Category: News Posts

The Rise of Cryptocurrency Ponzi Schemes

Last month, the technology developer Gnosis sold $12.5 million worth of “GNO,” its in-house digital currency, in 12 minutes.

The April 24 sale, intended to fund development of an advanced prediction market, got admiring coverage from Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.

On the same day, in an exurb of Mumbai, a company called OneCoin was in the midst of a sales pitch for its own digital currency when financial enforcement officers raided the meeting, jailing 18 OneCoin representatives and ultimately seizing more than $2 million in investor funds.




Multiple national authorities have now described OneCoin, which pitched itself as the next Bitcoin, as a Ponzi scheme; by the time of the Mumbai bust, it had already moved at least $350 million in allegedly scammed funds through a payment processor in Germany.

These two projects—one trumpeted as an innovative success, the other targeted as a criminal conspiracy—claimed to be doing essentially the same thing.

In the last two months alone, more than two dozen companies building on the “blockchain” technology pioneered by Bitcoin have launched what are known as Initial Coin Offerings to raise operating capital.

The hype around blockchain technology is turning ICOs into the next digital gold rush: According to the research firm Smith and Crown, ICOs raised $27.6 million in the first two weeks of May alone.

Unlike IPOs, however, ICOs are catnip for scammers. They are not formally regulated by any financial authority, and exist in an ecosystem with few checks and balances.

OneCoin loudly trumpeted its use of blockchain technology, but holes in that claim were visible long before international law enforcement took notice.

Whereas Gnosis had experienced engineers, endorsements from known experts, and an operational version of their software, OneCoin was led and promoted by known fraudsters waving fake credentials.

According to a respected blockchain engineer who was offered a position as OneCoin’s Chief Technology Officer, OneCoin’s “blockchain” consisted of little more than a glorified Excel spreadsheet and a fugazi portal that displayed demonstrably fake transactions.

And yet, OneCoin attracted hundreds of millions of dollars more than Gnosis.

The company seems to have targeted a global category of aspirational investors who noticed the breathless coverage and booming valuations of cryptocurrencies and blockchain companies, but weren’t savvy enough to understand the difference between the real thing and a sham.

Left unchecked, this growing crypto-mania could be hugely destructive to one of the most promising technologies of the 21st century.

This danger exists in large part because grasping even the basics of blockchain technology remains daunting for non-specialists.

In a nutshell, blockchains link together a global swarm of servers that hosts thousands of copies of the system’s transaction records.

Server operators constantly monitor one another’s records, meaning that to steal money or otherwise alter the ledger, a hacker would have to compromise many machines across a vast network in one fell swoop.

Even as the global banking system faces relentless cyber-attacks, the more than $30 billion in value on Bitcoin’s blockchain has proven essentially immune to hacking.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

How To Teach Your Kids To Use Social Media Responsibly

While parents understand that they need to play an active role in keeping their child safe online, most feel ill-prepared and unsure that they are parenting properly around social media.

As rule of thumb, it’s best to start when your kids are young — basically as soon as they start playing around with your computer and/or phone.

As with other complicated subjects, like (gulp) sex, the topic of using social media responsibly should be an ongoing conversation as you ride alongside them on their digital journey.




Be a role model

Your child’s relationship with social media will be shaped by how they see you interacting with your devices.

The amount of time you’re spending on your phone, whether it’s scrolling through Facebook, snapping pics, posting Instagram updates, and texting is teaching your child what digital engagement looks like.

Are you over-consuming? Distracted? Being mentally and/or emotionally affected by what you see or do online?

Show your child how a responsible adult manages their time and uses self-discipline with your online engagement.

Understand privacy

Privacy is one of the most difficult concepts for children to grasp. Explain that privacy is not just a setting choice of either “friend” or “public.”

It’s also about leaving digital bread crumbs on porn sites, giving your email address to get free Wi-Fi, having your GPS locator on, and much more.

We are not always sure what will happen with our digital footprint and so it’s best to have parents be in charge of giving permission for behaviors that give any information to a third party.

Trust no one on the other end of the phone and computer

It’s no surprise to hear that peer relationships rule the lives of our children, but what may be new information for parents is that one way youth show proof of their friendship is by agreeing to trust one another.

For example, a boyfriend asks their girlfriend to send a picture of her breasts and says, “You can trust me.  I will delete it right away,” or one may ask, “What’s your password? Trust me, I won’t tell anyone.”

These forms of showing trust end can badly. Relationships end and revenge photos circulate, or accounts get hacked.

Explain to your kids that you can be close friends without breaking the family rules.

