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Democrats ask Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to rework their suggestion algorithms

Engadget

A group of more than 30 democratic lawmakers led by Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) are calling on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to make substantive changes to their recommendation algorithms. In three separate letters addressed to the CEOs of those companies, the group makes a direct link to the January 6th US Capitol attack and the part those platforms played in radicalizing the individuals who took part in the uprising. "On Wednesday, January 6th the United States Capitol was attacked by a violent, insurrectionist mob radicalized in part in a digital echo chamber that your company designed, built and maintained," the letter addressed to Google and YouTube CEOs Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki says. A letter from some Congress members to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki flexes research on how YouTube's algorithms have promoted conspiracy theories and political extremism. Citing the Capitol attacks, they request changes to its recommendations systems.


Maryland Gov. Hogan pushes to reopen schools for hybrid learning

FOX News

A panel of parents give there take on the president's move to reopen schools on'Fox & amp; Friends.' Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is going all in on a push to reopen schools in the state for hybrid learning by the beginning of March. Hogan said during a news conference at St. John's College in Annapolis on Thursday that there is a growing consensus in the state and in the country that there is "no public health reason for county school boards to keep students out of schools" due to COVID-19. He argued that continuing down a path of virtual learning could lead to significant setbacks for students, especially among students of color and those from low-income families. "I understand that in earlier stages of the pandemic, that this was a very difficult decision for county school boards to make," Hogan added.


