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Problem: China Wants Its Very Own X-37B Space Plane

Sun, 09/29/2019 - 03:02

Will they get it?


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Watch SpaceX’s Elon Musk lay out latest vision for Starship and interplanetary trips

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 11:50

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says his company's Starship super-rocket will "allow us to inhabit other worlds … to make life as we know it multiplanetary" — and today he's explaining how he plans to get from here to there. Musk is due to give his presentation at 7 p.m. CT (5 p.m. PT) at SpaceX's construction, test and launch facility near Boca Chica in South Texas. It'll be live-streamed via SpaceX's YouTube channel. Today's talk follows up on similar big-picture presentations that Musk delivered at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016 in Mexico, and in 2017 in Australia. This time,… Read More


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Creating the Super Avocado

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 08:18

In the early 1990s, a young Australian chef named Bill Granger had a bright idea: Why not spread avocado on toast?Nearly three decades after that successful experiment, the long and sometimes bizarre history of the avocado has reached a new and potentially controversial turning point -- albeit without the Instagram potential of avocado toast. As climate change threatens the fruit's place on brunch menus, some scientists are now asking: Why not edit its DNA?Last month, a team of scientists in the United States and Mexico announced that it had mapped the DNA sequences of several types of avocados, including the popular Hass variety. That research is likely to become the foundation for breeding techniques and genetic modifications designed to produce avocados that can resist disease or survive in drier conditions.Whether they realize it or not, this could be big news for toast-munching hipsters. Already, rising temperatures are disrupting the avocado supply chain, causing price increases across the United States that have also been exacerbated by trade uncertainty."Because of climate change, temperature might not be the same, humidity might not be the same, the soil might be different, new insects will come, and diseases will come," said Luis Herrera-Estrella, a plant genomics professor at Texas Tech University who led the avocado project. "We need to be prepared to contend with all these inevitable challenges."The history of the avocado dates back to the Aztecs, who named the fruit "āhuacatl," sometimes used as slang for "testicle." Thousands of years later, Granger is often credited with being the first chef to serve avocado toast, which is now a staple of the millennial diet, a symbol of modern decadence and an Instagram sensation.In an interview, Granger, perhaps the earliest avocado engineer, said he approved of the genetic research. But the project has left him with a few questions about the future of his beloved fruit."How are they mucking around with it?" he asked. "What are they changing?"The answer is that the avocado is not changing -- at least, not yet. In recent years, scientists have sequenced the genomes of a number of fruits, including bananas, tomatoes and apples, and have used that information to create genetically modified varieties. But a genetically modified avocado is still a long way off, partly because avocado trees can take at least three years to mature.As climate change intensifies, however, the challenges facing the avocado industry are becoming increasingly urgent. The heat wave in California last year disrupted the development of this summer's avocado crop, forcing suppliers to import fruit from abroad. As a result, the wholesale price of a box of four dozen avocados more than doubled to between $70 and $80, from $35, said Jim Donovan, an executive at California avocado supplier Mission Produce."It was probably the highest sustained price level that we've seen in the industry ever," Donovan said.Over the next few years, heat waves will become more common, scientists and industry experts predict, potentially leading to even more severe shortages. A recent study by scientists in California estimated that climate change could reduce the state's avocado production, which last year totaled 300 million pounds, by 40% over the next three decades."There are avocados that grow in very hot places with little water, and there are avocados that grow more in rainy places," Herrera-Estrella said. "If we can identify genes that confer heat tolerance and drought tolerance, then we can engineer the avocados for the future."Still, the genetic research is likely to be controversial. Even