What’s Inside Jell-O? Lots of Sugar and, Well, Cowhide

Back when the future was bright, and every night was Family Night, it was the gleaming Technicolor finale of suburban suppers. No Fourth of July cookout was complete without a chartreuse Jell-O salad, popped from a Tupperware mold. Norman Rockwell did magazine ads for it. Oh, you can take your apple pie; nothing says “America” like Jell-O. Heck, they served it to immigrants at Ellis Island, by way of orientation!

Wobbly desserts have actually been around for ages. Henry VIII treated his knights to gilded leach, a rose-flavored jelly thickened with isinglass, the ground-up air bladder of fish, and topped with gold leaf. There were hartshorn flummeries—boiled antler shavings molded into little crescent moons and cockleshells. Shivering towers of gelatin, spiked with liqueurs, glorified rich Victorian tables. But these fancy dishes took small armies of kitchen staff to make.

What Jell-O did was democratize the jelly, by shifting the labor to the factory. In 1895 a cough-syrup maker in Le Roy, New York, named Pearl B. Waite bought the patent for a “portable gelatin” powder, added some of his sugary flavorings, and named it Jell-O. The notion of powdered food, sadly, was ahead of its time; in 1899 he sold out for $450 to Orator Woodward, a patent-medicine huckster from Le Roy who’d had some success with a coffee substitute called Grain-O. (The -O ending was a sort of 19th-century meme.) Woodward channeled his sales razzle-dazzle into a brilliant marketing campaign—the first of many—making Jell-O synonymous with modern living in the new century. His first ad in Ladies’ Home Journal touted Jell-O as “America’s most famous dessert,” which it promptly became. Here’s what they put in those little boxes:

What’s Inside: Jell-O Gelatin Dessert

Lee Simmons (@actual_self) is an editor at WIRED.

Veep GIF and a Graf: Selina and Gary Almost Come to Blows

Last night, in the second episode of Veep’s fourth season, we were treated to the most emotional climax of the series so far, and of course it was brought to us by the show’s real One True Pairing: Gary (Tony Hale) and Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The New York Times recently published an essential dissection of (and tribute to) the duo’s perfect on-screen chemistry, saying they had “one of the most satisfying comic pairings in TV history.” But until last night, the emotional depth of Gary and Selina’s co-dependence was trapped beneath a thick sheet of icy admonishments and put downs. After supremely failing President Meyer in the season premiere, Gary continued his downward trajectory in the second episode with a series of slip-ups that Selina didn’t leave unnoticed. But after one too many attacks on his character by the new president, her lovable, cowering bag man finally let loose on his captor/employer/true love. The ever-present veil of Gary’s Stockholm syndrome disintegrated and for the first time we saw a man motivated by integrity and selflessness instead of fear and almost-certain mom issues. His devotion turned from pathological to noble, and the effect on Selina was withering. Wherever the two go from here, Gary and Selina are now something closer to emotional equals, even if they exist on polar opposite ends of the status hierarchy. And we are left to wonder: What happened on Labor Day?!

13 Important Things We Learned From the New Jurassic World Trailer

Another day, another massive trailer for a potential Hollywood blockbuster.

Hot on the heels of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Fantastic Four, Universal released the new global trailer for Jurassic World today, and it is also a doozy.

Like, this new full trailer for director Colin Trevorrow’s movie has everything: running raptors, theme park destruction, and—in a departure from the characters he usually plays—Chris Pratt being the voice of reason. It also seems a bit more violent than we remember previous Jurassic installments being, but maybe those are the Spielberg-tinted glasses we’ve been wearing since we were kids.

Anyway, there’s a lot to digest in this trailer, so let’s get right into it. Here’s what we learned.

1. Chris Pratt, who plays Owen Grady, is pretty much a Velociraptor Whisperer.

2. Chris Pratt also has stayed in Star-Lord shape.

3. This new genetically modified dinosaur that Jurassic World has designed is intended to be “bigger than the T. rex” while also attracting more people to the park. Gulp.

4. This new dino, naturally, turns out to also be down for “killing for sport.”

5. GMOmnivore was probably a bad idea. (We’re guessing this dinosaur isn’t a vegetarian on a killing spree.)

6. This new dino is likely smarter than her creators. (She clawed out her tracking device?!)

7. 22 years after the original Jurassic Park turned out to be a terrible idea, people are still dumb enough to trap themselves on an island full of prehistoric animals.

8. This trailer still has a bit of that scene that Joss Whedon pointed out was “70’s era sexist.”

9. When Grady says “my way” he means “on a motorcycle” and “with a pack of dinosaurs.”

10. There are 20,000 people on Isla Nublar when things go awry this time.

11. This movie is going to make us wish Samuel L. Jackson was in it. And Laura Dern. And Sam Neill.

12. But we’re glad Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are here!

13. These dinosaurs can communicate?!?!

Jurassic World hits theaters June 12.

This $1.5B Startup Is Making Health Insurance Suck Less

In less than two years, Oscar Health, a New York City-based health insurance company, has already amassed 40,000 members, with its member-friendly plans and tech driven approach. Now, the startup has landed another $145 million round of funding at a $1.5 billion valuation, which will help bring Oscar insurance to other cities across the country by the end of the year.

While $1 billion-plus valuations are commonplace in the tech world these days, Oscar is one of a handful of startups that seems to have truly earned it. Oscar, which launched back in 2013, took on one of the country’s most entrenched and hairy markets—health insurance—and infused it with technology and user-friendly design. Now it’s generating around $200 million a year in revenue, according to CEO and co-founder Mario Schlosser. And that’s only in its existing markets in New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Oscar has set a high bar for other insurance companies, offering members a slew of perks like free televisits, free fitness trackers, free checkups, and cash incentives for getting a flu shot. Now, insurance companies in other markets are beginning to follow Oscar’s lead, meaning the challenge ahead for the Oscar team will be to expand faster than their competitors can rip them off. In an industry like health insurance, where the healthcare landscape can change drastically from state to state, that doesn’t happen overnight.

“We don’t just go into a new geography and put a bunch of banners on the walls,” Schlosser says. “It makes the barriers to entry for anyone attempting this quite daunting, but the good thing for us is, for at least parts of this process, we have the technology to handle it.”

Tying It All Together

Oscar’s founding team initially set out to apply a design-thinking approach to health insurance, which meant improving the user experience for a product that is notoriously user-unfriendly. While the team feels it accomplished its initial goal, they realized that fixing health insurance would take more than cosmetic work. To get there, the Oscar team has built multiple tools of the variety that have become popular in health tech recently, including doctor and drug searches, telemedicine, and fitness tracking. More importantly, however, Oscar’s tools talk to each other, ensuring the information doesn’t get stuck in silos across companies.

Oscar also partners directly with physicians to help them better understand their patients. For instance, Oscar may soon give hospital planners access to data on whether or not patients fill their prescriptions or visit urgent care centers after a hospital stay.

According to Schlosser, it’s this holistic approach to technology that will be the company’s competitive advantage as it scales. “Just fixing the user experience won’t be enough,” he says. “We went to great lengths to create an incredibly close relationship between our technology and physicians.”

Already, Oscar is seeing some promising results from this work. One particularly impressive statistic is the fact that some 60 percent of Oscar members who have bronchitis have used the telemedicine feature to diagnose it and get treatment, according to t he company. Of those cases, 93 percent get resolved over the phone with no need for a follow up visit. “We feel that it’s a nice win-win-win situation,” Schlosser says. “The physician can deliver care in an efficient way. The member loves it because it’s convenient, and frankly, we like it, because oftentimes, those conditions could become worse.”

But while a $1.5 billion valuation may be huge for a two-year-old startup, it’s important to remember that’s pocket change compared to, say, UnitedHealth Group’s $114 billion market cap or even Aetna’s $37.75 billion value. If Oscar’s seemingly overnight success in one of the country’s most competitive cities for health insurance is any indication, it’s clear the company still has lots of room to grow.

The Week in Trailers: Was There Something About Star Wars?

This week’s trailer roundup is a delectable grab bag! Super heavyweights like Marvel, the Terminator franchise and—most notably—Star Wars gave us more to look forward to, and a small litter of artful festival babies added some lovely texture to an otherwise silky smooth VFX-packed experience. Oh, and did we mention Star Wars? Because, Star Wars. It. Looks. Amazing. But it doesn’t take a big budget to secure big talent, so look for major players like Michael Caine, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel, and Harvey Keitel in the little-movies-that-could entries as well. Whether you like your art high, low or somewhere in between, we’ve definitely got something to suit your fancy in this weeks pre-movie mix.

