Everyone at the Chaos Communication Congress wants to participate in hands-on experiments as much as possible. That's why the worshop areas in the Berlin Convention Center -- both the officially labeled "Workshop" and all the ad-hoc arrangements everywhere on tables and floors -- are some of the most popular spots here at CCC. Although it would be impossible for me to summarize every cool project I've seen here, I'll offer you a few highlights so you can plan your next long weekend around them.
1. Christian Daniel and Thomas Kleffel gave an excellent presentation on the new European digital television broadcast standard known as DVB-T. Eventually all TVs in Europe will receive TV signals through DVB set top boxes that de-scramble the digital signals send over the air, and already DVB has taken over in Germany. Daniel and Kleffel built their own DVB transmitter and explained it to an engrossed audience (at left, Daniel with the transmitter). According to Daniel, it's quite easy to inject your own data into the signal and take over somebody else's set top box. This is particularly spooky, he added, because most set top boxes can be reprogrammed remotely in a permanent way. (You can find out how to build a DVB transmitter and experiment with your own set top box here.) As Seth Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out in his talk later that day, it's crucial to start hacking DVB now, before it has been locked down with DRM.
2. There's nothing like learning a made-up natural language when you've already mastered several computer languages, and Lojban was what everybody wanted to know more about at CCC. Lojban is a constructed langauge or "conlang," and its main properties are beauty and complete adherence to the rules of logic. Lojban is an outgrowth of Loglan, a logical language developed in the 1950s. Today Lojban has several thousand speakers -- including one named Alexander Koch (at left) who took over the Workshop area in the Conference Center basement to teach us how to have rudamentary but completely unambiguous conversations. Want to learn Lojban? As Koch put it, "Lojban is the hacker's spoken language." Check out the book "What is Lojban?" and learn more.
3. During one of the five-minute "lightning talks," SJ from the US nonprofit One Laptop Per Child introduced the new version of the so-called "$100 computer." It looks fantastic, and is the perfect size and durability for tiny humans. He said his organization will be handing 5 million of them to children in five countries next year, with the idea that if they work in remote, rural regions they can work almost anywhere. Showing off the computer and grinning, he said, "Kids who try these never want to give them back. They know exactly what they want to do with them." SJ asked the audience to help improve the devices by submitting proposals for games, stories, and software appropriate for teaching kids. Why not help improve the computers yourself by coming up with your own project and volunteering to build it?
4. On the first day of the convention, Fabienne Serriere spent two hours teaching people how to make their backpacks into wifi-sensing devices by modifying a wifi detector and sewing it into a backpack strap. It was the ultimate blend of home economics and home electronics, and the workshop attendees loved it. Want to build your own, so that you can glow when passing through the 2.4 ghz range of the spectrum? Find out how to do it here.
These projects should amuse you for days on end, and if you need more you can always come to CCC next year. --Annalee Newitz
IT security expert Sebastian Wolfgarten wanted to find out if he could get
around the so-called Great Firewall of China, a vast Internet
censorship system that prevents Chinese citizens from accessing
information their government deems sensitive. Yesterday, he told Chaos Communication Congress attendees how he did it.
Researchers have known
for the past several years that when Chinese citizens type certain
phrases like “Falun Gong” and “Taiwan” into Google, they
receive very different results than people outside the region do. Wolfgarten
wanted to know why, and whether there might be a simple technical way
to dig a little escape route through the Great Firewall.
Getting into China's network turned out to be easier than you might imagine. Wolfgarten simply bought a server at a Chinese ISP by phone. Once the server was set up, he could log into it from Germany. And all the data that went through the server
would be subject to the same digital censorship that Chinese citizens
experience every day. He quickly discovered that when he requested
information on Taiwan through his Chinese server, he got
no data in return. Sometimes, he couldn't access his server for days
on end. When he phoned the ISP for information, workers there told
him the server was running. He was just blocked from reaching it.
