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1 ☆ 152,568 shares, 2,565 trendiness, 1479 words and 12 minutes reading time

ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

China is build­ing a dig­i­tal dic­ta­tor­ship to ex­ert con­trol over its 1.4 bil­lion cit­i­zens. For some, social credit” will bring priv­i­leges — for oth­ers, pun­ish­ment.

Dandan Fan is very much the mod­ern Chinese woman.

A mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional, she’s dili­gent and pros­per­ous — in many ways she’s a model Chinese cit­i­zen.

But Dandan is be­ing watched 24 hours a day.

A vast net­work of 200 mil­lion CCTV cam­eras across China en­sures there’s no dark cor­ner in which to hide.

Every step she takes, every one of her ac­tions big or small — even what she thinks — can be tracked and judged.

And Dandan says that’s fine with her.

What may sound like a dystopian vi­sion of the fu­ture is al­ready hap­pen­ing in China. And it’s mak­ing and break­ing lives.

The Communist Party calls it social credit” and says it will be fully op­er­a­tional by 2020.

Within years, an of­fi­cial Party out­line claims, it will allow the trust­wor­thy to roam freely un­der heaven while mak­ing it hard for the dis­cred­ited to take a sin­gle step”.

Social credit is like a per­sonal score­card for each of China’s 1.4 bil­lion cit­i­zens.

In one pi­lot pro­gram al­ready in place, each cit­i­zen has been as­signed a score out of 800. In other pro­grams it’s 900.

Those, like Dandan, with top citizen scores” get VIP treat­ment at ho­tels and air­ports, cheap loans and a fast track to the best uni­ver­si­ties and jobs.

It will al­low the trust­wor­thy to roam freely un­der heaven while mak­ing it hard for the dis­cred­ited to take a sin­gle step.”

Those at the bot­tom can be locked out of so­ci­ety and banned from travel, or barred from get­ting credit or gov­ern­ment jobs.

The sys­tem will be en­forced by the lat­est in high-tech sur­veil­lance sys­tems as China pushes to be­come the world leader in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

Surveillance cam­eras will be equipped with fa­cial recog­ni­tion, body scan­ning and geo-track­ing to cast a con­stant gaze over every cit­i­zen.

Smartphone apps will also be used to col­lect data and mon­i­tor on­line be­hav­iour on a day-to-day ba­sis.

Then, big data from more tra­di­tional sources like gov­ern­ment records, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tional and med­ical, state se­cu­rity as­sess­ments and fi­nan­cial records, will be fed into in­di­vid­ual scores.

Trial so­cial credit sys­tems are now in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment in at least a dozen cities across China.

Several com­pa­nies are work­ing with the state to na­tion­alise the sys­tem, co-or­di­nate and con­fig­ure the tech­nol­ogy, and fi­nalise the al­go­rithms that will de­ter­mine the na­tional cit­i­zen score.

It’s prob­a­bly the largest so­cial en­gi­neer­ing pro­ject ever at­tempted, a way to con­trol and co­erce more than a bil­lion peo­ple.

If suc­cess­ful, it will be the world’s first dig­i­tal dic­ta­tor­ship.

At the su­per­mar­ket, Dandan is brows­ing the aisles. Even this every­day task will not es­cape the Party’s pen­e­trat­ing gaze.

When so­cial credit is fully im­ple­mented, what she puts into the trol­ley could im­pact her so­cial score.

Buying too much al­co­hol might sug­gest de­pen­dence; she’ll lose a cou­ple of points.

But buy­ing a pack of nap­pies might sug­gest re­spon­si­bil­ity; she’ll gain a few points.

The sys­tem will be live” so her score will up­date in real time.

Dandan does­n’t ob­ject to the prospect of life un­der the state’s all-see­ing sur­veil­lance net­work.

The 36-year-old knows so­cial credit is not a per­fect sys­tem but be­lieves it’s the best way to man­age a com­plex coun­try with the world’s biggest pop­u­la­tion.

I think peo­ple in every coun­try want a sta­ble and safe so­ci­ety,” she says.

If, as our gov­ern­ment says, every cor­ner of pub­lic space is in­stalled with cam­eras, I’ll feel safe.”

She’s also likely to ben­e­fit from the sys­tem.

Dandan’s fi­nan­cial be­hav­iour will be an im­por­tant mea­sure for the na­tional so­cial credit score.

Under an ex­ist­ing fi­nan­cial credit scheme called Sesame Credit, Dandan has a very high score of 770 out of 800 — she is very much the loyal Chinese cit­i­zen.

Thanks to her rat­ing, Dandan is al­ready able to par­take in many of the re­wards of China’s rapid de­vel­op­ment.

An app on her phone gives ac­cess to spe­cial priv­i­leges like rent­ing a car, ho­tel room or a house with­out a de­posit.

If, as our gov­ern­ment says, every cor­ner of pub­lic space is in­stalled with cam­eras, I’ll feel safe.”

But so­cial credit will be af­fected by more than just in­ter­net brows­ing and shop­ping de­ci­sions.

Who your friends and fam­ily are will af­fect your score. If your best friend or your dad says some­thing neg­a­tive about the gov­ern­ment, you’ll lose points too.

Who you date and ul­ti­mately part­ner with will also af­fect so­cial credit.

Dandan mar­ried for love but she chose the right hus­band — Xiaojing Zhang is likely to have an even higher score than her.

He’s a civil ser­vant in the jus­tice de­part­ment, a loyal cadre to the party.

We need a so­cial credit sys­tem,” says Xiaojing.

In the Chinese na­tion, we hope we can help each other, love each other, and help every­one be­come pros­per­ous.

As President Xi said, we will be rich and de­mo­c­ra­tic, cul­tural, har­mo­nious and beau­ti­ful.

It is Xi’s hope for the coun­try’s fu­ture. It is also the hope of the whole Chinese na­tion.”

China has long been a sur­veil­lance state, so the cit­i­zenry is ac­cus­tomed to the gov­ern­ment tak­ing a de­ter­min­ing role in per­sonal af­fairs.

For many in China, pri­vacy does­n’t have the same pre­mium as it does in the West.

The Chinese place a higher value on com­mu­nity good ver­sus in­di­vid­ual rights, so most feel that, if so­cial credit will bring a safer, more se­cure, more sta­ble so­ci­ety, then bring it on.

But most don’t seem to com­pre­hend the all-en­com­pass­ing con­trol so­cial credit is likely to have, and there’s been no pub­lic de­bate about im­ple­ment­ing the sys­tem in­side China.

In pri­vate, there’s been some dis­quiet in the ed­u­cated mid­dle classes about the cit­i­zen score be­ing the only cri­te­rion for char­ac­ter as­sess­ment.

But that’s not go­ing to stop the roll­out.

The Party is us­ing the sys­tem to win back some of the con­trol it lost when China opened up to the world in the 1980s and rapid de­vel­op­ment fol­lowed.

It’s a way to si­lence dis­sent and en­sure the Party’s ab­solute dom­i­nance.

Already, about 10 mil­lion peo­ple have been pun­ished in the trial ar­eas of so­cial credit.

Liu Hu is just one of them.

In many so­ci­eties, he would be cel­e­brated. Not in China.

Liu Hu is an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist who has un­cov­ered cor­rup­tion at the top lev­els of the Party and solved se­r­ial mur­der cases.

He says the gov­ern­ment con­sid­ers him an en­emy.

Hu lost his so­cial credit when he was charged with a speech crime and now finds him­self locked out of so­ci­ety due to his low score.

In 2015, Hu lost a defama­tion case af­ter he ac­cused an of­fi­cial of ex­tor­tion.

He was made to pub­lish an apol­ogy and pay a fine but when the court de­manded an ad­di­tional fee, he re­fused.

