Rethinking the coral reef: How algal and coral cover affect the microscopic life that call the reef home

A new study by biologists at San Diego State University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows that inhabited coral islands that engage in commercial fishing dramatically alter their nearby reef ecosystems, disturbing the microbes, corals, algae and fish that call the reef home.

The study's lead author, Linda Wegley Kelly, is a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of SDSU virologist Forest Rohwer. She's been involved in some capacity with Rohwer's lab for the past 13 years, beginning as a lab technician.

For the study, she looked at seawater samples collected from the surfaces of reefs surrounding all 11 of the Line Islands, a chain of atolls in the central Pacific Ocean. Over the past five years, Kelly and her colleagues have made sporadic trips to the islands, collecting the samples with a specially adapted bilge pump that sucks up approximately 100 liters of water in a given area.

"It's like vacuuming the reef," Kelly said.

Kelly sequenced themicrobiomes of the samples to determine the DNA encoded by the viruses, bacteria, archaea (tiny, single-celled microorganisms like Halobacteria), and protists (similarly tiny eukaryotic microorganisms such as diatoms) all living in the same space. Within these millions of DNA sequences, Kelly found thatcertain types of bacteria predicted whether the reef was predominantly composed up of coral or algae.

Algae or coral?

The preponderance of either of these organisms has huge ramifications for the health of the surrounding sea.

"Corals are fierce competitors for space on the reef," Kelly said. "In a healthy marine environment, reefs support a vibrant population of corals and other calcifying organisms that continuously build the reef skyward."

If reefs are dominated by algae, however, the entire habitat dissolves over time and the fish don't have anywhere to go, Kelly explained.

When she sequenced the surfaces of algae-covered reefs, Kelly identified microbes that may contribute to an ecological feedback loop which impairs coral growth. Her study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Population centers

Another observation, that the reef microbiomes on unpopulated islands were more similar to one another than to other geographically closer -- but populated -- islands, suggests that the entire community of reef inhabitants, including the microbes, is more significantly influenced by the degree of the reef's coral or algal cover than researchers previously realized.

Her results have implications for conservationists looking for ways to improve strategies for managing coral reef ecosystems.

"How do you create an environment for corals to thrive?" Kelly asked. "In addition to practicing sustainable fishing, one way to rehabilitate a reef would be to transplant corals to the site. This should promote an environment more conducive to coral growth by fostering a beneficial community of microorganisms."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by San Diego State University . The original article was written by Michael Price. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Identifying microbial species: New device will help identify the millions of bacteria that populate the world

Millions of microbial species populate the world, but so far only a few have been identified due to the inability of most microbes to grow in the laboratory. Edgar Goluch, an engineer, and Slava Epstein, a biologist, aim to change this. The pair, both researchers at Northeastern University, has developed a device that allows scientists to cultivate a single species of bacteria that can then be studied and identified.

Goluch's previous research devices incorporated permeable membranes that allow sequestered bacteria to be exposed to the nutrients and molecules of their native environment. But natural competition between species, even in the wild, has so far limited the number of species of bacteria that biologists have been able to isolate with these methods and in traditional lab settings.

Goluch and Epstein's device, detailed in a paper released July 1 in the journal PLOS ONE, solves this problem. This new device permits just a single bacterial cell to enter an inner chamber containing a food source, to which the only access is a microscopic passageway just slightly narrower than a single cell. The passageway is so small that the first cell to enter it gets stuck, blocking entry by any other cell or species. Once inside, this cell pro-liferates as in previous devices, and when it does it fills up the inner chamber with a pure, single-species sample, since it is isolated from competition from other species.

In the paper, the team demonstrates the device's ability to separate mixtures of cell types in a laboratory setting. In one experiment, the researchers separated two different bacterial species whose cells are slightly different sizes -- E. coli and P. aueruginosa. In a second experiment, they isolated a combination of similarly sized but differently shaped species that commonly show up together in the marine environment -- Roseobacter sp. and Pscyhoserpens sp. Finally, they used the device to separate cells of the same species that had been differentially tagged to glow either red or green. This final experiment validates the hypothesis that the cells grown inside the food chamber are daughters of the single cell caught in the entryway. Epstein will test the devices in the biological setting beginning this month during a research trip to Greenland.

Going forward, funding from an Instrument Development Biological Research Grant from the National Science Foundation will enable Goluch and his team of engineers to begin optimizing the device and its manufacture on a larger scale.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Northeastern University . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

For Google, the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ Is an Unforgettable Fiasco

Illustration: Getty Images

Illustration: Getty Images

The recent European Union ruling that granted citizens the “right to be forgotten” from Google’s search results is morphing into a nightmare for the web giant.

British news organizations are reporting that Google is now removing links to some of their articles, including stories that involve the disgraceful actions of powerful people.

On Wednesday, BBC economics editor Robert Preston said he received a notice from Google informing him that a 2007 blog post he wrote on ex-Merrill Lynch CEO Stan O’Neal would no longer turn up in search results in Europe. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that it received automated notifications on six articles whose links would be axed from European view. These included stories on a scandalized Scottish Premier League soccer referee, an attorney facing fraud allegations, and, without explanation, a story on French office workers making Post-It art.

In some ways, Google is just following the EU’s dictates. The company fought the EU on the right-to-be-forgotten issue, but now it has no choice but to implement the ruling, which the court says applies “where the information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.” By that standard, these takedowns would seem to overstep the letter of a decision ostensibly intended to protect the reputation of individuals, not censor news. But the issue for Google isn’t just freedom of speech or freedom of the press. The “right to be forgotten” decision is calling unwanted attention to the easy-to-forget fact that–one way or another—fallible human hands are always guiding Google’s seemingly perfect search machine.

The ‘right to be forgotten’ decision is calling unwanted attention to the easy-to-forget fact that fallible human hands are always guiding Google’s seemingly perfect search machine.

