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►  Android Pay

Google said Tuesday that it will start offering Android Pay in Australia in the first half of next year. Google Inc. says it’s working with leading financial institutions with the goal of making it available to MasterCard and Visa card holders. Apple Pay launched in Australia last month, but only for American Express customers.

Android Pay is Google’s answer to Apple Pay, which requires an Apple device. Both let you make purchases by tapping the phone next to a store’s payment machine — as long as it’s a newer machine with wireless capabilities known as NFC.

Samsung has its own payment service, Samsung Pay, on its main Android phones. It goes further than Android and Apple Pay in working with many machines that lack NFC. That’s because it has a backup mechanism to replicate old-school card swipes.

On Tuesday, Samsung announced support for 19 additional banks, including PNC Bank and KeyBank.

Even as phone makers push their mobile-payment services, financial institutions and retailers such as Wal-Mart have been working on their own services.


►  OneDrive storage

After a backlash, Microsoft is reversing part of its plan to tighten free storage offered through its OneDrive online storage service.

Last month, Microsoft said it will cut its free option to 5 gigabytes next year, down from 15 gigabytes now. Microsoft says the new allotment is enough for about 6,600 Office documents or 1,600 photos.

That cut will still apply to new customers, but existing customers can keep the 15 gigabytes, plus any bonuses they had earned through promotions. But they must claim them by the end of January at aka.ms/onedrivestorage.

Microsoft Corp. still plans to eliminate unlimited storage for subscribers of its Office 365 service, which starts at $7 a month. Subscribers will now be limited to 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of storage. The company said a “small number of users” had abused the unlimited option by backing up numerous personal computers and storing entire movie collections.


►  Blacksmith Takes On 9/11 Truthers in YouTube Video

A Georgia metal worker has set out to disprove the belief that jet fuel doesn’t burn hot enough to melt steel beams—like those in the World Trade Center towers—a major contention of conspiracy theorists who insist that 9/11 was an inside job. “I am so sick and tired of this argument,“ Trenton Tye says in his YouTube video. First, Tye demonstrates the strength of a half-inch thick structural steel beam by using it to lift an anvil. Then he takes another piece of steel he says has been heated to 1,800 degrees and shows how it has become bendable, like “a freaking noodle.“ In closing, Tye declares: “Your argument is invalid. Get over it. Find a job.“

While it does show that steel beams don’t need to melt to lose their integrity, Tye’s demonstration—“more party trick than perfect simulation”—does a have a few flaws, Popular Mechanics points out:

  • The steel beam he used is heated to 1,800 degrees, 300 degrees hotter than jet fuel burns.
  • Tye doesn’t say for how long the beam was heated.
  • He doesn’t provide evidence of his forge’s temperature.

Those flaws, the Daily Dot notes, have already been seized upon by so-called 9/11 truthers in comments on the video, which has been viewed more than 6.5 million times, seeking to debunk Tye’s debunking. But “hey, at least he tried,“ concludes the post.


►  Yep, the Rumors Are True: Hitler Only Had One Testicle

Good news for the many on the planet weirdly fascinated by rumors about Adolf Hitler’s genitals: It has long been suggested that Hitler only had one testicle—there’s even a British schoolyard song that mocks him for it—and that it was a shrapnel casualty in World War I’s Battle of the Somme. But now medical documents that surfaced in 2010 but have only recently been officially analyzed suggest that at least when he was imprisoned in 1923 after a failed coup he had what’s called “right-side cryptorchidism,“ meaning that testicle never descended into the scrotum, as is typical in childhood, reports the Guardian.

“The experienced medical officer immediately recognized the condition,“ German historian Peter Fleischmann, who analyzed the documents, told German tabloid Bild, via the Huffington Post. His right testicle was “probably stunted,“ though Hitler’s childhood doctor apparently told American interrogators in 1943 that his genitals were “completely normal,“ and a Polish priest and amateur historian once said a German army medic who treated Hitler mentioned the shrapnel injury. Whether the testicle in question eventually descended and was later injured or never in fact descended at all, it does in fact appear to be true that Hitler “has only got one ball,“ as the song goes.

