More data, less clarity in bee colony collapse

A bee carrying a parasitic mite.
Image: ARS/USDA/ÍScott Bauer

When last we visited the issue of sudden colony collapse, which is worrying farmers by emptying beehives across the US, a parasitic fungus was being tapped as a potential cause. An early access publication in today's Science Express revisits the issue and, although it finds the fungus is more frequent in infected samples, the study suggests a virus is the actual culprit. But a global look at the parasite load in these sick bees suggests there are still some unanswered questions. HangZhou Night Net

The new work performed large scale sequencing on a number of samples from colonies that have collapsed, plus a few that have remained healthy. At the bacterial level, everything looked reasonably normal; there were no major differences between the two types of hives. The same was true for a trypanosomal sequence that appears to be part of the Leishmania family. Funguses, including the one previously suggested as a potential cause, also appeared in unaffected hives. Things finally got interesting when viruses were examined. One virus, Israeli acute paralysis virus of bees, had a 95 percent association with colony collapse.

So, mystery solved? Not really. The authors show that the virus appears to have arrived in the US with bees imported from Australia, a practice that began at about the same time as colony collapses were noted. But Australia does not appear to have any problems with its bee population, suggesting something else must be involved. The researchers suggest US-only parasitic mites or the chemicals used to control them as possible enabling factors.

There are two big limiations with the study as things now stand. The first is that it's not quantitative. If one of the pathogens was present at much higher levels in collapsing hives, the study would not detect it. The second is that it's purely correlative. Correlations can be very informative, but the authors themselves produced data that indicates their value is limited in this case. When the researchers looked at a set of four pathogens (including the virus and fungus suggested as causes), normal colonies were likely to have two, while those suffering a population crash had a mean of 3.7. Separating cause, enablement, and opportunism among those pathogens isn't possible with the available data.

So, the cause of sudden colony collapse remains a bit mysterious, although some positive candidates are emerging. If the virus that these authors suspect really is a key factor, then there's good news: up to a third of the bees in Israel, where it was first identified, are already resistant to it.

Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1146498

News unFlash: New iPod touch could do iPhone apps

For those still deciding between an iPhone and a new iPod touch, perhaps application compatibility between the two devices can help. While it never really occurred to us that this wouldn't be the case, Gizmodo says the unofficial word on the street is that the new iPod touch might very well be able to run the same third-party apps that the iPhone does, as well as the Apple-designed apps the iPhone ships with. HangZhou Night Net

We're going to have to wait for confirmation from the iPhone hacking teams that have been doing such a stellar job so far, but assuming that it's true, you can thank the reliable assumption that both devices are probably running the same version of OS X (note: not Mac OS X). This should minimize or simply remove the need for extra hacking just to get apps to run between these two devices.

That said, I can't help but worry that, come October with the release of Mac OS X Leopard, Apple will finally endow developers with "true" iPhone development tools. Hackers have been digging up strong evidence in both the iPhone's system files and the latest builds of Xcode, Apple's development app, that bolsters this assessment. If true, we would definitely see a significant boom in powerful, well-designed apps for both the iPhone and iPod touch (after all, that new iPod has even more open slots for new apps than the iPhone does). Folks will eventually spend far less time digging around in file systems and more time bringing the much-needed third-party game to Apple's mobile device platform.

This is probably obvious news to some, but we felt it was worth a mention to get it out on the table. After all, no one likes to let that elephant in the room gobble up all the party snacks, do they?

NSL provision in PATRIOT Act struck down by federal court

The National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the PATRIOT Act was struck down today by federal court judge Victor Marrero. The controversial NSL provision has allowed the FBI to secretly demand access to records held by organizations like libraries and Internet service providers. National Security Letters, which can be used without probable cause or judicial oversight, also impose "gag" restrictions on recipients, forbidding them from disclosing that they have received the letter. HangZhou Night Net

Judge Marrero originally struck down the NSL provision in 2004, when an Internet service provider challenged the constitutionality of the NSL non-disclosure requirements. At the time, Marrero determined that the NSL provision of the PATRIOT Act violated the First and Fourth Amendments and also pointed out that the associated gag orders make it difficult, if not impossible, for recipients to consult legal counsel without fear of punishment. When the government appealed the ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged that the NSL provision was probably unconstitutional but returned the case back to Marrero for a second analysis after Congress altered and renewed the PATRIOT Act. Now that Marrero has reviewed the revised PATRIOT Act, he has determined that the NSL provision is still unconstitutional.

