Bacteria may have ability to reduce impact of diazepam on UK river environments

The natural photo degradation of diazepam (valium) and similar medicines -- followed by bacterial breakdown -- may reduce their potentially harmful impact on the UK's freshwater environment, a team of researchers has said.



Diazepam -- used to treat anxiety and other similar conditions -- has been detected in rivers across the UK and Europe, having been released from waste water treatment plants. At the levels recorded, it has the potential to produce harmful ecological effects in surface waters, including changing the behaviour of fish shoals and their ability to sense danger from predators.


Now, experts in the Biogeochemistry Research Centre at Plymouth University and the Institute of Integrative Biology at the University of Liverpool, with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, have identified a bacterial breakdown pathway. They say it could reduce the concentrations of diazepam and similar chemicals that reach rivers and subsequently flow into the world's oceans.


Dr Alan Tappin, Research Fellow at Plymouth University and the lead researcher on the project, said: "Contamination of aquatic systems by human and veterinary pharmaceuticals now appears to be extensive; however there is a significant lack of knowledge of their aquatic transport and fate, and effects on fish and aquatic organisms. Diazepam is seen as an essential drug by the World Health Organisation, but it is excreted into waste water treatment works because people take more than can be metabolised in their body. Previous research has shown that similar chemicals can have a negative effect on the behaviour of freshwater fish, and there is potential for them to impact marine ecosystems. Understanding diazepam's chemical behaviour in the environment is therefore crucial."


For the study, researchers in Plymouth and Liverpool recreated river environments in laboratories using water and bacteria taken from the Rivers Tamar and Mersey.


Previous research at Plymouth had demonstrated that diazepam and similar compounds could be quickly converted to benzophenones when exposed to sunlight. As a result, the current research team exposed bacteria to diazepam and ACB (a benzophenone) to analyse whether the medication could be broken down by natural microbes. Experiments were also conducted to see if the compounds were preferred by bacteria even when other sources of energy were present.


The researchers found that diazepam was not readily attacked by bacteria, particularly when other compounds were available as a source of energy. However, ACB, its photo-degradation product, was extensively attacked by the bacteria from both rivers and completely broken down into small, natural molecules, including ammonium.


Dr Mark Fitzsimons, Associate Professor in Organic Geochemistry at Plymouth, and Principal Investigator for the project added: "Significant ACB degradation occurred in every experiment, leading us to propose that the aquatic photo-degradation of diazepam to ACB, followed by breakdown of ACB, is a key removal pathway for these emerging contaminants. As ACB is photo-produced by several benzodiazepines used as medicines, this pathway is relevant for their removal within freshwater environments. Our study builds on previous work within the Biogeochemistry Research Centre demonstrating the conversion of diazepam to ACB in sunlit surface waters. Given the current concern around the impact of benzodiazepines on river environments, our study can make an important contribution to assessing the risk posed by diazepam and similar medicines to the environment."




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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Plymouth . The original article was written by Alan Williams. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.



Breakthrough study discovers six changing faces of 'global killer' bacteria

Every ten seconds a human being dies from Streptococcus pneumoniae infection, also known as pneumococcus, making it a leading global killer.



An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Leicester in collaboration with international experts have unlocked a genetic switch controlling the disease -- which can cause pneumonia and other invasive infections -- that could pave the way to improved vaccines.


Pneumococcus is a pathogenic bacterium and the leading cause of serious illness across the globe. It is the main cause of pneumonia, sinusitis, blood infections, meningitis, and middle ear infections, known as otitis media. Pneumococcal disease affects children and the elderly, and it is one of the leading infectious diseases worldwide.


The study, which has been peer reviewed and published in the journal Nature Communications, was co-authored by Professor Marco Oggioni from the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics with an international team including Professor Michael Jennings from Griffith University's Institute for Glycomics, Professor James Paton from the University of Adelaide and scientists from Pacific Biosciences, and has for the first time shown a genetic switch that allows this bacterium to randomly change its characteristics into six alternative states.


The discovery indicates the ability of the pneumococcus to cause deadly infections is different in each of these six states and each form is randomly generated by a phase variable methylation system, as if the bacteria were playing dice and assigning themselves to any one of the six potential outcomes. Some states favour harmless colonisation or spread from person to person, while others favour invasive, life-threatening disease.


Professor Oggioni said: "Facing a bacterial with six and more phase variable systems is like being simultaneously confronted with six different bacteria; it gives them an unfair advantage, but knowing the genetic basis now places us in an optimal position to reinvestigate drug and vaccine efficacy."


To support the findings the team required careful mathematical analysis of the data, which was carried out by a team led by Alexander Gorban, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Leicester's Department of Mathematics.


Professor Gorban said: "The study led to an interesting puzzle about statistics of relative positions of markers on DNA. It was our pleasure to modify the classical methods and to solve this puzzle. We are happy that this work arose while trying to answer an important microbiological problem."


Professor Michael Jennings, Deputy Director of the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University, describes the study as a significant breakthrough.


He added: "By use of the latest DNA sequencing technology from Pacific Biosciences we have shown that the pneumococcus generates subpopulations that have distinct DNA methylation patterns and we have shown that these epigenetic changes alter both gene expression patterns and virulence."


"Each time this bacterium divides it is like throwing a dice. Any one of six different cell types can appear. Understanding the role this six way switch plays in pneumococcal infections is key to understanding this disease and is crucial in the development of new and improved vaccines."


Professor Paton, Director of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases at the University of Adelaide concurred, adding: "In this game of dice the stakes are very high, with each roll of the dice having a major impact on survival of either the bacterium or its human host."


The study, 'A random six-phase switch regulates pneumococcal virulence via global epigenetic changes ', has been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.




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



Gut bacteria promote obesity in mice

A species of gut bacteria called Clostridium ramosum , coupled with a high-fat diet, may cause animals to gain weight. The work is published this week in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.



A research team from the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke in Nuthetal observed that mice harboring human gut bacteria including C. ramosum gained weight when fed a high-fat diet. Mice that did not have C. ramosum were less obese even when consuming a high-fat diet, and mice that had C. ramosum but consumed a low-fat diet also stayed lean.


Previous studies have found C. ramosum and other representatives of the Erysipelotrichi class in obese humans, said senior study author Michael Blaut, PhD, head of the institute's Department of Gastrointestinal Microbiology. This suggests that growth of this organism in the digestive tract is stimulated by high-fat diets, which in turn improves nutrient uptake and enhances the effect of such diets on body weight and body fat.


"We were surprised that presence or absence of one species in a defined bacterial community affected body weight and body fat development in mice," says Blaut.


Blaut and colleagues investigated the role of C. ramosum in three groups of mice: some harbored a simplified human intestinal microbiota (bacteria) of eight bacterial species including C. ramosum; some had simplified human intestinal microbiota except for C. ramosum, and some had C. ramosum only. The researchers called the first group SIHUMI, the second group SIHUMIw/oCra and the third group Cra. Mice were fed either a high-fat diet or low-fat diet for four weeks.


After four weeks eating a high-fat diet, the mouse groups did not differ in energy intake, diet digestibility, and selected markers of low-grade inflammation. However, SIHUMI mice and Cra mice fed a high-fat diet gained significantly more body weight and body fat, which implies that they converted food more efficiently to energy than did the SIHUMIw/oCra mice. By contrast, all groups of mice fed a low-fat diet stayed lean, indicating that the obesity effect of C. ramosum only occurred on high-fat diets.


The obese SIHUMI and Cra mice also had higher gene expression of glucose transporter 2 (Glut2), a protein that enables absorption of glucose and fructose, and fat transport proteins including fatty acid translocase (Cd36).


"Our results indicate that Clostridium ramosum improves nutrient uptake in the small intestine and thereby promotes obesity," Blaut said. Associations between obesity and increased levels of lipopolysaccharides (components of the cell wall of gram-negative bacteria) causing inflammation, or increased formation of molecules called short chain fatty acids, reported by other researchers, were not found in this study, he said: "This possibly means that there is more than one mechanism underlying the promotion of obesity by intestinal bacteria."


