Gut flora influences HIV immune response

Normal microorganisms in the intestines appear to play a pivotal role in how the HIV virus foils a successful attack from the body's immune system, according to new research from Duke Medicine.

The study, published Aug. 13, 2014, in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, builds on previous work from researchers at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute that outlined a perplexing quality about HIV: The antibodies that originally arise to fight the virus are ineffective.

These initial, ineffective antibodies target regions of the virus's outer envelope called gp41 that quickly mutates, and the virus escapes being neutralized. It turns out that the virus has an accomplice in this feat -- the natural microbiome in the gut.

"Gut flora keeps us all healthy by helping the immune system develop, and by stimulating a group of immune cells that keep bacteria in check," said senior author Barton F. Haynes, M.D., director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. "But this research shows that antibodies that react to bacteria also cross-react to the HIV envelope."

Haynes said the body fights most new infections by deploying what are known as naïve B cells, which then imprint a memory of the pathogen so the next time it encounters the bug, it knows how to fight it.

But when the HIV virus invades and begins replicating in the gastrointestinal tract, no such naïve B cells are dispatched. Instead, a large, pre-existing pool of memory B cells respond -- the same memory B cells in the gut that fight bacterial infections such as E coli.

This occurs because the region of the HIV virus that the immune system targets, the gp41 region on the virus's outer envelope, appears to be a molecular mimic of bacterial antigens that B cells are primed to target.

"The B cells see the virus and take off -- they make all these antibodies, but they aren't protective, because they are targeted to non-protective regions of the virus envelope."

Haynes and colleagues said the findings were confirmed in tests of people who were not infected with HIV. Among non-infected people, the researchers isolated mutated gp41-gut flora antibodies that cross-react with intestinal bacteria.

"The hypothesis now is that the gp41 antibody response in HIV infection can be derived from a pre-infection memory B cell pool triggered by gut bacteria that cross-reacts with the HIV envelope," said lead author Ashley M. Trama. "This supports the notion that the dominant HIV antibody response is influenced by previously activated memory B cells that are present before HIV infection and are cross-reactive with intestinal bacteria."

Haynes said the finding provides compelling new information for HIV vaccine development, which is the next phase of research.

"Not only can gut flora influence the development and function of the immune system, but perhaps also pre-determine our reaction to certain infections such as HIV," Haynes said.

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

MRSA colonization common in groin, rectal areas

Colonization of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) allows people in the community to unknowingly harbor and spread this life-threatening bacteria. The inside of the front of the nose is where this bacteria is most predominant, but new research shows nearly all colonized individuals have this bacteria living in other body sites. The study was published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

"While people colonized with MRSA may not be sick, the bacteria can become aggressive and lead to infection in the person or others," said Kyle Popovich, MD, MS, lead author of the study.

Because of the risk of transmission, hospitals have developed infection control and prevention efforts that identify individuals with nasal MRSA colonization. These patients may be placed in isolation or decolonized of MRSA by treating and removing the bacteria from the patient's nose and skin. These strategies have been used to prevent MRSA infections for the patient and to decrease risk of spread of MRSA to other patients. Several states also mandate these MRSA surveillance programs.

Researchers collected surveillance swab specimens for nose and other body sites from patients at Stroger Hospital of Cook County within 72 hours of admission from March 2011-April 2012. After analyzing the samples, researchers observed that, following the nose, the rectal and groin areas were frequent sites of colonization of community-associated MRSA. The bacteria were found in these body sites more often in men than women.

"Our findings show that MRSA colonization is not limited to the nose. This may have important implications MRSA surveillance programs nationwide," said Popovich.

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Bacteria growing less susceptible to common antiseptic

Bacteria that cause life-threatening bloodstream infections in critically ill patients may be growing increasingly resistant to a common hospital antiseptic, according to a recent study led by investigators at Johns Hopkins. The study was published in the September issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, the journal of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

Chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG) has been increasingly used in hospitals in light of recent evidence that daily antiseptic baths for patients in intensive care units (ICUs) may prevent infections and stop the spread of healthcare-associated infections. The impact of this expanded use on the effectiveness of the disinfectant is not yet known.

"Hospitals are appropriately using chlorhexidine to reduce infections and control the spread of antibiotic-resistant organisms," said Nuntra Suwantarat, MD, lead author. "However, our findings are a clear signal that we must continue to monitor bacteria for emerging antiseptic resistance as these antibacterial washes become more widely used in hospitals."

In the study, investigators compared bacterial resistance between cultures from patients in eight ICUs receiving daily antiseptic washes to patients in 30 non-ICUs who did not bathe daily with CHG. Bacterial cultures obtained from patients with regular antiseptic baths showed reduced susceptibility to CHG when compared with those from patients who did not have antiseptic baths. Regardless of unit protocol, 69 percent of all bacteria showed reduced CHG susceptibility, a trend that requires vigilant monitoring.

"The good news is that most bacteria remain vulnerable to CHG, despite the reduced susceptibility. Daily baths with a CHG solution remain effective against life-threatening bloodstream infections," said Suwantarat.

The investigators caution that the clinical implications of their findings remain unclear. For example, antibiotic susceptibility tests are commonly used to determine whether patients will respond to antibiotic treatment. A similar correlation between antiseptic susceptibility and response to an antiseptic are not as well defined. Identifying particular bacteria and settings in which these bacteria will not respond to antiseptic agents used in hospitals is an important next step.

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Clues uncovered about how most important tuberculosis drug attacks its target

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health say they have discovered a new clue to understanding how the most important medication for tuberculosis (TB) works to attack dormant TB bacteria in order to shorten treatment.

The antibiotic Pyrazinamide (PZA) has been used to treat TB since the 1950s, but its mechanisms are the least understood of all TB drugs. The PZA findings may help researchers identify new and more effective drugs not only for TB -- which can require six months or more of treatment -- but other persistent bacterial infections. A report on the research is published online Aug. 13 in the journal Emerging Microbes & Infections.

"PZA is probably the most unique antibiotic we have because instead of only going after TB cells that are actively replicating, it seeks out and destroys dormant TB cells that can't be controlled by other antibiotics," says study leader Ying Zhang, MD, PhD, a professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. "It's like when you're weeding. Most current drugs just chop off the leaves, but the roots are still there. PZA gets at the roots. Learning how it does that may enable us to get rid of TB quicker and more permanently without relapse."

The new study, done in conjunction with Fudan University in Shanghai, found that PZA cuts off the energy production of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, killing the bacteria. It does this by disrupting the PanD, which, among other things, is crucial to synthesis of co-enzyme A, a molecule at the center of energy metabolism. When PanD is working correctly in a TB cell, it allows the cell to survive and persist despite a long course of treatment. Only PZA's unique ability to halt this process allows it to clear the dormant bacteria.

