Exposing the Murky World of Online Ads Aimed at Kids

When YouTube released an app specifically for kids a couple months back, many parents rejoiced. If the app worked as promised, they’d have to worry less about their kids stumbling onto grown-up content on the video network, much less on cable’s carnival of depravity. But a more insidious threat may be afoot in this supposedly innocent walled-off world.

At least, that’s the claim of 10 consumer watchdog groups who filed a joint complaint today with the Federal Trade Commission over the YouTube Kids app, claiming it misleads parents and violates rules on “unfair and deceptive marketing” for kids.

YouTube launched their kid-targeted app in February in the hopes of offering “a safer and easier” way for tots to find shows like Reading Rainbow and Thomas the Tank Engine online. The app promised to limit content to family-friendly videos, channels, and educational clips—a concept pretty much lauded by parents. But child advocacy groups say YouTube is deceiving kids by mixing ads and content without clear delineations.

That may or may not be the case. But in raising the issue at all, the complaint casts light on a wider concern. When it comes to advertising to kids, the rules for the internet are fuzzier than the tightly regulated world of television, in large part because internet advertising itself is always changing. In the meantime, kids could be left vulnerable.

Blurring the Boundaries

The YouTube Kids app intermingles ad clips in areas where shows are listed, features popular hosts selling products, and offers shows that look like ads without any indication that they are commercials, according to the complaint. In other words, YouTube is getting away with all the things kid-friendly cable channels such as Nickelodeon can’t, says Angela Campbell, counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, who helped file the complaint. “They can’t have hosts selling products, they can’t have programs write commercials, and they have a limit on the amount of advertising they have per hour,” she says.

These restrictions come courtesy of the Federal Communications Commission, which has had strict rules about how network and cable channels can advertise to kids since the 1970s. By the agency’s rationale, children haven’t developed the cognitive skills to distinguish between ads and content (or even read!). As a result, the FCC has set time limits on the number of ads allowed per hour during children’s programming. It’s also banned TV characters from selling products and prohibits product placement on kid channels and shows.

But while TV ads are strictly regulated, rules for ads on the Internet and apps are in flux. The FCC has jurisdiction over TV, but advocacy groups are instead appealing to the FTC’s broader powers to monitor these allegedly deceptive ad tactics online. Several YouTube Kids series, such as the LEGO Friends Channel, which shows popular LEGO characters and toys, are essentially ads, the complaint claims. YouTube Kids’ user-generated videos, meanwhile, show kids unwrapping toys or candy but fail to indicate when the videos have been paid for by the makers of those products. “It’s sort of hard even for an adult to determine what’s an ad and what’s content,” Campbell says.

Worst of all? YouTube fails parents too, the complaint says, because it promises its ads are all pre-approved, yet certain channels and shows seem to violate its own ad policy. YouTube’s policy, for example, states that no food or beverage ads will be shown to kids (a concern related to the dangers of childhood obesity), but McDonald’s has its own channel promoting Happy Meal toys. The complaint even suggests Google may be tracking kids’ viewing habits in order to make recommendations for what videos kids should watch next—a strict violation of online privacy laws for the young.

It’s an Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World

While these alleged violations would creep viewers out if practiced on TV, they don’t sound very far off from everyday practice in the adult online world. We are constantly bombarded with stories that appear to be content but turn out to be ads. We adults see sponsored stories right next to news (even here at WIRED). On YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest we follow people who tout clothes or play with gadgets they’ve been given by sponsors. For adults, the failure to clean up the mix between ads and content doesn’t seem so pressing. But what about for kids?

YouTube says it disagrees with the complaint. “We worked with numerous partners and child advocacy groups when developing YouTube Kids,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement to WIRED. “While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”

The FTC says it will review the complaint. In the meantime, until the rules around internet advertising to kids are clarified, parents will have to decide how comfortable they are putting their offspring into the position of having to distinguish entertainment from sales pitch, fact from ad copy. As with so much else online, the rules for old media don’t port easily to the rapidly evolving world of entertainment on the internet. But the need to update them is urgent: the internet is quickly becoming the only place where kids watch. They shouldn’t be left entirely to their own devices.

Hacker Lexicon: What Are Phishing and Spear Phishing?

Your I.T. department has no doubt warned you not to click on suspicious links in e-mails, even when the missive promises a hilarious video or comes from a seemingly trustworthy source. If the link looks suspect: Do. Not. Click.

That’s because these emails are often phishing scams designed to trick you into clicking on a malicious attachment or visiting a malicious web site. In the latter case, the web site may appear to be a legitimate bank site or email site designed to trick the user into disclosing sensitive information—such as a username and password or bank account information—or may simply surreptitiously download malware onto the victim’s computer.

Just ask the White House employee who apparently clicked on a phishing email purporting to come from the State Department and allowed hackers into several government networks.

TL;DR: Phishing refers to malicious emails that are designed to trick the recipient into clicking on a malicious attachment or visiting a malicious web site. Spear-phishing is a more targeted form of phishing that appears to come from a trusted acquaintance.

Spear-phishing is a more targeted form of phishing. Whereas ordinary phishing involves malicious emails sent to any random email account, spear-phishing emails are designed to appear to come from someone the recipient knows and trusts—such as a colleague, business manager or human resources department—and can include a subject line or content that is specifically tailored to the victim’s known interests or industry. For really valuable victims, attackers may study their Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking accounts to gain intelligence about a victim and choose the names of trusted people in their circle to impersonate or a topic of interest to lure the victim and gain their trust.

An estimated 91-percent of hacking attacks begin with a phishing or spear-phishing email. Although firewalls and other security products on the perimeter of a company’s network may help prevent other kinds of malicious traffic from entering the network—for example through vulnerable ports—email is generally considered legitimate and trusted traffic and is therefore allowed into the network. Email filtering systems can catch some phishing attempts, but they don’t catch all of them. Phishing attacks are so successful because employees click on them at an alarming rate, even when emails are obviously suspicious.

One of the most famous examples of a spear-phishing attack that succeeded despite its suspicious nature targeted the RSA Security firm in 2011.

The attackers sent two different targeted phishing emails to four workers at RSA’s parent company EMC. The emails contained a malicious attachment with the file name “2011 Recruitment plan.xls,” which contained a zero-day exploit.

When one of the four recipients clicked on the attachment, the exploit attacked a vulnerability in Adobe Flash to install a backdoor onto the victim’s computer.

“The email was crafted well enough to trick one of the employees to retrieve it from their Junk mail folder, and open the attached excel file,” RSA wrote in a blog post about the attack.

The backdoor gave the attackers a foothold from which to conduct reconnaissance and map a way to more valuable systems on the company’s network. They eventually succeeded in stealing information related to the company’s SecurID two-factor authentication products. The attack was surprising because everyone assumed that a top security firm like RSA would have trained employees who know better than to open suspicious emails. Yet one of its employees not only opened one of the suspicious emails but retrieved it from his junk folder—after his email filter had deemed it suspicious—in order to open it.

Another surprising victim of a spear-phishing attack was the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The lab, also hacked in 2011, got hit with a phishing email that appeared to come from the human resources department and included a link to a web page where malware downloaded to victims’ machines. The attackers sent the email to 530 of the lab’s 5,000 workers, and fifty seven people clicked on the malicious link in the email. Only two machines got infected with the malware, but this was enough to get the attackers onto the network. They were discovered only after administrators noticed megabytes of data being siphoned from the lab’s network.

The hack was so surprising because the high-security federal lab conducts classified energy and national security work for the government, including work on nuclear nonproliferation and isotope production. But the lab, ironically, also does cybersecurity research—work that focuses on, among other things, researching phishing attacks.

Your Cheap, Macbook-Friendly USB-C Cables Are Finally Here

When Apple announced its slender, pixel-packed new MacBook last month, it ushered in the era of USB-C, the next-generation port that handles all your charging and connectivity needs. The only problem? Affordable USB-C cables hadn’t yet been ushered in along with it. Today that changes, with budget monolith Monoprice selling an array of affordable options.