Through additional studies Blaut said he hopes to learn more about how C. ramosum affects its host's energy metabolism and whether similar results occur in conventional mice given the bacteria. "Unraveling the underlying mechanism may help to develop new strategies in the prevention or treatment of obesity," he said.




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



Safer than silver: Antibacterial material made with algae

Consumers concerned about safety of silver ions in antibacterial and odor-free clothing will soon have a proven safe alternative thanks to ultra-thin thread and a substance found naturally in red algae.



The use of silver ions for antibacterial textiles has been a matter of hot debate worldwide. Sweden's national agency for chemical inspection is one authority which has ruled silver a health risk, citing possible damage to human genetic material, reproduction and embryonic development.


Mikael Hedenqvist, professor of polymer materials at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, says he and his colleagues, assistant professor Richard Olsson and doctoral student Rickard Andersson, have produced new antibacterial fibres that combine bio-compatible plastics with the antimicrobial compound, lanosol, which is commonly found in seaweeds of the family Rhodophyta, or red algae.


"The substance is a good alternative to particle-based antibacterials for clothing, as well as compresses or bandages," Hedenqvist says.


Using a process called electrospinning, they have succeeded in creating an ultra-thin thread, which means fabrics can have more contact between the antibacterial fibre and the surrounding area.


"Electrospinning produces quite thin thread, with a thickness on the order of one-hundreth of a human hair," Hedenqvist says. The result is more effective clean-up of bacteria.


The thread with the integrated antimicrobial compound (lanasol) does not clump up like fibres using silver or other antibacterial particles. It can be used in random network structures, such as in non-woven materials; or in a standardized fashion, where all the strands run in the same direction.


"The active substance is completely soluble and evenly distributed inside the thread," he says. "It forms no lumps or bumps that can occur when, for example, silver-based particles are used.


"That's good because these particles affect the thread's mechanical properties negatively."


Hedenqvist says material could one day be used in air filters or to dress fittings in hospitals, since the active antiseptic substance of red algae has been shown to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria type Staphylococcus aureus -- the most common cause of skin and wound infections in hospital environments.


"Hospitals are constantly striving to have as antiseptic environment as possible. But we're not there yet," he says.




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The above story is based on materials provided by KTH The Royal Institute of Technology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.



How to Avoid iOS 8′s Latest Device Reset Bug


ios8bug-inline

WIRED



Most iOS users rarely, if ever, need to head into their device settings and hit the “Reset All Settings” button. But sometimes, particularly with a new OS install, unforeseen issues can force your hand. Unfortunately, a new bug is making device resets problematic for those who use iCloud Drive.


“Reset All Settings” specifically notes that it does not delete any media or data. But after upgrading to iOS 8 and using iCloud Drive, Apple’s cloud-based file storage system, a small number of iOS users who decided to reset all their device settings found that in addition to resetting the device, it also deleted their iWork documents from iCloud Drive. Macrumors, which first identified the issue, found that this deletion expanded from the iPhone and web to synced Yosemite-running desktop machines as well. Since Textedit and Preview documents can’t yet be viewed on iPhone, these files seem unaffected.


Normally, if you opt into iCloud Drive, you can see your documents on iOS devices, OS X Yosemite devices, and on iCloud.com. If you opted not to use iCloud Drive when you installed iOS 8, you can only see these files on iOS 7-running devices, and on Mavericks-running desktops.


As far as bugs go, this one should only affect a very small number of people. Specifically, iOS 8 users who decide, due to install woes or because they plan on selling or giving away their device, to reset the whole thing. But for someone dependent on iCloud and Apple’s ecosystem, finding your iWork files gone is not a small problem.


If you did a full device reset and lost iWork documents, you should contact Apple support and they may be able to help restore your files. Several MacRumors forum members have found some degree of success doing this. If you use Time Machine, your files should still be safely backed up.


In the meantime, if you’re an iCloud Drive user who’s planning on doing a device reset, you may want to hold off. If you must, you should definitely first backup all your Drive files (with Time Machine, to other cloud storage services like Dropbox, locally on a desktop, or all three).



A Single Fire Can Cripple America’s Aging Air-Traffic System. Here’s Why


Passengers wait in line to reschedule flights at O'Hare International Airport on September 26, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. All flights in and out of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports had been halted because of a suspected arson fire at a suburban Chicago air traffic control facility.

Passengers wait in line to reschedule flights at O’Hare International Airport on September 26, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. All flights in and out of Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports had been halted because of a suspected arson fire at a suburban Chicago air traffic control facility. Scott Olson / Getty Images



Air traffic nationwide has been snarled since a fire erupted in the basement telecommunications room of an air traffic control center outside Chicago early Friday. Things won’t get better anytime soon, and you can blame an air traffic control system that hasn’t changed in any meaningful way since the 1950s.


The problem started with a fire that authorities said was part of a suicide plot by an FAA contractor. Beyond canceling thousands of flights over the weekend and raising troubling questions about the security of these facilities, the incident calls into question the efficacy of an air traffic system that manages 87,000 flights daily and won’t fully recover for another two weeks.


First, a quick lesson on air traffic control. In the course of a flight, an aircraft is guided by a series of air traffic controllers, each handling a specific portion of the flight. Take-off is run by the airport control tower. Once a plane reaches 3,000 feet or so, it’s passed off to one of 160 terminal radar control facilities (TRACON) nationwide that monitor airspace up to about 10,000 feet. Beyond that, aircraft are managed by one of 22 air route traffic control centers (ARTCC). These centers ensure aircraft are properly spaced and following their flight plans, tracking them using a national network of more than 400 ground-based radars.


Friday’s fire occurred at an air route traffic control center in the Chicago suburb of Aurora. After evacuating the facility, the FAA issued a ground stop—allowing any aircraft already en route to Chicago to complete the flight, but halting any Chicago-bound flights that had not taken off. It went through its contingency plan, transferring air traffic control to neighboring centers and establishing direct communication between all of the centers called upon to help out. By all accounts, the FAA did a top-notch job, and at no point was anyone in danger. That’s how the system is supposed to work, says retired air traffic controller Jim Swenberger: Efficiency is readily sacrificed for safety.


And make no mistake: Efficiency was sacrificed. The disruption to air traffic was serious, and immediate. The Aurora ARTCC is responsible for 91,000 square miles, an area that covers five states and hundreds of airports. On Friday, 66 percent of flights to and from O’Hare and Midway airports were canceled, according to FlightAware.com. That number dropped to 40 percent on Saturday and was still at 38 percent on Monday. All told, thousands of flights have been cancelled, creating headaches nationwide because O’Hare is a major hub and among the world’s busiest airports.


Our air traffic control system takes a lot of criticism because of its age, but it generally works—until it doesn’t. And when it goes down at a major hub like Chicago, or New York, or Atlanta, it creates a cascade of problems that underscore just how fragile things truly are. Technicians are busy replacing damaged equipment at the Aurora center, but despite what FAA Director Michael Huerta calls an “extraordinarily accelerated timeline,” the center won’t be operational until October 13. Huerta has called for a review of security procedures and the FAA’s contingency plans, but the slow pace of the resolution reveals the bigger problem: This is an old system, based on old technology.


An Aging System


The ground radar network dates back to the 1950s, when air traffic finally got busy enough that officials needed a new way to track aircraft on the move. Since then, the network has greatly expanded, and the radars have been upgraded, though small air traffic facilities didn’t upgrade from vacuum tube to solid state radar systems until the 2000s. But the basic technology is the same.


The FAA is quick to use this situation as an argument in favor of NextGen, its $37 billion project to modernize management of US airspace by 2030. A key component of the program is replacing ground based radars with satellite-based surveillance and navigation using automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) technology. Under the new system, planes will figure out their position using satellite and periodically broadcast it to stations on the ground. The change would allow planes to broadcast and receive more information.


