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« April 2006 | Main | June 2006 »

Meet America's Net Police

Will this man soon be watching you surf?

You may have already read about the Web toll—the fee that the telecommunications companies are hoping to collect from high-bandwidth, money-making sites like YouTube—which is threatening the open Internet as we know it. Now another of the Internet’s fundamental virtues is under attack, this time by the federal government. 

In a speech last month, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales urged Internet companies to increase the collection and retention of data about their customers’ Internet usage habits to help catch criminals "abusing kids and sending images of the abuse around the world through the Internet." Last week, however, in a private meeting with Web bigwigs like Google, Comcast and AOL, Gonzales for the first time placed the call for “data retention” under the all-encompassing, all-powerful umbrella of the fight against terrorism, according to a report by CNET’s news.com.

Just what can potentially be retained, then? A full record of all of your electronic correspondences, for starters—that’s e-mail, IM, Internet phone, everything. Say your friend is studying at the American University in Cairo (as a friend of mine did recently), and you correspond via IM (or Skype) and exchange pictures through email on a regular basis (as I’m sure my friend and I did as well). “If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it,” the President said in his State of the Union address earlier this year, and here I am, talking with someone in the Middle East on a regular basis. But in the eyes of the “War on Terror,” my friend in Cairo could just as easily be a potential terrorist operative.

For now, the data collection will stop short of the contents of individual communications. But to think that activity as normal as mine might, in the near future, be monitored freely as a potential terrorist act…wow.  You may have also read about China’s Web Police, Jingjing and Chacha. What’s next, a blinking anime-styled picture of Mr. Gonzales up there next to the Gmail logo, to remind us of our government’s vigilance? —John Mahoney

No Home Depot in Space

Astronaut James Voss uses a soldering iron at the
International Space Station

Today I found an interesting piece on CNN.com about Russian astronauts repairing the space station with improvised tools because they lost the real ones. How? "It's a lot like your house," said Paul Boehm, lead spacewalk officer. "You set your car keys down somewhere and hopefully you find them again later when you try to remember it." Uh, yeah, but we’re idiots—you’re astronauts. Nonetheless, nice to see the DIY spirit at work in space. Look for our "Hack Your Space Station" piece in H2.0 as soon as Boehm duct-tapes together a way back to Earth. —Mike Haney

Tee'd Off Astronauts
A Change of Venue for the Armchair Astronaut
Pow! Right to the Moon

Sunny Delight

25may2006_035 What to do with a pair of cheap speakers and those extra solar panels you have lying around? Blogger “Radu” got some balsa wood and built a solar-powered boom box. You could do the same: Just attach an MP3 player to the back, let it bake in the sun for a while and rock out to some tinny tunes. Why? Because it’s summer and you can. Link via Hacked Gadgets. —Mike Haney

Build Your Own Laser
Build a Floppy Array

Trials and Tribulations

Models posing as scientists preferred orange test-tube
water two-to-one over blue in clinical trials.

We’ve heard all about the problems with clinical trials: Journals often prefer to print headline-grabbing positive results (i.e., Vioxx works wonders) over negative results (i.e., Vioxx doesn’t do anything at all, or, even worse, it hurts you). So doctors and patients are sometimes left wondering whether they’re missing some important information about a new drug. That’s where the new journal PLOS Clinical Trials comes in. Just launched two weeks ago, it aims to publish clinical trials based on their usefulness to the medical community, not on their novelty. Any well-conducted study has a good shot at reaching the public eye, and even casual readers like myself can understand the contributions and limitations of a study, thanks to an easy-to-read explanation at the top of each article. What’s more, PLOS’s open-access policy ensures that important findings reach doctors in far-flung and resource-poor places. Public health workers, such as malaria researchers, are already jumping at the chance to share their knowledge. Whether the drug companies follow suit remains to be seen. —Lauren Aaronson


Gettin' Jiggy in the Gyroscan
Like Butta (On a Hot Skillet)
Who Made You Fat? Yer Mama

It’s Pretty Easy Being Green

Well, she got your attention, didn't she?

After going to see Al Gore and the makers of his film, An Inconvenient Truth, speak about the global-warming crisis last week, I was inspired to make some changes to my own energy-consumption habits. I live in New York City, so I already use public transportation instead of a car, but I figure I can do better. Today I visited climatecrisis.org and used the online calculator to figure out how many pounds of carbon dioxide my lifestyle is contributing to the atmosphere. I weighed in at 5,400 pounds—not terrible compared with the American average of 15,000, but far from the ideal, which would be zero.

