Should California Spend 4 Billion Gallons of Water on Fish?

New Melones Lake, California. New Melones Lake, California. Getty Images

In the the heart of California’s drought-parched Central Valley, fruit and vegetable supplier to the nation, a water district is defying a federal order to give some endangered trout a 3.9 billion gallon water ride out to sea. And it could be the first skirmish in a much wider conflict.

The Endangered Species Act protects steelhead trout, a small population of which are attempting a recovery in the Stanislaus River, which flows out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Modesto, in the San Joaquin Valley. So earlier this week a federal fisheries agency—it’s unclear which one, and there are several—told the California branch of the Bureau of Reclamation (another water agency) that the fish needed more water to get out to the Pacific. The bureau in turn passed the order to the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, telling them to let a pulse of water through the dam on the Stanislaus.

But upon receipt, Jeff Shields, the manager of SSJID went rogue: “Whose water will be released down the Stanislaus River to satisfy the second pulse flow?” Not his, in other words.

It was the second such order in the past three weeks. The SSJID complied with the first. According to the Manteca Bulletin, a local paper that has been covering the standoff, this flushed out 15,000 acre feet of water and 23 steelhead trout. But this latest order, which would reportedly use another 12,000 acre feet to save only six fish, was too much for Shields. (Fisheries agencies haven’t yet confirmed that count.)

So Lewis said no to the Bureau, and then secured legal counsel. “We tried to work with the Bureau for the last several years. We’ve sent dozens of letters and ideas about how to manage the river more prudently and other issues that we felt needed to be addressed because they were affecting our water,” Shields told the Manteca Bulletin. “I understand that they’re busy and they have a river that they have to manage and water that they have to take care of, but we’re busy as well—we have water that we have to manage and people that we have to look out for as well.” According to Shields, this water is better used on human interests, like agriculture and homes.

As of Friday evening, the SSJID and the Bureau of Reclamation—along with several other agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, which estimates how many fish are expected to swim to sea each year—were still on the phone, trying to figure out what happens next. This is likely to open the proverbial flood gates (ahem) in a long-simmering debate over whether fish are an interest group worthy of California’s precious water allocations.

The environmental argument is that steelhead trout are important to mountain ecosystems, which have downstream benefits. And the flows themselves keep the briny water from the San Francisco Bay from creeping into the Sacramento Delta. But of course California is facing a record-breaking drought, and the crops that feed the country need fresh water, too. According to Lewis Moore, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation, if the various interest groups don’t resolve the issue tonight, the negotiations will continue into next week. “We are hopeful there will be a favorable response, and then everything will go back to the way it was,” Moore says.

Regardless, it looks like the SSJID is geared up for a fight. In the past, courts have sided with local water districts. But for someone inclined toward apocalyptic cli-fi, this kind of standoff isn’t good news.

Split Screen: The Return of Mad Men

Gadget Lab Podcast: Somebody Fix the Roku’s Antenna

Gadget Lab Podcast: Somebody Fix the Roku’s Antenna

Tech Time Warp of the Week: The 1940s RC Copter That Paved the Way for Amazon’s Drones

This week the Federal Aviation Administration gave Amazon a green light to test its drone delivery program. It could be years before you can actually have a quadcopter drop off your Amazon orders, assuming that it ever happens at all. But it’s impressive that it’s even a possibility considering that only a few decades ago, the idea of stable helicopter flight was a novel idea.

The helicopter wasn’t invented by any single person. Simple propeller-based toys were used in China as far back as 400 BC, and many inventors built motorized versions over the years. But it was philosopher and mathematician Arthur M. Young who invented the first helicopter that was actually useful.

In the video above, an excerpt from the BBC documentary The Century of Flight, you can see him demonstrating one of the world’s first remote-controlled model helicopters. Yes, it was connected to a wire, which would have made it less fun than flying one of today’s iPhone-controlled drones, but this was 1941, decades before the radio-controlled model aircraft became widely available. And this was no toy.

Young was using this model to test his ideas for a stabilizing bar that, when applied to a larger craft, would finally make them stable enough to pilot. As you can see from the video, it wasn’t easy to translate the smaller model to a full-sized craft. But later tests went well enough that the Bell Aircraft Company acquired Young’s patents and hired him to further develop the concept.

