Day: March 4, 2017

Trump Inherits a Secret Cyberwar Against North Korean Missiles

An image distributed by the North Korean government showing the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, visiting a missile test center in North Pyongan Province. Analysts say the pair of engines he is standing in front of could power an intercontinental ballistic missile.CreditKorean Central News Agency, via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, President Barack Obama ordered Pentagon officials to step up their cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile program in hopes of sabotaging test launches in their opening seconds.

Soon a large number of the North’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea. Advocates of such efforts say they believe that targeted attacks have given American antimissile defenses a new edge and delayed by several years the day when North Korea will be able to threaten American cities with nuclear weapons launched atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But other experts have grown increasingly skeptical of the new approach, arguing that manufacturing errors, disgruntled insiders and sheer incompetence can also send missiles awry. Over the past eight months, they note, the North has managed to successfully launch three medium-range rockets. And Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, now claims his country is in “the final stage in preparations” for the inaugural test of his intercontinental missiles — perhaps a bluff, perhaps not.

An examination of the Pentagon’s disruption effort, based on interviews with officials of the Obama and Trump administrations as well as a review of extensive but obscure public records, found that the United States still does not have the ability to effectively counter the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. Those threats are far more resilient than many experts thought, The New York Times’s reporting found, and pose such a danger that Mr. Obama, as he left office, warned President Trump that they were likely to be the most urgent problem he would confront.

Mr. Trump has signaled his preference to respond aggressively against the North Korean threat. In a Twitter post after Mr. Kim first issued his warning on New Year’s Day, the president wrote, “It won’t happen!” Yet like Mr. Obama before him, Mr. Trump is quickly discovering that he must choose from highly imperfect options.

He could order the escalation of the Pentagon’s cyber and electronic warfare effort, but that carries no guarantees. He could open negotiations with the North to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, but that would leave a looming threat in place. He could prepare for direct missile strikes on the launch sites, which Mr. Obama also considered, but there is little chance of hitting every target. He could press the Chinese to cut off trade and support, but Beijing has always stopped short of steps that could lead to the regime’s collapse.

In two meetings of Mr. Trump’s national security deputies in the Situation Room, the most recent on Tuesday, all those options were discussed, along with the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a dramatic warning. Administration officials say those issues will soon go to Mr. Trump and his top national security aides.

The decision to intensify the cyber and electronic strikes, in early 2014, came after Mr. Obama concluded that the $300 billion spent since the Eisenhower era on traditional antimissile systems, often compared to hitting “a bullet with a bullet,” had failed the core purpose of protecting the continental United States. Flight tests of interceptors based in Alaska and California had an overall failure rate of 56 percent, under near-perfect conditions. Privately, many experts warned the system would fare worse in real combat.

So the Obama administration searched for a better way to destroy missiles. It reached for techniques the Pentagon had long been experimenting with under the rubric of “left of launch,” because the attacks begin before the missiles ever reach the launchpad, or just as they lift off. For years, the Pentagon’s most senior officers and officials have publicly advocated these kinds of sophisticated attacks in little-noticed testimony to Congress and at defense conferences.


The KN-14, one of two types of intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea is developing, at a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, in October 2015, in an image released by the nation’s government.CreditKorean Central News Agency, via Reuters

The Times inquiry began last spring as the number of the North’s missile failures soared. The investigation uncovered the military documents praising the new antimissile approach and found some pointing with photos and diagrams to North Korea as one of the most urgent targets.

After discussions with the office of the director of national intelligence last year and in recent days with Mr. Trump’s national security team, The Times agreed to withhold details of those efforts to keep North Korea from learning how to defeat them. Last fall, Mr. Kim was widely reported to have ordered an investigation into whether the United States was sabotaging North Korea’s launches, and over the past week he has executed senior security officials.

The approach taken in targeting the North Korean missiles has distinct echoes of the American- and Israeli-led sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, the most sophisticated known use of a cyberweapon meant to cripple a nuclear threat. But even that use of the “Stuxnet” worm in Iran quickly ran into limits. It was effective for several years, until the Iranians figured it out and recovered. And Iran posed a relatively easy target: an underground nucybclear enrichment plant that could be attacked repeatedly.

In North Korea, the target is much more challenging. Missiles are fired from multiple launch sites around the country and moved about on mobile launchers in an elaborate shell game meant to deceive adversaries. To strike them, timing is critical.

Advocates of the sophisticated effort to remotely manipulate data inside North Korea’s missile systems argue the United States has no real alternative because the effort to stop the North from learning the secrets of making nuclear weapons has already failed. The only hope now is stopping the country from developing an intercontinental missile, and demonstrating that destructive threat to the world.

KN-08 ballistic missiles were paraded through Pyongyang in July 2013 on mobile launch vehicles that can be hidden in caves or underground, making the missiles hard to track and target. CreditKyodo News

“Disrupting their tests,” William J. Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said at a recent presentation in Washington, would be “a pretty effective way of stopping their ICBM program.”

Decades in the Making

Three generations of the Kim family have dreamed that their broken, otherwise failed nation could build its own nuclear weapons, and the missiles to deliver them, as the ultimate survival strategy. With nukes in hand, the Kims have calculated, they need not fear being overrun by South Korea, invaded by the United States or sold out by China.

North Korea began seeking an intercontinental ballistic missile decades ago: It was the dream of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who bitterly remembered the American threats to use nuclear weapons against the North during the Korean War.

His break came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when out-of-work Russian rocket scientists began seeking employment in North Korea. Soon, a new generation of North Korean missiles began to appear, all knockoffs of Soviet designs. Though flight tests were sparse, American experts marveled at how the North seemed to avoid the kinds of failures that typically strike new rocket programs, including those of the United States in the late 1950s.

