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    Petri Painting Artist Klari Reis has been creating an abstract painting every day in 2013. The twist? The paintings are all in petri dishes. If only actual bacterial cultures came out this beautiful. Klari Reis via Colossal
    Plus a "Space Invader" spotted by NASA, the latest Lamborghini, futuristic Soviet art, and more!


    Click to enter the gallery




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    Luxury Airship RVRhy Thornton
    I want to believe in the airship revival, but this crowdfunded luxury airship RV project just seems like, uh, dead air.

    The U.S. military might have given up on the modern airship, but there's a slim chance crowdfunding could resurrect it.

    Very slim.

    At indiegogo, Rhy Thornton is trying to secure funding for what he's calling a Luxury Airship RV:

    In the 1930s Zeppelins and Airships seemed to be the future of human transportation. There were luxurious floating hotels like the Hindenburg, exploration vessels that successfully visited the north pole, like the Norge, and even the Graf Zeppelin, which flew around the world non-stop with luxurious comfort for it's 40+ crew and passengers.
    The materials and manufacturing we have now vastly surpass the technology of the 1930s. With computer navigation and high efficiency solar panels, a new class of floating luxury yachts is ready to be built and used to liberate humanity from the shackles of gravity.

    He goes on to say that modern advances in materials, battery life, solar power, natural air currents, and automated flying systems will make home-sized zeppelins possible.

    It's not clear what the goals are here. The airship is supposed to be both a luxury and a vehicle for the masses. It's supposed to end commuters' pollution at the same time that it creates a permanently moving group of global citizens. It's as though someone saw Venice, and decided that to solve all the Venetians' problems, everyone buys a yacht or houseboat.

    The steps to achieve those goals? The first stage is developing 100 small scale autonomous airships, which seems excessive, and testing the hell out of them ("ton of short distance, local testing" and "ton of long distance, interstate testing"). From there, the plan is to build open-source airship piloting software, prototypes of which will be given to donors. The last step: "Begin producing and selling low-cost, high-reliability fully autonomous luxury airship homes to the general public," the project description says.

    The rewards for donating to the project range from a DVD about the airship to a ride on the finished product to owning a working test model. The ultimate goal for funding is set at $1 million, and as of press time there was a pledge of $5 and 119 days left to go. Good luck?




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    Wild Lab MouseTambako the Jaguar
    Researchers show how glial cells can give mice a boost.

    When you think of a brain, you might imagine a flashing chain of neurons beaming messages to one another. But a new paper suggests that's not the whole story, and they found this out by PUTTING HUMAN BRAIN CELLS IN MICE AND MAKING THEM SMARTER.

    The non-neural brain cells they used are known as "glia"--like the "glue" of the system, although they're also neural protectors and janitors--and they've been seen for awhile as supporting actors in the brain game. But the scientists involved in the experiment wanted to test for their importance to information processing. So, the team of researchers led by Steven Goldman and neurobiologist Maiken Nedergaard got to work.

    The researchers first implanted glial progenitor cells into newborn mice. Those cells make different types of glia, including astrocytes, which in humans are much larger and more complex than in other animals (neurons, by contrast, are pretty much the same between species). That might mean astrocytes are what separates human brain-power from, say, mouse brain-power.

    The results suggest that theory could be right. After about 6 months, the human progenitor cells mostly replaced the mouse's progenitor cells and the human astrocytes mostly took over, too. The mice that got the blast of brain cells formed stronger synapses and performed better on tasks like learning maze routes than a control group of mice that got a shot of mouse progenitor cells (proving it wasn't just more brain cells that did the trick but more human brain cells).

    Hopefully the mice don't become so smart that they figure out what's making them smarter.

    [ScienceNews]




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    Under PressureCourtesy Mazda
    The company's new diesel engine will get 44 mpg plus meet strict emission standards.

    Diesel-engine designers have long grappled with a dilemma: Reducing emissions meant either cutting efficiency or adding expensive equipment. With the Skyactiv-D, Mazda engineers decreased pollution, boosted mileage, and eliminated the cost of exhaust after-treatments by building the world's lowest-compression diesel engine. They then added two turbochargers and a capacitor-based regenerative braking system. When it arrives in U.S. showrooms late this year, the Skyactiv-D-equipped Mazda6 should deliver approximately 44 highway mpg while meeting strict emission standards, proving that diesel engines have many miles left in them.

    SMART TURBOCHARGER

    A two-stage turbocharging system contains a small turbine that boosts low-end torque, as well as a larger turbocharger that increases high-end horsepower. An electronic controller runs the turbochargers, tuning performance to conditions.