Let them know it’s OK for them to say, “I can’t — my parents check all this stuff and I don’t want them to take away my phone privileges.

Jokes can come at a cost

“I was just joking” or “I didn’t mean anything by it” are common childhood phrases, but on social media, when everything you say is amplified and/or can go viral, jokes and humor need to be used judiciously.

Unless we explain explicitly to our children and teens how comments and jokes can be hurtful, they may get into trouble unwittingly.

Teaching them to stop, pause, and imagine how they would feel if they were the brunt of the joke helps teach the important characteristics of empathy and compassion.

If the conversation is getting upsetting and emotional, switch to talking IRL to avoid misunderstandings. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

Finally, as with all parenting, be consistent and follow through with consequences if rules are broken.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Seagulls Eat Garbage In Landfills And Then Poop Pollution Into Our Waters

What goes around comes around. Scientists say chemicals from trash in our landfills are making their way into our waters via the seagulls’ gastrointestinal tracts.

A report on this delightful state of affairs was published in the journal Water Research.

We generally stop thinking about our trash the moment the garbage truck comes to collect it. But it doesn’t just disappear.

No, our coffee filters and corn-chip bags head to the landfill, where they sit and sit and sit … unless they get eaten first.




Then their nutrients, their nitrogen and phosphorus, disappear into an animal’s gullet and reappear on the other side, sometimes a few days later, sometimes miles away—and sometimes in our lakes, rivers, and streams.

Researchers wondered how much of an impact these trash-picking critters could have.

They were especially interested in seagulls, whose poop has previously been shown to carry traces of toxic chemicals from our plastic-filled seas.

The first step was to figure out just how many landfill-mooching seagulls we have.

Authors Scott Winton and Mark River of the Duke University Wetland Center used documented seagull sightings in the eBird citizen science database to estimate the number of landfill-living gulls across the entire United States.

Their calculations came up with about 1.4 million birds.

The scientists then used that 1.4-million figure to calculate the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus the birds might collectively be dumping.

That phosphorus changes the water’s chemical composition and could lead to more algae blooms, which can kill off other organisms in the lake’s ecosystem.

Winton and River suggest that rather than clean our waters after they’re polluted, a better approach might be to stop the problem at the source: our trash.

They recommend limiting landfill size and covering existing garbage heaps to keep the seagulls from ever finding it.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

How Do Fireflies Glow? Mystery Solved After 60 Years

Think of the firefly abdomen like a black box of bioluminescence.

For around 60 years, scientists have known what basic ingredients go into the box—things like oxygen, calcium, magnesium, and a naturally occurring chemical called luciferin.

And they’ve known what comes out of the box—photons, or light, in the form of the yellow, green, orange, and even blue flickers you see dancing across your backyard on summer nights.




But until recently, the actual chemical reactions that produce the firefly’s light have been shrouded in mystery.

And scientists like Bruce Branchini at Connecticut College love a good mystery.

The way enzymes and proteins can convert chemical energy into light is a very basic phenomenon,” he says, “and we wanted to know how that biochemical process worked.”

In new research, Branchini and his colleagues did just that: They found an extra oxygen electron that’s responsible for the beetles’ summertime glow.

The discovery, published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, provides the most detailed picture yet of the chemistry involved in firefly bioluminescence.

The conventional explanation of how a firefly turns its backside into a bioluminescent beacon has always troubled Branchini and other chemists. For starters, it shouldn’t work.

Specifically, two of the ingredients mentioned above—oxygen and luciferin—aren’t likely to react to each other in the way they would need to in order to produce light.

Understanding why this is gets complicated fast, but a simple explanation is that apples tend to only create chemical reactions with apples, while oranges tend to only create chemical reactions with oranges.

In other words, oxygen and luciferin are like apples and oranges.

Branchini’s experiments showed the oxygen involved in the firefly’s glow comes in a special form called a superoxide anion.

This extra electron gives the oxygen properties of both a metaphorical apple and a metaphorical orange.

This means that the molecule would, in fact, be able to cause a chemical reaction with the luciferin like scientists have suspected.

He adds that these superoxide anions could be the way bioluminescence works across nature, from plankton to deep-sea fish.

To me, chemically, this is the only way it makes sense,” says Stephen Miller, a chemical biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who also studies luciferin and its potential uses for human health.

Miller, who was unaffiliated with the study, says it’s important to keep studying luciferin and bioluminescence because of their potential applications for medicine.

For instance, earlier this year, Miller was part of a team that used luciferin to detect specific enzymes in the brains of living rats, which could someday offer doctors another window into the human brain.

