- Violence flares at protest near U.S. Embassy in Lebanon (Reuters):
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanese security forces fired tear gas and water canons at protesters near the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon on Sunday during a demonstration against President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Protesters, some of them waving Palestinian flags, set fires in the street and threw projectiles toward security forces that had barricaded the main road to the U.S. Embassy in the Awkar area north of Beirut.
Addressing the protesters, the head of the Lebanese Communist Party Hanna Gharib declared the United States “the enemy of Palestine” and the U.S. Embassy “a symbol of imperialist aggression” that must be closed.
Protesters burned U.S. and Israeli flags.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem has infuriated the Arab world and upset Western allies, who say it is a blow to peace efforts and risks causing further unrest in the Middle East.
Late on Saturday Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo urged the United States to abandon its decision and said the move would spur violence throughout the region.
Israel says that all of Jerusalem is its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state.
Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory and say the status of the city should be left to be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The government of Lebanon, which hosts about 450,000 Palestinian refugees, has condemned Trump’s decision. Lebanese President Michel Aoun last week called the move a threat to regional stability.
The powerful Iran-backed Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah on Thursday said it backed calls for a new Palestinian uprising against Israel in response to the U.S. decision.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also called for a protest against the decision in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut on Monday.
- Looks like a rough flu season ahead. Here are answers to ALL your flu questions (ARS Technica):
The 2017-2018 flu season is off to an early start, potentially hitting highs during the end-of-year holidays. Data so far suggests it could be a doozy. The predominant virus currently circulating tends to cause more cases of severe disease and death than other seasonal varieties. And the batch of vaccines for this year have some notable weaknesses.
To help you prepare—or just help you brush up on your flu facts—here are answers to every critical flu question you might ever have (well, hopefully). We’ll start off with the basics…
What is the flu?
The flu, or influenza, is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus (not to be confused with Haemophilus influenzae, an opportunistic bacterium that can cause secondary infections following sicknesses, such as the flu). Symptoms of the flu include chills, fever, headache, malaise, running nose, sore throat, coughing, tiredness, and muscle aches.
A little history: the flu virus gets its name from an Italian folk word that attributed colds, coughs, and fevers to the influence of the stars or astrological events. The term later evolved into to influenza di freddo, or “influence of the cold.”
Why does flu strike in the winter each year, anyway?
Though flu viruses circulate all year long, they do spike in the cold of winter. And it’s still not completely understood why. That said, researchers hypothesize that this spike is due to both changes in human behaviors and some biology. As the temperature outside drops, people tend to spend more time indoors with windows closed. There, they may be more likely to breathe in germy air and encounter sick people. Also, experiments in guinea pigs have shown that airborne flu viruses get around best when conditions are cold and dry—aka wintery.
This is just the seasonal flu we’re talking about. It’s not that big of a deal, right?
It is, actually. Seasonal flu epidemics cause three to five million cases of severe disease each year worldwide, leaving 300,000 to 500,000 dead, according to the World Health Organization. In the US, flu forces 140,000 to 710,000 people into hospitals and causes 12,000 to 56,000 deaths annually. The hardest hit are children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.
In general, how long is a person sick and contagious?
Flu virus sickens and kills by getting into our airways and storming cells in the lining of our respiratory tracts. The virus forces its way into cells, usurps cellular machinery to make copies of itself, and the resulting clone army explodes out of the cell to march forth to the next cellular victims.
After quietly running amok for one to four days (the incubation period), symptoms begin. In healthy adults, it usually takes three to seven days to shake the infection. But, people can be infectious from a day prior to showing symptoms to five to seven days after symptoms clear.
Some flu viruses are worse than others, right? So, what are the different types of flu virus and what’s up with all those numbers and letters?
Flu viruses are in the Orthomyxoviridae family of viruses, which uses RNA as its genetic code (as opposed to DNA). The family includes four types of influenza that differ by the structural proteins that form their viral particles and support their RNA. The types are simply dubbed: A, B, C, and D.
