Mar 31, 2014

Why California's Drought Is Good News for Gold Prospectors

Having found a gold lining to the West's otherwise devastating drought, prospectors are flocking to the record-low rivers of the Sierra Nevada foothills. A mini gold rush has kicked off in previously inaccessible riverbeds, not far from the site of California's original gold rush.

"The word is definitely out," one prospector told the Associated Press. "We've seen more people prospecting than usual." The drought has brought a good many first-time prospectors to Pioneer Mining Suppliers in Auburn, where they can buy equipment, maps, and mining books. The basic technique involves a lot of patience sifting through dirt and mud. More advanced equipment, like sluicers, make the job a little easier, although it's still not much different from gold panning of days yore.

As unfortunate as this historic drought is, it does pull back the watery curtain on the past. A once-flooded ghost town has reemerged in the drought—as have old cars, locomotives, railroad tracks, tunnels, and Indian villages at various lakes around California. The reappearance of all this old manmade infrastructure is a reminder that many of these lakes and reservoirs themselves are part of an artificial water system that brings water to our thirsty cities and crop fields.

In the Sierra Nevada foothills, the drought is also turning back the clock—to the gold rush days of the 19th century. But there is a price to be paid for this gold. The owner of Pioneer Mining Supplies tells the AP he's worried about fire: "It's great for business, but I'd rather see no drought and a lot of rain." More here.

How Dropbox Knows When You're Sharing Copyrighted Files

You might have seen over the weekend that Dropbox is capable of telling whether you're sharing copyrighted files over its cloud service—without even actually looking at your stuff. But in fact, it's been able to do that for years.

A tweet this weekend from Darrell Whitelaw spoke of a DMCA takedown in his personal folders on Dropbox, sparking outrage. But the takedown is a result of software that the cloud service has been using for at last two years.

The site uses a technique known as "file hashing against a blacklist" to block pre-selected files from being shared person-to-person over its servers. In many ways, it's kinda neat; it avoids Dropbox getting in trouble with the Feds, and never actually interrogates your files, so it doesn't fall foul of violating its anti-infringement policy either.

How does it work? Well, Dropbox uses hashing—a simple algorithmic tool which maps data of arbitrary length to data of a fixed length—to produce a unique identifier for every file you upload (it also then encrypts your file so others can't read them). The hash is unique to that particular file.

But when DMCA complaints are sent Dropbox's way—by record labels or content producers or whoever else—the files to which they relate are also hashed. If you've been uploading the exact same files that Dropbox has received a complaint about, Dropbox will match its hash to one on its list, and stop your sharing it. Like Dropbox explains on its site:
"There have been some questions around how we handle copyright notices. We sometimes receive DMCA notices to remove links on copyright grounds. When we receive these, we process them according to the law and disable the identified link. We have an automated system that then prevents other users from sharing the identical material using another Dropbox link. This is done by comparing file hashes. We don't look at the files in your private folders and are committed to keeping your stuff safe."
Simple, legal, and all done without looking at a single one of your files. Not ideal if you happen to dabble in the occasional illicit download, but at least Dropbox isn't rifling through all of your other stuff to find it. More here.

Mar 29, 2014

Just Flick This Clock's Simple Face Switch To Activate Its Alarm

Dieter Rams left a lasting legacy at Braun that still influences the products the company creates today. Just take a look at this simple analog alarm clock, that's found a clever way to compete with all the other monstrous smartphone docks vying for space on your bedside table.

Instead of a hard-to-find button on the top or back of the clock to activate its alarm at night, the entire analog clock face is one large switch. Flip it down and the alarm will ring for whenever it's set, or flip it up to keep it silent. It's ridiculously easy, and the green accent color that's revealed leaves no question as to whether your alarm will sound.

The clock is just $40—available in black, white, or grey—and even comes with the requisite Duracell battery needed to make it run. Sure, most of us probably just rely on our smartphones to wake us up in the morn, but there's nothing wrong with having a stylish backup on hand just in case. More here.

Mar 28, 2014

The incredible moment in which a deaf woman hears for the first time

According to the Birmingham Mail, Joanne has a rare condition called Usher Syndrome—a "rare genetic disorder that is associated with a mutation in any one of 10 genes resulting in a combination of hearing loss and visual impairment and is a leading cause of deaf blindness." Joanne lost her sight in her mid-20s but, according to her mom, "she has been deaf since birth and had never heard sounds before this."

