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    Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Wikimedia Commons

    An Irish company is using four American diamondback rattlesnakes in a new clinical trial that will test snake venom as a treatment for cancer. The snakes, which hail from the Albuquerque BioPark, will be allowed to bite something and have their venom extracted humanely. The venom contains proteins that will be extracted and refined to target and kill cancer cells.

    Snake venom has long shown promise as a treatment for cancer, in a wide range of animal trials dating back several years. Celtic Biotech isolated a protein in a type of rattlesnake venom that causes malignant cancer cells to commit cell suicide. The company developed a venom-derived drug called CB24 and started testing it on humans at the end of October, working with patients at the George Pompidou University Hospital in Paris. The trial is expected to last a year, and is designed to prove CB24‘s safety and therapeutic value, according to Celtic Biotech.

    The company has already tested it in mice and in human cell lines with great success. Other institutions in the U.S. have independently verified CB24's anti-cancer properties, the company says.

    The four Albuquerque diamondbacks were sent to the Kentucky Reptile Zoo last week, according to the BioPark. There, specially trained reptile curators will extract the snakes' venom and ship it to Paris.

    Snake venom is potent not only as a paralytic agent and neurotoxin but also as a cancer treatment, Celtic Biotech says - a little goes a long way. The protein is derived from crotoxin, which apparently has some targeting abilities as well as toxicity. This makes it particularly attractive as a cancer therapy, because it does not harm healthy tissues when it is administered properly. This could make it a useful alternative to other chemotherapies.

    Celtic Biotech has been researching snake venom since 2003 and holds several patents, according to the Irish Times.

    We were thinking this should have occurred to the Irish before St. Patrick kicked out all the snakes.

    [Albuquerque Journal]


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    Portable electronics and electric cars both need a steady supply of lithium, and while the world has plenty of it (at least for the foreseeable future), hardly any is produced in the U.S. That is about to change, as a California startup aims to produce lithium from the waste product of another 21st century new-energy technology: Geothermal power plants.

    Some types of geothermal facilities use naturally occurring hot briny aquifers to generate steam, which drives power plant turbines. This brine contains lithium and other metal salts. A startup called Simbol Materials has a proprietary process to strip out those salts and refine them for resale, according to Technology Review.

    Most of the world's lithium is extracted from salt flats and brine pools that are allowed to evaporate in the sun; this process would just use the brine that has already been tapped for another purpose. Simbol Materials aims to use brine from a 50-megawatt geothermal plant near California's Salton Sea, Tech Review says. Currently, the brine is pumped back into the ground after the steam is produced; Simbol's process would briefly divert it and extract lithium, manganese and zinc before reinjecting it. Simbol has licensed technology from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and purchased assets from a Canadian firm to improve the extraction process.

    A pilot plant is already in operation, and the Salton Sea plant will begin construction in 2012, Tech Review says. It will be able to produce 16,000 tons of lithium carbonate a year.

    As PopSci's own senior associate editor Seth Fletcher has pointed out, the mushrooming growth in lithium extraction could lead to an oversaturated market, dramatically lowering prices and forcing all but the strongest companies out of business. But for carmakers, electronic device manufacturers and consumers, lower prices on an abundant and important metal could be a good thing.

    [Technology Review]


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    Naled A sheet of naled ice in Mongolia. That black dot is a person. Nswanson
    Geoengineering, steppe-style

    This month, Mongolia will launch a project creating a huge manmade ice block to combat the sweltering summer in the capital city of Ulan Bator. As the ice melts, it will cool the city and provide fresh drinking water.

    The $750,000 geoengineering project, one of the world's largest ice-making experiments, seeks to artificially make "naleds," ice sheets that form along frozen streams and rivers. In Mongolian river beds, layers build up as new water flows onto the surface and freezes, forming ice caps that can build up to more than seven meters thick.

    Anglo-Mongolian engineering firm ECOS & EMI will drill holes in the Tuul river as soon as ice forms, so that fresh water will bubble up and freeze, then repeat this process to create a naled so thick it will take months to melt. The hope is that the project will serve as a model for other northern cities to save energy, repair permafrost and combat rising temperatures.

    [The Guardian]


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  • 11/17/11--09:53: Worx JawSaw
  • The JawSaw Worx
    Chainsaw, no massacre

    The electric JawSaw is a terror for wood but safe for the operator. Its metal jaws leave only a small amount of the chain exposed, minimizing the risk of contact with the user's body as well as preventing kickback and chain damage when it's sawing branches on the ground. The steel teeth can lock onto a piece of wood of up to four inches in diameter to increase stability while the chain rips through it. And unlike other chainsaws, the JawSaw doesn't require any additional tools to replace the chain or set the tension. $120


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    Crystalline Erbium Compound via TG Daily

    We've constructed a world out of fiber optic cable and silicon, but Arizona State University researchers think their new material can do better. They have synthesized a new kind of single-crystal nanowire from a compound of erbium--a material generally used to dope fiber optic cables to amplify their signals--and they claim it could increase the speed of the Internet, spawn a new generation of computers, and improve photovoltaic solar cells, sensor technologies, and solid-state lighting.

