Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The National Security Agency Is So Out of Control It’s Now a National Security Risk


It's been a chaotic few days in the nation's capital, ever since the US government was caught tapping the phone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spying on 35 other world leaders, including those from countries we're supposed to be friends with. The revelations about the NSA's dragnet domestic surveillance were troubling enough, but the discovery that the US is gathering intelligence on foreign, friendly leaders has taken the spying scandal into new waters. Now it's not just a privacy debate; it's a diplomatic problem.

The new insight into the scope of the intelligence gathering is straining America's relationships with its allies, landing the country once again on thin ice with the rest of the world. Germany, France, Italy, Mexico and others have publicly blasted the US for snooping on them. Brazil and Germany want to build their own internet without America. 

Did the NSA go ahead and hack into the phone calls and emails of America's allies without bothering to mention it to the president of America?  

If the government isn't able to assuage concerns about its overreaching intelligence programs, the resulting international tension could, ironically enough, wind up having national security consequences. "Alienating key leaders—and broad public opinion—in friendly countries is a dumb, counterproductive way to fight terrorism," Eugene Robinson bluntly put it in an editorial in the Washington Post.

All this mounting tension and international calls for accountability has set off something of a witch hunt in Washington for where to point the blame. There have been conflicting reports on whether or not President Obama knew about the program to spy on US allies—which started back in 2002, before either Merkel or Obama was a head of their respective states. Here's a quick recap of the he said/she said:

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Huge Dark Matter Experiment Finds Nothing but More Mysteries

A view of the bottom of the LUX detector. Image: luxdarkmatter/Flickr
A view of the bottom of the LUX detector. Image: luxdarkmatter/Flickr
The hunt for dark matter just keeps getting more confusing. Today scientists released findings from the first three months of the Large Underground Xenon experiment, which looks directly for the invisible particles thought to make up dark matter.

Many physicists hoped that the highly anticipated results would clear up the situation surrounding dark matter experiments, which have so far led to contradictory conclusions about the nature of the mysterious substance. Some thought that LUX might show them which way to go, narrowing the types of particles they might pursue. Instead, the experiment turned up empty.

“Basically, we saw nothing. But we saw nothing better than anyone else so far,” said particle physicist Daniel McKinsey of Yale, a member of the LUX collaboration.

It might appear strange to the rest of us, but a null finding is actually encouraging for physicists, who will use the results to set stringent limits on what kind of dark matter they might expect to find in the future. It also seems to rule out the results of several previous experiments, which had seen hints of what might be dark matter.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Google Reportedly Building More Floating Structures Outside Bay Area


Sources told KPIX 5 that that Google is building a floating marketing center for Google Glass off Treasure Island.

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — After KPIX 5 reported on Google’s mysterious project on a barge off Treasure Island, reports have surfaced of the tech giant building similar floating structures outside of the Bay Area.

A report appearing in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald showed shipping containers stacked on a barge in Maine – with the structure appearing virtually identical to the Bay Area barge. Also, an unconfirmed report suggested a Google barge is taking shape in New London, Connecticut.

As KPIX 5 exclusively reported on Friday, Google is believed to be building the floating structures to market Google Glass — the cutting edge wearable computer that the company has under development.

“They’re building on both coasts,” said a source familiar with the Google project.

Google, for its part, maintained a stolid silence on the matter, as did many Bay Area maritime officials. Google is reliably said to have spent upwards of $10 million on the project so far. With that kind of money in play, and presumably more to come, no one is anxious to speak out of turn.

But Larry Goldzband, executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, told KPIX 5 the Portland barge structure appeared to be the same kind of floating building that Google is constructing in the Bay Area.

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The Assassination Of JFK, Fifty Years Later

Closer Than That

The assassination of J.F.K., fifty years later.

Governor and Mrs. John Connally, of Texas, with the Kennedys, in the Presidential limousine, in Dallas, November 22, 1963. 

Governor and Mrs. John Connally, of Texas, with the Kennedys, in the Presidential limousine, in Dallas, November 22, 1963.

Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world, lucky for us, but they can be worldly judges of poetic legislators. Lincoln’s soul survives in Whitman’s words, and the response of American poets to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, fifty years ago, suggests that there really was, beyond the hype and the teeth, an interesting man in there. An entire volume of mostly elegiac poems, “Of Poetry and Power,” with a Rauschenberg silk-screen portrait of the President for its cover, came out within months of his murder. (It was even recorded, complete, on Folkways Records.).