The BBC’s Preston writes that the removal of his post could be an example of clumsiness on Google’s part in the still-early days of its effort to comply with the EU’s judgment. “Maybe I am a victim of teething problems,” he writes. “It is only a few days since the ruling has been implemented—and Google tells me that since then it has received a staggering 50,000 requests for articles to be removed from European searches.” That means things may get less censorious. But in the meantime, the fiasco is chipping away at the gleaming edges of Google’s brand.

The removal of links to one article may be a blip, but the steady accumulation of removed links—especially to quality journalism written in a clear spirit of public interest—starts to erode trust in the reliability of Google search results. Now, anyone who does a Google search even just for the article mentioned above will have to wonder whether they’re getting the whole story. And anything that suggests compromise, lack of transparency, or incompleteness in search results plants a seed that starts to undermine the idea of what Google is supposed to be.

Since the beginning, Google has cultivated the idea that its results are—like good journalism—unbiased, complete, and compelling. Nowhere is that message more clearly telegraphed than in the design of Google’s search interface itself. Google isn’t a person. It’s just this little box. Put your search here and the smartest computers in the world will tell you what you need to know—no messy human judgment involved.

In reality, however, teams of living, breathing people are constantly at work behind the scenes at Google tweaking algorithms to juice search results according to subjective standards like “quality.” This is often a good thing. Concerted efforts to cut down on the proliferation of link spam and content-farmed drivel have kept search results truly useful, which is good for users and Google both. But as Facebook has experienced even more strongly in the backlash to its “emotional contagion” study, users prefer not to be reminded that human-crafted filters unavoidably come into play in the dissemination of digital content.

Assessing the reaction to Facebook’s study, social media scholar danah boyd writes that the anger is really “at the practice of big data” itself—the idea that Facebook and other companies that “collect and use data about people” are far from just neutral facilitators. Facebook “designs its algorithms not just to market to you directly but to convince you to keep coming back over and over again. People have an abstract notion of how that operates, but they don’t really know, or even want to know,” boyd writes. “They just want the hot dog to taste good. Whether it’s couched as research or operations, people don’t want to think they’re being manipulated. So when they find out what soylent green is made of, they’re outraged.”

The same could just as well apply to Google. People don’t want to think their search results are fungible, which means Google’s interests are also best served by keeping that notion obscured behind a simple search box. The censorship of news articles under the abuse of the “right to be forgotten” is just a much more blatant reminder of that fungibility—a reminder that Google would clearly like everyone to just forget.


Andrei Alexandrescu didn’t stand much of a chance. And neither did Walter Bright.

When the two met for beers at a Seattle bar in 2005, each was in the midst of building a new programming language, trying to remake the way the world creates and runs its computer software. That’s something pretty close to a hopeless task, as Bright knew all too well. “Most languages never go anywhere,” he told Alexandrescu over beers that night. “Your language may have interesting ideas. But it’s never going to succeed.”

Alexandrescu, a graduate student at the time, could’ve said the same thing to Bright, an engineer who had retired from Symantec, the venerable software company, a few years earlier. People are constantly creating new programming languages, but because the software world is already saturated by so many of them, the new ones rarely get used by more than a handful of coders—especially if they’re built by a retired engineer working without the backing of a big-name tech company. But Bright’s new language, known as D, was a bit further along than the one Alexandrescu was working on, dubbed Enki. Bright said they’d both be better off if Alexandrescu dumped Enki and rolled his ideas into D. Alexandrescu didn’t much like D, but he agreed. “I think it was the beer,” he says.

The result is a programming language that just might defy the odds. Eight years after he shook hands with Bright at that Seattle bar, at least one startup has used D to build its entire online operation, and thanks to Alexandrescu, one of the giants of the net is exploring the new language. Alexandrescu is now a research scientist at Facebook, where he and small team of other coders are using D to refashion tiny parts of the company’s massive operation. Bright too has collaborated with Facebook on this experimental D software, as an outsider contractor. As Alexandrescu is quick to tell you, the company isn’t an official sponsor of the language. But Facebook believes in D enough to keep Alexandrescu working on the language full-time, and it’s at least considering the possibility of using D in lieu of C++, the venerable language that runs the systems at the heart of so many leading web services.

C++ is an extremely fast language—meaning that software built in the language runs at high speed—and it gives you great control over your code. But it’s not as easy to use as more modern languages like Python, Ruby, and PHP. It doesn’t let coders build software as quickly. D seeks to bridge that gap, offering the performance of C++ while also making things more convenient for programmers. “TK,” says Alexandrescu, a Roumanian who immigrated to the States in the late ’90s. “TK.”

Among the giants of tech, that’s an increasingly common goal. Google’s Go programming language aims for a similar balance of power and simplicity, and so does the brand new Swift programming language unveiled by Apple. In the past, the programming world was split in two: the fast languages and the simpler modern languages. But now, these two worlds are coming together. “D is similar to C++, but better,” says Brad Anderson, a longtime C++ programmer from Utah who has been using D as well. “It’s high performance, but it’s expressive. You can get a lot done without very much code.”

In fact, Facebook is working to bridge this gap with not one but two languages. As it tinkers with D, the company has already revamped so much of its online empire with a n ew language called Hack, which, in its own way, combines speed with simplicity. While using Hack to build the front-end of its service—the webpages you see when you open the service in your web browser—Facebook is experimenting with D on the back-end, the systems that serve as the engine of its social network.

But Alexandrescu says you can use D to build anything, including the front-end of a web service—the “high-level logic.” The language is so simple, he says, you can even use it for quick-and-dirty programming scripts. “You want to write a 50-line script?” he says. “Sure, go for it.” This is what Bright was originally striving for—a language you could use in all situations. Today, he says, people so often write software applications in multiple languages—a simpler language for the front and a more powerful language for the back. But the ultimate aim should be a single language that does it all.

The Caped Superhero Thing

Alexandrescu refers to his years of work on D as his “caped superhero thing”—a swashbuckling effort to change things for the better. That’s not said with arrogance. Alexandrescu, whose conversation is sprinkled with a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor, will also tell you he “wasn’t a very good” programming language researcher at the University Washington—so bad he switched his graduate studies to machine learning. The superhero bit is just a product of his rather contagious enthusiasm for the language.

