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    Brain scans show we feel bad for robots when they're mistreated.

    Humans feel bad when they see other humans being mistreated, but do we feel the same way about robots?

    A team of researchers tested that by being first sweet and then really, really cruel to a poor little innocent dinosaur robot. The subjects in the study were shown two videos: in one, scientists acted affectionately toward the robot dinosaur, but in the second, they downright tortured it. Through skin conductance, a measure of strong emotions, the researchers found that people were distressed when they watched the robot being hurt.

    In a second study, researchers used fMRI scans to test again for the empathic feelings. In that study, subjects were shown a human, robot, and inanimate object. The videos showed researchers being affectionate or cruel to the three categories, and the subjects' limbic systems were scanned as a measure of emotional reaction. Again, the subjects felt bad for the robot, but not as bad as they did for the human. (One staged video showed a woman being attacked and suffocated with a plastic bag, so, yeah, hopefully that made them feel worse.)

    What does this say about how we experience empathy? Well, other studies have looked at human empathy for robots, but this study puts it in the context of empathy for humans and inanimate objects. There's definitely something about being "alive-like" that makes us empathize, even if we consciously recognize that a robot doesn't have emotions. Consult your tear-stained DVD of Wall-E for more examples.



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    Cheaters always prosper?Dreamstime
    Teaching people game theory is good. Making them live it is even better, says UCLA professor Peter Nonacs.

    On test day for my Behavioral Ecology class at UCLA, I walked into the classroom bearing an impossibly difficult exam. Rather than being neatly arranged in alternate rows with pen or pencil in hand, my students sat in one tight group, with notes and books and laptops open and available. They were poised to share each other's thoughts and to copy the best answers. As I distributed the tests, the students began to talk and write. All of this would normally be called cheating. But it was completely OK by me.

    Who in their right mind would condone and encourage cheating among UCLA juniors and seniors? Perhaps someone with the idea that concepts in animal behavior can be taught by making their students live those concepts.

    The students began to talk and write. All of this would normally be called cheating. It was completely OK by me.Animals and their behavior have been my passions since my Kentucky boyhood, and I strive to nurture this love for nature in my students. Who isn't amazed and entertained by videos of crafty animals, like Betty the tool-making crow, bending wires into hooks to retrieve baskets containing delicious mealworms? (And then hiding her rewards from a lummox of a mate who never works, but is all too good at purloining the hard-won rewards of others?)

    Nevertheless, I'm a realist. Almost none of my students will go on to be "me"-a university professor who makes a living observing animals. The vast majority take my classes as a prelude to medical, dental, pharmacy, or veterinary school. Still, I want my students to walk away with something more than, "Animals are cool." I want them to leave my class thinking like behavioral ecologists.

    Much of evolution and natural selection can be summarized in three short words: "Life is games." In any game, the object is to win-be that defined as leaving the most genes in the next generation, getting the best grade on a midterm, or successfully inculcating critical thinking into your students. An entire field of study, Game Theory, is devoted to mathematically describing the games that nature plays. Games can determine why ant colonies do what they do, how viruses evolve to exploit hosts, or how human societies organize and function.

    So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade. Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?

    A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard-far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who'd taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn't take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

    Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn't possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

    "None," I replied. "You are UCLA students. The brightest of the bright. Let's see what you can accomplish when you have no restrictions and the only thing that matters is getting the best answer possible."

    They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other. They could offer me bribes.Once the shock wore off, they got sophisticated. In discussion section, they speculated, organized, and plotted. What would be the test's payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about "scroungers" who didn't study but were planning to parasitize everyone else's hard work? How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits? Was the test going to play out like a dog-eat-dog Hunger Games? In short, the students spent the entire week living Game Theory. It transformed a class where many did not even speak to each other into a coherent whole focused on a single task-beating their crazy professor's nefarious scheme.

    On the day of the hour-long test they faced a single question: "If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives, and outcomes?" One student immediately ran to the chalkboard, and she began to organize the outputs for each question section. The class divided tasks. They debated. They worked on hypotheses. Weak ones were rejected, promising ones were developed. Supportive evidence was added. A schedule was established for writing the consensus answers. (I remained in the room, hoping someone would ask me for my answers, because I had several enigmatic clues to divulge. But nobody thought that far afield!) As the test progressed, the majority (whom I shall call the "Mob") decided to share one set of answers. Individuals within the Mob took turns writing paragraphs, and they all signed an author sheet to share the common grade. Three out of the 27 students opted out (I'll call them the "Lone Wolves"). Although the Wolves listened and contributed to discussions, they preferred their individual variants over the Mob's joint answer.

    In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.

