Monarch population rebounds as NRDC sues EPA for not stopping ‘Armageddon’–Are GMOs the prob lem? | Genetic Literacy Project

Arthur Doucette | March 17, 2015 | Genetic Literacy Project

The latest yearly count of the monarch butterfly shows a dramatic increase in their numbers, partly reversing at least temporarily recent sharp declines. Scientists with World Wildlife Fund Mexico estimate that some 56.5 million monarchs gathered for the winter after their trek across the United States—up more than 60 percent from last year, when 34 million were counted in Mexico’s Sierra Madre.

While the rebound is heartening, the overall picture is still not good, as the rebound came from very low levels, and remains well below the numbers over the past 21 years. Butterfly migration counts in Mexico, their primary winter resting place, have only been kept since 1994.

Click image for larger version.

The modestly better news came out shortly before the National Resources Defense Council turned its guns on the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming it has failed to heed the NRDC’s warnings, contained in a petition filed more than a year ago, about the dangers to monarchs posed by glyphosate. The NRDC filed the suit in U.S. District Court in New York. The advocacy group and numerous other organizations have pointed to the correlation of the butterfly population decline with the increased use of glyphosate, which is a very mild herbicide introduced decades ago (well before GM crops) to replace far more toxic chemicals. They often release charts such as this:

According to the NRDC news release:

“The longer EPA delays, the greater the risk we could lose the monarch migration,” Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC senior scientist and director of its Wildlife Conservation Project. … Experts say the primary cause for the population collapse is the skyrocketing use of the herbicide glyphosate (originally marketed as Roundup) on genetically modified corn and soybeans, which has wiped out much of the milkweed — a native wildflower — that monarchs need to survive. Since EPA last reviewed the safety of glyphosate in 1993, its use has increased ten-fold, yet the agency has never considered the herbicide’s impact on monarchs.

In effect, the NRDC is accusing the government of conspiring to suppress evidence that the popular herbicide, often paired with GMO crops, is responsible for killing off the monarch butterfly population. Other activist groups have used the same data to mount an offensive against all GMO crops.

“Monarch butterfly decline being caused by GMO agriculture,” blared a recent headline in NaturalNews.com, a junk science site that sells often bogus alternative health remedies, yet enjoys enormous popularity and even credibility among mainstream anti-GMO campaigners.

Does the science stand with the NRDC’s lawsuit and its claims?

Although more reliable statistics are only available for the past two decades, experts contest the simplistic narrative that the monarch butterfly population is mortally threatened.

“Monarchs are not in danger of extinction,” said Lincoln Brower, a monarch conservation scientist at Sweet Briar College. “What is endangered is their spectacular migration and overwintering behavior.”

What is not widely understood is that scientists measure the overwinter numbers in Mexico, not the numbers of monarchs. The situation, and the longterm trends, are not good, but even if the current declines continue, the monarch and other butterflies are not headed toward extinction.

Experts outside of the “activist circuit” believe the monarch butterfly population’s overwintering habitats have been in decline for decades, pre-dating both the widespread of glyphosate in agriculture in the 1980s and the use of GM crops in the mid-1990s.

Click image for larger version.

The decline in butterfly populations, while extremely concerning, is also not unique to the United States. It mirrors almost exactly what is occurring in other places around the world, most especially in Europe, where the growing of GMOs is almost totally nonexistent.

Scientists do know that certain herbicides kill the nuisance milkweed–the most common butterfly habitat in the United States. That’s certainly a contributing factor in altering migratory behavior. But how much, considering that glyphosate use has not accelerated in other places in the world where butterfly populations are in steep decline?

The largest factor in the decline is almost certainly the declining amount of productive agricultural land, in Europe and the United States in particular. Less milkweed—a bane of farmers—grows when there is less farm acreage. The reality is the land use for agriculture is going down while land not suitable for monarchs and other butterflies is going up. According to the USDA, land area designated as “Non-Agricultural”, mainly “Forest land” and “Special Uses”–rural parks, wilderness areas and rural transportation—has been increasing. The proportion of the land base in agricultural uses declined from 63 percent in 1949 to 51 percent in 2007, the latest year for which data are available.

A 2012 study in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity estimated that between 1990 and 2010, milkweed prevalence declined 58 percent in Midwest agricultural areas where farmable acreage shrunk dramatically. Over the same time frame, the monarch population declined 81 percent. Additionally, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and a professor of ecology at the University of Kansas, a 2007 congressional ethanol mandate increased the price of corn and soybeans, which encouraged farmers to convert grassland–where milkweed grows–into cropland.

What role then does glyphosate play?