The One Everyone Is Talking About: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Above)

When asked if he had watched the new Force Awakens trailer at his desk last Thursday, WIRED editor Jason Kehe responded, “I cried.” Kehe’s tears are justified, because if this Star Wars can live up to the promise of its early teasers fanboys and girls everywhere will be weeping (in a good way) in IMAX aisles across the country. You can read our wrap-up of the recent Star Wars panel here and check out screengrabs here. We’ve got you covered.
Pause at: 0:31, 0:42, 0:48, 1:06, 1:09, 1:11, 1:13, 1:16, 1:19, 1:20, 1:21, 1:27, and 1:36 to make your heart explode.
Essential Quote: “Chewie, we’re home.”—Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

The Other One Everyone Is Talking About: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

We already gave you our initial reaction to the trailer that director Zack Snyder dropped on Friday, but in case you forgot here’s the gist: Ben Affleck with a 5 o’clock shadow, Henry Cavill looking heroic, Batmobile, explosion, explosion, etc.
Pause at: 0:57 for some pretty damning graffiti. 1:02 for Batfleck. 1:26 for Batmobile. 1:37 for Batman v Superman.
Essential Quote: “Tell me, do you bleed? You will.”—Batman (Ben Affleck)

The Other Other One Everyone Is Talking About: Fantastic Four

What, you thought you were done getting blockbuster trailers? Nope! Fantastic Four showed up on Sunday a little tardy to the party, but still coming on strong. This clip gives a lot more than the previous teaser and shows that these fantastic four might actually have some personality. Oh, and we also get some Doctor Doom. You had our curiosity, Fantastic Four, but now you have our attention.
Pause at: 0:44 for some shade from Sue Storm (Kate Mara). Serious transformations at 1:27. 1:54 for some Human Torch. 1:58 for Doctor Doom. The Thing looks pissed at 2:14.
Essential Quote: “We should use these powers to help people.”—Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan)

The Terminator One: Terminator Genisys

What’s that you say? We get more plot details in this Terminator trailer? Fantastic! This new spot gives us a tiny bit more of a look at the relationship between Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and her longtime terminating companion (played, as always, by Arnold Schwarzenegger), and also unveils one hell of a twist. We won’t spoil that here, so just get to watching.
Pause at: 0:08 and 0:21. San Francisco just can’t catch a break lately. Stop at 0:27, 0:52, 1:09 for machine coolness. Potential Easter egg at 1:16. Stop at 1:31 for the TWIST and 1:57 for the new enemy. Wayback playback Arnold is pretty legit at 2:11. Normal Golden Gate Bridge sightseeing stuff at 2:26.
Essential Quote: “I’m not machine. I’m not man. I’m more.”—John Connor (Jason Clarke)

The Super One: Ant-Man

This new Ant-Man trailer gives us everything we pined for in the first one: our first long look at Yellowjacket, more of Paul Rudd’s dry humor, more shots of the Ant in action and more face time with Evangeline Lilly, who fortunately seems to be continuing her streak of playing characters that could beat the hell out of you. Here’s hoping we can get some Lilly in Fast and Furious 8 as the next badass woman to engage in an extreme fight sequence with Michelle Rodriguez. That’s a Lost reunion we’d pay IMAX money to see. Oh and also, isn’t this Ant-Man movie starting to look really good, you guys?
Pause at: 1:17. Ant pack strong. Teeny tiny hero at 1:24 and 1:27. Yellowjacket rising at 1:45! A bee punching an ant at 1:55.
Essential Quote: “I’m Ant-Man. I know. It wasn’t my idea.”—Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Rudd)

The Sundance One: Dope

We’ve already told you about Dope and posted its first great trailer, but now with the second one, you can get a better feel for the characters. Seriously, we’re just so ready to see this movie again.
Pause at: 0:20 for the coolest kids. Stop at 1:13 for the problem. Haha hi, Blake at 1:24. Principal Rick Fox at 1:34.
Song: Kendrick Lamar, “i”
Essential Quote: “All we gotta do is find the white people—Coachella, Lollapalooza.”—Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), on how to sell party drugs

The Small Screen Standout: Scream

Wait, Bella Thorne dies in this, like, immediately? Does that mean she’ll be getting the Lilly Kane treatment and pop up as a constant flashback character and/or apparition? Only time will tell, but let’s hope this MTV repackaging of Wes Craven’s slasher masterpiece can live up to the meta standards of its origin property. We want to stay optimistic, but Gale Weathers, we miss you already.
Pause at: 0:11. Tyler won’t make it tonight. Doesn’t quite look like Ghostface at 0:49.
Essential Quote: “You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series.”

The Arthouse Indie: Youth

If you’re in need of a superhero detox (we’re not, but it’s your life so do what you want) this trailer for Youth (aka The Early Years) looks like a fantastic little cinematic juice cleanse. Apparently Michael Caine plays retired orchestra composer named Fred, and while on holiday with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) and her friend (Paul Dano), he is invited by Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday. Just on paper that sounds like a pretty boring if lovely cinematic experience, but this trailer bleeds with surprising amounts of style and tension. The film’s director, Paolo Sorrentino, took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with The Great Beauty in 2013, and he’s assembled a knockout cast of actors here, including Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, to bring this one home.
Pause at: 0:13, 0:15, 0:18, 0:27, 0:33, and 0:39 for moody pretty pictures.
Song: David Lang, “Just (After The Song of Songs)”
Essential Quote: “You’re right. Music is all I understand.”—Fred (Michael Caine)

GoPro Footage From the Edge of Space

In space, communications have always served two purposes. One is to convey important mission information (Houston, we have a problem). The other is to transmit the experiences of the weightless few to the earthbound millions (This is Major Tom to Ground Control).

This most recent comm—a collection of point of view videos from astronauts hanging out on the International Space Station—falls into the second category. It’s a simple capture: just the slow motions of a space walk, with nary a sound to be heard (almost, at least—the buzzing in the background is likely the fan running in the spacesuit, vibrating the platform on which the GoPro is mounted). But it’s part of a long, rich history of messages sent from the brink of the unknown, just for the heck of it.

Just trace their lineage back to the earliest travel communiques. From Marco Polo’s travels to Edmund Hillary’s views from the summit; from Neil Armstrong’s small step to Chris Hadfield’s David Bowie impression. The early accounts may be padded with giant birds or veiled braggadocio, but the most fantastic thing about any of these transmissions is simply where they came from.

Citizens of the world love space. Space photos, space videos, space anniversaries, space robots, space politics, and even space trash. Without space, there’s nothing special about Armstrong stumbling down a ladder. Twenty-five million people wouldn’t have tuned in to watch Hadfield play guitar if he wasn’t floating around like a little Canadian elf at the same time.

These GoPro videos show an astronaut clanking around outside the ISS. Basically, doing chores. But because those chores are in space, they give us a sense of wonderment—they let us imagine ourselves away from earthly troubles. They also give us barstool conversations, special, shared moments with friends and loved ones. They are payback for the meager contributions we all make to NASA’s roughly $18 billion dollar annual budget. And is the fact that we love them so much some an expression of some universal desire to spread our species across the cosmos? Who knows. Click.

Twitter Allows Direct Messages From People You Don’t Follow

Twitter is now giving you the option of receiving private messages from people you don’t “follow” on its popular social network.

The company has experimented with these types of unsolicited private messages in the past, but this morning, for the first time, the company officially announced that it had started offering the option to all of its more than 288 million users across the globe.

Previously, two Twitter accounts had to follow each other on the social network— agreeing receive each other’s public posts—before they could trade private “Direct Messages,” or DMs. Now, the company says, any user can turn on a setting that lets them receive Direct Messages from any other user, regardless of whether or not they follow each other. What’s more, the company has updated its rules so that you can reply to anyone who sends you a direct message, whether or not that person follows you.

The changes are apparently designed to expand the use of Twitter among not only everyday social networkers but companies, public personalities, and advertisers as well. Now that Twitter is a public company, it’s under increased pressure to compete with other social networks and increase revenues. More widespread use of Direct Messaging could be one way for Twitter to expand its money-making opportunities, or at least keep up with competitors like Facebook, which has made private messages a priority through tools like Messenger and WhatsApp.

On Twitter, organizations could use DMs to send advertisements, coupons, and business related appeals to anyone who turned on the new setting, and users would be free to respond. This might be appealing to public personalities as well as advertisers, since messages are more attention-grabbing than a promoted tweet, which can easily get lost in the stream. For users, on the other hand, such messages could get spammy fast.

Twitter hasn’t said one way or another whether they plan to allow DMs to be used as advertisements. But the company does see it as a way to interact with businesses as well as individuals. “We hope these changes help you connect more easily—and directly—on Twitter with the people, causes and businesses you care about most,” the company says in a blog post.

The Surprisingly Complex Design of the Ziploc Bag

You don’t know how to properly seal a resealable bag.

It’s not your fault. Pretty much everyone screws it up. People tend to close the zipper clumsily, allowing air into the bag. In the $1.6 billion resealable bag biz, air is public enemy No. 1. It leads to funkiness and spoilage and waste. No one wants that. That’s why Ziploc spends absurd amounts of time and money figuring out how to make sealing a bag (and opening it again) easy.

The company’s latest innovation is called, appropriately, the Easy Open Tab. It’s a small addition, but it builds on all that Ziploc has done since Börge Madsen invented the resealable bag in 1950.

Everyone takes resealable bags for granted, but there’s a lot of R&D behind them. Still, it’s difficult to see innovation unless you’re really, really into resealable bags. First came widetrack ribs in 1982, followed by a clicking zipper in 1993. Four years later, Ziploc added color to give the zippers—formed from melted polyethylene resin pellets—some aesthetic flair and a visual cue that the bag was sealed. The double zipper innovation of 2006 reinforced the seal and amped up the sound to ensure proper closure.

