Writing for HeroX and Universe Today!

good_news_farnsworthGood news, everyone! My services as a freelance writer were recently enlisted by the good folks who run HeroX and Universe Today. Thanks to my old friend and mentor, Fraser Cain (who consequently got me started in the indie publishing bizz), I’m going to be bringing the experience I’ve garnered writing my own blog to a more professional format – writing about space exploration, innovation and technological development.

As you can imagine, this means I’ll be doing less in the way of writing for this here website. But I promise I’ll still be around! After all, I’ve got lost more work to do on my stories, and there are always articles and headlines that need to be written about that I won’t get a chance to cover at those other sites. So rest assured, storiesbywilliams will be in operation for a long time to come.

XPRIZE_GooglePlus_Cover_2120x1192For those unfamiliar, HeroX is a spinoff of the XPRIZE Foundation, the non-profit organization that runs public competitions intended to encourage technological development and innovation. It’s directors includes such luminaries as Google’s Elon Musk and Larry Page, director James Cameron, author and columnist Arianna Huffington, and businessman/ philanthropist Ratan Tata, and more. In short, they are kind of a big deal!

Fraser Cain, founder of Universe Today, began HeroX as a way of combining the best of the XPRIZE with a crowdfunding platform similar to Kickstarter. Basically, the site brings together people with ideas for new inventions, finds the people with the talent and resources to make them happen, and funnels contributions and donations to them to bankroll their research and development.

big_bangUniverse Today, on the other hand, is kind of an old stomping ground for me. Years back, I did articles for them that dealt with a range of topics, including geology, natural science, physics, environmentalism, and astronomy. In both cases, I’ll be doing write ups on news items that involve technological development and innovation, and doing interviews with some of the people in the business.

If possible, I’ll try to link articles done for these sources to this page so people can check them out. And stay tuned for more updates on the upcoming release of Flash Forward, Oscar Mike, and my various other projects. Peace out!

Immortality Inc: Regrowing Body Parts

https://i0.wp.com/images.gizmag.com/hero/lizardtails-2.jpgAnyone who has ever observed a lizard must not have failed to notice that they are capable of detaching their tails, and then regenerating them from scratch. This propensity for “spontaneous regeneration” is something that few organisms possess, and mammals are sadly not one of them. But thanks to a team of Arizona State University scientists, the genetic recipe behind this ability has finally been unlocked.

This breakthrough is a small part of a growing field of biomedicine that seeks to improve human health by tampering with the basic components (i.e. our DNA). The research, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Arizona Biomedical Research Commission, also involved scientists from the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Translational Genomic Research Institute, and Michigan State University.

dna_cancerAccording to Prof. Kenro Kusumi, lead author of a paper on the genetic study, lizards are the most closely-related animals to humans that can regenerate entire appendages. They also share the same genetic language as us, so it’s theoretically possible that we could do what they do, if only we knew which genes to use and in what amounts. As Kusumi explains in the paper, which was published Aug. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE. :

Lizards basically share the same toolbox of genes as humans. We discovered that they turn on at least 326 genes in specific regions of the regenerating tail, including genes involved in embryonic development, response to hormonal signals, and wound healing.

Other animals, such as salamanders, frog tadpoles, and fish, can also regenerate their tails. During tail regeneration, they all turn on genes in what is called the ‘Wnt pathway’ — a process that is required to control stem cells in many organs such as the brain, hair follicles and blood vessel. However, lizards have a unique pattern of tissue growth that is distributed throughout the tail.

calico-header-640x353 It takes lizards more than 60 days to regenerate a functional tail — forming a complex regenerating structure with cells growing into different tissues at a number of sites along the tail. According to Katsumi, harnessing this would be a boon for medicine for obvious reasons:

Using next-generation technologies to sequence all the genes expressed during regeneration, we have unlocked the mystery of what genes are needed to regrow the lizard tail. By following the genetic recipe for regeneration that is found in lizards, and then harnessing those same genes in human cells, it may be possible to regrow new cartilage, muscle or even spinal cord in the future.

The researchers also hope their findings will also help repairing birth defects and treating diseases such as arthritis. Given time, and enough positive results, I think it would be fair to expect that Google’s Clinical Immortality subsidiary – known as Calico – will buy up all the necessary rights. Then, it shouldn’t be more than a decade before a gene treatments is produced that will allow for spontaneous regeneration and the elimination of degenerative diseases.

