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    Neurons hide their memories in their imaginary fluctuations / ArsTechnica – 2 days ago - 13:00

This is your brain. Well, not <em>your</em> brain. Presumably your brain isn

Enlarge / This is your brain. Well, not your brain. Presumably your brain isn't being photographed at this moment. (credit: Adeel Anwar / Flickr )

The brain is, at least to me, an enigma wrapped in a mystery. People who are smarter than me—a list that encompasses most humans, dogs, and possibly some species of yeast—have worked out many aspects of the brain. But some seemingly basic things, like how we remember, are still understood only at a very vague level. Now, by investigating a mathematical model of neural activity, researchers have found another possible mechanism to store and recall memories .

We know in detail how neurons function. Neurotransmitters, synapses firing, excitation, and suppression are all textbook knowledge. Indeed, we've abstracted these ideas to create blackbox algorithms to help us ruin people's lives by performing real-world tasks.

We also understand the brain at a higher, more structural, level: we know which bits of the brain are involved in processing different tasks. The vision system, for instance is mapped out in exquisite detail. Yet the intermediate level in between these two areas remains frustratingly vague. We know that a set of neurons might be involved in identifying vertical lines in our visual field, but we don't really understand how that recognition occurs.

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    AI is helping scholars restore ancient Greek texts on stone tablets / TechCrunch – 4 days ago - 23:24

Machine learning and AI may be deployed on such grand tasks as finding exoplanets and creating photorealistic people, but the same techniques also have some surprising applications in academia: DeepMind has created an AI system that helps scholars understand and recreate fragmentary ancient Greek texts on broken stone tablets.

These clay, stone, or metal tablets, inscribed as much as 2,700 years ago, are invaluable primary sources for history, literature, and anthropology. They’re covered in letters, naturally, but often the millennia have not been kind and there not just cracks and chips but entire missing pieces that may comprise many symbols.

Such gaps, or lacunae, are sometimes easy to complete: If I wrote “the sp_der caught the fl_,” anyone can tell you that it’s actually “the spider caught the fly.” But what if it were missing many more letters, and in a dead language to boot? Not so easy to fill in the gaps.

Doing so is a science (and art) called epigraphy, and it involves both intuitive understanding of these texts and others to add context; One can make an educated guess at what was once written based on what has survived elsewhere. But it’s painstaking and difficult work — which is why we give it to grad students, the poor things.

Coming to their rescue is a new system created by DeepMind researchers that they call Pythia, after the oracle at Delphi who translated the divine word of Apollo for the benefit of mortals.

The team first created a “nontrivial” pipeline to convert the world’s largest digital collection of ancient Greek inscriptions, into text that a machine learning system could understand. From there it was just a matter of creating an algorithm that accurately guesses sequences of letters — just like you did for the spider and the fly.

PhD students and Pythia were both given ground-truth texts with artificially excised portions. The students got the text right about 57 percent of the time — which isn’t bad, as restoration of texts is a long and iterative process. Pythia got it right… well, 30 percent of the time.

But! The correct answer was in its top 20 answers 73 percent of the time. Admittedly that might not sound so impressive, but you try it and see if you can get it in 20.

greek process

The truth is the system isn’t good enough to do this work on its own, but it doesn’t need to. It’s based on the efforts of humans (how else could it be trained on what’s in those gaps?) and it will augment them, not replace them.

Pythia’s suggestions may not be perfectly right on the first try very often, but it could easily help someone struggling with a tricky lacuna by giving them some options to work from. Taking a bit of the cognitive load off these folks may lead to increases in speed and accuracy in taking on remaining unrestored texts.

The paper describing Pythia is available to read here , and some of the software they developed to create it is in this GitHub repository .

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    Two women completed a seven-hour spacewalk on Friday / ArsTechnica – 4 days ago - 21:20

Two American astronauts made history on Friday when they performed a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station—it was the first all-woman extravehicular activity (EVA). Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir spent 7 hours and 17 minutes outside the station.

The pair, who are best friends, worked well together. Not only did they complete the primary task of replacing a failed power charging unit, which is already operating properly, but they also performed several extra tasks. While the astronauts recognized the achievement, they sought to play down the significance of the moment. "You know, for us, this is really just us doing our job," Meir said during NASA's broadcast of the spacewalk. "It’s something we’ve been training for for six years, and preparing for."