Last year, the 43-year-old found him­self black­listed as dishonest” un­der a pi­lot so­cial credit scheme.

There are a lot of peo­ple who are on the black­list wrongly, but they can’t get off it,” says Hu.

It’s de­stroyed his ca­reer and iso­lated him, and he now fears for his fam­i­ly’s fu­ture.

The so­cial credit sys­tem has closed down his travel op­tions and kept him un­der ef­fec­tive house ar­rest in his home­town of Chongqing.

Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know lit­tle about the world and live in an il­lu­sion.”

In an apart­ment above the streets of Chongqing city, Hu tries to use a phone app to book train tick­ets to Xi’an. The at­tempt is re­jected.

[The app] says it fails to make a book­ing and my ac­cess to high-speed rail is legally re­stricted,” he ex­plains.

Hu’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts, where he pub­lished much of his in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, have also been shut down.

Hu claims his com­bined Wechat and Weibo ac­counts had two mil­lion fol­low­ers at their peak but are now cen­sored.

Hu be­lieves his black­list­ing is po­lit­i­cal and has tried to ap­peal to au­thor­i­ties. So far he has been met with si­lence.

Hu wants to warn the world of the night­mare of so­cial credit.

Doing so could put his friends and fam­ily at risk of reprisals from the state, but Hu be­lieves most Chinese don’t yet un­der­stand what’s to come un­der the dig­i­tal to­tal­i­tar­ian state.

You can see from the Chinese peo­ple’s men­tal state,” says Hu.

Their eyes are blinded and their ears are blocked. They know lit­tle about the world and live in an il­lu­sion.”

Dandan sees blue skies in her dig­i­tal fu­ture. And for her, there’s an­other in­cen­tive to be op­ti­mistic about so­cial credit.

It’s a way to en­sure a happy and healthy fu­ture for her two-year-old son, Ruibao.

Thanks to his par­ents’ high cit­i­zen scores, Ruibao will get the best pos­si­ble start in life — the best hous­ing, schools and health­care.

The pro­vi­sions and pro­tec­tions of the Party will be be­stowed upon him.

So long as mum and dad keep their credit up.

...

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2 ☆ 49,779 shares, 2,023 trendiness, 1392 words and 13 minutes reading time

'A public relations nightmare': Ticketmaster recruits pros for secret scalper program

Box-office gi­ant Ticketmaster is re­cruit­ing pro­fes­sional scalpers who cheat its own sys­tem to ex­pand its re­sale busi­ness and squeeze more money out of fans, a CBC News/​Toronto Star in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veals.

In July, the news out­lets sent a pair of re­porters un­der­cover to Ticket Summit 2018, a tick­et­ing and live en­ter­tain­ment con­ven­tion at Cae­sars Palace in Las Vegas.

Posing as scalpers and equipped with hid­den cam­eras, the jour­nal­ists were pitched on Ticketmaster’s pro­fes­sional re­seller pro­gram.

Company rep­re­sen­ta­tives told them Ticketmaster’s re­sale di­vi­sion turns a blind eye to scalpers who use ticket-buy­ing bots and fake iden­ti­ties to snatch up tick­ets and then re­sell them on the site for in­flated prices. Those pricey re­sale tick­ets in­clude ex­tra fees for Ticketmaster.

I have bro­kers that have lit­er­ally a cou­ple of hun­dred ac­counts,” one sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive said. “It’s not some­thing that we look at or re­port.”

Music jour­nal­ist Alan Cross sus­pects Ticketmaster’s re­cruit­ment of scalpers might not sit well with the ticket-buy­ing pub­lic. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC )

CBC shared its find­ings with Alan Cross, a vet­eran mu­sic jour­nal­ist and host of the ra­dio pro­gram The Ongoing History of New Music, who sus­pects the ticket-buy­ing pub­lic will be far from im­pressed: “This is go­ing to be a pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare.”

He said there have been whispers of this in the ticket-sell­ing com­mu­nity, but it’s never been out­lined quite like this be­fore.”

It does seem a bit stinky, does­n’t it?”

By part­ner­ing with scalpers, Ticketmaster has done an about-face from its po­si­tion of less than a decade ago when then-CEO Irving Azoff told U. S. leg­is­la­tors: I be­lieve that scalp­ing and re­sales should be il­le­gal.”

Two floors above the slot ma­chines and black­jack ta­bles at Caesars, Ticketmaster was one of dozens of ven­dors and speak­ers at the con­ven­tion, which bills it­self as a one-of-a-kind net­work­ing event” for in­dus­try lead­ers and small busi­nesses alike.

CBC re­porter Dave Seglins signed up as David Geoffrey,” a small-time scalper from Toronto with a fic­ti­tious com­pany, DGS Promotions.

The tick­et­ing con­ven­tion was held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

With hid­den cam­eras rolling, he min­gled with some of the world’s most suc­cess­ful scalpers, doc­u­ment­ing can­did ac­counts from play­ers in­side this no­to­ri­ously se­cre­tive in­dus­try.

Casey Klein, Ticketmaster Resale di­rec­tor, held a ses­sion that was closed to the me­dia called We ap­pre­ci­ate your part­ner­ship: More bro­kers are list­ing with Ticketmaster than ever be­fore.”

The au­di­ence heard that Ticketmaster has de­vel­oped a pro­fes­sional re­seller pro­gram and within the past year launched TradeDesk, a web-based in­ven­tory man­age­ment sys­tem for scalpers. The com­pany touts it as The most pow­er­ful ticket sales tool. Ever.”

A look at the con­ven­tion floor, where top-level scalpers min­gled with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from in­dus­try lead­ers such as Ticketmaster. (CBC )​

TradeDesk allows scalpers to up­load large quan­ti­ties of tick­ets pur­chased from Ticketmaster’s site and quickly list them again for re­sale. With the click of a but­ton, scalpers can hike or drop prices on reams of tick­ets on Ticketmaster’s site based on their as­sess­ment of fan de­mand.

Neither TradeDesk nor the pro­fes­sional re­seller pro­gram are men­tioned any­where on Ticketmaster’s web­site or in its cor­po­rate re­ports. To ac­cess the com­pa­ny’s TradeDesk web­site, a per­son must first send in a reg­is­tra­tion re­quest.

On the trade show floor, a hand­ful of Ticketmaster sales­peo­ple handed out cup­cakes, and at two cu­bi­cle work­sta­tions, they pro­vided on­line demon­stra­tions of TradeDesk.

One of the pre­sen­ters, who was un­aware he was speak­ing with un­der­cover jour­nal­ists, in­sisted that Ticketmaster’s re­sale di­vi­sion is­n’t in­ter­ested in whether clients use au­to­mated soft­ware and fake iden­ti­ties to by­pass the box of­fice’s ticket-buy­ing lim­its.

If you want to get a good show and the ticket limit is six or eight … you’re not go­ing to make a liv­ing on six or eight tick­ets,” he said.

While Ticketmaster has a buyer abuse” di­vi­sion that looks out for bla­tantly sus­pi­cious on­line ac­tiv­ity, the pre­sen­ter said the re­sale di­vi­sion does­n’t po­lice TradeDesk users.

We don’t share re­ports, we don’t share names, we don’t share ac­count in­for­ma­tion with the pri­mary site. Period,” he said when asked whether he cares if scalpers use bots to buy their tick­ets.

CBC heard the same mes­sage from a dif­fer­ent Ticketmaster em­ployee dur­ing an on­line video con­fer­ence demon­stra­tion of Trad­eDesk at an ear­lier stage of the un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tion back in March.