    LIGHTWEIGHT COMPONENTS

    The Skyactiv-D's engine overhaul has a side benefit: Engineers were able to build the engine with lighter, lower-friction components, including 25-percent lighter pistons and an aluminum cylinder block that trims 55 pounds.

    LOW COMPRESSION RATIO

    Diesel engines ignite fuel by combining it with air and compressing it to extremely high pressure. Yet compared to that of gasoline, the high pressure and temperature of diesel combustion produce more smog-forming nitrogen oxides and sooty particulate matter. To meet pollution standards, modern clean diesels delay combustion until the piston begins its descent-but that reduces power and efficiency. Mazda's solution: new fuel injectors and exhaust valves that allowed engineers to lower the compression ratio from 16.3:1 to 14.0:1.

    NO EXHAUST TREATMENTS

    Before exhaust even enters the tailpipe, the engine's low compression ratio cuts emissions of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants enough to meet present (and future) standards both in Europe and the U.S. As a result, the Mazda6 does away with expensive urea tanks (which drivers have to refill every 10,000 miles or so) that many diesels use to neutralize emissions.

    ULTRA-CAPACITOR BOOST

    i-ELOOP, one of the industry's first regenerative braking systems to store energy in a capacitor rather than a battery, further improves fuel efficiency. When the driver decelerates, an alternator generates up to 25 volts, charging the capacitor in seconds. Stored energy can supply all electric needs-headlights, climate control, audio system-for one minute. Capacitors have been used to boost power on F1 cars; eventually, they could be used to do the same in passenger electric cars.

    2014 Mazda6

    Engines: 2.5-liter Skyactive-G gasoline engine (available now) or 2.2-liter Skyactive-D diesel (available late 2013)
    Base Price: $20,880




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    Sketched SkullOxford Performance Materials
    How long until we can successfully 3-D print a whole human?

    The rise of 3-D printing has turned body parts into a custom order. We can now 3-D-print customized prosthetics for everything from our hands to our ears. And now 3-D printing can even make you a new noggin.

    Earlier this week, an unnamed man in the northeastern U.S. had 75 percent of his skull replaced by a 3-D printed implant made by Oxford Performance Materials, a Connecticut-based biomedical company. The replacement bone took only five days to fabricate, according to Scott DeFelice, the company's president and CEO.

    The FDA cleared the implant, called the OsteoFab Patient Specific Cranial Device, for use in the U.S. back in mid-February.

    The implant, printed to match the patient's skull, is made of PEKK, a biomedical implant polymer that's mechanically similar to bone and is osteoconductive, meaning bone cells will grow and attach to small details on its surface. It doesn't interfere with X-ray equipment -- it shows up as a shadow on the image, but is transparent. This makes it a more attractive implant for tumor patients than a traditional metal plate that a doctor couldn't see through on an X-ray.

    The treatment could be used to replace cancerous bone in the skull, car accident victims and people with head trauma.

    The company is now preparing to 3-D print bone implants for other parts of the body. DeFelice told PopSci the focus is currently on helping people with diabetic foot, which can cause the structural components of your foot to deteriorate and even lead to amputation. But "there is no part of the anatomy that ultimately won't be affected by this technology," he says.

    As DeFelice told TechNewsDaily, "If you can replace a bony void in someone's head next to the brain, you have a pretty good platform for filling bony voids elsewhere."

    Sounds good to me. Natural body parts are overrated -- let's all go as bionic possible instead. How long will it take before we can 3-D print our children instead of having to go through childbirth?

    [News.com.au]




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    Veiled Chameleon Catching Its PreyStephen Deban/YouTube

    If you've never seen a Chinese Giant Salamander turn its mouth into a vacuum to slurp up its prey, or watched an archer fish take insects out of the air by firing little water grenades from below the surface, or beheld the veiled chameleon's alien purple tongue as it leaps out to snag a meal, you're in luck: Wired's Nadia Drake has combed YouTube for the best slo-mo videos of animals catching their prey, and put together a video gallery for your edification and enjoyment. Check it out here.




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    Vertical Forests Concept for the Bosco Verticale, or "Vertical Forest," high-rises. These buildings are now under construction in Milan. Picture by Boeri Studio (Stefano Boeri, Gianandrea Barreca, Giovanni La Varra)
    Despite all the trendy concept drawings you may have seen, trees actually hate living on top of buildings.

    You've seen them. Those artists' renditions of futuristic skyscrapers, with trees growing in rooftop gardens or mid-building parks. City living is hard on the human psyche, so architects imagine that in the future, we'll have soothing green spaces built right into our high-rises.

    Not so fast, environmental researcher-turned-journalist Tim de Chant writes on his blog. Trees often don't grow well on top of skyscrapers, De Chant explains, for a few crucial reasons.

