Facebook’s Plan to Make Apps Work Like Webpages Gathers Momentum

Facebook says that hundreds of online companies have adopted its plan to let mobile apps operate more like the world wide web, seamlessly linking together in much the same way that pages do inside your web browser.

According to Facebook’s Vijay Shankar, these companies have published over 3 billion “App Links” to the net, exposing what are essentially addresses for particular items and widgets that appear inside smartphone and tablet apps. Just as each page on the web has its own “URL,” each page inside an app can potentially have its own App Link. Using these links, apps can directly tie into each together. Click on a App Link inside a smartphone service like Spotify, and you can instantly open a particular page inside another app like Songkick.

Vijay Shankar.

Vijay Shankar. Facebook

Facebook designed the standard that defines these links, and in April, the company shared the standard with the rest of the world, encouraging others to adopt it. The ultimate aim, says Shankar, the product manager who oversees the App Links project at Facebook, is to make mobile apps easier to use—to let you more readily move between them. “Our main goal is to help build the fabric of the mobile ecosystem, similar to the way the web works today,” he explained during a roundtable with reporters on Thursday morning in San Francisco.

But this is also an effort to facilitate mobile advertising—something that Facebook is enormously interested in. Ads are its main source of revenue. If apps can more easily link together, ads can more easily send users from app to app. If an ad for the ecommerce app Fancy commerce service appears inside the Facebook app and it includes an app link, Shakar pointed out, you can instantly move to a page inside the Fancy app where you can buy something like a chair or a clock.

The App Links project is part of larger movement to transform smartphone and tablet apps into things that behave more like webpages. Google and Twitter offer competing “deep link” standards, called App Indexing and App Cards, and companies like a San Francisco startup Famo.us are building tools that allow companies and coders to create viable apps using the same standard technologies that run inside web browsers. This would potentially allow the same app code to run on any device—from iPhones to Windows Phones—but it would also allow apps to more easily link together and share information.

One of the problems with mobile apps today, says Famo.us CEO Steve Newcomb, is that you can’t search them the way you can search stuff on the web. “There’s no way to crawl the content,” he says. Efforts like Famo.us and App Links could change this.

Facebook’s Shakar declined to say how extensively Facebook is making use of App Links today. But he did indicate that the company is using the technology on some level. Certainly, three billion links published by hundreds of companies is a nice start for this ambitious effort, but the project still has a long way to go. The good ol’ world wide web now spans many trillions of addresses.

Hot-spring bacteria reveal ability to use far-red light for photosynthesis

Bacteria growing in near darkness use a previously unknown process for harvesting energy and producing oxygen from sunlight, a research team led by a Penn State University scientist has discovered. The discovery lays the foundation for further research aimed at improving plant growth, harvesting energy from the Sun, and understanding dense blooms like those now occurring on Lake Erie and other lakes worldwide. A paper describing the discovery will be published in the Science Express edition of the journal Science on 21 August 2014.

"We have shown that some cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, can grow in far-red wavelengths of light, a range not seen well by most humans," said Donald A. Bryant, the Ernest C. Pollard Professor of Biotechnology and a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State. "Most cyanobacteria can't 'see' this light either. But we have found a new subgroup that can absorb and use it, and we have discovered some of the surprising ways they manipulate their genes in order to grow using only these wavelengths," he said.

The scientists discovered that the cyanobacterial strain, named Leptolyngbya, completely changes its photosynthetic apparatus in order to use far-red light, which has wavelengths longer than 700 nanometers -- a little longer than the range of light that most people can see. The experiments by Bryant's team revealed that these cyanobacteria replace seventeen proteins in three major light-using complexes while also making new chlorophyll pigments that can capture the far-red light, and while using pigments called bilins in new ways. The scientists also discovered that the organisms accomplish this feat by quickly turning on a large number of genes to modify cellular metabolism and simultaneously turning off a large number of other genes -- a process that they have named Far-Red Light Photoacclimation (FaRLiP).

Because the genes that are turned on are the genes that determine which proteins the organism will produce, this massive remodeling of the available gene profile has a dramatic effect. "Our studies reveal that the particular cyanobacterium that we studied can massively change its physiology and metabolism, and its photosynthetic apparatus," Bryant said. "It changes the core components of the three major photosynthetic complexes, so one ends up with a very differentiated cell that is then capable of growing in far-red light. The impact is that they are better than other strains of cyanobacteria at producing oxygen in far-red light, and they are better even than themselves. Cells grown in far-red light produce 40 percent more oxygen when assayed in far-red light than cells grown in red light assayed under the same far-red light conditions."

To make these discoveries, Bryant's team used a variety of biological, genetic, physical, and chemical experiments in order to learn how this unusual photosynthesis system works as a whole. The team's investigations includes biochemical analyses, spectroscopic analyses, studies of the structures and functions of proteins, profiles of gene-transcription processes, and sequencing and comparisons of cyanobacteria genomes. "Our genome-sequence analyses of different cyanobacteria strains revealed 13 additional strains that also appear to be able to use far-red light for photosynthesis," Bryant said.

