Stem cells help researchers peg rabies resistance

Researchers at Texas A&M AgriLife Research have developed a new technology to determine sensitivity or resistance to rabies virus.

"We were able to create a novel platform such that we could look at how pathogens, such as bacteria or virus or even drugs or radiation, interact with specific human genes," said lead researcher Dr. Deeann Wallis, AgriLife Research assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics. "It allows us a new way to profile the genes involved in sensitivity or resistance to certain agents."

The rabies work is being reported in the journal Stem Cells.

"Our study is the first to show pre-existing libraries of mutant stem cells can be differentiated into different cell types en mass and screened to identify meaningful genes involved in a cell's response to infection," Wallis said. "Moreover, this technique can be used to identify human genes that are involved in any type bacterial or viral infection, or even response to drugs, toxins or radiation. This is a relatively novel way for researchers to discover gene function and assess human host response."

Understanding sensitivity or resistance to rabies is important, she said, not only because the disease still causes 55,000 deaths a year globally, but it could also potentially be weaponized and used as a biowarfare agent.

Wallis said the five-year study used murine embryonic stem cells from a library of mutant stem cells typically used to generate knockout mice.

A knockout mouse is a laboratory mouse in which researchers have inactivated, or "knocked out," an existing gene by replacing it or disrupting it with an artificial piece of DNA, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. Such cells and mice are frequently used as a model to study human genes, Wallis noted.

She explained that each stem cell clone has a different gene mutated.The researchers took a panel of a variety of different genes and were able to query each cell line separately.

"For the first time ever, we were able to take thousands of different stem cell lines, each carrying a separate mutation, and differentiate them into neurons," she said. "It was quite a large task to miniaturize this. We were able to show with genes that are known to be involved in rabies virus that if we mutated a gene in the mouse, we still can see differences in sensitivity and resistance to rabies virus in these cells.

Knockout mouse stem cells have only one copy of each gene, whereas a regular cell would have two copies of every gene. Therefore, other researchers thought it was not possible to see an impact of a particular gene because half of it is still there, she said.

The research team grew embryonic stem cells in an array of approximately 100 per plate, differentiating them into fully functional neurons. Then, fluorescent green rabies virus was added and plates were photographed daily for several days. An image analysis program was used to measure how much green was on each picture.

"The results are basically sorted on the high amount of green, meaning these are really sensitive to rabies, and the resistant ones that have very little green," Wallis said. "We were able to identify 63 different host target genes. These genes represent new pathways that can be targeted for treatment of rabies.

"If we are able to target host-based genes with drugs, they would mutate much less rapidly than viral or bacterial genes, and so we would have fewer problems with resistance."

She said researchers are already considering the technique for further studies on tuberculosis, botulism, ebola and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"There's no end to the possibilities for screening stem cells in this way," Wallis said.

The U.S. Department of Defense funded this project.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Texas A&M AgriLife . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Arctic Ice Extent Hits a 30-Year Low

As if the public needed more evidence that climate change is real, now there’s one more item to tack on the list: This winter, Arctic sea ice extent reached a record low, and peaked earlier this year than it ever has before. NASA created a stunning visualization of ice developing over the northern pole—a network of thin, swirling sheets that just don’t reach as far as they used to.

New information from the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows Arctic sea ice reached a maximum extent of 5.61 million square miles this winter—50,000 square miles below the next lowest maximum recorded in 2011. As NASA illustrates, this is well short of the average maximum sea ice concentration observed in the 35 years prior, and the lowest of any year since satellite observation began in 1979.

The most drastic difference was found in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. This year’s maximum ice extent was 346.7 miles short of the previous 35-year average maximum. That’s nearly identical to the length of Utah.

This latest maximum occurred on February 25 of this year. (It took this long for climate scientists to be sure that the ice wouldn’t freeze any further this year.) Barring any aberrant global cold spike to hit the northern hemisphere—and hey, stranger things are happening—it will be one of the earliest maximums on record, 15 days earlier than the average.

Perhaps the silver lining here is that as it turns out, there’s very little relation between the maximum extent of Arctic ice in the winter, and the summer minimum. That means a low maximum won’t necessarily beget a low minimum. Conditions for the summer might look relatively normal yet—but we’re not betting on it.

Cape Watch: Aunt May Ain’t Got Time for Your Silly Rumors

CapeWatch29 Sony Pictures Entertainment (left), Marvel Entertainment (center), Warner Bros. Pictures (right)

While you’re working out who, exactly, is going to put you off superhero movies once and for all—here’s a tip: It’ll be Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. You know it’s true, it’s time to face the music. Beyond that existential dilemma, this past week has been much more about Star Wars movies than superhero movies, with Rogue One sucking up a lot of oxygen in the nerd culture movie world. Not that that means there haven’t been any noteworthy pieces of superhero movie news, of course. Look! Here are some right now.

SUPER IDEA: Aunt May Is Not Interested in Your Silly Rumors

Hey, remember when there was a rumor that Sony was considering spinning Spider-Man’s Aunt May out into her own movie? Well, The Huffington Post asked Sally Field, who played the character in the recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, what she thought and it turns out she is unlikely use her Norma Rae skills to fight for an Aunt May flick. “She has no special powers whatsoever,” Field said in response. “She was a housewife waiting for the kids to come home. I think they did that: It was called The Donna Reed Show.”

Why this is super: Can we have snarky Sally Field in all future Spider-Man movies? Not as Aunt May, but rather to live-snark what’s happening on the screen at that very moment, like Mystery Spider Theater 3000? Just an idea.

MEH IDEA: What if Suicide Squad Is Secretly a Batman Movie?

It’s always dangerous to put too much stock in rumors from one source, but if Latino-Review’s Umberto Gonzalez is correct, then next year’s big screen debut for DC’s Suicide Squad might just turn out to be all about the Dark Knight, instead. Not only does he suggest Jared Leto’s Joker is essentially the version of the character that appeared in The Dark Knight Returns (right down to having some backstory about being responsible for the death of a certain sidekick), but a separate rumor makes it seem as if the Joker’s entire presence in the movie is to tell everyone about Batman, who is at the center of Amanda Waller’s plans for the team. Apparently, Ben Affleck’s agent is really, really good, you guys. (Although he’s still not been confirmed to make an appearance.) Oh, and side note for Arrow and Teen Titans fans: Deathstroke is supposed to make an appearance in the movie as well.

Why this is villainy: As fans of John Ostrander’s 1980s/1990s run on the DC comic book, we know there’s all manner of depth in the central Suicide Squad concept—enough that it really doesn’t need to be overrun by grafting a Batman movie onto it. Between this and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, can’t he just get his own movie again instead of taking over everyone else’s?

SUPER IDEA: Aquaman Declares War

Apparently, if you ask Jason Momoa (Warner Bros.’ upcoming Aquaman) to sign a poster and write a reason why DC Comics haters should get onboard Warners’ superhero cinematic universe, his response is very, very simple … and very short. (It’s only two words long, and one of them is “Marvel.”)

Why this is super: Considering it’s Aquaman, can we exchange the traditional “shots fired!” warning for “depth charges exploding!” or something similarly nautical? (“Torpedoes away!”?) More than anything, it’s the bluntness of the response that is so amusing—as is the idea that we’ll now see some kind of manufactured beef between Marvel and DC stars. Honestly, who doesn’t want to see Affleck and Robert Downey Jr. get into some kind of ridiculous war of the words at some comics convention just to drive the fans wild?

SUPER IDEA: Meet the New Crow

It was only the other week that we remembered someone was planning to remake The Crow, and now we have the lead actor confirmed. It’s Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston, at least according to James O’Barr, who created the original comic book and says he’s “really happy with that choice.” O’Barr also revealed Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay will play the love interest in the movie.

