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Medicine

Work-Life Balance: Cryptographer Fired By BAE Systems For Taking Care of Dying Wife (bostonglobe.com) 513

mdecerbo writes: A new lawsuit by cryptographer Don Davis against multinational defense giant BAE Systems highlights the fact that companies are free to have their boasts about "work-life balance" amount to nothing but idle talk. The Boston Globe reports that on his first day on the job, Davis explained that his wife had late-stage cancer. He would work his full work day in the office, but if he was needed nights or weekends, he'd want to work from home. His supervisor was fine with it, but the human resources department fired him on the spot after four hours of employment. The lawsuit raises interesting questions, such as whether employment law requires corporations to have the sort of common decency we expect from individuals. But what I want to know is, if BAE Systems loses this lawsuit, will they prevent future ones by making their "work-life balance" policy say simply: We own you, body and soul? Don Davis' lawyer, Rebecca Pontikes, contends he was discriminated against because the company "requires its male employees to be the stereotypical male breadwinner and to leave family responsibilities to women." BAE issued a statement to The Boston Globe saying, "we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and work hard to provide our employees with flexible working options that enable them to have a meaningful work/life balance." The company declined to discuss specifics, citing pending litigation.
Earth

Boaty McBoatface To Go On Its First Antarctic Mission (theguardian.com) 116

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: A small yellow robot submarine, called Boaty McBoatface after a competition to name a new polar research ship backfired, is being sent on its first Antarctic mission. Boaty, which has arguably one of the most famous names in recent maritime history, is a new type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which will be able to travel under ice, reach depths of 6,000 meters, and transmit the data it collects to researchers via a radio link. Its mission will be to investigate water flow and turbulence in the dark depths of the Orkney Passage, a 3.5km deep region of the Southern Ocean. The data it collects will help scientists understand how the ocean is responding to global warming. Boaty will travel with the DynOPO (Dynamics of the Orkney Passage Outflow) expedition on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research ship James Clark Ross, departing from Punta Arenas in Chile on 17 March. The craft will be sent back and forth through a cold abyssal current that forms an important part of the global circulation of ocean water. In 2019 Boaty McBoatface will be fitted with acoustic and chemical sensors and sent into the North Sea to "sniff out" signals associated with the artificial release of gas beneath the seabed. A future aim for Boaty will be to attempt the first-ever crossing of the Arctic Ocean under ice, which has the potential to deliver a significant change in scientists' ability to observe change in this vital region.
NASA

It's About Time Astronauts Got Healthcare For Life (mashable.com) 283

Miriam Kramer, reporting for Mashable: NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria flew to space four times for the space agency between 1995 and 2007. While in space, his eyesight deteriorated, a well-documented medical issue NASA's known about for years, and one that many astronauts have experienced first-hand. For many astronauts, their eyesight readjusts once they get back to Earth. That wasn't the case for Lopez-Alegria, though. His eyesight got significantly worse during his time in orbit, and NASA isn't paying for his contacts or doctor visits today, years after his retirement from the agency. However, he still travels to Houston, Texas once per year to allow the agency to gather data about his health, without any expectation that NASA will offer treatment for any conditions that may have developed because of his time in space. In other words, while Lopez-Alegria's eyesight deteriorates, NASA benefits from the data he provides to the American space program, without medical recompense to him today. The lack of health care for former astronauts has long been a sore spot at NASA, but now it threatens the agency's future. Deep space missions beyond the moon, like a mission to Mars, require a better understanding of how extended spaceflight affects the human body.
Power

Millions of Smart Meters May Over-Inflate Readings by up to 600% (bleepingcomputer.com) 249

"Lab tests carried out by Dutch scientists have shown that some of today's 'smart' electrical meters may give out false readings that in some cases can be 582% higher than actual energy consumption," reports BleepingComputer. An anonymous reader quotes their report: The study involved several tests conducted on nine different brands of "smart" meters, also referred to in the industry as "static energy meters." Researchers also used one electromechanical meter for reference... Experiments went on for six months, with individual tests lasting at least one week, and sometimes several weeks. Test results varied wildly, with some meters reporting errors way above their disclosed range, going from -32% to +582%...

The results of the study also matched numbers posted on an online forum by a disgruntled Dutchman complaining about high energy bills... Researchers blamed all the issues on the design of some smart meters, and, ironically, electrical devices with energy-saving features. The latter devices, researchers say, introduced a large amount of noise in electrical current waveforms, which disrupt the smart meter sensors tasked with recording power consumption...