The on the ground reality is certainly more complex than NRDC’s simplistic narrative. Corn and soybeans are the two biggest crops in the US, amounting to ~170 million acres. Cotton is about 10 million acres. This graph shows the adoption of herbicide resistant (HT) crops and crops that are engineered to generate a pesticide found commonly in nature (BT).

It is important to note that BT crops only affect insect pests that are susceptible (mostly the larva of some moths and butterflies and a few beetles) and that take a bite out of the plant. Because Bt isn’t expressed in the pollen, it doesn’t affect winged pollinators. Other insects, plants and animals are completely unaffected by the Bt protein (one of those pesticides that are used widely by organic growers), although if they eat enough it will give them a nutritional boost.

Click image for larger version.

Now compare those trends to the population studies on monarch overwintering populations in Mexico:

As you can see, the population crashed during the winter of 1997–when a fraction of the herbicide tolerant crops were being used relative to today. The overwintering numbers also increased dramatically at the turn of the century just as Ht crop usage and the use of glyphosate soared.

About caterpillars and butterflies

The issue with monarchs is complicated by the fact that as caterpillars they can eat only one food, the milkweed plant. Still monarchs thrived as our field crops increased, because the milkweed they rely on could survive tilling (the previous normal method of weed control), such that when its tap root was cut by tilling, often the large pieces healed themselves and the plant still came up in the spring. Milkweed was in fact fairly common in corn, cotton and soybean fields. So the larger population of monarchs we saw in the early 90s was largely because of the way we weeded our field crops.

Then GMO corn, cotton and soy were introduced that were resistant to glyphosate and many farmers quit tilling to control weeds and went to spraying glyphosate instead. Milkweed is not immune to glyphosate though and the amount of it in Midwest corn and soybean fields has gone down. But given all the land that is not farm land, that alone wouldn’t account for their decline. Indeed, Andrew Kniss, a weed expert at the University of Wyoming, wrote in a blog post that the use of herbicide-tolerant plants glyphosate has had only a limited impact on native plant diversity outside the border of the agricultural field. So to understand the problem, one has to understand the insect itself.

The monarch spends the spring and summer in most of North America, and while in North America the monarchs will go through up to seven generations. Each generation lasts from 6 to 12 weeks, depending on climate and food supply. The butterfly form itself normally lives from two to six weeks.

As monarchs migrate north, the female lays her eggs only on milkweed plants. The eggs take about a week to hatch into larvae (caterpillars). The larvae feed on the milkweed for about two weeks and then they attach themselves to a twig, shed their outer skin and change into a chrysalis. In about two weeks a full-grown monarch breaks free to start the next generation. Some of each new generation moves north with the warming spring weather. Note that while the caterpillars only live on milkweed, the adult form is free to sip nectar from any flowering plant they find.

As fall approaches a somewhat unique version of the monarch appears. Unlike their parents before them, they don’t immediately reproduce but instead falling temperatures make them avoid procreation and begin the migration back south. Depending on where they begin this trip, these last of the season monarchs will travel many hundreds or even thousands of miles to their winter grounds, mostly in Mexico (East of the Rockies, they will winter in Southern California, and there are a few populations of monarchs living year round in Southern Florida, California and Texas that don’t migrate at all).

On their way South, they store fat in their abdomens as it is needed for the long flights and to last through their winter hibernation, which lasts from November till about May. When they arrive in Mexico, the monarchs gather into dense clusters in the branches of the trees, and by late winter these clusters will contain hundreds to thousands of them. During their long hibernation they will remain perfectly still, clustered in these Mexican forests, surviving only off of their stored fat reserves.

As warm weather arrives in Mexico in February, they begin to move again and during the day the monarchs will once again begin to gather nectar. Ultimately they will mate and lay eggs as it is only their plump offspring which will make the return migration back to North America.

This complex life cycle shows why the key to their survival is multifaceted. Indeed, probably the most important need these insects have is the amount of nectar providing plants they can use to develop the reserves that are needed to make it through their long migration and hibernation period.

Finally there is also the pressure from the dwindling forest area in Mexico where much of their population over winters. The deforestation stems from illegal logging in Mexico. According to Politifact, which reviewed this controversy, it has reduced the areas where monarchs can migrate, affecting their lifecycle. A new study of the monarch butterflies’ winter nesting grounds in central Mexico showed that small-scale logging is worse than previously thought. The reserve’s fairly small 33,482-acre core zone lost 41 acres of pine and fir trees so far in 2013, about half of that because of illegal logging while the rest of the loss was due to drought or disease-control removal of trees.

Mexico’s government had begun to protect the Monarch’s over-wintering grounds in recent years and in 2012 aerial photographs found very little deforestation due to logging over the previous year (at its peak in 2005, logging depleted as many as 1,140 acres each year).