Then I visited the Web site for my utilities provider, ConEdison, and discovered (after some digging—they sure aren’t advertising sustainable-energy programs front and center on their homepage) that I could enroll in a program called Green Power that would allow me to buy energy from local wind, solar and low-impact hydroelectric sources (many utility companies have similar programs—check your company's Web site for details) . It will cost only a few extra dollars a month and will help to cut down on fossil-fuel consumption. That alone will bring my carbon net down to 4,600 pounds.

Next, I’m planning to sign up for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in my neighborhood. Basically, I’ll buy a subscription to a nearby farm, and the farmer will bring me a bag of fresh vegetables every week from now till October. This will ensure that most of my food is grown organically and locally, cutting down on the fossil fuels used to ship foods from distant destinations.

The final big contributor to my carbon output is air travel. I fly at least eight times a year, and planes are not gas-sippers. There’s not much I can do to increase the fuel-efficiency of 747s, but I can offset the impact by buying bundles of clean-energy credits—CoolWatts—from nativeenergy.com. Each $2 bundle offsets a ton of carbon dioxide emissions while funding alternative-energy programs and getting you closer to carbon-neutral. Just one bundle will get me to zero for the year, but maybe I’d better purchase a few more to offset the damage done by the gas-guzzling hoopty I drove during college. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the July issue of PopSci, in which we lay out our 10-point plan for solving the energy crisis….  —Megan Miller

Related: The Life Aquatic

The Life Aquatic

Inconvenient An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary on global warming starring Al Gore, opened this week in New York and California. I saw it last night and, though I’ve attended several academic conferences related to global warming and its effects this year, this film presents the scientific consensus on the real and significant effects of climate change in the most straightforward and compelling way I’ve seen yet.

Of course, there are still some people who don’t think there’s a problem—for instance, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank funded in part by the oil industry. It’s commissioned a couple 60-second advertising spots that are now airing in 14 U.S. cities and on its Web site. The tagline of the ads: “Carbon dioxide: They call it a pollutant. We call it Life.” Huh?

Anyway, if you’re the type who values science over spin, you might want to calculate your own contribution to the problem at climatecrisis.org (click on “Take Action,” then “Your Impact). There are quite a few of these carbon calculators available on the Web, although this one ups accuracy by adding in your airline miles—which may make some of us holier-than-thou, public-transportation-loving urbanites feel a little less smug.

The hope is that we start thinking about our own CO2 emissions the way we think about our calorie intake (not that we Americans have such a great track record in that area either). You know, like realizing that huge hunk of chocolate cake is a full 600 calories and deciding to split it with your date. It’s the same thing for your drive from Boston to Burlington. Ride with someone else, and your impact is half as much.

OK, OK, so carpooling alone won’t solve global warming. But getting people to consider their own emissions on a daily basis would be a decent start to building up the political will to take on the problem for real. Need more motivation? Check out these simulated Google maps of the warmer, flooded future.—Kalee Thompson

I Will Survive

Mask Like many of the working stiffs in New York City, I spend most of my day bathing in recirculated air in my large Manhattan office building, breathing in a thousand other peoples' germs. And let me tell you: When the first New Yorker is diagnosed with H5N1 bird flu, my apartment is going to become the PopSci Brooklyn satellite office, and anyone who wants to get in is going to have to wear a hazmat suit. I'll probably have to leave the house sometimes to pick up FRESЖA ingredients and beef jerky, and when I do, I will most likely sport a Fashion Flu Mask. (Even in a pandemic, that's how I roll.) These tarted-up respiratory protectors ($10 each) are modified N95-approved masks, the only ones the CDC recognizes as doing any good to protect against pandemic flu. Their designs are a little girlie, but I've e-mailed the company requesting a carbon-fiber-look variant. Hopefully it'll be ready by the time the flu kicks off. —Joe Brown

MacSaber Showdown

Macsaberguy It all started a few days ago with MacSaber, an application that turns motion-sensor-equipped Mac laptops into motion-sensor-equipped Mac laptops that make light-saber noises when swung madly through the air. It is fairly entertaining for the swinger, and fairly horrifying for anyone observing the reckless abandon with which such a beautiful and valuable machine is swung, as I found out recently when PopSci.com webmistress Megan Miller subjected me to a stealthy sneak attack with her shiny new MacBook.

Of course, the phenomenon has already hit YouTube, and here I give you first a parody of our favorite unknowingly-filmed Star Wars Kid. This one is all well and good, but this, friends, is the coup de grace. I hereby proclaim that the ultimate apex of nerdery has been officially reached, at the point where Star Wars, MacBooks, webcams, the Internet, plush pleather computer chairs and people who look like the Comic Book Guy all converge.

