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New technology propels efforts to fight Western wildfires

Boston Herald

As drought- and wind-driven wildfires have become more dangerous across the American West in recent years, firefighters have tried to become smarter in how they prepare. They're using new technology and better positioning of resources in a bid to keep small blazes from erupting into mega-fires like the ones that torched a record 4% of California last year, or the nation's biggest wildfire this year that has charred a section of Oregon half the size of Rhode Island. There have been 730 more wildfires in California so far this year than last, an increase of about 16%. But nearly triple the area has burned -- 470 square miles. Catching fires more quickly gives firefighters a better chance of keeping them small.

Using satellites and AI, space-based technology is shaping the future of firefighting


Using satellites, drones and artificial intelligence, emerging technology is changing the way firefighting agencies and governments battle the ever-increasing threat of wildfires as hundreds of thousands of acres burn across the western United States. New programs are being developed by startups and research institutions to predict fire behavior, monitor drought and even detect fires when they first start. As climate change continues to increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires, these breakthroughs offer at least one tool in the growing arsenal of prevention and suppression strategies. "This is not to replace firefighting on the ground," said Ilkay Altintas, a computer scientist with the University of California, San Diego, who developed a fire map for the region. "The more science and data we can give firefighters and the public, the quicker we'll have solutions to combat and mitigate wildfires."

This flying fire sensor could help track wildfires from a satellite in space


As wildfires currently devastate western North America, a new airborne project team hopes to develop a space solution to stop conflagrations before they get out of control. The project could one day help future firefighters acquire "fire behavior" maps within 20 minutes of an outbreak, using satellite data combined with machine learning (a kind of artificial intelligence), according to a statement from the University of California, Berkeley. The project, funded by a $1.5 million grant, will fund "spotter planes" with infrared detectors -- heat-seeking sensors to examine flame length and geometry to learn more about how fires spread. Meanwhile, machine learning algorithms -- provided they are trained well on other "hot spot" datasets -- could spot new fires in the region within milliseconds, to send alerts. If all goes well in airborne testing, the detector team -- which includes UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory and Nevada-based fire assessment company Fireball Information Technologies -- hopes to send similar sensors to space within four years to make monitoring and discovery a 24/7 activity.

US firefighters turn to AI to battle the blazes


Last summer, as Will Harling captained a fire engine trying to control a wildfire that had burst out of northern California's Klamath National Forest, overrun a firebreak, and raced towards his hometown, he got a frustrating email. It was a statistical analysis from Oregon State University forestry researcher Chris Dunn, predicting that the spot where firefighters had built the firebreak, on top of a ridge a few miles out of town, had only a 10% chance of stopping the blaze. "They had spent so many resources building that useless break," said Mr. Harling, who directs the Mid Klamath Watershed Council, and works as a wildland firefighter for the local Karuk Tribe. "The index showed it had no chance," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. The Suppression Difficulty Index (SDI) is one of a number of analytical tools Mr. Dunn and other firefighting technology experts are building to bring the latest in machine learning, big data, and forecasting to the world of firefighting.

Activision Blizzard execs respond to harassment and discrimination lawsuit


The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard this week over alleged sexual harassment and discrimination against women. In a memo to staff obtained by Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier, Blizzard Entertainment president J. Allen Brack wrote that "the allegations and the hurt of current and former employees are extremely troubling." Brack wrote that everyone should feel safe at Blizzard and that "it is completely unacceptable for anyone in the company to face discrimination or harassment." He noted it requires courage for people to come forward with their stories, and that all claims brought to the company are taken seriously and investigated. "People with different backgrounds, views, and experiences are essential for Blizzard, our teams, and our player community," Brack wrote.

We're More of Ourselves When We're in Tune with Others - Issue 104: Harmony


When musicians have chemistry, we can feel it. There's something special among them that's missing when they perform alone. Anyone who's heard a Mick Jagger solo album knows that's the case. Clearly nature wants us to jam together and take flight out of our individual selves. The reward is transcendence, our bodies tell us so. It's a question that one of the most refreshing neuroscientists who studies music has been probing lately. Refreshing because her lab is not only in academia but also on stage, where she performs as an opera singer and with chamber ensembles. Talking to Indre Viskontas is a treat because she animates her research as a scientist with her experiences as an artist.

