How Fast Is Rey’s Speeder in the Star Wars Teaser?

The second trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens looks exciting. In case you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here. So, how about an analysis? Can I estimate the speed of the Rey’s speeder as it moves across the desert? Let’s try.

The first thing I need is a scale. This is pretty tough. Really, the only thing I can use to set the size of the motion in each frame is the size of the speeder itself. In my previous analysis of the speeder (from the first trailer), I estimated the size of the large part of the speeder to be about 2.8 meters long. From this, I will use a rough value of 4.0 meters for the entire length of the speeder.

After that, it’s just a simple process of shifting the coordinate axis origin to accommodate the panning camera (I used calibration point pairs in Tracker Video Analysis).

Here is a plot of the position of the speeder as a function of time.

Data Tool

You can see some problems with this data. The apparent speed at the beginning and end of the motion look to be different than in the middle. This could be explained by a couple of reasons. First, I think there might be a problem with Tracker’s axis over large changes in frame. It seems like the axis deviates from the horizon towards the end of the video. I’m not sure if this is a problem with my adjustment for the panning of the video or with the software. Second, the changes in motion could be due to changes in scale. Here, let me draw a sketch showing both the motion of the speeder and the camera.

Sketches Fall 14 key

In the middle of the speeder’s motion, the speeder would be slightly closer to the camera giving it a larger apparent size and a larger apparent speed. Ok, so that could be the problem.

As an estimate, let me just determine a value for the speed based on my initial estimate of the scale and the slope of the position graph near the middle (where it looks more constant). This gives a speeder speed of 74.7 m/s (167 mph). Of course, this is just an estimate. If I approximate the speeder size as 4.0 +/- 1.0 meter, this would give a speed of 74.7 +/- 18.7 m/s (167 +/- 41.8 mph) – which is still pretty fast. Here is a quick review of uncertainty calculations if you are interested.

Based on the scale of 4.0 meters, I can also get an estimate of how far the speeder moved during this time. It’s about 858 meters. That’s pretty far. So, how close would the camera have to be to the speeder in order to get a slight distortion in apparent speed as shown? I’ll leave that up to you to estimate as a homework question. Here is the data from the video in a Google spreadsheet (you might need that to complete the homework).

Just for fun, let’s look at one more thing. While correcting for the panning motion of the camera, I also noticed that the camera appears to jump up and down a little bit as though it were manually being moved. I suspect that this whole scene was done with CGI and not a real camera, but I could be wrong.

How do you measure the camera motion? This is pretty easy to do using Tracker Video Analysis. Without setting the scale or the axis, I can just track the motion of some background object (in this case I picked part of the crashed x-wing fighter). It really helps to use Tracker’s autotracker feature.

Here is the horizontal motion of the camera (the distance units are just “pixels”).

Panning Camera Motion in Star Wars VII

There’s not too much to see here. The camera just pans and any “shaking” in the horizontal direction is difficult to see within the panning motion. However, you might be able to get a better look at the motion. First, here is the data from the video. What if you get a baseline motion using the average panning speed. Then you could plot the horizontal deviations from this average. Honestly, I’m not sure what you will find. It’s possible that there is no horizontal shake. Ok, now for the vertical motion. Normally, I would plot the trajectory of background (x vs. y) but in this case I am going to plot vertical position versus time.  

Vertical Camera Motion in Star Wars VII

But what does this tell us? I’m not sure – but it’s homework for you.

  • Create a plot of the vertical jump as a function of time. Does this show anything cool?
  • Are the jump sizes random or do they create some pattern?
  • Create a Fourier Transform of the data to get an estimate of the frequency of camera shakes. How does this compare to a hand held camera? Just for comparison, here is a video that uses “fake camera shake”.
  • If you found any horizontal deviations, how does the horizontal shake compare to the vertical shake?

In the end, you want to answer the question: Is this a CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) or a partially real video? If there is evidence of fake shake, that would point toward CGI.

Chimpanzees Take a Huge Step Toward (Some) Human Rights

According to a New York judge, two chimpanzees now have a right that until Monday was reserved for humans. The chimps, used in research at Stony Brook University, may never actually be released, but the court’s move represents a historic change in thinking about animal rights.

Here’s what happened: In December 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in the New York Supreme Court on behalf of four privately owned chimpanzees, considered property in the eyes of the law. The lawsuits sought to have the chimps moved to Save the Chimps, a Florida sanctuary and, more importantly, asked that they be declared legal persons, not with full human rights but with a basic one: not to be owned and caged.

Since then, courts have heard the cases several times. Preliminary arguments have focused on whether a court could issue writs of habeas corpus calling upon the chimpanzees’ owners to justify their captivity. If they can’t justify it, the prisoners have to be released—a process set in motion Monday by Justice Barbara Jaffe. She issued the writs on behalf of Hercules and Leo, the Stony Brook chimps. It’s the first time habeas corpus, historically used to free slaves and people wrongly imprisoned, has ever been extended to a species other than Homo sapiens.

“It’s a breakthrough. The judge is implicitly saying that chimps are—or at least could be—persons,” says Steven Wise, an attorney and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project.

Things haven’t gone as well for the chimps in the two other cases. In the case of Kiko, a chimp owned by a couple in Niagara Falls, appeals court judges in January told the Nonhuman Rights Project that habeas corpus didn’t apply because the Save the Chimps sanctuary is merely another kind of captivity. In the case of Tommy, a 26-year-old chimp kept in a warehouse in Gloversville, the appeals court concluded in December that rights are given only to individuals capable of fulfilling social obligations and responsibilities.

The decisions hint at the deep unease with which many people—not least judges reluctant to rock the legal boat—view the idea of legal rights for a nonhuman. Legal scholar Richard Cupp has argued that expanding personhood to include chimpanzees would cheapen human personhood. Others have worried that, if given to a chimpanzee, rights might be inconveniently extended to other animals, such as chickens or lab mice.

Chimps, though, may deserve a special status. In affidavits in the Nonhuman Rights Project lawsuits, nine primatologists argued that chimpanzees are thoughtful, independent beings to whom freedom is likely as meaningful as it is to us. “Wow. Wow. Wow. This is incredible,” said Mary Lee Jensvold, a primatologist and former director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, upon learning of Hercules and Leo’s habeas corpus. Jensvold filed one of the affidavits. “I didn’t think this would happen so soon. It takes so long for attitudes to change. It’s a great piece of news, just to know that a judge wants to hear the case.”

Hercules and Leo’s case was originally dismissed on a technicality, but the Nonhuman Rights Project refiled it last month. Now that the writ of habeas corpus has been issued, Stony Brook University—represented by the attorney general of New York—must appear in court May 6 and justify Hercules and Leo’s captivity. If the Nonhuman Rights Project wins, Hercules and Leo will go to Save the Chimps, and the door will open to further legal challenges to the captivity of chimpanzees—and perhaps other animals—in New York and other states with similar laws.

Rufus' Island_V2 Jo-Anne McArthur

“It’s a big step forward,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior litigator at the Humane Society of the United States. “Getting your day in court is always a victory.” Lovvorn cautioned that the habeas corpus may simply have been a procedural formality: perhaps Justice Jaffe granted them without truly believing that chimps can have rights. Yet it could also be argued, said Lovvorn, that simply issuing the writs—regardless of whatever decision ultimately is made—implicitly recognizes chimp personhood, since under New York law habeas corpus can only be given to a person. Even if the judge decides against Hercules and Leo, the precedent is set that a chimp is person enough to deserve a hearing.

At Stony Brook University, Hercules and Leo are used in studies of chimpanzee movement designed to investigate the evolution of human bipedalism. Little else is publicly known about their lives. Though presently kept at the university, they are reportedly owned by the New Iberia Research Center, a primate facility that has faced allegations of mistreating chimpanzees and illegally breeding them. While strict welfare guidelines regulate the treatment of federally-owned chimps, privately-owned chimps—such as those represented by the Nonhuman Rights Project—are governed by the whims of their owners. Chimp advocates say this patchwork of regulations underscores the need for legal rights.

While a victory would not give Hercules and Leo total freedom, life at Save the Chimps would be an improvement, says Jensvold. Chimps at the sanctuary live outdoors, in family groups—in keeping with chimpanzees’ social nature, say supporters of their transfer. But the people at the Nonhuman Rights Project see this victory in more philosophical terms. “They would no longer be confined against their will,” says Jensvold. “We’d be respecting their autonomy, their freedom, and allowing them to live their lives as chimpanzees who are as free as they can possibly be in North America.”

Planetary Clip: How Important Is Space Travel to Humanity?

Anyone born after, say, 1970 probably takes it for granted now, but space travel fundamentally changed how we humans understand Earth and our lives on it. The documentary Planetary examines that impact across the world.

“One of the truly extraordinary events of the 20th century was space travel,” philosopher David Loy says in the doc. “And by that I don’t simply mean the fact that we went to the Moon and came back, but that this gave us a totally different perspective on the Earth.”

That perspective, according to interviews with everyone from astronauts to philosophers in the documentary, has lead us to understand better the interconnectedness of people on Earth—something the film explores in depth.

Planetary will hit select theaters and Vimeo On Demand for Earth Day tomorrow. Check out an exclusive clip from the film above and the trailer below.

