New insights on an ancient plague could improve treatments for infections

Dangerous new pathogens such as the Ebola virus invoke scary scenarios of deadly epidemics, but even ancient scourges such as the bubonic plague are still providing researchers with new insights on how the body responds to infections.



In a study published online Sept. 18, 2014, in the journal Immunity, researchers at Duke Medicine and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore detail how the Yersinia pestis bacteria that cause bubonic plague hitchhike on immune cells in the lymph nodes and eventually ride into the lungs and the blood stream, where the infection is easily transmitted to others.


The insight provides a new avenue to develop therapies that block this host immune function rather than target the pathogens themselves -- a tactic that often leads to antibiotic resistance.


"The recent Ebola outbreak has shown how highly virulent pathogens can spread substantially and unexpectedly under the right conditions," said lead author Ashley L. St. John, Ph.D., assistant professor, Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases at Duke-NUS Singapore. "This emphasizes that we need to understand the mechanisms that pathogens use to spread so that we can be prepared with new strategies to treat infection."


While bubonic plague would seem a blight of the past, there have been recent outbreaks in India, Madagascar and the Congo. And it's mode of infection now appears similar to that used by other well-adapted human pathogens, such as the HIV virus.


In their study, the Duke and Duke-NUS researchers set out to determine whether the large swellings that are the signature feature of bubonic plague -- the swollen lymph nodes, or buboes at the neck, underarms and groins of infected patients -- result from the pathogen or as an immune response.


It turns out to be both.


"The bacteria actually turn the immune cells against the body," said senior author Soman Abraham, Ph.D. a professor of pathology at Duke and professor of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS. "The bacteria enter the draining lymph node and actually hide undetected in immune cells, notably the dendritic cells and monocytes, where they multiply. Meanwhile, the immune cells send signals to bring in even more recruits, causing the lymph nodes to grow massively and providing a safe haven for microbial multiplication."


The bacteria are then able to travel from lymph node to lymph node within the dendritic cells and monocytes, eventually infiltrating the blood and lungs. From there, the infection can spread through body fluids directly to other people, or via biting insects such as fleas.


Abraham, St. John and colleagues note that there are several potential drug candidates that target the trafficking pathways that the bubonic plague bacteria use. In animal models, the researchers successfully used some of these therapies to prevent the bacteria from reaching systemic infection, markedly improving survival and recovery.


"This work demonstrates that it may be possible to target the trafficking of host immune cells and not the pathogens themselves to effectively treat infection and reduce mortality," St. John said. "In view of the growing emergency of multi-resistant bacteria, this strategy could become very attractive."


In addition to Abraham and St. John, study authors include W. X. Gladys Ang, Min-Nung Huang, Christian Kunder, Elizabeth W. Chan, and Michael D. Gunn.


The National Institutes of Health funded the study (R01 AI35678, R01 DK077159, R01 AI50021, R37 DK50814 and R21 AI056101).




Story Source:


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



Sputnik, Hippies and the Disruptive Technology of Silicon Valley


The TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 Hackathon at San Francisco Design Center.

The TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 Hackathon at San Francisco Design Center. Jeff Bottari/TechCrunch via Flickr/CC



Sit down and talk with anyone about technology and you’ll have little trouble arguing that the San Francisco Bay Area is the quintessential location for tech startups. The area offers unparalleled access to high quality engineers, venture capitalists and superb universities. But the reason this particular spot ended up at the heart of the technology industry might surprise you, and it all starts with Sputnik.


The seminal event was the spark that ignited Silicon Valley’s innovative, risk-taking culture more than 50 years ago, and it has truly shaped the way our lives have been and will continue to be enhanced by technology. If not for Sputnik, we would not have witnessed the massive technology innovations that spawned from Fairchild Semiconductors and “Fairchildren” companies like Intel, AMD and NVIDIA. Apple, Google, Oracle, Uber, Twitter, Facebook and many other disruptive technology companies would not exist.


Still more industry-disrupting companies will be born in the Bay Area over the next decade. What Uber has done to the taxi industry is the just the tip of the iceberg. Bay Area innovation will disrupt countless industry verticals with Google and Tesla disrupting the transportation industry with self-driving cars. Then you have Twitter disrupting the media industry; Facebook disrupting the communications industry; LinkedIn disrupting the human resources industry; Salesforce disrupting the political and customer relationship management industries; and many emerging startups disrupting consumer markets via the Internet of Things (IOT) movement.