    But did the students themselves realize this? To see, I presented the class with one last evil wrinkle two days later, after the test was graded but not yet returned. They had a choice, I said. Option A: They could get the test back and have it count toward their final grade. Option B: I would-sight unseen-shred the entire test. Poof, the grade would disappear as if it had never happened. But Option B meant they would never see their results; they would never know if their answers were correct.

    The students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years: cooperation is better than competition."Oh, my, can we think about this for a couple of days?" they begged. No, I answered. More heated discussion followed. It was soon apparent that everyone had felt good about the process and their overall answers. The students unanimously chose to keep the test. Once again, the unity that arose through a diversity of opinion was right. The shared grade for the Mob was 20 percent higher than the averages on my previous, more normal, midterms. Among the Lone Wolves, one scored higher than the Mob, one about the same, and one scored lower.

    Is the take-home message, then, that cheating is good? Well … no. Although by conventional test-taking rules, the students were cheating, they actually weren't in this case. Instead, they were changing their goal in the Education Game from "Get a higher grade than my classmates" to "Get to the best answer." This also required them to make new rules for test-taking. Obviously, when you make the rules there is no reason to cheat. Furthermore, being the rule-makers let students behave in a way that makes us a quintessentially unique species. We recognize when we are in a game, and more so than just playing along, we always try to bend the rules to our advantage.

    Morally, of course, games can be tricky. Theory predicts that outcomes are often not to the betterment of the group or society. Nevertheless, this case had an interesting result. When the students got carte blanche to set the rules, altruism and cooperation won the day. How unlike a "normal" test where all students are solitary competitors, and teachers guard against any cheating! What my class showed was a very "human" trait: the ability to align what is "good for me" with what is "good for all" within the evolutionary games of our choosing.

    In the end, the students achieved their goal: They earned an excellent grade. I also achieved my goal: I got them to spend a week thinking like behavioral ecologists. As a group they learned Game Theory better than any of my previous classes. In educational lingo, "flipping the classroom" means students are expected to prepare to come to class not for a lecture, but for a question-and-answer discussion. What I did was "flip the test." Students were given all the intellectual tools beforehand and then, for an hour, they had to use them to generate well-reasoned answers to difficult questions.

    The best tests will not only find out what students know but also stimulate thinking in novel ways. This is much more than regurgitating memorized facts. The test itself becomes a learning experience-where the very act of taking it leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.

    This article originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square and was republished with permission. Peter Nonacs is a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA.


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    Pixtr At WorkFrom "Pixtr Demo" by Aviv Gadot on YouTube
    The company's tagline is, "Putting your best face forward."

    Facial recognition technology helps Facebook to guess who's in pictures and, in a pilot program, the FBI to match mug shots. Or check out this creepy face mashup using recognition tech.

    Now here's another use for computer programs that are able to recognize faces in photos: Automatic retouching. An app in the works, Pixtr, automatically slims noses and jawlines, trims eyebrows, corrects camera distortion and smoothes wrinkles and zits, Business Insider reported. Pixtr's demo video shows how the corrections can subtly change the shapes of people's faces in pictures:

    It's an impressive piece of software work, although whether it's admirable to give oneself a nose job in every photo is perhaps another question.

    The app is free, with a $1-per-batch fee if users want to process a whole lot of pictures at once. It's not officially in app stores yet, but you can sign up for the beta release on the Pixtr website.


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    Iraqi Soldier with an ADE 651 If there is a bomb in that car, that device won't detect it. U.S. Navy via wikimedia commons
    The British businessman's fraud likely killed many soldiers who relied on the bogus devices to detect explosives.

    It turns out someone can make millions in defense technology without any skill, innovation, or relevant expertise. Instead, as businessman James McCormick found out, it just takes some snakeoil, salesmanship, hubris, a couple bribes, and a lack of scruples. A London court found McCormick guilty of fraud on April 24.

    McCormick sold his product as a bomb detection tool to governments experiencing internal violence and bomb attacks, including Iraq. Commonly labeled ADE 651, it was also sold as GT2000 or Alpha 6, with a $40,000 price tag.

    The science behind the device is simple: It doesn't work. It lacks any working electronic components that could conceivably resemble something that worked. Based on a $20 novelty golf ball finder, the device resembles nothing so much as a dowsing rod.

    How did he manage to sell $75 million worth of useless product? In 2010, McCormick's company was under investigation in Iraq, with a report by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior noting "that many lives have been lost due to the wands' utter ineffectiveness." That report and investigation was later quashed. Why? The fact that "75% of the value of the contract went to kickbacks received by [Iraqi] officials" might explain some of it. Corruption was also involved in sales of the device to Mexico and Thailand.