Meet the Frontwoman Writing Some of Rock’s Best New Lyrics

Sadie Dupuis.Sadie Dupuis. Josh Valcarcel/WIRED

Last month at SXSW in Austin, comedian Hannibal Buress sent out a tweet offering up his services as a drummer to any band playing between noon and 5pm on March 18. One of the people who responded was Sadie Dupuis, frontwoman of Massachusetts-based Speedy Ortiz; she invited Buress to one of the band’s showcase at Mohawk (one of eight shows they had booked for the festival).

The resulting set-closing performance was as clunky as Buress’ tweet predicted; it was a musical comedy cultural oddity along the lines of Bill Clinton’s saxophone performance on The Arsenio Hall Show, just not on an iconic stage. During his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live that week, Buress couldn’t even remember the band’s name, saying, “This is really bad. I’m disappointed in myself.”

All credit to Hannibal Buress, who is thoroughly enjoying every minute of his well-deserved rocket to stardom, but Dupuis and Speedy Ortiz don’t need his help to make a name for them. The band’s second official album, Foil Deer, is out today, and it’s about as strong a declaration as possible that Speedy Ortiz is gunning for the mountaintop while cementing Dupuis as one of the best rock lyricists of her generation.

A whip-smart and enthusiastic conversationalist, Dupuis is the heart and soul of Speedy Ortiz’s punchy rock—just as likely to dive into a discussion of Veronica Mars as she is contemporary graphic novels. (The band’s name comes from a minor character in the Hernandez brothers’ series Love & Rockets.) She studied mathematics at MIT for two years, taught at Buck’s Rock summer camp in Connecticut, worked in a video store in Austin, and most recently was an MFA candidate in Poetry at UMass-Amherst. There, she taught composition classes to freshmen and sophomores while Speedy Ortiz grew from a bedroom project to a full-fledged band with a Pitchfork-anointed debut LP, Major Arcana.

But where the band acknowledges Major Arcana to be a breakup record, Foil Deer has more thoughtful and experimental ambitions, from the lyrical mystery of “My Dead Girl” to the R&B vibes of “Puffer.” And Dupuis’ lyrics weave metaphor, snyechdoche, and common sense together that give her a pound-for-pound impact that few can match.

“I was the best at being second place / But now I’m just the silvery dread
And only in the shape of a bullet / Am I ever the shape you see when you wake up dead”
—“The Graduate”

Justifiably, Dupuis has been looped in with other fiercely charismatic songwriters like Courtney Barnett and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. Though she and the rest of Speedy Ortiz have long rejected throwback comparisons to Pavement or PJ Harvey (despite the fact that she once fronted a joke Pavement cover band called Babement), Dupuis is still part of a refreshing trend in powerful female voices in rock music. When Sleater-Kinney returned early this year with their first album in a decade, it brought about intense discussion over why another band hadn’t filled the void. But look at some notable releases the past few years, and the answer is clear: from Savages to Field Mouse, Ex Hex to Palehound, Alvvays to Speedy Ortiz, there’s no shortage of incredible female-fronted bands.

Some of that is a willingness to tackle topics that music had backed away from. “People are more interested in music that has something to say rather than the chillwave thing that was so prevalent in the mid- and late-2000s,” Dupuis says. “I think people are becoming more socially conscious and want music that reflects that.” Indeed, when asked to describe what may be the band’s most succinct mission statement to-date, “Raising The Skate,” Dupuis wrote that it’s “crazy frustrating seeing women and girls, myself included, put in positions in which they have to shirk credit for their talent or otherwise risk getting dissed as overbearing and bitchy.” The reason the song works so well as a fist-pumping anthem is that it’s not just seething anger—it’s sublimely defiant self-actualization.

At this rate, it won’t be long until Speedy Ortiz lands a gig on a late-night show, where instead of Hannibal Buress and Jimmy Kimmel struggling to remember their name, a ferocious performance will tattoo Dupuis and her bandmates on the retinas of millions.

Volvo Axes the Passenger Seat to Boost Backseat Legroom

It’s a tough time to be a luxury automaker. The competition is fierce, and the swanky-feature arms race only seems to escalate. Massage seats, custom-designed sound systems, and neck warmers are no longer enough to stand out.

Volvo’s latest innovation is a special, four-seat edition of its XC90 SUV. The XC90 “Excellence” is built specifically for China, where the luxury market is booming and having a chauffeur is far more common than it is in the US or Europe. That makes the backseat the place to be. So the Swedes yanked the third row entirely, making more room acres of legroom, massage seats, folding tables, and a temperature-controlled cup holder. The second row now feels like first class.

And that, obviously, isn’t enough for some people. For that crowd, Volvo has put together a new concept that takes things further. Revealed at the Shanghai auto show, the “Lounge Console” ditches not just the third row, but the front passenger seat. In its place is a combination storage/ottoman/television/work table in its place.

“People who are on the move and have a hectic lifestyle going from event to event or meeting to meeting need some space, some luxury time, and the opportunity to relax and refresh themselves for the next engagement,” says Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo’s senior vice president for design.

By that, he means enough space for Yao Ming to work on his yoga, or enjoy a 17″ screen, a cushioned leg rest, and storage boxes for shoes (!), jewelry and makeup.

It’s actually sort of surprising it’s taken the auto industry this long to remove the front seat, but for those looking to travel in decadence (and don’t have 2.4 kids to haul around), the Lounge Concept could be just the ticket.

LED Bulbs Are Officially Too Cheap to Ignore

If you’re among the holdouts who cling to their incandescent light bulbs like plastic eggs on Easter morning, you may want to loosen that grip. A new 60-watt equivalent LED bulb from Philips could be what finally convinces you to upgrade your lamps with a tiny dose of the future.

There are more capable and longer-lasting LEDs than the new Philips LED A16 bulbs, but you won’t find any that are cheaper. A single bulb, rated for ten years, will set you back $4.97 once they go on sale in May at Home Depot. That’s already a significant savings over Philips’ existing $9.97 60w equivalent, and in line with the most affordable options in the market. But what makes the new bulbs especially notable is that for the first three months they’re available, you’ll be able to get two bulbs for that same five bucks.

It's time to upgrade your lamps with a tiny dose of the future.

That is very cheap! It’s cheaper, in fact, than a two-pack of GED incandescent 60w bulbs that are roughly as bright and that last about one-tenth as long. Another fun point of comparison? The new Philips 60w has an estimated yearly energy cost of just $1.02, versus $7.23 for those same GE bulbs. For the lighting spec-trackers, it puts out 800 lumens, and will be available in both 2700k and 5000k color temperatures.

As LED lights have increasingly matched their incandescent counterparts in warmth, shape, and brightness, the last frontier of acceptance—aside from just good ol’ fashioned resistance to change—has been price. Over a long enough time horizon LEDs may end up saving you money, but it’s hard to see those benefits over the drug store (or in this case, hardware) aisle price tag. Philips hopes that $2.50 a pop will be low enough to allay any cost concerns, especially in low-stakes areas like your laundry room.

That’s also why these new bulbs can be charitably described as “functional;” they don’t feature the dimming capabilities and the more incandescent-like warmth of the $10 Philips 60w LED bulb that will remain on sale. A Philips spokesperson described the new offering as a “transitional” product. Think of it, then, as a gateway drug, a chance to hook people on more efficient lighting and, eventually, the more expensive, more capable LEDs in the Philips arsenal. This is, after all, the same company that sells a single, internet-connected, color-shifting Philips Hue LED bulb for $60.

Even if you have no interest in stepping up to brighter prospects in the future, though, these entry-level LEDs are worth serious consideration. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they don’t require much consideration at all; during the 90-day promotional period, they’re a combined 20 years of illumination for slightly more than two king-sized Snickers bars. That’s a small amount to stake on a light bulb that lasts longer than most relationships.

Wink’s Outage Shows Us How Frustrating Smart Homes Could Be

This past Saturday, one in four people who had come to rely on Wink as the brains behind their smart home set-up found their connected devices suddenly lobotomized. Devices connected to the Wink Hub couldn’t access the internet, meaning that they could no longer be controlled via app, and wouldn’t execute their pre-programmed rituals. Simply put, nothing worked.

In an emailed statement, Wink confirmed that the cause of the outage was a “misconfiguration” of a security measure it had implemented previously. Several Wink Hub units couldn’t be fixed remotely, and those users will either have to try to repair their own using Wink-provided instructions, or mail them in for a replacement. Around 10 percent of Wink users are still without service, and the Hub has been pulled from shelves until further notice.

The smart home of the future won't be immune from the testiness that plagues any technology.

In the great ranking of life’s annoyances, not being able to adjust the basement lighting with your smartphone comes in somewhere just below a particularly nasty hangnail, especially for those of whom the problem was fixed quickly. But Wink’s weekend failure reminds us that the smart home of the future won’t be immune from the testiness that plagues any technology. In fact, those common, unavoidable flailings will be even more frustrating.

Nearly a year ago, Mat Honan wrote The Nightmare on Connected Home Street, a glimpse at the inevitable dystopia caused by hooking up our households and everything within them to the internet sewage pipe. We’re not nearly at the full-fledged horror stage, but incidents like the weekend Wink stink are the foundation on which our frustrating smart home future will be built.