The success was so marked that Timothy McCarthy of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey wrote in a 2001 analysis that Pyongyang’s record “appears completely unique in the history of missile development and production.”

In response, President George W. Bush announced in late 2002 the deployment of antimissile interceptors in Alaska and California. At the same time, Mr. Bush accelerated programs to get inside the long supply chain of parts for North Korean missiles, lacing them with defects and weaknesses, a technique also used for years against Iran.

Threat Grows in Obama Era

By the time Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, the North had deployed hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles that used Russian designs, and had made billions of dollars selling its Scud missiles to Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. But it aspired to a new generation of missiles that could fire warheads over much longer distances.

In secret cables written in the first year of the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out the emerging threat.

Among the most alarming released by WikiLeaks, the cables described a new path the North was taking to reach its long-range goal, based on a missile designed by the Soviets decades ago for their submarines that carried thermonuclear warheads.

It was called the R-27. Unlike the North’s lumbering, older rockets and missiles, these would be small enough to hide in caves and move into position by truck. The advantage was clear: This missile would be far harder for the United States to find and destroy.

“North Korea’s next goal may be to develop a mobile ICBM that would be capable of threatening targets around the world,” said an October 2009 cable marked “Secret” and signed by Mrs. Clinton.

The next year, one of the new missiles showed up in a North Korean military parade, just as the intelligence reports had warned.

By 2013, North Korean rockets thundered with new regularity. And that February, the North set off a nuclear test that woke up Washington: The monitoring data told of an explosion roughly the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

Days after the explosion, the Pentagon announced an expansion of its force of antimissile interceptors in California and Alaska. It also began to unveil its “left of launch” program to disable missiles before liftoff — hoping to bolster its chances of destroying them. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced the program, saying that “cyberwarfare, directed energy and electronic attack,” a reference to such things as malware, lasers and signal jamming, were all becoming important new adjuncts to the traditional ways of deflecting enemy strikes.


Intermediate-range Musudan missiles rolled through Pyongyang during a parade in 2015. CreditKyodo News

He never mentioned North Korea. But a map accompanying General Dempsey’s policy paper on the subject showed one of the North’s missiles streaking toward the United States. Soon, in testimony before Congress and at public panels in Washington, current and former officials and a major contractor — Raytheon — began talking openly about “left of launch” technologies, in particular cyber and electronic strikes at the moment of launch.

The North, meanwhile, was developing its own exotic arsenal. It tried repeatedly to disrupt American and South Korean military exercises by jamming electronic signals for guided weapons, including missiles. And it demonstrated its cyberpower in the oddest of places — Hollywood. In 2014, it attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment with a strike that destroyed about 70 percent of the company’s computing systems, surprising experts with its technical savvy.

Last month, a report on cybervulnerabilities by the Defense Science Board, commissioned by the Pentagon during the Obama administration, warned that North Korea might acquire the ability to cripple the American power grid, and cautioned that it could never be allowed to “hold vital U.S. strike systems at risk.”

Secret Push, and New Doubts

Not long after General Dempsey made his public announcement, Mr. Obama and his defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, began calling meetings focused on one question: Could a crash program slow the North’s march toward an intercontinental ballistic missile?

There were many options, some drawn from General Dempsey’s list. Mr. Obama ultimately pressed the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to pull out all the stops, which officials took as encouragement to reach for untested technologies.

The North’s missiles soon began to fail at a remarkable pace. Some were destroyed, no doubt, by accident as well as by design. The technology the North was pursuing, using new designs and new engines, involved multistage rockets, introducing all kinds of possibilities for catastrophic mistakes. But by most accounts, the United States program accentuated the failures.

The evidence was in the numbers. Most flight tests of an intermediate-range missile called the Musudan, the weapon that the North Koreans showed off in public just after Mrs. Clinton’s warning, ended in flames: Its overall failure rate is 88 percent.

Nonetheless Kim Jong-un has pressed ahead on his main goal: an intercontinental ballistic missile. Last April, he was photographed standing next to a giant test-stand, celebrating after engineers successfully fired off a matched pair of the potent Russian-designed R-27 engines. The implication was clear: Strapping two of the engines together at the base of a missile was the secret to building an ICBM that could ultimately hurl warheads at the United States.

In September, he celebrated the most successful test yet of a North Korean nuclear weapon — one that exploded with more than twice the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb.

His next goal, experts say, is to combine those two technologies, shrinking his nuclear warheads to a size that can fit on an intercontinental missile. Only then can he credibly claim that his isolated country has the know-how to hit an American city thousands of miles away.

In the last year of his presidency, Mr. Obama often noted publicly that the North was learning from every nuclear and missile test — even the failures — and getting closer to its goal. In private, aides noticed he was increasingly disturbed by North Korea’s progress.

With only a few months left in office, he pushed aides for new approaches. At one meeting, he declared that he would have targeted the North Korean leadership and weapons sites if he thought it would work. But it was, as Mr. Obama and his assembled aides knew, an empty threat: Getting timely intelligence on the location of North Korea’s leaders or their weapons at any moment would be almost impossible, and the risks of missing were tremendous, including renewed war on the Korean Peninsula.

For Trump, Hard Decisions


The single successful test flight in a run of Musudan missile failures came in June, shown in this image from North Korea’s state-run news agency. The Musudan had an overall failure rate of 88 percent, much higher than the 13 percent failure rate of the Soviet-era missile on which it was based.CreditKorean Central News Agency, via Reuters

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump complained that “we’re so obsolete in cyber,” a line that grated on officials at the United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, where billions of dollars have been spent to provide the president with new options for intelligence gathering and cyberattacks. Now, one of the immediate questions he faces is whether to accelerate or scale back those efforts.

