Wooly Mammoths to be recreated to roam the Arctic, once again

A little more than two years ago, serial tech entrepreneur Ben Lamm reached out to renowned Harvard geneticist George Church. The two met in Boston, at Church’s lab, and that fruitful conversation was the catalyst for the start-up Colossal, which is announcing its existence Monday.

The start-up’s goal is ambitious and a little bit crazy: It aims to create a new type of animal similar to the extinct woolly mammoth by genetically engineering endangered Asian elephants to withstand Arctic temperatures.

It could take as little as six years for Colossal to create a calf, Church told CNBC…“Our goal is in the successful de-extinction of inter-breedable herds of mammoths that we can leverage in the rewilding of the Arctic. And then we want to leverage those technologies for what we’re calling thoughtful, disruptive conservation…” Lamm told CNBC.

Proving the technology with de-extinction is only the beginning. These same technologies will be able to solve a huge array of human problems,” Richard Garriott told CNBC. “Synthetic biology will allow us to create new life forms that can address massive problems, from oil and plastic cleanup to carbon sequestration and much more. Solving tissue rejection and artificial wombs will go on to help improve and extend life for all humans.”

Cripes! I’d like to live another 80 years or so just to see the products of future genetic engineering coming to fruition.

VW to add Electric Vehicle engineering, development, production to US operations

Volkswagen announced plans to add electric vehicle engineering at its factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The German automaker mentioned plans to develop cells and battery packs at the US plant.

The German automaker has been hard at work developing its next-generation electric cars based on its MEB platform. Much of the work happened in Germany, where VW already converted a factory to electric vehicle production.

By 2022, they plan to bring their MEB electric vehicles to the US and produce them there. Now they are also building a new electric vehicle factory next to their existing plant in Chattanooga. The German company is now announcing that it will also engineer EVs in the country.

Makes logistical sense. Means more employment for all levels, all classes of workers in the new automative and transport industry in the United States. They join the ranks of foreign and domestic manufacturers who see a global future in renewable-fuel vehicles.

Our politicians continue their Maypole dance around the White House dunce.

new fossil fuel sources + overproduction = bankruptcy for greedy developers

❝ For decades, elected leaders and corporate executives have chased a dream of independence from unstable or unfriendly foreign oil producers. Mission accomplished: Oil companies are producing record amounts of crude oil and natural gas in the United States and have become major exporters…With a global glut driving down prices, many are losing money and are staying afloat by selling assets and taking on debt…

❝ In the last four years, roughly 175 oil and gas companies in the United States and Canada with debts totaling about $100 billion have filed for bankruptcy protection. Many borrowed heavily when oil and gas prices were far higher, only to collectively overproduce and undercut their commodity prices. At least six companies have gone bankrupt this year, and Weatherford International, the fourth-leading oil services company, which owes investors $7.7 billion, is expected to file for bankruptcy protection…

❝ One concern is that the industry will be forced to leave oil and gas in the ground as climate change prompts environmental restrictions on drilling or a shift to alternative fuels.

As usual, the fossil fuel barons relied on their political bubbas in the White House and Congress to stand in the doorway to blockade any changeover to cleaner and cheaper energy generation. Climate change deniers from both parties were doing their share. Trump was elected and pledged to continue his own variety of populist ignorance to support backwards as the only true American direction.

A funny thing happened on the way to the bank, though. The rest of the world ignored our crooks and hustlers. As did a number of state governments. Not the majority. Just the states that understand that science and engineering, progressive policies result in cleaner, forward-looking economies.

Doesn’t mean problems are all solved. “Backwards” still includes a lot of federal flunkies calling themselves Democrats and Republicans. Change is only coming in the fullest sense of the word if all the deadwood is cleared out of the way.

Nine of the world’s largest tech firms ain’t anywhere near Silicon Valley


FoxConn data centers

China is now home to nine of the world’s largest public tech companies in terms of market value. They include Alibaba, Tencent, Ant Financial, Baidu, Xiaomi, Didi Chuxing, JD.com, Meituan-Dianping, and Toutiao.

With well over a billion citizens and an ever-growing market, China’s rise in the tech market is understandable. Compared to the United States, the Asian country is outpacing, in leaps and bounds, the number of degrees awarded in science and engineering. This highly skilled labor force is paying off in China’s tech world and its expansion.

Just five years ago the Asian giant had only two of the world’s biggest public tech companies in market value. The United States boasted nine of the largest.

