A 100-Drone Swarm, Dropped from Jets, Plans Its Own Moves

What’s small, fast, and is launched from the bottom of a fighter jet? Not missiles, but a swarm of drones.

U.S. military officials have announced that they’ve carried out their largest ever test of a drone swarm released from fighter jets in flight. In the trials, three F/A-18 Super Hornets released 103 Perdix drones, which then communicated with each other and went about performing a series of formation flying exercises that mimic a surveillance mission.

But the swarm doesn’t know how, exactly, it will to perform the task before it’s released. As William Roper of the Department of Defense explained in a statement:

Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.

Releasing drones from a fast-moving jet isn’t straightforward, as high speeds and turbulence buffet them, causing them damage. But the Perdix drone, originally developed by MIT researchers and named after a Greek mythical character who was turned into a partridge, is now in its sixth iteration and able to withstand speeds of Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10 °C during release.

A Washington Post report last year explained that they had been developed as part of a $20 million Pentagon program to augment the current fleet of military drones. It’s hoped that the small aircraft, which weigh around a pound each and are relatively inexpensive because they’re made from off-the-shelf components, could be dropped by jets to perform missions that would usually require much larger drones, like the Reaper.

Clearly, they’re well on the way to being that useful. Now, the Pentagon is working with its own Silicon Valley-style innovation organization, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, to build fleets of the micro-drones.

(Read more: The Washington Post, “The Pentagon’s Innovation Experiment”)

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10 Steps to Starting a Side Business While Working a Full-Time Job

We are living at a time of unlimited potential. Never before have we experienced such a rapid growth in the number of young entrepreneurs who’ve begun working for themselves. From app developers, to freelance writers, business consultants, creative producers, and startup founders, there’s no shortage of people willing…

Read more…

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Facebook’s diversity push hampered by its own hiring practices

2016 was supposed to be the year that Facebook took the lead in positive hiring practices and show the rest of the industry what a truly diverse workforce looked like. To that end the company instituted a points-based incentive program the year prior, geared towards bringing on more hispanic, black and female workers. So far, it hasn’t worked out too well (no, Peter Thiel doesn’t count). And now it appears we finally know why.

The problem lies within the company’s own hiring practices. Specifically, it’s the company’s multi-tiered system, which vests a vast majority of the final hiring decision with a small group of executives. According to a Bloomberg report, despite a number of minority candidates making it through the rigorous interview process, the final decision always fell on engineering leaders who nearly exclusively picked white or Asian men. What’s more, these leaders relied heavily on conventional metrics like where the candidate went to college, where they had worked before and whether a current Facebook employee could vouch for them. This practice drastically limited the pool of potential employees to just those candidates that looked like, acted like, or grew up like the existing staff. It also hamstrung the recruiters’ ability to cultivate a more diverse workforce at the company.

"Facebook recruits from hundreds of schools and employers from all over the world, and most people hired at Facebook do not come through referrals from anyone at the company," a company spokeswoman told Bloomberg. "Once people begin interviewing at Facebook, we seek to ensure that our hiring teams are diverse. Our interviewers and those making hiring decisions go through our managing bias course and we remain acutely focused on improving our ability to hire people with different backgrounds and perspectives."

Despite Facebook’s boilerplate denial that its hiring system isn’t systematically rigged against minority candidates, the company’s incentive program clearly isn’t working. Over the past two years Facebook has hired barely any more women than it had in 2014 while black and hispanic hires were unchanged. Even though black and hispanic students constitute 6 percent and 8 percent of computer science graduates, respectively, though still represent just 3 percent and 1 percent of Facebook’s overall workforce.

The problem lies, as always, within Facebook’s upper echelons of management. This is the same issue that we saw with Facebook’s attempts to control the private sale of firearms through its site last year. Despite the overwhelming support from both the FB user community and rank and file engineers, the efforts were ultimately thwarted by a small cadre of managers led by director of engineering, Chuck Rossi. So until Facebook gets its management house in order and stops treating the multinational corporation’s boardroom like a college frat house, don’t expect much meaningful change on any of these issues.

Source: Bloomberg

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Yahoo to change name to Altaba once Verizon buys brand and operations

Yahoo, one of the Internet’s most venerable companies, won’t exist for much longer. Verizon officially acquired Yahoo for $4.8 billion in July, and a new financial filing from the company includes details of what’s going to happen.

That July sale included Yahoo’s operating business, but it didn’t include the big chunk of Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba owned by Yahoo, and it didn’t include certain other assets, mostly shares of Asia-based companies and non-core patents. What remains, according to SEC paperwork filed today, will be rolled into an “investment company” called Altaba.

The size of the board will be reduced to five directors, and many key executives will leave, including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Yahoo co-founder David Filo. Also out are Eddy Hartenstein, Richard Hill, Jane Shaw, and Maynard Webb. The departures are not “due to any disagreement with the Company on any matter relating to the Company’s operations, policies, or practices,” according to the company’s filing.

Yahoo is the second early web giant that was purchased by Verizon. In 2015, Verizon paid $4.4 billion for AOL.