Today just so happens to be the 29th anniversary of Star Wars's theatrical release, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate. —John Mahoney


Istock_000001644884small Ah, summer. Time for sun, surf and fruity cocktails with umbrellas in them. But if you’re anything like me, umbrellas and fruit do not an effective drink make. Liquor with a splash of flavor is the quickest way to leave the 50-plus-hour workweek behind, and any information that helps me get to my “happy place” faster is always welcome. So I was thrilled to learn, just a few days before the start of summer, of a recent finding regarding artificial sweeteners. Australian researchers have discovered that mixing alcohol with low-calorie sweeteners causes the stomach to empty as much as 5.8 minutes faster than it would if you were drinking full-sugar mixers. This means that my signature drink, Captain and Coke, will have me walking the plank a bit quicker when I put the Captain on a Diet. During Digestive Disease Week 2006 (a party I want to be invited to next year!), researchers also announced that reducing the calories in your drink raises blood alcohol significantly. So, as always, don’t drink and drive…especially if you’ve been drinking diet soda. But it’s nice to know there’s a way to make those $8 cocktails stretch a little further. Readers, if you have any lo-cal drink recipes you’d like to share, we’re all ears. —Matt Cokeley

For Hardcore Geeks Only

060522_pglassesa_03You've seen The Jerk, right? If not, we suggest you load that bad boy into your Netflix queue, pronto. In this 1979 classic, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, an idiot-turned-inventor-turned-idiot who develops the "Opti-grab," a nose bridge that keeps eyeglasses from slipping off your face. The gizmo sells like hotcakes until it starts making people cross-eyed and ugly. So, um, fast-forward to 2006. Recently, two would-be Navins came up with their own version of the Opti-grap: Pierced Glasses. Simply jam a magnetic barbell through the skin on the bridge of your nose, attach magnets to your eyeglass lenses and, presto, you have frameless eyewear—and a recipe for really bad headaches. This, like the live cockroach brooches I reported on earlier, is sure to be a hit with punks and Goth kids. Maybe I should change my title to PopSci accessories editor—might score more swag that way. —Nicole Dyer

Bug Bling

Roachie_1 Looking for a foolproof way to horrify your mother and drive away your significant other? Consider giving them each one of Utah-based fashion designer Jared Gold's newest works: a live insect brooch. Gold recently released a line of accessories consisting of live Madagascar cockroaches embedded with colorful crystals and outfitted with leashes that can be attached to a person's clothing. Each bejeweled roach sells for $80 and comes with an instruction manual on how to clean and feed it (they like bananas, apparently). One caveat—well, OK, there's lots of caveats but this one is really important: Entomologist Shripat Kamble of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln tells the journal Science that "hissing cockroaches secrete certain irritants a lot of people are allergic to." Still enticed? Yeah, that's what we thought. —Nicole Dyer

Maybe Wishes ARE Horses

P1barbaroapPoor Barbaro. After sustaining horrific injuries in the Preakness—his right hind cannon bone, sesamoid and pastern were all fractured, and the fetlock joint was dislocated—he’s laid up at U. Penn’s state-of-the-art New Bolton Hospital for the foreseeable future.  Right now most reports indicate that his condition is pretty stable, but so many things can go wrong during equine rehabilitation. (How do I know? Well, I’m a horse geek and former vet tech. Plus it’s in all the papers.) No one wants to see a talented, beautiful—not to mention outrageously expensive—animal perish, but sadly, the odds are not in Barbaro’s favor. Horses can’t lie down for extended periods of time—they can suffer internal injuries from being in the prone position for too long—and they also aren’t made to stand around. Uneven pressure on those long, delicate legs can cause laminitis, a deadly ailment in which the cannon bone pulls away from the hoof wall. They’re also susceptible to salmonella and other weird infections when their systems are stressed. And when every fiber of your being is urging you to go outside and run around, being cooped up is pretty darned stressful. Which may explain why I’ve chewed the caps on all the pens in my cubicle. Anyway, horse lovers and Barbaro investors everywhere are keeping fingers crossed that the cutting-edge veterinary technology at New Bolton will lead to the Derby champ’s full recovery. We’re pulling for you, buddy. Here’s to a happy future full of grassy pastures and willing mares. —Megan Miller

Giddy-Up, Horsebot

The State of Scientist Cinema

Connery I came across an interesting article from the New York Times today, giving a run-down of what’s new in the "scientist film" genre. According to the author, we're still waiting for that special film to do for scientists what The Godfather did for la cosa nostra (um, didn’t he see Medicine Man!?). Anyway, while we all wait for the next Brando to sweep the Oscars in a lab coat, the genre is nonetheless active; a few examples given include The Mist in the Palm Trees, billed as the first “quantum film” and Challenger, a recently announced production starring David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Richard Feynman, a gifted physicist who investigated the Challenger disaster.

