Israel silent as Syrian flag raised over Beit Jinn and rebels bussed out
Israel and the IDF stayed conspicuously silent on Friday, Dec. 12 at the sight of the 300 Syrian rebel defenders of the strategic Beit Jinn being bussed out of the enclave to Idlib in the north accompanied by ambulances. DEBKAfile: Their surrender to dictated terms on Tuesday, Dec. 26, opened the way for the victors, the Syrian army, Hizballah and other pro-Iranian militias, to reach Israel’s Hermon border and prepare to push south.
By noon Friday, a Syrian flag was flying over the village of Beit Jinn.
Our sources reveal that before boarding the buses, the rebels blew up their central command post in Beit Jinn and burned all the documents and equipment in the building. They also destroyed the markers on the graves of comrades who fell in battle to conceal their identities and prevent Hizballah and Assad’s army from singling out their families for revenge.
Our military sources expect the combined Syrian-Hizballah-Iranian force to turn next to taking over the Druze village of Hader, which is 5km from the northern border of Israeli Golan. From there, a few days later, they will likely launch their next operation to expel Syrian rebel forces from the Quneitra region. Syrian military officials said quite openly on Friday that their goal is to reach the Israeli border.
Italy’s President Dissolves Parliament: “The Current Situation Is One That Fuels Populism”
Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella dissolved parliament Thursday and called elections for early March, a vote that will highlight the economic and political problems still stalking Europe and the country’s role as the weakest flank in the currency union.
The vote—the latest in a series of momentous elections in Europe—will be in line with the overwhelming trends of 2017, featuring a fractured electorate, continued pressure from populist movements and predictions of a struggle to form a cohesive government.
Its economy is 6% smaller than at the start of 2008, making it the only G-7 economy not to have returned to its pre-crisis size.
In a speech a decade ago as head of Italy’s industry association, Luca di Montezemolo, former chairman of Fiat SpA, listed 10 urgent reforms Italian businesses wanted from the government, including a leaner bureaucracy and lower taxes. “I could give that same speech today,” he said in an interview.
The downturn has left deep scars in Italy’s social fabric. More than 4.7 million Italians live in absolute poverty, nearly double the number a decade ago, according to Italian statistical agency Istat.
With youth unemployment at 35%, an entire generation of young people remains jobless or subsists on poorly paid, short-term contracts. Even as the brain drain that has afflicted much of southern Europe begins to ebb, thousands of Italian university graduates continue to emigrate each year.
With no group likely to reach a majority, a hung parliament is highly probable. Lorenzo Codogno, former director general of the Italian Treasury Ministry, assigns a 75% probability to such an outcome.
Return of Silvio Berlusconi
The current situation is one that fuels populism. Support for Matteo Renzi’s party has collapsed.
However, Renzi and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi conspired to change the rules for the specific purpose of blocking Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement.
The elections could have been called earlier but they were purposely delayed to benefit Berlusconi although the 4-time prime minister still cannot become prime minister again himself due to a tax fraud conviction.
Previously, Berlusconi was viewed as a Eurosceptic, but his tune comes and goes with the wind. Currently, the Five Star movement is the only party pushing hard to have a decisive vote on Eurozone membership.
Regardless, Italy has had corrupt governments after corrupt governments. It’s rules and regulations are hugely problematic.
Italy and France are not ranked highly in terms of economic freedom. For details, please see Economic Freedom: Best and Worst Countries, US Timeline History .
Britain Escorts Russian Ship Near National Waters Amid Strained Relations
LONDON (Reuters) – A British ship escorted a Russian vessel as it passed near UK territorial waters over Christmas, Britain’s defense ministry said on Tuesday, adding that Russian naval activity near Britain had increased in the holiday period.
The frigate HMS St Albans departed on Dec. 23 to track the new Russian warship Admiral Gorshkov as it moved through the North Sea. The Royal Navy vessel monitored the Russian ship over Christmas and will return to dock in Portsmouth later on Tuesday.
UK defense minister Gavin Williamson said in a statement after the incident that he would “not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression”.
Relations between Britain and Russia are strained, and UK foreign minister Boris Johnson said there was “abundant evidence” of Moscow meddling in foreign elections during a trip to Russia last week. His counterpart Sergei Lavrov said there was no proof for Johnson’s claim.