The Leptolyngbya cyanobacterial strain that Bryant's team studied is one that was collected at LaDuke hot spring in Montana, near Yellowstone National Park. This strain was living on the underside of a 2-milimeter-thick mat that is so dense with bacteria that only the far-red wavelengths of light can penetrate to the bottom. Another environment where understanding photosynthesis in far-red light may have important implications is in the surface crusts of deserts and other soils, which cover a large percentage of Earth's surface. "It is important to understand how this photosynthetic process works in global-scale environments where cyanobacteria may be photosynthesizing with far-red light, in order to more fully understand the global impact of photosynthesis in oxygen production, carbon fixation, and other events that drive geochemical processes on our planet," Bryant said.

The research raises questions about the possibility of introducing into plants the capacity to use far-red wavelengths for photosynthesis. But Bryant said much more basic research is required first. "Our research already has shown that it would not be enough to insert a new far-red-light-absorbing pigment into a plant unless you also have the right protein scaffolds to bind it so that it will work efficiently. In fact, it could be quite deleterious to just start sticking long-wavelength-absorbing chlorophylls into the photosynthetic apparatus," he said.

"We now have clearly established that photosynthesis can occur in far-red light, in a wavelength range where people previously did not think that oxygenic photosynthesis could take place, and we have provided details about many of the processes involved. Now there are a whole set of associated scientific questions that need to be answered about more of the details before we can begin to investigate any applications that may or may not be possible," Bryant said. "Our research has opened up many new questions for basic scientific research."

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The above story is based on materials provided by Penn State . The original article was written by Barbara K. Kennedy. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Sunlight, not microbes, key to carbon dioxide in Arctic

The vast reservoir of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost is gradually being converted to carbon dioxide (CO2) after entering the freshwater system in a process thought to be controlled largely by microbial activity.

However, a new study -- funded by the National Science Foundation and published this week in the journal Science -- concludes that sunlight and not bacteria is the key to triggering the production of CO2 from material released by Arctic soils.

The finding is particularly important, scientists say, because climate change could affect when and how permafrost is thawed, which begins the process of converting the organic carbon into CO2.

"Arctic permafrost contains about half of all the organic carbon trapped in soil on the entire Earth -- and equals an amount twice of that in the atmosphere," said Byron Crump, an Oregon State University microbial ecologist and co-author on the Science study. "This represents a major change in thinking about how the carbon cycle works in the Arctic."

Converting soil carbon to carbon dioxide is a two-step process, notes Rose Cory, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, and lead author on the study. First, the permafrost soil has to thaw and then bacteria must turn the carbon into greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide or methane. While much of this conversion process takes place in the soil, a large amount of carbon is washed out of the soils and into rivers and lakes, she said.

"It turns out, that in Arctic rivers and lakes, sunlight is faster than bacteria at turning organic carbon into CO2," Cory said. "This new understanding is really critical because if we want to get the right answer about how the warming Arctic may feedback to influence the rest of the world, we have to understand the controls on carbon cycling.

"In other words, if we only consider what the bacteria are doing, we'll get the wrong answer about how much CO2 may eventually be released from Arctic soils," Cory added.

The research team measured the speed at which both bacteria and sunlight converted dissolved organic carbon into carbon dioxide in all types of rivers and lakes in the Alaskan Arctic, from glacial-fed rivers draining the Brooks Range to tannin-stained lakes on the coastal plain. Measuring these processes is important, the scientists noted, because bacteria types and activities are variable and the amount of sunlight that reaches the carbon sources can differ by body of water.

In virtually all of the freshwater systems they measured, however, sunlight was always faster than bacteria at converting the organic carbon into CO2.

"This is because most of the fresh water in the Arctic is shallow, meaning sunlight can reach the bottom of any river -- and most lakes -- so that no dissolved organic carbon is kept in the dark," said Crump, an associate professor in Oregon State's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. "Also, there is little shading of rivers and lakes in the Arctic because there are no trees."

Another factor limiting the microbial contribution is that bacteria grow more slowly in these cold, nutrient-rich waters.

"Light, therefore, can have a tremendous effect on organic matter," University of Michigan's Cory pointed out.

The source of all of this organic carbon is primarily tundra plants -- and it has been building up for hundreds of thousands of years, but doesn't completely break down immediately because of the Arctic's cold temperatures. Once the plant material gets deep enough into the soil, the degradation stops and it becomes preserved, much like peat.

"The level of thawing only gets to be a foot deep or so, even in the summer," Crump said. "Right now, the thaw begins not long before the summer solstice. If the seasons begin to shift with climate change -- and the thaw begins earlier, exposing the organic carbon from permafrost to more sunlight -- it could potentially trigger the release of more CO2."

The science community has not yet been able to accurately calculate how much organic carbon from the permafrost is being converted into CO2, and thus it will be difficult to monitor potential changes because of climate change, they acknowledge.

"We have to assume that as more material thaws and enters Arctic lakes and rivers, more will be converted to CO2," Crump said. "The challenge is how to quantify that."

Some of the data for the study was made available through the National Science Foundation's Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project, which has operated in the Arctic for nearly 30 years.

Cellular biology of colorectal cancer: New Insight

A study recently published in the journal Carcinogenesis by researchers at the University of Kansas shows a new role for the protein adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) in suppressing colorectal cancer -- the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Lead author Kristi Neufeld, associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and co-leader of the Cancer Biology program at the KU Cancer Center, has spent the better part of her career trying to understand the various activities of APC, a protein whose functional loss is thought to initiate roughly 80 percent of all colon polyps, a precursor to colon cancer. Neufeld, along with her postdoctoral fellow Maged Zeineldin, undergraduate student Mathew Miller and veterinary pathologist Ruth Sullivan, now reports that APC found in a particular subcellular compartment, the nucleus, protects from inflammation as well as tumor development associated with chronic colitis.