Over the next year, he tried several
methods for getting uncensored data to his Chinese server through
the Great Firewall. He would log into the server, then make requests for information about Amnesty.org or
Falun Gong. What he discovered was that there are three fairly simple
ways to trick the automatic Chinese censorship system.
The first, and easiest, is to use the anonymous network Tor. Though there has been some debate as to whether Tor would work in China, it seems to be successful for now. Another method, which had been previously identified by researchers with the OpenNet Initiative a couple of years ago, involves essentially ignoring censorship commands sent by Chinese servers. Apparently the Great Firewall censors data by responding to forbidden key words with a network command called a "reset." The reset instructs the Chinese computer to drop its connection. The hitch is that the data is still coming in, but injected with the "reset" command. Program your own firewall to ignore "reset" commands and you've got uncensored data.
Crafty anti-censorship types in China can also get uncensored data by doing something called "tunnelling," which seems particularly appropros when dealing with a Great Firewall. Wolfgarten tested what happened when he hid requests for "Falun Gong" inside seemingly-innocuous requests for e-mail or basic network information. A computer outside the Wall unwraps the requests, gets the data, rewraps them and returns them to China uncensored.
Wolfgarten admitted that it's not clear that servers owned by foreigners are subject to the same treatment as Chinese-owned servers. He concluded by saying that a lot more research needs to be done, and invited others to help him.
You can read Wolfgarten's paper about his research here. --Annalee Newitz
At the Chaos Communication Congress, there are hackers and a hacker "scene." The two overlap like a Venn diagram of social life. But the differences between them are obvious to anyone who spends any length of time observing what happens at this conference in between the lectures and technical demonstrations.
Traditionally, hackers are people who like to explore the way technology works. Often, in the process, they come to question the way corporations and governments control computers -- or use technology to control people. This humanitarian, explorer spirit is what holds the hacker community together. It's what motivated Alan Bradley, one of Friday's late-night speakers, to deliver his entire talk via a VOIP phone whose data stream was double-cloaked with two software tools that hid the origin of his telephone call. "This is a proof of concept that demonstrates you can engage in completely anonymous public speech," his broadcast voice said. Everyone in the room listened to an empty podium (see photo at left) that contained only a computer while Bradley explained Tron, a tool that cloaks data stored in computer memory. It's also what motivated Hunz to give a talk called "Void the Warranty!" in which he encouraged people to open up "blackbox" technologies like printers and cell phones "because it's easy and fun."
But the hacker community isn't all about technical expertise. It's also about partying, music, art, and socializing among people who aren't likely to demean you for pulling out a laptop at a nightclub or obsessively reciting details from the latest Doctor Who episode. That's where the hacker "scene" comes in. Unlike other professional conferences, CCC is full of people who just want to drink beer or goof around online with their friends. It also includes people whose hacks are cultural in nature -- instead of reverse-engineering magnetic card readers with an oscilliscope, they reverse-engineer and question social norms. That's why some of the most packed talks at CCC were delivered by non-technical people like civil liberties activist and musician John Perry Barlow and copyright reformist attorney Lawrence Lessig. As CCC attendee and speaker Autumn Tyr-Salvia put it, "People at this conference often have to do things that aren't documented in the manual -- they're creative, and that's why the environment is a mix of work and play."
Many events at CCC are purely recreational, but nevertheless infused geek values -- there's Hacker Jeopardy and "powerpoint karaoke." Other events take place outside the conference center at nightclubs like the hacker-run C-Base and at after-hours parties in the hotel rooms of conference organizers. Sure there may be some posing going on , and at CCC in general, but that's simply proof that hackers are more than robots with no social lives. They're as cliquey and drunk as any other group of people who have gotten together with 5000 friends for the weekend. Are people who identify as part of the "scene" any less important the people who see themselves as computer professionals? It's hard to say. You couldn't have CCC without both. --Annalee Newitz
Speaking to a packed and sweaty crowd this afternoon, RFID researcher Melanie Rieback explained the technology behind RFID Guardian, a personal firewall she's developing that will protect your privacy in an world where your clothes, library books, and passport contain RFID tags. You can see the latest completed version of the Guardian above -- it's an ordinary circuitboard with two antennae and powerful onboard processors. It intercepts signals from RFID readers that are attempting to get information from, say, the RFID in your passport. Like a software firewall, it won't let those signals reach your RFID unless you want them to -- for example, if you're passing through customs.