The Yahoo purchase hasn’t gone smoothly. At one point, shortly after what looked like a major state-sponsored hacking attack on Yahoo, Verizon was reportedly getting cold feet about its purchase.

While Mayer won’t be on the team overseeing the Altaba investments, it isn’t clear if she’ll have a future inside the Verizon behemoth. Previous agreements call for Mayer to get $55 million if she’s ousted.

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As Venezuelans Go Hungry, The Military Is Trafficking In Food

A Venezuelan soldier watches over cargo trucks leaving the port in Puerto Cabello, which handles the majority of the country’s food imports. Across the chain of command, from high-level generals to the lowest foot soldiers, military officials are using their growing power over the food supply to siphon off wealth for themselves.

Ricardo Nunes/AP

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Ricardo Nunes/AP

A Venezuelan soldier watches over cargo trucks leaving the port in Puerto Cabello, which handles the majority of the country’s food imports. Across the chain of command, from high-level generals to the lowest foot soldiers, military officials are using their growing power over the food supply to siphon off wealth for themselves.

Ricardo Nunes/AP

In Venezuela, food has become so scarce it’s now being sold on the black market. One person tells the Associated Press, “it’s a better business than drugs.”

And the food traffickers are the very people sworn to protect Venezuela: The nation’s military.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gave the military complete control of the food supply last summer, after people began protesting in the streets over food rationing. Shortages had become so bad that people were even ransacking groceries – though many were largely empty.

These days, hunger remains widespread. But if you venture into the black markets, you’ll find foods that aren’t available in the state-run supermarkets, “where people would prefer to shop because it’s a lot cheaper,” says Joshua Goodman, the AP’s news director for the Andes. He was part of the AP team that investigated the food trafficking situation.

“These goods are only getting into the country because the military is importing them,” Goodman tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “And when you see the food sold at these makeshift markets, there’s usually military people standing by with weapons, watching over it all, if not actually selling the food directly.”

And the military isn’t just running these black markets – it’s getting rich off them, Goodman says.

He was part of an AP investigation into the military’s role in trafficking food and spoke to Cornish about the findings. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

How does this affect the price of food?

Right now there are some things that are incredibly cheap in Venezuela but in incredibly scarce supply. If you’re one of the lucky people to get the food at the government-set price, you are doing quite well. But a lot of people can’t afford to spend an entire day in line at a state supermarket, only to find the shelves have already been emptied by the time they get through the door. So a lot of people do have to go to the black market to find food. It’s a very unfortunate situation. Something like 80 percent of the country right now says they have lost weight because of what they sort of joke is the President Maduro diet – the forced austerity upon the country.

You found lots of examples of how, essentially, the military is getting rich off controlling the food supply – even when people are trying to bring food into the country.

We documented a case of a South American businessman. He admitted to us that he had paid millions of dollars in bribes over the years to bring food into the country. And he really didn’t care who he was paying, because the prices [at which] he was able to sell to the government were so sky high — something like more than double the international price for a shipment of corn, for example. And that made it very easy for him to pay kickbacks to government officials. And of course, that worked its way all down the food chain. This businessman specifically pointed to the food minister right now, who’s a military general, or people close to him having received the money that he was paying.

Now what’s happened to people trying to bring evidence of this corruption to the president?

Venezuelan right now is a very opaque place. We don’t have a lot of info about the internal deliberations of the government. There are some people in the military who clearly are upset with this situation. However, there are some serious entrenched interests within the military who are politically important to President Maduro. He is a man who is a hanging by a thread … he does not have the popularity of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. And the military for him has become an invaluable crutch in the face of mass street protests and sinking popularity and hyperinflation, almost.

So this is a way to keep [the military] paid, frankly. Is that what’s going on?

It’s a way to keep them fed, you could even argue. Because a lot of this food, I’m sure, is going to the families of the military, to feed their own families and friends. And yeah, it puts money in their pocket at a time when there really isn’t much money in the country.

What has shocked you most about this situation?

I think what has shocked me the most is the degree to which the military has really sullied its own reputation. They were seen by many as a disciplined force that could actually provide answers to the serious problems Venezuela is facing. Instead they seem to be much more self-interested, much more corrupt than I had imagined when we started this project.

You’ve talked to a lot of officials in your story. For average Venezuelans – what are people saying about this?

They’re outraged. They know fully well that while they’re not eating, people are getting rich. This is an issue that touches the stomachs, literally, of every Venezuelan. A lot of Venezuelans who would be sympathetic to the government are very upset over this issue. And when they find out people are actually profiting from it — it’s a potentially explosive situation for the government.

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The Friendship Bench Can Help Chase The Blues Away

A community counselor, left, speaks to a patient on the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe.

Courtesy of King’s College London

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Courtesy of King’s College London

A community counselor, left, speaks to a patient on the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe.

Courtesy of King’s College London

Things were already going pretty badly for Florence Manyande. Then one day last spring, while walking down the street, she was hit by a car.

