Apr 29, 2014

Scientists Have Reconnected Severed Nerves with Liquid Metal

To test the alloy, the engineers applied an electric pulse to nerves in a frog leg so that the calf muscle would contract. They then severed the sciatic nerve and connected the two ends with either the liquid metal alloy or Ringer's solution, a mix of electrolytes that mimic body fluids. Sure enough, the Ringer's solution only carried the charge so far, while the liquid metal alloy transmitted the electrical signals about as well as the nerve before it had been severed. This means it could be used to protect muscles and nerves after an injury, and since it's metal, it can be easily removed with the help of an x-ray.

his is obviously the early stages of what could be an exciting new treatment for nerve injuries. It's also, arguably, the first step towards truly wired creature. Of course, we're probably closer to building a cyborg than you might think. More here.

A Waffle Made from ice Cream Means you get to eat Dessert for Breakfast

Dominique Ansel, the Willy Wonka of desserts and creator of the Cronut, has announced his latest imagination busting, tastebud oozing creation: The Waffogato. It takes the delicious affogato, which is basically ice cream topped with espresso, but remixes it by making the ice cream a waffle made from ice cream and mixed with Belgium waffle bits, tapioca balls and a bit of salt.

As you pour the espresso over the ice cream waffle, tapioca balls are released and you get a tasty treat that's drink and dessert and chewthing and breakfast in one. More here.

Apr 22, 2014

Your Internet Connection Is Almost Certainly Slower Than Advertised

Does your internet always seem too slow? Chances are, it is: a study by the Wall Street Journal suggests that the majority of ISPs deliver slower speeds than they advertise.

The research, put together using data from Ookla and its online speed test, shows that the majority of 800 cities studied suffer far slower internet speeds than providers claim. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with faster connections only achieve a percentage point or two above the claimed offering; in contrast, those that are slower can be up to 50 percent behind the claims.

The charts below, put together by the Journal, show how each ISP fairs in general across the U.S. and maps the 20 cities with median Internet speeds highest above and lowest below those that are advertised. It sure sucks to live in Idaho. More here.

Apr 21, 2014

The Game Boy Turns 25 Today

You've almost certainly played a game on your phone today. Some beautiful, high-res game with a rainbow of colors and fluid animation. You've got a lot of power in your pocket these days, but portable gaming owes a lot to the chunky old Game Boy, which is 25 years old today.

Released in Japan on April 21st 1989—it made its way to the States that August—the original Game Boy was the first in a long line of smaller, slimmer models one of which you've almost certainly owned. Still, that original was well worth its bulk and appetite for AA batteries for the magical ability to play Tetris on the school bus.

In light of today's cellular pocket monsters, the original Game Boy's specs are adorably meager.
  • An 8-bit, 4.19 MHz CPU
  • 8 kB of video RAM
  • 2-bit color pallette with four (magnificent) shades of gray
  • A wonderful 160 × 144 pixel LCD display
All that said, you're bound to have fonder memories of your very first Game Boy than any of the touchscreen beasts that followed in its wake. There's just something about a gray monolith with purple buttons that can really work its way into your heart.

Happy birthday, little dude.

A $15 USB Adapter That Fixes an Annoying iMac Design Flaw

The J-shaped Jimi extender makes one of the USB ports on the back of a latest-gen iMac easily accessible from the front as it just peeks out from under the computer. At $15 (officially available tomorrow) it's a simple solution to an annoying problem, and should help prevent the back of your lovely machine from getting all scratched up as you try to blindly plug in a cable or a flash drive. More here.

Apr 14, 2014

This Side Table Gobbles Up Your Clutter Like a Hungry Animal

We all have a surface somewhere in our home which is covered in clutter: phones, wallets, coins, keys, pens, cables, tickets and all other kinds of crap. But this neat console table gobbles it all up to keep it out of sight.

The Balka Console, brainchild of Gregoire de Lafforest, combines a beautiful oak top with a crazy yellow bag to hold your junk. Carved into that beautiful table top is a chute which allows it to swallow everything—from keys to credit cards—wholesale. A bit like a well-designed pelican turned into furniture. The designer explains:
"The oak top of the console, pierced with a drain, allows objects to slide in and disappear in a flexible bag drawer. Stored, the user can keep them there indefinitely or unearth them at any time."
It might not keep your life organized, but it will at least keep it free of clutter. The table was unveiled just this month, but pricing and availability are as yet unknown. More here.