The specific Wink security certificate issue is an aberration; lesson learned, moving on. But every tech company runs into software problems; even Apple managed to kill iPhone data connections in iOS 8.0.1 last fall. Which is why, according to Forrester Research smart home analyst Frank Gillett, something like this is bound to happen again, be it to Wink or any other smart home provider.

“It’s human error, and human error is never going to go away,” says Gillett. “You can try to manage it and reduce it, but fundamentally humans make mistakes.”

That may sound like an obvious truth; everything breaks sometimes. What’s less obvious is the degree of annoyance those breakdowns can cause. Your computer’s Wi-Fi being wonky after an OS update has isolated effects. Your digital door lock freezing up, less so. Unless, that is, you’re also carrying your physical key with you, the necessity of which brings into question how useful your “smart” solution is in the first place.

“Redundancy is built into the majority of smart home systems,” explains IHS smart home analyst Tim Hewitt. Frankly, that’s the saving grace of the Wink outage; when a system with a single point of failure, like Wink, goes down, the worst that happens is you have to go back to flicking your light switch off and on like a normal person.

That’s not to dismiss how frustrating smart home technical issues can be; when you pay for something to work, you expect it to. Moreover, when you pay for something specifically to reduce friction from your life and it ends up adding more, you feel the annoyance that much more keenly.

It also raises the question of what exactly we hope to get out of our smart homes in the first place. “The point is not to replace mechanical things with digital things, but that can do either,” says Gillett. Broader infrastructural changes may some day allow for utility beyond minor conveniences, but Gillett thinks we’re unlikely to see a transformation that dramatic within the next several decade.

Until then, we’ll just continue this smart home see-saw between small daily efficiencies and sporadic but acute aggravations. Human-error collapses like Wink’s will be joined by security breaches of varying intensity. Previously unconsidered side-effects—like the Nest Protect smoke detector’s Wave feature, which potentially turned off alarms in the middle of a fire and prompted a recall—will make some seemingly revolutionary devices more trouble than they’re worth.

Wink’s gaffe only affected a small number of people, and most of them knew the stakes of early adoption. But it’s a reminder that smart home tech is still tech, and that tech is never perfect, a warning that entrusting our locks and our lights and our coffee makers to the internet will have its consequences. Connected Home Street may ever fully be a nightmare, but it’s already a migraine.

Why Twitter is Finally Taking A Stand Against Trolls

Early this year, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in a note to employees that he planned to start kicking trolls off of the platform “right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.”

Now, just two months later, it seems Twitter is making good on Costolo’s promise. The company today updated its abuse policy to make it tougher for trolls to flood Twitter with threats and harassment. The changes expand Twitter’s definition of violent threats to include indirect threats and tweets that promote violence. The company has also created a tool that will automatically flag tweets that seem likely to be abusive based on triggers including the age of the account and content that fits the pattern of previous tweets identified as abuse.

The thinking now seems to be that it's better to alienate destructive users if it means holding onto the good ones.

“While dedicating more resources toward better responding to abuse reports is necessary and even critical,” the post reads, “an equally important priority for us is identifying and limiting the incentives that enable and even encourage some users to engage in abuse.”

These changes signal a shift in Twitter’s approach not only to abuse, but to growth. Intense pressure from shareholders to grow its monthly active user base has left Twitter reluctant to take a stand against abuse for fear of jeopardizing its already declining engagement. But over the last year, Twitter’s leaders have begun to realize that the company stands to lose a lot more if it continues to let trolls run amok. The thinking now seems to be that it’s better to alienate destructive users if it means holding onto the good ones.

“We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day,” Costolo wrote in his February note to employees.

In addition to the filtering feature, Twitter’s new definition of violent language will now make it easier for the company to address abusive language that is not a direct threat. “Our previous policy was unduly narrow and limited our ability to act on certain kinds of threatening behavior,” the post reads. “The updated language better describes the range of prohibited content and our intention to act when users step over the line into abuse.”

As with all web companies, the process of tackling abuse is constantly evolving, and Twitter will update its policies depending on how effective they are at reducing bad behavior over time. For now, at least, it’s heartening to see Twitter prioritizing its users over its bottom line.

Restless Spring Continues for Perú’s Ubinas

Skip to story Video of the current eruption at Ubinas in Peru, taken from the edge of the summit caldera in early April.Video of the current eruption at Ubinas in Peru, taken from the edge of the summit caldera in early April. IG-Peru video

For much of this spring, Perú’s most active volcano has been rumbling. Ubinas, in southern Perú, has been experiencing small-to-moderate explosions that blanket the region around the volcano with a thin layer of ash since last year, but the frequency and size of these eruptions are slowly increasing since April 8. IG-Perú has reported multiple explosions over the last week that reached a few kilometers over the volcano’s summit and the steam plume seen on the IGP webcam is a constant reminder that magma is likely just below the surface at Ubinas. You can check out some timelapse video of these explosions that really show how impressive (and ephemeral) they are. All of this renewed restlessness at Ubinas has prompted the alert level to be raised to Orange. The Observatorio Volcanólogico del Sur posted a video today of a (startlingly) up close views of the caldera at Ubinas (see above), showing the ash plume billowing from the vent . If you watch closely, you can see that this video was taken by someone standing on the edge of the caldera watching all this unfold – this is the kind of peril that volcanologists put themselves in to observe what a volcano is doing so people can warned. If the wind shifts or the eruption intensifies, you might only have minutes to get out, on foot or by helicopter.

A lahar carrying ash and volcanic debris down the slopes of Ubinas on April 13, 2015.A lahar carrying ash and volcanic debris down the slopes of Ubinas on April 13, 2015. IG-Peru video

You might also notice in the video the thick layer of ash and bombs covering the floor/edges of the caldera as well. Now, with all this volcanic rock and ash being thrown over the slopes, the risk of volcanic mudflows (lahars) increases. The debris can mix with melting snow and ice on the volcano to produce a slurry with the consistency of wet concrete. The Observatorio Volcanólogico del Sur posted a video of just such lahars generated on Ubinas on April 13. The video captures both why lahars form and how they move. You can see that the area where the video is being filmed is covered in loose ash and debris—the ingredients for a lahar. Once you add enough water, the debris becomes fluidized and will flow. However, because it is a suspension of solids with water, it actually has a surprising amount of yield strength, so it can carry large pieces of debris with it. The flow in the video looks to be relatively thin at first, but large rocks are moving in the flow with relative ease (see above). This adds mass to the flow, making it able to pick up even more debris as it moves down the stream channel. That is the real danger of lahars: the ability to add material as they move downslope and become even more massive. Then they can knock out bridges, building and whatever else gets in their way. When the lahar reaches a floodplain, then it spreads out and buries everything (like one did in Armero, Colombia in 1985, killing over 25,000) and once the lahar stops flowing, it quickly solidifies into something like a natural cement.

Most likely, this pattern of explosions and lahars will continue at Ubinas as this is the pattern of activity that volcano has exhibited over the last 1,000 years. However, in ~1082 AD, it did have a massive explosive eruption that spread ash over much of Perú and northern Chile, so careful monitoring will continue to see where this unrest leads.

Other notes from the world of volcanoes:

The Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Manizales posted a video of a small ash-rich explosion from Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. Much like Ubinas, Ruiz has been in an extended state of unrest that occasionally produces these small-to-moderate explosions.

The same can be said for Mexico’s Colima and Popocatépetl, both of which continue to produce moderate ash-rich explosions. Some of these explosion have produced ash plumes that reached over 3 kilometers (~10,000 feet). None of this implies that something larger is in the works at either volcanoes, but rather magma is still rising to the surface to make lava domes that then allow for pressure to build until another explosion occurs.

A small lava flow has been spotted in satellite images of Barren Island in the Indian Ocean. As the name implies, not a lot of people need to be concerns, but rough estimates show a flow that has reached over half a kilometer from the summit crater.

In Japan, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (which is in charge of volcano monitoring) has raised an alert at Zaosan. Over the past few weeks, the volcano in northeastern Japan has had over 150 small earthquakes and tremor, suggest magma moving under Zaosan. Last year, Zaosan was added to a list of Japanese volcanoes that needed 24 hour monitoring. No eruption has occurred yet, but as magma rises, the chances of phreatic (steam-driven) explosions rise as well, so local authorities want to be sure there is no repeat of last year’s Ontake tragedy. The last eruption at Zaosan was a small explosive event in 1940.

Feds Warn Airlines to Look Out for Passengers Hacking Jets

In response to reports last week that passenger Wi-Fi networks make some planes vulnerable to hacking, the FBI and TSA have issued an alert to airlines advising them to be on the lookout for evidence of tampering or network intrusions.

The FBI and TSA note that they currently have no information to support claims that an attacker could commandeer a plane’s navigation system through the passenger Wi-Fi or IFE (In Flight Entertainment) networks, but they are taking the claims seriously. They are currently evaluating the evidence to determine if there is a credible threat posed by intrusions into the networks of passenger planes.

The alert, posted to the FBI’s InfraGard site as a private industry notification (or PIN), advises airline staff to be on the lookout for signs that any passengers might be trying to connect to the network ports located beneath their seats.