Whether APC reaches the nucleus may well affect the ability of intestinal stem cells to produce differentiated cells with specialized functions, Neufeld said.

"It's not widely appreciated, but there is still plenty of cell growth going on in adults, with the colon being a good example," she said. "On average, we shed and replace about 70 pounds of intestinal tissue annually, so you can imagine that this process requires exquisite control to prevent tumor formation."

Regular renewal of the colon lining occurs through stem cells that are capable of constantly dividing. These cells produce descendants that take up specific roles: By secreting mucin, for instance, goblet cells generate a mucus layer that serves as the colon's physical barrier against its many microbial tenants. But if APC can't find its way to the nucleus, Neufeld and her team have noted far fewer goblet cells as one outcome.

"We introduced a specific APC mutation into mice that took away the nuclear zip code, so to speak, leaving APC stuck in the cytoplasm," Neufeld said. The researchers studied this mouse model under conditions that induce ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that can be a prelude to colon cancer.

Observing significantly more colon tumors in these mice compared to those with normal APC in the same disease setting, they hypothesized that functional nuclear APC might somehow guard against inflammation and its downstream effects, including tumor development. Now, Neufeld thinks she and her team may have a clue as to how this happens.

"The drop in goblet cell numbers we observed was striking," she said. "We then examined one of the proteins found in mucus, called Muc2, and found that its RNA levels were greatly decreased. If there are fewer goblet cells as a result of APC being unable to reach the nucleus, there will also be less mucus, which could increase the colon's sensitivity to bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut that are capable of promoting inflammation."

Neufeld said while there are still no quick fixes for mutant genes, perhaps tools could be developed to synthetically replace this less-than-ideally thick mucus layer in affected people.

One known function of APC is that it halts cell proliferation: by muzzling the canonical arm of the Wnt signaling pathway, which otherwise instructs cells to go forth and multiply. Neufeld and her group have already shown, using the same mouse model, that APC stationed in the nucleus is necessary to suppress Wnt and its signaling partners -- particularly β-catenin, a key target of normal APC. With a role for nuclear APC in controlling goblet cell differentiation now supported, the researchers are probing possible mechanisms to learn if and how Wnt pathway members might be involved.

Comprising 2,843 amino acids, APC is a large protein.

"Rather than being a simple, single-function protein, APC is more like a complex set of moving parts, each doing something different and most still poorly understood," Neufeld said. "I think if the sole purpose of this protein was to target β-catenin for destruction, it wouldn't need to be this large. Our next job is to figure out exactly how goblet cell differentiation is controlled by one or more of APC's many components."

Beyond a slew of mechanistic details, the bigger picture that Neufeld and her group will keep exploring is that some colon cancers could arise from an inflammatory response to bacterial penetration of a thinner-than-normal mucus layer in the gut, resulting from defective APC. The possibilities of just what APC does and doesn't do, and how to compensate for any intestinal glitches related to loss of APC function, present a challenging mystery but also a plentiful harvest for scientists like Neufeld to reap going forward.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Kansas . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

These RocketSkates Make 12mph Feel Absolutely Terrifying



Here’s the first thing I learned when riding a pair of RocketSkates: 12mph might seem slow, but strap a pair of motorized roller skates to your feet and that speed becomes instantly terrifying.

After a quick tutorial, I donned on these hefty electric skates, pushed off, heard the motor kick in with a delightful digitized afterburner sound effect, and… then I immediately freaked out and bailed onto my toes like a chump. This happened roughly ten times in a row. Luckily, the RocketSkates are easy to stop: You can either lean back on your heel to engage the brake, or you can simply step onto your toes like I did. The footplates of each skate end at about mid-sole, so your toes are always available for freak-out braking.

I’ve ridden electric bikes, electric unicycles, and electric lawnmowers, and nothing felt quite like the feeling of those skates kicking in. That probably has to do with the fact that these wheels are attached directly to your feet. The best balance scenario involves riding with one foot out in front of the other, giving you a wider base for balance. I couldn’t get the hang of using them right away, but I wanted to keep trying.

It seems like a lot of people want to try them, too. The Acton RocketSkates have surpassed their KickStarter goal ($50,000) by nearly ten times ($486,727) at the time of writing. This ample funding would suggest that people want their electric roller skates, and they won’t have to wait much longer. The RocketSkates are slated to ship in October.

When they’re not on your feet, the skates look a bit like tiny futuristic wheelchairs. When they’re strapped on—the belts fit securely around your ankles, and the adjustable footplates are made to accommodate different foot sizes—they feel like open-toe ski boots. Each skate weighs around 7 pounds, and the fact that you can always stop yourself (or climb stairs with them on) by shifting your weight onto your tiptoes is a good safety mechanism.

Acton co-founder and CTO Peter Treadway says the motorized roller skates were inspired by a combination of science fiction, 1950s futurism, and the harsh reality of driving in southern California.

That modest 12mph maximum speed is a strategy to help keep the RocketSkates sidewalk-friendly in the future.

