Google Explores 3-D Maps and Immersive Games With All-Seeing Tablet

Image: Google

Image: Google

Google is calling on the world’s software developers to help it build software for the experimental 3D-modeling tablet it calls Project Tango.

The tablet can tap the power of motion sensors and machine vision to create realistic models of the environment around it, and with the introduction of a new Tango development kit on Thursday, Google hopes that coders will create new kinds of mapping and immersive-gaming applications that tap the device’s unique hardware.

Previously, the company shared the Tango prototype with a few handpicked developers, but this is the first time it had opened up the platform to all engineers. Priced at $1,024, the kit will include a 7-inch tablet outfitted with all the necessary sensors and software to take advantage of this new creation, and according to Google, it will be available later this year. Nvidia—-the company that makes the processors for the Tango tablet–says they could arrive as early as July.

Google wants developers to build new kinds of mapping and immersive-gaming applications.

Once it’s finished, outfitted with the proper software, and placed in the hands of the people across the globe, it could be a fun thing for them to play with. But it could also serve as Googles eyes and ears on the ground, opening up a whole new range of other applications–and possibly a few privacy concerns.

Google and NVIDIA say that Tango could help build map directions that don’t stop at your destination’s street address, indoor navigation systems for buildings, and tools for real estate professionals or interior decorators to quickly gather data about a room. NASA is already experimenting with Project Tango sensors for its SPHERES, which are bowling ball sized spherical satellites designed to test specific maneuvers onboard space stations, such as docking.

Google first unveiled the project back in February. Johnny Lee, who previously worked on Microsoft’s Kinect, is the technical lead for the project at Google’s blue sky research group called Advanced Technology and Projects, or ATAP. ATAP, which is led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan, is the same division that is developing Project Ara, the weird modular phone system.

As phones become increasingly commodified, companies like Google, Samsung, and Apple need to find new ways too keep their devices cool and relevant. Google Now, for instance, is getting smarter. It gathers a wide range of data about you from your calendar, email, and location data to push potentially helpful information to you, such as reminders of when it’s time to leave for an appointment based on the current traffic and road conditions. It’s not hard to imagine something like Project Tango feeding into that system, helping Google to craft new types of 3D-aware programs. Of course, it could also feed a brand new kind of Google advertising.

A Brilliant Double-Decker Armrest That Would Make Flying Less Hellish

Images: Paperclip Design Limited

Images: Paperclip Design Limited

It’s the unspoken battle that takes place every day on flights around the world, between friends and strangers alike: deciding who gets the armrest. Now, a Hong Kong designer has found a simple, brilliant way to make peace and keep everyone happy. Just don’t expect to see it in an airplane anytime soon.

James Lee’s “paperclip armrest” eliminates the power struggle for who gets to put their arm down with a double-decker design: There are two levels, so each person has their own real estate.

The clever idea came to Lee eight years ago during a lecture at MIT, where he studied aeronautics engineering. The guy next to him had snatched the armrest, leaving Lee thinking: If this thing had another level, I could rest comfortably. He’s worked on it off and on since then, winning several design awards along the way. After launching Paperclip Design Limited in 2012, he dug into moving the project from concept to commercialization.

It’s a great idea, especially for air travel. Packed into coa… er, economy class, the battle for the armrests — and the precious few inches of extra space they offer — is a zero-sum game. With Paperclip, everyone wins.

But getting these things into airplanes may be as difficult as sleeping soundly on a red-eye. Airlines are obsessed with cutting costs (the global airline industry is expects to clear a net profit margin of just 2.4 percent this year). If something doesn’t cut weight (like thinner seats) or allow airlines to charge a premium (like extra leg room), there’s little incentive to invest in it.

Images: Paperclip Design Limited

Images: Paperclip Design Limited

If airlines make our lives truly terrible, they may give us the Paperclip as consolation. Some are thinking about putting 10 seats in each row of the Boeing 777 where today there are nine, Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst said, which would bring in huge economic benefits. “If this sort of feature were to facilitate that without detracting from the customer experience,” it would be worthwhile.

Even if airlines are interested in something that might make flying slightly less hellish, getting something like the paperclip armrest into an airplane requires complying with reams of regulations, which can vary from one country to the next and completing extensive testing. That process takes years, not months, Mann said.

But you might see them in theaters. Lee is pitching the idea to cinemas in Europe and the United States, where people have more room but inevitably squabble over armrests. The problem is making it cost-effective. Upfront cost is high. “It’s a very straightforward shape,” Lee says, but the plastic injection mold that produces it can run around $50,000.

That’s the problem Lee is trying to solve. He’s talking with some clients, but hasn’t worked out any deals. We’d rather find the Paperclip on a cross-country flight than the local movie theater, but we’ll take what we can get.

Why the New Obamacare Website Is Going to Work This Time

Illustration: Getty

Illustration: Getty

The drama of the Ad Hoc team is now a modern tech fable: a small cadre of young geeks from Silicon Valley and President Obama’s election campaign parachute into the federal bureaucracy to rescue the site and help exceed the goal of eight million insured households nationwide. But even as they worked 80-hour weeks to salvage the botched creation of thousands of technocrats employed by 55 different contractors, another drama was occurring in stealth. Members of the Ad Hoc team were already looking ahead to the next version, recruiting a second wave of programmers drawn from startups as well as larger companies like Google.

