Software

Ask Slashdot: What Is Missing In Tech Today? 356

dryriver writes: There is so much tech and gadget news pouring out of the internet every day that one might think "everything tech that is needed already exists." But of course, people thought precisely that at various points in human history, and then completely new tools, technologies, processes, designs, devices and innovations came along soon after and changed everything. Sometimes the opposite also happens: tech that was really good for its day and used to exist is suddenly no longer available. For example, many people miss the very usable Psion palmtop computers with their foldout QWERTY keyboards, touchscreens, and styluses; or would have liked the Commodore Amiga with its innovative custom chips and OS to continue existing and evolving; or would have liked to be able to keep using software like Softimage XSI or Adobe Director, which were suddenly discontinued.

So here is the question: what tech, in your particular profession, industry, personal area of interest, or scientific or academic field, is currently "missing?" This can be tech that is needed but does not exist yet, either hardware or software, or some kind of mechanical device or process. It could also be tech that was available in the past, but was EOL'd or "End Of Lifed" and never came back in an updated or evolved form. Bonus question: if what you feel is "missing" could quite feasibly be engineered, produced, and sold today at a profit, what do you think is the reason it isn't available?
Government

Budget Deal Has Tax Credit Extensions For Nuclear, Fuel Cells, Carbon Capture (arstechnica.com) 104

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: A two-year budget deal was approved by the House and the Senate this morning and signed by President Trump a few hours later. The budget (PDF) included a slew of tax credit extensions that will affect how the energy industry plans its next two years. Most notably, the deal extended a $0.018 per-kWh credit for nuclear power plants over 6,000MW -- a tax credit that is primarily going to benefit one project in the US. That project is the construction of two new reactors at the Georgia Vogtle nuclear power plant.

Interestingly, a bipartisan effort to increase and extend tax credits for carbon sequestration passed through this budget. The bill was pushed through by Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). The bill would offer a tax credit per ton of carbon dioxide that is captured and either sequestered, used for another end product, or used for enhanced oil recovery. The credit applies to any facility that started carbon capture construction within the past seven years, and the credit extends for 12 years.

While the budget deal leaves the federal tax credit scheme for electric vehicles unchanged (automakers can still entice buyers with a $7,500 credit for the first 200,000 electric vehicles that roll off that automaker's line), the budget did include and extend some interesting tax credits for other kinds of non-traditional energy. Fuel cell vehicles saw an extension of tax credits that will allow purchasers of new cars a tax credit of between $4,000 and $40,000, depending on the weight of the vehicle (this is probably good news for potential customers of Nikola's in-development fuel-cell semis). Non-hydrogen alternative fuel infrastructure also scored, as the new budget lets installers of infrastructure for alternative fuels like biodiesel and natural gas deduct 30 percent of the cost of installing the new pumps. Two-wheeled electric vehicle buyers will also see a 10-percent credit extended (though that credit has a $2,500 cap). Per-gallon biodiesel and renewable diesel credits that expired at the end of 2017 will continue.

Earth

'Sinking' Pacific Nation Tuvalu Is Actually Getting Bigger (phys.org) 152

mi shares a report from Phys.Org: The Pacific nation of Tuvalu -- long seen as a prime candidate to disappear as climate change forces up sea levels -- is actually growing in size, new research shows. A University of Auckland study examined changes in the geography of Tuvalu's nine atolls and 101 reef islands between 1971 and 2014, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery. It found eight of the atolls and almost three-quarters of the islands grew during the study period, lifting Tuvalu's total land area by 2.9 percent, even though sea levels in the country rose at twice the global average. Co-author Paul Kench said the research, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications, challenged the assumption that low-lying island nations would be swamped as the sea rose. It found factors such as wave patterns and sediment dumped by storms could offset the erosion caused by rising water levels.
Medicine

