Attaching the propeller: How the motility structure of unicellular archaea is fixed to their surface

A research team led by the Freiburg microbiologist Prof. Dr. Sonja-Verena Albers has described the structure of the protein with which the motility structure is fixed to the cell wall of archaea -- a type of unicellular life form. In addition, the researchers demonstrated that this protein is essential for the structure and functioning of the organ. The researchers published their findings in the current issue of the journal Structure.

Prokaryotes, unicellular life forms without a cell nucleus, are subdivided into bacteria and archaea. Much less research has been conducted on archaea, because no pathogenic forms have yet been described. The first isolated archaea came from habitats like hot sulfur springs, hot springs in the deep sea, or extremely saline lakes. Scientists thus long assumed that archaea can only grow in extreme environments like these. Now it is known that archaea, like bacteria, may be found in almost all habitats -- in the intestinal flora and on the skin of humans, among other places. These discoveries provided a stimulus for new research.

It is important for microorganisms to be able to move on their own: When their living conditions deteriorate, they are then capable of finding better ones on their own. The motility structure of bacteria, the flagellum, has been the object of detailed research for more than 30 years. It consists of up to 50 proteins assembled according to a fixed sequence of events. The result is a whip made of protein filaments that functions much like a propeller: A "motor" at the end fixed to the cell wall allows it to rotate, enabling the bacterium to swim.

Up until only a few years ago, scientists assumed that archaea also use flagella to move. However, the sequencing of the first archaeal genome revealed clear differences in the structures of the motility structures of bacteria and archaea. It was found that archaea use a structure called the archaellum to swim. In the model organism Sulfolobus acidocaldarius, it consists of a mere seven subunits but still achieves the same performance as the flagellum despite this simple structure. Only few structural studies of the subunits that make up the archaellum have been conducted to date. Two years ago Albers' research team discovered the structure of the motor protein FlaI and demonstrated that it forms the motor complex of the archaellum along with the proteins FlaX and FlaH. In their newly published article, the researchers describe the protein FlaF, which binds specifically to the model organism's only cell wall protein and fixes it firmly there. "It is important to learn more about these cell wall and surface structures, since the archaea can use them to interact with the environment -- and thus also with human cells," says Albers.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Veep GIF and a Graf: Selina’s Prompt Failure

Veep GIF and a Graf: Selina’s Prompt Failure

VeepSadFace HBO

The 3DR Solo Is a Scary-Smart Drone

Great drone footage is mesmerizing, no matter what it depicts. (Exhibit A: This video of a truck driving through mud in super-slow-motion.) But perfect shots—the swooping landscapes, the hovering overheads—are hard to come by. A new drone from 3D Robotics (a company co-founded by former WIRED editor-in-chief Chris Anderson) is the beginning of a project to make it a little easier.

The $1,000 Solo drone (or $1,400 with a GoPro included) is full of clever tools to automate and simplify shooting. There’s even a one-click way to take an ultra-dramatic selfie video. But one of the most impressive features is that the drone will be sold as an open platform, allowing hackers to tinker with the hardware and software.

The Solo, which will be available in May, is designed to be ready to fly right out of the box. This quadcopter is 3.3 pounds, all black, and vaguely threatening; it looks more like a drone you’d want sneaking behind enemy lines than one you’d want delivering your burrito. It has a simple controller, which looks like an old-school video game joystick, with a holder for your iPhone or iPad, which act as both the monitor for the drone and the remote control for the mounted GoPro camera. There are lots of helpful tools for newbie pilots, like a panic button on the controller that will stop the drone in its tracks wherever you are, and a flight simulator app so you can learn to fly a drone without risking crashing $1,000 into a wall. (Repeatedly.)

The Solo’s best feature, though, is its camera automation. In addition to the standard “follow me” mode, you can draw a line on your phone’s screen, and the Solo will fly back and forth along exactly that line while recording video. Pick an object and select “Orbit,” and the drone will fly a perfect circle, camera focused on your subject the whole time. And in selfie mode, the camera trains on you and flies away, epic-action-movie-style. You can control your GoPro settings in flight, too, which no other drone offers. The goal is for Solo to take great video without you doing much of anything, and then do even more as you get better.

A lot of these first features are made so flying and shooting video will be a little easier. But the second phase for 3DR and the Solo is to open it up—the company sees Solo as a platform, and has opened up both hardware and software in hopes that developers will build specific apps, crazy tricks, and unique functionality into the two computers on board the drone. Or, they can drop new sensors or chips into the accessory bay and do even more.

Drones are rapidly getting both more powerful and easier to master; DJI’s new Phantom 3, launched just last week, has a better camera, live-streaming capabilities, and a new positioning system that makes it much easier to fly. It’s also cheaper than the Solo, when you factor in a gimbal and a camera. But 3DR’s vision is bigger, and more open; it wants to be the Android of drones; extensible and customizable for purposes beyond even what it can conceive. And most of all, it wants to get everyone flying and shooting, because as anyone who’s flown a drone tells you, it’s hard not to get hooked.

This Week’s Trailers: True Detective Leaves Us Guessing

It feels like a lifetime ago that Rustin Cohle first darkened our doorways with his bleak and opaque philosophizing, and yet, it’s only been a year! And even though time is a flat blah blah blah, one more trip around the sun means it is time for True Detective Season 2. And along with the trailer for that juggernaut, we have a few more small-screen entries to add into the mix alongside a pair of festival darlings and one Human Centipede. Oh yeah. It’s back. Humanity is a dazzling spectrum, and we celebrate all of it here in the weekly trailer roundup.