We’ve spent mil­lions of dol­lars on this tool. The last thing we’d want to do is get bro­kers caught up to where they can’t sell in­ven­tory with us,” he said when asked whether Ticketmaster will ban scalpers who thwart ticket-buy­ing lim­its — a di­rect vi­o­la­tion of the com­pa­ny’s terms of use.

We’re not try­ing to build a bet­ter mouse­trap.”

Ticketmaster, which is owned by Live Nation, the world’s largest con­cert pro­moter, has made it clear to share­hold­ers that it plans to ex­pand fur­ther into the re­sale mar­ket.

As Part 1 of the CBC News/Toronto Star investigation re­vealed yes­ter­day, re­sale tick­ets are par­tic­u­larly lu­cra­tive for Ticketmaster be­cause the com­pany charges fees twice on the same ticket.

So, for ex­am­ple, if Ticketmaster col­lects $25.75 on a $209.50 ticket on the ini­tial sale, when the owner posts it for re­sale for $400 on the site, the com­pany stands to col­lect an ad­di­tional $76 on the same ticket.

Part 1 of the CBC News/Toronto Star in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Ticketmaster pub­lished Tuesday re­vealed how data jour­nal­ists spent seven months track­ing ticket sales for this Saturday’s Bruno Mars con­cert at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on the box-of­fice gi­ant’s web­site. They found three key ways Ticketmaster helps drive up prices for fans. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)​

CBC News ob­tained a copy of Ticketmaster’s of­fi­cial re­seller hand­book, which out­lines these fees. It also de­tails Ticketmaster’s re­ward sys­tem for scalpers. As scalpers hit mile­stones such as $500,000 or $1 mil­lion in an­nual sales, Ticketmaster will knock a per­cent­age point off its fees.

The Ticketmaster em­ployee who gave the video con­fer­ence demon­stra­tion in March said 100 scalpers in North America, in­clud­ing a hand­ful in Canada, are us­ing TradeDesk to move be­tween a few thou­sand and sev­eral mil­lion tick­ets per year.

I think our biggest bro­ker right now has prob­a­bly grabbed around five mil­lion,” he said.

Cross, who has spent the past two years re­search­ing on­line ticket sales, sus­pects some fans will read about this and con­clude Ticketmaster is col­lud­ing with scalpers.

On one hand, they say, We don’t like bots,’ but on the other hand, We have all these clients who may use bots.’”

Music writer Alan Cross an­swers read­ers’ ques­tions about how to avoid pay­ing ex­or­bi­tant prices for con­cert tick­ets:

Ticketmaster has de­clined re­peated re­quests for an in­ter­view.

CBC and the Toronto Star sub­mit­ted a list of spe­cific ques­tions about the com­pa­ny’s scalper pro­gram.

In a state­ment to CBC News, the com­pany made no men­tion of the pro­gram, nor did it com­ment on its re­cruit­ment ef­fort in Las Vegas.

Ticketmaster did say that as long as there is an im­bal­ance be­tween sup­ply and de­mand for live events, there will in­evitably be a sec­ondary mar­ket.”

As the world’s lead­ing tick­et­ing plat­form, rep­re­sent­ing thou­sands of teams, artists and venues, we be­lieve it is our job to of­fer a mar­ket­place that pro­vides a safe and fair place for fans to shop, buy and sell tick­ets in both the pri­mary and sec­ondary mar­kets,” wrote Catherine Martin, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, based in Los Angeles.

But Richard Powers, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says what Ticketmaster is do­ing is un­eth­i­cal.

With its near mo­nop­oly on box-of­fice tick­ets, Ticketmaster should not also be al­lowed to profit from the scalp­ing of those same tick­ets, he says.

Helping to cre­ate a sec­ondary mar­ket where pur­chasers are duped into pay­ing higher prices and se­cur­ing them­selves a sec­ond com­mis­sion should be il­le­gal.”

For Alan Cross, the pro­gram raises a se­ries of eth­i­cal ques­tions:

Is this a le­git­i­mate form of com­merce?Does it vi­o­late any con­sumer pro­tec­tion laws?Is it trans­par­ent and fair to con­sumers?

It is prob­a­bly go­ing to trig­ger some ques­tions,” he said, and if not from gov­ern­ments, cer­tainly from the gen­eral pub­lic.”

With files from the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb and Marco Chown Oved

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3 6,978 shares, 71 trendiness, 635 words and 5 minutes reading time

FanDuel won't make big payout due to line error

Scott Van Pelt ex­plains why de­spite be­ing in­clined to al­ways root against the house, he does­n’t back a fan’s claim for a large pay­out over a tech­ni­cal glitch. (1:14)

Scott Van Pelt ex­plains why de­spite be­ing in­clined to al­ways root against the house, he does­n’t back a fan’s claim for a large pay­out over a tech­ni­cal glitch. (1:14)

For one New Jersey bet­tor, the Denver Broncos were a long shot too good to be true.

New Jersey book­maker FanDuel de­clined to honor a $110 bet on the Broncos on Sunday that would have paid more than $82,000, due to an er­ror in the odd­s­mak­ing process, the com­pany said.

The wa­ger in ques­tion in­volved an ob­vi­ous pric­ing er­ror in­ad­ver­tently gen­er­ated by our in-game pric­ing sys­tem,” a FanDuel spokesper­son said in a state­ment.

The bet­tor, who iden­ti­fied him­self to News 12 New Jersey as Anthony Prince, placed the wa­ger over the counter at the sports­book at the Meadowlands Racetrack with Denver trail­ing the Oakland Raiders 19-17 late in the fourth quar­ter.

After quar­ter­back Case Keenum com­pleted a pass down to the Oakland 18-yard line, putting the Broncos in com­fort­able field goal range, FanDuel at­tempted to up­date the live bet­ting odds to re­flect Denver as a -600 fa­vorite. However, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany, an er­ror in the live-odds feed caused the Broncos to be posted as 750-1 (+75,000) un­der­dogs to win the game.

Prince went to the counter, bet on the Broncos at the er­ro­neous 750-1 odds and re­ceived a ticket that showed a po­ten­tial pay­out of $82,610. At the cor­rect odds of -600, he would have won a net $18.35.

Denver kicker Brandon McManus hit the 36-yard win­ning field goal with 10 sec­onds to play, giv­ing the Broncos a 20-19 win, but when Prince went to the counter, he was told the bet would not be paid out at the 750-1 odds.

FanDuel in­stead of­fered to pay him around $500 and give him tick­ets to three New York Giants games. Prince de­clined to take FanDuel’s of­fer and told News 12 New Jersey that he planned to hire an at­tor­ney.

They said their sys­tem had a glitch in it and they’re not ob­lig­ated to pay for glitches,” Prince told the TV sta­tion.

A small num­ber of bets were made at the er­ro­neous price over an 18-second pe­riod,” FanDuel said. We hon­ored all such bets on the Broncos to win the game at the ac­cu­rate mar­ket price in ac­cor­dance with our house rules and in­dus­try prac­tice, which specif­i­cally ad­dress such ob­vi­ous pric­ing er­rors. We have reached out to all im­pacted cus­tomers and apol­o­gized for the er­ror.”

The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the mat­ter. The sports bet­ting reg­u­la­tions that are in place in New Jersey state: A wa­ger­ing op­er­a­tor shall not uni­lat­er­ally re­scind any wa­ger … with­out the prior ap­proval of the Division.”

FanDuel’s house rules, how­ever, state that where a bla­tant or pal­pa­ble er­ror is made in of­fers made, prices of­fered or bets ac­cepted or in the trans­mis­sion of any event on which we have pur­ported to of­fer Live Betting, bets may be set­tled at the cor­rect price at the time at which the bet was placed, as de­ter­mined by FanDuel Sportsbook.”

