepped up its cooperation with Russia: joint military exercises, regular consultations, and even the opening of a NATO transit point in Ulyanovsk, Russia, for materiel heading to the fight in Afghanistan. Even if the Kremlin was increasingly miffed at NATO expansion, from the West things looked fairly rosy.

After Russia’s 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, NATO slightly modified its plans vis-à-vis Russia, according to Smith, but the Pentagon did not. In preparing the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s office for force planning — that is, long-term resource allocation based on the United States’ defense priorities — proposed to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to include a scenario that would counter an aggressive Russia. Gates ruled it out. “Everyone’s judgment at the time was that Russia is pursuing objectives aligned with ours,” says David Ochmanek, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, ran that office at the time. “Russia’s future looked to be increasingly integrated with the West.” Smith, who worked on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon at the time, told me, “If you asked the military five years ago, ‘Give us a flavor of what you’re thinking about,’ they would’ve said, ‘Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — and China.’”

Warming to Moscow

The thinking around Washington was that Mikheil Saakashvili, then Georgia’s president, had provoked the Russians and that Moscow’s response was a one-off. “The sense was that while there were complications and Russia went into Georgia,” Smith says, “I don’t think anyone anticipated that anything like this would happen again.” Says one senior State Department official: “The assumption was that there was no threat in Europe.” Russia was rarely brought up to the secretary of defense, says the senior defense official.

Then came the Obama administration’s reset of relations with Russia, and with it increased cooperation with Moscow on everything from space flights to nuclear disarmament. There were hiccups (like Russia’s trying to elbow the United States out of the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan) and less-than-full cooperation on pressing conflicts in the Middle East (the best the United States got from Russia on Libya was an abstention at the U.N. Security Council). But, on the whole, Russia was neither a danger nor a priority. It was, says one senior foreign-policy Senate staffer, “occasionally a pain in the ass, but not a threat.”

Ochmanek, for his part, hadn’t thought about Russia for decades. “As a force planner, I can tell you that the prospect of Russian aggression was not on our radar,” he told me when I met him in his office at the Rand Corp. in Northern Virginia, where he is now a senior defense analyst. “Certainly not since 1991, but even in the last years of Gorbachev.” Back in 1989, Ochmanek thought that Washington should be focusing on the threat of Iraq invading Kuwait, not on the dwindling likelihood of Soviet military aggression. For the last 30 years, Ochmanek has shuttled between Rand, where he has focused on military planning, and the nearby Pentagon, where he has done the same in an official capacity: first in the mid-1990s, when he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, and then for the first five years of Barack Obama’s administration, when he ran force planning at the Pentagon.

It was there that, in February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught Ochmanek and pretty much every Western official off guard by sending little green men into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “We didn’t plan for it because we didn’t think Russia would change the borders in Europe,” he says. Crimea, he says, was a “surprise.”


Sherry Turkle’s ‘Reclaiming Conversation’

[Note:  This item comes from friend Geoff Goodfellow.  DLH]

Sherry Turkle’s ‘Reclaiming Conversation’
Sep 28 2015

Sherry Turkle is a singular voice in the discourse about technology. She’s a skeptic who was once a believer, a clinical psychologist among the industry shills and the literary hand-wringers, an empiricist among the cherry-picking anecdotalists, a moderate among the extremists, a realist among the fantasists, a humanist but not a Luddite: a grown-up. She holds an endowed chair at M.I.T. and is on close collegial terms with the roboticists and affective-computing engineers who work there. Unlike Jaron Lanier, who bears the stodgy weight of being a Microsoft guy, or Evgeny Morozov, whose perspective is Belarussian, Turkle is a trusted and respected insider. As such, she serves as a kind of conscience for the tech world.

Turkle’s previous book, “Alone ­Together,” was a damning report on human relationships in the digital age. By observing people’s interactions with robots, and by interviewing them about their computers and phones, she charted the ways in which new technologies render older values obsolete. When we replace human caregivers with robots, or talking with texting, we begin by arguing that the replacements are “better than nothing” but end up considering them “better than anything” — cleaner, less risky, less demanding. Paralleling this shift is a growing preference for the virtual over the real. Robots don’t care about people, but Turkle’s subjects were shockingly quick to settle for the feeling of being cared for and, similarly, to prefer the sense of community that social media deliver, because it comes without the hazards and commitments of a real-world community. In her interviews, again and again, Turkle observed a deep disappointment with human beings, who are flawed and forgetful, needy and unpredictable, in ways that machines are wired not to be.

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique, with less ­emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people “in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.”) Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help “inoculate” children against bullying.) When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.


Elon Musk and SolarCity unveil ‘world’s most efficient’ solar panel

[Note:  This item comes from friend Geoff Goodfellow.  DLH]

Elon Musk and SolarCity unveil ‘world’s most efficient’ solar panel
By Lance Ulanoff
Oct 2 2015

The sun is a virtually endless supply of energy that goes mostly untapped. The solar panels you see covering the roofs of an increasing number of homes and businesses capture some of that energy, at least during the daytime and when there isn’t extensive cloud cover, but, by most standards, they are incredibly inefficient.

Experts say the average solar cell panel can convert 14-to-20% of the energy it collects into usable electricity. By photosynthesis standards — a plant is 5% efficient — that’s not bad, but humans believe solar panels should do better. 