    First, it's much windier up there, which strips the tiny protective layer of air every leaf maintains. Some plants evolved to live in hot and windy climates and have adaptations to deal with this, but they aren't the tall, straight-trunked trees most often seen in drawings of green architecture.

    Also, the weather really sucks. Temperatures are more extreme, and the velocity of rain, hail, snow and sleet is greater.

    De Chant advocates spending time and money to preserve ground-level green spaces instead, which is a great idea. But what if, at the same time, we just ended up with skyscrapers growing the kinds of trees evolved for mountaintops and sea cliffs? That could be pretty cool:

    [Per Square Mile]




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    Hugo ChavezWikimedia Commons
    The corpse of Hugo Chavez is on display for a week.

    The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been met with mixed feelings here in the US. But he was adored in his country, at least by those who didn't despise him, so after his death, his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, stated that his body would be embalmed "like Lenin and Mao Zedong," and displayed for a week.

    But how do you display a body for an entire week?

    The Ugliness of Death

    Decomposition begins from the second of death in human bodies. The first stage of decomposition, called the "fresh" stage, begins when the heart stops beating. Blood stops pumping to the extremities and settles due to gravity, causing the skin to become bluish-purple. After a few hours, rigor mortis kicks in. At the same time, the body begins the process of autolysis, in which pH changes in the body trigger the structural breakdown of cell walls. Those cells release digestive enzymes which completely destroy the cell. And while all that is going on, aerobic bacteria in the body are gobbling up all of the oxygen that remains inside, but since there's no new oxygen coming in, they soon die off, leaving a perfect space for anaerobic bacteria to jump in. They start chowing down on any liquids and fats in the body and producing nasty stuff--gases, acids, that kind of thing--which turn into bloat. And that's not even accounting for visible insects like blowflies.

    The type of embalming performed at funeral homes is temporary, designed to last a mere few hours until the body can be buried. Embalming is an ancient practice, with cultures as widely varied as the Inca, the Egyptians, and the Han Dynasty Chinese all having traditional embalming methods and ceremonies.

    Today, this kind of temporary preservation is usually done by arterial embalming. Blood and other fluids are drained from the body, and an embalming solution is then injected with a pump into an artery--typically the right carotid artery, in the side of the neck--while the embalmer massages the veins and extremities to circulate the fluid throughout the body. The embalming solution is mostly common solvents, with formaldehyde and methanol being typical ingredients. Other ingredients could include phenols (which serve the same purpose as formaldehyde--and also smell like scotch whisky), water, a conditioner to balance the pH of the water, and some kind of pink or red dye to maintain the color the body was when it was less...dead.

    This solution denatures the proteins of surrounding cells, which has the dual purpose of killing any bacteria and also making those cells worthless as food for any bacteria that would try to settle in. It's kind of grotesque, but you can think of this like a ceviche, in which acid denatures the proteins of delicious seafood, thus sterilizing it. (Sorry for that comparison.)

    But this only preserves the body for a little while--plenty of time to perform an open-casket funeral service, but if you want to display a communist national leader for a week, you've got to try something else. And what if you want to do it for more than a week? Lest we forget, the body of Vladimir Lenin has been on display since his death. Which was in 1924.

    Long-Term Preservation

    Vice-President Maduro specifically said that Chavez would be embalmed like Lenin, rather than preserved through any other method (more on those later). And luckily, we have some information on how Lenin's body was preserved. And it's not wildly different from short-term preservation. You need to invest in more hair and makeup, because hair falls out fairly quickly, but the big difficulty is moisture.

    The alcohol, for example, is highly important to the embalming process. It's what's used to hold the formaldehyde in solution, since you're trying to stay away from water--but alcohol evaporates quickly, which can lead to the body drying out. So you have to keep the humidity level fairly high, to combat that. But keeping the humidity level high invites all sorts of other critters--mold, fungus, bacteria--that thrive in damp environments. It's a constant balance between wet and dry. Ilya Zbarsky, in a 1999 interview to the BBC, stated:

    Twice a week, we would soak the face and the hands with a special solution. We could also improve some minor defects. Once a year the mausoleum was closed and the body was immersed in a bath with this solution.

    This preserves Lenin's body...adequately. His face looks very waxy and shiny; it's clear it's Lenin, but nobody would mistake his century-old body for a man taking a nap.

    What About More Modern Techniques?