“I couldn’t park my car, and the idea of wearing your transportation appealed to me,” explains Treadway. “I had a feeling that someday we’d be able to do superhero things. All the future stuff from the ’50s—flying cars, jet packs, and rocket skates—now sort of exist. This is the one that consumers will be able to get first.”

The RocketSkates have a sidecar app, but it’s not for actively controlling the skates. All the accelerating, braking, and steering is done with your actual feet. After selecting a “lead foot” with the app, pressing the big light-up buttons on the back of each skate to power them on, and giving yourself a little push-off, the motors kick in with a fun video-game sound effect. The skates can go from zero to 12mph in about two seconds.

That modest 12mph maximum speed is a strategy to help keep the RocketSkates sidewalk-friendly in the future. Regulations for powered personal vehicles vary at the state and local levels. And while there are no state or local laws regarding the use of magical future-skates on the sidewalk yet, personal mobility vehicles such as Segways are allowed on the sidewalk in many states at speeds of up to 12.5mph.

“Most of those laws revolve around concerns over big, heavy vehicles making contact with pedestrians,” says Treadway. “At 7 pounds each, the skates really don’t fall under that umbrella.”

Along with two larger, heavier wheels on the sides of each skate that are powered by 50W electric motors, there’s a smaller third wheel on the heel to provide stability when you’re balanced on them. There’s also a mechanical brake on the back that makes contact with that smaller wheel when you push down with your heel.

The mobile app lets you select a lead skate, and it also adds some games and a dashboard to the mix. After connecting via Bluetooth, you can check your skates’ battery life, receive any overheating warnings, look at the weather forecast, or compete against other RocketSkate owners in stats or pattern-skating games.



If you’re a better RocketSkater than I am, weigh less than 275 pounds, and keep away from inclines steeper than 8 degrees, you can ride for up to an hour and a half per charge. That depends on the model: There’ll be three versions of the RocketSkates at launch, color-coded and priced based on battery capacity.

The lowest-end “Rocket Red” skates run for 45 minutes per charge, with an estimated range of six miles, the mid-range “Terminator Chrome” skates roll for 70 minutes (8 miles) per charge, and the highest-end “Deep Space Black” skates are rated at 90 minutes/10 miles.

Charging times for each version range from 60 to 150 minutes, so you’ll need to plan ahead. And a slice of the roller-skating future will cost you: The Rocket Red skates cost $500 per pair, the Terminator Chrome skates are priced at $600, and the Deep Space Black skates will set you back $700.

Your Ultimate Guide to the Simpsons Mega-Marathon That Starts Today

simpsons graphic
stark raving dad
homer the great
marge vs the monorail
brick like me
lisa goes gaga

FXX is already known for binge-worthy shows like The League and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but now the year-old network is taking TV gluttony to a whole new level. To celebrate licensing The Simpsons, it will run all 25 seasons—552 episodes (plus the movie!)—in order from August 21 to Labor Day. That's 12 days total, a stretch far beyond the all-time world record for marathon-watching (three days, 14 hours, and 37 minutes, set by two Simpsons fans in 2012). Your DVR only has so much space, so we've devised this handy clickable guide—based on IMDB user ratings, cult status, and recommendations from the show's staff—so you don't get buried. But if you do, just call Mr. Plow.

This Dating Site Is Teaching The Internet An Important Lesson About Anonymity



Online dating site Zoosk is rolling out a new feature that lets users verify the authenticity of profile pictures. The explicit goal, according to CEO Shayan Zadeh, is to prevent daters from posting photos of themselves when they were 10 years younger or 20 pounds lighter. Such a feature may save online daters a lot of undue disappointment, but it could also teach other online platforms an important lesson.

Many people crave anonymity online. This has driven the explosive growth of apps like Secret, Yik Yak, and Whisper, and it has powered the self-destructing-message craze launched by Snapchat. And yet, this move toward anonymity has come at a cost, creating a perfect storm for online trolls, scammers, and impostors to wreak havoc on the rest of us.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you know that the trolls have been behaving particularly badly, filling sites from Twitter to Gawker with hateful and gruesome content. As a result, these companies have been forced to figure out in real time how to stop the trolls without running every last Tweet and online comment past an internal review board first.

With its new Photo Verification service, Zoosk seems to be taking a responsible and proactive approach to the problem, offering its upstanding members a means of protecting themselves against the bad ones. If it works, it could serve as a model for other platforms web-wide.

It may save online daters a lot of undue disappointment, but it could also teach other online platforms an important lesson.

To verify a photo, Zoosk asks users to take a video selfie, which records their appearance from several angles. Then, it’s up to Zoosk’s team of moderators to determine whether the photo and the video match. That applies, of course, not only to people who falsify their profile pictures entirely, but those who post, shall we say, overly flattering shots of themselves. If the photos match, the user gets a little green check next to his or her photos. “The rule of thumb is: if I saw this photo and saw the person in real life would I be surprised?” Zadeh says.

CEO Shayan Zadeh.

CEO Shayan Zadeh. Zoosk

It may sound like a small, and even superficial, feature. But now imagine that Facebook, which by its own admission has millions of fake profiles, developed something similar. Such a system could potentially save loads of Facebook users from falling prey to scammers and identity fraud.

Zadeh has no illusions that this system will stop bad actors from joining the site. But it could dissuade Zoosk’s other members from engaging with them. It’s similar, he says, to how Twitter users have learned not to trust unverified celebrity accounts. “It snowballs on itself,” he says. “If you’re meeting four people on the platform and three have the badge, you start to question why the fourth person doesn’t have it.”