John Berryman wrote a “Formal Elegy” for the President (“Yes. it looks like wilderness”); Auden an “Elegy for J.F.K.,” originally accompanied by twelve-tone music by Stravinsky. Robert Lowell—who in the Second World War had gone to prison as a conscientious objector, and in the late sixties became a Pentagon-bashing radical hero—wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that the murder left him “weeping through the first afternoon,” and then “three days of television uninterrupted by advertising till the grand, almost unbearable funeral.” The country, he said, “went through a moment of terror and passionate chaos.” Lowell’s friend and fellow-poet Randall Jarrell called it the “saddest” public event that he could remember. Jarrell tried to write an elegy but could get no further than “The shining brown head.”

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The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic

Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio program did not touch off nationwide hysteria. Why does the legend persist?


Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ electrifying War of the Worlds broadcast, in which the Mercury Theatre on the Air enacted a Martian invasion of Earth. “Upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders,” narrator Oliver Platt informs us in the new PBS documentary commemorating the program. The panic inspired by Welles made War of the Worlds perhaps the most notorious event in American broadcast history. 

That’s the story you already know—it’s the narrative widely reprinted in academic textbooks and popular histories. With actors dramatizing the reaction of frightened audience members (based on contemporaneous letters), the new documentary, part of PBS’s American Experience series, reinforces the notion that na├»ve Americans were terrorized by their radios back in 1938. So did this weekend’s episode of NPR’s Radiolab, which opened with the assertion that on Oct. 30, 1938, “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before.”

There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.

How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job.”

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The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board

Tool of the devil, harmless family game—or fascinating glimpse into the non-conscious mind?


The makers of the first talking board asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.”

In February, 1891, the first few advertisements started appearing in papers: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board,” boomed a Pittsburgh toy and novelty shop, describing a magical device that answered questions “about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy” and promised “never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes,” a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” Another advertisement in a New York newspaper declared it “interesting and mysterious” and testified, “Proven at Patent Office before it was allowed. Price, $1.50.”

This mysterious talking board was basically what’s sold in board game aisles today: A flat board with the letters of the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9; the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners, “goodbye” at the bottom; accompanied by a “planchette,” a teardrop-shaped device, usually with a small window in the body, used to maneuver about the board. The idea was that two or more people would sit around the board, place their finger tips on the planchette, pose a question, and watch, dumbfounded, as the planchette moved from letter to letter, spelling out the answers seemingly of its own accord. The biggest difference is in the materials; the board is now usually cardboard, rather than wood, and the planchette is plastic.

Though truth in advertising is hard to come by, especially in products from the 19th century, the Ouija board was “interesting and mysterious”; it actually had been “proven” to work at the Patent Office before its patent was allowed to proceed; and today, even psychologists believe that it may offer a link between the known and the unknown.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Even the Author of the Patriot Act Is Trying to Stop the NSA


Protestors at the Stop Watching Us rally in Washington DC this Saturday.   

It’s been about four months since Edward Snowden’s leaks on the NSA’s blanket surveillance programs outraged privacy and Internet activists the world over, spawning real-life protests, online petitions, and high quality parody videos. Some countries got so mad, they even talked of leaving the US-run Internet. Now, the policy may actually change. Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner will introduce an anti-NSA bill tomorrow in the House, and if it makes its winding way to becoming law, it will be a big step towards curtailing the NSA's bulk metadata collection. 

Wisconsin Rep. Sensenbrenner, along with 60 co-sponsors, aims to amend one section of the Patriot Act, Section 215, in a bill known as the United and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet Collection, and Online Monitoring Act—also known by its less-clunky acronym version, the USA Freedom Act. 

Section 215 has been used by the Bush and Obama administrations as justification for broad spying activities. Rep. Sensenbrenner—who actually authored the Patriot Act—likened these blanketed spying activities to abuse. "The NSA has gone far beyond the intent of the Patriot Act, particularly in the accumulation and storage of metadata," said Sensenbrenner in an interview with National Journal about the bill earlier this month. "Had Congress known that the Patriot Act had been used to collect metadata, the bill would have never been passed" as a response to the September 11th attacks.

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Scientists identify a mathematical 'crystal ball' that may predict calamities


Bank run: Neuroscientists identify a mathematical equation that could predict financial crises of the sort that brought about the banking collapse of 2008.

Neuroscientists have come up with a mathematical equation that may help predict calamities such as financial crashes in economic systems and epileptic seizures in the brain.