Scientists finally understand Mars's crust after Nasa mission examines 'Marsquakes'

The Independent - Tech

Scientists have finally been able to understand the crust underneath the surface of Mars. The research represents the first time that humanity has been able to start mapping the interior of another planet beyond our own Earth. The new research relied on data taken from Nasa's InSight mission, which has been looking for Marsquakes that reverberate across its surface. Using information about those quakes, researchers are able to understand what might be lurking beneath the Martian surface. Beneath the InSight landing site, the crust is either approximately 20 kilometres or 39 kilometres thick, according to an international research team led by geophysicist Dr Brigitte Knapmeyer-Endrun at the University of Cologne's Institute of Geology and Mineralogy and Dr Mark Panning at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

News at a glance


SCI COMMUN### Astronomy The Hubble Space Telescope ended a monthlong hiatus on 16 July when operators successfully switched a failed control system to backup devices. The trouble started on 13 June when Hubble's payload computer, which controls its instruments, halted, and the main spacecraft computer put all the astronomical instruments in safe mode. Operators were unable to restart the payload computer, and switching memory modules—which they initially thought were at fault—didn't wake the telescope. They tested and ruled out problems in other devices before zeroing in on a power control unit. NASA called in retired staff to help devise a fix for the 31-year-old telescope, which involved remotely switching to a spare power control unit and other backup hardware for managing the instruments and their data. The agency practiced and checked the repair on the ground for 2 weeks before executing it. After powering up all the hardware, Hubble returned to work on 17 July, and has already beamed back new images. NASA says it expects Hubble to continue for many years. ### Conservation A new automated alert system can help veterinarians get a jump on investigating disease outbreaks and disasters afflicting wildlife. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues used a machine learning algorithm to scan case reports of sick and dead wildlife submitted to a database by wildlife clinics and rehabilitation centers in the United States and other countries. The researchers used data from 3081 reports filed from California to train the algorithm to detect patterns of species suffering common symptoms. The software is designed to identify unusual events in one of 12 clinical categories, such as mass starvation or an oil spill. The algorithm assigned the correct category to 83% of cases examined, including ones from an outbreak of neurological disease in California brown pelicans (above) and red-throated loons, the research team reported last week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B . The system could help wildlife officials more quickly detect developing problems and confirm specific causes. ### Public health Reflecting another toll of the coronavirus pandemic, 23 million children missed routine vaccinations in 2020, the most since 2009 and 19% more than in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF said last week. As many as 17 million didn't receive any childhood vaccine at all. The pandemic led to closures or cutbacks at vaccination clinics and lockdowns that prevented parents and their children from reaching them, the groups reported. In addition, 57 mass vaccination campaigns for non–COVID-19 diseases in 66 countries were postponed. Childhood vaccination rates decreased across all WHO regions, with the Southeast Asian and eastern Mediterranean regions particularly affected. In India, more than 3 million children missed a first dose of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine, more than double the number in 2019. “We [are] leaving children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases like measles, polio, or meningitis,” says WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ### Climate policy As part of the run-up to the U.N. climate summit in November, the European Union and China announced last week plans to follow through on commitments to curb their carbon emissions. The European proposal, which must be approved by the bloc's member states, would steeply increase the price of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; eliminate new gas-powered cars by 2035; require 38% of all energy to come from renewables by 2030, up from a previous goal of 32%; and impose tariffs on goods from countries that have not acted on climate change. (Democratic lawmakers in the United States proposed a similar tariff this week.) Meanwhile, China on 16 July launched a carbon trading scheme for power plants that instantly created the world's largest carbon market, triple the European Union's in size. China's plan incentivizes plants to lower CO2 emissions by allowing more efficient facilities to sell some of their reductions to less efficient ones. Although some observers call the plan weak because it covers a relatively small portion of China's emissions, it could be expanded to eventually incorporate three-fourths of the country's emissions from all sources. ### Public health When temperatures soar, workers and their employers need to take heed: Hot weather led to 20,000 more injuries annually in California between 2001 and 2018, according to a novel analysis of 11 million workers compensation claims. Economist Jisung Park at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues classified work-related injuries by ZIP code and looked up local temperatures on the day each was recorded. They found increases of between 5% and 15% in claims, depending on the temperature and occupation, compared with those filed on a typical cooler day, defined as a temperature of 16°C. Few were attributed directly to heat, but the injuries connected to higher temperatures—such as falls and mishandling equipment—may have resulted because the heat made workers woozy, the researchers reported to Congress last week and in a preprint on the SSRN server. But mitigation may be possible: Heat-related injury claims declined after 2005, when California began to require shade, water, and breaks for outdoor workers—in industries such as construction, utilities, and farming—whenever temperature exceeded 35°C. ### Research integrity Both the United Kingdom and the United States last week announced new high-level bodies to provide guidance on research integrity—but both lack the powers that many whistleblowers say are critical, such as independently investigating complaints of wrongdoing and pulling grant funding from institutions that fail to conduct misconduct probes properly. The umbrella funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) launched the Committee on Research Integrity, which plans to operate for 3 years and accelerate existing projects in this area. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) unveiled the Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust, which will have members from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Unlike UKRI, NASEM does not fund researchers, so it cannot set policies on how to handle misconduct allegations. But it could promote integrity in other ways—for instance by pushing for a central repository for researchers to report their financial conflicts of interest, says Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences and an ex officio member of the new panel. ### Microbiology Sifting through DNA in the mud of her backyard, a geomicrobiologist discovered what may be the longest known extrachromosomal sequence, which includes genes from a variety of microbes—prompting her son to propose naming it after Star Trek 's Borg, cybernetic aliens that assimilate humans. Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, was searching for viruses that infect archaea, a type of microbe often found in places devoid of oxygen. The 1-million-base-pair strand of DNA contains genes known to help archaea metabolize methane, suggesting the fragment might exist inside the microbes but outside their normal chromosome, the research team wrote in a preprint posted on 10 July on the bioRxiv server. Scanning a public microbial DNA database, the authors identified 23 possible Borgs, with many of the same characteristics, in other U.S. locations. The Borgs' role remains murky, but they may provide another example of DNA that can hop between an organism's chromosomes or between organisms, helping species adapt to changes in their environment.