though 90% of scientists consider genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, safe to eat, many environmental advocacy groups oppose genetic alterations. They argue that the practice has driven an increase in pesticide use as well as unwanted changes in nutritional content.Herrera-Estrella and his collaborators in Mexico have already had to navigate the complex politics of biotechnology.Their avocado project began in 2012 with a $2.5 million grant from the Mexican agriculture ministry. Three years later, however, the government -- which has grown increasingly resistant to genetic research and biotechnology over the years -- declined to renew the funding, forcing the team to cobble together money from other sources. Mexico's agriculture ministry did not respond to a request for comment."We could have finished three years ago if we had the money to pay the people to do the analysis," Herrera-Estrella said.The researchers also faced scientific hurdles. Unlike crops such as corn or maize, the avocado has a complex structure that makes it difficult to grow in a laboratory. To collect samples of the different varieties, Herrera-Estrella and his team had to travel to remote regions of Mexico, including areas where drug cartels control the local economy.Analyzing the genetic material in those samples was like gluing together a document that had gone through a paper shredder, Herrera-Estrella said. Scientists extracted fragments of the genome from the various avocado samples -- a string of code here, a few short sequences there -- and then assembled those disparate pieces into a coherent whole."If you have a 2,000-page book and someone has ripped it into small pieces, it's exactly the same as what we have to do," Herrera-Estrella said. "You start to assemble a phrase, then you have to assemble a paragraph, then you assemble a page."After the project got underway, advances in biotechnology made genome sequencing significantly less labor intensive, allowing the team to broaden its initial ambitions and sequence a couple of additional avocado varieties. A group of researchers in Mexico is now mapping the genomes of about 100 more.With those genetic maps, scientists will be able to analyze the differences among various types of avocados and identify particular segments of DNA that promote disease resistance or other desirable characteristics.That work will set the stage for gene editing, in which researchers insert new pieces of DNA into a plant's genome or delete old ones. And it will facilitate breeding techniques that promote certain characteristics without directly altering the fruit's genetic code.Another way to bolster the avocado's survival chances would be to engineer its rootstock -- essentially a tree stump on which growers can graft new types of avocado branches. Genetic modifications to the rootstock, rather than to the upper branches of the tree that bear the fruit, could make avocados more resistant to fungal diseases without changing the fruit itself."That's one big possibility to make GM tolerable to people that really care about it," said Victor Albert, a biologist at the University at Buffalo in New York who worked on the project. "You don't have to make GM avocados, and even if you do GM, you don't have to make the avocados themselves GM."Whatever the scientific technique, the development of strains of avocado capable of resisting disease or surviving long droughts could lift the Mexican agriculture industry, which produces nearly half the world's avocados and relies heavily on exports to the United States, according to Monica Ganley, an agricultural consultant and expert on Latin American trade. Last year, Mexico exported nearly 2 billion pounds of avocados to the United States."It's a really important crop; it's a really important component of agricultural trade and has become much more so over the last several decades," Ganley said.Of course, the role of international trade in the avocado supply chain also means that the fruit's availability -- and the price of avocado toast -- often has as much to do with politics as with climate change.In June, President Donald Trump toyed publicly with the idea of levying tariffs on Mexico, a move that would have sent the price of avocados skyrocketing. Just a few weeks earlier, avocado prices had briefly surged at the fastest rate in recent memory after Trump threatened to close the southern border.The fruit's availability can also depend on drug cartels, whose violence sometimes disrupts local avocado production -- another problem that genetic modification is unlikely to address."Science is very good and very powerful," Herrera-Estrella said. "But it doesn't make miracles."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company


