Businesses

Turning Soybeans Into Diesel Fuel Is Costing Us Billions (npr.org) 257

This year, trucks and other heavy-duty motors in America will burn some 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel that was made from soybean oil. They're doing it, though, not because it's cheaper or better, but because they're required to, by law. From a report: The law is the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. For some, especially Midwestern farmers, it's the key to creating clean energy from American soil and sun. For others -- like many economists -- it's a wasteful misuse of resources. And the most wasteful part of the RFS, according to some, is biodiesel. It's different from ethanol, a fuel that's made from corn and mixed into gasoline, also as required by the RFS. In fact, gasoline companies probably would use ethanol even if there were no law requiring it, because ethanol is a useful fuel additive -- at least up to a point. That's not true of biodiesel. "This is an easy one, economically. Biodiesel is very expensive, relative to petroleum diesel," says Scott Irwin, an economist at the University of Illinois, who follows biofuel markets closely. He calculates that the extra cost for biodiesel comes to about $1.80 per gallon right now, meaning that the biofuel law is costing Americans about $5.4 billion a year.
NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Emerged From the Freezer (arstechnica.com) 72

The James Webb Space Telescope has emerged from a large vacuum chamber that was home to temperatures of just 20 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. Scientists have reviewed the data and given the instrument a clean bill of health. "We now have verified that NASA and its partners have an outstanding telescope and set of science instruments," said Bill Ochs, the Webb telescope project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "We are marching toward launch." Ars Technica reports: The $10 billion telescope underwent tests inside Chamber A at Johnson Space Center, which was built in 1965 to conduct thermal-vacuum testing on the Apollo command and service modules. Beginning in mid-July, after the telescope was cooled down to a temperature range of 20 to 40 Kelvin, engineers tested the alignment of Webb's 18 primary mirror segments to ensure they would act as a single, 6.5-meter telescope. (They did). Later, they assessed the fine guidance system of the telescope by simulating the light of a distant star. The Webb telescope was able to detect the light, and all of the optical systems were able to process it. Then, the telescope was able to track the "star" and its movement, giving scientists confidence that the Webb instrument will work once in space. Webb still has a ways to go before it launches. Now that project scientists know that the optic portion of the instrument can withstand the vacuum of space, and the low temperatures at the Earth-Sun L2 point it will orbit in deep space, they must perform additional testing before a probable launch next year.
Earth

Sea Turtles Under Threat As Climate Change Turns Most Babies Female (futurism.com) 176

A new study published in the journal Current Biology found that as much as 99 percent of baby green sea turtles in warm equatorial regions are being born female. "The study took a look at turtle populations at nesting sites at Raine Island and Moulter Cay in the northern Great Barrier Reef, an area plagued with unprecedented levels of coral bleaching from high temperatures," reports Futurism. "The researchers compared these populations with sea turtles living at sites in the cooler south." From the report: Using a new, non-invasive hormone test, the researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Department and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection found that while 65 -69 percent of the turtles from the southern region were female, between 86.8 and 99.8 of turtles tested in the northern region were female, depending on age. The sex of green sea turtles, along with some other species of turtles, crocodiles, and alligators, is not regulated by the introduction of sex chromosomes at key points during early development, as seen in humans and other mammals. Their sex is actually influenced by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated, with warmer temperatures more likely to lead to females. The difference between predominately male and predominately female hatchlings is only a few degrees, such as that formerly found between the cool, damp bottom of a sandy sea turtle nest and the sun-warmed top. The ages of the female turtles in the north suggest that this population has experienced temperatures that cause this imbalance since at least the 1990s. Given that the warmer temperatures seen in northern Australia have been distributed around the globe, experts predict that other sea turtle populations in warm regions are also following the same trend.
Earth

NASA Launches a Mission To Study the Border of Earth and Space (arstechnica.com) 45

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A new NASA mission, the first to hitch a ride on a commercial communications satellite, will examine Earth's upper atmosphere to see how the boundary between Earth and space changes over time. GOLD stands for Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk, and the mission will focus on the temperature and makeup of Earth's highest atmospheric layers. Along with another upcoming satellite, called ICON, GOLD will examine how weather on Earth -- and space weather caused by the sun -- affects those uppermost layers. GOLD, which will inspect the ultraviolet radiation that the upper atmosphere releases, will also be the first to take comprehensive records of that atmospheric layer's temperature. The satellite carrying GOLD will orbit 22,000 miles (35,400 kilometers) above Earth in a geostationary orbit, which means GOLD will stay fixed with respect to Earth's surface as the satellite orbits and the world turns. GOLD will pay particularly close attention to Earth's thermosphere, which is the gas that surrounds the Earth higher than 60 miles (97 km) up, and the layer called the ionosphere, which forms as radiation from the sun strips away electrons from particles to create charged ions. And although solar flares and other interactions on the sun do have a strong impact on those layers, scientists are learning that Earth's own weather has an impact on the layers, too.
AI

