Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Alien Artifacts On The Moon?

As nutty as it may seem to the uninitiated, the notion of looking for alien artifacts on our own Moon may finally be gaining mainstream scientific traction.

There are good reasons to seriously consider the possibility that at some point in the Earth-Moon system’s storied 4.5 billion year-old history, an alien intelligence may have passed through our solar system; leaving physical artifacts of their visits.

These artifacts would likely entail more than just alien space trash, and would arguably include evidence of alien scientific or industrial activity, such as extremely advanced lunar mining, energy generation; even technology related to lunar nearside Earth reconnaissance.

Or so says Paul Davies, a longtime SETI (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence) researcher, physicist, and now Director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University in Tempe.

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Andromeda Is Twice as Heavy as the Milky Way


The Andromeda galaxy has long been considered the Milky Way’s “sister,” due to the the pair's comparable age, shape, and shared future as a mega-galaxy. And though Andromeda boasts about one trillion stars—over twice the Milky Way’s stellar population—there has been a longstanding assumption that the galaxies are around the same weight.

But a team of astronomers based out of the University of British Columbia have upended that consensus in a new paper. The team concluded that Andromeda is almost two times as heavy as our own galaxy, mostly because it has stockpiled double the amount of dark matter of the Milky Way. The full paper is available in the July edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

It’s unclear how Andromeda got its spiraled hands on so much dark matter, but co-author Yin-Zhe Ma has a few speculative guesses. “In the early universe, the universe was almost smooth, but there were random fluctuations in one place or another,” he told to me in a phone interview.

“These regions might attract more materials, giving Andromeda a slightly stronger gravity center. It could be a random process,” he said. “It could also be [that Andromeda] formed slightly earlier than the Milky Way, so it might have had more time to accumulate material.”

Ma and his colleagues were able to model the relative weight of the galactic sisters by examining the smaller satellite galaxies surrounding them. “We built computer models to simulate the two galaxies as a dumbbell structure in an expanding universe,” he said.

“The model showed the movement of small satellite galaxies around the larger galaxies. We measured the speed, position, and motion of these satellite galaxies to infer the structure and mass of the Milky Way and Andromeda.” And voilà—these simulations revealed that Andromeda is packing dark matter like a champ.

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As Businesses Boom, States Must Decide How to Regulate Bitcoin


With its penchant for seesawing values and off-putting headlines, Bitcoin has drawn mixed reactions from local governments so far. In the US, only four states have taken an official stance on virtual currency, and they're split right down the middle.

There’s New York of course, which made waves last week as the first state to propose a regulatory framework for Bitcoin, dubbed “BitLicense.” The proposed rules outline how businesses based in the state can and can't use virtual currency. 

Over on the West Coast, California first banned cryptocurrency completely, and then flip-flopped. Governor Jerry Brown signed in new legislation last month to allow alternative currencies in the state. “Here in California, we’re interested in being innovative and cutting-edge,” said the legislation's sponsor, according to a new Pew report on digital currencies. 

Meanwhile, state banks in Texas and Kansas recently elected to treat the digital coins as property rather than currency.

A chasm is emerging on the federal level too. On Tuesday evening, a trio of Bitcoin-freindly congressmen will host a Bitcoin Demo event on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers will have an opportunity to talk to industry experts and brush up on their cryptocurrency knowledge. Looking back just a couple years ago, this kind of interest from the political top brass would have been unthinkable for the controversial technology.

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Driverless Cars Will Be on UK Roads By January 2015


The UK government today announced that driverless cars will be able to get on the country’s roads as early as January 2015, less than half a year from now. It’s the latest push to attract research and development over to British shores—something the UK has been trying to lay a claim on since at least last year.

The announcement by business secretary Vince Cable follows chancellor George Osborne’s promise of a £10 million ($17 million) prize to fund a testing ground for autonomous cars. Now, R&D projects can bid for that, with up to three cities set to get a share of the pot. 

These schemes will see the first driverless cars on public roads; regular passengers (driverless drivers?) won’t be zipping up and down the motorways in dorky little self-driving pods just yet. It’s an open competition, and projects that want to be considered have to include a business partner and local authority partner, with a registration deadline of September 24. 

“This competition for funding has the potential to establish the UK as the global hub for the development and testing of driverless vehicles in real-world urban environments, helping to deepen our understanding of the impact on road users and wider society,” said Iain Gray, CEO of the Technology Strategy Board, in a statement.

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The middle class is 20 percent poorer than it was in 1984

Jeff Turner/Flickr 

Nostalgia is just about the only thing the middle class can still afford. That's because median wealth is about 20 percent lower today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was in 1984.

Yes, that's three lost decades.

Now, as you might expect, the middle class has been hit particularly hard by the Great Recession and the not-so-great recovery. It's all about stocks and houses. The middle class doesn't have much of the former, but it does have a lot of the latter. And that's bad news, because, even though the crash decimated both, real estate hasn't come back nearly as much as equities have. So the top 1 percent, who hold more of their wealth in stocks, have made up more of the ground they lost. But, as the Russell Sage Foundation points out, the slow housing recovery means that, in 2013, median households were still 36 percent poorer than they were a decade earlier.