A decision to go after an adversary’s launch ability can have unintended consequences, experts warn.

Once the United States uses cyberweapons against nuclear launch systems — even in a threatening state like North Korea — Russia and China may feel free to do the same, targeting fields of American missiles. Some strategists argue that all nuclear systems should be off-limits for cyberattack. Otherwise, if a nuclear power thought it could secretly disable an adversary’s atomic controls, it might be more tempted to take the risk of launching a pre-emptive attack.

“I understand the urgent threat,” said Amy Zegart, a Stanford University intelligence and cybersecurity expert, who said she had no independent knowledge of the American effort. “But 30 years from now we may decide it was a very, very dangerous thing to do.”

Mr. Trump’s aides say everything is on the table. China recently cut off coal imports from the North, but the United States is also looking at ways to freeze the Kim family’s assets, some of which are believed held in Chinese-controlled banks. The Chinese have already opposed the deployment of a high-altitude missile defense system known as Thaad in South Korea; the Trump team may call for even more such systems.

The White House is also looking at pre-emptive military strike options, a senior Trump administration official said, though the challenge is huge given the country’s mountainous terrain and deeply buried tunnels and bunkers. Placing American tactical nuclear weapons back into South Korea — they were withdrawn a quarter-century ago — is also under consideration, even if that step could accelerate an arms race with the North.

Mr. Trump’s “It won’t happen!” post on Twitter about the North’s ICBM threat suggests a larger confrontation could be looming.

“Regardless of Trump’s actual intentions,” James M. Acton, a nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently noted, “the tweet could come to be seen as a ‘red line’ and hence set up a potential test of his credibility.”


US Congresswoman: To Solve Refugee Crisis, Stop Funding Terrorism


By Darius Shahtahmasebi of The Anti-Media

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the politician who previously accused the U.S. of arming ISIS, is still calling on the U.S. government to stop its disastrous regime change policies in the Middle East.

According to a press release made public on Tuesday, Gabbard has again called for the U.S. to stop aiding terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Gabbard’s guest at the presidential address to Congress, a Kurdish refugee activist, also called for an end to the U.S. policy of “regime change in Syria.”

Gabbard said:

“In the face of unimaginable heartbreak, Tima has been a voice for the voiceless, a champion for refugees worldwide, and a strong advocate for ending the regime change war in Syria. I am honored to welcome her to Washington tonight as we raise our voices to call on our nation’s leaders to end the counterproductive regime change war in Syria that has caused great human suffering, refugees, loss of life, and devastation. We urge leaders in Congress to pass the Stop Arming Terrorists Act and end our destructive policy of using American taxpayer dollars to provide direct and indirect support to armed militants allied with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, who are fighting to overthrow the Syrian government.”

Gabbard also reportedly told Russian state-owned news station RT:

For years, our government has been providing both direct and indirect support to these armed militant groups, who are working directly with or under the command of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, all in their effort and fight to overthrow the Syrian government.”

The activist, Tima Kurdi, is more widely known as the aunt of a three-year-old boy who drowned on the shores of Turkey in September 2015. The image went viral on social media and was easily manipulated by the mainstream media to further the United States’ agenda in the region, never once laying blame to the U.S. military establishment for spending over $1 billion a year arming Syrian rebels.

According to the press release, Kurdi said the following:

I am proud to stand with Tulsi and support her work to end regime change war in Syria. My people have suffered for more than six years—enough is enough. Tulsi understands that arming the so-called “rebels” in Syria has only led to more bloodshed, more suffering, and created more refugees. A military solution in Syria is not the answer. I hope that President Trump will stop arming terrorists and commit to a political solution in Syria—it is the only way to restore peace.”

Gabbard came under fire earlier this year when she took a secretive trip to Syria and met with President Assad, as well as a number of other people on the ground. The fact that her proposed policies have the backing of the relative of the drowned Syrian refugee — whose images the media exploited in 2015 to advance the western narrative against Assad — should speak volumes about the efficacy of Gabbard’s approach. Despite this, the media hardly pays heed to Gabbard’s ideas.

In 2014, PBS ran a report in which they interviewed Syrian rebels who had been trained by the CIA at a camp in Qatar. According to one of the fighters:

They trained us to ambush regime or enemy vehicles and cut off the road…They also trained us on how to attack a vehicle, raid it, retrieve information or weapons and munitions, and how to finish off soldiers still alive after an ambush.” [emphasis added]

The latter emboldened section is a blatant war crime and is also the standard operating procedure for ISIS. Regardless of the banner these rebels operate under, this is a terrorist tactic, and it is ultimately what American taxpayer dollars have been doing in Syria.

This article originally appeared on The Anti-Media.

Sickle cell anemia patient ‘cured’ by gene therapy, doctors say

(CNN)In a world first, a teenager with sickle cell disease achieved complete remission after an experimental gene therapy at Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, researchers say.

People with sickle-cell disease, a group of inherited blood disorders, have abnormal hemoglobin in their red blood cells, causing blood to clog in the tiny vessels and organs of the body.
After 15 months since treatment, the patient — who began therapy at age 13 — no longer needs medication, and his blood cells show no further sign of the disease, according to a case report published Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine.
“Since therapy was applied, he hasn’t had any pain, any complications. He is free of any transfusions. He plays sports and goes to school,” said Dr. Philippe Leboulch, an author of the new research and a professor of medicine at the University of Paris. “So we are quite pleased with the results.”
This success provides proof of concept for human patients, Leboulch said.
According to Dr. Marina Cavazzana, senior author of the study and head of the biotherapy department at Necker, “all the biological tests we perform lead us to think he is cured.” Yet, she added, the answer to the question of whether he is truly cured “can be provided only by the longer follow-up.”
Still, hopes are running high that patients with this very devastating disease can receive this therapy “in the next five years,” Cavazzana said. “This is our hope, and we work very hard to attain it.”