Tech Dystopia

Ever since Elon Musk started making his comments about the risks posed by artificial intelligence, we’ve been deluged with stories about the “existential threat” posed to humanity by AI run amok. It’s gotten to the point where artificial intelligence is viewed as the Doomsday Machine that will result in the downfall of humanity.

And it’s not just AI – just about any new innovation is ripe for the tech dystopia treatment. Particle physicists gave us a scare for a while when they searched for the so-called “God Particle” – people thought we were going to blow up the earth. Robots and drones also make for compelling tech dystopia story lines – it’s far easier to imagine what might go wrong rather than what might go right.

And now there’s a new tech scare: CRISPR, the hot new gene-editing technology. Last week, in answering a question on Quora, legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said that CRISPR has the potential to be a “scarier” technology than AI: “I can think of more scary technologies [than AI] that we’re using today – CRISPR being one in biology – which has equally scary potential.”

Cue the scary background music.

Of course, the tech panic pieces about CRISPR are not entirely misplaced — there are obviously concerns. Hacking the human gene code could be truly and deeply hazardous. The fact that Chinese researchers are seriously thinking about cloning humans or editing the genes of new babies should give everyone pause for thought.

Since most of us don’t have PhDs in machine learning or molecular biology, though, it’s easy to get lost in the science and assume that things are further along then they are. Robots can barely get out of their own way, let alone mount a robot uprising. The smartest machines can barely figure out how to play a decent game of Tetris.

Even Khosla admits that AI is “probably more manageable than [Elon Musk] might intimate.” “We don’t know if we could get there in 20, 30, or 50 years, but it’s unlikely to be in 5,” he said on Quora.

So what’s behind all these stories about existential threats to humanity, then?

The not-so-obvious answer is that it has less to do with technology, and more to do with what makes us human. You can call it the real innovator’s dilemma – the desire to go farther vs. the fear of going too far. That’s essentially the story line of any Hollywood dystopian plot – scientists go too far, the technology gets out of control, and the end of the world is suddenly nigh.

And this tech dystopia vs. tech utopia debate is not something that started in a place such as Silicon Valley – it’s something that’s been going on since the days of the ancient Greeks. Consider the classic Greek myth involving Icarus — the young lad who dared to fly too close to the sun on wings made of feathers and wax.

The ancient Greeks understood something that people today don’t — that we as a society need to have these sorts of myths to keep us from going too far, from attempting too much, too soon. These myths are not meant to stop technological progress – they are meant as a way to inspire debate about the perils of human hubris, as well as the philosophical, moral and ethical concerns surrounding human progress.

The modern myth makers are the moviemakers of Hollywood, who are only too ready to develop story lines about the “scariest” technologies of Silicon Valley. You can think of today’s tech dystopian films featuring AI or biotechnology run amok as the modern equivalent of the Greek myths.

Joseph Campbell famously analyzed all the elements of classic mythology and came up with the conclusion that every culture, every society, comes up with the same basic narratives for their myths. That’s why so many of Hollywood’s blockbuster films appear to be so similar – they are just modern iterations of timeless tales. The only thing that changes is the technology. Not convinced? Watch Joseph Campbell break down “Star Wars” from the perspective of mythology:

Think of all the common elements of a tech dystopia story in the media — there’s an evil genius (the younger the better); scientists doing secretive stuff in labs that sounds incomprehensible to the layperson; references back to awful periods in human history (think Nazi Germany); and, of course, the possibility for destroying the earth. More importantly, the time horizon for things going wrong is usually just far enough away that it’s plausible and just close enough that it seems scary.

The New Yorker, for example, recently ran back-to-back stories on “The Gene Hackers” (about CRISPR) and then on “The Doomsday Invention” (about AI). The article on CRISPR even included the requisite reference back to Hitler Germany and the dangers of eugenics.

However, there are plenty of technologies “scarier” than AI or CRISPR.

Nuclear weapons would surely rank right up there as a potential way for humanity to destroy itself, especially if nukes get into the wrong hands. There is probably a lot more room for disaster than if AI or CRISPR gets into the wrong hands.

Looking for another “scary” technology – how about carbon fuel technology? We’re literally warming the surface of the planet to a point where global climate change may lead to extinction of life forms on the planet Earth, including, yes, humans.