    Ah, here's where we get into some interesting stuff. In 1979, a German anatomist named Gunther von Hagens applied for a patent for a process he called "plastination." Plastination, in brief, replaces all of the liquids and fats (these are the problematic materials, decomposition-wise) in a body with plastics. It's a more difficult and newer technique than traditional embalming, but it has lots of advantages. Bodies preserved by plastination do not decay at all; no need for the kind of repeated upkeep Lenin's body needs. They're completely sterile, so you can even touch them without risk. And, perhaps best of all, you're not fighting decomposition: plastinated bodies are perfectly preserved in the moment they were treated, including color and appearance. If you've seen the Bodies exhibit that tours from museum to museum, this'll be familiar--that exhibit consists of plastinated body parts.

    Here's how it works. First, you inject with formaldehyde, much like you would to embalm. But the formaldehyde in this case is only used to preserve the body during the plastination process, and to lessen rigor mortis so the body can be posed as desired. Then, to draw out all the liquid--remember, liquid is the enemy here--the body is immersed in a bath of acetone, a clear, odorless compound that, when very cold, draws out water from the body and takes its place. Acetone might be a weird and highly flammable substance, but one thing it is not is a friend to mold or bacteria.

    Then, you take the body and immerse it in a second bath, this time a common polymer like silicone rubber, polyester, or epoxy resin. Then you bring it to a boil--I know, this sounds like a horrifying recipe--and the acetone will evaporate from the body's cells, at which point the polymer will move in and take its place. Then you zap the whole thing with an ultra-violet gun to dry and harden the plastic, and congratulations, you've got a plastinated body.

    What About Freezing?

    Well, basically, no. Cryopreservation is a young and controversial technique to maintain cells by keeping them at extremely low temperatures--like, several hundred degrees below zero. It works, kind of, but only for very small and simple creatures like tardigrades (AKA water bears), or for small human cells like sperm cells or embryos. It works well for that stuff; embryos have been preserved for up to 16 years and thawed successfully. But for larger human tissue, cryopreservation is just too immature and ill-understood. There are all kinds of problems: cells sometimes begin to form ice crystals or begin to dehydrate, which can cause irreparable physical damage to the cell walls. But research is definitely progressing in the field.

    So, Chavez will be embalmed. Embalming is a classic! But perhaps the next controversial freedom fighter/despot will opt for plastination.




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    DigitizerMakerbot
    An easy way to scan an object and let the world 3-D print it.

    Right at the start of South by Southwest, MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis has announced the company's 3-D printing desktop scanner: the MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner. It's exactly what it sounds like: a Makerbot-created tool that can scan real, 3-D objects and turn them into digital files. Those files can then be sent to other 3-D printers, and the objects printed on demand.

    Lasers and cameras in the device scan the object and digitize it. After that, with the file handy, it can be shared--ideally meaning hobbyists without much experience in scanning will be able to create and share files with other hobbyists without much experience in scanning. That's pretty neat, considering one of the main hurdles to 3-D printing has been learning to handle the software. It's definitely not the first 3-D scanner ever created, and people besides giant industrial corporations have been able to get through the process in their homes. But (and this is early) if the digitizer, still a prototype right now, is simple enough to use, that could help democratize the system a bit.

    It's early, so it's hard to say where this might fit in the scheme of desktop scanners. We imagine it gets closer in detail to a professional3-D scanner, but it might produce scans that are easier to master but similar in quality to what home hackers have gotten with a webcam or a Kinect (or the 3-D scanning functionality that Microsoft announced this week will be available on the Kinect). Either way, this lines up nicely with Makerbot's pitch: make the technology as accessible as possible and let the community do the rest. There's a long way to go, too, when what's seen as an "affordable" 3-D scanner from 2009 can run to almost $30,000. But we'll still have to wait a while, of course, before we see exactly how this digitizer affects that community.

    [Makerbot via Engadget]




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    Making the Sausage Rosie the robot waits for the sausages to be cooked before taking them out of the water and serving them. TUM
    Rapyuta, the cloud for robots, is now online.

    Robbie the robot is intimidated by breakfast. What the heck is a quiche? Why are all the cereal boxes different sizes? It takes him ages to do his only task, setting the table, because he has to adapt to so many new and varied situations that humans can analyze in a split second.

    A new web-based informational database could make make complex tasks more easy for robots like poor Robbie to accomplish.

    Since late 2009, a group of European researchers from five different labs have been working on RoboEarth, "a World Wide Web for robots." It stores data remotely so that robots can process information uploaded by other robots. It's not just touchy-feely robot love: storing data within a robot-accessible cloud could speed up complicated computation processes.

    Now they've turned on Rapyuta, the RoboEarth Cloud Engine, the ultimate open-source robotics platform. It's a network (named for the robot-inhabited castle in Miyazaki's Castle In The Sky) that allows robots to move their heavy computation into the cloud, decreasing the need for on-board computation.