    That's a tall order, but the ASU team says their erbium material is up to it. In fact, erbium is already augmenting these things. Erbium atoms are generally used to dope fiber optic cable, boosting its optical properties and amplifying signals. But because of the particular properties of erbium, cramming enough atoms onto a cable to make it an effective amplifier requires a fairly long cable.

    So how do you cram more erbium atoms into a cable? You make the cable itself out of erbium. That's easier said than done, and the breakthrough here is the erbium compound that can be produced in high quality, single-crystal form. Using the compound, the researchers can create objects with 1,000 times more erbium atoms in them than they could when they were simply doping other materials with erbium. And while that doesn't translate directly into cables or silicon chips that are 1,000-times faster, it does translate into remarkable improvements in speed and efficiency, the researchers say.

    It also enables erbium atoms to be packed into small architectures where they couldn't be packed in significant numbers previously. That means they can be integrated into silicon chips to speed the performance of computers and other devices even as the fiber optic cables that feed those devices data are also improved by the erbium compound. And all of that could be powered with vastly more efficient PV solar cells made of the erbium compound.

    The researchers are testing the material for a range of applications, including those mentioned above. There's no word yet as to when it might be commercially available. But we imagine it will be fast.

    [TG Daily]


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    Eyeboard via YouTube
    Available in 2012 for $300

    The gadget world is full of neat eye-tracking interfaces, from an iPhone version to a fully functioning laptop. But these are all fairly pricey and complex, making them niche devices rather than widely adoptable tools. Now a Honduran teenager has an eye tracker that solves the problem: A $300 open-source kit meant for people with disabilities. It's called the Eyeboard.

    Recent high school grad Luis Cruz, 18, started out tinkering with video game technology, and says he designed the Eyeboard to help people communicate using eye movements. It is based on electrooculography, which takes advantage of the eyes' electrical potential. The eye acts as a dipole, with the cornea positively charged and the retina negatively charged. As a person's eye moves, the negative pole moves relative to the person's face. Attaching two electrodes to a person's head near his or her eyes can capture this change. Cruz integrated the electrodes into a pair of glasses and connected it to an amplifier. It's based on an ATmega328P microcontroller and runs on software Cruz wrote himself.

    He is releasing it as open source to enable quicker development of tools like autocomplete, which would make the system work more quickly.

    It works by tracking a user's eye movements across a keyboard, translating voltages through the software and pasting letters onto a virtual notepad. A user simply looks at the letters he or she wants and writes a sentence. Watch him demonstrate it in the video below.

    Cruz has tested the system at an organization called Arca de Esperanza, which works with children who have suffered brain injuries. He believes he can produce further versions that would cost between $200 and $300, which could make the devices a realistic purchase for many more people. He is seeking PayPal donations to further the cause and to help him afford a college education in America.

    [via Gizmag]


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  • 11/17/11--12:30: Versabar VB10000
  • Versabar VB10000 Versabar
    $100-million oil rig lifter

    Salvaging a downed oil platform takes months, as a team of divers cuts apart the rig and a derrick hauls each piece to the surface. The VB10000 can remove an entire rig in a few hours, for a quarter of the price. Last fall, Versabar's $100-million monster completed its first lift off the coast of Louisiana.

    Divers connected hooks to the platform trusses, cut the platform legs away, and four hoists picked the whole thing up. About as wide as a football field and as tall as a 25-story building, the VB10000 is desperately needed-U.S. regulators have identified 1,800 rigs that must be removed within 10 years.

    Read more about the Versabar and the company's founder, Jon Khachaturian, in our profile.


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    Jawbone Jambox in the Kitchen Here you can see the diminutive Jambox on my kitchen side-table, next to my iPhone for scale (though I usually have it in my pocket while cooking) and in front of my vaguely racist chef caricature kitchen timer. Dan Nosowitz
    This beautiful little speaker packs a punch

    To get a full spectrum of viewpoints on the Jawbone Jambox, a tiny--seriously tiny--portable speaker, we asked two separate writers to scrawl down their thoughts. The first comes from Michael Berk, an writer at audio/videophile publication (and PopSci sister pub) Sound+Vision, who lends his expert viewpoint. The second comes from Dan Nosowitz, a writer here at PopSci, for a view at regular-person usage. Spoiler: they both really like it.

    MICHAEL BERK, SOUND+VISION

    Even audiophiles need to take their music on the move now and again, and venturing out of the sweet spot, whether you're on the road or just heading out to the lab to solder together some custom cables, shouldn't mean giving up on sound quality altogether. Much of the action lately has been Apple-centric, using Apple's AirPlay wireless standard, but not everybody's an Apple enthusiast. Luckily, there's been a healthy amount of innovation on the Bluetooth front, with a growing group of solid little speakers managing to satisfy the oft-opposing demands for portability and actually good sound.