The researchers, who discovered another PZA target, Rspa, in recent years, say that PanD mutations are only found in a subset of TB bacteria resistant to PZA. The lab work done for the new study provides evidence that PanD is a new and distinct target for PZA, Zhang says.

PanD, Zhang says, is a promising finding because the enzyme is only present in bacteria like those found in TB and not in the cells of humans who contract the disease. It is always safer to attack a target that is only found in the dangerous organism and not in its host, he says.

In 2012, an estimated 8.6 million people worldwide developed TB and 1.3 million died from the disease. While the rate of new diagnoses is dropping, the number of drug-resistant cases is growing. When a patient is diagnosed with the lung disease, the course of treatment is six months of antibiotics. Researchers all over the world are trying to develop drugs that can work more quickly and without the toxic side effects common to all of the drugs in use.

PZA is the frontline treatment for TB. It is given to patients with both drug-susceptible and drug-resistant forms of the disease. All new drugs in development are used in conjunction with PZA.

Now that he understands the role that PZA plays on PanD and cells that persist long after treatment, Zhang says he plans to search for compounds that target PanD in the same way. The findings could have implications, he says, for developing drugs that target persistent organisms in other bacterial infections where dormant cells are known to re-emerge such as Lyme Disease, urinary tract infections and even cancer.

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Many bird species exposed to 'eye disease,' new study finds

"The results were shocking," says André Dhondt, director of Bird Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "More than half the bird species we tested have been exposed to the bacteria responsible for House Finch eye disease." A paper recently published in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE shows that a bacterial parasite previously thought to infect only a few species of feeder birds is actually infecting a surprisingly wide range of species, though most do not show signs of illness.

"This organism, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, is much more widespread than anyone thought," Dhondt explains, "although in most species there are no signs of conjunctivitis."

Species testing positive for exposure to the bacteria include feeder favorites such as Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and American Goldfinches. But exposure was also detected in forest species, such as the Wood Thrush.

"That was another surprise," says Dhondt. "How on earth do Wood Thrushes get infected with mycoplasma? They're not a feeder bird at all. Everyone has always assumed that feeders play a major role in the transmission of the disease and this study shows that's not necessarily so."

Dhondt's team trapped and tested nearly 2,000 individual birds from 53 species, looking for evidence of current infections (bacterial DNA) or past infections (antibodies) by Mycoplasma gallisepticum. The birds were trapped in and around Ithaca, New York, between January 2007 and June 2010. The diagnostic tests revealed that 27 species of birds were infected by this bacterium. The actual number of species exposed to the bacteria could be even higher than suggested by this study because the test for antibodies is known to produce false negatives.

House Finch eye disease first appeared in North America in 1994 when people watching backyard feeders started seeing birds with swollen, runny eyes. Dhondt says that a strain of the bacteria, usually found in poultry, was able to grow successfully in House Finches. The House Finch lineage of the bacteria has been mutating since it was first detected.

"The organism could mutate into a form that is much more virulent among other bird species and create a new epidemic," noted Dhondt, who added that while we know that many species of songbirds are exposed to Mycoplasma gallisepticum, we still do not know whether the bacteria in other species of songbirds are identical to that living in House Finches in the same area.

While many species of songbirds can be infected by this bacterium, only House Finches regularly exhibit swollen eyes as a result of infections, and citizen-science participants in the Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch are still tracking the occurrence of disease in these finches. The take-home message for people who feed backyard birds remains the same: keep the feeders clean. If you see sick birds, leave them alone, take down the feeders and clean them, being sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

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The Wildest Machines From Auto Racing’s Lawless Glory Years

In this 1973 race, cars vie for position through the Laguna Seca Corkscrew. Vic Elford leads with the UOP Shadow, number 102, as Bobby Brown in a McLaren M8F (97), David Hobbs in the McLaren M20 (73), Charlie Kemp in a Porsche 917-10 (23), Ed Felter in a McLaren M8E (47) and Jody Scheckter in a Porsche 917-10 (0) try to catch up. The Shadow in the lead was reputed to produce between 1,200 to 1,500 horsepower. Take that, Bugatti Veyron.

In this 1973 race, cars vie for position through the Laguna Seca Corkscrew. Vic Elford leads with the UOP Shadow, number 102, as Bobby Brown in a McLaren M8F (97), David Hobbs in the McLaren M20 (73), Charlie Kemp in a Porsche 917-10 (23), Ed Felter in a McLaren M8E (47) and Jody Scheckter in a Porsche 917-10 (0) try to catch up. The Shadow in the lead was reputed to produce between 1,200 to 1,500 horsepower. Take that, Bugatti Veyron. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Archive

Rules and regulations are generally a good thing in motorsports. They mandate a certain level of safety and can keep the races interesting, since competing vehicles must have similar styles and engines. But if you want proof that keeping the rulebook short and sweet breeds excitement and innovation, just take a look at Can-Am Racing.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup thrilled spectators with an anything-goes attitude to racing cars. There were no restrictions on vehicle weight or engine size. Superchargers and turbochargers were fair game. So were oversized rear spoilers and even engines pulled from snowmobiles. The result was a group of hugely fast and diverse machines, driven with impunity to record-breaking lap times.

The glory days were short-lived. The death of driver Bruce McLaren in 1970, increased costs, and the need for rules to monitor safety and fuel economy drove away public interest. Freedom to innovate within the league subsided and interest dwindled. The racing series ended in 1974. It was briefly brought back a few years later, but the spark was gone.

The official competition may be dead, but you can still see Can-Am cars on the track. Every August at the Monterey Historics event in California, carefully preserved cars from this league are dusted off, fueled up and driven hard, all for the thrill of watching people drive like lunatics. As Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca prepares to host the races this weekend, here’s a look at the cars that best demonstrate the brilliance of this extinct racing league.

1965-1966 Lola T70 Mk2 Spyder: The winner of the first ever Can-Am championship was this mid-engined convertible from Kent, England. If the names of drivers like Bob Bondurant and Jackie Stewart sound familiar, it’s partly because they had podium finishes while piloting this exceptional race car, which beat rivals like McLaren and Chaparral. Weighing in at just 1,800 pounds, its power came from a mid-mounted 5.7-liter Chevrolet motor producing about 500 horsepower.

1966 Chaparral 2E: Chaparral was run by eccentric Texas oil tycoon Jim Hall, and the company spawned some of the most bizarre automobiles to ever race. Built between 1963 and 1970, these mid-engined models were the first vehicles to add body kits and, more importantly, rear wings to take advantage of aerodynamics for better handling. The 1966 2E was designed from the outset to harness downforce for added grip during crucial turns. Its comically large rear wing sat more than four feet above the rear end of the car and could produce 240 pounds of rear downforce at 100 mph. Within two years, the idea of feeding the weight of aerodynamic downforce to the rear uprights had been adopted in F1.