Apr 13, 2014

44% Of All Twitter Accounts Have Yet To Send A Tweet

A new report from Twopcharts has found that 44% of the world's Twitter accounts have yet to send a Tweet. With approximately 974 million Twitter accounts, that's an awful lot of dead air. As the Wall Street Journal points out, however, this could mean that people, scammers, or bots simply signed up for an account and never came back—or that there are hordes of shy people out there waiting for the moment to strike. Do you have a Twitter account you have never used? If not, why not? More here.

Apr 8, 2014

This Clever Newspaper Ad Hides a 3D Kitchen in the Classifieds

As far as newspaper ads go, the classifieds are an especially boring section of tiny text and identically spaced columns. But it doesn't always have to be so! This ingenious little ad for Corona's kitchens by Colombia-based designer Felipe Salazar plays with the geometry of classified ads. An entire kitchen, complete with gas hood and stove, pops right out at you. You can't do that with Craigslist.

If there were more clever ads like this, I might actually read classified ads again. More here.

Apr 6, 2014

Tomorrow's Cancer-Blasting Wonder Drug Could Come From a Tobacco Plant

Australian researchers published findings this week on a newly-discovered plant compound that destroys cancer cells, but leaves healthy cells unharmed. They found it in possibly the last place you'd look for a cancer cure: the family of plants that brings us cancer's number-one culprit, tobacco.

The research team at Australia's La Trobe University discovered the cancer-blasting protein in the flowers of Nicotiana alata, a relative of cigarette tobacco that's usually planted as an ornamental (though it's sometimes smoked in hookah pipes). A protein called NaD1 helps the plant fight off fungi and bacteria—and, it turns out, that same protein is like a sniper for cancerous cells.

On the cellular level, NaD1 works by plunging sharp pincers into fat molecules present in the outer membranes of cancerous cells. This action rips the cells open, spilling their guts and destroying them before they can spread their cancerous mutations to other cells.

"There is some irony in the fact that a powerful defense mechanism against cancer is found in the flower of a species of ornamental tobacco plant, but this is a welcome discovery, whatever the origin," said Dr. Mark Hulett, lead investigator in the study.

The most promising aspect of NaD1 is how it specifically targets cancerous cells. Many of the most vicious, lifestyle-limiting side effects of current chemotherapy stems from the fact that the drugs tend to kill healthy cells as well as cancerous cells.

Now that the researchers have an idea how the mechanism works, they're laboring to see how it can be put to use. Preclinical trials are underway at a Melbourne biotech company, though Dr. Hulett predicts it will take a decade before the substance finds its way to hospitals.

In the meantime, stay away from those tobacco products. The good cousin in the family may work out to be very good, but the bad cousin is still undeniably bad. More here.

Apr 3, 2014

Scientists Cured Paralysis in Mice with Stem Cells and Lasers

This is wild. Chasing the elusive dream of curing paralysis, a team of scientists used stem cells and optogenetics to circumvent the central motor system of lab mice whose nerves had been cut. This enabled them to blast individual motor neurons with a laser, triggering movement in the legs of the mice.
Okay, so it's a little bit complicated, if you're not familiar with how optogenetics work (and honestly, why would you be?). The cutting-edge technique enables neuroscientists to modify specific neurons so that they're light sensitive. Shining light on the neuron then makes it fire, telling the brain to move a muscle or stop feeling pain.

In the case of the paralyzed mice, researchers modified the animals' stem cells so they'd produce a light-sensitive protein. The stem cells were then programmed to turn into motor neurons and engrafted onto the sciatic nerves of the mice. All the reserachers had to do then was shine a light on the light sensitive motor neurons and—boom—the mice weren't paralyzed any more. To be specific, the neurons fired and caused the once-paralyzed leg muscles to move. "We were surprised at how well this worked," says Linda Greensmith of University College London who led the team.

There's obviously a lot of work to be done before we start implanting stem cells and lasers into human legs, but this is an encouraging start. At the very least, it will help researchers better understand crippling neurological conditions like epilepsy. It's also a perfect entry in the annals of mad science. More here.

Apr 2, 2014

The Windows Start Menu Is Coming Back

Miss the Start Menu? Well it is coming back. Yes it still has live tiles, but it is back in a way you can recognize, and it roll out to users as an update. Oh and those universal apps Microsoft is going to start peddling? They'll be available in windows.

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.