First Human Eggs Grown In Laboratory (bbc.com) 47

An anonymous reader quotes a report from the BBC: Human eggs have been grown in the laboratory for the first time, say researchers at the University of Edinburgh. The team say the technique could lead to new ways of preserving the fertility of children having cancer treatment. It is also an opportunity to explore how human eggs develop, much of which remains a mystery to science. Experts said it was an exciting breakthrough, but more work was needed before it could be used clinically. Women are born with immature eggs in their ovaries that can develop fully only after puberty. It has taken decades of work, but scientists can now grow eggs to maturity outside of the ovary. It requires carefully controlling laboratory conditions including oxygen levels, hormones, proteins that simulate growth and the medium in which the eggs are cultured. But while the scientists have shown it is possible, the approach published in the journal Molecular Human Reproduction still needs refinement. In the paper, the researchers describe "how they took ovarian tissue from 10 women in their late twenties and thirties and, over four steps involving different cocktails of nutrients, encouraged the eggs to develop from their earliest form to maturity," reports The Guardian. "Of the 48 eggs that reached the penultimate step of the process, nine reached full maturity."
Space

Elon Musk Explains Why SpaceX Prefers Clusters of Small Engines (arstechnica.com) 239

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: The company's development of the Falcon 9 rocket, with nine engines, had given Musk confidence that SpaceX could scale up to 27 engines in flight, and he believed this was a better overall solution for the thrust needed to escape Earth's gravity. To explain why, the former computer scientist used a computer metaphor. "It's sort of like the way modern computer systems are set up," Musk said. "With Google or Amazon they have large numbers of small computers, such that if one of the computers goes down it doesn't really affect your use of Google or Amazon. That's different from the old model of the mainframe approach, when you have one big mainframe and if it goes down, the whole system goes down."

For computers, Musk said, using large numbers of small computers ends up being a more efficient, smarter, and faster approach than using a few larger, more powerful computers. So it was with rocket engines. "It's better to use a large number of small engines," Musk said. With the Falcon Heavy rocket, he added, up to half a dozen engines could fail and the rocket would still make it to orbit. The flight of the Falcon Heavy likely bodes well for SpaceX's next rocket, the much larger Big Falcon Rocket (or BFR), now being designed at the company's Hawthorne, California-based headquarters. This booster will use 31 engines, four more than the Falcon Heavy. But it will also use larger, more powerful engines. The proposed Raptor engine has 380,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, compared to 190,000 pounds of thrust for the Merlin 1-D engine.

Medicine

Spread of Breast Cancer Linked To Compound In Asparagus and Other Foods (theguardian.com) 74

Asparagus and other foods like potatoes, nuts, legumes and soy contain a compound known as asparagine, which researchers believe helps drive the spread of breast cancer to other organs. "When scientists reduced asparagine in animals with breast cancer, they found that the number of secondary tumors in other tissues fell dramatically," The Guardian reports. "The spread of malignant cells, often to the bones, lungs and brain, is the main cause of death among patients who are diagnosed with breast cancer." From the report: Asparagine is an amino acid that is made naturally in the body as a building block for proteins. But it is also found in the diet, and in high levels in certain meats, vegetables and dairy products. The international team of cancer specialists from Britain, the U.S., and Canada studied mice with an aggressive form of breast cancer. The mice develop secondary tumors in a matter of weeks and tend to die from the disease within months. Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers describe how they reduced the ability of breast cancer to spread in the animals by blocking asparagine with a drug called L-asparaginase. To a lesser extent, by putting the animals on a low-asparagine diet worked too. Inspired by the results, the scientists examined records from human cancers and found that breast tumors that churned out the most asparagine were most likely to spread, leading patients to die sooner. The same was seen in cancers of the head, neck and kidney.
Programming

Researchers Create Simulation Of a Simple Worm's Neural Network (tuwien.ac.at) 75

