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Transportation

The Dirty Truth About 'Clean Diesel' (nytimes.com) 496

HughPickens.com writes: Volkswagen persuaded consumers it had created a new generation of so-called clean diesel cars — until investigators discovered that phony testing concealed that its vehicles emitted up to 40 times the permitted levels of pollutants during regular use. Now Taras Grescoe writes in the NY Times public outrage over the fraud obscures the much larger issue: "clean diesel" is causing a precipitous decline in air quality for millions of city-dwellers. Monitoring sites in European cities like London, Stuttgart, Munich, Paris, Milan and Rome have reported high levels of the nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, or soot, that help to create menacing smogs. Although automakers worked hard to convince consumers that a new generation of "clean diesel" cars were far less polluting, diesel has a fatal flaw. It tends to burn dirty, particularly at low speeds and temperatures. In cities, where so much driving is stop and start, incomplete diesel combustion produces pollution that is devastating for human health.

Fortunately, Volkswagen sold only half a million of its "clean diesel" cars to the American public before the emissions scandal broke. Today, fewer than 1 percent of the passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. run on diesel fuel. Europe is now scrambling to undo the damage. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson last year called for a national program to pay some drivers to scrap their diesel vehicles. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has gained broad support for a proposed ban on diesel cars. "Last month, the signatories of the climate deal in Paris agreed that the world has to begin a long-term shift from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of energy," concludes Grescoe. "Recognizing "clean diesel" for the oxymoron it is would be a good place to start."

AI

The AI Anxiety (washingtonpost.com) 207

An anonymous reader writes: The Washington Post has an article about current and near-future AI research while managing to keep a level head about it: "The machines are not on the verge of taking over. This is a topic rife with speculation and perhaps a whiff of hysteria." Every so often, we hear seemingly dire warnings from people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the dangers of unchecked AI research. But actual experts continue to dismiss such worries as premature — and not just slightly premature. The article suggests our concerns might be better focused in a different direction: "Anyone looking for something to worry about in the near future might want to consider the opposite of superintelligence: superstupidity. In our increasingly technological society, we rely on complex systems that are vulnerable to failure in complex and unpredictable ways. Deepwater oil wells can blow out and take months to be resealed. Nuclear power reactors can melt down. Rockets can explode. How might intelligent machines fail — and how catastrophic might those failures be?"
Biotech

Allegations of Data Manipulation At Theranos (wsj.com) 97

An anonymous reader writes: A lengthy report at the Wall Street Journal brings allegations of data manipulation against blood-testing startup Theranos. The company raised hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, at a valuation of roughly $9 billion, on the hope that they can revolutionize medical diagnosis. They've also made agreements with Safeway and Walgreen's to offer blood tests within stores. But multiple former employees say Theranos was shaky on the science at best, and intentionally misrepresentative at worst.

Engineer Anthony Nugent says the device intended for Walgreen's was still experimental. He also recalls seeing the machines labeled "for investigational use only," because of poor accuracy. A Theranos lab worker "told federal authorities that the results from the quality-control runs diverged from the known amount by more than two standard deviations, a red flag that suggested possible accuracy problems." When that employee notified superiors within the company, somebody came and deleted the quality control data, which made the device's test runs appear better than they were. There are also reports that inspectors and auditors were purposefully kept away from parts of Theranos's lab. A Theranos spokesperson denied everything.

Earth

Giant Methane Leak in California Won't Be Capped For Months 292

Motherboard takes a look at the ongoing leak from a deep well in Southern California, and the engineering challenges that mean it won't be stopped for a while. From Motherboard's report: An enormous amount of harmful methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, California, at a startling rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. The gas, which carries with it the stench of rotting eggs, has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. Many residents have already filed lawsuits against the company that owns the facility, the Southern California Gas Company. ... Part of the problem in stopping the leak lies in the base of the well, which sits 8,000 feet underground. Pumping fluids down into the will, usually the normal recourse, just isn't working, said [copmany spokesperson Anne] Silva. Workers have been "unable to establish a stable enough column of fluid to keep the force of gas coming up from the reservoir." The company is now constructing a relief well that will connect to the leaking well, and hopefully provide a way to reduce pressure so the leak can be plugged. As the article notes, methane is an especially noxious gas in a figurative as well as literal sense; while it spends less time in the atmosphere than does CO2, it is more effective at trapping heat.
Cloud

Bruce Schneier: IoT + DMCA = More Monopolies, Limits On Consumer Choice (theatlantic.com) 118

New submitter OldMan17 writes: On Dec 24, while many of us were busy in a frenzy of commercial excess and socially-conditioned good cheer, The Atlantic published an article by Bruce Schneier predicting that the IoT will be abused in conjunction with DMCA to make our lives worse instead of better. Some of the precedents he cites are old news, but I expect we will have a lively debate in the comments as to whether the over-arching conclusion is justified by his arguments. When everything is online, laws made for "the internet" suddenly apply to everything.
Movies

Sci-Fi Screenwriter and Author George Clayton Johnson Dead At 86 21

George Clayton Johnson, writer of the first-aired episode of Star Trek, and co-author of Logan's Run, died on Christmas Day of cancer, at the age of 86. Johnson was a prolific television writer, penning several episodes of The Twilight Zone, and writing for several series as well; he was also a nominee for both the Nebula and Hugo awards. His first-published story, Oceans 11, was turned into a movie, and then revived as a the kernel for a film franchise. Johnson wrote comics as well as screenplays, short stories, and novels; he was originally slated to appear at the upcoming San Diego Comic Fest.
The Military