That team, officially dubbed Marketplace 2.0, is creating core features of the next generation of that will debut when the next enrollment period begins November 15. Key upgrades include a simpler interface for a majority of users, a more robust plan comparison tool, and a new login system rebuilt from the ground up. The effort doesn’t deal with components like rating engines, tax credits and financial management; instead it focuses on making it easier for applicants to connect with insurance plans. Officials at Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services outlined the key pieces for WIRED:

Application 2.0: This is the new front end for the application, including a component that determines an applicant’s eligibility for a plan. Though the underlying logic is the same as the recent one developed by the Ad Hoc team and used by more than 5.45 million people in the first go-round, the 2.0 team aims to create a simpler, more efficient user interface designed to boost the percentage of visits that lead to health plan subscriptions. Officials estimate that about 35 to 40 percent of applicants with more complicated household situations will still have to use the more painstaking process from the 2014 enrollment period. But these officials see the new system eventually handling a broader range of scenarios. Application 2.0 is also designed to work more effectively when applicants use mobile devices. More than a fourth of those who enrolled in the first sign-up period came to the site through mobile devices.

Plan Compare 2.0: Browsing and selecting plans was difficult on the original site. Way too often, it would crash, losing all applicant information and forcing the user to repeat the process. The worst of this was fixed by the surge team, but the new system will retain data even more reliably and have a new set of screens that guide applicants more clearly through the steps.

A tool for window shopping will enable those who aren’t sure they want to sign up to sample plans anonymously without having to go through the effort of putting in personal information. This feature will improve upon the heavily trafficked so-called premium estimation tool offered in the first signup.

Scalable Login System: This will be another built-from-scratch system handling identity management and account creation. It replaces the flaky login system that drove the first rescue team crazy and chased away countless potential applicants.

The effort to create a new version of the Federally Facilitated Marketplace started last November. US Chief Technical Officer Todd Park asked one of the Ad Hoc team members, former Googler Jini Kim, to see if some of her colleagues would be interested in joining a second unit. She began recruiting just before Thanksgiving, targeting friends from Google and others who worked at startups, particularly those associated with the Y Combinator tech incubator.

“I remember getting the phone call,” says Brandon Ballinger, who agreed to come onboard. “Jini asked, ‘Are you ready to skip Thanksgiving, skip Christmas and skip New Years?” Kim also called Joey Liaw, a former Gmail engineer who also worked for Sean Parker’s much-hyped video chat service called Airtime and for a YC startup. Later some of those people would call in their own friends and by December, there were eight new engineers crunching at CSM’s facilities outside of Baltimore. David Chang, a 2102 MIT graduate had just shut down his Y Combinator startup and accepted a job at Khan Academy. The other five included recent Stanford graduates, someone from Google Scholar, and engineers from startups in New York City and Silicon Valley.

The old sign-up system.

The old sign-up system.

What Kim pitched as a quick stint become something of a marathon, as work continued nonstop through Memorial Day and beyond.. (“I started with zero Hilton points and now I’m Hilton platinum,” says one California drop-in.) Kim served as de facto product manager and Liaw as the tech lead (Kim has recently eased up on her involvement.)

The small group of recruits became known as the Marketplace Light team, charged with providing a simplified process—referred to internally as EZ App—to sign up with an insurer. This streamlined method would be available to those whose family and work situations were uncomplicated. (A majority of applicants, perhaps 65 percent, meet those standards).

“They knew this platform needed some architectural changes and the idea was that we would work on the next generation,” Liaw says. “We know how to deploy consumer applications that scale. We use the Silicon Valley playbook utilizing open source and off-the-shelf –technologies. This is something that we’re good at—we’ve done it over and over.”

But there was some uncertainly on how much The Marketplace Light team would contribute. “Circumstances were pretty tough,” Kim says. “You’re in the polar vortex of Columbia, Maryland, you’re in a hotel, you’re working with legacy systems that don’t make sense. We could have done a lot more.”

The engineers at first hoped to do a significant overhaul of the front end in time for the big rush at the end of the open enrollment period in April. “The idea was essentially to lessen the load,” says Greg Gershman, a member of the original rescue team who plans to return to CMS. “If they had done that it would have definitely taken traffic off the main site. But they ran into troubles.” To the frustration of some team members, there was simply not enough time to work through the elaborate security authorizations that were required to implement any changes in a government website. “Security is one of the biggest obstacles we had to deal with,” says one engineer, who complains that regulations require useless protocols for relatively little protection. They saw it as the most nettling of many example of how government IT regulations, even well meaning ones, have morphed into a red-tape nightmare that slows progress without delivering benefits. ‘The focus is not so much on security but more like checking a lot of boxes.”

The team working at the XOC (the command center) in Columbia, MD. Photo by Ben Komalo

The team working at the XOC (the command center) in Columbia, MD. Photo by Ben Komalo

Even as the team found a way to work effectively with CMS lifers—both sides realized they could learn from each other—some engineers felt their bosses were being overly cautious about instituting dramatic changes during this first open enrollment because of the high political stakes. There was a generalized fear that an error in implementation could lead to a whipping by Republican representative Darrell Issa in a congressional hearing. “People are more scared of things here,” says Ben Komalo, a Marketplace Light engineer who recently returned to his job at Khan Academy . “The costs of failure are perceived as being much higher than where we’re from.”

Nonetheless, the Marketplace Light crew got some of their work into during the open enrollment period. This included improvements to the registration screens that applicants confronted when they visited the site. These screens were crucial—if they were confusing or presented frustrating obstacles, some applicants would simply exit. On the early iterations of the site, this happened a lot, in many cases because of poor design. “For example,” one engineer says, “you had to choose a user name that had a special character such as an underscore or a dollar sign, which normally is a requirement applied to passwords, not to user names. So a lot of people were confused by that.” Worse, if someone chose a user name that already existed, the applicant would not find out until the end of the third page—at which point the system would make the applicant start over.