Influenza A and B are the big ones; both cause seasonal epidemics. Type A viruses are particularly dangerous because they can infect humans, several other mammals, and birds—and jump between them. They easily morph and shift into new genetic forms, making them incredibly difficult to defeat. Type A viruses are responsible for flu pandemics. Influenza B viruses, on the other hand, only infect humans and seals. With their relative lack of host-hopping, type Bs shows less genetic transformations and have not been linked to pandemics.
Influenza C viruses infect humans, dogs, and pigs, and they have caused local outbreaks. But C viruses are currently not on a seasonal rotation. Influenza D viruses are relatively new to the family, first identified in the US in 2014. They infect cattle and pigs, but have not been seen in people.
With their genetic shifting and switching, Type A flu viruses are further broken down by the types of antigens they carry—those are molecular components that can trigger our immune systems to recognize an invader and mount a defense. These antigens are hemagglutinin (Ha or H) and Neuraminidase (NA or N). These are the basis for virus names like H1N1 and H3N2. There are 18 subtypes of Hs and 11 subtypes of Ns, creating the possibility of 198 different combinations.
But wait, there’s more. Variations exist within each type of virus and even within each subtype of H and N, creating even more types of flu.
To keep it all straight, the WHO came up with a system in 1979 to officially name each flu virus. Here’s how the rules say to list the name:
type of virus (A, B, C);
the animal origin (pig, bird, etc., but no designation for human);
the location where it was isolated (e.g., Iowa);
the strain number;
the year of isolation; and
if it’s a type A virus, the H and N numbers.
So official flu designations end up looking like this: “A/duck/Alberta/35/76 (H1N1)” and “B/Brisbane/60/2008.”
I hear about the Hs and Ns the most. Why are they so important?
Yes!!! I’m so glad you asked. Let’s talk about viral invasion!
Both H and N are so important because they are critical for infection—and how we defeat the virus.
Both proteins are stuck onto the outside of the viral particles, forming little spikes that are visible under electron microscopes. Generally, H is responsible for getting the viral particle into a host cell where it can run amok. N is responsible for getting viruses out to go forth and invade more cells.
H works by grabbing onto a common sugar component of proteins that hang on cell surfaces, called sialic acid. Once attached, the viral particle gets essentially engulfed by the cell, a process called endocytosis. The cell creates a little membrane-bound bubble around the virus and then sucks it into the cell with the intention of destroying it.
Inside the now intra-cellular bubble, the pH is lower than outside of the cell. This environment triggers H to go through conformational shifts, creating longer projections that can pierce the bubble’s membrane. In other words, Hs coating the outside of the surrounded virus act like spring-loaded spikes that burst out, piercing and fusing to the membrane. This allows the virus to take over. (Pretty badass, right?)
From there, the virus can unload its contents into the cell, replicate its RNA using the cell’s replication machinery, and then start mass producing virus. When it’s time to move on, the viruses N can cleave the sialic acids on the host cell’s membrane, basically allowing the newly formed viruses to bud out.
Thus H and N are crucial to the viral invasions—but they can also be the source of their downfall. Because H and N prominently stick out from the surface of the virus, they provide a molecular signature that the immune system can use to spot the viruses—remember, I mentioned they were antigens. The immune system generates antibodies—little Y-shaped proteins—that recognize and block H and N and ignite responses that isolate and destroy the virus. That said, the antibodies that stick onto the tops of Hs are the most effective at defeating the viruses.
To get around these effective immune responses and move around to new hosts, type A viruses can morph their Hs and Ns easily. They can be dramatic changes, like swapping or making major changes to Hs, resulting in a virus changing from H0N1 to H1N1, for instance. Such big changes can create brand-new dangerous combinations and even spark pandemics. Or, there can be smaller genetic tweaks that create variation within an H subtype that can trip up immune responses and thwart vaccines.
Cut to the chase: What’s up with this year’s flu season?
According to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Thursday (December 7), the flu season is off to an early start. Flu cases tend to crest between December and February. This year, weekly surveillance suggests it may peak at the end of December. Reports of flu have picked up recently and are expected to continue to increase in the coming weeks.