The One Everyone Is Talking About: True Detective Season 2 (Above)

So many intense glances! We went into everything we know about the new season when the trailer dropped last week, but that answer is basically … not much. There are no hints that we’ll see the Illuminati work its way into Season 2, but we’re keeping hope alive!

Pause at: 0:06, 0:15, 0:41, and 0:46 for your new stars.

Song: Unidentified new song

The AlternaScreen One: Other Space

Yahoo is adding to its content streaming business with another island of misfit toys. The Community team will now be joined by a dysfunctional shuttle crew on a “routine collection mission” that will obviously push the amalgamation of rookie scientists outside their comfort zones. It looks silly/fun enough to spend eight half-hour episodes watching, but the real news here is that it’s produced by Paul Feig. The cast is mostly semi-knowns like Karan Soni (Betas), Eugene Cordero (House of Lies), Milana Vayntrub (Silicon Valley), Conor Leslie (Klondike), Neil Casey (Broad City), and Bess Rous (Murder in the First). So they’re a big mystery, but I think we all remember what happened the first time Feig put a bunch of unknowns in a show together! Yeah, so this probably won’t be the second coming of Freaks and Geeks, but it could still be fun.

Pause at: 0:38 for humans with gills. Stop at 0:50 for AI with attitude.

Essential Quote: “Your words will be a sweet soundtrack and I choke to death in the vacuum of space.”—The guy with gills

The Netflix One: Orange Is the New Black Season 3

Wow. Nothing like forgetting how much you miss someone until you see their face again and want to hold them close until the end of time. OITNB spent its second season under the dictatorship of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), and proving that it was a show well worth more than its initial novelty of Real Women on TV. So here we go again, back to Litchfield, and Round 3 looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Lori Petty is in our favorite big house now, which can only be great news for us. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) has taken to writing porn and/or provocative romantic fiction. Red (Kate Mulgrew) is continuing to kick ass. Piper (Taylor Schilling) sounds like she’s really embracing her time in prison, and, wait for it … Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) is back! Because they obviously couldn’t keep her from us forever. We’ve read that Larry, aka Jason Biggs, is out for Season 3, so that means the only thing standing between Alex and Piper is a whole lot of history. We’re so ready to start this processing session.

Pause at: 0:38 for Taystee (Danielle Brooks) being Taystee. Reevaluate your reality at 0:20. Alex looking worse for the wear at 0:40. Hello who are you at 1:05? Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is out of her prison beige at 1:12! An unholy union at 1:13. Alex brings the pain at 1:24!

Song: Imagine Dragons, “I’m So Sorry”

Essential Quote: “The world is better in black and white. And red.”—Red

The WTF One: The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

THIS IS VERY NSFW! As Tom Six promised all those many years ago in a newly Centipede-d world, this would be a trilogy, and so we arrive at the third and final sequence of the ass-to-mouth chronicles. The self-referential framing is through the roof, and the original physician of Satan himself—played by Dieter Laser—is back in the saddle, except this time he isn’t Dr. Heiter. He’s Bill Boss, a prison warden with a whole new, and much bigger, stable of lab rats on whom to carry out his wicked experiments. Six looks like he’s ready to burn it to the ground for the last installment in his gross-out franchise, and while this one looks to be considerably less disturbing than the second one, it will likely be the most shameless. Really, no one should watch this trailer, but in case you’re curious, have at it.

Pause at: You can figure it out yourself.

Essential Quote: “It looks … medically accurate.”

The Sundance One: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Here it is! Following in the footsteps of last year’s Sundance smash Whiplash, Me and Earl premiered at the winter fest to great acclaim and took home both the Audience and Grand Jury prizes. Back in January, someone somewhere described it as The Fault in Our Stars but for friendship. That makes sense, but Earl has the decency to be slightly less ham-fisted about all its feelings. It doesn’t carry with it an explosive performance everyone is talking about like J.K. Simmons did in Whiplash, but then again, it’s a different sort of movie. That said, we were quite taken by RJ Cyler as Earl, and the rest of the supporting cast is phenomenal, including Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, and our forever-mom Connie Britton. When Brooklyn comes out later this year (probably during awards season), the trio of top gets at Sundance 2015, including Dope, will all have come to market. Let’s hear it for the indies that could!

Pause at: 1:28, 1:30, 1:33, and 2:15 for a selection of films by Earl and Greg (Thomas Mann).

Song: Brian Eno, “The Big Ship”

Essential Quote: “Now is not the time for your ‘I’m Greg. I suck. Nothing I do is any good.’ thing.”—Madison (Katherine C. Hughes)

The SXSW One: Animals

We love this trailer because it feels surprising. It’s just a sweet love story about two young things down on their luck and living in a car in Chicago, sustained by their love for one another and feeling grateful for that, until WHOA! He’s stealing from people and she’s holding a lighter under a spoon! While it’s a romantic journey, Animals is also about the horrors of addiction. Star and screenwriter David Dastmalchian (Prisoners) received the Special Jury Recognition for Courage in Storytelling at the 2014 SXSW film festival, and this really does look like a beautiful and tragic way of telling a very common and very sad story. Animals feels unexpected, and we like to be surprised.

Pause at: 0:22 for just a normal cute love story. Just a cute love story with petty theft at 0:38. And just some casual heroin use at 1:26!