In 1946, Young’s Model 7 became the first helicopter awarded a commercial license by the the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

The difference between today’s aerial drones and the remote controlled aircraft of yesteryear is debatable. But there’s some consensus that in order to be considered a drone, an aircraft must include some form of autopilot, a feature generally lacking in older remote control aircraft. In other words, you could argue that today’s aerial drones are remote control helicopters, but that not all remote control helicopters are drones. By those lights, the first drone may actually have been the RAE Larynx, a British pilotless aircraft. But while Young’s remote controlled helicopter might not have been a drone, it’s hard to imagine the development of helicopters, and ultimately the quadcopter drones of today, without him.

In 1947, Young left the aircraft industry and dedicated his life to philosophy. He died in 1995, but an organization dedicated to preserving his work has collected several lectures and a short documentary about his work on YouTube.

Game|Life Podcast: Can Lego Dethrone Skylanders?

Game|Life Podcast: Can Lego Dethrone Skylanders?

LD_GameplayScreen_07 Warner Bros.

This Week’s Best TV: It’s All Game of Thrones, All the Time

By Jove! The guest-star game this week on late night TV was on fire! Louis CK, Edward Snowden, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peter Dinklage, The Rock, Michelle Obama—what happened? Were we especially good viewers and so the variety show producers decided to reward us? Whatever the reason, this deck is stacked. We’ve got everything from the latest crazes in mom dancing, as brought to you by Michelle Obama, to a fantastic discussion of government encroachment on privacy with Edward Snowden. All this goodness has got us shaking it like the Rock’s close personal friend, Tay-Tay (you’ll see what we mean).

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—Government Surveillance (Above)

John Oliver frames the debate over government surveillance around dick pics, then has Edward Snowden explain it to him. This may be his best work yet.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—Evolution of Mom Dancing Part 2 (w/ Jimmy Fallon & Michelle Obama)

And if you want to see Mz. Michelle be best girlfriends with Jimmy, you can also watch her dish about what music the kids are listening to here.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—Peter Dinklage

The Peter Dinklage Rakish Sex Appeal meter is maxing out in this interview. Does he care deeply? Does he not care at all? We don’t know, but those devil-may-care brown locks in his eyes will keep you guessing. So close to Game of Thrones!

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—The Whisper Challenge with Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Confusing “Hoda Kotb” with “Oh, God help me” will forever live as one of the best mistakes of all time for so many reasons. So, so many reasons. For more of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Tonight Show appearance, because there’s no way you have anything better to do, click here.

Saturday Night Live—Neurotology Music Video

The sick part is that this sketch isn’t even as funny as the real thing! But don’t worry. It’s still, very, very funny on its own.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy FallonGame of Thrones Cast Sings ‘I’m So Excited’

Normally we don’t associate the Pointer Sisters’ brand of “excited” with so much bloodshed and backstabbing and stuff, but yet this mash-up nails exactly how we’re feeling going into the weekend.

Lip Sync Battle—Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Shake It Off’ vs. Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Jump in the Line’

It’s the giggle! When The Rock nails the giggle it’s all over for us.

Sesame Street—Game of Chairs

Hahahahaha Melisandre hahahaha!

The Daily Show with Jon StewartThe Daily Show‘s Once and Future Host

Even if you don’t want to do it for Trevor Noah, do it for Jon.

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—Louis CK Ruined Jimmy’s Chance to Star On The Dana Carvey Show

It’s likely title of this video is the only time we’ll ever read “Louis CK ruined” and want to keep clicking, because Louis CK makes everything better. There’s another segment from his Tonight Show appearance called “Louis CK Performed a Bit with NYC’s Mayor with Poop in His Pants,” and we can’t imagine you’d want to miss that.

Late Night with Seth Meyers—Seth Brings Jon Snow to a Dinner Party

Not that we don’t love him on Game of Thrones (we love you on Game of Thrones, Kit Harington!), but this is the best Jon Snow has ever been.

Bonus Track: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—Edward Snowden on Passwords

John Oliver’s Snowden conversation has bonus material! Watch the two discuss passwords if you didn’t get enough of this duo during the “dick pick program” convo.

Amazon Can Now Test Its Delivery Drones in the U.S.