1969 McLaren M8B: That distinctive orange paint you’ve seen on the McLaren F1 LM and P1? It comes from the racing livery for this car. Another car that used an enormous wing for downforce, the M8B won six races for McLaren in the 1969 season and gained driver Bruce McLaren and his team a reputation as one of the top contenders on this circuit. The wing was mounted directly to the rear wheels’ uprights. That sent the downforce straight to the wheels instead of through the chassis, leaving the suspension open to handle bumps. In 1970, Bruce McLaren died after crashing the M8D, a successor to the M8B.

1970 Chaparral 2J: This contender for the craziest vehicle ever set on four wheels looks like a knocked over refrigerator. That big hump in the back? An embedded snowmobile engine that sucked the ground underneath. Weighing just 1,810 pounds and propelled by a 650-horsepower engine, the 2J had so much power and so much grip that it dominated the circuits. It only lasted one season before being banned for the unfair advantage posed by its adjustable aerodynamics.

A Porsche 917-30 receives an engine swap in the pit.

A Porsche 917-30 receives an engine swap in the pit. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Archive

1973 Porsche 917-30: The 917 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Porsche a few years prior, and this 1973 version was among the last entrants for the brand in Can-Am racing. Its 12-cylinder motor was good for up to 1,100 brake horsepower. Porsche withdrew from Can-Am after the 1973 season, but they took the car for a lap at Talladega in 1975. There, it hit 240 mph in the straightaway, a speed that’s still impressive today.

1974 Shadow DN4:In the final year of the original Can-Am series, cars were required to hit at least 3 miles per gallon, which meant the previous years’ 1,000-plus horsepower monsters were out of the running. The Shadow DN4 ran on an 800-hp, 495-cubic inch Chevy V8, which met the regulations and took drivers Jackie Oliver and George Follmer to first and second place in the 1974 season. Can-Am’s glory was already fading, and the Shadow DN4 was the last vestige of the glory years of the series.

Edward Snowden: The Untold Story

The message arrives on my “clean machine,” a MacBook Air loaded only with a sophisticated encryption package. “Change in plans,” my contact says. “Be in the lobby of the Hotel ______ by 1 pm. Bring a book and wait for ES to find you.” ES is Edward Snowden, the most wanted man in the world. For almost nine months, I have been trying to set up an interview with him—traveling to Berlin, Rio de Janeiro twice, and New York multiple times to talk with the handful of his confidants who can arrange a meeting. Among other things, I want to answer a burning question: What drove Snowden to leak hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents, revelations that have laid bare the vast scope of the government's domestic surveillance programs? In May I received an email from his lawyer, ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, confirming that Snowden would meet me in Moscow and let me hang out and chat with him for what turned out to be three solid days over several weeks. It is the most time that any journalist has been allowed to spend with him since he arrived in Russia in June 2013. But the finer details of the rendezvous remain shrouded in mystery. I landed in Moscow without knowing precisely where or when Snowden and I would actually meet. Now, at last, the details are set.

Edward Snowden, June 13, 2014. Platon

I am staying at the Hotel Metropol, a whimsical sand-colored monument to pre-revolutionary art nouveau. Built during the time of Czar Nicholas II, it later became the Second House of the Soviets after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917. In the restaurant, Lenin would harangue his followers in a greatcoat and Kirza high boots. Now his image adorns a large plaque on the exterior of the hotel, appropriately facing away from the symbols of the new Russia on the next block—Bentley and Ferrari dealerships and luxury jewelers like Harry Winston and Chopard.

I've had several occasions to stay at the Metropol during my three decades as an investigative journalist. I stayed here 20 years ago when I interviewed Victor Cherkashin, the senior KGB officer who oversaw American spies such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. And I stayed here again in 1995, during the Russian war in Chechnya, when I met with Yuri Modin, the Soviet agent who ran Britain's notorious Cambridge Five spy ring. When Snowden fled to Russia after stealing the largest cache of secrets in American history, some in Washington accused him of being another link in this chain of Russian agents. But as far as I can tell, it is a charge with no valid evidence.

I confess to feeling some kinship with Snowden. Like him, I was assigned to a National Security Agency unit in Hawaii—in my case, as part of three years of active duty in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Then, as a reservist in law school, I blew the whistle on the NSA when I stumbled across a program that involved illegally eavesdropping on US citizens. I testified about the program in a closed hearing before the Church Committee, the congressional investigation that led to sweeping reforms of US intelligence abuses in the 1970s. Finally, after graduation, I decided to write the first book about the NSA. At several points I was threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act, the same 1917 law under which Snowden is charged (in my case those threats had no basis and were never carried out). Since then I have written two more books about the NSA, as well as numerous magazine articles (including two previous cover stories about the NSA for WIRED), book reviews, op-eds, and documentaries.

But in all my work, I've never run across anyone quite like Snowden. He is a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower. Physically, very few people have seen him since he disappeared into Moscow's airport complex last June. But he has nevertheless maintained a presence on the world stage—not only as a man without a country but as a man without a body. When being interviewed at the South by Southwest conference or receiving humanitarian awards, his disembodied image smiles down from jumbotron screens. For an interview at the TED conference in March, he went a step further—a small screen bearing a live image of his face was placed on two leg-like poles attached vertically to remotely controlled wheels, giving him the ability to “walk” around the event, talk to people, and even pose for selfies with them. The spectacle suggests a sort of Big Brother in reverse: Orwell's Winston Smith, the low-ranking party functionary, suddenly dominating telescreens throughout Oceania with messages promoting encryption and denouncing encroachments on privacy.

Of course, Snowden is still very cautious about arranging face-to-face meetings, and I am reminded why when, preparing for our interview, I read a recent Washington Post report. The story, by Greg Miller, recounts daily meetings with senior officials from the FBI, CIA, and State Department, all desperately trying to come up with ways to capture Snowden. One official told Miller: “We were hoping he was going to be stupid enough to get on some kind of airplane, and then have an ally say: ‘You're in our airspace. Land.’ ” He wasn't. And since he disappeared into Russia, the US seems to have lost all trace of him.

I do my best to avoid being followed as I head to the designated hotel for the interview, one that is a bit out of the way and attracts few Western visitors. I take a seat in the lobby facing the front door and open the book I was instructed to bring. Just past one, Snowden walks by, dressed in dark jeans and a brown sport coat and carrying a large black backpack over his right shoulder. He doesn't see me until I stand up and walk beside him. “Where were you?” he asks. “I missed you.” I point to my seat. “And you were with the CIA?” I tease. He laughs.