It’s an important step even if you have no intention of buying Apple’s low-powered, gold-optional MacBook. USB-C will become the standard across most platforms; it’s already made an appearance in Google’s recent Chromebook Pixel refresh. Which is good! USB-C offers a bevy of benefits over the USB connections that we use today, including bi-directional charging (which is why it could replace MagSafe in the MacBook) and double the data transfer speeds. It’s also, crucially, reversible, meaning no more frustrating jabs at ports. It’s undeniably the future, and the future is very bright.

The present, though, has been dimmed by the lack of available USB-C cables that let you actually take advantage of all of those features. So far you’ve been stuck with Apple’s overpriced offerings, including a $29 USB-C to USB-C cable, a $19 USB-C to USB adapter, and a pair of $79 multiport adaptors. In fact, Apple doesn’t even currently offer a USB-C to USB cable, which makes charging all of your existing gear more complicated and frustrating than anyone deserves. For that, your only hope so far has been a $20 Belkin offering that was announced in March but is still listed as “coming soon” on Belkin’s website.

If all of this sounds needlessly expensive and confusing, especially given how routine and essential the act of simply connecting two devices should be, that’s because it is. Enter Monoprice, longtime purveyor of surprisingly cheap accessories and gear. Its range of USB-C cables—there are six in all—have the twin benefits of being both inexpensive and, for the most part, available today. The Monoprice version of Belkin’s USB-C to USB cable, for instance, costs half as much, while the Monoprice USB-C to USB adaptor costs $12 to the Apple equivalent’s $19.

It’s also not like you’re risking much by going with the budget alternative. Not only does Monoprice have a well-earned reputation for quality, there’s only so much that can go wrong with a three-foot cable. Put another way: If Monoprice can turn out a serviceable action camera for a hundred bucks, it’s abundantly likely to produce cables that work as advertised.

As USB-C proliferates, you’ll have plenty more options available to you, including pack-in cables you don’t have to shell out extra for. For now, though, Monoprice isn’t just your best, cheapest bet; for some things, it’s your only one.

NY Cops Used ‘Stingray’ Spy Tool 46 Times Without Warrant

A stingray, made by Harris Corp. A stingray, made by Harris Corp. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

The police department in Erie County, New York fought hard to prevent the New York Civil Liberties Union from obtaining records about its use of a controversial surveillance tool known as a stingray.

The reason why may be because of what the records show: that cops in that county, which includes the city of Buffalo, used the devices 47 times since 2010 but only once sought and obtained a court order to do so. That revelation contradicts what the county sheriff said last year when he asserted that the department only used the devices under “judicial review.”

In the single case in which police sought permission from a court, they asked for a court order rather than a warrant, which carries a higher burden of proof. And in their request, they mischaracterized the true nature of the tool.

“These records confirm some of the very worst fears about local law enforcement’s use of this expensive and intrusive surveillance equipment.”

The records, which the NYCLU published in a blog post today, also show that the county sheriff’s office signed a stringent gag order with the FBI to maintain secrecy about their stingray records. The department was told to withhold information about the devices in any documents filed with courts, such as affidavits and other documents describing how they obtained evidence in criminal cases. The department was even told that the FBI maintained the right to intervene in county prosecutions to request criminal cases be dismissed if there was a chance that a case might result in the disclosure of information about law enforcement’s use of stingrays.

“Stingrays are an advanced surveillance technology that can sweep up very private information, including information on innocent people,” NYCLU Western Region Director John Curr III said in a statement. “If the FBI can command the Sheriff’s Office to dismiss criminal cases to protect its secret stingrays, it is not clear how the $350,000 we are spending on stingray equipment is keeping the people of Buffalo safer.”

The revelations continue a trend in several states across the U.S. wherein law enforcement agencies have gone to great lengths to prevent the public from learning about their use of stingrays. The surveillance tool simulates a legitimate cell phone tower to trick mobile phones and other devices on a cellular network into connecting to the devices and revealing their location. Stingrays emit a signal that is stronger than the signal of other cell towers in the vicinity in order to force mobile phones and other devices to establish a connection with them and reveal their unique ID. Stingrays can then determine the direction from which the phone connected— a data point that can then be used to track the movement of the phone as it continuously connects to the fake tower.

Many police departments have signed non-disclosure agreements with the Harris Corporation, one of the leading makers of the devices, to prevent them from releasing records about the systems or discussing them. In Florida, the U.S. Marshals service went so far as to seize records about a local police department’s use of stingrays in order to prevent the American Civil Liberties Union from obtaining them. And many law enforcement agencies have deceived judges about their use of the devices in order to prevent defendants and the public from learning about how they’re being used.

Erie County similarly fought hard to prevent the NYCLU from obtaining these records but was ordered to turn them over by a court. The documents show that the sheriff’s office used stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010 and October 3, 2014. The one time the department sought judicial approval was in October 2014, contrary to what Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard said in May, 2014: that the devices were used under “judicial review” in all criminal matters, implying that investigators always seek court approval before using them.

Not only this, but the records show that when the department did seek a court order, they identified the spy tool they planned to use as a pen register device, not a stingray or cell site simulator. The use of the term “pen register device” is controversial. Law enforcement agencies maintain that stingrays operate like pen registers and are not invasive, but this doesn’t paint the picture. Pen registers record the numbers dialed from a specific phone number, but stingrays are used primarily to track the location and movement of a device and can be much more invasive than pen registers. By describing the tool as a pen register device to the judge, the law enforcement agency was withholding information about the full capability of the device.

In fact, the public has yet to learn exactly how much these surveillance tools can really do, due to the secrecy around them. Recently, a federal agent admitted to a court that stingrays have the ability to disrupt cellular communications for any device in its vicinity, not just the ones targeted by law enforcement. And there are also stingray devices that have the ability to collect the content of phone calls, though U.S. law enforcement agencies have often insisted that the ones they use have this capability disabled.

Although there’s still much more the public should know about how and when law enforcement uses this invasive spying tool, it’s clear departments will continue to do everything in their power to keep the public, and judges, in the dark.

Rolls-Royce Takes the First Step in Building an…SUV

Back in February, Rolls-Royce finally confirmed rumors that it plans to produce a “high-bodied” vehicle capable of crossing “any terrain.” In other words, an SUV (of some sort).

Lest you think that was some elaborate practical joke, know that Rolls-Royce does not make jokes. It’s far too serious about its reputation for building impeccable road cars to indulge in such silliness.

Today, the BMW-owned luxury marque revealed some details on Project Cullinan, its code name for the new vehicle. It showed off an engineering mule—one of those camouflaged tester vehicles car magazines salivate to photograph—except Rolls isn’t trying to hide this one. Because it doesn’t reveal anything at all about what the rock-hopping SUV will look like.

This mule, based on a shortened Phantom Series II chassis, is made for developing the all-wheel drive system Rolls says will deliver a “magic-carpet” ride both on-road and off. It won’t be rocking the trails at Moab just yet. It will first spend time both on public roads and on special test tracks. Company engineers are focusing on on-road performance first, testing the car on things like cobblestone roads (because sure, hand-paved driveways count as off-road) for suspension throw and high-bodied stability. After all, this will be a vehicle that must be able to handle just about anything while meeting “customers’ highly mobile, contemporary lifestyle expectations.”

No launch date has even been hinted at, but since Rolls-Royce motorcars start at $285,000, expect whatever the final product is to be filled with exquisite luxury and, perhaps, even astounding off-road performance.

New mechanisms of 'social networking' in bacteria discovered

Bacteria have traditionally been viewed as solitary organisms that "hang out on their own," says molecular biologist Kevin Griffith of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. However, scientists now realize that in fact, bacteria exhibit social behavior within groups.

As he explains, "Individual bacteria within a population communicate with members of the group through a process called quorum sensing, where chemical signals and extracellular peptides serve as the language for bacterial communication." It is not just "social" networking, he adds. Bacterial communities use quorum sensing to control a variety of biomedically relevant biological processes.

In a new paper in a recent early online edition of Molecular Microbiology, he and co-authors Kristina Boguslawski and Patrick Hill describe how they deciphered this bacterial communication to reveal new mechanisms of regulating gene expression in the model bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

"Research in my lab is devoted to deciphering these different bacterial languages, understanding how bacteria perceive these signals, and determining how bacteria use this information to regulate biological processes at the molecular level," says Griffith. "In this paper, we have expanded the range of biological processes known to be controlled by a plasmid-encoded quorum response pair known as Rap60-Phr60.