Of course, there are drawbacks to this tool, which Zadeh realizes. “I don’t think we have the silver bullet to solve all aspects of misrepresentation,” he admits. For starters, photo verification is only applicable on platforms that require or rely on photos. Monitoring misrepresentation and bad conduct on text-based sites like Twitter is much tougher, as Twitter recently explained in a blog post. Still, Zadeh hopes more tech companies will join Zoosk in taking deliberate steps to solve these problems in advance, instead of doing damage control once it’s already too late.

“We wanted to provide an easy and effective way to give our customers that confidence that when they meet someone there’ll be no surprises,” he says. “As an industry we have to continue to look for ways to help people gain that confidence.”

Learning thresholds [Pharyngula]

Kim Goodsell was not a scientist, but she wanted to understand the baffling constellation of disease symptoms that were affecting her. The doctors delivered partial diagnoses, that accounted for some of her problems, but not all. So she plunged into the scientific literature herself. The point of the linked article is that there is a wealth of genetic information out there, and that we might someday get to the point of tapping into the contributions of citizen scientists. But I thought this was the most interesting part:

She started by diving into PubMed—an online search engine for biomedical papers—hunting down everything she could on Charcot-Marie-Tooth. She hoped that her brief fling with a scientific education would carry her through. But with pre-med knowledge that had been gathering dust for 30 years and no formal training in genetics, Kim quickly ran headfirst into a wall of unfamiliar concepts and impenetrable jargon. “It was like reading Chinese,” she says.

But she persisted. She scratched around in Google until she found uploaded PDFs of the articles she wanted. She would read an abstract and Google every word she didn’t understand. When those searches snowballed into even more jargon, she’d Google that too. The expanding tree of gibberish seemed infinite—apoptosis, phenotypic, desmosome—until, one day, it wasn’t. “You get a feeling for what’s being said,” Kim says. “Pretty soon you start to learn the language.”

I know that feeling! I watch students struggle with it every year, too. There is a certain level of biological literacy that has to be met before one can grasp the more sophisticated concepts — and that once the door is opened, it becomes easier and easier to go deeper.

Someone who is strongly motivated and determined, like Kim Goodsell, can do it on their own, but I really feel that achieving that basic level of understanding is the goal of an undergraduate education. We prep students with enough information to get over the threshold (and also, maybe, some specific skills to get them started in professional schools), so that in an ideal world they can then charge off and keep learning on their own.

This isn’t just true of biology, either. Literature, art, history, philosophy, economics, psychology, etc., etc., etc. all have a set of fundamental concepts that are hurdles to getting started…but once you’re over them, you can soar.

Finally, an App That Makes Online Video as Watchable as Regular TV



I have a confession: I don’t know how to use YouTube. Not that I don’t know how to upload a video, or watch one, or even embed one in a blog post. I don’t know how to use YouTube to find anything I’d actually want to watch. No doubt, it’s a sign of creeping middle age, but YouTube feels like an overwhelming, pulsating mass of meme-flogging, beauty tips, and banner ads. It’s very much not what I want to turn to when I’m sitting on the couch at the end of a long day.

And yet YouTube is brimming with great video, as are so many other pockets of the internet. The problem is finding it. That’s where a new app called N3twork comes in. Launched on Thursday, N3twork (pronounced “network”) takes an approach borrowed from Pandora, Pinterest, social media, and maybe even a little bit of Tinder to filter and funnel online video in a way that makes all those moving pictures feel just a little bit more like traditional TV. It’s a strategy for taming online video in a way that, at least for an oldster like myself, might make me want to kick back and say “What’s on?”

‘There is amazing content out there. You’re just never going to find it.’

N3twork is the brainchild of Neil Young, not the musician but a former gaming executive who specialized in building niche games for niche audiences, rather than seeking out the all-purpose blockbuster. That sensibility is built into N3twork, which is organized around the principle of “channels”—areas of interest that tailor what you see to what you care about. “There is amazing content out there,” Young says. “You’re just never going to find it.”

Reality Meets Revelation

Young is quick to point out that N3twork isn’t there to offer up the obvious stuff. The app isn’t competing with Game of Thrones or the NFL. It’s there to find all those other endless hours of video that don’t come through the traditional channels, whether those be cable or Netflix. This approach, Young says, is equal parts reality and revelation.

The reality is that a small startup can’t afford to acquire the rights to mainstream Hollywood content or professional sports. The revelation, he says, is how much good content exists that goes relatively unwatched. He says N3twork is focused on the “fat middle,” the niche channels that occupy so much of basic cable’s bandwidth, but that aren’t nearly as finely tuned as Young says N3twork’s algorithms allow its app to be.

Neil Young, N3twork co-founder and CEO

Neil Young, N3twork co-founder and CEO N3twork

When you launch N3twork for the first time, the app asks you to select areas of broad interest—sports, business, technology, food, and so on. The app then displays a video in the main viewer from one of those channels, typically pegged to a narrower channel—displayed in the app as a hashtag—within the broader category, such as “photography” within “art and design.” For each video, users swipe left to skip, swipe right to save for later, or tap to watch. (Tipping the phone to landscape view also auto-plays the video.) Over time, N3twork learns your viewing, saving, and skipping habits to more narrowly personalize its offerings to your tastes.

