White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

Novelist and Programmer Vikram Chandra Sees the Beauty in Code

Computer code has changed the world. But is it beautiful? That's the question at the heart of Vikram Chandra's first non-fiction book, "Geek Sublime." Best known as a novelist and UC Berkeley English professor, Chandra is also a computer programmer. We'll talk with him about the links between literary theory, aesthetics and the craft of writing code.

Hacking for Democracy: Code for America Summit

Roughly 800 people gathered in San Francisco this week for the fourth annual Code for America summit. The nonprofit embeds coders, designers and other techies into government offices and agencies around the country to help aging bureaucratic infrastructure serve citizens better.

PBS NewsHour

Hand-rearing abandoned African penguins could help save endangered species


Group of African Penguins near Boulders Beach, South Africa. Photo by courtesy of Penguin Posse.

Abandoned African penguin chicks are easy to spot. Their flippers are too long for their bodies. Their chest bones are visible through their newborn plumage. They haven’t been fed by their parents for weeks because the adult birds are molting and unable to hunt in the ocean.

While adult penguins can survive 21 days without food, baby chicks cannot. Under normal conditions, the chicks would be out of their nests and able to survive the fast. But sparse fish populations around the South African shore limit chick’s growth and keep them nesting when adults reach the critical point when they must molt.

Map of Western
         Cape, South Africa. Black circles depict the location of main African penguin breeding colonies. Group of African Penguins
         (Spheniscus demersus) walking down a ramp near Boulders Beach, South Africa.

Map of Western Cape, South Africa. Black circles depict the location of main African penguin breeding colonies. Chart by Richard B. Sherley, Lauren J. Waller, Venessa Strauss, Deon Geldenhuys, Les G. Underhill and Nola J. Parsons.

In response, researchers from the University of Cape Town head-reared hundreds of malnourished chicks from penguin colonies Dyer Island, Robben Island and Stony Point at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds in Cape Town. The researchers admitted over 800 penguins in 2006 and nearly 500 in 2007.

“Often, the abandoned chicks we’re bringing up look quite sad for themselves,” lead researcher Richard Sherley said.

Most of the chicks were underweight for their age; researchers fed them a formula of liquidized fish and vitamins.

The penguins were marked with flipped bands then released back into the wild after an average month and a half of human care. The hand-raised chicks were just as likely to survive as their naturally-raised counterparts.

This success is promising for other seabird species facing dwindling populations. So long as the birds don’t attach to their surrogate human parents and can cope with living in captivity, humans raising baby birds could be a solution.

African penguin populations have shrunk by more than 70 percent since 2011, and the species has been classified as endangered since 2012.

“Hand-rearing of African penguin chicks is a valuable conservation tool in light of the declining population,” the researchers conclude in the full study, “Hand-Rearing, Release and Survival of African Penguin Chicks Abandoned Before Independence by Moulting Parents,” which was published Tuesday.

In the South African ecosystem, the baby penguins’ problems can be traced back to fish populations. Sardines and anchovies are African penguins’ main food source. Between rising sea temperatures and overfishing, especially of sardines, there aren’t as many fish to feast on as there were in previous decades.

Less fish means smaller or less frequent meals for the fledgling penguins. As a result, the baby birds are growing slower and are still chicks when their parents begin to molt. Unlike some birds, who shed a few feathers at a time, penguins must replace all their feathers at once. Since they don’t have waterproof feathers while molting, they stay on land and don’t hunt for the entire process.

Hand-rearing the chicks could help conserve the species in the short term, but the current colonies can only support so many penguins.

“We’re putting them back out into the colonies from where they came,” he said. “We’re trying to slow down the decline of colonies that are disappearing very rapidly.”

Sherley is curious how the human-raised penguins would fare if they were released as pioneers of new colonies on different parts of the South African shore.

The South African government is also experimenting with fishing regulations. The now-defunct South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism closed fishing around two pairs of islands. The penguin chicks around St. Croix and Bird islands were , and the area will soon be off-limits for fishing permanently. However, data for Robben and Dassen Island were inconclusive, and there is ongoing debate about whether to allow or halt fishing around the second pair of islands.