"You can set the Guardian to selectively block your RFIDs," Rieback explained. So if you don't want anybody snooping on the RFID in your credit card, but you don't mind if they read the one in your Nikes, you can use the Guardian to stop only signals that query your credit card. This device should prove a boon to privacy advocates who fear that people will be tracked everywhere when RFIDs become ubiquitous in most consumer items, key cards, and IDs.
Right now the Guardian is a prototype, but Rieback's working on compact version that will be available commercially in six months to a year for about 100 Euro. Simply clip the Guardian to your belt, and you can set it up to prevent people from reading your RFID tags and snarfing your personal data. As she fielded questions from the audience after her lecture (see right), Rieback explained the ins and outs of the chipset she'd chosen as well as why she'd become interested in this work. She wants to protect consumer privacy, as well as alert the RFID industry to some of the dangers that crop up when technology makes it easy for malicious individuals to make off with personal data or track a victim's location.
In the future, Rieback predicted, the RFID Guardian could be something you download to your next generation smart phone. Think of it as a do-not-call list for RFIDs. -- Annalee Newitz
This morning at the Chaos Communication Congress, Cambridge Ph.D. student Steven Murdoch (pictured at left) knocked everybody's socks off with a presentation about how people can unmask an anonymous online publisher by remotely monitoring his computer's temperature. It sounds about as tin foil hat as you can get, but the trick is real. Every computer's clock is run via quartz crystals, but those crystals change their speeds as the computer heats up. Therefore a computer's clock runs nanoseconds faster or slower depending on the overall temperature of the unit. This process is called clock skew, and it creates a uniquely off-kilter time "fingerprint" for every computer.
Researchers in the field have pointed out that asking a computer what time it is over and over for an extended period allows you to chart its time skew as it heats up and cools
off over a day's use. (See the chart at right for an example of a computer's unique time skew profile.) Murdoch talked about how time skew tracking could also be used to locate computers hidden via an anonymous network-within-a-network called Tor. Dissidents, whistleblowers, and other people who wish to remain anonymous can publish information on the Internet using Tor's "hidden services" mode. But a computer offering these hidden services can't hide its heat and resulting clock skew.
Somebody who wants to nab dissidents can send lots of data to the computer running hidden services, heat it up, take a measurement, and then compare those measurements to other computers in the Tor network. Once she has a match, that person will know the IP address of the computer hosting the formerly-anonymous publisher. She can now track the computer down and destroy it. Murdoch speculated that time skew might also reveal the whereabouts of a computer because one could figure out what time of day air conditioning got turned on and off, or when sun was heating up the room where the computer is located. One could also figure out, based on the heat signature, whether a computer was stored in a rack or under somebody's desk.
There are no good ways to defend against time skew monitoring. Fans and temperature regulators don't correct for the tiny changes in temperature required to produce skew. So even if you're hiding using advanced tech like Tor, your heat can give you away. Read Murdoch's paper on the topic here. -- Annalee Newitz
In a day of fantastic lectures and demonstrations at the Chaos Communication Congress, one of the most intriguing came from a computer science/artificial intelligence undergraduate at MIT named Christine Corbett Moran. She's been a very active contributor to an open source project called MOSES devoted to statistical machine translation (SMT). Although there are already a number of automatic translation software programs available -- many people are familiar with Google's translator and BabelFish -- few are open source and none are as robust as MOSES.
The advantage of making the program open source is that many people can implement it in various applications for an arbitrary number of languages. And the more that people implement it, the better MOSES gets. Moran joked that MOSES would be perfect for Finnish people who want to translate their writing into Klingon. But of course fast, automatic translation online is crucial to many people's daily lives -- not just Nordic Star Trek fans.