Snowden is about to say something as we enter the elevator, but at the last moment a woman jumps in so we silently listen to the bossa nova classic “Desafinado” as we ride to an upper floor. When we emerge, he points out a window that overlooks the modern Moscow skyline, glimmering skyscrapers that now overshadow the seven baroque and gothic towers the locals call Stalinskie Vysotki, or “Stalin's high-rises.” He has been in Russia for more than a year now. He shops at a local grocery store where no one recognizes him, and he has picked up some of the language. He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington. In August, Snowden's temporary asylum was set to expire. (On August 7, the government announced that he’d been granted a permit allowing him to stay three more years.)

Entering the room he has booked for our interview, he throws his backpack on the bed alongside his baseball cap and a pair of dark sunglasses. He looks thin, almost gaunt, with a narrow face and a faint shadow of a goatee, as if he had just started growing it yesterday. He has on his trademark Burberry eyeglasses, semi-rimless with rectangular lenses. His pale blue shirt seems to be at least a size too big, his wide belt is pulled tight, and he is wearing a pair of black square-toed Calvin Klein loafers. Overall, he has the look of an earnest first-year grad student.

Snowden is careful about what's known in the intelligence world as operational security. As we sit down, he removes the battery from his cell phone. I left my iPhone back at my hotel. Snowden's handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone. Knowledge of the agency's tricks is one of the ways that Snowden has managed to stay free. Another is by avoiding areas frequented by Americans and other Westerners. Nevertheless, when he's out in public at, say, a computer store, Russians occasionally recognize him. “Shh,” Snowden tells them, smiling, putting a finger to his lips.

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Meet MonsterMind, the NSA Bot That Could Wage Cyberwar Autonomously


Sean Gladwell/Getty

Edward Snowden has made us painfully aware of the government’s sweeping surveillance programs over the last year. But a new program, currently being developed at the NSA, suggests that surveillance may fuel the government’s cyber defense capabilities, too.

The NSA whistleblower says the agency is developing a cyber defense system that would instantly and autonomously neutralize foreign cyberattacks against the US, and could be used to launch retaliatory strikes as well. The program, called MonsterMind, raises fresh concerns about privacy and the government’s policies around offensive digital attacks.

Although details of the program are scant, Snowden tells WIRED in an extensive interview with James Bamford that algorithms would scour massive repositories of metadata and analyze it to differentiate normal network traffic from anomalous or malicious traffic. Armed with this knowledge, the NSA could instantly and autonomously identify, and block, a foreign threat.

Cryptographer Matt Blaze, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, says if the NSA knows how a malicious algorithm generates certain attacks, this activity may produce patterns of metadata that can be spotted.

“An individual record of an individual flow only tells you so much, but more revealing might be patterns of flows that are indicative of an attack,” he says. “If you have hundreds or thousand of flows starting up from a particular place and targeted to a particular machine, this might indicate you’re under attack. That’s how intrusion detection and anomaly-detection systems generally work. If you have intelligence about the attack tools of your adversary, you may be able to match specific patterns to specific tools that are being used to attack.”

Think of it as a digital version of the Star Wars initiative President Reagan proposed in the 1980s, which in theory would have shot down any incoming nuclear missiles. In the same way, MonsterMind could identify a distributed denial of service attack lobbed against US banking systems or a malicious worm sent to cripple airline and railway systems and stop—that is, defuse or kill— it before it did any harm.

More than this, though, Snowden suggests MonsterMind could one day be designed to return fire—automatically, without human intervention—against the attacker. Because an attacker could tweak malicious code to avoid detection, a counterstrike would be more effective in neutralizing future attacks.

Snowden doesn’t specify the nature of the counterstrike to say whether it might involve launching malicious code to disable the attacking system, or simply disable any malicious tools on the system to render them useless. But depending on how its deployed, such a program presents several concerns, two of which Snowden specifically addresses in the WIRED story.

First, an attack from a foreign adversary likely would be routed through proxies belonging to innocent parties—a botnet of randomly hacked machines, for example, or machines owned by another government. A counterstrike could therefore run the risk of embroiling the US in a conflict with the nation where the systems are located. What’s more, a retaliatory strike could cause unanticipated collateral damage. Before returning fire, the US would need to know what it is attacking, and what services or systems rely upon it. Otherwise, it could risk taking out critical civilian infrastructure. Microsoft’s recent move to take down two botnets—which disabled thousands of domains that had nothing to do with the malicious activity Microsoft was trying to stop—is an example of what can go wrong when systems are taken down without adequate foresight.

Blaze says such a system would no doubt take the attribution problem—looking beyond proxies to find exactly where the attack originated—into consideration. “Nobody would build a system like this and be unaware of the existence of decentralized botnet attacks laundered through the systems of innocent users, because that’s how pretty much all attacks work,” he says. That does not, however, make so-called hackback attacks any less problematic, he says.

The second issue with the program is a constitutional concern. Spotting malicious attacks in the manner Snowden describes would, he says, require the NSA to collect and analyze all network traffic flows in order to design an algorithm that distinguishes normal traffic flow from anomalous, malicious traffic.

“[T]hat means we have to be intercepting all traffic flows,” Snowden told WIRED’s James Bamford. “That means violating the Fourth Amendment, seizing private communications without a warrant, without probable cause or even a suspicion of wrongdoing. For everyone, all the time.”

It would also require sensors placed on the internet backbone to detect anomalous activity.

Blaze says the algorithm scanning system Snowden describes sounds similar to the government’s recent Einstein 2 (.pdf) and Einstein 3 (.pdf) programs, which use network sensors to identify malicious attacks aimed at U.S. government systems. If that system were secretly being extended to cover all U.S. systems, without public debate, that would be a concern.

Although MonsterMind does resemble the Einstein programs to a certain degree, it also sounds much like the Plan X cyberwarfare program run by Darpa. The five-year, $110 million research program has several goals, not the least of which is mapping the entire internet and identifying every node to help the Pentagon spot, and disable, targets if needed. Another goal is building a system that allows the Pentagon to conduct speed-of-light attacks using predetermined and pre-programmed scenarios. Such a system would be able to spot threats and autonomously launch a response, the Washington Post reported two years ago.

It’s not clear if Plan X is MonsterMind or if MonsterMind even exists. The Post noted at the time that Darpa would begin accepting proposals for Plan X that summer. Snowden said MonsterMind was in the works when he left his work as an NSA contractor last year.

The NSA, for its part, would not respond to questions about the MonsterMind program.