Programs are underway to modernize the ARTCCs, allowing them to work with aircraft well beyond their geographical purview. Combined with the ADS-B network, Huerta says, “we will have the ability to configure any single facility to view any part of our nation’s airspace.” With that capability, after the Aurora ARTCC was shut down, “we would be able to have each of the neighboring en route centers reach into Chicago’s airspace and take control of all of the radios used to control aircraft there,” Huerta says. “We would have been able to rapidly establish ground-to-ground connections between these en route centers and the TRACONS that normally connect to Chicago center.” In other words, the NextGen systems promise more flexibility to work around a problem like this one, so safety could be maintained without giving up so much efficiency.


“Do we need to upgrade the equipment? Absolutely.”


That change has been a long time coming, and it’s been a troubled implementation. For the satellite-based system, the FAA has laid the necessary new ground infrastructure, but it hasn’t yet updated its systems to incorporate that data. Part of the problem is that for this to work, airlines need to cooperate and spend the money to equip their planes with the technology that allows them to be tracked. The shift from radar to satellite will be as significant as the move to the radar system in the 1950s, Swenberger says.


Cost overruns and delays aren’t helping: The program is now expected to cost $4.5 billion through 2035, $400 million more than originally anticipated, according to a recent report from the Office of the Inspector General. Fiscal fights in Congress haven’t helped: The FAA’s budget is pretty set through 2015, Huerta says, but it “remain[s] in a difficult situation when it comes to long term planning and budgeting.”


If the FAA ever fully implements these changes, says former air traffic controller Paul Fagras, it would have a more secure and efficient system. “NextGen will be a great thing if they can pull it off.” But the program is hugely expensive, has been imperfectly implemented so far, and is perennially subject to budget cuts handed down by Congress. And in the meantime, “everything still works,” Fagras says. Arson aside, the system still functions as it’s meant to.


“Do we need to upgrade the equipment? Absolutely,” Swenberger says. “Striving for more technology will only enhance safety.” The move from radars to satellite-based tracking will improve flight planning efficiency in normal circumstances and make emergencies easier to handle. But the need isn’t dire just yet. If a fire hit a different en route center tomorrow, we’d be able to handle it. “There are so many different ways that we can communicate and work airports on a temporary basis to get out of a crisis and ensure safety,” says Swenberger. Air traffic controllers can always fall back to the ways things were done in the 1950s, assigning each aircraft a zone and an altitude and not letting them move into a new area until another plane had reported it had cleared out. “It’s agonizingly slow.” But everyone’s safe.



Top Tech Investors Skewer Startup Culture—For a Good Cause


Sometimes, startup pitches sound like infomercials.


You know, the ones where a bunch of bad actors try to convince you how tough it is to wrap a towel around your body or cover yourself in a blanket, before pitching you a solution to a problem you never had in the first place?


More and more, it seems, startup pitches follow much the same formula, spoon-feeding us on how they’re tackling non-issues, from ordering a pizza faster to eliminating the hassle of picking out a t-shirt. As inspiring as startups today can be—and they inspire us here at WIRED everyday—these often inward-looking ideas can also be depressing. At times, it can feel as if some of the most talented tech minds in the world have forgotten that there are very real problems out there that need to be solved.


Which is why this smart and self-aware video released by angel investor Ron Conway’s non-profit group Sf.Citi is so refreshing (see above). It’s a promotional video for a new initiative called Circle the Schools—which encourages tech companies to adopt a local school by donating books or volunteering their time—but it also provides a spot-on sendup of the Silicon Valley startup hype machine.


In the video, Sf.Citi documents the meteoric (and fictional) rise on a startup called MyBook. The conceit is that investors, the media, and the rest of Silicon Valley mistakenly believe this to be the next big project from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Overnight, MyBook is hailed as “disruptive” and “an intersection of shareables and wearables.”


Other businesses start developing their MyBook strategies and one enthusiastic consumer even camps out for the release of MyBook. Stone is hounded by inquisitive texts from fellow Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and celebrity investor Ashton Kutcher. MyBook is the next big thing, only no one knows what the hell MyBook is.


Stone’s real project—which gets overshadowed by MyBook’s breathless coverage until it’s revealed at the end of the video—turns out to be Circle the Schools. The video ends with a clear call to action: “What if schools were the next big thing in tech? They can be.”


The video is a rather enjoyable farce. But it’s not such a far cry from what happened back in 2013 when Stone published a blog post about his new startup, Jelly, in which he revealed only that Jelly would be a tool to “help people do good in the world.” With that cryptic fodder, the rumor mill nearly spun off its hinges.


For those of us who work within the tech echo chamber, the message in the video is an important one. Hype is one of Silicon Valley’s greatest exports. Try to use it for good.



Pharrell’s New Video for ‘It Girl’ Is a Huge Anime and Videogames Rush


Pharrell Williams’ new single “It Girl” feels like being dipped in waves of rainbow metallic liquid on a sunny day. So it’s only appropriate the music video looks just like that—plus anime and 16-bit videogame vibes.


And this delicious buffet of smooth beats laced with manga visuals is the latest public display of admiration in a creative romance between the two prolific producers: the music machine of Williams and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Earlier this year, he remixed the theme song to Murakami’s film Jellyfish Eyes , and in turn, Murakami leant his aesthetic stylings to “It Girl.” But these candy-coated artists haven’t limited their collaborations to the music space. Back in 2009, the pair worked together with Jacob the Jeweler on a sculpture that allegedly sold for $2 million, and included bejeweled ice cream sneakers, a glitzed out Pepsi can, and other pop artifacts dripping with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds.


Besides Pharrell, Murakami has also worked with cultural mega-influencers like Marc Jacobs, (for a joint venture with Louis Vuitton) and Kanye West (for the Graduation album). In the future, we hope West and Murakami can join forces again. The artist’s vibrant, life-affirming visuals could perhaps turn Yeezus’ frown upside down and encourage him to include something like, you know, melodies on his next album.



Netflix’s Crouching Tiger Sequel Won’t Change the Movie Business Just Yet


Crouching

The Weinstein Company



Having arguably conquered television—or, at least, made a sizable dent in it, thanks to original shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black—it was only a matter of time before Netflix turned its attentions to movies. Turns out, that time will be August 2015.


The New York Times reports that the company will debut Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend on its streaming service simultaneously with the movie’s release in Imax theaters across the US next summer. It’s a move content chief Ted Sarandos hopes will prove to studios that “the sky doesn’t fall” if Netflix has earlier access to content.


“These are two different experiences,” Sarandos said when comparing watching a movie in theaters with streaming one through Netflix. “[It's] like going to a football game and watching a football game on TV.”


That might not be enough of a difference for some theater owners, of course. Within hours of the news of the plan breaking, Regal—the largest theater chain in the US, which owns 86 Imax locations—and Cinemark (which owns 14 Imax screens) both said they would not be playing the movie in their theaters next August, with a Regal statement on the issue declaring that the chain “will not participate in an experiment where you can see the same product on screens varying from three stories tall to three inches wide on a smartphone.” Canadian chain Cineplex has also said that it would not be playing the movie on its Imax screens. (AMC, the second largest theater chain in North America, has yet to comment.)


The second Crouching Tiger movie will be co-produced by Netflix and the Weinstein Company, with Harvey Weinstein saying in a statement that Netflix was “unquestionably at the forefront” of the evolution of the movie-going experience. “We are tremendously excited to be continuing our great relationship with Netflix,” the Weinstein co-chair continued, referring to the two companies’ earlier partnership on the upcoming Marco Polo television series.


The good news is that this deal represents another step in the slow, slow march towards simultaneous digital and theater release for movies. (And, seriously, didn’t The Girlfriend Experience, Snowpiercer , and similar projects already prove such things aren’t going to destroy movies as we know them?) The bad news, however, is that the reluctance on behalf of movie theater owners to sign on for the revolution suggests that we’re still some way away from being able to choose between the multiplex or the couch when it comes to the next big movie thing. Sit tight.



