Submit a link Features Reviews Podcasts Video Forums More ▾

Humans will befriend a stick — as long as it moves properly

Human emotions and social interaction have a lot to do with body language — how our faces express what we're thinking and feeling, how our gestures are read by other people, and how we invade (or retreat from) each other's personal space. In fact, those movements and behaviors are so important that, if you map them onto an otherwise completely non-human, non-animal form, we'll start interpreting it as engaging with us — even if that form is nothing more than a moving stick.

This video, clips from a study that was published in 2011 by computer scientists at the University of Calgary, shows what test subjects did and said when they were left alone in a room with a stick-like robot, and asked to just think out loud and interact with the robot in whatever ways felt natural. Some people made friends. Others tried to fight it. And a few tried to talk it out of wanting to fight them.

Video Link

Genetically modified food that has nothing to do with Monsanto

Amy Harmon is one of the best long-form, investigative reporters working today. (You might remember her recent stories about adults with autism navigating independent lives and finding love.)

Harmon has a new story up at The New York Times that delves into the nuance behind the often very un-nuanced public debate about genetically modified foods. It's a story about orange growers in a race against time to find something that can save America's orange crop (and orange juice supply) from a deadly bacteria. It's also a story about the debates those growers have amongst themselves as they decide to try funding GMO research that might solve their problem — and might not. All while creating new PR problems that they aren't entirely prepared to handle.

I think this is a particularly great lens to examine the science and risk/reward perspective on GMO foods, because it takes us beyond some of the particularly volatile points in the debate — points that often have nothing to do with the actual safety or benefits of GMOs. Monsanto is not involved in the development of these GMO oranges. And what the growers and scientists are trying to do has nothing to do with increasing pesticide use. In fact, if they succeed, they'll be able to reduce the amount of pesticides used on oranges. It's a long read, but a worthwhile one.

Image: Orange Shine, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from zlakfoto's photostream

Flexible, interactive electronic "skin"

NewImageUC Berkeley researchers demonstrated a new kind of thin, flexible "electronic skin" that lights up when you touch it. Press on it, and it glows brighter. The prototype film consists of 16 x 16 pixels, each outfitted with a transistor, organic LED, and pressure sensor. It's made using the same fabrication tools employed by the semiconductor industry. I can't wait until fashion designers and other makers can get bolts of this stuff for cheap! "Paper-thin e-skin responds to touch, holds promise for sensory robotics and interactive environments"

Warp 0: Why warp drive technologies might never happen

Theoretical cosmologist Richard Easther has an interesting essay on the theoretical physics of warp drive technologies and why — despite the fact that they could work quite reasonably alongside relativity — they still might not ever make it to reality. Maggie 6

New, high-tech cancer detector: Great idea, or still in need of work?

MelaFind is a new device that helps doctors identify melanoma skin cancers. In many places, it's being reported as the greatest breakthrough in skin cancer prevention to come along in decades. But, notes Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review, those pieces leave out the fact that MelaFind is actually fairly controversial. A lot of cancer researchers and docs are worried that it will give patients and doctors a false sense of security — a big issue considering the fact that MelaFind is only designed to identify small melanomas. It could turn up false negatives (or false positives) with non-melanoma skin cancers or melanomas that don't fall into a narrow type range. Maggie 1

A smart knife for surgeons

Researchers at Imperial College London have invented an electric surgical knife that comes equipped with a built-in mass spectrometer. Electric knives cauterize wounds as they cut, which produces smoke. The iKnife will be able to analyze the chemistry of that smoke to determine, for instance, whether the tissue that was just cut was cancerous or not — allowing doctors to make decisions in the OR that would, today, require them to take samples, send those samples to a lab, and maybe schedule a second surgery. Maggie 4