Silicon Valley has shaped our lives in so many ways that we don’t realize. One can easily argue that Barrack Obama is president partially as a result of embracing social media technologies and Salesforce’s cloud based software for campaign management. The advent of real-time data and communication allowed him to target specific regions for campaigning and reach out to tech-savvy voters across the country.


We also can’t forget the incredibly open nature of the Bay Area, which has led to unprecedented sharing of information and empowering technologies. During the hippie movement of the 60s, Bay Area technology companies became more open minded and embraced the open-source movement and the sharing of ideas. This unparalleled culture has been critical to innovation and the exceptional speed at which new companies have been and will continue to be founded.


Additionally, this open nature mentality has led to a culture that embraces risk-taking where failure is seen as a learning experience and — unlike in other global economic hubs — is not shameful. As a result, risk-taking is embedded in the DNA of Silicon Valley.


Other regions have tried to emulate what the Bay Area has done with little success. The region’s technological prowess isn’t just due to great minds and high quality schools like Stanford and Berkeley, among others. If this were the case then Oxford and Cambridge would make London a dominant tech center.


Silicon Valley cannot be replicated without the 50-plus years of history it has taken to develop the ideal fertile technology crescent. So if you want to work in technology and change the world, move to the San Francisco Bay Area.


Chris Haroun is a Partner with ARTIS Ventures and a technology analyst focusing on the Software and Internet sectors.



Everything in moderation: Micro-8 to study regulating pathogens in space

Our bodies are breeding grounds for microbes -- don't worry, it's a good thing! As scientists have been telling us for years, not all microbes are bad. Many active enzymes and bacteria are merely benign, and, in moderation, are beneficial to humans as an important part of our digestive system or can help regulate our immune system.



Candida albicans, an opportunistic yeast pathogen and model organism for research, is common and usually doesn't damage our healthy personal ecosystem. However, when our immune system is stressed on Earth or in space, such as during long-duration space travel, C. albicans can grow out of control and potentially cause infections. Scientists want to address controlling these outbreaks with the next round of cellular growth experiments on the International Space Station -- Micro-8.


Results from a recent set of tests on the station, called Micro-6, encouraged further study into the impact of spaceflight on the cellular behavior of these microbes. During the investigation, scientists discovered C. albicans grew to a more elongated form, grew into an altered structure when forming a colony and, perhaps most importantly, showed an increased resistance to the antimicrobial agent Amphotericin B. The combination of these factors could result in an increase of the infectious nature of this opportunistic pathogen.


This is why scientists will continue to study C. albicans in Micro-8, scheduled for delivery on the fourth commercial cargo resupply flight of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, targeted to launch Sept. 20, 2014. The investigation on the orbiting laboratory will allow scientists to better understand the growth and development of these microbes, which, in turn, can help develop treatment for infections both in space and on Earth.


"We already understand a great deal about this particular yeast," said Sheila Nielsen, Ph.D., principal investigator for the Micro-6 and Micro-8 missions at Montana State University in Bozeman. "Previous studies have given us a broad set of benchmarks, including the sequence of the entire genome, which makes Candida albicans a great subject for study in microgravity because we have extensive information to compare it to."


Designed to examine how spaceflight affects potentially infectious organisms, the Micro-8 investigation will provide new insights into better management and treatment of C. albicans infections when they occur on Earth as well as in space, and may offer ways to combat other microbial pathogens. By comparing the cells grown in microgravity to cells grown in gravity, the research team will examine several parameters, including the susceptibility of the yeast to antimicrobial agents.


Micro-8 will directly build on the Micro-6 study. It also will include a second antifungal agent to better understand the yeast response to different antimicrobial agents.


One of the most important evolutions of the Micro-8 investigation is the introduction of human monocytes -- or blood cells -- as a host. Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory will test the yeast growth on monocytes in an enclosed and controlled facility called the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA). The CGBA is an incubator capable of controlling the temperature between 46 and 98 degrees F.


"We have already demonstrated that microgravity affects cell shape and behavior," said Nielsen. "A more complete understanding of the yeast adaptation response to extreme environments, such as microgravity, and the risks associated with potential infection is vital for long-term crew health and safety. With that knowledge, we can develop treatments to keep our astronauts and our Earth population healthier."


Micro-8 is funded and managed through NASA Space Biology at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The payload developer is BioServe Space Technologies in Boulder, Colorado. Space Biology is funded by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.


So, while we don't want to eliminate all of the bacteria and yeast microbes from our system, scientists are using the orbiting laboratory to discover ways to keep them in check on Earth and in space.