Judge Marrero's decision is a profound meditation on the necessity of the Separation of Powers doctrine and the important role that the judiciary plays in protecting civil liberties. Marrero writes about the potential cost of allowing the tradition of judicial oversight to be undermined by national security legislation. "The past is long, and so is the future we want to protect," writes Marrero. "But too often memory is short. The pages of this nation's jurisprudence cry out with compelling instances illustrating that, called upon to adjudicate claims of extraordinary assertions of executive or legislative or even state power, such as by the high degree of deference to the executive that the Government here contends [the NSL provision of the PATRIOT Act] demands of the courts, when the judiciary lowers its guard on the Constitution, it opens the door to far-reaching invasions of liberty."

Marrero notes that the effects of the 9/11 attack are still felt and "acknowledged by this Court, which sits just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center towers fell. The Court is also mindful of the executive's need to meet new threats to national security with new and ever more effective means of detecting and stopping those perils." Although Marrero recognizes the importance of preserving national security, he asserts in his decision that "The Constitution was designed so that the dangers of any given moment would never suffice as justification for discarding fundamental individual liberties or circumscribing the judiciary's unique role under our governmental system in protecting those liberties and upholding the rule of law."

Although this ruling is unsurprising in light of Marrero's earlier evaluation of the PATRIOT Act, it represents a significant blow to the Administration's efforts to expand the federal government's investigatory power beyond the scope of judicial oversight. Considering the FBI's long record of serious misconduct and intelligence violations, it is apparent that there is a clear need for broader judicial oversight. If the National Security Letter provision of the PATRIOT Act is finally eliminated or altered to adhere to the requirements established by the Constitution, it will be a considerable victory for American civil liberties.

HP unveils Blackbird 002

At the HP Your Life is the Show event last night, besides being in a room with stars like Shaun White, Serena Williams, and the guys from West Coast Choppers, Ars was also at the unveiling of the first gaming machine HP has released since its acquisition of Voodoo of September of 2006. It's called Blackbird 002. HangZhou Night Net

Rahul Sood, founder of Voodoo PC and now Chief Technology Officer for HP's gaming division, took the stage to reveal Blackbird 002. He started out by claiming that the new desktop was far better than any other desktop product out there, so much so that the others were "like a bag of sticks compared to a bag of golf clubs" on the golf course. Um, ??? Anwyay, let's take a look.

It became immediately apparent that Sood's team had focused on cooling. The entire chassis of the Blackbird is cast aluminum, and it sits a few inches above the base of the system. Sood claims this "create[s] a sixth side of cooling. The 1.1 kilowatt power supply is located just above the back… the system brings cold air up on the power supply," and throughout the rest of the system. The processor, not unlike many other offerings from competitors, is water cooled also, and Sood claims that Voodoo "knows liquid cooling. Better than anybody." Inside the chassis, there's also a "Voodoo DNA" label, which Sood claims is an "ingredient that signifies that passion of gamers."

Sood didn't discuss what kind of power was placed under the hood, however, he did say that the systems are "fully configurable," and that customers can "buy it with whatever combination of components they want… choose between NVIDIA and ATI video cards, and choose between Intel and AMD processors." The Blackbird 002 website confirms this: customers can choose among five processors, including four from Intel and one from AMD. The high-end Intel processor on the configuration list is the Core 2 Extreme x6800.