    Watch James Randi discuss the magical thinking that allowed McCormick to sell so many fake devices:


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    Money Man401(K) 2013 via Flickr
    Succeeding once or twice on a longshot doesn't make someone a savant. Overall, that person's predictions will probably be less accurate than average.

    If a person made a smart business decision that was counterintuitive, you might look through the bars of his or her gated home as that person backstroked through a pool of gold coins and think, "Wow! That person has good business sense." You would almost certainly be wrong, though, weirdo, because a new study has found that people who strike it big on one or two unlikely scenarios still end up making fewer correct predictions in the long run.

    A team of researchers went through a three-year backlog of experts' quarterly forecasts for interest rates and inflation, published in the Wall Street Journal. The experts whose predictions were right when most other predictions were wrong turned out to make more inaccurate predictions over time than people regularly making the "safe" bets. That means some people got lucky when making a bad decision, and were probably hailed as savants for it, even though their predictions were less accurate on average.

    Study author Jerker Denrell told this to the Harvard Business Review:

    It's obvious once you really think it through, but both real-world and lab results show that while people who hit it big going against the grain are the ones we turn to for wisdom on future events, overall they tend to be bad at making forecasts. People who have decent but not exceptional performance with predictions are the ones with the most to offer us.

    And also:

    Mostly, yes. We tend to admire these people because we remember that they hit and no one else did-they separated themselves from the pack, and it worked out. But the very traits that lead them to make these out-of-sync predictions-their particular set of knowledge, their worldview, their personality, their tolerance for risk and for being nonconformist-usually also lead to misses.

    So just remember, kids: be successful but just not too successful.


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    Apollo 11 Crew And NixonWikimedia Commons
    Skinny ties in space.

    According to Florida Today, some unspecified writers from the show Mad Men are "working on a potential TV series" to be set in Cocoa Beach, Florida. You might not have heard of Cocoa Beach, a town of about 11,000 on a sandbar in the Atlantic, east of Orlando. But it has a few things going for it that might make it a good setting for a show: it's the home of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, author Zora Neale Hurston lives there, and, um, it's also where many workers at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center lived during the 1960s.

    And the 1960s is when this theoretical show would take place, amidst the Space Race, technological challenges, political squabbles, social upheaval, fierce media reporting, and skinny ties. It's very much not confirmed; the Internet Movie Database doesn't even list any show called "Cocoa Beach," which Florida Today states is its working title, and I couldn't find any information on which of Mad Men's 18 series-credited writers might be involved.

    But it's a great idea! We're all into space lately, thanks to the Mars rover and the private space race and charismatic astronauts tweeting gorgeous pictures from the International Space Station. We love the 1960s, or, at least, we do when Mad Men covers it. Florida is easily the most entertaining state in the country, from an impartial observer's perspective. Why not! Please do it, Mad Men writers who may or may not exist! It would be, as Cocoa Beach Mayor Dave Netterstrom said, "super-cool."

    [via Motherboard]


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    Neurogrid Graduate students Sam Fok and Alex Neckar hold the new brain model. Samir Menon
    A smaller, cheaper, faster brain model

    This new computer model of a brain has one million neurons and works just as fast as a live brain does.

    There are other brain models, run on supercomputers, that are much bigger. IBM's SyNAPSE, for example, modeled 530 billion neurons last November. (That's more than the total number of neurons in humans' brains, which clock in at 86 billion neurons on average.) Such models are very slow, however. Some take a couple hours to simulate a second of brain activity. SyNAPSE works 1,500 times slower than real time.

    The new artificial brain, called Neurogrid, is a lighter, cheaper version of supercomputer models. It's also much more energy efficient, using just 5 watts of electricity, compared to the 8 megawatts that Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, SyNAPSE's supercomputer, uses. Neurogrid's creators hope that others may use it to learn more about healthy brains and brains affected by diseases such as autism and schizophrenia, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation, which funded Neurogrid. Those are some of the same general goals that larger brain models try to achieve, but something like Neurogrid could make brain modeling more accessible to more labs.

    Neurogrid is made of 16 chips, each representing 65,000 neurons. Researchers can customize almost 80 parameters in the neurons, which helps them model different types of neurons that have different properties. Each of Neurogrid's neurons is able to communicate with thousands of other neurons, just like in a living brain.

    The way Neurogrid computes is a little different from other computers, including supercomputers, according to the National Science Foundation. Most computers use a digital signal, where the computer answers a series of questions with either "true" or "false." Neurogrid uses a digital signal to communicate between neurons, but uses an analog signal, which is continuous, to perform calculations.

    That helps Neurogrid mimic the way living neurons work. Neurons use an analog-like process to decide whether to fire, but their actual firing is like a digital signal because they may only either fire ("true") or not fire ("false").

