The US Needs “Civic Social Networks” Where Elected Officials and the Public Can Engage

Civic Social Networks

In the United States at present, there is a wall between elected officials and citizens as the result of paid political advertisements and spending that filter the conversation through the desires of corporate sponsors. Constructive political dialogue with the public is an essential part of a healthy democracy, as it allows opinions to be voiced on both sides with an overarching positive, forward-thinking mindset. While this line of communication has waned and become less accessible, citizens have become increasingly connected through the many channels of social networking.

In a detailed piece on the subject published by TechCrunch, Rep. Rick Crawford asked why citizens can’t use social media as a means to productively engage with their elected officials the same way they do, say, the customer service side of major companies. “Citizens across the country are already utilizing social media to communicate directly with companies like American Airlines and Taco Bell to receive real-time, unfiltered feedback,” he said.

Crawford makes a bold point. If we are able to openly criticize, praise, and give honest feedback to corporations directly through social media, why doesn’t the same opportunity exist for communication between elected officials and citizens? Especially within a government system that is designed to take into account the opinions of its citizens, it seems as though this would be an obvious and necessary facet.

Crawford elaborated, explaining that “Most people equate government to politics and vice versa. In truth, there are actually two legally distinct sides to each elected office in Washington — the official side (duties of the office) and the political side (campaigning).”

He went on to say that “Generally speaking, those two sides cannot — and should not — be mixed,” giving an example of fundraising. As a state representative, Crawford said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to use official time and resources to engage in political campaigns or fundraise for them. That time should be used for engaging with all his constituents to work on policy — not just those who fund him politically.

Open, unbiased discourse between citizens and elected officials is an integral part of a healthy system. Image Credit: StockSnap / Pixabay
Open, unbiased discourse between citizens and elected officials is an integral part of a healthy system. Image Credit: StockSnap / Pixabay

Political Social Networking

Crawford also explained that official and political social networking accounts serve two distinct purposes — as the two are, or at least should be, two separate entities. By way of example, Crawford uses his official accounts “to listen to my constituents, explain my policy positions, take criticism, share my public events, and in general engage as many people in Arkansas’ 1st as are willing to listen.”

Political social accounts could serve as a direct route for asking for and receiving feedback without the interference of formal advertisements. Although he doesn’t offer an exact gameplan for how to create such a network, Crawford did offer some suggestions on where to start. At the very least, we’d need an entirely new kind of platform. “I have no doubt that the same great minds who are actively driving new platforms for commerce and engagement can formulate a new product (or adapt an existing one) that allows elected officials to engage the American people in a civic environment without paid ads and political spending,” Crawford said, emphasizing the importance of the platform being free from paid political advertisement, which Crawford calls distracting at the very least, and “disastrous” at worst — particularly when filled with misleading or irrelevant information.

However such an exchange might take shape in the future, Crawford’s argument in favor of one is compelling. There needs to be a platform or method for the public to engage with elected officials in an environment absent of bias by paid advertisements, and accessible for the general public to voice their honest, critical feedback.

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Surprising Study Shows Fungicides May Be a Major Threat to Bees

Bee Population Decline

It’s a well-known fact that global bee populations are on the decline. Scientists have been struggling to better understand the alarming trend for years, and a new study appears to have shed some light on a key contributing factor. The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, has shown that fungicides are a leading factor linked to bee population declines.

In a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, it was revealed that from 2008 to 2013, populations declined about 23 percent across the contiguous U.S., and in 139 counties throughout the U.S., wild bee populations are considered to be in serious danger.

The worrisome trend is not only a threat to native bee populations but to many industries, humans rely on, in which pollinators (bees in particular) play a critical role in, such as agriculture and the continued success of plant species. According to a 2014 piece published by the BBC, bees “pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. Honey bees are responsible for $ 30 billion a year in crops.”

Dwindling U.S. bee populations. Image Credit: University of Vermont / PNAS
Dwindling U.S. bee populations. Image Credit: University of Vermont / PNAS

Fungicides

The recent study showed fungicides may well be the strongest contributing factor to bee decline. These findings came as a surprise to scientists, as fungicides are used to target molds and mildews, not insects. In fact, according to  Scott McArt, at Cornell University in the U.S. and who led the new study, up until now “Fungicides have been largely overlooked.”

Researchers are not positive about why they pose such a distinct threat to bees, but the present conclusion is that they make bees more susceptible to the deadly nosema parasite and/or increase the toxicity of other pesticides. What scientists do know is that whatever the mechanism is that makes fungicides so deadly to bees, it needs to be addressed for the sake of these populations.

McArt expanded, saying that “There needs to be much more work on fungicides and their role in bee declines. People are not looking in all the places they probably should.”