Using biochemical approaches, the authors found that Rap60 regulates the activity of two important transcription factors by "mechanisms never before observed for Rap proteins," says Griffith. "This work changes the way we think about these important regulatory proteins. The implications likely extend beyond Bacillus biology as they represent potential novel targets for the development of antibiotic and therapeutics in pathogenic bacteria."

In addition to providing fundamental knowledge about how this regulation occurs in a non-pathogenic bacterium like B. subtilis, understanding these pathways has the potential to provide new insight into how pathogenic bacteria regulate virulence factors and colonize hosts, which can have a profound impact on human health, he adds.

He explains, "Bacteria within a population secrete extracellular signals that provide the cue to coordinate biological processes as a group. Many pathogenic bacteria use these extracellular signals to regulate the production of antibiotics and virulence factors, the timing of which is important in disease."

Each species of bacteria has its own unique language, the authors say. In addition, there are "universal signals, analogous to Morse code, used for communication between different species of bacteria," says Griffith. "In microbial communities, bacteria within a similar group communicate with one another, while other groups are eavesdropping or even disrupting the others' communication. It is biological espionage. Bacteria that can communicate with one another and work together as a group will be more successful in competing for resources than individuals."

The researchers found, in addition to controlling the production of degradative enzymes, which was already known, that the Rap60 protein inhibits sporulation, genetic competence (the uptake of foreign DNA), and biofilm formation. Phr60 acts as an extracellular cell-cell signaling peptide that coordinates the activity of Rap60 with population density, says Griffith.

In the future, he adds, "We are currently looking at the role Rap60 and other Rap proteins play in regulating gene expression under a variety of different growth conditions. It is becoming increasingly clear that Rap proteins are more versatile than we originally believed in terms of the number of pathways they control and the range of different mechanisms used to regulate gene expression. In addition, we are expanding our investigations to better understand inter-species signaling between B. subtilis and other bacterial and eukaryotic microbes that have biomedical importance."

Story Source:

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

We Bet Square Enix’s Interactive Livestream Is a New Deus Ex

Can’t Kill Progress is a Twitch channel that went live yesterday morning, an alternate reality game leading up to the reveal, tomorrow morning, of a new videogame from developer Square Enix. We’re thinking it’s a new game in the Deus Ex series of futuristic action role playing games. Here’s why.

The story began with a hooded man held captive in a sparse prison cell, our view into the situation provided via the eight security cameras positioned around his cell. Over the first day, we have discovered that his name is Thomas, that he needs some sort of medication, and that he is (or is pretending to be) unaware as to why he is being held.

Threads on Reddit, NeoGAF, and 4chan have gone into much greater detail digging into the minutiae of the ARG, but here’s the important stuff you need to know:

Square Enix has come out and said that the game being teased is in development at one of its Western studios. Square Enix currently has three major western studios and intellectual properties in motion: Eidos Montreal, which developed the 2011 cyberpunk hit Deus Ex: Human Revolution; Crystal Dynamics, which has control of the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise; and IO Interactive, which is probably developing a new Hitman game.

We know for sure that Crystal Dynamics is hard at work on the next Tomb Raider, which was announced at last year’s E3. It’s also highly unlikely that this is an entirely new game franchise, because three days of buildup only to announce a totally unknown game wouldn’t be much of a payoff.

Between Deus Ex and Hitman, Deus Ex is the logical assumption, based on what’s gone on in the live teaser so far.

For one, the general aesthetic. The scene our multi-camera view peers in on is definitely futuristic. We’ve seen Thomas get electrocuted by touching the walls, and be fitted with quick-locking sci-fi-looking handcuffs. And the guards who berate, beat, and interrogate him are sporting some arm-armor that looks an awful lot like an augmented arm from Human Revolution.

Another small tidbit: the Twitch “camera feed” will sometimes fake a “crash and reboot.” Analysis of that reboot page shows the line “C:\Users\Cobaalt” and @cobaalt is the Twitter account of Eidos Montreal UI artist Damien Belleville.

There’s also the name of this whole thing: Can’t Kill Progress. It’s a sentiment extremely reminiscent of the futurist ideals presented by biotechnology and augmentation pioneer David Sarif (a major character in Human Revolution) as well as the augmented-humanity concept of the Deus Ex games as a whole.

But so far, nothing has been confirmed, and there’s no smoking gun. The interactive livestream continues for another day, with pivotal “voting” moments at which where the Twitch chatroom community can influence the story taking place at 10:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. Pacific time today. This will culminate in the final vote, and game reveal, at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Angry Nerd: Will Netflix’s Daredevil Fly or Flop?

Angry Nerd: Will Netflix’s Daredevil Fly or Flop?

US Cities Should Follow Paris’ $160M Plan to Boost Cycling

paris-cycle-ft Thibault Camus/AP

Paris has a pollution problem. Instead of the smoke from Gauloise cigarettes and the aroma of freshly baked bread, the air is packed with smog, an issue that got so bad one day last month, the city forcibly halved traffic by allowing only cars with odd-number plates to drive.

Paris is working toward less authoritarian, more considered solutions, including a program that gives drivers up to $11,400 if they trade in an old diesel for an electric car. It changed its public transit fare system to charge passengers equally, whether they’re staying in the city center or commuting in from the far suburbs.

And this week, the City of Lights unveiled a bold, $164 million plan to make itself “the cycling capital of the world” by 2020. The goal of the plan, which goes to the city council for approval April 13, is to triple the share of all trips made by bike from 5 to 15 percent. To get there, in the next five years, it wants to double its network of bike lanes to 870 miles (partly by making many lanes two-way) and drop speed limits on many streets to 18 mph. It would create 10,000 secure bike parking spaces and offer financial incentives for those buying electric and conventional bikes.

Becoming the cycling capital of the world may be out of reach—cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are well ahead of Paris when it comes to share of trips made by bike—but the plan deserves credit for both for its scale and its scope. And there’s plenty American cities can learn from it, says Evan Corey, a senior associate at transportation planning firm Nelson Nygaard.

“It’s ambitious,” Corey says, which isn’t surprising for this city. Paris has one of the world’s largest bike share systems, and it’s been rolling out extensive pro-pedestrian initiatives in recent years. This new plan looks to improve just about every aspect of the cycling experience, and backs it up with the necessary cash.

Providing a good cyclist experience—so pedaling around the city feels safe and comfortable—is key, says Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, a coalition that works against sprawl. More bike lanes should do that, especially the five proposed “highways” that will be almost entirely protected from car traffic, on some of the city’s biggest corridors, including the Champs-Elysées.

It’s also key to build a real transportation network, Anderson says. “Way too many places are just thinking about cycling in terms of individual facilities, rather than as integrated systems” that actually take you from one place to another. Paris seems to get that as well: Along with all the extra lanes, the plan calls for making biking into and out of Paris safer, with traffic calming measures at the busy intersections around the city’s edge. That makes cycling more practical for inhabitants of the largely impoverished suburbs. The 10,000 new parking stations would make the end of any trip easy instead of a pain.

The financial incentives to buy bikes are especially helpful, Corey says, because promoting cycling is all about eliminating reasons not to get on two wheels. It’s easy to forget or overlook, but the money it takes to get a bike in the first place is one of those disincentives. (Paris’ Velib bike share system also helps on that point, but while it’s affordable at $32 per year, it’s not free.)

In the US, “if you look at any transportation survey, people don’t think that the answer to congestion is building more roads,” Anderson says. “They think of it as more transit, more biking, more walking, more choices.” That’s especially true among the young, affluent people cities want to lure into their tax bases.

So what’s the takeaway for US cities that want to encourage cycling? It should not be that it takes more than a hundred million dollars to make it safe and practical. First of all, that’s not really an option. “Our funding context is quite different from what’s being done in Europe,” Corey says, and it’s unrealistic to think an American city would be willing or able to drop that kind of cash in just five years.

The good news is that investments into things like encouraging walking and biking “are often really, really, cheap” Anderson says, especially compared to building infrastructure for cars. “You can actually make significant impacts on transportation behavior with relatively small amounts of money.”