The predominant viruses circulating are type A H3N2 viruses. H3 flu seasons tend to be nastier than others. To a lesser extent, surveillance has picked up another type A, H1N1, and a type B in the Yamagata lineage (lineages are used for type B viruses, instead of the Hs and Ns). This largely matches what experts predicted for this flu season.
How do experts know what to expect and prepare vaccine in advance?
Each year, experts at the World Health Organization closely monitor flu data from around the world. Around February, they make a call on the top flu types that they think will dominate in the Norther Hemisphere each season (they do the same thing around September for the Southern Hemisphere). The reference strains they pick are then used as the basis for all vaccines.
Flu vaccines generally come as trivalent or quadrivalent formulas. That is, they protect against either three (two type As and a B) or four (two type As and two type Bs) of the top circulating viruses.
For the 2017-2018 season in the Northern Hemisphere, they expected:
an A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus; and
a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus (Victoria lineage)
For the quadrivalent vaccines, they recommended tossing in a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus.
How closely does that match with what experts are seeing in the US so far?
Public health laboratories throughout the US tested 8,777 specimens between October 1 and November 25. Of those, only 1,969 (22.4 percent) were actually flu. But of those that were, 87 percent were a type A flu and 13 percent were a type B.
The type A viruses were 90 percent H3N2 and 10 percent H1N1pdm09 viruses. The type B viruses were 93.6 percent from the Yamagata lineage (which the quadrivalent vaccine would cover) and 6.5 percent from the Victoria lineage.
CDC laboratories did a full analysis on 64 H3N2 flu viruses isolated from patients. Of those, 98 percent were similar to an A/Michigan/15/2014 (3C.2a) strain, which is a reference virus representing the A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like viruses that were recommended for this year’s vaccines.
Of 13 H1N1 viruses fully characterized, all were similar to the A/Michigan/45/2015, the reference virus for this year’s vaccines.
Of 14 B/Yamagata strains fully characterized, all were similar to the B/Phuket/3073/2013-like viruses recommended for this year’s quadrivalent vaccines.
Of two B/Victoria-lineage viruses sequenced, they were both similar to the B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus recommended for this year’s vaccines. But genetic code for the H of one of the viruses had a deletion in it that reduced the effectiveness of vaccine.
So it sounds like a pretty good match. Shouldn’t this mean that the vaccines will work well?
Not exactly. Even the best seasonal flu vaccines don’t have great coverage. But this year, the H3N2 viruses are leading the pack. And it just so happens that a quirk in the way we manufacture flu vaccines makes our otherwise well-matched vaccines less effective.
In a recent commentary co-authored by the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, public health experts warned that a bad flu season is upon us. They drew their fears from data from Australia, which ended its flu season in October. Australia saw the same viruses that we’re seeing now, and it had the same vaccines that we do. And their flu season wasn’t pretty.
The authors note:
The number of notifications reached 215,280 by mid-October, far exceeding the 59,022 cases reported during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, according to the Australian Government Department of Health.
Just as we’re seeing, H3N2 dominated their season. And the vaccine was only estimated to be 10-percent effective against the H3N2s.
How do we make vaccines, and what went wrong with this one?
There are several ways to make flu vaccine, but all of them require A LOT of virus. To scale up viruses or their components, manufacturers use eggs or cells. Eggs are the cheapest, easiest, and by far the most common. Basically, scientists inject the reference viruses into a fertilized hen egg, wait a few days for the virus to incubate, collect the resulting legion of viruses, then kill and purify them. The Hs and Ns in the resulting vaccine can then train our immune systems to identify the viruses we’ll see that season.
The catch is that our cells are not exactly like chicken eggs. Earlier this year, scientists suggested that, when the reference strain for the H3N2 that’s currently circulating was put into eggs, it developed a mutation in its H that allowed it to better infect eggs. But that mutation also meant that the antibodies we make against that vaccine aren’t as good at detecting the original H3N2 circulating.
Should I even bother getting vaccinated?
YES. Get vaccinated.
Although things look bleak based on the Australian data, flu seasons are notoriously unpredictable. And even vaccine effectiveness as low as 30 percent can still prevent millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of hospitalizations.
