Sugar Additive Trehalose Could Have Helped Spread Dangerous Superbug Around the US

A sugar additive used in several foods could have helped spread a seriously dangerous superbug around the US, according to a 2018 study. ScienceAlert reports: The finger of blame is pointed squarely at the sugar trehalose, found in foods such as nutrition bars and chewing gum. If the findings are confirmed, it’s a stark warning that even apparently harmless additives have the potential to cause health issues when introduced to our food supply. In this case, trehalose is being linked with the rise of two strains of the bacterium Clostridium difficile, capable of causing diarrhea, colitis, organ failure, and even death. The swift rise of the antibiotic-resistant bug has become a huge problem for hospitals in recent years, and the timing matches up with the arrival of trehalose.

“In 2000, trehalose was approved as a food additive in the United States for a number of foods from sushi and vegetables to ice cream,” said one of the researchers, Robert Britton from the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, back in January 2018. “About three years later the reports of outbreaks with these lineages started to increase. Other factors may also contribute, but we think that trehalose is a key trigger.”

The C. difficile lineages Britton is referring to are RT027 and RT078. When the researchers analysed the genomes of these two strains, they found DNA sequences that enabled them to feed off low doses of trehalose sugar very efficiently. In fact, these particular bacteria need about 1,000 times less trehalose to live off than other varieties of C. difficile, thanks to their genetic make-up. […] It’s still not certain that trehalose has contributed to the rise of C. difficile, but the study results and the timing of its approval as an additive are pretty compelling. More research will now be needed to confirm the link. According to figures from the CDC, “C. difficile was responsible for half a million infections across the year and 29,000 deaths within the first 30 days of diagnosis,” adds ScienceAlert. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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Boston Dynamics’ Stretch Can Move 800 Heavy Boxes Per Hour

Stretch is a new robot from Boston Dynamics that can move approximately 800 heavy boxes per hour. As IEEE Spectrum reports, it’s part of “a new generation of robots with the intelligence and flexibility to handle the kind of variation that people take in stride.” From the report: Stretch’s design is somewhat of a departure from the humanoid and quadrupedal robots that Boston Dynamics is best known for, such as Atlas and Spot. With its single massive arm, a gripper packed with sensors and an array of suction cups, and an omnidirectional mobile base, Stretch can transfer boxes that weigh as much as 50 pounds (23 kilograms) from the back of a truck to a conveyor belt at a rate of 800 boxes per hour. An experienced human worker can move boxes at a similar rate, but not all day long, whereas Stretch can go for 16 hours before recharging. And this kind of work is punishing on the human body, especially when heavy boxes have to be moved from near a trailer’s ceiling or floor.

“Truck unloading is one of the hardest jobs in a warehouse, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting there with Stretch,” says Kevin Blankespoor, senior vice president of warehouse robotics at Boston Dynamics. Blankespoor explains that Stretch isn’t meant to replace people entirely; the idea is that multiple Stretch robots could make a human worker an order of magnitude more efficient. “Typically, you’ll have two people unloading each truck. Where we want to get with Stretch is to have one person unloading four or five trucks at the same time, using Stretches as tools.” All Stretch needs is to be shown the back of a trailer packed with boxes, and it’ll autonomously go to work, placing each box on a conveyor belt one by one until the trailer is empty. People are still there to make sure that everything goes smoothly, and they can step in if Stretch runs into something that it can’t handle, but their full-time job becomes robot supervision instead of lifting heavy boxes all day.

Stretch is optimized for moving boxes, a task that’s required throughout a warehouse. Boston Dynamics hopes that over the longer term the robot will be flexible enough to put its box-moving expertise to use wherever it’s needed. In addition to unloading trucks, Stretch has the potential to unload boxes from pallets, put boxes on shelves, build orders out of multiple boxes from different places in a warehouse, and ultimately load boxes onto trucks, a much more difficult problem than unloading due to the planning and precision required. […] Boston Dynamics spent much of 2021 turning Stretch from a prototype, built largely from pieces designed for Atlas and Spot, into a production-ready system that will begin shipping to a select group of customers in 2022, with broader sales expected in 2023. For Blankespoor, that milestone will represent just the beginning. He feels that such robots are poised to have an enormous impact on the logistics industry.