Matt Shardlow, at conservation charity Buglife, said that “The way we humans are managing the landscape is putting bees are under enormous pressure, and just as we seem to be making progress towards a complete ban [in the EU] on a proven factor – neonicotinoid insecticides – it appears a very common fungicide could also be a driver of wild bee decline. Scientists and regulators must respond with urgent new studies.”

Professor David Goulson, at the University of Sussex, UK added that “This research suggests the regulatory system for pesticides may have let us down once again, perhaps because regulatory tests don’t expose bees to the pesticide and a disease at the same time.”

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DARPA Launches Subterranean Challenge to Improve Underground Ops

Subterranean Challenge

It can seem as though every square inch of planet Earth is colonized, cultivated, or otherwise utilized by humans and our endless variety of projects and needs. Even Earth’s orbit is rife with our creations, our presence, and our detritus. Of late, Elon Musk and the Boring Company have delved underground to develop the little that is usually left alone — and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has recently joined in.

At the end of December, the agency announced its latest contest, called the Subterranean or “SubT” Challenge. Contest participants will develop systems that could help humans to map, traverse, and search through underground locations that would otherwise be too difficult and dangerous to enter or explore.

According to Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO) in a recent statement, “One of the main limitations facing war fighters and emergency responders in subterranean environments is a lack of situational awareness; we often don’t know what lies beneath us. The DARPA Subterranean Challenge aims to provide previously unimaginable situational awareness capabilities for operations underground.”

While some might be quick to liken this contest to Musk’s Boring Company, the intent of the project is not to build tunnels for citizens to move through, but rather to develop tools and methods of understanding that will give us the ability to know more about what’s below. This will allow those responding in emergencies like earthquakes and other seismic events, sink hole collapses, and war to better help those in need.

Going Underground

DARPA’s SubT Challenge will incorporate innovators from all over the globe. Participating teams have the option of pursuing either of two separate tracks: a Systems Track, in which they would develop hardware-based solutions for an actual, physical underground course; or a Virtual Track, in which the team would develop software for a virtual course.

The preliminary events will feature circuit challenges in three different environments: a network of human-made tunnels, a subterranean municipal-transit system, or a networks of natural, underground caves. During this final leg of the contest, planned for the year 2021, participating teams will have to complete a challenge that incorporates elements of all three environments.

The winner of the Systems track will take home a $ 2 million prize, while the Virtual winner will get $ 750,000.

Diagram showing aspects of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, including the 3 sub domains (tunnel systems, urban underground, and caves) participants will have to work in.
Image Credit: DARPA

In a disaster situation, there may be a host of changing and surprising variables.  From the after-effects of a seismic event to unexpected debris and materials, below the Earth’s surface is a complicated, other world. If this challenge is successful in eliciting innovative and novel strategies for managing and exploring below, future disaster relief, new construction, and even transportation — like the high-speed train and hyperloop tunnels already under construction — could greatly benefit.

“Instead of avoiding caves and tunnels, we can use surrogates to map and assess their suitability for use,” said TTO Director Fred Kennedy in the DARPA statement on the project. “Through the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, we are inviting the scientific and engineering communities — as well as the public — to use their creativity and resourcefulness to come up with new technologies and concepts to make the inaccessible accessible.”

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2017 Broke Another Heat Record — but There’s Hope for Future Years

New Highs

Last year set a grim new heat record for the planet. According to NASA data pulled together by The Guardian, 2017 was the second hottest year ever recorded, and the hottest ever if we don’t consider years when El Niño’s influence drove temperatures up.

Not only was 2017 the hottest year without an El Niño by a margin of 0.17°C (0.306° F) compared to 2014, but it was also hotter than 2015, which is remembered for the disruptive impacts of one of the strongest El Niño ever recorded.

El Niño is part of the earth’s natural cycle, and it’s not a consequence of climate change. These abnormally warm years are part of a climatic oscillation known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, a cycle that swings between warm El Niño years, neutral, and abnormally cold years called La Niña. Some of the El Niño impacts — for example, the 2015 drought in southern Africa —  are dauntingly similar to what we imagine may happen to the most vulnerable areas of the world under exacerbated climate change.

Now, it looks like temperatures in what we call a “neutral year,” one not influenced by the short-term warming caused by El Niño, may be reaching similar highs with unpredictable consequences. The difference is stark when you look at the history of temperature records; Guardian writer Dana Nuccitelli compares the years 2017 and 1972, which had similar levels of solar activity and were both neutral with regards to ENSO. Yet on average, 2017 was 0.9°C (1.62° F) hotter than 1972.

What Can We Do About It?