Amazon just got one step closer to delivering packages to customers’ doorsteps by drone.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration said the e-commerce giant would be free to test its delivery drones in the United States, as long as Amazon flies the drones under 400 feet and at a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour. The move is not altogether unexpected. According to Reuters, just last month, the FAA issued a similar approval, but for an old prototype, one that Amazon argued was outdated by the time the approval came down.

Now, Amazon is free to test its Prime Air service, while also creating a regulatory pathway for other businesses interested in launching similar services.

Though this is a major milestone for Amazon, it’s important to remember that the ultimate vision for Prime Air—in which drones will fly autonomously for up miles to reach customers—will still be hamstrung by the FAA’s recently proposed rules regarding commercial drone operations, including the requirement that drones stay within the operator’s line of sight at all times. During the testing phase, that shouldn’t be a problem for Amazon. But over time, if that rule doesn’t change, it would be. What’s more, Amazon is still prohibited from flying its drones over “densely populated areas,” in accordance with the proposed rules. That means these tests will still be a highly limited version of what Amazon ultimately intends to accomplish with Prime Air.

When the rules were initially proposed in February, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy said in a statement that “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers. We are committed to realizing our vision for Prime Air and are prepared to deploy where we have the regulatory support we need.”

Still, this move should be construed as progress, if not for Amazon, then for the FAA itself. It took the agency years to come up with proposed rules for commercial drones, but it took them only a matter of weeks to issue this new exemption to Amazon, showing that the FAA is serious about its commitment to expediting the exemption process. Now, according to its website, rather than analyzing each petition for exemption from scratch, the FAA can issue an exemption “when it finds it has already granted a previous exemption similar to the new request.”

Many questions need to be answered before Amazon can deploy Prime Air as CEO Jeff Bezos originally envisioned it, but for Amazon, this news provides at least a glimmer of hope.

Veep Is Back, So Let Us Catch You Up

This Sunday, Veep returns to HBO for its fourth season. If you haven’t watched the first three, stop reading this now and just go do that (we haven’t done a Binge-Watching Guide yet, but at 30 minutes each, you’ll be done by the weekend). If you’re caught up, you already know that joke for joke, it’s the funniest show on TV. But what you might not remember is exactly where we left our not-so-trusty band of bumbling idiots who somehow now run the most powerful country in the world. Yes, after 30 episodes of epic trips, slips, and quips, Selina Meyer—played by the stupidly phenomenal Julia Louis-Dreyfus—has finally ascended to the presidency. So before she accidentally gives up the nuclear codes to her cleaning woman, or some such potentially world-imperiling disaster, let’s catch up with the new POTUS and her staff.

Selina Meyer

Everything changed in the third season’s second-to-last episode, “Crate”—arguably the show’s best to date. Just as Selina’s campaign bottoms out amid scandals on scandals, an adviser appears with shocking news: President Hughes has decided to resign. What follows should go down as one of the most outrageous moments in TV history: Selina and her bag man Gary (Tony Hale) cry-laughing their way through a bathroom scene involving a really bad nosebleed. Not long after, Selina is sworn in (twice), almost instantly insults Iran by accidentally firing a trusted government official whose name she confuses with “that bitch from energy,” and returns to New Hampshire to continue her still-troubled campaign for a new term.

veep15_03 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Gary Walsh

Despite being abandoned on the most important day of his boss’s life, Gary remains the most devoted member of Selina’s team. He’s probably also the most pathetic. For every thoughtful act (remembering to bring a certain pair of shoes on the day of Selina’s big speech), he commits a terrible blunder (those shoes squeak so badly as Selina walks to the lectern that the whole world hears it—and then blogs about it). At the end of last season, we see Gary ugly-running after Selina as she makes her way to the White House.

veep15_08 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Amy Brookheimer

Amy ended the year on a professional high: As Selina’s campaign manager, the job she coveted all along, she’s able to boss people around in signature Anna Chlumsky style: by making ridiculous faces. Perhaps this means she’s finally ready to work on herself and let true love (back) into her life in the form of Dan Egan.