The Marketplace Light team fixed this by using something apparently in short supply during the original design of common sense. “We just did the most basic simple thing that anybody would do,” a team member says. “Make one page, and use the e-mail as the user name.”

The newer, 2-step system.

The newer, 2-step system.

When the new screens went live in February, the team resisted the temptation to push them out to all users, opting instead for a carefully calibrated rollout. They quietly exposed changes to one percent of users and compared the results by using what’s known as A/B testing, consistently comparing results of the test version to the existing version. Only after determining that the rates of error were low and the rates of conversion were high, did they expand the upgrade to more and more applicants, eventually offering the improvements to all users several weeks later.

Such simple revisions to the application process, including trimming the sign-in pages from five to two, led to a ten percent increase in successful completions overall. For those who accessed the site via mobile devices, the boost was thirty percent.

After the open enrollment period, the team got the go-ahead to proceed, and Marketplace Light was redubbed Marketplace 2.0. The CMS hasn’t decided whether those who signed up last year will have to re-enroll, but certainly there will be millions more trying to sign up for a new plan, perhaps their first. (Meanwhile, continues to take applications from new Medicaid recipients and people whose circumstances justify a change in health plans.)

The team plans to roll out changes throughout the summer and early fall, testing with A/B software and then quickly make fixes and improvements. Though this is standard practice in Silicon Valley, it’s fairly novel in government.

Perhaps the biggest step towards reliability involves the data center that will run these new parts of the system. The 2.0 team has convinced CMS to host parts of the new on the same flexible infrastructure used by smart tech companies, from tiny startups to Netflix: Amazon Web Services. This was not an easy sell due to government concerns about security. The usual process for government data operations makes it incredibly difficult to secure all the servers that may be needed at a given time. Government workers must first obtain authorization by calling the data center and making a formal request that specifies the number of servers needed and the programs that will run on them. This cumbersome procedure makes outages inevitable during peak periods. In contrast, as the Marketplace Light engineers knew well, with AWS the entire process is automated. When Amazon’s system detects a surge, it provisions enough computing power to handle the bigger load.

The team fought to overcome cultural resistance to using outside servers and then undertook the painstaking process of certifying AWS as secure enough to handle government healthcare information. “There were a lot of specific barriers,” Ballinger says. “Because this type of thing is so rare, actually nobody can enumerate the entire sequence of steps. At one point we built a chart of every step we needed to take in order to use AWS, and it had, like, 30 different nodes.”

The team prevailed, largely because by then the newcomers had the enthusiastic support of CMS lifers like Jon Booth, the director of the sub-agency’s Web and New Media group, who says that the go-ahead was made easier because some Health and Human Services customers had successfully completed security audits of AWS and had started to run programs on it. “It was a no-brainer for us,” Booth says.

Whether or not Marketplace 2.0 works as promised, the effort has already achieved a turnaround of sorts. In the past, such an effort would have avoided risky innovation, producing something with Rube Goldberg-esque code bases, a lockdown on data centers, and hundreds of veteran engineers schooled in the traditional ways of producing government IT. (Like… the original version of Not this time, or at least not as much. Marketplace 2.0 will use contemporary tools, a third-party automated data center, and a system of A/B testing and rapid iteration. And though the Marketplace 2.0 team will grow a bit in the coming months—with some original members of the rescue team returning as contractors—tech lead Liaw reports that the current headcount stands at ten.

Moreover, the rescue effort has provided a blueprint for reforming long-moribund government IT. The next step is getting more people like those on the Ad Hoc and Marketplace 2.0 teams into public service. Indeed, many of them have become evangelists for this cause. “This is my second job—I’m only 24,” says David Chang, who took over as de facto product manager after Jini Kim. “It’s phenomenal to have this impact on how government does IT, how millions of people get healthcare.”

While Affordable Care Act itself remains controversial, the government is finally using smarter techniques on the website that signs you up for it. That’s got to be healthier.

Watch Live: Asteroid Known as “The Beast” Flies by Earth

A recently discovered astroid nicknamed The Beast will pass by Earth today at a distance three times that between the Earth and the moon. You can watch the live show above from the Slooh Space Camera starting at 11:30 PT. Slooh’s astronomers will be broadcasting live from Australia with time-lapse footage from their robotic observatory in Chile.

The Beast, officially named Asteroid 2014 HQ124, is traveling at 31,000 mph and is estimated to be a little more than 1,000 feet wide, about the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer first detected the asteroid on April 23. Astronomers originally thought it was about three times bigger based on its brightness, but as it got closer, better measurements showed it was smaller.

Though The Beast is big enough to do serious damage were it to impact Earth (objects as small as 100 feet wide could be destructive) it will not come close enough to be dangerous. Recently Slooh and NASA teamed up to get citizen scientists involved in helping to find, monitor and characterize near-Earth objects using Slooh’s telescopes. While astronomers believe we have spotted 90 percent of the potentially dangerous asteroids that are 1,000 feet wide or bigger, they estimate we have detected only 30 percent of the objects that are around 460 feet wide and just 1 percent of objects the size of The Beast.

The Internet of Things Could Drown Our Environment in Gadgets

Illustration: Getty

Illustration: Getty

The pitch is that the Internet of Things will make our world a greener place. Environmental sensors can detect pollution, the voices say. Smart thermostats can help us save money on our electric bills. A new breed of agriculture tech can save water by giving crops exactly the amount they need and no more.