Each trick made using the bag easier. But the zipologists struggled to eliminate “thumb fumbles,” those maddening seconds spent trying to grasp the lips of the bag and get the damn thing open. To solve this problem, Ziploc engineers drew inspiration from a classic design: the envelope. A quarter-inch tab protrudes from the lip of the bag, providing a handle of sorts that makes it rip it open and devour your snacks. To help ensure your pizza doesn’t taste like garlic, a proprietary chemical recipe composing the bag’s film prevents flavor comingling.

U.S. Patent 7137736: Closure Device for a Reclosable PouchU.S. Patent 7137736: Closure Device for a Reclosable Pouch USPTO

But it’s the zipper that really makes a resealable bag, and it’s taken Ziploc engineers ages to nail the design used today. Concepts are tested with CAD models, which are used to make zipper molds on steel plates. The zipper features microscopic J-shaped grooves (“hooks”) and arrowhead-like stems that interlock. Look closely at a double zipper bag and you’ll see this line of tiny teeth on the upper row, toward the lips of the bag. Running your thumb and forefinger along the track clasps the hooks around the stems. The zipper clicks at about 50 decibels to let you know you’re doing it right. But misalignment due to your clumsiness can create gaps.

So to solve this, Ziploc added a row of Xs and opposing convex dimples that create a haptic interface to guide your fingers for proper alignment. “I liken it to walking on a sidewalk with holes,” says one Ziploc researcher who can’t give his name because parent company SC Johnson won’t let him. “Suddenly there’s a hole and you step down and then you step back up and then down into another hole. [It] creates the sensation of the teeth—the bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp.”

Wired_ziploc_0302-s Bruce Peterson

Combining the sound and feel of a zipper closing convinces you the bag is indeed sealed. And slightly rounding the hooks on the upper zipper made the seal four times easier to close than open. Ziploc also tweaked the second zipper, which prevents internal pressure from popping the seal. There, pointy opposing stems join together like hooks, a proven design that harkens back to the “Separable Fastener” patent Madsen obtained 65 years ago.

But there’s always room for improvement. And a coterie of engineers strives to unlock these secrets and give papa a brand new bag.

Google’s Smartwatches Now Let You Leave Your Phone at Home

As he speaks, Jeff Chang surveys his kingdom. Android Wear’s product manager, the man most directly responsible for the progress of Google’s wearable platform, is seated at a large conference-room table in Google’s San Francisco office that is fully half-filled with Android Wear devices. No two are alike: seven different models, countless colors and bands. Every color of Sony Smartwatch 3 here, a dozen Moto 360s there. He’s wearing an LG Watch Urbane, and there are two others on the table. There’s a particularly gaudy Huawei Watch, which I can’t stop touching during our meeting. And all this, he says, gesturing around, is just the beginning.

It’s been a year since Google launched Android Wear to the public, and as hardware partners have jumped on board, Chang and his team have been working steadily to improve the platform. Today, they’re announcing some of its biggest changes yet. The biggest by far, the one that will quickly change how people use their smartwatches, is the watch’s ability to work even when it’s far away from your phone.

Chang says people hated that as soon as they walked outside, or even three rooms away, their watch stopped working. Google’s solution is a clever hack: Your watch can now connect to your phone via Wi-Fi (many models already have a Wi-Fi chip, it’s just been dormant until now, and the watch copies passwords and logins from your phone). As long as your phone is on and online, the watch can send it data from anywhere. Your phone’s still in charge of most processing and information, though. Chang says connecting a watch directly to the internet, convenient and obvious as it may be, would require re-architecting everything about Android Wear. But he smiles as he says it, and I start wondering where the team already working on it sits. Either way, the upshot is powerful: your phone can be across the room or across the world, and your watch will still work.

Apps come front and center

There’s lots more, but let’s talk about the most fun part first. With the new Android Wear update, you can send emoji to your friends by drawing them with your finger on your watch. Pick a contact and select “draw emoji,” then scribble your best thumbs-up, sushi, poop, or smiley face with a winky eye and tongue out, and your watch will guess which emoji you want to send. You’re essentially playing Emoji Pictionary with your watch at all times, which is incredibly strange and fun. It’s a clever, cross-app and cross-platform way of making it easy to communicate from a watch, but doesn’t require the other person to have one too. You can always dictate longer messages, but if a picture says a thousand words, an emoji says at least like 17.
You can draw an emoji on your watch, and then send it via any app.You can draw an emoji on your watch, and then send it via any app. Google
A few of the other new Android Wear features feel like Google’s guesses as to how people might use their watches differently when their phone’s not just in their pocket. And, just as much, to give you more stuff to do: Chang is intent on proving that Android Wear isn’t “just about notifications.” Apps can now access Android Wear’s “ambient mode,” for one thing. They’ll run in a reduced-power state, but force the app to stay open and the screen to stay on. That way, you don’t have to go find your shopping list or directions every time you look at your wrist.

If your hands are full, a quick flick of your wrist will flip through the column of cards. Or swipe in from the right side of the screen, and you’ll see a list of your apps, the ones you used most recently at the top. Swipe over again, and you get a list of contacts. Both were buried deep in Android Wear’s menus before—you were just supposed to use your voice to launch apps or message someone. Google apparently learned that people like tapping and swiping, though, so now there’s more to tap and swipe.

A more powerful smartwatch

It’s a big shift for Android Wear, which has a head start on the Apple Watch simply by virtue of coming out first, but still hasn’t found a lot of user traction. Chang and his team seem to be developing a vision as they go, sussing out what people want and delivering it. The plan seems to run directly counter to Apple’s vision for the Watch, which is meant to be used quickly to do one thing, and then reset every time you put your wrist down. The Apple Watch wants to be quick, simple, and unobtrusive; Google wants Android Wear to be powerful, useful, and self-sufficient. You still need a phone, technically, but you don’t need it nearby anymore.

Google I/O is coming up at the end next month, and there will almost certainly be more watches and more apps at the company’s annual developer extravaganza. Apps are more present and more accessible than ever on Android Wear, which Google hopes will get more developers to build apps for wearable devices. Oh, and I’m pretty sure Chang’s itching to fill the other half of that table with smartwatches.

In Its Antitrust Debacle, Was Google’s Real Victim You?

They move slowly in Europe. On Wednesday the European Commission sent a formal “Statement of Objections” to Google alleging that the Mammoth of Mountain View violated antitrust law. The investigation itself dates back to 2010; it has been shambling along for longer than The Walking Dead has been on air.

You might think that after all this time, the Commission must have have come up with something damning. But you would be wrong. It hasn’t said much we didn’t already know back in 2013 when the Federal Trade Commission closed up its own investigation with a statement that Google’s practices were not “demonstrably anticompetitive.” The Commission could just have Googled for “google ftc antitrust” and saved everyone a lot of time.

The Commission’s public statement does a good job of explaining how Google helped itself and hurt its rivals in the comparison-shopping space, but it sidesteps the real issue in the case: whether Google helped or hurt its users. Google hasn’t been entirely aboveboard about how it tweaks its search algorithms. But it’s not clear that any shadiness on Google’s part translates into real consumer harm. Has Google hurt users? Maybe. Has the Commission demonstrated it? No.

James Grimmelmann


James Grimmelmann is a law professor at the University of Maryland. He writes about law and technology.

The core of the Commission’s case against Google is an old and familiar claim: search bias. The Commission claims that Google treats Google Shopping results more favorably than it treats search results from competitors’ comparison-shopping websites. These are sites like the UK’s Foundema long-time Google critic that help users find the best prices online for things they want to buy. (At various points, the authorities have investigated Google’s favoritism toward its own maps, local results, flights, and other search verticals, and the FTC extracted some concessions from Google about how it scrapes competitors’ content. But the Statement of Objections deals only with comparison shopping.)

Google is alleged to have hard-wired Google Shopping results so they show up “prominently,” and to have applied a “system of penalties” to competitors’ sites so they drop down further on the first page, or off it entirely. This of course drives traffic to Google Shopping, which is, between you and me, not exactly the sharpest knife in the Google drawer, while draining the audiences for the services that compete with it. The result is to leverage Google’s immense market share in general search (over 90 percent in Europe) into dominance in other areas.

This sounds dastardly, but favoring one’s own business over competitors is not by itself an antitrust problem. That’s just normal competition. No one complains that Target doesn’t include Wal-Mart coupons in its mailers. In Google’s view, “competition is just one click away”; anyone who wants to use Foundem can just type F-O-U-N-D-E-M-DOT-C-O-DOT-U-K into the location bar. Heck, anyone who wants to use Foundem can type F-O-U-N-D-E-M into Google and it’ll work. It’s not as though Google is sending goons around to beat up anyone who tries to use another site, or making users sign contracts to comparison-shop exclusively through Google Shopping.

Neither framing is quite right. The real question is relevance. Don’t cry for Foundem just because it shows up further down in Google search results than Google Shopping. Cry for Google users who had a harder time finding what they wanted because they had to wade through less relevant search results. Maybe that’s Google Shopping; maybe it’s Foundem. Google says its results are better; its competitors disagree. The only way to say which of them “should” show up at the top is to find out which results search users prefer.