Ex-NSA Hacker Is Building an AI To Find Hate and Far-Right Symbols on Twitter and Facebook (vice.com) 509

Motherboard reporter Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai has interviewed Emily Crose, a former NSA hacker, who has built NEMESIS, an AI-powered program that can help spot symbols that have been co-opted by hate groups to signal to each other in plain sight. Crose, who has also moderated Reddit in the past, thought of building NEMESIS after the Charlottesville, Virginia incident last year. From the report: Crose's motivation is to expose white nationalists who use more or less obscure, mundane, or abstract symbols -- or so-called dog whistles -- in their posts, such as the Black Sun and certain Pepe the frog memes. Crose's goal is not only to expose people who use these symbols online but hopefully also push the social media companies to clamp down on hateful rhetoric online. "The real goal is to educate people," Crose told me in a phone call. "And a secondary goal: I'd really like to get the social media platforms to start thinking how they can enforce some decency on their own platforms, a certain level of decorum." [...]

At a glance, the way NEMESIS works is relatively simple. There's an "inference graph," which is a mathematical representation of trained images, classified as Nazi or white supremacist symbols. This inference graph trains the system with machine learning to identify the symbols in the wild, whether they are in pictures or videos. In a way, NEMESIS is dumb, according to Crose, because there are still humans involved, at least at the beginning. NEMESIS needs a human to curate the pictures of the symbols in the inference graph and make sure they are being used in a white supremacist context. For Crose, that's the key to the whole project -- she absolutely does not want NEMESIS to flag users who post Hindu swastikas, for example -- so NEMESIS needs to understand the context. "It takes thousands and thousands of images to get it to work just right," she said.

Space

The Biggest Rocket Launches and Space Missions We're Looking Forward To in 2018 (theverge.com) 112

Loren Grush, writing for The Verge: Next year is already overflowing with exciting missions to space. NASA is launching a new lander to Mars, as well as a spacecraft that will get closer to the Sun than ever before. And two of NASA's vehicles already in space will finally arrive at their intended targets: one will rendezvous with a nearby asteroid, while another will pass by a distant space rock billions of miles from Earth. But it's not just NASA that has a busy year ahead; the commercial space industry has a number of significant test flights planned, and the launch of one of the world's most anticipated rockets, the Falcon Heavy, is slated for early 2018. And if all goes well, people may finally ride to space on private vehicles. Here's the complete list.
Space

SpaceX Rocket Stuns Californians As It Carries 10 Satellites Into Space (theguardian.com) 105

A reused SpaceX rocket carried 10 satellites into orbit from California on Friday, leaving behind a trail of mystery and wonder as it soared into space. Elon Musk jokingly tweeted a video of the rocket with the caption, "Nuclear alien UFO from North Korea." The Guardian reports: The Falcon 9 booster lifted off from coastal Vandenberg air force base, carrying the latest batch of satellites for Iridium Communications. The launch in the setting sun created a shining, billowing streak that was widely seen throughout southern California and as far away as Phoenix, Arizona. Calls came in to TV stations as far afield as San Diego, more than 200 miles south of the launch site, as people puzzled about what caused the strange sight. Cars stopped on freeways in Los Angeles so drivers and passengers could take pictures and video. The Los Angeles fire department issued an advisory that the "mysterious light in the sky" was from the rocket launch. The same rocket carried Iridium satellites into orbit in June. That time, the first stage landed on a floating platform in the Pacific ocean. This time, the rocket was allowed to plunge into the sea. It was the 18th and final launch of 2017 for SpaceX, which has contracted to replace Iridium's system with 75 updated satellites. SpaceX has made four launches and expects to make several more to complete the job by mid-2018. The satellites also carry payloads for global aircraft tracking and a ship-tracking service. Did any Slashdotters manage to view the spectacle?
Iphone

Apple Hit With Class Action Lawsuit After Admitting To Slowing Down Old iPhones (appleinsider.com) 244

