Science X Newsletter Wednesday, Feb 5

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Spotlight Stories Headlines

BlockPGP: A new blockchain-based PGP management framework

Phonon hydrodynamics and ultrahigh-room temperature thermal conductivity in thin graphite

Crystal-stacking process can produce new materials for high-tech devices

Scientists solve structure enabling cyanobacteria to thrive in low light

Novel method used to investigate supernova remnant DEM L71

Cuttlefish eat less for lunch when they know there'll be shrimp for dinner

Genetic variants reduce risk of Alzheimer's disease

Tiny 'bridges' help particles stick together

Researchers discover intricate process of DNA repair in genome stability

'Levitating' proteins could help diagnose opioid abuse, other diseases

Shelter, safest air intake locations during urban pollution events identified

Scientists advance better imaging tool to study disease

Astronomers discover unusual monster galaxy in the very early universe

Researchers design proteins that can be utilized to combat Alzheimer's disease

Researcher's technology differentiates between Parkinson's disease and multiple system atrophy

Physics news

Phonon hydrodynamics and ultrahigh-room temperature thermal conductivity in thin graphite

Different forms of carbon or allotropes including graphene and diamond are among the best conductors of heat. In a recent report on Science, Yo Machida and a research team in the department of Physics and the Laboratory of Physics and Materials in Tokyo and France monitored the evolution of thermal conductivity in thin graphite. The property evolved as a function of temperature and thickness to reveal an intimate link between high conductivity, thickness and phonon (atomic vibrations observed as acoustic waves) hydrodynamics. They recorded the thermal conductivity (k) of graphite (8.5 µm thickness) to be 4300 Watts per meter-kelvin under room temperature. The value was well above that recorded for diamond and slightly higher than isotopically purified graphene.

Crystal-stacking process can produce new materials for high-tech devices

The magnetic, conductive and optical properties of complex oxides make them key to components of next-generation electronics used for data storage, sensing, energy technologies, biomedical devices and many other applications.

Ultrasound can selectively kill cancer cells

A new technique could offer a targeted approach to fighting cancer: low-intensity pulses of ultrasound have been shown to selectively kill cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed.

AI method determines quantum advantage for advanced computing

Creating quantum computers is costly and time-consuming, and the resulting devices are not guaranteed to exhibit any quantum advantage—that is, they often do not operate faster than a conventional computer. So researchers need tools for predicting whether a given quantum device will have a quantum advantage.

ISOLDE steps into unexplored region of the nuclear chart to study exotic isotopes

Many heavy elements, such as gold, are thought to form in cosmic environments rich in neutrons—think supernovae or mergers of neutron stars. In these extreme settings, atomic nuclei can rapidly capture neutrons and become heavier, creating new elements. At the far reaches of the nuclear chart, which arranges all known nuclei according to their number of protons and neutrons, lie unexplored nuclei that are crucial to understanding the details of this rapid neutron-capture process. This is especially the case for nuclei with fewer than 82 protons and more than 126 neutrons.

Ultracold gases in time-dependent magnetic fields

It is now technically possible to hold groups of atoms at temperatures that are only a few hundredths of a degree above absolute zero. This so-called 'ultracold gas' loaded in an optical lattice is an extremely powerful platform to study quantum mechanical phenomena including phase transitions, due to the excellent control of experimental parameters, such as potential depths, inter-particle interaction strengths and lattice parameters. Sk Noor Nabi from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China and colleagues in the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India, have studied the phase transition between the Mott insulating (MI) and superfluid (SF) states of such a gas in a time-dependent synthetic magnetic field. Their results, published in EPJ B, show that the energy spectrum of the gas loses symmetry in the fluctuating magnetic field. This is observed in the disappearance of the striking 'Hofstadter's butterfly' effect seen in the energy spectrum under a constant magnetic field.

