Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Major chip deal faces security probe

The British government has launched a national security review around American technology giant Nvidia’s plans to buy Cambridge-based chip designer Arm from its owner SoftBank. The probe comes amid growing scrutiny of foreign control over semiconductor technology, which is increasingly viewed as vital for national security. The U.K. government had already said it planned to investigate the deal on antitrust grounds. (The Wall Street Journal)


A new ultra-white paint that reflects 98% of sunlight can help fight climate change by cooling homes, hence reducing the need for air conditioning

The paint, which uses barium sulfate as a pigment instead of the conventional titanium dioxide pigment, can cool houses because it reflects UV light and the sun’s infrared radiation. Researchers think that the ultra-white paint could be commercially available in about two years and would not be more expensive than current white paints. Air conditioners contribute to climate change because they release heat that raises urban temperatures, can leak greenhouse gases, and typically consume more electricity than any other household device. Worldwide, about 60% of electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels. (The Guardian)


NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter flew for about 40 seconds over the surface of Mars, marking the first time that a man-made object has taken off and landed on another planet

The solar-powered helicopter rose to an altitude of about 10 feet (3 meters) and hovered for 30 seconds before landing on the surface of the Red Planet, NASA said. The 19.3-inch-tall, 4-pound rotorcraft was transported to Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover, which arrived on the Red Planet in February. Up until now, it was unclear whether Ingenuity would be able to fly because the Martian atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s — meaning that there are fewer air molecules allowing Ingenuity’s 4-foot-wide blades to gain traction. NASA plans to conduct another Ingenuity test flight on tomorrow (4/22). (NASA)


SpaceX won a $2.9B contract to build a lunar lander that will take a man and a woman to the moon under NASA’s Artemis program

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has been tapped to fly people to the moon for the first time in 50 years. NASA selected the Hawthorne, California-based aerospace company to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. SpaceX’s solution uses its in-development Starship as a fully integrated lander with the company’s Super Heavy rocket. The Starship has been undergoing a series of fiery test flights in south Texas over the past few months. SpaceX’s bid “was the lowest among the offerors by a wide margin.” According to the report, NASA also liked Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to and from the surface of the moon as well, which it said ‘has the potential to greatly improve scientific operations. The lunar mission was originally slated for 2024 but it is expected to be behind schedule due to budget cuts. The contract is worth $2.9 billion. (The Washington Post)


A herd of elephants killed a suspected poacher in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

A suspected poacher was killed by a herd of breeding elephants that he encountered while fleeing from park rangers, according to South African officials. Three people attempted to run away after they were spotted by rangers at the Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves. After one of the suspects was captured, he told park rangers the group had run into a herd of elephants, adding that he was not sure if his alleged accomplice had managed to escape, officials said. Rangers later discovered the man “badly trampled” and dead from his injuries. Investigators say they are still searching for the third suspect, who continued to flee after he suffered an injury to the eye. The men are suspected of attempting to poach rhinos, according to officials. A rifle and axe were recovered amid the investigation, officials said. (ABC News)


Psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) may be just as effective as the leading antidepressants, and could represent a breakthrough in treating depression

In a controlled study, depression scores improved similarly for both individuals who received high doses of psilocybin and those who received escitalopram, an SSRI often marketed as Lexapro. But, in other measures of depression, including “response” and “remission,” psilocybin mixed with clinical therapy showed more improvement than the antidepressant. Several studies in recent years have suggested the potential for psychedelics to be used in mental health treatment by breaking cycles of negative thought and enabling a “sense of deeper meaning.” The authors cautioned against self-medicating with psilocybin, as the study was conducted “in a therapeutic environment under the supervision of trained professionals.” (STAT News)