Is one type of vaccine better than the others?
There are many types of flu vaccines. As mentioned, you an choose from the trivalent or quadrivalent. People over the age of 65 can also get higher dose shots.
There are also egg-free or recombinant vaccine options, if you have an allergy or are worried about the H3N2 mutation. These vaccines are manufactured in cell cultures instead of egg. Recombinant vaccines involve only parts of flu virus—most importantly the H—that are added to a different virus and grown in cells.
Vaccines can be administered in several ways: into a muscle with a standard needle, into the skin with a microneedle, or with a needleless jet injector that uses a high-pressure stream of fluid to push the vaccine into you. The CDC says that are all are equally good. But, as was the case last year, experts do not recommend the nasal spray flu vaccine, based on poor effectiveness.
It’s late in the game—should I still get vaccinated? What if I’m already sick or feel like I’m getting the flu?
It’s not too late for the healthy. Flu season may peak soon, but it can drag on into March. If you’re feeling fine, get one before the holiday celebrations begin and snotty family members arrive.
If you’re not feeling fine, you may be too late. It takes about two weeks for flu antibodies to build up after vaccination. So, if you’ve already been infected with a flu virus, the vaccine won’t kick in fast enough. But, if you just have a cold or other mild illness, you should be fine to get vaccinated—as long as you don’t have a fever. If you have a fever, wait until it clears.
Man, what a pain all this is. Are we ever going to get better vaccines or—dare we ask—a single one that protects against all the possible kinds??
The potential pitfall of the egg-based vaccines revealed this year has spurred public health experts to call for a re-think of manufacturing. That has the potential to bring some improvements in the relatively near future.
For the much longer term, researchers continue to work toward developing a single vaccine to rule all flu viruses—a so-called universal flu vaccine. The NIH has made it a priority. One strategy is to target the conserved base of H spikes, rather than the easily accessible, but frequently changing heads.
Researchers think that, if a vaccine can spur antibodies to attach to the conserved stalk region, it could knock out several types of virus, regardless of how often their H heads shifted. But, it’s proven difficult so far, and years, if not decades, will likely go by before we see a universal flu vaccine in clinics.
- How Bitcoin Is Stolen: 5 Common Threats (Fortune):
A bitcoin mining service was hacked to the tune of $64 million this week, underscoring once again how the world of digital currency attracts scammers and thieves.
Such stories can scare off amateur investors who fear bitcoin isn’t just volatile, but that it’s insecure. This isn’t really fair to bitcoin. The reality is bitcoin is secure, and ordinary people can protect it without much effort. The real problem is not everyone understands how bitcoin works, which leads them to make choices that expose them to theft.
This will become clear in the examples below, which describe five common ways that thieves make off with other people’s bitcoin. But first there’s a short explanation of how bitcoin works and why it’s secure (skip this if you’re already familiar).
How Bitcoin’s Technology Protects Your Funds
You can think of bitcoin as money that comes wrapped in a safety deposit box. The question then becomes whether you want to operate that box yourself, or entrust a third party to do it for you.
Most ordinary investors choose the latter option, buying, and storing their bitcoin with a service like Coinbase. This is a sensible option since those services rely on the security features built into bitcoin—just like you would do if you hold the bitcoin yourself.
The other option is to acquire a bitcoin wallet for yourself. This entails keeping track of two strings of keyboard characters—known as a “public key” and a “private key.” You can think of the public key like a deposit slot for your safety deposit box where anyone can give you bitcoin, while the private key is a secret way to open the box that only you should know.
Bitcoin is designed so that it’s basically impossible to guess the private key, which means no one can hack or force themselves into your wallet/safety deposit box.
All of this means that the only way bitcoin can be stolen is for a thief to trick you—or a third party you rely on—into giving access to it, or for the third party to get compromised. Here are the examples on how this happens, and advice on how to prevent it.
A Thief Obtains the Password for Your Account at a Storage Service
How it happens: If you use a service like Coinbase, you don’t have to go through the hassle of remembering a public and private key. Instead, it’s more like online banking where you use a user name (typically an email address) and a basic password.