MOSES works sort of like a Bayesean spam filter, learning statistically which translations are "good" from vast quantities of language data. MOSES "learns" correct translations by poring over corpora of translations, the same way your spam filter "learns" when you mark some mail as spam. Moran said an excellent source of translations for MOSES are available from the European parliament, where speeches and discussions are translated into many languages at once. She urged the audience to test out the software, and add as many languages as possible to it.
A representative from Wikipedia seemed particularly excited by the possibilities, and vowed to test out MOSES on Wikipedia entries to see if it might work for mass translation on the huge community-edited encyclopedia. Moran thought that would be a great idea -- after all, the more correct translations MOSES sees, the better its translations become. As Moran fielded dozens of questions in the hall after her talk, it was obvious that open source translation programs are sorely needed. MOSES, or perhaps the next version of MOSES, may be what allows you to talk to people around the world in their languages -- instantaneously. --Annalee Newitz
At the Chaos Communication Congress, a small group of hackers who love a strange computer langauge known as Dylan convinced several thousand people to voluntarily place themselves under surveillance with wearable radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs). They presented their project, called Sputnik, at the conference yesterday. The Sputnik crew placed RFID readers throughout the conference space, and anyone wearing the Sputnick RFID tags (on sale at the front desk for 10 Euros) would be tracked throughout the conference. Participants could register their RFID tag ID number online, and associate it with their name or other personal information. One of the project designers told a packed audience, "Anyone can click on your ID number via a web interface, and find out which lectures you have attended."
The RFID tags contain a transmitter, battery, and what appear to be two processors as well as two crystals (schematics will be posted on the Sputnik website soon). Best of all, the Sputnik crew set up a 3D visualization of the entire conference center, with avatars representing each person with an RFID tag. Using a large touchscreen (pictured at left), users could "look around" the 3D space, select avatars, and find out who they were and where they'd been. Essentially, the Sputnik visualization turned the entire conference into a virtual world containing real world data. As one person using the the display commented, "This is awesome!" Unfortunately, so many people hit the Sputnik website that the display was down for most of the day. But it appears to be back up today and there are more people than ever zooming around with the Sputnik RFID tags clipped to their jackets.
By the end of the conference, the Sputnik crew will know a great deal about what the typical person has done at CCC. They will also have sparked several debates about whether surveillance is ever a good thing -- even if it's done for amusement. --Annalee Newitz
I arrived at the 23rd annual Chaos
Communication Congress in Berlin early Tuesday evening. The conference wasn't set to start
until the next day, and the registration desk in the cavernous,
Soviet Era Berlin Conference Center wasn't open yet. But
there was already a huge line of people waiting to buy badges. The event they waited for so patiently is
one of the oldest hacker conferences in Europe, and is organized in
part by the Chaos Computer Club, a Berlin-based group that works
within the government and the European technical community for civil
liberties and freedom of expression in the digital world. On the
roster for the four day conference? Everything from tutorials on
hacking Xboxes to lectures about the politics of trust in an age of
Chattering excitedly in a mix of English and German, people in
t-shirts advertising secure operating systems discussed things like
smart phones (called “handies” in German), techno music, and
politics. When registration finally opened, around 7 PM, the harried
volunteer behind the counter couldn't find my name in the system and
finally admitted, in German-flavored English, “It is a bit chaos.”
The conference runs 24 hours a day, with many people spending the
night on the conference room floor in sleeping bags, so he advised
that I come back for my badge around 3 AM.
I needed to sleep off my jetlag, so I
vowed to come back at reasonable hour after poking around a bit.
Volunteers with Network Operations Center, or NOC, had a vast number
of tables laid out with equipment that would form the CCC computer
network. The central lounge, which normally serves as a cafeteria,
had been turned into a hipster-nerd haven full of sofas, computer
screens, a DJ station, and a display of LED confections that blinked
hypnotically in one corner. Groups of friends huddled in hacker
circles where laptops often outnumbered people.