    It catalogs descriptions of situations and objects that robots have encountered so that every robot doesn't have to build up knowledge from the ground up of how to do things like navigate a room or fold clothing. A hospital robot could upload its floor map so that the robo-cleaner would know where to vacuum, for example.

    Because it takes a lot of computing power just to let a robot move around, Rapyuta may prove especially efficient for drones and self-driving cars, project leader Mohanarajah Gajamohan told the BBC. Moving computation into the cloud could make robots cheaper and longer-running and more mobile.

    Be the cloud. Embrace the cloud. Accept it as your robot overlord.

    [BBC News]




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    Head First fMRI machines like this one are helping scientists decode brain activity. Courtesy Yukiyasu Kamitani/ATR Brain Activity Imaging Center
    A new study says results from some fMRI scans are unintentionally distorted and inaccurate, enough that some papers based around the process could be seriously questionable.

    fMRI is one of the most popular ways to scan the human brain. A lot of those light-up brain photos you see? fMRIs. fMRIs work by measuring blood flow to different regions of the brain, which is a sign that those parts are being used (that's what's lighting up in photos).

    We've covered some especially interesting uses, like turning an fMRI on doctors to see if they empathize with patients' pain, or a DARPA plan to screen dogs to pick out the smartest contenders. But a new paper from Stanford psychologists says those scans don't always provide an accurate picture.

    Since the scans just measure blood flow, don't require patients to ingest a chemical or take a shot, which has made it a popular tool in neuroscience. One downside is that the data returned, showing the magnetic differences between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, is messy. What's retrieved from that gray matter needs to be interpreted, so scientists often use "spatial smoothing" to average out the activity they see. Problem is, that process can give too much weight to larger brain structures and not enough to the smaller ones. A "smoothing kernel," an equation for evaluating noisy data, is often used in the process, but there's an art to choosing the right equation, and a different kernel can give very different results.

    The researchers, for example, study the tiny nucleus accumbens structure and have used a 4 mm kernel. They've found in studies that the nucleus accumbens is split up into sections with different functions, but replications of their studies that used an 8 mm kernel may have been biased toward the larger rear section, meaning it looked like the activity was all based there.

    When you're dealing with the brain, that level of detail's especially important, and this might change the way some research is done. Hundreds of papers from the last years, the researchers say, may need another look.

    [Stanford]




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    SimCityEA
    There are some good ideas for fixing the terrible, arbitrary scale games are reviewed on. But the best idea might be to just get rid of them.

    The gaming website Polygon took some minor heat this week when it retroactively updated its review of the newly released SimCity. Polygon takes a unique route toward grading games: the site makes it clear in its policy that a review can be altered when something about the game changes. It exercised that policy by lowering SimCity's score from a 9.5 to an 8, then again to a 4, when server issues prevented the reviewer (and a lot of other players) from being able to play the game.

    Here's a snippet of the policy:

    Polygon's reviews and database have been built based on the idea of updates, or "bumps," as I've called them. If a game changes in a substantive way, we can add an update to our reviews that informs you how and why, and we can modify our scores accordingly. This will appear on the reviews in question as a timeline of that game's evolution and our corresponding recommendation (or lack thereof). The original review score will never vanish or go away, but our readers will be able to better understand where our opinions as a site reside over time for games we review.

    That's a great policy! Games are, for better or worse, more changeable in a world where you can download new content, or experience new issues, as a game ages. That puts them in a completely different category than movies or music, which, for the most part, are static throughout their lives. (Maybe Highway 61 Revisited gets an outtake or remastering, but it's not fundamentally changing.) Technology does not affect your enjoyment of a movie or an album in the same way; nobody has ever given a movie a bad review because the projector screwed up.

    On the surface, there's reason to think scaled game reviews are helpful to consumers. An abstract opinion gets turned into digits, and those digits can be objectively compared. Can't decide what to drop your $60 on? This system makes it easy. Art designed for consumption is difficult to quantify, and inherently encourages rating.

    Trouble is, the system in the game review world, most popularly some variation of a 10-point scale with increments, is especially distorted. Take a look at this graph, via Joystiq:

    It shows a sampling of reviews from the gaming websites IGN and GameSpot back in 2006, and you can see something similar today by taking a gander at GameRankings.com. Reviews tend to lean toward the higher end of their scales, closer to a seven or eight than a five average. (That could mean something devious, but I'm more inclined to believe it's a natural function of people who like a lot of games reviewing those games.) That doesn't matter if someone is trying to compare two games--they're both on that distorted scale, after all--but if someone is making a decision to either buy or not buy a game, and isn't familiar with the distortion in the ratings system, they might have some trouble. You're reading a review and decide that eight, after all, is pretty good. Certainly above average. But what you might end up with is a middling game.