A global burden

Worldwide, more than 275,000 infants are born with sickle cell disease each year. In the United States, approximately 100,000 people, most of African ancestry or identifying as black, currently have it. About one in every 365 black children in the US is born with sickle cell disease, for which the life expectancy is now about 40 to 60 years.
Sickle cell disease is one of the most common gene disorders in the world, explained Leboulch. A genetic mutation causes hemoglobin, the main constituent of red blood cells, to distort the shape of the cell, and this causes the blood to aggregate or clog.
This leads to “tremendous pain, anemia and also lesions of organs that ultimately result in shortness of life expectancy,” Leboulch said. “So what we did here was, we tried to inhibit the process of aggregation.”
Essentially, researchers extracted bone marrow from the patient, harvested the stem cells and altered the genetic instructions so that they would make normal hemoglobin. Next, they treated the patient with chemotherapy for four days to eliminate his diseased stem cells. Finally, they returned the treated stem cells via an IV into his bloodstream.
“At that point, the new cells that were modified outside the body started to make new blood cells, and we hope this will be stable for the life of the patient,” Leboulch said.
Before receiving treatment, the teen had terrible pain and needed blood transfusions, which required twice-yearly hospitalizations, Leboulch explained. His many complications included necrosis of the hip, which necessitated hip replacement surgery.

‘Hope for all patients’

Going forward, the plan is to proceed through clinical trials and, if results are promising, make the treatment available to patients. Leboulch and his colleagues are using the same genetic therapy to treat a similar disease called thalassemia, another inherited blood disorder in which patients have less hemoglobin and fewer red blood cells than normal. Severe forms require regular blood transfusions.
Leboulch and his colleagues have global phase 2 and phase 3 trials for the thalassemia treatment underway in France, the US, Australia and Thailand.
For sickle cell disease, a companion trial in the US is underway. “I understand that seven (sickle cell) patients have been treated already. Of course, the outcome is much shorter, and we don’t have the results just yet, but it’s coming along,” Leboulch said.
“To apply this to a baby or a very young child should be at least as effective or more,” he said. “Doing it with older patients, who have had years of complications, could be more challenging.”
Leboulch also noted that gene therapy is easier on patients than procedures requiring outside donors. Previously, hematopoietic stem cell transplant, which replaces a patient’s bone marrow with that of a donor, has proved an effective cure for some patients.
According to Dr. Alexis Thompson, president-elect of the American Society of Hematology, the majority of sickle cell disease patients do not have a sibling who would be an appropriate match for bone marrow donation.
“Gene therapy holds promise because a patient serves as his own donor,” and the “risks are much reduced” since there’s no possibility of a mismatch, said Thompson, who was not involved in this research but is an investigator on a related gene therapy study.
“I think this is a really very exciting advancement,” she said, adding that if the results seen in France can be duplicated, this would provide “for a new direction for patients who need a curative option.”
According to Dr. Trish Wong of Oregon Health and Science University, the new study “is truly amazing work — proof of principle that a cure for this chronic, devastating disease is in sight.” Wong was not involved in the new research.
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“Gene therapy offers hope for all patients with sickle cell disease, regardless of whether they have a bone marrow match or not,” Wong wrote in an email.
“Time is still needed” to assess the success of this treatment and the possibility of later side effects, said Wong. “But any patient with severe sickle cell disease will tell you that being able to live a life for even a year without medications or fear of pain or hospitalization is substantial.”
Finally, Dr. Grace Onimoe of the American Sickle Cell Anemia Association noted that the life expectancy of a patients with sickle cell disease remains decades lower than that of the general population while children throughout the world continue to suffer. Onimoe, who was not involved in the new research, said, “As more work continues in the area of gene therapy to enhance safety and reduce potential complications, we remain optimistic of the promise it holds.”
Leboulch also feels very hopeful.
“Now, we want to be cautious, of course, and we don’t want to say that this is the cure for tomorrow or the next day for everybody,” he said. “At the same time, what we’ve observed is really convincing, and we just hope that we can move this along to make it available to patients.”

What the woolly mammoth can teach us about conservation today

MARCH 3, 2017 The shaggy megafauna that roamed Siberia and North America together with our ancestors captivate the imagination, but now it looks like they’re giving us a practical lesson in genetics that could help inform conservation efforts.

Scientists compared the DNA of two mammoths: a member of a dwindling island population with an individual from the booming herds of the more distant past. Their findings, published Thursday in the journal PLOS Genetics, provided some of the first concrete proof of the genetic theories describing how population size affects genetic fitness. Genomic meltdown” may have doomed the last herd of mammoths, a conclusion that on its face suggests dire consequences for modern endangered species, but that could also offer valuable insight into how to best keep today’s rarest creatures from crossing the threshold into extinction.

The furry beasts ruled the tundra for over a million years until climate change turned grasslands into forests and hungry humans arrived on the scene. These pressures caused the mainland population to go extinct about 10,000 years ago, but two pockets managed to survive millenniums longer.

Two arctic islands became their last refuge, with populations surviving on St. Paul island until a lack of fresh water did them in 5,600 years ago, leaving the species to make their final stand on the remote Wrangel Island, where they stuck it out for another 1,600 years.

Researchers compared the DNA of a 4,300-year-old Wrangel Island specimen with that of a 45,000-year-old mainland mammoth. Genomic diversity measures suggest that the mainland individual was part of a breeding population 43 times larger than the 300 remaining island mammoths.

They found that the island genome was damaged compared to that of the mainland mammoth, suggesting that the lack of diversity in the breeding pool may have led to a breakdown in the integrity of the gene pool. As a result, many island mammoths may have had poor senses of smell, and a new coat as the stiff hairs that protected individuals from the cold became soft and shiny. The mighty woolly mammoth became a “satin” mammoth.