I know all of the rationales Americans – more than any Westerners outside of the UK – roll out to disparage faster and more dynamic growth in Asian countries. I worked for American and British firms sourced significantly from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China over a few decades. Some of the crap excuses worked for a few years; but, in every case, the reason those producers ran right past their Anglo-American counterparts was higher standards, a willingness to invest time and money in education, trained staff to accomplish product development and production more efficiently.

The single best example, nowadays, would be FoxConn – a Taiwan company mostly manufacturing in Mainland China. Ask anyone with knowledge of American manufacturing and assembly experience how long it takes to completely switchover a plant from one product line to another? You’ll get an answer measured in weeks. FoxConn takes hours, perhaps a couple of days. Because they will pay 1500 process engineers to takeover that plant floor and rollout a changeover in that time frame. I don’t know any American firms that can scrape together that many spare engineering staff – or would.

And I don’t know of any state in the GOUSA that’s capable of or concerned about educating engineers or researchers ready to develop similar systems here in the US – or in the UK. Yes, cultures are different in many ways. But, I’m just offering real reasons why we don’t compete.

A computerized trader Just beat top banks at currency trading

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 1.51.10 PM

Computerized trading firm XTX Markets Ltd. has come from nowhere to dethrone major banks including Deutsche Bank AG in the rankings of the world’s biggest spot currency traders.

The London-based proprietary trader is now the fourth biggest, accounting for 7.6 percent of spot foreign exchange — a subset of the overall currency market. It’s the first time an electronic specialist has displaced a bank in Euromoney Institutional Investor Plc’s annual survey…

Its name is a reference to a mathematical expression, and the firm was spun off from quantitative hedge fund GSA Capital last year.

XTX’s sudden arrival in foreign exchange is part of an evolution that has already made itself felt in the stock market, where banks are surrendering market making to companies that specialize in electronic trading. XTX says it relies on quantitative research, machine learning and correlations between assets to generate prices.

“Electronic market making is entering other asset classes, whether it’s fixed income or others,” said Steve Grob, global director of group strategy at Fidessa Group Plc. “The foreign-exchange market is worth trillions and trillions — it would seem an obvious direction of travel.”…

XTX Co-Chief Executive Officer Zar Amrolia helped build Deutsche’s fixed-income and currencies business. Alex Gerko, a former currencies quant trader at GSA Capital, is the other co-CEO…

Amrolia says XTX isn’t necessarily in competition with the dealers, which have traditionally formed the backbone of currency trading. XTX partners with large banks, allowing them to give their clients access to prices generated by XTX, he said.

Competition is good and innovation is good,” he said. “What’s even better is partnership.”

Yes, I know this doesn’t mean geeks are winning. But – this is part of what China’s government means when they say they’re transforming their economy to consumer-oriented services. Some of those consumers are pretty large corporate entities – including banks and financial traders. And, then, their customers.

Fools who think goons like Trump are going to bring back jobs fastening part A to sub-assembly C simply haven’t a clue. I sincerely doubt if there’s much of anyone this side of Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown or Bernie Sanders in either of the two political parties we’re allowed – who gets it, either.

Obama trudges along with his centrist version of 1950’s thinking with projects like the TPP trade agreement without rebuilding American education or transforming our economy to have much to sell other than soybeans, natgas and oil – and the intellectual property rights for the construction of Buicks. Last month, I checked up on a few of the capital goods manufacturers I worked for [or represented] over the years – and everyone of them is now foreign-owned.

That’s OK. Buying and selling is part of all market economies. But, we’re not moving forward with replacements in our economy other than high tech which is completely portable to manufacture in developing nations as long as they have the engineering education now common in much of Asia.

DARPA hands MIT Lab $32 million to program living cells

Christopher Voigt talking about engineering biology

…The Broad Institute Foundry, a synthetic biology laboratory at MIT, has announced its new contract with DARPA. The lab will receive $32 million for engineering cells to find better treatments for disease, make new biofuels, or create fabrics woven with life.

Living cells are the ultimate engineering substrate. They are the most difficult thing out there to be able to control,” says Christopher Voigt, professor of biomedical engineering…

“Imagine being able to engineer a living cell that can navigate the human body, identify disease, and correct that disease. That requires that the cell be able to sense where they are in the body, be able to detect it, and deliver a therapeutic. And that’s something that biology, we know it can do. But we don’t know how to harness that as part of a medicine.”