Long-time Slashdot reader ClarkMills points out the researchers estimate that "potentially inaccurate meters have been installed in the meter cabinets of at least 750,000 Dutch households," while the article suggests that worldwide, "the numbers of possibly faulty smart meters could be in the millions,especially after some governments, especially in the EU, have pushed for smart meters to replace classic electromechanical (rotating disk) meters."
Space

Jeff Bezos' Spaceflight Company Blue Origin Gets Its First Paying Customer (nytimes.com) 32

Long-time Slashdot reader nickovs writes: Blue Origin was started as a "moon shot" company by Jeff Bezos and recently claimed that it would be offering an "Amazon-like" delivery service to the moon by 2020. In the mean time it seems their customers will be slightly closer to Earth: this week they announced that they now have a paying customer in the form of the satellite TV company Eutelsat. While this isn't a huge technical milestone, it is a major business milestone, turning Blue Origin from a hobby business into one which might eventually make a profit. According to a New York Times article, "The commercial partnership brings Blue Origin closer in line with SpaceX, created by Elon Musk, which has been launching satellites and taking NASA cargo to the International Space Station for several years."
Meanwhile, SpaceX announced last week that two space tourists have already put down "a significant deposit" for a week-long trip around the moon at the end of 2018, adding "Other flight teams have also expressed strong interest and we expect more to follow."
Government

New Bill Would Allow Employers To Demand Genetic Testing From Workers (businessinsider.com) 397

capedgirardeau quotes a report from Business Insider: A little-noticed bill moving through the U.S. Congress would allow companies to require employees to undergo genetic testing or risk paying a penalty of thousands of dollars, and would let employers see that genetic and other health information. Giving employers such power is now prohibited by U.S. law, including the 2008 genetic privacy and nondiscrimination law known as GINA. The new bill gets around that landmark law by stating explicitly that GINA and other protections do not apply when genetic tests are part of a "workplace wellness" program. The bill, HR 1313, was approved by a House committee on Wednesday, with all 22 Republicans supporting it and all 17 Democrats opposed. The 2008 genetic law prohibits a group health plan -- the kind employers have -- from asking, let alone requiring, someone to undergo a genetic test. It also prohibits that specifically for "underwriting purposes," which is where wellness programs come in. "Underwriting purposes" includes basing insurance deductibles, rebates, rewards, or other financial incentives on completing a health risk assessment or health screenings. In addition, any genetic information can be provided to the employer only in a de-identified, aggregated form, rather than in a way that reveals which individual has which genetic profile. There is a big exception, however: As long as employers make providing genetic information "voluntary," they can ask employees for it. Under the House bill, none of the protections for health and genetic information provided by GINA or the disabilities law would apply to workplace wellness programs as long as they complied with the ACA's very limited requirements for the programs. As a result, employers could demand that employees undergo genetic testing and health screenings.
Earth

Scientists Create 'Designer Yeast' In Major Step Toward Synthetic Life (washingtonpost.com) 39

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Washington Post: In a significant advance toward creating the first "designer" complex cell, scientists say they are one-third of the way to synthesizing the complete genome of baker's yeast. In seven studies published Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers describe how they built six of the 16 chromosomes required for the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, altering the genetic material to edit out some genes and write in new characteristics. The chromosomes generated this time represent the largest amount of genetic material ever synthesized, and the new Sc2.0 cells are substantially different from their natural, or "wild type," relatives. Among the most significant of these new features is a program the scientists called "SCRaMbLE," or "Synthetic Chromosome Recombination and Modification by LoxP-mediated Evolution" (scientists are congenitally disposed toward convoluted acronyms). The program allows scientists to rearrange elements within the genome to generate new and potentially useful permutations. Whereas many of Boeke's peers labor for years in the lab trying to genetically modify organisms, the SCRaMbLE system "lets the yeast do the work and lets the yeast teach us new biology," Jef Boeke, director of New York University Langone's Institute for Systems Genetics and an organizer of the project, said. It's like a version of the lottery in which you can continuously and instantaneously roll new numbers until you get a result you want. Other innovations in the Sc2.0 genome include the removal of duplicate bits of genetic code and the addition of short genetic sequences that distinguish synthetic chromosomes from their natural counterparts. Unlike other synthetic organisms, the engineered yeast is a eukaryote -- a complex cell with diverse internal structures, just like the cells in the human body. It has more genetic material than the bacteria synthesized by the Venter Institute and Harvard projects.
NASA