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California Is Suing Walmart Over Alleged Improper Disposal of E-Waste and Other Hazardous Materials

Last week, the California attorney general and 12 state officials filed a lawsuit against Walmart, saying it allegedly illegally disposed of electronic and hazardous waste, compromising local landfills. The Verge reports: California Attorney General Rob Bonta alleges in a statement the company violated state environmental laws with their practices, and the waste included materials like lithium and alkaline batteries, insect killer sprays, aerosol cans, LED lightbulbs, and more. State investigators conducted 58 inspections across 13 counties from 2015 to 2021 and said they found classified hazardous and medical waste in each store’s trash compactors, as well as customer information that should have been rendered indecipherable. The California DOJ estimates that Walmart’s unlawfully disposed waste totals 159,600 pounds or more than 1 million items each year.

State investigators conducted 58 inspections across 13 counties from 2015 to 2021 and said they found classified hazardous and medical waste in each store’s trash compactors, as well as customer information that should have been rendered indecipherable. The California DOJ estimates that Walmart’s unlawfully disposed waste totals 159,600 pounds or more than 1 million items each year. Hargrove said that the compactor waste audits “conducted or overseen by the California attorney general have shown that the compactor waste contain at most 0.4% of items of potential concern,” comparing it to the 3 percent statewide average. In 2010, Walmart reached a $25 million settlement with the state of California for illegally disposing of hazardous waste. They also paid $1.25 million to Missouri in 2012 for a similar incident and pleaded guilty in 2013 for negligently discharging a pollutant into drains in 16 counties in California.

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Hyundai Shuts Down Its Engine Development Team Amid Focus On Electric Cars

Hyundai announced that it is shutting down its internal combustion engine development team as the automaker focuses on electric cars. Electrek reports: For 40 years the Korean automaker has been developing internal combustion engines to use in its vehicle lineup, but no more. The Korea Economic Daily reports that Hyundai’s new R&D chief Park Chung-kook confirmed in an email to employees that they are shutting down new engine development: “Now, it is inevitable to convert into electrification. Our own engine development is a great achievement, but we must change the system to create future innovation based on the great asset from the past.”

Hyundai reportedly had 12,000 people working on engines, but they are now being transferred to EV powertrain development: “Researchers at the engine design unit have moved to the electrification design center, leaving only some to modify existing engines. The powertrain system development center is transforming into an electrification test center, while the powertrain performance development center is becoming an electrification performance development center.” Park added on the change: “The immediate task is to develop innovative vehicles that can dominate the future market. This reorganization will be an important starting point for change ahead in the new year.”

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X-ray Analysis Confirms Forged Date On Lincoln Pardon of Civil War Soldier

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned a soldier in the Civil War, and in 1998 that document was re-discovered. But “It was the date that made the document significant,” writes Ars Technica: April 14, 1865, “meaning the pardon was likely one of the last official acts of President Lincoln, since he was assassinated later that same day at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The pardon was broadly interpreted as evidence for a historical narrative about the president’s compassionate nature: i.e., his last act was one of mercy.”

But now scientists at America’s National Archives have conducted a new analysis (published in the journal Forensic Science International: Synergy), and “confirmed that the date was indeed forged (although the pardon is genuine).”
An archivist named Trevor Plante became suspicious of the document, noting that the ink on the “5” in “1865” was noticeably darker. It also seemed as if another number was written underneath it. Then Plante consulted a seminal collection of Lincoln’s writings from the 1950s. The pardon was there, but it was dated April 14, 1864 — a full year before Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Clearly the document had been altered sometime between the 1950s and 1998 to make the pardon more historically significant..