On the very slim chance that you didn’t love Connery as a rogue rainforest researcher finding and losing a cure for cancer, what are some other science films that tickle your fancy, blog readers? —John Mahoney

Build Your Own Laser

Laser_1I love my job, but something tells me How 2.0 would have been even more fun to run 40 years ago. Witness this 1964 PopSci article—with actual schematics—on building your own"ruby ray" laser. The best part is the sell: "The incredible ruby ray is one of the hottest scientific discoveries of the decade but practical uses are still scarce. Here's your chance to join the search." There's some advice we don't see enough of today: "Here, build some experiemental high-power stuff in your basement and let us know if you find something interesting to do with it."
Link via Makezine.com. —Mike Haney

Eating For a Living

"Cookie" Jarvis in action.
Photo: IFOCE.com

It’s almost lunchtime here at PopSci HQ, and just as I was about to go grab some leftovers from the fridge, I stumbled across this tidbit from the wires. It seems Takeru Kobayashi, competitive eating’s most talented gurgitator—yes, that’s what they’re officially called—has some new competition. In a regional-level contest, 22-year-old American newcomer Joey Chestnut ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes—only 3.5 dogs fewer than Kobayashi’s world record. In doing so, he earned a seat at the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held at Coney Island every summer, where he will face off against the pint-size world champ.

My interest piqued, I stumbled upon howstuffworks.com’s extensive guide to competitive eating, where I learned a lot of great terminology. Kobayashi’s penchant for halving his dogs before consumption, for instance, is referred to as the “Solomon Technique,” or “Japanesing” in the gerund form. I also learned that if you want to be big in competitive eating, you’ve got to have a cool nickname; notables include Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, “Crazy Legs” Conti, "Cookie" Jarvis and Kobayashi, who goes by “The Tsunami.”

PopSci has also weighed in on the science of gluttony, explaining how a 145-pound man is able to quickly eat such huge quantities of food—like, say, 18 pounds of cow brain, which is another of The Tsunami’s records—without suffering a “Roman Incident.” You can probably guess what that means.

Now, off to the hot-dog stand. —John Mahoney

More Links: International Federation of Competitive Eating hompage; Kobayashi downs some spaghetti on YouTube.

Masters of Superlatives

Three_gorges_dam China already has the world’s largest population (1.3 billion), the world’s most polluted cities (pollution-related ailments are the leading cause of death), and plans to build some of the world's tallest structures (the Shanghai World Financial Center is still under construction) to rival the current record holder, Taipei 101. This weekend, China will come one step closer to obtaining its next superlative when the last structural concrete is poured for the Three Gorges Dam.  When it comes online fully in 2009, it will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.

Although the officially reported budget for the dam is $25 billion, estimates of the actual cost are as high as $100 billion, which would also make it one of the world’s most expensive construction projects. Plus, the $100 billion does not factor in the dam's secondary costs, which include relocation expenses for the million people displaced by flooding, the loss of fertile land, bribes and corruption, and extensive environmental damage. The most environmentally destructive human construction, perhaps? That’s a record no one’s in any rush to publicize.

Google Earth's coverage of the region is disappointingly low-res, but as it always does, NASA’s Web site comes through with a giant satellite photo of the region. —John Mahoney

Related: "How High Will They Build?"

Skypin' for Nothin'

Skype_logoYesterday, Internet-phone powerhouse Skype made a good thing even better, announcing that calls made to any number in the U.S. or Canada are now free. The previous going rate was around two cents per minute—not too shabby, either. But still, free is free—and you no longer need a credit card to get started.

Skype HQ apparently had some trouble implementing the free service yesterday (it still asked some Skypers for credit), but they have apparently ironed out most of the bugs. I just called my own cellphone from my computer, and I must say it’s pretty thrilling to get something for free that you’ve been paying for all your life.

Does this mean big pain for traditional telecom companies? Many of them already offer VoIP service—but of course not for free.  Connecting your Skype account to an actual phone number for incoming calls is the only thing you still have to shell out for, but at around $35 for a full year’s worth of service, it’s the best bargain around by far. And several new Wi-Fi handsets are now hitting the market, cutting the tether to your computer and making Skype function just like a regular cordless phone [check PopSci’s rundown for a few of the hottest models].

