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    A Probably-Not-Hacked Fridge

    Have you heard of the Internet of Things? It's, like, the most important Internet since the first Internet.

    It's a series of connected devices. One day soon, when your alarm clock goes off, your coffee pot will turn on. When you're having a rough week, your toaster will deliver life-affirming aphorisms to your Kindle, probably. But there is a dark side to this Internet.

    A team of security researchers at Proofpoint uncovered a botnet--a potentially malicious team of infected computers--used to send email spam. The botnet infected 100,000 home gadgets, including televisions, routers, and "at least one" fridge, according to the company. Three-quarters of the emails were sent from regular computers, but the rest were from Internet of Things stuff, like the fridge. 

    A botnet isn't a new form of attack: by controlling computers from multiple IP addresses, hackers can make spam more difficult to block. In this case, no more than 10 emails were sent from each IP. Most of those devices were inflitrated for simple security reasons, like users failing to change default passwords on devices, Proofpoint says.

    So the idea of a hacked fridge might be silly, but it's not so far-fetched when you're essentially stuffing an email-capable computer inside of an oven. Perhaps now try responding to all Nigerian prince letters asking if they are an appliance. 

    [Business Insider]


        







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    Rolls-Royce Wraith
    Courtesy Rolls-Royce

    Cars today can see just about anything. They have systems that spot lanes, parked cars, and even animals. But even the best of them can’t do what the new Rolls-Royce Wraith can: The luxury coupe’s transmission predicts and responds to the road ahead.

    Engineers linked the eight-speed automatic to the car’s onboard navigation. A processor translates turns and on- and off-  ramps on any route into shift commands. Because of that, the Wraith squeezes optimal power from its turbo V12 and provides a smoother ride than its predecessor. The system will also improve; engineers are working to include topographical data in calculations, so climbing hills will be as seamless as taking curves.

    Rolls-Royce Wraith

    0–60: 4.4 seconds 
    Horsepower: 624
    Price: $284,900

    This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


        







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    WayGo For Glass
    Developers able to get their hands on the $1,500 Google Glass prototypes have been hacking apps for the Android-based smart specs since this past spring – even though the company only released a Glass developer’s kit (GDK) in mid-November.

    Even without the GDK, developers like Ryan Rogowski and Nathan Lord of Waygo, a language translator app with over 65,000 installations on the iPhone, have been able to use clever software workarounds to port an Android phone version of the app to the Glass platform.  Rogowski and Lord showed off their prototype to me at a mini-Chinatown in Cupertino, CA.  Even as a non-Chinese speaker, I was able to read some restaurant signs and the mall directory.

    The app, like Glass itself, is still a work in progress.  Doing the computationally intensive optical character recognition and analysis of Chinese characters in the video feed, our Glass unit ran out of power in roughly 20 minutes.  Also, because there is no auto-focus feature on Glass, getting the words properly aligned for translation requires the user to bob his head to and fro, like a pigeon.  Lord guesses that Google won’t add an auto-focus on future releases of the Glass camera, in order to keep costs down, and because the feature would place even higher demands on the already underwhelming battery.  

    The new GDK – which allows programmers to build voice and gestural control into apps, among other improvements -- will allow Lord to attack the power-management problem with hacker ingenuity.  For example, the new GDK will allow Lord easy access to the Glass camera to take still photos to be translated.  This fix is not as cool as seeing Chinese text instantly translated as you watch the video on your screen, as in the smartphone implementations of Waygo.  But the workaround will save a lot of battery life, since the Glass video camera won't be running continuously.  Still, that such a workaround is necessary is a prime example of why Lord doubts that the current battery on Glass will be able to handle really rich augmented reality apps.  

    In spite of this flaw, Lord thinks Glass could be a significant gateway product into a strange new world of wearable computing devices – depending on price.  Users will be a lot more forgiving of imperfection if Google prices the consumer version at say, $299, rather than the $1,500 paid by early adopters.

    “My opinion will have a lot to do with the price of it,” says Lord.  “But Glass could turn into ‘wearable computing for the common man,’ like PCs were for the democratization of computing.”

    “If Google is doing eyewear, that makes other people doing eyewear not sound like crazies,” says Rogowski.