For years, he worked on the language only in his spare time. “It was sort of a free-time activity, in however much free-time a person in grad school can have, which is like negative,” he says. Bright says the two of them would meet up of coffee shops in Seattle to argue the ins and outs of the language. The collaboration was fruitful, he said, because they were so different. Alexandrescu was an academic. Bright was an engineer. “TK,” Bright says.

When he first joined Facebook, D remained a side project.

—and it became his primary project only after Facebook had hired him as machine learning engineer. “It was better,” he says, “to do the cape-super-hero-at-night thing during the daytime.”

For Facebook, this is still a research project. But the company has hosted the past two D conferences—the last one in May—and together with various Facebook colleagues, Alexandrescu rebuilt two pieces of core Facebook software in D. They rebuilt the Facebook “linker,” an essential part of piecing together the software that runs the company’s web services, and they fashioned as new “preprocessor,” another means of generating the company’s core code.

In both cases, D is used in place of C++. It’s fast enough to stand-in for the venerable language. And yet it streamlines the coding process, having completely overhauled the look and feel of the C family of languages. When Bright first started the language, he called it Mars. But the community that sprung up around the language called it D, because they saw it as the successor to C++. “D became the nickname,” Bright says. “And the nickname stuck.”

D is not an interpreted language like PHP or Ruby. You can’t instantly run code after you write it. Like C++., it’s a compiled language, meaning that you have take time to transform it into executable software before you run it. But, according to Alexandrescu and Bright, it compiles much faster than C++. Bright—who worked on C++, Java, and Javascript compilers at Symantec—says this was one of his primary aims. “When your compiler runs fast,” he says, “it transform the way your write code.” It lets you see the results of your work much quicker.


Facebook is certainly the most high-profile D user. But it’s not the only one. Sociomantic–a German online advertising outfit recently purchase by British grocery giant Tesco—has built its entire operation in D. About 10,000 people download the D platform each month. “I’m assuming it’s not the same 10,000 every month,” says Alexandrescu. And it now ranks above Google Go on the Tiobe index, a widely-cited (but less than comprehensive) ranking of the world’s most popular languages.

For coder Brad Anderson, the main appeal is that D, even though its a compiled language like C++, it feels like an interpreted language, a language that doesn’t require a compile. “It results in code that’s more compact,” he says. “You’re not writing boilerplate as much. You’re not writing as much stuff you’re obligated to write in other language.” It’s less “verbose” that C++ and Java.

What’s more, he says, D code has this unusual ability to generate more D code and weave this into itself at compile time. That may sound odd, but the end result is that build a program that more finely tuned to the task at hand. Essentially, a program can optimize itself as it compiled. “It makes for some amazing code generation capabilities,” Anderson says.

The trouble with the language, Alexandrescu and Bright say, is that it still needs a big-name backer. “Corporate support would be vital right now,” Alexandrescu says. This shows you that Facebook’s involvement only goes so far, and it provides so insight into why new language have so much trouble succeeding. In addition to backing Hack, Facebook employs some of the world’s leading experts in Haskell, another powerful but relatively underused language. What D needs, Alexandrescu explains, is someone willing to pump an awful lot of money into promoting the language. The Java programming language succeeded, he says, because Sun Microsystems put so much money behind it in the ’90s.

The truth is that D still faces a long road to success. But, thanks to that chat in a Seattle bar, it has already come further than most.

Adorable Vampire Squirrel Has the World’s Most Absurdly Fluffy Tail

Image: J. Mathai / HOSCAP Borneo

Hmmm yes this rock is relevant to my interests. Image: J. Mathai / HOSCAP Borneo

In the forests of Borneo there echoes the legend of the vampire squirrel, a beast so ferocious that it can tackle prey dozens of times its size. Waiting on low branches, it will leap onto the back of a passing muntjac deer, biting into its jugular vein, then wait for its victim to bleed out before consuming its stomach and heart and liver. It must be terribly hideous, right?

Nope. The vampire squirrel, also known as the tufted ground squirrel, doesn’t really hunt deer (though like some other species of squirrels, it could actually be eating meat from time to time). But the vampire is one of the world’s most adorable rodents, with a tail that’s fluffier than any other in the animal kingdom. In fact, that tail is 30 percent more voluminous than the rest of the squirrel’s body, researchers reported in the June issue of the journal Taprobanica.

But why would the vampire squirrel have evolved such a magnificent tail? The researchers speculate that it may serve to court fellow vampires or warn them of danger. And because this is a terrestrial squirrel, it must cope with predators ambling around down there, so the tail could be used for defense. Indeed, when the squirrel is in flight, its enormous tail obscures its body, perhaps confusing predators. And if a predator does actually snag the squirrel by the tail, it’ll really only have hair to hold onto, boosting the vampire’s chances of slipping away to bite another day.


Dennis, Rona, Meijaard, Emily, Rona Meijaard, Erik. (2014) Tall Tales of a Tropical Squirrel. Taprobanica: Vol. 06, No. 01: pp. 27–31.

The Unnoticed Gadgets That Power Our Economy Deserve a Real OS

Image: DrAfter123/Getty

Image: DrAfter123/Getty

We are surrounded with a class of mobile devices that are eight years out of date, and predate the iPhone entirely. These relics are everywhere we go, affecting our daily lives in countless ways.

I’m talking, of course, about enterprise-class devices: the scanners that grocery clerks use to track inventory, the stylus tablets that couriers log their deliveries on, the handhelds that stockkeepers take into the warehouse, and the button-covered rectangle the agent uses to check in your rental car.

Todd Greco

Todd Greco is Interaction Design Director at Ziba Design, leading the creation of new software and physical interfaces. Follow him on Twitter @mrballistic.

On the consumer side, we’re in the middle of a mobile revolution; the computer in your pocket outguns what was on your desktop only a few years ago, and the software it runs is dramatically more intuitive. But the people who really need mobile computing power and a well-designed user experience are running around with devices that haven’t evolved in a decade.