Mike Dan Gary Jonah by Sue's desk Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Dan Egan

You’ll remember Dan was initially chosen as campaign manager over Amy—until he had a psychotic break midway through the season (or as Selina put it, going “schitzo-titzo”). But by the time Selina becomes president, Dan’s mostly back to his old self, putting out campaign-related fires in one breath and insulting the human beanstalk Jonah in the next.

veep15_06 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Jonah Ryan

Too tall, deeply uncool, probably unshowered: Jonah doesn’t even need to talk and you hate him. At this point, you’d think maligning him would’ve lost its novelty, but if anything, making fun of Jonah is more fun than ever (Sue and Ben still do it best). He’s back in the White House, but “” target=”_blank”>buried so far into the West Wing I’m practically in Pyongyang.”

Mike Dan Gary Jonah by Sue's desk Dan Schiraldi/HBO

Mike McLintock

Mike never misses an opportunity to prove himself the least competent member of Selina’s staff—which is pretty miraculous when you consider no one on that team can get through a single day without doing something incredibly stupid. When it appears Selina’s career is all but over, Mike tells his new wife, Wendy (Kathy Najimy), that he’s ready to buy a house and raise ducks. But that dream dies when Selina is sworn in as the first female president. The end of last season finds Mike running a press conference at the White House, cracking sad jokes no one finds remotely appropriate.

veep15_04 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Ben Caffrey

Though being chief of staff for the outgoing president nearly killed Ben (Kevin Dunn)—despite being rendered bulimic, he couldn’t even lose weight—he reluctantly agrees to perform the same duties in an acting capacity for Selina. He’s evolved into her most trusted adviser, the Hardy to Kent’s Laurel.

veep15_07 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Kent Davison

Gary Cole’s Kent, Selina’s main strategist, continues to baffle everyone with his pseudo-philosophy and esoteric number-crunching. His last major action is trying to secure the office closest to Selina’s at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s unclear whether he succeeds. What is clear: He’s still in love with Sue.

veep15_05 Patrick Harbron/HBO

Sue Wilson

Selina’s personal assistant, Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) remains quietly essential to the entire production—and to Kent. But after three seasons of mostly staying cool in the face of overwhelming incompetence, how will she fare in the White House?

You Should Take Kindle’s Last Rival Seriously

We’re almost at a point where the Kindle name is, like Kleenex to tissues, interchangeable with e-reader. That’s fair; it was among the first in the US, and with the quiet retreats of Sony and Barnes & Noble’s Nook line, it’s among the last. But the introduction this week of an e-reader that both matches the top-end Kindle’s marquee feature and severely undercuts its price is a reminder that Amazon hasn’t monopolized the market yet. In fact, it’s got competition that’s more serious than you’d think.

The Kobo Glo HD won’t be available in the US until May 1, but when it arrives it’ll bring with it a display every bit as pixel-packed as Amazon’s stunning Kindle Voyage—at a $70 discount. The Glo HD also doesn’t appear to be cutting many hardware corners elsewhere to make up the cost; it’s just as light as the Voyage, and only very slightly thicker. The two use the same Carta E-Ink technology. Both are front-lit, though the Voyage finds a small advantage by automatically adjusting the brightness to best suit your surrounding conditions.

“With this particular device, we went to people who self-declare as being attached to paper,” says Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s president and chief content officer. “We asked ourselves what characteristics would they want in a device to make the jump to e-reading.” Not surprisingly, they wanted a device that feels like a book. Based on its specs, the Glo HD comes about as close as you can get.

Despite the similarities to the Voyage, the Glo HD costs $130, compared to the $200 you’ll pay for Amazon’s base-level offering. In fact, you’ll pay less for the Glo HD than you would for the noticeably less crisp Kindle Paperwhite without the special offers, an apt comparison since Kobo doesn’t plaster any of its devices’ lock screens with ads.

You can’t judge any gadget on hardware alone, and the Kindle has plenty of advantages that don’t show up on a spec sheet. But for the right kind of consumer—the kind that still reads enough books to warrant a dedicated e-reading device instead of the occasional smartphone scrolling session—Kobo has importance beyond any individual product. It’s the last bastion of competition in a field that sorely needs it.

Turning the Page

The argument for Kobo is simply this: Without it, Amazon would be your only choice. Sony slinked off the e-reader field a year ago. Barnes & Noble hasn’t updated its Nook Glowlight since 2013, and seems to have zero interest in producing its own hardware. Kobo and Kindle are at this point the only mass-market e-readers, full stop. In other words, Kobo is the only company capable of pushing Kindle forward, and vice versa.