Song: Lavender Diamond, “Everybody’s Heart’s Breaking Now”

Essential Quote: “You know we couldn’t have been born into more ideal circumstances.”—Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris)

How a bacterial cell recognizes its own DNA

It may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that bacteria have an immune system -- in their case to fight off invasive viruses called phages. And like any immune system -- from single-celled to human -- the first challenge of the bacterial immune system is to detect the difference between "foreign" and "self." This is far from simple, as viruses, bacteria and all other living things are made of DNA and proteins. A group of researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University has now revealed exactly how bacteria do this. Their results were published online today in Nature.

"In most environments, phages are around ten times more abundant than bacteria. And, like all viruses, phages use the host cell's replication machinery to make copies of themselves," says Prof. Rotem Sorek of the Weizmann Institute's Molecular Genetics Department. "And they are constantly evolving new ways to do this. So bacteria need a very active immune system to survive."

But until recently, scientists were not even sure that bacteria had a so-called adaptive immune system -- one that "remembers" a past encounter to produce a targeted response. That changed several years ago when a bacterial adaptive system called CRISPR was discovered. The CRISPR immune mechanism is not just crucial to the bacteria, it has a major impact on our daily lives: It is used today, for example, to protect the "good" bacteria that make yogurt and cheese. And it may also affect our future: Scientists have figured out how to use the ingenious CRISPR system to "edit" the human genome -- making it a handy tool for a wide range of clinical applications.

To remember an infection, the CRISPR system grabs a short sequence from the invading viral DNA and inserts it straight into the bacterial genome. The bits of phage DNA are stored in special sections of the genome; these form the immune memory. In subsequent infections, CRISPR uses these sequences to create short strands of RNA that fit the genetic sequence of the phages' kin. Protein complexes attached to the RNA then identify the phage DNA and destroy it.

Selectivity is clearly an issue for such a system: Previous research in Sorek's lab had shown that mistakenly grabbing bits of self-DNA can cause the bacterial cell to suffer a sort of autoimmune disease in which it attacks its own DNA, and the results may be fatal to the bacteria. With around 100 times more self- than foreign DNA inside the cell, says Sorek, there would seem to be room for many more mistakes than researchers have actually observed.

How does the CRISPR system know how to insert foreign, rather than self, bits of DNA into the immune memory? Sorek and his research student Asaf Levy teamed up with Prof. Udi Qimron and Moran Goren of Tel Aviv University to answer the question in detail, revealing a complex, multi-step mechanism for this part of the CRISPR process.

They devised an experimental setup using plasmids -- short, circular pieces of DNA that mimic viruses -- and injected them into bacteria cells. These bacteria had two proteins known as Cas1 and Cas2 -- parts of the CRISPR system that are responsible for acquiring the pieces of foreign DNA. The CRISPR system successfully incorporated the plasmid DNA into the bacterial genome, while the "self" DNA was only rarely attacked. The team recorded some 38 million separate immunization events.

Looking more closely at the results, the team found that the CRISPR system, using the proteins Cas 1 and 2, specifically identifies DNA that replicates rapidly. Thus, ironically, it is the phage's survival tactic -- its programmed drive to replicate at all costs -- that proves to be its downfall.

"Still," says Sorek, "this did not completely explain how the CRISPR system differentiates between self and non-self."

The solution came from deeper understanding of the process. During DNA replication, small breaks occur frequently in the DNA; these breaks call up a DNA repair enzyme that "nibbles" a bit of the broken DNA. The team discovered that the "leftovers" from the repair machinery's nibbling are actually the source of the viral DNA used by the CRISPR system to generate the bacterium's immune memory. But when that repair enzyme meets a short sequence called a "Chi site," its nibbling stops. Such Chi sequences are found very frequently throughout the bacterial genome, but rarely in the viral one. So Chi sites also serve as "self" markers: They reject the activity of the CRISPR machinery when they are present, but enable it to use bits of phage DNA if they are missing.

Thus the bacterial cell uses its normal DNA replication and repair processes to identify phage DNA, checking and double-checking that the new DNA differs in two fundamental ways from the "self" genome. Through the activity of the two CRISPR proteins -- Cas1 and 2 -- the bacterial immune system can ensure it is adding foreign DNA, alone, to its immune "memory," and can thus activate its defenses.

Sorek: "Solving the riddle of self versus non-self for the bacterial immune system and deciphering the exact mechanism of this step in the CRISPR process gives us important insight into the unseen confrontation that is taking place everywhere, all around us, all the time." Qimron: "The bacterial solution to evading autoimmunity might be utilized in future clinical applications that take advantage of the CRISPR system."

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

Mad Men Recap: Money Can’t Buy Don Love

Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by advertising agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.

“Yes…but is it art?” This age-old question has generally targeted the avant-garde, but its application to advertising can be equally apt. The best work by Sterling Cooper’s resident creative geniuses Don Draper and Peggy Olson—the Carousel, Burger Chef—transcends its mercenary origins to articulate hidden yet widespread fears and desires, in the stealthily symbolic way that’s normally the province of painters and poets. But for an ad to be truly effective, the reverse must also be true: Greed and guile are gussied up in artsy drag, its surface sophistication used to exploit the anxieties the product for sale is designed to salve.

Photographer Pima Ryan embodies this Madison Avenue manicheanism. Played by guest star Mimi Rogers, her talent has made her a legend among SC&P’s creative staff, for good and for ill. Peggy’s thrilled to bring Pima aboard the campaign for Cinzano vermouth, and her onscreen debut takes place in a blinding white soundstage that evokes the iconic artistry of late-season Mad Men go-to reference point Stanley Kubrick. But Peggy’s friend and sidekick Stan Rizzo is equal parts irritated and intimidated by this hired gun. At first he mocks her work, on set and to her face. But when challenged by her directly to show her his best stuff, he comes up short. “You should see what she does,” he tells his girlfriend Elaine, awestruck and petulant in equal measure. “It’s so sensual.” Instinctively, Elaine strips down and volunteers to serve as Stan’s model for an impromptu shoot, in hopes that their real, relationship-based sexual chemistry is enough to rival the simulacrum seen in Pima’s photos. Perhaps life, they hope, can imitate art.