Other ju­ris­dic­tions with le­gal bet­ting han­dle the is­sue dif­fer­ently.

In Nevada, mis­takes in the odds are not un­com­mon and can oc­cur mul­ti­ple times a month at sports­books. If a sim­i­lar dis­pute hap­pened in Nevada, the book­maker would be re­quired to con­tact the Gaming Control Board in or­der to in­ves­ti­gate the mat­ter.

Some Nevada books have paid off bets that were placed on bad odds but then re­fused to take ac­tion from the bet­tors who took ad­van­tage of the mis­takes in the fu­ture.

In the United Kingdom, where FanDuel owner Paddy Power-Betfair has op­er­ated for decades, mis­takes in the odds are called pal­pa­ble er­rors or palps” and gen­er­ally re­sult in void­ing the bet.

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4 2,956 shares, 8 trendiness, 85 words and 1 minutes reading time

Secret Hospital Deals That Squelch Competition

Last year, Cigna Corp. and the New York hos­pi­tal sys­tem Northwell Health dis­cussed de­vel­op­ing an in­sur­ance plan that would of­fer low-cost cov­er­age by ex­clud­ing some other health-care providers, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple with knowl­edge of the mat­ter. It never hap­pened.

The prob­lem was a sep­a­rate con­tract be­tween Cigna and NewYork-Presbyterian, the pow­er­ful hos­pi­tal op­er­a­tor that is a Northwell ri­val. Cigna could­n’t find a way to work around re­stric­tive lan­guage that blocked it from sell­ing any plans that did­n’t in­clude NewYork-Presbyterian,…

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5 1,164 shares, 9 trendiness, 4622 words and 37 minutes reading time

the jaw-dropping world of termites

n July 2008, I rented a small yel­low car in Tucson, Arizona, and drove it south to­wards Tombstone. My pas­sen­gers in­cluded an en­to­mol­o­gist and two mi­cro­bial ge­neti­cists, and I was fol­low­ing a white van with gov­ern­ment plates car­ry­ing nine more ge­neti­cists. We also had 500 plas­tic bags, a vac­uum flask of dry ice, and 350 cryo­genic vials, each the size and shape of a pen­cil stub. We had two days to get 10,000 ter­mites.

The goal was to se­quence the genes of the mi­crobes in their guts. Because ter­mites are fa­mously good at eat­ing wood, those genes were at­trac­tive to gov­ern­ment labs try­ing to turn wood and grass into bio­fu­els (“grassoline”). The white van and the ge­neti­cists all be­longed to the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. Perhaps by see­ing ex­actly how ter­mites break down wood, we’d be able to do it too.

We stopped in the Coronado na­tional for­est, near the bor­der with Mexico. I lifted a rock and saw a glint of glossy ex­oskele­ton flow­ing into some lit­tle tun­nels. I dropped to my knees and be­gan suck­ing on an as­pi­ra­tor, a dis­gust­ing process that stim­u­lated saliva pro­duc­tion and made me dizzy. Two min­utes later, there were no more ter­mites on the ground and I had about 25 in the test tube at­tached to the as­pi­ra­tor.

But my pale ter­mites were dis­ap­point­ing. When I separated one from the clutch, it was less sub­stan­tial than a baby’s fin­ger­nail clip­ping. Doddering around blindly, it waved the flimsy an­ten­nae on its bul­bous head. In its stubby, translu­cent body I could al­most see its coiled guts — and pre­sum­ably what­ever it had eaten for lunch. Ants have snazzy bod­ies with three sec­tions, high­lighted by nar­row waists, like a pinup mod­el’s, be­tween the seg­ments. Termites, which are no re­la­tion to ants or bees, have round, eye­less heads, thick necks and teardrop-shaped bod­ies. And they long ago lost cock­roach­es’ re­pul­sive dig­nity, gnarly size and gleam­ing chiti­nous ar­mour. I put the ter­mite back in the test tube.

What had I just sucked up? My lit­tle gang of 25 was in­ca­pable of do­ing much of any­thing. Without a colony, they had nowhere to bring food to, and thus no rea­son to for­age. Without a crowd of sol­diers, they could­n’t de­fend them­selves. Without a queen, they could­n’t re­pro­duce. Twenty-five ter­mites are in­signif­i­cant in the scheme of life and death and re­pro­duc­tion. Meaningless. What’s more, they were cling­ing to one an­other, mak­ing an icky beige rope of ter­mite heads, bod­ies and legs rem­i­nis­cent of the game Barrel of Monkeys. In the minia­ture scrum I couldn’t even see a sin­gle ter­mite — they looked like a clot, not a group of in­di­vid­u­als. Or per­haps I had found a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual who hap­pened to have 25 selves.

I had stum­bled into one of the big ques­tions ter­mites pose, which is, roughly, what is one” ter­mite? Is it one in­di­vid­ual ter­mite? Is it one ter­mite with its sym­bi­otic gut mi­crobes, an en­tity that can eat wood but can­not re­pro­duce on its own? Or is it a colony, a whole liv­ing, breath­ing struc­ture, oc­cu­pied by a few mil­lion re­lated in­di­vid­u­als and a gazil­lion sym­bionts who col­lec­tively con­sti­tute one”?

The is­sue of one is pro­found in every di­rec­tion, with evo­lu­tion­ary, eco­log­i­cal and ex­is­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions. By the end of that day I had a ba­sic idea that the fewer I saw, the more ter­mites there might be. Where I had thought of land­scapes as the prod­uct of growth, on that af­ter­noon they in­verted to be­come the op­po­site: the re­main­ders left be­hind by the forces of per­sis­tent and mas­sive chew­ing. The sky was no longer the sky, but the blue stuff that is vis­i­ble af­ter the screen­ing brush and cacti have been eaten away. Termites have made the world by un­mak­ing parts of it. They are the ar­chi­tects of neg­a­tive space. The en­gi­neers of not.

obody loves ter­mites, even though other so­cial in­sects such as ants and bees are ad­mired for their or­gan­i­sa­tion, thrift and in­dus­try. Parents dress their chil­dren in bee cos­tumes. Ants star in movies and video games. But ter­mites are never more than crude car­toons on the side of ex­ter­mi­na­tors’ vans. Termite stud­ies are like­wise a back­wa­ter, funded mostly by gov­ern­ment agen­cies and com­pa­nies with names such as Terminix. Between 2000 and 2013, 6,373 pa­pers about ter­mites were pub­lished; 49% were about how to kill them.

Every story about ter­mites men­tions that they con­sume some­where be­tween $1.5bn (£1.1bn) and $20bn in US prop­erty every year. Termites’ of­fence is of­ten de­scribed as the eat­ing of private” prop­erty, which makes them sound like an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist an­ar­chists. While ter­mites are truly sub­ver­sive, it’s fair to point out that they will eat any­thing pulpy. They find money it­self to be very tasty. In 2011 they broke into an Indian bank and ate 10m ru­pees (then £137,000) in ban­knotes. In 2013 they ate 400,000 yuan (then £45,000) that a woman in Guangdong had wrapped in plas­tic and hid­den in a wooden drawer.

Another sta­tis­tic seems rel­e­vant: ter­mites out­weigh us 10 to one. For every 60kg hu­man you, ac­cord­ing to the ter­mite ex­pert David Bignell, there are 600kg of them. We may live in our own self-ti­tled epoch — the Anthropocene — but ter­mites run the dirt. They are our un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated un­der­lords, key play­ers in a vast plan­e­tary con­spir­acy of dis­as­sem­bly and de­cay. If termites, ants and bees were to go on strike, the trop­ics’ pyra­mid of in­ter­de­pen­dence would col­lapse into in­fer­til­ity, the world’s most im­por­tant rivers would silt up and the oceans would be­come toxic. Game over.