    Developers are sending new apps out into the world everyday.  There are about 70 on the portal glass-apps.org, and 81 on glassappsource.com.  In choosing 4 to highlight, I looked for creative use of the hands-free aspect of having a computer on your face.  In other words, though a shopping assistant that reads bar codes is nice, there's no reason you would need an expensive pair of smart glasses, rather than your smartphone, for this task.  And given the hostility that "glassholes" can expect to encounter out in the world, and the likely high price of early models, there has to be a particularly convincing application of the smart eyewear platform for an app to make the cut.

    See four more worthwhile apps here:


        







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    Sistem51
    Sam Kaplan
    Fact: Self-winding watches can contain up to 600 moving parts. Consequence: That complexity can drive prices to $500 and beyond. Engineers at Swatch reimagined the self-winding mechanism, designing the Sistem51 with only 50 moving parts, all of which rotate around a central screw (the 51st piece). Such simplicity means a lower cost ($150) and a new dial design conceived from the inside out.

    51st Piece
    Sam Kaplan

    Form follows function

    Q: How did having only one central screw affect the design? 

    A: “The first thing that came to mind was Copernicus, who helped everyone understand that we turn around the sun. The small red dots [on the face] correspond to the six visible gemstones that help set the precision in the movement, and the other dots are the important soldering points. Then we drew lines to unite the points, and we said, ‘Okay, this really looks like a solar system.’ I think we achieved something new: a design that’s an evolution of a thought, not just something on a dial.”
    —Carlo Giordanetti, creative director, Swatch

    This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science. 

     


        







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    Caverns under construction
    Courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin

    As people flock to urban centers, engineers will need to figure out how to accommodate them. In 2006, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority started digging a train tunnel beneath Manhattan to connect the Long Island Rail Road, the nation’s second busiest commuter train system, to Grand Central Terminal. Where the two systems will meet, at a new station 14 stories below ground, two 85-foot-tall caverns are currently under construction.

    This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science. 


        







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    A Raccoon, Not From Animal Planet

    If you thought Animal Planet's worst sin was running shabby documentaries claiming to prove mermaids are real, you'd apparently be wrong. After a seven-month investigation into the channel's programming, Mother Jones uncovered at best dubious practices, and at worst, direct harm to animals. 

    Documents and interviews conducted by Mother Jones suggest that the channel manufactured reality TV scenarios, placing wild animals in not-terribly-kind situations--under a house, for example--and filming the resulting drama. But the issues don't stop with television sleight-of-hand; some of those animals ended up in harm's way, and the documentation for them was filled out incorrectly, too. The story, author James West writes, ultimately "reveals evidence of a culture that tolerated legally and ethically dubious activities, including: using an animal that had been drugged with sedatives in violation of federal rules; directing trappers to procure wild animals, which were then "caught" again as part of a script; and wrongly filling out legal documents detailing the crew's wildlife activities for Kentucky officials."

    Read the whole report here.


        







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    Rosetta
    An artist's rendering of the Rosetta probe and its lander Philae at a comet.
    J. Huart / ESA
    It was brought to life to chase comets but has been asleep for 31 months, drifting beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Yesterday (Jan. 20), the European spacecraft Rosetta successfully turned itself on. The craft had been powered down to save energy, but is now closer to the sun and the comet that it was designed to approach and land on later this year, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After turning itself it called home to signal that all was well. It also tweeted, "Hello, world!" 

    “This was one alarm clock not to hit snooze on, and after a tense day we are absolutely delighted to have our spacecraft awake and back online,” said Rosetta mission manager Fred Jansen, from the European Space Agency.  

    But it's fair to say that it did "hit the snooze button" before phoning home. Mission scientists told New Scientist that it didn't wake up when its first programmed alarm went off, and had to wait for a second reboot, causing 18 minutes of delay that frayed engineers' nerves. 

    Nevertheless, Rosetta is awake and appears to be in working order. It's due to take the first-ever photos of the comet in May, and to approach it in August. It will be the first mission to encounter and attempt to land on a comet. It already passed by the comets Steins and Lutetia, and snapped some photographs of each.


        







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    Illustration of the Lunar Lion design on the moon with Earth in the background
    Lunar Lion Design
    Penn State Lunar Lion Team on RocketHub

    Just before winter break, students at Pennsylvania State University sat in a control room behind a two-foot-thick concrete wall. On the other side of the wall was a cryogenic rocket. As the rocket fired away, the students measured the temperature and pressure in different parts of the system, including fixtures they'd built for the rocket, all with their own handwritten computer code.