Firefly luciferin is already proving to be a useful tool in imaging human tumors and developing cancer-fighting drugs, says lead author Branchini.

Ultimately, though, “we just want to know how nature works,” he says. “The applications may or may not follow.

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Pass it on: Popular Science

The Harvard Library That Protects The World’s Rarest Colors

Today, every color imaginable is at your fingertips.

You can peruse paint swatches at hardware stores, flip through Pantone books, and fuss with the color finder that comes with most computer programs, until achieving the hue of your heart’s desire.

But rewind to a few centuries ago and finding that one specific color might have meant trekking to a single mineral deposit in remote Afghanistan–as was the case with lapis lazuli, a rock prized for its brilliant blue hue, which made it more valuable than gold in medieval times.

The history of pigments goes back to prehistoric times, but much of what we know about how they relate to the art world comes from Edward Forbes, a historian and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University from 1909 to 1944.




Considered the father of art conservation in the United States, Forbes traveled around the world amassing pigments in order to authenticate classical Italian paintings.

Over the years, the Forbes Pigment Collection–as his collection came to be known–grew to more than 2,500 different specimens, each with its own layered backstory on its origin, production, and use.

Today, the collection is used mostly for scientific analysis, providing standard pigments to compare to unknowns.

Narayan Khandekar is the director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums and the collection’s custodian.

For the last 10 years, Khandekar has rebuilt the collection to include modern pigments to better analyze 20th century and contemporary art.

A lot has changed in the art world since painters worked with “colormen”–as tradesmen in dyes and pigments were known–to obtain their medium.

The commercialization of paints has transformed that process. “Artists today will use anything to get the idea that’s in their head into a physical form,” Khandekar says.

It could be pieces of plastic. It could be cans of food. It could be anything. We need to be able to identify lots of different materials that are industrially produced as well as things that are produced specifically for artists’ use.

The way he describes his work researching and cataloging pigments is akin to detective work. “We use our instruments in the same way that forensic scientists do,” Khandekar says.

We examine and find out what we can about the key compounds that will tell us the material’s origin.”

But instead of tools such as DNA analysis, he and his team of conservation scientists use techniques such as Raman spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, gas chromatography, and electron microscopy to map out the precise chemical composition of a pigment.

 

Synthetic Ultramarine
This was discovered in 1826 as the result of a contest. In a way it is like discovering how to make gold as artists no longer had to buy natural ultramarine at great cost.”

Mummy Brown
People would harvest mummies from Egypt and then extract the brown resin material that was on the wrappings around the bodies and turn that into a pigment.

“It’s a very bizarre kind of pigment, I’ve got to say, but it was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Brazilwood
Brazilwood is any of several tropical trees of the senna genus. Its hard, red-color wood has had limited use for violins, bows, veneer, and high-quality furniture.

“The wood contains the colorant brasilin, which gives a deep-red to brownish color. Brazilwood dye has been used for textile and leather dyes, inks, paints, varnish tints, and wood stains.”

Quercitron
A yellow vegetable dye, quercitron is extracted from the black or dark brown bark of the black oak, Quercus velutina, that is native to the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States.

Annatto
The lipstick plant–a small tree, Bixa orellana, native to Central and South America–produces annatto, a natural orange dye.

“Seeds from the plant are contained in a pod surrounded with a bright red pulp. Currently, annatto is used to color butter, cheese, and cosmetics.

Lapis Lazuli
“People would mine it in Afghanistan, ship it across Europe, and it was more expensive that gold so it would have its own budget line on a commission.”

Dragon’s Blood
“It has a great name, but it’s not from dragons. [The bright red pigment] is from the rattan palm.”

Cochineal
“This red dye comes from squashed beetles, and it’s used in cosmetics and food.”

Cadmium Yellow
Cadmium yellow was introduced in the mid 19th century. It’s a bright yellow that many impressionists used. Cadmium is a heavy metal, very toxic.

“In the early 20th century, cadmium red was introduced. You find these pigments used in industrial processes. Up until the 1970s, Lego bricks had cadmium pigment in them.”

Emerald Green
This is made from copper acetoarsenite. We had a Van Gogh with a bright green background that was identified as emerald green.

“Pigments used for artists’ purposes can find their way into use in other areas as well. Emerald green was used as an insecticide, and you often see it on older wood that would be put into the ground, like railroad ties.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Google’s DeepMind AI Fakes Some Of The Most Realistic Human Voices Yet

Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence has produced what could be some of the most realistic-sounding machine speech yet.

WaveNet, as the system is called, generates voices by sampling real human speech and directly modeling audio waveforms based on it, as well as its previously generated audio.