Story Source:


The above story is based on materials provided by NASA . The original article was written by Bill Hubscher, International Space Station Program Science Office. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.



'Office life' of bacteria may be their weak spot

Scientists at the University of Leeds think we may be able to drown deadly bacteria in their own paperwork.



A research team in the University's Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology has identified for the first time how the "paper shredder" that keeps the bacteria E. coli on top of its day job works.


Now the group is looking for ways to jam the mechanism and leave E. coli and similar bacteria in filing hell.


Dr Kenneth McDowall, Associate Professor in Molecular Microbiology, who led the research, said: "If we block the 'shredder' using genetics in the lab, the bacteria drown in a flood of messages. The challenge now is to block it with drugs so that bacterial infections in humans can be killed. Our latest results give us a good idea how this can be done."


"Bacteria are constantly firing off instructions telling the molecular factories inside them what to do, and where and when to do it. It is absolutely critical in this situation, not only for the factories to act on those instructions, but to destroy them once they have been completed. Otherwise, everything becomes chaotic. This is where the "shredder" comes in," Dr McDowall said.


"I am sure anyone who has ever worked in an office will relate to this. If you come back from holiday and find lots of messages, you struggle to work out which ones should be given priority. It would be much easier if the obsolete ones were automatically destroyed," he said.


The "shredder" in the harmless version of E. coli studied by the Leeds team is an enzyme called RNase E. Although it was known to have a role in destroying instructions (messenger RNA) copied from the genetic blueprint (DNA), its mechanism was not understood.


The new research, published in the journal Nucleic Acid Research, describes how RNase E can cut at many sites internal to messages to prevent them being re-read. This shredding of the messages helps to explain how bacteria like E. coli are able to prioritise the thousands of instructions required for them to replicate.


A member of the team, Mr Justin Clarke, said: "This 'shredder' helps the bacteria to respond quickly to its environment by making them focus on current rather than old messages. We are now working on how to target RNase E with a new type of antibiotic drug. The exciting thing is that RNase E is found in many pathogenic bacteria as well as the harmless strain of E. coli we study in the lab."


The discovery has implications beyond antibiotic design. It also provides crucial information for synthetic biology, the branch of science that designs and builds artificial biological devices and systems.


Senior researcher Dr Louise Kime said: "One of the most exciting developments in biology is the creation of synthetic organisms that are completely controlled by human-made instructions. Our work provides us with clues as to how instructions can be made so that they persist long enough to be read, but not so long that they result in information overload."




Story Source:


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



This New Internet Security Tool Guards Goldman Sachs From Eavesdroppers


Goldman Sachs headquarters.

Goldman Sachs headquarters. Associated Press



When security researchers uncovered the Heartbleed bug, it underscored a big problem for companies that want to spread out on the internet without exposing their secrets: Even if they’re using common encryption techniques to secure their data, their sites may still be vulnerable to eavesdroppers.


But five months on, a San Francisco startup called CloudFlare is trying to solve this problem, offering a new kind of encryption tool.


Cloudflare has long offered what’s called a content distribution network, or CDN. Basically, this is what companies use when they want their web services to run quickly, across all parts of globe. Such services cache particularly popular webpages, photos, and videos on computer servers that sit as close as possible to the people accessing them. This kind of thing worked fine when nobody cared about security, but as more and more companies move to SSL—the secure sockets layer technology used to prevent miscreants from reading their web traffic, including, say, credit card transactions or private messages—the situation is getting a bit tricky.


Previously, if a company wanted to spread secure services to an outfit like CloudFlare, they’d have to trust it with their SSL encryption keys. But certain security conscious organizations—banks and government agencies, for example—really don’t want to do that. “There is a certain class of customers that’s using us that has certain secrets they can’t even trust us with,” says Matthew Prince, CloudFlare’s CEO.


Matthew Prince, CloudFlare's CEO.

Matthew Prince, CloudFlare’s CEO. Ariel Zambelich / WIRED



So Prince and company have spent the past two years developing software that gives them another option. It’s called Keyless SSL. And it gives companies like Goldman Sachs, the big-name New York bank, a way to use Cloudflare while retaining control of their SSL keys.