Halting global warming may seem an impossible feat, but new evidence suggests that humans can play a bigger role than we might think. For the first time, a new study in Nature Climate Change incorporated human behavior in a climate change model. It combined the potential outcomes of human choices — starting from simple actions such as installing solar panels — with the uncertainties of the physical world that determine the planet’s response to higher concentration of greenhouse gases.

The study finds that, by taking into account human response to climate change, global temperatures may vary ranging from 3.4 to 6.2°C (6.1 to 11.2° F) by 2100, compared to a straight 4.9°C (8.8° F) from the climate model alone. The results show how taking action can really make a difference, and crucially that failing to do so will further exacerbate the problem. 

Global Warming Scenarios
Click to View Full Infographic

For example, the authors find, actions such as insulating homes or driving hybrid cars have the biggest benefits in the long run — compared to short term changes such adjusting thermostats or traveling shorter distances.

Of course, as polar ice caps melt faster than ever, and wildfires devastate our biggest forests with incalculable economic and environmental damages, individual actions are not enough. There is need for better governance and concerted plans that involve the private sector as well as scientific institutions.

Ambitious measures that brought together governments and industry have worked in the past, the Montreal Protocol being the most successful example. Yet we’re still on a path to continue setting and shattering heat records, with scientists expecting that record-breaking temperatures will be normal by 2030. With one of the most powerful heads of state refusing to participate in the effort to curb global warming and confusing weather with climate, it looks like we are taking a step back at the worst possible time.

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Metalenses That Focus All Colors of the Rainbow Could Revolutionize VR

Seeing the Rainbow Through Metalenses

The quickly advancing fields of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) rely on basic technological elements like lenses. As VR technology has progressed, traditional curved lenses have been replaced by what are known as metalenses. These flat lenses, which focus light using nano-sized structures, are much less bulky than their older counterparts.

However, metalenses have a flaw — they do not focus well in all points across the spectrum of light. But now scientists have developed the first-ever single lens that can focus the entire visible light spectrum, meaning all colors of the rainbow, in one spot.

Before, this has been possible only through stacking lenses. That’s because different colors move through materials at different speeds. Red travels through glass quickest and violet the slowest, because they have the longest and shortest wavelengths, respectively.

Those speeds are a problem for cameras, because they cause aberrations in the resulting photographs since each color doesn’t act the same. In order to bring each color into proper focus, cameras have to stack multiple, curved lenses together. Having multiple lenses gets rid of the distortions, but the resulting cameras are heavy and bulky.

Metalenses can focus all light in the visible spectrum at the same spot.
This flat metalens is the first of its kind. Image Credit: Jared Sisler/Harvard SEAS.

This is the first time that focus of every color has been accomplished with a single lens. Published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, this newly developed metalens has several advantages over traditional, curved lenses.

Less Bulky VR

According to Federico Capasso, the Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics and Vinton Hayes Senior Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering at SEAS and senior author of the research, metalenses have advantages over traditional lenses. “Metalenses are thin, easy to fabricate and cost effective. This breakthrough extends those advantages across the whole visible range of light. This is the next big step.”

So, not only do these lenses cover the entire visible light spectrum, they are also less expensive and much more lightweight. The researchers said the next step is to scale-up the metalenses to be one centimeter in diameter — a size that has applications for AR and VR.

If these single metalenses can be manufactured on a larger scale and adopted by companies, it is very possible that they will revolutionize VR and cameras, making them less bulky.

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Vladimir Putin Looks to Develop a New Cryptocurrency — the Cryptorouble

Crypto-trouble

In late 2017, Russia announced a decision to block citizen access to cryptocurrency exchange websites. The move, while potentially temporary, seemed to indicate that the country was not in support of cryptocurrencies. However, recent news suggests the country might only have an unfavorable stance against other cryptos: the Financial Times reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked Russian officials to develop Russia’s own in-house cryptocurrency, the ‘cryptorouble.’

Sergei Glazev, an economic adviser to Vladimir Putin, recently called the cryptorouble a “useful tool” to evade western economic sanctions. He stated that, “This instrument suits us very well for sensitive activity on behalf of the state. We can settle accounts with our counterparties all over the world with no regard for sanctions.”

According to this adviser, the cryptorouble will be equivalent to the rouble, but will be “restricted in a certain way” in terms of circulation. Additionally, it will be trackable by the government.