    The Jawbone Jambox is one of the clear front runners in that bunch. Packing a feature set that manages to rival a number of bigger products (apps, easy firmware updates over USB, personalization options ranging from alert sounds to configurable buttons), the Jambox crams a pair of 1 1/4-inch drivers and a surprisingly capable passive bass radiator into a minuscule--even stylish--package. Add to that the well-engineered UI (the thing talks to you to let you know its Bluetooth status; a welcome change from the watch-the-speed-of-the-flashing-LEDs paradigm) and you have an ideal traveling companion, especially if you're the sort of listener who doesn't enjoy wearing headphones--or if you'd just rather share.

    The Jambox won't fool you into thinking you're listening to a pair of towers, but it puts out the kind of sound that'll surprise your dinner party guests or officemates in a big way, especially if you stick to material that highlights the little unit's strengths, notably midrange and treble output (the low end is admirable, but not really convincing). Voices and solo acoustic instruments work particularly well: John Cale's heartbreaking piano and vocal take on Nico's "Frozen Warnings" (from the Nico/Icon soundtrack) made me forget I was listening to a device that's less than six inches long.

    The Jambox even does a good job with well-recorded rock: firing up King Crimson's "The Construkction of Light" (from Level Five) at the office quickly brought over a crowd of curious colleagues, all of whom were surprised to find that the tiny red brick was putting out such impressively solid performance.

    There are some limitations, of course. It falls apart a bit with anything involving dense bass and percussion, especially (as is the case with so many small speakers) contemporary bus-compressed, heavily multiband-limited rock. Grinderman 2 was hardly tolerable, and Animals for Leaders' impressive double 8-string guitar assault on the "Circular Sea" (from the new Weightless) didn't fare well at all. But those sorts of things are just beyond the reach of such a small device, and so long as you keep the levels low, you won't be disappointed.

    DAN NOSOWITZ, POPSCI

    I have my Jambox set up in my kitchen, in between the seltzer maker and the food processor. It is the perfect kitchen speaker. Let me count the ways:

    • It's ridiculously small, so it takes up hardly any of your precious counter space.
    • It's very sturdy and well-made--it may not be waterproof, but I'm not worried about it getting splashed with vinegar or accidentally bonked with a mixing bowl. And the rubbery bottom keeps it anchored in one place, even if there's tomato juice all over the counter. The thing feels like a premium product--understandably, given its admittedly steep price, but still.
    • Bluetooth! It connects flawlessly to my iPhone and iPad, so I can keep my phone safely in my pocket rather than plugged into the speaker on the dangerous counter.
    • The sound may not be spectacular if you're trying to have a dance party, but for podcasts or music while cooking, it's wonderful. Bass is surprisingly loud, though not full and rumbly like a real stereo, but acoustic stuff sounds especially excellent.
    • It's totally wireless: no power cord, no audio input necessary (when using Bluetooth; it does have a 3.5mm (headphone) input, if you want to go that route). The battery life is surprisingly awesome--I charge it probably every other week, and use it every day--and it doesn't take up a valuable kitchen outlet, nor does it litter my counter with cables.
    • It's loud enough to overcome the whirr of a food processor or general kitchen clatter. And it talks to you with these pleasant little bleeps and bloops and calming female voice actors. ("Your battery is nearly full." "Thanks, Jambox lady!")
    • Having a speaker in the kitchen saves a lot of energy--otherwise, I'd have to blast music from another room, not very efficient or all that pleasant.
    • It has these big volume buttons on top that are easy enough to press that I can hit them with an elbow when my hands are covered in beet juice or whatever.
    • Did I mention the thing looks awesome? It looks awesome.

    This isn't some marvel of engineering that can replace a stereo or anything. But given its size, I'm totally impressed with the Jambox. My kitchen would feel very quiet without it.


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    Full-scale model of James Webb Space Telescope, on display in Munich The model weighs 12,000 pounds. EADS Astrium
    A House and Senate Committee keeps the JWST moving forward, but cuts NASA's commercial space budget by half

    NASA's new budget, approved by a House and Senate conference committee and going before the full House today, will save the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). But the allotment for commercial space taxis to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station has been cut in half.

    So goes budgeting in the era of austerity. NASA would receive $17.8 billion overall to cover the fiscal year that is already underway as of October 1. That's $684 million less than NASA received last year and $924 million less than President Obama requested for the space agency. It green-lights $3.8 billion for human space exploration activities--$1.8 billion of which would go toward NASA's new heavy-lift rocket while $1.2 would go toward its new deep space crew capsule--and preserves the JWST, provided costs don't spiral beyond $8 billion.

    On the science side of things, NASA would receive roughly $155 million more than it got last year for a total of $5.1 billion. About half a billion of that would go toward getting the JWST into space on schedule in 2018.