242b9e52-ce1f-6922-ac54-9e5107fd0707_MM 709 PIMA CAMERA Courtesy of AMC

But Stan and Elaine aren’t the only ones capable of conflating sexual and artistic success. After checking out and dismissing the results of their shoot, Pima comes on to Stan, who responds with his typical eagerness. He may have failed to win her approval as a photographer, but becoming her lover is seen as equally validating. If you can’t beat her, join her.

Peggy, however, sees through Pima’s advances when they’re thrust in her own direction. Whatever her problems, confidence in her work has not been one for many years, so the sex/approval trade-off holds no appeal for her. When she snipes at Stan for his infidelity to his girlfriend, and he snaps back that it’s none of her business, her answer exposes their special-guest superstar for what she is: “No, it’s Pima’s business, which turns out to be more advertising than art. She tried the same thing with me, but she didn’t get as far, and that’s why I’m not gonna give her another job.” Art points to a void, something we’re afraid or incapable of articulating. Advertising does the same, then offers something to fill it. In the end, Pima wasn’t selling anything Peggy needed to buy.

Diana, the waitress with whom Don pursues an ill-fated relationship in this episode, has no more interest than Peggy in pursuing outside means to fill the hole in her life. In this case, however, the motive wasn’t self-confidence, but self-abnegation. If she were more like Stan, dating Don—a handsome, talented, enormously wealthy person—would have provided her with some measure of happiness she couldn’t win on her own. But she doesn’t want happiness. She wants to remember her daughters, one who died, and one she left behind when the grief overwhelmed her. She lives in a representation of the void she has embraced, a sparsely furnished and undecorated studio apartment. “Can’t you see I don’t want anything?” she demands of Don. He does see it, eventually, and leaves her to the nothing she’s chosen.

61311f0f-3112-9a77-f2e7-4fea51ed889d_MM709-06 Courtesy of AMC

But he returns to a nothing that someone else has chosen for him: In the hour’s funniest sight gag, Don’s apartment has been emptied out on the down low by his ex-wife Megan’s trash-talking, French-speaking mother Marie. Nominally, this is an act of vengeance against the man she feels dishonored her daughter and damaged her family. But by effectively booty-calling Roger Sterling in the middle of robbing Don blind, she reveals a Stan-like need to seek fulfillment from a happier, richer person than herself. Megan sees this for what it is the moment she returns to the apartment, lambasting her mother and Roger—not for stealing Don’s stuff but for what they did together afterwards. Yet at the same time, she recognizes the unhappiness that drove her mother to do it, and subsequently to leave her father, ostensibly for Roger. In a fight with her sister, she applauds her mother’s decision to end years of emotional misery. “It’s a sin to be a ghoul and feed on everyone’s pain,” she chides her sibling. Whatever her mother and Roger were feeding on, it wasn’t pain.

So that leaves Don alone in his barren apartment. He’s lost Diana. He’s lost the million dollars he paid Megan for their settlement, in a vain effort to persuade Diana that he was serious enough about her to end his drawn-out divorce as soon as possible. The poor sap’s even lost his easy chair. Knowing Don, there will always be someone else to sleep with and some other million to earn. But for the time being he’s learning what Stan learned from Pima: When you get what you think you want, what you’re really doing is acknowledging how badly you needed it in the first place. It may look like art, it may look like love, but you’re being bought and sold the whole time.

Pears could be part of a healthy diet to manage diabetes

While the phrase "an apple a day" is a popular saying, a new study suggests that pears as part of a healthy diet could play a role in helping to manage type 2 diabetes and diabetes-induced hypertension.

The results of research published in Food Research International show potential health benefits of Bartlett and Starkrimson pears. Building on their previous studies, the research team from North Dakota State University, Fargo, and the University of Massachusetts studied whether the peel, pulp and juice of pears could impact the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, which plays a role in intestinal ulcers.

The research team includes: Kalidas Shetty and Dipayan Sarkar, now at North Dakota State University, Fargo, previously at the University of Massachusetts with co-authors Chandrakant Ankolekar and Marcia Pinto. Shetty, professor of Plant Sciences at NDSU, serves as the director of the Global Institute of Food Security and International Agriculture (GIFSIA), as well as associate vice president for International Partnerships and Collaborations.

The in vitro (test tube) lab experiments by researchers in the study provided metabolic insights into how two varieties of pears could play a role to better manage early stage diabetes and associated hypertension, commonly called high blood pressure. More research would be needed to determine if the results of the in vitro studies can be replicated in humans.

Naturally occurring phenolic compounds found in fruits may provide a variety of health benefits, as this study shows. More varied and higher phenolic content is found in the skin of the pear than in its flesh or pulp. The study showed that Starkrimson peel had the highest total phenolic content, and that peel extracts had significantly higher total phenolic content than pulp. The pulp extracts of the Bartlett cultivar had higher total phenolics when compared with Starkrimson.

"Our results from in vitro assays suggest that if we consume Bartlett and Starkrimson pears as a whole fruit (peel and pulp) it may potentially provide better control of early stage diabetes as part of an overall healthier diet," said Shetty.