Investigators naturally turned to the man who made the discovery for further information. They began corresponding with Thomas Lowry [a retired psychiatrist turned amateur historian] in 2010. Initially, Lowry seemed cooperative, but when he learned about the nature of the investigation, he stopped communicating with the Office of the Inspector General, thereby arousing suspicion. So the investigators knocked on the historian’s door one January morning in 2011 for an interview. Shortly thereafter, the National Archives released a statement that Lowry had confessed to altering the date on the pardon. Lowry confessed to bringing a fountain pen into the research room, along with fade proof, pigment-based ink, and changing the “4” in “1864” to a “5.” Lowry couldn’t be charged with any crime because the statute of limitations for tampering with government property had run out, but he was barred from the National Archives for life.
But there’s a twist: Lowry soon recanted, claiming he had signed the confession under duress from the National Archives investigators…

Long-time Slashdot reader waspleg writes that Ars Technica “goes through the analysis of how it was verified to be a forgery using several techniques,” including ultraviolet light and X-ray fluorescence analysis to study chemicals in the ink. From the article:

An examination under magnification and reflective fiber optic lighting showed the ink used to write the “5” was indeed different in overall color compared to the other numbers in the date. Furthermore, “Vestiges of ink from a scratched away number can be seen below and beside the darker ‘5,’ as well as smeared across the paper,” the authors wrote. Additional analysis under raking light — a technique that accentuates hills and valleys in the paper texture — revealed abrasions to the paper under and around the “5” that were not observed anywhere else on the document. The team also determined that the paper around the “5” is thinner than everywhere else, and that ink residue of the scratched-away “4” were caught in the abraded paper fibers, clearly visible using transmitted light microscopy…

“The authors also concluded that there is no way to restore the document to its original state without causing further damage.”

Is the Video Game Industry Closer to Unionization Than Ever Before?

“Video game companies in North America have never successfully unionized,” reports the Washington Post. “That changed December 16, when a union at the indie developer Vodeo Games was recognized by management.”

While video game companies rake in billions of dollars, their workers complain of unfair labor practices, long hours, sexual harassment and workplace misconduct… In the past, game workers would avoid speaking out publicly against their employer, as it could tarnish their reputation within the industry and make it difficult to find future jobs. But after decades of major gaming companies expecting employees to work 80- or 90-hour workweeks, and of workers fearing retaliation from management, Vodeo employees told The Post that the tide was changing…

What’s happening in the games industry at Activision Blizzard and Vodeo is unprecedented. No single gaming company like Activision Blizzard has dominated the headlines with lawsuit after lawsuit for months before, topped off with an explosive Wall Street Journal report in November that claimed CEO Bobby Kotick did not inform the company’s board of directors for years about sexual misconduct allegations. A petition calling for Kotick’s resignation that was circulated among employees netted over 1,850 signatures… At least several dozen Activision Blizzard workers across the company are in the midst of their third work stoppage following a California state agency lawsuit that alleged widespread sexual harassment and misconduct at the company. The strike is on its third week as workers demand that management rehire 12 contractors from Call of Duty developer Raven Software and promote all Raven quality assurance testers to full-time status. Some in-person demonstrations have taken place at the quality assurance office in Austin, Texas.

Activision Blizzard management responded to employees in a Dec. 10 email that ongoing work toward improving company culture would be best achieved without a union…

Activision Blizzard’s tumultuous battle with lawsuits, government investigations and worker protests has Wall Street analysts downgrading their rating of its stock. Unionization would further lower the company’s market value, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “If they were to succeed [in unionizing], the company would have to determine whether to recognize the union or to bust it,” Pachter said. “If only the hourly workers chose unionization, Activision could decide whether it is cheaper to recognize them or to export their jobs to a nonunion locale.”

That possibility looms large for workers in the industry. “I do fear for my job,” said Aubrey Ryan, a contractor working for Blizzard. “Even if I’m fired, I have been part of a movement that is going to change the games industry. I might not benefit, but future people like me will.”

Some interesting quotes from two pro-union figures interviewed by the Post:

“There’s been a lot of groundwork that’s been happening in the game industry over the last few years in terms of raising awareness about unions.” — Vodeo designer Carolyn Jong

“Vodeo has broken the ice on smaller studios. There are definitely folks at smaller studios that are realizing that unions are not just for triple A studios…” — a Southern California games-industry organizer

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Ask Slashdot: How Many Files Are on Your Computer?

With some time on their hands, long-time Slashdot reader shanen began exploring the question: How many files does my Windows 10 computer have?