But this vast network of new online devices could also end up harming the environment. Manufacturing all those gadgets means expending both energy and raw materials. In many cases, they will replace an older breed of devices, which will need to be disposed of (so long, non-smart thermostat). And eventually, every IoT device you buy–and people are predicting there will be hundreds of thousands–will need to be retired too. Since all these devices will connect to the net, we should even consider the energy used by the data centers that drive them.

“The Internet of Things, for us, is a way for people to get reconnected with where their energy comes from,” says Greenpeace IT analyst Gary Cook. “But it could also drive more consumption, which won’t help us.”

None of these problems are insurmountable. But with more networked devices being released everyday, it’s time to start thinking about what the real environmental impact of these devices will be–and how we can minimize it.

Shrinking the Footprint

Earlier this year, Nest claimed on its company blog that it takes only eight weeks for its thermostat to save enough energy to become carbon neutral, based on the amount of energy it takes to manufacture and distribute devices. That’s a good return on investment, but the Nest thermostat is specifically designed to save energy. Other products–such as fitness trackers, kitchen appliances, and home security systems–may have heavier footprints.

In many cases, the companies that make and sell electronics don’t know how much energy they’re using.

The problem, Cook says, is that it’s hard–if not impossible–for consumers to get a sense of the lifetime environmental impact of any given product. There just aren’t enough standards and certification bodies to provide accurate information. RoHs labels provide assurances about the amounts of toxic materials like cadmium and lead used in a product, and Energy Star can give you an idea of a product’s energy efficiency. But neither label gives you much insight into the manufacturing process or the overall lifecycle of a product. In many cases, the companies that make and sell electronics don’t know how much energy they’re using, since many components that go into a product are manufactured by other companies entirely.

Greenpeace is trying to help out in this regard with its Cool IT Challenge campaign to encourage companies not just to change their own practices but to use their influence to drive change in the industry. The campaign also includes a leaderboard that ranks how well companies are doing. “We’ve been evaluating companies both on their use of toxic chemicals in their products and how they use energy,” Cooks says. “Something we were trying to measure in the leaderboard is how much homework companies are doing.”

Perhaps the biggest environmental issue regarding network connected devices is the amount of energy used by the servers they connect to. Although big data center operators try to use as little electricity as possible–and there are more products than ever available to help these companies bring their power bills down–Cook says it’s about more than just using less energy. Companies need to be using clean energy as well.

In recent years, many major cloud companies–including Google, Rackspace, and Salesforce–have disclosed their energy usage information and pledged to eventually power their data centers exclusively with renewable energy. But Amazon, the largest cloud computing provider in the U.S., hasn’t cooperated by releasing data about its environmental impact. That worries Cook. “If Amazon doesn’t pivot to take the challenge as seriously as Google, Apple and Microsoft, it could lower the floor for everyone,” he says.

Long Lifespans, Please

But we also have to worry about all these devices being dumped into the landfill. Many communities have companies or non-profit organizations that recycle electronic waste. But it would be better if the devices had long lifespans. That’s a tall order in the era of planned obsolescence. Companies want you to buy new versions of their products every few years, or perhaps more often.

It’s inevitable though that some products are going to end up in the landfill, so it’s important to make sure they do as little harm as possible once they’re there.

Adding more smarts and a network connection to devices means that companies can more easily sell software upgrades to customers, instead of entirely new devices. That could help extend the lifespan of products–at least for companies willing to support older devices. But the fact of the matter is that many companies will cut devices loose after a while. Dan Geer, chief security officer at the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture firm, In-Q-Tel, is encouraging IoT companies to build a “self-destruct” function into devices so that older devices, which are more likely to have un-patched security issues, can’t be used after a certain date.

That means open source software will be extremely important for keeping connected devices going and out of landfill, says Michael Richardson, the co-chair of an The Internet Engineering Task Force work group standardizing wireless networking for the IoT. If devices use open source code, the broader community of developers can help keep them going. “If an IoT device is not running open source, it means that as soon as someone comes up with a security problem, it’s going in the trash because major companies aren’t going to want to upgrade lightbulbs,” he says. “It’s going to end up creating more waste, more garbage.”

But it’s inevitable that some products are going to end up in the landfill, so it’s important to make sure they do as little harm as possible once they’re there. Adam Dunkels, the co-founder of Thingsquare, a cloud service for IoT developers, says one of the most important things that companies developing IoT products can do is to avoid using disposable batteries, to reduce the size of the batteries that the devices use, or even possibly create new types of batteries that are less toxic.

The Net Good

In the end, Dunkels thinks that the IoT will be a net benefit for the environment. “If you’re attaching a sensor to something that allows you to inspect this thing from afar, then you don’t need to go see it, so you don’t need to drive a car to get there,” he says. “So you spend some energy in a data center, but you don’t have to use the car ride for that.”

He also points out that the biggest potential for the IoT isn’t consumer devices, but for industrial automation, building automation, traffic light control, and other less visible but highly important applications that will ultimately save electricity.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the other problems. Companies that are promising a new, connected future must o do more to ensure this future is a sustainable one. And that’s going to mean releasing more information to the public–at the very least.

Why We Love Game of Thrones Reaction Videos

A series known not only for its brutality but shocking brutality, Game of Thrones has sucker punched viewers several times over the last few years, in grisly scenes that stole some of the most beloved characters from the show. And each time its done it, we’ve seen the internet littered with videos of fans gasping, weeping, and shouting all manner of profanity as someone they rooted for met a cruel end.

In the wake of the most recent Game of Thrones episode, we saw it again.

(Spoiler alert: This post and the videos in it contain spoilers for Game of Thrones. Obviously.)