The post Hand-rearing abandoned African penguins could help save endangered species appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Space-inspired safety gear, contamination-cleaning robots: How innovation could aid Ebola prevention

Soldiers from the U.S. Army 615th Engineer Company, 52nd Engineer Battalion put on one of three pairs
         of protective gloves during the final session of personal protective equipment training at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

JUDY WOODRUFF: The World Health Organization reported the Ebola outbreak is still racing well ahead of efforts to stop it. West Africa needs at least 4,000 more hospital beds and thousands more workers.

In addition, the first case in Mali was confirmed today. And while drugs and vaccines are still being developed, there’s a push to see if science can find new and different answers.

The president’s team had a meeting on that subject today.

Shortly afterward, our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, sat down in the Briefing Room with the president’s top science adviser, John Holdren.

MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. Holdren, thank you so much for being with us.

JOHN HOLDREN, Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Happy to be here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tell us a little bit — for people who are uninitiated, a little bit about this group and this meeting. What was the goal here today?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology is a group of leaders from the scientific, engineering and biomedical communities from around the country who advise the president on a part-time basis, bringing perspectives from that wider science and technology community to bear on the policy issues the president has on his plate.

Of course, one of the big policy issues the president has on his plate now is the Ebola challenge. And the idea of this meeting was to call together the PCAST members, at the president’s request, to share their ideas with him, particularly about what capabilities, ideas and approaches from the private sector and the academic sector could be married to what the government is already doing on the Ebola challenge, which is a lot, in order to amplify and improve the effectiveness of the whole effort.

MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s talk a little bit about technology here.


MILES O’BRIEN: Are there technological solutions out there that are within the time frame of the current crisis that could make a dent?

And one of the things we think about, of course, is protecting our health care workers. Is there a better garment and a better procedure out there that your group is seeing?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, in fact, we have been working inside the government on better personal protective equipment. They call it PPE.

We had a two-day workshop October 10 and 11 with over a hundred innovators, inventors, public health practitioners, doctors, working on how to improve these garments. Of course, part of the challenge with the garments we have is making sure you put them on and take them off in a way that is safe.

But a further problem with them is that they’re not air-conditioned. And a lot of this work is going out in very hot and humid environments. The workers can only stay in these garments for maybe 40 minutes to an hour. So, we’re working on garments that can be cooled. We also have assistance from NASA in this space.

This is very much inside the government, an interagency effort. NASA knows how to make protective suits that work in extreme environments. We’re tapping that expertise, along with others, to end up with better suits so that the health care workers can work longer and safer.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, if we can put a man on the moon, we can make them safe to deal with Ebola, can’t we?





MILES O’BRIEN: Let’s talk a little bit about another technological solution that I read about. I was a little bit skeptical about it, the idea that robots could somehow be employed to deal with this crisis in a way that would protect human beings. Is that realistic at this point?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, in fact, we are having a workshop, my office, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a number of other partners on November 7 on potential uses of robots in the Ebola challenge.

Perhaps the best example of how a robot can be useful is cleaning up and decontaminating a room that has had Ebola patients in it, and has a lot of contaminated stuff in it. Obviously, if you could have a robot do that, and do it effectively, it would be safer than having a human being dealing with all of that contaminated waste and mess.

MILES O’BRIEN: But are robots really ready for that?

JOHN HOLDREN: I think they probably are.

I mean, you would be amazed at what robots can now do. You know, we have robots being developed that can fight fires and go into dangerous fire situations that you wouldn’t want to send a human fireman into. We can certainly — we can certainly make a robot that can decontaminate a room.


MILES O’BRIEN: I suspect that’s not within the time frame of the immediate crisis, however, right?

JOHN HOLDREN: I wouldn’t be so sure. I think we could probably adapt some existing robots to be useful in the current situation in a fairly short span of time.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right.

Let’s talk a little bit on the science side for a minute. I know this is not your particular area of expertise, so — and there are other people in the government who are…

JOHN HOLDREN: Thank you for recognizing.


MILES O’BRIEN: You are a physicist, and I get that. So, as — but there are a lot of people who have been working for some time on vaccines.


JOHN HOLDREN: Absolutely.