Still this new study’s analysis of photos taken a decade apart showed that small-scale logging has never gone away and while it is not seen in year-to-year comparisons, the study found the losses by comparing 2001 photographs to the recent ones taken in 2011.

[See: “Trends in Deforestation and Forest Degradation after a Decade of Monitoring in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico“]

Given the multi-faceted nature of the problem, it seems clear that there are many factors causing the decline, and so the solution also has to address all of these factors. Indeed, many people are now coming to their aid by planting the flowering plants and milkweed they need to survive. Here is a chart of success stories–the creating of new monarch butterfly habitats.

While the total solution is not clear, words of caution, as many ecological conscious home gardeners have started planting milkweed in an attempt to help the monarchs. Caterpillars eat the weed because chemicals within the plant make them unpalatable to predators–but this same latex rich sap is also toxic to people and quite capable of causing severe eye injury, up to and including blindness if you get the sap in your eyes.

So if you do decide to plant it, don’t put it where kids can kids play in it and handle it carefully.

Arthur Doucette is a retired software developer, now writing about issues involving Genetic Engineering.

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Vertical farming – viable agriculture or urban pipedream? – The Ecologist

Matt Bevington

Image: http://keystoneprogressblog.blogspot.com/2014/07/vertical-farming-taking-root-in.html

If you don’t want industrial agriculture ravaging the world to feed cities nutrient-deprived, genetically modified, chemical-drenched pap, here’s an alternative, writes Matt Bevington: let cities grow their own fresh produce on ‘vertical farms’ in disused industrial buildings, restoring sustainability and accountability to the food chain.

Agriculture as we know it is changing. Traditional, land-based methods have proven to be catastrophic when undertaken unsustainably.

With world population rapidly increasing, agricultural practices must be adapted to meet the ecological challenges of food production.

Agriculture occupies around 50% of the world’s habitable land, consumes about 70% of the planet’s accessible fresh water, and accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2007).

These are the headline figures but land-based agricultural praxis also cause persistent damage to habitats, water systems, wildlife, and soil composition.

The global land crisis

By 2050, WWF predicts that "a further 120 million hectares of natural habitats will be converted to farmland" to meet the rising demand, an area approximately the size of South Africa. Clearly, this expansion is unsustainable in the long-term, particularly as intensive agriculture can cause irreversible damage.

Each year 12 million hectares of land is lost due to agricultural practices resulting in desertification, a loss of farmland and pasture just less than the size of England. Where intensive farming of monocultures occurs, land and habitats are often devastated then abandoned.

In the UK, the Government-organised Green Food Project online forum concluded that "The food system would not be able to meet the challenge […] over the next 30 to 40 years in its current form."

Producing more food with less resources, while lessening the impact on the environment, may seem counter-intuitive – even impossible. But vertical farming is an increasingly viable part of the solution to the ecological concerns of land-based agriculture.

Farming without land

Vertical farming is what it suggests – instead of farming horizontally, occupying vast areas of land, vertical farms comprise multi-storey, hi-tech greenhouses that can be installed in urban buildings. They utilise floor-to-ceiling space, use artificial LED light, and soil-free irrigation systems to produce multiple crop-yields each year.

While there are no standardised costs for these developments, the increasing number of investments highlighted here reflect the viability of indoor and vertical farming as a profitable business model as well as an ecological solution.

Thanet Earth, an indoor farm based in Kent (UK), has been growing hydroponically since 2008 and now accounts for 15% of the UK’s salad crop production. They produce vegetables all year round where their competitors are restricted to a nine-month season.

The diminished risk of weather and pest damage, along with consistent crops and multiple yields, make this method of agriculture a reliable and profitable investment.

Dickson Despommier, Professor of Microbiology and Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, is a dedicated promoter of vertical farming – and has encountered plenty of challenges.

"City capitals couldn’t care less about climate change", he says. "They care a lot about sea level rises, especially in New York City, but they don’t connect the dots. They’re sort of on board but not for ecological considerations. They’re on board for economic considerations."

A report conducted in 2008 concluded that vertical farming was "realizable and profitable. The investment return is comparable to stock market averages." The advances that will be outlined in this article highlight further efficiencies and cost-saving technologies that have improved the economic viability of vertical farming since the report concluded.

Whilst the ecological argument is well founded, vertical farming had been a difficult concept to scale-up, primarily due to high energy costs. However, advances in the efficiency of LED lighting have significantly reduced energy requirements.

"Phillips Lighting Company has come up with a 68% efficient LED light for growing food", Despommier explains. "That just happened within the last year. That has lowered the amount of money that anybody’s going to have to spend on energy."

