Gadget Lab Podcast: Free Internet Access for Africa and Abuse for Twitter’s CEO



The non-profit—which is backed by heavies like Facebook and Ericsson—wants to bring free mobile internet access to Zambia. It’s the first step in a larger initiative to “turn on” the large segments of the human population who are not currently connected to the internet. Mat and Mike discuss why this is a net good, even if a large part of the plan involves creating more wireless data customers and more Facebook users in the less crowded parts of the coverage map. Also discussed on this week’s show: Twitter and CNBC’s #AskCostolo campaign goes comically off the rails, and in the process, brings some serious questions about abuse and bad behavior on the social network to the fore. At the end of the show, the hosts look at Bolt (the new ephemeral photo app from Instagram) and guess as to where all this silly photo-messaging, sticker-sending, emoji-creating madness is leading. If anywhere. Like, totally.

Download this week’s episode or subscribe in iTunes.

Send the hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds (Mat Honan is @mat, Michael Calore is @snackfight) or to the main hotline at @GadgetLab.

Game|Life Podcast: Putting PlayStation Now Through Its Paces

Mega Man 9.

Mega Man 9 is one of 100 games available on PlayStation Now. Capcom

Could this be PlayStation Now’s toughest test?

WIRED’s Peter Rubin and Bo Moore join me in the studio as we discuss Sony’s new streaming-games service, which just entered open beta on PlayStation 4, and put it through the toughest test I can imagine. Then, somehow (you’ll have to listen to find out!) the Wii U comes into it and I discuss the hidden benefits and agonizing flaws of Wii Mode.

Game|Life’s podcast is posted on Fridays, is available on iTunes, can be downloaded directly and is embedded below.

Game|Life Audio Podcast


ExoMars’ Organic Sniffing Spectrometer

An artist’s rendering of the ExoMars rover (Image: European Space Agency).

Lewis Dartnell spent the better part of two years researching and field-testing methods to re-boot society in his best-selling book The Knowledge. But his day job is arguably even cooler: as an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester, he’s developing ways to look for life on Mars through the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. Here, Dartnell provides an update on the frequently delayed, yet scientifically promising mission.

Wired: In The Knowledge, you incorporate ideas and methods from many different branches of science. How does this kind of interconnectedness show up in your own work?

Dartnell: Drawing from lots of different sources is what I do in my own research in astrobiology, and not just knowledge, but the methods and techniques you could use. It’s not just biology, but engineering, and robotics and instruments as well as physics and planetary science, and you’re constantly outside of your comfort zone having to learn new things. It keeps you on your toes, but that’s what I enjoy about astrobiology.

Wired: What is your role with the ExoMars mission?

Dartnell: The exciting thing about ExoMars is that, not only will it for the first time have a drill so it can get properly underground on Mars and find stuff that has been protected from the surface environment, but it’s also going to use experiments like Raman spectroscopy, which is the one that I’m directly involved in at the University of Leicester. The reason Raman’s exciting is that it’s very sensitive and very competent and capable of picking up organic molecules or bio signatures of life, and we want to try this new technique on Mars.

Wired: What are your expectations for ExoMars?

Dartnell: We don’t know, and that’s the point of exploration; you don’t always know what you’re going to try and find. You know what you’re hoping for, and what might be realistic to expect. So what we hope to find on Mars are organic molecules – the basic Lego pieces or building blocks or chemistry kit for life; amino acids and sugars that should exist on Mars but we have yet to discover. Hopefully either NASA’s Curiosity or ESA’s ExoMars will discover those, and maybe beyond that they’ll find not just the building blocks for life but signs of life itself – biosignatures.

Wired: What kinds of biosignatures would be convincing as a sign of past life?

Dartnell: A biosignature is any sign or any evidence of life, and this might be something like a fossilised shape that looks a bit like a cell, it might be things as complex as DNA. It might be more subtle things like isotopic ratios in rocks, which on Earth are used to show early cases of life. Or if we do find things like amino acids, we can tell if they are made by life or through non-living processes like pre-biotic chemistry by their molecular handedness. So there are various quirks or various signs of organic molecules we can look for that would point to biology, rather than geochemical processes.

Wired: What is the likelihood that you will find biosignatures on mars?

