5 Intriguing Things: Wednesday, 2/5

A power grid attack, arctic archaeology, synthetic biological failure, cancer culture, and a goat simulator.
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1. Last April, some unknown force carried out a seemingly professional attack on a California power grid substation, knocking out 17 transformers with AK-47s.

"The attack began just before 1 a.m. on April 16 last year, when someone slipped into an underground vault not far from a busy freeway and cut telephone cables.

Within half an hour, snipers opened fire on a nearby electrical substation. Shooting for 19 minutes, they surgically knocked out 17 giant transformers that funnel power to Silicon Valley. A minute before a police car arrived, the shooters disappeared into the night... 

'This wasn't an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation,' Mark Johnson, retired vice president of transmission for PG&E, told the utility security conference, according to a video of his presentation. 'This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components.'"

 

2. Warming in the northern latitudes gives archaeologists lots of new material. But the speed of the climate change challenges their ability to preserve it

"The fortuitous discovery of the Bronze Age shoe helped the local heritage management office push for an organized rescue program to locate, assess, and search dozens of sites in the mountains of Oppland. It’s an effort that combines archaeology with high-tech mapping, glaciology, climate science, and history. When conditions are right, it’s as simple as picking the past up off the ground. 'The ice is a time machine,' says Lars Pilö, an archaeologist who works for the Oppland County council. 'When you’re really lucky, the artifacts are exposed for the first time since they were lost.'

In Scandinavia and beyond, the booming field of glacier and ice patch archaeology represents both an opportunity and a crisis. On one hand, it exposes artifacts and sites that have been preserved in ice for millennia, offering archaeologists a chance to study them. On the other hand, from the moment the ice at such sites melts, the pressure to find, document, and conserve the exposed artifacts is tremendous. 'The next 50 years will be decisive,' says Albert Hafner, an archaeologist at the University of Bern who has excavated melting sites in the Alps. 'If you don’t do it now they will be lost.'

 

3. Despite their ambitions to displace fossil fuels, synthetic biology companies have failed to scale up

"LS9 is one of several companies founded on the premise that synthetic biology—advanced genetic engineering that radically changes the way an organism functions—could be used to make new strains of bacteria and yeast that would produce not just the common biofuels ethanol and biodiesel but also hydrocarbon fuels that are nearly identical to gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Such fuels could be used more widely than existing biofuels, which typically need to be blended with conventional fuels or require special infrastructure.

But synthetic-biology companies have struggled to develop organisms that can make fuels at costs that can compete with oil, and they’ve yet to produce fuel at a large scale. Like LS9, many companies that set off to tap the gigantic markets for biofuels have pivoted toward chemicals, which command higher prices. (Breaking into these markets isn’t likely to be easy, however—they often require very high quality products, and new entrants face stiff competition from large petrochemical companies.)"

 

4. An anthropologist explores cancer culture.

"Despite the ways that cancer is being produced and lived and treated, cancer culture encourages us to see those with cancer as “brave survivors” engaged in epic, individual battles for their lives. I wrote the book because I wanted to better understand these paradoxes, ones I was seeing everywhere in cancer culture. Ultimately, I came to understand the ways that cancer is actually a central aspect of American economic, social, and political life. This fact is very difficult to see, because the languages we use to discuss cancer tend to frame it as a disease outside of our culture to be fought off, or as a disease we are in the midst of curing, or as a tragic exception to the natural life course rather than as a predictable result of the ways we understand and deal with our environments.  I wrote the book to better understand how this happens, and this limits our ability to see how cancer is caused and treated, and to provide a more accurate description of the role of cancer in American lives and cultures."

 

5. Finally, a goat simulator

"Goat Simulator, created by the Swedish-based Coffee Stain Studios, is simple: you run around and climb things as, well, a goat. You also get points for destroying objects like barrels, tables and dinnerware, and head-butting buckets at humans with the force of a sniper rifle. OK, so there is a little first-person-shooter-like action if you count the goat’s headbutting of objects. But the internet’s mainly going wild about the goat.

'When I woke up today my video with the damn goat had 100,000 views, which is like more than all our other real game trailers the last year combined,' Armin Ibrisagic, Coffee Stain Studios PR manager and the game designer who came up with the idea of the simulator, told me in an email. 'So yeah, we're really stoked that people have shown such an interest in our pet (heh, pet) project!'"

+ Grooooan. 

 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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