Over the past couple of decades working with large corporations that use these devices, I’ve seen brilliant engineers spend countless hours trying to wring 60 seconds out of a worker’s day, in the hopes of driving up efficiency and saving money. Multiply that 60 seconds by 40,000 employees, and you have something that will make Wall Street smile. But their reliance on antiquated devices, with slow reaction times, software crashes and poor wireless performance, easily adds up to minutes or even hours lost each day. And this translates into increased costs for everyone who relies on their services–all of us, in other words–on the order of billions of dollars a year.

If we’re going to fix this, we need an answer for the enterprise. We need an enterprise operating system optimized for reliability, but also battery life. We need one that comes with a ton of documentation. We need one that treats encryption and privacy as first class citizens. Most importantly, though, we need one that limits its update cycle to every 24 months, and makes a pledge not to sunset APIs for at least four years.

Why don’t we have one yet?

Financially and technologically, enterprise electronics run at a very different pace than consumer ones. It’s all well and good for us West Coast technologists to look to the cloud and distributed computing as an answer for society’s ills, but the reality at these corporations is much harsher.

One group I work with has thousands of employees who rely on their better-designed consumer devices for functions like GPS directions and basic communications, because trying to cram them into their outdated handhelds (and they’ve certainly tried) is a fool’s errand. These handhelds come from a time when we hadn’t made a proper break between mobile and desktop computers, and they suffer from constant battery and connectivity issues that the consumer side ironed out long ago. Which leads us to the heart of the problem—the consumer side has worked hard to solve these problems, but the industrial market hasn’t received any of its benefits. As many of these devices approach the end of their lives, with nothing better on the horizon, what’s an enterprise CIO to do?

The obvious fix, currently being pushed in boardrooms around the world, is to simply equip employees with consumer devices. Delta just did this, with a rollout of 19,000 Nokia Lumina 820s last year to their flight attendants. It’s a sound strategy for customer service professionals in the controlled confines of a passenger plane, but workers in a warehouse or on a delivery route require ruggedized, no-fail devices—just putting a case on a smartphone isn’t the answer.

The first thing holding enterprise users back from simply adopting a consumer device is finance. Enterprises like to make large capital purchases on a long depreciation schedule that’s well established prior to purchase. Imagine buying 50,000 android phones in 2008 and binding yourself to those devices until 2015–that’s how enterprise thinks about computer hardware, which is quite different from the two year rolling solution in consumer electronics. The obvious answer is to think about these handhelds more like uniforms and allow them to be updated on a rolling schedule. Certainly, on the consumer side, we’ve all become used to rolling out software for a heterogeneous install base (just ask any Android developer about this), so it should be easy for enterprise too, right?

Probably not, and the reason why has everything to do with how enterprise develops software. The IT departments at large corporations are nothing like a scrappy app development studio. They’re large groups of developers tasked with creating mission-critical/never-fail applications. For them, the focus is always on launching software that never corrupts data, which they achieve by adhering to strict coding guidelines. Any engineer will tell you that working this way is effective, but it’s also methodical, and very, very slow. It may be possible to knock out the latest social messaging app in a weekend with two developers and a case of Red Bull, but an enterprise application is fast-tracked if it can wrap and deploy in under 18 months. Seeing that the consumer upgrade cycle is 12-24 months, it’s easy to see where the misalignment lies.

And this misalignment is just going to get more pronounced. The consumer market is seeing operating system upgrades happening on a yearly cycle now. Apple’s bottom line depends on a new iPhone and iPad every 10-12 months, and it’s an open secret throughout the consumer electronics world that device sales are heavily driven by new operating systems, exposing features that require updated hardware. This model is becoming standard, much like Detroit’s “planned obsolescence” strategy in the 1950s. Since users of industrial handhelds are also users of consumer electronics, it’s no surprise that they hold corporate devices in contempt. “Why is it that this obsolete device, that doesn’t even have GPS, costs two grand, while my phone, which outperforms it in every way, was free with a contract?” They deserve an answer.

Who Will Step Up and Build the Enterprise UI We Need?

Apple seems unwilling to allow non-Apple devices to run its operating system, which is a deal killer for any large-scale industrial program (putting a mass-scanner on an iPod Touch is possible, but not a great solution). The enterprise space is wary of unproven solutions, which limits the ability of a small, motivated startup to come in and save the day. So it becomes a race between Microsoft and Google.

Android is a fine place to look for a global strategy, since it can run on wildly different types of devices. This excites CIOs, who love the idea of putting a $90 phone in the hands of folks working in the Honduras office, that uses a subset of the U.S. build running on the $900 device. But Google’s biggest stumbling block may be, surprisingly, its corporate outreach. Google hasn’t done a very good job courting the enterprise market, and while we were all excited about the future with Motorola, that dream ended when the company sold the it off to Lenovo.

The one company that knows how to court enterprise, has a toolchain that corporate IT knows and uses daily, and now has the ability to build its own hardware…is Microsoft. If they’re honestly searching for a way back into mobile, I’d suggest thinking hard about Windows Mobile as an end-to-end experience, like they’re doing with Windows Phone 8. If Microsoft could create an enterprise-level mobile operating system (as with Windows Server), offer rugged hardware solutions (or at least partner with Intermec/Honeywell and Motorola, as they have in the past), and make a pledge that they will not only support it but merge in innovations from their consumer line, then enterprise would finally have an answer. Heretically, I look at Ubuntu as a way of organizing this. They release a Long Term Support (LTS) version of their operating system every two years, but release consumer builds twice a year.

In our rush to court consumers worldwide, we’ve lost track of designing and building excellent experiences for the people who need mobile devices for their very livelihood. Instead, they’re left with the equivalent of an 80s Motorola brick phone in modern day Palo Alto. The enterprise market is hungry for disruption, eager for better design, and growing daily. If one of the big three does the right thing, and attacks the way they have with consumer devices over the last 10 years, they’ll hit a captive and massive market. If they don’t, it’s not just the couriers and stock keepers of the world who are screwed–we all are.

Celebrate the 4th of July Because…Horse Flies.

Horse flies! And horses.