    [National Science Foundation]


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    What's the greatest threat to our species' continued existence? Take a look in the mirror.

    Most of us are content to just worry about the future of humanity in our spare time, but there's an entire group of academics at Oxford University in England who make that their professional mission.

    Each member of the Future of Humanity Institute has his own focus. Some are concerned with climate change and its impact on humanity; others with the future of human cognition. Department head Nick Bostrom, whose paper Existential Risk Prevention As Global Priority has just been published, has a long history of being worried about our future as a species. Bostrom posits that humanity is the greatest threat to humanity's survival.

    Bostrom's paper is concerned with a particular time-scale: Can humanity survive the next century? This rules out some of the more unlikely natural scenarios that could snuff out humans in the more distant future: supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, gamma-ray bursts and the like. The chances of one of those happening within the very narrow timeframe involved is, according to the paper, extremely small. Further, most other natural disasters, such as a pandemic, are unlikely to kill all humans; we as a species have survived many pandemics and will likely do so in the future.

    The Personal
    The Personal:The first row of a full scale of misery, on a scale of "hellish." In the full version, the Y axis is on a scale of "cosmic-ness" Together, the extremes of these two scales form the conditions in which risk to the existence of the human race resides. Nick Bostrom,

    According to Bostrom, the types of civilization-ending disasters we may unleash upon ourselves include nuclear holocausts, badly programmed superintelligent entities and, my personal favorite, "we are living in a simulation and it gets shut down." (As an aside, how the hell do you prepare for that eventuality?) Additionally, humans face four different categories of existential risk:

    Extinction: we off ourselves before we reach technological maturity
    Stagnation: we stay mired in our current technological and intellectual backwater
    Flawed realization: we advance a way that isn't sustainable
    Subsequent ruination: we reach sustainable technological maturity and then eff it all up anyway

    More pointedly, Bostrom's paper is a renewal of a call-to-arms he issued a decade ago imploring people to wake up to the possibility that we will kill ourselves with technology. These days, he's not so much concerned with the how -- existential death by grey goo vs existential death by sentient robots is still existential death. He's most concerned that there's nobody out there really doing anything about this problem. That's understandable, of course. Existential threats are nebulous concepts, and even the threat of nuclear winter was not enough to terrify certain governments into, you know, not building thermonuclear weapons.

    Bostrom, of course, can't help but come off a bit high-handed when he laments that there are far too many papers in the academic literature on "less-important topics," such as "dung beetles" and "snowboarding." This is amusingly wrong-headed. If I've learned anything at all during my stint on this planet, it is that if a topic exists, somebody will make it their life's work to ask questions about it.

    Like every SF fan out there, I love a good dystopian narrative, disaster scenario, and potential civilization-ending cataclysm. It makes for interesting drama and the exploration of the ethical implications of certain actions. If Bostrom and his team wish to kick-start a juggernaut of end-times scientific research by hiring smart young research assistants to help solve some of these problems, then I applaud their efforts and look forward to reading their scenarios. Let's hope that next time they can leave the pointless criticism of other legitimate avenues of research out of it.


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    Oculus Rift (developers)Sam Kaplan
    In your face!

    Palmer Luckey built his first virtual-reality (VR) headset for a simple reason: Every attempt he'd seen, including his own collection of 46 pairs of goggles, failed in one way or another-too heavy, too slow, too limited a field of view. So he set out to invent the perfect pair himself. Three years after the first mockup, the company Luckey founded, Oculus, is launching a developer version of the Rift, the first consumer VR system to create a truly immersive experience.

    A player connects the Rift to a PC via USB and HDMI, and the PC's graphics processor renders side-by-side 3-D images. The 11-ounce goggles contain a seven-inch LCD that displays both images. A pair of aspherical lenses separate them to create a 3-D effect with a field of view that's 90 degrees wide and shifts with a player's head movements. A sensor containing a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and microcontroller tracks the pitch, yaw, and roll of the player's head. The sensor registers movement every millisecond (off-the-shelf sensors take up to four), so the image can refresh within two milliseconds.

    More than 9,000 developers currently have Rifts. Oculus expects them to use the goggles to create new, complex 3-D games, just as they would for a new PlayStation or Xbox. Once that happens, probably within a few years, Oculus will release a consumer Rift and make getting lost in a game a (virtual) reality.


    Weight: 11.2 ounces
    Price: $300

    This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.