This also makes it possible for thieves to rob you by obtaining your password. The most common way they do this is by breaking into customers’ email accounts, and then asking Coinbase (or whatever service you’re using) to reset their password. The password reset request is then sent to the compromised email account, allowing the thief access to the bitcoin funds.
How to prevent it: First, lock down your email account with two-factor authentication to keep the hackers out in the first place. You should also do the same with your bitcoin storage service. In the case of Coinbase, the company already requires a two-factor log-in process that consists of a password and an SMS text. But because texts can be intercepted, you should avail yourself of an app-based verification option such as Google Authenticator. (This may sound complicated, but it’s not. This is they same basic cyber hygiene you should use for any password-protected online service.)
You Expose Your Private Key
How it happens: Once again, this risk only exists if you’re not using a service like Coinbase but managing your own wallet. In this situation, someone else might obtain your private key by getting into your email (if that’s where you keep it) or even seeing the private key in the physical world. In one famous example, someone showed their private key on a TV show—and hackers promptly copied it and emptied the person’s wallet.
How to prevent it: Store your private key off-line on a piece of paper or on a USB stick, and put it somewhere safe—like a real world safety deposit box.
A Hacker Impersonates a Bitcoin Recipient
How it Happens: Some of the more notorious bitcoin-related hacking stories this year occurred when companies held so-called “initial coin offerings” (a form of fundraising) and asked investors to send them bitcoins. In certain cases, clever hackers impersonated the companies with a fake website and persuaded the investors to send millions of dollars worth of funds to a different bitcoin wallet. Once the bitcoin was sent, there was no recovering it, and both the companies and investors lost their bitcoin.
How to prevent it: When you go to transfer bitcoin funds to someone, confirm the wallet address is genuine.
You Rely on an Insecure Third Party
How it happens: This week’s $64 million theft at the bitcoin mining service, known as NiceHash, appears to have occurred because hackers compromised an employee’s laptop and got access to the company’s payment services. Once the hackers were inside, they gained access to one of the company’s bitcoin wallets—which included funds belonging to NiceHash customers—and emptied it.
These sort of incidents are a little bit like when hackers compromised Target’s payment system, and stole customers’ credit card information. In the case of bitcoin owners, they are doing business with companies that don’t have proper cybersecurity measures in place—and worse, unlike the Target breach, no one is likely to refund their money.
How to prevent it: Be careful of the bitcoin companies with which you choose to do business.
The Exit Scam
How it happens: A company offers a bitcoin-related service such as an exchange or a market where customers maintain an account in bitcoin. All of a sudden the company vanishes, often after claiming to have been hacked. In reality, the owners pulled an exit scam—vanishing from the Internet with their clients’ bitcoin.
How to prevent it: Exit scams are often associated with the darker corners of the web or with fly-by-night crypto investment ventures. If these are the sort of places you like to roll with you bitcoin, well, the only advice is “buyer beware.”
- Apple ‘to buy Shazam for $400m’ (BBC):
Apple is close to buying the music recognition app Shazam for about $400m (£300m), media reports say.
Shazam, a UK company founded in 1999, allows people to use their smartphone or computer to identify and buy music through a snippet of sound.
Shazam, which says it has more than 100 million monthly users, makes most of its revenue from commissions paid on referrals to Apple’s iTunes Store.
Neither Apple nor Shazam have commented on the reports on the TechCrunch site.
If the deal is confirmed, Shazam will become the latest in a string of UK technology firms to be bought up by larger businesses.
The influential Music Business Worldwide site points out that the reported price is significantly lower than the $1bn valuation placed on Shazam during its last funding round in 2015.
By acquiring Shazam, Apple would basically cut out the middleman and save money on commissions.
It would also hurt the competition, since Shazam would no longer be referring people to rivals Spotify and Google Play Music.
The deal would also help the Apple Music service gain ground on Spotify, by making it easier for users to find songs and add them to playlists.
At present, Spotify has 60 million users worldwide, while Apple Music has just 27 million.