These implants have allowed her to hear for the first time, which obviously is a huge improvement after losing her sight. The mom recorded the joyous moment as the doctors at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital switched the implants on.

Mar 23, 2014

Automatic Mahjong Table

A table with a hole that will suck all your mahjong pieces and returns them perfectly stacked, ready to play. Obviously, it's powered by SORCERY. I wish the same existed with normal tables: Throw in all the dishes and have them returned to you perfectly cleaned and ordered in seconds.

Mar 20, 2014

Insulating Foam Made From Wood Makes Your Log Cabin Warm and Authentic

Not only is styrofoam great for all your packing needs, it also makes for an incredibly effective and lightweight insulator. It's just too bad the chemicals and processes needed to make it aren't as earth-friendly as they could be. So researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute have successfully created an alternative made from our most popular renewable resource: wood.

What's most remarkable is that the environmentally-friendly foam—which is made from wood that's finely ground until it becomes a slimy goop that can be frothed—will actually harden all by itself after it's been sprayed onto a surface. Natural materials in the wood itself assist in that process so no additional chemicals are needed.

But the wood foam can be produced in sheets as well, like the large panels of expandable polystyrene you can find at home building stores. That process does require additional chemicals to help the foam rise and set, but the final product is still more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than petrochemical alternatives. Not to mention, it adds a whole other layer of authenticity (and warmth) to that log cabin you've always dreamed of. More here.

Mar 19, 2014

Scientists Discover the Key to Making Paint That Never Fades

It seems like scientists are all about immortality these days. It's not just plants and people that are getting the treatment, though. A team of Harvard engineers are developing a way of producing color that could produce paint that never fades, and displays that never go dark.

Believe it or not, the method is based on bird feathers, which last centuries without losing their bright hues. This is because of how their colors are formed. Unlike your t-shirt or a painting on the wall, feathers don't get their color from pigments that absorb certain wavelengths and reflect the rest. "What that means is that the material is absorbing some energy, and that means that over time, the material will fade," says Vinothan N. Manoharan, a researcher at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Science who's leading the effort.

Bird feathers, by contrast, stay bright because their feathers contain nanostructures that amplify specific wavelengths of light. It's called structural color. Basically, the feathers' cells contain a series of tiny pores spaced in such a way that they only reflect, for instance, shades of red. Manoharan's team is recreating this effect in the lab by using microparticles suspended in a solution. When the solution dries out, the microparticles shrink and bring the particles closer together. And depending on how much of the solution dries out, the distance between the particles causes them to reflect different wavelengths of color. The effect will even work with pixels on a display.

It's a little hard to wrap your head around, but this graphic might help. The red microcapsule starts out large on the left and shrinks as it dries out, producing shades of orange, yellow, and green:
"We think it could be possible to create a full-color display that won't fade over time," says Manoharan. "The dream is that you could have a piece of flexible plastic that you can put graphics on in full color and read in bright sunlight." Paint and ink that never fade are also a possibility.

For now, the development of such a display or paint is in the early, experimental stages. But can you imagine opening a laptop in bright sunlight and seeing the same vibrant colors you'd see in a magazine? You should. And someday you might for real. More here.

Mar 17, 2014

Scientists Use Graphene to Make Bionic, Super-Powered Plants

A team of chemical engineers and biochemists has managed to change how plants work. Well, to be exact, they've made plants work better by embedding carbon nanotubes into the plants' leaves so that they absorb more light. Put simply, they've created bionic plants.

The technique is not quite perfect. "We envisioned them as new hybrid biomaterials for solar energy harnessing, self-repairing materials [and] chemical detectors of pollutants, pesticides, [and] fungal and bacterial infections," said MIT chemical engineer Juan Pablo Giraldo.

The decision to use carbon nanotubes, which are just sheets of graphene rolled into straw-like shapes, makes perfect sense. Graphene can absorb sunlight and convert it into electron flow. Indeed, the photosynthesis rates in the plants injected with the nanotubes were three times higher than those without.