What say you, blog readers? Ready to ditch your long-distance service and become Skypers for life? Having fun chatting with Grandma in Saskatchewan for free? Let us know in the comments. —John Mahoney

Code Monkey Mania, Or, PopSci Makes You Famous Part Deux

Code Monkey like hot chicks more than he like you.

A really neat thing about PopSci: Not only do we have contributing writers and editors but also a contributing troubador. Seriously: Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton is listed right there on our masthead, and his services—which have included creating an entire soundtrack for last year's Future of the Body issue and reporting live from the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show with comedian John Hodgman (of Daily Show fame)—are indispensible. They're about to be even more indispensible beginning this Monday, when we launch a series of podcasts in which Coulton interviews the movers and shakers of sci-tech...from the moon. Stay tuned for that.

Meanwhile, one of Coulton's coolest songs, "Code Monkey," a catchy ditty about a computer guy with an unrequited crush, has recently been turned into a most excellent machinima video by the whiz kids at Tra5h Ta1k. But doesn't making a video out of someone else's song violate copyright laws? Why, no, not in this case—and we're so glad you asked—because Coulton licensed his song as "some rights reserved" through Creative Commons, the alternative copyrighting nonprofit started by Stanford genius Lawrence Lessig.

But get this: Just days after the "Code Monkey" video went live, an opportunistic capitalist started selling T-shirts and mousepads emblazoned with the song's refrain, "Code Monkey Like Fritos." This was flattering but not kosher, since the song was licensed for noncommercial sharing only, and Coulton had to nicely ask the T-shirt seller to stop. And then he started selling his own "Code Monkey" gear, which is now available at Cafepress. I should probably get one for free after all the href-ing and Coulton-hyping I just did. Ahem. —Megan Miller

Related: PopSci Makes You Famous

Rogue Waves: A Real Threat?

Rogue_wavethumb Last night, a few of us PopSci editors were invited to an IMAX screening of the new movie Poseidon, the Wolfgang Petersen flick about a cruise ship that’s hit by a huge rogue wave. The film, which opens today, has all the teeth-gritting suspense of The Day After Tomorrow—with the cheesy dialogue slashed by a good 75 percent. As the star, actor Josh Lucas, explained in a Q&A session after our screening, that’s because the actors realized on-set that the script was pathetically absurd and cut out as much of the dialogue as they could get away with.

Lucas also bluntly acknowledged that the reason actors do these films is just for the money and that the filming itself was a painful slog. Literally; two emergency-room visits resulted from injuries he sustained as he struggled through the submerged maze of wires and debris that made up the set. But enough about the star. How about the 100-foot wall of water that scuttles the ship in the first place? About as absurd as The Day After Tomorrow’s 24-hour global freeze, right?

Actually, no. It turns out these waves are real, and they actually do sink a number of ships each year. Rogue waves (also called freak waves or monster waves) were long assumed to be just the stuff of mariner legend. Until January 1, 1995, when just such a wave was definitely documented at a North Sea oil platform (in a rare though insignificant case of action flick mimicking reality, the wave also strikes the fictional Poseidon on New Year’s). In 2000, the EU initiated Project MaxWave, which used imagery from European Space Agency satellites to conclude once and for all that rogue waves are real. Scientists are now using the project’s finding to study the root causes of the monster swells. My conclusion: Add rogue waves to the long list of good reasons never to go on a cruise. And check out this link for more on the science behind them. —Kalee Thompson

Hitch Your Wagon to the Stars...On the Ceiling

Homestar_1 Ever gone camping in the boonies or looked out an airplane window and wondered, Hey, what are all those glowing dots in the sky? If you live in a city, even a small one, it’s likely that you’ve experienced the adverse effects of sky glow—that mildly unpleasant nighttime orangeness that keeps us from seeing even some of the brightest stars in the night sky.

Well, now you can circumvent this problem with the HomeStar Home Planetarium, a Japan-only toy brought to you by the folks at Sega. Forget the whole “nature” thing—just set up the $229 HomeStar on your bedside table, douse the lights, and bathe in the glow of its 10,000 LED-projected stars. You can even program it to switch itself off after you’ve been lulled into a deep astral sleep. Try getting the Milky Way to do that next time you’ve pitched your tent in the supposedly “great” outdoors. —John Mahoney

Link [via Gizmodo]

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