Yes, a dystopian future is possible, but so is a utopian future. Most likely, the answer is somewhere in the middle, the way it’s been for millennia. Ever since mankind started to innovate, there have been both good and bad possible outcomes anytime we try to fly too close to the sun.

~~  Dominic Basulto ~~

In Science and Technology….

The Free Press WV

►  5 Most Incredible Recent Discoveries

A surprise finding about cancers of all types and a study of the Putin stroll make the list:

  • Almost All Cancer Cases Are Our Fault: A Stony Brook University study shows that up to 90% of cancers are caused by external factors such as smoking, drinking, sun exposure, and air pollution, and are thus more preventable than previously thought. The findings turn a recent “bad luck” hypothesis on its head.
  • Magic Mushroom Ingredient Did Months of Good: Those with a cancer diagnosis or battling depression or anxiety might consider munching on magic mushrooms. Johns Hopkins scientists say a single dose of psilocybin, the hallucinogenic ingredient in mushrooms, appears to have a protective effect that lasts for an astonishing six months. Most of those who got the highest dosage found it remarkable in another way.
  • Physicists May Have Spotted Another New Particle: First, scientists experimenting with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson. Next came the possible discovery of pentaquarks. Now scientists may have detected a new, unknown particle. if confirmed, it’s a “total game changer.“
  • To Spot a Liar, Look for These 6 Clues: Most of us reveal ourselves through the tiniest physical and verbal clues, and new lie-detecting software developed at the University of Michigan analyzes words and gestures to determine with 75% accuracy whether someone is lying. One piece of advice: Practice keeping your hands at your sides while fibbing.
  • Why Putin Walks That Weird Walk: The peculiar gait of the Russian leader (left arm swinging naturally, right arm stiff at his side) used to be attributed to some kind of childhood illness or stroke. But a group of Dutch neuroscientists recently studied a slew of YouTube videos and found a) he’s not the only high-ranking Russian who walks like that, and b) it might trace back to the KGB.

In Science and Technology….

The Free Press WV

►  Anonymous Hacks European Space Agency—for Laughs

Anonymous has had a busy week. First the hacktivists spent Friday mocking ISIS, then they took down the Trump Tower website. And before the weekend was out, the group infiltrated the European Space Agency’s database, apparently just to keep their skills on point, reports Inverse. “Because Xmas is coming and we had to do something for fun so we did it for the lulz,“ is the reason an alleged Anonymous member gave to HackRead for posting the names, email addresses, passwords, and other info for “thousands” of ESA officials and subscribers online. Two things made this attack stand out: first, that the space agency was a puzzling target, and second, that ESA’s cybersecurity is pretty shoddy. So shoddy, in fact, that an analysis by CSO found that of the 8,100-plus passwords exposed, almost 40% of them were three-character codes such as “esa”—child’s play for hackers.

It took just a blind SQL vulnerability for the intruders to “get access to just about everything,“ though that doesn’t actually give Anonymous major points in Inverse’s eyes. After all, after setting the lofty goal of taking down ISIS, “they’re back beating up government agencies with lousy IT departments.“ Although Inverse acknowledges that the hack could prove valuable in the end to ESA for exposing its weaknesses, it doesn’t bode well for Anonymous in demonstrating “an organization with anything resembling accountability or priorities. Sharpening one’s skills on a space agency is one thing if those skills then become the point of the spear in a battle against evil and another if not. So far, the world has only seen not.“


►  The Biggest Physics Breakthroughs of the Year

Physics World has given its 2015 Breakthrough of the Year award to two scientists in China who demonstrated the requirements for secure quantum teleportation. Sadly, this doesn’t mean you’ll be able to randomly appear anywhere in the world, but it’s pretty cool regardless. Basically, the research will enable people to use quantum entanglement to send data across huge distances without the chance of someone listening in, which is “how we’ll form the unhackable communication networks of the future,“ per Science Alert. More of the impressive advances named by the mag:

  • The Battlefield MRI (bMRI) uses ultra-low-field magnetic resonance imaging to conjure up images of injured soft tissues, per Phys.org. While “hospital-based MRI devices are big and expensive,“ the portable MRI is “a much lighter, less expensive, and low-power alternative that can be deployed to hard-to-reach places like the battlefield and remote hospitals in poor countries,“ a project leader says.
  • The discovery of the massless Weyl fermion by scientists from Princeton, MIT, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences was also named. First proposed in 1929, Weyl fermions were believed to make up other subatomic particles but evidence proved elusive. “If applied to next-generation electronics, the fermions could allow for a nearly free and efficient flow of electricity and thus greater power,“ according to a release.
  • Then there was the first team that measured light reflected from an exoplanet. Working from the La Silla Observatory, the experts were able to determine the mass, orbital inclination, and “reflectivity” of exoplanet 51 Pegasi b, which was first discovered 20 years ago. The information can tell researchers about the makeup of the planet’s surface and atmosphere.