Why this is super: What we’re most excited about, admittedly, is Findlay’s casting, because it opens up the possibility of other Downton stars popping up in the movie. Are we really the only ones who want to see Goth Carson and Goth Mrs. Hughes show up in the background of some scene? Or Goth Bates and Goth Anna? Someone, make this happen.

SUPER IDEA: Big Number Fans Will Be Delighted by Fantastic Four Movie

For some strange reason, fans of Marvel’s Fantastic Four were upset at the costume choices visible in the first trailer for Josh Trank’s big screen reboot. Turns out, they might not have had reason to be. According to Miles Teller, who plays Reed Richards in the movie, the characters will end up in costumes more closely resembling their comic book counterparts before the movie is over. “It would be very odd if the Fantastic Four didn’t don the traditional costumes,” Teller told ScreenCrush. “You’ve got to give that to the fans. That’s what it’s all about.”

Why this is super: There’s something about the idea of seeing Teller, Kate Mara, and Michael B. Jordan standing around in blue onesies with giant number 4s on their chests that just makes us very happy indeed. (Jamie Bell’s Thing, of course, just gets pants because he’s the Thing.)

Gorgeous Coffee Maker Takes Siphon Brewing Mainstream

Make no mistake: A Kyoto cold-brew maker remains the ultimate thrill ride of the coffee-maker world, with its open-air drops and corkscrew turns. But it’s a slow-going process that obeys the rules of gravity. If you want a fast-paced brew show that will challenge your faith in physics, a siphon or vacuum brewer is the way to go.

A siphon brewer works like this. There are two chambers: A coffee pot on the bottom and a large tank to place your grounds at the top. They’re connected by a tube, and a coffee filter separates the two. When heat is applied to the vessel at the bottom and the water boils, vapor pressure pushes water into the top chamber like magic.

There, the water mixes with the coffee grounds in a most violent, entertaining, and ultimately delicious fashion. Turning the heat down or off reduces the vapor pressure, and the coffee flows back down into the lower chamber, filtering the grounds out in the process.

Siphon brewing has been around since the early 1800s, and there have been a few mass-market vacuum machines available for a while. My parents have long made their joe with a Bodum Electric Santos coffee maker, and the coffee-snob boom has brought analog siphon brewers from Hario and Yama into the spotlight. But now that KitchenAid has entered the game with the Siphon Coffee Brewer, the technique has officially gone mainstream.

The KitchenAid model is electric like the Bodum maker, but it has a far more reserved design. The top chamber, where the action happens, looks like a Paris Metro lamp. The new KitchenAid machine also makes a full pot of coffee—eight cups, to be exact—unlike the smaller siphon machines that make up the market today.

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for the show to start; the KitchenAid Siphon Coffee Brewer is due in June for $250.

Small talk with big potential: Bacterial conversation counteracts antibiotic damage

A research team led by Karina Xavier at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC, Portugal) has shown that bacteria living in the intestine both talk and listen to each other. Using small molecules in place of words, these microbial conversations changed the numbers of certain species of bacteria in the gut and started to restore the huge damage caused by lasting antibiotic treatment. These findings, to be published in the next issue of the scientific journal Cell Reports and highlighted on the journal's cover, show the potential to be gained from using bacterias own language to communicate with, control and exploit the multitude of microbes that live inside of the human gut.

Bacteria were long seen as predominantly harmful organisms, responsible for many illnesses across the world. This picture has been changing over the last ten years. Scientists are now reporting many beneficial characteristics of certain bacterial species, particularly those living inside human bodies, in particular in the intestine. These microbes can be seen as tiny lodgers in the gut, helping the body to get the most out of ingested food and protecting from opportunistic invaders that cause disease. "When we lose some of these lodgers: by taking antibiotics or changing our diet, for example, the resulting imbalance in the community of bacteria can leave us at risk of infection, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, or cancer," explains Karina Xavier. Therefore, scientists like Karina Xavier are keen to understand how these bacteria interact, and then use this knowledge to benefit human health.

One way that bacteria can interact is through a sort of chemical language. Bacteria can produce and inter-change small molecules known as autoinducers. Detection by other bacteria enables these microbes to synchronously regulate behaviors in the community, in a process named quorum sensing. Many of these signals are specific to individual species of bacteria, but the production of and response to one molecule, Autoinducer-2 (AI-2) can be seen throughout the bacterial kingdom. As this signal, AI-2, can foster inter-species bacterial communication and enable bacteria to modify behaviors, the research team led by Karina Xavier investigated the role of AI-2 as a language to communicate between bacteria in the mammalian gut. "We know that bacteria can interact with each other in our test tubes in the lab," said Jessica Thompson, one of the first co-workers in this study, "the big question was if it would happen inside the body, and what these conversations might mean for us, the bacteria's hosts." Using the laboratory mouse as a model organism, the researchers were able to confirm that AI-2 is produced and sensed by Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria in the gut.

Next, the researchers addressed whether this molecule could influence the composition of bacterial species in the gut after antibiotic treatment. The vast majority of bacterial species present in the mouse gut belong to two main groups -- Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. The researchers observed that upon treatment with streptomycin, a powerful antibiotic known to cause imbalances in the gut bacterial community, the diversity of species decreased substantially, and almost all of the species that remained after the treatment belonged to the Bacteroidetes group. Remarkably, this community imbalance was reduced when mice were fed E. coli that could produce large amounts of AI-2. These findings suggest that native bacterial signals might provide useful tools to restore or protect our beneficial bacteria from damage inflicted by antibiotics. For Ana Rita Oliveira, also co-first author of this study, "these results showed that bacteria chit-chat, using AI-2 as a language, was able to modulate the composition of gut bacteria. This is the first time that bacterial communication has been shown to have an impact upon the balance of species in the gut microbiota."

Karina Xavier said, "this works shows that by manipulating bacteria's chemical language we can manipulate the composition of the gut microbial community. Particularly exciting was the finding that increasing the universal bacterial signal AI-2 favored a group of bacteria which we know is essential for protecting the host from many infectious and inflammatory agents. Going forward I expect that by further understanding the mechanisms involved, we will be able to design strategies to ameliorate the effect of antibiotics against the "good bacteria" and use them to fight disease."

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Dissecting the Hotly Anticipated Final Fantasy XV Demo

Final Fantasy XV is finally here! Just kidding! Actually, Square Enix has finally released a demo version of its long-in-the-making RPG for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

If you buy the company’s new game Final Fantasy Type-0 HD for either of those platforms, you’ll get a redeemable download code that will let you experience Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae, a roughly four-hour chunk of content that’s been cobbled together from the in-development project.

Final Fantasy XV, probably owing to its origins as a spinoff title called Final Fantasy Versus XIII when it was announced in 2006, is a more action-oriented RPG formula. You still select some techniques from a list menu, but mostly you’re attacking and parrying blows in real time, controlling main character Noctis directly while your three buddies are played by the computer.

The structure as seen in the demo feels quite like a Western RPG a la Skyrim; the map is full of quest markers, and you set waypoints, follow up with the quests, and generally get to roam around taking things at your own pace.

Will this blend of new mechanics and classic Final Fantasy ambience work? Matt Peckham and I spent hours poking around in Episode Duscae, and found some things that work well, and others that don’t.

Matt: I have no idea what the emo-meets-finger-in-electric-socket hairdo heroes are yakking about half the time in the Final Fantasy XV: Episode Duscae demo, much less what a “Duscae” is, but one thing’s clear: Square Enix knows how to build gala toy-box battle systems. This one’s no different: an utterly bananas-complex conflict engine that smacks you upside the head with quirks and wrinkles just when you think you’ve exhausted all its possibilities. Plumbing the depths of everything in the demo (downloadable and bundled with the just out Final Fantasy Type-0) is like trying to follow the iterating image curve of someone standing between two mirrors, a crazy mise en abyme of tactical permutations.