News at a glance

Science

SCI COMMUN SCIENTISTS' TERM LIMITS The Trump administration moved to impose 5-year term limits on top scientists at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The rule, released on 15 January, requires that directors of seven centers at the Food and Drug Administration, as well as 17 positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undergo a performance review that could lead to a new 5-year appointment, or to the staffer's transfer. A 2016 law mandates such 5-year reviews for institute and center directors at the National Institutes of Health. But some current and former officials worry the term limits will subject such positions to political interference from the White House, and they could face legal challenges, Politico reported. GLOBAL WARMING A surprise Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule finalized last week would effectively ban the government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industries other than power plants. The agency substantially rewrote a draft rule originally focused on regulating carbon emissions from new power plants, expanding it to exempt other “stationary” sources, such as refineries and oil and gas wells. The exemption covers an entire class of sources if its collective emissions are less than 3% of the U.S. total. Only power plants, which produce 27% of U.S. carbon emissions, exceed that bar. Analysts say the rule is vulnerable to a court challenge, and the Biden administration can likely suspend its implementation. SPOTTED OWLS The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service slashed protections for the endangered northern spotted owl on 13 January, declaring more than 1.4 million hectares of Pacific Northwest forests would no longer be considered critical habitat for the bird. The decision comes despite findings by agency scientists that the owl's population is declining and that it warrants stricter protection. The habitat reduction is part of a move by the outgoing Trump administration to settle a lawsuit by the timber industry and counties that earn revenue from logging. The land area is 17 times the amount that the agency initially proposed to remove from protections in August 2020. TRANSGENIC ANIMALS A push by the White House would essentially eliminate the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) authority to regulate genetically modified animals and put the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge. The two agencies had been negotiating on dividing the task, and critics of the White House move say it would put USDA in the problematic position of both promoting and regulating genetically modified animals. FDA opposes the shift, Politico reported. ARCTIC OIL DRILLING The first-ever auction of oil drilling rights inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a policy priority for the Trump administration, met with a tepid response this month. Just three bidders paid $14.4 million to claim 11 parcels covering 220,000 hectares—about half of the land up for auction. In an unusual move, a state agency, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, won bids for nine of the parcels. It joined the auction in part because the agency fears the Biden administration will slow or block further leasing, reducing the state's potential economic gains. The leases must still be finalized by the Bureau of Land Management. Wildlife scientists have warned that the drilling could harm caribou herds and other parts of the ecosystem. FETAL TISSUE RESEARCH Scientists who use fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions would need to comply with new rules under a proposal released by the Trump administration on 13 January. Among other changes, the policy would add new requirements to forms used to obtain informed consent from women who donate tissue for research. It would also limit the source of fetal tissue, which often comes from nonprofit clinics, to federally or state funded hospitals or academic medical centers. In 2019, Trump's administration banned fetal tissue research by federal researchers and required a new ethics review for studies by scientists receiving federal grants; research groups have urged the Biden administration to reverse that policy. The new proposal, which is open for comment for 30 days, is not expected to move forward. CENSUS FIGHT The Trump administration last week abandoned a 2-year effort to prod the Census Bureau to provide a separate tally of undocumented U.S. residents as part of the 2020 census. In 2019, the president had ordered that the separate tally, and a rushed compilation of the decennial head count used for apportioning the 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives, be delivered before he left office. Most demographers said it could not be done and called the directive political interference. On 11 January, U.S. government lawyers told a federal judge that the apportionment numbers would not be ready until 6 March. Civil rights organizations want Census Director Steven Dillingham to resign before his term ends in December, saying he has failed to uphold the agency's high standards for data quality. ### Leadership President Joe Biden on 15 January named Eric Lander to be his science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A mathematician turned molecular biologist, the 63-year-old Lander will take leave from his post as president and founding director of the Broad Institute, jointly run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The first biologist to hold the job, Lander spent 8 years as co-chair of the nation's top science advisory panel under former President Barack Obama. He also co-led the public Human Genome Project, which completed its first draft in 2001. Biden has picked chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold and MIT's Maria Zuber to lead his science advisory panel. He named David Kessler, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to direct Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to speed development of COVID-19 vaccines. And Biden said Francis Collins has agreed to remain as director of the National Institutes of Health. ### Conservation To study one of Europe's rarest butterflies, researchers pioneered a new method of observation: rappelling down vertiginous mountainsides along the border of Italy and Switzerland. Scientists first described the orange-and-brown Raetzer's ringlet ( Erebia christi ) more than 100 years ago, but its dangerous, inaccessible habitat complicated population surveys. Drawing on decades of climbing