    But for every give there must be a take. President Obama requested $850 million to hurry along the development of commercial spacecraft capable of replacing the space shuttle's principal task of resupplying and re-staffing the ISS. He's getting less than half that--$406 million to be exact.

    That could make things tough for NASA's commercial spacecraft development programs. The agency had hoped to keep at least two--and possibly three--companies currently developing spacecraft (those are Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin) in enough money to continue developing their spaceships. Building spaceships is expensive, and on a budget now halved some tough decisions may have to be made, though NASA has not yet commented on how the bill might affect its spending on commercial space initiatives.

    [Reuters]


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    Graffiti Salim Virji via Flickr

    Cops tracking gang activity frequently need to decipher graffiti, decoding messages, identifying gangs and even monitoring individual people by looking at their bubbly letters and spray-painted scrawls. New software can help speed the process by automatically checking graffiti against a library of street art.

    The system works by filtering existing images, which are currently captured and labeled by hand. Given a specific graffiti query, the system finds a list of similar images based on visual and content similarity, and then returns the gang names associated with those similar images. Michigan State University computer scientists led by Anil Jain have been working on the software for a couple years now and plan to present their findings at the ACM Multimedia conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., later this month.

    Like other image-recognition programs, the graffiti matching system searches for matches based on commonalities, according to Jain and his colleagues. This helps filter different graffiti that depicts the same logo or tag, but may look dramatically different based on the person or gang who created it. First, the system extracts visual features from a new image, and then letters, numbers and symbols are manually annotated. Then, the system finds candidate images that share similarities with this new image.

    It would be nice to have a system that automatically recognizes numbers and letters, but this is too difficult with existing technology because graffiti is so variable, Jain and his colleagues say. Instead, Jain uses crowdsourcing to identify words, using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, according to New Scientist.

    When using both image and text similarity, the system is able to pinpoint a gang or individual with about 65 percent accuracy, New Scientist says.

    The system still needs some tweaking so it can be applied to vast graffiti image databases, Jain and colleagues explain. "In the future, we plan to explore additional information about graffiti other than the textual features, such as the time stamp and location of graffiti," the authors write.

    [New Scientist]


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    Iran's New RQ-170 Stealth Drone It just fell into their laps via Nasim Online

    You know, it's one thing to "shoot down" the top secret spy drone of the imperialist zionist heathen enemy. But come on Iran--stop bragging. Iran today released a two-and-a-half minute video and the first images depicting the RQ-170 stealth drone that it claims it shot down on Sunday. It's the first visual proof that leaders of the Islamic Republic are actually holding the drone it their possession.

    If you missed this latest diplomatic dust-up: on Sunday Iran claimed its military had downed an American drone, a claim that U.S. officials somewhat backed up by saying controllers in Afghanistan had recently lost contact with a drone flying in that country and that--maybe just maybe--that drone accidentally wandered into Iranian airspace.

    The plot thickened when the U.S confirmed that in fact the missing drone was indeed an RQ-170 (as Iran had originally claimed), a top secret drone designed to cruise undetected at up to 50,000 feet. It's the same drone that offered aerial recon before and during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. And it's something the U.S. intelligence infrastructure would likely not like shared with its adversaries.

    And now, as you can see in the video below, it certainly appears that a RQ-170 is in Iranian custody. The release of the images and video coincides with Iran's lodging an official diplomatic protest over the American incursion into its sovereign airspace.

    So we know the Iranians really have the drone and that the drone appears to be intact. Now comes the part where we, the public, try to parse the posturing (on both sides) from the truths. For instance, Iran claims its air defenses detected and shot down the drone as soon as it entered Iranian airspace. Yet the drone in the video looks highly un-shot-up and mostly un-crashed. The official in the video is apparently explaining this away by claiming Iran's military brought the drone down with the intention of causing minimum damage. Gravity generally doesn't bend its rules based upon intention, but okay.

    And then there's the fact that the drone was recovered some 140 miles from the border. Had the drone been engaged just as it crossed into Iranian airspace, one could envision it limping its way in-country for a distance. But more than 100 miles?

    Of course, the U.S. seems to be trying to sell the idea that it hasn't a clue how the drone got into Iranian airspace, so I'm not trying to throw too many stones here. Suffice it to say that Iran is currently holding a piece of super-stealthy U.S. intelligence equipment that's supposed to be secret, and whatever the truth is we're probably not going to hear it in its entirety from anyone. Enjoy the video--after all, it's also your first up-close look at the RQ-170.

    [NYT]


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    Don't Worry, I Got This The presence of a rat trapped in a restrainer elicits focused activity from his cagemate, who figures out how to open the door and liberates him. © Science/AAAS

    Given a choice between eating chocolate alone and rescuing their pals, rats will apparently save their pals and then share the chocolate with them. Trapping a rat in a cage sparks its cagemate into action, as it figures out how to open the cage and liberate its jailed friend. This is an unusual example of rats expressing empathy, a trait thought to be reserved to us higher mammals, the primates.