More efficient LED lighting emits only the light spectra that plants can use, produces very little heat so growers can better control the indoor climate, and can be placed much closer to crops than conventional lighting which allows systems to be stacked much closer together, utilising indoor space.

Differing systems

The development of aeroponic growing systems has further increased the efficiency of indoor farming. Roots are nourished in a nutrient mist rather than being submerged in solution.

Where hydroponic systems use 70% less water than land-based agriculture, aeroponic systems use 70% less than hydroponics. Even the cloth medium in which crops are grown can be recycled.

Land-based agriculture requires crops to be washed, creating a damp environment in which microbial life flourishes and reduces shelf-life. Aeroponics is more efficient in harvesting with no required washing that extends the shelf-life of products by up to twice as long.

Aquaponic systems offer a symbiotic, ‘closed-loop’ system of agriculture. Methods vary, but the basic principle is that bacteria are introduced into the base of fish tanks where it processes fish-waste.

Bacteria convert waste into nitrogen which fertilises the plants’ roots which are submerged in the water that then filter the water for the fish. It is said to have "90% less water use than conventional agriculture", and facilitates the growth of crops and fish simultaneously.

Chicken coops can even be incorporated indoors where the exchange of heat, carbon dioxide and oxygen between crops and animals is mutually beneficial.

Vertical farming in practice

Technological advances have resulted in an ever-increasing and diverse range of vertical and indoor farming applications throughout the world.

"Japan has actually embraced this", says Dr. Despommier. The Fukushima disaster means that Japan requires a reliable and uncontaminated food production chain, with much of their agricultural land and fisheries having been destroyed.

"They have a small indoor growing industry already, called Plant Factories", Dr. Despommier continues, "A lot of examples involve grocery stores where the consumer can go into a store, put a plastic bag over a green item, cut it off, and take it home. It’s only occurred in the last five years."

City dwellers benefit from fresh, organic produce grown nearby, putting them in close contact with the process of food production. There is even the opportunity for human waste to be processed into fertilisers and fuel, giving local authorities a source of income from selling sewage.

In Tokyo, the Pasona O2 Urban Farm is one of the world’s first Eco-Offices, where, astonishingly, a hydroponic rice paddy occupies the basement of the new office block. The building exemplifies how to integrate the workspace with food production, and how to transform urban constructions into multi-functional buildings.

It is foreseeable that food production could be integrated into architecture in the same way as renewable energies.

Regeneration potential

Vertical farms can also regenerate derelict sites. In the Wythenshawe area of Manchester (UK), the Alpha Farm group are converting a derelict office building into a vertical farm. Regeneration limits the environmental costs of demolishing abandoned buildings and reconstructing on the site.

"I see a huge interest in municipalities to take the marginal, functional buildings, or non-functional buildings – these huge warehouses that are three or four storeys, tall and empty – and repurposing them", says Dr. Despommier,

Although rural land may be cheaper to purchase, it still involves the environmental costs of construction, the further appropriation of rural habitat, and significantly higher costs (both financial and environmental) of transportation and refrigeration.

The Scottish Derelict and Vacant Land Survey 2013 reports that almost 1,200 hectares of derelict land exists in Glasgow City alone, with many of these sites including building remains.

No such survey exists for the rest of the UK, but other post-industrial cities almost certainly contain substantial numbers of derelict buildings, like the Alpha Farm site in Manchester.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) owns more than 500 hectares of assets described as either ‘subject to disposal’, or of ‘limited marketability’ – indicating there is no shortage of available but undesirable buildings within urban areas that could potentially be repurposed.

The snowball is rolling ….

Dominant land-based agricultural methods cannot sustain the world population beyond the medium term without decimating habitat and exacerbating climate change. Vertical farming and the technologies associated with it are a viable, and increasingly affordable, part of the solution.

The benefits exceed beyond easing the burden on our ecological systems (vital as that is), and can actually provide employment opportunities, urban regeneration, and increased self-reliance.

As Dr. Despommier says, "I hope it will snowball. It’s a pretty slow-growing snowball but I think it’s crawling forward."

The innovations that have occurred so far prove him right. Agriculture is changing. The sooner the vertical farming revolution is embraced, the sooner we can all benefit from a more sustainable food system.

This Scaled-Down Armored Truck Could Be the Next Humvee | WIRED

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense figured out the Humvee—its multi-purpose troop transport vehicle, designed in the 1980s when everyone thought the US would be fighting the Soviets across Europe—was woefully ill-equipped to deal with the type of asymmetric warfare American soldiers faced in the Middle East.