The Final Fantasy games, as far as the game parts go, rise or fall on the merits of their combat ideas, and Final Fantasy XV has some doozies, just—and I realize I may lose some of you here—as the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy did. But here’s the question Final Fantasy XV seems poised to answer better than all of its predecessors, and it’s the same circle the company’s been trying to square since it banished the barrier between slugging it out with enemies and casually exploring each installment’s sprawling fantasy preserve circa Final Fantasy XII: How do you drop players into the chaos of realtime combat, load them up with a barrage of tactical choices they can ply intelligently (and without resorting to rote button-mashing), all while keeping the acclimation curve simple enough that mainstreamers won’t bounce?

FFXV_Duscae_Stills_FINAL_NA11 Square Enix

You start with timing. Final Fantasy XV’s battles divvy combat into a medley of attack-defend maneuvers that have visible windups and cool downs. They’re not just buckets of numbers on tiny panels stuffed in corners of the screen, and tracking what’s physically happening, blow to blow, is vital. Swinging the protagonist’s arsenal of swords and lances, or executing a special technique feels less abstracted, in other words, and it’s slowed down enough that there’s time to think about your bag of tricks instead of reflexively twitching.

I mean, okay, you’re still occasionally soaring to the tops of towers in microseconds and pulling off gloriously absurd balletic feats (say dropping from said tower like a missile). But you can follow what everyone’s doing here, which loosens up the entire decision-making tree while increasing your sense of being present in the world. Contrast with Final Fantasy XIII‘s battles, where the action was almost a blur, and your tactical choices were reactions to slowly filling bars or having to rifle through menus.

It’s the freeform, acrobatic, ultimately polyvalent combat of a computer-rendered film like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, finally operative and playable in a realtime engine. Square Enix said it was aiming for as much with the Final Fantasy XIII games, but it’s Final Fantasy XV (or the demo, at least) that delivers the goods.

Chris: Oh. Now’s when I admit that I just mashed the square button the entire time and that got me through all of the story beats and sidequests of the demo.

I think it’s very important to keep in mind while playing something like this (bearing in mind as well that this sort of publicly distributed vertical-slice demo of a console game has almost entirely disappeared from the gaming landscape in 2015) that A Demo Is Not a Game: What we are playing here is not Final Fantasy XV, legendary King of All Vaporware (having dethroned Duke Nukem Forever years prior), but a hodgepodge assemblage of assets, game mechanics, and quests from the current state of development of Final Fantasy XV.

The battles you describe certainly felt to me like a loosely-themed hodgepodge of ideas. The game spent about 5 minutes teaching me how to parry, then followed that up by having almost none of the enemies in the game use attacks that I could parry. It seemed like the game was throwing tons of enemies at me at once to make the battles more complex, versus the idea of an elegant one-on-one battle in which you truly have to react to what the enemy is doing. It’s tough to elegantly react to an enemy’s behavior when you’re surrounded by 10 goblins that are all attacking you en masse.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if the battle system that eventually ships with the actual Final Fantasy XV is much changed from what we’ve just experienced, with some features tweaked and others jettisoned entirely. That said, I agree that Square Enix is on to something; what I’m playing seems like a more mainstream experience, by which I mean Uncharted: The RPG. Those scenes when you’re chasing the Behemoth around! The goblins in the cave wall! This is dynamic and exciting gameplay when you merge it with the level-up, treasure-hunting structure of an RPG.

FFXV_Duscae_Stills_FINAL_NA21 Square Enix

I also love the combination of contemporary technology and ancient landscapes. The strip of divided asphalt carving its way through the signature overwrought mountains and fantastic beasts that Final Fantasy is known for—it makes me really want to get in that car and drive around and see what else is out there.

Artistically, there’s something pretty about Episode Duscae. Technologically: No. Mostly because the framerate (I played on PlayStation 4) is such a mess. I don’t mind games with low framerates, but boy does nobody like games with inconsistent ones. Running around these forests should feel magical, but instead it feels like Noctis sprained his ankle.

How did you feel about the non-battle elements of the game? Camping out? Discovering the Chocobo ranch? Side questing?

Matt: The non-battle stuff has to serve the rest of the game, of course. So take camping in the demo. I don’t care if I’m leveling on the fly, or—as here—turning in my Skee-ball tickets (experience points) for prizes (classic stats like “strength” and “defense” that automatically level up) when I whip out my bedroll. It just has to jibe with the rest of the game.

Since you’re either tripping over collectibles or working out the parameters of the battle system or sometimes exploring just to lookyloo, packing the payouts into those downtempo locations freed me up to focus on that stuff instead of pausing obsessively to futz around in menus every few minutes. It also, to continue my earlier point, helped ground me in Final Fantasy XV‘s world. Those campsites are fixed places you have to keep track of in your mental rangefinder. How much are you going to risk before trekking to safety? How far out will you venture at night when it’s more dangerous?

Speaking of night, hoo boy does it get dark in this game. Those little body LED lights help a little, but this is “Hey, it’s like actual night!” blackness. When you’re provoking flash mobs of magic-flinging goblins helped by hordes of hard-to-hit dog-things, not being able to differentiate high from low turf (crucial here toward replenishing your vitals) or choose the wisest paths from point A to B feels less like justifiable ambience than someone’s technology-enamored idea of realistic day-night cycles muddling your experience.

FFT0_JP_Trailer_FFXV_demo_stills_APPROVED_USA_02 Square Enix

I haven’t stumbled on the Chocobo ranch yet, so here’s a word about the gas station with the pretty classic cars and redneck vibe instead: It’s 2015, we’re starting to talk openly and often about race and gender stereotypes in games, and yet Square Enix thinks it’s totally cool here to wrestle a Barbie-proportions female mechanic (she’s fixing the protagonists’ poor broken-down luxury ride) into a preposterous outfit—bikini-like jean cutoffs and jean vest over an actual bikini—then have her jaw with a bunch of dudebros (Noctis and pals) who sling dialogue laced with irony-free innuendo.

But you know, let’s talk about stuff that matters, like Final Fantasy XV‘s branch collision physics (you can step right through six-inch limbs, the horror!). If only they’d fix the collision physics, we’d live in peace and harmony.

Chris: Matt, if you hadn’t said it, I was going to: What impeccably poor timing, when the game industry is at this inflection point in regards to examining and rethinking how women are portrayed in games, for Square Enix to roll out this ridiculously tone-deaf walking cleavage texture Cindy—and as the only female character in the demo?

Looking for more information about her role in the game, I found this recent interview with the game’s director Hajime Tabata:

Famitsu: Your eyes are sort of just drawn to her cleavage, you know?

Tabata: Yeah. The person overseeing her really put his all into the character, added a load of details. At first there was so much jiggle I wasn’t sure what to do about it. (laughs)

Exactly how many interviews about boob jiggling in Final Fantasy do we have to read? If this demo truly represents a work in progress, here’s something that Square Enix can do to improve the Final Fantasy XV: Literally delete this character. Just take the ol’ mouse, highlight all of Cindy’s character files on the server, and hit Del. If that creates any problems, fix them later.

I exaggerate slightly. Putting Cindy in clothing more appropriate for a car mechanic and toning down the ridiculous innuendo would probably be a more workable solution. Cindy is such a mess because otherwise, Final Fantasy XV is looking like the sort of game that I’d really like to enjoy. I do think the fact that you only gain levels when you rest at a campground is a great idea, and the idea of the food you eat while you’re camping out giving you a status bump for the rest of the day (I got superpowered when I splurged on steak and mushrooms) adds a clever wrinkle to the day-night cycle for sure. There are some interesting looks at what could become some addictive core mechanics happening here. (The sidequests have got to get a whole lot better than “run to the marker and press X,” though.)

It’s not for nothing, I believe, that this demo has you sleeping in tents so much. Crashing in a tent? That’s an integral part of playing a classic Final Fantasy game, one that got streamlined out of existence as the series went on. It’s meant to hit that nostalgia trigger, as are so many of the references. But if the full Final Fantasy XV can manage to combine those truly Final Fantasy elements into a more next-gen, vibrant game design, it could be great.

