NONE SCI Science

5.7-million-year-old “human footprints” stun paleontologists

An analysis of a set of human-like footprints in ancient rock beneath Crete has researchers baffled due to one critical detail: The rock is 5.7 million years old. There were not supposed to be fully evolved humans in Crete—or anywhere on Earth, for that matter—until less than a million years ago, according to the scientific consensus.
Gerard Gierlinski of the Polish Geological Institute found the footprints in 2002 and spent the next decade-and-a-half analyzing them before publishing the results just this month in the latest edition of Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association. The study notes numerous human-like features in the footprint: five toes, including a big toe similar to ours, as well as a distinct ball on the sole. There is also evidence of an upright posture and toenails instead of claws.
None of these features were supposed to appear for another four million years, at least, according to researchers. Also, there were not supposed to be any humans or apelike ancestors of humans anywhere outside Africa.
Until now, the earliest known footprints of hominids that show upright posture date back 3.7 million years ago and are located in present-day Tanzania. There is an earlier set of footprints dating back 4.4 million years ago, but its discoverers said that it very closely resembles an ape’s footprint and shows none of the human-like traits of Gierlinski’s find.
Gierlinski posits that there was another human-like creature that was roaming the Earth eons before any of the known hominids. This creature might have likewise made it to present-day Crete long before any currently known hominids left the African savanna.
“As Crete is some distance outside the known geographical range of pre-Pleistocene (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago) hominins we must also entertain the possibility that they represent a hitherto unknown late Miocene primate that convergently evolved human-like foot anatomy,” the study states.

Business NONE TECH TECH_Technology

Elon Musk debuts a new electric truck and sports car

Elon Musk presented Tesla’s first-ever electric semi-truck Thursday at a Los Angeles event in which he also showcased a new Tesla sports car. Musk described the new truck as a cheap alternative to diesel trucks, which he said are “economic suicide.”

Musk told his audience that it will cost less to ship freight on a convoy of these trucks than to ship them by train and that they will cost 20% less per mile than diesel trucks. He said that the trucks will also have “thermonuclear explosion-proof” windshields, lane-keeping technology, enhanced autopilot, and battery life that can keep the truck going for up to 500 miles when the truck is traveling at maximum weight and highway speed.

Several trucks appeared before the audience during Musk’s presentation. One truck’s back door opened to let a new Tesla Roadster, Musk’s newest electric car model, drive out of it. While Musk focused on the electric truck for most of his presentation, he also touted the new Roadster’s speed and acceleration, which he said had broken “world records” for production cars.

“The point of doing this is just to give a hardcore smackdown to gasoline cars,” Musk said. “Driving a gasoline sports car is going to feel like a steam engine with a side of quiche.”

Musk added that Tesla expects to start producing the truck by 2019 and the car by 2020. Tesla will additionally build a nationwide network of “supercharger” charging stations.

Tesla is struggling to meet production demands on its existing cars, however. Stock in the company’s Model 3 car fell in October after the company announced that it was able to produce only 220 models in September despite promising to produce 1,500 that month and 2,000 or more a month by December.

TSC_Global Politics

Saudi air strikes hit Yemen’s rebel-occupied capital

Saudi Arabian jets struck Sanaa, Yemen’s rebel-occupied capital city, late Friday and damaged the city’s ministry of defense and several surrounding properties. Three Yemeni civilians suffered injuries in the strikes.

“I was sitting at home and heard the first strike hit the ministry of defence. Everyone was afraid. Minutes later, another strike hit my neighbor’s house,” resident Mohammed Aatif told Agence France Presse. “My entire house shook.” Aatif added that he and his family fled the neighborhood.

The air strikes followed Houthi rebels’ launch of a missile November 4 into Saudi territory. The missile sailed past the Saudi capital, Riyadh, before Saudi anti-missile defenses shot it down near an airport.

Houthi forces lobbed the missile into Saudi Arabia as payback for Saudi support of the Yemeni government that the rebels have been at war with since 2015. The rebels warned that more attacks will follow against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is also supporting Yemen’s government.

Air strikes aren’t the only harms that Yemeni civilians have suffered from Saudi Arabia’s military response recently. Saudi forces and the UAE both imposed a blockade across Yemen’s border this week after the missile attack.

The blockade is targeted at rebel forces, but it is also obstructing deliveries of food and medical aid to Yemeni civilians, the United Nations said Friday. UN aid chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council earlier this week that Yemen will face “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims” unless the blockade ends.

The conflict has already killed more than 8,650 people, many of whom are civilians. This includes more than 2,000 Yemenis who died in a recent cholera outbreak.