The shape of water: What water molecules look like on the surface of materials

Understanding the various molecular interactions and structures that arise among surface water molecules would enable scientists and engineers to develop all sorts of novel hydrophobic/hydrophilic materials or improve existing ones. For example, the friction caused by water on ships could be reduced through materials engineering, leading to higher efficiency. Other applications include, but are not limited to, medical implants and anti-icing surfaces for airplanes. However, the phenomena that occur in surface water are so complicated that Tokyo University of Science, Japan, has established a dedicated research center, called "Water Frontier Science and Technology," where various research groups tackle this problem from different angles (theoretical analysis, experimental studies, material development, and so on). Prof Takahiro Yamamoto leads a group of scientists at this center, and they try to solve this mystery through simulations of the microscopic structures, properties, and functions of water on the surface of materials.

Breaking up amino acids with radiation

Small organic molecules, including the amino acids that form the 'building blocks' of proteins in living cells, fragment to form ions under the impact of high-energy radiation such as electron beams. A new study published in EPJ D has now shown what happens when electrons collide with one amino acid, glutamine. The extent of the damage and the nature of the ions formed are both affected by the energy of the colliding electrons. This work arises from a collaboration between experimental physicists led by Alexander Snegursky at the Institute of Electron Physics, Uzhgorod, Ukraine and theoreticians led by Jelena Tamuliene at Vilnius University, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Astronomy & Space news

Novel method used to investigate supernova remnant DEM L71

Using the smoothed particle inference (SPI) technique, astronomers have investigated the supernova remnant (SNR) DEM L71, mainly analyzing the X-ray emission from this source. Results of the study, presented in a paper published January 28 on, shed more light on the nature of this SNR.

Astronomers discover unusual monster galaxy in the very early universe

An international team of astronomers led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside, has found an unusual monster galaxy that existed about 12 billion years ago, when the universe was only 1.8 billion years old.

ALMA catches beautiful outcome of stellar fight

Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, have spotted a peculiar gas cloud that resulted from a confrontation between two stars. One star grew so large it engulfed the other which, in turn, spiralled towards its partner provoking it into shedding its outer layers.

NASA's Webb will seek atmospheres around potentially habitable exoplanets

This month marks the third anniversary of the discovery of a remarkable system of seven planets known as TRAPPIST-1. These seven rocky, Earth-size worlds orbit an ultra-cool star 39 light-years from Earth. Three of those planets are in the habitable zone, meaning they are at the right orbital distance to be warm enough for liquid water to exist on their surfaces. After its 2021 launch, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will observe those worlds with the goal of making the first detailed near-infrared study of the atmosphere of a habitable-zone planet.

Astronomers reveal rare double nucleus in nearby 'Cocoon Galaxy'

Allen Lawrence, wrapping up a long career as an electrical engineer, was serious about moving his astronomy hobby beyond the 20-inch telescope he'd hauled to star parties under the dark skies of Texas and Arizona.

Artificial intelligence tool developed to predict the structure of the universe

Advancements in telescopes have enabled researchers to study the universe with greater detail, and to establish a standard cosmological model that explains various observational facts simultaneously. But there are many things researchers still do not understand. Remarkably, the majority of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy of an unknown nature. A promising avenue to solving these mysteries is studying the structure of the universe. The universe is made up of filaments where galaxies cluster together. These filaments resemble threads from far away, surrounding voids where there appears to be nothing. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background has given researchers a snapshot of what the universe looked like close to its beginning; understanding how its structure evolved to what it is today would reveal valuable characteristics about dark matter and dark energy.

SPIDER mission will assemble and manufacture a communications antenna in space

It has been suggested that if humanity truly wants to embark on a renewed era of space exploration, one of the key ingredients is the ability to manufacture structures in space. By assembling everything from satellites to spacecraft in orbit, we would eliminate the most costly aspect of going to space. This, simply put, is the sheer expense of escaping Earth's gravity well, which requires heavy launch vehicles and a lot of fuel.

Technology news

BlockPGP: A new blockchain-based PGP management framework

Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), one of the most widely used cryptographic standards, enables safe end-to-end encryption for emails, messages and other data sharing between users. Essentially, PGP works by implementing asymmetric encryption, in which certificates are shared through a network of PGP key servers.

