December 9, 2013 12:07 pm
The latest reveal about the inner workings of the National Security Agency: the American agency, partnered with Britain’s spies, has been gathering communications and posting undercover agents in the World of Warcraft and Second Life, as well as vacuuming chatter from Microsoft’s XBox Live. The news was revealed by a partnership between the Guardian, the New York Times, and ProPublica, and came out of the same trove of documents that Edward Snowden provided.
At nine years old, the World of Warcraft held, at its peak, roughly 12 million subscribers. XBox Live, the online matchmaking and chatting service tied to Microsoft’s XBox, handles 48 million gamers. With such vast numbers of people meeting in relative anonymity, the NSA worried that they were using these online communication tools to plan terrorist or criminal plots, in addition to raids. Attempts to sap information from virtual worlds has been going on since at least 2008, says the Guardian.
The news that the U.S. wanted to spy on virtual worlds is not entirely new, however. Back in 2008, Wired reported on the Reynard Project, a data-mining effort to filter gamers’ communications and flag suspicious behavior. Again in 2008, Noah Shachtman wrote for Wired’s Danger Room about the military’s worries that terrorists might be using Azeroth, the world in which World of Warcraft takes place, as a meeting place.
After running through the Pentagon’s awkward example of how people could potentially plan real life plots using in-game code, Shachtman gave the intelligence community some joking advice: “spies will have to spend more time in virtual worlds like WoW, if they want to have a hope of keeping tabs on what goes on inside ‘em. Which means, some day soon, we might find secret agents in World of Warcraft, along with the druids and orcs and night elves.” According to the documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA seems to have taken this advice.
Based on the leaked documents, says the New York Times, all of that snooping around other worlds does not seem to have paid off:
The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.
The British GCHQ, says the Guardian, used information collected in Second Life to tackle a stolen credit card ring.
The reveal raises privacy concerns, as neither Blizzard (Warcraft) nor Linden Labs (Second Life) nor Microsoft said they are aware of any such spying. But, back in 2008, Shachtman’s explored why the spies would be so set on gamers:
Steven Aftergood, the Federation of the American Scientists analyst who’s been following the intelligence community for years, wonders how realistic these sorts of scenarios are, really. “This concern is out there. But it has to be viewed in context. It’s the job of intelligence agencies to anticipate threats and counter them. With that orientation, they’re always going to give more weight to a particular scenario than an objective analysis would allow,” he tells Danger Room. “Could terrorists use Second Life? Sure, they can use anything. But is it a significant augmentation? That’s not obvious. It’s a scenario that an intelligence officer is duty-bound to consider. That’s all.”
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December 5, 2013 5:30 pm
Former South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela died today, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, said. Mandela had been been hospitalized repeatedly for a recurring lung infection. He was 95 years old.
As CNN writes, South Africans hold up Mandela as the founding father of true democracy in South Africa, once segregated along racial lines. South Africa became a republic in 1961 but did not hold an election in which every adult in the country could vote until 1994.
Mandela began his fight against apartheid, which began in 1948, as a young man. The government sentenced him to life in prison for his political activities and he spent 27 years incarcerated.
Under national and international pressure, Mandela was released from prison in 1990, when he was 72 years old. National unrest and civil strife built until the apartheid was dismantled, and Mandela was elected president in the country’s first multiracial election, in 1994. Mandela focused his efforts on diffusing racial and ethnic tensions and ending human rights abuse. After serving one term as president, he decided not to run for the office again and instead focused his efforts on combating AIDS/HIV and poverty through a non-profit he founded, the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Many South Africans refer to Mandela as “the father of the nation.”
Here, you can watch some of Mandela’s most important moments, including his release from prison, a speech he made just after being released from prison and his inaugural address:
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November 27, 2013 11:15 am
Mike Hopkins and Rich Mastracchio are two Americans who definitely won’t be home for Thanksgiving. Cruising high above the Earth aboard the International Space Station, though, doesn’t mean they’ll be without the comfort food of the holidays. In a message sent down the other day, Mastracchio and Hopkins show off some of the delectable treats they’ve got lined up for their Thanksgiving feast.
Crammed in bags and dried for storage, the astronauts’ meal will certainly lack the welcoming aroma of walking into a house that has an oven stuffed with turkey. But, says NASA , many of the staples are there:
Their menu will include traditional holiday favorites with a space-food flair, such as irradiated smoked turkey, thermostabilized yams and freeze-dried green beans. The crew’s meal also will feature NASA’s cornbread dressing, home-style potatoes, cranberries, cherry-blueberry cobbler and the best view from any Thanksgiving table.
For Space.com, Miriam Kramer interviewed NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris about the astronauts’ holiday meal, but also about how much astronaut food has improved since the freeze-dried ice cream of yesteryear.
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November 26, 2013 9:45 am
On Friday, the FDA sent a warning letter to Anne Wojcicki, the CEO of 23andMe, a personal genome testing service, telling the company to stop selling their product immediately. This was a particularly intense letter. It cited the lack of evidence for several claims the company has made about the medical usefulness of their genetic results and the dangers of those claims, and it’s been described as “unusually stern” and “brutally scathing.”