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    Cotton-Top Tamarin A cotton-top tamarin, one of the two species of primate used by the facility for medical research. Wikimedia Commons

    Harvard University announced yesterday that it would shut down its primate research center, used for research into diseases like AIDS, and move the 2,000 rhesus macaques and cotton-top tamarins to other research facilities throughout the country. Harvard cited "financial uncertainties" as the cause of the shutdown, somehow neglecting to mention that this research facility has been cited for violations of animal welfare by both governmental and private organizations.

    The facility was called out last January by the Department of Agriculture for five direct violations, including the deaths of multiple monkeys as well as poor treatment of other monkeys--one cage was too small, others showed signs of psychological distress. Of the deceased monkeys, the one that jumps out is a cotton-top tamarin, a very small New World monkey, that was euthanized after it was discovered that its watering system had malfunctioned, leading to severe dehydration. It is not clear why the facility decided that euthanizing was the best solution to dehydration.

    Harvard claims the decision was solely based on economics, and researchers at the facility expressed disappointment that research would have to end. We're pretty skeptical that the animal rights violations and ensuing press had nothing to do with the shutdown, but that's the official word from Harvard.

    [via NYTimes]


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    BACtrack Mobile BreathalyzerThinkGeek
    Because what the world really needed was another way to post pictures of your inebriated tomfoolery.

    Whether you're in a contest with your buddies over who's the drunkest, or legitimately trying to determine whether your blood alcohol content is low enough to drive home (just take a cab, dude), personal breathalyzers can be pretty fun to whip out at a bar, at least for those of us obsessed with numbers. But perhaps it's not enough of a social experience for the 21st century?

    Enter the BACtrack Mobile, billed as "the world's first smartphone breathalyzer"--though perhaps they missed this one that popped up a few months ago with the same claim. It's really just a breathalyzer that can connect with your smartphone, though the San Francisco-based company that makes it claims "BACtrack Mobile simply is the world's most intelligent breathalyzer." But it does add the ability to post your BAC to Facebook.

    Give it a blow and your blood alcohol content will be trasmitted through Bluetooth to your iPhone (or your iPad, if you want to be that guy at the bar). Data nerds can graph their drinking habits, while oversharers can describe their night in detail in the "personal drink diary" and compare their numbers with friends. It'll even give you an estimate of when you'll be returning to complete sobriety, despite the app's warning that it shouldn't actually be used to determine whether or not you can operate a vehicle. Even without the breathalyzer component, the free app will give you a rough estimate of what your BAC might be after knocking back three appletinis in an hour.

    With four settings--personal, private, anonymous and social--you can choose whether to keep your activities all to yourself, share them with your designated driver (to prove you're drunk enough to deserve a pick up, I guess?), post your drinking data anonymously to BACtrack's world map or, on the social setting, upload the whole shebang, notes, pictures and all, to Facebook and Twitter. But sorry, Android-loving drinkers: This one's just for the iCrowd.

    Looking at the map, only three people in New York City have uploaded their data, and they were all distressingly sober. A few more have graced the world with updates on their alcohol choices in San Francisco.

    At $150, you're definitely making an investment in your drunkness. On the bright side, if you're going to shell out for a breathalyzer, you might as well make it accurate. This one uses fuel cell sensors, the preferred breathalyzer tech used by law enforcement. The personal breathalyzers you can buy on the cheap online generally use semiconductor sensors that don't give you as precise of a reading.

    Though, do you really want to share the results of your breathalyzer test with all your friends and family? Just stick to Snapchat if you're that into blurry selfies.

    [via OhGizmo!]


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    The New $
    The most complicated $100 bill yet

    For as long as there has been money, there've been people trying to make fake money. In the U.S., the latest effort to stop counterfeiting will arrive October 8, when the next $100 bill is released.

    The Federal Reserve has mixed in new features to make the bill more difficult to replicate, like a blue security ribbon running down the front. When the bill is tilted, columns filled with the number "100" and tiny bells rotate. Tilt left to right and the columns move up and down; tilt up and down, the columns move left to right. The ribbon is woven onto the paper, not printed, making it tougher to duplicate. It's composed of thousands of lenses that magnify the marks and make them appear to move in different directions--not easy for a counterfeiter to remake in a basement.

    To the right of Ben Franklin is an ink well with a bell inside, and both the well and bell look copper-colored until someone turns the bill, which changes the bell to green. The "100" printed in the bottom right changes color the same way. That's probably made from optically variable ink, which is used for anti-counterfeiting because it's difficult to obtain (very few companies sell it) and can't be color-copied to change in light.

    The Fed is also including older tried-and-true techniques for stopping counterfeiting. A common method is "bleaching," where real $1 bills are turned into fake hundreds, meaning they still feel like the genuine article. So on the new $100 bill is a watermark that appears when backlit: it sort of looks like a child's elementary school sketch of Franklin. (A $1 bill, or any other denomination, wouldn't feature Franklin.) A raised printing process also gives Franklin's shoulder some roughness, meaning the bill isn't completely uniform, but in a different way from other bills.