With keyless SSL, Cloudlfare still does most of the heavy lifting, but it offloads part of the SSL process to the customer, who retains control of the master SSL keys. That gives companies a secure way to move more and more of their services out into data centers that are close to their customers—to the edges of the internet. “More and more of the things that you think of as sitting in your locked-in data centers are going to move out to the end-point,” says Donald Duet, the co-head of Goldman Sachs’ technology division. His company is using Keyless SSL as it starts to migrate some of its services to CloudFlare.


The service is available as of today to CloudFlare’s enterprise customers. They pay at least $5,000 a month to use the company’s CDN and online atttack-thwarting services. But Prince wants to eventually make it available to all CloudFlare customers.


It’s part of CloudFlare’s wider efforts to make SSL more affordable to everyone. That’s a good thing. SSL lets you be sure that you’re connecting to the website you want and keeps your browsing history away from prying eyes. Google says that it’s starting to give preference in its search rankings to sites that use SSL. Next month, CloudFlare plans to enable SSL—though not Keyless SSL—for all of its customers. “We’re trying to build a globally scaled trustworthy computing platform,” Prince says.



15 Insanely Great Tricks to Master Apple’s iOS 8


iPhone6_ios8-inline

Courtesy Apple



So, you just downloaded iOS 8. Looks pretty familiar, right? Certainly, last year’s switch from iOS 6 to iOS 7 — which saw Apple ditch the iPhone’s tired, six-year-old interface and move to something more spare and clean — was a far bigger leap visually than this update to iOS 8.


In fact, most of the apps in iOS 8 look almost identical to what you were using just days ago. And a few of them appear entirely unchanged. But there are new functions, new tricks, and time-savers hidden in these new iOS 8 versions of your favorite apps. Some of them you’ll see right away. But the rest… well, let us show you.


Messages


You can now “peek behind” your conversations. Tap “Details” at the top of any SMS or MMS thread to gain quick access to not only the contact info for the person you’re talking to, but also the photos and videos you’ve been sending each other. Keep scrolling—Messages archives all the images you’ve been sharing, even pics that were sent months ago. If your chat partner has location sharing enabled, you can see where they’re sending their chats from. You can also mute any conversation. And all of these new messaging features work in group conversations, as well. The mute switch is especially helpful when you’re in a group chat and one of your friends won’t, you know, just zip it. Maybe even more handy: you can remove yourself from any chat. On that Details screen, just tap “Leave this conversation” to bow out.


Camera


Whether you’re using a brand-new iPhone 6 and its much-improved camera, or you’re on a freshly updated 5, 5c or 5s, there are some new features in the default iOS 8 camera app. First you might notice that you now have a Timelapse video feature. To use it, put your thumb anywhere on the screen and keep swiping your thumb to the right. Watch the horizontal slider at the bottom. Just after the Slo-Mo setting, you’ll see Timelapse. Go point it at some clouds, or at a busy intersection at rush hour. Another welcome addition: you can also now adjust the brightness of any photo before you click the shutter. When you’re setting up your shot, look for the vertical exposure slider next to the focus box. Slide it up and down to make the picture brighter or darker. You can still edit your pictures after the fact, but now you have a better chance of getting the photo you want right away, without having to brighten it later.


Safari


Apple’s new update irons out some of the iOS web browser’s most frustrating quirks. First is a new quick-search feature: Just type the name of a website and a search term, separated by a space. For example, typing “craigslist chainsaw” will prompt Safari to ask if you’d just like to search Craigslist.org for a chainsaw. In older versions of iOS, typing this into the address bar would prompt a Google search for those individual words, and then you’d have to tap on the Google result you wanted. So this new trick saves you a couple of taps. You have to enable this Quick Website Search feature in Safari’s settings, and it only works on sites that you’ve previously run searches on—Safari wants to be sure it’s only offering the option on sites you browse often. But it’s a boon for usability. Another new option in iOS 8′s Safari is the ability to request a full, desktop version of a site instead of the mobile version. This eliminates a common headache on the mobile web. To request the desktop site, just tap Safari’s address bar while browsing a mobile site, and you’ll see the desktop option appear.


Mail


In the default iOS 8 Mail client, you’ll notice that when you swipe a message to the left, you get additional options. In iOS 7, there was just “More” and “Archive.” But now you get options for “More,” “Flag” for follow-up, and “Trash.” Cool! But try this. Swipe to the right, and you’ll see an additional fourth option: “Mark as Unread.”