Hard drive options include a 120GB 10,000rpm Western Digital Raptor, or a choice of a 320GB, 500GB, or 750GB 7200rpm drive, and there's room for up to five drives which can be configured to run in a hot-swappable RAID. Memory choices include 1GB of 667Mhz, 800Mhz, or 1GHz with Corsair's PC2-8500DDR2 SDRAM SLI enabled. The system will support up to 8GB of memory across 4 DIMM slots.

So far, there isn't anything that really makes the competition look like a "bag of sticks." Instead, it looks like the Blackbird 002 is dead-on with competition like Alienware and Falcon Northwest, both of which offer systems with nearly exactly the same configurations. However, the Blackbird 002 is fully tool-less, which means anything can be added or removed without the need of a screw driver. It also comes with "industry standard components, the system uses a high-end motherboard from a high-end manufacturer," according to Sood. This makes upgrading parts easier, since nothing is of a proprietary size.

Some of the smaller accessories include the option for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD drives, a lighting system on the back so that plugging in the dark is easier, and a memory card reader/headset/USB port panel that hides at the top of the system.
According to one of the display hands, the Blackbird 002 will be released to the market with a low-end MSRP of $2,500 and a high-end price of $6,500 on September 15th.

We saw a lot of other great stuff coming out from HP this year, so stay tuned.

Primates and the roots of cognition

When it comes to explaining the brain power of different primates, one theory focuses on social intelligence, which suggests that the complex social structures of each species causes an evolutionary pressure on developing cognition. This is backed up by positive correlations between brain size and markers of social complexity for different primates. Humans, out of all the primates, are considered ultrasocial and possess cognitive abilities beyond that of any of our hairier relatives. HangZhou Night Net

Human cognition depends on transmitted behaviors—the skills we use in adult life in society, we learn as children. The cultural intelligence hypothesis postulates that humans have a species-specific set of social-cognitive skills that other higher primates don't have that allows us to more readily learn from others. For the first time, this cultural intelligence hypothesis has been tested, and the results published in Science1.

The researchers conducted a series of cognition tests on a group of young children, chimpanzees, and orangutans. The tests were designed to differentiate between the cultural intelligence hypothesis and the general intelligence hypothesis that predicts that humans are simply more intelligent than other primates.

The experiments sought to examine intelligence as it relates to the physical world (spatial memory, tool use, etc) and also to the social world (social learning, comprehension, intentions, etc). Interestingly, the human subjects only did significantly better in the latter series of tests, but the chimps and orangutans were as adept at the physical world tests as the infants. This provides support for the cultural intelligence hypothesis, suggesting that humans have evolved specific social-cognitive skills relevant to exchanging knowledge between individuals in cultural groups.

Science contains another paper on cognition in primates, this time on the ability of nonhuman primates to demonstrate reasoning2. As humans, we are able to use an individual's actions to infer or extrapolate something about their mental state, but it's not known whether this is a specifically human trait. In this study, researchers sought to understand whether or not different species of primate were able to make inferences from a demonstrated behavior.

The primates were presented with a pair of containers potentially containing food. A demonstrator would then gesture intentionally to the one containing food, or unintentionally, in order to determine whether the primate could infer the reasoning behind the demonstrator's actions. In the first test, the demonstrator would either intentionally grasp the one containing food, or flop their hand down in an accidental manner. A second set of experiments involved the demonstrator touching the correct container with their elbow, as they had both hands occupied, versus using their elbows despite having an empty hand. Distinguishing between these gestures suggests an inference of intention by the demonstrator, for example using his elbow as both hands were busy, or rationally grasping a container instead of accidentally touching it.

Three different species of primates were used, representing old world monkeys, new world monkeys, and apes. These groups of primates last shared a common ancestor with man around 40 million years ago, 20 million years ago, and ten million years ago, respectively. Prior research with human infants has shown they have the capacity to distinguish between intentional and rational behavior as compared to more accidental behavior. The researchers found that, like human infants, all three species of primate tested had the ability to discriminate between the intentional and seemingly unintentional actions of the demonstrator, suggesting that the cognitive skill to infer another individual's intentions dates back at least 40 million years into our history as a species.

1 Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1146282

2 Science, 2007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1144663