MILES O’BRIEN: But Ebola has been around for a long time, and we’re still waiting for a vaccine. Is it still quite some time before one might be available?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, obviously, the current crisis has ramped up the interest and the effort in developing an Ebola vaccine. There is a promising vaccine in what they call phase one testing right now, looking to confirm the immunological response that one is looking for in a vaccine that would then, if it passes that test, go into what they call phase two and three testing, where they are looking for efficacy and the absence of any unmanageable side effects.

It is possible that we would have a vaccine by some time next year. These time scales are challenging. You have to do clinical trials to be sure that you are dealing with a vaccine that is going to do a lot of good and not a lot of harm on the side.

And with luck, we will have a vaccine in a matter of months, not in years. But then you have the challenges of ramping up the production. And one of the things that, with PCAST, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, is looking at is, how can the government and the private sector work together to make sure that we have the production capacity that would be needed the moment we have a good vaccine?

MILES O’BRIEN: I would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the travel ban, much discussed, much misunderstood. The question is, you know, if you are trying to stop the spread of a disease, isn’t it prudent to stop the spread of the people who might be carrying the disease, and wouldn’t it be prudent to initiate a travel ban from people coming out of these countries?

JOHN HOLDREN: We think a travel ban is actually a bad idea, in that it would make the American public less safe and our challenge of dealing with this epidemic worse.

MILES O’BRIEN: How so less safe?

JOHN HOLDREN: And the reason is that, if you emplace a travel ban, first of all, you only catch a modest fraction of the people who are moving around.

We have, for example, about 150 people a day traveling directly to the United States from these countries, that is, not on a broken itinerary, where they stop for a week in London or Paris or Brussels in between, about 150 a day; 55 percent of those are American citizens who have a constitutional right to return to the United States.

Another 10 percent are green card holders who one is not sure their permanent residence. We’re not sure that it would be a great idea to keep American green card holders from returning. But the worst thing about a travel ban is that it would drive travel underground.

Right now, we are able to identify and monitor the people who are coming in from these countries. As you know from the newspaper, we now have them all funneling into five airports. Everybody who comes in from these countries is advised to monitor and report in every day on their temperature and whether they are showing any symptoms.

You put a travel ban on, you’re going to drive the travel underground. There are lots of routes by which people can get into this country without being noticed in the net you would have under a travel ban. And you will have far less control, far less insight, far less monitoring than you have now.

You would, in addition, of course, with a travel ban, make it much harder for health workers to come in and out, make it much harder for us to control the epidemic there. If we can’t control the epidemic there, the sources from which it could spread to the United States will propagate and, again, in that longer-term respect, we will also be worse off.

MILES O’BRIEN: To the extent that you are dealing with in this country an epidemic of fear more than an epidemic of disease, would announcing a travel ban, to the extent that it might allay some fears, would it be prudent in that respect?

JOHN HOLDREN: I think embracing a bad policy for reasons of optics is almost always a bad idea.

In fact, as a scientist, I would venture to say it is always a bad idea. If this is a bad policy, we shouldn’t do it. And we should use our ability to communicate with the American public and to educate them to persuade them why it is a bad idea. It is a bad idea because it would make us less safe, and not more safe.

MILES O’BRIEN: Dr. John Holdren, thank you so much for your time.

JOHN HOLDREN: My pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: So far, the more immediate Ebola threat domestically, at least, has been the fear and anxiety it has sparked. Online, we break down the impact this kind of stress can have on your health. That is on our Rundown.

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New computer chip ‘recipe’ makes electronics greener, cheaper, faster

The technology that runs our daily lives, from laptops and cellphones to car sensors, relies on tiny computer chips. As consumers demand better, faster computers, the chips have to evolve, says Doug Keszler, director of the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry at Oregon State University.

Keszler and his team at the center are changing the way computer chips are made. Instead of bulky carbon compounds, these researchers are making the chips out of metal oxides, which are more sustainable than the old materials. The new material allows for more transistors on each chip — which means a faster computer. They will also be cheaper, Keszler added.

Miles O’Brien has more on this story for the National Science Foundation* series “Science Nation.”

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is also an underwriter of the NewsHour.