In Google’s tests, both English and Mandarin Chinese listeners found WaveNet more realistic than other types of text-to-speech programs, although it was less convincing than actual human speech.




If that weren’t enough, it can also play the piano rather well.

Text-to-speech programs are increasingly important for computing, as people begin to rely on bots and AI personal assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and the Google Assistant.

If you ask Siri or Cortana a question, though, they’ll reply with actual recordings of a human voice, rearranged and combined in small pieces.

This is called concatenative text to speech, and as one expert puts it, it’s a little like a ransom note.

The results are often fairly realistic, but as Google writes, producing a new audio persona or tone of voice requires having an actor record every possible sound in a database. Here’s one phrase, created by Google.

The alternative is parametric text to speech — building a completely computer-generated voice, using coded rules based on grammar or mouth sounds.

Parametric voices don’t need source material to produce words. But the results, at least in English, are often stilted and robotic. You can hear that here.

Google’s system is still based on real voice input. But instead of chopping up recordings, it learns from them, then independently creates its own sounds in a variety of voices. The results are something like this.

Granted, there’s already plenty of generative music, and it’s not nearly as complicated as making speech that humans will recognize as their own.

On a scale from 1 (not realistic) to 5 (very realistic), listeners in around 500 blind tests rated WaveNet at 4.21 in English and 4.08 in Mandarin.

While even human speech didn’t get a perfect 5, it was still higher, at 4.55 in English and 4.21 in Mandarin. On the other hand, WaveNet outperformed other methods by a wide margin.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Largest Known Prime Number Discovered With Over 23 Million Digits

A collaborative computational effort has uncovered the longest known prime number.

At over 23 million digits long, the new number has been given the name M77232917 for short.

Prime numbers are divisible only by themselves and one, and the search for ever-larger primes has long occupied maths enthusiasts.

However, the search requires complicated computer software and collaboration as the numbers get increasingly hard to find.




M77232917 was discovered on a computer belonging to Jonathan Pace, an electrical engineer from Tennessee who has been searching for big primes for 14 years.

Mr Pace discovered the new number as part of the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS), a project started in 1996 to hunt for these massive numbers.

Mersenne primes – named after the 17th century French monk Marin Mersenne who studied them – are calculated by multiplying together many twos and then subtracting one.

Six days of non-stop computing in which 77,232,917 twos were multiplied together resulted in the latest discovery.

The number is the 50th Mersenne prime to be discovered, and the 16th to be discovered by the GIMPS project.

It is nearly one million digits longer than the previous record holder, which was identified as part of the same project at the beginning of 2016.

Mersenne primes are a particular focus for prime aficionados because there is a relatively straightforward way to check whether a number is one or not.

Nevertheless, the new prime has to be verified using four different computer programs on four different computers.

The process also relies on thousands of volunteers sifting through millions of non-prime candidates before the lucky individual chances upon their target.

Professor Caldwell runs an authoritative website on the largest prime numbers, with a focus on the history of Mersenne primes.

He emphasised the pure excitement that searching for prime numbers brings, describing the latest discovery as “a museum piece as opposed to something that industry would use”.

Besides the thrill of discovery, Mr Pace will receive a $3,000 (£2,211) GIMPS research discovery award.

GIMPS uses the power of thousands of ordinary computers to search for elusive primes, and the team behind it state that anybody with a reasonably powerful PC can download the necessary software and become a “big prime hunter”.

The next Mersenne prime discovery could be smaller or larger than the existing record holder, but the big target for the GIMPS team is to find a 100 million digit prime number.

The person who discovers such a number will be awarded $150,000 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their efforts.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

SpaceX To Launch Heaviest Rocket Falcon Heavy At ‘End Of Month’, Elon Musk Announces

The space exploration company has said that it will fire its Falcon Heavy rocket in a test flight from the Kennedy Space Center “at the end of the month”, without giving a specific date.Billionaire Mr Musk posted a picture of the Falcon Heavy on Instagram, alongside the caption: “At 2500 tons of thrust, equal to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two.

Excitement on launch day guaranteed, one way or another.”




Rather than carrying a customers’ payload, the Falcon Heavy will carry a “cherry Tesla Roadster” to orbit Mars, playing David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ on repeat.

The firm said it would “be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.

Last month, Mr Musk posted a series of pictures on Instagram of the red Tesla Roadster inside the Falcon Heavy.Alongside the images, Mr Musk put: “Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks.

“That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.

“The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion-year elliptic Mars orbit.”However, Mr Musk has admitted there is a significant chance that the Falcon Heavy rocket test could fail.