The videos N3twork serves up find their way to your eyeballs through a collaborative mix of machine and human intelligence. Young says the service right now is indexing about 1,000 hours of video a day from about 6,500 different online sources, ranging from specific YouTube channels to the BBC and Bloomberg. Its algorithms look for external cues to tag the videos in basic categories before human curators go through to refine them to specific channels. This seeding process is necessary at least until N3twork’s user base reaches a critical mass where users are adding and tagging enough of their own video finds to leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

Young believes the original sites where these videos appeared won’t object to N3twork’s embedding because it doesn’t strip out whatever advertising was already built in. Users can also upload their own self-generated content and tag it to channels, which can be as broad or as narrow as desired, since there’s no logistical limit on channels. A single video could be tagged to cars, sports cars, and Lamborghinis, for example. And as with YouTube, there’s nothing stopping someone from creating a channel that’s exclusively videos of their cats or kids. You just won’t ever have to sift through them unless you’ve already sent a signal that tells N3twork you’re interested.

Always in Motion

Ironically, N3twork’s calming effect on internet video is accomplished through an interface that sounds totally frenetic. I’ve never seen an app before in which nearly everything is always in motion. When videos are indexed, N3twork’s own servers pull out a 10-second excerpt used for every video in every stream in the app. Even the small “My Channel” and “Watch Later” buttons have small preview videos running below the text. But instead of feeling busy, the effect is elegant. Rather than a still frame with a big, clunky “play” triangle in the middle, N3twork serves little morsels of video, just enough of a taste for viewers to say “I’m interested” or “skip it.”

It also goes without saying at this point that N3twork is available on multiple screens. While the app is designed with the idea that the smartphone is most users’ de facto first screen, it runs on tablets as well. (The initial launch is iOS only.) It also undergoes an ingenious transformation when the app is mirrored from the phone via Airplay to bona fide televisions. Instead of looking like a giant version of the app, the interface changes to a big-screen-friendly, browsable carousel for which the phone becomes a remote.

Mirroring N3twork to a flatscreen via Airplay transforms the interface.

Mirroring N3twork to a flatscreen via Airplay transforms the interface. N3twork

As with every other kind of online content, it’s possible that social media has eliminated for good the usefulness of any kind of “front page.” Maybe what our friends are watching and sharing will dictate more than anyone else what we want to watch. N3twork has a similar social option. You can follow and be followed by other users. But as with regular TV, N3twork offers a more serendipitous kind of channel surfing. Just like you don’t depend solely on your Facebook friends to decide what you want to watch on Netflix or HBO, N3twork lets you browse and find content from outside your social echo chamber.

Because of the theoretically infinite bandwidth of the internet compared to cable, the app-ified version of television lacks the traditional barriers that have forced the medium into the traditional genres that have existed for so long that they seem like a given. N3twork breaks TV out of those boxes and presents a much more flexible version of what the medium could be. At least for those of us who grew up before YouTube, N3twork feels like an approachable way to make at least a little bit of those centuries of video now available online finally watchable.

What would analog genetics look like? [Pharyngula]

How about another of those non-awkward Dawkins Twitter questions? Although this one actually is kind of awkward, in a non-offensive way. I don’t quite know what it means.

Does evolution rely upon digital genetics? Could there be an analogue genetics? What features of life have to be true all over the universe?

I don’t understand what ‘digital genetics’ is…it sounds very Mendelian, I think. There is a reasonable but overly simplistic perspective on genetics, a very old school way of thinking, that mutations are binary — you’ve either got a trait or you don’t. We also use a linear sequence of nucleotides that get translated into a linear sequence of amino acids, and it all looks very much like a digital computation…and can be modeled reasonably well with a computer. So in a very narrow sense, I suppose you could argue that earthly genetics is ‘digital’.

But it’s also analog. It’s all chemistry, so reaction kinetics and concentrations and equilibria drive everything. I also think it’s a flaw of that old-school classical genetics that subtle quantitative variations are difficult to detect — people were always looking for mutations with distinctive phenotypic effects. Look at the Drosophila eye mutations, for instance: white was discovered first. Wild type flies have brick red eyes, while the mutant has obvious white eyes. A single gene can flick the color between red and white.

But here’s a qualifier: it’s not simply binary, a choice between white and wildtype. FlyBase tells me there are 1060 published, classical alleles of white. The gene behind it is an ATP-dependent transporter protein — so it’s an enzyme, with analog chemical properties.

Further, when I think of all the other things that can modulate genes, it’s hard to retain an image of them being digital. Codon usage in the gene can have quantitative effects on rates of translation. Position effects — what genes or other DNA are in the neighborhood of the gene in question — can modify the regulation of the gene. The number of copies of a gene can have effects — there are lots of experiments in gene dosage in flies, and we know that humans have copy number variants.

We also know that many genes generate phenotypic effects with concentration gradients, not digital at all. In flies, bicoid is the canonical morphogen — its RNA product is concentrated at the head end of the embryo, and its protein diffuses away to form a gradient from high at the head to low at the posterior, and this gradient is read by other genes, like orthodenticle, hunchback, and knirps, to determine whether they should be switched on or off. We can push around boundaries of anatomical features in the larvae by changing the concentration of bicoid .