Dartnell: Unfortunately, you basically can’t answer that question. It’s somewhere between 0 and 1, but we don’t know because whenever you’re trying to do something in science you’re trying to do something new that you don’t already know the answer to,

However, for all we know about life on Earth, it seems to have arisen pretty rapidly. It seems like it might be a probable thing to happen, if you’ve got the right kind of environment. So the big question is whether Mars ever have the right kind of environment, and if so, did that basic pre-biotic chemistry ever get far enough down the line to produce cells? And if that happened, what might be the best way of looking for that life and trying to detect these biosignatures? Which biosignatures would still remain after all this time? This is the kind of thing we’re trying to do with ExoMars.

WTF Just Happened: My New HDTV Makes Movies Look Unnaturally Smooth


Jim Merithew/WIRED

You just bought a brand-new TV, but instead of being blown away by the picture you’re starting to think it actually makes everything look worse. Well, maybe worse is the wrong word. Unnaturally smooth is more like it. Movies don’t look like movies; they look like they were shot on a camcorder. Why is your TV fixing what ain’t broke?

This annoying little phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “soap opera effect,” and it’s a byproduct of your TV’s motion-enhancing features. Thankfully, the effect can be turned off, and that’s probably a good idea when you’re watching movies. While these smoothing features can make a few things look better—scrolling tickers, sports, and HDTV test discs, for example—our eyes and brains expect something very different when we’re watching movies. A slower frame rate is one of them.

Nearly every motion picture since the dawn of talkies has been shot at a frame rate of 24fps (24p), a standard that has survived the film-to-digital transition. Many TV shows are shot at 24fps nowadays. But that 24fps rate is at odds with the way TV stations broadcast content and the way TVs display that content. Right off the bat, 24p film or video has to be modified a bit to display properly when it’s broadcast.

For broadcast TV, video is delivered to your set at a rate of 60 “fields” per second. One field can represent an interlaced mash-up of two frames so that motion appears more fluid. Until recently, all TVs had a standard refresh rate of 60Hz to match up perfectly with the rate at which that stream feeds into your set. But newer LCD/LED sets often advertise a 120Hz or 240Hz refresh rate to help combat motion blur (more on that in a bit).

With 24p content, the film has to be scanned or the digital video has to be modified to look right on TV. That’s because 24 frames don’t fit evenly into those 60 fields. With 30p content, the frames can be interlaced to create a 60i stream or displayed twice each to achieve the 60-fields-per-second rate. But if 24fps content were played at 30fps, the on-screen motion would appear 25 percent faster—and if the audio kept pace, everyone would sound like a helium addict. If frames were dropped to 20fps, which fits more nicely into 60, the video would look too choppy. So instead, every four frames of 24p source content is turned into five frames using a process called 2:3 pulldown.

When this modified video is viewed on a TV, the content has been adjusted by creating two interlaced fields that combine adjacent frames in every five-field batch. It essentially turns 24p video into 30fps video, which is more compatible with the way TVs and broadcast systems work.

None of that is what causes the distracting too-smooth effect. However, it does mean that 24p content broadcast on TV already looks a bit different from what the director intended. What really takes it into soap-opera land is when a modern set’s motion-smoothing features are enabled.

If you bought a mid- to high-end LED/LCD TV in the last few years, it certainly has these features built in. I’m focusing on LED/LCD sets here, because plasma sets are all but dead and OLED sets are still rare. LED/LCD TVs often have these motion features due to the panel technology’s traditional problems with motion blur.

If your set is a 120Hz or 240Hz one, it adds faux frames to source content if motion-smoothing settings are turned on. The higher refresh rate means the panel can show many more new images per second—even if those images aren’t in the original content—in order to make everything look more smooth. These additional frames are completely made-up: There’s enough processing power in a modern TV to analyze successive frames, create fake “interpolated” frames that split the difference between them, and display them between real frames.

So let’s say you’re watching a movie on cable with all your TV’s motion-fanciness settings turned on. In this scenario, you’re watching a movie that started out at 24fps, was modified with hybrid frames to make it more broadcast-friendly, and is now at the point where there may be more fake frames than real frames in what you’re watching. Depending on your TV’s refresh rate and the frame rate of the source content, these motion features can add two to four times as many frames to the original video.

But just as a 120Hz or 240Hz TV can make movies look less like movies, it can also be the ultimate screen for watching 24p content as intended. If you’re watching a movie on Blu-ray, make sure your Blu-ray player is set to a 24p output mode and all those motion settings are turned off on your TV. This should make your TV show each frame of your 24p content 5 times per second on a 120Hz set or 10 times per second on a 240Hz TV. As for the other aesthetic qualities of watching movies on TV, using the set’s Movie mode, Cinema mode, Film mode, or THX mode (if your set has it) usually works best.