The University of Sussex-led study, published this week (24 October 2013) in Physical Review Letters, could have far-reaching implications. If the principle is generalised in other real-world complex systems, such as climate change or disease control, it could open up the possibility of catastrophes being averted before they happen.

In a collaboration between the University's Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and the Centre for Research in Complex Systems at Charles Sturt University in Australia, researchers used mathematics and detailed computer simulations to show that a measure of 'information flow' reaches a peak just before a system moves from a healthy state to an unhealthy state.

Such 'phase transitions' are common in many real systems, and are often highly significant: epileptic seizures and financial market crashes are just two examples of transitions. Until now, though, ways to predict these transitions in advance have been lacking. Previous measures, which peak at the transition itself, have been of no use for purposes of prediction. 
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United Nations to Adopt Asteroid Defense Plan

Earth is not prepared for the threat of hazardous rocks from space, say astronauts who helped formulate the U.N. measures.   
Illustration of asteroid impacting earth

When a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February, the world’s space agencies found out along with the rest of us, on Twitter and YouTube. That, says former astronaut Ed Lu, is unacceptable—and the United Nations agrees. Last week the General Assembly approved a set of measures that Lu and other astronauts have recommended to protect the planet from the dangers of rogue asteroids.   

The U.N. plans to set up an “International Asteroid Warning Group” for member nations to share information about potentially hazardous space rocks. If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft to slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course.    

 Lu and other members of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the U.N. as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks.  “No government in the world today has explicitly assigned the responsibility for planetary protection to any of its agencies,” ASE member Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969, said at the museum. “NASA does not have an explicit responsibility to deflect an asteroid, nor does any other space agency.” The ASE advocates that each nation delegate responsibility for dealing with a potential asteroid impact to an internal agency—before the event is upon us.

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What it would be like if this quarter-mile-wide asteroid hit the Earth in 2032 (and you survived it)

2013 TV135 is coming a bit close for comfort.NASA
Earlier this month, Ukrainian astronomers made a pretty big discovery: a quarter-mile-wide asteroid, to be exact.

From their initial calculations, the astronomers learned that a relatively large, never-seen-before asteroid—named 2013 TV135—had just buzzed safely past Earth but would make an extremely close call on August 26, 2032.

That was enough to instantly move the newly discovered asteroid to the top of NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid watch list, where it remains today.

Coming fresh on the heels of last year’s zero-warning explosion of a much smaller space rock over Russia, which caused over 1,000 injuries and a spectacular light show, the new discovery got the attention of the Russian deputy prime minister in charge of their space program, who quoted the headline of a major Russian news channel:
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'Lost world' discovered in remote Australia

Image provided by Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University Queensland on October 28, 2013 shows the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed GeckImage provided by Conrad Hoskin of James Cook University Queensland on October 28, 2013 shows the Cape Melville Leaf-tailed Gecko discovered in Australia's Cape York Peninsula.

An expedition to a remote part of northern Australia has uncovered three new vertebrate species isolated for millions of years, with scientists Monday calling the area a "lost world". 
Conrad Hoskin from James Cook University and a National Geographic film crew were dropped by helicopter onto the rugged Cape Melville mountain range on Cape York Peninsula earlier this year and were amazed at what they found. 

It included a bizarre looking leaf-tail gecko, a gold-coloured skink—a type of lizard—and a brown-spotted, yellow boulder-dwelling frog, none of them ever seen before. 

"The top of Cape Melville is a lost world. Finding these new species up there is the discovery of a lifetime—I'm still amazed and buzzing from it," said Hoskin, a tropical biologist from the Queensland-based university.
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A black box in your car? Some see a source of tax revenue

The devices would track every mile you drive —possibly including your location — and the government would use the data to draw up a tax bill.


Ryan Morrison is chief executive of True Mileage, a Long Beach company testing devices that can track drivers' mileage. "People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location," he says. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / October 24, 2013).

WASHINGTON — As America's road planners struggle to find the cash to mend a crumbling highway system, many are beginning to see a solution in a little black box that fits neatly by the dashboard of your car.

The devices, which track every mile a motorist drives and transmit that information to bureaucrats, are at the center of a controversial attempt in Washington and state planning offices to overhaul the outdated system for funding America's major roads.

The usually dull arena of highway planning has suddenly spawned intense debate and colorful alliances. Libertarians have joined environmental groups in lobbying to allow government to use the little boxes to keep track of the miles you drive, and possibly where you drive them — then use the information to draw up a tax bill.