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Meet the Millionaires Helping to Pay for Climate Protests

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 08:07

Climate change protesters from Extinction Rebellion snarled traffic in Washington on Monday and again on Friday. You might find yourself asking, "Who helps pays for this activism?"The answer, in part, is the scions of some of America's most famous families, including the Kennedys and the Gettys.On Friday, climate protesters marched through parts of downtown Washington, D.C., blocking intersections and causing road closures, according to news reports and the Metropolitan Police. By about 9 a.m., the marchers had made their way down parts of 13th Street NW, after pausing earlier in the morning at the Trump International Hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave.The protesters also gathered at McPherson Square, not far from the White House, and stopped in front of BlackRock's D.C. offices and the Environmental Protection Agency.Three wealthy donors formed the Climate Emergency Fund this year to support "disruptive activists," as Trevor Neilson, one of the founders, put it. For years, he said, they have individually given money to more traditional environmental organizations like Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council but concluded that these groups were taking a too-gradual approach to the fight against climate change and that the crisis demanded greater urgency."The smartest place for philanthropists to invest is in this new generation of activists who refuse to accept the excuses of the adults whose lazy approach to climate is leading us off a cliff," Neilson said. "The era of gradualism in environmental activism is over."Since its founding in July, the Climate Emergency Fund has distributed grants, (some as small as $2,000) to dozens of groups, including 350.org and others tied to the youth climate strikes last week. Extinction Rebellion has chapters around the world and has brought intense attention to climate change through disruptive protests in London in April, and subsequent protests in Los Angeles, New York City and elsewhere. It got a pledge of $350,000.Neilson and the other two founding donors, who are friends and already partners in philanthropy, have homes in Malibu, California, that were threatened by last year's wildfires. "The fires had a way of waking us up," he said. So far the effort has raised more than $1 million he said, with about $800,000 in grants.Another of the founders is Rory Kennedy, daughter of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy. "I'm very excited about it," she said. "In the history of our country, major social shifts have really happened, starting out, on the streets. We're very much running out of time here -- we need to help people understand we need a radical change in direction."And while she said that it was unwise for any member of the Kennedy family to speak of the family "as a unit" since "there are a lot of us," she said that her support for these organizations was consistent with their values. "As a family, we have appreciated, over the years, the importance of protest," from the civil rights movement on. She recalled being arrested, at the age of 13, protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy in Washington. "My mother drove me down to get arrested," she said.Aileen Getty, the third founder and granddaughter of oil magnate Jean Paul Getty, gave $600,000 to the group. She said she has redirected the bulk of her philanthropic giving, which has for years provided housing support for the homeless, paid for AIDS research and supported parks and green spaces, to climate issues. "As long as our energies are focused on all of these other issues, as pressing as they are, we're not looking at the most pressing issue of all," she said.The grants have been welcome, said Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, in an interview from England. "My understanding is, unsurprisingly, some of the rich people are intelligent enough to do the basic maths and realize we're heading toward extinction." Climate change, he said, makes strong protest reasonable, even necessary.The money comes with one important restriction, Neilson said. It can "only be used for legal activities." The nonprofit organization worked the language into the paperwork on every grant agreement and indemnifies the donors from the consequences of illegal actions."Our funding is primarily used for things like printing signs, printing newsletters, bullhorns, hiring organizers, digital media and other items that are essential to peaceful, legal protest," Neilson said.And what if a group uses the money for something illegal? "I imagine we would not provide them funding again," he said.Neilson, who is an entrepreneur and investor, said that the money donated to Extinction Rebellion was not directed to individual actions but more often goes to operating expenses. When he attended the climate strike last Friday in Los Angeles with his 3-year-old son, he said, "I saw the bullhorns that my funding provided to XR four months ago."Hallam seemed to find these distinctions a bit fussy. The money the group raises doesn't precisely go to someone to break the law, he said, but "it goes without saying that Extinction Rebellion is involved in civil disobedience, and civil disobedience involves breaking the law." But, he said, the group draws the line at destructive and violent acts.The scale of the problem, he said, makes rebellion necessary. "Sometimes it's common sense that you have to cause harm to prevent a greater harm."Getty noted that much of her family's wealth came from businesses involved with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change. Getty Oil was once one of the nation's largest producers and was bought by Texaco in 1984; she said she has been moving fossil fuels out of her own portfolio in favor of sustainable investments.Other families have distanced themselves from their beginnings in fossil fuels, including the Rockefellers, who have divested their philanthropies of fossil fuel investments and taken on Exxon Mobil, the company that much of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil became. Getty said that "there is obviously an awareness of the legacy of that," which has only increased her commitment. "Times change, and what was relevant and useful to us decades ago is now harming us beyond recognition."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company


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Eating more seafood could help us slow the planet's warming — part of a handful of climate solutions the ocean offers

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 06:34

A UN report found that oceans are warming and sea levels rising due to climate change. Solutions to this trend could come from the water itself.