To make it all fuzzier still, that gradient is also a product of other cooperating genes, like stauffen and valois, that localize bicoid.

So I guess my answer to that question is that we already know what an analog genetics would look like — we just have to look at ourselves.

The WWI Battleships That Saved (And Doomed) the British Empire


The HMS Dreadnought underway in 1906. U.S. Naval Historical Center/ Wikimedia

World War I was shaped by the new vehicles developed during the four years of conflict. A century after the start of the war, we’re looking back at the most remarkable vehicles—the planes, cars, tanks, ships, and zeppelins—it helped bring about.

Aviation and the automobile were in their infancy when World War I started in 1914, but naval warfare had thousands of years of history behind it. It was, however, in a period of dramatic change, and the ships Britain poured its resources into building helped the country win the war—and eventually lose its empire.

At the time, the backbone of the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet consisted of dozens of dreadnought battleships. The HMS Dreadnought, commissioned in 1906, was the latest in a line of warships that had carried the name since the 1500s. The name referred to a heavy overcoat worn in stormy weather, but the HMS Dreadnought was so revolutionary its name came to describe an entire class of battleships.

Though still a matter of some dispute amongst military historians, World War I largely ushered in the end of British dominance of the high seas and the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The Grand Fleet’s enormous number of first-class battleships—some 35 ships, including a half-dozen from the US—played a key role in the war effort. They forced Germany to pour huge sums into its own navy, making it difficult to effectively finance its war effort. However, the massive cost of the ships, at a time when the British Empire was in severe financial distress, was ruinous in the long term. By the end of the war, the nation had nearly bankrupted itself building close to 30 dreadnoughts that faced significant threats from torpedo ships operated by even small navies.

“The lure of a convenient enemy, intent on fighting a battle that the Royal Navy relished, was too much,” says Angus King, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island who has written about the topic. “So, Britain went into Dreadnoughts. In so doing, she bankrupted the Empire and lost her position as the world’s premier navy forever.”


Two of the HMS Dreadnought’s 12-inch guns. Wikimedia

The Dreadnoughts were developed to do more with less while simultaneously addressing issues with previous battleships. For one thing, battleships of the era found it difficult to hit their targets. All ship guns were unguided, with gunners using splashes in the water to judge missed shots and adjust their aim. However, because both the target and the gun were constantly moving, by the time the gun was reloaded and ready to fire, any information gleaned about range and direction was nearly useless.

Pre-dreadnought ships included a variety of gun sizes, as smaller guns were quicker to reload and fire but did limited damage to capital ships at range. They were used to target and range the enemy, with larger guns used to do actual damage. The problem was that having guns of multiple sizes dramatically increased cost of ships and the cost of training crews, and complicated ammunition storage.

By the time the dreadnoughts began to appear, a decade before World War I began, a 12-inch gun with a faster rate of fire had been developed. It allowed gunners to zero in on enemy ships using the larger caliber gun. But the guidance and targeting problems hadn’t disappeared, significantly limiting the practicality and usefulness of dreadnoughts. The development of the torpedo, which could severely damage even a huge battleship, made things worse. Navies were reluctant to put their ships within range of the underwater missiles, even though that was the only distance from which its own guns were at all effective. “The real limitation, which no navy was about to admit,” says King, “was that these ships were designed to perpetuate a naval strategy that was already obsolete.”

Dreadnoughts and hydroplane, British Grand Fleet, North Sea, First World War, 1914.

Dreadnoughts and hydroplane, British Grand Fleet, North Sea, 1914. Print Collector/Getty

With the development of underwater mines and torpedoes, defeating a battleship no longer required another battleship. That meant smaller, cheaper navies were suddenly much more dangerous. “This was something new and it completely altered the naval calculus,” says King. So the huge battleships were generally held in reserve and used more as a psychological threat than a practical one. No dreadnoughts were lost to enemy guns during the war, though the HMS Audacious was sunk by a mine off the coast of Scotland, and the HMS Vanguard was destroyed by a magazine explosion.

Dreadnoughts “were good at inculcating fear and uncertainty in opponents,” says King, “in the same way that a ballistic missile submarine does today.” They’re not often used, but enemies can’t dismiss them either. In some ways, naval warfare in World War I was like a giant chess game: lots of skirmishes, but because the big pieces were too valuable to risk losing, they stayed behind in relative safety.

A few of the leftover dreadnoughts played a role in later conflicts, after being converted into early aircraft carriers. The USS Lexington and USS Saratoga eventually helped prove the concept of a floating airbase, leading to the Essex-class of carriers in World War II and eventually to the Nimitz- and Gerald R. Ford-class super-carriers of today.

Man Builds Working Hard Drive Inside Minecraft

Cody Littley's Minecraft creation.

Cody Littley’s Minecraft creation. Cody Littley

Cody Littley’s new hard drive can only hold a single kilobyte of data—about one millionth of what you can cram onto those finger-nail-sized microSD cards—and it can’t exactly slide into the back of your smartphone. But it’s still an impressive creation. Littley built it himself, inside the virtual world of Minecraft.

It’s one of those projects that so sharply displays the wonderfully unique attitude that drive the world’s computer hackers—a class of people that has come to play such an important role in our society. Littley built his hard drive just because he could. “When I built the the device, I didn’t have anything in mind that I wanted to store on it, I built it for the sake of the challenge,” he says. “A surprisingly large number of commentators on Reddit think I should store 1KB of porn on it.”