NASA Finds Lunar Spacecraft That Vanished 8 Years Ago (cnn.com) 56

An anonymous reader shares a CNN report: It made history as India's first unmanned lunar spacecraft. Then it vanished. Nearly a decade later, NASA has located two unmanned spacecraft orbiting the moon, including India's Chandrayaan-1, which went quiet in 2009. Scientists used a new ground radar to locate the two spacecraft -- one active and one dormant, NASA said Thursday. "We have been able to detect NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO] and the Indian Space Research Organization's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft in lunar orbit with ground-based radar," said Marina Brozovic, a radar scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Finding LRO was relatively easy, as we were working with the mission's navigators and had precise orbit data where it was located."
Space

Stunning Close-up of Saturn's Moon, Pan, Reveals a Space Empanada (sciencemag.org) 63

sciencehabit quotes a report from Science Magazine: Astronomers have long known that Pan, one of Saturn's innermost moons, has an odd look. Based on images taken from a distance, researchers have said it looks like a walnut or a flying saucer. But now, NASA's Cassini probe has delivered stunning close-ups of the 35-kilometer-wide icy moon, and it might be better called a pan-fried dumpling or an empanada. Pan orbits Saturn in a gap in the planet's rings and pulls material from them, so the ridge around it likely started accumulating soon after the moon formed, researchers say. If material in the ridge is still loose, rather than somehow fused together, the ridge can maintain its steepness only because the moon's gravity is so low. The latest pictures were obtained as Cassini conducts its final (and riskiest) flybys past Saturn's moons and rings before it blazes into the planet's atmosphere later this year.
Data Storage

Ancient Technique Can Dramatically Improve Memory, Research Suggests (theguardian.com) 190

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: After spending six weeks cultivating an internal "memory palace," people more than doubled the number of words they could retain in a short time period and their performance remained impressive four months later. The technique, which involves conjuring up vivid images of objects in a familiar setting, is credited to the Greek poet Simonides of Ceos, and is a favored method among so-called memory athletes. The study also revealed that after just 40 days of training, people's brain activity shifted to more closely resemble that seen in some of the world's highest ranked memory champions, suggesting that memory training can alter the brain's wiring in subtle but powerful ways. The study, published in the journal Neuron, recruited 23 of the 50 top-scoring memory athletes in an annual contest called the World Memory Championships. The athletes were given 20 minutes to recall a list of 72 random nouns and they scored, on average, nearly 71 of the 72 words. By contrast, an untrained control group recalled an average of 26 words. This group then followed a daily 30-minute training regime where they practiced walking through a chosen familiar environment, such as their own home, and placing objects in specific locations. After 40 days of 30-minute training sessions, the participants who had average memory skills at the start more than doubled their memory capacity, recalling 62 words on average -- and four months later, without continued training, they could remember 48 words from a list of 72.
China

China Developing Manned Space Mission To the Moon 149

China is building a manned spacecraft capable of sending astronauts to the moon as well as near-Earth orbit flight, according to Chinese state media. From a report on CNBC: The official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China cited system chief architect Zhang Bainan who claimed the craft is being designed to carry as many as six astronauts. The newspaper, Science and Technology Daily, quoted Zhang Bainan as saying China wished to catch up with international standards of space exploration. The fresh announcement follows a separate Chinese ambition to bring back samples from the moon before the end of this year.
Mars

Study Suggests Potatoes Can Grow On Mars (phys.org) 198

The International Potato Center (CIP) has launched a series of experiments to discover if potatoes can grow under Mars' atmospheric conditions, as well as under extreme conditions on Earth. The CIP placed a potato inside a "specially constructed CubeSat contained environment" that simulates Mars temperature, air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. They then used sensors and live-streaming cameras to record the soil and monitor the status of the potato. Preliminary results are positive as cameras inside the container show sprouts. Phys.Org reports: "We have been looking at the very dry soils found in the southern Peruvian desert. These are the most Mars-like soils found on Earth." Chris McKay of NASA ARC. "This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth," says Chris McKay of NASA ARC. From the initial experiment, CIP scientists concluded that future Mars missions that hope to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to allow it to tuberize. "It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," Amoros said. He added that one of the best performing varieties was very salt-tolerant from the CIP breeding program for adaptation to subtropical lowlands with tolerance to abiotic stress that was also recently released as a variety in Bangladesh for cultivation in coastal areas with high soil salinity. Amoros noted that whatever their implications for Mars missions, the experiments have already provided good news about potato's potential for helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth.
AI