Humvees, produced by contractor AM General, weren’t really designed as combat vehicles, and offer little protection to occupants against improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades. Since those proved to be major threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military hurriedly ordered armor upgrades that could be fitted to existing Humvees, but ruined its valuable off-road capabilities. It put more money into large, heavy, and expensive mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are hugely successful at protecting occupants but too big for many mission profiles.

Now, with the war in Iraq over (sort of) and combat in Afghanistan winding down, the DoD can spend its time and money on a new, major acquisition: the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), the machine that will replace the venerable but outdated Humvee.

One of the frontrunners going after the $9.4 billion contract to design and produce that replacement is the Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Corporation, which calls its vehicle the Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle. The L-ATV (Oshkosh is fluent in acronym-obsessed military parlance) is the faster little brother to its popular MRAP, the M-ATV. “Future battlefields will have an unpredictable level of terrain and tactics and threats,” says John Bryant, senior vice president of defense programs for Oshkosh Defense. “Troops require an all-terrain vehicle that’s scalable, net-ready, that performs off road, and is highly reliable.”

The JLTV in action. Oshkosh Defense

It’s easy to make a vehicle that’s small and fast, but with limited protective capabilities. It’s easy to make a big vehicle that is slower but keeps everyone really safe. The goal of the JLTV is to provide MRAP-levels of protection and Humvee-like maneuverability. Oshkosh wanted to take all the protection offered by the MRAP and shrink it down to something much smaller, with better off-road capabilities and the ability to be transported more easily by air and sea.

“M-ATV is really the benchmark of off-road protected mobility right now,” says Bryant. “We had the opportunity to refine our Core1080 integrated protection system so that we could provide that level of protection on a much smaller vehicle.” The L-ATV is approximately 30 percent smaller than the M-ATV, so maintaining the same level of protection even on the lighter vehicle is no small feat.

“The M-ATV provided great off-road mobility and survivability, but we sort of did it through mass,” explains Bryant. With the L-ATV, Oshkosh “optimized every single component” for survivability, allowing the company to offer the same protection in a smaller platform. It helps that the military hasn’t rushed the JLTV design process, as it did with that of the MRAP, which was developed under an urgent deadline for a specific, in-theater threat.

“Every time we come up with a new level of protected mobility off road, the first thing warfighting customers around the world say is: ‘That’s awesome, now can you make it even smaller?’”

Oshkosh Defense

The JLTV program has a much wider range of requirements than the MRAP. Key requirements include survivability, transportability and multi-purpose needs for a wide-variety of scenarios. Taking big truck capabilities and putting them in a smaller, faster, more maneuverable vehicle was the goal.

The L-ATV includes a bunch of neat technology too. A computer-controlled independent suspension system allows for 20 inches of wheel travel to improve off-road performance and allow it to park in confined spaces like amphibious ships. While there’s enough on-board power to supply all the computers and sensors stuffed into the modern fighting vehicle, there’s an optional diesel-electric hybrid system that can provide 70 kilowatts of on-board and exportable power for external operations.

The curb weight of the L-ATV is under 14,000 pounds, with an additional 4,000 pounds added in gear and soldiers. That’s half the weight of an MRAP, and light enough so that two can be sling-loaded underneath a helicopter for air transport.

Oshkosh wouldn’t reveal the L-ATV’s top speed or performance specs for competitive reasons: This winter, the Pentagon will assess its final proposals against two other finalists, Lockheed Martin and AM General, with a final award coming sometime next summer. The contract is to build 17,000 vehicles across the first eight years of the program. That works out to more than $550,000 per JLTV, including delivery, add-on kits, logistics, technical manuals, interim support, and everything else that goes along with a major program like this.

Once the DoD picks its JLTV for the future, there will be a slow ramp-up as the military does its own testing, including live fire and other operational testing, with troops in the field getting their first crack at the new vehicle around 2018. But Oshkosh says it could begin production almost immediately, if the need arose. “We can be producing a thousand a month of these a few months from now if the requirement changed and became more urgent,” says Bryant. “We could ramp this up right now, if need be.”

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CurrentC Is The Big Retailers’ Clunky Attempt To Kill Apple Pay And Credit Card Fees | TechCrunch

Long before Apple Pay, big brick-and-mortar retail chains were conspiring to sidestep the typical 2% to 3% fees they’re charged by credit card companies when consumers pay with credit. A company called MCX (Merchant Customer Exchange), spearheaded by Walmart, was started to build a mobile payment solution that would become an app called CurrentC that’s preparing to launch, but is already in the app stores.

Rather than NFC, CurrentC uses QR codes displayed on a cashier’s screen and scanned by the consumer’s phone or vice versa to initiate and verify the transaction. The system is also designed to automatically apply discounts, use loyalty programs, and charge purchases to a variety of payment methods without passing sensitive financial data to the merchant.