Whenever it actually comes out, I mean.

TED In the Age of Anxiety

Every innovation carries within it the seed of annihilation. I don’t mean this in the Christensenian sense of disruption, in which agile newcomers unseat sclerotic incumbents who probably had it coming. I mean that often the very kernel of invention is inseparable from the urge toward destruction. Manifest destiny. The Manhattan Project. Eros and thanatos. The wish to create the world anew is just a rephrasing of the wish to destroy the world as it is.

Such was my thinking as I entered the Gift Cave. Like most TED attendees, I made the Cave my first stop when I entered the Vancouver Convention Centre. As you likely already know, TED is an exclusive and expensive proposition—guests must fill out an incredibly detailed application for the right to pay $8,500 to attend. If you are the kind of person who can navigate this screening process, there are many companies that would dearly love to reach you, and so you are presented with a passel of free goods and services from a variety of sponsors (including, it so happens, WIRED).

I have been told the Gift Cave can be a bit of a madhouse—especially early in the conference, as guests scurry to collect their bounty before the good stuff is gone. And so I showed up early on Tuesday morning to ensure I could beat the rush. This year, the Gift Cave is run a bit differently. Instead of simply giving you a bag of swag, the organizers walk you through several stations and encourage you to choose the gifts you find most desirable. The first table was covered in books, from which I could pick three. For my first selection, I chose something called Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War . It seemed in keeping with the TED spirit. I also grabbed a copy of Rosie Revere, Engineer for my son, and The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide To Becoming a Wine Expert . At the next station, I forewent the headphones and iPhone microphone in favor of two tickets to An American in Paris on Broadway, which I presumed would mollify my wife, who always gets annoyed when I travel for work. The last table contained a collection of suede shoes. They looked very nice, but the prospect of picking a style and color, waiting for the attendant, asking her to fetch the appropriate pairs, and then trying them on was simply too much. I didn’t feel worthy of the shoes, to say nothing of the effort that would go into obtaining them, and so after picking up a couple of shoes and dutifully holding them up to the light, I left the Gift Cave and headed into the auditorium.

Part of the Problem

By this point in our cultural history, TED is not a conference but a signifier. Depending on whom you ask, it is a symbol of forward-thinking rectitude, creative inspiration, technocratic utopianism, or cloistered megalomania. A recent piece in The New York Times compared TED to an evangelical tent revival—one that flattered its listeners into believing they could overcome the world’s injustices, that “simply showing up to listen makes you part of the solution.”

To be sure, there have been moments that inspired an almost spiritual response. Fred Jansen’s tale of landing the Rosetta probe on a spinning, craggy comet was a stirring testament to human ingenuity. Neuroscientist David Eagleman unveiled a vest that pulsed against the wearer’s skin in response to data, allowing him to expand his sensory perception of the world around him. And Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li showed how neural networks could identify objects in photographs—and describe them in full sentences—at about the level of a three-year-old child.

And yet, sitting through the first two days of presentations, I have not felt like part of the solution. If anything, I feel powerless in the face of forces, cavalierly unleashed, that have grown beyond our control. The official theme this year is “Truth Or Dare,” which sounds optimistic but actually carries a vague undercurrent of menace. Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence , delivered a grim vision of a future in which humanity is dominated by a machine intelligence it can no longer contain. In her terrifying discussion of antibiotic resistance, Superbug author Maryn McKenna predicted that our wanton overuse of antibiotics would lead to 50 million annual deaths by 2050. “We did it to ourselves,” she said, “by squandering antibiotics with a heedlessness that is almost shocking.” The True American author Anand Giridharadas argued that American inequality had created an empathy gap that prevented the privileged—including the entire TED audience—from knowing or much caring about the struggles of the vanishing middle class. “If you live near a Whole Foods; if no relative of yours serves in the military; if you’re paid by the year, not the hour; if no one you know uses meth,” he said, “if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that you may not know what’s going on. And that you may be part of the problem.”

Perhaps at the prodding of TED organizers, even the direst conclusions were counterbalanced by a stab at optimism. Bostrom’s talk was followed by Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institue, who argued that worries about AI superintelligence were vastly overblown. McKenna half-heartedly suggested we might avert the devastation of the coming post-antibiotic age by “changing social norms,” learning to refuse unnecessary antibiotics much as we learned to stop littering or smoking in public.

Nevertheless, for those of us with young children, these flashes of hope didn’t really counteract the doomsaying. The most hopeful prospect probably was the one given voice by technology forecaster Stephen Petranek, who confidently stated that by mid-century we’ll be sending humans by the thousands to colonize Mars. It suggested that future generations will have the opportunity to start over, unsullied by all the damage we’ve caused here on Earth. If Petranek is right, by 2050 we’ll be sending 80,000 people up there every two years. Coincidentally enough, my son will be 40 years old in 2050, precisely the age I am right now.

Forgive Me

Indeed, TED organizer Chris Anderson made unease an explicit leitmotif of the conference. One of the most hotly anticipated talks was to be by Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz, who was expected to reveal the augmented-reality technology his secretive company has spent so many months working on. He pulled out at the last minute without saying why—although Anderson intimated that the VCs in the audience may have some guesses—and so his talk was replaced by a rapid-fire conversation about whether “we are in danger of creating a future we will hate.” (Journalists were reminded that this bit of audience participation was strictly off the record, but it’s probably OK to tell you the verdict was pretty evenly split.)

This is my second year at TED, and over lunch I spoke with a long-time attendee who said the tone has gotten markedly more morose in recent years. In part, he says, that’s because the first generation of TEDsters has grown old and started seriously considering their own mortality and the legacy they will leave behind.

David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps and the winner of this year’s TED Prize, addressed that theme head-on during his acceptance speech. For those unfamiliar, StoryCorps sets up booths around the country, where volunteers help people conduct and record honest and intense conversations with one another. Isay is using his prize money to launch a StoryCorps app, which he hopes will help “create an archive of the wisdom of humanity,” allowing future generations to hear the stories and emotions of their ancestors. In a tear-jerking keynote, Isay played several recordings of people expressing their truest feelings. Sarah Littman and her son Josh discussed his Asperger’s syndrome, and whether he lived up to her expectations. Two elderly New Yorkers shared their undying love for one another. A 34-year-old man spoke with the mother of a boy he shot and killed. Isay impressed upon us author Ira Byock’s four things to tell someone before they die: thank you; I love you; forgive me; I forgive you.

From where I sat, about fifteen rows up, stage center-left, this was TED at its most transcendent—a celebration not of human ingenuity and innovation, but of its frailty, impermanence, and imperfection. After Isay’s talk, we were treated to a performance by Joey Alexander, an 11-year-old jazz pianist from Bali. The boy, wearing a Joy Division t-shirt under a blazer, sat at the keyboard and summoned forth a cascading torrent of emotion, playing renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Monk’s Dream” with passion and poise that belied his tiny frame and tender age. Watching him, it was hard to see him as anything other than a vessel, channeling something deep and universal that happened to select him as its outlet.

I thought of my own son, 3,000 miles away, sleeping beneath his robot comforter. After just two days at TED, it is hard not to imagine him, all of us, as shells that enact the technological and historical forces that operate through us. Even so, when I tried to think of my son as a bit player in the overwhelming arc of human history—perhaps one of those 80,000 voyagers to Mars—I couldn’t. We may indeed be creating a future we will come to hate, a future that he will have no choice but to inhabit. If so, I hope he forgives us. For now, though, I miss him and I’m sorry that I’m so far from him.

I hope he likes the book.

Luscious Space Photos Made by Hacking an Old Scanner

Not long ago, photographer Navid Baraty got the gig of a lifetime: The Wander space mission was putting a satellite into orbit to photograph never-before-seen expanses of outer reaches of the universe. The Wander team needed a photographer to process all the images, and because Baraty also had a degree in engineering, he got the job. The spacecraft beamed incredible sights back down to earth: galaxies of speckled gold-and-white stars, starry nebulae colorful enough to have been a Magritte painting, and marbled orbs of planets and moons.