The "detector" bit of the equation also worked. The scientists found that the carbon nanotubes worked like sensors and would cease to glow under infrared light if nitric oxide, a common pollutant, were present. Giraldo suggested that the bionic plants could be used as "biochemical detectors for monitoring environmental conditions in cities, crop fields, airports or high-security facilities."

Using plants as pollution detecting sensors seems kind of dangerous for the plants, but, for the sake of the experiment, they survived just fine. It's unclear how the embedding nanotubes will fare in the long run.

Just imagine the possibilities. Bionic plants with bodies? Why don't these guys use those supercharged photosynthesis abilities to stand up and walk around and shoot laser guns? More here.

Mar 16, 2014

Would You Customize Your First Born Child?

The recent announcement by a British medical ethics board in favor of anexperimental three-parent IVF treatment—wherein the genetic material from three donors, not the usual two, is used to create a fetus—and has once again stirred the pot of reproductive controversy. So where exactly is the line between prenatal treatments and eugenic experiments?

Granted, the IVF procedure is being developed in order to prevent debilitating hereditary diseases from mother to child and could, theoretically, be used to wipe out these genetic scourges the same way we did Polio—which is good for everybody. At the same time, what's to stop us from adding more and more donors until we're simply picking the most desired traits at will and not so much making new life but literally constructing it? If you learned that your potential child would likely suffer from an incurable hereditary disease would you be willing to add a third genetic donor to prevent that? What about if you found out your child would be a ginger, would you add a third donor to prevent that? It's a slippery slope. More here.

Mar 15, 2014

Lego Robot With a Smartphone Brain Shatters Rubik's Cube World Record

Cubestormer 3 is a robot with just one job—to solve a scrambled Rubik's Cube as swiftly as possible. Today, at the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, UK, it did the task in an astounding 3.253 seconds, faster than any human or robot in the world. Just look at that thing go.

The third-generation robot was built by co-inventors David Gilday and Mike Dobson for pure, blistering speed. The Samsung Galaxy S4 brain is tricked out with an Exynos octa-core processor, with four Cortex-A15 and four Cortex-A7 processors controlling eight Lego Mindstorms actuators. It's basically the SR-71 Blackbird of Rubik's Cube bots. Gilday said, "we knew Cubestormer 3 had the potential to beat the existing record but with the robot performing physical operations quicker than the human eye can see there's always an element of risk." Yeah. That fast. 

The smartphone brain analyzes the cube's starting arrangement, then instructs four robot arms to carry out each step needed to get the cube to its solved state. Since the robot uses a speed cube, which allows twisting moves even when the sides aren't perfectly aligned, the robot hands must be amazingly precise to move so smoothly and quickly.

As for the previous robot record, it was held by Cubestormer 2, which clocked in at 5.27 seconds. The world record human solver could only muster a 5.55 second run back in 2013. Clearly, the robot takeover is gaining speed.

Mar 12, 2014

Someday You Could Save Your Files With Nothing But a Sticky Note

Today's slim, svelte computers look great. You, on the other hand, look like a total yutz fumbling around to plug a thumb drive into a USB port that's somehow perpetually upside down. What if saving your data was as easy as slapping a sticky note on your screen? That's what a design team proposes with this highly theoretical design for paper-thin, sticky memory cards.

Designers Aditi Singh and Parang Anand theorize that a single layer of graphene sandwiched between two flexible protective layers could provide up to 32GB of storage space. A sticky edge would carry data from an optical data transfer surface conveniently built in to the edge of your computer monitor.

Of course is completely theoretical and in no way buyable, but it's a nice dream. Graphene is a wonder material, to be sure, but graphene-based consumer products are still a long, long way off. And while the designers do an admirable job of explaining how the sticky notes themselves could (someday, possibly) work, they leave the Optical Data Transfer Surface—the engine that makes the whole process possible—completely mysterious. More here.

The Reason We Yawn Might Actually Be To Cool Down Our Brains

Just like the CPU in your computer, the human brain has an optimal temperature where it runs best. But unlike a computer's CPU, there's no built-in fan to chill the brain when it starts to run hot. Which is why researchers now believe that yawning is actually the body's physiological way of keeping the brain nice and cool.