Dissecting a $231 Million High-Tech Boondoggle 139

The L.A. Times takes to task the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration, and various military agencies for their combined role in supporting the expenditure of vast amount of money on a system called the Precision Tracking Space System. All told, according to the paper, the PTSS program -- which was to have provided early warning of missile launches, and precision tracking of the missiles themselves -- ended up blowing through more than $230 million before being cancelled. After talking to defense experts and reviewing hundreds of documents, the Times comes to what probably sounds like an easy conclusion for any big-budget military program that never reaches operation: it shouldn't have even left the drawing board.
Debian

APT Speed For Incremental Updates Gets a Massive Performance Boost 162

jones_supa writes: Developer Julian Andres Klode has this week made some improvements to significantly increase the speed of incremental updates with Debian GNU/Linux's APT update system. His optimizations have yielded the apt-get program to suddenly yield 10x performance when compared to the old code. These improvements also make APT with PDiff now faster than the default, non-incremental behavior. Beyond the improvements that landed this week, Julian is still exploring other areas for improving APT update performance. More details via his blog post.

Submission + - NASA and the Chinese are still making discoveries on the moon (examiner.com)

MarkWhittington writes: The last time men walked on the moon was during the flight of Apollo 17, 43 Decembers ago. According to a story in Forbes, lunar soil and rock samples returned by the last moonwalkers are still yielding new insights into the history and nature of Earth’s nearest neighbor. In the meantime, the latest explorer to go to the moon, a Chinese robotic rover named Yutu has made some discoveries of its own.
Science

Why String Theory Is Not Science (forbes.com) 288

StartsWithABang writes: Earlier this month, a conference was held devoted to the question of whether untestable scientific ideas like string theory and the multiverse are actually science or not. While many opinions were stated and no one changed their mind, the answer is apparent: unless you're willing to change the definition of science to include "this thing that isn't science," then no, string theory is not science. It's a theory in the sense of a mathematical theory — like set theory, group theory or number theory — but it isn't yet a scientific theory. Of course, it could become science, but that would require that it actually do the things a scientific theory does: make testable predictions that can be validated or falsified.
Science

UCLA Creates Super-Strong, Super-Light Metal (ucla.edu) 70

An anonymous reader writes: Engineers working on planes, rockets, and other vehicles are always looking for new metals to make their creations lighter and stronger. A new invention from UCLA demonstrates "record levels of specific strength — how much weight a material can withstand before breaking — and specific modulus — the material's stiffness-to-weight ratio." The metal is mostly (86%) magnesium, but infused with an even dispersal of ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles (abstract). A key part of their work was preventing the nanoparticles from clumping, since they attract each other if left alone. "To counteract this issue, researchers dispersed the particles into a molten magnesium zinc alloy. The newly discovered nanoparticle dispersion relies on the kinetic energy in the particles' movement. This stabilizes the particles' dispersion and prevents clumping."
Businesses

For a Missouri Cassette Tape Factory, Obsolesence is Just a 12-Letter Word (arstechnica.com) 169

The Missouri-based National Audio Company, reports Ars Technica, is sweeping up in a category that our future-looking selves might twenty years ago have imagined would be dead and buried in the year 2015: making and selling audiocassettes. There are fewer and fewer competitors in the tape-making business, but NAC still has a healthy market for cassettes -- in October, the company noted "a 31 percent increase in order volume over the previous year." From the article: [Company president Steve Stepp] said that as his competitors began bailing out of the cassette business once CDs came to prominence, NAC started buying up their machinery. “It would have been incredibly expensive 30 to 35 years ago when [cassette manufacturing machines] were new on the market, but when our competitors bailed out of the business and started making CDs, we went round the country and bought [them] out," he said. Some artists are still releasing music on tape, but about 70 percent of what the company sells is blank cassettes; there are an awful lot of tape decks out there; my father alone still buys a few hundred blanks each year.

Submission + - Ruby 2.3.0 Released (ruby-lang.org)

An anonymous reader writes: Ruby developers have announced the official release of Ruby 2.3.0. This release introduces a frozen string literal pragma, which is "a new magic comment and command line option to freeze all string literals in the source files." It also adds a safe navigation operator &. similar to what exists in C#, Groovy, and Swift. Ruby 2.3.0 also has many performance improvements. For more details, see the news file and the full changelog.
Privacy

Australian Government Tells Citizens To Turn Off Two-factor Authentication (arstechnica.com) 146

An anonymous reader writes with this news from Ars Technica: The Australian government has repeatedly called for citizens to turn off two-factor authentication (2FA) at its main digital government portal, myGov. The portal's Twitter account has recently been updated several times with cute pictures encouraging holidaymakers to "turn off your myGov security codes" so that "you can spend more time doing the important things."

The portal is the place where Australian citizens can use and manage a number of governmental services, including health insurance, tax payments, and child support. In case of myGov, two-factor authentication is implemented by sending users text messages that contain one-time codes to complement their usual passwords.

The Almighty Buck

Pirate Bay Cofounder Utterly Bankrupts the Music Industry (torrentfreak.com) 261

JustAnotherOldGuy writes: Peter "brokep" Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay, has built a machine that makes 100 copies per second of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," storing them in /dev/null (which is of course, deleting them even as they're created). The machine, called a "Kopimashin," is cobbled together out of a Raspberry Pi, some hacky python that he doesn't want to show anyone, and an LCD screen that calculates a running tally of the damages he's inflicted upon the record industry through its use. The 8,000,000 copies it makes every day costs the record industry $10m/day in losses. At that rate, they'll be bankrupt in a few weeks at most.

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