Siri


You used to have to hold down the Home button to invoke Apple’s digital concierge. Now, just speak her name. Try it: “Hey, Siri.” She’ll spring to life and the microphone will be ready to capture your request. This isn’t on by default—it’s a drain on the device’s battery to be constantly listening for the magic words—but you can enable this new always-on voice prompt feature in Siri’s settings. This will be a big help in the car. If you want to call up directions to the nearest cheeseburger on your drive home, you can do it entirely without ever taking your hands off the wheel.


Battery Management


Want to see which apps are sucking up the most juice? Go into Settings > General > Usage. You’ll see a list of all your apps, ranked in descending order, with the biggest battery hogs at the top. The default view shows the worst offenders over the last 24 hours. Move the slider at the top to see your usage over the last week. Android has had this feature since the Bronze Age, so it’s nice to see iOS 8 add it.


All Your Besties


To hop between apps, tap the home button twice. You know this one, you’ve seen it in iOS 7. It brings up a sideways-scrolling list of open apps, with the ones you’ve used most recently showing up first. But in iOS 8, there’s something new. Look above that big carousel of apps, and you’ll see a smaller sideways-scroller of your friends’ faces. It’s the same concept: these are the people you most recently chatted with or called. Also included in this list are the contacts from your Phone’s “Favorites” list. This shortcut is especially helpful for those of us who rarely open the phone app anymore, and therefore don’t get as much use out of that Favorites list. Now, for a quicker way to send a chat or initiate a call to a loved one, you can just double-tap the Home button and put your thumb on their face.


QuickType


As you’re thumb-typing away, you’ll see iOS 8 suggesting the words it thinks you’re shooting for. Tap the correct ones and they appear in the text inout field. Not only does this change the whole iOS autocorrect paradigm, but it should also speed up your typing. This is one of those obvious differences, you’ll notice it right away. But here’s the hidden bit in this new QuickType feature: When you’re typing a message or an email, iOS 8 will pay attention to who you’re chatting with, and it will adjust your tone to suit the nature of communications you usually have with that person. So, QuickType will suggest an entirely different set of words (and let those LOLs and WTFs slide) when you’re texting with your husband than when you’re sending an email to your travel agent. HTH!


Where is Continuity?


Oh, you mean the much-hyped and highly anticipated feature that gives your iOS devices the ability to hand off conversations, browser sessions, and documents to your Mac, and vice versa? It only works with OS X Yosemite, and the next version of Apple’s desktop OS doesn’t ship until next month. Come back in October, and we’ll show you all the cool things it can do.



In Open Letter on Apple’s Privacy Policy, Tim Cook Takes Swipe At Google


iPhone6_ios8-inline

Courtesy Apple



Apple wants you to know that your data is safe in their hands, and on Thursday, the company launched a new website, complete with a letter from CEO Tim Cook, to explain just how your information is protected.


With this new site, which Apple says will be updated at least once a year and whenever significant changes are made to its privacy policy, the company is responding, once again, to the highly publicized hack in which nude photos of dozens of celebrities were stolen from their Apple iCloud accounts. The hack inspired panic among users and derision from Apple competitors, who seized on the opportunity to hawk their own products.


In launching this new privacy campaign, Apple is not only trying to make good on its post-hack promise to improve security measures, but also attempting to regain some much needed trust. The hack came at a particularly troublesome time for Apple—about a week before its highly anticipated announcement of a new mobile payment system called Apple Pay. Cook even uses the new site as an opportunity to take his own swipe at the security- and privacy-related practices of the competition.


The new site lays out how Apple encrypts things like iMessages and FaceTime and how users can better protect themselves, by enabling things like Touch ID and two-step verification. It offers information on phishing scams and warning signs users should look out for. It explains that on iOS 8, users’ photos, messages, emails, and more will now be protected by user passwords. And it says that Apple “cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data.”


The site points out that this is not necessarily the case with competitors, and in his letter, Cook digs into the competition still further. He says that Apple’s basic business model, unlike so many other tech juggernauts, isn’t based on user data. Instead, Cook explains, “our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t ‘monetize’ the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you.” He doesn’t mention Google by name, but he means Google.


He also says that Apple has never created a backdoor in its products and services for government agencies to access. “We have also never allowed access to our servers,” Cook added. “And we never will.”


It should be noted, however, that many competitors, including Google, have long used some security measures that extend beyond what Apple used. And WIRED’s Andy Greenberg points out that Apple users should still exercise caution when it comes to the data stored on their devices, as skilled security professionals and law enforcement may still be able to find loopholes that enable them to bypass even these advanced privacy features.