While Johnson said he wants to normalize relations with Russia, Moscow blames London for the poor state of relations between the countries.
Britain’s defense ministry said another ship, HMS Tyne, was called to escort a Russian intelligence-gathering ship through the North Sea and the English Channel on Christmas Eve. A helicopter was subsequently dispatched to monitor two other Russian vessels.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, editing by Ed Osmond)
3D-printed live bacteria creates world’s first “living tattoo”
THANK YOU CRAIG FOR THIS LINK:) LUVS
A team at MIT has genetically modified bacteria cells and developed a new 3D printing technique to create a “living tattoo” that can respond to a variety of stimuli.
Electronic tattoos and smart ink technologies are showing exciting potential for reframing how we think of wearable sensor devices. While many engineers are experimenting with a variety of responsive materials the MIT team wondered if live cells could be co-opted into a functional use.
The first step was to look at what organic cells could be utilized, and it turned out that the strong cell walls of bacteria were the best target for use as they could survive the force of a 3D printer’s nozzle. Bacteria also proved to be perfectly compatible with the hydrogels needed for accurate 3D printing.
To test out the technique the team created a 3D-printed patch of bacteria cells on an elastomer layer designed to resemble a tree. The bacteria in each branch of the tree was engineered to respond to a different chemical stimuli. When the patch was tested on a human hand that had been applied with different target chemicals the bacteria successfully illuminated its branches when sensing the corresponding chemical.
The ultimate outcomes for the technology are incredibly futuristic, with the team suggesting the technique could conceivably lead to the development of a kind of “living computer.” Complex structures could be created that contain many different types of engineered cells that communicate with each other in the same way as transistors on a microchip.
“This is very future work, but we expect to be able to print living computational platforms that could be wearable,” say Hyunwoo Yuk, a graduate student at MIT and one of the co-authors on the study.
More immediate, pragmatic uses include the development of warning stickers that contain cells engineered to respond to a certain environment or chemical stimuli, or health-monitoring wearables that activate signals in accordance with a specific temperature or pH change.
The study was published in the journal Advanced Materials.
Take a closer look at the technology in the video below.
Crispr Isn’t Enough Any More. Get Ready for Gene Editing 2.0
In fewer than five years, the gene-editing technology known as Crispr has revolutionized the face and pace of modern biology. Since its ability to find, remove, and replace genetic material was first reported in 2012, scientists have published more than 5,000 papers mentioning Crispr. Biomedical researchers are embracing it to create better models of disease. And countless companies have spun up to commercialize new drugs, therapies, foods, chemicals, and materials based on the technology.
Usually, when we’ve referred to Crispr, we’ve really meant Crispr/Cas9—a riboprotein complex composed of a short strand of RNA and an efficient DNA-cutting enzyme. It did for biology and medicine what the Model T did for manufacturing and transportation; democratizing access to a revolutionary technology and disrupting the status quo in the process. Crispr has already been used to treat cancer in humans, and it could be in clinical trials to cure genetic diseases like sickle cell anemia and beta thalassemia as soon as next year.
But like the Model T, Crispr Classic is somewhat clunky, unreliable, and a bit dangerous. It can’t bind to just any place in the genome. It sometimes cuts in the wrong places. And it has no off-switch. If the Model T was prone to overheating, Crispr Classic is prone to overeating.
Even with these limitations, Crispr Classic will continue to be a workhorse for science in 2018 and beyond. But this year, newer, flashier gene editing tools began rolling off the production line, promising to outshine their first-generation cousin. So if you were just getting your head around Crispr, buckle up. Because gene-editing 2.0 is here.
Crispr’s targeted cutting action is its defining feature. But when Cas9 slices through the two strands of an organism’s DNA, the gene-editor introduces an element of risk. Cells can make mistakes when they repair such a drastic genetic injury. Which is why scientists have been designing ways to achieve the same effects in safer ways.