EPA replaces its advisory boards’ scientists with industry reps and state officials

The Environmental Protection Agency appointed dozens of officials from regulated states and businesses Friday to its advisory boards. The incoming appointees are replacing career scientists that Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator, fired following his implementation last week of a new rule prohibiting scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on the boards.

A total of 66 new experts took up vacant seats on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Safety Advisory Committee, and Board of Scientific Counselors. Some are from state governments that received EPA grants—Pruitt exempted representatives of state, local, and tribal governments from the no-grantee rule.

Other appointees hail from companies such as Dow Chemical, Procter & Gamble, and the French petroleum company Total. The new advisors also include some current or former members of the American Chemistry Council, the leading lobbying group for the chemical industry.

Pruitt said that the new ban on scientists who had received grants would prevent “conflicts of interest” and that he was seeking industry and state government advisors to get greater “diversity” of opinion.  But environmental-conservation groups blasted his replacement choices as opening the door to a much bigger conflict of interest—i.e., actual polluters advising the EPA on pollution.

“Pruitt is turning the idea of ‘conflict of interest’ on its head,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Centre for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “He claims federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board but industry funding shouldn’t.”

The advisory boards don’t write EPA policies. But the agency calls on them to assess scientific research and new regulation proposals.

TSC_Global Politics

Hamas-Fatah unity deal faces Israeli and U.S. opposition

A unity deal that ends the decade-old divide between Palestine’s West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is going forward despite firm statements of opposition from Israel and the United States. Israeli and U.S. officials all said that they will hold no diplomatic talks with any Palestinian government in which Hamas plays a part.

Hamas signed the unity deal with Fatah, Palestine’s official governing political party, in Cairo last week. Hamas and Fatah had been estranged since Hamas won a popular election in the Gaza Strip and took over Gaza by force, expelled Fatah, and pursued its own separate policy of confrontation with Israel while Fatah continued to advocate for diplomatic resolutions to the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict.

The unity deal brings Gaza and Palestine’s Arab populations back under one Palestinian government. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that they will have no more success negotiating with Israel together than they did while they were apart.

“The Israeli government will not hold political talks with a Palestinian government that is supported by Hamas, a terror organisation calling for the destruction of Israel,” the statement read,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

The U.S. president’s special representative for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, joined in condemning Hamas. He said that the militant group must disarm before it takes part in a unity government.

Since its inception, Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and has called for armed violence against the Israeli state. Hamas has not refuted either position despite repeated Israeli and U.S. demands to do so.

Business NONE TECH TECH_Technology

Waymo demands Uber pay $1 billion to settle trade-secrets lawsuit

Uber balked this week at a request from self-driving car company Waymo of $1 billion and a public apology to settle the ongoing lawsuit over self-driving car technology that Waymo alleges Uber stole from it. Uber has not followed with a counter-offer, and no further settlement talks are scheduled, according to sources.

The impasse follows a motion Waymo has filed earlier in the week demanding that Uber turn over its “lidar” source code, which Uber is using in its model self-driving cars, so that Waymo lawyers could examine the code and see if it bears any striking similarities to Waymo’s code. Alphabet, a Google-owned company that owns Waymo, issued an additional request for the appointment of an independent oversight body that will ensure that Uber doesn’t use Waymo technology.

Uber and Waymo have been in a legal dispute since February, when Waymo sued the rideshare company over alleged theft of trade secrets. Waymo contended that Uber’s self-driving car program based its lidar code on software files that Anthony Levandroski, current head of Uber’s self-driving car project and former Google employee, stole from Waymo when he left Google. Levandroski has pleaded the fifth amendment and refused to answer questions about the accusations.

“Waymo had one goal: to stop Uber from using its trade secrets,” a Waymo attorney told Reuters.

If no settlement occurs, then the case will go to trial in December. Waymo lawyers said in court that they may seek as much as $1.86 billion from Uber if they go through with a trial.


Fish are individuals with complex personalities, study reports

A team of researchers from Exeter University has discovered that fish have different personalities and unique traits, a new study published in Functional Ecology reports.

Researchers tested this idea by putting different threats — such as models of herons — around the tanks of Trinidadian guppies and seeing how they reacted. 

While the team expected the fish to follow a “simple spectrum” where they all reacted to potentials dangers in the same way, the scientists found this not to be the case. Rather, some guppies were braver than others.

“The idea of a simple spectrum is often put forward to explain the behavior of individuals in species such as the Trinidadian guppy,” said lead author Tom Houslay, a researcher at Exeter University, according to The Independent. “But our research shows that the reality is much more complex.”