When Extrapolation Fails Us: Incorrect Mathematical Conjectures



It is well-known that our intuition is not perfect. We are predictably irrational in a huge number of ways in our everyday lives. But what about something a bit more sophisticated? Are there times when we use our reason—our ability for extrapolation and prediction—and still fail, because things are simply too complicated. This sort of situation seems to be embodied in a Quora question that I recently came across: What is an example of a conjecture that was proven wrong for “very large” numbers?


Essentially, the questioner was interested in situations where a mathematical conjecture appeared true, but fails only with the application of advanced computational power as cases far beyond human abilities are tested.


And there are a lot of these. One of the more famous examples is the PĆ³lya conjecture. This conjecture states that given a number N, the fraction of numbers less than N that have an even number of prime factors is always less than the fraction that have an odd number of prime factors. This seems to be true. Until that is, you get to 906,150,257. Our intuition failed.


Another example is a conjecture from Euler:



The 17th century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler claimed that there are no whole number solutions to an equation not dissimilar to Fermat’s equation:


Euler’s equation: x4 + y4 + z4 = w4


For two hundred years nobody could prove Euler’s conjecture, but on the other hand nobody could disprove it by finding a counter-example. First manual searches and then years of computer sifting failed to find a solution. Lack of a counter-example appeared to be strong evidence in favour of the conjecture. Then in 1988 Noam Elkies of Harvard University discovered the following solution:


2,682,4404 + 15,365,6394 + 18,796,7604 = 20,615,6734


Despite all the previous evidence, Euler’s conjecture turned out to be false. In fact Elkies proved that there are infinitely many solutions to the equation.



As Singh notes, “The moral of the story is that you cannot use evidence from the first million numbers to prove absolutely a conjecture about all numbers.”


These instances are fascinating. They show that large numbers are not infinity and trends do not indicate proof. Our human brains are powerful but we must increasingly work in concert with machines, to help us place bounds on our intuition.



Cape Watch: Marvel Spills Avengers Secrets and Professor X Loses His Hair


capewatch3

Marvel Entertainment (Left, right), 20th Century Fox (Center)



It’s been a relatively slow week for superhero movie news, and one that’s been dominated by Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, which finally spilled some secrets about what we can expect from the movie that will inevitably be the biggest flick of 2015. Elsewhere, the new Batmobile was feared missing (don’t worry, Gotham’s finest were on the case), and Sony has found a way to make its Spider-Man franchise even gloomier. Here are the highlights of this week’s superhero movie news.


SUPER IDEA: Revealing the Plot of Age of Ultron (Kinda)


Disney finally released an official synopsis for next year’s second Avengers movie (yay!). However, it was pretty—if unsurprisingly—low on actual plot details for the Joss Whedon-directed summer slugfest (boo!). It goes a little something like this:



Marvel Studios presents Avengers: Age of Ultron, the epic follow-up to the biggest Super Hero movie of all time. When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. As the villainous Ultron emerges, it is up to The Avengers to stop him from enacting his terrible plans, and soon uneasy alliances and unexpected action pave the way for an epic and unique global adventure.


Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron stars Robert Downey Jr., who returns as Iron Man, along with Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Together with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and with the additional support of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, the team must reassemble to defeat James Spader as Ultron, a terrifying technological villain hell-bent on human extinction. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Pietro Maximoff, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and meet an old friend in a new form when Paul Bettany becomes Vision.



Why this is super: There’s a lot unpack here. First, of course it’s all Tony Stark’s doing. Second, after the reveal that S.H.I.E.L.D. was, in fact, a front of the terrorist organization Hydra in the last Captain America movie, this marks the second time that an attempt at peacekeeping ends up revealed as a force for evil in the Marvel movies. (Who knew that Marvel was apparently all about the isolationist politics?) Finally, Ultron is described as a “technological villain” instead of a robot. Is it possible that the movie version of the character isn’t actually a robot?


May 1, 2015, you can’t arrive soon enough.


SUPER IDEA: Professor X Will Finally Look Like Professor X in the Next X-Men Movie


James McAvoy doesn’t know much about what 2016′s X-Men: Apocalypse involves, but he did share one important fact about the feature. “I think I’m losing my hair finally,” he told the Huffington Post. “That’s kind of all I know.” He did add that writer Simon Kinberg had emailed to say that he was “getting dead excited about stuff,” but sadly Kinberg didn’t share just what stuff was worth getting worked up about.