23% of U.S. households own or have access to a VR headset, up from 19% last year

According to the latest ARtillery Intelligence report, the AR/VR research firm polled 46,000 U.S. adults through Thrive Analytics’ consumer survey engine. Among VR users, 82% said they play or use VR at least monthly. 70% said they’re either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the experience. For non-VR users, 20% expressed interest in the technology, down from 29% in 2020. 24% of respondents have used a Quest 1 and/or Quest 2, a jump up from 13% the year prior. Demand for headsets is highest in the $200-$400 price range, which is how much the Quest 2 costs ($299 for 64GB). Standalone VR stood out in the survey. Conclusion: AR/VR remains in the “early adoption phases,” but has many prospects to change how people connect, work, and learn. (ARtillery)


The ACLU is asking the Supreme Court to allow advocates to review decisions made by the nation’s secretive federal surveillance court

A group of First Amendment advocates is asking the Supreme Court to make public the major opinions of the secret court that authorizes government surveillance, bringing the issue before the nation’s highest court for the first time. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have for years asserted the public has a First Amendment right to review major opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, such as those that include interpretations of the Constitution,  even if some portion of those opinions must be redacted. The groups are appealing a decision last fall by a higher court that reviews the surveillance court’s opinions. That entity found it did not have the authority to review the groups’ First Amendment claims. The Supreme Court has long interpreted the First Amendment to mean that Americans should be able to review court proceedings. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created by Congress in 1978 as part of an effort to tighten controls on foreign surveillance by government agencies. But experts say the rapid growth in technology and communications – for instance, the internet – has vastly changed both surveillance practices and the secret court’s work. (Yahoo News)


UPDATE: Apple readmits social media app Parler to the App Store

The app for the free speech social media company will be available once again on Apple’s App Store. Apple reinstated Parler on April 14th, according to a letter from Apple to Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Republican Ken Buck (R-Colorado). Once Parler releases an updated app, iOS users will be able to download it once more. In the letter, Apple said that its App Store review team had spoken with Parler at length about how to bring the app into compliance with company guidelines. Parler was kicked off both Apple’s and Google’s app stores in the wake of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Shortly thereafter, Amazon terminated hosting services for Parler. At the time, all three Big Tech firms said the social media company had not done enough to moderate posts that incited violence. Apple, in its letter, said it still stands by its decision to ban the app in January, and it made sure to point out that it reached that decision independently of Google and Amazon. Google is reportedly open to allowing Parler back into the Google Play Store. In a statement made to Android Police following Apple’s reinstatement of the Parler app, the company said, “Parler is welcome back in the Play store once it submits an app that complies with our policies.” (Ars Technica)


Gene therapy found to be safe and effective in treating a common form of congenital childhood blindness

A new gene therapy for one of the most common forms of congenital blindness was safe and improved patients’ vision, according to initial data from a clinical trial led by researchers at the Scheie Eye Institute in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The therapy delivers working copies of GUCY2D to the eyes of patients who have severe vision impairments caused by mutations in the gene. Each of the first three treated patients experienced improvement in some aspects of vision, without serious side effects, according to the new study. The GUCY2D gene is one of about 25 different human genes whose mutations cause problems in the retina, leading to severe vision impairment from birth or early childhood. This family of inherited retinal disorders, collectively known as Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), accounts for a considerable portion of blindness in children worldwide. Normal copies of GUCY2D encode an enzyme in the key pathway that light-sensitive rod and cone cells in the retina use to convert light into electrochemical signals. A lack of this enzyme blocks the recovery of this pathway, preventing the reset needed for further signaling. As a result, the signal from rod and cone cells becomes very weak, which equates to severe vision loss. Even in adults who have lived for decades with this condition, it is often the case that many light-sensing retinal cells remain alive and intact despite their dysfunction. Thus, adding functional copies of GUCY2D via a gene therapy could get those cells working again and restore some vision. (EurekAlert)


Over the past 15 months, rangers in Kenya rescued nine giraffes stranded on a rapidly shrinking island