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Space Would Not Be Safe From a War Between Russia and America (Or China)

Sat, 09/28/2019 - 06:30

Bad news for the planet.


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NASA awards $10M to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for hydrogen-oxygen storage tech

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 17:27

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture is on the top of the funding list for a newly announced round of "Tipping Point" funding from NASA for technologies that could be applied to exploration and settlement of the moon and Mars. Headquartered in Kent, Wash., Blue Origin will be awarded $10 million to conduct a ground-based demonstration of hydrogen and oxygen liquefaction and storage. "The demonstration could help inform a large-scale propellant production plant suitable for the lunar surface," NASA said today in a news release. Such a technology meshes with a scenario in which lunar water ice is… Read More


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The US is zeroing in on marijuana vapes as it investigates a spate of mysterious illnesses and deaths tied to vaping

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 11:03

805 people have become ill and 12 have died from a mysterious illness tied to vaping.


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Artist-scientist breathes new life into ancient fossils

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:24

It measures up to 10 metres (32.5 feet) from snout to tail, has four stumpy legs and -- most noticeable of all -- boasts a jaw lined with scary, jagged teeth. It is the work of Viktor Radermacher, a South African who is half scientist and half artist.


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Did the Navy Plan to Build Underwater Submarine Bases to Battle Russia?

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 09:58

A Cold War fantasy or a secret reality?


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Shut Down DC is back and they're protesting outside EPA, Trump Hotel and Wells Fargo

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 09:11

Climate change activists on Friday protested outside the Trump Hotel, the EPA, Wells Fargo Bank and BlackRock in Washington, D.C.


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The T. Rex had the strongest bite of any land animal ever — and new research shows the dinosaur really could crush a car

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 07:46

Scientists have discovered that T. rexes had rigid skulls, which enabled the dinosaurs to have the strongest bite force of any land animal on Earth.


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Winemaking in the Nordics, a world away from French chateau luxe

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 07:35

Making wine in the Nordic countries is far from the glamour associated with Europe's famed wine chateaux: here the sun is fickle, the season is short and diehard aficionados work up more sweat than wine but climate change is helping boost harvests. Worlds away from the thousand-year-old vineyards of continental Europe, winemaker Murre Sofrakis inspects his vines on this late summer's day, his eyes intently focused on the ripening grapes as he strolls along. The 51-year-old strapping Swede with craggy Mediterranean looks owns a vineyard of two hectares (nearly five acres) in Sweden's southern Skane province, and is one of the country's biggest winemakers.


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Google and NASA campuses sit on a hazardous waste site with contaminated soil. It's part of a toxic legacy across Silicon Valley.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 06:11

NASA and Google complexes in Silicon Valley are located on Superfund sites where manufacturing plants once leaked a chemical called trichloroethylene.


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You know Greta Thunberg. Meet 15 other young climate activists taking on world leaders

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 13:45

You know Greta Thunberg. But here's a look at the 15 other young climate activists who are demanding the United Nations take action on climate change


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At Least 70 Countries Have Engaged in Disinformation Campaigns, Study Finds