    It's interesting from an evolutionary perspective, because it suggests that pro-social behaviors originated earlier than previously thought. And it's interesting from a neuroscience perspective, because it suggests rats are wired for pro-social behaviors, which means they can be used as a model for human behaviors.

    "There are a lot of ideas in the literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear," said study co-author Jean Decety, a psychiatry and psychology professor at the University of Chicago. "We put together in one series of experiments evidence of helping behavior based on empathy in rodents, and that's really the first time it's been seen."

    The simple experiment used no fancy technology and no bizarre new methods - it just separated two rat friends that normally shared a cage and watched what happened.

    The rats started out sharing a cage for two weeks, enough time to get acquainted. Then the animals were placed in a special chamber, where one rat was inserted into a cramped restraining device that could be nudged open from the outside. The other rat was free to roam around and observe the plight of its jailed pal, both squeaking ultrasonic alarm calls all the while.

    The free rat was agitated when its cagemate was trapped, which the researchers say is evidence of "emotional contagion," a lower form of empathy in which animals share in the fear or distress of another animal. But what happened next was much more like true empathy. Although the rats were agitated, they didn't freak out, freeze or become overwhelmed with fear, which is one possible reaction to emotional contagion. Instead, they coolly circled the container, bit it, clawed at it and generally spent time near it, even reaching through holes to touch (and comfort?) the trapped rat.

    The researchers tried several different controls to figure out what was motivating the rats. They experimented with empty cages, to ensure the rats weren't just curious about the box-thing, and they found the rats ignored the empty ones. They tried keeping the rats separate even after liberation - socialization would be a reward for freeing the trapped rat - yet the rat still freed its friend.


    They even tried a "cagemate versus chocolate paradigm," the authors explain. A free rat was placed in an area with two containers, one containing its cagemate and one containing pieces of chocolate. It would open the chocolate cage about as often as the rat cage, suggesting "the value of freeing a trapped cagemate is on par with that of accessing chocolate chips." But more than half the time, the free rats did not hog all the chocolate chips. They saved them and let their liberated cagemates have half of them.

    The rats figured out several different ways to open the door, and the researchers say they clearly learned what would happen. "Whereas rats initially froze after the door fell over, later on they did not freeze, demonstrating that door-opening was the expected outcome of a deliberate, goal-directed action," they write.

    Female rats were also more likely to become door-openers, "which is consistent with suggestions that females are more empathic than males," the authors added.

    
Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, the paper's first author, said in a statement that the rats were not trained at all, but figured out how to complete a difficult task to help their cagemates.

    "These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal," Bartal said. "They keep trying and trying, and it eventually works."

    The study is published in this week's issue of Science.



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  • 12/09/11--07:15: Brammo Empulse
  • Brammo Empulse Brammo
    The fastest consumer electric motorcycle

    With a 100mph top speed and 100 miles of driving range, the Brammo Empulse 10.0 is the fastest and farthest-driving consumer electric motorcycle ever made. The speed comes from the 57-horsepower motor; the range comes from the hefty 10-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. The Empulse 10.0 recharges in 10 hours from a 110-volt household outlet. Brammo also sells two less-expensive variations on this bike-the 6.0 and the 8.0, which come with smaller battery packs. $14,000


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    Bill Gates Wow! Wikimedia Commons

    Bill Gates recently confirmed during a talk at China's Ministry of Science and Technology that a company in which he is a primary investor, Terrapower, will be collaborating with Chinese scientists on a next-generation nuclear reactor. It's still in the early stages, but there are a lot of impressive superlatives being thrown around, and we have to wonder: Why not bring it Stateside, Mr. Gates?

    Gates himself classified the project as in the "early stages," and understandably so: the reactor proposed would be a Generation IV reactor, which, well, don't exist yet. In fact, they're not even particularly close to existing; most estimates peg the earliest construction of a Generation IV reactor at around 2030. In case you were wondering, currently active nuclear reactors are classified as Generation II or III, with first-generation reactors having been long shut down. You can read more about current-generation nuclear reactors in our explainer.

    But we're excited by the ambition of the project. Gates said "The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste," and classified it as a traveling wave reactor. It's a theoretical kind of reactor, under study by Terrapower that requires no enriched uranium, but actually uses depleted uranium, which means hardly any nuclear waste. They can also run for, theoretically, decades without refueling. The name comes from the idea that fission begins in a specific part of the core and moves outward, in a traveling wave.

    Terrapower and the Chinese scientists will be researching the possibilities of this reactor over the next five years--good thing Terrapower falls under the umbrella of our pal Nathan Myhrvold's loaded Intellectual Ventures, because that research alone could top a billion dollars in cost.

    [BBC]


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    Kung Fu Gecko Indonesian photographer Shikhei Goh made an entire series about geckos (his own pets--these are not professionals, people) in badass poses. Check out the gallery over at io9. Shikhei Goh

    This week's gallery features underground park concepts in the Lower East Side, stolen drones in Iran, a portrait made of memories, a possible Earth 2.0, and more. (More, in this case, includes the highly-trained martial arts gecko you see above.)