Meena is model of sensible conversation, outperforms other chatbots

Google's AI scientists have unveiled Meena. Tech watchers are calling it a chatbot breakthrough. Points for responses well matched to human intent. Points for relevant word choices. Points for (gasp) sounding sensible.

New droplet-based electricity generator: A drop of water generates 140V power, lighting up 100 LED bulbs

A research team led by scientists from the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has recently developed a droplet-based electricity generator (DEG) with a field-effect transistor (FET)-like structure that allows for high energy conversion efficiency and instantaneous power density thousands of times that of its counterparts without FET technology. This would help to advance scientific research of water energy generation and tackle the energy crisis.

Improving AI's ability to identify students who need help

Researchers have designed an artificial intelligence (AI) model that is better able to predict how much students are learning in educational games. The improved model makes use of an AI training concept called multi-task learning, and could be used to improve both instruction and learning outcomes.

Google says glitch sent people's videos to strangers

Google on Tuesday said that a software glitch resulted in some Photo app smartphone videos being given to the wrong people.

Huawei promises 'Made in Europe' 5G for EU

Chinese telecom giant Huawei said on Tuesday it would set up manufacturing hubs in Europe, as it tries to fight off US pressure on EU nations to stop it from operating.

Vodafone takes 200-mn-euro hit from Huawei 5G curbs

British telecoms giant Vodafone revealed Wednesday that it would cost about 200 million euros ($221 million) over five years to remove controversial Chinese group Huawei's equipment from core 5G European activities.

Study shows transportation beliefs of 20 years ago largely myths, predicts today's will be as well

As long as humans have been moving, there have been fantastic predictions about how technology will revolutionize transportation. Most of them turn out to be myths. A University of Kansas researcher has written a study revisiting an influential article that called out widely held transportation predictions of 20 years ago as myths, finding it is still highly accurate.

Smart city or not? Now you can see how Australian cities compare

The highest-ranked areas in an Australia-wide assessment of smart city performance are all in metropolitan regions with higher population densities. "Australia's 60 top-performing local government areas house more than quarter of the nation's population," we note in the newly released Smart Cities Down Under report.

Four ways the UK government must phase out petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035

The UK government recently pledged to bring forward a ban on new diesel and petrol car sales from 2040, to 2035. The move surprised some, but perhaps most surprising was the confirmation that the ban will also include hybrid vehicles, which use a combustion engine running on fossil fuel and an electric battery pack.

Coronavirus could slow down Apple iPhone shipments

The coronavirus could affect the tech products that show up on your doorstep.

Now a smart lightbulb system got hacked

That shiny new smart light bulb that can be turned on and off with Alexa and change colors with the Google Assistant could be vulnerable to a hack.

What's your brand?

Researchers created an algorithm that successfully predicted consumer purchases. The algorithm made use of data from the consumers' daily activity on social media. Brands could use this to analyze potential customers. The researchers' method combines powerful statistical modeling techniques with machine learning-based image recognition.

Controlling light with light: Researchers develop a new platform for all-optical computing

The future of computation is bright—literally.

Thwarting hacks by thinking like the humans behind them

If we understood the humans behind hacking incidents—and their intent—could we stop them? Research from Michigan State University reveals the importance of factoring in a hacker's motive for predicting, identifying and preventing cyberattacks.

LinkedIn CEO steps aside after 11 years, says time is right

The LinkedIn professional networking service is getting a new CEO.

Groups call on Chicago mayor to ban city's use of facial recognition technology

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot should ban the city's use of facial recognition technology of the kind the Chicago Police Department utilizes on the grounds it's racially biased and an invasion of residents' privacy, a group of activists said Tuesday.

As Tesla gyrates, Ford and GM get no love from Wall Street

While Wall Street continued to ogle Tesla's skyrocketing valuation Wednesday, shares of Ford and General Motors were under pressure after reporting fourth-quarter losses.

Tesla shares dive, giving back some gains from rally

Tesla shares dived around 20 percent in early afternoon trading Wednesday, giving back some of the gains the electric-car maker racked up since October.