A leaked FTC staff report obtained by the Wall Street Journal sheds some light on the question, because it includes evidence straight from the mouth of the only horse whose opinion really counts: Google users. A footnote shows that its search quality raters gave slightly higher scores to its results when it demoted some comparison shopping sites. So on the crucial questions, gentlemen prefer blondes and Google users prefer Google’s slate of search results.

That bottom line, however, conceals some significant shadiness on Google’s part. It experimented with different ways of demoting rival comparison shopping sites until it found one that its raters liked. And it experimented with different ways of asking raters their opinions until it found a metric on which competing sites did poorly. So Google does have evidence (or did in 2006 and 2007, when it ran these tests) that users preferred demoting rival shopping sites, but only after shaking its Magic 8-Ball enough times to squeak by with “Signs point to yes.” Sketchy behavior, to be sure, but it also doesn’t establish the crucial point: that consumers really are ending up with search results they like less.

The Commission takes a stab at this. It says that Google favors Google Shopping “irrespective of its merits” and that “users do not necessarily see the most relevant comparison shopping result.” A lawyer would call both of these phrases “artfully worded.” They don’t say that users do end up with less relevant results, only that they might. That’s a slender reed for such a high-stakes case. Proving that Google hurt consumers and not just competitors will take more face cards than the Commission has laid down so far.

A Solar-Powered Soil Sensor for Serious Gardeners

Skip to story The Yves Behar-designed Edyn Garden Sensor gives gardeners and farmers soil readings, plant recommendations, and customized tips.The Yves Behar-designed Edyn Garden Sensor gives gardeners and farmers soil readings, plant recommendations, and customized tips. Edyn

In the golden age of convergence, creating a compelling piece of standalone hardware is tough. If it doesn’t interact with your phone, it’s a non-starter. If its functionality can be replicated with an app, it’s probably DOA. The price and the design need to be right, and it helps if you can stick it in places you wouldn’t think about putting your phone.

Edyn’s first product could very well cover all those bases—and due to immediate plans for an expanded ecosystem of hardware, there’s also plenty of room for growth.

It was last year when we first told you about the Edyn Garden Sensor, a solar-powered stake with five sensors built into it. It works in tandem with an iOS app to provide readouts of soil conditions, fertilizing and watering tips, and even suggestions for the plants most likely to thrive given your garden’s conditions. Edyn’s sensor began life as a Kickstarter project, but now the device is currently shipping to initial backers, and it will be available at Home Depot stores for $99 starting in May.

There are similar products on the market—both indoor- and outdoor-optimized sensors—but Edyn CEO Jason Aramburu says his device is built to the standards of serious commercial farmers. Thanks to a large database of plants and optimal growing conditions, it also does things quite a bit differently. Aramburu, who received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and spent six years in Panama and Kenya helping farmers improve their crop yields, says that the idea for Edyn was partially born out of that experience.

Edyn CEO Jason AramburuEdyn CEO Jason Aramburu. Edyn

“I knew I wanted to use technology to help farmers, but I did not know this would be a sensor technology,” Aramburu tells WIRED. “In 2012, I was managing thousands of acres of field trials across Kenya. I needed to keep track of how different soil amendments were affecting soil moisture. I could not find any sensor technology that was affordable, so I set about creating Edyn.”

The current incarnation of Edyn tracks soil moisture, nutrition, temperature, humidity, and light, and its sidecar iOS app (there’s an Android version coming soon) includes a database of thousands of plants to recommend what to do in various cases. The app will also offer up a selection of plants that should grow well in your soil and climate conditions based on its readings.

You don’t need to actively charge it, either. Aramburu says the garden sensor charges fully with about three hours of sunlight, and indoor grow lights are also strong enough to keep its battery juiced. Once fully charged, the unit stays running for about two weeks.

The sensor itself is rated to gather readings for a 250-square-foot patch of land. The Edyn Garden Sensor requires Wi-Fi to work, which is a potential limitation for remote locations; Aramburu says the unit is rated for a 300-foot range in relation to a router, although there’s been success establishing a line-of-sight connection of up to 1,500 feet.

“We are actively experimenting with other radio frequency (RF) technologies that do not require Wi-Fi and can be deployed on a much larger scale,” says Aramburu, who also says the team is working on app features that could be useful for farmers coping with California’s current drought. “We will also continue to develop our software so that farmers and gardens can track their water usage, and benefit from any incentives for conserving water.”

The Edyn Garden Sensor started out as a product called "Soil IQ," then was redesigned and rebranded once Yves Behar became a partner.The Edyn Garden Sensor started out as a product called “Soil IQ,” then was redesigned and rebranded once Yves Behar became a partner. Edyn

For a thing that’s designed to be left in the dirt, the Edyn Garden Sensor also looks surprisingly good. The hardware was designed by Yves Behar and his fuseproject firm, and Behar supported the project during its Kickstarter campaign. Behar even helped rebrand the device—which was originally called Soil IQ—with a new name.

“Yves shares my same passion about conservation and sustainability, so it was a natural fit to partner together on Edyn,” says Aramburu.

The company’s next piece of hardware is almost ready for stores, too. The Edyn Water Valve, a $59 magnetic solenoid valve that’s also solar-powered and designed to work with garden hoses, drip-irrigation systems, and soaker hoses, pairs up with the Garden Sensor and its app to automate the watering process based on the sensor’s readings. It basically turns your garden into a self-driving car. If you don’t have the Garden Sensor, you’ll also be able to use the Water Valve as a standalone device to remote-control your watering from your phone. It’s available for pre-order now and due to ship in the summer.

With 500,000 presales of the Edyn hardware and a “Best of Innovation” award at this year’s CES, Aramburu says he’s “fortunate and thankful” for all the pre-release attention. It’s also added a little bit of pressure to the process.

“Thirty percent of our backers were international, and we received strong interest from farmers and gardeners… in Australia, Italy, India, China and Brazil,” Aramburu says. “We’ve definitely had to ramp up our manufacturing to match the demand, but this is certainly a good problem to have.”

Mad Men Recap: Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

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.

Don Draper has landed the Don Draper account, and he’s working on it round the clock. During his off hours, his apartment, an expensive shell looted by the vengeful Calvets, is on the market, and he’s finding that his spartan, slapdash bachelor lifestyle makes for a tough sell. “The emptiness is a problem,” his real estate agent tells him. “This requires too much imagination.” “That’s the best opportunity in the world!” he replies, which in his experience has certainly been true. Don’s first big coup of the series was the Lucky Strike campaign—referenced repeatedly throughout this episode—and it was written on a slate wiped blank by the government’s shutdown of Big Tobacco’s health claims. If they were starting from nothing, Don argued, they could do absolutely anything. And he ought to know: His version of “Don Draper” only came into existence when the original was literally blown up.

The problem is that where Don sees limitless possibility, buyers see a big nothing. Without anything to serve as a signpost for the kind of life that could be lived in this place, they’re left to reflect on what the current resident must have lost to lead him to this empty existence: his marriage, for starters, and if the untreated wine stain on his bedroom carpet is any indication, his self-respect as well. “I’ve sold a lot uglier things than this,” Don tells the real estate agent. Buddy, you’re soaking in it.

At work, Don discovers for himself that total freedom can be a creative prison of its own. Roger has been ordered by SC&P’s parent company McCann to deliver a speech about the future of the firm—“The Forecast” that gives the episode its title. When Don agrees to write this prognostication for him, he realizes he has no idea what that future ought to be. “Before McCann,” he tells Ted, “all I ever thought of was: will we be in business next year?” “Or Will I be here at all?” Ted says. “Now it could be anything.” That’s the problem. The firm’s success gives them free winds and fair skies to sail to any destination they choose. With the future that wide open, don’t better campaigns for bigger clients in more lucrative industries (the goals Ted and Peggy suggest) seem a little parochial?

Not to them it doesn’t. Peggy, in particular, is justly proud of knowing exactly what she wants: to be the company’s first female creative director, to knock a huge campaign out of the park and into the pop-culture lexicon, to “create something of lasting value.” But, like a child who keeps asking an increasingly exasperated parent “why?”, Don snarkily asks for more at every stage of Peggy’s plan. “This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life,” she says. “So you think those things are unrelated?” he replies. Maybe they ought to be, Don! Ambition is a fine thing, but limitless ambition consumes as much as it fuels. Limits are what stop you from getting lost.

Total freedom is a personal and professional peril, as it turns out. Ask Richard, Joan’s new love interest. His unhappy marriage of 22 years is over; his children have all left the nest; “and now I’m free as a bird.” So when Joan reveals she still has a “mouth to feed,” he flips at the prospect of having his wings clipped. “I have a plan, which is no plan!” he shouts, berating her for her inability to fly off to the pyramids at the drop of a hat. But if your freedom forces you to give up on a good thing like Joan (Joan!!!) just to avoid the encumbrance of her kid, what good is it to you? “I don’t want to be rigid,” he eventually tells her, changing his tune. “It makes you old.” In the end Richard decides he’d rather be a part of Joan’s life than leave her behind to visit history’s most famous tombs.