Call Me Ed: A Day With Edward Snowden

I was in a Russian hotel room, waiting for the biggest photo shoot of my life. My suite's blackout curtains were drawn, the better to conceal the several hundred thousand dollars worth of high-powered lighting and gear we had brought with us. I sat very still; next to me, Platon, one of the world's most accomplished and respected photographers, paced back and forth. Patrick Witty, WIRED's director of photography, stood near the doorway, looking through the peephole at the empty hall. Reflexively, I reached into my left pants pocket for my iPhone, but it wasn't there. For half a second, my heart fluttered, but then I remembered that I had left the phone at home so it couldn't be tapped. For the purposes of this trip, I only had an 800-ruble burner, now sitting quietly on the hotel nightstand, its Cyrillic menu unintelligible to me.

Just a few people on earth knew where I was and why—in Moscow, to sit down with Edward Snowden. It was a secret that required great efforts to keep. I told coworkers and friends that I was traveling to Paris, for “some work.” But the harder part was covering my digital tracks. Snowden himself had shown how illusory our assumption of privacy really is, a lesson we took to heart. That meant avoiding smartphones, encrypting files, holding secret meetings.


It took nearly a year of work and many months of negotiation to win Snowden's cooperation. Now the first meeting was just minutes away. I've led a lot of cover shoots in my 20 years in magazines: presidents, celebrities, people I've admired, and people I've reviled. Cowboys and stateswomen. Architects and heroes. But I'd never felt pressure like this.

At 12:15 pm, Snowden knocked on the door of our suite. He had done his homework; he knew Patrick's title before he had a chance to introduce himself. We motioned for him to join us over on the couch, and I took a seat in an armchair to his left. After the introductions (“Call me Ed”) and a few pleasantries, Platon asked him the question I know we were all thinking: “How are you doing?” It quickly became clear that, as nervous as we all were, Snowden was completely at ease. He described, in vivid detail, how he was feeling, what his days were like. He talked politics and policy, constitutional law, governmental regulation, and personal privacy. He said he was really glad to see us—Americans—and he said he was homesick. He held forth for nearly an hour, meandering from subject to subject but always precise in his vocabulary—quoting statutes and bill numbers, CIA regulations and actions, with what seemed to be total recall.

Eventually we moved into what had been the formal dining room. Platon asked Snowden to sit down on an apple box, a small wooden crate that he had used in his shoots of nearly every world leader alive today, including Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Platon squatted in front of his subject, as he often does, making himself small and unthreatening. He explained his process very slowly and told Snowden that he'd be asking him to reveal his innermost feelings for the camera. I moved to the back of the room and took in the scene as Platon began to shoot. The two men experimented with a number of poses, angles, and postures, and nearly an hour into shooting it was clear that Snowden was enjoying the process.

It took nearly a year of work before we finally had our first meeting with Snowden (left). Platon

Back in New York, Platon had done some shopping at a little bodega near his studio. Now he pulled out a knotted plastic bag with his finds: a black T-shirt with the word SECURITY emblazoned in all-caps on both the front and back; another black T, featuring a giant, screaming eagle with flared talons beneath a patriotic slogan; giant red and blue poster markers; an unlined notepad; American flag patches; and an American flag (actually, the same flag brandished by Pamela Anderson in Platon's iconic 1998 George magazine cover). Platon spread the items out on the table and asked Snowden if any of the props resonated with him. Snowden laughed and picked up the SECURITY T-shirt. “That's funny,” he said. “I think it would be fun to wear that.” He went into the bathroom and changed into the shirt, and when he emerged he had his chest puffed out a bit, enjoying the joke of it. We all laughed and Platon shot a few rolls of film.

We returned to the prop table, and Snowden picked up the flag. Platon asked him what he'd do with it in a picture. Snowden held the flag in his hands and delicately unfolded it. You could see the gears turning as he weighed his year in exile against the love of country that motivated him in the first place. He said he was nervous that posing with the flag might anger people but that it meant a lot to him. He said that he loved his country. He cradled the flag and held it close to his heart. Nobody said a word, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. We all sat there for a long moment, studying him. Then Platon yelled, “Don't move!” He clicked off frame after frame, making tiny adjustments to both the lighting and Snowden's posture, sometimes asking for him to look into the lens, sometimes just above it. We had our cover.

After that, there wasn't much else to do. We sat and talked a bit more. Snowden said he didn't really have anyplace to be, but I could tell the shoot had worn him out—and with good reason. Including a short lunch break, we'd been going for four hours. At that very moment our writer, James Bamford, was on a plane bound for Moscow; he and Snowden would meet a few days later and talk over the course of three more days.

It was time to go. Platon had brought a copy of each of his two books as a gift. Snowden asked for an inscription, and I snapped a picture of the moment. We shook hands, each of us wishing the other luck as we gathered in the foyer. “I hope our paths cross again someday,” Platon said. “I hope I get to see you back at home, in the US.” Snowden looked straight at him as he threw his backpack over his shoulder and said, “You probably won't.” With that, he closed the door and was gone.

Corrosion-Resistant Knives and Axes for Your Wild Adventures

buck-knives-inline copy

Buck Knives

You’re heading off into the untamed wilderness. Days from civilization, you may have to fend off bears or cougars, or fell a sapling to fuel the evening’s fire. Or maybe you’re just glamping a quarter mile from the nearest ranger station with a bundle of firewood and a pack of steaks to sear. Either way, you’ll need some tools. Sharp tools. Knives.

And what do you know, Buck Knives has a trio of handsome crimson blades ready to help you chop, slice, and hack through any camping obstacle in your way. Buck’s Compadre Series is composed of three blades: a camp knife, a wood-working tool, and a hatchet. All three have a walnut-dymondwood handle and are treated with a red powdercoat finish that provides corrosion resistance and rugged style.

The 104 model camp knife weighs about 7 ounces and is 9.5-inches long, with a 5160 steel blade. For the lumberjack, the 108 Chopping Froe features a 9.5-inch steel blade designed for splitting wood and clearing brush. And the hatchet features an ergonomic handle design, a 5160 steel head, and comes in its own leather sheath. The latter two both weigh just under two pounds.

Priced at $80, $160, and $120, respectively, the Compadre Series knives will go on sale in 2015, so plan your spring adventures accordingly.

We Need to Reform Our Drone Policies (But This Isn’t About Privacy)

MQ-9 Reaper.

MQ-9 Reaper. Air Force

Last week the United States launched airstrikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria using F-18 fighter jets and predator drones. The use of drones in military operations has become a lightning rod for criticism but this controversy is just the latest chapter in a long-running conversation: throughout history man’s ability to project military power over great distances has frequently been a source of heated debate. Like crossbows, longbows and bombers before them, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), referred to more colloquially as “drones,” are often viewed as a disruptive technology. The facts about the advantages and disadvantages of drones are incredibly nuanced, but at the end of the day, drones are tools that are here to stay.

Used wisely they can greatly support America’s national security and economic interests; if not, they could severely undercut them.