Much like series itself, Game of Thrones reaction videos are immensely popular, scoring hundreds of thousands or even millions of views. One compilation, for the infamous Red Wedding episode, has been viewed over 10 million times, and even was screened for creator George R. R. Martin himself on the Conan show. But why do we love them so much, especially when they’re focused on the moments we hate the most? And why do the plot twists on Game of Thrones seem to inspire them in ways other shows don’t?

First, there’s the source material. The Song of Ice and Fire novels the show is based on are a subversion of fantasy tropes; you believe that Ned—and later, his son Robb—are going to be noble heroes that will win the day, because that’s how stories like this are supposed to work. Martin designed these stories to evoke those familiar fantasy tropes, and then very deliberately pulls the rug out from under them. Rather than blunt force trauma, these deaths are the literary equivalent of a surgically-aimed stiletto to the heart.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent, compelling stories—or perhaps more interesting for their desire to swerve left when everyone expects them to go right—but they are, quite simply, designed to screw with you.

Reaction videos are also fundamentally linked to the books in an important way. Unlike most shocking plot twists on television shows, a significant portion of the audience saw it coming. That means that there are insiders in millions of living rooms, sitting right next to friends and family members who have no idea about the bloody events in store. The reason most reaction shots exist at all is because someone in the room knew exactly what was coming, and decided to press record and capture the fallout.

There’s an element of both hazing and fraternity there, in desiring to see other people suffer through the same pain you did, to see them react as you did, and ultimately for them to join you on the other side in fellowship. These videos also depict a point of pride for many Song of Ice and Fire readers: a collective agreement to preserve the television audience from spoilers and allow the often tragic story to unfold in its own time. Each fresh and unexpected blow to a television viewer is a fulfillment of that promise, both a wound and a gift.

After the great shock of the Red Wedding, Martin himself told the Brisbane Times that he was “very proud of my book readers … for the most part they’ve done an excellent job of not spoiling the non-readers. I mean, the fact that the Red Wedding had such a tremendous impact all around the world is a testament not only to what a great job David Benioff and Dan Weiss and the cast of Game of Thrones did in rendering the Red Wedding, but it’s also a tribute to all of my book readers who knew what was gonna happen but deliberately withheld that information, did not spoil their friends and relatives.”

Some people surely enjoy the videos solely because it’s amusing to watch people get upset—at least if the harm is fictional—particularly if their reactions are theatrical and colorfully profane. Laughing at people who react emotionally can offer distance and detachment, an opportunity to position oneself as cool and unaffected while others are vulnerable.

For others, particularly ardent fans of the series, however, it also offers a chance to do the opposite. The death of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding are moments not merely of violence but of horror, and watching them with others—not only in our living rooms, but again and again through reaction videos—offers a bit of the same thrill that comes from watching a slasher film in a crowded theater, and screaming along with everyone else.

There’s catharsis in them as well: a way to see our own horror and sadness reflected in the faces of others, and thereby somewhat allayed. Although DVRs may have fragmented audiences from one unified whole watching at a single time to a far more chronologically scattered experience, TV is still a significantly shared phenomenon—or at least, many of us still want it to be. When we watch popular shows like Game of Thrones, on some level we share that experience with millions of other people, and reaction videos are a comforting reminder that we cry and scream and grieve with them as well.

But even in Westeros, it’s not all doom and gloom. After the Purple Wedding earlier this season—where the unanimously hated King Joffrey finally met his end—we got a reaction video that again saw Game of Thrones fans were once against gasping, yelling and leaping out of their chairs, but with one important difference: everyone was ecstatic. Here viewers united not over shared sadness, frustration, or disappointment, but over the satisfaction of a deeply-held desire finally fulfilled, a chance to scream “yes!” at a show that had so often inspired us to scream “no!”

Either way, we screamed it together.


A Smart Sensor That Quantifies the Soil in Your Garden

There are plenty of ways to kill a plant without trying. Trust me. But even hardcore gardeners have a hard time knowing what’s really happening underground. Jason Aramburu created Edyn, a Wi-Fi connected gardening system, with the goal of doing for gardens what wearables have done for our bodies.

Call it the quantified garden. The system, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, consists of a Wi-Fi-connected sensor and water valve that assesses soil nutrition and waters your plants based on actual data. Stick the sensor it in the ground, and it gathers all sorts of information—things like ambient temperature, humidity, light intensity and soil electrical properties—which gets simplified, contextualized and passed along to you, the gardener.

It’s a smart idea, if not entirely novel. Soil sensors have long been alerting us we’re this close to drowning our tomatoes, but the end goal for Edyn is much more ambitious than a creating a clever piece of hardware, says Aramburu. The real intention is to create a massive database of what plants grow well in which climates—information that Aramburu hopes can someday be used to usher in a new age of sustainable gardening and farming.

The real intention is to create a massive database of what plants grow well in which climates.

The Seeds of Inspiration

The idea for Edyn came to the soil scientist a couple years ago when he was living in Kenya working on his last project Biochar, a type of sustainable fertilizer. Aramburu realized there were few ways to verify the effectiveness of his product outside of professional soil testing. Problem was, soil testing is slow, expensive and didn’t allow him to track what was happening in real time. So Aramburu made a rough prototype of a sensor and began testing the soil himself. “It was basically a box on a stick,” he says. “These were really more for a scientist to use.”

When Aramburu moved to San Francisco last year, he knew that in order to build the massive database he’s reaching for, he’d have to make Edyn’s industrial design more accessible for the everyday gardener. He turned to Yves Behar at Fuse Project, who created a cheery diamond-shaped tool that pops out of the ground like a flower and a water valve that can be connected to an existing water system like a hose or sprinkler to control when plants get fed.