What’s important is to make sure that whatever money is spent goes to attacking barriers to cycling in a thoughtful way. That’s what the Paris plan does best: The ideas presented aren’t new, but they consider each step of the process, from buying a bike to parking it. And it thinks about different use cases, including tourists and commuters, those in the city center and those in the suburbs. Any plan that matches its scope, whatever the scale, will help encourage cycling.

You might not get “Paris-level results,” or the world’s best city for biking, Corey says, “but you can still get a lot of bang out of your buck by spending more on bicycles, transit and walking.”

Louie‘s Back, and It’s Almost a Regular Sitcom Now

Louie premieres Thursday night on FX. Louie premieres Thursday night on FX. KC Bailey/FX

Louie, a show that has been consistently hailed as one of the most innovative, heartbreaking TV comedies of the decade, is about to slide back onto your DVR without much fanfare. Certainly, this season won’t attract nearly as much attention as the last, which brought with it a serious case of Louie Thinkpiece Fatigue (culminating in calls for us to just call the whole thing off). But in many respects, the show is closer to a conventional sitcom than it’s ever been. And that’s okay, because Louie’s own influence has made the show’s constant evolution unnecessary.

Success comes from consistently giving audiences what they want; it’s part of why long-running sitcoms often become so lazy, and why even generally respected series can collapse into fan service. But satisfying viewers is different from making a truly great show, one that’s part of a broader conversation. If you’ve done the latter, then after a while you’ll be stripped for parts—and that’s exactly what happened with Louie. Five years after its debut, a string of phenomenal half-hour series have grown from its stem; they effortlessly blend comedy and drama, mining pathos and humor from human problems and pain and refusing to consider that these might be separate things. From Transparent’s lovingly shot sequences of trans women discovering themselves to Looking’s bright parties to Broad City’s impish chaos, each of these series have created a universe on their own terms, even while possessing some CKDNA.

And so, the show even appears to have reached a balance. Early on, its tendency was to bounce between often-disconnected short films; in seasons three and four, it developed a penchant for longer arcs. Now Louis (not Louie) seems to favor episode-length plots, with bumpers or tangentially related cold opens. The changes, though, are as substantive as they are formal; at least through the first five episodes, the show focuses far more on laughs than on brutal emotion. (Not that these things are ever fully separate—it’s a question of emphasis.) Plots are relatively straightforward: Louie awkwardly finds himself at a cult meeting; Louie hangs out with an old friend; Louie goes on a date. His daughters, frequently the show’s emotional wellspring, show up to confirm that their father is an object of mockery. There’s a classic “Louie spends an evening exploring New York with a character who manages to be both archetypal and specific” episode. Hell, there’s even a gloriously over-the-top poop joke.

Partly, this comes across as a reaction to last season’s deep-dive into Louie’s past and his loneliness. At one point this year, he goes to a depressing art movie with his long-term love interest and current sort-of girlfriend Pamela (Pamela Adlon), and when he starts telling her a story about his childhood, complete with a maudlin flashback, he’s rudely interrupted. “I don’t want to hear this” Pamela says, speaking for a good chunk of the audience. And Louie’s myopic dating life, with or without Pamela, is only occasionally raised to a level of prominence. The show’s history is rich enough that the scenes between Pamela and Louie play as an exploration of their specific relationship rather than a general “Why can’t middle-aged socially anxious white men find love?” story. That writ-largeness plagued season four, but by now, even Louie the character has to admit that his life is actually pretty good—whereas his brother and bang-bang partner Bobby (Robert Kelly) is comically flailing, complaining about how he has “No money. No skills. No Twitter.”

But again, that success has bred a twist: while Louie has bred a new generation of shows, Louie himself seems concerned with his increasing irrelevance to the generation of viewer that watches them. In one early episode, he’s forced to host an open mic night, and awkwardly gives a die-hard comedy kid career advice. It doesn’t seem like good advice coming from Louie, but it’s successful, somehow. He doesn’t know what he said or why, but some good came out of it.

In another episode, Louie finds himself in the familiar position of grumbling at a young woman, complaining about his treatment at the hands of an assertive shop-owner. After admitting that he always gets uncomfortable around youths, he’s told (in Louis CK’s own words from a stand-up routine), that it’s because “we’re the future, and you don’t belong in it.” As upset as Louie is, she says, he should be glad. “Doesn’t it follow that if you’re a good parent and your kids evolve and are smarter than you, they’re going to make you feel kind of dumb?” Louie, and seemingly Louis, acquiesce: “So if you feel stupid around young people, things are going good.”

How the Louvre’s Pyramid Inspired French Laundry’s Kitchen

Why Does Stubbing Your Toe Hurt So Damn Much?

Bed posts, furniture legs, uneven flagstone, toys—the world is rife with foot-level obstacles. Far too many for even the coordinated among us to completely avoid. But if our feet and toes are destined to occasionally collide with these hard, inanimate objects, why must even minor stubbings cause major agony?

Yes, your toes seem to be among a select group of body parts that can be injured in a relatively insignificant way and yet still broadcast (at least for a minute or so) that they’ve been broken or in some other way irreparably damaged. It’s as if they’ve conspired to over-react to every stimulus they encounter. And in a way, that’s precisely what they’re doing. You should thank them, too.

No Brain, No Pain

To understand why, it’s important to first emphasize that pain is a perception; that is to say, it really is all in your head. Whether we’re talking about fire, a hammer, or that rock you just plowed your toe into, there’s nothing inherently painful in any given stimulus. Instead, it’s all about how your brain reads (and reacts to) the information it receives from a given stimulus.

Allan Basbaum, one of the world’s leading pain researchers and chair of the UCSF Department of Anatomy, likes to use a beauty analogy. “There’s nothing inherently beautiful in something,” he says. “And what’s beautiful in this culture isn’t necessarily beautiful in another, even if it’s the same object. Pain is the same way.” Your individual experience of pain ends up being a complex mixture of biology, psychology, and other cultural factors. It can be influenced by things like your state of mind, how much attention you pay to it, your memory of previous painful experiences, as well as the intensity of the stimulus and location of the insult.

In other words: Pain is sort of complicated. And we’re only now beginning to understand how the brain generates a particular pain experience. Thankfully, acute, or short-lived pain, which is what’s going on when you stub your toe, is a bit more straightforward. For most people, a stubbed toe doesn’t provoke vast range of pain experiences—it just hurts like hell.

Anatomy of Pain

Sudden and sharp pain serves a very useful purpose: It’s a warning, a protective biological signal urging you to stop whatever stupid thing you’re (intentionally or unintentionally) doing. Your experience of acute pain will depend mainly on the type and density of nerves in the region you injure, as well as the nature of the stimulus.

Take your pancreas or other viscera. You can actually cut into these parts of your body with little or no pain, explains Basbaum. Stretching them, on the other hand, is absolutely excruciating. That’s due to the type of innervation present and the specific stimuli those nerves react to. Similarly, if you took a hammer to an area like your stomach, it would certainly hurt, but it wouldn’t produce anywhere near the pain of taking one to your toe or finger. That’s because your stomach is both poorly innervated, and, for most people, pretty well protected with layers of tissue.

Your fingers and toes obviously don’t enjoy such padding. Both are also packed with nerves, specifically nerve ending receptors called nociceptors that are good at detecting actual or potential tissue damage. When you stub your toe, you’re massively stimulating a bunch of these nerve fibers at the same time. Those signals integrate in your spinal cord, which in turn relays that information to your brain. “It’s just a really big input,” says Basbaum.”The brain reads that, and it hurts like hell.”

Cortical Homunculus

Speaking of the brain, the type of nerves located in a region of the body and their density also influences the amount of cerebral tissue or cortex devoted to that bodily region. This is nicely represented in what’s called the cortical homunculus, a severely distorted “map” of the body within the brain. As you can see, the hands, lips, tongue, and feet are all much bigger than, say, the hip or trunk. You’ll also notice the part of the brain that receives sensory information from the toes, is right next to that part that receives information from the genitals so…yeah, try to avoid stubbing your genitals too.