Take a Tour of Safari’s Best New Features in OS X Yosemite



Apple’s latest desktop operating system, OS X Yosemite, won’t officially come out until sometime this fall. But now that its public beta is open, both developers and a large number of Mac owners are able to use a preview version of the landmark OS.

For those who’ve just started using it, or are anticipating its launch later this year, we’ve got some tips on how to best take advantage of the OS and its many new features. First up, a tour of Apple’s redesigned web browser, Safari.

Safari looks strikingly different from earlier versions, but veteran users should still be familiar with its basic functionality. The “chrome,” as it’s called, at the top of Safari is condensed and more angular. It takes up far less space than before so more of your screen is dedicated to the website you’re viewing. Its soft gray color is also slightly translucent, offering a hint of the content behind it as you scroll (this is actually a theme throughout Yosemite).

In the upper left of Safari’s chrome, you’ve got circular close, minimize, and expand buttons. These buttons ditch the stoplight-esque green, yellow, and red of Safari past and are instead a darker shade of gray than the surrounding chrome. Directly next to that are your forward and back buttons (their positioning took some getting used to, for me) and the “Show sidebar” button. This slides out a sidebar of your bookmarks, Reading List sites, and links you’ve shared from the left side of the window.

In the upper right is a share button, which you can tap to add a link to your Reading List, your Bookmarks, or share via email, Messages, or social media. Next to that, a “Show All Tabs” button zooms out to show a thumbnail-type view of all your tabs, neatly organized on one page (in Mavericks, I never used this feature because you needed to swipe to view screenshots of each open tab).

Tabs from the same site are stacked on top of one another, so if you went down a Wikipedia hole, for example, all those Wikipedia tabs would be stacked separate from your other open webpages. Also accessible with a two finger pinch, this feature is really convenient if you’ve lost a tab among dozens of open ones (which, frankly, is really easy to do because of the way tabs are currently organized). If you’ve got a lot of tabs open, the closed tab width shrinks to the point that you can’t tell what’s in each one. Chrome gets around this by at least showing the site’s favicon on the left of the tab. In Safari right now, that space houses an X button to close the tab. You can use a two finger sideways scroll to rotate through these open tabs, though. As you swipe, the name of each open page is revealed.

Next to the “Show All Tabs” button is the “Show Downloads” button, which you can tap to show a pop up list of the files you’ve downloaded through the browser.

In the top center of the screen is your URL bar, but it’s far more useful than it was in OS X Mavericks. When you click it, immediately below are a grid of quick links to the sites that used to populate your bookmarks bar. Below that is a grid of your frequently visited sites. When you start typing a search name or query, a dropdown menu appears first showing “Top Hits” for what you’re typing (for me typing “Wi” first pulls up the WIRED homepage, then the link to our CMS), and below that, autofill suggestions for Google Searches.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 1.40.19 PM

Screenshot: WIRED

Google is once again the default search engine, but in the app’s settings you can switch to Yahoo, Bing, or DuckDuckGo. Relevant iCloud tabs and sites from your history show up below that. In the left of the URL bar, you can click to switch to “Reader View,” which pleasantly strips the page you’re on of all ads and any other extraneous crap.

As with prior versions of Safari, if the layout and choice of these buttons doesn’t suit you, you can go into View > Customize Toolbar to switch things around. There, you can drag and drop in buttons like Mail, Print, and Autofill, if those are things you use frequently. And if you don’t like the changes you’ve made, you can drag and drop the default toolbar to go back to Apple’s preset interface.

If you’re looking for some discreet web browsing, you can now open a separate private window, with all tabs opened inside also being private (existing open Safari windows will remain un-private, which is different from the way private browsing used to work). As before, you’ve got a host of settings you can tweak in Safari’s preferences, like your homepage default, how new links open, autofill options, and privacy preferences.

We’ll wait to cast judgment on the nuances and performance of Safari (and OS X Yosemite in full) until its official debut, especially since key features like iCloud, Handoff, and Continuity won’t be ready until then. But overall, the changes Apple made to Safari make usability better and enhance the general web experience.

Why a Simple To-Do List Tool Is Winning Over Legions of Fans



Think of it as the Pinterest of to-do lists.

Trello is an online tool for managing projects and personal tasks. That may sounds rather prosaic. But this increasingly popular app often inspires the sort of passion usually reserved for consumer apps like Pinterest or Instagram. It’s the kind of business software that slips into businesses through the backdoor, just because individual employees like how it works. “Love it as a non-sanctioned work management system,” began one of the many responses we received when asking about the tool over Twitter in recent days. “So versatile, fast.”