In response to this growing debate on drones, the nonpartisan think tank the Stimson Center released a report authored by a task force of ten senior-level participants from stakeholder constituencies including the US military, the human rights community, the intelligence community, the legal community, and the private sector. As a former fighter pilot and a lead UAV academic researcher member, I was one of them. In compiling the report, I focused on the technological aspects that will considerably influence America’s national security and economic interests in both the short and long term. Here’s what I learned.

Missy Cummings

Missy Cummings, a former US Navy A-4 and F/A-18 pilot, is the Director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University and member of the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy.

Drones have substantial value for a wide range of military and intelligence purposes tasks. They can be used for reconnaissance purposes and also have the potential to assist in the detection of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, as well as ordinary explosives. Weaponized drones, which represent a tiny fraction of US drones, can be used to provide close air support to soldiers engaged in combat, as well as for counter-insurgency operations. While it is clear that drones are advantageous in military settings, the committee came to consensus that there should be improved transparency in targeted strikes and more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for strikes outside of traditional battlefields.

It’s Not Just About War

One point I strongly advocated in this committee was that the development of drone technology and related policies affects not just the military but the growing commercial market, which often gets lost in military UAV debates. Most military UAV missions have civilian and commercial counterparts, doing important work such as monitoring the health and status of crops, assessing air quality, commercial imaging for real estate and mining companies, and even delivering packages, which was recently announced as a future service for Amazon. Similar uses are actually further developed in other countries like Australia and China.

Because of the increasing interest in UAVs by both other militaries and international companies, the global market for these systems is set to more than double over the next decade, from $5.2 billion annually in 2013 to $11.6 billion in 2023. However, despite the enormous commercial potential of commercial UAVs, civilian UAV development in the United States— especially among small and medium-sized enterprises— is hampered both by clumsy export control rules and by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. As a result of these outdated policies and regulations, I have long maintained that the US is not likely to remain the world leader in the development of innovative new UAV technologies.

How to Streamline Regulation

Current U.S. export control regulations make an unclear distinction between “unarmed military unmanned aerial vehicles” and non-military or commercial UAVs, with the former being subject to the stricter export controls. But in reality, the distinction between UAV technologies developed for commercial versus military purposes is far from sharp since many UAV technological developments have both military and non-military applications.

This current ambiguity in export control regulations creates uncertainty for UAV manufacturers regarding the conditions under which exports will be allowed, which could ultimately suppress valuable technological innovations and growth. In the face of uncertainty, manufacturers tend to act conservatively to produce UAVs whose export control status is known, which can dull the technological edge the United States enjoys in the UAV arena.

A well-regulated export control regime can boost the military capability of allied nations, enhance interoperability of military systems among allies, preserve U.S. influence over other military UAV programs, and economically and technologically strengthen the domestic US defense industrial base. A misguided export-control system will have the opposite effect, suppressing innovation, reducing interoperability with allies, reducing US influence over foreign UAV development and weakening the defense industrial base. Clarifying current regulatory uncertainty is a necessity to help secure a significant future rule for America in UAV markets.

Additionally, the FAA has been slow to respond to the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Bill mandating the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system by September 30, 2015. Because of the FAA’s delays, recently highlighted by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, the United States risks losing the initiative in the development of commercial unmanned aircraft technologies. If one or more countries gain an advantage because of the overly-restrictive regulatory environment, the United States could be in a position of playing catch-up in terms of its commercial UAV market as well as ensuring US military UAVs remain technologically more advanced than those of other nations.

Unless the US can find ways to jumpstart the broader civilian UAV development sector, foreign UAV buyers will turn increasingly to countries developing more advanced platforms, and the US will gradually lose the ability to influence UAV use abroad. Many UAVs developed for foreign markets are used solely for peaceful purposes, but we cannot assume that this will always be the case; many UAV technologies developed for commercial purposes can be “weaponized.”

The Way Ahead

A major step forward in addressing these challenges would be the creation of an interagency UAV research and development strategy. This is particularly important in light of the readily growing commercial and civilian market. Another important step is the development of a sophisticated UAV export control strategy that accounts for current US national and international security risks and priorities, establishes drone-specific non-proliferation objectives, and preserves the US interest in maintaining an adequate defense industrial base, a military technological edge in UAV systems, and influence over global UAV markets.

A pathway exists for the US to position ourselves in the forefront to smartly develop and utilize this evolving technology. A more expeditious and comprehensive response by the FAA to opening commercial UAV markets will help ignite an otherwise stagnant market. Adopting these common sense changes in the near-term will considerably benefit our national security— and economy— in the years to come.

Visualizing Bay Area Bike-Sharing as a Solar System

Bjorn Vermeersch depicts bike share stations as planets.

Bjorn Vermeersch depicts bike share stations as planets. Bjorn Vermeersch/Bay Area Bike Share

Looking at the Excel files that contain six months’ worth of data from the Bay Area Bike Share program is mind-numbing. But when all that information is laid out in the form of a solar system instead of endless rows, it’s easy to understand and analyze.

Bike share programs allow people who buy memberships to use bikes parked at stations scattered around a city. They’re meant to be used for short rides, to cut down on long walks and the use of cars. The Bay Area program, which operates about 700 bikes at 70 stations, opened in August 2013. More than 500 cities around the world offer bike sharing programs, and each needs good data to keep things running smoothly.

They may want to look at Bjorn Vermeersch’s solar system data visualization. It was a winning entry in the Bay Area Bike Share Open Data Challenge, a contest to present all that information in a way that most humans will actually understand, and be interested in. The 31-year-old Belgian native, who lives in Santa Cruz and does post-doctoral research in thermal science, has no formal background in this kind of work. Graphic design is a hobby of his, and when he heard about the challenge, he downloaded the data and began looking for ways to make it comprehensible.

Vermeersch started off trying to plot the data onto something resembling a subway network. It didn’t work for bike share, he says, because bikes don’t have to follow specific paths. Then, reading Scott Christianson’s 100 Diagrams that Changed the World, he saw Copernicus’ famous diagram of the planets orbiting around the sun and felt inspired.

The solar system is a good analogy, Vermeersch says, because it’s familiar to most people and it allows for lots of variables. He made planet a station, its size determined by how many trips start or end there. Its axial tilt indicates how traffic fluctuates between months. The farther it is from the sun, the longer a trip that starts or ends there lasts. The day/night shading shows the balance between trips that start there (light) and those that end there (dark).

The result is a representation of the system that provides an easy to understand overview of the network. You can easily pick out the popular stations (like the San Francisco and Palo Alto Caltrain stations) and see how far people tend to ride (about 17 minutes during the week, 40 minutes on weekends). But if you look more closely, there’s plenty of detail to chew on. You can pick out the stations where people are more likely to start a trip than end it (the Redwood City Medical Center), and where bikes are likely to run out. You can see which stations are popular all year, and which are more used in summer than winter.