    They were part of the Lunar Lion team, one of 18 teams still in the running for the Google Lunar XPrize. Lunar Lion is also the only team based at a university and comprised mostly of college students, led by Penn State staff and faculty. (Although at least one other team is a spinoff from a university.) If the Penn State students win, they could earn up to $20 million for their school. They'll also have to have landed a rover on the moon, driven the rover at least 500 meters, and sent high-definition videos and photos back to Earth. Whichever team wins the grand prize, if any, will be only the fourth "team"—after the space agencies of the former Soviet Union, the U.S., and China—to make a soft landing on the moon.

    "Our goal is really education and research," Michael Paul, Lunar Lion's director and a space systems engineer at Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory, tells Popular Science. "What we're doing, we hope, becomes a model for other universities." Paul means in terms of funding. The Google Lunar XPrize is meant to stimulate the private spaceflight industry, so it requires its contestants be privately funded. The Lunar Lion team gets support from corporate and private donations and tries to work on a lean budget, Paul says. "One of the things that the students are learning is how to be frugal in their engineering."

    "One of the things the students are learning is how to be frugal in their engineering."

    With school back in session, the team is now seeking crowdfunding, too. It wants a little more than $400,000 to build and test a prototype of its design. For example, the team needs to finish testing that its cryogenic rocket engines, a design it licensed from NASA's Johnson Space Center and will modify to fit its craft's needs, work with the student-written computer system.

    The overall design is an all-in-one model that combines lander and rover in one vehicle. That helps save money—"otherwise we'd have to build, test and pay for essentially for two spacecraft, two spacecraft that would be bolted together," Paul says. The Lunar Lion craft will land on the surface of using small rockets, then use those same engines to "hop" the required 500 meters to win the prize. Although NASA's recent Mars rovers have been wheeled, a hopping design could help the Lunar Lion move more quickly and agilely

    I talked briefly with Alwin Paul, an undergraduate engineering major who leads a Lunar Lion design team with another undergrad engineer, Patrick Gorski. Alwin Paul (no relation to Michael Paul) explained he's responsible for making a hovercraft that will allow him to test the craft's avionics. His group will also test the craft's individual components, including a set of feet with a honeycomb structure that will collapse as the craft lands on the surface of the moon. The honeycomb feet need to absorb 13 Gs of impact and protect the craft's delicate equipment as it lands.

    The team has a little less than two years to get ready to fly. Michael Paul and his students have bought the $10 million ticket they need to hitch a ride with Phoenicia, a private launch provider based in California. They're going up in a launch window around December 19, 2015.


        







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    'Sunrise' in Beijing
    NewsClips247 / YouTube
    Rise and glow! In addition to the dull lightening of smog that now denotes morning in the polluted city of Beijing, the glow of an electronic rising sun on television has been added to simulate the real thing... or so news reports from the Daily Mail and others would have you believe, with headlines like "China starts televising the sunset on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog." 

    As Quartz and others have noted, however, this is false. The image of the giant sun (above) was part of a tourism commerical, and the sun only appears for about 10 seconds. It is also shown regardless of weather conditions.

    Nevertheless, the smog really is terrible in Beijing. As Climate Progress reports

    On Thursday [Jan. 16], the city issued its first warning of the year for a wave of dangerous smog that exceeded the worst threshold in the warning system. Concentrations of PM2.5, a recently classified carcinogen, were 350 to 500 micrograms per cubic meter on Thursday morning. Later that afternoon, the air quality monitors at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing recorded a sickening 671. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter ideal for human health. Above 300 is considered hazardous.

    Smog and outdoor air pollution continues to be a major concern in China; and one study found that it contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone.

    But that is no excuse for making up fictitious story lines about how bad it is to live in China or its capital. 


        







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    Glass
    Google

    A report first appearing on The Gadgeteer sounded like a hoax: a reader told the site they'd been been approached by the Feds for wearing Google Glass in an Ohio movie theater (and had their property mishandled in the process). But, it looks like at least the basic facts check out: although the FBI didn't approach someone at the theater, as the person originally thought, the Department of Homeland Security apparently did. (Update: AMC commented. Looks like it was the DHS.)