How RAM Scrapers Work: The Sneaky Tools Behind the Latest Credit Card Hacks


card-swipe

Getty Images



Today, news broke of yet more large-scale credit-card breaches at big-box stores, this time at Albertson’s and Supervalu, grocery chains in the American west.


The breaches follow in the wake of other recent breaches at Target and Home Depot, all of which have one thing in common—the stealth tool the thieves used to steal the valuable card data.


In the world of hacking, every malicious tool has its heyday—that period when it rules the underground forums and media headlines and is the challenger keeping computer security pros on their toes.


Viruses and worms have each had their day in the spotlight. Remote-access Trojans, which allow a hacker to open and maintain a secret backdoor on infected systems, have had their reign as well. These days, though, point-of-sale RAM scrapers are what’s making the news.


Attackers installed these RAM scrapers surreptitiously on the point-of-sale systems used to scan and process credit and debit card transactions at Albertson’s and Supervalu. The tools make it easy to steal card numbers by the millions as they pass through the system.


RAM scrapers—used recently in the Target and Home Depot breaches to net the hackers data on more than 100 million bank cards collectively—are not new. VISA issued a warning to retailers about their use in 2008. But they’ve become increasingly sophisticated and efficient at stealing massive caches of cards. They’ve also become more ubiquitous as developer kits for building them—from a starter stub that is easily customized from a menu of features—have pushed scrapers into the mainstream and made them accessible to a wider swath of hackers. Need something to exfiltrate data from your victim’s network to a server in Minsk? Check. Want a turnkey solution for managing your command-and-control server in Mumbai? The kits have got that covered, too.


RAM scrapers can be installed remotely on a Big-Box retailer’s network and deployed widely to dozens of stores in a franchise.


There are more than a dozen RAM scrapers sold in the underground market these days. There’s Dexter, Soraya, ChewBacca and BlackPOS to name a few. The latter gained notoriety for its starring role in the Target breach last year. Though all RAM scrapers operate in basically the same way, each comes with different features to distinguish them, as described in a recent TrendMicro report (.pdf) about the tools.


Supervalu and Albertson's are the latest grocery chains to suffer large-scale credit-card breaches.

Supervalu and Albertson’s are the latest grocery chains to suffer large-scale credit card breaches. Andrew Filer / Flickr



The Dexter scraper, for example, comes with a keystroke logger in addition to its card-stealing code so attackers can also steal valuable log-in credentials and proprietary secrets. ChewBacca opens a Tor connection from the victim’s network to surreptitiously exfiltrate stolen data to the attacker’s command server, which gets hosted at a Tor hidden services onion address.


RAM scrapers aren’t the only tool for stealing card data, however. Skimmers that get installed on card readers at ATMs, gas stations and other payment terminals are still popular for grabbing card data and PINs. But these require an attacker to have physical access to the reader to install and retrieve the device, raising the risk that the attacker or his accomplices will get caught. RAM scrapers, by contrast, can be installed remotely on a Big Box retailer’s network and deployed widely to dozens of stores in a franchise, without an attacker ever leaving his computer. They can also be deleted remotely to erase crucial evidence of the crime.


Security researchers first began seeing RAM scrapers in the wild in late 2007 after a set of standards known as the Payment Application Data Security Standard was implemented for card readers. The standards prohibited what was then a widespread practice of storing credit card data on point-of-sale terminals long after purchasing transactions were completed. The new standard, coupled with other changes stores made to transmit card data more securely, forced hackers to find alternative ways to grab the card data before it was secured. This turned out to be the random access memory in the point-of-sale systems. Here’s a primer on how card systems and the scrapers works.


How Card Transactions Work


To process credit and debit card purchases, small restaurants and retailers use a card processor, a third-party company like Heartland Payment Systems, that receives the card data from retailers and sends it to the proper bank for authorization. Large retail and grocery chains that collect a lot of card transactions, however, act as their own processor: In their case, card transactions from each store in the chain get sent to a central processor on the corporate network, where the data is aggregated and routed to the proper destination for authorization.


Any business that allows customers to pay with a credit or debit card is also required to adhere to another set of standards known as the PCI security standards. Established by the top players in the payment card industry—VISA, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and JCB International—the standards require businesses to encrypt credit and debit card data any time it’s stored on a business’s network or crosses the public internet. The standards don’t require companies to encrypt card data while it’s in transit on the company’s own network or as it’s sent to an external processing company as long as the data is transmitted over a private network. But smart companies do secure these internal channels anyway to prevent intruders on their internal network from sniffing the data as it travels.


But even when companies encrypt data on their internal network, there are moments in the transaction process when the card data is exposed. During a brief period after the cards are first scanned, the account number and accompanying data sit in the POS system’s memory unencrypted while the system determines where to send it for authorization. That’s where the RAM scraper comes in.


Infecting a POS System


Getting a RAM scraper onto a point-of-sale system can be tricky. In some cases cyber criminals infect the systems via a phishing attack that gets employees of the retailer to click on a malicious file or visit a web site where malware is silently installed on their system. Once inside an employee’s computer and inside the corporate network, the attackers can often work their way to the payment network, sniffing around for an administrator’s credentials that will give them access to the prized network.


In some cases, the malware is installed with the help of an insider or via a backdoor left unsecured, as in the case of the hack of Jimmy John’s restaurants. Something similar happened in Target’s case, when the thieves reportedly got into the corporate network through credentials used by a heating and air conditioning firm that had access to a part of Target’s network for billing purposes. From there, the attackers found their way into the payment network to install their scraper.


RAM scrapers can do a number of things to hide on a system and prevent their discovery. Some use custom packers to reduce their footprint and make it harder for antivirus scanners to examine their code. Some inject themselves into existing processes running on the network so that their malicious activity is obscured by the other process’s legitimate activity.


Six months before the breach, the company had installed a $1.6 million malware detection system that worked as designed and issued multiple alerts that got passed to Target’s security staff, who summarily ignored them.

How RAM Scrapers Work


Once on a targeted system, RAM scrapers work by examining the list of processes that are running on the system and inspecting the memory for data that matches the structure of credit card data, such as the account number, expiration date, and other information stored on a card’s magnetic stripe. Some scrapers are efficient and grab only the golden numbers the attackers seek; others are more sloppy and grab a lot of dirt with their gold.


The scrapers usually encrypt and store the stolen data somewhere on the victim’s network until the attackers can retrieve it remotely. Or they can program their scraper to send the encrypted data automatically over the internet at regular intervals, passing it through various proxy servers before it reaches its final destination.


This is how the Target attackers got their data. The intruders entered Target’s network on November 27 last year, the day before Thanksgiving, and spent the next two weeks gorging on unencrypted credit and debit card data before the company discovered their presence.


The BlackPOS tool used in the Target breach can send stolen data to an FTP server, but it also comes with a built-in email client that can email data to the attackers. In the Target breach, it stored the stolen data in a text file on a Target system, then waited seven hours before copying it to a compromised server on the same network and sending it on to a remote FTP server outside the network. Exfiltrating batches of data in this way can be detected with the right tools in place, and in the case of Target it was detected. Six months before the breach, the company had installed a $1.6 million malware detection system that worked exactly as planned when the intruders began stealing their loot. It even issued multiple alerts for Target’s security staff. But the security staff simply ignored them.


Given the spectacular success of RAM scrapers at stealing data from even the largest retail chains, the tools would seem to be unstoppable. But they’re not.


RAM scrapers could be rendered obsolete if the PCI standards were modified to require companies to encrypt card data at the keypad, in the way PINs are already required to be encrypted—that is, from the moment they’re entered on a keypad at a restaurant or grocery store, until the moment they arrive to a bank issuer for authorization. The data identifying the card issuer could then be decrypted when it reaches the processor to determine where to route the data for authorization, but the card account number and expiration would remain encrypted until it reaches the issuer. This would require new protocols be written for transmitting the data, however, since most card processors are not currently equipped to decrypt data in this way.