Unlike a typical task list—which tend to just be lines of text with little check-boxes next to them—Trello brings a sense of physicality to project management. Each task is a virtual “card” that can be dragged and dropped between different columns, and that’s no small thing.

This visual approach has attracting 4.5 million users since its launch in 2011, despite facing thousands of competitors, including Microsoft Outlook, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s web app Asana, and even its parent company’s own flagship product.

Now, this parent company, Fog Creek Software, is trying to take this tool to the next level. Last week, it spun the Trello business into a separate company after raising $4.3 million dollars. And despite playing in a crowded market, the tool just might have the sort of unique approach that will allow it spread in a very big way.

A Tool for ‘Civilians’

Trello is dead simple, and it’s used by people of all stripes. But its origins are deeply geeky. Programmers Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor founded Fog Creek in 2000. The two had been working for the internet service provider Juno in New York City, but wanted to try their hands at product development. Though there were plenty of financial services companies hiring programmers, Spolsky says, there weren’t many software companies in New York City at the time. So they started their own company, based the idea of attracting the best developers in the business and treating them well.


From left, Michael Pryor and Joel Spolsky.


That doesn’t sound unusual in today’s job market where developers are treated like rock stars, but Spolsky says that at the time developers were rarely treated well in New York. Instead of taking outside capital, the pair funded their product development efforts by doing consulting for other companies, and for the first 10 years of its existence, Fog Creek focused on creating products specifically for other software developers, such as its flagship product FogBugz, a software project management application. But then, in 2011, Pryor and Spolsky decided to try creating a product that would have appeal to non-developers, who they refer to as “civilians.”

After ten years of work, Fog Creek had enough cash on hand that it could experiment with new products that didn’t bring in revenue immediately. The company assigned eight developers to work on four separate, experimental products. Spolsky describes it has being like having four “mini Y Combinator companies” inside Fog Creek, referring to the famous Silicon Valley startup accelerator. Trello was one of those projects.

The Secret of Its Success

The secret of Trello’s success, Spolsky says, is that although it’s flexible enough to be used for a whole range of projects—from software development to job applicant tracking to wedding planning—it’s also deliberately constrained. “It’s not easy to put a lot of things into Trello,” says Spolsky. “It’s meant to keep you focused on the things that are important right now, rather than way of building this backlog of items that you’re never going to work on.”

This was inspired in part by Jeff Atwood, who co-founded another Fog Creek spin-off called StackExchange. “He was really opposed to tracking things, because you’re just going to accumulate this list of stuff and you’re not going to do it,” Pryor says. “You need to fix what’s broken, and if it’s not broken you don’t spend time on it. So from his point of view, when a bug comes in you either fix it or you don’t, there is no backlog.”

As developers of a bug tracking system themselves, Pryor and Spolsky obviously disagreed. But it made Spolsky think about how to create a project management system that didn’t lead to an overflowing backlog. That’s where Trello’s other big source of inspiration, the Kanban method, comes in.

The Kanban Method

Kanban means “billboard” or “signboard” in Japanese, and it’s essentially a way to visualize work flow. When used for software development, a Kanban board usually consists of several columns for different phases for a task — “soon,” “in progress” and “done” for example. Tasks are written on cards or sticky notes and placed in the appropriate column. When you start a task, you’ll pull it from the one column and put it in the “in progress” column. When the task is complete, you move it into the “done” column.

One big advantage of Kanban is that it’s easy to see what everyone is working on. In that sense, Kanban boards—or virtual billboards like Trello—can serve as compliments to existing project management tools like FogBugz. And because it’s such a visual system, it also makes it easy to see where the bottlenecks in a process are.


Kanban board. Dennis Hamilton/Flickr

Trello is at heart a virtual version of the two most important elements of Kanban, boards and cards, and it tries to retain some of the properties of those physical objects. Cards that haven’t been touched in a long time even begin to start yellowing, like aging paper. And, as noted, it can be cumbersome to add a large number tasks to a Trello board. This constraint has been a boon to storage startup Box, which uses Trello across its engineering department.

“At first people complain, but it actually helps us focus on doing fewer things more completely because we can’t fit so much stuff on it,” says Sean Rose, a product manager for Box’s platform division. “Things add up too quickly on things like a spreadsheet where you can just add lines and lines and lines.”

But Trello doesn’t have to be used for the Kanban process. In fact, there’s no organization structure imposed by the software what so ever — it’s just a place to put lots of virtual cards, and you can organize them however you’d like. Instead of tasks, you could use Trello to manage shopping lists, for example. The processes you apply can be as simple or as complex as you like. This flexibility is the other secret of the software’s success, Spolsky says, comparing it to Microsoft Excel, which can also be used for a huge range of different applications.