    Click to launch the gallery.


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    This gets said every month, but yes, the Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone on the market. This time it's by a long shot

    Here's the thing about the Galaxy Nexus: It is the best Android phone available now by such a huge margin that I am prepared to say that shoppers should either buy it or steer clear of Android entirely. And that has nothing to do with its hardware.

    I am putting forth a call to arms: Let us not care so much about hardware, Android friends. Let us not pay mind to mobile processor clock speed, to millimeters of body thickness, to HDMI-out ports and docking stations and removable batteries. The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone because its software was designed for humans. More than any other 'Droid previous, using the Galaxy Nexus just makes sense. And for that we can thank its stock install of something called Ice Cream Sandwich.

    WHAT'S NEW

    The Nexus line is Google's "reference line" of Android phones-each one (this is the third) is the first phone to carry the new version of Android, completely unencumbered by the custom interfaces tacked on by most other manufacturers. They're intended to be the purest version of Android of their generation. The Galaxy Nexus is the first with Android 4.0, called "Ice Cream Sandwich," or ICS (Android code names use alphabetical dessert names-Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, etc). More phones with ICS will come, and soon-and they will have skins, like HTC's Sense UI. But this is the phone Google wants us to think of when we think of ICS.

    Ice Cream Sandwich is easily the biggest update to the smartphone version of Android since the original Droid's Android 2.0. A lot has changed-too much to cover everything in detail. But sticking to the highlights:

    The look of Android is quite different from before: it's now cool and blue, with spare lines and black backgrounds. There's a new, custom-made font. There are friendly animations. The buttons are completely different-instead of the traditional four Android buttons (Home, Menu, Search, and Back), there are...well, technically, there are none. The buttons have been moved to the screen itself, and shrunk to three: Home, Back, and Recent Apps. The camera app has been overhauled. All of the first-party apps, like Gmail and Maps, are new. Icons and folders are more three-dimensional. The keyboard is new. Google Plus is heavily integrated. The list could go on, but it won't, because it's long enough already.


    Click to launch a tour of the Galaxy Nexus and Ice Cream Sandwich.

    WHAT'S GOOD

    Just about everything listed in the section above is a good change. But more importantly, Ice Cream Sandwich comes very close, dangerously close, to the ethereal goal of "just working." It is fast and responsive as all hell. That is impressive technologically, but for humans, it's more important as an element of a phone that feels like it's working with you, not against you. There's no lag: when you swipe, it moves. This is not as easy as it sounds; I've always felt Android had a distinct lag between your finger and what was happening on screen, and throughout most of the Galaxy Nexus, that's now gone.

    The new buttons are great; they save space, but they're also very functional, rotating when you want to rotate the screen, adding a menu button when you're using an app that needs one, disappearing when you're playing a game or watching a video.

    Apple stole Android's swipe-down notifications shade in iOS5, and while Apple's is prettier, Ice Cream Sandwich seems to say "oh yeah? Enjoy the first generation. Here's what we've done with years of practice." There's an embedded settings button in the shade, so you can jump in there and turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on and off, or change your brightness, or whatever, in one tap. You can swipe notifications away one by one-just tap and toss them off the phone.

    This animation comes from Matias Duarte, the user interface genius behind the beloved and now-extinct Palm Pre, who is now a design bigwig at Google. It is the perfect way to deal with things you don't want: it's like grabbing an unwanted piece of junk mail and pushing it off your desk. Now your desk is clean! That same UI trick pops up in a few other places, and it never fails to make your phone feel simultaneously intuitive and transparent, which is not an easy trick.

    All the new apps are great; Android's biggest strength, I always thought, was its Google apps. Maps on Android is in a different league than anywhere else, as is Gmail. The browser has been redesigned, smartly. Tabs can be swiped-to-close, just like notifications or open apps. Pages are rendered very nicely (though I found the tap-to-zoom-in-on-text, as well as pinch-to-zoom, to be less reliable and natural than on the iPhone 4S). There's a mode to request the desktop, rather than mobile, version of a site-ideal for the sites that, frustratingly, don't provide such links for you. There's a "save for offline reading" mode so you can read longer stories later, even when you've got no wireless signal. Mobile Flash, recently shuttered by Adobe, is not currently available on ICS-it may come later, but I didn't miss it, even though it was occasionally nice to have the option.

    The keyboard is great. I've used Android for a long time, with many different devices, and this is the first time I did not immediately download a better keyboard app from the Market. It's the right amount of sensitive, autocorrect is unobtrusive and helpful, and it gets what you're trying to say. Job well done, Android keyboard developers.

    There are lots of nice little features, which you'll discover as you go, ranging from NFC to a new unlock mode that recognizes your face to a new People app that collects info from all your friends. There are tons of goodies in here which you'll discover as you use it.