Another solution would be the adoption of EMV cards. Also known as “chip-and-PIN” cards, EMV cards have an embedded microchip that authenticates the card as a legitimate bank card to prevent hackers from embossing stolen card data onto blank cards to use it for fraudulent transactions. The chip contains the same data that traditionally is stored on a card’s magnetic stripe, but also has a certificate used to digitally sign each transaction. Even if a thief steals the card data, he can’t generate the code needed for a transaction without the certificate. EMV cards are already implemented widely in Europe and Canada, but roll out in the U.S. has been slow. To pressure U.S. companies into installing card readers needed to process EMV cards securely, VISA has announced a deadline of October 1, 2015. Any company that doesn’t have EMV readers in place by then could face liability for fraudulent transactions that occur with card data stolen from them.


Another antidote to RAM scrapers could turn out to be Apple Pay. If Apple’s new mobile payment system becomes widely adopted, it could dramatically reduce the number of cards scanned and processed in the traditional way, thereby limit the amount of card data a RAM scraper could grab. Apple Pay stores the card data in the iPhone’s Passbook and submits only a device ID and a one-time transaction code to the merchant to authorize a payment, thereby never giving the merchant a card number. Though thieves could still go after the card data, they’d have to compromise it at its source—in the iPhone itself. But this would require compromising individual iPhones to get one or two card numbers at a time, rather than compromising one source to get millions of card numbers in a single hit.



Microsoft Unveils New Operating System, Dubbed Windows 10


Photo: JIm Merithew

Photo: JIm Merithew Jim Merithew/WIRED



Microsoft has unveiled its initial work on the next version of the Windows operating system, calling it Windows 10.


Revealed during a press event in downtown San Francisco, the new OS is designed to run across a wide range of machines, including everything from tiny “internet of things” devices in business offices to phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops to computer servers running in the massive data centers that underpin the world’s internet services. “Windows 10 will deliver the right experience at the right time on the right device,” said Microsoft operating systems chief Terry Myerson.


The new OS will be available to consumers, but it was designed, in particular, for use by the world’s businesses. According to Myerson, businesses will be able to manage all their Windows 10 machines by way of a single central piece of software, and they will have the option of creating their own “app store” for use by employees across these devices.


In demonstrating an early incarnation of the new OS, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s operating systems group, began by showing off the new Windows Start Menu that allows users to navigate applications and data on the OS. The previous version of the OS, Windows 8, moved away from the familiar Windows Start Menu, and this, according to many pundits, hurt the progress of the OS. As demonstrated by Belfiore, the new Start Menu combines the look and feel of Windows 8—which introduced a colorful “tile” interface—with the more traditional Start Menu offered by its predecessor, Windows 7.


Judging from initial comments from Myerson and Belifore, Windows 10 is in many ways a response to Microsoft’s struggles with Windows 8, introduced two years ago. According to David Johnson, an analyst with Massachusetts-based research outfit Forrester Research, businesses have been slow to adopt Windows because its interface—meant to serve both mouse-and-keyboard machines as well as touchscreen devices—was difficult to use, but also because upgrading to a new Windows OS is still not as easy as it should be.


Belifore said, however, that Microsoft is “not giving up” on touch devices. The aim is to provide an interface that suits both mouse-and-keyboard devices and touch screens. But as Windows 8 showed, this is a difficult thing to pull off. Apple, by contrast, continues to handle desktops and touchscreen devices with separate OSes. At one point, he demonstrated code that would allow devices to automatically switch between a mouse-and-keyboard interface and a touchscreen interface, depending on what hardware is attached to the machine.


Before revealing the name of the new Windows, Myerson gently teased the room full of reporters, who have closely followed all the online speculation about what the OS would be called. At first he seemed to indicate it would be called Windows 9, the natural successor to Windows 8. Then he insinuated it would be called Windows One, a nod to Microsoft’s Xbox One gaming console and an apparent attempt to highlight that the OS will run on a wide range of devices. But then he revealed the Windows 10 name, an apparent effort to show that the new OS wants to take a particularly large step forward.


This story has been updated with additional information from Microsoft’s press event in San Francisco.



Antarctica Has Lost Enough Ice to Cause a Measurable Shift in Gravity


This story originally appeared in Slate and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Gravity—yes, gravity—is the latest victim of climate change in Antarctica. That’s the stunning conclusion announced Friday by the European Space Agency.


“The loss of ice from West Antarctica between 2009 and 2012 caused a dip in the gravity field over the region,” writes the ESA, whose GOCE satellite measured the change. Apparently, melting billions of tons of ice year after year has implications that would make even Isaac Newton blanch. See the data visualized above.


To be fair, the change in gravity is very small. It’s not like you’ll float off into outer space on your next vacation to the Antarctic Peninsula.


The biggest implication is the new measurements confirm global warming is changing the Antarctic in fundamental ways. Earlier this year, a separate team of scientists announced that major West Antarctic glaciers have begun an “unstoppable” “collapse,” committing global sea levels to a rise of several meters over the next few hundred years.


Though we all learned in high-school physics that gravity is a constant, it actually varies slightly depending on where you are on the Earth’s surface and the density of the rock (or, in this case, ice) beneath your feet. During a four-year mission, the ESA satellite mapped these changes in unprecedented detail and was able to detect a significant decrease in the region of Antarctica where land ice is melting fastest.


Using 200 million measurements collected by ESA’s CryoSat mission between January 2011 and January 2014, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany have discovered that the Antarctic ice sheet is shrinking in volume by 125 cubic kilometres a year.

Using 200 million measurements collected by ESA’s CryoSat mission between January 2011 and January 2014, researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany have discovered that the Antarctic ice sheet is shrinking in volume by 125 cubic kilometres a year. Helm et al., The Cryosphere, 2014



The new results in West Antarctica were achieved by combining the high-resolution gravity field measurements from the ESA satellite with a longer-running but lower resolution gravity-analyzing satellite mission called Grace, which is jointly operated by the United States and Germany. Scientists hope to scale up this analysis to all of Antarctica soon, which could provide the clearest picture yet of the pace global warming is taking in the frozen continent. Current best estimates show that global seas could be as much as 50 inches higher by century’s end, due in large part to ice melt in West Antarctica.


Previous research with data from a third satellite, CryoSat (also from ESA), has shown ice loss from this portion of West Antarctica has increased by three-fold since just 2009, with 500 cubic kilometers of ice now melting each year from Greenland and Antarctica combined. That’s an iceberg the size of Manhattan, three-and-a-half miles thick.


Home Page Photo: Liam Quinn / Flickr



Apps: Fad or the Future?


A stream of apps... Fad or future? Is the app ecosystem fundamentally changing the way we live and work?

A river of apps… Fad or future? Is the app ecosystem fundamentally changing the way we live and work? philaaronson/Flickr



There’s always discussion of “bubbles” when apps like SnapChat get lofty valuations. With a new raise at a valuation of $10B from KPCB, you can’t blame some observers if they balk at the company that has yet to present a clear business model or revenue streams. Rightfully so: app developers know that monetization or user engagement are slippery slopes that don’t always work the way they intend them to. So what makes this different from the tech crash of the early 2000s?


Speculation aside, there’s is a far more significant trend underlying the whole economy. From generation to generation, one of the most important activities has always been the human transfer of knowledge and skills. Knowledge was documented in books and teachers gave lectures to classrooms of eager students. For as long as we can remember, this is how we have advanced as a species. However, this is shifted dramatically over the last century.


As computing and the internet have become a dominant part of the economy, the transfer of knowledge has increasingly become machine-to-human. Knowledge is now stored on countless servers, displayed on webpages, and accessible by apps. Even universities aren’t safe, as many potential students now turn to Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) from likes of Udacity and Coursera.


But the next shift in knowledge will be far more dramatic. Advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is ensuring that the prevalent transfer in knowledge and skills won’t be to humans at all. It will be machine-to-machine (M2M). Objects from connected cars, wearables, smartphones, iBeacons, and cameras will begin to communicate in ways that no entrepreneur has yet to imagine.