Actually, none of that’s true.

Baraty staged this hoax as a test, to see if his photographs could pass as star clusters and celestial bodies. He actually creates these images by placing household items on an Epson scanner and leaving the lid open. That tiny hack—leaving the scanner’s lid up—creates the inky black backdrop we interpret as the sky, and helps to distort the items, making them look celestial.

wander-1 Nadiv Baraty

Those spackled galaxies are actually kitchen ingredients like olive oil, sesame oil, water, cumin, cinnamon, and flour, sprinkled across the scanner. The fuchsia nebulae are a mix of makeup, chalk, baby powder, and olive oil. And the golden planet is an illusion; Baraty creates it by placing a water glass on top of the scanner and filling it with colored liquid, like coconut milk and food coloring.

You could look at Baraty’s fictional space mission as photographic research. It’s amazing what the human eye will fall for given the right combination of context and mystery. (These lunar landscapes, actually made with baking flour on a table, are another great example.) You could imagine these kinds of household experiments informing animators or set designers looking to create new worlds on film. They’re fakes, but they might be all the more intriguing for it: If they’re not real, it’s the first time we’re seeing them. “I think the awe and wonder of space ignites our innate curiosity as humans,” Baraty says.

Molecular ruler sets bacterial needle length

When a salmonella bacterium attacks a cell, it uses a nanoscopic needle to inject it with proteins to aid the infection. If the needle is too short, the cell won't be infected. Too long, and the needle breaks. Now, University of Utah biologists report how a disposable molecular ruler or tape measure determines the length of the bacterial needle so it is just right.

The findings have potential long-term applications for developing new antibiotics against salmonella and certain other disease-causing bacteria, for designing bacteria that could inject cancer cells with chemotherapy drugs, and for helping people how to design machines at the nanoscopic or molecular scale.

The study by University of Utah biology professor Kelly Hughes and doctoral student Daniel Wee is set for online publication the week of March 16 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"If you look at important pathogens -- the bubonic plague bacterium, salmonella, shigella and plant pathogens like fire blight -- they all use hypodermic-like needles to inject proteins that facilitate disease processes," Hughes says.

"Our work says that there is one mechanism -- the molecular ruler -- to explain how the lengths are controlled for needles in gram-negative bacteria and for hooks on flagella [the U-joints in propellers bacteria use to move] in all bacteria," he adds.

In their study, Wee and Hughes found that as a bacterial needle or "injectisome" grows, a molecular ruler -- really, more like a gooey tape measure -- is secreted from within the needle's base. It oozes up through the tube-like needle, and when the bottom end of the ruler reaches the bottom end of the needle, the needle stops growing and begins to inject proteins into the target cell to help the infection process.

The biologists say the National Institutes of Health-funded study refutes other theories for how salmonella and some other disease bacteria determine needle lengths.

Why the findings matter

"What we understand from bacteria can help us build nanomachines and nanobots," Hughes says, noting that bacterial flagella -- the nanoscopic motor-and-propeller system they use to swim to dinner or to targets -- are "the most sophisticated nanomachines in the universe."

In one example, Swiss scientists are using the design of bacterial flagella as the basis for a nanobot that will be put inside the eye to do nanoscale surgery, he adds.

In addition to flagella, a number of disease-causing bacteria also have injectisomes, which also are built of proteins, as are most structures in living organisms.

"In the case of the needle, you have a structure that extends from the surface of the bacterium like a hypodermic," Hughes says. "These needles are fragile. If one is too long, it will break off and be useless. If you make it too short, then it can't get past the surface proteins on cells it needs to invade."

By understanding how bacteria determine the length for their needles, it someday may be possible to engineer bacteria to inject chemotherapy drugs right into cancer cells.

"People would like to design bacteria that can get to cancer cells and inject poisons into just those cells and kill them, and not harm the rest of us," Hughes says.

And by understanding how certain disease-causing bacteria build their injectisomes, new antibiotics might be developed in a decade or so to target and destroy the needles and thus deter bacterial infections. The rulers that help build flagella also might be attacked by drugs to prevent bacteria from reaching target cells, "so you can kill two birds with one stone by hitting the two machines at the same time," Hughes says.

He says that approach might work against injectisome-equipped bacteria such as salmonella species that cause typhoid fever and food poisoning; shigella species that cause dysentery; the bubonic plague bacterium Yersinia pestis; disease-causing E. coli; sexually transmitted Chlamydia trachomatis; many plant pathogens; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which often infects burn patients and the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients.

Bacteria secrete a molecular ruler to measure needle length

Bacterial injectisomes are incredibly small, measuring only 20 to 100 nanometers long. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and a meter is about 39 inches long. The width of a typical human hair often is given as 100 microns, so the maximum length of a bacterial needle, 100 nanometers, is one-thousandth of the width of a human hair.

Gram-negative, disease-causing bacteria "are very closely related species, so how do they subtly control the various needle lengths to be perfect?" Hughes asks. "In one case it might be 40 nanometers versus 55 nanometers. These are small sizes. So to do this, the bacteria developed molecular rulers to differentiate needles of different lengths."

(Gram-negative bacteria are those with membranes lining both the inside and outside of their cell wall, while gram-positive bacteria have only an inner membrane.)

Like any cell, a bacterium is encased in a cell wall. So bacteria developed all kinds of secretions to make contact with and infect other cells: flagellar propellers to swim to food or target cells, docking structures to help bacteria stick to targets, and injectisomes to inject infection-promoting proteins into targets.

When a bacterium builds a needle, it first builds a base. "A series of proteins form a doughnut, and inside the doughnut hole, the actual secretion machine gets constructed," Hughes says. "It's the same for the flagella as it is for these needles."

Next, proteins start assembling to form the needle or injectisome.

The new study demonstrated that in salmonella, the ruler or tape measure is secreted slowly through the channel of the growing needle. Once amino acids at the bottom end of the ruler pass through the base of the needle, they tell the bacterium that the needle is long enough and to stop growing. They also tell the needle to injecting virulence proteins into the target cell, and the molecular ruler is ejected, Wee says.

How the study was performed

The new study used the Typhimurium strain of Salmonella enterica, which causes food poisoning. The researchers proved the molecular ruler determines needle length in salmonella by inserting amino acids from the plague bacterium's molecular ruler genes into genes for salmonella's molecular ruler, making rulers with seven different lengths.

Genetically engineered salmonella with seven ruler lengths were grown in a flask, their needles isolated, and the needle lengths measured under an electron microscope.

Wee found the ruler lengths correlated precisely with the lengths of the resulting needles or injectisomes, with each amino acid added to the ruler gene making the resulting needle 0.2 nanometers longer.

Previous studies found the molecular ruler determines the length of the hook or U-joint that helps turn flagella or propellers in many bacteria. Research also found the molecular ruler determines the length of both the flagellar hook and the needle in plague bacteria. But some researchers argued salmonella needle's length was determined by some other mechanism:

-- One theory holds that a molecular measuring cup in the needle's base sends a cupful of needle components to assemble the needle, and the length of the needle is determined by the size of the cup. The new study disproved that by genetically removing the cup and showing that the injectisomes or needles still grew to correct lengths.

-- Another theory says that as needle components assemble outside the needle's base, a rod-shaped structure assembles inside the base to link the base and needle, and that when the rod is complete, needle assembly stops, thus determining needle length. But the Utah study found the rod and needle components are not made simultaneously, but compete with each other, so as more rod parts are made, fewer needle parts are made, giving an illusion that rod completion controls needle length.