By the end of our ter­mite-col­lect­ing trip we had 8,000 ter­mites in plas­tic tubs and bags, but they needed to be la­belled and stored in dry ice be­fore go­ing to California to be se­quenced. Once frozen in the vac­uum flask, the ter­mites were on their way to im­mor­tal­ity: a col­lec­tion of ge­netic code sit­ting in some data­base on a server some­where, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, a se­quence of nu­cleotides that might solve a wicked prob­lem some day.

We were on the bor­der be­tween nat­ural his­tory and an un­nat­ural fu­ture. We weren’t alone: all over the world, sci­en­tists are try­ing to find bi­ol­o­gy’s un­der­ly­ing rules and put them to use. They’re do­ing it with genes, be­hav­iours, me­tab­o­lisms and ecosys­tems. They’re see­ing na­ture in new ways, and at the same time they’re try­ing to rein­vent it and put it to work for us. In the fu­ture, we will har­ness na­ture’s tini­est life forms — mi­crobes and in­sects — both their sys­tems of or­gan­i­sa­tion and con­trol, and their genes and chem­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties. This fits with our para­dox­i­cal de­sire to have a lighter foot­print on the Earth while hav­ing greater con­trol over its processes.

At the core of this pro­ject is the provoca­tive dream of chang­ing bi­ol­ogy into a pre­dic­tive sci­ence, much the way physics started as the ob­ser­va­tion of phe­nom­ena such as grav­ity and then be­came the sci­ence of mak­ing plans for the atom bomb. Will there be ter­mite bombs?

Termites, I came to un­der­stand, are the poster bug for the 21st cen­tury — a lit­tle guide to re­ally big ideas.

er­mite colonies be­gin the­atri­cally on rainy evenings. Small holes open in the sides of ex­ist­ing ter­mite homes and lar­gish, winged ter­mites emerge, shake out their sticky wings, and fly. In north­ern California, ter­mites of the genus Reticulitermes sud­denly ap­pear on the sides of build­ings they in­habit. In South America, Nasutitermes shower down from nests in the trees. In New Orleans, Formosan ter­mites, of the genus Coptotermes, burp from colonies in the ground and take to the air in swarms so dense they show up on weather radar. In Namibia, gi­ant Macrotermes mounds seem to spring a leak, spilling froths of winged ter­mites down their sides.

In the mound, most of the ter­mites are eye­less and wing­less, but the fer­tile ter­mites who leave the mound on this night have eyes and what at first ap­pears to be one sin­gle translu­cent teardrop-shaped wing. When they are ready to fly, this sin­gle wing, still soft and moist, fans out into four. Called alates”, these ter­mites are like frag­ile balsa-wood glider planes: just sturdy enough to cruise briefly be­fore crash-land­ing their pay­loads of genes.

Male and fe­male find each other and scut­tle off to dig a bur­row where they will mate. At first the two ter­mites will be alone in their dark hole. Christine Nalepa, Theo Evans and Michael Lenz have writ­ten that ter­mite par­ents bite off the ends of their an­ten­nae, which may make them bet­ter at rais­ing their young. Antennae give ter­mites lots of sen­sory in­for­ma­tion, and bit­ing off the seg­ments to­ward the ends could re­duce that stim­u­la­tion, mak­ing it eas­ier to live in a tiny bur­row with a few mil­lion chil­dren.

After she has laid her first eggs, the queen cleans them of­ten to re­move harm­ful fungi un­til they hatch as nymphs about three weeks later. The nymphs will moult grow and de­velop, but un­der the in­flu­ence of the queen’s pheromone, most of them won’t fully ma­ture, re­main­ing per­ma­nent stay-at-home pre­teens — eye­less, wing­less helpers.

Males and fe­males alike will spend their time gath­er­ing food, tend­ing eggs, build­ing the nest deeper into the ground and even­tu­ally tend­ing a fun­gus. As the fam­ily grows big­ger, some morph into sol­diers; their heads grow larger, dark-coloured and hard in a dis­tinc­tive way, de­pend­ing on their species. Thereafter they must be fed by their sib­lings the work­ers. Soldiers ap­pear to re­turn the favour by dos­ing the colony with an­timi­cro­bial se­cre­tions that help it re­sist dis­ease.

Over time, in the small smooth dirt room where she lives, the queen’s body be­comes physogastric”, her ab­domen swelling to the size of my thumb, con­stricted by taut black bands re­main­ing from her old ex­oskele­ton so she looks like a soft sausage that has been care­lessly bound with string. Her head, tho­rax and legs re­main tiny. Immobilised, ex­cept for the abil­ity to wave her legs and bob­ble her head, she lays eggs at the rate of one every three or so sec­onds. The king stays by her. Her chil­dren lick off the liq­uid that ap­pears on her skin, feed her and care for the eggs.

Or at least, that’s life for some Macrotermes queens (the genus found in Africa and south-east Asia, that builds its mound around a mas­sive fun­gus). There are, how­ever, at least 3,000 named ter­mite species, and thus at least 3,000 ways to be ter­mites. Some have mul­ti­ple queens; some have cloned kings or queens; some are, im­prob­a­bly, founded by two male ter­mites. One species does­n’t re­ally have work­ers. Different species eat wood, oth­ers eat grass and some eat dirt. Macrotermes tend a fun­gus, but most oth­ers do not. All ter­mites, though, live in their own ver­sion of a big com­mune.

The South African writer Eugène Marais spent many years peer­ing into their mounds and wrote The Soul of the White Ant, orig­i­nally pub­lished in English in 1937. Marais called the ter­mite mound a “com­pos­ite an­i­mal”, unit­ing the mil­lions of ster­ile work­ers, the sol­diers, the fat queen and the king with the dirt struc­ture of the mound it­self into a sin­gle body. You will need to learn a new al­pha­bet,” he warned his read­ers be­fore lead­ing them in. The hard-packed dirt on the out­side of the mound, he said, is a skin con­structed by ter­mites, which build pas­sage­ways in­side that al­low the mound to breathe — like a lung. The or­gan­is­m’s stom­ach is the sym­bi­otic fun­gus that sits in cat­a­combs un­der the mound, di­gest­ing grasses de­liv­ered by ter­mites. The mound’s mouth” can be found in the hun­dreds of for­ag­ing tun­nels the ter­mites con­struct through the sur­round­ing land­scape. Because they carry nu­tri­ents and re­build the mound, the ster­ile work­ers re­sem­ble blood cells. The mound’s immune sys­tem” is the sol­diers, who rush to de­fend the space when­ever it is in­vaded.

To Marais, the queen was no Victoria, but in­stead a cap­tive ovary, walled into a cham­ber no big­ger than her swollen, sweat­ing body. Marais imag­ined that even­tu­ally the mound would evolve into a be­ing that could move across the veldt — very slowly in its dirt skin — a mon­ster hy­brid of soil and soul. Marais’s in­sight was­n’t orig­i­nal, and many sci­en­tists had taken to call­ing such so­cial arrange­ments of ter­mites, bees and ants superorganisms”. The orig­i­na­tor of the term was the en­to­mol­o­gist William Wheeler, the founder of the study of ants in the US, au­thor of a 1911 ar­ti­cle called The Ant-Colony as an Organism.