experience, independent biologists Andrea Battisti and Matteo Gabaglio slid down ropes to count butterflies in several areas during the past 6 years. It was “like being an explorer … going where nobody has ever [gone],” Gabaglio says. Researchers sighted the ringlet 177 times at two key sites in Italy, they reported this month in the Journal of Insect Conservation . That's good news, they add: The ringlet appears to be more abundant that previous studies suggested. But because of climate change and other threats, they recommend reclassifying the species as endangered rather than vulnerable. ### Policy President Joe Biden announced a sweeping, $400 billion plan last week to tackle the “dismal failure” of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, safely reopen schools by March, and ramp up testing people for the pandemic coronavirus. The measures are part of an ambitious, $1.9 billion “American Rescue Plan” unveiled by Biden ahead of his inauguration to help people who are struggling financially because of the pandemic—a proposal that depends on Congress providing the money. The federal government would pay for 100,000 new public health workers to assist states in vaccination and other pandemic response efforts. Biden promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to provide vaccinemakers with whatever they need to increase production. Biden's administration would also work more closely with pharmacies to move vaccines from freezers into arms. “The more people we vaccinate and the faster we do it, the sooner we can put this pandemic behind us,” Biden said. ### Infectious diseases All eight gorillas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park were exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and at least two have begun to cough, zoo officials said last week. Tests of fecal samples showed that two were infected, marking the first known cases in nonhuman apes. The officials suspect the western lowland gorillas caught the virus from an asymptomatic staff member who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2; the zoo has been closed to the public for weeks because of the pandemic. The news confirmed fears that the virus can infect endangered great apes. Human respiratory viruses are already a leading cause of death for chimpanzees in the wild. ### COVID-19 High virus levels in saliva are correlated with later hospitalization, serious illness, or death from COVID-19, raising the prospect that testing saliva for the coronavirus that causes the disease will help identify patients most at risk, a study has found. The standard test to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus analyzes samples of nasal mucus taken with nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs. But patients with the worst outcomes were more likely to have high virus loads in their saliva, but not in their NP swabs, report Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University and colleagues in a 10 January preprint. That may reflect that nasal mucus comes from the upper respiratory tract, whereas severe disease is associated with damage deep in the lungs; coughing regularly brings up viral particles to the throat, where they can pervade saliva. If the results are confirmed, saliva tests could help doctors prioritize which patients in the early stages of the disease should receive medicines that drive down levels of the virus. ### Planetary science The Red Planet has claimed another robot. Scientists at NASA and the German Aerospace Center last week called off a 2-year effort to rescue the failed rod-shaped heat probe, or “mole,” of the InSight lander. The mole was designed to burrow 5 meters into the martian soil and tease out how quickly heat escapes from Mars—a clue to how the planet formed. But soil compacted instead of crumbling as the rod tried to dig in, leaving it stuck at the surface. Even after engineers used InSight's robotic arm to push the probe down and scraped dirt on top, the probe failed a final attempt this month to dig on its own, leaving the mole buried in a shallow grave. InSight's other primary instrument, a seismometer, continues to function normally. ### Foreign influences The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has added another prominent scientist to its crackdown on U.S.-based academics with allegedly undisclosed ties to China. On 14 January, police arrested nanotechnologist Gang Chen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at his Cambridge home, charging him with violating federal wire fraud, banking, and tax laws. DOJ alleges Chen held various appointments with Chinese institutions and provided technical advice, “often in exchange for financial compensation and awards.” He allegedly failed to disclose these affiliations as required when applying for U.S. Department of Energy grants, and did not tell tax authorities about a bank account in China. MIT said, “We take seriously concerns about improper influence in U.S. research.” Chen was born in China and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and fellow of AAAS (which publishes Science ). ### History of science Fans of Mary Anning are hoping to raise £33,000 by next month to fund a statue honoring the paleontological pioneer, who discovered and interpreted key fossils along England's Jurassic Coast. Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis in the early 1800s, was the first to correctly identify an ichthyosaur, and discovered England's first pterosaur. Her discoveries were profoundly influential, but as a self-taught, working-class woman she was excluded from meetings of the Geological Society of London. Its members discussed and built on her discoveries, but often failed to acknowledge her. The £100,000 statue project was inspired by 13-year-old local Evie Swire. Organizers hope the cause will be helped by the film Ammonite , starring Kate Winslet as Anning, which opened in U.S. theaters in November 2020. ### Publishing AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, said last week it will offer its authors a free way to comply with funder requirements that their papers be open access on publication. Under a new policy, authors may deposit near-final, peer-reviewed versions of papers accepted by paywalled Science titles in public repositories where they are free to read. This “green open-access” route will apply for now only to authors of papers funded by Coalition S, a group of mostly European funders and foundations behind a mandate for immediate open access that takes effect this month. AAAS said it will pilot the new policy for 1 year.