Experts can’t be sure that these genetic changes caused the Wrangel population to die out, but Dr. Rogers finds the timing highly suspicious. “We found these bad mutations were accumulating in the mammoth genome right before they went extinct,” she told the BBC.

This result contradicts a 2012 paper, which found that while the genetic diversity did indeed drop after the shrinking population became isolated, it continued at a reduced but stable level for thousands of years, until some other cause drove the final nail into the coffin. “I’m personally leaning towards environmental change,” co-author Love Dalen, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, told the BBC at the time.

Regardless of what ended the Wrangel Island mammoths, the study has great significance in the field of genetics, where genome evolution theory has long predicted that damaging mutations should pile up in small populations of organisms.

“The mathematical theories that have been developed said that [individuals in small populations] should accumulate bad mutations because natural selection should become very inefficient,” Rogers explained to the BBC.

The problem was that this accumulation takes a long time, making it difficult to confirm the theory by observing the change as it happens within a single species.

But the mammoth made just such an empirical observation possible.

“This is probably the best evidence I can think of for the rapid genomic decay of island populations,” Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times.

The confirmation may have serious consequences for efforts to prevent modern species from going the way of the mammoth.

“This is a very novel result,” Dr. Dalen, who published the DNA sequences this study was based on, told the BBC. “If this holds up when more mammoth genomes, as well as genomes from other species, are analysed, it will have very important implications for conservation biology.”

The paper identifies Asiatic cheetahs (fewer than 100 individuals), pandas (1600 individuals living in highly fragmented territories), and mountain gorillas (300 individuals) as examples of small populations in danger of suffering the same “genomic meltdown” as the mammoths.

Saving such species may be challenging, because once genes get deleted, it’s “difficult to see how genomes could recover quickly,” the authors write. “With small effective population sizes, adaptation through both new mutation and standing variation may be severely limited.”

Their work suggests the existence of a population point of no return, after which a species may never recover, no matter what careful protections are afforded to the endangered individuals.

But there’s a silver lining. A better understanding of the challenges facing small populations can help focus conservation efforts, and direct where limited funds should be best spent. Concentrating resources on preserving vulnerable species before their numbers dwindle could be a more cost-effective strategy than large expenditures on groups that have already suffered a great loss of genetic diversity.

“So if you can prevent these organisms ever being threatened or endangered then that will do a lot more to help prevent this type of genomic meltdown compared to if you have a small population and then bring it back up to larger numbers, because it will still bear those signatures of this genomic meltdown,” Rogers explained to the BBC.

Simply put, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure.

Wild Elephants Sleep Just 2 Hours a Day, Puzzling Scientists in UCLA Study

Anyone who feels proud for pulling an all-nighter has nothing on the African Elephant.

A study released Wednesday of two matriarchal elephants in Botswana’s Chobe National Park revealed the lumbering creatures only slept for two hours a day — apparently the least of any mammals.

Remarkably, these insomniac elephants traveled nearly 19 miles in 10 hours without rest and stayed up for a record 46 hours straight, according to the study conducted by the UCLA Center for Sleep Research and the nonprofit research group Elephants Without Borders.


Scientists have noted that the elephants’ non-sleeping abilities are a new record for a mammal’s sleeping pattern and compared it to captive elephants’ sleeping patterns of five to six hours a day.

“The elephants were studied for continuous 35 day periods [from a distance],” Jerry Siegel, director of the Center for Sleep Research, told NBC News. “Elephants move with their herd and move very frequently, so animals sleeping a lot would be left behind.”

The study noted that both the matriarchal elephants didn’t sleep in the same location daily and would search for locations with lush vegetation, such as the woodlands and open savanna areas, without crossing paths with another elephant herd.

Related: The Surprising Reason This Scientist Wants to Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth

Researchers used GPS trackers and “actiwatch implants” — the equivalent of animal Fitbits — to monitor both elephants’ activity levels and found that both matriarchs could sleep standing for two days straight, napped in several short bouts of about 20 minutes over the course of a night, and kept traveling to avoid poachers, predators and other disturbances.

“I have previously shown in 2005 that herbivores sleep less than omnivores and carnivores. Elephants are eating machines. If they were not eating all the time, they wouldn’t be the massive animals they are,” Siegel said.

However, these floppy-eared giants are leaving many scientists puzzled because they seem to defy the rule of biology: the bigger an animal, the more sleep it needs. According to the study, the elephants’ sleeping times are fewer than the gray whales’ nine hours per day and the giraffes’ 4.6 hours per day.

Researcher Oleg Lyamin, a UCLA professor, told NBC News that the rule is problematic because it was acquired from data based on “studying mice and rats in laboratories” and “observing sleep patterns of animals taken out of their normal habitats and kept solitary, where they are often deprived of complex interactions with the environment.”

Image: A head of African elephants walks in Addo Elephant National Park, some 60 kms outside of Port Elizabeth on Nov. 15, 2009.
A herd of African elephants walks in Addo Elephant National Park, some 60 kms outside of Port Elizabeth on Nov. 15, 2009. Alexander Joe / AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to the known connection between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep influencing memory consolidation, the study and Lyamin both indicated that elephants and wild animals were the big exception to this rule.

Elephants, dolphins, seals and many other wild animals can sacrifice proper shut-eye for days without their performance and cognitive functions, such as memory, being affected or disoriented. However, humans and confined animals show the opposite results and become impaired when regular sleep is not practiced.

But other researchers believe the size of an elephant’s family group could also influence its sleep duration.