“Although the media claims remain theoretical and unproven, the media publicity associated with these statements may encourage actors to use the described intrusion methods,” the alert notes. “Attempting to gain unauthorized access to the onboard networks of a commercial aircraft violates federal law.”

The alert then describes the signs that flight crews should be looking for:

  • Report any suspicious activity involving travelers connecting unknown cables or wires to the IFE system or unusual parts of the airplane seat.
  • Report any evidence of suspicious behavior following a flight, such as
    IFE systems that show evidence of tampering or the forced removal of
    covers to network connection ports.
  • Report any evidence of suspicious behavior concerning aviation wireless signals, including social media messages with threatening references to Onboard Network Systems, ADS-B, ACARS, and Air Traffic Control networks.
  • Review network logs from aircraft to ensure any suspicious activity, such as network scanning or intrusion attempts, is captured for further analysis.

The FBI/TSA alert comes on the heels of a tweet sent out last week by security researcher Chris Roberts while aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Syracuse. Roberts tweeted a joke about accessing his airplane’s network to see if he could play with passenger oxygen masks. He was met by FBI agents when he landed in Syracuse, who seized his laptop and other electronics.

Roberts sent out his joke tweet in response to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office indicating that unsecured connections between the passenger Wi-Fi networks and the avionics systems on some Boeing and Airbus planes could make it possible for a hacker to gain access to navigational controls and commandeer a plane.

Roberts, a respected computer security professional, has done extensive research into the vulnerabilities of airplane networks and has spoken with Boeing and Airbus in the past about the vulnerabilities, but got little response from the airlines.

The tweet he sent from his United flight was a result of exasperation, he told WIRED, exasperation that his warnings over the years had not been heeded by the airlines.

Although Roberts has said that he did not access United’s network during his Chicago to Syracuse flight, and never intended to, he admitted to WIRED and the FBI that he has in the past connected to the network ports beneath his seat on more than a dozen flights, along with a fellow unnamed researcher. They did this to sniff traffic crossing the networks and uncover vulnerabilities, Roberts said.

The FBI/TSA alert to airlines to be vigilant about passenger activity appears to be a direct response to Roberts’s admission.

The Big Question: Why Does Hair Grow in Some Places But Not Others?

Tweeze, shave, chemical cream, wax or electro-zap: Humans have come up with a pharmacy’s worth of ways to deforest their bodies of natural hair.

Yet, to evolutionary biologists, humans are amazing not because they have so much hair, but because they have so little. Whereas our ancestors once sported full-fur suits, Homo sapiens today are almost embarrassingly naked.

The story of how our bodies morphed from being upholstered in head-to-toe carpeting into a mosaic of hairy and non-hairy bits is one of sweat, sex, scent, and (not to be left out) climate change.

From the Woods to the Savanna, Shedding Hair Along the Way

Early hominids (our über-great grandparents), the story goes, made their living foraging for fruits, nuts, tubers, and vegetation in the cool shade of forest trees. Then, about three million years ago, a global cooling period dried out the regions of Central Africa where those early family members were living.

The fur that had once kept them warm became a liability, as forests changed into grasslands and early hunters spent long hours striding or running across the savanna in pursuit of dinner. From natural selection’s point of view, the ability to sweat and quickly dissipate heat became the neatest trick on the block. So, by and large, humans lost their hair.

What that did, says Russell Tuttle, anthropologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and author of Apes and Human Evolution, is give humans the ability to be out hunting in the heat of the day when other predators (i.e. LIONS!) “are resting and trying to keep themselves cool, because all they can do is pant.”

If that evolutionary argument doesn’t convince you, that’s fine. But just consider the alternatives, like the charming but ridiculous “Aquatic Ape Hypothesis” that’s occasionally bandied about the scientific literature. Advocates think early hominids went through a phase of near-total water living and, like dolphins and whales, lost the bulk of their hair in order to reduce drag. Unfortunately, there is no particular reason to believe this is true.

Why Keep Any Hair Then?

Happily though, the gods of evaporative cooling didn’t demand the sacrifice of all our pilatory plumage. We’ve still got some hair left, and it (mostly) seems to serve a purpose—starting with the most highly-groomed bits.

Like your eyebrows, for example. Aside from being good for raising, furrowing, and piercing, the hair there keeps the sweat out of your eyes. And the hair on your head shields your noggin from the direct force of the sun. It also leaves an area of air between your scalp and hair’s hot surface, so sweat can evaporate and cool things down. (Curly hair, Tuttle says, does the best job at performing this task.) Head hair grows longer than other hair because these follicles remain in an active growth (or anagen) phase longer than other other hair follicles—generally a couple of years instead of just a couple of months.

That hair’s useful. But what about all the soft, downy stuff that barely shows up on your body? It’s called vellus hair, and it’s a safe bet that it’s an evolutionary relic. Humans don’t need it anymore, but it’s not doing any harm either, so there it stays. Vellus hair is closely related to another type of hair that definitely serves a purpose, though. Add just a little androgenic hormone (which starts circulating in both boys and girls around puberty) and voila—it becomes thicker and darker.

Of Pits and Pubes

You knew we were going to get here, didn’t you? Hair follicles in certain favorite regions of our body are differentially sensitive to androgens—along with other places, like lower legs, arms, and chests. Put another way, our hair gets dark and thick only in some places. And that so-called androgenic hair’s placement probably developed over millennia in response to humans’ behavioral needs.

Don’t tell the multi-billion dollar deodorant and perfume industry, but humans actually like how other humans smell. Our hairiest regions carry two kinds of sweat glands. There are eccrine glands, which are found on most of the body and open directly to the surface of the skin (needed for cooling), and apocrine glands, exclusive to the hairiest bits, which empty body odor-carrying fluid into the hair follicles.

Thicker, denser hair helps hold on to that scent and then disperse it. So our moist hairy regions may help in attracting mates. Once that work is done, the hair could also be doing double duty, by preventing chafing when we’re on the move and even potentially cushioning and protecting our delicate bits from infection during sex.

Male/Female Differences

Now that you’ve got the whole vellus/androgenic hair thing down, the differences between male and female hairiness are a little easier to explain. Physiologically, it’s simple: Men are hairier than women because they have more androgenic hormones in their body—more androgens, more noticeable androgenic hair.

But there still are plenty of hypotheses that try to delve deeper into behavioral drivers for mane maintenance. Possibly females prefer males with fuller beards because they read it as a sign of virility. Possibly they like stubble. Possibly males prefer women to be less-hairy because it’s a trait associated with juvenile features—possibly not. By and large, though, these are “just-so” stories, common to evolutionary biology, which haven’t been tested in modern humans.

What we do know for sure is that humans’ site-specific hairiness forced us into new forms of communication. Now that we can’t raise our hackles or use coat patterns to signal who we are, we’ve lost a powerful—and badass—way to send messages about who we are and what we’re feeling. Instead, we’ll have to be content with piercings, tattoos, makeup…and a little thing called language. Losing our hair didn’t just cool us down. It made us the people we are today.

The Best High-End and Bargain TVs Right Now

Skip to story Vizio's 120-inch Reference Series TV is almost here, and it's likely to come with a very un-Vizio-like price tag.Vizio's 120-inch Reference Series TV is almost here, and it's likely to come with a very un-Vizio-like price tag. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

Right now is possibly the best time in history to buy a new television. Huge, high-end 1080p TVs are going for $1,000 or less. You can get an OLED set for less than $2,500. From the major manufacturers, there will probably be more 4K TVs this year than HDTVs, and many of them will be priced to move. No matter what kind of cash you’re willing to spend, you can get a good set.

We typically get our first peek at all the new televisions at the very beginning of the year, but those same sets don’t arrive in stores until late spring. The time is now: Over the last two weeks, several top manufacturers have released pricing and availability details for their 2015 sets. And things are looking good. Across the board, industrial design is moving forward: Super-thin bezels, brushed aluminum, and elegant stands are everywhere. And everyone seems to have put gimmicks in the back seat and focused their efforts on the most important thing: Picture quality.

We surveyed the 2015 lineups of all the major manufacturers. Each of the big-name vendors has its own specialty, and those specialties often change a bit depending on the tiers of sets you’re looking at. So for each television brand, we’ve highlighted not only the top-tier sets that are really pushing display tech forward, but also the bargain choices that best demonstrate the desirable qualities of the pricer models.

We’ll start with LG, which has the most jaw-dropping lineup from top to bottom.


The Specialty: OLED is LG’s strong suit. The company’s OLEDs are the best-looking TVs since sliced bread.

The High-End Showpiece: For now, take your pick between the 77-inch EG9700 ($25,000) and the 65-inch model of the same set ($12,000). They’re LG’s top-of-the-line 4K OLEDs, offering the ultimate combination of sharpness and contrast of any TV that currently exists. Space movies, in particular, should look amazing. You can save a few bones by opting for the 65-inch EG9600 ($9,000) or the 55-inch EG9600 ($5,500).