The excitement of the hundreds of geeks
who had already arrived was palpable. By tomorrow, there would be
thousands of them. And I would be there too, playing with machines
and ideas just for the hell of it, and to make the world a better
place. That's what CCC is all about. Stay tuned for detailed reports about the stuff I'll learn over the next few days. —Annalee Newitz
The electrons in metal are the worker ants of electricity: ubiquitous, able to work together to carry great loads, and free to roam in any direction. Since they’re unbound to any single atom or molecule, they can swim through the metal and move charge from one place to another. Air, on the other hand, lacks these mighty swimmers. All its electrons are held tight to their parent molecules. If you want to get air to conduct electricity like a metal, you have to pull those electrons away—and pull real hard.
That, in effect, is what the 500,000 volts in this switchyard are doing. When the circuit breaks at the beginning of the clip, the electrical field between the contacts is so strong that it yanks electrons free from the nitrogen and oxygen in the air. These electrons flow uninhibited between terminals as if they were in a metal and allow the air—now acting as a plasma, not a gas—to conduct electricity. It’s the same thing that happens in lightning, except lightning is one quick burst of energy from cloud to ground. Here, we’ve got a power plant spitting out energy to spare. Electricity tears the air apart so that it can flow through the cracks.
Unsurprisingly, all this activity heats the air pretty quickly. That’s why the arc—the area of lowest resistance, where the electrons can be freed from their host molecules—moves up. Hot air rises, after all. —Michael Moyer
What’s better than graphing calculators, Linux 2.6 and World of Warcraft combined? Watching a persecuted geek turn the tables by kicking ass and taking names. Yes, we at PopSci love underdogs—especially those with megawatt brainpower and unconventional fashion sense. It takes a real hero to buck the system with nothing more than major smarts, which is why the archetypal nerd has become a staple of Hollywood screenwriting.
From Steve Urkel to Lisa Simpson, nerds have proved that neither high-water pants nor an acute interest in quadratic equations will ever stop a determined soul from finding true love, foiling the bully, solving a mystery, or striking it rich. That’s why we’re paying homage to our beleaguered brethren with this gallery of all-time favorite on-screen nerds. We applaud these characters’ ingenuity, moxy and—in the case of the many ‘80s movies represented here—seriously nostalgia-inducing technology. So click open the slideshow, and get ready to cheer all over again as your favorite outcasts save the world. —Josh Condon
It used to be that if you wanted something like Adobe Photoshop, the digital age's ne plus ultra of expensive pro-level software, you had two choices: Plunk down $650 (plus several hundreds more down the road for upgrades), or quickly and easily (and illegally) grab it via BitTorrent and have it up and running in an hour, for free. The sheer ubiquity of Photoshop in mainstream culture (“Photoshopped” isn't in Webster's yet, but it won't be long) seems to suggest that most people, unsurprisingly, tend to go with option B.
Thankfully, a much less insidious third option is gaining momentum: the world of free and open-source alternatives. Although the Internet might be the largest black-market trading post in the history of the world, it's also, lest we forget, a tool that facilitates other kinds of collaborations that no one before could have possibly imagined. So whereas it once took a team of well-paid and overworked engineers to develop complex professional software programs like Photoshop, the same high-quality work can be done with much greater efficiency and drastically less cost through open-source software projects that harness the talents of amateur and professional software engineers the world over. Better yet, the fruits of all this next-level labor are almost always made available free of charge.
OSalt.com is an incredibly handy guide to this constantly evolving world. It pairs open-source projects with their traditional expensive equivalents, making it easy to find what you need. All the heavy hitters are there: Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, the Adobe Premier video-editing suite, Microsoft Office (including the diagramming software Visio), Dreamweaver, Maya (for 3-D modeling) and many more—all told, thousands of dollars’ worth of pro software with surprisingly capable and, best of all, free alternatives. And since their source code is open to everyone, several open-source apps have interesting spin-offs, such as Gimpshop, the version of the GIMP image-processing application that mirrors Photoshop's menus and keyboard shortcuts exactly, making power users feel instantly closer to home.