"Such dietary strategy involving fruits, including pears, not only potentially could help better control blood glucose levels, but also reduce over dependence on drugs for prediabetes stages, or complement a reduced pharmacological dose of drugs with side effects to combat very early stages of type 2 diabetes," said the study authors in their article.

World Health Organization statistics show that diabetes affects approximately 387 million adults worldwide, with the number expected to jump to 592 million by 2035. Some references consider type 2 diabetes a rapidly emerging epidemic in children due to unhealthy diets.

Effects on blood pressure

Researchers also examined whether the pears studied might provide benefits to controlling high blood pressure. ACE (angiotensin-I-converting enzyme) inhibitors are medications that are sometimes used to help treat elevated blood pressure. The study showed that the watery extract of Bartlett pulp had low to moderate ACE inhibitory activity. The pear peel and pulp did not show any ACE inhibitory activity in this study.

"Our results suggested that Bartlett pulp could be utilized as a potential mild ACE inhibitor following further evaluation with different concentrations and extraction processes," said the study authors.

Pears and gut bacteria

Researchers also studied whether fermented whole pear juice of Bartlett and Starkrimson pear extracts could inhibit the bacteria H. pylori. This bacteria found in the gut often is associated with gastritis and stomach ulcers. No pH adjusted samples after fermentation inhibited H. pylori. Starkrimson pear without pH adjustment inhibited H. pylori after 24, 48 and 72 hours of fermentation. Fermented samples of Bartlett pear inhibited H. pylori only after 48 and 72 hours, when pH was adjusted before fermentation.

Results suggest that fermented pear extract can inhibit H. pylori without affecting the growth or function of probiotic bacteria and has the potential to sustain probiotic function of beneficial bacteria.

More studies are needed, said Shetty, to further investigate the bioactive compounds in the peel and pulp of these pear varieties. Study of other properties such as fiber content, amino acids, and vitamin C could provide additional insight on the role of pears in a healthy food system.

Results show opportunity for agriculture

Shetty said results of this study and others point to the use of foods that can help combat disease, which in turn, can impact agriculture around the world. "This research helps make the case to build better 'food crops for health,'" he said. He sees additional opportunity for agriculture, particularly in North Dakota. "We now can develop a wide diversity of crops in North Dakota that not only meet global food security and nutritional security, but also are wholesome to counter chronic diseases from poor diets," he said.

Funding for early work on the study was provided by USA Pears, with support for studies on probiotic and antimicrobial benefits supported by the University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station and by student Marcia Pinto on a Brazilian government scholarship. Research on health benefits is continuing at North Dakota State University since 2013, with support from the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.

Old-School Cool: Charming Toy Cars Made of Nothin’ But Wood

Back at last year’s Toy Fair, Candylab’s collection of MO-TO “Awesome Wood Cars” were retro wooden standouts at a show loaded with high-tech playthings. Now, the team that makes these cool toy cars is coming out with its 2015 models, and you’re going to want them for your desk kids.

Candylab and its cars were born in Brooklyn, but it’s now a four-person team spread out across Brooklyn, L.A., and London. Each of the team members has a day job, so making these rides is just a fun hobby. Co-founder Vlad Dragusin is an architect during business hours, and co-founder Florin Galliano is a product developer in L.A.

Like the first batch of cars, the new toy rides are all about minimalism. Their bodies are abstract but still recognizable representations of classic cars. The number of pieces in each car is kept to a minimum, too. There’s solid beechwood for the body, a few metal pins, plastic rims, rubber tires, and some paint. That’s it.

And they all have a look that today’s cars can’t touch.

“Something is getting lost in the current design language,” says co-founder Dragusin, who is based in Brooklyn. “Up until the early ’70s, when various federal safety regulations started to be implemented, car design was pure and raw. Proportions and visual balance were important, and lots of things were done for the love of the art. Cars had personality.”

These shrunken-down wooden classics reflect that. The first wave of Candylab cars included spins on American muscle cars—mashups of 1960s Camaros, GTOs, and Mustangs, and a Plymouth Fury-like police cruiser thrown in for good measure.

The next wave of models, which just cruised past its Kickstarter goal with ease, still remains rooted in yesteryear. To Gadget Lab’s eyeballs, the gem of the lineup is the Woodie. While it has a late-1960s Ford LTD Country Squire vibe, Dragusin says it’s actually a medley of elements from different rides. This kind of design dim-sum is the case with other MO-TO cars, too.

“The front and rear ends have different cues, and then we mix and match,” says Dragusin. “The police grille is loosely taken from a ’67 Galaxie, with its stacked headlights. The Woodie’s front end is a riff on a ’69 Polara Wagon and yes, its taillights could be a ’68 Ford Country Wagon. Our racers (GT10, C77, Plum50) are an homage to the split front grille of the ’67 SS Chevelle. We really love all those cars.”

The Woodie comes with two magnetic connectors that are put to clever use. There’s one magnet on its roof so that you can attach its included surfboard—a must for a Woodie—and there’s another magnet under its trunk so that you can hitch on the new two-tone Camper.

The Woodie looks fetching by itself, but it’s hard to imagine buying it without splurging on the Camper, as well. Luckily, the two are offered together in a “Caravan” package, which requires a $59 pledge. You also get a second surfboard thrown into the mix with that deal.

You can drag around other cars with Candylab’s new offerings, too. The Towie is an old-school towtruck that can haul another ride behind it with a rubber band. All the new cars in the series—including the new powder-blue Blu-77 with a slick orange stripe—will come with a tow hitch under the front end. The Blu-74 and Towie will be packaged together in a “Blown Gasket” pack, which requires a $60 pledge and comes with four spare tires.