The Foundry is one of many labs working to manipulate the DNA of bacteria and other types of cells to make certain molecules—researchers have created cells that can make wood or seashells, for example. The work has mostly been limited to simple organic molecules, and progress has been slow since it takes a while for DNA to be put into cells and for those cells to mature.

With the DARPA contract, the Foundry will be able to join forces with other academics working on synthetic biology and computer science, as well as companies in various industries “including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food, energy, agriculture, and biotechnology,” according to the press release…

The POPSCI article tries to crystal ball what the lab will come up with to keep DARPA happy. Military end-users are DARPA’s assigned market; so, a narrow view is easy. But, DARPA also has a history of supporting bona fide basic research that ended up with broad results – for example – like the Internet.

Exciting stuff.

OTOH, I imagine the conjoined left-and-right Luddites who crap their knickers over anything involving DNA, genetic manipulation, pretty much anything that triggers superstition and anti-science fears – will spend the next few years cranking up their journalistic conspiracy machine – aiming it at MIT.

Will we find life — “not as we know it” — on Saturn’s moon Titan


Click to enlargeAzotosome, the theorized cell membrane on Titan

Liquid water is a requirement for life on Earth. But in other, much colder worlds, life might exist beyond the bounds of water-based chemistry.

Taking a simultaneously imaginative and rigidly scientific view, Cornell chemical engineers and astronomers offer a template for life that could thrive in a harsh, cold world – specifically Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. A planetary body awash with seas not of water, but of liquid methane, Titan could harbor methane-based, oxygen-free cells that metabolize, reproduce and do everything life on Earth does.

Their theorized cell membrane, composed of small organic nitrogen compounds and capable of functioning in liquid methane temperatures of 292 degrees below zero, is published in Science Advances…The work is led by chemical molecular dynamics expert Paulette Clancy…with first author James Stevenson, a graduate student in chemical engineering. The paper’s co-author is Jonathan Lunine…the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy…

On Earth, life is based on the phospholipid bilayer membrane, the strong, permeable, water-based vesicle that houses the organic matter of every cell. A vesicle made from such a membrane is called a liposome. Thus, many astronomers seek extraterrestrial life in what’s called the circumstellar habitable zone, the narrow band around the sun in which liquid water can exist. But what if cells weren’t based on water, but on methane, which has a much lower freezing point?

The engineers named their theorized cell membrane an “azotosome,” “azote” being the French word for nitrogen. “Liposome” comes from the Greek “lipos” and “soma” to mean “lipid body;” by analogy, “azotosome” means “nitrogen body.”

The azotosome is made from nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen molecules known to exist in the cryogenic seas of Titan, but shows the same stability and flexibility that Earth’s analogous liposome does. This came as a surprise to chemists like Clancy and Stevenson, who had never thought about the mechanics of cell stability before; they usually study semiconductors, not cells.

The engineers employed a molecular dynamics method that screened for candidate compounds from methane for self-assembly into membrane-like structures. The most promising compound they found is an acrylonitrile azotosome, which showed good stability, a strong barrier to decomposition, and a flexibility similar to that of phospholipid membranes on Earth. Acrylonitrile – a colorless, poisonous, liquid organic compound used in the manufacture of acrylic fibers, resins and thermoplastics – is present in Titan’s atmosphere.

Excited by the initial proof of concept, Clancy said the next step is to try and demonstrate how these cells would behave in the methane environment – what might be the analogue to reproduction and metabolism in oxygen-free, methane-based cells.

In part, Stevenson said he was inspired by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote about the concept of non-water-based life in his 1962 essay, “Not as We Know It.” I think we can conclude as Asimov would – intelligence formed of life “not as we know it” – but with science grounded in material reality, will develop an understanding of science identical in premises as any of our own species’ physical scientists. Leading or trailing one another the results must be the same since material reality remains the same.

Perceptions can vary widely. An intelligent lifeform evolved through differing chemistry wouldn’t be likely to have the same senses or senses arrayed in the same hierarchy. The possibilities are intriguing.

Truly, a worthwhile adventure. I wish them well.

Forth Bridge nominated for UNESCO world heritage status

The Forth Bridge has come a step closer to being designated as a world heritage site…The Forth Bridges Forum will now prepare a bid for consideration in 2014, with a decision expected the following year.

Once the bids are submitted, they will undergo what has been termed ”a demanding 18 month process of scrutiny and evaluation” by Unesco and its advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “The Forth Bridge is a Scottish icon that is recognised the world over.