This television, it costs $25,000.This television, it costs $25,000. LG

The Best Bargain: It’s hard to consider $2,200 a bargain for a 55-inch TV, but when we’re talking about an OLED TV, all reasonable ideas about money are out of the question. LG’s EC9300 was released last year for around $3,500, and now its price is approaching half that. It’s a 1080p TV, but with 4K content still scarce and OLED’s jaw-dropping picture quality at any resolution, you won’t care.

What’s Coming Later This Year: More OLEDs, including the company’s first non-curved OLED panel. There’s also a OLED TV that transforms from flat to curved (and back again) at the click of a remote, but that might cost even more than that $25,000 jawn.


The Specialty: High-end LCDs with wide color gamut meant to rival the look of OLED for less. But not much less—at least not yet.

The 65-inch Samsung JS9500, which costs $6,000, backs up its 4K resolution with an elegant design and quantum-dot color enhancement.The 65-inch Samsung JS9500, which costs $6,000, backs up its 4K resolution with an elegant design and quantum-dot color enhancement. Samsung

The High-End Showpiece: The brushed-aluminum and curvy SUHD JS9500 is a beautiful piece of design, and it backs those fetching aesthetics up with 4K resolution, a full-array backlight system with local dimming, HDR-like contrast enhancements, and “nano-crystal technology” (basically, quantum dots) to make those colors pop. These sets start at $6,000 for a 65-incher and ramp up to a heartbreaking $23,000 for an 88-inch model. They sure do look almost as good as OLED, but the price is a wash.

The Best Bargain: Nobody’s making plasma TVs anymore, but it’s not because of picture quality. To discerning eyeballs, plasma sets produce a better overall picture than LCD, thanks to superior black levels, viewing angles, and motion handling. If you really want to kick it old-school, pick up Samsung’s 64-inch H5000 plasma for just $1,300. It doesn’t have any smart features or fancy doo-dads, but your set-top streamer already supplies those anyway.

What’s (Maybe) Coming Later This Year: Lord knows if it’ll actually come out, but the Yves Behar-designed S9W set is appropriately mounted on a pedestal like the fancy TV princess it is. It’s an 82-incher with a 21:9 aspect ratio—not exactly pragmatic, but plenty pretty. Pretty also describes the penny it’ll cost if it’s ever released.


The Specialty: High dynamic range and impossibly thin sets.

The High-End Showpiece: The $8,000 XBR-75X940C is another LCD TV meant to rival the color, contrast, and cool factor of OLED, and this one throws in some powerful integrated speakers. It creates its high-contrast sorcery with a full-array backlight system and local dimming, and although Sony is still calling its color-boosting technology “Triluminos,” the company says it has steered away from quantum dots in this year’s TVs. Whatever it’s using, Sony’s colors look lovely—in company-controlled demos, at least.

We hope the crazy-slim 900- and 910-series sets will be cheap, but they probably won't be.We hope the crazy-slim 900- and 910-series sets will be cheap, but they probably won’t be. Sony

The Best Bargain: Last year’s 55-inch X850B Ultra HD set came out of the gates priced at $3,000. Now it’s on sale at half that price. And if you’re interested in a 1080p set, Sony has some new options with Android TV and Chromecast features baked right in. Those start at $1,000 for the 50-inch W800C and roll up to $3,000 for the 75-inch W850C.

What’s Coming Soon: We don’t yet know how much the prosciutto-thin X900 and X910 4K TVs will cost when they come out this summer, but it’s safe to say they’ll start at around $3,000 for the 55-inch X900. It’s also safe to say that you have never seen a TV as thin as this. At 0.2 inches thick, it is closer to the thickness of a dime (0.05 inches) than the diameter (0.7 inches) of one. Think about that.


The Specialty: Very good picture quality and features for a crazy-good price.

The High-End Showpiece: Vizio normally saves its highest-end announcements for later in the year, and there’s a new top-tier set on the way. It’s the company first Reference Series lineup, which features a 65-incher and a mammoth 120-inch set. Both sets are primed for Dolby Vision-mastered HDR content, which uses a brighter backlight system and 384 zones of blackness-enhancing local dimming to take dynamic range and contrast into the stratosphere. No pricing or release date has been announced, but Vizio promises the sets will be out this year. The 120-incher is sure to cost a very un-Vizio-like fortune.

The Best Bargain: You can pick any Vizio TV as a bargain. Bargains are the company’s schtick. But a few stand out, old and new. There’s a brand-new 4K TV, the 55-inch M Series, for just $1,000. And with the new announcements in the M Series, the higher-end P Series sets also got a price cut. You can get a 65-inch 4K set for $1,800, a 60-inch 4K set for $1,500, and a 50-incher for just $800.

The new 55-inch M-Series TV gives you 4K, full-array LEDs, and local dimming for just $1,000.The new 55-inch M-Series TV gives you 4K, full-array LEDs, and local dimming for just $1,000. Vizio

What’s Coming Later This Year: There should be new P Series sets announced in the fall, and the Reference Series TVs should also be available at that time.

Everybody Else

It’s been a big few weeks for TV announcements, but some of the big guns—Panasonic and Sharp, for instance—still haven’t released pricing and availability info. Once they present their early-2015 TV plans, we’ll update this page with more picks.

A Private Office Pod That’ll Help You Find Your Work Flow

In psychology there’s a concept called flow, which is when your attention is so hypnotically focused on your work that your ego disappears and you become one with the task. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term, claims it’s the secret to happiness and a life worth living. “Some people say Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in a flow state,” says Mark McKenna, director of product design at Steelcase.

In order to achieve a flow state, you first have to be able to focus, and that’s exactly what Steelcase is aiming to provide with Brody Research. It’s a one-person pod with an adjustable chair, a titling laptop stand on a swiveling arm, a footrest, and a privacy screen that encircles the person within. McKenna calls it “a micro-environment” for the user, more like a cockpit than a desk. Steelcase will be showing it off at Neocon, the annual furniture festival, in Chicago this June.

When Steelcase started on Brody, the design team began by thinking about escape and focus in broad terms. Steelcase has explored this territory before: Last year the company worked with famous introvert Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) to create five modern office spaces that maximize productivity by offering privacy.

null Steelcase

That line borrowed heavily from Cain’s work; this one leans on a slew of new research. To observe deep focus in the wild, a Steelcase research team went to ground zero for concentrated working: college libraries. There, Steelcase saw a posture repeated among college students. “When they really need to pay attention and digest some stuff, students get themselves out of a chaotic environment, and then put their backs to the wall,” McKenna says. “They position themselves so no one could sneak up behind them.”

Evolving for the Office

That observation—about students positioning themselves so they have a clear view of their surroundings—was an interesting one. It dovetailed with some other research the Steelcase designers were doing on the nature of distraction. We often think of distraction as a mental function—runaway trains of thought like, I need to finish this paper…but maybe I’ll just muse over the symbolic meaning of last night’s episode of Mad Men. But some scientists have argued that distraction is first and foremost a function of human sight. Steelcase started thinking about distraction in evolutionary terms. “A human being or animal is very prone to visual distractions at the periphery of their vision. We began to see distraction not as something pejorative, but as something that’s an evolutionary adaptation we developed to avoid predators,” McKenna says. “That flipped the project around for us.”

That heightened awareness is “great in the Savannah, not great in an office,” McKenna says. Brody is meant to give workers a way to sidestep that adaptive behavior. The privacy screen blocks out peripheral activity from the worker’s line of vision. The chair and the laptop stand are taken from Steelcase’s current product lines, and are both flexible enough to cradle the worker, so his posture can mimic that of a college student. And there are little conveniences sprinkled throughout: power outlets and a hammock underneath the seat, to keep bags off the floor but within fingertips’ reach.

Of course, Brody can only eliminate distractions from the physical world. The trouble is that distraction hails from our screens, too. In another bit of research conducted by an internal team, Steelcase found that the typical office worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes. The Brody might function as a Do Not Disturb sign, but it can’t step in between you and your blinking Gmail tab, or the notification that pops up on your phone. Still, it’s one of many designs intended to counterbalance the trend of the open plan office—a respite away from floating chatter and collaboration stations that invite coworkers to linger. The rest—the Gmail, the Instagram, and whatever else is keeping you from your flow state—is still up to you.

Fei-Fei Li: If We Want Machines to Think, We Need to Teach Them to See

It’s 2025 (give or take), and the long-awaited Big One has hit the San Francisco Bay Area. In the frenetic aftermath, teams of specialized rescue workers begin tearing through piles of wreckage—searching for signs of life, administering care, and calling for backup.

These first responders aren’t Red Cross volunteers or paramedics. As Stanford University’s leading AI scientist Fei-Fei Li imagines it, they’re robots with the smarts to “see” through their immediate surroundings and respond to humans in need, saving the maximum number of lives they can. The enabling technology behind this scenario is one Li has thought about and researched deeply—and it’s not too far off, she argues, if computers can master what is arguably humankind’s most complicated cognitive ability: vision.

Current research, led by Li and the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory she directs, has already gotten us partially there, thanks to a database of more than 15 million digital images built in 2009. Each year since, researchers have used the database for the Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge, a competition to develop algorithms that can teach computers to identify and understand the content of the images. In 2014, participants’ software programs recognized objects and actions with nearly double the accuracy of previous years, thanks to faster computing and smarter code. In late 2014, Li and her students produced one of the first computer vision models capable of generating human-like sentences to describe an image it “sees.”