If you think that sort of competition doesn’t matter—that it’s just an e-reader, how much innovation do you really need—you just need to look at the Kobo Aura H20. Released last fall, it’s the only e-reader that gets delivered to your door waterproof. That’s a feature no Kindle can boast, unless you go the pricey aftermarket route.

Tamblyn is quick to cite other e-reader improvements Kobo has pioneered. In 2010, the Kobo e-reader’s $149 price tag significantly undercut its competition. Three years later, the 6.8-inch Aura HD was an affordable large-format e-reader (the 9.7-inch Kindle DX preceded it, but at a much higher price and for a more specialized audience) that set a new resolution standard for the time of its release. These are the types of efforts that have a gravity beyond their sales figures. A cheap Kobo makes Kindles cheaper. Kobo features that Kindles are likely to wind up in future Kindles. That’s just how competition works. And without Kobo, there isn’t any.

The need for a Kindle alternative goes deeper than just hardware. Kobo works with a broader range of file formats than Kindle does (though both use DRM on titles you purchase directly), and frankly has a less contentious relationship with major publishing houses. A public spat between Amazon and Hachette last spring led to delayed shipments, higher prices, and titles being pulled from the Kindle Store’s digital shelves. As many as 5,000 titles were affected.

Kobo’s hardly the only digital book retailer around; Barnes & Noble still moves plenty of merchandise through its Nook app, and upstart subscription service Oyster recently embraced retail as well. But by having an integrated hardware and software experience, Kobo gives its customers more direct, frictionless access to content than anyone but Amazon. And so far, unlike Amazon, it hasn’t used its customers as leverage in publisher spats.

That’s not to say Kobo’s perfect; there’s a selection trade-off here. Though Tamblyn describes his company and Amazon as “effectively peers” in quantity and quality of offerings (aside from content that comes from Amazon’s own publishing arm), the Kobo bookstore can feel jumbled and anemic in practice, versus the slickly produced and fully stocked Kindle Store. Tamblyn insists that the difference boils down to approaches to discovery. Kobo is “less automated” than Amazon’s algorithmic rigor, curated with more of a human touch. That’s likely true, but in my experience doesn’t always result in a better user experience.

Staying Power

How good a digital product is doesn’t mean much, though, if it’s not going to be supported in a year or two. And it’s tempting to think of Kobo as the doomed underdog; the name’s still not very familiar to the U.S. audience. But Tamblyn stresses that the Kobo’s focus has so far been on international markets, and that it has “significant global share,” despite often being an afterthought stateside.

More important than Kobo’s actual numbers, though, are those of its parent company, Rakuten, one of the world’s largest ecommerce companies that’s currently in expansion mode. You’re likely most familiar with, which Rakuten acquired in 2010, but the easiest way to think of it is as the Amazon of Japan. Last year alone it tallied nearly $5 billion in revenue. It has a market cap of $25 billion. It’s no Amazon, but it’s not exactly either.

That’s important not just for the confidence that you’re not buying off-brand junk—as someone who’s tested several Kobo products, I can assure you it’s not—but for the reassurance that there’s less risk than you thought to investing in the Kobo ecosystem. Rakuten is capable of thinking about, and surviving over, the long-term. Stashing your books on its devices is as safe a bet as any.

Fighting for Scraps?

There’s a looming hesitation around this entire discussion, which is how long e-readers will even continue to exist as a product at all. Forrester Research last year projected category sales to fall to 7 million per year by 2017, versus 25 million in 2012. The rise of big smartphones and small tablets appears to have made a powerful argument against a dedicated reading device.

While Tamblyn acknowledges that Kobo’s target demographic in the U.S. is an older generation experiencing e-reading for the first time, he’s perhaps predictably bullish on the industry’s prospects. There’s still a place for devices like Kindle and Kobo.

“People who love reading, who read a book or two a week, are much more likely to be drawn to a dedicated device,” he explains to WIRED. Many of those people are already too deeply invested in Amazon’s ecosystem to find their way out. But for newcomers to the e-reading experience, people who are tired of smartphone screen glare ruining their view, or of black-screen battery life woes, or of all the distractions that come with reading on the same device you tweet with, e-readers are a welcome respite.