There aren't too many things able to liberate your conscience and your wallet at the same time. And it's only going to get better from here. —John Mahoney
As the Zune, Microsoft’s ham-handed entry into the handheld media arena, nears the lowly peak of its popularity, we’ve been wondering: Why is it that the thing fails to please? Is it the incompatibility of our iTunes-purchased music? The fact that the wireless peer-to-peer feature erases shared media after three short days? Perhaps it’s the unattractive shade of brown that some self-important design studio convinced Microsoft would outshine the iPod?
Or is it the name? Neither masculine nor feminine, active nor passive, verb nor noun, the coinage “Zune” achieves a mystical feat. It sounds historical, it’s easily memorized, and it’s utterly undignified. Hebrew-speakers may even recognize its aural similarity to a certain unholy curse word.
So perhaps it's appropriate that it be the moniker slapped on the year’s most disappointing product. We’re thinking “zune” could become the year’s next nonsensical Gen-Y slang word [think “huck” (verb) or “bunk” (adjective)]. Without further ado, then, our Letterman-style Top 10 list of ways to make better use of the word “zune.” —Jake Ward
10. Yo, don't zune that spliff, man. Pass it arrrround.
9. That’s when I told my boss to go zune himself.
8. No matter how much cream I apply, my zunes just won’t go away.
7. It’s not the way the suit is cut—it’s the way the fabric zunes against my skin.
6. Listen, pal, in a few keystrokes I could zune your credit history to the point where you couldn’t buy a sandwich.
5. I tried to hit that 780-twist off the halfpipe, but I, like, totally zuned the landing.
4. Uh-huh—that hot girl in the red dress over there? I zuned her.
3. I said what? Well, you know, I was pretty zuned at the holiday office party.
2. I think I just zuned in my mouth a little bit.
1. I was trying to jump over that parking meter, but I zuned myself in the Wii.
What makes a racecar spontaneously rip a 360 backflip? A perfect storm of hills and tailgating, that’s what. In this case, driver Yannick Dalmas, racing for Team Porsche in the 1998 Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta, was drafting the car in front of him while zooming over a rise. As he crested the hill, the car’s suspension pulled up, allowing more air to flow under the car and creating lift. Simultaneously, the draft from the car in front of him interrupted the airflow over the nose of Yannick’s car, sapping the much-needed downforce that kept the car in contact with the pavement. Without that downforce, there was nothing to stop the car’s nose from continuing upward once it started. After that, it’s pure physics opera: The nose of the car leaves the draft zone and enters the airstream, which accelerates the lift and pushes the nose backward while the weight of the rear-mounted engine continues its forward momentum. Voilà! A fantastic, white-knuckled twirl that—luckily—sustained enough momentum to end upright. Must have been an awesome ride. (Dalmas walked away uninjured.) —Martha Harbison
Longtime PopSci contributing editor Phil Torrone would like to give your gadget a tattoo. Torrone, who also runs the Make blog, and his pal Limor Fried just announced their new NYC-based laser-etching business, Adafruit.
What the heck is laser etching? Basically, it's a way of using a very fine-point laser to literally vaporize away a superthin layer of material from a surface, such as the back of your Powerbook ($100) or iPod ($30). Like your grandpa's Navy tat, it's permanent and monochrome, but because the laser is so precise, you can get finely detailed images and even simulate shading
and gradients. Bring in your own image file, and they'll load it up and burn away.
The coolest part about Torrone's business is that it's all open source:
following the belief that nothing is as innovative as a large, cooperative
community of active participants, he and Fried will make available every bit
of their business plan, from finances to operations, in order to help others
start their own businesses. When you come to their store (etchings are by
appointment only in New York), they'll explain to you how the etching is
done and how you could do it yourself. They even let you push the "go" button.