Computer vision, Li argues, is the key enabling technology for all of AI. “Understanding vision and building visual systems is really understanding intelligence,” says Li in her office at Stanford’s Gates Computer Science Building. “And by see, I mean to understand, not just to record pixels.”

A New Kind of Brainpower

There’s a simple reason why AI scientists—not just Li and academics, but researchers at Google, Facebook and Microsoft—are pouring resources into computer-vision technology. We use half of our precious human brainpower for visual processing; it’s a cognitive capability that has taken 540 million years of evolution to develop. Li points to her head and jokes: “This real estate is pricier than Bay Area housing.” Vision is so critical to how we understand the world, Li argues, it’s hard to imagine any intelligent computer of the future without it. Any decent self-driving car will eventually need to distinguish between, say, a large rock in the roadway and a similar-sized paper bag—and that it should brake and steer to avoid the rock but ignore the bag.

Today, computers can spot a cat or tell us the make, model, and year of a car in a photo, but they’re still a long way from seeing and reasoning like humans and understanding context, not just content. (A bat on a youth baseball field and at a crime scene has two very different meanings.) “The next step for my lab,” Li says, “is to build the cognitive capability we need in fundamental vision tasks like understanding scenes, human behaviors, and relationships, and reasoning and telling stories.”

Illuminating Humanity’s “Dark Matter”

Teaching computers to see has applications well beyond identifying things that merely appear in our physical world. Better machine vision could reveal details and insights about us that we don’t even know. Every day, the Internet generates what Li calls the “dark matter of the digital age”—trillions of images and videos and other scraps of digital minutiae. More than 85 percent of content on the Web is multimedia imagery—and it’s a chaotic mess. “There is a fundamental reason that we need to understand this,” she says. “The recording of our lives, our daily activities, our relationships—be it my personal life or what’s going on in society—is in these contents.”

Those visual descriptors of humankind are growing faster than we can imagine. The volume of photos and videos generated in the past 30 days is bigger than all images dating back to the dawn of civilization. It’s humanly impossible to document all of this data, but intelligent machines that recognize patterns and can describe visual content with natural language could well be our future historians.

Emerging Applications

While Li says computer vision will eventually impact everything from monitoring and combating the effects of climate change to building smart homes, she’s most excited about its medical applications. “The day healthcare can fully embrace AI is the day we have a revolution in terms of cutting costs and improving care,” she says.

Small wonder that Li and students at the Stanford Computer Vision Lab are working with Stanford Medical School and Hospitals to relieve nurses of mundane charting tasks, which the average American nurse spends 45 minutes on every day. In Stanford Hospital’s ICU, clinicians check on gravely ill patients every two hours and score their health on a scale of -4 to 4. Li says she wants to build a system to continuously monitor the patient (detecting mobility, pain level, and alertness, for instance), not only to relieve busy nurses and doctors, but also to provide denser, more accurate, and unbiased data to clinicians who oversee the patient’s care.

The Vision Lab is also working with San Francisco nursing homes to figure out how AI can help seniors live more independently.

As Diversity Advances, So Will the Tech

Like any new tech innovation, computer vision has the potential to be used for nefarious purposes, starting with high-level, highly intrusive visual surveillance. Li doesn’t take the issue lightly. “Every technology can be an enabler of vices,” she says, “but as a scientist you have to have that social awareness and be very aware of these potential risks.”

Such risks are deeply intertwined with what Li calls the crisis of her professional life—the lack of diversity in technology research and AI, from corporations to academia. Solving the diversity issue long-term, she says, will help preserve the benevolent direction of research and mitigate the dark-side risks. “We need to inject humanism into our AI education and research by injecting all walks of life into the process,” she says, adding that attracting diverse groups to the field will provide the needed checks and balances and keep values front and center.

“From the day an idea is conceptualized to the day the technology is built, carried out and regulated, it’s important to have that human awareness,” she says. But that’s not the way it works today. Although she’s the director, Li is the only full-time female faculty—out of 15—at the Stanford AI Lab. (Elsewhere, the 39-person Facebook AI Research (FAIR) team includes just two women.) And although Li is working to change it—she holds afternoon teas for women in AI and is organizing an inaugural AI summer camp for ninth-grade girls at Stanford—she admits that like her own research, progress in diversity has a long way to go.

Vivid Map Pinpoints Every Street Tree in NYC

Skip to story alltrees_V2Jill Hubley's NYC Street Trees map shows off the 52 species of trees that grow along New York City's streets. Jill Hubley

Manhattan’s trees tend to get overshadowed—quite literally in some cases—by skyscrapers that line the city’s streets. But they play an essential role in the city’s habitat: providing oxygen, supporting wildlife, and managing the flow and movement of rainwater. Keeping all of those ecological elements in check, though, means the city needs to keep careful tabs on its trees. Starting in May, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation will begin a five to seven month-long street census to locate and identify the species of every street-side tree.

Once those data are in hand, the city will have to figure out how to visualize them. Brooklyn web developer Jill Hubley is one step ahead: She made this map, pinpointing the 592,130 street trees (52 species!) in New York as they were documented in the last census in 2005. It’s an excellent tool that sheds light on some peculiar patterns in the city’s landscape. And they reveal a lot about how the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation makes its decisions—and how they can be making them better.

london_planetree_brooklynThe London plane is New York’s most common tree. Jill Hubley

Some of the trends that emerge from Hubley’s maps are innocuous: Queens has the most trees, thanks to its spacious, more residential layout, while Manhattan has more trees per block, especially around Central Park. Although the Parks Department has planted a wide variety of trees in order to promote biodiversity, Hubley’s map shows some clustering of certain tree species in different parts of the city. London planes are the most common trees in the city, with heavy concentrations in Brooklyn. Honey locusts, rarely found in the Northeast, are found in great numbers on the streets of Manhattan.

Look closer, though, and the tree map reveals some more concerning patterns. Traditionally, the Parks Department has worked to avoid floral monocultures—homogenous plant populations—by shaking things up and growing nonnatives throughout the city. But if those species aren’t chosen very carefully, they can have a potentially harmful and even dangerous impact on the surrounding area.

For example, Callery pears, a invasive species from China, are all over the region, particularly in Staten Island. Besides bearing responsibility for a repulsive smell (many people think Callery pears give off an aroma reminiscent of rotting fish, chlorine, or semen—so it more-or-less fits in with NYC’s odor profile), the tree is susceptible to losing limbs or keeling over during strong winds, heavy snowfall or ice storms. In other words, it makes no sense to have it present in such large numbers throughout New York City, especially after Hurricane Sandy.

Even when it comes to species you might expect to find in New York—such as oak, maple, and elm—the Parks Department chose to plant Asian cultivars instead of North American ones. “There’s only one oak species on the list that isn’t from Asia—and it’s an English oak, native to Europe,” says Doug Tallamy, a wildlife ecologist from the University of Delaware.

callery_Pear_lastThe Callery pear is an invasive species that has taken over many of New York’s sidewalks. Jill Hubley

Why is this a problem? According to Tallamy, native trees are better at providing the slew of “ecosystem services” that humans live off of, like the management of watersheds, prevention of floods, and perhaps most importantly, supporting pollinators. Forget about bees and butterflies—80 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals, like birds. Many tree species, like the Callery pear, are just ornamentals that cannot support certain insect populations that birds live off of. Absent birds can lead to ecosystem collapse.

The solutions are actually quite easy to implement. Many of the Asian cultivars can be replaced with a North American counterpart—such as Chinese elms with American elms, or Japanese and Norway maples with sugar maples. Tallamy dissmises any grumblings that native species are too big or too difficult to grow as nonsense. “We have native species that are smaller that we can still grow—we just need to start planting them.”

The city might not be able to maintain all native species—with the emerald ash borer making its way east, the green ash is likely to see its numbers plummet—but many like Tallamy hope to see a much better balance in tree diversity. And digital tools like Hubley’s map make it much easier to observe that imbalance and act on it.

They might not have to wait long. The city’s new survey of street trees begins this summer. They expect to wrap up by the fall and have the data publicly available by fall of next year. Rich Hallett, an ecologist at the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, cites plans to integrate the data on a digital platform that can be updated in real time and act as a “living document.”

At the very least, the city might take cues from the new data and decide there are enough Callery pears. Most New Yorkers will agree—they can do without the smell.

Shyp Thinks It’s Solved the Problem of Push-Button Shipping

At a time when on-demand everything has made moving stuff around one of tech’s most interesting challenges, Kevin Gibbon thinks he’s cracked a core logistical problem: push-button shipping.

Gibbon is the CEO of Shyp, a San Francisco-based startup with a simple premise. Snap a photo of anything you need to ship, then push a button inside an app. Within 20 minutes, a Shyp-dispatched courier comes to your doorstep and whisks away your items. Not much later, the app gives you a tracking number so you can watch as the package gets delivered—all for $5 per shipment, regardless of how many items you want to send. No post office lines, boxes, or packing tape necessary.

In an era where customers have come to expect nothing short of Amazon Prime-level efficiency, Shyp faces a huge challenge in making its operation not just scalable but cost-effective.