The grown-ups aren’t the only ones struggling with having the world at their feet. Former weird neighbor kid/current 18-year-old stone fox Glen Bishop triumphantly returns to make a pass at a relatively receptive Betty before going off to Vietnam, a prospect he saw as preferable to enduring his stepdad’s disapproval for flunking out of college. Rather than wander after his path forward in life came to an untimely end, he picked an even more rigid road. His friend Sally is headed out on a literal road trip of her own, but she has no particular terminus in mind. She hates being asked what she wants to “do” (“I just wanna eat dinner”) and her sole stated ambition is to avoid being an attention whore like her parents, both of whom graciously bat away sexual advances from teenagers this episode. (So much for Don’s earlier contention that kids won’t get a campaign in which children fall in adult-like love with Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell peanut butter cookies.)

There’s a bit of inexplicable optimism to be had at the end of the episode, however: Don’s apartment sells to a young pregnant couple who buy it at the asking price. But this only leaves Don with still more “freedom.” He’s now no longer pinned down even to a place to live. Where, and what, does that leave him? “You don’t have any character,” his angry underling Mathis barks at him after screwing up a meeting by misunderstanding Don’s advice. “You’re just handsome! Stop kidding yourself!” An empty suit kicked out of his empty apartment into an empty hallway leading to an empty future.

Subtle it isn’t, but that’s the point. This lack of subtlety is not some embarrassing secret we’re discovering behind Matthew Weiner’s back. Mad Men isn’t obvious; it’s direct. It’s pointing to the emptiness and demanding that, like Don, we stand right there in the middle of it all, the door that leads home shut in our face, wondering where to go next.

How GameStop Plans to Sell Classic Games and Hardware

Soon, GameStop stores will be able to answer the phone and say, “Yes, we have Battletoads.”

And Super Mario 64, and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and about 5,000 other classics. The gaming retailer says it will roll out a pilot program that will see 250 stores in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama begin accepting old-school games and hardware at the trade-in counter. The platforms that it will accept are Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, the original PlayStation, and Dreamcast.

But, at least for now, you won’t find copies of Contra at your local store: GameStop told IGN it would send every game it takes in to its refurbishment center in Grapevine, Texas, then offer them for sale through its website. If you walk in to a GameStop location, they’ll help you order classic games—drop your dough in the store and GameStop will ship the game to your door.

As a game collector, I had some questions about how this will work. I spoke with GameStop’s Jon Haes, who is running the program.

What will GameStop buy back? Haes says GameStop will take in any game, console, and first-party accessories for the platforms listed above. If you’ve got a Nintendo-brand spare controller, they’ll take it. They aren’t interested in your third-party aftermarket stuff. “We’ll do a power-up test on the hardware and a visual inspection on the accessories and software” in the store, he says.

What happens then? Once the games reach Grapevine, Haes says GameStop will “do thorough evaluations—testing, repair if necessary.” The testers will make sure the hardware functions, but they’ll also open up the games to check the status of the batteries. You want to be able to save your game in The Legend of Zelda, after all. If a battery needs replacing, they’ll do it there before it’s offered for sale. If something is “beyond repair,” it’ll get junked.

Condition is everything in a collectible market. How will that come into play? For the pilot program, Haes says that stores will have a single SKU in their point-of-sale systems for each game. That means GameStop will offer one flat price, whether you’ve got a loose game cartridge or one with its original box and manual.

Beyond the pilot, what happens next will be determined by what ends up walking through the doors.

“As the product starts to come back into our distribution center, we’ll make a determination around any changes we might need to make,” he says. “If it’s 98 percent just cartridge, or just disc, we may not need to [change anything].” In that case, regardless of the completeness of the game, GameStop’s web listing might just note that the game will not include original box and instructions, and it’s possible that “on occasion, somebody will get a happy surprise when they open up the box” and find a complete game for the price of a loose one.

But if GameStop ends up with lots of games that still have their original box and instructions, it might create two listings per game—one that’s cartridge only, and one that’s complete. In that case, Haes says, he hopes to “pass that additional value on to consumers on the front end, if we know it’s worth more on the back end to the ultimate buyer”—in other words, you might get more for your trade-ins if you bring in complete games.

How do you stop fakes? It’s pretty easy to buy a fake label and pass your worthless crap off as a a rare Nintendo game, especially if the GameStop employees are only doing a visual inspection of the cartridge. But Haes says GameStop is providing the 250 test stores with a guide to spotting fakes. “We had our team do a lot of research,” he says, “and provide pictures of what a real game looks like and what a fake game looks like.”

What if you’re unsatisfied? If you’re spending big bucks on rare collectible games, you want to know you’re getting quality. Haes says the games, like any pre-owned product in GameStop’s inventory, can be returned for any reason within seven days. There’s also a 30-day guarantee against defects, so if something breaks in that period, send it back.

When can we start trading? Buying? The stores in the pilot program will begin taking games Saturday, and it’ll take about eight weeks before we start to see games appear for sale online, Haes says.

Geek Physics on Science Friday

In case you missed it, I was on Science Friday this past week. In the episode, I discuss Geek Physics with Ira Flatow. It was lots of fun. Here is the recording since I’m sure you want to listen to it.

I’ll admit that the question about scanning foods for ingredients that cause allergic reactions threw me off a bit. I was expecting some type of superhero question. In the end, I think it is possible to scan foods – any type of scanning typically requires disturbing the food in some way and then observing how the food would respond to this disturbance. This is exactly what we do when we shine light on objects. Our eyes (or a camera) detects the light that is reflected off the object and we can determine some properties of the object. Or you could use something like Nuclear Magnetic Resonance where you disturb the food with magnetic fields and observe what happens. Of course, an NMR isn’t cheap. Ok – that’s a little better answer than what I gave on the show.

Along with my appearance on Science Friday, I also answered questions from Twitter and FaceBook. They were mostly questions about superheroes – like how can Superman fly? Or, how does the Flash not give people whiplash when he saves them?

You can find my answers on the Science Friday website.  Check it out.

11 Historic German Police Cars, From Lamborghinis to VWs

Police cars are fascinating. For those young and old, when a police car goes screaming by, lights and siren running, people stop to look. Maybe it’s because we wonder where they’re rushing to, or just becuase they’re cool, in and of themselves. Modern rides from Ford and Dodge and Chevrolet (at least in America) are neat and chock-full of technology, while departments around the world have stuck their livery on a surprising number of supercars.

But there’s something to be said for the squad cars of old, too. That’s why the Audi Museum in Ingolstadt, Germany, has gathered 14 historic, mostly German police cars for a special exhibit. They include the 1930 Horch 400, one of the first motorized cop rides in the country, the 1971 Audi 100 from 1971, supplied to German highway patrols, and a Volkswagen Typ 18 A from 1947. There are some newer cars too, like a 2005 Audi A4 Avant. Even a 500 horsepower Lamborghini Gallardo Polizia makes an appearance.

Have a look through the gallery above for some of our favorites, or, if you find yourself in Germany, head over to Ingolstadt before August 30, 2015 to see the exhibit in person.

Scientists Are Using Electrodes to Remote-Control People

Today, you’re proposing marriage. And your plan is awesome: You’ll send your true love on a walking tour of the city, past every romantically significant waypoint. The park bench next to the pond. The fish market. The statue in the traffic circle. Your favorite cafe. (With a detour through that special alley, you scoundrel). At the end, your beloved will arrive at the rose garden to find you, beaming, with ring in hand. The light of your life won’t need a map, or a trail of convoluted clues, either. Instead, you’ll control your moon and stars via leg-mounted electrodes.

Ah, modern love. Or at least a glimpse of it, brought to you by German scientists who have developed something they call cruise control for pedestrians. It is the future!

“Actually, it’s a really basic technology,” says creator Max Pfeiffer, who studies human-computer interactions at Leibniz University of Hanover in Germany.

Indeed. As cool as it sounds, the underlying tech is pretty straightforward. To dictate walkers’ routes, Pfeiffer simply attached electrodes (pilfered from a massage tool purchased on Amazon) to the thighs of 18 volunteers. When activated by a signal from a smartphone, the electrodes stimulated the sartorious, the long, thin muscle that connects the outer pelvis to the inner knee and controls the rotation of the leg. As long as the volunteer is providing forward locomotion, the sensation makes them turn.

Using a smartphone, Pfeiffer trailed his subjects as they walked through the streets with a smart phone connected to the electrodes. A push of the button on his phone caused them to veer right or left. The compulsion to turn wasn’t overwhelming. “One comment from the participants was they always had the feeling that they can just take back control and override the signal,” says Pfeiffer.

But what if he turned up the juice? Would his gadget be able to override someone’s inborn locomotive system? Pfeiffer admits that he doesn’t know, because he kept the voltage at a comfortable level. No one in the current study reported any sensation beyond a mild tingle.

Pfeiffer hopes this technology will help people appreciate the scenery by making them look up from their damned phones. Rather than walking around hunched over, pinching and pulling at their screen-based maps, they’d be free to—gasp!—look up, knowing that the marvel of modern technology will guide them along. (Alas, when freed from the responsibility of navigating, Pfeiffer says most of his volunteers wanted to check email as they walked.)

He says he envisions the technology being used for, say, downloadable walking tours. “You don’t actually think where you go, you just end up there,” he says. When the controls get tighter—the turning radius is pretty wide at the moment—Pfeiffer envisions things like new video game-like sports, “where you can guide people to catch the ball or something.” It could help you keep your eyes up when navigating through sketchy neighborhoods, or create a romantic roving mixtape leading your fiancee to an engagement ring.