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Apple Insider: A day after Apple acknowledged slowing down iPhones with degraded batteries, a Los Angeles man is pursuing a class action lawsuit in the matter. Owners didn't agree to the prospect, and it hurts the devices' value, according to a filing by plaintiff Stefan Bodganovich, cited by TMZ. The case is said to be particularly concerned with the impact on iPhone 7 users. The suit asks that Apple stop throttling older devices, and pay compensation to affected people. Over the course of December, a number of people on Reddit and elsewhere have speculated that iPhones perform faster after battery replacements, mostly citing anecdotal evidence. Apple effectively confirmed that situation on Wednesday, but with the provision that it only throttles phones to prevent sudden, potentially damaging shutdowns. UPDATE: A second lawsuit has been filed against the company. Chicago Sun-Times reports "five customers have filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago against the tech giant for what they're calling 'deceptive, immoral and unethical' practices that violate consumer protection laws."
Space

Interstellar Object 'Oumuamua' Appears To Be Wrapped In An Organic Insulation Layer (theguardian.com) 242

dryriver writes: Oumuamua is the cigar-shaped object -- about 400 meters long and only 40 meters in the other dimensions -- that originated from somewhere else in the Galaxy and visited our Solar system while moving at nearly 130,000 miles per hour. Scientists do not know where Oumuamua came from or what it is made of -- it is not shaped like commonly seen asteroids, and unlike comets, it does not leave a trail behind it, not even when it flew past the Sun. Oumuamua seems to be wrapped in a strange organic coat made of carbon-rich gunk that it likely picked up on its long travels through space. The coat, which gives Oumuamua a dark red appearance according to scientists, was examined by using spectroscopy, which looks at the light being reflected from its surface and splits it down into its wavelengths. By looking at those measurements, scientists can work out what the object might be composed of. Scientists regard it as likely that Oumuamua may be of icy composition on the inside, but that the ice doesn't come off the object due to the thick organic crust that is wrapped around it. Oumuamua has also got extraterrestrial watchers excited. Some believe that its strange, long shape suggests that it is a spaceship of some sort passing through our Solar system. Whatever Oumuamua turns out to be, it certainly has researchers and space watchers around the world fascinated and puzzled at the same time.
Google

NASA, Google Spot Eighth Planet in Solar System Rivaling Ours (cnet.com) 69

An anonymous reader shares a report: Google isn't just good for finding cat videos on the internet. The search giant's machine learning technology is also helping search the universe for planets outside our solar system. NASA on Thursday revealed the discovery of blazing-hot exoplanet Kepler-90i thanks to the use of a Google neural network trained to identify planets from the NASA Kepler space telescope's data. It's the eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system, which ties it with our own solar system for the most known planets around a single star. Kepler-90 is a sun-like star located around 2,545 light-years from us.
Space

New Satellite Experiment Helps Confirm Einstein's Equivalence Principle (presse.cnes.fr) 71

Part of Einstein's theory of general relativity posits that gravity equals inertial mass -- and for the first time in 10 years, there's new evidence that he's right. Slashdot reader orsayman reports: Most stories around space today seem to revolve around SpaceX, but let's not forget that space is also a place for cool physics experiments. One such experiment currently running into low orbit is the MICROSCOPE satellite launched in 2016 to test the (weak) Equivalence Principle (also knows as the universality of free fall) a central hypothesis in General Relativity.

The first results confirm the principle with a precision ten times better than previous experiments. And it's just the beginning since they hope to increase the precision by another factor of 10. If the Equivalence Principle is still verified at this precision, this could constrain or invalidate some quantum gravity theories. For those of you who are more satellite-science oriented, the satellite also features an innovative "self destruct" mechanism (meant to limit orbit pollution) based on inflatable structures described in this paper.

"The science phase of the mission began in December 2016," reports France's space agency, "and has already collected data from 1,900 orbits, the equivalent of a free fall of 85 million kilometres or half the Earth-Sun distance."
Medicine

What It Looks Like When You Fry Your Eye In An Eclipse (npr.org) 135

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NPR: Doctors in New York say a woman in her 20s came in three days after looking at the Aug. 21 eclipse without protective glasses. She had peeked several times, for about six seconds, when the sun was only partially covered by the moon. Four hours later, she started experiencing blurred and distorted vision and saw a central black spot in her left eye. The doctors studied her eyes with several different imaging technologies, described in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, and were able to observe the damage at the cellular level.