The sensor, which has a microprocessor built into its body, works by emitting a small electrical signal into the soil. “We actually measure how that signal is attenuated by the soil,” he says. A significant enough change in signal (the result of humidity, temperature, etc) will spur the sensor to send you a push notification alerting you to the new soil conditions. At the same time, this data, along with meteorological information, is telling the valve if and when it should water each plant.

An App for Context

Gathering the data is one thing, but making sense of it is an entirely different challenge, which is where Behar and his team came in. They developed a smartphone app that contextualizes all of the soil data. The app will inform you on what to grow, when to grow it and what other plants would work well alongside it. It’ll also, for example, make sure you know when there’s too much humidity in the soil or if your dirt is too acidic and could use some lime or compost.


The Edyn sensor in the wild. Image: Edyn

Over time, this (anonymized) data is stored and aggregated with other Edyn users around you to form a more holistic picture of your area’s growing climate. “We’ll be able to say, ‘well, Katie is having success growing basil in Potrero Hill in San Francisco. That’s very close to you, so you might have luck growing it as well,” Aramburu explains. It’s easy to compare the Edyn system to the quantified self movement, but Edyn has the opportunity to actually build a robust, actionable set of data that personal health information could be used for because of its sensitive nature.

If adopted by enough casual gardeners, or as Aramburu hopes, smaller scale organic farmers, it could spur localized food production and actually have an impact on food supply. “We already do a really bad job of feeding the world and it’s only going to become more difficult,” says Aramburu. “I’m hoping this will become a tool to enable agriculture around the world, to help people grow their own food and increase food security.”

Elucidating pathogenic mechanism of meningococcal meningitis

Neisseria meningitidis, also called meningococcus, is a bacterium responsible for meningitis and septicemia. Its most serious form, purpura fulminans, is often fatal. This bacterium, which is naturally present in humans in the nasopharynx, is pathogenic if it reaches the blood stream.

Teams led by Dr. Sandrine Bourdoulous, CNRS senior researcher at the Institut Cochin (CNRS/INSERM/Université Paris Descartes), and Professor Xavier Nassif, Institut Necker Enfants Malades (CNRS/INSERM/Université Paris Descartes/Assistance Publique -- Hôpitaux de Paris), have deciphered the molecular events through which meningococci target blood vessels and colonize them. This work opens a path to new therapeutic perspectives for treating vascular problems caused by this type of invasive infection. The study was published on June 1, 2014 in Nature Medicine.

When the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis multiplies in the blood, it interacts with the endothelial cells that line the inside of blood vessels and adheres to their walls. In the skin and mucous membranes, meningococcal infection in the vessels creates hemorrhagic skin lesions (called purpura) due to bleeding in the tissues. Those can rapidly progress to a serious and often fatal form of the disease (purpura fulminans). In the brain, when meningococci adhere to the vessels they can pass through the blood-brain barrier, and cause meningitis when they invade the meninges[3].

Teams of researchers have deciphered how Neisseria meningitidis adheres to blood vessels, a step that underpins the bacterium's pathogenicity. In blood vessels they have identified receptor[4] CD147, whose expression is essential for initial meningococcal adherence to endothelial cells. If this receptor is absent, N. meningitidis cannot implant in blood vessels and colonize them.

It is a well-known fact that the adherence process of meningococcal bacteria to human cells relies on pili, long filaments that are expressed by the bacterium and composed of different sub-units (pilins). However, the pilins specifically involved in N. meningitidis' adherence to blood vessels had never been identified. The researchers have determined that two pilins, PilE and PilV, interact directly with the CD147 receptor. Without them, meningococci cannot adhere to endothelial cells.

Humans are the only species that can be infected by meningococci. To show in vivo that pilins PilE and PilV are essential for N. meningitidis to colonize the vascular network, the researchers used a mouse model, where the mice were immunodeficient and grafted with human skin, keeping the functional human vessels within the graft to reproduce in mice the infection stages as observed in human skin. These mice were then infected by meningococci naturally having pilins PilE and PilV, or meningococci in which the expression of these pilins had been artificially suppressed. The human blood vessels were only infected by meningococci displaying PilE and PilV, which confirms that these two pilins are essential to the bacterial colonization process.

The researchers also showed in an ex vivo[5] infection model that cerebral vessels and meninges, particularly rich in CD147 receptors, allow colonization by meningococci, unlike other parts of the brain.

The scientists now wish to develop a new type of vaccine (to complement those already available) that would block the interaction between N. meningitidis and the CD147 receptors, thereby stopping the bacterium from colonizing the vessels.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by CNRS (Délégation Paris Michel-Ange) . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Preserving bread longer: A new edible film made with essential oils

Essential oils have boomed in popularity as more people seek out alternatives to replace their synthetic cleaning products, anti-mosquito sprays and medicines. Now scientists are tapping them as candidates to preserve food in a more consumer-friendly way. A study from ACS' Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reports the development of new edible films containing oils from clove and oregano that preserve bread longer than commercial additives.

Nilda de F. F. Soares and colleagues note that the search for new ways to keep packaged food from spoiling has led some scientists to essential oils, which can keep bacteria and mold at bay. Oils from clove and oregano had already been incorporated into edible films. But scientists still needed to optimize the effectiveness of these films and test them under real-life conditions for other uses. So Soares's team decided to test how well different edible films with clove and oregano essential oils could maintain bread's freshness and see how they measured up against a commercial antimicrobial agent. Bread is a common staple around the world and is often kept fresh with calcium propionate. Though naturally occurring, some research suggesting negative side effects have tarnished its popularity.