Why this is super: Obviously, both Days of Future Past and First Class were, in theory, prequels to the X-Men as we know them today, but there was just something off-putting about seeing an Xavier who had a flowing head of hair. Now, finally, we’ll get a Xavier who doesn’t have any hair getting tangled up in his thought powers—as well as the chance to see McAvoy with a shaved head. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll get McAvoy with a comb-over at some point in the movie before he goes full-on bald.


MEH IDEA: Venom Will Be the Anti-Spider-Man


Alex Kurtzman, who’ll be directing the Amazing Spider-Man spin-off featuring the black-costumed symbiotic version of Marvel’s wall-crawler, told MTV News that the idea behind the movie was that “you can do things with Venom that you can’t do with Spider-Man,” and that Venom “is the representation of every line that will get crossed.”

Why this is villainy: While it was never really in the cards that Venom was going to be all happiness and sunshine, considering the character veers between anti-hero and outright villain in the comic books, the very idea that the Venom movie is going to somehow be darker than the already-emo Amazing Spider-Man series is almost exhausting by itself. Didn’t Spider-Man used to be all about the jokes and the comedy?


MEH IDEA: Stealing the Batmobile


Late last week, a rumor started popping up across the internet that one of the new Batmobiles had been stolen from the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Unsurprisingly, that turned out to be untrue—spoiler: no one would want to steal such a ridiculous looking monstrosity—but that didn’t stop director Zack Snyder from having some fun with it on Twitter in the third of his stream of images mashing up the DC super-movie with Disney’s Star Wars franchise:


Why this is villainy: Where to start? Firstly, as anyone who watches Batman movies already knows, thievery is bad, OK? More importantly, though: Anything that gives Snyder an excuse for another Star Wars-referencing photo is even worse. Come on, people. You’re better than that. We’re all better than that.



A New Gossip Tool That Keeps Fake Tipsters Away, But Guards Anonymity


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WIRED



Someone just said something on the internet, and you know they’re wrong.


You know because you’re an expert on the subject this bozo is spewing nonsense about. But, at the same time, you don’t want to post a response under your own name. Maybe you have an opinion that would make you unpopular with your family or colleagues. Or maybe you have a stalker and don’t want to tip them off about the sites you use. Regardless of your reasons, you’re left with a choice: either you post anonymously, which means no one will know what your credentials are, or use your real name and risk the real-world consequences.


Dave Vronay, a former Apple and Microsoft researcher, and Ruben Kleiman, a former Apple and Netflix engineer, want to solve this problem. They want to give you a way to verify your credentials online without having to give up your anonymity. The pair recently founded a new company called Heard, which now offers a site where anyone can post articles on any topic they want, whether they use their real name or not. But Heard will also let you earn digital “badges” by proving certain things about yourself—like where you work, or where you went to school—so that you can post anonymously while still providing your credentials. Readers will can then make more informed decisions about which writers to trust.


In the ongoing debate over online anonymity, Heard could provide a welcome middle ground between sites like Facebook and the new wave of gossip apps like Secret. It might even change another hotbed of internet controversy: the comments on articles like this one.


The Anonymity Debate


Sites like Google and Facebook have come under fire for for the real names policies in recent years. Google finally relented and now officially allows users of its Google+ social network to use pseudonyms. Facebook, on the other hand, has doubled down on its real name policy, which has led to clashes with LGBT groups and others who point out that the policy could put domestic abuse victims and other vulnerable people at risk.


But sites that enable anonymous publishing, such as Secret or Whisper, have been equally controversial. Sure, they can be places where people can speak freely. But they can be breeding grounds for malicious rumors. Other times, the content posted to these apps is completely ignored. “If it’s completely anonymous, it’s boring,” Vronay says. “You want to know something about the person.”


Heard aims to be a place where where people can post juicy gossip with more credibility, but there are more lofty possibilities as well. It could become a place for people with particular medical conditions to swap information without exposing their real names. Heard’s verification system hasn’t been audited by outside security experts yet, but if it works well, it could be a boon to whistle blowers, who could use the site to prove their insider-status while protecting their identities.


The Leak Trade


By lowering the barrier of entry, or exit as the case may be, Heard could encourage more corporate and government leaks, says author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, who serves as an advisor to the company. “Leakers from corporate America and government alike can share what they know—not just artifacts and smoking guns they can post,” he says. “And the veracity of the source doesn’t detach from the teller, the way it invariably does in Deep Throat style communications today.”


It could also help disrupt the culture of celebrity online today. Articles might be judged more by their substance, and the actual credentials of the author, than by brand they’ve built up. “What you share is less important because of who you ‘are’ than you really happen to be,” he says.