The age of post-mortal is looming people. Be scared/enthused!

Sources: kurzweil.net, gizmag.com

Cyberwars: The Month of Cyberattacks

hackers_securityThe month of August has been a busy time for online security specialists, due to numerous cyberattacks being reported close to each other. First came word that supermarket chain Supervalu had been hacked, followed by news of security breaches at a largest American medical group, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then the UPS Store. In all cases, the intrusions led to the theft of millions of users’ personal data.

The worst of the lot appears to have been the massive cyberattack on Community Health Systems, one of the largest hospital chains in the US that oversees 206 hospitals in 29 states. According to the company, the intrusion led to stolen Social Security numbers, patient names, addresses, birth dates and telephone numbers of some 4.5 million patients. And as usual, the attack is believed to have had the backing of a foreign government.

https://i2.wp.com/www.chs.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/hma-map.pngThis is the largest known attack to involve hospital patient information since the US government began tracking these types of data breaches in 2009. According to Elysium Digital data security expert Joseph Calandrino:

One possible goal of this attack is to facilitate future targeted attacks. The type of data that was stolen from the hospital system is often used to verify a person’s identify. The exposure of this data creates a risk that the hackers could leverage it to gain access to other accounts and information.

As is so often the case these days, it is believed the cyberattack originated in China. Security firm Mandiant, which investigated the breach in April and June, said the hackers belong to a group that targets crucial infrastructure, such as defense, engineering, financial services, and health care companies. It’s unclear if these hackers are affiliated with the Chinese government.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsVarious security experts have long accused China of waging a cyberwar on US government and private company websites. For example, a report that was released by Mandiant back in 2013 linked Unit 61398 of the China’s People’s Liberation Army to a large number of cyberattacks on US soil. However, the Chinese government has flatly denied that it is involved in cyber-espionage or hacking.

Community Health Systems has since reported that it stopped the cyberattack by removing the malicious software used by the hackers and is notifying its patients of the breach. It has also been reported that the hack may have been facilitated by the Heartbleed bug, a flaw in OpenSSL that hackers use to exploit to obtain encrypted data. The timing certainly seems apt, as the bug was revealed back in April and the attack took place between April and June.

nsasecurity_primary-100041064-largeHowever, this was were merely one of several breaches that took place over the past few months. In addition to the CHS, UPS, and numerous major outlets, cybersecurity firm Hold Security identified what was arguably the largest known data breach in history earlier this month. In this attack, the Russian cybergang Cybervor allegedly stole 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses.

With these latest attacks, it appears that large-scale security breaches carried out by individual hackers and sponsored by nation-states is becoming the new normal. And as these kinds of attacks become more common, cybersecurity experts are concerned that people may suffer from “alert fatigue”, where they will basically cease caring about and not be aware of breaches that affect them.

RAND_hqIn addition, security experts would like people to keep in mind that there is a difference between a spike in activity and reporting on activity. Much like the problems of violence, teen sex and crime rates, there is likely a gap between an actual increase and the perception of one. As Lillian Ablon, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, explained:

Back during Operation Aurora [in 2009], when Google got hacked, Google coming out [in 2010] was a big step in the industry. Before that, companies didn’t really talk about being breached.

Legally, companies and government agencies are required to report security breaches to the public only when customer data is involved, and only in 47 states. Alabama, New Mexico, and South Dakota lack mandatory reporting laws, and few laws on the books extract penalties when a breach occurs. Still, whatever the magnitude of the number of security breaches, it’s also true that we are living in an increasingly uncertain world when it comes to keeping our data safe.

internetNaturally, public vigilance is a good policy, but its not exactly a solution. When the hacks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Community Health Systems, the Cybervor attack, and hack of the DHS, the attacks were suspected of coming from abroad. More and more, attacks are being staged from a location that is far removed from the source, and backed by third parties who are likely unknown.

Security experts believe that the eventual solution will require businesses to rethink how they operate, putting a much bigger emphasis on security. But the consequences of that could have global economic implications, if better security hurts competitiveness. In the short term, it means that customers who do business with companies that suffer security breaches will need to be that much more vigilant.

That means not reusing passwords for multiple accounts, using two-factor authentication when available, and keeping a close eye on bank statements and credit card activity. And as for the breaches themselves, there’s not much you can do except be prepared to hear about more of them, more often. For better or for worse, it is the age we live in, where big data means big data intrusion!