Ninja Clone Armies Do Battle in This Week’s Best Videos

This week’s music videos are great for two reasons: dance and over-the-top theatricality. As such, this roundup takes on a very celebratory tone. Low Cut Connie wants you to shake it like Little Tina, Lethal Bizzle shows you how to get your Fester on, and Clean Bandit comes in with an army of professional dancers to inspire you up off that couch. Björk is also here to hit us in the mouth with her fresh-from-the-homeworld video for “lionsong,” which is obviously crazy because it’s by Björk. And two former hitters from the Swedish House Mafia have struck up a musical partnership that’s already resulting in explosions, both of the bass-drop and literal variety. Some weeks the roundup can be pretty heavy, filled with moody, smoldering songs that have videos to match, but this week, we rejoice, and ask you to get movin’ like Michelle Obama.

“Shake It Little Tina”—Low Cut Connie feat. Adamscarpenters (Above)

Low Cut Connie just went into the Audio Visuals hall of fame with this one. Watch Instagram’s Daily Dance king Adam Carpenter as he makes it rain Monopoly money on children, dances with the elderly, and gets down with … Thomas Middleditch?


I mean, it’s Björk. We probably don’t even understand how good this video really is.


Yeah, no, that’s not where we thought this was going, but thank God it didn’t.

“On My Way”—Axwell & Ingrosso

Former Swedish House Mafia members Sebastian Ingrosso and Axwell Hedfors have teamed up and made a multi-part action-packed blockbuster for our enjoyment. A pair of hustlers run afoul of some very violent men, and now they’ve got to run for their lives. What happens next?! Watch the second part here to see where the story goes.

“Give Me a Try”—The Wombats

This video from The Wombats at once mocks and pays tribute to the selfie-obsessed culture of dating and hooking up through online platforms. You know these characters. And even if you don’t know them, you’ve probably swiped right or left on at least a couple.

“Fester Skank”—Lethal Bizzle feat. Diztortion

If “Shake It Little Tina” hadn’t been so clearly the winner of this week’s roundup, British MC Lethal Bizzle’s humane use chickens on leashes might have taken the top spot. It’s a new dance. No tango.

“Battle (It’s Beautiful)”—The Angry Kids feat. Belle Humble

Monochromatic ninja clone armies doing battle in the shadow realm—that’s pretty much what’s going on here. Our money is on Team Scarlet.

“Sylvester Stallone”—Powell

Beware of information overload! The practical effects in this music video are pretty intense, and call to mind less Sylvester Stallone than they do Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Total Recall face transformation scene. And we’ll never be mad about some Paul Verhoeven-style realness.

“Dear Future Husband”—Meghan Trainor

Trainor comes to the table here with a doo-woppy take on Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” visual. Sometimes music videos just need to be glossy and shiny and fun. Pop music, amirite?

“Stronger”—Clean Bandit

So, Clean Bandit made this video in partnership with Microsoft and shot it with a bunch of Lumia phones or something, but all of that is irrelevant in the face of how outright joyful it is, with one of the best lip sync performances we’ve ever seen by a humble tour bus driver. He just wants to be stronger, y’all!

Google Is Making a Luxury Watch With Tag Heuer and Intel

David Singleton, director of Android engineering for Google, speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 25, 2014. David Singleton, director of Android engineering for Google Inc., speaks during the Google I/O Annual Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 25, 2014. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

To welcome the giant crowd at Baselworld, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Breitling, Hubot, and just about every other high-end watchmaker has built huge booths to show off their latest timepieces. David Singleton, Google’s director of engineering for Android Wear, sounds almost giddy to be there, among the giants at the premier event for watchmakers everywhere. “So many booths, all of them with many, many different designs—different shapes, different colors, different straps,” he says. “The actual industry out there is all about trying to suit the needs of every individual customer, every individual person out there.”

Not surprisingly, so is Google. It’s announcing a partnership today with Intel and luxury timepiece brand Tag Heuer, promising that together the companies will launch a luxury Android Wear watch in 2015. None of the three partners would offer many specifics, except to say they’re particularly interested in the intersection of the small details that make mechanical watches so beautiful, and the new technology that comes from Android Wear and smartwatches in general. But this, they seem to think, is the start of something big.

As Singleton notes, this will be just one of several partnerships Google has entered since Android Wear’s inception. Tag Heuer isn’t even necessarily the only high-end brand Google will partner with; it’s just the first. But make no mistake: This union is, in distinctly open-armed Google-y fashion, an attempt to compete with the Apple Watch on its level. It will be a high-end device, through and through, and though Singleton didn’t offer pricing details it’s almost certainly going to be expensive.

Tag Heuer, Singleton says, has a history of technological innovation. “They were the first to launch a watch that had a chronograph,” he explains. “A stopwatch that could measure to hundredths of a second, using a mechanical movement. That is actually a huge feat.” Partnering with a company that is both deeply embedded in the luxury watch market and interested in the forefront of technology is a perfect fit for Google.

Tag Heuer has a history of creating avant-garde watch tech

It also offers access to a market Google has so far mostly ignored with Android Wear. Its best smartwatches, from the Moto 360 to the Asus ZenWatch and the new Huawei Watch, are relatively cheap; even the ones that look nice do so in Timex or Seiko fashion. That’s a far cry from Rolex-level lust. For Google, Tag Heuer opens up a new price range, a new kind of user, and a wealth of understanding of the high-end watch market that Google sorely needs and currently lacks.

Apple’s Watch presents a unique challenge by targeting every level of the market, from $350 to $17,000. Ultimately, though, it’s fundamentally the same product across the board. Google is betting that there are buyers who won’t want what the Apple Watch offers, and it plans to provide something to truly meet every different need. Including, for the first time, the high end. “We think just like Android on phones, the sum of our parts is greater than any of us could accomplish on our own,” Singleton says. “We’ve already been working together for a while, and I’ve already learned so much.”

Intel is a slightly less obvious partner, since it hasn’t yet established a strong presence in the field of wearables. Still, it’s an intriguing one. Singleton says that the union is as simple as recognizing Intel’s history of making great products, and that one thing Intel will focus on is the sheer size of a smartwatch’s key components; so much of what Google and Tag Heuer can do is limited by the physical space afforded to them.

Google’s Android Wear push has been relentless. It’s enlisted tech company after tech company, trying new things and learning what users want from a smartwatch. With Tag Heuer on board, Google’s going to quickly learn a lot about how to partner that learning with truly exceptional hardware. That’s going to be very good for Google—and for you, if you’re in the market for Android Wear brains in a luxury body.

Startup Raises $40M to Keep Small Businesses’ Cash Flowing

It takes money to make money, so the saying goes. Which is why, for so many small businesses, the sometimes months-long gap between filing an invoice and actually getting paid can spell death when you’re already barely scraping by.

Enter FundBox, an alternative lending startup that’s trying to fix this problem by doling out advances to small businesses on invoices of anywhere from $100 to $25,000. And now, Fundbox has raised a little money of its own—a $40 million Series B round led by General Catalyst Partners, to be exact—which will help expand its service in the increasingly competitive world of alternative lending.

The Fundbox team. CEO Eyal Shinar is sixth from the left. The Fundbox team. CEO Eyal Shinar is sixth from the left. Fundbox

The tech world has been all but flooded with online lenders in recent years, just as the pool of small business bank loans has essentially dried up. And while this market’s still young, it’s already had some notable success stories. LendingClub, a peer-to-peer lender, went public in December, raising just over $1 billion in its initial public offering. Soon after, OnDeck, another lender, raised $200 million in its IPO. Meanwhile, other platforms like Kabbage, CAN Capital, and Square Capital abound, offering to help businesses pay for new equipment and other expenses with fixed term loans and merchant cash advances.

“All of these are terrific for the small business capital area, which has really been starved for a long time,” says Karen Mills, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former administrator of the US Small Business Administration. “Banks have not been in the business of lending to smaller businesses, because it’s very hard to assess the risk, and it ends up not being very profitable for banks. So, these new companies are filling the gap in the marketplace that banks don’t find economical to fill.”