- Reddit boosts brands’ listening, publishing capabilities with Sprinklr partnership (Marketing Dive):
Reddit has partnered with Sprinklr, making the customer experience management platform the first to offer brands listening and publishing access on the social media site, per a press release.
Before the partnership, brands advertising on Reddit had to take a hands-on, manual approach that could make fostering engagement with users a time-consuming process. By leveraging Sprinklr’s capabilities, businesses can view current and historical data for brand sentiment analytics and to make brand decisions faster.
According to Sprinklr, the integration with Reddit offers marketers a number of benefits, including customer care and engagement with some measure of automation, product development insights based on Reddit discussions, crisis communications and personalized marketing based on user data.
Marketing on Reddit has been notoriously tricky to date. The site — which touts itself as “the front page of the internet” — has been around longer than most in the social media space, but its fans are extremely protective of a user experience that’s remained largely unchanged and have been openly disdainful toward how other platforms like Twitter and Facebook are now cluttered with advertising. Unlike those websites, Reddit is largely built on fan discussion forums that are focused on specific topics, hobbies or pop culture ephemera, creating active but often insular communities that don’t appreciate intrusion from corporate entities.
A Mashable report questions how Reddit users will react to brands having both listening and publishing access to the platform via Sprinklr. While brands will certainly appreciate the expanded toolkit, their efforts will be for naught if they don’t integrate their messaging with authenticity and careful targeting. The news comes as Reddit is attempting to better monetize its site and an active user base that numbers in the hundreds of millions.
Its co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman has been making a concentrated effort to excise some of the more troll-ish, abusive behavior from the communities, The Wall Street Journal reported last month. Earlier this year, it ramped up video advertising and its self-serve ad platform in a bid to draw more brand interest. And, in July 2016, Reddit launched Promoted User Posts, an advertising program that allowed brands to sponsor user-generated content in a manner akin to influencer marketing. In return, users received a lifetime subscription to the site’s premier membership program, Reddit Gold.
At the time, Huffman told Ad Age that Reddit’s users “don’t like being bulls—–d” and that the platform is one where people will call out overt marketing.
- How to watch the Geminids, one of the most active meteor showers of the year (CBC News Canada):
It may be chilly out, but if you bundle up and step outside over the next week, you’ll be able to enjoy one of the most active meteor showers of the year: the Geminids.
Though you can spot a meteor on any given night, Earth has a major meteor shower almost every month, when it passes through a trail of debris left over from a passing comet or asteroid.
Each December, we pass through debris from asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which orbits the sun once every 524 days.
The shower runs from Dec. 4-23, but peaks on the night of Dec. 13-14. Though you can head out any time to catch a few, your best bet is likely from Dec. 12 to the night of Dec. 15.
During the peak, you can see upwards of 120 meteors an hour as they travel through the atmosphere at 35 km/s. But to do so, you should get to a dark site.
3200 Phaethon may be something astronomers refer to as a “dead comet,” in part because of its highly elliptical orbit around the sun. But astronomers still aren’t sure how to classify this intriguing rock as, when it nears the sun, it doesn’t produce a tail like comets do.
Interestingly, on Dec. 16 the asteroid — discovered in 1983 — zips past Earth roughly 10 million kilometers away.
The best thing about this year’s Geminids is the moon, or lack thereof, which will be only roughly 14 per cent illuminated on the night of Dec. 13, meaning there won’t be any significant bright light to drown out the fainter meteors.
So where to look? You just need to look up. But, there is a direction from which the meteors seem to be coming, called the radiant. This shower’s radiant lies in the constellation Gemini, hence the name.
Gemini rises in the east around 10 p.m., but the later it is, the better your chance at seeing some meteors, as the constellation gets higher in the sky where it’s darker. And try to stay away from anything bright — including your phone.
So, if you have clear skies and plan to brave the elements, head to a dark location and look up. If you’re in a light-polluted city like Toronto or Vancouver, you’ll likely still manage to catch some of the brightest meteors, as this shower tends to produce bright ones with great colour. Just try to stay away from streetlights and you’re sure to catch a few.