In other cases, the verification system could help prove someone’s expertise in a particular area, even if they don’t end up posting anonymously. “I don’t want to read a review of a 5 star hotel from someone who has never stayed at a 5 star hotel before,” he says. “Of course they’re going to think it’s great. I want a review from someone who stays in them all the time.” That’s a rather banal case, but it could provide a way to verify that someone who claims to be a doctor, lawyer or academic actually has the background they claim they do.


How It Works


If you want to prove something—such as where you work, how often you stay in five star hotels—you’ll need to find a someone running Heard’s badge issuing technology that can verify it. For example, someone could setup a server designed to verify whether you’re an Apple employee by having you enter your @apple.com email address.


The server would then send a test message with a code to make sure you can actually receive email from that address. A server designed to verify that you frequently stay at a certain type of hotel might look at your credit card bills.


Once verified, you’re issued a badge in the form of a cryptographic token that you can then upload it to any server running Heard’s verification software. The verification server won’t know what e-mail address or credit card statement you used in order to get the badge, only that it was created by a particular issuer.


When you post to Heard, you can choose which badges to attach to a post. There’s no need, in other words, to reveal where you work if you’re writing a post about a hobby. For all intents and purposes, you’ll appear to readers as another user entirely. eard is starting out by running one that verifies whether you’re a “tech industry insider” by checking to see if you have an email address from one of about 20 major technology companies.


The Comment Revolution


Of course, the anonymity isn’t perfect. As with other anonymity apps, if Heard were issued a warrant, the company could be forced to turn over potentially identifying information such as IP address, or all the different badges associated with an account, which could eventually be used to deduce the identity of a poster.


Nonethesless, Vronay says whistle blowers could still use the system. But they would have to use a public terminal, along with traffic-scrambling tool like Tor, and create a completely new account.


But Heard isn’t a whistle-blowing site. It serves a broader purpose than that. It even offers a Netflix style recommendation engine that will learn what types of content people like, and surface articles accordingly. What’s more, the company has open soured both the issuing and verification software, so any organization can start creating and accepting these badges. That means any news site or blog could use it manage comments. Including this one.



These Swimmers Don’t Care What You Think About Their Crazy Outfits




On the beaches of Miami or Rio, it’s all about showing skin. But on a beach outside Qingdao, China, it’s all about covering up, even if it means looking like a lucha libre star. Swimmers there have become famous, even fashionable, for the funky “facekinis” worn over their heads to complement the colorful swimsuits they wear for protection against the sun and giant jellyfish.


The facekini is just what it sounds like: a headsock, often in colorful patterns, worn over the head to protect one’s face from the sun. They’ve become hugely popular in China, and the world of high fashion embraced them with a spread in CR , the new magazine from former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld. CR called the masks “a hidden retreat in this season’s swimwear,” but they brought something else to mind for photographer Philipp Engelhorn, who spent a week this summer making a gorgeous series of portraits.


“It’s sorta like Mexican wrestling to me visually,” he says.


That may be, but the people wearing them do not care. They take skin protection very seriously, Engelhorn says, and jellyfish stings really hurt. And the masks have taken on something of a fashionable air. You can buy them in local stores for a couple dollars, but swimmers often make their own, along with the full-body swimsuits. The resulting garb often reveals something about the person wearing it.


Engelhorn found photographing the swimmers harder than expected because most were more serious about swimming than posing. And when he did convince someone to stop for a photo, more often than not they wanted to flash the peace sign, which apparently is standard for posed pictures in China. “If you asked them not to flash the peace sign there were like, ‘What do we do now?’” he says. “But that request was actually sort of a good thing because then they started getting into all these creative Chines opera poses with one foot in front of the other, etc.”


At first, Engelhorn considered erecting a mobile studio to make the portraits, but ultimately decided to employ natural light and backgrounds. It turned out to be the right move, he said, because it allowed him a few minutes to chat with each swimmer. Over the course of a week he was approached hundreds of swimmers. He made about 130 portraits. What Engelhorn appreciate the most about the project was the swimmers were not at all self-conscious about their get-ups. They were proud to dress in bathing suits that would draw laughter, if not scorn, anywhere else.


“In Germany if you were to go a beach dressed like this, people would be like, ‘”What the fuck is your problem?’” says Englehorn, who is from Germany but now lives in Hong Kong. “But in Qingdao they were like, ‘This is how we do it, why don’t you do it too?’”