In fact, one of the biggest contributors to e-reader sales decline is likely the same as that of tablets: You rarely need to replace them. A Paperwhite from two years ago is much the same as a Paperwhite today. Refresh rates get a little faster, E-Ink gets a little more crisp, but there’s not much about a new Kindle that would make you feel the need to replace your old one.

That’s the real reason Kobo matters. Without any rivalry at all, the pace of e-reader innovation would be even slower than it already is. Upgrades would either remain too expensive or too minor to bother with. Waterproofing would still be a distant dream. Kobo helps make e-readers worth buying again, wherever you end up actually buying one from.

We Need More Kids Apps Like ‘Robot Factory’

The Robot Factory, a new app from Tinybop, encourages open-ended play. The Robot Factory, a new app from Tinybop, encourages open-ended play. Tinybop

Raul Gutierrez, the founder of the Brooklyn-based kids app company Tinybop, worries about the effect brands are having on the way kids play. Here’s how he sees it: Today’s kids movies and TV shows are great, but as their stories seep into more and more toys, the possibilities for the imagination are constricted as a result.

Whether or not you agree with that diagnosis, it spawned a tremendously cool kids app. The Robot Factory, available for iOS devices for $3, is the first in a series Tinybop is calling “Digital Toys.” It’s just what it sounds like: an animated workshop where kids can mix and match dozens of parts to create robots of their own design, including an obstacle course-like environment where they can test their bots. It’s meant to be highly open-ended. Your robot can have two heads. You can stick legs where arms are supposed to go. The app just provides the parts. The kids supply the stories.

Designing for Imagination

Gutierrez first noticed the brand thing with Lego. Compared to the more generic kits he played with as a youngster, the branded sets his sons were clamoring for seemed to have a more definitive end point. They encouraged kids to build toward the brand-name thing on the box, and since that brand-name thing is what got his kids excited about the set in the first place, there was less of a suggestion that the pieces inside could in fact be used to make, well, anything.

“I don’t mean to just pick on Lego,” Gutierrez adds. “It’s happening all over the place, with physical toys and with digital toys. That play pattern, of having a set of parts, creating something that is the product of your imagination, and then repeating it—changing it, testing it, and starting over again—is really lost.”

Robot Factory is built entirely around that play pattern. There’s no agenda. There are no levels. There’s no story and no real point system. It’s more like a set of digital Tinker Toys, just focused on the world of robots.

You can stick five pogo stick legs outward in all directions like spokes on a wheel. You can do whatever.

The app divvies robot parts up into a handful of categories. There are assorted bodies, arms, legs, heads, and other robot miscellany (antenna, claw, floating brain in tank). Within the legs bucket, say, you can choose from tank treads, pogo sticks, spider-type legs and more. Everything can be mixed and matched. You can put a pogo stick where the legs are supposed to go. Or you can stick it on the robot’s side, or on its head. You can stick five pogo stick legs outward in all directions like spokes on a wheel. You can do whatever. The app was illustrated by British artist Owen Davey, and the robots themselves trend more toward old-school Japanese monster movies and pulpy sci-fi book covers than Terminator and Transformers.

The Joy of Physics

What makes the creative freedom of the workshop really fun is that you can test out your creations afterward. All of Tinybop’s apps—which include beautiful interactive books on subjects like anatomy and biomes, to name a few—are built around dynamic, physics-based animation. This one’s no exception. Every piece in the robot kit works differently, imbued with its own unique physics. One leg will have a different weight and motion than the next. In some instances, parts behave differently when they’re combined with certain other parts. My pogo stick bot bounded over blocks and plants. A little diminutive tank-like one I made got stuck straight away.

Realistic physics makes bot-testing fun. Realistic physics makes bot-testing fun. Tinybop

This is a “meaty engineering challenge,” Gutierrez says, especially when you don’t know what kids are going to make. “What we see is that, normally, a kid will start out and build these very conventional, symmetrical robots. Two arms, two legs, a head. And then very quickly, when they get to their tenth or twentieth robot, they start making these really wild creations.” For this reason, Gutierrez says, many robot-building apps out there just cheat. They have flying robots instead of walking ones. “With flying, you can just scroll the background. You don’t have to show the physics of how it walks,” he says.