The last new model is the Candycab, which is based on an Uber-like vehicle called a “taxi” that was prominent at some point in history. It’s the cheapest new model in the lineup, and you get it with a $24 pledge. You can get every car in the new series with a $139 “Roadside” package, and you can even buy a set of three surfboard magnets with a $9 pledge. Most of the packages are slated to ship by September, but the Woodie and the Camper need a bit more time. They’ll roll out in October.

But what comes after that? Different eras and makes of cars are definitely on the docket, but Dragusin says Candylab may need to become more than a hobby before that happens.

“We have plans for European cars, and without giving out too much, we are looking at other iconic American eras,” says Dragusin. “We do need a functioning profitable company to finance all this development. Had it not been for the Kickstarter community, these would have remained just some prototypes on our shelves.”

Amazon’s X-Ray Shows Movie Info Whenever You Hit Pause

X-Ray for Fire TV shows you who's on screen at any moment. X-Ray for Fire TV shows you who's on screen at any moment. Amazon

If you’ve ever been lost inside the Game of Thrones books, or had trouble keeping straight the Boromirs, Faramirs, and Beregonds of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, you’ll understand the value of Amazon’s X-Ray feature. On Kindle, you just long-press on a name or place to quickly figure out their place in the story—who they are, who they’re related to, who they’re sleeping with on the side. On Kindle Fire tablets, that’s also been extended to movies and TV shows. There, X-Ray is the quickest way ever to the answer to that most important of life’s questions: Where do I know that guy from?

Now, Amazon’s bringing the feature to your television, or at least to your Fire TV or Fire TV Stick. After you install the free over-the-air update to your streaming box, as long as you’re watching an Amazon movie, all you have to do is press pause or click up on the remote and you’ll get quick information about whatever you’re watching. Who’s on screen right now? What’s the actor’s name? What’s the song playing in the background? What movie am I watching, again? All of X-Ray’s data comes from IMDB (which Amazon owns), and is amazingly rich. There’s even a “Trivia” tab, which is loaded with weird and arcane information about your favorite cult hit.

Amazon puts a lot of time and energy into X-Ray across all platforms. Its computers can do some of the identification and time-coding, but every movie or TV show has some human touch as well—that’s why there are only about 100 titles a week added to X-Ray. It’s a lot of work for an ostensibly small feature, but Amazon sees it as a differentiator. As streaming services proliferate, their libraries can begin to look similar. There are a half-dozen places to watch the newly digitized Star Wars movies, from Netflix to iTunes, and they’re the same epics no matter where you buy—the power of X-Ray is Amazon’s most compelling bid to be the place you spend your $20.

It might not be good enough to make you spend $99 on a Fire TV, but when you’re looking for a place to watch Pitch Perfect again, it’s a tiebreaker in Amazon’s favor. On one hand, it’s great for quickly looking something or someone up. (Yes, it is McLovin.) And thanks to all the time-coding of characters, music, and scenes, Amazon has essentially improved upon the scene selector your DVDs used to have—you can flip to any moment you want, or even jump straight to “Let It Go” the ten-thousandth time your kid wants to watch Frozen. There’s serious rabbit-hole potential, too: it’s way too easy to go from “who’s that?” to “What else is she in?” to “Wait she’s in THAT?” Suddenly you’re watching a movie completely unlike what you’d planned.

Using X-Ray on a TV is different from a tablet, though. It interrupts (and pauses) whatever you’re watching, fully taking over the screen when you look for anything more than the actors on the screen. It’s not a constant study aid, so much as a periodic catch-up. It’s a great way to kill a couple of minutes while someone’s in the bathroom or went to grab food, though. And look: If Amazon can making pausing a video a fun experience, well, it may have just solved television.

SpaceX Falcon Rocket vs. Robot Boat: Round Two!

Docking of the SpaceX Dragon aboard the International Space Station, March 2013. Docking of the SpaceX Dragon aboard the International Space Station, March 2013. NASA

Three months ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded spectacularly as it attempted to land on a robot boat. CEO Elon Musk described the failure, jokingly, as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Today, the private space launch company is going to try again—firing an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft into low Earth orbit for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. And then it’s going to try to land on that robot boat again.

The mission is a cargo-resupply, the sixth of 12 for which SpaceX has contracted with NASA. It’ll carry almost 4,400 lbs of food, supplies, and scientific equipment. That’s important to the astronauts up there, of course, but the company really wants to stick this landing. It’d be a proof-of-concept in using reusable rockets for spaceflight. Using the now-retired space shuttles for this kind of thing cost $1.5 billion per launch; Musk has said he believes reusable rockets could bring that down by a factor of 100. “The goal for NASA is to buy a service, not build it, freeing up resources for other space launches and space exploration,” says Katherine Hembelton, a spokesperson at NASA HQ.

But as the January mission showed, landing a rocket isn’t easy. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster successfully sent its Dragon capsule to the ISS and re-entered the atmosphere, and it even hit its target on the drone barge. Then it blew up. Musk told reporters the rocket’s stabilizing “hypersonic grid fins” simply ran out of hydraulic fluid. Musk and the company vowed to fix the issue for the next launch.

Liftoff is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. Eastern time Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Dragon is expected to stay docked to the ISS for five weeks, taking away 3,000 pounds of used supplies and trash and then splashing down 400 miles off the California coast. (No barge landing for it.).