Despite previous public disdain for cryptocurrencies, Russia begins development of the cryptorouble. Image Cretid: MariaShvedova / Pixabay
Image Credit: MariaShvedova / Pixabay

Trackable Currency

Russia has expressed opposing views on cryptocurrencies, sometimes saying that they are a reality all need to face, other times rejecting them on principle. In October, Central Bank First Deputy Governor Sergei Shvetsov publicly said of cryptocurrencies that “We can not stand apart. We can not give direct and easy access to such dubious instruments for retail (investors).” Yet according to officials, the Russian government will soon introduce laws that formalize how cryptocurrencies are created and exchanged in the country.

For experts, the potential of a cryptorouble is troubling. The U.S. and E.U. have responded to Russian violations of international law using economic sanctions, which prevent the Russian government and organizations and businesses around the world from using the U.S. or European currencies and banks to conduct transactions. A Russian cryptocurrency could allow the country’s government to subvert these sanctions.

It has also been suggested that the trackable nature of the cryptorouble is the driving force behind its creation and adoption.

With the adoption of their own crypto, perhaps the country is also looking for additional control and surveillance over the population. In addition to being a trackable currency, equivalent to the rouble, the cryptorouble will be issued and controlled solely by the Russian government.

Disclaimer: Several members of the Futurism team, including the editors of this piece, are personal investors in a number of cryptocurrency markets. Their personal investment perspectives have no impact on editorial content.

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You’ll Never Regret a Futuristic, Functional Tattoo Like This One

These tattoos change colors based on the body’s conditions. They could be tremendously helpful for people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

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Russia’s Missing Satellite Was Officially Attributed to Human Error

Human Error

The deputy prime minister in charge of Defense industry in Russia has publicly admitted that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, had lost contact with a recently launched $ 45 million weather satellite. What’s even more shocking is that the cause of the failure has been attributed to avoidable human error.

Roscosmos explained that the satellite was programmed to think it was launched from a different cosmodrome than from where it actually left. The Meteor-M satellite was launched, along with 18 smaller satellites, from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in south-east Russia but was programmed to think it was being launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, which Moscow leases from the neighboring country.

The launch did go off without a hitch, that is until Roscosmos failed to establish communications with the satellite. The agency initially attributed the loss to rocket failure at the final booster stage but further investigation revealed the faulty programming to be the real culprit.

Image source: Roscosmos
Image source: Roscosmos

Success in Failure

Setbacks of any nature are discouraging but as private space companies have shown, a lot can be learned from them. Launching and maintaining satellites involves the seamless integration of many branches of science, with little to no margin of error. Disciplinary action has been taken in this case and the embarrassment that the space program has suffered will also help to ensure that future launches are more cognizant of the programming.

Roscosmos shouldn’t feel alone since they aren’t the first space agency to lose valuable equipment thanks to human error. In 1999, NASA lost a $ 125 million Mars Climate Orbiter when engineers failed to convert figures into metric.

The Russian space program has certainly seen better days but there is no indication that this one instance will derail continued efforts to modernize their space program. The program has some pretty high expectations moving forward, which may be heightened now given the bumpy start.

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SuperMeat Raises $3 Million to Produce “Clean Meat” in the Lab

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Natural

SuperMeat, an Israeli biotech and food-tech startup, is one of the most recent companies that has risen up to provide the world with a new food source. Like Memphis Meats and Hampton Creek, SuperMeat wants to produce cheaper, healthy meats, without the animal slaughter and high gas emissions.

The startup has already ran a successful Indiegogo campaign, and is set to ship its lab-grown meat to China as part of a $ 300 million September deal signed by China and Israel. Showing no signs of slowing down, the company has received yet another shot in the arm after raising $ 3 million in seed funding, and forming a new partnership with PWH, one of Europe’s largest poultry producers.

SuperMeat explains its chicken meat is produced by growing cells that have been extracted from live chickens. These cells are grown in expertly controlled conditions to facilitate their growth, which eliminates the need to mass produce animals. According to a study conducted by Oxford and Amsterdam Universities, switching to this “clean meat” process will reduce “up to 98% in greenhouse gas emissions, 99% in land exploitation, and up to 96% in water usage.”

Coming to a Store Near You

Speaking with TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear, SuperMeat CEO and co-founder Ido Savir said the latest partnership with PWH was less a sign of disruption in the meat industry, and more about transformation.

“We’re proud that SuperMeat is at the forefront of the rapidly-evolving clean meat industry,” said Savir in a statement. “Our team is comprised of a diverse group of top-tier scientists, food engineers and chefs, working together with the best production experts from the pharmaceutical industry to create a new generation of meat products that are sustainable, cost-efficient, animal-friendly, and of course – delicious.”

It’ll be some time before the general public sees SuperMeats products in stores, with the company estimating it’ll be at least a three year wait. When it does happen, though, people should expect clean meat prices to be roughly the same — if not cheaper — than current products, as they require fewer resources to produce.

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