But unlike these competitors, Fundbox aims to address a more narrow and immediate need, says co-founder and CEO Eyal Shinar, and that is, paying business owners for the work they’ve already done. It was inspired, in large part, by Shinar’s mother, who ran her own staffing company in Israel and would sometimes struggle with the lag time between doing the work and getting paid. “It’s your money,” Shinar says. “It’s just about getting paid now versus in 60 or 90 days.”

How It Works

Fundbox integrates directly with a business’s accounting software, allowing them to upload all their outstanding invoices at once. It takes a matter of hours for the first invoice to get approved, during which Fundbox’s algorithms try to filter out fraudsters and determine whether or not the business is healthy enough to actually repay the advance. They look for a range of triggers that an invoice, or a business, might be fake, like whether or not the IP address, computer, and where the accounting software is registered all match.

The Fundbox dashboard. The Fundbox dashboard. Fundbox

To build these algorithms, Fundbox’s engineers drew from their experience serving as Israeli intelligence agents in Unit 8200. “Let’s just say tracing bad intentions related to fraud isn’t very different than tracing someone who’s trying to blow up a building,” says Shinar.

Fundbox then lets businesses know how much credit it’s willing to extend them based on all the data it’s collected. After the first advance is approved, every subsequent invoice gets approved or rejected instantly, a crucial detail for businesses when time is of the essence.

Business owners can then pay Fundbox back over the course of 12 weeks, including the flat monthly transaction fee Fundbox charges. The fee varies based on the loan amount, but Fundbox shares that figure with its customers in advance.

‘The Key Is Transparency’

This straightforward fee structure, says Mills, is critical to preventing these new lenders—many of which aren’t subject to federal oversight—from abusing cash-strapped individuals the way payday lenders do. “We don’t want this industry to become a place where people don’t know what they’re paying or can’t have access to the ability to compare prices and shop for the best deal,” she says. “The key is to make sure these companies operate with transparency.”

Fundbox still has a long way to go before it catches up to some of its larger competitors. Since it launched in April 2014, Fundbox has accrued around 10,000 customers and advances thousands of invoices a week. Compare that to the more than $2 billion worth of loans that OnDeck has given out over the course of its lifespan.

But according to Mills, the industry is so new, and the need among small businesses is so great, that it’s still anyone’s game to win. “There’s still a lot of room for these new entrants to be created,” she says. “It’s terrific how technology is changing the game, and a gap in the market has been recognized by new entrepreneurs, and they’re stepping in to fill it in a way that’s good for the entrepreneurs and for small businesses.”

Kleiner Keeps Trying To Butcher Pao’s Claims

Ellen Pao. Ellen Pao. Lauren Simkin Berke

A private equity investor rode on a private jet with some venture capitalists and their guests. There was no raunchy talk on the way to New York, he said. Contradicting the claims of a female VC partner on the trip, he said he heard no mention of Eastern European women, strip clubs, or porn stars.

“I recall several discussions on the plane,” investor Andrew Jody Gessow testified Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court about the October 2011 flight. “A lot of what we talked about was family-related and kid-related.”

Just another day at Ellen Pao versus Kleiner Perkins. The storied venture capital firm might be best known for its wise early investments in companies such as Google and Amazon. But these days it’s getting more attention for who said what on a private plane—attention it’s hoping it can quell once and for all by undermining Pao’s gender bias claims.

Pao was the female partner on that jet. She is suing her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for $16 million in damages, claiming she was discriminated against because of her gender, and held back professionally while men at the firm were promoted. Among her evidence is alleged conversations like the one on the plane, which Pao’s attorneys have tried to use to show a pervasive sexist atmosphere at the firm.

And it’s those claims that on Wednesday defense attorneys for Kleiner tried to break down.

According to Gessow’s testimony, four people sat at the front of the plane during the trip to New York—Kleiner Perkins managing partner Ted Schlein, textbook rental company Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig, Pao, and Gessow. In her testimony, Pao said she heard talk of porn stars on television shows, older men dating younger women, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, “hot” female executives, and the Playboy mansion.

But in Gessow’s version of events, the conversation was hardly racy. He testified that the Playboy mansion had indeed come up, but only in the context of his job as an investor. “[It was] interesting how low the value of the company had come,” he said. “And one passenger said he had visited the mansion.”

The Victoria’s Secret fashion show wasn’t mentioned at all, according to Gessow’s testimony. Rosensweig had, however, talked about going to fashion week and bringing his daughter, he said.

A Kleiner lawyer asked about each of the other topics, ticking them off one by one. Was there any discussion about the type of women Ted Schlein liked? Older men dating younger women? Marissa Mayer as a “hot” executive? Strip clubs? Gessow said no to all, and under questioning, added that he would have remembered if the conversation had been inappropriate.

In a rather uneasy cross-exam, Pao’s lawyer, Therese Lawless, sought to establish that because of a ski accident earlier in 2011, Gessow had to be under heavy narcotic pain medication and may not have remembered the entire conversation. Gessow agreed that one symptom was an impact on his memory, but protested, “I have plenty of cognitive capacity.”

The Kleiner Review Process, Reviewed

Kleiner also called human resources expert witness Rhoma Young to the stand. She said it was unusual for a small firm like Kleiner to include federal Equal Employment Opportunity language in a hiring letter as they did with Pao’s, intimating the firm had gone beyond the norm to highlight its commitment to equality in the workplace. Pao’s team has hammered on Kleiner’s inability to find a copy of an official anti-discrimination policy for an outside investigator brought in to probe claims of bias at the firm.

Young also testified that Kleiner had one of the most complete, thorough and well-documented performance evaluation policies she’d ever seen. She said it would have been difficult for bias to creep in because so many people contributed to the reviews. Pao’s performance reviews have been a central point of contention as each side tries to use them to show Pao was or wasn’t qualified for the job. According to Young, Pao was treated well by Kleiner all the way up to the end.

In her cross-examination, Pao attorney Therese Lawless tried to undermine Young’s credentials, at one point asking Young to confirm whether she had ever been served with a cease-and-desist order in relation to her work conducting workplace investigations. Young confirmed the incident, but said it only had to do with her not being an attorney-at-law.

A Male Partner Says Personality Is Important For Success

In the afternoon, Kleiner’s defense team called Matt Murphy, who was a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins during Ellen Pao’s time at the firm, 2005 to 2012. According to Murphy, it took him five-and-a-half years to get a board seat of his own. “[The venture capital industry] humbles you every day,” he said. Murphy also testified that it takes a venture capitalist a while to “develop pattern-matching—or to recognize what a good team looks like.”

Continuing the tack Kleiner has employed thus far, much of Murphy’s testimony focused on Pao’s personality. He characterized her as hard to get to know and “not the warmest person,” adding that she spent a lot of her time acting more senior than her other colleagues at Kleiner. She was entitled, he testified, didn’t know her place at the firm. Even early on in her career, Pao was “a bit too opinionated.”

He recounted an incident in which Pao fell asleep at a board meeting to which he had taken her, an incident he said “was really embarrassing.” When he brought it up to Pao, he testified, she became defensive and told him, “It was boring.” He said that another time, Pao “just didn’t show up” to an important summit.

Under questioning by Kleiner defense attorney Lynne Hermle, Murphy explained why he agreed personality should be reviewed in performance reviews. “Interpersonal skills are significant part of many performance reviews,” he said. “The more you get people to want to work with you, the more they open up and share things. And it represents the firm well.”

According to Murphy’s testimony, what was really needed to be successful at Kleiner Perkins was to be a good investor, good board member, and a good partner—with the last being the most important. “To be a good partner, you need to work well with others, be supportive, be collaborative, and be sought out,” he testified. “You need to think about the firm overall, not just yourself.”

Internet TV’s Big Chance to Oust Cable Is Almost Here

Internet television’s turning point—the time when we can finally cut the cable cord—is almost here.