    THE HARDWARE

    Is mediocre. Please, guys, no more cheap-feeling, lightweight plastic phones. The Galaxy Nexus is made by Samsung, and feels like the Galaxy S, or the Focus, or any other modern Samsung phone. It's wildly thin (maybe a hair thinner than the iPhone 4S at its thinnest point), but it's still light and plastic-y. It is not impossible to make great-looking and great-feeling phones that aren't the iPhone-just ask Nokia-but the Galaxy Nexus is just, you know, fine. When I reviewed the Nokia Lumia 800, I kept trying to get other people to hold it. "Feel how great it feels to feel!" I'd sputter. No such illiterate enthusiasm here. It's not bad either, just nothing special.

    The screen warrants some talk. It's sized at 4.65-inches, which is just insanity. 4.3 inches has become the accepted size of a "big" phone, so I was positive a 4.65-incher would be unusable, but in fact the Galaxy Nexus as a whole is just slightly larger than a 4.3-inch phone like the Droid Bionic (pictured). Partly that's because a portion of the screen is devoted to the new "buttons," and partly it's because the phone has a pretty small bezel. It's still a little too big, I think-I'd have preferred a Nexus with a 4.3-inch screen that physically is much smaller-but aside from a couple stretches to tap something in the upper-left corner of the screen, I can proclaim the Galaxy Nexus usable for people with average-to-large hands. The extra space is nice for watching videos or reading Kindle books (suddenly a pleasant experience on a phone), and the screen itself is great: ICS mandates a true 720p resolution, and the Super AMOLED display is very clear, with some of the deepest blacks I've seen.

    The camera's speed is unparalleled-it's very fast to shoot and then ready itself for the next shot, even faster than the iPhone 4S. But the sensor in the Galaxy Nexus itself is surprisingly bad. It's a 5MP shooter, and compared to photos from the iPhone 4S or even other Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II, I found the Nexus's shots washed out, fuzzy, and without detail. That's a hardware issue, I suppose. Bummer, though. Future Ice Cream Sandwich phones will hopefully use better sensors.

    The Galaxy Nexus will be released on Verizon's network here in the States, and it'll boast 4G LTE, which is pretty killer. My review unit is on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, so I can't make any judgment about the Nexus's 4G speeds or battery life (a constant concern with 4G phones). It won't have a slot for expandable memory (most Android phones do) and rumors indicate it'll probably have 32GB of internal storage on Verizon. Call quality on today's phones usually has more to do with the network than the phone itself, but the Galaxy Nexus I tested delivered stellar-sounding calls on T-Mobile.

    WHAT'S BAD

    Android is still not as streamlined as iOS or Windows Phone. Perhaps Android phone fans don't want it to be. Ice Cream Sandwich is a big step forward, but there are still elements that feel redundant or messy. Having three ways to do something doesn't make it easier to use; it makes it harder to learn the rules of the operating system, harder to understand why certain things work certain ways and thus harder to perform new actions for the first time, since you're not sure how it'll respond. Some apps require a menu button, which will pop up next to the Recent Apps button at the bottom right of the screen. Some don't need one. Some do, but you'll find it in the upper right corner instead. Ugh.

    Sometimes you scroll through things vertically starting at the bottom (like in the Recent Apps list or browser tabs). Sometimes you scroll through things vertically starting at the top (like every other app ever, including contacts and music). But then the app drawer scrolls horizontally. Every single time I opened the app drawer, I tried to swipe it up, the way non-Samsung Android phones have always worked. Why, Google? Why change that?

    The home screen is my least favorite part of the entire OS: it not only permits messiness, it encourages it. There are still five home screens, and you can't change that number. I never saw the need for more than one or two; the complete list of apps is one tap away, so why do you need to litter five homescreens with widgets and multiple redundant shortcuts?

    Android is powerful and flexible, yes. You can do all kinds of crazy things! But that's like saying a huge buffet is always better than a carefully composed dish from a chef. I don't want to make Android something it's not, and there are definitely times when it's thrilling to be able to make my phone look just the way I want it to, but some consistency and limits might help here.

    And once you get away from the warm blue glow of Google's first-party apps, performance takes a hit. Scrolling is noticeably jerkier and less natural in non-Google apps. The app selection is still not very cohesive; it sounds like an unfair claim, but the majority of Android apps are not as pretty or as fun to use as those on Windows Phone or iOS. Functional, sure, and there are an awful lot of apps in the Market. But mostly they are not as good. (Examples: Rdio, Twitter, IMDb, Hulu Plus.) The Music app is still disappointing; I'm not sure what the problem is there, but Android's default music player has always been curiously ugly and un-fun to use to me. There are lots of replacements in the Market, luckily (I recommend Winamp, although the official Music app is the only one that integrates with Google Music's cloud-streaming storage feature).

    THE PRICE

    None of the principal folks involved with the Galaxy Nexus (that'd be Google, Samsung, and Verizon) have announced price or availability in the States. Good bet would be soon, though.