California Sues Gaming Giant Activision Blizzard Over Unequal Pay, Sexual Harassment

NPR Technology

A lawsuit filed by the state of California on Wednesday alleges sexual harassment, gender discrimination and violations of the state's equal pay law at the video game giant Activision Blizzard. A lawsuit filed by the state of California on Wednesday alleges sexual harassment, gender discrimination and violations of the state's equal pay law at the video game giant Activision Blizzard. The video game studio behind the hit franchises Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush is facing a civil lawsuit in California over allegations of gender discrimination, sexual harassment and potential violations of the state's equal pay law. A complaint, filed by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Wednesday, alleges that Activision Blizzard Inc. "fostered a sexist culture" where women were paid less than men and subjected to ongoing sexual harassment including groping. Officials at the gaming company knew about the harassment and not only failed to stop it but retaliated against women who spoke up, the complaint also alleges.

California sues Activision Blizzard over equal pay violations, sexual harassment

USATODAY - Tech Top Stories

The state of California is suing Activision Blizzard, alleging the video game publisher violated equal pay laws and "fostered a sexist culture" within the workplace. In a statement released by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court claims Activision Blizzard paid women less than men despite doing more work, and fired or forced women to quit at higher frequencies than men. The agency also says women of color were "particularly impacted" by the company's practices. The suit also alleges women working at Activision Blizzard were subject to constant sexual harassment including groping, comments and advances. 'All of a sudden ... a villain':How online harassment turned to public health officials "All employers should ensure that their employees are being paid equally and take all steps to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation," said Kevin Kish, director of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, in a statement.