PHOTOS: Kelley Blue Book's 10 best 'green' cars

The tea party is aghast. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply concerned, too, raising a variety of privacy issues.

And while Congress can't agree on whether to proceed, several states are not waiting. They are exploring how, over the next decade, they can move to a system in which drivers pay per mile of road they roll over. Thousands of motorists have already taken the black boxes, some of which have GPS monitoring, for a test drive.

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Special Report: Help wanted in Fukushima: Low pay, high risks and gangsters

Tetsuya Hayashi went to Fukushima to take a job at ground zero of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. He lasted less than two weeks.

Hayashi, 41, says he was recruited for a job monitoring the radiation exposure of workers leaving the plant in the summer of 2012. Instead, when he turned up for work, he was handed off through a web of contractors and assigned, to his surprise, to one of Fukushima's hottest radiation zones.

He was told he would have to wear an oxygen tank and a double-layer protective suit. Even then, his handlers told him, the radiation would be so high it could burn through his annual exposure limit in just under an hour.

"I felt cheated and entrapped," Hayashi said. "I had not agreed to any of this."

When Hayashi took his grievances to a firm on the next rung up the ladder of Fukushima contractors, he says he was fired. He filed a complaint but has not received any response from labor regulators for more than a year. All the eight companies involved, including embattled plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co, declined to comment or could not be reached for comment on his case.

Out of work, Hayashi found a second job at Fukushima, this time building a concrete base for tanks to hold spent fuel rods. His new employer skimmed almost a third of his wages - about $1,500 a month - and paid him the rest in cash in brown paper envelopes, he says. Reuters reviewed documents related to Hayashi's complaint, including pay envelopes and bank statements.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

5 Unanswered Questions That Will Keep Physicists Awake at Night

Orion Nebula photo 

Physics is all about probing the most fundamental mysteries in nature, so it’s no surprise that physicists have some very basic questions about the universe on their minds. Recently, Symmetry Magazine (published by two U.S.-government funded physics labs) asked a group of particle physicists to name the open questions in physics they most want answers to. Here’s a sample of the quandaries they shared:

“What will be the fate of our universe?”

The poet Robert Frost famously asked whether the world would end in fire or ice, and physicists still can’t answer the question. The future of the universe—the question named by Steve Wimpenny of the University of California, Riverside—largely depends on dark energy, which at this point is an unknown entity. Dark energy is responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe, but its origins are entirely mysterious. If dark energy is constant over time, we’re likely looking at a “big freeze” in the future, at which point the universe continues to expand faster and faster, and eventually galaxies are so spread out from each other that space seems like a vast wasteland. If dark energy increases, this expansion could be even more severe, so that not just the space between galaxies but the space within them expands, and galaxies themselves are ripped apart—a fate dubbed the “big rip.” Another option is that dark energy decreases so that it cannot counteract the inward-pulling force of gravity, causing the universe to fall back in on itself in a “big crunch.” So basically, whichever way it goes, we’re doomed. On the bright side, none of these eventualities should come to pass for billions or trillions of years—plenty of time to decide if we’re hoping for fire or ice.

“The Higgs boson makes absolutely no sense. Why does it exist?”

The tone of this question was tongue in cheek, says its asker, Richard Ruiz of the University of Pittsburgh, but it points to a very real lack of understanding about the nature of the particle famously discovered last year at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe. The Higgs boson helps explain how all other particles got their mass, yet it raises many other questions. For example, why does the Higgs boson interact with each particle differently—the top quark interacts much more strongly with the Higgs than the electron does, giving the top quark a much greater mass than the electron. “This is the only example of a ‘non-universal’ force in the Standard Model,” Ruiz says. Furthermore, the Higgs boson is the first fundamental particle found in nature with zero spin. “This is an entirely new sector in Standard Model particle physics,” Ruiz says. “How it comes about, we have no idea.”
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Japan Hit By 7.3-Magnitude Earthquake Off Fukushima Prefecture Coast, Tsunami Advisory Issued

TOKYO -- TOKYO (AP) — An earthquake of magnitude 7.3 struck Saturday morning off Japan's east coast, near the crippled Fukushima nuclear site, the U.S. Geological Survey said. 

Japan's emergency agencies declared a tsunami warning for the area.

The quake hit at 3:10 a.m. Saturday Tokyo time (1310 GMT), the USGS said.

The tremor was felt in Tokyo, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) away.

Japan's Meteorological Agency raised the tsunami warning for the area of Honshu. But the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center did not post warnings for the rest of the Pacific.

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