"We were very surprised at how precisely concordant the imaged damage was with the crescent shape of the eclipse itself," noted Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, in an email to NPR. He says this was the most severely injured patient they saw after the eclipse. All in all, 22 people came to their urgent care clinic with concerns about possible eclipse-related damage, and most of them complained of blurred vision. Of those, only three showed some degree of abnormality in the retina. Two of them had only mild changes, however, and their symptoms have gone away. The young woman described in this case report, at last check, still has not recovered normal vision.
For your viewing pleasure, The Verge has embedded several images of the woman's retinas in their report.
Space

Flat Earther's Homemade Rocket Launcher Breaks Down in His Driveway (desertsun.com) 246

The Desert Sun has an update on the progress of 61-year-old self-taught rocket scientist 'Mad' Mike Hughes: A man who believes Earth is flat, and was ready to launch himself from a rocket in California on Saturday afternoon to prove it, has canceled his plans. At least for now. Not having the required federal permits plus mechanical problems with his "motorhome/rocket launcher" forced self-taught rocket scientist "Mad" Mike Hughes to put his experiment on hold. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management "told me they would not allow me to do the event ... at least not at that location," Hughes said in a YouTube announcement, amid international attention over his plans to launch into the "atmosflat."

"It's been very disappointing," he said... "My feeling is that one of the top executives at the Bureau of Land Management called Needles, California, saying... 'What's going on? Who permitted this?'" Hughes said. Plus, as he and his team were preparing to leave Wednesday, the motorhome/rocket launcher broke down in his driveway, he said... His plan is to try again next week.

Space

Astronomers Find An Earth-Size World Just 11 Light Years Away (arstechnica.com) 175

Astronomers have discovered a planet 35 percent more massive than Earth in orbit around a red dwarf star just 11 light years from the Sun. "The planet, Ross 128 b, likely exists at the edge of the small, relatively faint star's habitable zone even though it is 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun," reports Ars Technica. "The study in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics finds the best estimate for its surface temperature is between -60 degrees Celsius and 20 degrees Celsius." From the report: This is not the closest Earth-size world that could potentially harbor liquid water on its surface -- that title is held by Proxima Centauri b, which is less than 4.3 light years away from Earth and located in the star system closest to the Sun. Even so, due to a variety of factors, Ross 128 b is tied for fourth on a list of potentially most habitable exoplanets, with an Earth Similarity Index value of 0.86. In the new research, astronomers discuss another reason to believe that life might be more likely to exist on Ross 128 b. That's because its parent star, Ross 128, is a relatively quiet red dwarf star, producing fewer stellar flares than most other, similar-sized stars such as Proxima Centauri. Such flares may well sterilize any life that might develop on such a world.
Open Source

Oracle Engineer Talks of ZFS File System Possibly Still Being Upstreamed On Linux (phoronix.com) 131

New submitter fstack writes: Senior software architect Mark Maybee who has been working at Oracle/Sun since '98 says maybe we "could" still see ZFS be a first-class upstream Linux file-system. He spoke at the annual OpenZFS Developer Summit about how Oracle's focus has shifted to the cloud and how they have reduced investment in Solaris. He admits that Linux rules the cloud. Among the Oracle engineer's hopes is that ZFS needs to become a "first class citizen in Linux," and to do so Oracle should port their ZFS code to Oracle Linux and then upstream the file-system to the Linux kernel, which would involve relicensing the ZFS code.
AI

When an AI Tries Writing Slashdot Headlines (tumblr.com) 165

For Slashdot's 20th anniversary, "What could be geekier than celebrating with the help of an open-source neural network?" Neural network hobbyist Janelle Shane has already used machine learning to generate names for paint colors, guinea pigs, heavy metal bands, and even craft beers, she explains on her blog. "Slashdot sent me a list of all the headlines they've ever run, over 162,000 in all, and asked me to train a neural network to try to generate more." Could she distill 20 years of news -- all of humanity's greatest technological advancements -- down to a few quintessential words?

She trained it separately on the first decade of Slashdot headlines -- 1997 through 2007 -- as well as the second decade from 2008 to the present, and then re-ran the entire experiment using the whole collection of every headline from the last 20 years. Among the remarkable machine-generated headlines?
  • Microsoft To Develop Programming Law
  • More Pong Users for Kernel Project
  • New Company Revises Super-Things For Problems
  • Steve Jobs To Be Good

But that was just the beginning...