Dragon is currently the only spacecraft capable of returning supplies to Earth, a vital capability for much of the science being conducted on the ISS—which range from investigating new ways of counteracting microgravity-induced cell damage in bones and muscles, new materials that could be used in building synthetic tissue for astronauts, continued vision studies for astronauts on prolonged spaceflight, and more. Many studies require safe transport of live animals, plants, organic materials, and other physical data to and from the ISS. (((could you more specifically here call out which studies require sample return? Microgravity doesn’t, vision doesn’t….

Both NASA and SpaceX are webcasting the launch. Don’t watch it hoping for a crash; that’d be morbid.

The Wild Government Projects You’re Funding With Your Taxes

The Wild Government Projects You’re Funding With Your Taxes

Why People Care More About Pets Than Other Humans

We love our pets. Two thirds of Americans live with an animal, and according to a 2011 Harris poll, 90 percent of pet owners think of their dogs and cats as members of the family. These relationships have benefits. For example, in a survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, 40 percent of married female dog owners reported they received more emotional support from their pet than from their husband or their kids. The pet products industry calls this “the humanization of pets.” One of my colleagues recently spent $12,000 on cancer treatments for her best friend Asha, a Labrador retriever.

Hal Herzog


Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology of at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. He writes the blog “Animals and Us” for Psychology Today magazine.

Newspaper editors tell me stories about animal abuse often generate more responses from upset readers than articles about violence directed toward humans. But do Americans really care more about pets that people?

Take, for example, police shootings. The FBI claims that about 400 people a year are killed by police in “justifiable homicides.” The number of incidents in which cops shoot dogs is very hard to pin down. You sometimes hear the claim that a dog is shot by a police officer “every 98 minutes.” That’s would be about 5,000 dogs a year. But Merritt Clifton, editor of Animals 24-7 thinks, based on his analyses of media reports, that the number of dogs killed each year in “confrontational incidents” with cops is probably between 300 and 500 – about the same as human cop shootings.

Because of high profile incidents like the death last week of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, and, of course, the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, death-by-cop is in the news. But, as is illustrated by two shootings that took place within 24 hours last year in Idaho, it is not always the case that we value people over pets.

On July 8, 2014, Jeanetta Riley, pregnant and a mother of two, was killed by police officers outside a hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho. Riley reportedly had a history of drug addiction and alcoholism, and she was drunk, incoherent, and waving a filet knife at the three police officers who showed up at the hospital. A dashboard video camera mounted on one of the police cars shows that Riley was at least 10 feet from the cops when they opened fire. Why the police opted to shoot Riley rather than zap a 100-pound woman with one of the Tasers they were carrying is unclear. The officers were subsequently exonerated, no apology was given to Riley’s family, and the story never made national news until it was recently dredged up by a reporter from The Guardian .

Fast forward 14 hours and travel 50 miles south to a cafĂ© in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho where Craig Jones was eating lunch, having locked his dog Arfee in the cab of his van. Jones had rolled the windows part-way down so the dog would stay cool. Unfortunately, when the two-year old black Lab mix started barking, someone called the cops. Officer Dave Kelly caught the call. Kelly later claimed that when he approached the van, Arfee (who was initially described as a vicious pit bull) lunged at him, though the van’s window was mostly rolled up. Kelly put a bullet in Arfee’s chest.

This time the media did respond. A headline in the New York Daily News proclaimed “Idaho Cop Shoots, Kills Adorable Black Lab Named Arfee After Mistaking Him For Aggressive Pit Bull.” A “Justice For Arfee” Facebook Page was soon created, and a shadowy organization called “Anonymous” posted several ominous videos on YouTube vaguely threatening Coeur d’Alene police officers with retribution. Two months later, when a police review board ruled that the shooting of the dog was unjustified, the citizens of Coeur d’Alene staged a “Justice for Alfee” rally, demanding that Officer Kelly be fired. The police department issued an official apology to Jones who was awarded $80,000 in damages for the loss of his pet.

Testing the Pets Over People Hypothesis

As The Guardian article indicates, the mismatch between the public outrage over the shootings of a dog and a pregnant mom a mere 14 hours and 50 miles apart is striking. But was this an aberration? In the wake of Ferguson and now South Carolina, police shootings of human beings have been big news. Do the tragic cases of Jeanetta Riley and Arfee support the view that our love of animals trumps our concern for people?

Two sociologists at Northeastern University have tested the claim that people are more upset by news stories of animal abuse than they are about attacks directed toward humans. The researchers, Arnold Arluke, an authority on human-animal relationships, and Jack Levin, an expert on serial killers and mass murders, had college students read fake news accounts on a crime wave in Boston. For instance, one of the articles included the statement, “According to witnesses present, one particularly vicious assault involved a one-year-old puppy that was beaten with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the attack, a police officer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple lacerations, and unconscious. No arrests have been made in the case.”

The subjects in the experiment did not know the articles were bogus. Nor did they know that there were actually four slightly different versions of the newspaper articles, each portraying a different victim: a puppy, an adult dog, a human infant, or a human adult. After they read one of the four news stories, each subject completed a scale which measured how much empathy and emotional distress they felt for the victim of the beating.

Arluke and Levin reported the results of their study at the 2013 meeting of the American Sociological Association. As you might guess, the story in which the victim was a human adult elicited, by far, the lowest levels of emotional distress in the readers. The “winner” when it came to evoking empathy was not the puppy but the human infant. The puppy, however, came in a close second with the adult dog not far behind. Arluke and Levin concluded that species is important when it comes to generating sympathy with the downtrodden. But they argued that the critical difference in responses to the stories was based on our special concern for creatures that are innocent and defenseless.