Of course, the idea of surrendering your feet can easily turn sinister. If hijacked, the cruise control could drive you straight into the hands of a tech-savvy captor. Or navigation companies could sell “impulses” to advertisers, subtly nudging you towards places to relieve yourself of your money.

This isn’t a new fear, and in fact predates Pfeiffer’s pedestrian cruise control by more than a decade. A 2003 academic paper Geoslavery explored how then-nascent technologies like consumer GPS and location-based services could be used to kidnap people, quell political dissent, or influence buying decisions. “People thought I was futuristic when I mentioned the likelihood of devices that sting or burn to enforce rules. This one puts those devices to shame in terms of sophistication and control,” says Jerome Dobson, a co-author of the paper, professor at Kansas State University, and president of the American Geographical Society.

Dobson says the electrodes seem easy to override, but warns that even things that seem fairly benign have a history of being abused. “Like human tracking itself, it’s got many, many beneficial uses, but here’s the old slippery slope argument all over again,” he says.

And of course, it would be your choice whether to don the electrodes. “But we are quite far away” from this technology hitting the mainstream, Pfeiffer says. “What we built is just a prototype.” This week, he is showcasing that early prototype at a human-computer interaction conference in Seoul.

In the future, though, the electrodes are small enough that they could easily be implemented into clothes. “The problem is the placement of the electrodes; you need to hit the muscles on the right place,” says Pfeiffer. Otherwise, the muscle won’t rotate and the navigation is useless. Watch out for that pole!

I Used Myself as a Guinea Pig for 8 Alternative Sleep Aids

Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. Some 70 million Americans have chronic sleep problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s about far more than feeling tired all the time. Sleep deprivation is a contributor to a host of medical issues ranging from obesity to mental illness to “poor quality of life and well-being.”

That explains the explosive market for prescription drugs that help you sleep. Driven by sales of Lunesta, the prescription sleep aid market hit $1.48 billion in 2013, according to IMS Health.

Prescription sleeping pills may be popular, but they can be dicey—the tales of side effects for drugs like Ambien and Halcion are legendary. This has led many to explore herbs, natural remedies, and over-the-counter products that, in theory, have fewer ill effects. But do they work?

I asked Dr. Shanon Makekau, medical director of the sleep laboratory at the Hawaii Permanente Medical Group, about supplements like valerian root, melatonin, and tryptophan, and whether they have any legitimate medical value. She’s pragmatic. “The bottom line is that the available alternatives are not really rooted in science,” she says. “The studies that are out there, particularly on valerian and chamomile, are limited and small in number, and the results are inconclusive. That being said, I generally tell my patients that if they find a sleep aid anecdotally to be helpful and not harmful, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Given some patients’ concern with prescription drugs, Makekau understands the desire for alternatives, but stresses caution. “There are effective prescription medications,” she notes, “but they are associated with negative side effects. But people need to know that even things over the counter can be harmful.” She points to kava (related to severe liver damage) and l-tryptophan (associated with a rare and fatal muscle-jellifying disease called Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome) as drugs to treat with special caution.

Still, Makekau says most alternative sleep aids are thought to be safe, though they have little scientific backing. The exception is melatonin, which data suggest helps workers who must switch between day and night shifts, and for managing jet lag. “But the effect is very small in comparison to a prescription sleep aid,” she says, “and there’s no long-term safety data.”

“We don’t know how these things work, and there’s no evidence that the effect will predictable or repeatable from person to person,” she says. “If you’re looking for something that’s not prescription-based, have a conversation with your physician up front. The key is finding something that’s safe and doesn’t interact with any other medications you’re taking.”


Given that individuals tend to react differently to these supplements, I wondered how I would fare in a test group of one. I’ve long had trouble sleeping—rousing a lot during the night and waking much too early. I’m not interested in prescription sleep aids or over-the-counter drugs like diphenhydramine (Benadryl and Sominex) or doxylamine (Unisom), which can lead to tolerance issues if taken regularly. However, the thought of taking a chamomile capsule after dinner didn’t seem so bad. So I rounded up eight alternative sleep aids—five single-supplement products and three “cocktails” of a variety of supplements—and took them semi-randomly over the course of about six weeks. The cocktail supplement market is vast, but if you check ingredient labels you’ll find that the three I chose are fairly representative.

Clinicians and drug companies alike generally consider three categories when determining the effectiveness of a sleep aid: how much it shortens the time needed to fall asleep, how much it increases the total amount of sleep experienced, and the severity of drowsiness—the “hangover effect”—experienced the next day.

The quality and depth of sleep can be measured with sleep monitoring equipment; I used a Withings Aura to measure the amount of REM sleep I was getting each night. I then used this information in combination with a daily sleep log (which I highly recommend even if you aren’t experimenting with sleep aids) that I kept throughout the experiment, never taking the same sleep aid for two consecutive nights, and taking nothing at all for many nights to ensure my system was “clean” for the next go-round. In my sleep log, each night I gave the prior night’s sleep a “quality rating” from 1 (nonstop insomnia) to 10 (perfect sleep). As a sort of master measurement of the night, I multiplied this rating by the total amount of sleep I achieved in hours, so a total “sleep score” of 80 points—8 hours of level 10 sleep—would be perfect.

It can’t be noted strenuously enough that this is a thoroughly unscientific test and my experiences should not be seen as representative of how anyone else may respond to these supplements, or as a benchmark for their effectiveness. Rather, my intent is to investigate how widely variable sleep aids like these can be outside of the lab while offering my own anecdotal evidence about what worked as a baseline for further investigation.

As well, remember that many things can impact how you sleep. What you eat, what you drink, evening exercise, late-night brain stimulation (like watching TV or playing games), pets in the room, temperature, ambient noise and light, and who knows what else can each have a severe impact on how well you sleep. Supplements are only one piece of the puzzle, but the question is whether they can genuinely help to overcome those other elements.

Still, consider those elements before thinking about a supplement. “Look at your overall sleep habits and your environment before you engage with a sleep aid,” Makekau says. “Make sleep a priority, get exercise during the day, and avoid things like alcohol and caffeine.”

The Players

I investigated five single-product supplements. Prices are approximate based on larger capacity bottles.

Melatonin (4¢/dose). The big name in alternative sleep aids, this is a hormone that builds in the body as it gets darker outside.
Valerian Root (8¢/dose). A flowering herb that has sedative effects. The root is powdered and put into a capsule.
Chamomile (10¢/dose). The same stuff that’s in herbal tea. The flowers of this plant are used for a wide variety of ailments, including indigestion and anxiety.
Lemon balm (18¢/dose). Also known as Melissa. It’s part of the mint family (not the lemon family) and finds a home in aromatherapy and culinary uses. Tea made from lemon balm is used as a mild sedative.
L-tryptophan (45¢/dose). An amino acid and a precursor to serotonin and melatonin in the brain. Famously thought to be in high concentrations in turkey (but not really), it’s also used to improve mood.

The three “cocktails” I sampled included these products:

Somnis (30¢/dose). A mix of L-tryptophan, melatonin, and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA).
Serenity ($1.33/dose). Valerian root, passion flower extract, magnolia bark, jujube, chamomile, L-theanine, 5-HTP, melatonin, and something called BioPerine (a black pepper extract), plus a smattering of vitamins.
Luna (73¢/dose). L-theanine, valerian root, chamomile, passion flower, lemon balm, hops flower, L-taurine, and melatonin, plus magnesium.

The Results

After weeks of testing, my personal results were far from what I expected. The biggest surprise was that, based on my sleep log and the Aura data, I found I’d been sleeping better than I thought, even when I didn’t take anything. With no supplement, I was getting a baseline of 6.85 hours of sleep at an average 6.6 quality rating for a total sleep score of 46 points. Not bad, and the Aura reported 1.46 hours of REM sleep each night, which was also surprisingly good.

When looking at the overall amount of sleep I got while using a single supplement, L-tryptophan came out on top. On nights I took L-tryptophan, I got 7.53 hours of sleep, significantly above any other alternative. The downside was the quality of that sleep, which I rated at only a 6.5, for an average sleep score of 49 points. That’s all pretty good, but the whole jellied muscles business put me off a bit, so ultimately I’m not sure it’s a great option for sustained use.

How about sleep quality? Looking at all the single-product supplements, chamomile gave me the soundest night’s sleep—so deep one night that my wife reported she was unable to rouse me during a snoring jag. I gave those nights an average quality rating of 7.3, and the 7.18 average hours of sleep I got was also noticeably higher than the no-meds nights. The net sleep score of 52 points earned chamomile the top spot among the single-supplement products.

Surprisingly, none of the other three supplements were effective for me, and all netted lower total sleep times and lower quality ratings than using nothing at all.

Melatonin was the big surprise. Some of my worst nights I experienced during testing were ones in which I’d taken this drug. After melatonin, I tossed and turned in bed, waking repeatedly throughout the night—once close to a dozen times. The next morning I invariably experienced a severe hangover effect, groggy for hours.