One approach is to mutate the Cas9 enzyme so it can still bind to DNA, but its scissors don’t work. Then other proteins—like ones that activate gene expression—can be combined with the crippled Cas9, letting them toggle genes on and off (sometimes with light or chemical signals) without altering the DNA sequence. This kind of “epigenetic editing” could be used to tackle conditions that arise from a constellation of genetic factors, as opposed to the straightforward single mutation-based disorders most well-suited to Crispr Classic. (Earlier this month, researchers at the Salk Institute used one such system to treat several diseases in mice, including diabetes, acute kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy.)
Other scientists at Harvard and the Broad Institute have been working on an even more daring tweak to the Crispr system: editing individual base pairs, one at a time. To do so, they had to design a brand-new enzyme—one not found in nature—that could chemically convert an A-T nucleotide pairing to a G-C one. It’s a small change with potentially huge implications. David Liu, the Harvard chemist whose lab did the work, estimates that about half of the 32,000 known pathogenic point mutations in humans could be fixed by that single swap.
“I don’t want the public to come away with the erroneous idea that we can change any piece of DNA to any other piece of DNA in any human or any animal or even any cell in a dish,” says Liu. “But even being where we are now comes with a lot of responsibility. The big question is how much more capable will this age get? And how quickly will we be able to translate these technological advances into benefits for society?”
Putting On The Brakes
Crispr evolved in bacteria as a primitive defense mechanism. Its job? To find enemy viral DNA and cut it up until there was none left. It’s all accelerator, no brake, and that can make it dangerous, especially for clinical applications. The longer Crispr stays in a cell, the more chances it has to find something that sort of looks like its target gene and make a cut.
To minimize these off-target effects, scientists have been developing a number of new tools to more tightly control Crispr activity.
So far, researchers have identified 21 unique families of naturally occurring anti-Crispr proteins—small molecules that turn off the gene-editor. But they only know how a handful of them work. Some bind directly to Cas9, preventing it from attaching to DNA. Others turn on enzymes that outjostle Cas9 for space on the genome. Right now, researchers at UC Berkeley, UCSF, Harvard, the Broad, and the University of Toronto are hard at work figuring out how to turn these natural off-switches into programmable toggles.
Beyond medical applications, these will be crucial for the continued development of gene drives—a gene-editing technology that quickly spreads a desired modification through a population. Being able to nudge evolution one way or the other would be a powerful tool for combating everything from disease to climate change. They’re being considered for wiping out malaria-causing mosquitoes, and eradicating harmful invasive species. But out in the wild, they have the potential to spread out of control, with perhaps dire consequences. Just this year Darpa poured $65 million toward finding safer gene drive designs, including anti-Crispr off-switches.
Step On The Cas
Despite decades of advances, there’s still so much scientists don’t understand about how bugs in your DNA can cause human disease. Even if they know what genes are coded into a cell’s marching orders, it’s a lot harder to know where those orders get delivered, and how they get translated (or mistranslated) along the way. Which is why groups at Harvard and the Broad led by Crispr co-discoverer Feng Zhang are working with a new class of Cas enzymes that target RNA instead of DNA.
Since those are the instructions that a cell’s machinery reads to build proteins, they carry more information about the genetic underpinnings of specific diseases. And because RNA comes and goes, making changes to it would be useful for treating short-term problems like acute inflammation or wounds. The system, which they’re calling Repair, for RNA Editing for Programmable A to I Replacement, so far only works for one nucleotide conversion. The next step is to figure out how to do the other 11 possible combinations.
And scientists are finding new Cas enzymes all the time. Teams at the Broad have also been working to characterize cpf1—a version of Cas that leaves sticky ends instead of blunt ones when it cuts DNA. In February, a group from UC Berkeley discovered CasY and CasX, the most compact Crispr systems yet. And researchers expect to turn up many more in the coming months and years.
Only time will tell if Crispr-Cas9 was the best of these, or merely the first that captured the imagination of a generation of scientists. “We don’t know what’s going to wind up working best for different applications,” says Megan Hochstrasser, who did her PhD in Crispr co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna’s lab and now works at the Innovative Genomics Institute. “So for now I think it makes sense for everyone to be pushing on all these tools all at once.”
It will take many more years of work for this generation of gene-editors to find their way out of the lab into human patients, rows of vegetables, and disease-carrying pests. That is, if gene-editing 3.0 doesn’t make them all obsolete first.