As far as motor and sensory information is concerned, this all makes sense. Most of us don’t use our backs, stomachs, or foreheads to discriminate between things or interact with the world around us. We do use our lips, fingers, and feet, all of which are essential for providing sensory feedback that we rely on to guide our actions. In fact, it’s thought that the intense pain of a stubbed toe could even have had an evolutionary purpose. Infections used to kill a lot of people, and our feet, which were frequently in contact with filthy, bacteria-laden areas, were prime targets for these infections via cuts or other open wounds. In theory, anyone who received a lot of sensory information from their toes and feet would be less likely to create those cuts and gashes in the first place, and therefore had a bit of an evolutionary advantage.

I Feel Your (Acute) Pain

Unlike chronic pain, most people have the same levels of acute pain. “It’s actually a common misconception that we all have vastly different pain thresholds,” says Basbaum. “For instance, pretty much everyone will say ‘ouch, it’s starting to hurt,’ between 43 and 45 degrees Celsius. That just happens to be the threshold of a channel in the pain fiber, the point that channel opens up and starts to conduct,” he says.

What is different is people’s tolerance of pain, or how much they will put up with before saying ‘uncle.’ Women, for example, tend to have a much higher pain tolerance than men, probably for obvious biological purposes. But that doesn’t mean you’re completely helpless in the face of pain. While there’s no surefire way to completely avoid stubbing your toe, science has confirmed that one of your involuntary reactions actually does help alleviate it: swearing.

Just be sparing with your F-bombs. In a follow-up study the same researchers also found that people who curse more in everyday life don’t get pain-reducing benefits as those who just swear during painful events.

Rise of the Machines: The Future has Lots of Robots, Few Jobs for Humans

The robots haven’t just landed in the workplace—they’re expanding skills, moving up the corporate ladder, showing awesome productivity and retention rates, and increasingly shoving aside their human counterparts. One multi-tasker bot, from Momentum Machines, can make (and flip) a gourmet hamburger in 10 seconds and could soon replace an entire McDonalds crew. A manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp—it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust. And just this week, Google won a patent to start building worker robots with personalities.

Rise of the Robots

As intelligent machines begin their march on labor and become more sophisticated and specialized than first-generation cousins like Roomba or Siri, they have an outspoken champion in their corner: author and entrepreneur Martin Ford. In his new book, Rise of the Robots , he argues that AI and robotics will soon overhaul our economy.

There’s some logic to the thesis, of course, and other economists such as Andrew (The Second Machine Age) McAfee have sided generally with Ford’s outlook. Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. And if even half that number is closer to the mark, workers are in for a rude awakening.

In Ford’s vision, a full-on worker revolt is on the horizon, followed by a radically new economic state whereby humans will live more productive and entrepreneurial lives, subsisting on guaranteed incomes generated by our amazing machines. (Don’t laugh — even some conservative influencers believe this may be the ultimate means of solving the wealth-inequality dilemma.)

Sound a little nuts? We thought so—we’re human, after all—so we invited Ford to defend his turf.

Critics say your vision of a jobless future isn’t founded in good research or logic. What makes you so convinced this phenomenon is real?

I see the advances happening in technology and it’s becoming evident that computers, machines, robots, and algorithms are going to be able to do most of the routine, repetitive types of jobs. That’s the essence of what machine learning is all about. What types of jobs are on some level fundamentally predictable? A lot of different skill levels fall into that category. It’s not just about lower-skilled jobs either. People with college degrees, even professional degrees, people like lawyers are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.

Right now there’s still a lot of debate over it. There are economists who think it’s totally wrong, that problems really stem from things like globalization or the fact that we’ve wiped out unions or haven’t raised the minimum wage. Those are all important, but I tend to believe that technology is a bigger issue, especially as we look to the future.

Eventually I think we’ll get to the point where there’s less debate about whether this is really happening or not. There will be more widespread agreement that it really is a problem and at that point we’ll have to figure out what to do about it.

Aren’t you relying on some pretty radical and unlikely assumptions?

People who are very skeptical tend to look at the historical record. It’s true that the economy has always adapted over time. It has created new kinds of jobs. The classic example of that is agriculture. In the 1800s, 80 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms. Today it’s 2 percent. Obviously mechanization didn’t destroy the economy; it made it better off. Food is now really cheap compared to what it was relative to income, and as a result people have money to spend on other things and they’ve transitioned to jobs in other areas. Skeptics say that will happen again.

The agricultural revolution was about specialized technology that couldn’t be implemented in other industries. You couldn’t take the farm machinery and have it go flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology. There isn’t a new place for all these workers to move.

You can imagine lots of new industries—nanotechnology and synthetic biology—but they won’t employ many people. They’ll use lots of technology, rely on big computing centers, and be heavily automated.

So in the all-automated economy, what will ambitious 20-somethings choose to do with their lives and careers?

My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’

Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income.

If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.

There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seat belts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well.

People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.

Complex bacterial challenge in fight against deadly amphibian disease

New research from The University of Manchester and the Institute of Zoology has shed light on the complex challenge facing scientists battling one of the world's most devastating animal diseases.

Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) is thought to be behind the decline or extinction of at least 200 species of frogs. It is also one of the reasons why 31% of amphibian species are currently listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

This latest study used bacteria from frogs in Belize to test the limitations of probiotic treatments. This form of treatment aims to introduce bacteria cultivated from amphibians that aren't affected by the disease to those at risk of infection to boost their immunity.

Dr Rachael Antwis who carried out the study whilst completing her PhD at Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences explains: "Using beneficial bacteria to act as 'probiotics' for disease mitigation is already common in agriculture and human health. In fact, many bacteria that reside on amphibian skin have been shown to inhibit the growth and survival of B. dendrobatidis. However, the reliability of the potential probiotics hasn't been tested against the shifting targets the disease presents."

To assess the effectiveness of probiotic treatments, the team used bacteria taken from frogs in Belize, where the species has shown resilience despite the long term presence of the disease in the area. 56 strains of bacteria were isolated and stored for use in the laboratory.

The team challenged the bacteria against different genetic strains of the disease, and then looked at whether the bacteria had inhibited the growth of the disease in its various forms. They found the bacteria performed in a variety of ways with only a small number inhibiting all forms of the disease. The bacteria that had an impact on one strain of the disease didn't have the same impact on the other genetic variations.

Dr Trenton Garner from The Zoological Society of London's Institute of Zoology explains the results: "Because only a small proportion of the bacteria that could be used as candidate probiotics showed broad-spectrum inhibition against the global pandemic B. dendrobatidis lineage, we believe probiotic treatments are unlikely to be consistently successful when confronting a variety of fungal genotypes. Because of the enormous genetic variability of the disease and its ability to rapidly evolve, it's vital that any treatment takes this into account."

He continues: "We suggest that a variety of bacteria be used when creating probiotic treatments as this is likely to offer more comprehensive protection of hosts from B. dendrobatidis and other threatening amphibian pathogens."

The results of the study have been published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Moving forwards the scientists say that further research is needed to fully understand how bacteria inhibit B. dendrobatidis growth and the ability to infect hosts. Looking at the B. dendrobatidis genome for virulence factors will be fraught with difficulty but this study demonstrates some hope for finding effective probiotic treatments from within the amphibian community.

Dr Antwis concludes: "A lot more work is definitely needed before we can identify an effective cure for this devastating disease. But as a scientist I believe we not only have a moral obligation to keep searching, but an ecological one too. Amphibians inhabit the middle of food chain, making up a vital part of our ecosystem. If they go then that could spell disaster for many more species."

Story Source:

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

Ex Machina’s Director on Why A.I. Is Humanity’s Last Hope

Alex Garland has one thought when it comes to the AI revolution: Bring it on. After a career of writing novels (The Beach) and screenplays (28 Days Later, Dredd), he’s moving into the director’s chair with April’s Ex Machina, a movie that pushes the discussion of AI and ethics into discomfiting territory. When an alpha-male tech bro (played by Oscar Isaac) secretly develops a robot named Ava, he asks one of his employees (Domhnall Gleeson) to evaluate her wares using the Turing Test. Things get tense, even dangerous—but unlike film androids who go all cogito ergo slay, Ava is thoughtful, even kind, and may be a better heiress to the world than the human who created her.

Ex Machina isn’t the usual AI movie. How’d you get interested in sentient computers?