A simple example here is Nest, the learning thermostat company acquired by Google. Here is a single device that is making choices based on observed behaviors, and sharing that information with other devices. In enough homes and over longer periods of time, these silent activities will generate huge amounts of data on household behavior that will in turn become knowledge for other machines. And that is just one machine. As these connected devices penetrate more deeply into homes, offices, and spaces everywhere, the sharing of data between machines will exponentially increase. It’s this amount of data, both in amount and in velocity moved, that human minds have no chance of matching.


You might be tempted to just call this the power of big data, but let’s set the record straight: big data is nothing without analysis, analysis is nothing without actions, and actions are exactly what apps allow us to perform. Each layer has it’s purpose, and it’s the apps that provide the real value. Matthre Panzarino at TechCrunch said it well:



“We’re entering the age of apps as service layers. These are apps you have on your phone but only open when you know they explicitly have something to say to you. They aren’t for ‘idle browsing,’ they’re purpose-built and informed by contextual signals like hardware sensors, location, history of use and predictive computation.”



So what does all this have to do with SnapChat? While $10B for an app may seem ludicrous now (and could still very well be in future), it’s still early early days for how the app ecosystem is fundamentally changing the way we live and work. In the early 2000s, the combination of hardware economies, data speeds, and mass of software entrepreneurs had not cropped up. We now have fertile grounds for apps to grow and become the future.


Colin Chong heads up product management at AppCarousel.



Stripe Leads the Race to the $1 Trillion Future of Mobile Payments


The Stripe offices in San Francisco.

The Stripe offices in San Francisco. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED



Stripe is having a moment.


Almost as soon as Apple announced its new pay-by-iPhone service, the online payments startup released its specs for supporting Apple Pay—a clear sign the world’s most valuable company had brought Stripe into its inner circle. Facebook’s new “Buy” button is powered by Stripe’s code. And so is Twitter’s.


For a while now, Silicon Valley has been in love with Stripe’s promise—believing its coding tools can help bootstrap a world where we can so easily pay for stuff through most any app or web service—and these high-profile partnerships from the likes of Apple and Facebook are a sign that the company’s promise is being realized. Now, Stripe and its investors hope to build on that momentum by creating a $10 million fund that will help others create new tools that any business can use in tandem with what Stripe already offers.


Following the examples of Apple, Facebook, and Twitter—among others—the new fund is an effort to extend Stripe from product into platform—to embed its tools more deeply into the internet’s commercial infrastructure. And anyone can become a part of this effort with little more than a killer email.


To be clear, Stripe already is a platform, in the sense that developers use its software code and application programming interfaces, or APIs, to integrate payments into their own commerce sites and apps. For example, Stripe handles payments for ride-sharing service Lyft and grocery delivery startup Instacart. But the Stripe Platform Fund—created with money provided by venture capital firm General Catalyst—aims to do something different. It will dole out financing in $250,000 to $500,000 chunks so that independent outfits can create all sorts of new tools for Stripe users.


The first $500,000 infusion will go to Baremetrics, a company that lets cloud software businesses track their overall financials and measure the value of every customer by analyzing Stripe payments data. And now others can apply to join Baremetrics in the program.


In keeping with Stripe’s minimalist philosophy, the application process for Stripe funding appears plain and simple. The company says applicants must submit a one-page email summarizing the tool they’re building, along with links to the Github and LinkedIn profiles of the developers, and a link to the tool itself. The funding process, Stripe says, will transpire via startup accelerator Y Combinator’s open-source financing documents.


From left, Patrick and John Collison.

From left, Patrick and John Collison. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED



Next-big-thing aspirants could be forgiven for thinking the idea of leaping into payments tech sounds dry compared to, say, building a billion-dollar messaging app or a virtual reality headset. But what’s not so dull is this number: $1 trillion. That’s how much money research firm IDC estimates mobile users will spend by 2017, and no single service is capturing more than a fraction of the money moving now. Last year, for example, online payments granddaddy PayPal processed $27 billion in mobile payments, out of the $235 billion that moved in 2013, according to Gartner estimates.


Despite the magnitude of those figures, only a small percentage of global commerce takes place via the internet. Stripe’s founders, brothers Patrick and John Collison, are betting that in the coming years, that percentage will rise. It’s a tough proposition to argue against, and Stripe has positioned itself in a sweet spot to ride that growth. Apple, Facebook, and Twitter aren’t bad companions to have along for the trip, and $10 million says a few canny coders will at least get a seat in business class to see how high this rocket flies.



There Are So Many Tiny Animals in the Sea That They May Affect Currents


Tiny zooplankton (white) create swirling currents in seawater, visualized in this lab experiment by particles illuminated by laser light (yellow dots).

Tiny zooplankton (white) create swirling currents in seawater, visualized in this lab experiment by particles illuminated by laser light (yellow dots). M. Wilhelmus and J.O. Dabiri/Caltech



The wind and tides are major drivers of the ocean’s global circulation, moving its waters all over the planet and mixing up its temperature, salinity, and nutrients. But according to new research, there might be another crucial force in ocean circulation that scientists haven’t accounted for: the billions upon billions of small marine animals that live in its depths.


Throngs of tiny organisms called zooplankton inhabit the ocean—everything from microscopic protozoans to krill to jellyfish. Many of these animals live deep underwater during the day to avoid predators, and migrate en masse, sometimes hundreds of meters, to the surface to feed at night. Caltech fluid dynamicist John Dabiri thinks zooplankton’s daily collective movements may have a profound influence on ocean dynamics by mixing up its waters, and his new study, published in Physics of Fluids, backs up this theory.


To mimic zooplankton migration in the ocean, Dabiri and his research partner, Monica Wilhelmus, devised an automated laser robot that shoots moving blue light through a water tank filled with thousands of brine shrimp. The shrimp (the same creatures sold to curious kids as Sea Monkeys) followed the laser light as it swept from the bottom of the tank to the top, and as they swam, they kicked back water behind them.


Individually, a sea monkey’s kick doesn’t move much water, but as Dabiri discovered, their collective migration creates large eddies. In the ocean, this could potentially mix up the nutrients and salinity of warmer surface saltwater with cold brine from deeper depths. Dabiri thinks that when untold numbers of zooplankton migrate up and down the ocean’s water column every day, they may have an effect on circulation as substantial as the wind and tides by adding about a trillion watts of energy to the ocean system.


Many physical oceanographers are skeptical of this theory (called ‘biomixing’), particularly since zooplankton migration is much harder to measure in the real world than the wind and tides. “It’s hard to go from a lab experiment in a tank and extrapolate to the ocean,” said physical oceanographer AndrĂ© Visser of the Technical University of Denmark. “I’m not convinced that this is a credible mechanism in ocean mixing.”


But Dabiri thinks his lab experiments prove the physics of the phenomenon. “The ocean is much bigger than the tank in our lab, but the tank had only a few thousand of these organisms versus billions and billions of them in the ocean,” he said.


If zooplankton do, in fact, move ocean waters as Dabiri predicts, this might help scientists model climate change more precisely. The ocean is Earth’s largest carbon sink, soaking up more than a quarter of CO2 that human activity emits, and zooplankton may play a key role in that process. “We may need to rethink our models of the ocean,” he said. “Perhaps there are significant factors we’re missing right now.”



EBay Will Spin Off PayPal Into a Separate Company


eBay CEO John Donahoe

EBay CEO John Donahoe. Photo: eBay



EBay is breaking away from PayPal, turning its payments operation into a separate, publicly traded company.


“ebay and PayPal will be sharper and stronger, and more focused and competitive as leading, standalone companies in their respective markets,” eBay CEO John Donahoe said in a statement on the move, announced early Tuesday morning. “As independent companies, eBay and PayPal will enjoy added flexibility to pursue new market and partnership opportunities.”


The split is something that activist eBay investor Carl Icahn has been fighting for since earlier this year, arguing that separating the eBay online marketplaces from PayPal would not only return value to shareholders, but would also make both companies stronger. At the time, Donahoe insisted that such a split didn’t make sense for either company, telling ReCode back in January: “I’d say commerce and payments are converging, not diverging.” But now, Donahoe and company are changing course.