Transportation

Elon Musk Begins Digging a Hyperloop Tunnel In Maryland (baltimoresun.com) 146

Elon Musk has been granted permission by Maryland to start digging tunnels for his hyperoop transit system that he wants to build between New York and Washington. "Hogan administration officials said Thursday the state has issued a conditional utility permit to let Musk's tunneling firm, The Boring Co., dig a 10.3-mile tunnel beneath the state-owned portion of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, between the Baltimore city line and Maryland 175 in Hanover," reports Baltimore Sun. From the report: It would be the first portion of the underground system that Musk says could eventually ferry passengers from Washington to New York, with stops in Baltimore and Philadelphia, in just 29 minutes. Maryland's approval is the first step of many needed to complete the multibillion-dollar project. Gov. Larry Hogan toured a site in Hanover that aides said could become an entry point for the hyperloop. The state does not plan to contribute to the cost of the project, aides said. Administration officials said they will treat the hyperloop like a utility, and permitted it in the same way the state allows electric companies to burrow beneath public rights-of-way. It was not immediately clear Thursday what environmental review or other permitting procedures must be completed before the company breaks ground.
Science

Astronomers Strike Gravitational Gold In Colliding Neutron Stars (npr.org) 109

For the first time, scientists have caught two neutron stars in the act of colliding, revealing that these strange smash-ups are the source of heavy elements such as gold and platinum. From a report: The discovery, announced today at a news conference and in scientific reports written by some 3,500 researchers, solves a long-standing mystery about the origin of these heavy elements -- which are found in everything from wedding rings to cellphones to nuclear weapons. It's also a dramatic demonstration of how astrophysics is being transformed by humanity's newfound ability to detect gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time that are created when massive objects spin around each other and finally collide. "It's so beautiful. It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry. It's the fulfillment of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people's efforts, but it's also the fulfillment of an idea suddenly becoming real," says Peter Saulson of Syracuse University, who has spent more than three decades working on the detection of gravitational waves. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of these ripples more than a century ago, but scientists didn't manage to detect them until 2015. Until now, they'd made only four such detections, and each time the distortions in space-time were caused by the collision of two black holes. That bizarre phenomenon, however, can't normally be seen by telescopes that look for light. Neutron stars, by contrast, spew out visible cosmic fireworks when they come together. These incredibly dense stars are as small as cities like New York and yet have more mass than our sun. Further reading: 'A New Rosetta Stone for Astronomy' (The Atlantic), and Gravitational Wave Astronomers Hit Mother Lode (Scientific American).
The Almighty Buck

In a Cashless World, You'd Better Pray the Power Never Goes Out (mises.org) 453

schwit1 quotes the Mises Institue: When Hurricane Maria knocked out power in Puerto Rico, residents there realized they were going to need physical cash — and a lot of it. Bloomberg reported that the Fed was forced to fly a planeload of cash to the Island to help avert disaster. "William Dudley, the New York Fed president, put the word out within minutes, and ultimately a jet loaded with an undisclosed amount of cash landed on the stricken island. [Business executives in Puerto Rico] described corporate clients' urgent requests for hundreds of thousands in cash to meet payrolls, and the challenge of finding enough armored cars to satisfy endless demand at ATMs... As early as the day after the storm, the Fed began working to get money onto the island."

For a time, unless one had a hoard of cash stored up in ones home, it was impossible to get cash at all. 85 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power... Bloomberg continues: "When some generator-powered ATMs finally opened, lines stretched hours long, with people camping out in beach chairs and holding umbrellas against the sun." In an earlier article from September 25, Bloomberg noted how, without cash, necessities were simply unavailable:

"Cash only," said Abraham Lebron, the store manager standing guard at Supermax, a supermarket in San Juan's Plaza de las Armas. He was in a well-policed area, but admitted feeling like a sitting duck with so many bills on hand. "The system is down, so we can't process the cards. It's tough, but one finds a way to make it work."


Space

Scientists Discover Ring Around Dwarf Planet Haumea Beyond Neptune 49

A ring has been discovered around one of the dwarf planets that orbits the outer reaches of the solar system. Until now, ring-like structures had only been found around the four outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The Guardian reports: "In 2014 we discovered that a very small body in the Centaurs region [an area of small celestial bodies between the asteroid belt and Neptune] had a ring and at that time it seemed to be a very weird thing," explained Dr Jose Ortiz, whose group at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Granada made the discovery described in the journal Nature. "We didn't expect to find a ring around Haumea, but we were not too surprised either." Haumea was recognized by the International Astronomical Union in 2008 and is one of five dwarf planets, alongside Pluto, Ceres, Eris and Makemake. They are located beyond Neptune -- 50 times farther away from the sun than Earth. Haumea, named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, is unusual because of its elongated shape, comparable to a rugby ball, and its rapid rotation, spinning around once every 3.9 hours. Its diameter is approximately a third of the size of Earth's moon.

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