Global temperatures in 2020 tied record highs

Science

Housebound by a pandemic, humanity slowed its emissions of greenhouse gases in 2020. But Earth paid little heed: Temperatures last year tied the modern record, climate scientists reported last week. Overall, the planet was about 1.25°C warmer than in preindustrial times, a trend that puts climate targets in jeopardy, according to jointly reported assessments from NASA, Berkeley Earth, the U.K. Met Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The annual update of global surface temperatures—an average of readings from thousands of weather stations and ocean probes—shows 2020 essentially tied records set in 2016. But the years were nothing alike. Temperatures in 2016 were boosted by a strong El Niño, a weather pattern that warms the globe by blocking the rise of cold deep waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Last year, however, the Pacific entered La Niña, which has a cooling effect. That La Niña didn't provide more relief is an unwelcome surprise, says Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at Australian National University. “It makes me worried about how quickly the global warming trend is growing.” The past 6 years are the six warmest on record, but the warming of the atmosphere is unsteady because of its chaotic nature. The ocean, which absorbs more than 90% of the heat from global warming, displays a steadier trend, and here, too, 2020 was a record year. The upper levels of the ocean contained 20 zettajoules (1021 joules) more heat than in 2019, and the rise was double the typical annual increase, scientists reported last week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences . The subtropical Atlantic Ocean was particularly hot, fueling a record outbreak of hurricanes, says Lijing Cheng, a climate scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences's Institute of Atmospheric Physics who led the work. This heat, monitored down to 2000 meters by a fleet of 4000 robotic probes, is spreading deeper into the ocean while also migrating toward the poles. An extreme heat wave struck the northern Pacific, killing marine life. For the first time, warm Atlantic waters were seen penetrating into the Arctic Ocean, melting sea ice from below and reducing its extent nearly to a record low ( Science , 28 August 2020, p. [1043][1]). The warming ocean and melting ice sheets are raising sea levels by 4.8 millimeters per year, and the rate is accelerating ( Science , 20 November 2020, p. [901][2]). On land, 2020 was even more relentless, with temperatures rising 1.96°C above preindustrial levels, a clear record, Berkeley Earth reported. It was the warmest year ever in Asia and Europe and tied for the warmest in South America. Russia was particularly hot, breaking its previous record by 1.2°C, while swaths of Siberia were 7°C warmer than in preindustrial times, leading to large-scale fires and thawing permafrost that caused buildings to founder and set off oil spills ( Science , 7 August 2020, p. [612][3]). “Siberia was crazy,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute and co-author of the Berkeley Earth analysis. “That heat would effectively be impossible without the warming we've seen.” In Australia, record-setting heat and drought fueled catastrophic bushfires at the start of 2020. Fires torched nearly one-quarter of southeastern Australia's forests and destroyed 3000 homes. Climate change was to blame for the country's “Black Summer,” Abram and co-authors concluded in a study published this month in Communications Earth & Environment . Meanwhile, in the United States, unprecedented heat came to the desert Southwest, which is already warming faster than the rest of the country. Phoenix wilted under its hottest summer ever, averaging 36°C. Arizona's Maricopa county, home to Phoenix, is a leader in addressing heat exposure, yet its heat deaths have hit a new record each year since 2016. In 2020, the number approached 300, a jump of some 50% over the previous year, says David Hondula, a climatologist who studies heat mortality at Arizona State University, Tempe. “It was just off the charts in terms of heat.” ![Figure][4] Turning up the heatCREDITS: (GRAPHIC) N. DESAI/ SCIENCE ; (DATA) MET OFFICE; NASA; BERKELEY EARTH; NOAA Although the global economic slowdown of the COVID-19 pandemic cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by some 7%, atmospheric CO2 is long-lived, and warming from previous emissions is preordained. In any case, the drop in emissions is unlikely to last. Later this year, in May, before photosynthesis in the Northern Hemisphere draws down CO2, the U.K. Met Office predicts that levels of atmospheric CO2 will pass 417 parts per million for several weeks, 50% higher than preindustrial levels. Only dramatic action by the world's countries, far beyond existing efforts, can begin to halt this build up, Cheng says. Should the current rate of warming continue, the world will breach the targets set in the Paris climate agreement—limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C—by 2035 and 2065, respectively. But Hausfather says it's quite possible that warming, which has largely held steady for the past few decades at 0.19°C per decade, will actually speed up. The rate of warming over the past 14 years is well above the long-term trend. The debate now, he says, is whether that is an omen of an even darker future. [1]: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/369/6507/1043.full [2]: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/370/6519/901.full [3]: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/369/6504/612.full [4]: pending:yes


Trump made a mess of tech policy. Here's what Biden is inheriting.