For a time, su­per­or­gan­isms were all the rage. The con­cept dealt neatly with what Charles Darwin had called the problem” with so­cial in­sects. Darwin’s the­ory of evo­lu­tion pro­posed that nat­ural se­lec­tion worked on in­di­vid­u­als and the fittest in­di­vid­u­als bred with oth­ers sim­i­larly fit to their eco­log­i­cal niche, while the less fit were less likely to re­pro­duce. The prob­lem with so­cial in­sects was that while sin­gle ter­mites seem to be in­di­vid­u­als, they do not func­tion as such. Only the queen and king of a colony breed, so who was the individual”? By de­clar­ing the whole colony the in­di­vid­ual, Wheeler said its mem­bers made up a liv­ing whole bent on pre­serv­ing its mov­ing equi­lib­rium and its in­tegrity”.

In the late 1920s and early 30s, the par­a­digm of the su­per­or­gan­ism grew colos­sal. Instead of study­ing in­di­vid­ual trees, bi­ol­o­gists stud­ied forests as su­per­or­gan­isms. By 1931, the con­cept snuck into pop­u­lar cul­ture when Aldous Huxley re­port­edly based the dic­ta­tor­ship in Brave New World on hu­mans as so­cial in­sects, with five castes. Wheeler pro­posed that trophallaxis” — a word he in­vented for the way in­sects re­gur­gi­tate and share food among them­selves — was the se­cret sauce, the su­per­glue of so­ci­eties both in­sect and hu­man, and the foun­da­tion of eco­nom­ics. But even dur­ing the su­per­or­gan­is­m’s hey­day, Marais was alone in his as­ser­tion that the mound had a soul.

n Namibia, I went to meet J Scott Turner, an American bi­ol­o­gist who has spent decades study­ing how and why ter­mites build their mounds. It took Turner years of ex­per­i­ments to show that mounds could work a bit like lungs, with in­ter­con­nected cham­bers tak­ing ad­van­tage of fluc­tu­a­tions in wind speed. Air moves back and forth through the porous dirt skin of the mound by two sys­tems: in big puffs dri­ven by buoy­ant gases ris­ing from the hot fun­gus nest (like the sharp in­take of breath from the di­aphragm), and in small puffs, the way air wheezily dif­fuses be­tween alve­oli in your lungs. Turner sus­pected that the ter­mites them­selves cir­cu­lated air as they moved, like mo­bile alve­oli. This in­sight was an en­tirely new way of think­ing about the prob­lem. The mound was not a sim­ple struc­ture where air hap­pened to move, but a con­tin­u­ously mor­ph­ing com­plex con­trap­tion con­sist­ing of dirt and ter­mites to­gether ma­nip­u­lat­ing air­flow.

Termites who spend a year build­ing an av­er­age mound of 3 me­tres have just built, in com­par­i­son to their size, the Empire State Building. Those who build taller mounds, at nearly 5 me­tres, have just built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — 830 me­tres and 163 floors of ver­tigo — with no ar­chi­tect and no struc­tural en­gi­neer. Such un­think­ing, seat-of-the-pants de­sign is not pos­si­ble for hu­mans, who re­quired squads of pro­fes­sion­als, ad­vanced equip­ment and 7,500 peo­ple work­ing for six years to build the Burj Khalifa. Working with Turner, en­gi­neer Rupert Soar hoped to har­ness the pow­er­ful con­struc­tive group­think that comes from the tiny mouths of ter­mites and their even tinier brains to build struc­tures in re­mote en­vi­ron­ments such as Mars. But there were is­sues: ter­mites, he said, en­gi­neer to the point of col­lapse.

One morn­ing a JCB ar­rived and Turner di­rected it to a mound. The JCBs great blade came down on the top of the mound with a hol­low whomp, the first note of a funny lit­tle con­cert. Half the mound fell away with a tum­bling clink­ing clat­ter — as the shards hit dif­fer­ent lay­ers of cured mud they played a tune like a soft xy­lo­phone. We pushed in close, en­veloped by the fa­mil­iar smell of socks and bread.

What was left of the mound was a ru­ined hi­er­ar­chy. Dirt shards and fun­gus combs and sculpted mud plinked down­ward, while ter­mites ran every which way, at first as a sort of gauzy net. Soon they had or­gan­ised them­selves into small streams, and within 10 min­utes those streams had con­sol­i­dated into rivers of run­ning in­sects. As or­der was re­stored, I could see the elab­o­rate scheme of tun­nels, rooms, cham­bers and fun­gus hid­den un­der the dirt ex­te­rior. The spec­ta­cle was gen­uinely awe­some — as in jaw-drop­ping and ap­palling.

The top of the mound was hol­low, with wide ver­ti­cal tun­nels. The in­te­ri­ors of these tun­nels were very smooth, and they segued in and out of each other in ropey ver­tig­i­nous columns like a sloppy braid. Termites make the mounds by first pil­ing up dirt and then re­mov­ing it strate­gi­cally in the tun­nels. Eyeless, they use their an­ten­nae to feel for smooth­ness, and in the big tun­nels they re­move every­thing that is rough. They may even hear the tun­nel’s shape.

Termites are of­ten com­pared to ar­chi­tects for the way they build their mounds, but that is mis­lead­ing be­cause they don’t have plans or a global vi­sion. What they re­ally have is an aes­thetic, an in­nate sense of how things should feel. When the top of the spire was first ripped off, there were just a few ter­mites in the soli­tary tun­nels at the top, prob­a­bly lis­ten­ing to the clop­ping of their own six feet. But cut­ting into the top al­lowed in lots of fresh air at once, and ac­ti­vated an alarm sys­tem. Some ter­mites ran away from the hole, ag­i­tat­ing their broth­ers and sis­ters so they could help with re­pairs. Thousands of worker ter­mites fol­lowed the smell of fresh air to find the hole, car­ry­ing balls of dirt in their mouths. Within min­utes of the JCB strike, streams of ter­mites can­vassed the bro­ken side of the mound, mov­ing in a fran­tic start-stop pat­tern like a shaky old an­i­mated car­toon. I leaned in fur­ther and could see that each ter­mite put its ball of dirt down on a ball left by the pre­vi­ous ter­mite, wig­gled his or her head, per­haps to get the ball to stick, and then backed away. Where there were two balls there were soon 20 and then 200, then 2,000. Some of these stacks joined up with other stacks at the perime­ter of the breaks in the mound to form lit­tle bumpy, frilly walls.

Once the area was walled off, the sig­nal from the fresh air would stop and the ter­mites would fill the in­ter­nal space with more dirt balls and small tun­nels, mak­ing a sort of spongy layer. Later they would ei­ther block it off en­tirely or would hol­low it out and re­model it. The JCB came back in for an­other swipe, tak­ing away the dirt be­low the mound to re­veal the sys­tem of hor­i­zon­tal gal­leries, tun­nels and cham­bers where the ter­mites live. It re­minded me of those di­a­grams of cruise ships, vi­su­alised from the side, with small rooms packed to­gether in a strict hi­er­ar­chy of func­tion and sta­tus from ball­rooms and cafe­te­rias to VIP state­rooms and steer­age bunks. The colony’s hi­er­ar­chy is not money, of course, but the things that en­able its sur­vival: re­pro­duc­tion, child care, food sup­ply and food pro­cess­ing. Some rooms are large, with vaulted ceil­ings, and walls and floors the tex­ture of tor­tilla chips. When I looked closely, I could see that they were not so much rooms as places where many for­ag­ing tun­nels crossed, like the grand con­courses of old train sta­tions. Deep within this area was a small cap­sule where the king and queen lived, mak­ing eggs, which were car­ried to nearby nurs­eries.

elow the mound lives the fun­gus, di­gest­ing grass. All ter­mites use sym­bi­otic col­lec­tives of bac­te­ria and other mi­crobes to di­gest cel­lu­lose for them, but Macrotermes out­source the ma­jor work to a fun­gus.