That seemed to be the attitude of most NASA people following the event—that this was a good milestone, and an important one for NASA to get past. (Especially after NASA had to cancel the first all-female EVA back in March). But in the future, this shouldn't be a notable thing. "I think the milestone is hopefully this will now be considered normal," NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson said Friday. "I think many of us are looking forward to this just being normal."

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    Man has massive, rotting scrotum removed after avoiding doctors for decades / ArsTechnica – 4 days ago - 20:04

Man has massive, rotting scrotum removed after avoiding doctors for decades

Enlarge (credit: Getty )

After three decades of progressive symptoms, a 43-year-old man from Panama was rushed into emergency surgery with a massively swollen scrotum that hung past the level of his knees and had begun to rot and ooze foul-smelling pus, a team of Texas doctors report.

When he arrived at the hospital, he had a fever of 102.2 °F (39 °C) and rapid heart rate, as well as extensive swelling and thickened skin in his scrotum and upper right leg. He also had two open wounds in his scrotum. Further imaging of his abdomen and pelvis revealed a large hernia containing part of his colon, as well as a huge abscess, considerable tissue damage, and fluid collection. (You can see NSFW images of his condition here )

Fearing the ravages of gangrene and sepsis—a life-threatening response to infection—the doctors quickly wheeled him to an operating room to try to remove the rotting flesh. Pathologists examining tissue from his scrotum found extensive inflammation and that some of his skin had begun to liquify.

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    Archaeologists unearth a Bronze Age warrior’s personal toolkit / ArsTechnica – 4 days ago - 17:05

Color photo of bronze tools and scraps on a black background.

The contents of the Bronze Age toolkit with the mud cleaned off. (credit: V. Minkus)

Three-thousand years ago, at least 140 fighters died in a battle along the banks of Germany’s Tollense River. One of the fallen dropped a small kit containing tools and a handful of bronze scraps. Based on the types of artifacts archaeologists found in this kit, they've concluded that at least some of the combatants in the prehistoric battle probably came from hundreds of kilometers away in Central or even Southern Europe.

According to University of Göttingen archaeologist Tobias Uhlig and his colleagues, that suggests that large-scale battles between far-flung groups began long before people in Europe had developed a system of writing to record the history of their conflicts.

An ancient battlefield

Today, quiet pastures flanked by woods line the banks of the Tollense River in Northeastern Germany. But beneath the green grass and the placid surface of the water, the 3,000-year-old remains of fallen soldiers and their broken weapons lie scattered for at least 2.5km along the river. Most of what we know of the European Bronze Age comes from more peaceful contexts, like settlement or burial sites; the bones, weapons, and personal effects along the Tollense River are the only archaeological evidence (so far) of a battle in prehistoric Europe.

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    Report: More than half of all US doctors get money from pharma each year / ArsTechnica – 4 days ago - 15:40

Hundred dollar bills inside prescription pill bottles

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bill Diodato )

Drug makers and medical device makers are still spending between $2.1 billion and $2.2 billion a year to woo doctors into prescribing and using their products, according to a new investigation by ProPublica.

Between 2014 and 2018, more than 600,000 of the approximately 1.1 million doctors in the US received at least one payment from industry in any given year. The payments were for things including speaking fees, consulting, meals, gifts, travel, and royalties.

While thousands of doctors have made $100,000 or more, more than 2,500 received $500,000 or more in the five-year period—and those payments do not include royalties. More than 700 received at least $1 million.

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    A new pesticide is all the buzz / ArsTechnica – 4 days ago - 13:56

Image of a bee on a flower.

Enlarge (credit: Kim Mitchell; USFWS )

Bees’ fuzzy yellow bodies and hairy legs are custom-built for picking up pollen. Nothing can distribute the yellow powder more efficiently—something farmers that shell out for commercial beehives every growing season know all too well. And starting with this fall’s growing season, bees may be given some cargo to carry on their outbound journey to the blossoms: pesticides.

On August 28, the EPA approved the first-ever bee-distributed organic pesticide for the US market—a fungus-fighting powder called Vectorite that contains the spores of a naturally occurring fungus called Clonostachys rosea (CR-7). CR-7 is completely harmless to its host plant and acts as a hostile competitor to other, less innocuous fungi. It has been approved for commercial growers of flowering crops like blueberries, strawberries, almonds, and tomatoes.

The beauty of Vectorite is that it mimics a “locally appropriate natural system,” said Vicki Wojcik, director of Pollinator Partnership Canada. “It’s an interesting twist… where care for the health of the pollinator is actually vital because it is your actual vector.”

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