Speaking of the rocket in July, he said: “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage.

“I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist

This Is NASA’s Plan For Humanity’s Return To The Moon, And Beyond

There is still no official NASA mission to Mars, but after years of uncertainty, America’s space agency is giving us a glimpse of its grand strategy to extend human presence beyond low-Earth orbit with a plan to build a solid technological foundation for sending astronauts to other worlds.

The decades-long space exploration schedule, detailed in a press conference last week with NASA’s William Gerstenmaier, lists 10 upcoming missions involving NASA’s new-generation Orion spacecraft.

But unlike earlier disjointed proposals for loosely defined missions, this new plan is laid out more like an Ikea manual—a step-by-step guide on how to get to Mars.




NASA says the enterprise relies on a substantial but not outrageous budget, and that the plan has been drafted in close coordination with NASA’s key partners like the European Space Agency, Roscosmos, JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency.

The main goal of the Orion program is to assemble a Moon-orbiting space station, which by the end of the 2020s could be beefed up to become a kind of interplanetary mothership.

Without additional money, the proposed spacecraft will not be able to put astronauts onto the surface of Mars, but it will be able to carry a crew into the vicinity of the Red Planet as early as 2033, says Gerstenmaier.

Visits to Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and expeditions to asteroids might also be possible.

In a nutshell, this is the closest humanity’s ever been to setting foot on Mars and many other destinations in the Solar System.

The program will certainly be the boldest, riskiest, and most ambitious undertaking for human spaceflight in nearly half a century—since the end of the Apollo program in 1972.

Now for a gut punch of reality. Due to budget constraints, the Mars program likely move at a snail’s pace, according to available flight manifests.

That means its unlikely astronauts will have a chance to leave new footprints on another world before well into the 2030s.

An even longer wait is a bitter pill to swallow, and that probably explains why NASA has been shy about publicizing its mega-plan right away.

It’s easy to draw parallels with the Apollo program’s 10-year plan for putting a man on the moon to the Orion project, which has been in planning and development since 2003 and is not even expected to carry its first crew until 2021.

The first manned flight of Orion, called Exploration Mission 2 or EM-2 was recently “de-ambitioned” from entering a lunar orbit to just running a quick loop behind the Moon and returning to Earth eight days after liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

In the meantime, NASA’s international partners will have an opportunity to dispatch robotic and, possibly, even human missions to the surface of the Moon.

With the nascent outpost growing in the vicinity of the Moon, the Orion crews could extend their stays in lunar orbit from a week to months or even a year.

Inhabitants of the outpost could also make outings to other locations near the Moon, such as a visit to a scientifically interesting Lagrangian points, where gravitational forces of the Moon and the Earth cancel each other out.

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Pass it on: New Scientist

Black Holes Offer A Way To Another Universe, Stephen Hawking Said

Things might fall through black holes into an alternate universe, according to a newly published paper by Stephen Hawking.

The professor has laid out a theory that suggests the holes aren’t quite as black as previously thought.

Rather than destroying everything that goes near them, we might not need to be so afraid of black holes, he said in a paper published this week in Physical Review Letters, written with colleagues Andrew Strominger.

He is a professor of physics at Harvard University, and Malcolm Perry, a professor of theoretical physics at Cambridge University.




If the work is correct – and the new paper means that the theory, only suggested, has now received approval from other experts – then it could solve a central paradox of black holes.

Professor Hawking’s paper addresses a fundamental assumption about black holes – that they have “no hair”.

It has previously been assumed that anything that falls into a black hole would be destroyed and lost forever.

That caused problems because the information about the object has to be preserved, even if the object itself is entirely swallowed up – and it has remained unclear how those two things could both happen.

The universe is meant to keep a kind of log of what it contains – even if it fell into a black hole and was destroyed – but until now the information in that log was thought to be lost along with the thing itself, swallowed up by the black hole.

But Professor Hawking has since last year been implying that anything that falls into a black hole shouldn’t give up hope of coming back out – somewhere.

The paradox is solved because the information is stored on the boundary, or event horizon, of the hole, so it doesn’t come back out of the pit so much as stay away from its most terrifying part.

That way out wouldn’t take people back to where they’d come from, he has said. Instead, they would reappear, but somewhere else – perhaps even in an alternative universe.

Professor Hawking’s theory helps keep some of the most central parts of our assumptions about the universe intact.

If it is possible to destroy information, for instance, then it’s possible to speculate that the past might not exist at all.

Black holes would be able to delete parts of the past – and, as Mr Hawking said: “It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity.”

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Pass it on: New Scientist