    An FBI spokesman in the bureau's Cincinnati office confirmed to Popular Science that there was an incident at the Columbus theater over the weekend and that the Department of Homeland Security was "probably" involved. (A spokesman for the DHS at first couldn't confirm the incident; a follow-up email hasn't been answered at time of writing.)

    So, not a hoax. Which doesn't necessarily mean everything about the reader letter was 100 percent accurate, but if it is, whoo-boy, here we go:

    Because I don’t want Glass to distract me during the movie, I turn them off (but since my prescription lenses are on the frame, I still wear them). About an hour into the movie (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), a guy comes near my seat, shoves a badge that had some sort of a shield on it, yanks the Google Glass off my face and says “follow me outside immediately”. It was quite embarrassing and outside of the theater there were about 5-10 cops and mall cops. Since I didn’t catch his name in the dark of the theater, I asked to see his badge again and I asked what was the problem and I asked for my Glass back. The response was “you see all these cops you know we are legit, we are with the ‘federal service’ and you have been caught illegally taping the movie”.

    I was surprised by this and as I was obviously just having a nice Saturday evening night out with my wife and not taping anything whether legally or illegally, I tried to explain that this is a misunderstanding. I tried to explain that he’s holding rather expensive hardware that costed me $1500 for Google Glass and over $600 for the prescription glasses. The response was that I was searched and more stuff was taken away from me (specifically my personal phone, my work phone – both of which were turned off, and my wallet). After an embarrassing 20-30 minutes outside the movie theater, me and my wife were conducted into two separate rooms in the “management” office of Easton Mall, where the guy with the badge introduced himself again and showed me a different ID. His partner introduced herself too and showed me a similar looking badge. I was by that time, too flustered to remember their names (as a matter of fact, now, over 30 hours later I am still shaking when recounting the facts).

    An interview over at phandroid.com makes it sound like a private investigator with the Motion Picture Association of America may have been in the theater, something the FBI spokesman pointed out to me was another possibility.

    But should the person have been wearing Google Glass in the theater? Well, that's up for debate: the lenses were prescription, apparently, but it's also a pretty blantant recording device that you attach directly to your face. Either way, the reader letter makes the officers come off as clueless about technology, which doesn't inspire much confidence, either. 

    We'll update if we hear back from DHS. You can read the full letter here.

     


        







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    Mushroom
    Darius_saulenas via Wikimedia Commons

    Let this idea grow on you: using mushrooms to clean up dirty, polluted urban streams. That's what environmentalists are trying in Oregon. Volunteers for Ocean Blue Project, an ecological restoration nonprofit, are placing mushroom spawn in burlap sacks with a mixture of coffee grounds and straw to grow in. Then, they put the bags in the paths of storm drains, where contaminated water will filter through them.

    Here's how it should work: The underground part of mushrooms, called mycelium, will break down pollutants like E. coli, pesticides, and oil, The Corvallis Gazette-Times reports. The volunteers placed their first test bag in a drainage chute in Corvallis' Sequoia Creek on Sunday.

    According to a recent Oregon Department of Environmental Quality water sampling, water in the Willamette River contained flame retardants, metals, pesticides, and chemicals from consumer products. Ocean Blue will conduct its own tests of water samples to monitor the effects of the mushroom bags. Signs will warn passerby not to eat the toxic mushrooms in the sacks, says Ocean Blue President Richard Arterbury.

    Read the full story over at The Corvallis Gazette-Times.


        







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    microscope photo of a piece of space dust
    A Piece of Interplanetary Dust
    NASA

    The grains of dust prevalent throughout the cosmos could carry with them molecules of water, according to a new analysis. They carry molecules of carbon, too, New Scientist reports, meaning the things that are necessary for life could be common in the universe. Somewhere out there, space dust may be bombarding an alien planet with the ingredients of life.

    The new analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes how solar wind could work on interplanetary dust particles to make water. The solar wind that streams off the sun—which reaches far past our own solar system and which some other stars produce—is mostly made up of charged hydrogen ions. Meanwhile, cosmic dust often contains oxygen. Together, the two could create hydroxyl (-OH) and water (H2O). Labs have recreated this chemical reaction, but this is the first time astronomers have found bits of water in actual space dust, New Scientist reports.

    Check out New Scientist for more on what this does, and doesn't, mean for how water may have arrived on an early Earth. And if you're interested in the super-precise methods astronomers used to detect this water, check out The Conversation.  