Retailers including CVS and Rite-Aid were planned partners for CurrentC. Now those businesses have pulled unofficial support for Apple Pay through their existing NFC readers, according to a report from MacRumors and a memo obtained by SlashGear. This implies they’ve established exclusive deals with MCX to use CurrentC as their mobile payment option.

Thanks to research shared with TechCrunch by Stanford student and developer sleuth Andrew Aude, we have more details on MCX’s plan and a closer look at the CurrentC app.

A Multi-Year Plot To Ditch Credit Card Fees

Originally incorporated in 2011, MCX spent years in a sort of stealth mode working on the payments user experience. The company is run by merchants including Walmart, Target, Best Buy, CVS, Shell Oil, Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden), HMSHost (airport restaurants), Hy-Vee (supermarkets), Lowes, Michaels, Publix Super Markets and Sears. Wal-Mart VP and Assistant Treasurer Mike Cook is considered the MCX group’s de facto CEO, with some joking that MCX stands for Mike Cook Exchange, as FierceRetail reported.

Together, the companies operate over 110,000 retail locations and process over $1 trillion in payments annually, with a significant chunk coming in the form of credit card payments that cost the retailers fees.

Walmart has long voiced its disdain for credit card processing fees that drain its slim margins, and even filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Visa and MasterCard over them back in 2003, but rejected the settlement they offered because it wanted more.

The idea behind MCX was that if enough retailers teamed up, they could convince consumers to adopt their mobile payment system that would let retailers avoid paying credit card fees in the 2 percent to 3 percent range by processing payments through Automatic Clearing House transactions through bank accounts that have much smaller fees. MCX’s app could also help retailers by encouraging loyalty to participating merchants and possibly provide them additional intelligence on their customers.

If MCX’s app caught on, partner retailers could escape tons of fees, which could directly increase their profits. Alternatively, they could use the leverage of MCX and the threat of sidestepping the processing fees to negotiate lower fees with the credit card companies. Former Walmart CEO Lee Scott reportedly once said “I don’t know that MCX will succeed, and I don’t care. As long as Visa suffers.”

To speed up development, MCX struck a deal to use Paydiant’s white-labeled mobile wallet system on the backend that works with ACH to reduce fees, which was announced in February 2012. Paydiant has raised around $35 million for its payment solution’s development.

In January 2013, Fierce Retail reported MCX had been asking retailers in 2012 to pay a big upfront fee from $250,000 to $500,000 to get on board, and sign three-year mobile payment app exclusivity deals with MCX. Retailers who signed up may have had a one-year grace period from the start of their exclusivity contract to bail out of the deal. If Apple Pay gains steam early, some retailers might look to take advantage of this option to ditch MCX. However, if deals were signed in 2012, that grace period is long gone but retailers may be coming up on the end of their exclusivity agreements even though CurrentC hasn’t launched yet,

Those exclusivity deals may be why CVS and Rite-Aid are reportedly pulling unofficial support for Apple Pay on their NFC readers. In a memo to employees, obtained by SlashGear, Rite Aid wrote:

“Please note that we do not accept Apple Pay at this time. However we are currently working with a group of large retailers to develop a mobile wallet that allows for mobile payments attached to credit cards and bank accounts directly from a smart phone. We expect to have this feature available in the first half of 2015.

If customers attempt to pay for a transaction with Apple Pay, a message will prompt both customer and cashier for a different form of payment. Please instruct cashiers to apologize to the customer and explain that we do not currently accept Apple Pay, but will have our own mobile wallet next year.”

Until then, Apple Pay may gain steam with more graceful NFC payments, which could make CurrentC’s QR code method seems clunky and undesirable when it finally launches.

The CurrentC App

CurrentC’s app is now in the iOS and Android app stores, but can only be used by those with an invite code. Luckily, Aude was able to attain these screenshots and information.

When you sign up for CurrentC, you’re supposed to add your bank account. This lets CurrentC process payments for you without retailers having to pay the steep credit card processing fee. You can also add retailers’ loyalty credit cards or gift cards as payment methods. It’s possible that if you already have your bank account connected to a partner retailer’s loyalty or credit card, you may be able to automatically link that bank account to your CurrentC account rather than going through the clumsy standard process.

When it’s time for a user to check out, they request to pay with CurrentC. The consumer then unlocks their phone, opens the CurrentC app, opens the code scanner, and scans the QR code shown on the cashier’s screen. In some case, the reverse may happen where the consumer’s CurrentC app displays a payment code and the cashier scans it. If a QR code can’t be generated, a manually entered numeric code may be offered.