Sources: cnet.com, (2), (3)

News From Space: Astronaut Robots

spheres_1As if it weren’t bad enough that they are replacing workers here on Earth, now they are being designed to replace us in space! At least, that’s the general idea behind Google and NASA’s collaborative effort to make SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites). As the name suggests, these robots are spherical, floating machines that use small CO2 thrusters to move about and performing chores usually done by astronauts.

Earlier this month, NASA announced it’s plan to launch some SPHERES aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station to begin testing. That launch took place on July 11th, and the testing has since begun. Powered by Tango, Google’s prototype smartphone that comes with 3D sensors that map the environment around them, the three satellites were used to perform routine tasks.

nasa-antares-launch-photoNASA has sent SPHERES to the ISS before, but all they could really do was move around using their small CO2 thruster. With the addition of a Tango “brain” though, the hope is that the robots will actually be able to assist astronauts on some tasks, or even completely carry out some mundane chores. In addition, the mission is to prepare the robots for long-term use and harmonized them to the ISS’ environment.

This will consist of the ISS astronauts testing SPHERES ability to fly around and dock themselves to recharge (since their batteries only last 90 minutes), and use the Tango phones to map the Space Station three-dimensionally. This data will be fed into the robots so they have a baseline for their flight patterns. The smartphones will be attached to the robots for future imaging tasks, and they will help with mathematical calculations and transmitting a Wi-Fi signal.

spheres_0In true science fiction fashion, the SPHERES project began in 2000 after MIT professor David W. Miller was inspired by the “Star Wars” scene where Luke Skywalker is being trained in handling a lightsaber by a small flying robot. Miller asked his students to create a similar robot for the aerospace Industry. Their creations were then sent to the ISS in 2006, where they have been ever since.

As these early SPHERES aren’t equipped with tools, they will mostly just fly around the ISS, testing out their software. The eventual goal is to have a fleet of these robots flying around in formation, fixing things, docking with and moving things about, and autonomously looking for misplaced items. If SPHERES can also perform EVAs (extra-vehicular activity, space walks), then the risk of being an astronaut would be significantly reduced.

spheresIn recent years there has been a marked shift towards the use of off-the-shelf hardware in space (and military) applications. This is partly due to tighter budgets, and partly because modern technology has become pretty damn sophisticated. As Chris Provencher, SPHERES project manager, said in an interview with Reuters:

We wanted to add communication, a camera, increase the processing capability, accelerometers and other sensors [to the SPHERES]. As we were scratching our heads thinking about what to do, we realized the answer was in our hands. Let’s just use smartphones.

The SPHERES system is currently planned to be in use on the ISS until at least 2017. Combined with NASA’s Robonaut, there are some fears that this is the beginning of a trend where astronauts are replaced entirely by robots. But considering how long it would take to visit a nearby star, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. At least until all of the necessary terraforming have been carried out in advance of the settlers.

So perhaps robots will only be used to do the heavy lifting, or the work that is too dull, dangerous or dirty for regular astronauts – just like drones. Hopefully, they won’t be militarized though. We all saw how that went! And be sure to check out this video of SPHERES being upgraded with Project Tango, courtesy of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP):


Sources:
nasa.gov, extremetech.com, techtimes.com

Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with Space.com’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


Sources:
fastcompany.com, buzzaldrin.com, space.com

The Future is Here: Glucose-Monitoring Contact Lenses

google-novartis-alcon-smart-contact-lens-0Earlier this year, Google announced that it was developing a contact lens that would be capable of monitoring blood glucose levels. By monitoring a person’s glucose levels through their tears, and sending that information to a smartphone, the device promised to do away with tests that require regular blood samples and pinpricks. And now, a partnership has been announced between that will help see this project through to completion.

Alcon, the eye care division of Novartis – a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company – recently joined Google’s project to commercialize “smart contact lens” technology. The project, which came out of the Google X blue-sky innovation arm of the company, aimed to utilize a “tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material,” in order to detect glucose levels present in tears.

google-novartis-alcon-smart-contact-lensAt the time of the initial announcement in January, Google said its prototypes were able to take one glucose reading per second and that they was investigating ways for the device to act as an early warning system for the wearer should glucose levels become abnormal. All that was needed was a partner with the infrastructure and experience in the medical industry to see the prototypes put into production.