“Perhaps elephants in larger family groups sleep longer due to increased protection of having other elephants aware of their surroundings,” said Preston Foerder, assistant professor of animal psychology at the University of Chattanooga. “It’s also possible that they take turns sleeping. Elephants are in a fission-fusion social group, meaning that groups tend to split up and come back together.”

Researchers in the study noted that a lot of ground remains uncovered, especially since male elephants and calves were not observed and an elephant’s skull makes it difficult for implanting tracking devices

Rick Osterloh confirms Google Pixel 2 coming in 2017 with premium price tag intact

When Google announced the Google Pixel, it was pretty clear they wanted this brand to be a premium name. When the first Google Pixel hit the internet for purchase, many Nexus users had sticker shock and many refused to buy it. Now the Google Pixel 2 has been confirmed to be releasing sometime in 2017 with no confirmation if it will be October as the previous device was. Rick Osterloh is the big tuna for the Pixel project and he confirmed with Android Pit that the Google Pixel 2 will indeed surface this year.

Osterloh said, “There is an annual rhythm in the industry. So, you can count on us to follow it.” He then follows up more concretely by saying, “You can count on a successor this year, even if you don’t hear a date from me now.” This also makes it clear that the Pixel was by no means a one-off experiment, but that it will remain a fixed quantity in the smartphone world.

He also confirmed that the Pixel will be at home in the upper price segment. “Pixel stays premium,” explains the hardware boss of Google. Also, he stuck to his answer through repeated questioning by various round table participants: there will be no cheap Pixel. Google will continue to leave lower price segments to other manufacturers.

There has been some hope that perhaps Google would introduce a lower-priced Pixel phone more akin to Nexus devices in terms of price. From Osterloh’s comments above, it doesn’t look like Google wants to play any part in the lower-end of the Android device world. For many that will be disappointing news as they have felt that their Nexus devices were solid performers that were already premium.

When do you think the new Pixel will be announced? Do you think Google should release a lower-priced Pixel? Let us know your thoughts and comments below or on Twitter, Facebook. and Google+.

4 Ways Nintendo Can Improve Switch to Prove Doubters Wrong
Nintendo Switch

The Switch$299.99 at Amazon, Nintendo’s newest video game system, merges home gaming comfort and portability to create a unique, eye-catching platform.

The nifty Joy-Con motion controllers foster the same casual-friendly gameplay that made the Wii a hit, while Switch’s tablet-style design and side-grip controller slots improve Nintendo’s Wii U vision. When you consider Nintendo’s dominance over the portable console market, it’s easy to imagine Switch following suit and delivering some truly excellent games. Still, it’s just as easy to be apprehensive about committing to the new console, especially with Switch launching in the wake of Wii U’s passing.

Leaving Switch’s Fate Up to Chance

From the system’s catchy reveal trailer, to its painfully detailed presentation, it is clear that Nintendo wants its audience to know exactly what Switch is, and what it can do. A quick glance at professional gaming outlets, or community-focused sites and YouTube channels, reveal Switch unboxing videos, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild reviews, and innumerable hot takes. Nintendo is pushing Switch in a big way, and it’s using the growing trend of gaming channels and online personalities to push the system into the eyes of the masses.

Nintendo Switch Games January 2017

One thing is certain: the Nintendo Switch launch is going to be big. But will the system maintain a steady burn, or be a mere flash in the pan? Switch could be a potent contender in current console market, if Nintendo plays its cards right. But to make Switch more appealing to gamers sitting on the fence, Nintendo should consider tweaking and improving the following four issues.

Switch Needs Strong Third-Party Support

To ensure the Switch’s longevity and success, Nintendo needs good third-party developer support. Yes, we’ve all seen the fancy graphic featuring dozens of developers on board with the Switch. Sadly, this means very little, as Wii U boasted similar partnerships prior to the system’s launch. Third-party Wii U support dwindled a few months after the system was released, and companies like EA abandoned Wii U software development entirely.

The video game industry changes constantly, so we can’t know what games ultimately come to fruition. But Nintendo needs to secure these partnerships to keep the Switch relevant. We know the system can’t compete with the hardware muscle that Sony and Microsoft have to offer, so Nintendo must keep the Switch appealing with solid software options. Because Switch is a portable/home console hybrid, one can hope that the system’s lineup of games mirrors that of the Nintendo DS and 3DS, which enjoyed excellent third-party support throughout their lifetimes.

Nintendo Switch

Nintendo does its player base a solid by making the Switch region-free. You can purchase and play Switch games from anywhere in the world, be they niche Japanese games or big-name multiplatform titles. Wii owners might remember Operation Rainfall, a social media campaign that urged Nintendo to bring several Japanese-exclusive titles to North America and Europe. Games like Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story made their way to Western shores thanks to the movement, but it might not have been as much of an issue had Wii not been region-locked.

The Switch is also getting a surge of indie games throughout the year; about 60 have been announced for Switch, including Yooka-Laylee, Pocket Rumble, Stardew Valley, Shovel Knight, and more. This is great news, as it gives Switch owners a tremendous amount of content to chew through in between big-name releases and exclusives. But these games alone won’t be enough to keep Switch afloat: it needs compelling software that goes beyond the indie scene. Third-party support from companies EA, Ubisoft, and Square-Enix, be it multiplatform ports or exclusive games, is extremely important for enticing potential would-be Switch buyers. Bayonetta 2 was a tremendous Wii U asset, after all. We can only wonder in excitement at what companies, such as Platinum Games, Capcom, and From Software, are cooking up for Switch.

Switch Needs Modern Online Functionality

The Nintendo Switch reveal came with the revelation of a new, online service to go with it. This service is free at launch, but will adopt a subscription model in autumn. While this may not sound very different from the services Sony and Microsoft provide, these companies have several years more experience with subscription-based online services, as well as incentives to encourage gamers to commit. PlayStation Plus’s free monthly game downloads and Microsoft’s Games with Gold are prime examples. A quick look at the official Switch online service page suggests Nintendo has a few odd kinks to work out.