Investors apparently have a lot of faith in the idea. Today, Shyp announced that it has raised a new $50 million round of funding led by KPCB, with the firm’s most prominent investor, John Doerr, set to join Shyp’s board of directors. The startup, which launched just a little over a year ago, has already extended its operations to New York City and Miami and has launched a beta test in Los Angeles. The number of shipments sent by Shyp has grown nearly 500 percent since the company closed its first round of funding—$12 million—back in July 2014. And the company says its customer base is growing by more than 20 percent month over month.

Shyp has been quick to capitalize on new business opportunities, as well. Early last month, the company rolled out a feature called Shyp Returns that folded a common customer use case right into the app: e-commerce returns. At the time of the product’s launch, returns already made up about 15 percent of Shyp’s overall business. But after formalizing the feature in-app, that number jumped to 25 percent, the company says.

All of this signals Shyp’s effort to move from experimental startup to full-fledged business capable of operating in widely different markets. But in an era where customers have come to expect nothing short of Amazon Prime-level efficiency, Shyp faces a huge challenge in making its operation not just scalable but cost-effective.

Shyp-is-the-easiest-way-to-send-anything2 Shyp

Flexible Engineering

It’s always a challenge to start off with a scheme that works for a certain market and scale it so that it is reproducible in other markets as well, says Gibbon. “Our system on the backend is extremely adaptable,” Gibbon says.

Gibbon says Shyp has been able to adapt by smartly identifying the areas within their operations that they’ve been able to optimize. For instance, Gibbon and his cohort have invested in machines that can take raw cardboard and create custom-sized boxes so customers’ items are always packaged snugly—eliminating the need, in most cases, for excess bubble wrap and paper stuffing. Smaller boxes often also mean cheaper shipping prices. Gibbon also argues automation sets his business apart from other buzzy startups that rely on a more labor-intensive human workforce.

Of course, you can’t get around the physical limitations of shuttling packages from point A to point B, but Gibbon argues that there are ways you can still maximize efficiency. In each of the cities where it operates, Shyp sets up strategically placed vans that can act as nodes—convenient intermediaries between couriers on the move in bikes and cars and the warehouse where the actual packing and shipping take place.

Being geographically strategic, along with predicting the patterns of demand for shipping servies makes it easier for the company to know where to dispatch its network of on-demand workers. The more effectively deployed, the easier for the company to guarantee its 20-minute pickup window.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Unlike many startups that have found business customers are the quickest path to revenue, Shyp has consciously focused on consumers. The company’s top three use cases include people sending gifts, small-scale sellers on platforms like Etsy and eBay who need a convenient way to move inventory, and e-commerce returns.

But the service has also become popular over the past year with users the company didn’t anticipate, including hotel concierges and high-rise property managers who frequently deal with residents and guests wanting to send packages. Stylists are using Shyp to send clothing to clients and return items back to designers, the company says. Personal assistants and office managers are also using the service to handle shipping for executives.

In the end, Gibbon says that scaling is a kind of self-fulfiling prophecy for Shyp. The more users Shyp has, the more cost-effective it becomes, as higher volume means steeper discounts from the major carriers, such as FedEx and UPS. In the meantime, Shyp still charges users retail, plus the five-dollar shipping fee, meaning as its user base grows, so does its margins.

What’s more, unlike many other on-demand businesses, shipping isn’t as time-sensitive, Gibbon points out. That may sound counter-intuitive, but as long as Shyp picks up and packs your item in a timely fashion, getting it to its destination becomes a logistical problem the carrier has to solve, not Shyp. And Shyp doesn’t have to carry much inventory beyond cardboard boxes and tape. Once Shyp sets up an efficient pipeline in a city, the main challenge becomes sticking to its promised 20-minute window.

Like other on-demand companies such as Uber, however, Shyp also doesn’t plan to stay in one place. Once they become profitable in a certain city, Gibbon says, the company’s philosophy is to prioritize expansion into new markets. “We’re always looking to continue to invest any money we do make in growth,” he says. That’s a sentiment that should excite anyone who hates going to the post office. Or who just gave Gibbon $50 million.

Why Testing Drugs on Our Dogs Is Good for Our Health

The fountain of youth is going to the dogs. At least that’s the case in Seattle, where biogerontologists Matt Kaeberlein and Daniel Promislow at the University of Washington have given local pet owners the chance to have their dogs test an experimental antiaging drug. Owners offered up more than 1,000 pooches, and the researchers selected 32 to participate in the study, set to begin this spring.

The drug they’ll be taking, rapamycin, wasn’t originally intended to extend canine longevity—it’s often used as an immunosuppressant, typically prescribed to people who have had an organ transplant. But rapamycin also blocks a gene called mTOR, which (among other things) causes cells to age and break down more rapidly. Several years ago, when scientists began feeding rapamycin to mice, they found that the rodents lived about 10 percent longer than control groups. That naturally evoked visions of (human) Florida retirees sipping rapamycin milk shakes, a scenario drug companies would already be fast-tracking toward reality if only rapamycin were still protected intellectual property. But the substance is off-patent, taking huge profits off the table. (You might still be able to patent the milk shake formulation, but you couldn’t stop competitors from making rapamycin lollipops.)

Call in the K9 squad! Millions of dog owners—including Kaeberlein and Promislow, who own a German shepherd, a keeshond, a Weimaraner, and a Chow mix between them, though none of their dogs are eligible for the study—are eager to give their pets an extra few years. Since most competent human masters can administer meds and provide some daily monitoring, researchers can crowdsource a lot of the data collection. Furthermore, the dog lifespan is so short (awww) that they can provide relatively rapid returns on research.

That’s a juicy bone for dogs and their best friends, but what’s really at stake is nothing less than a revolution in drug testing. Kaeberlein and Promislow have effectively unleashed a practical way to research new human uses for out-of-patent drugs. Pets can provide a cheap alternative to pricey and chancy human clinical tests, key when you’re dealing with a drug that might not be especially profitable in the first place. It’s easy to extend the idea beyond rapamycin. Testing experimental drugs on pets is a potential new template for human medical research: Such experiments on pets would be less expensive than testing drugs on lab animals but still statistically valid, since the greater number of test subjects would override the quirks of homestyle observation. And dogs are genetically diverse, another plus. It would also be more humane, since dogs are more frolicsome at home than in a kennel.

By making drug studies more affordable, this approach would allow pharmaceutical companies to profit from old or unpatentable drugs. Researchers could test other potential antiaging chemicals on dogs with the hope that they could one day invigorate people.

And researchers could enlist pets to investigate more targeted benefits of rapamycin as a treatment for specific human ailments. The drug can reverse cardiomyopathy in mice; as a step toward helping people, Doberman pinschers—a breed that’s naturally susceptible to a version of the disease—could serve as guinea pigs. (A study like this might require more veterinary participation, as the average pet owner isn’t going to have the wherewithal to administer a slate of cardiovascular tests.)

Dogs have other opportunities to give old drugs new tricks: Growing evidence suggests that the out-of-patent diabetes medicine metformin may have unexpected benefits for cancer patients. For example, diabetic men on metformin are less likely to die of prostate cancer than those taking other diabetes drugs. Those studies are retrospective, meaning that they analyze preexisting data. A metformin study on golden retrievers—a breed prone to cancer—could draw funding from golden retriever clubs and provide clinical data crucial to future human prescription.

Kaeberlein and Promislow are wary about treating people’s pet dogs as lab rats. Both insist that their motivation is to improve dogs’ lives; human benefits come second. Their respect for Fido’s well-being is laudable, but that’s nothing a clinical review board can’t handle. What would be irresponsible would be to lose the chance to help people.

Dogs share our lives. They live in the same environments as we do, and they’re exposed to many of the factors that most affect our health, from bad food to secondhand smoke. Testing drugs on them is a realistic way to try out pharmaceuticals that might otherwise get ignored. After all, if our dogs start living forever, we’re going to need to be around to walk them.

This Adorable Thumbnail Trackpad Could Actually Be Useful

Consider this wacky scenario: Someday, in addition to clasping a smartwatch around your wrist ach morning, you’ll adhere a set of electronic stickers to your nails, too.

This is the vision of Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao and Artem Dementyev, two MIT researchers who’ve developed a miniature trackpad that fits on your thumbnail. They call their invention NailO, and it functions a lot like your laptop’s trackpad or mouse, working as an additional input method for the gadgets in your life.

Kao and Dementyev are both researchers at the MIT Media Lab, where Kao focuses on software and Dementyev on electrical engineering. For this project the two came together to explore what technology might look like as it creeps ever closer to our bodies. Their hypothesis: As hardware becomes smaller, thinner and more flexible, our personal technology will draw more inspiration from the cosmetics world. In other words, the future of wearables might look less like a Rolex and more like the patterned nail decals at Walgreens.

Unlimited Applications

NailO is a bundle of electronics crammed into a tiny package. It uses capacitive sensors—the same sort in smartphone screens—to register gestures. There’s also a battery, microcontroller, and a Bluetooth chip that lets NailO to any Bluetooth-enabled gadget.

nailart MIT

The first NailO prototype recognizes five gestures: swiping left, right, up and down and single press. In a demo, you can see NailO working like a trackpad as a person uses his index finger to scratch a surprisingly accurate square onto the thumb nail. In another example, a woman swipes from right to left to change the color of an LED necklace. You might someday use NailO to control your phone or computer when your hands are full, “like a third hand,” as Kao puts it. But technically, you could program NailO to do whatever you want.