    [New Scientist, The Conversation]


        







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    Henry Gee
    Wikimedia Commons

    If you're in the scientific field, or even if you're just a regular reader of, say, this site, you're probably familiar with Nature, one of the top scientific journals in the world. They're the publishers of Watson and Crick, for God's sake, which makes what happened last week a little troubling.

    A senior editor at the journal, Henry Gee, revealed the real name of a science blogger who usually goes by the pseudonym Isis the Scientist. On Twitter, he wrote (and I'm redacting the name for Isis's privacy):

    @drisis Hah! Nature boycotted by inconsequential sports physio [name]. Nature quakes in its boots.

    People have since taken issue with 1) the fact that he didn't respect the privacy of a blogger, and 2) took a belittling, arguably sexist tone toward her. Isis has been critical of Nature in the past, and Gee has since been defending the outing based on how she has used the nom de plume "to spread hurtful untruths." (She's been critical of perceived sexism in the journal, something the publication again took heat for again recently after publishing a controversial letter on women in science.)

    Isis took to her blog yesterday to talk about the issues:

    So, while I am “ok”, were his actions “ok?” Of course not, and they give me pause. I have undoubtedly been vocal over the last four years of the fact that I believe Nature, the flagship of our profession, does not have a strong track record of treating women fairly. I believe that Henry Gee, a representative of the journal, is responsible for some of that culture.  That’s not “vitriolic” and it’s not “bullying”. That is me saying, as a woman, that there is something wrong with how this journal and its editors engage 50% of the population (or 20% of scientists) and I believe in my right to say “this is not ‘ok’.”  Henry Gee responded by skywriting my real name because he believed that would hurt me personally – my career, my safety, my family. Whatever. Regardless of the actual outcome, the direct personal nature of the attack is highlighted by its support from some that I “had it coming..

    Henry Gee’s actions were meant to intimidate me into silence. He took this approach likely with the thought that it was the most powerful way he could hurt me. Nothing more. Although I am ok, there are some recent victims of outing behavior that are not. That’s frightening. To think that the editor of a journal would respond to criticism of his professional conduct regarding the fair treatment of women by attempting to personally injure and damage..

    The tweet certainly comes off as personal, especially when Gee--also an occassional writer for The Guardian--must be used to at least some criticism. (In fact, some of those columns have definitely been criticized.) Regardless of intent, though, it doesn't make Nature look good to be doxxing people with (completely rational) criticisms about sexism. It makes them--or at least Gee--look like bullies.


        







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    Sloths are cute. Take this video of baby sloths being washed: 

    Until today, this video might represent sheer joy. But a new study causes a different reaction: NOOOO! DON'T KILL THE FUR FUNGI!!!

    New research, you see, has found that chemicals excreted by microbes in sloth fur had potent activity against a host of human pathogens, and even breast cancer cells, and possess anti-malaria and antibacterial properties. The study found that chemicals isolated from fungi in three-toed sloths were deadly for parasites that cause malaria and Chagas disease (Plasmodium falciparum and Trypanosoma cruzi, respectively). The research was only a partial cataloguing of microbes that live in sloth fur, which the scientists describe as a potential goldmine for drug discovery. 

    It's not surprising on the face of it that sloths harbor some interesting microscopic fur-friends: Cyanobacteria have been known to cover their coats, coloring them green and potentially helping them blend into the rainforests of Central America that they call home. They are also relatively little studied and not exactly easy to procur for your average researcher--the three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus) used in this study were found in a Panamanian nature reserve. It also comes as no shock that fungi create chemicals of interest to drug developers, as fungi have spawned drugs from penicillin to Lovastatin.

    The researchers were surprised, however, by the scope of the fur-fungi's antimicrobial properities. Very few chemicals have been found to have activity against Chagas disease, for example, and the drugs currently used to treat it are often discontinued due to their negative side effects. A total of 20 of the chemicals isolated from these microbes "were active against at least one bacterial strain, and one had an unusual pattern of bioactivity against Gram-negative bacteria that suggests a potentially new mode of action." Which means it could, one day, possibly pave the way for new antibiotics. 

    Several of the chemicals isolated from the fungi also showed strong activity against human breast cancer cells. 