    There are ways to solve this problem. You can turn a review, as Kotaku has, into a binary answer to the question: Should you play this game? (Maybe not totally binary: SimCity got a "Not Yet" from them.) You can get rid of reviews entirely. You could move the scale down to five and hope that mitigates the distortion. You can audit your reviews and see if they fall into a bell curve.

    But the best and most honorable way to fix the issue to do away with scales entirely. Give the reader some credit: not everyone is going to skim down to the bottom, see what score a game got, and move on, and why should reviewers cater to that type of reader, anyway? Each person decides what to play based on personal tastes, and they should have to read a review to get the necessary context for their decision. In fact, I'd wager, gamers are more likely than other review-readers to weigh their options by reading the text of a review. A game, after all, can be a big investment in time and cash--at $60 for new home console games, it's six times as much as a movie ticket or an album on iTunes--and that necessitates more information. You can still add and update to a review as time goes on and the games change, and because text (hopefully) has nuance that numbers can only guess at, it means any updates will seem less dramatic but more informative.

    So what does a digit put down on a scale offer? At best, it's a reflection of what's in the review, which makes it repetitive. At worst, a distorted scale changes the reader's opinion of the text, which nobody writing a review wants. Reviewers don't spend all that time testing games, composing their thoughts, and creating a critical essay to have their work replaced with a number.




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    This Week In The Future, March 4-8, 2013Baarbarian
    In the future, everyone gets a Ferrari!

    Want to win this supreme 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 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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    THAAD interceptor missileU.S. Missile Defense Agency
    North Korea has basically zero chance of hitting anyone but themselves with a nuke. But if they did manage to launch a missile, what technology do we have to stop it?

    In response to questions about North Korea's latest threats to nuke the U.S., White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday: "I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack."

    This is the most definitive statement of U.S. missile defense capability in recent memory. Earlier claims have included vague statements, promises of capability, and, at most, guesses in the 90 percent range. Missile defense is the most controversial part of nuclear strategy, and the one most dependent on successful technology.

    What anti-missile technology do we have?

    1. Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense

    Currently only carried by naval vessels, Aegis is a missile that intercepts enemy missiles at short and medium range, or 650 to 3,100 miles. (There's a land-based version in development.) Ideally, the U.S. has 16 ships equipped with Aegis deployed in the Pacific at all times, but recent budget cuts mean that currently might not be the case.

    Caveats: While Aegis has done well in some tests, its systems have yet to be challenged by a missile than can release decoys. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists warns that without successful decoy testing, the system should not be treated as effective in the real world.

    2. Ground Based Interceptor

    The Ground Based Interceptor is designed to blow up an enemy missile outside the atmosphere by slamming into it. These are currently kept in silos in California and Alaska.

    Caveats: GBI is highly dependent on precise targeting information; if the interceptor doesn't hit the warhead exactly, and instead passes through the rocket part of the missile, it's likely that the warhead could still continue along its original trajectory. Also, counter-measures to defeat GBIs have already been demonstrated by both Iran and North Korea.

    3. PATRIOT Advanced Capability Missiles

    Used primarily for taking out aircraft and cruise missiles, PAC-3 missiles are designed to intercept an enemy attack in the last stage of its flight.

    Caveats: As reported in the Japan Times, "The PAC-3 missiles... will be ineffective unless an object flies directly within their 20-km range and in a straight trajectory." PAC-3 Missiles also have a history of failures in testing.

    4. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense

    Mounted on what looks like a souped-up flatbed truck, THAAD fires several missiles designed to slam into enemy missiles at high altitude. Works best against "asymmetric ballistic missile threats," which is military speak for poorly made or improvised rockets and missiles.

    Caveats: After a long and troubled history during the 1990s, the THAAD program seems to be one of the more competent parts of U.S. missile defense. While not primarily designed to target intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is not inherently useless against them.

    Will any of this technology actually stop a U.S.-bound missile?

    First, most missile defense testing is still ongoing, and none of the weapons above are yet in ideal condition. Many definitions of a successful test don't include countermeasures. GBIs have been tested as recently as January, suggesting that the full capabilities promised have yet been realized..

    Second, these components are only part of the U.S. missile defense system. I detailed the actual things we shoot at missiles here, because those are the exciting part, but they're all part of a broader system of electronic communication and sensors designed to provide a more comprehensive defense than any one interceptor missile alone. The system is greater than the sum of it's flawed parts. What isn't known is if the whole system can accommodate the limitations of imperfect parts.