But the project also shows that virtual worlds like Minecraft—another staple of the modern computer universe—are far more than just games. They’re a means of self-expression—and they’re educational tools. Enterprising educators are already using Minecraft to teach programming, and Littley’s endeavor provides a crash course the basic concepts that underpin our computer hardware.

Littley says he built his hard drive without using any Minecraft add-ons—known as mods—or Minecraft editors that let players automate the creation of larger projects. He only used the standard tools available in the game, cobbling together his hard drive block by block. The project depends largely on what’s known in the game as “redstones,” a type of block that transmits another in-game substance called “red stone dust.”

Enterprising educators are already using Minecraft to teach programming, and Littley’s endeavor provides a crash course the basic concepts that underpin our computer hardware.

By using flows of this dust, players are able to build circuits and other complex machinery. Littley realized that because redstones can transmit through opaque blocks—but not transparent blocks—he could create a simple binary mechanism by building a system of virtual pistons to manipulate the blocks depending on a “1″ or a “0″ needs to be transmitted. By stringing enough of them together, like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, he was able to scale it up into a data storage system.

If you want to try it out yourself, Littley has made his “world file” available on Google Drive, though he notes that you’ll need to enable experimental versions of the game in order to get the latest update.


Cody Littley

Although you can quibble about the exact definition of a hard drive, as opposed to some other form of persistent storage, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive. But it’s not exactly practical. Because of the difficulty in transferring a file from your hard drive in the game world of Minecraft, you’d actually have to manually enter each byte of data into the drive by hand. And the seek time—the amount of time it takes to find the data that you want to retrieve from the disk—is between six and seven minutes. But that’s beside the point. Littley didn’t build the drive to be practical.

Littley is a computer science PhD student at University of Texas in Austin, but he says the project had nothing to do with his academic work, which is in distributed computing. “My area of interest is nothing even closely related to hardware,” he says. “My background gives me a basic understanding of the topic, but much of what I use to build these things is self taught.”

This isn’t the first time he has such a contraption in Minecraft. Previously, Littley built a “factory farm” that automatically collects eggs from chickens—”It turned out more gruesome than I expected,” he says—and a complex, rail-based messaging system akin to an email server.

The only limit to how complex a system you can build in the game, he says, is that Minecraft won’t render things that are too far away from your character within the game. “If I were to build a computer that was a million square miles, the game would pout and refuse to simulate it for me,” he says. “Also, the circuitry never really gets smaller, people just build bigger things with it.” In other words, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to Minecraft.

The White House Gives Up on Making Coders Dress Like Adults

The U.S. Government wants to hire more people like Mikey Dickerson. He’s the former Google engineer the White House recently tapped to lead the new U.S. Digital Service.

Dickerson has impeccable credentials. He comes from one of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies. He flew into Washington a year ago to salvage the disastrous Healthcare.gov website. And by all accounts, he did an amazing job. Now, his White House on-boarding has become a kind of recruiting tool for Uncle Sam. And just for good measure, the feds want all the techies out there to know Dickerson wasn’t forced to do that amazing job in a suit and tie.

In a White House video, Dickerson says he is asked one question again and again by people curious about his new job. They “want to know if I’m wearing a suit to work every day,” Dickerson explains in the video. “Because that’s just the quickest shorthand way of asking: ‘Is this just the same old business as usual or are they actually going to listen?’”

Michael "Mikey" Dickerson.

Michael “Mikey” Dickerson. Stephen Voss

When it comes to computers, the federal government has a nasty reputation for prizing ISO standards and regulatory checkboxes above working code. The video is the White House’s best effort at saying it’s going to get real and hire people based on what they can do, not how they dress for work. Ben Balter, who spent some time as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow a few years back, tells us he had to code in suit and tie.

According to the Dickerson, that’s changed. He isn’t showing up in a T-shirt, but he’s free to wear a wrinkled button-down and comfortable pants.

By subtle measures, however, the video also shows how far things still have to go. One thing that’s even more important than the latitude to ditch a tie is the latitude to chose the best tool for the job. Fixing government procurement so developers aren’t locked into a rigid list of predefined tools will take more work. In the video, Dickerson opens up his government-issued Blackberry smartphone and discovers his password doesn’t meet government muster. “The password you have typed is too short,” he reads from a screen.

And if you browse through federal government job applications such as this White House IT job, you’ll see random drug tests and college degrees are still part of the equation. Under the job’s key requirements section is this nugget: “RELOCATION EXPENSES WILL NOT BE PAID.” You’re unlikely to see that on a Google job ad.

They’re starting to look official now, aren’t they? They’ve got suits and everything.

So if you do take a job at the White House, you may want to bring your own snacks, expect to work at a desk, not a couch, and hold off on bringing your skateboard to work.

Still, the feds are trying to do tech in a clueful fashion. The Obama administration has opened the door to open-source software and collaborative coding. And, hey, even the CIA is using Amazon’s web services.

Midway through the video, there’s a shot of a staff meeting where President Obama gives Dickerson and his fellow tech “hot-shots” a shout out. “They’re starting to look official now, aren’t they? They’ve got suits and everything,” Obama quips, a nod to the black jacket and yellow tie Dickerson has worn to the meeting. Dickerson tells the president this isn’t the norm. “This is literally only because you’re here,” he replies.