Horse flies! And horses. Olocau.Digital

When the Continental Congress met on July 4th, 1776, it was a very hot day in Philadelphia. They settled in for a long day of arguing over the final version of the draft Independence document in a humid, sticky room. Tempers ran high.

Someone opened the windows to let a in breeze… but as they were down the street from a stable, what actually came into Congress was blood-sucking flies.

Congressional Precedent established.

From Parton’s 1874 Life of Jefferson: (page 191):

“During the 2d, 3d, and 4th of July, Congress were engaged in reviewing the Declaration. Thursday, the fourth, was a hot day; the session lasted many hours; members were tired and impatient. Mr. Jefferson used to relate, with much merriment, that the final signing of the Declaration of Independence was hastened by an absurdly trivial cause.

Near the hall in which the debates were then held was a livery-stable, from which swarms of flies came into the open windows, and assailed the silk-stockinged legs of honorable members. Handkerchief in hand, they lashed the flies with such vigor as they could command on a July afternoon; but the annoyance became at length so extreme as to render them impatient of delay, and they made haste to bring the momentous business to a conclusion. “

As another historian put it, “treason was preferable to discomfort”, and members closed debate, hustled to sign, and exited stage left, pursued by horse flies.

horse fly

The dangerous end of a horse fly (Tabanus atratus) USGS Sam Droege

Horse flies (Subfamily Tabaninae) are still common in the US. Horse and deer fly mouthparts are basically scissors and a sponge; they slash you and then lap up the blood that pools up. This is extremely painful. The amount of blood a horse fly can suck up varies, but 40 to 200 mg of blood seems to be the range of a single fly.

Happy 4th of July for my American readers. (Also, the full document wasn’t signed by everyone until August 2nd, 1776.)

Declaration of Independence signing

Declaration of Independence Signing: The REAL Version. 1819 Painting by John Trumbull, slightly updated.

How to Break Your Phone Contract Without Paying Dearly


Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

This is America, land of the two-year mobile contract, and home of the carrier-subsidized smartphone. Sure, this arrangement saves you a few hundred bucks on those new iPhones or Galaxies, but it also locks you into what can often end up being a very bad relationship.

Unfortunately, wireless carriers don’t provide you much recourse. If you want to end your contract at AT&T, you’ll be forking over $325 minus $10 per month that you’ve completed on your contract. Pretty much all the major carriers subtract a given amount for each month you’ve completed on your contract, but that number tends to change. It also doesn’t make the financial blow much easier unless you’re near the end. Sprint and Verizon will charge you up to $350, unless you cancel within the first two weeks (a policy that was extended to 30 days beginning June 27 for Sprint users). T-Mobile users pay up to $200 depending on how many days are left on their contract.

While it won’t be easy, you can still break free without shelling out tons of dough. Here’s how.

Sell Your Plan

Chances are, there is someone out there looking to get out of their plan and into a new one, and they may be interested in buying yours. You can choose to swap with them, or just sell your plan to them. Do this on sites like Cellbreaker, Cellswapper, or Trade My Cellular. This doesn’t violate your terms of service because the other party is fulfilling the terms of your original contract.

This doubles as a great way to test out another carrier’s service—you can essentially trade contracts with someone for 3-6 months, for example, and know for sure if you want to jump to that carrier or not, without breaking your original contract agreement.

Track Changes of Terms, Then Jump Ship

Keep abreast of the news, and pay attention to those update emails your carrier occasionally sends you, as well as your monthly statements. Any of them could offer a way out. When cellular carriers make what’s called a “material change” to a contract, you’ve got 30 days to bail, scot-free. A material change can be anything from additional service or maintenance fees, adjustments in the rates you’re charged, or changes in discounts applied to your account. If you’ve spotted a material change, you should be able to contact customer service and end your contract.

Find a Carrier That’ll Pay Your ETF

If you want to switch to a smaller carrier or mobile virtual network operator (Virgin Mobile, Credo Mobile, and Boost mobile are examples of these) that will let you prepay or pay by the month, some will actually pay your cancellation fee for you. And depending on which MVNO you switch to, you may be able to keep your phone, as well.

T-Mobile also promises to pay up to $650 to cover the costs of your ETF if you switch to one of its plans. That’s not exactly ditching a carrier contract, but if you only want to switch, it’s still a good option.

Yell, Scream, or Charm Your Way Out

Well, maybe don’t yell and scream. But if you don’t mind putting in a lot of work, it’s possible you could wiggle your way out of your contract. While risky, in terms of results, if successful you will have transcended into another dominion of cellular connectivity and badassedness.

Just know you won’t get your contract ripped up just by batting your eyelashes. Lifehacker has a whole bunch of tips on how to successfully sweet talk your way out of your contract. Basically, it helps if you have a proven record of terrible service: Dropped calls, zero bars and the like. Keep tabs of all the times your cellular network failed you for a week or more, then call and complain to your provider, as well as logging a complaint with the FCC and the Better Business Bureau. Call and complain again a week or two later. And again. You’ll need to escalate the situation until you’ve got a manager on the line, and you’re going to have to prove that it’s not just a femtocell that will solve your difficulties. You’ll also need to let them know you filed formal complaints, all while being charming, persuasive, desperate (for adequate cellular service), and persistent.

And if all else fails, you can just try swapping contracts with someone else, like we mentioned above.

Bill Murray Gets Drunk With Kids in This Week’s Best Trailers

Comedy takes center stage this week, from the bawdy sequel Horrible Bosses 2 to the (probably) heartstring-tugging St. Vincent. But if laughs aren’t your thing, Squidward, Boardwalk Empire and Into the Storm will do the trick.

The One Everyone Is Talking About: Horrible Bosses 2

16 Independence Day Blockbusters You’ll Want to Watch All Over Again

July 4 Weekend Gross: $11,152,500

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: Fourth of July weekend was a big one for the Rubin clan—at least regarding the multiplex. (It was also a big weekend for almost getting hit by a wayward firework that launched itself at me, then veered away from my Michael Jackson muscle tee/half-shirt combo just in the nick of time, but that’s another story.) It’s when I saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Speed—for which I was on crutches and also SUPER HIGH, though presumably my family didn’t know that at the time. But as great as those movies were, they were all just run-of-the-mill popcorn movies that were still in theaters when our annual All-Family Movie Tradition rolled around. Which is what made Back to the Future so special.