The scientists bought preservative-free bread and placed slices in plastic bags with or without essential oil-infused edible films. To some slices, they added a commercial preservative containing calcium propionate. After 10 days, the latter additive lost its effectiveness, but the edible films made with small droplets of the oils continued to slow mold growth.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Betrayal of the aphids: Internal bacteria can turn on its host

Aphids are devastating insect pests and cause great losses to agriculture worldwide. These sap-feeding plant pests harbor in their body cavity bacteria, which are essential for the aphids' fecundity and survival. Buchnera, the bacterium, benefits also because it cannot grow outside the aphid. This mutually beneficial relationship is sabotaged, however, by the bacterium which proceeds to betray the aphid, a research team led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside has found.

"Although this betrayal is unintentional, it nevertheless alerts the plant about the aphid's presence and the aphids are unable to reproduce in large numbers," said Isgouhi Kaloshian, a professor of nematology, who led the research project. "A protein from the bacterium, found in the aphid saliva and likely delivered inside the plant host by the aphid, triggers plant immune responses against the aphid. It seems that the plant immune system targets the bacterium and exploits the strict mutual dependency between the plant and aphid to recognize the aphid as the intruder."

Study results appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While feeding, aphids secrete saliva in the plant. To identify the protein composition of the aphid saliva, the researchers collected saliva from more than 100,000 aphids. Using mass spectrometry, they detected 105 proteins. They discovered these proteins were of both aphid and Buchnera origins. One of these Buchnera proteins, GroEL, was found to induce immune responses in plants.

"GroEL was known previously to trigger immunity in animals," said Kaloshian, a member of UC Riverside's Institute for Integrative Genome Biology. "However, our finding that it induces immunity in plants is new. Since most aphids harbor Buchnera, and likely have GroEL in their saliva, this bacterial protein may generally alert plants of the presence of aphids. How it is recognized by plants is still unknown. GroEL can now be exploited to engineer durable resistance of crops against aphids."

According to the researchers, since Buchnera-related bacteria are present in a number of insects (other than aphids), their findings are likely to be broadly applicable to other arthropods. GroEL and additional proteins from insect bacteria probably are delivered to plants through insect saliva and contribute to shaping plant-insect interactions.

"Strikingly, the majority of the aphid salivary proteins predicted for secretion were of unknown function and different from those typically secreted by microbes into plants," Kaloshian said. "However, these aphid salivary proteins, too, serve similar purposes in manipulating plant metabolism. Thus, aphids and microbes seem to have evolved different molecular solutions to achieve the same goals."

Currently, Kaloshian's lab is working on identifying the plant receptor for GroEL that initiates the plant immune response. Her team is also functionally characterizing the aphid salivary proteins with no known function to identify their roles.

"We would like to understand how these proteins are able to modulate host metabolism and identify their host targets," she said.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California - Riverside . The original article was written by Iqbal Pittalwala. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

The Rock Is Hercules and Will Arnett Is a Horse in the Week’s Best Trailers

Photo: David James/Paramount Pictures

Photo: David James/Paramount Pictures

From the Son of Zeus to the Boy Who Lived, this week’s best previews show characters struggling to complete monumental tasks. For Hercules, that’s defeating monsters sent by the Gods. For Daniel Radcliffe, that means winning the heart of Zoe Kazan. In between, there’s an animated character trying to return to the love of his life, a journalist fighting to expose a government conspiracy, and a horse/man/thing battling his own downward spiral into irrelevance. In a world where everybody hurts…

The One Everyone Is Talking About: Hercules

With New Photo Sharer, Tinder Proves Everyone Wants to Be Like Snapchat

Images: Courtesy of Tinder

Images: Courtesy of Tinder

Tinder may soon dethrone Snapchat as everyone’s favorite app for sending sexy, self-destructing selfies.

On Thursday, the popular dating app launched a new ephemeral photo-sharing feature called Moments. The tool, says Tinder CEO Sean Rad, should make it easier for people to start conversations on the app. “We’re approaching 2 billion matches, and we’ve built an awesome product that helps break down the barriers when it comes to making new relationships,” he tells WIRED. “But in the process of forming so many new connections, we realized users need a better way to get to know their matches.”

The one thing every smartphone user wants is a quick and easy way to communicate.

In other words, Moments will make it easier to flirt. But while this feature may be a natural extension of Tinder’s core business, it’s also part of a larger trend emerging in the tech industry: so many companies want to be more like Snapchat. That fact was evident at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this week, where the technology giant announced that its new iMessage service would include messages that self-destruct, the feature most synonymous with Snapchat. And Facebook not only tried to acquire Snapchat outright for $3 billion last year, according to reports, but it also built its own failed Snapchat knockoff, known as Poke.

What all of these companies are realizing–including Tinder–is that while social networks may devolve, mobile games may flame out, and dating apps may grow stale, the one thing every smartphone user wants is a quick and easy way to communicate. Nothing draws users back into an app like knowing they might have five new messages waiting for them. And as Snapchat’s success has proved, photos are now becoming the most popular form of messaging there is. By co-opting a bit of the Snapchat playbook, these companies are hoping they can keep their audiences coming back for more.

The Moments feature draws not only from Snapchat, but also from Instagram, allowing users to take a photo, stick a filter on it, doodle over it, write a message, and broadcast it to all their Tinder matches. Matches can view or like the photos for 24 hours before they self-destruct, but the person who took the photo can keep her own gallery of “moments” forever.