ClockEndGooner writes: Researchers at the Technische Universitat Wein have created a simulation of a simple worm's neural network, and have been able to replicate its natural behavior to completely mimic the worm's natural reflexive behavior. According to the article, using a simple neural network of 300 neurons, the simulation of "the worm can find its way, eat bacteria and react to certain external stimuli. It can, for example, react to a touch on its body. A reflexive response is triggered and the worm squirms away. This behavior is determined by the worm's nerve cells and the strength of the connections between them. When this simple reflex network is recreated on a computer, the simulated worm reacts in exactly the same way to a virtual stimulation -- not because anybody programmed it to do so, but because this kind of behavior is hard-wired in its neural network." Using the same neural network without adding any additional nerve cells, Mathias Lechner, Radu Grosu, and Ramin Hasani were able to have the nematode simulation learn to balance a pole "just by tuning the strength of the synaptic connections. This basic idea (tuning the connections between nerve cells) is also the characteristic feature of any natural learning process."
Science

Engineering Marvel of the Winter Olympics: A Broom (nytimes.com) 88

Andrew Flemming and Geoff Fowler, both 29, along with their friend and business partner, Will Hamilton, 37, were pouring their creative energies into a high-tech training device the likes of which the sporting world had never seen. They were building a better broom. From a report: Not just any broom, but one that they thought could be essential to the sport of curling, which relies on the best broom handling out there as teams strategically cajole a polished granite rock across a sheet of ice. They wound up calling it the SmartBroom, and in a sport that can come across as vaguely primordial, their piece of 21st-century gadgetry could play a role in determining who wins gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Each SmartBroom has four sensors in the broom head that relay data to a small display unit. Hamilton took one for a spin down the ice, and the data was instantaneous -- line graphs along with a slew of numbers that showed his force in pounds and his stroke rate in hertz. Hamilton also pointed to a figure that he described as his "sweeping performance index," or S.P.I., a metric that combines power and speed in one easy-to-digest figure. Patrick Janssen, a world-class curler from Canada, has consistently registered an S.P.I. in the 2,800 range. The numbers by themselves might not mean much, Flemming said, but subtle changes in technique can lead to big differences in the quality of each stroke. And now curlers have that information at their disposal. They can experiment to see which stroke works best for them.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia Has Become a Science Reference Source Even Though Scientists Don't Cite it (sciencenews.org) 140

Bethany Brookshire, writing for Science News: Wikipedia is a gold mine for science fans, science bloggers and scientists alike. But even though scientists use Wikipedia, they don't tend to admit it. The site rarely ends up in a paper's citations as the source of, say, the history of the gut-brain axis or the chemical formula for polyvinyl chloride. But scientists are browsing Wikipedia just like everyone else. A recent analysis found that Wikipedia stays up-to-date on the latest research -- and vocabulary from those Wikipedia articles finds its way into scientific papers. The results don't just reveal the Wiki-habits of the ivory tower. They also show that the free, widely available information source is playing a role in research progress, especially in poorer countries.
Media

US Suicides Spiked 10 Percent After Robin Williams's Death, Study Finds (bbc.com) 244

dryriver shares a report from the BBC: U.S. suicide rates spiked in the months after Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, according to researchers. In the five months after the actor's death there were 10% more suicides than might be expected, or 1,841 extra cases, PLOS One journal reports. The potential risk of copycat incidents after celebrity cases is known to public health bodies. It cannot be known for certain if his death led to the spike but it appeared to be connected, the new study said. Experts say "irresponsible" media coverage of suicides can play a big part in copycat cases. At the time of his death, the Samaritans warned about a large number of news articles giving too much detail about the nature of his suicide, against media guidelines. Guidance from the World Health Organization, the Independent Press Standards Organization's editors' code of practice, the Ofcom broadcasting code and the BBC's editorial guidelines all advise against going into explicit detail about the methods used. However, researchers said there was "substantial evidence" that many media outlets had tended to deviate from these guidelines.