For Tinybop, though, the laboriously engineered physics engine is the whole point. Frame-based animation can be beautiful, but it’s inherently repetitive, Gutierrez says. “We think that something becomes really sticky for kids is when they feel they have control over the animation.” I’m not a kid, but I can see what they mean. With the Robot Factory, there’s a real feeling that you’re driving the action, and a sense that you could very well build something the app’s creators had never imagined possible themselves.

Tinybop, which is based in Brooklyn, plans to add to the app in months to come: both more parts for kids to build with and more behaviors for the bots, including dancing and high-fiving. But one thing you won’t ever see added: baddies to engage in robo-battle.

“I think the more gamified it becomes, the more limited it is as a something you come back to over time,” Gutierrez says. “The adult mindset is, ‘what’s the game; how do I get to the next level; how do I win?’ Kids have a very different way of looking at the world. It’s like, ‘I built this thing, I want to see how it works. Let me tinker with it and then build another one.'”

Canon’s New 4K Camcorder Twists to Take Pictures

Most of Canon’s camera designs are pretty straightforward. But the company has also thrown some interesting and super-weird models into the mix over the years: The tubular 35mm film Autoboy Jet, the submarine-themed PowerShot D10, and the buttonless and belt-buckle-sized PowerShot N among them. But 99 times out of 100, Canon’s design sense skews conservative.

Not this time, and it’s nice to see that Canon can still bring the funk. The new Canon XC10 ($2,500) splits the difference between a camcorder and a camera, although Canon is billing it primarily as a camcorder. The company says the XC10 was built with roving journalists in mind. It captures 4K video and 12-megapixel stills with its mechanical shutter and 1-inch-type sensor—the same size sensor found in Sony’s RX100 cameras and AX100 4K camcorder. This time, that imager is baked into a body that looks like it should be comfortable to use when shooting both stills and video, and that’s a rarity.

Sensor size isn’t the only trait this hybrid video-and-photo machine shares with Sony’s hardware. Its adjustable swiveling handgrip and unique body hearken back to retro jams such as the Sony Cybershot DSC-F828 and its predecessors. The XC10 is a little more advanced, though.

At its highest resolution setting, it captures 3840×2160 video at 30 frames per second. It will also record 1080p clips at up to 60fps, and 720p clips at up to 120fps for those slow-motion sequences. For the Ultra HD video, the camera uses Canon’s proprietary XF-AVC codec, which is also used in its just-announced Cinema EOS C100 Mark II professional camera. Here’s the kicker: That codec supports a bitrate of up to an insane 305Mbps. That should mean absurd detail.

In order to handle all that data per second, the XC100 won’t work with your average SD card to capture 4K video. It uses a CompactFlash-sized CFast 2.0 card—a 64GB SanDisk card and reader is included with the camcorder—although you can use SDHC/SDXC cards for 1080p and 720p recording.

It’s a fixed-lens camcorder, making it sort of a step-down non-interchangeable companion to the CX100 series, and its optics range from 24mm wide angle to 240mm telephoto (10X) with a maximum aperture of F2.8 to F5.6 at the respective ends. Manual focus is adjustable via a control ring around the lens, and there’s a physical mode dial and control wheel on the grip for tweaking manual, shutter-, and aperture-priority controls. An adjustable 3-inch tilting touchscreen around the back lets you tap to focus and access deeper menu selections, and there’s a separately sold clip-on unit to turn that screen into an EVF.

One thing that’s missing for anyone thinking about picking this thing up as an independent-filmmaking tool: There are no XLR mic inputs. There are stereo mics built in, and a hot shoe on the top of the camera for other lower-end mics, but you’ll need a step-up Cinema EOS camera for XLR.

Compared to those higher-end EOS cameras, the $2,500 XC10 seems like a bargain. Just keep in mind that it has a much smaller sensor than a full-frame 4K-capable shooter such as the EOS-1D C. And compared to Sony’s similarly sensored 4K Handycam AX100, it’s a thousand dollars more. Just like it splits the difference between a still camera and a camcorder, the XC100 will also split the difference between a consumer camcorder and a professional-level model when it comes out in June.