I’m 44, and I’ve grown up keeping pace with developments in videogames and computers. When I was 12 or 13, home computers arrived; your parents bought them, expecting there’d be education in them but all you’d do is play videogames. But I did a bit of programming in Basic. I’d do really very simple “Hello World” type programs that would give this machine the very barest sentience. I remember quite well the kind of electric sense that you’d get that the machine was alive—with certain knowledge that it wasn’t.

Years later, I got into a long series of arguments with a friend of mine whose chief interest is neuroscience. He thinks that computers are never going to become sentient, and he has some good, scientific arguments why that is the case. But on an instinctive level, I just didn’t agree with him. I started doing a lot of reading about AI, mind, and consciousness.

You’ve worked with complex themes before, so this isn’t totally new territory.

As far back as The Beach there’s stuff about multiverse theory and stuff like that. I worked on a film called Sunshine, which had at its heart an issue to do with heat death in the universe. Although a tiny bit of the stuff in there was reasonable from a scientific viewpoint, it was largely bullshit—it made about as much sense as putting on the warp drive in Star Trek. It was frustrating. I felt like I’d dropped the ball in some important respect. I’m not tearing the film down—there are things about it I really love—but this was something that bugged me. When I started working on this I thought, “This is something I want which is reasonable.”

What was your AI education?

I’ve got an intellectual limitation in terms of what I’m able to understand. It’s partly intelligence, and partly understanding of mathematics; the two collide together to create a pretty impermeable brick wall for me. But what I can read and understand is the philosophical ideas that surround it.

In particular, I came across a book by a guy called Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College, the UK’s version of MIT. I felt very sympathetic to its argument when I read it. So when I wrote this script I contacted him, and also a couple of other people, and, “I want you to be really tough on this script and make sure it stands up.”

And does it?

There were two conceits we made. One is that you can create a sentient machine and the other is that you have incredibly high-level robotics which let that sentient machine have a face, to have nuance. Now those are huge conceits, and somebody might reasonably say it’s equivalent to the warp drive. But it is science fiction—and within those conceits, I tried to be quite tough about it.

What kind of AI science fiction did you draw on for inspiration?

You can assume a level of film literacy with cinema audiences that you can’t assume with books. People may or may not have read Heart of Darkness, right? However, they’re very likely to have seen Apocalypse Now. So when you’re working on a sci-fi movie that contains within it artificial intelligence and robots, you can be pretty sure people know something about HAL and 2001. You can be even more sure they know about Blade Runner and replicants. So you write it knowing that you’re aiming at a strong literate audience because they almost certainly will be.

And they’ll likely be ready to pick your movie apart, too.

It could create a problem. In designing the robot, I didn’t want people thinking of another movie when she walked onscreen. If she’s colored gold you immediately think of C-3PO, and the feminine aesthetics wouldn’t cancel that out. We had to steer clear of iconic robots: the film Metropolis, or that Bjork video directed by Chris Cunningham [“All Is Full of Love”].

People seem to want to compare Ex Machina to Her—the AI is different, but you play with that theme of creating a “perfect woman.”

There are two totally separate strands in this film as far as I’m concerned. One of them is about AI and consciousness, and the other is about social constructs: why this guy would create a machine in the form of a girl in her early twenties in order to present that machine to this young guy for this test.

How important was Ava’s design to the overall look of this film?

It seems very familiar yet wholly unique. There might be a little bit of Maria from Metropolis, but not much else. It’s super important. It’s crucial because it needed to look beautiful in a particular way. It needed to look really, really beautiful and visually striking.

When Nathan explains why he made Ava look the way she does, it’s kind of creepy.

Yeah, but that’s exactly the point. You’re supposed to think it’s creepy. You’re not supposed to warm to him over that stuff; you’re supposed to feel unnerved and that this is uncomfortable. And therefore she needs to be rescued.

Nathan in many ways is an archetypal Silicon Valley guy. Is his character a commentary on those dudes?

It’s more alpha-male-meets-non-alpha-male. I like the mixture of someone who’s incredibly aggressive and kind of bullying, but is couching everything in this dude-bro speak as if that takes the edge off of what he’s actually doing. I’d suspect you’d find that just as easily on Wall Street as you would in Silicon Valley.

Have you been following the recent debates about AI and ethics?

It’s a big question. I think if you’re talking about nonsentient AIs—the advanced versions of the sort we already have—then it’s a lot to be very concerned about and a lot to be aware of. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where an AI-controlled drone turns out to be more effective on a battlefield than a human-controlled drone, and maybe doesn’t have the problems of post-traumatic stress that humans suffer. What you’ve done is hand the machine a life-and-death decision over a human. The ethical problems contained within that are absolutely obvious.

But broadly speaking, if you create a new consciousness in the form of a machine, that isn’t necessarily too significantly different in my mind from two adults creating a child. You do have a problem if that new machine is more intelligent than the parents, but again we also have some experience with that too. You could have two parents that create Einstein, and another two who create Stalin.

So you’re not worried about Skynet.

I kind of welcome it. Humans are going die on this planet. It might be because of eco-disasters or maybe because of changes that happen within the solar system or the sun. But when it happens, we’re not going to go through a wormhole and go to another galaxy and find an old planet. It’s just not going to happen. What will survive on our behalf is AIs—if we manage to create them. That’s not problematic, it’s desirable.

Ex Machina kind of feels like it was made with that in mind.

I hope that’s implicit in the film. It was definitely conceived of as a pro-AI movie. It’s humans who fuck everything up; machines have a pretty good track record in comparison to us.

It seems like you lucked out with your cast, especially Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson.

Because they’re in Star Wars?

Well, yeah. When I was setting out to cast Ex Machina, the only thing I really knew 100 percent for sure is that it wasn’t going to work to get a “film star.” They could actually sink the whole thing quite easily. So it was mainly just about finding really good actors. The problem we had was not identifying who would be good, but can we get them because there are other people who also wanted them.

So what’s next?

There’s a book [producer] Scott Rudin gave me called Annihilation, a spectacular novel by Jeff VanderMeer. I really loved it, so I’m going to try that. But I have no idea if that’ll work out.

What about another 28 Days Later sequel? 28 Months Later?

Danny Boyle and [producer] Andrew McDonald and I never wanted a third one partly because we didn’t have an idea that we felt excited about, but I think we might now have one.

Can you share the idea?

Are you crazy? I’d get fucking shot if I told you that. [Laughs.] No, I can’t tell you. It’s just at the really early stage. What we have to do is get a writer. What you want is a writer who will subvert the idea, take some ownership of it. Hopefully Andrew will find a writer who says “my idea is better anyway” and rips it to shreds and comes up with something even better. That’s what I’d like.

Watch a trailer for Ex Machina

Angela Watercutter (@waterslicer) interviewed director Michael Mann in issue 23.01.

What Do You Want Me to Do In Lab?

Many introductory physics labs involve a low friction cart on a track. Many introductory physics labs involve a low friction cart on a track. Rhett Allain

Here are some typical questions I get from students in the introductory physics lab:

Do you want me to make a graph?

How many different masses should I measure?

What angle do you want this ramp at?

What units do you want me to use?

Here is the answer. I really just want one thing. I want the students to build a model. What is a model? It could be anything. It could be an expression for the force a spring exerts as it is stretched. It could be an equation that shows the relationship between friction force and other things. A model could be a numerical calculation that shows how an object falls with air resistance.

That’s really all I want from lab students. I want them to explore and build. Oh, I know it’s tough building models. You have to start with simple things like a free falling ball or a cart rolling down a ramp. On top of that, that are other problems. You need to understand how to make a graph and what it means. You need to know how to use different equipment to collect data. You need some data analysis skills. Maybe you need to know how to create a numerical model.

Because it’s not so easy to build models, I try to help. I sometimes will give students a model for them to collect data and compare (like with friction). I will sometimes show students the steps that I would use to build a model so that they can follow.

But in the end, I really don’t want the students to do anything in particular. I want students to be builders, builders of models. Imagine this was an art class and a student asked “what color do you want me to paint this flower?” My answer would be “well, what are you trying to accomplish?” In the end, lab is like art class. The students need to create something and I am there to help.

Students in lab are not my assistants collecting data. I am not training them to follow instructions, I am training them to be humans. If lab was all about following instructions, we could just use robots. Robots are good at stuff like that.