Kao says lately she’s been wearing a NailO on every finger from her index to pinkie, which turns her fingernails into a continuous scroll bar. More intriguing is the idea of mapping specific functions to each finger. Tap your pinkie to switch the song on Spotify and swipe up on your thumb to increase volume. Kao says she’s been thinking about programming each finger to call a specific person. “My ring finger could be the person I’m married to, or someone who I don’t like I can map to my middle finger,” she says with a laugh.

Beyond novelty, the value of NailO lies in pondering more discreet interaction with our gadgets. Unlike voice-controlled commands or pokes at a smartwatch, using NailO is a silent, nearly imperceptible act. Imagine being in a meeting and dashing off an automated “Got your message, will respond later” simply by tapping a finger, or better yet, swiping across your thumb to ignore a call altogether. As a journalist, I’d love dropping a digital maker to note when a source said something interesting. I’m willing to bet many other people could come up with killer applications. “We’re looking at what are the gestures that will make sense,” says Kao. “What are the interactions we can enable when you put technology this close to the human body?”

Becoming Part of the Body

For all the talk about wearable technology, the body remains a relatively untapped canvas for interaction. We’ve seen how skin can be used as an extension of a smartwatch screen or how we might one day implant digital tattoos into our bodies. NailO isn’t nearly so cyborgian—it still requires concentrated effort and consent, which isn’t a bad thing. As technology gets smaller and more intimate, there’s a risk it gets too intimate. “It gets into this ethical question of is the technology controlling me or am I controlling this technology?” Kao says.

A thumb-borne trackpad may not be the input device of the future, but Kao’s view of cosmetics as the new wearables does seem intriguing. After implants, cosmetics are about as close to the human body a material can get. And as Kao points out, the nail is a natural home for tiny electronics; it’s relatively flat and lacks the nerve endings that can make wearable technology uncomfortable.

Realistically, NailO needs to be streamlined even more before it becomes practical, and the team is working to make that happen. For the time being, though, it’s a compelling look at how we might someday use our bodies as canvasses for technology.

We Can’t Let John Deere Destroy the Very Idea of Ownership

It’s official: John Deere and General Motors want to eviscerate the notion of ownership. Sure, we pay for their vehicles. But we don’t own them. Not according to their corporate lawyers, anyway.

Kyle Wiens


Kyle Wiens is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, an online repair community and parts retailer internationally renowned for their open source repair manuals and product teardowns.

In a particularly spectacular display of corporate delusion, John Deere—the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker —told the Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code snakes through the DNA of modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.”

It’s John Deere’s tractor, folks. You’re just driving it.

Several manufacturers recently submitted similar comments to the Copyright Office under an inquiry into the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. DMCA is a vast 1998 copyright law that (among other things) governs the blurry line between software and hardware. The Copyright Office, after reading the comments and holding a hearing, will decide in July which high-tech devices we can modify, hack, and repair—and decide whether John Deere’s twisted vision of ownership will become a reality.

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software underpinning the products they buy—things like smartphones, computers, coffeemakers, cars, and, yes, even tractors. So, Old MacDonald has a tractor, but he owns a massive barn ornament, because the manufacturer holds the rights to the programming that makes it run.

(This is an important issue for farmers: a neighbor, Kerry Adams, hasn’t been able to fix an expensive transplanter because he doesn’t have access to the diagnostic software he needs. He’s not alone: many farmers are opting for older, computer-free equipment.)

Over the last two decades, manufacturers have used the DMCA to argue that consumers do not own the software that powers the products they buy.

In recent years, some companies have even leveraged the DMCA to stop owners from modifying the programming on those products. This means you can’t strip DRM off smart kitty litter boxesinstall custom software on your iPad, or alter the calibration on a tractor’s engine. Not without potentially running afoul of the DMCA.

What does any of that have to do copyright? Owners, tinkerers, and homebrew “hackers” must copy programming so they can modify it. Product makers don’t like people messing with their stuff, so some manufacturers place digital locks over software. Breaking the lock, making the copy, and changing something could be construed as a violation of copyright law.

And that’s how manufacturers turn tinkerers into “pirates”—even if said “pirates” aren’t circulating illegal copies of anything. Makes sense, right? Yeah, not to me either.

It makes sense to John Deere: The company argues that allowing people to alter the software—even for the purpose of repair—would “make it possible for pirates, third-party developers, and less innovative competitors to free-ride off the creativity, unique expression and ingenuity of vehicle software.” The pièce de résistance in John Deere’s argument: permitting owners to root around in a tractor’s programming might lead to pirating music through a vehicle’s entertainment system. Because copyright-marauding farmers are very busy and need to multitask by simultaneously copying Taylor Swift’s 1989 and harvesting corn? (I’m guessing, because John Deere’s lawyers never explained why anyone would pirate music on a tractor, only that it could happen.)

John Deere is a company, by the way, that is seriously serious about preventing people from copying their stuff. So serious, in fact, that they even locked the PDF they sent to the Copyright Office. No modifying the document. And no copying passages. Really, John Deere? How am I supposed to highlight all that's wrong in this document now?John Deere is a company, by the way, that is seriously serious about preventing people from copying their stuff. So serious, in fact, that they even locked the PDF they sent to the Copyright Office. No modifying the document. And no copying passages. Really, John Deere? How am I supposed to highlight all that’s wrong in this document now? Screenshot by Kyle Wiens

John Deere may be out of touch, but it’s not alone. Other corporations, including trade groups representing nearly every major automaker, made the same case to the Copyright Office again and again. It’s worth noting Tesla Motors didn’t join automakers in this argument, even though its cars rely heavily on proprietary software.

General Motors told the Copyright Office that proponents of copyright reform mistakenly “conflate ownership of a vehicle with ownership of the underlying computer software in a vehicle.” But I’d bet most Americans make the same conflation—and Joe Sixpack might be surprised to learn GM owns a giant chunk of the Chevy sitting in his driveway.

Other automakers pointed out that owners who make unsanctioned modifications could alter their vehicles in bad ways. They could tweak them to go faster. Or change engine parameters to run afoul of emissions regulations.

Joe Sixpack might be surprised to learn GM owns a giant chunk of the Chevy sitting in his driveway.

They’re right. That could happen. But those activities are (1) already illegal, and (2) have nothing to do with copyright. If you’re going too fast, a cop should stop you—copyright law shouldn’t. If you’re dodging emissions regulations, you should pay EPA fines—not DMCA fines. And the specter of someone doing something illegal shouldn’t justify shutting down all the reasonable and legal modifications people can make to the things they paid for.

GM went so far as to argue locking people out helps innovation. That’s like saying locking up books will inspire kids to be innovative writers, because they won’t be tempted to copy passages from a Hemingway novel. Meanwhile, outside of Bizarroland, actual technology experts—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation—have consistently labeled the DMCA an innovation killer. They insist that, rather than stopping content pirates, language in the DMCA has been used to stifle competition and expand corporate control over the life (and afterlife) of products.

“The bad part is, my sense is, these companies are just locking up this technology, and increasing the sort of monopoly pricing structure that just doesn’t work for us,” Brian Talley, a farmer on California’s central coast, says of restrictions placed on his equipment. I toured his farm with a fellow from the Intellectual Property & Technology Law Clinic so we could tell the Copyright Office how manufacturers are hampering farmers. “We are used to operating independently, and that’s one of the great things about being a farmer. And in this particular space, they are really taking that away from us.”

The notion of actually owning the things you buy has become revolutionary.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Intellectual Property & Technology Law Clinic, and the Digital Right to Repair Coalition (Disclaimer: I’m a founding member of the Coalition.) are fighting to preserve the notion of ownership. We’re trying to open the floodgates of information. To let owners investigate the code in their devices. To modify them for better functionality. To repair them, even without the blessing of manufacturer.

Thankfully, we aren’t alone. There’s a backlash against the slow creep of corporate product control.

Earlier this year, consumers sent 40,000 comments to the Copyright Office—all of them urging the restoration of ownership rights. The year before, consumers and activists forced a law through Congress that made it legal to unlock a cellphone and move it to a different carrier.

This week, Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Jared Polis will introduce the “Breaking Down Barriers to Innovation Act of 2015, which would substantially improve the DMCA process. Lawmakers in Minnesota and New York have introduced “Fair Repair” legislation that assert an owner’s right to repair electronic equipment they’ve purchased. They want equal access to repair information, replacement parts, and security updates.

Of course, taking back the stuff that we own won’t be easy. Corporations have better lobbyists than the rest of us. And, somehow, the notion of actually owning the things you buy has become revolutionary.

It doesn’t have to be. Tell the Copyright Office to side with consumers when it decides which gadgets are legal to modify and repair. Urge lawmakers to support legislation like the Unlocking Technology Act and the Your Own Devices Act, because we deserve the keys to our own products. And support Fair Repair legislation.

If you bought it, you should own it—simple as that. It’s time corporate lawyers left the bullshit to the farmers, who actually need it.