The piece of land on which the Rothschild’s giraffes were living had been cut off from the mainland after the lake’s water levels raised last year. Conservationists said that the giraffes, eight females and one male, were in peril because food was scarce on the island. Rangers had been transporting food for the animals for some time but ultimately decided that it would be better to relocate them. The giraffes were transported on a barge dubbed the “GiRaft,” which consists of a tall wooden enclosure built atop 60 empty drums. The last two, a mother and her calf, were taken to a sanctuary in the mainland earlier this month. Rothschild’s giraffes are in danger of extinction, since there are only about 3,000 individuals left in the wild. Conservation groups want to bring more Rothschild’s giraffes to the sanctuary in the hope that they will breed so that their numbers increase. (Smithsonian Magazine)


Humana defrauded the federal government of $200M in 2015, according to a watchdog report

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Office of Inspector General says the health insurance company overstated the health ailments suffered by its clients in order to get additional payments from the federal government. Humana rejected the claims, saying that the findings are not final and that it will work with the DHHS “to resolve this review.” The findings concern Medicare Advantage, which has enrolled around 26 million people, many of them seniors.  Medicare Advantage is an alternative to the Original Medicare that provides health care through private insurers. Some of these insurers have been accused of overcharging the federal government in the past. According to an earlier report by the DHHS Office of Inspector General, they overcharged the federal government some $16B in 2019 alone, but the government has mostly failed to obtain a refund amid criticisms that federal financial audits are inaccurate. (Health Care Dive)


Several U.S. banks are implementing AI-driven surveillance to watch customers’ and workers’ behavior and other activities around their premises

City National Bank of Florida, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo have so far tried out or implemented computer vision systems. City National plans to implement facial recognition near ATMs and other areas in place of the existing authentication methods at 31 branches. Trials will begin in 2022. JPMorgan is “conducting a small test of video analytic technology with a handful of branches in Ohio.” The trial started in 2019 with the use of archived CCTV records as opposed to a live data stream. The bank’s goals included distinguishing customer preferences, such as whether women avoided ATMs in small spaces or the number of customers that left the bank when there was a queue. Wells Fargo is in the process of leveraging the technology to prevent fraud. An unnamed bank has been using automatic surveillance to rearrange branch layout for better ergonomics. Another bank aims to analyze potential security issues such as unhoused people setting up tents near ATMs, people loitering near the premises, or when safe/office doors are left open. Critics have pointed out concerns related to possible income or racial discrimination in account monitoring and inaccurate facial recognition, both breaching fundamental privacy rights. Multiple banks’ representatives stated that they will be cognizant of potential social issues when rolling out the software. (Reuters)


45% of Texas voters would support actor Matthew McConaughey if he were to run for state governor next year

According to a poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, Matthew McConaughey commands more support to be Texas’ next governor than incumbent Greg Abbott. Last month, McConaughey said that he is “seriously considering” running for governor. The poll found, 45% of Texas registered voters would vote for Matthew McConaughey, 33% would vote for Abbott and 22% would vote for someone else. Matthew McConaughey’s double-digit lead over the two-term Republican incumbent is significant. The poll, conducted April 6-13, surveyed 1,126 registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.92 percentage points. But 56% of Republican voters said they’d vote for Abbott, compared with only 30% for Matthew McConaughey. While Democrats broke 66% to 8% for McConaughey, and independents 44% to 28%, more than twice as many Democratic primary voters, 51%, said they wanted a progressive candidate for governor than wanted a centrist, 25%. That could pose a problem. McConaughey, who has criticized both major parties, has suggested he’s more of a moderate. (The Dallas Morning News)


Wednesday Remains Strong With:

  • Administrative Professionals Day or Secretary’s Day
  • Banana Day (3rd Wednesday)
  • Bulldogs are Beautiful Day
  • Chocolate-Covered Cashews Day
  • International Hemp Day
  • Kindergarten Day
  • Pet CBD Day
  • Queen’s Birthday
  • Surprise Drug Test Day (Follows National Pot Smokers Day 4/20)
  • Yellow Bat Day