    Maybe coolest of all are the tiny hidden words in the picture. On Franklin's collar you can just barely make out a finely detailed "THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA," while "USA 100" is printed in the top right and "ONE HUNDRED USA" is on the quill. (But where are the secret messages from the Free Masons???)

    You can take a virtual tour of the bill here.


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    Magnetic Hose The field of a magnetic source, in this case a point dipole with field lines in white, can be transferred an arbitrary distance as shown in diagram b, using a slab of ideal material (shaded region). Carles Navau et al. via arXiv
    Magnetic fields normally wane as distance increases, but a new hose changes things.

    Electromagnetic waves can travel over long distances without interruption. But magnetism, the field that attracts or repels objects, only works at close range. Now a team of Spanish and German researchers proves otherwise: They have developed a 
"magnetic hose," capable of transferring a magnetic field across long distances in any direction they want.

    The problem is that magnetic fields decay very quickly with increasing distance from the source. That's why papers fall off your refrigerator when you stack them too thickly. This new method would amplify those fields, allowing magnetic fields to still propagate far away from the magnetic dipole that generates them. It requires a metamaterial magnet-amplifier.

    Carles Navau and his fellow researchers think of magnetic fields like any other electromagnetic wave, only with an infinite wavelength. So theoretically, these waves could be controlled like other electromagnetic waves, with amplifiers and transformers. A magnetic hose made of concentric rings of metamaterials could transmit, for lack of a better word, the magnetic field. A tube about 10 times longer than it is wide would transmit 90 percent of a magnetic field, they say.

    In a small prototype, they tested a 7-centimeter superconducting tube with a coil at one end generating a field of 1.3 mTesla. The magnetic field was guided through the superconducting "hose" and out the other end. Their paper is posted on the arXiv preprint server.

    This could be useful in quantum information systems, the authors explain. Magnetic hoses could be used in quantum processors or quantum repeaters, extending magnetic fields well beyond their normally tiny spheres of influence.

    [Technology Review]


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    Koala Bears Get ChlamydiaWikimedia Commons
    Zoonotic diseases can go from us to them.

    Click to launch the photo gallery

    This week we found out that fruit flies can get depressed--in at least one experiment, anyway--after they realize they cannot escape uncomfortable heat no matter what they do. Depression is actually pretty common in the animal kingdom, especially when it's induced in the lab. Many kinds of animals exhibit a classic depression-related sense of helplessness when they can't change their situations.

    But that led us to think about the other human ailments animals can become afflicted with. And they are many. We're not talking about diseases that we induce for experimental purposes through genetic modification, from cancer to rats with Alzheimer's--that's a different story entirely. Symptoms like depression, however, or obesity, are ailments animals can contract on their own (or with some help from humans). These are illnesses we may not associate with other members of the animal kingdom.

    Animals can also get sick with the same infections as humans. Flu and rabies are well known, but sexually transmitted diseases crop up in animals too. Animals can't use protection to prevent STIs from spreading. Which critters contract venereal disease, as well as sicknesses of the respiratory tract, skin and cardiovascular system, may surprise you. Click through the gallery to see a few examples.


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    Time Travel in MoviesMr. Dalliard
    This flowchart contains spoilers!

    This infographic by Mr. Dalliard documents the nature, logic, and scale of time travel in film. Most of the terms are straightforward, and then there's the "Novikov self-consistency principle." Developed by a Russian physicist between 1975 and 1990, it asserts

    that if an event exists that would give rise to a paradox, or to any "change" to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero. In short, it says that it's impossible to create time paradoxes.

    Neat! Next up: finding a physicist to explain why the first three Terminator movies all follow different time travel logic.



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    Canon imageFORMULA P-208
    Personal Solutions For Scanning And Sharing On The Go. Smart, Stylish, And Easy To Connect.

    This ultra-compact personal document scanner measures a mere 2-inches wide and a tad longer than a standard ruler, slides easily into a briefcase or laptop bag. It can scan single or double-sided documents up to 8-1/2 x 11 inches, including receipts, business cards, photographs, bills, and contracts, on the go at up to 8 pages-per-minute, and convert them to digital files that can be easily searched, stored, and shared. The latest, most compact member of Canon's advanced imageFORMULA "Scan-tini" line of portable document scanners also connects to your computer with an easy "Plug-and-Scan" setup without additional drivers or apps, uses a single USB port, minimizing the need for additional ports or powercords, has built-in optical character recognition (OCR) for converting paper based documents to digital files, and lets you make multiple settings with the click of a mouse using built-in Canon CaptureOnTouch Lite software. The sleek P-208 includes a 10-sheet Auto Document Feed (ADF) and can handle thick, thin, or long documents-even embossed cards.