Quantum Computer Learns To 'See' Trees (sciencemag.org) 116

sciencehabit writes from a report via Science Magazine: Scientists have trained a quantum computer to recognize trees. That may not seem like a big deal, but the result means that researchers are a step closer to using such computers for complicated machine learning problems like pattern recognition and computer vision. The team fed hundreds of NASA satellite images of California into a D-Wave 2X processor, and asked the computer to consider dozens of features -- hue, saturation, even light reflectance -- to determine whether clumps of pixels were trees as opposed to roads, buildings, or rivers. They then told the computer whether its classifications were right or wrong so that the computer could learn from its mistakes, tweaking the formula it uses to determine whether something is a tree. After it was trained, the D-Wave was 90% accurate in recognizing trees in aerial photographs of Mill Valley, California. The results demonstrate how scientists can program quantum computers to 'look' at and analyze images, and opens up the possibility of using them to solve other complex problems that require heavy data crunching.
Data Storage

IBM Researchers Prove It Is Possible To Store Data In a Single Atom (techcrunch.com) 84

In an experiment published today in Nature, IBM researchers have managed to read and write data to a single atom. A previous atomic storage technique, as mentioned by TechCrunch, doesn't actually store data in the atom, but moves them around to form readable patterns. "This means that imbuing individual atoms with a 0 or 1 is the next major step forward and the next major barrier in storing data digitally, both increasing capacity by orders of magnitude and presenting a brand new challenge to engineers and physicists," reports TechCrunch. From the report: It works like this: A single Holmium atom (a large one with many unpaired electrons) is set on a bed of magnesium oxide. In this configuration, the atom has what's called magnetic bistability: It has two stable magnetic states with different spins (just go with it). The researchers use a scanning tunneling microscope (also invented at IBM, in the 1980s) to apply about 150 millivolts at 10 microamps to the atom -- it doesn't sound like a lot, but at that scale, it's like a lightning strike. This huge influx of electrons causes the Holmium atom to switch its magnetic spin state. Because the two states have different conductivity profiles, the STM tip can detect which state the atom is in by applying a lower voltage (about 75 millivolts) and sensing its resistance. In order to be absolutely sure the atom was changing its magnetic state and this wasn't just some interference or effect from the STM's electric storm, the researchers set an iron atom down nearby. This atom is affected by its magnetic neighborhood, and acted differently when probed while the Holmium atom was in its different states. This proves that the experiment truly creates a lasting, stored magnetic state in a single atom that can be detected indirectly. And there you have it: a single atom used to store what amounts to a 0 or a 1. The experimenters made two of them and zapped them independently to form the four binary combinations (00,01,10,11) that two such nodes can form.
Earth

Malta's Azure Window Collapses Into the Sea (timesofmalta.com) 84

New submitter Duvzo writes: Sadly, our famous [Azure Window] landmark disappeared today, and not just the arch but the whole offshore stack has vanished. Strong gale force winds hit Malta yesterday, ultimately causing their landmark to collapse. Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said the news was heartbreaking. "Reports commissioned over the years indicated that this landmark would be hard hit by unavoidable natural corrosion. That sad day arrived," he said.

Slashdot reader Duvzo notes that the landmark was featured in Clash of the Titans and Game of Thrones. It served as the backdrop to the Dothraki wedding scene in the Game of Thrones.
Science

The Quest To Crystallize Time - Previously Considered Impossible, Researchers Create Time Crystals (nature.com) 129

New submitter omaha393 writes: Researchers have addressed a perplexing issue in physics: the existence of time crystals. Time crystals, previously only hypothetical in nature, are structures that oscillate without any external energy supplied. The idea of time crystals set off a massive feud among physicists, arguing that such a state of matter could not exist. As leading time crystal proponent Frank Wilczek describes it: "conceptually, it is a clock that ticks forever without being wound." With the paper published in Nature Wednesday, researchers showed their method of production and the unusual nature of time crystals, which owe their oscillation properties to never achieving a state of equilibrium. From a report on Phys.org: Ordinary crystals such as diamonds, quartz or ice are made up of molecules that spontaneously arrange into orderly three-dimensional patterns. The sodium and chlorine atoms in a crystal of salt, for example, are spaced at regular intervals, forming a hexagonal lattice. In time crystals, however, atoms are arranged in patterns not only in space, but also in time. In addition to containing a pattern that repeats in space, time crystals contain a pattern that repeats over time. One way this could happen is that the atoms in the crystal move at a certain rate. Were a time crystal of ice to exist, all of the water molecules would vibrate at an identical frequency. What is more, the molecules would do this without any input from the outside world. [...] Shivaji Sondhi, a Princeton professor of physics said that the work addresses some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter. "It was thought that if a system doesn't settle down and come to equilibrium, you couldn't really say that it is in a phase. It is a big deal when you can give a definition of a phase of matter when the matter is not in equilibrium," he said.
United States