Scotland united in curiosity as councils trial universal basic income
Universal basic income is, according to its many and various supporters, an idea whose time has come. The deceptively simple notion of offering every citizen a regular payment without means testing or requiring them to work for it has backers as disparate as Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Caroline Lucas and Richard Branson. Ed Miliband chose the concept to launch his ideas podcast Reasons to be Cheerful in the autumn.
But it is in Scotland that four councils face the task of turning basic income from a utopian fantasy to contemporary reality as they build the first pilot schemes in the UK, with the support of a £250,000 grant announced by the Scottish government last month and the explicit support of Nicola Sturgeon.
The concept of a universal basic income revolves around the idea of offering every individual, regardless of their existing benefit entitlement or earned income, a non-conditional flat-rate payment, with any income earned above that taxed progressively. The intention is to replace the welfare safety net with a platform on which people can build their lives, whether they choose to earn, learn, care or set up a business.
The idea has its roots in 16th-century humanist philosophy. The political theorist Thomas Paine advocated a citizen’s dividend. But there has been a groundswell of interest over the past decade not only among lateral thinkers but also anti-poverty groups, which see it as a means of changing the relationship between people and state, and between workers and the gig economy.
In Scotland, a country wearily familiar with divisions of a constitutional nature, the concept of a basic income is almost unique in enjoying multi-party favour. Across the four areas currently designing basic income pilots – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire – the projects have variously been championed by Labour, SNP, Green and, in one case, Conservative councillors.
Matt Kerr, who has tirelessly lobbied for the idea through Glasgow city council, said: “Reactions to basic income have not split along the usual left/right party lines. Some people to the left of the Labour party think that it undermines the role of trade unions and others take the opposite view. But there should be room for scepticism; you need that to get the right policy.”
Advocates are aware such unity of purpose is precious and worth preserving. “The danger is that this falls into party blocks,” said Kerr. “If people can unite around having a curiosity about [it] then I’m happy with that. But having the first minister on board has done us no harm at all.”
Inevitably, Sturgeon’s declared interest has invited criticism from her opponents. A civil service briefing paper on basic income, which expressed concerns that the “conflicting and confusing” policy could be a disincentive to work and costed its national roll-out at £12.3bn a year, was obtained by the Scottish Conservatives through a freedom of information request in October. The party accused her of “pandering to the extreme left of the [independence] movement”.
But advocates argue the figures fail to take into account savings the scheme would bring. The independent thinktank Reform Scotland, which published a briefing earlier this month setting out a suggested basic income of £5,200 for every adult, has calculated that much of the cost could be met through a combination of making work-related benefits obsolete and changes to the tax system, including scrapping the personal allowance and merging national insurance and income tax.
AI isn’t just compromising our privacy—it can limit our choices, too
AI makes decisions for us in every area of our lives without our conscious involvement. Machines mine our past patterns and those of allegedly similar people across the world, and then decide not just what news articles we see, but with whom we should commune and forge bonds, what goods and services we should purchase, or for whom we should vote in our political processes. This influences our opinions, our relationships, and our social fabric.
By replacing human-curated judgement with data-backed judgement, AI ultimately narrows our field of vision and reduces our social and economic choices—in retail, dating, entertainment, education, health care, and job opportunities. Taken individually, the nudges of mercantile and political interests may be of little consequence. But en masse, our lives become more and more subtly influenced and molded by the companies we let make decisions for us.
In this way, the salient tradeoff in the AI age is not privacy, but choice itself.
Sponsors are tuned in to our behavior, adding a mercantile sway to the information we receive. It started with consumers trading our data for convenience. In our cars, we share behavior patterns with automakers and insurance companies so they can deliver better navigation, automated driving, and lower insurance rates. In our home lives, companies use our socioeconomic profiles, life patterns, and our cognitive and visual preferences to keep us “engaged” in richer, more customized entertainment—with the hopes that we’ll pay for that next episode, in-game advantage, irrigation system, video-monitoring service, or smart-home thermostat.