In the years I've known Phil, he's consistently told me about the next hot
thing (podcasts, online video sharing, Second Life, Roomba cockfighting) a
year or more before anyone else. I'm not sure if laser etching is going to
sweep the malls of middle America, but I'd bet the cost of an etched Zune
that this isn't the last open-source business we see. --Mike Haney
Perhaps it's a bit early to start talking about New Year's resolutions, but as the January issue of PopSci hits stands this week, I've got 2007 on the brain. My resolution? To get into more arguments. Well, OK: debates. Principled debates. Debates about principles.
First I’ll probably engage in a few informal, impromptu debates with my fellow editors in which we kick around our ideas about what the core principles of this magazine are, and how those principles do and should find their expression in these pages. I’ve been thinking about this for a while—that we all (editors and readers) would benefit from the bracing clarity that comes from the crafting and setting in type of a PopSci manifesto, a declaration of principles.
I can tell you already where this conversation begins: with unswerving support for scientific freedom. We at Popular Science will always advocate for the ability of scientists to engage in open inquiry without threat of sanction or censure, and with the assurance that the fruits of their research will be considered and debated publicly, carefully, and without prejudice. Science, both basic and applied, is, I believe, the primary engine for improvement in this world. But to be so, its practitioners’ efforts cannot be squelched before they begin, and their findings cannot be suppressed, no matter how socially or politically inconvenient they might be.
You may or may not agree with all that—I certainly don’t hold these truths to be self-evident—and so I expect I’ll be enjoying a healthy debate with and among PopSci readers. Normally, I wouldn’t expect a debate around such principles to be conducted along partisan political lines. Unfortunately, though, that kind of polarization is exactly what has been happening over the past six years, with a president in the White House whose actions and policies are often blatantly antagonistic toward scientific freedom—and, until next month, a same-party Congress so unwilling to challenge him that he felt the need to exercise his veto power exactly once (last July, to strike down a bill that would have established guidelines for federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research). My hope is that the political realignment brought about by the midterm elections will end up raising the level of discussion, in Washington and across the country. Let the debate begin. —Mark Jannot
From 007’s jetpack in Thunderball
to his iconic laser-equipped Omega watch, the James Bond movie
franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of its audience’s
gadget lust. We at PopSci were a bit disappointed at the dearth of gizmos in this year’s Casino Royale (which for some reason—cha-ching—were
mostly made by Sony), but our discussion about the current film sparked
a debate in the office about spy gear from Bond films past. Which was
the sexiest weapon? (The venom boots in From Russia With Love.)
The best vehicle? (Depends whether you want your car to swim or fly.)
The deadliest accessory? (Gotta be that briefcase.) In the end, we
compiled a list of our 15 favorite Bond gadgets of all time. Peruse
them in the photo gallery, here. —Fred Koschmann
Share your own favorites with us in the comments section below.
The BBC’s clever automotive show Top Gear recently staged its own vehicular version of the Winter Olympics. The high point—pardon the pun—was when they launched a rocket-powered Mini off a ski jump. Despite the extra kick provided by the rockets, the Mini failed to match the distance of a real Olympic ski jumper. Why?
Once an object leaves the ground, we can forget about everything but four simple forces: (1) lift, which opposes (2) gravity, and (3) thrust, which opposes (4) drag. In an airplane, the engines produce enough thrust to overcome the drag created by the airframe punching a hole in the sky at hundreds of miles per hour, while the wings create enough lift to fight gravity and keep the plane aloft.
Our example is a bit simpler. A ski jumper lacks thrust, and, as we see in the video, even the Mini’s rockets are largely exhausted by the time it runs out of ramp. So we can ignore that component. Drag is important, but uninteresting, and ultimately less critical than the other two forces: lift and gravity.
Ask 100 scientists and engineers what causes lift, and most of them will probably give you some version of the nonsense the rest of us learned in school: high pressure below a wing, low pressure above. Wrong! This is a typical consequence of lift, but it’s not the cause. What creates lift, as deftly explained here by the folks who put the first “A” in NASA, is what they call “turning” the air. As air passes beneath a wing, the wing pushes that air down. By Newton’s third law (the one about every action having an equal and opposite reaction), the air must also push back up on the wing. This push is lift.