Valerian was not much better. On this drug I experienced wild dreams, lots of waking, and extreme next-morning fatigue. The valerian pills also smelled awful, like pungent, wet cardboard, a problem not to be underestimated when you have to choke it down at bedtime. But the absolute worst was lemon balm. The first night I tried it I woke repeatedly with an unbearably full bladder. Three lengthy trips to the bathroom later, lemon balm’s apparent diuretic effect started causing significant concern. I discontinued it soon after for fear of kidney damage or worse.

The three cocktails performed better than most of the individual supplements, but only Serenity and Luna did significantly better at giving me extra time asleep, and only Serenity offered any improvement in sleep quality. In fact, Serenity provided some of my best numbers across the board—7.26 hours of total sleep, 1.80 hours of REM sleep (vs. 1.46 hours with no supplement), a 7.7 sleep quality rating, and a total sleep score of 56. The only problem is that, as with valerian, Serenity smells so hideous it is physically difficult to choke down. At $1.33 per dose, it’s by far the most expensive solution I tested.

Luna had similar total sleep numbers to Serenity, but provided less REM and only a 6.4 quality rating for a net sleep score of 46, the same as sleeping without a supplement. Somnis’s 6.88 total sleep hours made it an also ran—largely thanks to one night where I spent more than two hours trying to get to sleep—with a total sleep score of 43.

What happens now? While I’ll probably keep both Serenity and chamomile in my arsenal in case of insomnia—and to attempt to help with jet lag when traveling internationally—I’m not planning to take any of these supplements on a regular basis, as it seems, in the end, I sleep well enough without them. Just remember that if you decide to try any of these for yourself, your mileage will, without a doubt, vary.

Chart: Sleep supplements by the numbers

How to Reduce VR Sickness? Just Add a Virtual Nose

Skip to story TKNote the massive nose sitting in the middle of the game's frame.  Perdue University

In the 1950s, the Navy introduced a simulator that taught pilots to fly a helicopter from the comfort of a virtual cockpit. They could take off, navigate bumpy air and land without ever leaving the ground. It was a breakthrough that allowed an increasing number of pilots to train without the risk of crashing. But the sim wasn’t all that comfortable, and a significant number of pilots felt sick as hell while using it.

It wasn’t motion sickness per se, though the symptoms were comparable: Dizziness, nausea, sweating, disorientation. Researchers of the day dubbed this physiological phenomenon “simulator sickness,” an early ancestor of the flu-like symptoms some feel after strapping on virtual reality headsets today.

Eliminating simulator sickness is a major interest of the burgeoning VR industry, but so far there hasn’t been a clear answer. Home remedies include drinking alcohol, while companies like Oculus Rift are exploring better positional tracking and improved display resolution. But researchers at Purdue University believe they’ve found a way to reduce the negative physical effects of virtual reality by using something that’s right in front of your face.

“We’ve discovered putting a virtual nose in the scene seems to have a stabilizing effect,” says David Whittinghill, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s Department of Computer Graphics Technology. That’s right, Whittinghill says placing a schnoz in the lower center of a headset’s screen has been shown to reduce the effects of simulator sickness by 13.5 percent.

Simulator sickness is still being studied, but researchers often point to sensory conflict a primary cause. This theory states that a dissonance between what your eyes see on screen and the kind of motion your body feels can lead to disorientation and feelings of nausea. Say you’re riding a virtual roller coaster. As you creep up the coaster’s first big hill, your eyes will register an upward incline, but your vestibular system—the tubes of liquid in our ears that help us to gauge our position in the world—remains unchanged. “Our bodies don’t like that,” says Whittinghill.

Whittinghill and his team of students (Bradley Ziegler, James Moore, and Tristan Case) say anecdotal evidence shows a fixed reference point in a frame, like car dashboards and cockpits, tend to reduce feelings of simulator sickness. It got them thinking about the nose as a natural reference point and how it’s conspicuously absent from goggle-like virtual reality headsets.

In the small study, the team had 41 participants use various VR applications (one simulation of walking around a Tuscan villa, another of riding a roller coaster). Half played the games with the virtual nose, the other half played without. Whittinghill found participants with the nose were able to play the Tuscan villa game for 94.2 seconds longer than those playing without, while time played on the roller coaster game increased by 2.2 seconds.

“That’s not enough,” says Whittinghill. But it is a promising start, particularly because the participants playing with the virtual nose didn’t even notice it was there. “It’s a big honking nose,” he says. “It never occurred to us that they wouldn’t perceive it, but they were almost universally baffled about what we were even talking about.” Whittinghill says this is likely a result of “change blindness,” a perceptual phenomenon that allows our perceptual system to ignore objects that we see over and over again. Whittinghill’s theory is that the nose’s proximity to our eyes leads our brains to filter out its presence. “It’s likely to be hitting those same sensory neurons,” he explains. “I’m just guessing the neurons are saying no, this isn’t a real object, I’m going to subtract this from my perception.”

Regardless of whether that explanation is right, it bodes well for game designers who might be leery of sticking a nose in the center of an assiduously crafted world. At the same time, Whittinghill says the findings raise more questions than they answer. Would the results be better if the nose matched the ethnicity of the user? What happens if you change the position or size?  Does it have to be a nose at all? If nothing else, the study points to the interesting design challenges involved in developing the new medium.

Eventually, Whittinghill wants to compile enough data to make accurate predictions about how sick a game might make any given player. “I can see people going to a website to answer a few questions about themselves to get some idea of their susceptibility,” he says, adding that it would require information about weight, age and vision. Think of it as a virtual reality addition to sit alongside the preexisting content ratings system for video games or a more personalized version of the Samsung Gear’s “comfort rating.” Someday next to “Kids,” “Mature,” and “Adult Only,” we might see something like: Nausea Rating: 7/10. Or: Your Nose Must Be This Big to Ride.

Game of Thrones Recap: The Return of Arya—And an Old Friend

Spoilers for the second episode of Season 5 of Game of Thrones follow, obviously.

We’ve reached a fascinating point in the Game of Thrones television series: Not only is the show departing dramatically from the plot of the books, but they’re starting to catch up to them, and even move beyond them.

Throughout this season I’ll be recapping Game of Thrones and dissecting the changes between the show and the books, and I’ll do my best not to spoil any important plot points. But again, we’re entering thorny and uncharted territory here, where we won’t always know what a spoiler really is—or what the “real” story is.

This week, we find out if Arya made it across the Narrow Sea (she did), if Daenerys can maintain order in Meereen (um, perhaps?), if Sansa wants Brienne’s protection (eh, not so much), and if Jon Snow will be a bastard forever (maybe not!). Get ready.


She’s back, baby. After offering the mysterious coin from her many-faced friend Jaqen H’ghar to a Braavosi sailor, she’s crossed the Narrow Sea, and arrived at a mysterious location in Braavos: The House of Black and White. She knocks on the massive double doors, and an old man answers. She presents him with the coin, only to be told that there’s no one there by that name Jaqen. She spends the night in the rain outside, recites her little list of death, which has dwindled to only four names. (Hey, maybe it’s working.) The next morning, she throws the coin into the sea and heads out into the streets of Braavos. It doesn’t take long before she’s accosted by three men who want to steal her sword, Needle—the one Jon gave her so long ago.

“Turn around, and go,” she says with steely eyes, moving into the fighting stance that Syrio Forel taught her. “Nothing’s worth anything to dead men.” She could probably take one of them, maybe two. Not sure about three. But before she has to do anything, the old man from the House appears behind her, and the men flee at the site of him. Interesting. She follows him back to the House of Black and White, where he returns the coin she dropped in the ocean and reveals a familiar face: Jaqen H’ghar. He insists that he told the truth, that Jaqen doesn’t live there, that he is no one. “And that is what a girl must become.” And so Arya enters the House of Black and White.

In the books: The sailor who takes Arya to Braavos is named Ternesio Terys. She was allowed inside immediately when she knocked at the door with the coin and meets a man there. Although he can change his appearance, he never reveals himself as Jaqen—at least he hasn’t so far—though there is a character elsewhere in A Feast for Crows whom some readers think might be Arya’s former murder friend. Also, her hit list is two people longer in the books, and includes Raff the Sweetling, the torturer from Harrenhal, and Ilyn Payne, the man who beheaded her father.

Sansa and Brienne

Sansa and Littlefinger continue their journey to Somewhere, stopping to rest at an inn on the way. Guess who happens to be at the very same inn? Brienne and Pod! After they spot young Lady Stark—and count the number of knights around her—Brienne sends Pod to ready the horses, and approaches the girl she’s been chasing for so very long. She reveals herself as the Sworn Sword of Catelyn Stark, and pledges her life to Sansa’s protection. Littlefinger, who is basically a walking, talking raised eyebrow, is a bit more skeptical. He brings up the death of Renly, and forces Brienne to recount the story of his death at the hands of a shadow, which he knows will make her sound ridiculous. I don’t think he doubts Brienne’s sincerity, necessarily—I just don’t think that she fits into his plans for Sansa, whatever they are. Sansa seems equally skittish—remember that time when she saw Brienne kneeling to Joffrey at his wedding?—and quietly declines her service. Littlefinger remarks that he doesn’t want Brienne “wandering the countryside alone”—which is how nobles say they’re taking you captive—but the fearsome Maid of Tarth has already had more than her share of being a prisoner, so carnage ensues.