“You don’t need to be an expert in the regulations covering medical tests to know that the Food and Drug Administration has just about had it with Silicon Valley’s 23andMe,” writes Scott Hensley at NPR.
The issue is not that company does genetic testing, but that it markets the test as medical service that can help people plan healthier lives. But, really, this debate isn’t about 23andMe, but a broader question of how to deliver and interpret personal genetic data. Can people interpret their own results and act in a medically appropriate way?
The FDA points to the BRCA gene as an example:
For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognize an actual risk that may exist.
The bigger problem, as Christine Gorman points out at Scientific American, the $99 kit from 23andMe can give you data but can’t analyze it for you. Simply getting your genetic sequence without comparing it to others isn’t all that useful. You need analysis to identify medical risks, Gorman writes:
Using home gene kits to imagine where your ancestors might hail from is one thing. That’s basically the 21st century equivalent of looking up your horoscope–entertaining but not really a matter of life and death. Cheap sequence data from 23andMe and other gene testing companies has much greater potential to harm without the proper interpretation of the results, which is still quite difficult and expensive in most cases.
23andMe has never been approved for medical use. The company applied to the FDA for clearance in September of 2012, and not only failed to qualify, but failed to address any of the questions and issues the agency brought up regarding that application, according to the FDA. In fact, the FDA says in its letter, it hasn’t heard a word from 23andMe since May. Most proponents of 23andMe don’t dispute whether the company has played by the rules with the FDA. Instead, they’re arguing that the rules are stupid. At the Conversation, Gholson Lyon writes:
Somehow the US and UK governments find it acceptable to store massive amounts of data about their own citizens and that of the rest of the world. They are happy spending billions on such mass surveillance. But if the same people want to spend their own money to advance genomic medicine and possibly improve their own health in the process, they want to stop them.
More to the point, patients have a right to make dumb decisions if they want to. We don’t ban patients from reading medical textbooks or WebMD, even though doing so undoubtedly leads to some harmful self-diagnoses. In a free society, patients have a right to accurate information about their health, even if medical professionals and regulators fear patients will misuse it. That includes information about our genetic code.
For Lee and Gholson, the question isn’t really about whether or not 23andMe has failed to work with the FDA or not, but rather about our intrinsic right to our own data. And 23andMe’s seemingly complete failure to work with the FDA could set all sorts of genetic testing services back, according to Matthew Herper at Forbes:
The FDA would probably like to be able to regulate genetic tests much the same way as it does drugs, regulating each individual use to make sure there is enough data to support it. But that’s untenable; there are about two dozen drugs approved each year, while there are tens of thousands of genes that mean different things in different combinations, or when there are different changes in them.
For now, if it wants to be on the bleeding edge of personal genetic testing, 23andMe will have to try and patch things up with the FDA. They have 15 days to respond to the FDA’s letter, but it might already be too late.
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November 25, 2013 12:52 pm
On Sunday, at St. Peter’s Square, a plaza at the front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Pope Francis put on public display, for the first time, a chest bearing the remains of what is thought to be the apostle Peter.
The nine pieces of bone sat nestled like rings in a jewel box inside a bronze display case on the side of the altar during a mass commemorating the end of the Vatican’s year-long celebration of the Christian faith. It was the first time they had ever been exhibited in public.
Pope Francis prayed before the fragments at the start of Sunday’s service and clutched the case in his arms for several minutes after his homily.
These bones were dug up in the 1930s from an ancient Roman necropolis found buried beneath St Peter’s Basilica. So how does the Catholic Church know these bones belonged to St. Peter? In 1968, Pope Paul VI said that the connection was “convincing,” but no scientific evidence has been available to shore up the claim. According to Kathy Schiffer writing for Patheos, a religious website, there was a range of circumstantial evidence pointing to the connection:
In actuality, we don’t know with certainty whose bones those are. There are strong evidences through history: writings by early popes and kings, graffiti messages in the tomb, and the placement of the graves themselves. The early Christians, it seemed, considered it a great honor to be buried near the remains of Peter, the first pope.
…Several years ago, I walked the hushed halls beneath the Basilica, and saw firsthand the ongoing excavations in the scavi. In the necropolis are sepulchres of wealthy Roman families which date back to the first and second centuries. The frescoed mausoleums bear clear images–colorful paintings, etchings, and mosaics. Graffiti on the walls seem to focus toward one burial site, believed to be that of St. Peter. On one graffiti wall, amid Christian symbols and petitions, the name of Peter is carved at least twenty times, usually accompanied by prayers for the dead person, and in one case expressing joy that the deceased relative lay in the same cemetery that held the body of St. Peter.
So, maybe the bones aren’t those of Saint Peter. But, it seems that people have certainly thought they were the bones of Saint Peter for quite a long time. Making the jump, then, seems to be a matter of faith.
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