On Wednesday, in three American cities, Sony launched an internet television service that streams more than 50 channels into homes via its PlayStation game consoles. And little more than a day earlier, word arrived that Apple is building a similar service for use with its Apple TV set-top boxes. These big-name tech companies are following several others in the push to stream television over the net—without requiring ties to traditional cable TV services—and together, they’re approaching a new peak.

Sony’s service, you see, offers all but one of the big sports broadcasters. CBS, Fox, and NBC are all on board. Apple is pushing towards its own sports-happy deals. And sports is really all that cable has left.

Sports is one of those last things that makes people still want to watch TV in a linear fashion. Tony Emerson, Microsoft

Today, the big difference between cable TV and internet TV is live programming. “Sports is one of those last things that makes people still want to watch TV in a linear fashion,” says Tony Emerson, a Microsoft managing director who works closely with hundreds of the world’s media and cable TV companies.

Unlike almost everything else on TV, sports happen in the moment. And fans want to be there for that moment. Emerson points to himself as an example: “I am a big fan of Formula One and I will still stay up until 2 a.m. to see a race in the Far East—partly so my brother doesn’t call me to tell me who won and partly because I want to see it right away.”

Yes, internet TV makes it easier to view programming on any device, from TVs to phones, and it gives you more freedom to watch stuff when you want to watch it. But many wouldn’t dream of cutting their cable cords because they would lose live games from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NCAA, and other popular sports organizations.

In recent years, however, even live sports have pushed onto the net, because that’s where so many people want to watch them. Typically, this comes with strings attached. You can’t watch the Olympics online, for instance, unless you key in credentials for a home cable TV subscription. But now, a wide range of forces—from changes in the way people view stuff on cable to the new internet TV habits engendered by services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video—are pushing broadcasters towards unfettered sports-laden services from likes of Sony. These services are on verge of reality.

“Live events—sports and others, but mainly sports—are certainly an impediment to cord cutting,” says Stephen Beck, the founder of a consulting firm called cg42, which has closely studied the move to internet television over the last few years. “But this problem will ultimately be solved.”

Sling Opens the Gates to Cord-Cutting

This move all started with a service called Sling TV. Sling was built by satellite TV company Dish, but it doesn’t send TV signals via satellite. It sends them over the internet—and its collection of channels includes ESPN, the preeminent cable sports channel now owned Disney.

“This was the one that could break the camel’s back,” says Emerson, who helps media and cable companies across the globe build internet TV services atop Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service. Emerson has seen firsthand a huge shift in the way these businesses treat the net. “Once you can get ESPN unbundled from the cable system, it puts into question the whole bundle [idea] for lots of different channels.”

Sony’s new service doesn’t offer ESPN or its sister network, ABC. But it does offer all the other big American sports broadcasters. It streams feeds from the local CBS, NBC, and Fox affiliates in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and yes, this includes all the usual sports coverage, according to Sony. And no, you don’t need a cable TV subscription to use it—-just a PlayStation and a broadband internet connection.

Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal , Apple is in talks with traditional television programmers as it seeks to offer a streaming service that includes about 25 channels, including ABC, CBS, and Fox. The rub, the Journal reports, is that the talks don’t include NBC. Apparently, there was a “falling out” between Apple and NBC’s parent company, Comcast.

It’s hardly surprising that Comcast is the one holdout. After all, it’s a cable TV company. According another report from tech news site 9to5Mac, NBC and Comcast are now looking to offer their own NBC app on Apple TV—an app can’t be used unless you’re also a cable TV subscriber. “At the end of the day,” says Beck. “Comcast wants to preserve its existing model.” But remember: NBC is available on Sony’s service. The landscape is shifting. The walls are cracking.

Change Abounds for Internet TV

The reasons are myriad. Sling’s deal with ESPN, it seems, came about in part because Disney did a little horse-trading to stop some of the commercial skipping that is so common on today’s cable and satellite services. (It agreed to offer its channels over a Dish internet TV service, and Dish agreed to limit commercial skipping on its Hopper set-top box). And due to the government consent decree it signed in order to acquire NBCUniversal years ago, Comcast may be under pressure to offer up NBC programming to services outside its own cable TV offering.

What we see is the growth of broadband-only homes. Cord cutting is happening, and it's been happening for years. Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch

But most notably, people are changing the way they consume TV. According to one study, about 7.6 million households have cut the cable cord. Dish TV began as a satellite TV company but it’s moving into internet because that’s what so many people want. “What we see is the growth of broadband-only homes,” says Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch. “Cord cutting is happening, and it’s been happening for years.”

The likes of Comcast are feeling the same heat. “Anytime you have a customer base as frustrated as the traditional cable providers’ customers are,” Beck says, citing a cb24 study that indicates that 53 percent of cable customers say they would leave their cable provider if they hand another viable alternative for TV, “you have an environment that’s ripe for technology companies to disrupt it.”

The heat will only increase as the sport leagues start negotiating directly with internet-only services—without going through the cable and satellite providers. In some cases, they’re already moving in this direction. As Lynch points out, the European golf tour recently went straight to the net.

The Future Is Nearly Here

To be sure, we’re a long way from everyone getting all their TV online. There are too many things that need to change.

Existing rights deals can prevent unfettered access to some sport programming on the internet (because wireless phone service provider Verizon has an exclusive deal for Monday Night Football, Sling TV can’t show the MNF games on phones). A cable company like Comcast still has reason to slow the move to internet streaming (witness: the Apple talks). And the internet, well, can’t yet handle all programming.

“If we went entirely to delivering TV over IP today,” says Microsoft’s Emerson, referring to the internet networking protocol, “do you know how fast the internet would stop?”

As Emerson rightly says, we don’t really know what internet TV will look like in the years to come. But we know it won’t look like it does today.

Become an NSA Spook in This iPhone Puzzle Game

TouchTone combines puzzles with NSA-style snooping. TouchTone combines puzzles with NSA-style snooping. TouchTone

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like on the other side of the surveillance state—to be the one doing the snooping, as opposed to being the one getting snooped on—you now have the chance, in a somewhat unlikely form: A Laser Chess-style puzzle game for your iPhone.

In TouchTone, you play an NSA analyst, alternatively solving simple geometric puzzles and scanning peoples’ emails for national security threats. The puzzles are fun, but it’s the stuff in between that’s really interesting. The game presents a simple, stylized take on the job, to be sure, but it can be a powerful experience nonetheless. As you’re trying to decide whether a particular message is pertinent to national security, you can’t help but feel in a very visceral way the queasy ambiguity at the heart of state surveillance.

Intercepted emails Intercepted emails TouchTone

The game was created by Michael Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend, who work together under the name Mikengreg. They’re responsible for the well-known games Solipskier and Gasketball. More recently, Wohlwend illustrated the cheerful visual design of the hit puzzle game Threes.

Boxleiter had worked out the basic puzzle elements of TouchTone for a game jam in 2012, but the two were struggling to figure out the extra something needed to make the game feel complete. The answer came suddenly with Edward Snowden and the PRISM revelations.

The concept fit well with the puzzle mechanics, which the developers felt had a bit of a hacker vibe all along. Still, it took a while to figure out the right tone for the controversial issue. “At first we were going to go for a little satire, and throw in some jokes at the NSA’s expense,” Boxleiter says. “I realized after a while that maybe we could say something a little more real and a little more important.”

Boxleiter ended up writing an elaborate story centering around a American Muslim engineer, which unfolds in the form of emails intercepted over the course of the game. It took months of writing and rewriting. “Not many people have made a game like this, so it feels like uncharted territory,” Boxleiter says.

The game ends up balancing subtle satire with a vague, sinister vibe. At one point in the development process, after they’d shed the initial jokiness and embraced a straighter approach to the conceit, Boxleiter and Wohlwend took the game to a play-testing event in Chicago and claimed they were contracted by the NSA to make it. At least one beta tester believed them, a reaction Wohlwend and Boxleiter took as a job well done.