“We are extremely excited that we have the opportunity to make the case for the bridge being inscribed as Scotland’s sixth World Heritage Site…”

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said the bridge was “a huge feat of Scottish engineering skill”.

He added: “It was nominated for Unesco World Heritage Status by the UK Government last year, and the fact it has topped the list and can now take its bid forward is good news for Scotland…”

David Simpson, route managing director for Network Rail Scotland, said: “The Forth Bridge is one of the most recognisable bridges anywhere in the world and certainly the most cherished Scottish structure of the Victorian era.

“The bridge has become a source of pride and a symbol of Scotland’s resilience and ingenuity, but we must never lose sight of the fact that it is first and foremost a working structure which still carries over 200 trains a day.

The bridge is a beautiful work of engineering. As it was the first day it opened for service in the Victorian era – as it is, today. A true world heritage site.

Italian university — Politecnico di Milano — switches to English

From opera at La Scala to football at the San Siro stadium, from the catwalks of fashion week to the soaring architecture of the cathedral, Milan is crowded with Italian icons. Which makes it even more of a cultural earthquake that one of Italy’s leading universities – the Politecnico di Milano – is going to switch to the English language.

The university has announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses – including all its graduate courses – will be taught and assessed entirely in English rather than Italian.

The waters of globalisation are rising around higher education – and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution.

“We strongly believe our classes should be international classes – and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language,” says the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzone…

He says that his university’s experiment will “open up a window of change for other universities”, predicting that in five to 10 years other Italian universities with global ambitions will also switch to English…

But what is driving this cultural change? Is it the intellectual equivalent of pop bands like Abba singing in English to reach a wider market?

Professor Azzone says a university wants to reach the widest market in ideas – and English has become the language of higher education, particularly in science and engineering. “I would have preferred if Italian was the common language, it would have been easier for me – but we have to accept real life,” he says.

When English is the language of international business, he also believes that learning in English will make his students more employable…

The need to attract overseas students and researchers, including from the UK and non-English speaking countries, is another important reason for switching to English as the primary language…

But Professor Azzone also pointed to the bigger economic geography of higher education.

European universities face being caught between two competing powers – the wealthy heavy weights in the United States and the rising countries of Asia.

RTFA for many more details, arguments for and against. Poisonally, I think Azzone has hit on a good idea though much of the argument he raises is only window dressing. It’s unlikely that the major centers for education in Italy will switch exclusively to English. But, he’ll be in a position to attract students who want that environment for one or another of the projected reasons.

His premise that European universities must choose between the United States and Asia is absurd. And if it were a fact, I’d suggest he come down on the side of some American CEOs who have their grandchildren learning Chinese. 🙂

Former DARPA/NASA scientist gets 13 years in espionage case


Frame from hidden video of Nozaette trying to sell the farm
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

A former government space scientist was sentenced Wednesday to 13 years in prison after admitting he tried to sell space and defense secrets to Israel in what turned out to be an FBI sting operation.

Appearing in federal court in a prison jumpsuit, Stewart Nozette said he is “paying for a fatal lack of judgment…I accept full responsibility,” Nozette told U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman…

Nozette had high-level security clearances during decades of government work on science and space projects at NASA, the Energy Department and the National Space Council in President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

Nozette pleaded guilty to one count of attempted espionage, admitting he tried to provide Israel with top secret information about satellites, early warning systems, methods for retaliating against large-scale attack, communications intelligence information and major elements of defense strategy.

At the time of Nozette’s arrest for attempted espionage in 2009, he was awaiting sentencing on fraud and tax evasion charges…

Nice guy.

Nozette was known primarily as a defense technologist who had worked on the Reagan-era missile defense shield effort, nicknamed “Star Wars” and formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative…

One of Nozette’s lawyers, Bradford Berenson, called the espionage case “vindictive” and an illustration of “overreaching government conduct” at a time when Nozette was already enmeshed in the tax and fraud case.

The government suspected Nozette might be interested in spying after a search of his Chevy Chase, Md., home in February 2007 in the tax and fraud probe…

The search of his home turned up classified documents, though Nozette’s lawyers said in his defense Wednesday that they were not marked as such. Nozette was not allowed to have unsecured classified documents in his home.

Agents also discovered Nozette sent an email in 2002 threatening to sell information about a classified program he was working on to Israel or another country. The FBI decided to conduct an undercover operation to see how serious he was…

Nozette also was ordered to pay $217,800 in restitution for fraudulent claims he made to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Va., and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Sounds like he was ready to turn all of his work for the United States into a private profit center.