Americans Are Having Less Sex Than 20 Years Ago, Study Finds (arstechnica.com) 391

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: American adults reported having nine fewer romps a year in the early 2010s than they did in the late 1990s -- dropping from an average of about 62 times a year between 1995 and 2000 to around 53 a year between 2010 and 2014. Researchers saw declines across ages, races, religions, education levels, employment statuses, and regions. They linked the sagging numbers to two trends: an increase in singletons over that period -- who tend to have less sex than married or partnered people -- plus a slow-down in the sex lives of married and coupled people. But the drivers of those trends are still unclear. The study is based on data from a long-standing national survey called the General Social Survey (GSS). It involves a nationally representative sample of Americans over 18 years old, surveyed most years between 1972 and 2014. The new study involved responses from 26,620 Americans. Specifically, researchers found that married people's annual whoopee frequency dropped from an average of nearly 69 in the 1995-2000 period to just below 56 in the 2010-2014 period. The unmarried saw their lovemaking drop from 54 per year to 51 in the same timeframes. Meanwhile, the number of people without steady partners -- married or otherwise -- rose from 26 percent of survey respondents in 2006 to 33 percent in 2014. People who took the biggest hits in the bedroom since the 1990s were those with a college degree (about 15 fewer times a year) and people living in the South (about 13 fewer times a year). The study has been published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Science

New Sponge Can Soak Up and Release Spilled Oil Hundreds of Times (newscientist.com) 53

Seth Darling and his colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois have created a new material that can absorb up to 90 times its own weight in spilled oil and then be squeezed out like a sponge and reused. This is compared to most commercial products used for soaking up oil, called "sorbents," which act like a paper towel and are only good for a single use. Once the sorbents are used, they get incinerated along with the oil. New Scientist reports: The oil sponge consists of a simple foam made of polyurethane or polyimide plastics and coated with "oil-loving" silane molecules with a sweet spot for capturing oil. Too little chemical attraction would render the sponge useless as an absorber, whereas too much would mean the oil could not be released. In laboratory tests, the researchers found that when engineered with just the right amount of silane, their foam could repeatedly soak up and release oil with no significant changes in capacity. But to determine whether this material could help sort out a big spill in marine waters, they needed to perform a special large-scale test. To do this, the team made an array of square pads of the sponge material measuring around 6 square meters. "We made a lot of the foam, and then these pieces of foam were placed inside mesh bags -- basically laundry bags, with sewn channels to house the foam," Darling says. The researchers suspended their sponge-filled bags from a bridge over a large pool specially designed for practicing emergency responses to oil spills. They then dragged the sponges behind a pipe spewing crude oil to test the material's capability to remove oil from the water. They next sent the sponges through a wringer to remove the oil and then repeated the process, carrying out many tests over multiple days. This so-far unpublished test was conducted in early December at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey. Here's a video showing the sponge in action.
Mars

NASA Proposes a Magnetic Shield To Protect Mars' Atmosphere (phys.org) 211

New submitter Baron_Yam writes: Apparently it is no longer necessarily science fiction to consider terraforming the red planet in a human lifetime. NASA scientists have proposed putting a magnetic shield at the Mars L1 Lagrange Point, diverting sufficient solar wind in hopes that the Martian atmosphere would thicken and heat the planet to the point of melting the ice caps, causing what remains of Martian water to pool on the surface. While not enough of a change to allow walking around without a space suit, this would make human exploration of the planet a much easier task.
Science

Pollution Responsible For a Quarter of Deaths of Young Children, Says WHO (theguardian.com) 87

More than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributable to unhealthy environments. Every year, environmental risks -- such as indoor and outdoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, unsafe water, lack of sanitation, and inadequate hygiene -- take the lives of 1.7 million children under 5 years, say two new WHO reports. The Guardian adds: "A polluted environment is a deadly one -- particularly for young children," says Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO. "Their developing organs and immune systems -- and smaller bodies and airways -- make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water." The harm from air pollution can begin in the womb and increase the risk of premature birth. After birth, air pollution raises the risk of pneumonia, a major cause of death for under fives, and of lifelong lung conditions such as asthma. It may also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer in later life.

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