    Finally, it's worth understanding the threat. North Korea doesn't have a great record with missile launches, and while their technology has improved, it's unrealistic to assume it has improved enough to carry the extremely heavy atomic bomb they've built. (North Korea right now cannot make a nuclear weapon small enough to fit onto a missile.) Also, North Korea has an almost sixty year history of provocations that haven't resulted in renewed war. (Fun technicality: the Korean war, though halted with an armistice in 1953, has yet to formally end. This matters quite a bit.)

    Failing all of the above, The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac has a novel suggestion: Deploy 1992-93 Chicago Bulls in major cities so that Kim Jong-Un won't attack them.




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    SpaceX's Elon Musk is giving the keynote speech at SXSW this year. Watch it here.


    Live Video app for Facebook by Ustream




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    WSJ reporter Walter Mossberg interviews Al Gore at SXSW.


    Live broadcast by Ustream




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    Alvin ReduxIllustration: Kevin Hand Inset: Courtesy Mark Spear © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
    Which is a bargain, actually.

    The ocean covers nearly three quarters of our planet, yet humans have probed a mere 5 percent of it. To better explore its greatest depths, scientists will soon board the revamped Alvin, the workhorse of human-operated deep-submergence vehicles. Owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, the sub has logged 4,664 dives since 1964. It has explored the Titanic wreck 12 times, retrieved a lost live H-bomb, and survived a swordfish attack. Next month, engineers will begin sea trials to scrutinize its seven-year-long $40-million update (still cheaper than the $50-million-plus it would have cost to build a sub from scratch). New features include a larger cockpit with more windows, wider-reaching arms, and HD cameras. Alvin's team also started upgrading the vehicle to withstand greater pressures. After a second overhaul, the submersible will be able to dive 30 percent deeper, to four miles-far enough to explore 98 percent of the seafloor.

    1) The sub Alvin stays buoyant with the help of syntactic foam, now rated to go four miles underwater. The foam is composed of billions of glass air bubbles the size of powdered sugar, encased in resin.

    2) A life-support system includes a scrubber that removes carbon dioxide from the air and tanks of extra oxygen.

    3) An 18 percent larger, seven-foot-diameter personnel sphere holds a pilot and two scientists (one more scientist than any other research sub). To ensure that the sphere can withstand the 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure at four miles deep, builders modeled the stress it would experience underwater at half a million different locations across its surface.

    4) A new hard drive can hold the 1 to 1.5 terabytes of data scientists expect to collect on each dive-an improvement over the VHS tapes and laptops previously used.

    5) Alvin received three two-megapixel HD video recorders and a 14-megapixel still camera. All of them use LEDs to illuminate deep seascapes and their inhabitants.

    6) New horizontal hinged sections extend Alvin's manipulator arms, increasing their reach by 90 percent, to 114 square feet.

    7) Specialized experimental tools include drills for sampling rock, chemical sensors to analyze deep-sea vents, and a unique jellyfish-sucking "slurp" gun to collect these specimens.

    8) Engineers made the original Alvin purely for observation and tacked on sampling equipment as an afterthought. Now a modified frame, including a stronger front platform, doubles the carrying capacity for tools and samples to 400 pounds.

    9) Three forward-facing seven-inch-diameter windows have been reoriented to give the scientists views that overlap with the pilot's. Two five-inchers now provide port and starboard visibility.

    10) The sub is powered by inexpensive 5,000-pound lead-acid batteries-the same type used since its first dive. But it could go on longer missions after new lithium-ion models pass safety tests to prove that they won't catch fire.

    11) To record data from each mission, Alvin's mother ship, Atlantis, has been upgraded from CDs and DVDs to a hard drive. The ship, which dates from 1997, has a customized hangar and crane to transport the sub.

    Check out more about Alvin's history here.




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    Shanghai TowerGensler Architects
    Inside the construction of the Shanghai Tower.

    When it opens in 2014, the Shanghai Tower won't just be the world's second-tallest building. The 2,073-foot-high skyscraper, designed by the architecture firm Gensler, will be a showcase of 21st-century engineering, introducing the innovations that could become standard in the next generation of supertall towers.

    LAYERED STRUCTURE

    The building relies on three interlocking systems to remain upright. The first is a 90-by-90-foot concrete-and-steel core, which provides vertical strength. A ring of steel "super-columns" [above, left] surround the core, connected to it by steel outriggers. The columns buttress the building against lateral forces. Every 14 floors, two-story belt trusses hug the building's perimeter; each marks the start of a new zone. "The structure works like a wedding cake in nine sections," says Dennis C.K. Poon, an engineer with the firm Thornton Tomasetti, which worked on the building.