Summer matinees are about escape—from your daily grind, from the searing heat outside, even from time itself. Robert Zemeckis knew that, and catered to our needs on every level possible, from the visual to the literal. For kids, there was slapstick and a cool, relatable protagonist who gets to be a hero; for adults, there was the ultimate nostalgia trip of rewriting the past; for everyone, there were was an ’80s zeitgeist frappĂ© of Libyan terrorists, Pepsi Free, Calvin Klein, and a revenge of the nerds that blew the actual Revenge of the Nerds out of the water. Even in its darkest moments, BTTF was relentlessly upbeat, and Huey Lewis made damn sure you knew it long after you left the theater. It wasn’t long after 1985 that action movies began to dominate the multiplex during the holiday weekend, and family comedies went on the wane. But that hadn’t happened yet: Marty and Doc might not have needed roads where they were going, but they made sure we could all come along. —Peter Rubin

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $2,723,211

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: When Big Trouble came out I had just turned one year old, so I wasn’t at the theater. But if I had known then what I know now, I would have army crawled to the nearest big screen on my tiny belly in my tiny footy pajamas and started my life the right way. The Jack Burton way. Between Burton and Snake Plissken, American Icon Kurt Russell may be one of our greatest domestically-harvested cinema badasses. And even though Plissken has that sweet eye patch and managed to escape the penal colonies of both New York and LA, it’s Burton who we’d most want by our sides on a dark and stormy night when the going gets weird. Jack might look like he’s all swagger and no smarts, but this unlikely hero is quick on his feet and knows how to surround himself with the right people to get out of tough jams—just like a certain beloved home country we know! Now, BTiLC may not be as overtly flag-waving as some other Independence Day releases, but the Pork Chop express and its cocksure captain are as red, white and blue as they come, and along with his high capable co-pilot Wang Chi, they do our apple-pie-lovin’ hearts proud. —Jordan Crucchiola

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $31,765,506

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: It seems almost unnecessary to explain why this film is epic, but here we go. Seven years after Terminator, the classic (but low-budget) ’80s film about apocalyptic murder robots from the future, T2 was an action extravaganza of bullets, explosions and a slippery, shape-shifting superkiller. T2 turned Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from a villain to a reprogrammed hero, and turned Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor from a frightened waitress into a sinewy, shotgun-toting commando. While its special effects may seem prosaic now, at the time they were nothing less than astonishing. I vividly remember when my older brother and I—who had watched Die Hard more than 50 times on a worn, bootleg VHS tape—saw the T-1000 liquid morph through a helicopter windshield for the first time, we nearly lost our goddamn minds. Quite simply one of the best sequels—and action movies—of all time, T2 was the explosive apex of the franchise from which all other entries would sharply descend. —Laura Hudson

A League of Their Own (1992)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $13,739,456

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: It’s an unspoken truth—in both life and this list—that big summer blockbusters tend to be bro-heavy affairs. Enter: A League of Their Own. This celebration/fictionalization of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II was like Orange Is the New Black for cinema in the early ’90s (it’s even directed by a woman, Penny Marshall, which is also sadly rare among summer flicks). I don’t remember seeing it in theaters—in fact, I didn’t remember it being a July 4th release until compiling this list—but I’ve probably watched it every summer since. Everyone is at their peak here: Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell, frigging Madonna. (This movie came two years after Dick Tracy and Evita notwithstanding was the pinnacle of Madonna’s acting career. It also gave us her fantastic ballad “This Used to Be My Playground.”) Nearly every scene in A League of Their Own is utterly perfect, and it gave us the timeless catchphrase “there’s no crying in baseball.” —Angela Watercutter

Boomerang (1992)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $13,640,706

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: The Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang might not have been epic in the way that, say, Independence Day was epic, but it will certainly be burned into my brain until the day I die. When it hit theaters in 1992 I was a kid at a summer camp, where the counselors—who undoubtedly were trying to be “cool” counselors—took all the campers to the movies and bought us tickets to R-rated movies. We had two choices: Universal Soldier, a story about genetically-enhanced soldiers beating each other to death, or Boomerang, a story about Eddie Murphy having explicit sex with lots and lots of women.

Anxious at the idea of gory, traumatizing deaths that would haunt me forever, I did something the MPAA would never agree with: I decided sex wasn’t as bad as violence, and chose Boomerang. It was … a confusing two hours for 11-year-old me. First, I saw Eddie Murphy have graphic, bewildering sex with a 65-year-old Eartha Kitt, then Robin Givens, then Halle Berry, then Robin Givens again, then Halle Berry again—scenes I can still recall in uncomfortable, gyrating detail. All in all, it was a pretty good Fourth of July for Eddie Murphy and a pretty weird one for me. Your mileage may vary. —Laura Hudson

Apollo 13 (1995)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $25,353,380

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: The Space Race couldn’t have been better tailored to July 4 blockbusters if they’d planned for it. It’s patriotic as hell—all about American exceptionalism without (usually) the taint of American jingoism—aspirational and triumphant, visually spectacular, and chock full of slow-motion hero-walk moments.