Translate this: How real-time translation breaks down barriers when you don't speak the language

Feeling lost in translation?

Want to take back your online privacy? 7 easy steps to stop Facebook and others from spying on you

Survey after survey shows we don't like having our sensitive personal information collected, monitored and tracked whenever we share with friends on social media, shop online or use our mobile devices.

YouTube: Face recognition firm must stop harvesting videos

YouTube is demanding that a facial recognition company stop harvesting its videos to identify the people in them, which the startup does as part of its work with police.

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific asks all staff to take unpaid leave

Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific is asking its entire workforce to take up to three weeks of unpaid leave, its CEO announced Wednesday, as the airline faces a crisis in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak.

Virus impact: Automakers look at restarting China operations

Automakers are considering whether to resume operations in China amid efforts to contain a virus outbreak while the impact on other companies spreads.

Dubai airport reports first dip in passenger numbers in 20 years

The number of travellers passing through Dubai International airport dipped last year for the first time in 20 years but the airport remained the world's busiest for international passengers, authorities said on Wednesday.

UK regulator bans Ryanair's 'misleading' green adverts

A British regulator on Wednesday banned advertisements by Ryanair that gave "misleading" claims over the Irish airline's "low" level of carbon emissions—a move welcomed by environmental campaigners.

Airbus closes China plant due to coronavirus

Airbus has closed its aircraft production facility in Tianjin, near the Chinese capital Beijing, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the aviation giant said Wednesday.

How to create smart city technology with connected cars

Smart city initiatives are increasingly implemented in various sectors like mobility and ICT to better handle resources and improve citizens' quality of life. The vision of such innovative solutions holds out the promise of integrating data from multiple organizations, diverse environments and a wide variety of intelligent devices that can be challenging.

New guidebook informs next generation of grid integration studies

When the government of India set a goal of deploying 175 gigawatts of renewable power by 2022, they understood changes to their power system's operations were needed to achieve that level of renewable power on the grid. India decided to work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to develop a comprehensive grid integration study identifying operational pathways that would enable India to efficiently meet its renewable energy target.

General Motors says labor strike led to $194 mn 4Q loss

General Motors reported a fourth-quarter loss on Wednesday due to a lengthy labor strike in the United States, while projecting lower 2020 industrywide sales in the US and China.

An end-to-end general framework for automatic diagnosis of manufacturing systems

The manufacturing sector is envisioned to soon be heavily influenced by artificial intelligence-based technologies with the extraordinary increases in computational power and data volumes. Data-driven methods use sensor data, such as vibration, pressure, temperature, and energy data to extract useful features for diagnosis and prediction. A central challenge in the manufacturing sector lies in the requirement of a general framework to ensure satisfied diagnosis and monitoring performances in different manufacturing applications.

Circular economy can improve the profitability of wind power—and vice versa

Circular economy can utilise surplus wind power to improve profitability of the entire energy system. This was demonstrated by VTT's new modelling tool that was used to calculate the effects of circular economy in the Åland Islands, where the share of wind power is expected to increase rapidly in the next few years.

Rockstar loses its rock star GTA game producer

The creative force behind the Grand Theft Auto video games, Dan Houser, will leave next month the Rockstar Games firm he cofounded, its parent company said.

FTC: Consumer finance website favored companies that paid

A personal finance website founded by former University of Delaware students has agreed to pay $350,000 to settle allegations that it posted fake reviews and steered users toward companies that paid the site, according to federal regulators.

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▼ Iowa’s caucus fracas shows we’re still too ignorant about how apps work

By now you probably know the broad outlines of what went down in Iowa on Monday night: a hastily built, poorly written, badly distributed, slipshod app crashed and the Iowa Democratic Party utterly failed to plan sufficient backup solutions, delaying the reporting of caucus results. The web was awash with postmortems yesterday and rightly so. It's not the absolute worst way to kick off real voting in the 2020 presidential election, but it's within spitting distance of it.