In fact, the housing bust was big enough to erase all the gains the middle class had made the past 30 years—and then some. As you can see below, median households didn't add much wealth between 1984 and 2007. That's what happens when real wages don't increase, and the cost of a middle class lifestyle—housing, healthcare, and higher education—does. So, as Dean Baker points out, when the crisis did come, it devoured these meager gains and left the middle class with 20 percent less wealth than they had when it was "Morning in America."

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The NSA's Cyber-King Goes Corporate

Here's why Keith Alexander thinks he's worth a million dollars a month.


Keith Alexander, the recently retired director of the National Security Agency, left many in Washington slack-jawed when it was reported that he might charge companies up to $1 million a month to help them protect their computer networks from hackers. What insights or expertise about cybersecurity could possibly justify such a sky-high fee, some wondered, even for a man as well-connected in the military-industrial complex as the former head of the nation's largest intelligence agency? 

The answer, Alexander said in an interview Monday, is a new technology, based on a patented and "unique" approach to detecting malicious hackers and cyber-intruders that the retired Army general said he has invented, along with his business partners at IronNet Cybersecurity Inc., the company he co-founded after leaving the government and retiring from military service in March. But the technology is also directly informed by the years of experience Alexander has had tracking hackers, and the insights he gained from classified operations as the director of the NSA, which give him a rare competitive advantage over the many firms competing for a share of the cybersecurity market. 

The fact that Alexander is building what he believes is a new kind of technology for countering hackers hasn't been previously reported. And it helps to explain why he feels confident in charging banks, trade associations, and large corporations millions of dollars a year to keep their networks safe. Alexander said he'll file at least nine patents, and possibly more, for a system to detect so-called advanced persistent threats, or hackers who clandestinely burrow into a computer network in order to steal secrets or damage the network itself. It was those kinds of hackers who Alexander, when he was running the NSA, said were responsible for "the greatest transfer of wealth in American history" because they were routinely stealing trade secrets and competitive information from U.S. companies and giving it to their competitors, often in China. 

Alexander is believed to be the first ex-director of the NSA to file patents on technology that's directly related to the job he had in government. He said that he had spoken to lawyers at the NSA, and privately, to ensure that his new patents were "ironclad" and didn't rely on any work that he'd done for the agency -- which still holds the intellectual property rights to other technology Alexander invented while he ran the agency. 

Alexander is on firm legal ground so long as he can demonstrate that his invention is original and sufficiently distinct from any other patented technologies. Government employees are allowed to retain the patents for technology they invent while working in public service, but only under certain conditions, patent lawyers said. If an NSA employee's job, for instance, is to research and develop new cybersecurity technologies or techniques, then the government would likely retain any patent, because the invention was directly related to the employee's job. However, if the employee invented the technology on his own time and separate from his core duties, he might have a stronger argument to retain the exclusive rights to the patent. 

"There is no easy black-and-white answer to this," said Scott Felder, a partner with the law firm Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, adding that it's not uncommon for government employees to be granted patents to their inventions. 

A source familiar with Alexander's situation, who asked not to be identified, said that the former director developed this new technology on his private time, and that he addressed any potential infractions before deciding to seek his patents. 

But Alexander started his company almost immediately after stepping down from the NSA. As for how much the highly classified knowledge in his head influenced his latest creation, only Alexander knows.

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The Tree of 40 Fruit Is Exactly as Awesome as It Sounds

Artist Sam Van Aken discusses his thought-provoking project and its place at the intersection of farming, sculpture, and preservation.

Sam Van Aken's Tree of 40 Fruit

A ward-winning contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, but he spent his college years and much of his early career focused on art rather than agriculture. While Van Aken says that his work has always been "inspired by nature and our relationship to nature," it wasn't until recently that the artist's farming background became such a clear and significant influence, first in 2008 when he grafted vegetables together to create strange plants for his Eden exhibition, and then shortly after that when he started to work on the hybridized fruit trees that would become the Tree of 40 Fruit.

Each tree begins as a slightly odd-looking specimen resembling some kind of science experiment, and for much of the year, looks like just any other tree. In spring, the trees bloom to reveal an incredibly striking and thought-provoking example of what can happen when nature inspires art. Then, over the course of several months, Van Aken's trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds, including many you've likely never seen before. 

Thus far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country, including in Newton, Massachusetts; Pound Ridge, New York; Short Hills, New Jersey; Bentonville, Arkansas; and San Jose, California. Using a unique process he calls "sculpture through grafting," Van Aken creates trees that grow and support more than 40 varieties of stone fruit, including many heirloom, antique, and native varieties.

On the heels of Van Aken's TEDxManhattan talk, we spoke with him about the Tree of 40 Fruit, how he developed and executed the concept, his plans for the future, and what happens to all that fruit. 

Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?

Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term "hoax" comes from "hocus pocus," which in turn comes from the Latin "hoc est enim corpus miem," meaning "this is my body" and it's what the Catholic priest says over the bread during [the] Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and [it] led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones [of] pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears [more than] 40 different types of fruit.

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