What does all this have to do with our Mini? Well, a stocky car on skis isn’t pushing air in any one direction, it’s just pushing it out of the way. That means it isn’t producing any lift. A ski jumper, on the other hand, positions her body and skis in a very precise way so as to maximize a net downward push of air. She pushes down so that the air might push back up.
But we must subtract from this push the persistent force of gravity. Fair enough. Fortunately for our jumper, the force of gravity is proportional to an object’s mass, and so the Earth pulls her down with a force less than a tenth the magnitude of the Mini’s. So our jumper’s net acceleration will be her lift (which is small but important) minus her gravity, while the Mini’s net acceleration will be its lift (which is zero) minus its gravity (which is an order of magnitude higher than the jumpers). Result: Even though the Mini might take off at a higher speed, it drops so much faster than the skier that their jump distances can’t compare. —Michael Moyer
Three years ago, I was shot by the U.S. Air Force. It hurt like hell,
but it didn't kill me. Nor were there any residual effects. In fact,
five seconds after they shot me, I could barely tell that anything had
happened at all. The weapon they hit me with was the Active Denial
System—a microwave pain beam. I volunteered as a test subject
for a story on nonlethal weapons, and the Air Force saw no reason not to shoot a journalist with the thing. You can
read about my superhuman pain-endurance capabilities here.
(Actually, I sprang into the air like a ballerina the second they
turned it on.)
After several years of further development and
miniaturization, it looks like the Air Force is about to deploy the
pain beam to Iraq as a crowd-control device. It remains controversial,
because the implications of its strategic use are still unknown, and
some think the long-term residual effects on victims have yet to be
fully assessed. I can tell you from experience, though, that apart from
my newfound ability to heat up cups of tea simply by staring intensely
at them for 15 seconds, I've suffered no ill effects. [Side note: In the Wired article below, the writer's being a bit dramatic. The truth is, you don't actually feel like
you've been dipped in molten lava, and you don't almost faint from
shock and pain. Your body acts faster than you can think, so you don't
stick around long enough to get even close to fainting. Deployed
versions would have built-in cutoffs to prevent the beam from lingering
long enough on an individual to have such effects.] Also, watch for our
February feature on nonlethal weapons being adopted by the Los Angeles
Sheriff's Department. —Eric Adams
NASA today announced the discovery of what appear to be signs of water
recently flowing on the surface of Mars. In new photos of large Martian
gullies taken by the Mars Global Surveyor not long before
it expired, scientists noticed several instances of light-colored streaks
that had not appeared in past photos of the same regions taken as recently as
2001. The light coloring is especially exciting considering that meteor
impacts and Mars rovers tend to leave dark trails in the
Although water on Mars isn't necessarily a new discovery—geographical
evidence suggests that water existed in ample quantities at some point in the
planet's past, and it is also found in the polar ice caps and in
traces of atmospheric water vapor—the fact that it may still be actively
flowing on the planet's surface could indicate the presence of active
subterranean aquifers, which may support microbial life. Some scientists are skeptical,
observing that the streaks seen in the photographs may be avalanches of carbon
dioxide or dust. NASA, though, remains optimistic and will continue to
investigate the potential source of the water streams with its remaining
spacecraft in the planet's orbit, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. —John Mahoney
PopSci contributor Chuck Cage—a.k.a. the Toolmonger—is the man, plain and simple. Not only did he spend more than 75 hours completely gutting a Fender Squier Strat to make a wireless Guitar Hero controller, but he did it for charity. And then posted an extremely comprehensive blog post about it. Even though he got to play the controller for just 10 minutes before sending it to the charity event where it's being auctioned off, Chuck reports that it feels much more, ahem, "realistic" than the chintzy plastic controllers you usually use to play the game. Makes me want to run home right now and take apart my ax—I sound better in GH2 than I ever have in real life anyway. Chuck, you are my guitar hero.—Joe Brown