In some senses the fun­gus func­tions as a stom­ach, but it also has power rem­i­nis­cent of the Wizard of Oz. Under the mound and around the nest sit hun­dreds of lit­tle rooms, each con­tain­ing fun­gus comb. This comb is made of mil­lions of mouth­fuls of chewed dry grass, ex­creted as pseu­do­fae­ces and care­fully as­sem­bled into a maze. The comb roughly re­sem­bles gra­ham cracker pie crust, al­though it varies in colour from de­li­cious beige to de­crepit black. The ter­mites in­oc­u­late it with a fun­gus that they have been co­hab­it­ing with for more than 30m years.

You can pull the fun­gus combs out of their lit­tle rooms as if you were pulling draw­ers from a dol­l’s wardrobe. The comb maze wig­gles like the folds of a brain, with the hard, wrinkly piles of chewed grass mak­ing the gyri and leav­ing sulci-ish gaps in be­tween. This is not an ac­ci­dent: as with a brain, the comb de­sign in­creases the sur­face area of the struc­ture. Within the gaps are what look like tiny white bal­loons, which is the fun­gus bloom­ing. There is noth­ing ac­ci­den­tal about this re­la­tion­ship ei­ther, or the con­struc­tion that holds it: the de­tails are so fine we can barely take them in. The bot­tom of the fun­gus comb stands on peg-like legs, lit­tle nub­bins that hold it up just enough to let air cir­cu­late through. One of the grad stu­dents beat a small stick against the floors of the fun­gus gal­leries, play­ing some­thing that was al­most a tune.

The sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween Macrotermes and the fun­gus is tight: work­ers scour the land­scape for dry grass, quickly run it through their guts, then place and in­oc­u­late each ball to suit the fun­gus’s picky tem­pera­ment, tend the comb and snarfle the fun­gus and its sug­ars be­fore dis­trib­ut­ing the good­ies to the rest of the fam­ily. Then the work­ers run off to gather more grass for the fun­gus. Termite and Termitomyces fun­gus are so in­ter­re­lated that it’s hard to tell where the mush­room ends and the ter­mite picks up, but within their code­pen­dence is a sort of fren­emy-type ri­valry. (Fungi are ca­pa­ble of de­lib­er­ately trick­ing ter­mites. One in­va­sive fun­gus in ter­mite colonies in the US and Japan pre­tends to be a ter­mite egg, go­ing so far as to se­crete the chem­i­cal lysozyme, which the ter­mites use to recog­nise their eggs. For rea­sons that are not clear, colonies filled with im­pos­tor eggs” are no less healthy than those with­out them.)

Prejudiced by our hu­man sense of a hi­er­ar­chy of the an­i­mate ter­mites over inan­i­mate mush­rooms, we would be in­clined to be­lieve that the ter­mites con­trol the fun­gus. But the fun­gus is much larger than the ter­mites — both in size and en­ergy pro­duc­tion: Turner es­ti­mates that its me­tab­o­lism is about eight times big­ger than that of the ter­mites in the mound. I like to tell peo­ple that this is not a ter­mite-built struc­ture; it’s a fun­gus-built struc­ture,” he says, chuck­ling. It is pos­si­ble that the fun­gus has kid­napped the ter­mites. It’s even pos­si­ble that the fun­gus has put out a tem­plate of chem­i­cal smells that stim­u­lates the ter­mites to build the mound it­self. As I peered at the white nod­ules, I began to sneeze vi­o­lently, some­times with big gasp­ing whoops, and some­thing — it’s hard to even call it a thought, but a par­ti­cle of one — flit­ted through my sub­con­scious be­fore fly­ing out of my nose: the fun­gus is very pow­er­ful.

My ad­mi­ra­tion for the fun­gus only grew when I learned that Namibian farm­ers es­ti­mate that every Macrotermes mound — which con­tains just 5kg of ter­mites — eats as much dead grass as a 400kg cow. Late in the day, one of the sci­en­tists used a pick­axe to pop the royal cham­ber out of the nest — the whole com­plex was the size and shape of a squashed soc­cer ball, but made of hard-packed finely grained dirt. He cracked it open, re­veal­ing the king and queen in a hol­low space the size of a cough-drop tin. The cham­ber had holes on the sides, al­low­ing air and smaller ter­mites to pass through. The king was large and dark com­pared to the work­ers, but the queen was huge — as big as my fin­ger. Her legs and up­per body wag­gled but barely budged the fluid-filled sac of her lower body, which pulsed er­rat­i­cally, as though she was a tooth­paste tube squeezed by an un­seen hand. Her skin was shiny and translu­cent and the fats in­side her swirled like pearly cream drib­bled into cof­fee.

Everyone shud­dered: the queen is vis­cer­ally re­pul­sive. She of­fends our sen­si­bil­i­ties and she is mon­strous. I think the first stim­u­lus to shud­der is a re­flex­ive re­ac­tion to her body’s pulses and swirls. But then a more in­tel­lec­tual sense of her hor­ror kicks in. She’s not a queen; she’s a slave,” said Eugene Marais, a Namib­ian en­to­mol­o­gist work­ing with Turner (no re­la­tion to the writer of the fa­mous work on ter­mites). Captive of her body, of her chil­dren, of the struc­ture of the mound she con­spired to build.

Even then, the queen’s more shock­ing as­pects are hid­den from us. Her truly stu­pen­dous fer­til­ity — cre­at­ing mil­lions of eggs over as long as 20 years — is some­thing we can only in­fer. Some species of ter­mite queens can clone them­selves by pro­duc­ing eggs with no en­try-ways for sperm, which then ma­ture into sex­ual queens with only their moth­er’s chro­mo­somes, du­pli­cated in­side the egg nu­cleus, to fur­nish a full set. Imperfect copies of the queen, these knock­offs are good enough to get the job done. Parthenogenesis al­lows the queen to live, in in­sect years, pretty close to for ever.

And yet we do re­fer to her as a queen. I wondered why. Marais said that when early European nat­u­ral­ists looked into bee­hives and ter­mite mounds, they saw the monar­chies they came from — with work­ers, sol­diers, and kings and queens. It was mis­lead­ing, he said, and kept us from re­ally un­der­stand­ing what was go­ing on with ter­mites. For sci­en­tists, the great dan­ger of see­ing so­cial in­sects an­thro­po­mor­phi­cally is that it ob­scures their true in­sect-ness. In the 1970s and 80s, when the ant sci­en­tist Deborah Gordon be­gan study­ing mas­sive ant colonies in the American south-west, sci­en­tists de­scribed the ant colony as a fac­tory with as­sem­bly-line work­ers, each per­form­ing a sin­gle task over and over”. Gordon felt the fac­tory model clouded what she ac­tu­ally saw in her colonies — a tremen­dous vari­a­tion in the tasks that ants were do­ing. Rather than hav­ing in­trin­sic task as­sign­ments, she saw that ants changed their be­hav­iour based on clues they got from the en­vi­ron­ment and one an­other. Gordon sug­gested that we should stop think­ing of ants as fac­tory work­ers and in­stead think of them as the fir­ing pat­terns of neu­rons in the brain”, where sim­ple en­vi­ron­men­tal in­for­ma­tion gives cues that make the in­di­vid­u­als work for the whole, with­out cen­tral reg­u­la­tion.

And so, these days, one sci­en­tific metaphor for the in­scrutable ter­mite is a neu­ron in a gi­ant crawl­ing brain.

Back in the 1930s, the other Marais did­n’t write a ter­mite sci­ence book, but a book about how hu­mans could un­der­stand ter­mites — as a bug, a body, a soul, a force on the land­scape. Looking at ter­mites this way changed how I see the world, sci­ence, the fu­ture and my­self.

This is an edited ex­tract from Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli (Oneworld, £16.99). To or­der a copy for £14.61 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. P&P charges ap­ply in the UK only to or­ders by phone.