Under the terms of the new agreement, Google will license the technology to Alcon “for all ocular medical uses” and the two companies will collaborate to develop the lens and bring it to market. Novartis says that it sees Google’s advances in the miniaturization of electronics as complementary to its own expertise in pharmaceuticals and medical device. No doubt, the company also sees this as an opportunity to get in on the new trend of digitized, personalized medicine.

future_medicineAs Novartis said in a recent press release:

The agreement marries Google’s expertise in miniaturized electronics, low power chip design and microfabrication with Alcon’s expertise in physiology and visual performance of the eye, clinical development and evaluation, as well as commercialization of contact and intraocular lenses.

The transaction remains subject to anti-trust approvals, but assuming it goes through, Alcon hopes it will help to accelerate its product innovation. And with that, diabetics can look forward to yet another innovative device that simplifies the blood monitoring process and offers better early warning detection that can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, foot ulcers, loss of vision, and coma.

Sources: gizmag.com, novartis.com

Encoding Equality: Girl Geek Academy

girlgeekWhen it comes to the gaming industry, there appears to be something of a glass ceiling. According to a developer satisfaction survey that was released last month from the International Game Developers Association, only 22 percent of people working in the gaming industry are women. And while this presents a twofold increase from five years ago (11.5%), it’s proportionally low considering that women make up some 48% of the gaming community.

This disparity is pretty common across software, app development, and tech startups (even though startups led by women produce 12 per cent higher returns). The logical next step would be to encourage more women to enter these fields. This is where Girl Geek Academy comes in, an initiative aimed at teaching women the skills they need to start their own ventures – everything from coding classes to mentoring programs from successful start-ups.

girlgeek_dinnerAnd there’s definitely demand for it, according to co-founder, programmer and senior digital strategist Tammy Butow:

We have seen over the years that female-focused groups have helped increase the number of women attending technology events and learning technology skills. Over the last few years I have run Girl Geek Dinners Melbourne – in January 2013 we had 350 members – and we then ran a series of tech workshops to teach skills such as HTML, CSS and JS…

Girl Geek Dinners Melbourne now has over 1000 members. [Fellow co-founder] April [Staines] and I also ran Australia’s first all-female hackathon She Hacks in Melbourne. She Hacks sold out in one week, a few weeks later we also ran Australia’s first Startup Weekend Women event and that sold out too.

After running these workshops and discovering just how many women were interested in learning these skills, Butow and her associates decided to widen their scope. This they did by opening up a series of classes and programs for women of all ages (above the age of 18) and skill levels with a target of achieving a total of one million women building apps and learning to create startups by the year 2025.

girlgeek_acadAs Butow explained, it’s all about taking the next step in the development of the internet as we know it:

The internet we know now was primarily built by men. We are interested in finding out what women would like to create. At the Startup Weekend Women event we recently ran, there were several teams that created apps focusing on flexible work opportunities for women. This was a very clear theme for the weekend. We had several women in attendance who were expecting children or had small children; they are interested in using technology to solve the problems they are experiencing.

Partnered with Google, Aduro and 99Designs, the Academy offers a number of classes – either as face-to-face workshops, or via Google Hangouts and Aduro. The two-hour classes include learning different programming languages, such as JavaScript and Ruby, down to the basics of founding a startup, such as a public speaking class and how to manage your finances.

https://i0.wp.com/klausandfritz.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/GGAcademyLaunch-19.jpgMore experienced women are encouraged to teach classes, and the Academy already boasts a variety of events, ranging from hackathons, makerfests, code getaways and study tours. The team is already organising the very first study tour, hoping to take Australian women to visit global startup hotspots such as Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. And though women are the focus, men are welcome too, as long as they attend with a girl geek and are willing to lend a helping hand.

The first class took place on July 15th in Richmond, Victoria. For the price of AU$35, people got a healthy dinner and a seminar that focused on the very first issue relating to development: how to pitch an idea. For an additional AU$10, people were able to get tickets for the Google Hangout. For those interested in getting in on events held in the next 12 months, they can look them up on the Girl Geek Academy website.

Personally, I think this is a great initiative with a noble purpose. Despite great strides being made by women in all walks of professional life, certain industries remain tougher than others to crack. By creating an organization and atmosphere that fosters support, guidance and welcomes contribution, the gaming industry is likely to see a lot more women on the supply side in coming years.

the_evolution_by_pedro_croft-d5qxi09-600x259Perhaps then we can look forward to more positive representations of women in games, yes?

Sources: cnet.com, girlgeekacademy.com