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The Download, Feb 7, 2017: There Is a Troll in All of Us, TVs That Spy On You, and Automating Wall Street

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February 7, 2017

There's a Troll Inside Us All

We’ve all read the comments sections and seen the ugly tweets—online harassment is a huge problem, and it’s only getting bigger. But who are the trolls? As our own Rachel Metz writes, they could be anyone. An analysis of 16 million comments on articles on found that about a quarter of posts flagged as abusive were left by people who don’t usually do that sort of thing. And researchers showed that people who said they were in a bad mood were 89 percent more likely to leave a nasty comment on an article. So perhaps think twice before you get angry about some profane, vitriolic post—its author might just be having a bad day.

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Fighting Cancer With Universal Immune Cells

Cellectis, a company seeking to develop immune cells that hunt down and destroy cancer in anyone who receives an infusion, has been given the go-ahead from the FDA to begin clinical trials in the U.S. The technique involves genetically modifying cells from a healthy donor, replicating them in a lab, then giving them to a patient. So far, it’s been used to dramatic effect in two infants in the U.K., both of whom had their leukemia vanish. Several biotech companies are exploring similar technology, but it usually requires the cells be harvested from the patient, modified, and then re-infused. An off-the-shelf treatment would mean anyone with the type of cancer the cells are programmed to attack could potentially be cured. But the trials will have to show that dripping alien cells into people’s veins doesn’t trigger potentially deadly side effects.

The Automation of Wall Street

Remember in “The Wolf of Wall Street” when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character used a stunning display of salesmanship to talk his way into a job selling stocks? No? Well, don’t worry, because those days are coming to an end. At Goldman Sachs, what was once a group of 600 cash equity traders working the phones has been whittled down to just two. They’ve been replaced by algorithms and software engineers. Investment banking may be next up for automation, along with corporate mergers and IPOs. As our own Nanette Byrnes writes, with fewer people around to divvy up enormous profits, salaries figure to skyrocket—but only for those at the very top.


Ten Fascinating Things

What will space exploration be like under President Trump? If emails exchanged among administration officials (paywall) are any indication, NASA could be in for big changes, including using a private company to send astronauts to orbit the moon by 2020. The idea is to “focus on projects able to attract widespread voter support” within the president’s four-year term.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is picking up the pace. A few months after one of their rockets exploded on the launchpad, they are planning to start launching a vehicle once every two to three weeks.

A hand-held gadget a bit larger than a pen could be a revolutionary new tool for fighting cancer. Called MarginProbe, the device uses radio spectroscopy to tell the difference between benign cells and cancerous ones. It’s helping doctors reduce the rate of repeated surgeries to remove breast cancers, and it could work on prostate and other operable tumors.

Researchers who study Antarctica are watching with a mixture of horror and fascination as a giant crack grows across the Larsen C ice shelf. If the shelf collapses, the glaciers behind it could accelerate their descent into the sea, speeding up sea level rise.

Uber has re-upped on its plans for flying cars, hiring NASA scientist Mark Moore. Moore’s work inspired Larry Page to bankroll Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk, two flying-car startups. But Uber hasn’t announced plans to build its own cars—it appears to be hoping to build an airborne ride-sharing service once some of these other companies take off.

A company called Canary Speech is using deep-learning algorithms to detect signs of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, and other disorders in people’s voices. Controversially, the dataset they’re using is recordings of millions of phone calls to a U.S. health insurance company.

Want to influence the political discourse in America? Better get tweeting. But you can’t do it alone—the most influential voices on Twitter are cyborgs (they also happen to lean conservative). Apps that automate your tweets mean your account keeps chirping 24/7. And Twitter won’t bust you, it seems, as long as you limit yourself to around 150 tweets an hour.

A synthetic virus has been used to deliver genes that restored hearing and balance in mice. The gene therapy, described in Nature Biotechnology, succeeded in repairing the tiny hair cells that convert sound to electrical signals in the brain. Treating deafness in humans, however, may be tricky.

Birth control for men pretty much boils down to two things: condoms and a vasectomy. But a new product called Vasalgel could offer a long-lasting, reversible alternative. If it proves out, it would be a big breakthrough for an area of medicine that’s been lacking for years.

Vizio, the most popular TV maker in America, has been caught spying on its customers’ viewing habits. Software on 11 million of its TVs recorded everything people watched, and the company sold that information to advertisers without viewers’ knowledge. Here’s how to turn the software off.

Quote of the Day

"Many scientists do feel that the time for sitting on the sidelines is past.”

—Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science, discusses the rise in sentiment among U.S. researchers that they need to oppose an anti-science agenda taking hold in the new presidential administration.

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