In an interview with The New York Times , Donahoe resisted the idea that this 180-degree turn was in any way a reaction to Icahn’s petitions. And yet he conceded that after “a deliberate process,” he and the rest of the eBay team “got to the same place that Carl said early on.”


It doesn’t hurt that Apple just released its own heavyweight competitor to PayPal with its new mobile payments service, Apple Pay. It stands to reason that PayPal, which has 153 million accounts globally, would want to reassess and hone its strategy in the face of such a formidable challenger. In its statement, eBay made it clear that PayPal would be able to better address those threats untethered from its e-commerce parent. “The pace of industry change and innovation in commerce and payments requires maximum flexibility to stay competitive and drive global leadership,” the statement reads.


The split will likely take place in the second quarter of 2015, and Donahoe, who has served as eBay’s CEO for the last decade, will step down from all executive management roles. Ebay’s new CEO will be Devin Wenig, current president of eBay Marketplaces, and former American Express exec Dan Schulman will take over as PayPal’s new president. According to eBay’s statement, the two companies will continue to work together through arms length operating agreements, but “the benefits of the existing relationships” which include things like data sharing and strategic investments from eBay, would decline.


“Together, eBay and PayPal have delivered substantial value creation for our shareholders,” Donahoe said. “We believe eBay and PayPal will continue to do so as separate, independent companies. Tremendous opportunities exist for each business.”



A Smartwatch That Nudges You to Meet Your Fitness Goals


BLACK_BACK

Basis



Basis introduced one of the first general purpose fitness tracking watches back in late 2012. Its newest version, the Peak, comes with a slimmer design, better mobile interactions, and more robust sensors to help give you a more meaningful picture of your daily activities.


Like the original, the Basis Peak includes sensors that track a variety of metrics, including optical heart rate sensors, a 3-axis accelerometer, perspiration sensor, ambient temperature, and skin temperature detectors. The watch is able to automatically interpret the data those sensors produce and determine whether you’re sleeping, running, biking without you having to specifically say, “Hey, I’m starting a run” or “I’m going to bed now.” Because of all the physiological functions it tracks, Basis can identify whether you’re getting light, deep, or REM sleep, if you’re doing an indoor stationary workout, or biking around town.


Facing_Couples

Basis



The company dramatically improved the functionality of these sensors in the new Peak. Notably, the optical heart rate tracking sensors are much more accurate and reliable once your pulse starts picking up during strenuous activities. Other fitness trackers like the Polar M400 require a separate heartrate monitoring strap for that data, which is more precise than optical readings from your wrist, but inconvenient for more casual athletes.


For those looking to improve their general health, Basis also has a new Healthy Habits system in its web, iOS, and Android apps that helps you regularly meet specific, attainable goals through gentle reminders. Your goals are adjusted on a weekly basis based on your past activity so they stay reasonable.


COUPLE_BLACK-AND-WHITE

Basis



And since smartwatches are so en vogue, the Peak borrows some features for extra utility—namely, the ability to sync with your smartphone to deliver lightweight notifications on your wrist. Basis was careful not to overdo this though: The device focuses on the immediacy of such notifications, limiting them to only the last five you’ve been sent.


As for the hardware, Peak’s watch face is made of aluminum and topped in Gorilla Glass, and it has a soft silicon band that you can swap out for various other styles, should you choose. It’s one-third thinner than the previous Basis fitness tracker.


Peak goes on sale in early November for $200 and comes in two color varieties, matte black (with a red-accented black band) and brushed aluminum (with a grey-accented white band). You’ll be able to grab it online from Basis or Amazon, as well as from REI or Best Buy.



21 Awesomely Well-Designed Products We’re Dying to Own



Old Hat Classic helmets look great, but old gear won't safeguard your brain—the protective materials deteriorate with age. The new Bullitt, an homage to 1970s designs, lets you rock an old-school look while wearing an actual safety device. Because looking good after the crash is important too. Bell Bullitt Helmet | $400



Old Hat Classic helmets look great, but old gear won't safeguard your brain—the protective materials deteriorate with age. The new Bullitt, an homage to 1970s designs, lets you rock an old-school look while wearing an actual safety device. Because looking good after the crash is important too. Bell Bullitt Helmet | $400




Station Agent The speaker grille and analog knobs are cutely retro, but this radio's rubberized exterior signals a decidedly modern sense of style. It manages to reference the past without dipping into sappy nostalgia. We can't say the same about the Prairie Home Companion coming out of the speaker. Lexon Mezzo Radio | $77



Station Agent The speaker grille and analog knobs are cutely retro, but this radio's rubberized exterior signals a decidedly modern sense of style. It manages to reference the past without dipping into sappy nostalgia. We can't say the same about the Prairie Home Companion coming out of the speaker. Lexon Mezzo Radio | $77




Brand-New Bags Tumi deploys its trademark durability and style in two new Capsule Collection offerings. The Ames Backpack mixes leather, ballistic nylon, and wool, and easily stows your 15-inch laptop and iPad. The Bashford Duffel is perfectly sized for a weekend trip to the shore. Tumi Capsule Collection Ames Backpack, Large | $495 | Bashford Duffel | $795



Brand-New Bags Tumi deploys its trademark durability and style in two new Capsule Collection offerings. The Ames Backpack mixes leather, ballistic nylon, and wool, and easily stows your 15-inch laptop and iPad. The Bashford Duffel is perfectly sized for a weekend trip to the shore. Tumi Capsule Collection Ames Backpack, Large | $495 | Bashford Duffel | $795




Got Juice? When your gizmos are running on fumes, Tylt's slim battery pack can provide a second life. Its built-in cables—one Lightning for your iOS devices and one micro USB for Androids and e-readers—will juice up whatever mobile gear you've got. Tylt Energi 5K+ | $90



Got Juice? When your gizmos are running on fumes, Tylt's slim battery pack can provide a second life. Its built-in cables—one Lightning for your iOS devices and one micro USB for Androids and e-readers—will juice up whatever mobile gear you've got. Tylt Energi 5K+ | $90




Slumber Jack This sleep tracker seeks to rebuild your slumber from the bottom up. A pad beneath your sheet tracks your heart rate, breathing, and body movements. The bedside unit detects environmental changes and uses its LED and sound system to gently wake you. Withings Aura | $299



Slumber Jack This sleep tracker seeks to rebuild your slumber from the bottom up. A pad beneath your sheet tracks your heart rate, breathing, and body movements. The bedside unit detects environmental changes and uses its LED and sound system to gently wake you. Withings Aura | $299




Space Capsule Bedroom storage is a necessity, but it can also be beautiful. These units, designed by architect Anna Castelli Ferrieri, are in the collections of both New York's MoMA and Paris' Pompidou. Pick from different designs to fit your needs and add casters to keep them mobile. Kartell Componibili Modular System | $50–220



Space Capsule Bedroom storage is a necessity, but it can also be beautiful. These units, designed by architect Anna Castelli Ferrieri, are in the collections of both New York's MoMA and Paris' Pompidou. Pick from different designs to fit your needs and add casters to keep them mobile. Kartell Componibili Modular System | $50–220




Right as Rain Inspired by South American designs, these striking ponchos are engineered to handle all forms of water falling from the sky. Waterproof and cotton-lined, they're comfortable for cyclists, festivalgoers, or just regular humans with a keen eye for utilitarian design. Otto London Urban Poncho | $150



Right as Rain Inspired by South American designs, these striking ponchos are engineered to handle all forms of water falling from the sky. Waterproof and cotton-lined, they're comfortable for cyclists, festivalgoers, or just regular humans with a keen eye for utilitarian design. Otto London Urban Poncho | $150




Baby On Board Stokke's stroller adapts to your child's growth thanks to its convertible seat, which features five positions, rear- and forward-facing modes, and a height-adjustable footrest. Lockable swivel wheels, rear-wheel brakes, and reflective accents promise a smooth and safe ride. Stokke Crusi Stroller | $1,249 and up