The most positive aspect of Nintendo’s new service is the discounted offers on select games, which is a genuinely nice perk, given that Nintendo games don’t usually drop in price. But that’s about the only good thing to come from the announcement.

Nintendo Switch

One glaring issue is the bizarre monthly game download, which lets subscribers download one NES or SNES classic title for free, for a month. The caveat, however, is that you don’t get to keep it after that month is over. This is only worsened by the fact that these games are several generations old and easily obtained online via emulators. Sony and Microsoft both give you a selection of games to download and keep so long as you keep your subscription active. Sure, these monthly offerings aren’t technically free either, but it’s a nice perk, especially since you’re paying for online connectivity anyway.

What is perhaps even more bewildering is Nintendo’s use of a smartphone companion app for basic online features, such as party chat and game invites. We can only speculate about why Nintendo has opted for a companion app rather than designing these features directly into the Switch’s interface. Nintendo’s online approach is odd, and we can only hope that the company learns much from the spring and summer online beta.

Switch Needs a Bundled Game

There is no doubt that Wii’s runaway success was due to the console’s unique motion gimmicks and casual appeal. However, the silent hero in the Wii’s tale of glory is Wii Sports, the quirky, party-oriented sports game that came packaged with the console in some regions. Wii Sports epitomized the Wii experience: it used simple motion controls to great effect, while also crystallizing exactly what Wii offered.

Nintendo Switch is a portable console with two highly specialized Joy-Con controllers that can be paired together for use as a single classic controller or divvied up with a second player for co-op or competition. But the Switch doesn’t come packaged with any game to take advantage of the dynamic controllers or the console’s mobility.

Nintendo Switch

1-2-Switch is a party game that utilizes the Switch’s portability, as well as the two Joy-Con controllers for competitive dueling and party-style challenges. This makes 1-2-Switch the ideal candidate for a bundled game, but Nintendo has opted to sell the game separately and for $50, no less. The tremendous success of Wii Sports, even in regions where the game was not bundled with the system, is very likely coloring Nintendo’s decision to sell 1-2-Switch independently. Nonetheless, the game’s quirky humor, silly mini games, and Switch-exclusive tech would be better suited as a bundled title rather than a standalone game.

The two-player functionality of the Joy Cons, as well as their highly versatile motion and IR capabilities, alongside a pack-in game, would perfectly emulate the NES bundles of old: It would be a modern iteration of the NES Action Set bundle from the late 1980s.

Switch Needs More Memory

Nintendo Switch launches with 32GB of internal storage space for game data, but about 7GB of that is taken up by the console’s system software. This means you could easily use up what little memory the Switch is packaged with on a single digital game download. Alternative bundles with larger storage capacity would be ideal for those gamers who prefer to buy their games digitally.

Nintendo is avoiding the atrocious price gouging that PlayStation Vita owners suffer by making the Switch compatible with generic micro SDXC cards. As you may know, PlayStation Vita uses outrageously expensive proprietary Sony memory cards to store game data. With Switch, however, you can buy whatever size microSD card you like to replace the system’s default storage.

It’s also important to note that Switch uses cartridge-based software that doesn’t need to be installed onto the system, unlike PlayStation 4 which make installations mandatory for digital and physical games alike. Memory is less of an issue if you buy physical cartridges, so you can simply pop a new game into the Switch and play right away.

The issue here, however, is that not everyone wants to buy a physical version of the game. Many gamers prefer buying digital games, as they don’t take up real-world space and can’t be lost. Nintendo Switch’s game cartridges are tiny: smaller than a Nintendo 3DS cartridge. You can’t fault buyers for wanting to go digital to avoid having to keep track of these diminutive, yet highly valuable games cards. Again, an alternative bundle with greater storage options would be ideal going forward.

Plus, game saves are stored to system memory. They’re realitively small files, but add up over time. If Nintendo allowed users to move save data from the system memory to microSD cards, it would be a much welcomed addition.

Final Thoughts

Nintendo is no stranger to iterative system releases. The Switch’s spartan launch may not impress everyone right out of the gate, but I have no doubt that a Deluxe Edition is coming down the pipe, with a larger microSD memory card, a pack-in game, or both. We can almost certainly expect something like it later this year. Nintendo Switch has tremendous potential, and I sincerely hope that it delivers on all fronts, and that Nintendo improves its weak points in time for the holiday season.

Two gang members in U.S. illegally are accused of kidnapping 3 girls, killing 1 in a satanic ritual

Two MS-13 gang members from El Salvador, both in the United States illegally, held three teenage girls against their will and killed one of them in what was described as a satanic ritual, authorities in Houston said Friday.

Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22, and Diego Hernandez-Rivera, 18, have been arrested and charged with aggravated kidnapping and murder — both first-degree felonies punishable by up to life in prison. Bond has been set at $300,000 for each, but immigration detainers will keep both behind bars.


The 15-year-old girl’s body was found Feb. 16 with gunshot wounds to the face and chest. Homicide detective Sgt. Chris Sturdivant said that the girl’s identity has not been officially determined but that investigators are confident they know who she is — a girl reported missing in January in nearby Jersey Village, Texas.

The captives were three “young, impressionable women” ranging in age from 14 to 16 who succumbed to the allure of gang life before being taken to an apartment and held there against their will, Sturdivant said. The 14-year-old girl told investigators that they were fed drugs and alcohol and forced to have sex.

The girl said the 15-year-old was killed in a satanic ritual because she had struck the gang’s shrine to a satanic saint, according to investigators. She told investigators that Alvarez-Flores made a peace offering to the figure in the form of a cigarette.