        







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    Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS)
    MAARS is a remote-controlled gunbot. It can be fitteed with machine guns and grenade launchers, as well as less lethal weapons like tear gas. It's controlled by a person, for now at least.
    QinetiQ

    By the middle of this century, U.S. Army soldiers may well be fighting alongside robotic squadmates. General Robert Cone revealed the news at an Army Aviation symposium last week, noting that the Army is considering reducing the size of a Brigade Combat Team from 4,000 soldiers to 3,000, with robots and drones making up for the lost firepower. Cone is in charge of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), the part of the Army responsible for future planning and organization. If the Army can still be as effective with fewer people to a unit, TRADOC will figure out what technology is needed to make that happen.

    While not explicitly stated, a major motivation behind replacing humans with robots is that humans are expensive. Training, feeding, and supplying them while at war is pricey, and after the soldiers leave the service, there's a lifetime of medical care to cover. In 2012, benefits for serving and retired members of the military comprised one-quarter of the Pentagon's budget request.

    To understand what Cone is proposing (besides robot soldiers), we need to understand two fundamental building blocks of the modern U.S. Army. The first is the nine-man squad, almost the smallest useful unit of force. For some purposes, it can be split into two smaller fireteams, but the Army designs vehicles with the nine-man squad in mind, and then writes doctrine for how these squads (some with, some without vehicles) will move and fight.

    The second building block worth knowing is the Brigade Combat Team. It's the smallest large unit that can be sent into combat independently. If the Army can reduce number of people in squads, it can reduce the total manpower everywhere, and it can acquire vehicles that are both smaller and cheaper. In order to reduce manpower without reducing fighting ability, the Army will need to make sure that Brigades have everything they need to be just effective. In order for that to happen, Cone said the Army will "need to fundamentally change the nature of the force, and that would require a breakthrough in science and technology.” Cone expects this to happen by 2030 to 2040.

    A Pair Of Robots On A Stroll
    The LS3 is a robotic pack mule developed by Boston Dynamics.
    Boston Dynamics

    This is a huge change under consideration, but the Army already has some robot warriors on hand. In October, the Army tested multiple remote-controlledgun-firing robots. Bomb squad robots were used Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of IEDS. BigDog, a robotic pack mule now owned by Google, received funds from DARPA for further development. The RQ-11 Raven drone is a remote-controlled scout, tossed into the air like a javelin, that streams video back to soldiers, letting them know what's lurking behind the next hill.

    Moving from the adoption of new technologies to actually making doctrine that relies on the new technology would be a huge step for the military. Cone's comments suggest that the military is at least willing to consider a day when soldier and robot will fight alongside one another. 

    [Defense News]


        







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    What happens when you give four college students $250 and three months to make something for an engineering class? They build an auto-reloading cannon that blasts Jet-Puffed Marshmallows into the air and toward people's faces.

    A team of Olin College students designed the face-tracking Confectionery Cannon after initially trying to recreate the Popinator, a voice-activated popcorn launching machine that is triggered by the word "pop." But due to challenges stemming from popcorn's inconsistent size and shape, the cohort of student engineers decided to go with a squishier route: the marshmallow.

    The pneumatic Confectionery Cannon boasts a reloading mechanism that can fire six marshmallows in less than 10 seconds. To calculate the distance to a target, a webcam detects how far away a person is by the size of their face. 

    Check out the video above to watch the marshmallow-launching bazooka in action, and visit the cannon's website for more information on how the team engineered this Willy Wonka dream machine.

    Marshmallow Launcher
    Courtesy The Confectionery Cannon
     

        







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  • 01/22/14--08:30: The Maker King
  • Carl Bass
    Brad Wenner

    When you first meet him, Carl Bass comes off like any other weekend carpenter. Dressed in a worn T-shirt and jeans, he shakes hands with a wooden grip and has a big, brassy laugh. His workshop is a warren of lumber and hammers and idle projects. A half-built chair sits here. A sculpted Styrofoam head there. 

    But Carl Bass is no ordinary carpenter. He’s the CEO of Autodesk, a $10-billion company that makes AutoCAD, the standard software used by engineers to digitally design such products as cars, airplanes, and skyscrapers. And his maker space is no ordinary garage. First, it’s huge. His wood shop alone occupies 20,000 square feet—and he’s got a comparably sized metal shop down the street. Second, it’s sophisticated. 3-D printers sit among the band saws and planers. And then there’s his CNC router. 