A Legendary Redesign of Helvetica, Reborn After 30 Years

Imagine if, due to some fluke in the development of projection technology, The Empire Strikes Back had only been shown in a couple of movie theaters. Imagine it fading into obscurity and existing for decades as nothing more than a cult film, a historical footnote, an object of fascination among serious movie buffs.

That’s the story of Haas Unica.

If you have eyeballs, you’ve almost certainly seen Helvetica. It’s one of the most widely used typefaces ever created, so popular that it generated a documentary examining its popularity. It’s almost equally certain that you have not seen Haas Unica, the typeface designed to be Helvetica’s sequel of sorts. Introduced in 1980, it was lost to history almost instantly upon its arrival.

Now, after languishing in obscurity for decades, Unica been rescued and remastered. Thanks to an effort by Monotype designer Toshi Omagari, the legendary typeface is finally available as Neue Haas Unica, an 18-font family tuned-up for the digital age. Drawn to be legible at small sizes, it could be a perfect Helvetica-substitute for user interfaces and other on-screen text elements. For designers, though, the new Unica is an exciting visitor from the past. As Pentagram partner J. Abbott Miller puts it, “There is a Rip van Winkle quality of a font having woken up after 30 years of sleep.”

fonts1 WIRED

A Stillborn Typeface

Helvetica was developed in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger. Designed as an update of the so-called “grotesque” typefaces developed in Germany in the late 19th Century, it was explosively popular, and by the mid-1970s, it had utterly transformed how the written word appeared throughout modern life. It was the de facto typeface for corporations of the day, employed by Knoll, BMW, American Airlines and hundreds of other companies. It brought a clear, modern look to magazine ads, subway signs, letterheads, and Presidential campaigns. As designer Michael Beirut once remarked, at the height of its popularity, Helvetica simply seemed elemental, like air, or gravity.

For people who scrutinize letters for a living, however, Helvetica’s ubiquity in the 1960s and 1970s offered a great many opportunities to notice its quirks. Designed for short blasts of texts like headlines and advertisements, Helvetica didn’t always look great at small sizes or when used for lengthy blocks of text. And because it had been designed for the hot metal typesetting techniques prevalent in the 1950s, it hadn’t translated perfectly to the phototypesetting process that became popular in the 1970s.

So, in 1974, Haas, the centuries-old Swiss type foundry that had introduced Helvetica in 1957, commissioned a Swiss design team called Team’77 to come up with a follow-up to the world’s most popular typeface. The group—André Gürtler, Erich Gschwind and Christian Mengelt—set out to create something native to phototypesetting that combined the best elements of Helvetica and Univers, another hugely popular sans-serif typeface of the day with a slightly more formal design. Team’77 was rigorous in its analysis of the parent typefaces and meticulous in creating their offshoot. It took them three years to complete the job.

By the time they finished Unica, however, Haas was going out of business. Further, the typographic world was on the verge of being rocked by another new technology: desktop publishing. The advent of personal computers, particularly the Macintosh, would make it possible to experiment with type in tremendous new ways. Phototypesetting, for which Unica had been designed, was quickly losing relevance. As a result, Unica got lost in the shuffle. “People didn’t get to see a lot of it,” says Monotype type director Dan Rhatigan. “It was almost a stillbirth.”

Unica, Found

In the years that followed, Unica slipped into obscurity, accumulating a sort of mythology along the way. It had been digitized in the 1980s by another company—that also promptly folded. “Because it was released by companies who went out of business, there was kind of murkiness for a while about whether or not people could do anything with Unica, which I think added to its legend,” Rhatigan says.

NeueHaasUnicaSpecimen[4] Monotype

In late 2012, Rhatigan was visiting Monotype’s outpost in Germany, which had previously been the office of storied typesetting outfit Mergenthaler Linotype Company. He was rooting around in storage, looking for old material, when he happened upon a box of tracing paper and transparent sheets. The transparent pages each had a single letter, crisp and clean and ten inches tall: The photographic film masters for Unica.

Rhatigan had been dimly aware of the typeface from postings on typography forums, and for a designer who wears his love of typography on his sleeves quite literally, in the form of tattoos of cherished letters, finding the fabled typeface was a thrill. “It was so exciting,” he says. “We tried to find out, does this really mean that we are free to do with this what we want?” A short investigation revealed: Yes, Monotype owned both the name and the rights.

Rhatigan showed the materials to Monotype designer Toshi Omagari, who quickly took up its resurrection as a side project. Omagari redrew the letters from scratch, following the intention of original design but fine-tuning the letters and spacing for modern, digital work. Omagari drew a number of different weights and languages. When he and Rhatigan would mention the project, people would invariably get excited.

“The cult aspect became more and more obvious as we talked to people about working on it,” Rhatigan says. “People knew about Unica. But since it wasn’t widely available, a lot of people did not have a chance to work with it and see if it was as good as the legend that had grown up around it. It really was this sort of lost treasure.”

Closer to the Crystal Goblet

To your eyes and mine, the differences between Unica and Helvetica will be nearly imperceptible. The cross-stroke on the capital Q has been nudged slightly upward. The lower-case t has been shaved slightly at the top. To designers like Omagari and Rhatigan, however, the differences are perfectly obvious. Even looking at the film masters, Rhatigan says, he could see “all the detail, all the intention that was in there.”

Team’77 detailed that intention in an elaborate document from 1980, published in tandem with Unica’s release. The group started by rigorously measuring letters from Helvetica, both in its original metal form and in a second version made for phototypesetting. They then proposed dozens of adjustments. Where Helvetica’s capital letters were blocky and tended towards a uniform width, Team’77 restored Unica’s capitals to more natural proportions. The designers balanced the thickness of strokes throughout the alphabet and tweaked spacing. As a result, the group concluded, Unica had “tighter rhythm in upper case composition” and “improve[d] readability…especially for continuous text.”

NeueHaasUnicaSpecimen Monotype

This second consideration is what draws Rhatigan to the font. Helvetica was designed for use in headlines and advertisements, but when people started using it indiscriminately for larger chunks of smaller-set text, it lost some of its magic. “Helvetica looks so great when it’s handled skillfully and used for these big bold graphic treatments, but as an everyday information typeface, it falls a little flat,” Rhatigan says. Univers “is crisp and clean and it’s great, but it is a little cold,” he adds. “It’s functional but a little bit severe, let’s say.”

Unica hits a sweet spot between the two, Rhatigan says: Not quite as quirky as Helvetica, not quite as dispassionate as Univers. “Unica is beautiful, crisp, and modern and rationalized, but it has that humanity in it,” he says. In a famous essay from 1955, Beatrice Warde argued that good type should be like a crystal goblet, “calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.” Unica nudges Helvetica closer to that mark. Designers’ reactions to the new drawing, collected by Monotype, include descriptions like “beautiful,” “classic,” and “The Holy Grail.”

Rhatigan thinks Unica’s strengths are especially suited to user interfaces, where readability is paramount. When Apple moved to a skinny version of Helvetica for the iPhone’s default font, it reignited debates among type-heads about Helvetica’s legibility. As designer Khoi Vinh wrote at the time, Helvetica’s letters were “optimized for those cases where there’s ample room for the eye to truly travel along their supple curves…To use them as both Google and Apple do, in text settings, in small sizes, in paragraphs, makes reading more visually cramped and more difficult than it should be.”

Might Neue Haas Unica be a better go-to option for the era of screens? “That is certainly the hope,” Rhatigan says.

Hrant Papazian, the designer-founder of The Microfoundry, in Los Angeles, is another long-time Unica zealot. “I guess the main reason I can cling to is that it’s not ‘naive,'” he wrote years ago in a posting to the website Typophile. He made the case for Unica with an evocative, if somewhat odd, analogy. To Papazian’s eyes, older grotesque typefaces—those early sans-serif alphabets from the 19th Century—are like “backwards villagers.” New grotesques, like Helvetica and Univers, are like “urbanites pretending to be villagers,” he wrote.

“Unica is like an urbanite who has had to move in with his villager in-laws, but has decided to make the best of it,” he continued. I tried to get in touch with Papazian in hopes that he would elaborate, but I suspect type designers will know exactly what he means.