“He returned from the statue and told the entire group that the beast did not want a material offering but wanted a soul,” state District Judge Maria Jackson said during the men’s initial court appearance Wednesday.

The 14-year-old said she later awoke to find the 15-year-old gone, according to investigators. The case comes as President Trump is promoting concerns over criminal immigrants living in the United States illegally.

He has announced that he plans to create an agency, called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE, to serve victims of crimes committed by such immigrants. It would be part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“The majority of the MS-13 members we come into contact with are here illegally,” Sturdivant said. Attorneys for Alvarez-Flores and Hernandez-Rivera did not immediately return calls Friday night.

Sturdivant said both men admitted their involvement in the abductions and killing after their arrests Monday. An FBI multi-jurisdictional anti-gang task force continues to investigate, and Sturdivant said authorities are seeking other gang members who were possibly involved in the crimes.

MS-13, also called Mara Salvatrucha, is believed to have been founded in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by immigrants fleeing civil war in El Salvador. It is now a major international criminal enterprise.

Group finds mass grave at former Catholic orphanage in Ireland

A mass grave containing the remains of babies and young children has been discovered at a former Catholic orphanage in Ireland, government-appointed investigators announced Friday in a finding that offered the first conclusive proof following a historian’s efforts to trace the fates of nearly 800 children who perished there.

The judge-led Mother and Baby Homes Commission said excavations since November at the site of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, had found an underground structure divided into 20 chambers containing “significant quantities of human remains.”

The commission said DNA analysis of selected remains confirmed the ages of the dead ranged from 35 weeks to 3 years old and were buried chiefly in the 1950s, when the overcrowded facility was one of more than a dozen in Ireland offering shelter to orphans, unwed mothers and their children. The Tuam home closed in 1961.

Friday’s findings provided the first proof after decades of suspicions that the vast majority of children who died at the home had been interred on the site in unmarked graves. That was a common, but ill-documented practice at such Catholic-run facilities amid high child mortality rates in early 20th century Ireland.

The government in 2014 formed the investigation after a local Tuam historian, Catherine Corless, tracked down death certificates for nearly 800 children who had died as residents of the facility — but could find a burial record for only one child.

“Everything pointed to this area being a mass grave,” said Corless, who recalled how local boys playing in the field had reported seeing a pile of bones in a hidden underground chamber there in the mid-1970s.

The government’s commissioner for children, Katherine Zappone, said Friday’s findings were “sad and disturbing.” She pledged that the children’s descendants would be consulted on providing proper burials and other memorials.

“We will honor their memory and make sure that we take the right actions now to treat their remains appropriately,” Zappone said.

The report found that the dead children may have been placed in underground chambers originally used to hold sewage. Corless said she found records stating that the sewage systems were used until 1937, when the home was connected to a modern water supply.

A decommissioned septic tank had been “filled with rubble and debris and then covered with top soil” and did not appear to contain remains, the report said. But excavators found children’s remains inside a neighboring connected structure that may have been used to contain sewage or waste water.

The commission’s finding that most of the remains date to the 1950s corroborates Corless’ collection of death certificates. It also dispels a popular argument that bones seen at the site might predate the orphanage’s opening, when the building was a workhouse for the adult poor, or even be from people who died in the mid-19th century Great Famine.

Labour Party lawmaker Joan Burton said the Tuam orphanage’s dead may have been interred “without normal funeral rights, and maybe even without their wider families having been made aware.” She called on the Catholic Church to provide more assistance to investigators.

The investigators, who are examining the treatment of children at a long-closed network of 14 Mother and Baby Homes, said they still were trying to identify “who was responsible for the disposal of human remains in this way.”

The Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns, which ran the home until its closure, said in a statement that all its records, including of potential burials, had been handed to state authorities in 1961. It pledged to cooperate with the continuing investigation.

Corless criticized the Bon Secours response as “the usual maddening nonsense. They must apologize and take responsibility for what happened there.”

She called on the nuns to promise explicitly to help the state organize proper marked burial places for every dead child once each set of remains could be identified.

“That’s the least that can be done for them at this late stage,” she said.

Trump administration considering separating immigrant parents from children at border, reports say

In an attempt to deter parents thinking of illegally entering the U.S. with their children, the Department of Homeland Security is considering a proposal that would separate adults and children who cross the southern border together, according to multiple media reports.

News of the policy, which is still being considered by department officials, was first reported Friday by Reuters, who spoke to three government sources, and later confirmed by CNN and MSNBC.

Such a policy move would mark a significant change in immigration enforcement, as families are currently kept together and released until their court date, according to MSNBC. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the practice of releasing undocumented immigrants from detention centers pending a hearing, which he has described as “catch and release.”

The new policy would mean that adults are kept in custody instead of being released, while children will be placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, before they are placed with a relative or state-sponsored guardian, per Reuters.

A government official told CNN that adult immigrants abuse the current policy, saying they bring children on purpose so that they can avoid detention and arguing that non-parents may even kidnap children to exploit the system.

“We are trying to find ways to deter the use of children in illegal immigration,” the official said. “We are seeing kids essentially kidnapped and used to get here and stay.”

In 2015, a California judge ruled that children cannot be held in long-term detention centers, reversing an Obama administration policy that kept families together but in custody, per the New York Times. Since then, the “catch and release” policy has been used.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security have declined to comment on the media reports. Critics, however, have said such a policy would violate family and immigration laws and may even constitute a human rights abuse by preventing a child from being with his or her parents.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuella (D-Texas), said in a statement that “separating mothers and children is wrong.”

“That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights.”

U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, a member of the House subcommittee on immigration and border security, tweeted out the Reuters report with the comment, “more cruelty.”