Save Your Dog or a Stranger?

In another experiment, psychologists at Georgia Regents University also explored circumstances in which people value animals over human lives. In the study, 573 individuals were asked who they would save in a series of hypothetical scenarios in which a dog and a person were in the path of an out-of-control bus. The researchers found that decisions to save the person or the dog were affected by three factors. The first: who the person in danger was. The subjects were much more likely to save the dog over a foreign tourist than, say, their best friend or a sibling. The second factor was the dog. Forty percent of participants said they would save their personal pet at the expense of a foreign tourist. But only 14 percent claimed they would sacrifice the tourist when the animal in the scenario was described generically as “a dog.” Finally, as other studies have found, women care more about animals than men do. In the run-away-bus scenario, female subjects were nearly twice as likely as males to say they would save a dog over a person.

Living With Moral Inconsistency

The bottom line is that, at least in some circumstances, we do value animals over people. But the differences in public outrage over the deaths of Jeanetta Riley and Arfee illustrate a more general point. It is that our attitudes to other species are fraught with inconsistency. We share the earth with roughly 40,000 other kinds of vertebrate animals, but most of us only get bent out of shape over the treatment of a handful of species. You know the ones: the big-eye baby seals, circus elephants, chimpanzees, killer whales at Sea World, etc. And while we deeply love our pets, there is little hue and cry over the 24 horses that die on race tracks in the United States each week, let alone the horrific treatment of the nine billion broiler chickens American consume annually.

Most people, it seems, live easily with what the environmental philosopher Chris Diehm calls “the paradox of the cats in our houses and cows on our plates.” Go figure.

Internet of Anything: It’s Time for Everyone to be Able to Hack Robots

Ron Evans thinks it’s about time that everyone should be able to make robots. Or at least tell them what to do.

The world of robotics right now is still dominated by grad students, he says. “But the next exciting wave will come from average people who will imagine things that us so-called professionals would never think of.”

To help usher in this future, he and his colleagues at a company called The Hybrid Group created a set of free frameworks—basically skeletons of code—that free up non-specialists to write up the fun stuff for a wide variety of hardware, from Arduino circuit boards to Parrot ARDrones to Sphero robots.

Geek is cool again. Wait, geek was never cool before. Geek is cool for the first time in history. Ron Evans

Evans hopes these frameworks will make it much easier to program these machines by reducing the amount of code you need to write in order to do something cool. For now you’ll need to learn at least a little code if you want to use the tools, but Evans says the company wants to at least make it easier for people to dabble in hardware programming. For example, the latest of the frameworks, dubbed Cylon, lets people program hardware using the JavaScript language, which most web developers and many designers already know.

Ultimately, Evans says, the company may release tools that will help people create their own robotics or Internet of Things software without having to write a single line of code at all.

Democratizing App Creation

In the 1980s Evans worked at Apple on a program called Hypercard, which helped people build their own apps without needing to do complex programming. Hypercard was originally included for free with all Macs and was used to create everything from enterprise software to the popular role-playing game Myst. By showing that anyone, not just people with computer science degrees, could create interactive computer programs, Hypercard helped inspire a generation of programmers. And that was very much by design. Evans says the Hypercard team, lead by Bill Atkinson and Dan Winkler, was always interested in democratizing computing.

That spirit has carried over to his more recent projects, such as Kids Ruby, a piece of educational software that helps teach kids to code using the popular Ruby programming language.

It was Evans’ involvement in the Ruby community that led him to start the first of the Hybrid Group’s three frameworks, Artoo, which enables people to write code for robots and other devices using the language.

Drawing on other Ruby frameworks for the web such as Ruby on Rails and Sinatra, Evans set out to create a platform that would work across devices. One of the big advantages of Artoo and the company’s other frameworks is that if you started building a gadget using, say, an Arduino circuit board but then decided to upgrade to a more powerful platform such as Spark or Tessel, you’d still be able to reuse much of the same code.

Originally Evans only planned on creating one framework, but he soon got the idea of building more. “We thought we’d have a big thing in the Ruby world,” Evans says. “But we found that JavaScript people were more interested than the Ruby people were.”

So they set about adapting Artoo to JavaScript, creating a framework called Gobot, based on Google’s Go programming language, along the way.

All of these frameworks are open source and free of charge, which raises the question of how Hybrid Group will make money from them. The company already makes money from consulting, and the team is also building a cloud service for hosting apps built with their frameworks. But he want to keep the underlying technology free so that as many people as possible can take advantage of them.

“We want people to be able to control their own devices the same way they already publish their own webpages and blogs,” Evans says. “We want to see people taking over their environments through technology.”

Geek Is Cool

That may sound farfetched, given how few people write their own apps today. But in the early days of the web, it was rather unusual for people have a personal homepage. Now, thanks to sites like Facebook, we all have a webpage that many of us update multiple times a day.

Of course, there’s still a big difference between writing a status update on Facebook and writing code to program a robot, even it’s getting easier and easier to write that code. To make it even more accessible, Evans and the team are working on a version Cylon that uses Google’s Blockly, a tool designed to help kids learn to program without writing code.

“It’s entirely drag and drop, but it’s still Cylon underneath so you get all the advantages of real code,” he explains.

Meanwhile, more people are learning to program than ever. Future generations will likely be more code literate, and they might not be as content as we are today to just buy a product and use it the way its inventors intended.

“Geek is cool again,” Evans says. “Wait, geek was never cool before. Geek is cool for the first time in history.”