The team found that when guppies are put into a strange environment they have different coping strategies. Some hide, some attempt to flee, while others cautiously explore the area. These differences were consistent over multiple tests and held true in a range of situations. Even though some fish changed their reactions based on the threat, the relative differences between each individual stayed the same.

That behavior suggests each fish is different. The team plans to expand on their new research to see how this information could be used to expand their knowledge of fish populations.

“We are interested in why these various personalities exist, and the next phase of our research will look at the genetics underlying personality and associated traits,” said study co-author Alastair Wilson, a professor at the University of Exeter, according to The Guardian. “We want to know how personality relates to other facets of life, and to what extent this is driven by genetic, rather than environmental, influences. The goal is really gaining insight into evolutionary processes, how different behavioural strategies might persist as species evolve.”

Business NONE TECH TECH_Technology

Google engineer’s “anti-diversity memo” sparks uproar

An anonymous Google engineer’s 10-page manifesto against his company’s diversity initiatives has sparked heated responses on social media and an official denunciation from Google leadership. The document, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” drew instant controversy by ascribing the lopsided gender ratio in tech to men and women’s innate “biological differences,” criticized what it calls Google’s internal “left bias,” and suggestion that the company shift away from initiatives promoting gender and racial diversity and focus instead on cultivating “ideological diversity.”

“We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” the author wrote. He argued that tech remains male-dominated because men are more naturally inclined to tech-related jobs and more likely to seek promotion in the field: They are more likely to value “things,” whereas women gravitate more toward “people,” “feelings,” and “aesthetics.”

The author also too aim at existing workplace sensitivity training, arguing that “microaggression training incorrectly and dangerously equates speech with violence and isn’t backed by evidence.”

Google executives panned the memo. Google engineering vice president Aristotle Balogh wrote an internal post stating that “stereotyping and harmful assumptions” were not acceptable in the company’s culture, while Google’s recently hired vice president of diversity, integrity and governance, Danielle Brown, sent a memo saying that the engineer’s essay “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.”

Gender diversity is a hot-button issue at Google and other tech companies in light of numerous complaints from women tech professionals about sexual harassment at work and at industry conferences. Debates surrounding gender pay gaps are also looming large, with the Department of Justice currently investigating alleged gender-based pay discrimination within Google itself.


Opioid prescriptions are down, but abuse is still too common, says CDC

There are enough painkillers being prescribed to keep every American high for three weeks straight, but the rate of new prescriptions has nevertheless dropped since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control said in a new report. The report, published Thursday, encouraged lawmakers to do more to stem opioid abuse and addictions.
“The amount of opioids prescribed in the US is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage,” said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC.
The report finds that prescriptions for OXycontin, Fentanyl, and other opioids hit a peak in 2010 and then dropped over the next five years. The number of prescriptions stood at 81.2 per 100 people in the United States in 2012 to 70.6 per 100 people in 2015—a 13% decrease. The year 2015 was the last year for which complete data was available.
The report notes that 2015’s totals are still three times higher than those of 1999. Schuchat also noted that U.S. opioid use as of 2015 was still four times the rate of some European countries.
The CDC is one of many government bodies that are sounding the alarms over opioid addiction in the United States. Four states’ attorneys-general filed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers in their states in just the past month, all charging the manufacturers with misleading the public about their products’ supposed benefits and actual harms, especially the risks of addiction.
Opioid abuse killed nearly 180,000 Americans between 2000 and 2015. And in some states, opioid addiction ranks as a leading cause of death, equal to or even greater than automobile accidents.

NONE TSC_Global Politics

Homeland Security institutes new airline measures as substitute for laptop ban

Foreign flights arriving into U.S. airports will have to undergo new security screenings of their passengers and any electronic devices that the passengers are carrying, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the Center for New American Security that the new procedures replace the in-cabin laptop ban that the agency was considering earlier this year.
“These measures will be both seen and unseen, and they will be phased in over time,” he said, adding that “inaction is not an option.”
He said that DHS will encourage airlines to implement advanced new checkpoint screening technology, deploy more explosives-detecting dogs, and more closely scrutinize passengers incoming from other countries and any laptops or other electronic devices they are carrying onboard. Those airlines that ignore these directives or are slow to adopt them may be forced to accept other, more restrictive measures, including an all-out ban on in-flight laptops on their planes. And airlines that are really uncooperative might be banned from flying into the United States altogether.
The United States currently bans in-flight laptops from flights that originate in 10 airports in the Middle East, and Kelly had drawn rounds of complaints from airlines in April when he said that it was “likely” that his agency would expand the laptop ban to other airports elsewhere. He went a step further in May and said that the government might ban laptops from all incoming flights worldwide. Airlines criticized the ban proposal, which they said would inconvenience passengers and possibly cause a reduction in ticket sales.