On Friday in New York City’s Times Square, SolarCity, the nation’s largest installer of residential solar panels, and company chairman Elon Musk introduced what they claim is the world’s most efficient rooftop solar panel, achieving a peak efficiency of 22.04%. 

SolarCity said the rating was verified by the Renewable Energy Test Center, a third-party certification testing provider for photovoltaic and renewable energy based in Fremont, California.

The panels are the same size as traditional panels, but, according to SolarCity, produce 30-to-40% more power. They also claim that the panels perform better than competing products in high temperatures.

Peter Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and CTO, told Mashable in an interview that the new panels are sufficiently cheap to produce that they will allow the company to continue to make money off of them even if government policies to provide tax breaks for panel installation expire.

“That’s been the singular focus of the company… to continue to get the costs down,” Rive said. 

“I’m really excited about this… it’s the best solar panel on the planet and it empowers us from 2017 and beyond to control our own destiny,” he said.

SolarCity’s efficiency leap, however, may not be that big when compared to the current state of the art. 

Solar energy expert John Farrell, who serves as Director of the Democratic Energy Program for The Institute for Local Self-Reliance told Mashable that typical solar panel efficiency is, at 18%-to-22%, actually in the same range as SolarCity’s new panel. 

“In the lab they get to 40%,” said Farrell, but that’s with special materials that would likely jack up the cost of solar panels by 50%. Out in the field, companies like SolarCity must balance efficiency with cost.

When I asked Farrell about the increased power output he said, “That sounds like a lot. Not sure what they would be comparing it to.” If SolarCity’s current panel tech had a peak efficiency of, say, 16%, a 37% jump to over 22% could account for the difference.

Farrell does agree that heat management is an issue worth tackling. With solar energy, the very thing that lets these panels produce energy is also the thing that overheats them.


I’m Trying to Run for President, but the Democrats Won’t Let Me

I’m Trying to Run for President, but the Democrats Won’t Let Me
By Lawrence Lessig
Oct 1 2015

I’m running for President. Or trying. After raising $1 million in less than 30 days, I entered the primary on September 9 as the Democrat’s only non-politician. My platform is simple: end the corrupting influence of money in Washington, so we might finally have, as Buddy Roemer would put it, a Congress free to lead.

But that message is being stifled with the tacit approval of the Democratic Party leadership, who are deploying the oldest method available for marginalizing campaigns they don’t like: keeping me out of the Democratic presidential debates. 

Here’s how you make the debates: After one declares, a candidate is formally welcomed into the race by the Democratic National Committee. Polling firms, taking a cue from the DNC, include that candidate on their questionnaires. Candidates that poll at 1 percent nationally in at least three separate polls earn an invitation. Simple enough.

That’s how the process typically works for other candidacies—but not for mine. The DNC still has not formally welcomed me into the race—despite my raising money at a faster pace than more than half the pack, and being in the race nearly a full month. Polls, in turn, have taken the hint, only including me sporadically on questionnaires: of the last 10 major polls, only three mentioned my candidacy. One poll recently put me at 1 percent (for comparison, candidates O’Malley, Webb and Chafee, who will each get a podium at the debates, are all currently polling at 0.7 percent or less, according to Real Clear Politcs). Were I actually included on every poll, I would easily make the debates.

The Democratic Party could fix this by welcoming me into the race. Yet when I tried to talk about this with the chair of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she scheduled a call, but then cancelled it. So far she hasn’t had the time to schedule another. I’ve had similar experiences at the state level, where the same game is played: The chair of the New Hampshire Democrats invited me to speak at their convention. I was given 5 minutes. Hillary Clinton took an hour. 

These signals from the party affect the media, too. While news shows have been busy limning the depths of Donald Trump’s brain, there hasn’t been time to consider a Democratic candidate saying something that no other Democrat is saying—especially if the party itself doesn’t consider the candidate a real candidate. And while theAtlantic listed me as a candidate on their website from day one, it took some lobbying to get the New York Times to do the same. Neither fish nor fowl, and not insanely rich, no one quite knows where to place a candidate like me. 

This experience has led me to believe it’s not just the rules that discourage an outsider Democrat. It’s also the party. And that resistance may tie quite directly to the message of my campaign—one that no politician so far has had the courage to say. 

Like Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley, I believe America needs urgent and important reform: it needs a minimum wage that is a living wage, it needs climate change legislation, it needs to respect the equality of citizens and end—finally—the second class status that too many Americans know. It needs a health care system that Americans can afford. It needs to stop subsidizing oil companies, and stop tolerating their pollution. It needs the courage to stand up to the banks, it needs to restore safety to the financial system, it needs an immigration policy that promises some of the hardest working Americans that they can become citizens and it needs sane gun laws that keep machine guns away from the sorts who would massacre school children. 

But unlike Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley, I’m willing to tell America the truth about these urgent and important needs. 

That truth is this: The policies that these politicians are pushing are fantasies. Not because, as the Wall Street Journal might argue, we can’t afford them. Of course we can afford them. If we can afford a trillion dollar war that has only made America less safe, we can afford a real social security system, or a health care system that doesn’t sell out to pharmaceutical companies.