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6 1,157 shares, 74 trendiness, 820 words and 8 minutes reading time

We Now Know More About the Apparent Poisoning of the Pussy Riot Member Pyotr Verzilov

New de­tails have emerged in the ap­par­ent poi­son­ing of Russian ac­tivist Pyotr Verzilov, a mem­ber of the protest-art group Pussy Riot, and they may shed light on the deaths of three Russian jour­nal­ists who were shot in the Central African Republic in July. Verzilov had ap­par­ently been work­ing with the jour­nal­ists be­fore they trav­elled to Africa, and be­fore he fell ill he’d been in­ves­ti­gat­ing their deaths, which the Russian gov­ern­ment said had oc­curred as a re­sult of a rob­bery.

Verzilov, who is thirty, fell ill on September 11th. In the course of sev­eral hours, he lost his eye­sight and his abil­ity to speak, be­came deliri­ous, and lost con­scious­ness. He was hos­pi­tal­ized in Moscow in crit­i­cal con­di­tion. Four days later, af­ter he had sta­bi­lized, Verzilov was flown to Berlin, where he is now be­ing treated at Charité hos­pi­tal. On Tuesday, mem­bers of his German med­ical team held a press con­fer­ence, dur­ing which they con­firmed that Verzilov had prob­a­bly been poi­soned. He is re­cov­er­ing, but still hal­lu­ci­nat­ing.

Also on Tuesday, one of Russia’s many quasi-anony­mous, semi-un­der­ground on­line pub­li­ca­tions on the pub­lish­ing and mes­sag­ing plat­form Telegram—the con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of samiz­dat—re­ported that Verzilov had been work­ing on an in­ves­tiga­tive story about the deaths of the three Russian jour­nal­ists, Alexander Rastorguev, Orkhan Dzhemal, and Kirill Radchenko. The three had been in the Central African Republic re­port­ing on a mer­ce­nary force linked to a close as­so­ci­ate of President Vladimir Putin. The sug­ges­tion that their deaths were con­nected to their in­ves­tiga­tive work sur­faced as soon as they died, but the Russian Foreign Ministry slapped it down, brand­ing a Dutch news­pa­per that men­tioned the mer­ce­nar­ies fake” news.

Verzilov, who stud­ied phi­los­o­phy at Moscow State University, is a con­cep­tual artist and ac­tivist. He was mar­ried to Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of Pussy Riot, who was jailed along with an­other mem­ber, Maria Alekhina, in 2012 for stag­ing a protest at a Moscow cathe­dral. After the women were re­leased, the next year, they founded a pris­on­ers’-rights or­ga­ni­za­tion and an on­line pub­li­ca­tion, Media Zone, that fo­cussed on prison and law-en­force­ment is­sues. Verzilov be­came its pub­lisher, and Media Zone quickly es­tab­lished it­self as one of the coun­try’s most re­li­able sources of in­for­ma­tion. About a year ago, the team be­hind Media Zone de­cided to trans­form it into a gen­eral-in­ter­est pub­li­ca­tion. (As one of the ed­i­tors told me at the time, every story about Russian law en­force­ment was dreary in the same way as every other.) They be­gan cov­er­ing protests, the Russian in­volve­ment in Syria, and other news of the day.

In an e-mail to me on Tuesday, Tolokonnikova con­firmed that Verzilov had been slated to join the re­port­ing trip on which the three men died, but he stayed in Moscow to or­ga­nize and take part in a protest dur­ing the fi­nal match of the World Cup. He was ar­rested and jailed for fif­teen days af­ter the ac­tion, along with the three other pro­test­ers. The four were re­leased on July 31st, the day af­ter the Russian jour­nal­ists died in the Central African Republic. One of the three who died, Rastorguev, had been a close friend of Verzilov.

According to the re­port on Telegram and in the semi-in­de­pen­dent Moscow news­pa­per Novaya Gazeta, Verzilov raised money to mount an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the jour­nal­ists’ deaths. He had an ad­di­tional con­nec­tion to the C. A.R. through the Voice Project, a free­dom-of-ex­pres­sion or­ga­ni­za­tion that got its start by work­ing with mu­si­cians in Eastern and Central Africa in the two-thou­sands and later raised money for and cam­paigned on be­half of Pussy Riot. According to the Russian re­ports, Verzilov ex­pected to re­ceive some doc­u­ments per­tain­ing to his in­ves­ti­ga­tion the day that he fell ill.

Also on Tuesday, an­other Russian pub­li­ca­tion, the St. Petersburg-based Fontanka, pub­lished a story on its own re­porters’ trip to the C. A.R., un­der­taken to trace the steps of the three mur­dered jour­nal­ists. If read­ing this leaves you with a sense of chaos, then we’ve done our jobs,” the sub­head on the story said. The most re­mark­able find­ing in the story is the ap­par­ently large role that Russian para­mil­i­taries play in the C.A.R., but the story shed no light on the deaths of the jour­nal­ists.

In the past decade and a half, Russian jour­nal­ists have been beaten to death, shot, thrown out of win­dows, and poi­soned. Yuri Shchekochikhin, a jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of par­lia­ment, had been in­ves­ti­gat­ing the deadly September, 1999, apart­ment-build­ing ex­plo­sions in Russia for Novaya Gazeta when he was lethally poi­soned, in 2003. Anna Politkovskaya, a jour­nal­ist who was shot dead in 2006, had sur­vived a poi­son­ing at­tempt two years ear­lier. Russia con­sis­tently ranks in the top ten on the Global Impunity Index main­tained by the Committee to Protect Journalists—it is one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous coun­tries to be a jour­nal­ist, and those who kill jour­nal­ists usu­ally get away with mur­der.

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7 999 shares, 10 trendiness, 90 words and 1 minutes reading time

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8 919 shares, 42 trendiness, 92 words and 1 minutes reading time

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9 885 shares, 13 trendiness, 137 words and 1 minutes reading time

Bitcoin Miners Flock to New York’s Remote Corners, but Get Chilly Reception

MASSENA, N. Y. — The hulk­ing alu­minum plant in this north­ern bor­der town is start­ing to spew heat and noise again, four years af­ter Alcoa shut it down. But now the hot hum comes from thou­sands of Chinese com­puter servers whirring away 24 hours a day for a very mod­ern pur­pose: pro­duc­ing Bitcoins and other dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies.

The cracker­box-size ma­chines stacked in­side rusty cargo con­tain­ers are pow­ered by the same cheap source of elec­tric­ity once used to ex­tract alu­minum from ore. They rep­re­sent the first stage of an ob­scure com­pa­ny’s plan to con­vert the 60-year-old smelt­ing works into the world’s biggest cryp­tocur­rency mine.

The size is over­whelm­ing,” said Prieur Leary, as he led a tour of the 1,300-acre site for­merly known as Alcoa East. Maybe we’re a lit­tle bit crazy.”

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10 877 shares, 42 trendiness, 0 words and 0 minutes reading time

Kidney Stones Are More Beautiful Than You Might Think

Dr. Fouke, whose re­search pro­jects have taken him ski­ing through Yellowstone National Park and scuba-div­ing in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, saw early con­nec­tions be­tween hu­man kid­ney stones and the coral skele­tons, hot spring traver­tine and even oil and gas mi­gra­tion deep be­low the plan­et’s sur­face: Interactions be­tween liv­ing things, wa­ter and min­eral growth oc­cur in all three.

The wa­ter that comes out of Yellowstone springs is hot and salty — much like sea­wa­ter, and, yes, urine,” he said. As for the in­tri­cate stone de­posits that these liq­uids help form, You would­n’t be able to tell them apart un­der a mi­cro­scope.”

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