But then they realized “It would also be interesting to compare the weirdness on other OSes…”

Here are the two data points in front of me:

(1) Using the right click on properties for all of the top-level folders on the drive (including the so-called hidden folders), it quickly determined that there are a few hundred thousand files in those folders (and a few hundred thousand subfolders). That’s already ridiculous, but the expected par these days. The largest project I have on the machine only has about 3,000 files, and that one goes back many years… (My largest database only has about 5,000 records, but it’s just a few files.)

(2) However, I also decided to take a look with Microsoft’s malicious software removal tool and got a completely different answer. For twisted grins, I had invoked the full scan. It’s still running a day later and has already passed 10 million files. Really? The progress bar indicates about 80% finished? WTF?

Obviously there is some kind of disagreement about the nature of “file” here. I could only think of one crazy explanation, but my router answered “No, the computer is not checking all of the files on the Internet.” So I’ve already asked the specific question in three-letter form, but the broader question is about the explosive, perhaps even cancerous, “population growth” of files these days.

Maybe we can all solve this mystery together. So use the comments to share your own answers and insights.

How many files are on your computer?

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New Era Begins: Construction Starts on 47-Acre Fusion Reactor Funded by Google and Bill Gates

Heating plasma fuel to over 100 million degrees Celsius to create inexpensive and unlimited zero-emissions electricity “has been compared to everything from a holy grail to fool’s gold…” writes the Boston Globe, “or an expensive delusion diverting scarce money and brainpower from the urgent needs of rapidly addressing climate change.”
[N]ow, after breakthroughs this year at MIT and elsewhere, scientists — and a growing number of deep-pocketed investors — insist that fusion is for real and could start sending power to electricity grids in about a decade.
To prove that, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff in Cambridge, is using a whopping $1.8 billion it raised in recent months from investors such as Bill Gates, Google, and a host of private equity firms to build a prototype of a specially designed fusion reactor on a former Superfund site in Devens. A host of excavators, backhoes, and other heavy machinery are clearing land there and laying concrete foundations on 47 acres of newly acquired land. “It may sound like science fiction, but the science of fusion is real, and the recent scientific advancements are game-changing,” said Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and cofounder of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. “These advancements aren’t incremental; they are quantum leap improvements. . . . We’re in a new era of actually delivering real energy systems….”

There are now at least 35 companies trying to prove that fusion can be a practical power source, most of them established in the past decade, according to the three-year-old Fusion Industry Association. The promise of fusion was buoyed with significant developments this year. In May, scientists in China used their own specially designed tokamak to sustain a fusion reaction of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds, the longest on record. In September, Whyte’s team at MIT and his colleagues at Commonwealth Fusion Systems demonstrated that, while using relatively low-cost materials that don’t require a large amount of space, they could create the most powerful magnetic field of its kind on Earth, a critical component of the prototype reactor they’re building in Devens.

“We have come a long way,” said Bob Mumgaard, CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, who compared their advance to similar breakthroughs that made flight possible. “We’re a pretty conservative science bunch, but we’re pretty confident.” With some $2 billion raised in recent years — more than any of the other fusion startups — his company is racing to prove that their prototype, called SPARC, will produce more energy than it consumes in 2025. If they succeed, the company plans to start building their first power plant several years afterward. Ultimately, he said, their goal is to help build 10,000 200-megawatt fusion power plants around the world, enough to replace nearly all fossil fuels. “This is a solution that can scale to the size of the problem that decarbonization requires,” he said.

Phil Warburg, a senior fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, disagrees. “Fusion has been an elusive fantasy for a half-century or more,” he tells the Boston Globe. “Along with the technical hurdles, the environmental downsides have not been seriously examined, and the economics are anything but proven… The current wave of excitement about fusion comes at a time when we’ve barely begun to tap the transformative potential of solar, wind, storage, and energy efficiency — all known to be technically viable, economically competitive, and scalable today. The environmental advocacy community needs to focus on vastly expanding those clean-energy applications, leaving fusion to the scientists until they’ve got something much more credible to show for their efforts.”

But Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts rejected the argument that fusion research detracts from investments in renewables as a “false choice…. We’re at a very different moment now, and it’s good to have a lot of different horses in the race.”

The also article notes that officials at America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission told them federal officials are already holding meetings to discuss how they’d regulate fusion reactors.

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