Want More Women Working in Tech? Let Them Stay Home

PowerToFly cofounder and CEO Milena Berry, left, and cofounder and President Katharine Zaleski, right. PowerToFly cofounder and CEO Milena Berry, left, and cofounder and President Katharine Zaleski, right. Tory Williams

Everyone has their theories about why there aren’t more women in technology. Some say it’s that women aren’t studying computer science and therefore aren’t applying for jobs in the field. Others say it’s due to a certain degree of bias in an industry where predominantly male leaders hire predominantly male employees because they see similarities between themselves and their hires.

But Katharine Zaleski and Milena Berry say there’s another reason, which is that tech companies aren’t giving women—particularly mothers—the flexibility they need to raise a family and pursue their careers at the same time. “There are two bad choices for women: go back to the office full-time or slowly lose your career because you can’t go back to the office full-time,” Zaleski, a former editor at The Huffington Post, explains.

Which is why the two working mothers decided to launch PowerToFly, a job site that connects women with employers who are willing to let them work remotely. The site launched in August, targeted primarily toward women in tech. Since then, it’s had tens of thousands of women across multiple industries register for the site and apply for jobs with nearly 700 big-name employers like Buzzfeed and Hearst. Just last week the company launched its own app, PowerToFly Connect, which serves as a sort of social network and news site for this new community of remote workers. “We launched strong with our job matching platform,” Berry, former CTO of a non-profit, says, “and now we’re creating a media platform around these issues for women.”

More Than A Hunch

The fact that employer flexibility plays an important role in the persistent gender gap is more than a hunch. There have been plenty of studies showing that despite their move into the workplace over the last several decades, women still feel more pressure than their male counterparts to step back from work once they have children. One 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of women said being a working mother made it harder to advance their careers, compared to 16 percent of fathers. That same study showed that 42 percent of mothers had reduced their work hours to care for family, while just 28 percent of fathers said the same.

Meanwhile, a recent study out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on why women leave the tech field found that one third of women surveyed left to tend to their families “because companies weren’t flexible enough to accommodate work-life concerns.”

“The vast majority of women will become mothers and face the same choices we faced,” Zaleski says. “The amount of women in the workforce peaked in 1999, and that’s because there’s no third way. We see ourselves as creating that option.”

Struggling to Gain Traction

Of course, not all companies are willing to embrace remote employees, no matter what it could do for their diversity numbers. One highly publicized example is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s moratorium on working from home when she took the helm at the tech giant. When Mayer defended the new policy, following much controversy, she argued that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

According to Zaleski, this is not an unusual viewpoint for tech companies, which is one reason why PowerToFly has struggled to gain traction among tech employers. “They want to deal with the issues internally,” she says, referring to issues of diversity in tech. “They’re very focused on setting up committees and talking about the issues, but they’re also very committed to having everyone in the office.”

Still, she says those businesses that are signing up with PowerToFly are already beginning to see results. The company, which vets applicants on behalf of businesses, receives an average of 14 applications per position. While PowerToFly won’t share exactly how many people have landed jobs through the platform, they say they’ve connected BuzzFeed with 20 new hires and Hearst with 16. Meanwhile, PowerToFly has hired its own employees through the platform, growing its headcount to 35 women working in eight countries around the world.

For Zaleski and Berry, this platform is not just a way to get more women into work but a quick way for tech companies that care about the gender imbalance to make an immediate dent. “You hear these guys talk education, education, education,” she says. “Well, that’s 10 years out. Why not invest in the women who are here now?”

The Internet’s Clearly Not Ready to Stream Big TV Events

Saturday night’s college basketball matchup between Wisconsin and Kentucky was the most-watched Final Four game in 22 years. Unless, that is, you were one of a thousand or so Sling TV subscribers who instead got to witness a sputtery mess. It’s the latest in a string of high-profile streaming failures, and it won’t be the last. Being a cord cutter in 2015 is great—until there’s something you actually need to watch live.

The Final Four lapse recalled similar recent outages, notably last spring’s stunted Oscars stream for ABC, and Game of Thrones’ season four premiere collapse for HBO Go. The only thing all three have in common? They’re among the first real tests of how the streaming age handles appointment television. So far, the results aren’t promising.

According to a mollifying Sling TV tweet, the culprit in this case was “extreme sign-ups and streaming,” which sounds like a gaggle of wakeboarders gumming things up. Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch corroborated in a statement, citing “an unprecedented combination of new customer signups and high levels of viewership,” two factors that “stressed our systems.” So, yes, the hiccups were largely due to an onrush of Sling enlistees. But not in the way you might think.

Being able to access big, Twitter-friendly TV moments as they happen was supposed to be the final shove into the streaming future.

By blaming overwhelming traffic for its struggles Sling is trying to convince you that its only failure was being too popular, a prom king who can only invite so many into his court. But according to streaming-media analyst Dan Rayburn, that’s almost certainly not what’s actually going on.

“The whole reason you go to a CDN is because you can handle the traffic whether it spikes,” explains Rayburn. The CDN, or content delivery network, is the third-party company used by services like Sling TV to send you the live video you requested. They’re also built to handle spikes of all sizes; just look at last year’s Olympics, which transpired glitch-free, or even the WWE Network, whose Wrestlemania 31 live stream last week went off without a suplex. (WWE, notably, piggybacks on the infrastructure of similarly glitch-free MLB.) So let’s stop blaming the servers. If there’s such a thing as a critical mass of streamers, we haven’t found it yet.

What we have found, says Rayburn, is that a sudden influx of customers can expose breakdowns in other parts of the ecosystem. Getting live television from a camera to your iPad requires a tremendous amount of synchronization across numerous moving pieces, from transcoding to authentication to tracking to monetization to delivery. Any one of those parts can snag thanks to technical glitches. Or, more often than you might think, to good ol’ fashioned cost-cutting.

“How many people signed up for Sling for 30 days just to get March Madness and tried to cut it?” explains Rayburn. He’s talking about the many Sling customers who sign up for just one streaming event and then cancel their subscriptions immediately afterward. “So Sling has to decide how much money it has to put in place… Everybody’s always making the cost versus quality trade-off on the internet. That’s what you do.” It doesn’t make much business sense, in other words, to ramp up operations to handle the kinds of numbers you’re only likely to see a few times a year.

Ultimately, whether Sling TV—and ABC, and HBO, and a host of others before them—was genuinely caught off guard or simply made a calculated decision not to accommodate a user base that included a few March Madness passers-by ultimately doesn’t matter. The end result is the same: another black mark against the future of television, as yet again, a number of people didn’t get what they paid for.

All of which puts potential cord-cutters in a difficult position. Being able to access big, Twitter-friendly TV moments as they happen was supposed to be the final shove into the streaming future. But it’s those same events that the streaming services are least-equipped (or motivated) to pull off. The Final Four stream may have only affected a fraction of Sling TV viewers, but are you willing to spend a minimum of $20 per month on a bet that you won’t be one of the unlucky the next time?

And that’s before you even get to all of the other malfunctions that can and do disrupt the streaming experience. Your router probably sucks sometimes. Your ISP definitely does. And if they suck in the middle of next season’s Game of Thrones finale, you’re going to regret that HBO Now purchase, whether HBO executes a flawless streaming experience or not.

Sling is trying to convince you that its only failure was being too popular.

At least in Sling TV’s case, help is apparently on the way, hopefully in time for the service’s launch of HBO Now later this year. A spokesperson tells WIRED that the company has plans to update its apps “to improve stability and manage the demand as we prepare for the launch of HBO,” though it’s not clear exactly what those improvements entail. Or whether they’ll be enough to handle the next onslaught. At the very least, the service appears to have stood strong through last night’s NCAA championship game between Duke and Wisconsin.

The point is this: You have more opportunities to sever ties with your cable company than ever. Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are here. HBO Now will be soon, with an Apple-powered streaming service reportedly on its heels. Over-the-top television has never been closer to finding mainstream appeal. But these frequent flame-outs make it hard to embrace. You’d just as soon buy a shovel that disappears whenever a blizzard passes through.

Look, nothing’s perfect. Cable and satellite TV aren’t immune from outages either. But unlike those incumbents, internet TV finds itself most vulnerable during its most important events. Until that’s fixed, live streaming’s going to remain a dead end.