    Connect the Canon P-208 "Scan-tini" to the optional WU10 Wireless Adapter and Battery Pack to broaden your connectivity choices. When combined with the optional WU10 Wireless Adapter and Battery Pack, the scanner not only works wirelessly in Windows and Mac environments, but also with iPad®, iPhone®, iPod touch™ and Android devices using the free downloadable Canon CaptureOnTouch Mobile app. It can also send scanned images directly to cloud applications such as Evernote ™ and Microsoft® SharePoint®. This mobile document scanner delivers a high level of flexibility and user-friendly performance in a compact, high-value package. It's the ideal way to help manage and organize your documents, whether you're keeping track of your family bills, running a small mobile office, or doing business on the road.


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    Humpback Whale Lunge FeedingCourtesy of Jennifer Allen/Whale Center of New England
    Behaviors are spread through cultural transmission in animals other than humans and non-human primates.

    There are a lot of ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich, but you probably make yours the same way your mom did. Or maybe you picked up a habit from your roommate, and how you slice diagonally instead of down the center. Whatever you do is not innate or instinctive, it's learned--it's a cultural tradition, however mundane. Apparently, humans (and other primates) are not alone in this. Whales have multiple cultural traditions, too.

    Humpback whales mimic their fellows' novel feeding strategies, passing them on to new generations, according to a new analysis. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's one of only a few examples of non-primates using this type of learning, called cultural transmission. Humpbacks are maintaining and sharing cultural traditions they have developed over time.

    Whales are smart and social creatures, so there's ongoing debate about their behavior and how it is similar or different than ours and our primate brethren.

    "We can learn more about the forces that drive the evolution of culture by looking outside our own ancestral lineage and studying the occurrence of similar attributes in groups that have evolved in a radically different environment to ours, like the cetaceans," said coauthor Will Hoppitt of Anglia Ruskin University.

    It's hard to quantify behavior, however, in part because marine mammals are hard to study in their own habitats. To study their feeding habits, Jenny Allen of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and colleagues examined nearly three decades of whale call data from whale-watching boats, and watched the evolution of a new trend.

    Humpbacks forage by blowing bubble nets around schools of fish and then lunging through them. But in 1980, someone saw a single humpback living in the Gulf of Maine modify this behavior to include using its tail. It was a new strategy developed after a primary food source, herring, became depleted. The whale struck the water with its fluke a few times, and then did the bubble-feeding method to feast on a different fish, called sand lances. This is now known as lobtail feeding, and in the next few years, researchers noticed more and more whales adopting it--by 2007, some 40 percent of the population was doing it.

    Other cetaceans have adopted new feeding norms, too, notably Australian bottlenose dolphins. "Conching" is a method by which Indo-Pacific dolphins are trapping small fish in conch shells, bringing the shells to the surface, and then shaking them to dump the fish into their mouths. Scientists speculated that the animals learned it through cultural transmission, but this is hard to prove.

    To study the humpbacks, Allen and colleagues used something called network-based diffusion analysis, a new technique used for studying influence in social sciences, to analyze how lobtail feeding spread through the whale population. The model assumes that if whales learn lobtail feeding from other whales, then whales that hang out with lobtail feeders are likely to adopt the habit. This kind of thinking is why your parents didn't want you hanging out with kids who smoked cigarettes.

    The models bear this out, the researchers say. Even accounting for factors like genetics and normal learning, lobtail feeding is a result of whales being influenced by their peers.

    "Social transmission played a crucial role in the spread of lobtail feeding behavior, which has now persisted over 27 years and multiple generations," they write. "Lobtail feeding can therefore be considered a tradition, and because humpback populations are known to also carry vocal traditions in the form of song, this population can be considered to carry multiple traditions."

    The paper is published this week in Science.


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    Dzhokar Tsarnaev in a boat in Watertown, Mass. Image taken by a FLIR camera on a Massachusetts State Police helicopter. Massachusetts State Police
    You can't hide from the infrared eye of the law.

    The night before police captured Dzhokar Tsarnaev, a convenience store robbery set off a series of events that included the death of an MIT police officer, a gunfight that ended with the elder Tsarnaev brother dead, and a 20 hour manhunt for the other alleged Boston Marathon bomber. The manhunt was accompanied by a citywide order to "shelter in place" (that is, stay at home and out of harms way) while police conducted a search of Watertown, where it was believed the other bomber was hiding. At 8:15pm on April 19, police cornered a man in a boat.