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 12:55

In Vietnam, citizens were enlisted to post pro-government messages on their personal Facebook pages. The Guatemalan government used hacked and stolen social media accounts to silence dissenting opinions. Ethiopia's ruling party hired people to influence social media conversations in its favor.Despite increased efforts by internet platforms like Facebook to combat internet disinformation, the use of the techniques by governments around the world is growing, according to a report released Thursday by researchers at Oxford University. Governments are spreading disinformation to discredit political opponents, bury opposing views and interfere in foreign affairs.The researchers compiled information from news organizations, civil society groups and governments to create one of the most comprehensive inventories of disinformation practices by governments around the world. They found that the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns more than doubled to 70 in the last two years, with evidence of at least one political party or government entity in each of those countries engaging in social media manipulation.In addition, Facebook remains the No. 1 social network for disinformation, the report said. Organized propaganda campaigns were found on the platform in 56 countries."Social media technology tends to empower propaganda and disinformation in really new ways," said Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, and co-author of the study. The institute previously worked with the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate Russian interference around the 2016 campaign.The report highlights the continuing challenge for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as they try to combat disinformation, particularly when the perpetrators are governments. The companies have announced internal changes to reduce social media manipulation and foreign interference.But the research shows that use of the tactics, which include bots, fake social media accounts and hired "trolls," is growing. In the past two months, the platforms have suspended accounts linked to governments in China and Saudi Arabia.Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media, said the growing use of internet disinformation is concerning for the 2020 U.S. election. A mix of domestic and foreign groups, operating autonomously or with loose ties to a government, are building from the methods used by Russia in the last presidential election, making it difficult for the platforms to police, he said."The danger is the proliferation" of the techniques, he said. "Anybody who wants to influence the 2020 election may be tempted to copy what the Russian operation did in 2016."China's emergence as a powerful force in global disinformation is one of the most significant developments of the past year, researchers said. The country has long used propaganda domestically, but the protests this year in Hong Kong brought evidence that it was expanding its efforts. In August, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube suspended accounts linked to Beijing that were spreading disinformation about the protests.Philip N. Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the authors of the report, said that such online disinformation campaigns can no longer be understood to be the work of "lone hackers, or individual activists, or teenagers in the basement doing things for clickbait."There is a new professionalism to the activity, with formal organizations that use hiring plans, performance bonuses and receptionists, he said.In recent years, governments have used "cyber troops" to shape public opinion, including networks of bots to amplify a message, groups of "trolls" to harass political dissidents or journalists, and scores of fake social media accounts to misrepresent how many people engaged with an issue.The tactics are no longer limited to large countries. Smaller states can now easily set up internet influence operations as well. The Oxford researchers said social media was increasingly being co-opted by governments to suppress human rights, discredit political opponents and stifle dissent, including in countries like Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe and Bahrain. In Tajikistan, university students were recruited to set up fake accounts and share pro-government views. During investigations into disinformation campaigns in Myanmar, evidence emerged that military officials were trained by Russian operatives on how to use social media.Most government-linked disinformation efforts were focused domestically, researchers concluded. But at least seven countries had tried to influence views outside their borders: China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.Bradshaw said that in the case studies the Oxford team identified, advertising was not central to the spread of disinformation. Instead, she said, the campaigns sought to create memes, videos or other pieces of content designed to take advantage of social networks' algorithms and their amplifying effects -- exploiting the potential for virality on the platforms for free.Bradshaw said both government regulation and the steps taken by Facebook to combat this kind of disinformation didn't go far enough. A lot of the regulation "tends to focus on the content" or "problems at the edges of disinformation problems," she said, pointing to efforts like Facebook's transparency in its ads archive."But from our research, we know that this problem of microtargeting ads is actually only a very small part of the problems," Bradshaw said. Facebook has not addressed deeper structural problems that make it easy to spread false and misleading information, she said."To address that you need to look at the algorithm and the underlying business model," Bradshaw said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2019 The New York Times Company


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Melting ice is slowing down the Atlantic ocean's circulation system. Yes, that's similar to what happens in 'The Day After Tomorrow.'

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 12:48

A new UN report found global oceans could rise 3 feet by 2100 due in part to melting ice. That melt could also slow the Atlantic ocean current system.


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Big world around tiny star puts new spin on planet formation

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 12:07

A giant world discovered around a tiny star is putting a new spin on how planets form. Astronomers reported Thursday they've found a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a star that's a mere 12% the mass of our sun. There may even be another big gas planet lurking in this system 31 light-years away.


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Big world around tiny star puts new spin on planet formation

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 12:07

A giant world discovered around a tiny star is putting a new spin on how planets form. Astronomers reported Thursday they've found a Jupiter-like planet orbiting a star that's a mere 12% the mass of our sun. There may even be another big gas planet lurking in this system 31 light-years away.


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San Francisco's homelessness crisis has gotten so bad, residents are putting boulders on the streets to stop people from sleeping there

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 10:06

This isn't the first time boulders have been used to block homeless encampments in San Francisco, where the homeless population is nearing 10,000.


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