Monthly Archives: September 2017

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The United States Needs an Earthquake Warning System Already Rescuers search for survivors after a 7.1 earthquake hit central Mexico on September 20, 2017 On Monday night, residents of the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Westwood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and parts of the San Fernando Valley experienced a mild earthquake—a magnitude 3.6. Most people slept through the temblor and no damage was reported. But a select group of 150 LA residents got a text alert on their mobile phone a full eight seconds before the quake hit at 11:10 pm—enough time for people to drop, cover, and hold on. Along with a pinned location of quake’s epicenter, the text gave its magnitude and intensity, the number of seconds left before the shaking, and instructions on what to do. The system detects an earthquake’s up-and-down p-wave, which travels faster and precedes the destructive horizontal s-wave, and converts that signal into a […]

Don’t Blame Pigs for Swine Flu—Species Hopping Is How Viruses Evolve Viruses jump to new host species unexpectedly often on an evolutionary timescale, as researchers are only just realizing.   When new species evolve, where do their viruses come from? As little more than free-ranging bundles of genetic material, viruses desperately need to hijack their hosts’ cellular machinery and resources to replicate, over and over again. Without its host, a virus is nothing. Because of that dependence, some viruses have stuck with their hosts throughout evolution, mutating to make minor adjustments every time the host branched into a new species—a process called co-divergence. Humans and chimpanzees, for instance, have slightly different versions of the hepatitis B virus, both of which likely mutated from a version that infected their shared ancestor more than four million years ago. The other option—cross-species transmission—occurs when a virus jumps into a completely new type of […]

A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges Senior House’s motto: “Sport death, only life can kill you.” The dorm’s symbol is a human skull. As classes got underway this week, something was missing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Something weird. The sidewalks of Cambridge were jammed with students and their boxes, as they always are during the first week of September. There was nowhere to park. Moving vans blocked traffic on every street. Freshmen walked the “infinite corridor” of the main building as their parents took photos and consulted maps, mortifying their children. Tanned professors returning from vacation unlocked their labs. Tour guides pointed out the nuclear reactor in the center of campus. (It’s easier to miss than it sounds.) But about the weirdness: Across the street from the Media Lab, a grand neoclassical building rises at 70 Amherst Street, an L-shaped stone structure with […]

Google and Microsoft Can Use AI to Extract Many More Ad Dollars from Our Clicks When Google and Microsoft boast of their deep investments in artificial intelligence and machine learning, they highlight flashy ideas like unbeatable Go players and sociable chatbots. They talk less often about one of the most profitable, and more mundane, uses for recent improvements in machine learning: boosting ad revenue. AI-powered moonshots like driverless cars and relatable robots will doubtless be lucrative when—or if—they hit the market. There’s a whole lot of money to be made right now by getting fractionally more accurate at predicting your clicks. Many online ads are only paid for when someone clicks on them, so showing you the right ones translates very directly into revenue. A recent research paper from Microsoft’s Bing search unit notes that “even a 0.1 percent accuracy improvement in our production would yield hundreds of millions of […]