Where the Money Goes

The basic version of Trello is free, and it essentially acts as advertising for Trello’s premium versions. The idea is that individuals will start using for their own tasks, and then invite other people to join Trello to collaborate on projects and, eventually, the company they work for will end up paying for a premium account. That’s exactly how Box ended up using, Rose says.”One team started using it as an experiment because it’s free to sign-up,” he says. “Then they found out that another team was using it, then at some point we decided to just get an organizational license.”

But supporting free users while waiting for revenue from premium accounts is expensive. That’s why Spolsky and Pryor decided to take outside investment and spin Trello out into its own company. The company will use the money to hire more developers and expand its marketing and sales staff, with a goal of eventually reaching 100 million users.

That might sound overly ambitious, but Evernote grew from 5 million users in 2010 to 100 million earlier this year. “We’re trying to track their growth. So far we’re doing well,” says Pryor. “We’ve doubled a few times. We just need to double a few more times. It does get hard along the way, but that’s why we took the money.”

The Eerie Innards of America’s Abandoned Sanitariums

Crumbling, abandoned American mental asylums from the early 20th century—like the one in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—aren’t places most of us would want to hang out. Photographer Jeremy Harris, on the other hand, has been going out of his way to explore and document their spooky ruins for almost 10 years.

“I just wanted to do it for the fun of doing it, and to see the places and document them for posterity’s sake,” he says.

Harris has a background in architectural photography, so his photos perfectly capture the lost beauty of the buildings. But his images also document the eerie environments, equipment and personal effects left behind, reminding us of the struggle and anguish that occurred inside.

“There were some very deranged people who lived in some of these places,” he says. “I saw seclusion rooms that had very obvious signs of scratches and scrawling on the walls, and dents on the doors from people who obviously were not in their right minds. And that’s very somber and humbling, to imagine being locked in a patient room with no access to the outside world.”

Harris landed on the idea for the project while watching a B-movie called Session 9 , filmed at the Danver State Hospital in Massachusetts. He and his girlfriend at the time started trading pictures of similar institutions around the country. She had an uncle in upstate New York, and when the couple visited him in 2006, they paid a visit to nearby Olmsted Complex, an abandoned asylum. “Once I found my way inside that building I was pretty much hooked,” he says.

The buildings Harris photographs stemmed from a movement in the 1800s in which doctors advocated for more compassionate treatment, called “moral therapy,” in hospitals epitomized in the famous architectural designs of Thomas Kirkbride. Such facilities, divided into wings and wards with big banks of windows often overlooking sprawling gardens, were intended to foster recovery. Unfortunately, the goal of “curing” people of mental illness often led to experimental attempts at therapy including surgery and electrocution.

Many hospitals were self-sufficient with gardens, theaters, butcher shops, morgues, and other amenities. Built high on hills or deep in the woods, they made the outside world as distant as possible. Over time, their populations skyrocketed, causing overcrowding and other problems that generated negative attention. When the deinstitutionalization movement took root in the early 1900s, the big mental asylums gradually disappeared as their role became integrated into larger health centers and psychiatric drugs became more prevalent.

What remains today are the embodiment of good intentions and questionable outcomes, prisons with a view that have cultivated their own reputation as well as a thick atmosphere. Their background adds a lot to the weight of the photographs and the experience of being there.

“I was particularly drawn to the insane asylums because of the history,” says Harris. “They are sort of dark places, or had their moments in history of being very dark places…but being inside them there’s an excitement, especially if I haven’t seen the place before. You never know what’s around each corner.”

Harris has visited almost 30 sites, mostly along the East Coast and through the South, where they’re more common. The items he finds inside are sometimes stunning—an old pipe organ, fully equipped surgical suites, hundreds of leather-bound patient records dating to the 1800s. Of course, getting caught could mean trouble, even arrest. Some are near active hospitals and watched by cameras and security guards.

“Technically it’s not so much the abandoned buildings you’re not supposed to photograph, but there are laws against photographing patients,” says Harris.

Because of the Internet, it’s nearly impossible to be the first one to see one of these places, which often are picked clean by looters. Plenty of people find their way in, whether they’re other photographers or thrill-seekers looking for fun and souvenirs. Harris says he’s exploring these places first and foremost as a photographer and a preservationist. But he also has a lot of fun doing it.

“I do enjoy the excitement of going into a place without permission and having to sneak past security and mental health police,” he says.