To break down the difference between rides at different times, Vermeersch created a set of constellation-like diagrams. Each “star” is connected by a line to the station with which is shares the most trips. The thicker the line, the more rides. During commute times, many trips go to or from the Caltrain station. On weekends, trips are longer cluster around the station near the tourist-heavy Fisherman’s Wharf:

The San Francisco bike share network is shown as a constellation.

The San Francisco bike share network is shown as a constellation. Bjorn Vermeersch/Bay Area Bike Share

What sets Vermeersch’s entry apart is the way he made a messy pile of data easy to understand. More importantly, it’s engaging. Everyone’s familiar with the standard solar system diagram, which helps pull them in. The fact that it’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at, that not everything is spelled out, pushes you to look closely at the data and think about how the system is used. You can see his entire entry here.

For his efforts, Vermeersch won—what else—a few gift certificates for Bay Area Bike Share memberships.

WIRED Summer Binge-Watching Guide: Six Feet Under


Larry Watson/HBO

There’s a secret to watching Six Feet Under: You don’t know it when you start, but you’re watching this entire series so that the epic finale hits you right in the gut.

Read More Summer Binge-Watching Guides

Six Feet Under is a fantastic character drama about a family in Los Angeles running a funeral home. But more than anything it’s known for having one of the best endings of any show ever. Nothing was left unresolved and no emotional bell was left un-rung. (It also introduced the TV-watching public to Sia, who is now a pop-music-writing master.)

But before that epic ending there were five seasons of riveting television that dug deep into the lives of the oft-dysfunctional Fishers and their family funeral home: slightly neurotic and uncannily sexy matriarch Ruth (Frances Conroy before American Horror Story!), uptight, initially-closeted David (Michael C. Hall before Dexter!), David’s more laid-back brother Nate (Peter Krause before Parenthood!), and their perpetually-working-on-it sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose before Torchwood!). Also, there’s Rachel Griffiths (before Brothers & Sisters!) as Nate’s constantly psychoanalyzing girlfriend Brenda and Jeremy Sisto (after Clueless but before Suburgatory!) as her bi-polar brother, Billy. With all these characters—and ideas from showrunner Alan Ball (before True Blood!)—it’s impossible not to enjoy all the melodrama. Dig in.

Six Feet Under

Number of Seasons: 5 (63 episodes)

Time Requirements: Six weeks should do it if you watch an episode each weeknight and a few on weekends. That said, pace yourself on this one. Even though its premise allows it to provide some levity to our own mortality, it’s still a very heavy show. Every episode begins with and revolves around death. (Game of Thrones has nothing on this show.) Consuming it in mass quantities can be hard on the psyche.

Where to Get Your Fix: Amazon Prime, HBO Go

Best Character to Follow: They’re all fantastic, but the one that stands out is David. These days most people know Hall as serial killer Dexter Morgan, but David was the first character he really sank his teeth into—and he sank them deep. He not only played the Good Son who stayed in LA and ran the family business while Nate went off to Seattle to work at an organic food co-op, he also played a (in the first season) closeted gay man trying to balance his love of guys (and occasionally rough trade) with his love of God and his family, who turned out to totally be fine with his sexuality. His struggle with self-loathing and internalized homophobia is fascinating, particularly in how it plays into his on-again-off-again relationship with Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). Everyone on Six Feet has a journey, but David’s is the most emotional—and fun—to watch.


Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:

Because each episode is both an examination of the impact of one (or more) funerals on the family at Fisher & Sons Funeral Home and a chapter in the Fishers’ personal lives, we wouldn’t advise skipping much. (You’re working up to that big finish, remember.) However, that doesn’t mean the show doesn’t lag in spots. Season 2, for example, took a while to live up to the promise of Season 1. (Brenda’s sex addiction was a nice twist, though.) Here’s a tip: If you’re 15 to 20 minutes into an episode and its themes or central characters aren’t doing it for you, jump to the next one. You might miss a couple of interesting details, but as long as it’s not a season opener or finale, there’s probably not that you can’t piece together from future episodes.

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:

Season 1: Episode 1, “Pilot” It’s Christmas Eve and the patriarch of the family, Nathaniel Fisher (the always-awesome Richard Jenkins, who luckily shows up as an apparition quite often), dies, ironically, while driving a hearse. Nate, who was just coming back from Seattle for the holidays, ends up coming back for the funeral. That funeral gets a surprise guest in Keith, who is David’s secret boyfriend. Also, Claire does meth.

Season 1: Episode 3, “The Foot” People still occasionally reference this episode simply because Claire, who gets called “foot slut” by her high school classmates after sucking a guy’s toes, gets revenge by putting a dead man’s foot in the locker of said guy. Also, the family deals with whether or not to sell the business to a larger funeral home chain. Also, this musical number happens.


Season 1: Episode 6, “The Room” Arguably the episode where this show hit its stride, Nate discovers that his father had traded funerals for other things (weed, oil changes, etc.) while he was alive. He also, Nate learns, kept a room where he did … stuff? Nate imagines he does everything from smoke weed with bikers to take sniper-style rifle shots from the window of that room, but we’ll never really know what it was for. Like much of Six Feet Under, it’s a look at the unanswered questions that surround every death.

Season 1: Episode 7, “Brotherhood” Normally this episode, which deals with a the death of a veteran with Gulf War Syndrome, wouldn’t be a huge standout. But it’s a reminder that Six Feet Under began airing in June 2001—mere months before Sept. 11—and went on in the years that followed to be an exemplar of post-9/11 TV.

Season 1: Episode 11, “The Trip” Claire tries to help Gabe (aka “foot guy”), who has attempted suicide after his little brother accidentally killed himself with their mother’s gun. Nate, David, and Brenda go to Las Vegas for a funeral director’s meeting. David gets busted by the cops with a male prostitute, the latest in a series of risky things he’s done since having a falling-out with Keith.

Season 1: Episode 13, “Knock, Knock” The priest at the church where David is a deacon gets reprimanded for officiating a lesbian wedding, forcing David to come out to some of his fellow parishioners (and give a pretty good ad hoc sermon). Nate and Brenda fight about their future, then get into a car accident—a deus ex machina that makes them really think about their relationship. It also causes a brain scan that reveals Nate has a condition that could maybe kill him at any time. Season finales, everyone!