Check out the full list here.


►  Why Putin Walks That Weird Walk

The peculiar walk of one Vladimir Putin (left arm swinging naturally, right arm stiff at his side) has been the subject of speculation, with guesses ranging from childhood illness to an in-utero stroke, Live Science reports. But a group of Dutch neuroscientists—or “movement disorder enthusiasts,“ as they call themselves—has a different theory in a study published in the British Medical Journal: “gunslinger’s gait” brought about by his KGB training. When study co-author Bastiaan Bloem first started watching Putin perambulating in YouTube videos, he thought he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, since a reduced arm swing is a symptom—but he ruled that out, since Parkinson’s is progressive and Putin never got worse. (The scientists compared Putin’s health with that of Adolf Hitler, who some neurologists believe did suffer from Parkinson’s and who exhibited a range of symptoms.) Then something odd happened: Bloem and his team noticed four other high-ranking Russian officials, including PM Dmitry Medvedev, had the exact same walk.

After some searching—and coming to the conclusion that all five Russians couldn’t have Parkinson’s disease that affected them all in the exact same way—they stumbled across their answer in the most unlikely of places: a KGB weapons training manual. “It literally says, when you’re walking, don’t move the right arm, keep it close to the holster and be ready to draw the gun,“ Bloem tells Live Science. The scientists also studied Hollywood Westerns and confirmed that the right arms of old-time cowboys stayed similarly immobile, Live Science notes. Only one of the other officials besides Putin was actually in the KGB, but two of the other men may have received similar training for their military roles. As for Medvedev, who was in neither the KGB nor the military, the team suggests he’s simply engaging in a practice not uncommon in Russia: “imitating the boss” and picking up on his mannerisms.


►  Thai Woman Gets 7 Years for Facebook Post

Thailand’s controversial laws banning insults on the monarchy have claimed another victim: A single mom, identified only as Chayapha, has been sentenced to seven years in prison “for posting on Facebook that a counter-coup against the junta was imminent,“ her lawyer tells the Bangkok Post. He adds Chayapha was asked “to appear at short notice,“ but “the military courts failed to inform [her lawyers] that a hearing was taking place” and “we were only informed of the ruling after the fact.“ The sentence was initially set at 14 years, but reduced because the woman pleaded guilty.


►  Physicists May Have Found Another New Particle

First, scientists experimenting with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson. Next came the possible discovery of pentaquarks. Now scientists may have detected a new, unknown particle. Working from June to mid-November, two teams from the European Organization for Nuclear Research, aka CERN, spotted excess pairs of gamma rays carrying 750 billion electron volts in the debris of proton-proton collisions, which could be a sign of the radioactive decay of a particle, per the New York Times. Team Atlas found 40 extra pairs of photons, while team CMS found 10 after some 400 trillion proton-proton collisions, per Nature, which reports the teams wouldn’t have shared the results if both hadn’t seen the same thing. “But it can happen by coincidence,“ says an Atlas rep.

Atlas’ data has “a 1-in-93 chance of being a fluke—far stronger than the 1-in-3.5-million odds of mere chance,“ per the Times. If verified, the particle could be similar to the Higgs boson, but about 12 times heavier, per ScienceAlert. It could also be a graviton, the proposed quantum carrier of gravity. Should a graviton be found, the consequences could be colossal, since it would suggest the existence of extra dimensions of space-time, per the Times. “I don’t think there is anyone around who thinks this is conclusive,“ a CERN physicist says. “But it would be huge if true.“ One theorist says the discovery of a new particle would be “a total game changer.“ If they have found a new particle, scientists expect to be able to confirm the discovery next year, when they will have 10 times as much data.

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