    “This is my coolest thing,” Bass says, stepping to the monitor that controls it. He’s a big guy, tall and thick, but he looks small next to this machine. The Thermwood 90’s five-axis head can move anywhere within a 5’ x 10’ x 4’ space and can carve pretty much anything—a perfect orb, a model of the space shuttle or Michelangelo’s David—out of materials like plastic and plywood. The machine is incredibly complicated. It usually comes with its own instructor. “I don’t think anyone else has one for themselves,” Bass says.

    Bass isn’t boasting. He has poured at least as much money into his workshop as other CEOs pour into vintage wine collections or boats, but his hobby isn’t about impressing anybody else. It’s just for him. He still spends every Saturday morning from 6 to 11 beavering away on various projects in pleasant isolation. And yet, his weekend work is having a profound effect on the maker movement.  

    A few years ago, Bass recognized that two powerful forces were poised to intersect: the rise of online sharing and the return to analog building in maker spaces. Up until that point, Autodesk stuck primarily to the virtual realm by developing increasingly refined CAD software. Bass saw that Autodesk could fill a crucial niche by helping everyday people bridge the gulf between digital design and physical manufacture.

    The Maker King
    Brad Wenner

    The company’s first consumer product was an experiment. A team in Toronto developed a dramatically simplified modeling program, formatted it for use on mobile devices, and put it online as a free app, called Sketchbook. Within 50 days, Sketchbook had a million downloads. So the company created more products, and then a whole consumer group focused on design, personal manufacture, and home decoration. In three years, Autodesk had more than 100 million registered users across its various consumer products. Compare that with the company’s 12 million professional users, which it took more than three decades to accrue.

    The range of applications people found for the new products was tremendous. Louise Leakey, the famed Kenyan paleontologist, recently used 123D Catch, a web-based app that stitches snapshots into a 3-D image, to model her skull collection so others could view it online. With 123D Make, a product that allows people to modify 3-D models, fans then carved the CAD skulls into pieces that could be printed and reassembled as a puzzle. In Florida, the owners of a female duckling named Buttercup used Autodesk software to get the animal back on its feet after an amputation to correct a birth defect. They made a model of Buttercup’s good foot and printed it. After the surgery, they attached the prosthetic, so she could waddle and paddle like any of her companions. 

    Autodesk’s new role as a company that enables makers suits Bass just fine. Before he started his own software firm, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993, he put himself through college by working as a carpenter, building houses on a Sioux reservation and boats in Maine and Seattle. He’s found it easy to infuse Autodesk with that same hands-on enthusiasm. “The company is filled with engineers and people who like to make stuff, so it wasn’t like I was pushing a rock up a hill,” he says. Bass recently provided his employees with their own version of his personal workshops: a 27,000-square-foot maker space at the edge of Pier 9 in downtown San Francisco. The facility includes a wood shop, a metal shop, an electronics shop, a 3-D–printing lab, a tailor shop, replete with mannequins, and a test kitchen (on the premise that cooking is a gateway drug for makers). When the facility opened with a ribbon cutting last September, Bass, true to form, took a reciprocating saw to a steel bow instead of scissors. Shortly afterward, a group of Autodesk engineers designed, printed, and assembled a 13-foot-tall blinking Trojan horse that they pulled up to Market Street in San Francisco—just because they could. 

    Bass recognized that two powerful forces were poised to intersect: the rise of online sharing and the return to analog building in maker spaces.

    Futurists have long predicted a day when people can manufacture most of what they need in the comfort of their own homes. It would be easy to see the Autodesk shop and Bass’s personal maker spaces as a step in that direction—larger and more expensive, but a step nonetheless. But Bass doesn’t give in to such optimism so easily. Because he’s going first into the age of personal manufacture, he is intimately acquainted with the barriers that stand in the way. 

    “We’re so close to real personal manufacturing, and yet we’re so far,” he says. It’s not as if something designed in Google Sketchup can just be handed to the router, he explains. “Right now, you have to convert all these file formats from one to the next, and you lose fidelity with every step. If I can’t do it with my resources, connections, and equipment, who can?”

    The only solution, he says, is persistence and personal experience. “At Autodesk, anytime we find issues with a product we’re using, we go about problem solving, trying to make them better. In the end, we’re just making things easier for people, so more of them can access the maker movement.”