She takes out the first couple knights with her fists, cuts down a few more with a sword once she gets on her horse, and leads the rest on a chase through the woods that ends with most of them dead. When she reunites with her squire, Pod says that since both Stark girls have refused her service, that she’s probably released from her vow. But Brienne isn’t ready to release herself: “Do you think she’s safe with Littlefinger?” I mean, that’s a really complicated question, and one I’m not sure I know the answer to, either. So she decides to keep following them, because that’s what Brienne does.

In the books: Again, Sansa never left the Eyrie, and Brienne never met up with Sansa, at least in the books we’ve read so far. (I’m probably going to end up saying that a lot in the weeks to come.)

cersei Helen Sloan/HBO


A very interesting gift has arrived from Dorne: one of Myrcella’s necklaces, mounted on a statue of a snake. Naturally, she interprets it as a threat: “Our daughter is in Dorne surrounded by people who hate our family,” she tells Jaime. “They blame us for the death of Oberyn and his sister.” She rants for a while about burning Dorne to the ground, because really she’s the snake that Daenerys described last episode: the one that lashes out when it gets angry, and only makes itself more vulnerable. And boy, does Cersei feel vulnerable. Her eldest son and father have been murdered, she believes her hated brother killed both of them, her other son is marrying a woman she hates, and her only daughter is being held captive by people who hate her just as much.

Jaime decides to make a last, grand gesture to win back his sister/lover: He’s going to Dorne, and he’s going to take Myrcella back. Not with an army, but by sneaking into the Water Gardens himself. Cersei seems skeptical, but seems quietly pleased. He won’t be alone, however; he quickly recruits sellsword Bronn to come with him, though he’s Ser Bronn now, for his service to Cersei. He’s about to be married to a nice, chatty, vaguely noble girl with hair the color of straw. Jaime has a better offer: come with him to Dorne, and come back to “a much better girl, and a much better castle.”

Cersei, meanwhile, is collecting the heads of every little person in the kingdom, but of course none of them are Tyrion. She’s also taken her place on the Small Council as the Hand of the King—insisting, of course, that she’s just a proxy for Tommen, since of course it would never be appropriate for a woman to take on such an important role. She tries to quell dissent with a series of promotions: Lord Tyrell is made Master of Coin, Qyburn replaces Varys as Master of Whisperers, and she appoints her uncle Kevan as Master of War. Unfortunately, Kevan is not quite as susceptible to her flattery and bribery: “I do not recognize your authority to dictate what is and is not your concern,” he says, storming out. “You’re the Queen Mother, and nothing more.”

And listen: Cersei might not actually be very good at leading, but this is absolutely, 100 percent sexism. No one would ever question Jaime this way if he’d decided to sit down at the table instead. Hasn’t there always been some old man in Cersei’s way, trying to tell her she couldn’t didn’t do the things she wanted because she didn’t have the right parts? If Jaime had been born a girl, would he have been any more patient?

In the books: Although Cersei does worry for Myrcella, Jaime never goes to Dorne, with Bronn or otherwise. Bronn does end up marrying a noblewoman: Lollys Stokeworth who was raped and impregnated during the mob attack in King’s Landing. Cersei initially asks Jaime to be Hand of the King, but he refuses her. When she asks Kevan, he also refuses, and says he will only be Hand if she goes back to Casterly Rock—where he says Tywin was already planning to send her—and makes him Regent in her place. He also gives an amazing speech about how she’s as unfit as a ruler as she is as a mother, She throws a cup of wine in his face. It’s great.

Ellaria Sand

Oberyn’s paramour has made her way back to Dorne, and she wants revenge. His brother, Prince of Dorne Oberyn Martell—aka Dr. Julian Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—is unwilling to give it to her, however. The gout-stricken rules tell her that a death by combat isn’t a murder, and while he’s sad too, she needs chill. But she cannot! She insists that she wants war, Oberyn’s warrior daughters the Sand Snakes want war, the whole country wants war! “Then we are lucky the whole country does not decide,” says Oberyn. Turns out Cersei was right to worry about Myrcella: Ellaria wants to punish her for her family’s crimes, and send her back to Cersei, one finger at a time. Oberyn insists that while the Lannisters might be the worst, they’re not going to mutilate little girls for vengeance while he’s ruling Dorne. “And how long will that be?” Ellaria wonders.

In the books: Although Ellaria returns to Dorne, she isn’t the one who challenges Doran. Instead it is Obara Sand, the eldest of the Sand Snakes. Unlike the slim Doran we see onscreen, the one in the book is described as very overweight, with grotesquely gouty legs.

drogon HBO


Daario walks through the streets of Meereen with Grey Worm, talking about the differing approaches of their military orders. The Unsullied might be the Spartans of Essos, but the Second Sons like to play things a little faster and looser: drinking, blending in, and conducting espionage. That’s how they find themselves at a house that the fearless Grey Worm believes is empty. “That’s your problem,” says Daario. “Someone who’s forgotten fear has forgotten how to hide. He stabs his knife into the wall, and out falls a Son of the Harpy. Back in the Great Pyramid, they debate his fate; one of her advisors, a former slave named Mossador, wants him executed, though he also admits that he’s probably just a poorer man paid off by the noble families to do their dirty work. Ser Barristan reminds Dany of her father, the vengeful Mad King of Westeros, who “gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved.” That worked right up until his cruelty resulted in the end of the Targaryen dynasty, and the deaths of everyone in her family, except her. She agrees to the trial.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter because Mossador goes to his cell, murders the man about to stand trial anyway, and nails him to a wall next to blood-soaked graffiti that reads: KILL THE MASTERS. He later tells Daenerys that he did it for her, that he thought it was what she really wanted, but her hands were tied. Perhaps, he was counting on her mercy. Unfortunately, he’s not going to get it. In yet another political blunder, she has him executed publicly—infuriating all the former slaves who once called her “mother.” So I guess everyone’s angry with her now. Turns out that occupying a city isn’t quite as easy as conquering it, eh?

She wanders out to a balcony to think about what she’s done, and guess who she finds waiting for her but Dorgon, her great black dragon. She almost touches him, but then he disappears again, flying out over the city of Meereen on his great black wings.

In the books: Rather than an advisor to Daenerys and former slave of Meereen, Mossador was actually Missandei’s brother—and one of the Unsullied warriors who died in the attacks by the Sons of the Harpy. Instead, it is Skahaz mo Kandaq who insists that there needs to be punishment for the attacks, although he wants to execute one man from every one of the noble families who oppose her.

Barristan Selmy’s speech about the Mad King mentions fathers being murdered before their sons—most famously, he had Ned Stark’s father, Lord Rickard, cooked alive in his own armor, while his son—Ned’s brother, Brandon—was placed in a noose and strangled as he strained to save his father. That’s why Ned teamed up with his pal Robert and took down the Targaryens, so it didn’t end well for anyone.


Tyrion is drinking en route to Volantis, which is en route to Meereen. He complains to Varys that he’s basically stuck in another box on wheels, and wants to take a walk. Varys refuses, since little people are not exactly common and Cersei’s collecting their heads like Pokemon cards. Probably, they’re all cursing his name, because that’s how Tyrion’s life works. Somehow, it becomes a conversation about how well Tyrion acquitted himself as Hand of the King. “You were quite good you know, at ruling.” Perhaps that’s the long game for Varys: If he can get Daenerys on the throne, perhaps Tyrion could bring his family name and his political savvy to actually help her rule—the role that she’s finding ever so challenging right now in Meereen.

In the books: We don’t know where Varys went, but he and Tyrion don’t travel together after he arrives in Essos.

sad-jon Helen Sloan/HBO


Young Shireen Baratheon continues her campaign for literacy, now teaching Gilly how to read in the stacks of Castle Black. Sam muses aloud about how the youngest Lord Commander was Osric Stark, an ancestor of Jon’s who was elected at the age of 10. Gilly is not enthused by his disruptive trivia, and tells him she hopes he’s having fun with “Ostrich Stark.” Someone … please draw that. Selyse comes down and kicks Gilly and Sam out, and tells Shireen to stay away from the wildling girl. After all, her father did just defeat them and burn their king alive. Gilly’s nice and all, but given everything we’ve seen on the show, that’s pretty reasonable.

Stannis is still pretty pissed about Jon showing mercy to Mance Rayder, but he’s uncharacteristically going to let it slide as he has other plans for the Stark bastard. After writing to the Northern folk on Bear Island and asking for their allegiance, Stannis received a reply: “Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark.” Jon observes that Northerners can be a bit like the free folk—clannish, and fiercely loyal. No wonder he got along so well with them. Stannis says he has a solution that may please them all: “Kneel before me, lay your sword at your feet, pledge me your service and you’ll rise again as Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell.”

Jon’s eyes grow wide, because it’s everything he ever wanted, growing up in the shadow of Robb Stark. Of course, he tells Sam later that he’s going to refuse it because HONOR and VOW and NED STARK. Christ. Why can’t anything I want ever happen on this show, ever? Then it’s time for the election for the new Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and after Maester Aemon breaks the tie … Jon wins.

In the books: The election for Lord Commander originally took place before Mance Rayder was burned, but Jon did indeed win.