Traditionally, it was believed that yawning was how the body increased its oxygen intake when someone was sleepy, to help wake them up—but this is a more interesting conclusion. The act of yawning increases your heart rate, blood flow, and uses muscles in the face that are all connected to keeping the brain cooled. It also turns out that exhaustion and sleep deprivation can contribute to a rise in the brain's temperature, which is why we tend to yawn more often when we're tired.

But why do we yawn when others do? It's believed that that phenomenon is tied to our ability to empathize with others. Which is why it's harder to get kids below the age of five to yawn when you do, because their empathetic abilities have yet to fully develop. And it also explains why people with autism are less likely to start yawning when they watch someone else do it.

So, how many times did you 'cool your brain' while reading this post or watching that video?

Mar 10, 2014

New Test Predicts Alzheimer's at Least Three Years in Advance

A new blood test developed by scientists from Georgetown University in Washington DC is capable of predicting onset of Alzheimer's with 96 percent certainty three years in advance—and that figure could soon stretch to decades.

The researchers report their new test in Nature Medicine, explaining that it identifies 10 chemicals in the blood which are associated with the disease. While tests already exist to diagnose the condition, this is the first to predict its onset.

The test was developed using a group of 525 people aged 70 and over, who initially showed no signs of mental impairment. They were given cognitive tests over a five year period, and also had blood samples taken. Over the five years, 28 developed Alzheimer's—enough to identify the 10 chemicals which indicated the presence of the disease.

In subsequent trials, the presence of those chemicals in blood samples has been used to predict the onset of Alzheimer's within three years, with up to 96 percent certainty. The next step is to make the test even more sensitive—and the researchers hope that it could then be used to predict the onset of the disease 10 or 20 years in advance.

The only question then is: would you actually want to know? More here.

Mar 9, 2014

Watch this guy breaking a Rubik's Cube world record at insane speed

Mar 8, 2014

A Simple Digital Watch With a Stylish Handwritten Font

\When you think of a digital watch, you can probably picture the simple boxy numbers created by a traditional segmented LCD display. This Script Watch uses the same technique—an LCD display broken up into static segments that can only be turned on or off—but manages to display the time as if a talented calligrapher just penned it onto your wrist.

Created by Adrian and Jeremy Wright, the watch of course relies on the clever design of its LCD segments. The various curves, swooshes, and contours assemble into the numbers one to nine, vastly improving the font used to show the time without requiring a full pixel-based display which requires more processing and power. It will still set you back $175, but that's reasonable if you think of it as a smartwatch—or at least a watch that looks smart. More here.

Mar 6, 2014

Making Plastic, Fertilizer, and Superglue Out of Thin Air

What to do with an environment-wrecking molecule like carbon dioxide? The gas behind global warming and ocean acidification enjoys a pretty rough reputation these days, but scientists have been working on ingenious ways to put carbon dioxide to good use. A little electricity, it turns out, can transform the waste gas into raw material for making plastic bottles, antifreeze, fuel, and more.

Take Liquid Light, profiled in this New Scientist piece. The New Jersey start-up recently showed off a prototype of its carbon dioxide converter, a coffee table-sized "layer cake of steel and plastic." Their first product will be ethylene glycol, a molecule that is used to make plastic bottles and antifreeze. The company says it has created catalysts that can convert carbon dioxide to over 60 different molecules.

It works like this: a lot of useful molecules, such as methanol (wood alcohol), isopropanol (rubbing alcohol), are butonal (a fuel) are just some combination of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms. Zapping carbon dioxide with electricity in the presence of different metal catalysts and other gases turns it into a whole range of carbon-based molecules. It's just plain chemistry.

While industrial products won't be that big of a carbon sink (relative to the massive amounts we're emitting into the atmosphere, at least), using carbon dioxide represents a 180ยบ turn from thinking about the gas purely as a waste. We might imagine carbon credits of the future to include an entirely new line of plastic products—from pens to clothing to water bottles—all made of carbon sequestered out of thin air. More here.

Mar 5, 2014

If You Want To Be Immune To Tasers Just Wear Carbon Fiber Clothing

It's no Iron Man suit, but if you've got a knack for civil disobedience and often find yourself on the business end of a Taser, the folks at Hackaday discovered that carbon fiber clothing can actually let you shrug off those electric shocks.