Apollo 13 brings all of that and a relatable underdog in Commander Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks. It’s dramatic, triumphant, really well made, and, aside from a few necessary concessions to schedule and format (Mattingly was good, but not that good), pretty historically accurate. For a perfect pre-fireworks double feature, pair this with 1983′s The Right Stuff (not a July 4th release, but we’ll make an exception), then cry because you are probably never going to get to walk on the moon. —Rachel Edidin

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $13,104,788

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: All hail Ivan Ooze, essentially a purple Hellraiser for the juicebox crowd, if Hellraiser was made out of Gak™. If you were in the target demographic when this movie came out in 1995, chances are there was a lot of commotion around you, from your parents or your friends’ parents or teachers or the media or whomever, about whether the “violence” of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie was really appropriate for young children. This obviously made this movie the line in the playground-cred sand: The cool parents hired Power Ranger actors for their kids’ birthday parties; the uncool parents would forbid you from even playing Rangers Vs. Putties with their kids in the front yard. Sure, the acting in this movie about, seemingly, a prehistoric, purely evil alien dude “released” from a giant, buried, purple egg to hypnotize and dominate the human race was atrocious in every possible way, down to the individual line. And lord knows the martial arts, though technically real martial arts (as demonstrated by the current profession of the White Ranger), were hilariously vaudevillian. But in 1995 there was nothing more awesome than watching seemingly-enormous-but-actually-miniature robots and dudes in weird bird costumes fight to a soundtrack consisting of Devo, Shampoo, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers covering Stevie Wonder. Plus, the Rangers lose their powers and have to go into space to retrieve them. Also: the scene where Ooze electrocutes Alpha and attempts to murder Zordon, a time-warped consciousness, may have been the first time you felt the urge to cry during a movie … I mean, probably. I’m not crying, you’re crying. Shut up. —Devon Maloney

Independence Day (1996)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $50,228,264

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: Well, for starters it’s called Independence Day and it’s about the world coming together to battle an alien invasion on July 4th. So it pretty much couldn’t hit this nail more on the head with a laser sight. The fact that Will Smith flies an alien spacecraft and Jeff Goldblum somehow writes an extraterrestrial-software-compatible virus as part of this counter-offensive is just a bonus. (Double Bonus: Brent Spiner plays a scientist who works at Area 51.)

Independence Day came out when I was in high school. (Shut it.) I wasn’t supposed to see it when it came out, but when rain shut down the roller coasters at Cedar Point (the Lake Erie amusement park in Ohio known as “America’s Roller Coast”), I poured me and my soaked Nine Inch Nails T-shirt (shut it) into a car with some friends and headed to the theater. Everyone was seeing this movie, especially since rain meant there was nothing else to do in Sandusky, Ohio than go to the movies. It blew my mind. It blew everyone’s mind (or at least that’s my memory of it). And when President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) gave his rousing “today is our Independence Day” speech, I’ve never felt more patriotic. In fact, this entire day may have been the most American day I’ve ever had. —Angela Watercutter

Wild America (1997)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $1,810,586

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: There is really no reason for this movie—about three underage brothers who set out into the wilderness with a Super 8 camera to capture the country’s most dangerous wildlife for no reason other than kids lie to their parents and are sensationally stupid—should have been included on a list of best-performing, and therefore supposedly most beloved, Independence Day movies. I mean, firstly, it made less than $2 million over that long weekend, which even for 1997 is pretty terrible. (The Karate Kid Part III made $10.3 million over the same weekend in 1989, for crying out loud. Part III.)

More broadly, though, the movie isn’t exactly one about which I have spoken obsessively with my best milliennial buds, who are basically the only generation to give two damns about Jonathan Taylor Thomas. As an elementary schooler, I actually never truly understood the JTT-as-heartthrob thing, though it wasn’t for lack of trying; for some reason I adored that terrible, terrible Tom Sawyer adaptation Tom and Huck two years prior, but that was mainly for Brad Renfro (R.I.P.). Similarly, I was mostly invested in Wild America for Devon Sawa, both adorable and the first actor I’d ever encountered with my own name (a mix of emotions in its own lane of narcissism). But nevertheless, the film otherwise embodied a holiday vacation fantasy that most kids had no idea they even had until seeing it: Chasing down wild, possibly endangered animals; almost drowning in a river; having your siblings as babysitters (which also means you’re likely to die); and totally fleecing every adult in your life (except for a weird/pretty racist character known simply as Bigfoot Mountain Man?). Watch closely, though, and it may offer up some of the best advice you’ll ever get—especially if you find yourself trapped in a cave full of hungry, hibernating bears, because you are a child and therefore an idiot. —Devon Maloney

Armageddon (1998)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $36,089,972

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: Even if you don’t remember where you were physically when you first saw Michael Bay’s masterpiece, Armageddon, you remember where you were emotionally: wrecked. This movie had everything you could crave in a celebration of American independence in the late ’90s: alpha male Bruce Willis, hyper-chiseled Ben Affleck, flags!, nubile Liv Tyler, nuclear bombs, space shuttles, an iconic skyline being ripped apart by asteroids like it was made of crepe paper, an ultimate power ballad brought to you by Aerosmith, more flags!, a humanity uniting presidential speech and an ovary-squeezing slow-motion walk by a bunch of roughneck impromptu astronauts on their way to save Earth.

Deep Impact, which was released two months earlier, was clearly the superior apocalypse-by-meteor movie of 1998 (of ever?), but no one knows how to sex up the end of the world better than Bay, and so Impact will forever live in the shadow of its intellectually inferior, but way hotter bad boy twin. I mean, come on? Who would you rather have as your hero? World-class deep driller and No. 1 DILF Harry Stamper, dripping with pure Willis appeal, or amateur astronaut next door Leo Biederman as played by Elijah Wood? That’s what we thought. Our hearts raced; our tear ducts nearly broke, and our knuckles went white as Bay plucked at our every willing emotional string, like the brilliant, evil bastard he is. Even when we could barely see through our tears during the final act, we wanted to spend our lives in that sweet surrender, to stay lost in that moment—forever. —Jordan Crucchiola

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $11,335,889

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: Sure, after 17 years of South Park, the antics of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s foul-mouthed kids may seem commonplace, but back in 1999—after only two years on the air—they were still controversial and new, pushing hard on the bleeding edge of humor and good taste. The profanity had always been bleeped on TV, however, so when the F-bombs finally burst from the mouths of Cartman and Stan in all their R-rated glory (in a story about censorship, naturally) it felt like a transgressive revelation.