Rather than sending the customer’s financial data over the air, transactions trigger the transmission of a token placeholder. This is then securely converted by the financial institution to process the ACH payment and charge the user.

CurrentC also has a method in place for paying at gas station pumps. It shows the consumer a code on their phone that can then be entered on the pump keypad to initiate a CurrentC payment.

CurrentC includes a merchant map for finding participating retailers. Discounts and coupons will be automatically applied to the purchase, and any loyalty program points will be automatically pegged to the customer’s account. CurrentC users will also be able to check their receipts in the app. These loyalty and discount programs may be the main selling point retailers use to try to convince customers to sign up for CurrentC.

One refreshing inclusion in the app is a visual breakdown of what data CurrentC receives from users, who it can be shared with, and what data sharing is optional.

CurrentC notes it may share info with your device maker, app store, or developer tool makers. Oddly, it will collect health data. Precise location information is used to verify you’re at the retailer where you’re making a transaction, and if you opt in it can be used for marketing or advertising. CurrentC notes that you can opt in to be able to capture and store photos in the app for a hypothetical visual shopping list or other features down the road.

After his investigation of the app, Aude told me “CurrentC borders on the creepy line” due to it pulling health info. He also that found that its Terms Of Service leaves high liability for fraud to the user if someone else is able to get access to a user’s phone and make CurrentC payments.

Will Anyone Want CurrentC? Probably Not

CurrentC is now being tested at some retail locations in Minnesota. Before CurrentC can rolled out, point of sale systems at retailers need to be modified, which can take time and explains the early 2015 launch date cited in the internal Rite Aid memo obtained by SlashGear.

CurrentC doesn’t rely on new technology like NFC or Bluetooth LE, so it will likely be compatible with older iPhones and Androids, unlike the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus-only Apple Pay. That could give it some broad appeal. MCX will also tout the automatic discount and loyalty programs that could appeal to bargain hunters.

The problem with the CurrentC system, as John Gruber points out, is that it’s based more around solving the retailers’ credit card fee problems than the consumers’ payment friction problems. Users have to open their phone, open CurrentC, open the scanner, scan the code from the cashier, and wait for the transaction to be confirmed. That may present more friction than simply paying with a credit card, and it’s certainly harder than a quick Touch ID verification and tap of Apple Pay.

The only way CurrentC has a real chance is if it can organize some big discount for all CurrentC payments across retailers. For example, if it said you’d get 5 percent off for paying with CurrentC, some people might be willing to use it. In the short-term, this would eradicate any savings on credit card fees for the merchants. But eventually, if the app gains a loyal user base it could scale back those fees to start reaping the benefits of sidestepping credit cards.

If CurrentC doesn’t offer a vivid value proposition to consumers, it’s likely to go the way of the dinosaur while Apple Pay pushes the evolution of the rest of the mobile payments industry.

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CPI Presents Windowless Planes – Business Insider

A UK company has released details of what it would be like to fly in a windowless plane which could be in the air within 10 years.

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) has shown how a plane’s interior could be lined with ultralight, ultra thin displays which display images from the outside of the plane.

CPI says it’s possible for the panels to mirror whatever is outside in accordance with how passengers look around.

The sensation would no doubt take some getting used to.

But it’s more than just a marketing exercise. CPI says 80% of an aircraft’s weight is due to fuel and the plane itself, so taking the windows out could save airlines on running costs. There’s an approximate 0.75% fuel saving for every 1% reduction in weight, it says on its website.

"If you save weight, you save fuel," CPI claim. "And less fuel means less CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and lower operational cost.

A cross-section shows display panels and panoramic camera arrays.

Windows currently require meticulous construction to ensure that their structure maintains cabin pressure and resists cracking at 35,000 feet."

Company spokesman Dr Jon Helliwell told The Mirror that the idea could become a reality in 10 years and was simply a matter of fine-tuning the OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology that makes the "digital wallpaper" come to life.

Current OLED technology can deliver the images, but as OLEDs are sensitive to moisture, they have to be encased in inflexible glass.

"We are talking about it now because it matches the kind of development timelines that they have in the aerospace industry," Helliwell said.

Here some more pictures:

CPI

And here’s a video:

NOW WATCH: How To Land A Plane In Case Of Emergency

This article originally appeared at Business Insider Australia. Copyright 2014.

SEE ALSO: Mind-Controlled Drones Are Already A Reality

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An astronomer discovered the first exoplanet almost 100 years ago – we just didn’t realize it until now | Blastr

As far as modern-day astronomy is concerned, the first confirmation of exoplanets outside our solar system came when a team spotted two planets orbiting a star back in the early 1990s. But apparently an astronomer actually spotted the first exoplanets back in 1917 — we just didn’t realize it.

