With Extinction Clock Ticking, White House Proposes New Elephant Protections

By Peter LaFontaine

There are millions of elephants in the United States, but you won’t find them roaming Yellowstone.

Instead, they spend their days gathering dust in silver cabinets, getting smacked by cues on pool tables, and hanging on walls as trophies from far-flung hunts.

We’re talking about ivory, of course, and about hides, hair, and the other elephant body parts that Americans have brought to these shores from Africa, like so many beetles scavenging a continent to the bone.

On July 25, the Obama administration took a crucial step toward protecting living elephants in the wild, but first we need to look back to understand how we got to this point.

For a time, the U.S. was the landing spot for most of the world’s ivory exports, with entire cities based around the manufacture and sale of billiard balls, piano keys, and hundreds of other products made from elephant tusks.

For all its popularity, ivory inevitably gave way to cheaper and better replacements; modern synthetic materials such as plastics were simply more functional.

But ivory never lost its decorative value, and tourists, retailers, and collectors continued to import statues and tusks long after the manufacturing economy had moved on.

Plummeting Numbers

By the time the American environmental movement had begun to gather strength, elephant populations in Africa were already at a historic ebb, and in 1978 the species was listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Out of an estimated high of ten million at the turn of the 20th century, around 300,000 remained in 1990.

Not all of this was America’s doing, of course, but demand in the U.S. had helped drive the industrialization of elephant hunting, and a massive market remained for carvings and trophies.

Recognizing this bloody legacy, in 1988 Congress passed the African Elephant Conservation Act (which limited domestic ivory imports and exports, among —> Read More

Controlling phase changes in solids

Rewritable CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs owe their existence to phase-change materials, those materials that change their internal order when heated and whose structures can be switched back and forth between their crystalline and amorphous phases. Phase-change materials have even more exciting applications on the horizon, but our limited ability to precisely control their phase changes is a hurdle to the development of new technology. —> Read More

What Do Computers ‘Think’ of Pop Music?


When Stevie Wonder wrote “Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand,” the word “all” meant “all people.” But that was in 1976. With the rapid advancement of technology, music is gradually becoming a language that can also be understood by computers, so that computers can have their own “opinion” about music and musical styles.

Music is a fairly complex type of data that introduces a challenge for computing machines. Identifying the beat, chords, or musical instruments can provide a computer with some information about a musical piece, but the concept of music is greater than merely its describable components. Even the exact same song can be produced or performed in various different ways, and each version can make a different impact or trigger different emotions. So to allow a computer to “listen,” we used as much information as possible about each song, including pieces of information that do not necessarily have a formal definition, but carry information about the music. That was done by first converting the audio into a two-dimensional representation called “spectrogram,” basically turning a music analysis problem into an image analysis problem. For instance, the following image is a visualization of Bobby Bland’s “dreamer”. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency, and the brightness is the volume, so the image actually contains all information about that song.

Then, we computed from each spectrogram almost 3000 numerical values that reflect its texture, shapes, edges, fractals, statistics, polynomial decomposition, and more. These 3000 values were then analyzed by applying algorithms that can identify repetitive patterns typical to a certain group of songs, but are not so typical to other groups of musical pieces. The shared patterns between different musical styles were quantified and visualized.

For instance, if we take several different —> Read More

We’re About To Know Just How Much Sugar We’ve Been Eating

Big changes are coming to nutrition labels, if last week’s proposal from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is turned into law.

The agency is proposing that added sugar be included on labels. And what’s more, they want the added sugar contextualized with a daily reference value of 50 grams. This is big news, considering that current nutrition labels only contain the total grams of sugar per serving, which includes naturally occurring and added sugar, and gives no daily value percentage.

In fact, this marks the first time the U.S. government has suggested a guideline for sugar or added sugar. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee came up with the value of 50 grams — or 10 percent of a person’s diet if they are eating 2,000 calories per day — this year, noting that a diet with more than that amount is considered harmful to health. A previous commonly accepted guideline from the World Health Organization recommended half of that, 5 percent, for the additional health benefits of a lower-sugar diet. The American Heart Association, meanwhile, stated in 2009 that women should eat no more than 20 grams per day and men shouldn’t exceed 36 grams.

While all sugar has the same effect on the body, added sugar is particularly insidious. It pops up in unexpected places, like bread, salad dressing and canned beans, and makes dietary sugar difficult to estimate and easy to overdo. Too much dietary sugar has been linked with obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The sooner new labels happen the better, but it’s good to know that the FDA is thinking about our sugar intake and what we can do to reduce it.

H/T U.S. News And World Report

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