Thanks in part its brutal, take-no-prisoners satire and a glorious soundtrack that included songs like “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” and the Academy Award-nominated “Blame Canada,” I laughed so hard that I fell out of my seat onto the grimy, sticky floor of the theater, couldn’t get back up, and didn’t care. After all, is there anything more ‘South Park’ than realizing just how funny it can be to get a just a little bit disgusting? —Laura Hudson

Superman Returns (2006)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $52,535,096

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: What could be more American than a Superman movie? It’s right there in his job description, after all—he fights for truth, justice and the American Way. So the prospect of seeing Clark Kent’s first big-screen outing in more than a decade on July 4 weekend seemed ideal, until I saw the movie itself. Perhaps Bryan Singer was making some kind of larger metaphorical point about America’s world standing by portraying Superman as a deadbeat dad who creepily stalks his ex after abandoning her years earlier, while enemies plot right under his nose, but even so. This wasn’t what anyone in the theaters signed up for, as you could tell from the crowds trying to convince themselves that what they saw wasn’t a massive disappointment as they left the cinema. Sorry, all: It really was that bad. There weren’t even any fireworks. —Graeme McMillan

Transformers (2007)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $70,502,384

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: OK, so I didn’t like Transformers: Age of Extinction, but the O.G. Transformers still holds appeal. Perhaps it was that full-throttle Michael Bay Burnout hadn’t hit yet, or maybe it was seeing those Transformers transform for the first time, but whatever it was, the first installment of Transformers was a huge thrill to see in theaters. (Re-watch value? Eh, maybe?) Some may argue, rightly, that 1986′s animated Transformers: The Movie is still a better movie for fans of the Autobots and Decepticons, but as far as live-action reboots go, this one got the job done. It also set the precedent for Bay’s Transformers movies making buckets of cash, a trend that continued right into this summer, with Age of Extinction bringing in a cool $100 million. —Angela Watercutter

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $64,832,191

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: Somehow, for some reason, Summit Entertainment decided to make the third Twilight installment a summer tent-pole movie when it had previously been a November staple. Maybe because it was the “action-packed” installment of the series? I guess when you look ahead at the calendar and see The Last Airbender as your only competition on a holiday weekend you seize that slot and don’t let go. All told, Eclipse wasn’t the worst this Saga had to offer. Bryce Dallas Howard sucked the marrow from her turn as villainess, and the baby vampire army was a little cool. But one thing we can never forgive or forget is that wig! For a franchise that had already grossed half a billion dollars from its first two movies, you’d think the hair and makeup department could have foraged a better wig for Kristen Stewart than the sad, lifeless pelt they glued to her head for Eclipse. Stewart was simultaneously playing Joan Jett in The Runaways while pulling Bella Swan duty, but even her glam punk mullet would have made more sense than this. “It’s just her hair,” you’re thinking, “this is a non-issue.” But the source of K. Stew’s raw awkward power is her hair: her voluminous, always-a-little-greasy-in-the-right-way hair. It’s like the Twilight higher-ups wanted us to know they were about to quit trying completely, so by the time we saw the CGI catastrophe of baby Renesmee in Breaking Dawn — Part 2 we would be inoculated against the producers’ only thinly veiled contempt for fans. Eclipse was a blockbuster to be sure, but should have stayed in its dreary winter home and saved the summer fun slot for something less snowy and sad. —Jordan Crucchiola

Savages (2012)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $16,016,910

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: We wanted Savages to work. We wanted it so badly! 2012 was supposed to be the year our man Taylor Kitsch became a top line Hollywood star—a bankable, biggest-name-on-the-poster kind of guy. John Carter got him off to a rough start, though—even if that movie was totally underappreciated—and Battleship didn’t do much to smooth out the ride after that. (Yeah, suddenly America got discerning with is monster-budget action movies. Whatever.) But Savages was going to be different. It was the credibility picture! Kitsch hitched his wagon to Oliver Stone (probably a better choice 20 years ago than it is now) and was going to kick ass, look hunky, and deliver poignant character drama all at the same time. But alas, there was no saving Savages. Even if Kitsch had changed his character’s name from Chon to Tim Riggins halfway through the movie and brought the full cast of Friday Night Lights with him to take down a vicious Mexican drug cartel, this movie would have still been excruciating. It was the Fourth of July equivalent of a fireworks boat that up and explodes before getting a single shot off. We got to see all the pretty colors, but it was just a hot mess of good intentions that left us feeling dissatisfied and confused. —Jordan Crucchiola

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

July 4 Weekend Gross: $62,004,688

Why It Made for an Epic Fourth of July: There were many reasons to anticipate this franchise reboot, despite the fact that the first Spider-Man trilogy had only wrapped five years prior, but it really only needed two of them to promise a success: Gwen Stacy, and Not Tobey Maguire. That Andrew Garfield was cast in the title role certainly did not hurt, either: Actually, the decision was yet another addition to the case being made among some enthusiasts that Marvel figured out that superhero-movie success could be achieved by catering specifically to a female audience. Truly, the screams and whoops that erupted in the theater where my best girlfriend and I saw this movie opening weekend seemed far more attuned to the various contours of a certain supersuit than it did about the appearance of the villain, as it might have in superhero movies past (though this villain was, to be fair, Lizard, which might have accounted for the lack on that end).

Of course, the movie ruled in other ways, too; for the first time, a teenaged superhero actually kind of acted like a teenager, and instead of a sort of wishy-washy Mary Jane (a very sad Kirsten Dunst) we got an actually-brilliant, decently written character in Gwen (the ever-endearing Emma Stone). That Garfield and Stone began dating in real life only added to the chemistry that made the film so much better than its 2002 counterpart. Plus, Sally Field and Jed Bartlett as Aunt May and Uncle Ben? Could there even be any better pairing? For a truly American weekend, the reds and blues that comprise this particularly sad-boy origin story certainly fit the bill. —Devon Maloney

Angry Nerd: Why Andy Serkis Is the Greatest Actor of His Generation

He’s the maestro of motion-capture performance with credits that include Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, and Caesar in the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. So why hasn’t Andy Serkis received an Oscar for his thespian excellence? Listen up Academy, or Angry Nerd will take matters into his own hands.