Nationwide heat wave puts electric grid to the test

The entire country is in the red (and orange) today. At 10:20 am, it was hotter in Minneapolis than southern Florida and the only places that looked remotely comfortable were all on the Pacific coast. Those temps don't just strain your patience. They also strain your electrical grid, as millions of Americans simultaneously crank up their air conditioners and test the grid's ability to match supply of electricity with demand for it. For grid controllers, a day like today is akin to the Super Bowl. Will there be brownouts? Blackouts? Awkward flickering? Place your bets. The peak in demand will happen later this afternoon. Maggie 13

Elon Musk plans Hyperloop high-speed train

The “Hyperloop,” a hybrid new form of transportation proposed by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, would shrink the duration of a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to 30 minutes, at a speed of almost 800 miles an hour. [NYTimes.com] Xeni 20

Inside the frozen-food archipelago

Seventy percent of all the food you eat passes through an oft-overlooked system of refrigerated warehouses, factories, and trucks, writes Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic. That's not just the stuff you think of as "frozen food", either. Peanuts, for instance, are chilled. With photos and some judicious excerpts from Tom Wolfe novels, Madrigal introduces us to a world few of us have ever seen, but all of us are totally dependent upon. Maggie 7

Microworld: 1980 microchip documentary with Shatner

William Shatner takes us into the Microworld for this 1980 promotional film from the AT&T Archives. Ah, the history of the future.

The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion

So, here's a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you've accidentally written the wrong book ... a book which you would not actually agree with?

That's how I felt after interviewing Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion — a book that has been widely reviewed as containing some good points, buried under a lot of angry rants and straw men. According to White, however, those reviews have all completely missed what he was trying to do and trying to say.

All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong.

I recently had a chance to interview White — both live and in some email follow-up after the live event — and I've come to the conclusion that I can't properly review this book without including that information. There's just too big a gap, from my perspective, between how the book reads and what White wanted you to take away from it.

Read the rest

Tales from the history of NSA spying

The NSA's first large-scale domestic surveillance project began in 1945 — when the organization began reading American's telegrams. Maggie

Virtual dissection table is fascinating, useful, and just a little creepy

Everything a dissection table should be, I suppose. I'm absolutely mesmerized by the utility of this tool, developed by Anatomage and Stanford University's Division of Clinical Anatomy. Particularly for its ability to give anatomy students unprecedented access to special cases. Instead of waiting for a body with just the right kind of brain malformation or liver damage to come in, you can just call up the desired images from the computer and use them whenever you want.

As for the creepy: Well, for some reason it's just a little more disturbing to see a perfectly healthy naked lady sprawled out on the anatomy table, as opposed to old, wrinkly naked people or people who have clearly recently been in poor health. (Also, potentially NSFW, natch.)

Video Link

Huge, 3D printed airplane parts in China

GE isn't the only one getting into the 3D-printed airplane part game. But, instead of little fuel injectors for turbines, the Chinese company AVIC Heavy Machinery and China's Northwestern Polytechnical University are printing off 5-meter-long titanium wing spars and equally long wing beams. (Thanks, Tim Heffernan!) Maggie

3-D printed part from an airplane turbine

Yesterday, we posted a tech memoir by Steven Ashley about the slow rise of 3D printing — from sci-fi fantasy, to toy, to creator of real tools. Towards the end of the piece, Ashley mentions how GE is starting manufacture aircraft engine parts using 3D printers. Here's the excerpt:

Rows of industrial 3D-printing units in plants will soon be fabricating turbine engine parts—fuel nozzles—from cobalt-chromium alloy powders. Each one of GE’s new LEAP jet engine will contain nineteen of the fuel nozzles, which are up to 25 percent lighter and five-times more durable than traditionally manufactured fuel nozzles. In airplanes cutting weight saves fuel. The LEAP engine has already amassed more than 4,500 orders, so between it and the new GE9X engine, the corporation could end up making as many as 100,000 additive manufactured components by 2020.

In the picture above, you can see one of those fuel nozzles, in all its 3D-printed glory.

Read the rest