The votes themselves are secure — thankfully there are paper backups for everything — but our sense of election security has been shaken again. The fiasco has opened the door to conspiracy theorists and bad actors who want to call this and future results into doubt. Some of that frankly irresponsible speculation came from major cable news outlets trying to fill the dead air the very night of the caucuses.

Shadow's CEO finally gave an interview late last night to Bloomberg:

"I'm really disappointed that some of our technology created an issue that made the caucus difficult," said Gerard Niemira, the CEO of political technology company Shadow Inc., in his first interview after the caucus. "We feel really terrible about that."

You're not the only one who feels terrible, bub.

But the thought that keeps running around my head is simply this: it should have been obvious that the app would fail. The warning signs were manifold, both before the voting started and the day of the caucuses.

I'll explain why after the links.

- Dieter


It's not looking great for the biggest mobile phone show of the year, Mobile World Congress, which is set to take place in Barcelona this month:

└ Coronavirus pushes ZTE to cancel its press conference at the year's largest phone show

└ LG Electronics is withdrawing from Mobile World Congress due to coronavirus

└ iPhone maker Foxconn will stay shut in China for another week at least

└ The new coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist

Ad from our sponsor

More on Google

└ Google admits it sent private videos in Google Photos to strangers

Google's note on this seems wildly insufficient. At minimum, people should be informed exactly what videos of theirs were accidentally provided to other users.

└ Google has paid Android developers about half of what Apple has

In yesterday's newsletter I was a little sloppy and quoted an old number from a story for Apple's developer payouts ($120 billion) instead of more clearly citing the newer one ($155 billion). A couple of readers wanted me to expand on the reasons for the gap between Apple's number and Google's $80 billion, specifically that Apple's number included money distributed in China while Google's doesn't. Fair, but I don't know if that difference really makes up the gap for Android developers — the overall point still stands that despite Android's larger numbers, there still seems to be more money in making iPhone apps.

└ Creators finally know how much money YouTube makes, and they want more of it

Here's that promised analysis of YouTube's $15 billion revenue number from Julia Alexander.

More from The Verge

└ Dyson patent application imagines building an air purifier into headphones

When all you have is a hammer...

└ Nvidia's GeForce Now finally leaves beta, challenges Google Stadia at $5 a month

└ Google Fiber is dropping its TV package to focus solely on high-speed internet service

We talk a lot about how the central problem with broadband access is the lack of fiber cable infrastructure. Google Fiber's travails are a good example of how hard it is to actually get that done. Nick Statt points out that Google was paying much higher fees to get access to TV content than other broadband providers who also just happen to be cable companies, which is another limiting factor to new players trying to lay fiber that I hadn't considered.

└ Netflix's new original series commands viewers to click through to the next episode

Ashley Carman is one of the world's best reporters on how seemingly small product decisions influence personal behavior and — in this case — culture. It's absolutely wild to think about how multi-million dollar productions feel pressure to adopt the same tropes that YouTubers use to engage their audiences as a way to boost their chances in the algorithm.

A source familiar with the show says the shoutouts were a creative decision rather than a Netflix-required one, which could speak to the pressure creators feel when competing within Netflix itself and against other original series.

Verge Deal of the day 

Samsung's 15.6-inch Chromebook 4 is only $279.99 at Amazon

The 15.6-inch version of Samsung's Chromebook 4 is down to its lowest price on Amazon. Normally $349.99, it's $279.99 right now. This model was introduced in late 2019, and it served as a successor to the woefully outdated Chromebook 3. It's a great value as far as Chromebooks are concerned. You'll be getting a laptop with a sizable 1080p display, a modern design, USB-C charging, and 6GB of RAM.

Samsung also makes an 11-inch version of the Chromebook 4, though with just a $50 price difference, you're better off avoiding its 720p display (not to mention its egregiously thick bezels) and going with the bigger model that's on sale right now.

Iowa's caucus fracas shows we're still too ignorant about how apps work

"It should have been obvious that the app would fail" is not exactly a keen insight, but the reason I can't stop thinking about it is that even in 2020, too many people are weirdly deferential to the idea of an app. We've gotten wiser to misinformation on social networks, concerns about privacy violations, and even encryption, but we are still pretty dumb about how cloud computing and apps actually work.