For the latest study, they looked at the monthly suicide rates from the U.S. government Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between January 1999 and December 2015 to see if there had been a spike. They found there were 18,690 suicides between August and December 2014 compared with the 16,849 cases they would have expected. In the weeks after Williams's death, there was a "drastic" increase in references to suicide and death in news media reports, as well as more posts on an internet suicide forum researchers monitored, the study found. David Fink, one of the study's authors, from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said research had previously shown that suicide rates increased following a high-profile celebrity suicide, but this was a first time such a study had been done within the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Lorna Fraser, from the Samaritans' media advisory service, said: "This study builds on a strong body of research evidence that shows that irresponsible or overly detailed depictions of suicide can have a devastating impact. In the case of celebrities, the potential for someone at risk to make an emotional connection and over-identify with them is greater, in some cases even to interpret their death as affirmation that they could take their own life."

Medicine

FDA Declares Popular Alt-Medicine Kratom an Opioid (nbcnews.com) 230

An anonymous reader quotes a report from NBC News: The Food and Drug Administration declared the popular herbal product kratom to be an opioid on Tuesday, opening a new front in its battle to get people to stop using it. New research shows kratom acts in the brain just as opioids do, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. And he said the agency has documented 44 cases in which kratom at least helped kill people -- often otherwise healthy young people.

"Taken in total, the scientific evidence we've evaluated about kratom provides a clear picture of the biologic effect of this substance," Gottlieb wrote. "Kratom should not be used to treat medical conditions, nor should it be used as an alternative to prescription opioids. There is no evidence to indicate that kratom is safe or effective for any medical use." The FDA released detailed accounts of several of the deaths. The victims often had mixed kratom with other substances, including chemicals taken out of inhalers and found in over-the-counter cold and flu drugs.

Science

Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You (nytimes.com) 61

An anonymous reader shares a report: The story of the frog's neuro-abacus is just one example of nature's vast, ancient and versatile number sense, a talent explored in detail in a recent themed issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, edited by Brian Butterworth, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, C. Randy Gallistel of Rutgers University and Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento. Scientists have found that animals across the evolutionary spectrum have a keen sense of quantity, able to distinguish not just bigger from smaller or more from less, but two from four, four from ten, forty from sixty. Orb-weaving spiders, for example, keep a tally of how many silk-wrapped prey items are stashed in the "larder" segment of their web. When scientists experimentally remove the cache, the spiders will spend time searching for the stolen goods in proportion to how many separate items had been taken, rather than how big the total prey mass might have been. Small fish benefit from living in schools, and the more numerous the group, the statistically better a fish's odds of escaping predation. As a result, many shoaling fish are excellent appraisers of relative head counts.
Earth

Scientists Create a New Form of Matter: Superionic Water Ice (sciencemag.org) 62

According to The New York Times, scientists created a new form of water that simultaneously acts like a solid and liquid. "The substance, which consists of a fluid of hydrogen ions running through a lattice of oxygen, was formed by compressing water between two diamonds and then zapping it with a laser," reports Science Magazine. "That caused pressures to spike to more than a million times those of Earth's atmosphere and temperatures to rise to thousands of degrees, conditions scientists had predicted may lead to the formation of superionic ice. This kind of water doesn't exist naturally on Earth, the scientists report in Nature Physics, but it may be present in the mantles of icy planets like Neptune and Uranus."
Space

SpaceX Successfully Lands Two Falcon Heavy Boosters Simultaneously After Rocket Launch [Update] (spaceflightnow.com) 446

After nearly a decade of development, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket has successfully launched from pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida today. After reaching orbit, the two side boosters simultaneously landed at Landing Zone One. We do not know the status of the central core of the rocket, which was destined to land on the "Of Course I Still Love You" drone ship roughly 8:19 minutes into the flight.

According to Space.com, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket to launch since NASA's Saturn V -- the iconic vessel that, with 7.5 million pounds of thrust, accomplished the definitive Apollo-era feat of putting astronauts on the moon. Elon Musk says that Falcon Heavy is "twice as powerful as any other booster operating today." As for the payload, it includes a Tesla Roadster electric car. "The Falcon Heavy will send the vehicle around the sun in an elliptical orbit that will extend farther than Mars' orbit," reports Space.com.