“This woman saw, and she pulled me out of the road.” recalls Manyande, 50. “She tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t talk then. I had a lot on my mind.”

Her run of bad luck had begun in 2010, when Manyande’s husband skipped out on her and her three kids. “I had no way to pay school fees for my children,” she says, and no way to pay rent. “Even my relatives were shunning me. They couldn’t take me in because they said, ‘We have our own problems.'”

By the time Manyande had her accident, she was thinking about killing herself.

Then her fortune took a turn. The woman who found her, injured, on the road happened to be a health worker. She took Manyande to the clinic to get bandaged up. “While I was there,” Manyande says, “she introduced me to the Friendship Bench.”

A Friendship Bench is quite literally a park bench — with a higher calling. In Zimbabwe, where Manyande lives, friendship benches are located on the grounds of medical clinics around Harare and other major cities. They’re a safe place where trained community members counsel folks struggling with what they, in the local Shona language, call kufungisisa (“thinking too much”) or what Americans call depression.

Dr. Dixon Chibanda, a psychiatrist at the University of Zimbabwe, came up with the name Friendship Bench — or chigaro che hushamwari in Shona — back in 2006. In Zimbabwe, as in most places, there’s a lot of stigma around mental illness. Patients may feel uncomfortable with the idea of going to a mental health clinic. Traditionally, Zimbabweans with depression may see a healer about an exorcism — many view mental illness as a curse. And there is a shortage of professional help: 13 psychiatrists serve a population of 13 million.

While completing his master’s in public health, Chibanda was looking for a solution. After speaking with various community leaders and health workers, he figured out that while people were loathe to head to a mental clinic and speak with a lab-coated medical professional about their mental health, they were generally willing to sit on a park bench and share their worries with someone within their own community,

At these benches, community counselors and patients meet weekly to discuss intimate issues — and develop a plan to overcome difficulties. As part of the treatment, there are also group therapy sessions, when patients gather and sit around the bench. “It’s all about empowering people to go and solve their own problems,” Chibanda says.

The strategy seems to be working, according to a new study published in JAMA. The study followed 573 patients in Harare with anxiety or depression for a six-month period. Half of them received the standard treatment: A nurse spoke to them about what they were going through and prescribed medication as needed. The other half went to a Friendship Bench to meet with community members who’d been trained to give both one-on-one and group counseling.

Six months later, half of those who received basic treatment still showed symptoms of depression, whereas only 13 percent of those who participated in Friendship Bench program still had symptoms.

Mental health interventions often “select good therapists and basically bus them in,” adds Dr. Melanie Abas, a psychiatrist at King’s College London and one of the study’s co-authors. “This is really one of the few examples where treatments for common mental health problems have been delivered by people who actually live and work in the community.”

Most of the Friendship Bench counselors are older women who already command respect within their communities. And they’ve played a big role in stemming fears about seeking help for mental health issues,

The counselors avoid the Western terms “depression” and “anxiety,” which to many might sound foreign and unrelatable. Instead, the counselors may suggest that someone has been “thinking a bit too much” and guide them through the different stages of talk therapy, which in Shona are called kuvhura pfungwa (“opening of the mind”), kusimudzira (“uplifting”), and kusimbisa (“strengthening”). “We use indigenous terms,” Chibanda says. “These are words that people in the community can identify with.”

Traditionally, Zimbabweans with depression may see a healer about an exorcism — many view mental illness as a curse, Abas notes. People are more likely to admit they’ve got mental health issues when offered the relatively low-key alternative of chatting on a park bench.

The Friendship Bench initiative is now being expanded throughout Zimbabwe. So far, 27,000 people suffering from common mental health disorders have tried the program.

This strategy is not without drawbacks, Abas says. The community counselors require continual training and supervision, which is why they report to a district supervisor with more formal medical and psychological training. And funding is another issue. Right now, the program depends on grant money; the researchers say that the government will eventually have to pitch in to sustain the program.

Despite those complications, “it’s just a great model, and it’s impressive,” says Brandon Kohrt, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University who wasn’t involved in the development of the Friendship Bench program or in the recent study.

“It’s often very stigmatizing to have to go to a mental health professional,” Kohrt says. “So it’s great that their approach didn’t require people to go to a location — like a psychiatric hospital — that was seen as somewhere only really ill incurable people went.”

The program also attests to the power of community, says Kohrt, and harnessing the community to support those suffering mental illness. He believes that “the lessons from this can be applied globally, even in high income countries.”

For Florence Manyande, at least, beyond helping her quell suicidal thoughts, the Friendship Bench has helped her build the sort of community she had been craving. At a group therapy session, Manyande says, “I made a friend who introduced me to a sister who had accommodation.” No longer homeless, Manyande learned to crochet bags, which she now sells to make money until she can find full-time employment. “My relationship with my relatives has also improved,” she says, “now that I don’t go to their houses begging for money or food.”

Most important, “I realized at the Friendship Bench I have someone who is willing to listen to my problems,” she says. “I was so happy about that.”

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