    MULTIUSE FLOOR PLAN

    Like most modern supertall skyscrapers, the Shanghai Tower will house more than just offices. "A tower this big can have its own zip code," says Benedict Tranel, technical director for Gensler. Each of the nine zones will have its own sky lobby and atrium tucked between the inner and outer glass walls. The first zone will be retail, zones two through six will be office space, and zones seven through nine will contain a hotel and an observation deck. Each sky-lobby floor will have its own retail shops and restaurants, making it a sort of vertical neighborhood.

    TWO FACADES

    The tower has two glass facades, one inside the other- essentially, a tube within a tube. The space between them, which ranges from 3 to 33 feet, provides room for light-filled sky lobbies, but it also acts as a Thermos-like insulator, so the building needs less active heating and cooling. Reduced energy use in a supertall is good for the environment and makes the building economically viable. Gensler estimates that its energy-efficient innovations will save
    $2.5 million a year.

    FAST ELEVATORS

    Designed by Mitsubishi, the tower's express elevators, which will shoot passengers up to the sky lobbies, will feature pressurized cabins and converters that regenerate electricity, reducing energy use by 30 percent. They'll be the world's fastest, with a top speed of more than 40 miles per hour-twice as fast as usual. Seven of the 106 elevators will be double-deckers.

    DEEP FOUNDATION

    "Not every supertall tower requires deep foundations," says Leonard Joseph of
    Thornton Tomasetti. "But shallow, strong bedrock like that found in Manhattan is the exception, not the rule, in cities around the world." Shanghai is in an earthquake zone, and the site (which is located on a river delta) has soft, clay-heavy soil. So before lifting a single steel beam, engineers drove 980 foundation piles into the ground as deep as 282 feet. Then they poured 2.15 million cubic feet of reinforced concrete to create an 20-foot-thick foundation mat.

    TWISTING SHAPE

    The tower, which from above looks like a guitar pick, twists approximately one degree per floor as it rises. The twirling design slows wind currents as they circle the building, disrupting the vortex shedding that can cause a skyscraper to shake violently in the wind (the same way a blade of grass vibrates when you hold it between your fingers and blow). Wind-tunnel tests on scale models predict that the twisting shape will reduce the lateral forces by 24 percent-and that will be critical when the next typhoon hits Shanghai.

    Read more about the tallest buildings on earth in "The Rise of the Supertalls."




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    Pure GeniusPaul Lachine and Graham Murdoch
    Whether people acquire savant syndrome or are born with it, they exhibit a range of astounding skills. Most share one common thread: tremendous memory.


    KIM PEEK

    The inspiration for Rain Man, Peek could read two pages of a book simultaneously (one with each eye) and instantly commit them to memory. His recall of more than 12,000 books made him a walking encyclopedia. Peek, who died in 2009, could also sum columns of numbers in the telephone book.

    STEPHEN WILTSHIRE

    Wiltshire, who is autistic, was drawing buildings by age 8. As an adult, he has created stunningly accurate portraits of cities from memory. In 2007, he flew over the Thames for 15 minutes, then sketched seven square miles of London's streets, rivers, and buildings, precise down to the windows.

    LESLIE LEMKE

    
Blind since birth, Lemke has a verbal IQ of 58. When he was 14, his family watched a movie featuring a Tchaikovsky piano concerto. Hours later, his mother awoke to the music and discovered Lemke playing it. He has performed around the globe and can reproduce thousands of songs from memory.

    FLO AND KAY LYMAN

    The identical-twin autistic savants can name the day of the week for any date, past or future. They also have prodigious autobiographical memory and can recall what they had for dinner on any given night, what they were wearing, what the weather was like, and what they did that day.

    DANIEL TAMMET

    Tammet can recite pi to 22,514 decimals, master a new language in one week's time, and perform lightning-quick calculations. Asked by one researcher to compute 37 to the power of 4 (answer: 1,874,161), he did so instantly. He perceives numbers and days as having distinct colors and emotional tones.

    JIM CAROLLO

    An acquired savant, Carollo gained exceptional mathematic ability after recovering from a severe auto accident at age 14. Just months later, he achieved a perfect score on a geometry mastery test without having studied. He later passed calculus exams, though he'd never taken trigonometry.

    Read our feature on savants from the March 2013 issue.




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    Mario save the princess? Pfft.

    Mike Mika says in the YouTube description for this video that his 3-year-old daughter wanted to be able to save Mario while playing Donkey Kong. Why not? She could play as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2, after all. Since that wasn't an option, he built a "Pauline Edition" hack so his daughter could battle Donkey Kong herself.

    He hacked a ROM--a digital version of a game that lets you play on a modern rig--of Donkey Kong, replacing the princess frames with Mario and the Mario frames with Pauline.

    So sweet. With this female-friendly Zelda hack, maybe we're seeing a trend.




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