    THE VERDICT

    The Galaxy Nexus is the best Android phone I've ever used, heads and tails above anything else on the market. The speed, the new sleek blue-and-grayscale look, the new Google apps, the new and easier ways to manage what's happening on your phone-there's no contest. With Verizon's 4G, presuming the 4G doesn't reduce the Nexus's battery life to zero in a few hours, it'll be a damn fine phone, and not just for dedicated Androiders.

    I love the direction Ice Cream Sandwich is going: toward a more consistent, simpler, more fun experience, while retaining that tinkerer's ability to do anything. Finding that balance is as hard as balancing an egg on its end; it may turn out to be impossible to please everyone. But I have no hesitation in recommending the Nexus if you're leaning toward or curious about Android. It makes other Android phones feel much older than their age, and I mean that in the best way.


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    HP TouchPad HP/Palm

    HP has spent the last year or so, as the new owner of the WebOS mobile operating system, alternately making arbitrary decisions about the platform's future and making sure to not release any nice hardware for it. After the company ignominiously shut down WebOS for good this summer, we thought that was it for the best smartphone platform nobody used--but today, HP surprised us with an announcement that WebOS will be going open-source.

    Designed by Matias Duarte, the man largely responsible for Android's greatest achievement to date, WebOS was the ultimate fizzle: packed full of great ideas, some of which are still unparalleled and others of which are shamelessly stolen, the platform died due to unuse, misuse, and generally shoddy hardware. Eventually TouchPad tablets were jettisoned for $100 a pop and the new flagship phone, the Pre 3, was never even released Stateside. But today's announcement gives us some hope.

    HP is releasing all of WebOS's underlying code to open source, meaning anyone can alter it as they choose. That could mean tons of new apps, it could mean new hardware with a newly free OS (unlikely, but possible), and it could mean a new explosion of interest in the little OS that never made it. HP will try to make this sound like a noble enterprise, helping the open-source community and whatnot, although at this point the company has absolutely nothing to lose in doing this. But we're excited that WebOS may have some life in it yet--perhaps only a kit OS, a hobby for a small community. But anyone who snatched up a $100 tablet should take another look at it--it may not be as dead as it seems.

    [via Wired]


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    London Black Cab Wikimedia Commons

    Unlike here in New York, where telling a cabbie to take you to even some of the most common intersections often result in a response of "Okay, how do I get there?", London cabdriver tests are notoriously difficult and complete. You don't just pass the test--you earn "The Knowledge," or the ins and outs of a massive and complex city from end to end. And, it turns out, the level of training needed to pass the test actually changes the structure of the brain, according to a new study.

    London's black cab drivers typically spend three or four years working up to the test--and no wonder, considering it requires knowledge of more than 25,000 streets, in addition to the names of all the neighborhoods, landmarks, and tourist spots. And it's not like London is a simple grid. That level of memorization is so intense and unusual that it compelled neuroscientists at University College London to follow prospective cabdrivers from the beginning to the end of their test, from a neurological point of view.

    Compared to the control group, those who passed the test (about 39 percent of those who had studied) showed a significant growth of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus. Even more interesting, that same group proved worse at other tests, like recalling complex visual information, than either the control group or the group that failed the test. That suggests, says professor Eleanor Maguire, that "the human brain remains 'plastic,' even in adult life, allowing it to adapt when we learn new tasks."

    This particular study is a followup to one done by the same neuroscientists a few years back. But that study just tested already qualified cabdrivers against a control group. This study traces the same people as they study for and take the test, which emphasizes the fact that these people's brains do physically change over time.

    The new study appears today in the current issue of the journal Current Biology.

    [Press Release via Wired]


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  • 12/09/11--13:40: Bombardier Global 8,000
  • Bombardier Global 8,000 Courtesy Bombardier Inc.
    Longest-haul private jet

    With a range of 9,000 miles, roughly the distance from New York to Hong Kong, the Bombardier Global 8,000 flies farther than any other private jet-1,000 miles more than its closest competitor. General Electric developed engines for the craft that use carbon-fiber casing and other weight-saving tricks to improve efficiency by 8 percent over previous designs. The plane's design includes a thinner, lighter swept-wing and cuts fuel use by another 6 percent.


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    This Week in the Future, December 5-9, 2011 Baarbarian

    We're in for a weird one, you guys. Surfing, sandwich-eating mammoths will surf in the mountaintops. The threatened American crocodile gets saved by nuclear power plants. At least the future won't be boring.

    Want to win this radical Baarbarian illustration on a T-shirt? It's easy! The rules: Follow us on Twitter (we're @PopSci) and retweet our This Week in the Future tweet. One of those lucky retweeters will be chosen to receive a custom T-shirt with this week's Baarbarian illustration on it, thus making the winner the envy of their friends, coworkers and everyone else with eyes. (Those who would rather not leave things to chance and just pony up some cash for the t-shirt can do that here.) The stories pictured herein:

    And don't forget to check out our other favorite stories of the week:


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