Though Rad says Tinder doesn’t have a problem keeping users engaged, he acknowledges that for many users, getting a conversation started on Tinder is a challenge. And if you’re not actually talking to anyone on an app like Tinder–which is all about meeting people–logic would have it that you might give up on the app sooner. By effectively giving users more talking points, the Moments feature could convince even Tinder’s most timid users that there’s a reason to stay.

Heartbleed Redux: Another Gaping Wound In SSL Uncovered

Illustration: Ross Patton/WIRED

Illustration: Ross Patton/WIRED

The internet is still reeling from the discovery of the Heartbleed vulnerability, a software flaw exposed in April that broke most implementations of the widely used encryption protocol SSL. Now, before Heartbleed has even fully healed, another major bug has ripped off the scab.

On Thursday, the OpenSSL Foundation published an advisory warning to users to update their SSL yet again, this time to fix a previously unknown but more than decade-old bug in the software that allows any network eavesdropper to strip away its encryption. The non-profit foundation, whose encryption is used by the majority of the Web’s SSL servers, issued a patch and advised sites that use its software to upgrade immediately.

The new attack, found by Japanese researcher Masashi Kikuchi, takes advantage of a portion of OpenSSL’s “handshake” for establishing encrypted connections known as ChangeCipherSpec, allowing the attacker to force the PC and server performing the handshake to use weak keys that allows a “man-in-the-middle” snoop to decrypt and read the traffic.

“This vulnerability allows malicious intermediate nodes to intercept encrypted data and decrypt them while forcing SSL clients to use weak keys which are exposed to the malicious nodes,” reads an FAQ published by Kikuchi’s employer, the software firm Lepidum. Ashkan Soltani, a privacy researcher who has been involved in analyzing the Snowden NSA leaks for the NSA and closely tracked SSL’s woes, offers this translation: “Basically, as you and I are establishing a secure connection, an attacker injects a command that fools us to thinking we’re using a ‘private’ password whereas we’re actually using a public one.”

Unlike the Heartbleed flaw, which allowed anyone to directly attack any server using OpenSSL, the attacker exploiting this newly discovered bug would have to be located somewhere between the two computers communicating. But that still leaves open the possibility that anyone from an eavesdropper on your local Starbucks’ network to the NSA to strip away your Web connection’s encryption before it’s even initialized.

According to a blog post by Kikuchi, the flaw has existed since the very first release of OpenSSL in 1998. He argues that despite the widespread dependence on the software and its recent scrutiny following the Heartbleed revelation, OpenSSL’s code still hasn’t received enough attention from security researchers. “The biggest reason why the bug hasn’t been found for over 16 years is that code reviews were insufficient, especially from experts who had experiences with TLS/SSL implementation,” he writes. “They could have detected the problem.”

The revelation of the bug on the one-year anniversary of the Guardian’s first publication of Snowden’s NSA leaks adds to that grim lesson, says security researcher Soltani. He points to efforts by privacy groups like Reset The Net that have used the Snowden revelations as inspiration to push Internet users and companies to implement more pervasive encryption. Those efforts are undermined, he points out, by the fact that some of the oldest and most widely used encryption protocols may still have fundamental flaws. “There are huge efforts by companies and activists to deploy tools that ‘add proven security,’” he says, quoting Reset The Net’s website. “Yet there’s very little actual work and support of the underlying tools that are being deployed, like OpenSSL. It’s pretty shameful that the core library that practically the entire internet relies on for transport security is maintained by a handful of under-resourced engineers.”

Handsome Desktop Speakers That Ooze Mid-Century Style

Your desktop setup isn’t complete without a handsome pair of speakers flanking your monitor. While you can go with something discreet that matches the trim circling your display(s), Polk Audio’s latest, the Hampden Bluetooth speakers, are a delightfully attention-grabbing, retro-looking option.

The speakers don’t just look swell, though. They feature a built-in digital-to-analog converter for improving the sound quality of digital files to near-CD level, and a DSP smooths out frequency response and provides an extra dollop of bass. Polk also claims to improve sound quality by dedicating an amplifier to each of the speakers’ 4.5-inch drivers and 1-inch tweeters.

All this hardware is enclosed in teak veneer, made pseudo mid-century modern with a white speaker face and dark brown frame (which doubles as a stand, propping the speakers up to blast music up at the recommended angle rather than straight at your chest).

Like most speakers these days, the Hampdens are Bluetooth enabled. You can use them with Polk’s DJ Stream app (iOS and Android) so that up to four mobile devices can collaborate on a single playlist, or with whatever your music streaming app of choice may be.

These guys aren’t cheap though. The Hampden speakers run at $400 per pair.

When Is a Spoiler a Spoiler? You Tell Us

Joffrey cannot believe you tweeted that

King Joffrey cannot believe you tweeted that. Photo courtesy HBO

Sure, spoilers aren’t anything truly new. As long as there have been plot twists in stories, people have had the power to ruin them for everyone else. But the way we talk—or don’t talk—about entertainment has became more complicated than ever, thanks in part to the time-shifting capabilities of DVRs and streaming services and instant-blabbing functions of Twitter.

Although mentioning an important plot point too soon after a TV show airs or a movie hits theaters often provokes furious responses from fans (Game of Thrones deaths have been particularly thorny), the statute of limitations for spoilers isn’t always clear. When does it expire—or does it ever expire at all? Also, shows like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, which returns on Friday, are released an entire season at a time. What are the rules for new formats like that? It’s hard to know.

So you tell us. We’re running a poll to determine just how people are handling spoilers these days. How long do you think people should wait to discuss major events in television shows, movies, novels and comic books (at least without spoiler warnings)? And what is a spoiler, anyway? Submit your responses below.

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