Season 2: Episode 9, “Someone Else’s Eyes” Nate and Brenda plan their wedding, but unbeknownst to Nate, Brenda is still sleeping with other guys—including some random author she humps in a bookstore bathroom. David and Keith are back together, but Keith is dealing with his sister’s drug addiction. Nate confronts Claire about her dating Brenda’s brother Billy. Nate also finds out he got a former flame (Lili Taylor) pregnant. Whoops! Things don’t look good for Nate and Brenda…

Season 2: Episode 13, “The Last Time” Kroehner, the funeral home chain that has been trying to take over the Fishers’ business sends an inspector, who finds a bad drainage system. The funeral home’s restorative artist Federico Diaz (Freddy Rodriguez) offers to help pay for the repairs in order to be a 25 percent partner in the business. Nate needs brain surgery, causing everyone to freak out a bit—especially Nate, who visits Brenda post-break-up, and David, who has fight-sex with Keith over feelings and stuff. (Claire just smokes weed before bailing on her high school graduation to go to the hospital for Nate’s surgery.)

Season 3: Episode 2, “You Never Know” The cold-open deaths on this one are particularly brutal—a shooter opens fire in a telemarketing office—but the other issues aren’t any more upbeat. Nate and his pregnant ex-gf/now-wife Lisa (yep, they got married post-life-altering surgery) are struggling to get along, and David and Keith aren’t doing much better (Keith calls his man “a hopeless, passive-aggressive guilt sponge”). But there is a bit of darkly comic joy: Ruth dealing with her sister Sarah (the incomparable Patricia Clarkson) going through Vicodin withdrawal with help from Bettina (the equally awesome Kathy Bates). We know, that doesn’t sound funny—but it’s got some solid LOLs.

Season 3: Episodes 11, 12, 13, “Death Works Overtime,” “Twilight,” and “I’m Sorry, I’m Lost” Nate’s wife Lisa goes missing. David worries that he and Keith are “just not meant to be together.” Brenda, Billy, and their mother have an oddly funny fight about where to throw their dad’s ashes. Billy also tells his sister, “I’m in love with you.” (Again, Game of Thrones has nothing on this show.) Ruth meets a nice man named George (James Cromwell). Claire’s boyfriend has sex with a man, so she breaks up with him—then finds out she’s pregnant. Lisa—it turns out—is dead, because Six Feet Under. (Fun fact: Series guest star Kathy Bates directed “Twilight,” her fifth such credit on the show.)

Season 4: Episode 5, “That’s My Dog” Straight up—this one won’t be easy to watch. David picks up a young man whose car has broken down and, in the course of trying to help the young man out, gets robbed and abducted. Then the young man forces David to smoke crack, shoves a gun in his mouth, and douses him in gasoline before finally letting him go. It’s tough to take, but it’s also one of the show’s most discussed episodes, so it can’t be missed. (It’s also one of Hall’s best moments in a series full of great ones.)

Season 4: Episode 8, “Coming and Going” David’s still dealing with his abduction and with Keith being away (he’s been doing security for a pop star named Celeste). And Rico’s wife is dealing with his mistress. See below. Claire realizes she just may not be into girls—particularly Edie (Mena Suvari).

These Brilliant Hacks of GTA and Minecraft Are Pure Art

You step out of your shelter and look down at your feet. Instead of grass, you see the familiar gold-and-green logomark of petroleum behemoth BP. On the horizon, verdant hills are dotted with Shell Oil Company’s avatar. The structures around you are built on brands in the most literal sense: Bricks emblazoned with Ikea, 3M, and Enron. Overhead, Walmart’s joyless sunburst stretches across a pale blue sky.

This is Minecraft re-imagined by Kent Sheely, a new-media artist living in New York. Sheely specializes in videogame subversions like these, adding to, subtracting from, and remixing familiar interactive titles to help us consider them in new ways.

Sheely discovered videogames at a young age and realized he could bend them to his will shortly thereafter. He was 6 when he started learning the programming language Basic, and he grew up with one foot on each side of the medium—avidly playing games and making them. It wasn’t until college that he encountered people using videogames for art: “You know, really re-interpreting the existing work to communicate something about the medium and about its culture,” he says. It spurred him to explore games as a means of expression.

A sampling of one of Sheely's "Ready for Action" clips, in which heroes like Max Payne take a break from their normal mayhem to wait for public transit.

A sampling of one of Sheely’s “Ready for Action” clips, in which heroes like Max Payne take a break from their normal mayhem to wait for public transit. GIF: Wired Design/Source

One of Sheely’s most successful early works was called Grand Theft Photo, which he completed in 2007. He calls it his “first real breakthrough piece.” It took the form of a dummy DSLR camera, outfitted with a small screen on the back. Through it, gallery visitors could explore a version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Sheely had modified himself. Locked into an in-game camera mode, the only thing left for players to do was walk around and take pictures.

Today, in-game photography is a well-explored gaming off-shoot. The latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise actually encourages players to take selfies. But in 2007, when Sheely and a few other artists were just starting to explore the idea of treating the game world as a photographic subject, it was a more radical notion. “I liked the idea of reinterpreting the goals given to the player,” Sheely says, especially in the context of the notoriously violent GTA series.

Of course, creating a virtual world amenable to that artistic vision necessitated a fairly thorough rewrite of the game’s code. “I had to edit the character behavior files so they wouldn’t attack the player and edit the firing mechanics so you were always looking through the camera lens,” he says. “I also had to make the player invulnerable to harm, just in case people using the mod accidentally wandered onto the highway when they were trying to take a photo of the moon.”

Sheely’s work isn’t strictly interactive. For Skybox, another early piece, he installed a large virtual skylight in the ceiling of a room inside an art gallery. The “sky” visitors saw on the other side was one of several Sheely had carved out of video game scenery. It changed throughout the day to mimic whatever was happening outside the venue. In Ready For Action, a series of short video clips Sheely started making in 2012, we see characters from a variety of action games taking a break from their usual mayhem to wait for buses and subways. It’s something totally mundane in our world that seems instantly out of place in the context of a violent virtual environment.

Sheely’s process varies. Sometimes, he’ll be messing around with a game and something will jump out at him. That’s how the Minecraft mod came about. In other cases, Sheely will have a statement in mind and look for ways to communicate it. One brilliant example is Dust2Dust, a mod of a standard team shooter that erases all trace of the players themselves, leaving squadrons of disembodied guns bopping around dusty recreations of Middle East towns. It’s a striking visual, but it’s intended to make a point: In videogames, as in the media, war is often cast in the simplistic terms of good and bad, us and them. Take the combatants away and figuring out your allegiances becomes much more difficult.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Has the career of Kent Sheely, videogame artist, ruined games for Kent Sheely, videogame player? “Yeah, it can be tough to switch that off,” he says of his artistic eye. “I do have moments where I get really absorbed in something and just treat it like a game. But when I play certain games, like anything that lets you just roam around, my mind starts to wander and I start picking up on little things that trigger the instinct.”