Baby On Board Stokke's stroller adapts to your child's growth thanks to its convertible seat, which features five positions, rear- and forward-facing modes, and a height-adjustable footrest. Lockable swivel wheels, rear-wheel brakes, and reflective accents promise a smooth and safe ride. Stokke Crusi Stroller | $1,249 and up




Miniature Multiplex Last-minute technical issues be damned. Pull this mini projector out of your briefcase, unfold the stand, and you're keynote-ready. The wireless cinema is small—about 10 inches tall—but powerful. It can fill screens from 9 to 90 inches. Bem Wireless Kickstand Portable Projector | $500



Miniature Multiplex Last-minute technical issues be damned. Pull this mini projector out of your briefcase, unfold the stand, and you're keynote-ready. The wireless cinema is small—about 10 inches tall—but powerful. It can fill screens from 9 to 90 inches. Bem Wireless Kickstand Portable Projector | $500




Thar She Cuts Japanese blacksmith Toru Yamashita originally created a whale knife as a children's tool to sharpen pencils. It may look adorable, but beware: The blade is sharp enough to slice through the most stubborn of envelopes. Or fingers. Kujira Whale Knife | $55



Thar She Cuts Japanese blacksmith Toru Yamashita originally created a whale knife as a children's tool to sharpen pencils. It may look adorable, but beware: The blade is sharp enough to slice through the most stubborn of envelopes. Or fingers. Kujira Whale Knife | $55




Wonder Twins This offset Bluetooth speaker pair certainly appears cool, but its form actually aids its function. The slight angle amplifies and enhances sound. Added bonus: Built-in magnets allow the speaker bases to snap together for easy storage or portability. 11+ Sound1 Speaker Set | $85



Wonder Twins This offset Bluetooth speaker pair certainly appears cool, but its form actually aids its function. The slight angle amplifies and enhances sound. Added bonus: Built-in magnets allow the speaker bases to snap together for easy storage or portability. 11+ Sound1 Speaker Set | $85




No-Scream Ice Cream The last place you want to get caught spraining your wrist is at the bottom of an ice cream pint. The angled head and spade-shaped edge on Belle-V's scoop makes scraping up those last bits of rocky road as painless as turning a doorknob. Belle-V Ice Cream Scoop | $50



No-Scream Ice Cream The last place you want to get caught spraining your wrist is at the bottom of an ice cream pint. The angled head and spade-shaped edge on Belle-V's scoop makes scraping up those last bits of rocky road as painless as turning a doorknob. Belle-V Ice Cream Scoop | $50




Crossover Vehicle The Budnitz Model No. 3 will help you navigate curbs, potholes, and any other city obstacles with its rustproof 3.6-pound titanium frame and silent carbon belt drive. But the bike's massive 29-inch wheels and 2.35-inch-wide tires make it equally suited for off-road trails. Budnitz Model No. 3 Bicycle | $4,745



Crossover Vehicle The Budnitz Model No. 3 will help you navigate curbs, potholes, and any other city obstacles with its rustproof 3.6-pound titanium frame and silent carbon belt drive. But the bike's massive 29-inch wheels and 2.35-inch-wide tires make it equally suited for off-road trails. Budnitz Model No. 3 Bicycle | $4,745




Field of Dreams Lytro's latest shooter looks like a high-end mirrorless—and snaps a photo like the best of them—but it's actually a light-field camera. It records the entire depth of field within a scene, allowing you to refocus the picture, make a 3-D image, or create perspective effects in post-production.| Lytro Illum | $1599



Field of Dreams Lytro's latest shooter looks like a high-end mirrorless—and snaps a photo like the best of them—but it's actually a light-field camera. It records the entire depth of field within a scene, allowing you to refocus the picture, make a 3-D image, or create perspective effects in post-production.| Lytro Illum | $1599




Bear Cubes A boring old ice tray won't do when you can put a polar bear in your fridge. Pop his top, fill him with water, and let him ice up. He's adorable! But don't get too attached: You'll need to bang him on the counter to dislodge the cubes. Black+Blum Brrrrr Ice Tray | $20



Bear Cubes A boring old ice tray won't do when you can put a polar bear in your fridge. Pop his top, fill him with water, and let him ice up. He's adorable! But don't get too attached: You'll need to bang him on the counter to dislodge the cubes. Black+Blum Brrrrr Ice Tray | $20




A Cut Above Arm your guests for battle against Sir Loin of Beef with this stealthy six-knife set. The chromium-carbon blades will provide years of sharp, swift cuts without needing to be sharpened. And their angular handles and black bodies will deflect any desire you may have to go vegan. TB Groupe Furtif Steak Knife Set | $336



A Cut Above Arm your guests for battle against Sir Loin of Beef with this stealthy six-knife set. The chromium-carbon blades will provide years of sharp, swift cuts without needing to be sharpened. And their angular handles and black bodies will deflect any desire you may have to go vegan. TB Groupe Furtif Steak Knife Set | $336




Squeeze Play Cracking a stubborn walnut can be hard on the fingers, even with a traditional nutcracker. This redesigned tool from Normann Copenhagen has a thick silicone grip that protects your digits while its aluminum teeth make short work of any unlucky shell. | Normann Copenhagen Nutcracker | $53



Squeeze Play Cracking a stubborn walnut can be hard on the fingers, even with a traditional nutcracker. This redesigned tool from Normann Copenhagen has a thick silicone grip that protects your digits while its aluminum teeth make short work of any unlucky shell. | Normann Copenhagen Nutcracker | $53




Two-Fisted Drinker Help the little one learn to hold her own drink with this easy-to-grasp soft frame. Made from BPA-free and FDA-approved food-safe silicone, the 5-inch ball fits most baby bottles and will give you a reprieve from picking hers up off the floor. | Ba Baby Bottle Holder | $20



Two-Fisted Drinker Help the little one learn to hold her own drink with this easy-to-grasp soft frame. Made from BPA-free and FDA-approved food-safe silicone, the 5-inch ball fits most baby bottles and will give you a reprieve from picking hers up off the floor. | Ba Baby Bottle Holder | $20




Top Trimmer Slicing your way through the unwanted limbs of your backyard plum tree shouldn't be a workout. Fiskars' slick shears have a handle that rotates slightly as you squeeze. The dollop of torque adds more leverage to every cut you make. Snipping branches up to half an inch thick is a breeze.| Fiskars Power-Gear Softgrip Pruner | $30



Top Trimmer Slicing your way through the unwanted limbs of your backyard plum tree shouldn't be a workout. Fiskars' slick shears have a handle that rotates slightly as you squeeze. The dollop of torque adds more leverage to every cut you make. Snipping branches up to half an inch thick is a breeze.| Fiskars Power-Gear Softgrip Pruner | $30




Everything Is Illuminated Don't leave all your best collectibles to gather dust on a shelf. Highlight them with this 17-inch showcase-cum-lamp. Just make sure you use LED bulbs for the more delicate stuff; incandescents can run pretty hot. | Favorite Things Pendant Lamp | $475



Everything Is Illuminated Don't leave all your best collectibles to gather dust on a shelf. Highlight them with this 17-inch showcase-cum-lamp. Just make sure you use LED bulbs for the more delicate stuff; incandescents can run pretty hot. | Favorite Things Pendant Lamp | $475




Snooze Seat Sitting in this beauty is like being CEO of the Milky Way: so awesome that you're apt to ask, when is the dream going to end?! But the reason it's so easy to get into and out of is a hidden mechanism that reclines the seat and seat back in sync and can be locked in place as you choose. | Vitra Grand Repos | $4,900



Snooze Seat Sitting in this beauty is like being CEO of the Milky Way: so awesome that you're apt to ask, when is the dream going to end?! But the reason it's so easy to get into and out of is a hidden mechanism that reclines the seat and seat back in sync and can be locked in place as you choose. | Vitra Grand Repos | $4,900