    CNC Router
    “My Thermwood 90 is an 18,000-pound router that will carve anything. Lately, I’ve been using it to make big carved tables.” — Carl Bass
    Brad Wenner

    In that way, Bass’s workshop serves a dual purpose. It’s a sanctuary, sure, a place where he can build anything from swooping chairs that appear cut from a single piece of wood to intricate 3-D–printed mesh sculptures. But it’s also a test bed. And every one of his creations carries a backstory—a series of challenges and lessons that lead to a final success. “I might not be able to understand what an Autodesk customer is up against, but I sure can sympathize,” he says. Bass makes stuff because that’s what he loves, but in doing so, he’s also creating a better experience for his customers and, in a way, for everyone.  

    He shows me around a bit more. A row of bats he made with his kids, lathed perfectly and sanded to a high gloss, hangs from a rack on the wall. An antique sander sits nearby. Finally, he flicks off the lights, and darkness advances across the space the way it does in factories and airplane hangars. Then he turns to me.

    “One thing I wish I had,” he says. “I wish I had more space.” 

    Carl Bass

    Age: 56
    Occupation: CEO
    Education: B.A. Mathematics 
    Hobby: Making
    Next tool: 11-Axis mill for metal by Mori Seiki

    What's in Carl's 20,000-square-foot-personal workshop?

    Sander 
    “I bought this gigantic drum and disk sander at Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects shop that did Star Wars. It’s from 1940 and can sand anything.”

    Lathe
    “It’s fun and easy to use. I typically use it to make baseball bats and chair legs and poles.”

    Chisels 
    “I found a set of Stanley chisels on Ebay. They were used when I got them, but I sharpened them up, and now I use them on everything.”

    Hand planes
    “I built them myself 35 years ago. It’s nice to have built a tool more than three decades ago and still use it.”

    This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science.

     


        







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    Chocolate, nom nom nom
    Dreamstime
    Life's like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get... including whether or not your favorite confection contains the top-quality cacao beans it advertises, or ones of lower quality. As demand grows for high-end chocolate, made from the choicest of beans from specific locations, so too does the practice of mixing in lower-priced substitutes. Genetic tests have been used to determine origins of coffee and related products, but chocolate has proved more difficult. 

    But a new test could change that. As Discovery News reports:  

    Researchers at the USDA's agricultural research station in Greenbelt, Md., figured out how to overcome this problem using small SNPs or single nucleotide proteins ("snips") that make up unique fingerprints of different cacao species and hybrid varieties...

    Zhang, who worked at a cacao research center in Peru for a decade, decided to use the seed coat of the cacao bean to extract the DNA needed to make a positive identification of the plant's origins. Zhang and colleagues successfully identified the location of the type of cacao trees grown in the Cajamarca Province of Peru as compared to the kind of cacao grown in other parts of Peru, Brazil, Trinidad and Ecuador.

    One outside researcher, Louis Grivetti, a professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at the University of California, Davis, told Discovery News that while the test could be used to distinguish between cacao varities, it wouldn't necessarily result in better-tasting chocolate, as that may be more strongly influenced by production techniques. The test will also cost a lot, though Grivetti conceded some consumers would likely be willing to pay extra for it. 

    [Via Discovery News]


        







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    Service Elevator

    The worst part of riding an elevator is awkwardly trying to find a direction to stare in that doesn't line up with anyone else's line of vision. The second worst part is waiting for it to come and avoiding eye contact with everyone. No more! A Microsoft company elevator can now determine if the person walking by is about to board, then open its gaping, semi-sentient maw doors to let them in. 

    Microsoft installed their Xbox motion-detecting camera, the Kinect, in the ceiling above the elevator, then had it monitor people for months, determining what behavior predicted whether they'd board the elevator or not. If the camera determined someone was likely to be getting on, the doors opened, which, yeah, sort of creepy. But it also does this cute thing where if it isn't sure whether someone is going to get on, it'll jiggle its doors until the person motions to tell it to wait or not. Have you ever held the door for someone because you thought they were coming on and then they wave to say No, thank you, I'm not getting on, and you're worried afterwards that everyone on the elevator is burning with fury because you made them wait needlessly? That's what this does, essentially. Progress.

    [Washington Post]


        







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