To be more specific, they cut open the lining of a sports coat and lined it with endless strips of iron-on no-sew hem tape and carbon fiber tape so that the resulting jacket still had lots of flexibility. The carbon fiber conducts electricity much better than human skin, and since the strips were placed close enough to let the juice flow between them, they were able to dissipate the charge without shocking down the dapper-looking target.
This approach could actually be used to line and protect everything from pants, to shirts, to gloves, and if you had the budget, you could probably stitch together entire wardrobes from carbon fiber. Just skip the part where you harden it with epoxy and you should be able to move fine. Not that you would use this power in any situation from which you'd need to run quickly, of course. More here.

Mar 4, 2014

Pizza Hut and Chaotic Moon Studios Interactive Concept Table

Behold the future, my friends. It isn't hoverboards or laser swords or transportation hailing apps or drone deliveries, it is this: a gigantic touchscreen that lets you build your own pizza on the table that you will eat it on. Use the touchscreen to perfectly customize your order, play games while you wait and pay from your smartphone. The future looks delicious.

Yeah, I know it's a Pizza Hut and Chaotic Moons Studio concept that obviously cribs UI deets from Microsoft Surface but this silly pizza building service (an evolution of the Domino's Pizza Hut tracker if you will) is a good enough reason to eat Pizza Hut and have Microsoft Surface everywhere.

Mar 2, 2014

You Can Now Buy the Official Pillow-Fighting Pillow of Japan

Are you one of the All Japan Pillow Fighting Association's rapt and loyal followers? Are you tired of the more conventional sports fans sauntering around in their jerseys while you walk around swag-less? Looks like your day has finally come. As of yesterday, you can finally buyan Officially Recognized by the All Japan Pillow Fighting Association Pillow of your very own.

The pillows, produced by Makura Kabushikigaisha (which, according to Rocket News 24, literally translates to Pillow Corporation), are expressly designed to give you extra walloping power while still remaining relatively harmless to the atackee. Stuffed with "perfectly weighted crushed latex," the packing peanut-esque filling adds the necessary weight to the pummeling device while remaining elastic enough to absorb most of the hit.
Safety is, apparently, a major concern in professional pillow fighting, so the pillow is completely free of any tags or fasteners that might be cause for a bleeder. And it doesn't matter whether you find its grey and white stripes aesthetically pleasing—this pillow is all about function. Supposedly, this combination of colors makes it easier to notice as it comes in for the kill. The pillow will set you back a cool $30. More here.

Mar 1, 2014

You'll Never Believe All The Things Made Out Of Chicken Feathers

As a nation, the United States consumes a whopping 8 billion chickens every year, and this results in a few mountains' worth of chicken feathers in pure waste. But no more, some entrepreneurs say: chicken feathers could be the future of plastic.

It all began in 1993, according to Modern Farmer, when USDA researcher Walter Schmidt decided to turn chicken feathers into... something useful. That thing, whatever it was, would remain TBD. They fried it (which apparently tasted a lot like pork rinds). They made it into paper (which turned out textured and tissue-like).

The latest idea is plastics. Not unlike our hair and nails, chicken feathers are mostly a strong protein called keratin. The feathers can be heated, mixed with other materials, and molded into plastic. And, as we in the 21st century know, plastics can be used to make pretty much everything, from shoes to wall insulation to circuit boards to furniture. But chicken feathers could even show up in a few more unexpected places.

Like powder makeup:
For example, the Nixa, Missouri-based Featherfiber Corp. is commercializing Schmidt's group's 1998 patent on technology to separate feather fiber from the quill. Close to opening a production plant, Schmidt says they will soon produce cosmetics and car parts. "The feather fiber grinds to a powdery talc making the keratin useful in beauty products," Schmidt adds.
Or diapers:
Feathers have even been used to replace the absorptive layer in diapers that are usually made out of wood pulp, also called "fluff pulp." Swapping wood pulp out for feathers may save more than a few trees, Schmidt points out. Plus, it just works really well.
There are lots more chicken feather ideas in the works, from oil spill cleanup to hurricane-proof roofing. In fact, Schmidt, the chicken feather evangelist, likes to speculate about the day when chicken feathers become so useful that meat is a mere byproduct of feather production. More here.