Mashable

It's hard to focus on the nitty gritty of tech policy when the world is on fire. Take, for example, his fight against Big Tech in the name of "anti-conservative bias" (no, it doesn't exist), which resulted in an assault on Section 230. Experts say the true aim of those efforts was to undermine content moderation, and normalize the white supremacist attitudes that helped put people like Trump in power. Unfortunately, those allegations will have life for years to come as a form of "zombie Trumpism," as Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at the technology policy organization TechFreedom, put it. Trump may be gone from office and Twitter.


A Site Published Every Face from Parler's Capitol Riot Videos

WIRED

When hackers exploited a bug in Parler to download all of the right-wing social media platform's contents last week, they were surprised to find that many of the pictures and videos contained geolocation metadata revealing exactly how many of the site's users had taken part in the invasion of the US Capitol building just days before. But the videos uploaded to Parler also contain an equally sensitive bounty of data sitting in plain sight: thousands of images of unmasked faces, many of whom participated in the Capitol riot. Now one website has done the work of cataloging and publishing every one of those faces in a single, easy-to-browse lineup. Late last week, a website called Faces of the Riot appeared online, showing nothing but a vast grid of more than 6,000 images of faces, each one tagged only with a string of characters associated with the Parler video in which it appeared. The site's creator tells WIRED that he used simple open source machine learning and facial recognition software to detect, extract, and deduplicate every face from the 827 videos that were posted to Parler from inside and outside the Capitol building on January 6, the day when radicalized Trump supporters stormed the building in a riot that resulted in five people's deaths.


The Morning After: LG might get out of the smartphone business

Engadget

In the US, today is Inauguration Day, and as Joe Biden prepares to take the oath as our 46th president, it's worth taking a look back at the discussions four years ago. Back then, the "most tech-savvy" president exited as all eyes turned to Donald Trump trading in his Android Twitter machine for a secure device. We know how things went after that. Donald Trump isn't tweeting anymore (at least not from his main accounts), and the country is struggling through a pandemic. The outgoing president just saw his temporary YouTube ban extended and, in one of his last official acts, pardoned Anthony Levandowski for stealing self-driving car secrets from Google's subsidiary Waymo.


Flying robots get FAA approval in first for drone sector

ZDNet

The FAA has authorized its first-ever approval to a company for use of automated drones without human operators on site. The move comes as the agency is putting new rules in place to evolve regulation of the broader enterprise drone paradigm in the U.S., which has lagged behind other developed nations in adopting industry-friendly commercial drone guidelines. Boston-based American Robotics, a developer of automated drone systems specializing in rugged environments, received the FAA approval last week, marking a first for the federal agency. "Decades worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition," says Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics. "We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA's comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector."


Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski, who stole trade secrets from Google

Mashable

Donald Trump is on his way out of the White House, but that didn't stop him from pardoning 73 people and commuting the sentences of another 70 people on the last day of his presidency. One name on that list is Anthony Levandowski, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets from the Google-owned, self-driving car company Waymo. Levandowski was a co-founder of Google's self-driving car division before leaving the tech giant in 2016 to start a self-driving truck company called Otto. That company was subsequently acquired by Uber, and Waymo filed a lawsuit alleging that their confidential information ended up in the hands of Uber. Levandowski was looking at a 10-year sentence, but he eventually pleaded guilty to trade secret theft, thus reducing his prison sentence.


Donald Trump pardons ex-Waymo, Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski

Engadget

Last year Anthony Levandowski pleaded guilty to one count of stealing materials from Google, where he was an engineer for its self-driving car efforts before leaving to found a startup that he sold to Uber. The judge said during his sentencing that his theft of documents and emails constituted the "biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen." Now, on the last day of Donald Trump's administration, Trump issued a series of pardons -- the Department of Justice has more information on how those work here -- and commutations that covered people who worked on his campaign like Steve Bannon and Elliott Broidy, as well as Levandowski. A press release from the White House noted tech billionaires Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey were among those supporting a pardon for Levandowski, and it makes the claim that this engineer "paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good." It also noted that his plea covered only a single charge, omitting mention of the 33 charges he'd been indicted on.