UPDATE: SpaceX has confirmed The Verge's reporting that the middle core of SpaceX's Heavy Rocket missed the drone ship where it was supposed to land. "The center core was only able to relight one of the three engines necessary to land, and so it hit the water at 300 miles per hour," reports The Verge. "Two engines on the drone ship were taken out when it crashed, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a press call after the rocket launch. It's a small hiccup in an otherwise successful first flight."
Transportation

Female Uber Drivers Get Paid Less Than Men, Says Study (recode.net) 338

According to a new study by Uber and Stanford economists, male Uber drivers get paid 7 percent more than their female counterparts in the U.S. "That's surprising, because Uber's driver assignments and pay are gender-blind, meaning a driver's gender isn't considered when matching riders or assigning fares," reports Recode. "Rather, pay has to do with trip length, distance and whether it's happening during surge-price hours or not." From the report: There are more male drivers -- women make up 27 percent of Uber drivers in the U.S. -- and male drivers tend to work longer hours. However, on an hourly rate, women still make less, according to the data, which measured trips by 1.8 million drivers from 2015 to 2017. According to the study, discrimination on the customer side isn't the reason for the pay gap, either. So why are female Uber drivers paid less than men? The study points to three reasons that make the gap disappear:

When and where: The times and places female Uber drivers work seem to be less profitable. That could be fewer overnight shifts, shifts with shorter wait times or surge-price shifts than men.
Driver experience: Drivers who've been with Uber longer get paid more, on account of knowing which routes and times tend to pay more. In general, men work for Uber longer than women so they are more experienced. The attrition rate after six months is 77 percent for women and 65 percent for men.
Speed: Male Uber drivers conduct more trips per hour than women, meaning they're actually driving faster, according to the data. More trips mean more money. About 50 percent of the earnings gap is explained away by differences in driving speed.

Science

The Mutant All-Female Crayfish, Which Reproduces by Cloning Itself, Is Filling Europe at Alarming Speed (atlasobscura.com) 278

The marbled crayfish looks much like any other freshwater crustacean. It has two claws, ten legs, and an attractive blue-brown marbled shell. Yet this six-inch creature, found in streams and lakes around the world, is far more sinister than you might expect. From a report: Its new scientific name gives a few clues: Procambarus virginalis. Every marbled crayfish, known as a marmorkreb in German, is female -- and they reproduce by cloning themselves. Frank Lyko, a biologist at the German Cancer Research Center, first heard about the marbled crayfish from a hobbyist aquarium owner, who picked up some "Texas crayfish" at a pet shop in 1995. They were strikingly large, and they laid enormous batches of eggs -- hundreds, in a single go. Soon, the New York Times reports, the hobbyist was beset with so many crayfish he was giving them away to his friends. And soon after that, marmorkrebs were showing up in pet stores upon Europe.

There was something very strange about these crayfish. They were all female, and they all laid hundreds of eggs without mating. These eggs, in turn, hatched into hundreds more females -- with each one growing up fully able to reproduce by herself. In 2003, scientists sequenced their DNA and confirmed what many owners already believed to be the case: Each baby crayfish was a clone of its mother, and they were filling Europe's fishtanks at alarming speed. Just 25 years ago, the marbled crayfish did not exist at all. Now, they can be found in the wild by the millions in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia, the Ukraine, Japan, and Madagascar.