As io9 notes, new research by UCLA physics and astronomy professor Ben Zuckerman has determined that Dutch astronomer Adriaan van Maanen seemingly spotted one of the first white dwarf stars 14 light-years away while working at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. The star was named “van Maanen 2.” It turns out that the first evidence of the existence of exoplanets was actually tucked away within van Maanen’s research notes.

Here’s an excerpt from the Physics arXiv Blog breakdown of Zuckerman’s discovery:

The photosphere of a white dwarf should contain only hydrogen and helium, which is what the spectra of a standard white dwarf shows. Anything else that falls into the star should rapidly sink beneath the surface and so be unlikely to show up.

But the spectrum of van Maanen 2 contains evidence of all kinds of heavier elements.

In recent years, Zuckerman and other astronomers have shown that these elements can only come from rocky debris orbiting the star. In other words, these elements come from asteroids regularly falling into their parental white dwarf and burning up.

These elements show up in the spectra of lots of white dwarfs. Indeed, various studies of the spectral characteristics of this debris have revealed the make-up of asteroids orbiting other stars for the first time.

One question that Zuckerman and others have puzzled over is why asteroids are regularly falling into white dwarfs. And this has led them to a fascinating discovery.

It turns out that all of these white dwarfs are surrounded by rocky debris and at least one large planet. It is the gravitational perturbations from this planet that cause the asteroids to collide with each other and then spiral into their parent star….When [astronomers] find white dwarfs with heavy elements in their spectra, they now consider this good evidence of an extrasolar planet.

It’s absolutely amazing the difference some hindsight can make when we look back at research done almost a full century ago. Van Maanen was on the right track, but no one could figure out exactly what he was looking at.

Let’s keep digging, scientists — who knows what other breakthroughs could be hiding in those dusty notebooks?

io9Physics arXiv Blog

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When Did Megalodon Disappear From The Oceans? | IFLScience

October 23, 2014 | by Justine Alford

Photo credit: Karen Carr, via Wikimedia Commons

Around 28 million years ago, the largest shark to have ever lived on Earth roamed the seas, tearing apart large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Measuring up to 18 meters in length, armed with teeth up to 7 inches long, the iconic Carcharocles megalodon (“Megalodon”) was a formidable predator.

Although it has been widely regarded as extinct by the scientific community due to a lack of sightings and recent specimens, a mockumentary by the Discovery Channel perpetuated the idea that this apex predator could still be lurking deep in the ocean, avoiding detection by scientists. And of course, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. But now, a comprehensive new study by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Zurich has suggested that this ferocious vertebrate became extinct some 2.6 million years ago, rejecting popular ideas that Megalodon still survives today. The work has been published in PLOS ONE.

Megalodon fossils, in particular teeth, have been unearthed in a considerable number of places across the globe, suggesting that this animal was a cosmopolitan fish that inhabited a wide range of marine environments. These fossils generally range from the middle Miocene (15.9-11.6 million years ago [Ma]) to the Pliocene (5.3-2.6 Ma). Despite the abundance of fossils, surprisingly, little was known about the extinction of Megalodon. Researchers are particularly interested in the extinction of apex predators because of the downstream effects on the food chain that can be triggered, but working out when these events likely occurred can be tricky due to incomplete fossil records.

To gain a better understanding of the extinction of this animal, researchers sifted through the Paleobiology Database to identify the most recent Megalodon fossils and found a total of 53. Of these records, 42 were considered reliable, so only these were included in the analysis. The age of these specimens lies within a range of an upper and lower date estimate, so to account for this uncertainty they ran 10,000 simulations for each fossil. This then selected the most likely age between these boundaries.

They then applied a technique called optimal linear estimation to infer when Megalodon became extinct. This involves examining the distribution of gaps between fossil dates through time, study author Chris Clements told Live Science. Although it can’t give a specific date for when the animal became extinct, it provides the most statistically likely extinction date, he said.

According to the calculations, Megalodon became extinct around 2.6 Ma and is unlikely to have survived after this date. Six of the simulations actually inferred an extinction date after the present day, which would mean that it cannot be considered extinct. But because over 99.9% of the simulations gave a date in the past, the team rejected the hypothesis that Megalodon survives today. Hopefully, this will help dispel the popular myth that Megalodon is still skulking somewhere in our oceans.

Interestingly, the inferred date of extinction fell around the same time that modern, gigantic filter-feeding whales became established, suggesting that the disappearance of Megalodon may have contributed to the evolution of these animals. Future studies will examine this further.

[Via PLOS ONE, Live Science and University of Florida]

Read this next: Oldest Human Genome Sequenced Reveals Neanderthal Mixing

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