If somebody told you their summer project was building a kit car, you'd have a sense of how much work that entails and how likely that person would be to succeed. But we don't seem to have built up a similar sense of scale for apps. I don't think everybody needs to "learn to code," but I do think we've done a terrible job with literacy about code.

I'm not here to call anybody ignorant, but it seems clear to me that the leadership of the Iowa Democratic Party not only didn't know about how apps work, but it didn't know what it didn't know and preferred not to.

Below is a not-so-brief and nevertheless incomplete list of warning signs that I think anybody conversant with computers should have recognized as a red flag. I don't mean they should have recognized exactly why exactly each thing was wrong, but that they should have had the sense of tech scale to see that urgent questions needed to be asked and expertise sought out. These should have been emergency-brake moments, especially with an election at stake:

  • The consulting group that made the app, Shadow, was paid just over $60,000 to develop the app, far less than it should actually cost to develop.
  • The party insisted on "security through obscurity," arguing that talking about the app too much would give hackers a heads-up to attack it.
  • The app was rushed out so quickly it had to be distributed via two platforms mobile developers use to beta-test their software, TestFlight and TestFairy.
  • Installing an app via these methods is not simple even for savvy users, and having voters install it on their personal phones has security implications that I can't even begin to enumerate.
  • The app required two-factor authentication (good!), but the instructions were apparently not sufficient, leading to yet more frustration. The New York Times reports that "some [precinct chairs] also took pictures of the worksheets they had been given — the PINs fully visible — and tweeted them out in frustration. Had the app worked, the information might have given trolls or hackers a chance to download the program and tamper with it." Yikes.
  • What's more, as Nick Statt notes, "the app was distributed using the TestFairy platform's free tier and not its enterprise one. That means Shadow didn't even pony up for the TestFairy plan that comes with single sign-on authentication, unlimited data retention, and end-to-end encryption."
  • Shadow itself reportedly didn't have the coding chops to pull off the app in the first place, especially on such a tight timeline. How carefully was this outfit vetted?
  • The whole ecosystem of tech for campaigns is dysfunctional in the first place, with the wheel getting reinvented every four years and widespread distrust in publicly available tools. Here's an eye-opening Twitter thread about the issue.
  • Shadow's previous products caused alarm among security experts. That includes members of the Biden campaign, which ended its partnership with Shadow after its texting platform "did not pass our cybersecurity checklist," a Biden staffer tells the NYT.
  • The app itself wasn't stress-tested, and the errors it showed on election night were singularly unhelpful, as Motherboard reported.
  • Local volunteers realized the fiasco was coming and the party didn't adjust to open up more phone lines to accommodate the change.

I remember all of the drama and concern around Diebold's election machines in the early 2000s. I remember the distrust and the widespread call for paper ballot backups. Luckily, Iowa at least learned the latter lesson.

But the difference between then and now is that our understanding of computing has moved from discrete machines to the cloud and apps. Computing has become so diffuse and the language around it so arcane that it's easier to just see it all as [waves hands] "cloud stuff." Companies have taken to calling your laptop "the intelligent edge," for heaven's sake!

What that means is that when it comes to integrating, securing, and trusting technology in our elections, there is a huge miasmic cloud of "tech stuff" to worry about, and it's all too easy to just assume somebody else is handling it. Knowing the basics of how apps get installed on phones and interact with the cloud is no longer the stuff of expert coders, and we need to raise our expectations for basic literacy on that.

We shouldn't expect everybody to know how to navigate the tech maze, but at the very least we all need to do a better job of knowing when to stop and ask for directions.

(p.s. I know "caucus" and "fracas" don't technically rhyme but I couldn't help myself.)

You are reading Processor, a newsletter about computers by Dieter Bohn. Dieter writes about consumer tech, software, and the most important news of the day from The Verge. This newsletter delivers about four times a week, at least a couple of which include longer essays.

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