    A Massachusetts State Police helicopter flying over the scene fixed its eyes on the boat, and recorded this thermal video with the Star Safire, a thermal camera system that can cost between $288,000 and $314,000. (Cheaper, less precise thermal cameras are used to check the temperature of cooked meat and look for leaks in plumbing systems.) Mounted on the helicopter, the Star Safire includes a high definition camera, a laser rangefinder, and, importantly, a thermal imaging sensor, which uses infrared light to detect surface temperature. Depending on the way the camera is calibrated, cooler surfaces will show up brighter and warmer surfaces will appear darker, or vice versa.

    Here's what the camera looks like:

    Unlike night vision, which amplifies visible light, thermal imaging operates on the infrared spectrum, which means it's bound by different constraints that other cameras. It can't see through windows, for example, and anything that blocks heat blocks thermal images. So how did police see Tsarnaev under the plastic sheeting on the boat? "This plastic was just what we call 'transmissive enough,' so some heat was getting through," says Kevin Tucker, vice president and general manager of the surveillance group at FLIR Systems, the company that makes the Star Safire.

    In the helicopter, there is usually a tactical flight operator responsible for managing the system. It's possible to stream this video down to a command center on the ground, though we don't know if that was done during the Boston manhunt. If not, the cops in the helicopter can still communicate with their team on the ground.

    There has been some debate about the use of thermal imaging in police work. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled on Kyllo vs United States, in which government agents used a thermal imaging sensor on a house and detected a heat pattern consistent with the high-intensity lamps used to grow marijuana. The agents lacked a warrant, however, and the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant.


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    Ich Bin Ein Berliner Pigvia Modern Farmer

    From Berlin to Mississippi, feral pigs are proving to be one of the most efficient and dangerous invasive species ever known. Smart, industrious, voracious and omnivorous eaters, they reproduce quickly and destroy everything in their path. Modern Farmer has a lovely feature up on the menace--and yes, it is a menace. "The issue is as serious as swine flu," says Modern Farmer.

    Some key quotes:

    Wild pigs stick to one area until all food sources are tapped out. Their method of "rooting up" buried treasures (roots, acorns and the like) creates large swaths of cratered, barren terrain. The scorched earth is then abandoned in the hunt for another food source.
    This voraciousness is problematic for many reasons - destruction of natural ecosystems, choking out native species - but none is more prevalent than decimated crops. Harvests of corn, rice, soybeans, and even cotton have been wiped out by roving boars. Of the approximate $1 billion in wild boar damage across the U.S. each year (a figure Strickland [an expert] calls a "gross underestimate"), a majority is chalked up to agriculture.

    So, they're bad. But why don't we just hunt them, as we do with other tasty overpopulated species like the white-tailed deer?

    For one thing, pigs are much tougher targets than deer. Preternaturally smart (they've been called "dolphins of the land") and fearful of humans, trying to get a bead on one can be an all-day affair. And if you do shoot a wild pig, you best use a high caliber and know where to aim. Their tough hides and thick skulls provide natural shielding that can be quite challenging to pierce. And a wounded wild pig isn't something you want to wrangle with.

    Eep. Check out the full (and very pretty!) story here.


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    Obama Loves Science President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair YouTube
    America's drug czar has announced that the nation's drug policy should be governed by neuroscience, not politics.

    In the U.S., how the government approaches drugs has very little to do with science. The War on Drugs has put the focus on incarceration and enforcement, not on the public health aspects of addiction. We classify drugs based on politics, rather than their actual risk, and inhibit further research that might prove them useful to society.

    As far back as his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has been calling America's drug war an "utter failure," but now it finally seems like his administration may be getting serious about enacting tangible reform with the "science-driven" 2013 National Drug Control Strategy released yesterday.

    "Drug policy reform should be rooted in neuroscience-not political science," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    Since Obama's first drug strategy plan was released in 2010, the White House has been advocating for a "third way" for drug policy reform--something between all-out legalization and the War on Drugs.

    In the 2013 outline, as might be expected from an administration that's launching a $100 million plan to map the human brain, there's an emphasis on the neuroscience of addiction and the fact that addiction is a disease to be cured, not a moral failure. It touts itself as a plan "based on science, not ideology."

    According to the White House blog:

    This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our Nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.

    It also notes the economic impact of the War on Drugs: In 2007, "illicit drug use cost taxpayers more than $193 billion in lost productivity, healthcare, and criminal justice costs."

    The new strategy probably won't spell an end to the drug war, though. It lays out a policy to "eradicate marijuana production" but doesn't tackle the issue of recent legalization under some state laws, nor does it discuss reforming the laws that put drug users behind bars in the first place, as Think Progress points out.

    [Office of National Drug Control Policy]


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