Medicine

Drones Could Soon Be Used To Deliver Medical Supplies in North Carolina (newsobserver.com) 32

Drones could soon be ferrying blood and other medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in North Carolina if the N.C. Department of Transportation's bid to be part of a federal test program is approved. From a report: NCDOT is leading a team of private companies that proposes to set up a network of distribution centers that would use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to make medical deliveries in North Carolina. The drone delivery companies, including Matternet and Zipline, operate overseas but not in the U.S. "We're really excited that drone technology may allow doctors and hospitals to save more lives in North Carolina soon," Bobby Walston, the state Director of Aviation, said in a statement. "We've been researching and investing in drone technology for years at NCDOT. This proposal represents the next big step for us as we remain a national leader in the UAS field." The North Carolina proposal is one of about 210 applications to the Federal Aviation Administration's Drone Integration Pilot Program, a three-year effort launched by the Trump administration last fall to test drones for various purposes to help determine how to safely expand the use of commercial drones in the U.S.
Earth

The Arctic is Full of Toxic Mercury, and Climate Change is Going To Release it (washingtonpost.com) 195

We already knew that thawing Arctic permafrost would release powerful greenhouse gases. On Monday, scientists revealed it could also release massive amounts of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin and serious threat to human health. From a report: Permafrost, the Arctic's frozen soil, acts as a massive ice trap that keeps carbon stuck in the ground and out of the atmosphere -- where, if released as carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas would drive global warming. But as humans warm the climate, they risk thawing that permafrost and releasing that carbon, with microbial organisms becoming more active and breaking down the ancient plant life that had previously been preserved in the frozen earth. That would further worsen global warming, further thawing the Arctic -- and so on. That cycle would be scary enough, but U.S. government scientists on Monday revealed that the permafrost also contains large volumes of mercury, a toxic element humans have already been pumping into the air by burning coal. There are 32 million gallons worth of mercury, or the equivalent of 50 Olympic swimming pools, trapped in the permafrost, the scientists wrote in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. For context, that's "twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined," they wrote.
Space

Scientists May Have Discovered the First Planets Outside the Milky Way (washingtonpost.com) 74

Using data from a NASA X-ray laboratory in space, Xinyu Dai, an astrophysicist and professor at the University of Oklahoma, detected a population of planets beyond the Milky Way galaxy (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source). The planets range in size from Earth's moon to the massive Jupiter. From the report: There are few methods to determine the existence of distant planets. They are so far away that no telescope can observe them, Dai told The Washington Post. So Dai and postdoctoral researcher Eduardo Guerras relied on a scientific principle to make the discovery: Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Einstein's theory suggests light bends when tugged by the force of gravity. In this case, the light is coming from a quasar -- the nucleus of a galaxy with a swirling black hole -- that emits powerful radiation in the distance. Between that quasar and the space-based laboratory is the galaxy of newly discovered planets. The gravitational force of the galaxy bends the light heading toward the Milky Way, illuminating the galaxy in an effect called microlensing. In that way, the galaxy acts as a magnifying glass of sorts, bringing a previously unseen celestial body into X-ray view. In a university news release, Guerras had a less formal way to describe the complicated process: "This is very cool science."
The Almighty Buck

New York's $6 Billion Plan For Offshore Wind Shows That Oil Drilling Really Is On the Way Out (businessinsider.com) 399

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Business Insider: Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan earlier this month to develop $6 billion of offshore wind projects off the southern coast of Long Island by 2028 and predicted that the industry would bring 5,000 jobs to the state. The plan calls for developing 2.4 gigawatts -- enough to power 1.2 million homes -- by 2030. It's all part of New York's Clean Energy Standard, which requires 50% of the state's electricity come from renewable sources like solar and wind. The move comes as President Donald Trump earlier this month announced a five-year plan to open up areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

"While the federal government continues to turn its back on protecting natural resources and plots to open up our coastline to drilling, New York is doubling down on our commitment to renewable energy and the industries of tomorrow," Cuomo said in a statement. Cuomo has asked Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for an exemption from the drilling plan, saying in an open letter that the plan "undermines New York's efforts to combat climate change by shifting from greenhouse gas emitting fossil energy sources to renewable sources, such as offshore wind." The report identifies a 1 million acre site approximately 20 miles south of Long Island that would best support the wind turbines, and "ensure that, for the vast majority of the time, turbines would have no discernible or visible impact from the casual viewer on the shore."
The report also notes that New Jersey announced a similar plan last Wednesday to develop 3.5 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity off its coast.

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