The post New computer chip ‘recipe’ makes electronics greener, cheaper, faster appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

How to talk in Silicon Valley without saying anything

         by C Flanigan/WireImage

Not everyone with a good idea, a suitcase full of hoodies and a one-way ticket to Silicon Valley is going to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. But for starters, you can learn how to speak like a startup geek. Photo by C Flanigan/WireImage

I moved to San Francisco in 2010, in time to witness the extraordinary growth in the Bay Area tech scene. Since then, the startup boom has dominated business headlines: from the leadup to Twitter’s IPO, Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for $16 billion, and the rise of Uber, now valued at more than $18 billion. The list goes on and the entrepreneurial fervor has inspired countless Ivy-League dropouts to pack-up their hoodies and head West with dreams of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg.

But the underreported truth is that most startups fail.

Tuesday night’s “Startup Zombie” segment on the PBS NewsHour explores the companies that never quite found their footing. They didn’t “fail fast” or yield big returns but rather claw along like the living dead. The result: A cottage industry of Valley businesses that acquire zombie companies so the investors can write off the losses on their tax return. Watch the piece here to get the full picture:

For those like me with an affinity for the ridiculous, the recent tech boom has offered one silver lining: it’s very easy to poke fun at. It certainly gave me plenty to talk about in the PBS Digital Studios series “Everything But the News,” which I co-created with my partner Noah Pink. The show earnestly covers the absurdities of tech culture from the perspective of a Jim Lehrer-obsessed, tote-bag carrying outsider. Binge viewing of the digital series available here.

NOTE: Longtime NewsHour viewers can rest-assured that Tuesday night’s piece was a slight departure in tone from “Everything But the News.” Fortunately (for me, you and Jim Lehrer) it included first-rate reporting from journalist Nic Pollock.

We introduced the Startup Zombie segment with some of the hyperbolic language that plows down the streets of San Francisco faster than a Google Bus. The terminology can be off-putting, nonsensical and completely ridiculous. It often masks the grim realities of a hypercompetitive marketplace, especially for those unwilling to throw in the towel.

Below, we’ve provided a startup glossary to help interpret the jargon. Who knows, maybe it will come in handy the next time you’re seated beside a budding entrepreneur coding for gold at an elite Bay Area coffee shop.

Startup Glossary

PIVOT: Our idea tanked so we’re doing something else.

DISRUPT: Finding unconventional ways to overhaul established business models. Example: Uber disrupted the taxi industry.

SHARING ECONOMY: Socio-economic system built around the sharing of human and physical resources in such a way that a middleman platform can make obscene profit. (Uber example above applies here too.)

GROWTH HACKER: Another way of saying “marketing,” typically used by males.

FABLET: A really big phone, or a really small tablet, you choose.

CRUSHING IT: Such effusive language in the Valley often masks real trouble. In other words, “We’re crushing it,” can mean “We’re sinking. Please hire me!”

ROCKSTARS, NINJAS, and JEDIS: Add this as a prefix to your existing title. Your job hasn’t changed, but it makes you much more fun at parties.

BURN RATE: “We’re spending money as if we were lighting it on fire.” Hide this from the investors. Remember, you’re “crushing it!”

HOCKEY STICK: The growth trajectory of a company, which if successful, should be up and to the right. Really depends on how you’re holding the stick.

CONVERTIBLE NOTES: A short term debt that converts into equity. Read: a good way for investors to put in a little bit of money in return for a disproportionate share of a company and possibly your cat.

CULTURE FIT: Young CEOs consider if new hires will be a good “culture fit” for their startup. Read: Will the person be fun to play beer pong with at 2 a.m.? This kind of thinking can lead to a kind of workplace discrimination.

BETA: A temporary state in which companies leave their app in for the purposes of testing and research. It gives entrepreneurs some protection from market failures because they can say “Hey, we were just in Beta!”

EMOTIONAL QUOTIENT: What people without emotion use to measure emotion.

THE NAME: The deluge of new startups has reached the point of exhausting known language. Time to get creative. Try adding “.ly” to the name of an insect: e.g. Chances are it’s already registered. Maybe now is a good time to pivot.

The post How to talk in Silicon Valley without saying anything appeared first on PBS NewsHour.