Shopping online gives us the convenience of searching a catalog of billions of products from our couch—but more often only shows us our recent searches, purchases, and similar products based off them. Is that really free choice? The Amazon experience theoretically offers a vast range of products that no print catalog can match. But it also reinforces our own tastes over and over again, based on past transaction data. In practice, we stew in our own consumer characteristics; our range of exposure and choice is limited by upping the odds we’ll buy.
Or look at how hard it can be to find something new to watch on Netflix or Hulu: A search for “film noir” often only shows part of the cinematic canon based on your device, and further orders the results based on your prior watching habits. While practical, an Apple TV, an Amazon FireTV, or a Google Chromecast narrows your natural exposure to art, even when you go searching for it.
Not only are our choices narrowed by monetary incentives—they are narrowed by the use of algorithms that put us into what statistics calls “clusters,” which are groups with similar behavior profiles. If you happen to watch 1930s classic movies, enjoy swing dancing, are close to paying off your mortgage, and buy deluxe birdseed for the window feeder, the machine may place you in a retired baby-boomer group. Now you’ll be hearing a lot from cruise lines, who find their clientele in that particular cluster, and you’ll stop receiving promotional coupons from The Gap or being suggested music by Ed Sheeran in your streaming channels.
As a result of your perceived cluster, your consumption choices may be adjusted. The options that appear before you narrow, and you cease to imagine the alternatives that aren’t presented to you. The lack of choice affects your free will to really choose.
Beyond the narrowing effect of clustering is the growth-limiting effect of predicting preference from past behavior. Rather than being presented new and potentially challenging experiences, we see echoes of our past trajectory. Amazon keeps us in clusters of like-behaved shoppers; Google of like-behaved searchers; and Facebook, tragically, of like-behaved citizens. Reliant on behavior data, the machine constrains us to what we have been, rather than what we wish or hope to become.
The 19th-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans are continually evolving. We have long prized the freedom to reinvent ourselves—to move to a new town or country, to take up a new trade, career direction, or hobby, or even a new religion or way of life. Choice and free agency are central to this character.
As AI narrows our choices, will it keep our careers on a single track? Will it guide our lives so that we meet only like-minded people, with whom we get along, and thus deprive us of the encounters and frictions that compel us to evolve into different, perhaps better human beings?
When our choices are constrained to narrow trajectories of consumption, relationships, news, and products, we cease to see these possibilities and life paths. If we trade more and more choice for convenience, we shut out other people’s divergent points of view and rest in the comfort of our cluster. Following this trend to its natural conclusion would extinguish our culture of constructive debate; further divide and stratify our society across political, intellectual, and commercial lines; erode our empathy, social coherence, and loyalty to those fellow humans not in our trajectory; and stifle innovation borne of cognitive and behavioral diversity, as well as the tensions that come from ideas, preferences, and tastes colliding.
In the name of our environment, economy, and humanity, we can’t afford to risk these consequences. Privacy was at the top of policymakers’ lists during the first wave of the internet. Choice and free agency deserve a top spot in the AI age.
The Beast Is Here-“Artificial Intelligence”
The Game of Chess Conquered: The year is 1997 and the players of the chess game are IBM’s Deep Blue and One of the finest proponents of chess among us Humans Gary Kasparov. Having lost the year before Deep Blue has come with an improved approach to the game the rematch called the “Slaughter on 7th Avenue” results in the defeat of Kasparov and the first important win for the machines.
Double Jeopardy! : It’s the year 2011 and it’s been almost 15 years since the last major win for the machines. So what now which game to conquer, It was IBM again with it’s Beast of an AI computer called Watson and the competitor’s was 2 of the former champions of the game. The Result! it was an overpowering win for the machines again.
What Frontier shall we cover next, the machines thought among themselves, well The game of GO with its sheer number of possibilities is something that is thought to be impossible to crack with sheer computing power, let’s take it on.
GO falls: This Time it was not IBM but rather Deep Mind’s AlfaGo which was in the race to take on the Top-Ranked star of GO South Korea’s Lee Sedol. In a five-game matchup, the machines lost just one game. The clock for the machines overpowering GO was ticking after Chess fell to it, but the sheer Scale of the defeat was what was shocking.
Next, The machines decided to take on Humans in a game that used the power of human Bluff, the unpredictability of the next move with everything hidden and thus the predictability through computing was thought to be difficult.