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« March 2006 | Main | May 2006 »

Robo-Dogs for Grandma?

Aibo_1 What to get Grandma for her birthday? Well, you might want to dig around in some piles of discarded electronics. Researchers at St. Louis University are studying whether the Sony Aibo can make nursing home residents feel less lonely. Yikes. If the Aibo—the recently discontinued, much-mocked plastic pooch—turns out to help, it may say less about robot dogs than it does about the quality of nursing homes and the deteroriation of our social fabric. Anyway, the same researchers recently got attention for a valuable study that showed that seniors get a boost from flesh-and-blood pups. Weirdly, however, that study also showed that the seniors actually preferred a visit from a dog alone, instead of with human companions. I guess if personality doesn't count, maybe the Aibo could work after all. —Lauren Aaronson

NASA's Roadkill Posse

Vulture_1 When the space shuttle Discovery launched under close scrutiny last July, those problematic chunks of fuel-tank insulation were not the only pieces of debris to strike the orbiter as it ascended to space. On its way through the skies above Cape Canaveral (situated in the middle of a wildlife preserve), the shuttle also struck a vulture—resulting in what was probably the most uniquely thrilling and terrifying death a bird could ever experience but, thankfully, causing no damage to the shuttle itself. Eager to reduce the potential for heat-shield damage during launch (the cause of the 2003 Columbia accident), NASA has formed a Cape Canaveral “roadkill posse” that will attempt to eliminate the vultures’ source of food, in hopes that the area’s substantial population will relocate. NASA employees have also been encouraged to report all roadkill sightings on a special hotline. If all goes according to plan, Discovery will return to vulture-free skies sometime this summer. —John Mahoney

A Picture Worth a Thousand SMSs

Translation: "Sorry me say you
fat. You beautiful and thin."

Remember Esperanto, that 19th-century attempt at creating a universal language? (Which, by the way, is apparently still kicking). Well, now there’s a version for the cellphone era. Zlango is a system of cartoonish images—think: advanced emoticons—that you can use to send text messages. Since concepts are represented by pictures, rather than words, the developers hope that people who speak different languages will be able to communicate with each other. At the moment it’s available only in Israel, the company’s base, but it may soon spread. Start practicing now, because even text-crazy teens may have a hard time understanding a Zlango-ized "Little Red Riding Hood". —Lauren Aaronson

Your Brain's Favorite Videogame?

Brainage_1 The Nintendo DS handheld gaming system has sold fairly well here in the U.S., but it’s practically on fire in Japan, where its games regularly dominate the weekly top-5 sales charts. The console itself has sold almost two million units so far this year (its closest competitor, the PlayStation 2, has sold only 500,000). Its success is due in large part to its uniquely unconventional games, especially Brain Age, a quirky educational title designed with the help of a Japanese neuroscientist that has dominated the Japanese market. The U.S. version was released last week.

The game is fairly simple—you perform a variety of memory and cognition-based mini games, such as counting the number of people in a house as you watch them enter and exit, or identifying the number of syllables in a spoken phrase, all of which are supposedly beneficial to your brain’s overall health. The game then determines how “old” your brain is according to your highest scores (the younger your brain, the better).

Despite a study by a psychologist at the University of Virginia claiming that the actual mental benefits of Brain Age are almost nil, the game’s success (especially among adults and even seniors, a valuable and untapped gaming market) is already spawning imitators. Sega has a similar title for the PSP currently in the works, and the Japan-only Brain Age sequel is selling just as well as the original.

What do you think? Can your mind really benefit from Brain Age, or is this all just a clever way to sell more games? Sound off in the “Comments” section below. —John Mahoney


Keep it Simple, Stupid

Face Last weekend, during a trip north from Washington, D.C., my family and I pulled into one of the rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike. While wife and daughter #1 went inside, 18-month-old daughter #2 and I stretched our legs. An older gentleman approached me somewhat sheepishly and asked if I could help him. "I have this rental car," he explained, "and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to open the trunk!" I assumed he was just not particularly car-savvy, but I quickly learned that he was in no way to blame for this. I contorted myself into the car—little Alice hanging on like a koala—and was able to figure out in fairly short order (mainly because I happen to be an auto writer) that the Buick's trunk release was way down low on the door and was part of a two-mode rocker switch that also popped the gas door. The cryptic, practically microscopic icons were barely discernable to my eyes, and probably much harder to grasp for older drivers. There was no trunk-release button on the key fob, making it utterly impossible for him to get into his trunk from the outside and put luggage in. I was perplexed, but the nice man was delighted that I'd helped him. "One more thing—I'm so embarrassed—but I can't find the odometer, either," he pleaded, throwing his hands in the air. It's a useful device, given that this was a rental car and all, and I felt terrible for him. I found the thing on a multifunction display on the center console, nowhere near the speedometer and buried on some tiny, random LCD screen. Lord knows whether or not he was able to operate the radio or the climate-control system. My ever-optimistic hope is that technology makes people's lives easier, no matter how conversant they are with it, but clearly that wasn't the case here. Why would Buick—favored carmaker of grandpas everywhere—make a vehicle that would befuddle this fellow so thoroughly? —Eric Adams

Caloric or Not?

Sexyscience_1It’s easy to burn 15 minutes on hotornot.com without even realizing what you’re doing, but once it sinks in that you've derived mindless (but considerable) enjoyment from rating pictures of complete strangers on a hotness gradient of 1 through 10, it’s enough to make you wish the Internet never existed.

If you still want to keep the Web’s comparative hotness possibilities in your life but are looking for something a bit more substantive, try Sexy Science, a blog about—you guessed it—hot scientists. Although it lacks the interactive rating system, Sexy Science gets a bit more analytical, touting the attractiveness of various researchers and grad students from around the country while factoring in things like their ability to “prepare reactive transition metal complexes stabilized by appropriately designed auxiliary ligands.” Currently the blog uses a chili-pepper-based rating scale, but it can only be a matter of time before a more precise thermodynamic system is implemented. —John Mahoney

Meet China's Net Police

____1_1 ____2
Blinking = vigilance

I learned a lot of things while reading the New York Times’ fascinating article on Google and Internet censorship in China (available online here), but it was Jingjing and Chacha that really got to me. The deceptively innocuous-looking anime-style characters, with their wide eyes and tiny police uniforms, are the new face of Chinese government censorship online—a constant reminder that someone is watching. Deployed earlier this year by police from the city of Shenzhen, the two characters appear on the city’s major web portals, “reminding all [Chinese] Netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet, self-regulate their online behavior and maintain harmonious Internet order together," according to an article in the Beijing Youth Daily. Both characters have their own blogs and automated web chat sytems, allowing users to interact with them directly. But the Chinese government is the first to admit that “the main function of Jingjing and Chacha is to intimidate,” according to an official quoted by the Daily.

All of China’s network traffic passes through a set of state-controlled routers—referred to as the “The Great Firewall of China”—giving the government control over what comes in and goes out. Blockage from the firewall is often sporadic and random (a “master” blacklist is not available publicly), as is the punishment meted out for bad behavior. Therefore, China relies largely on self-censorship, both by fearful Chinese citizens who must register their name, address and phone number in order to surf, as well as Internet companies like Google, which must sign a license with the government agreeing to block access to politically sensitive information. Jingjing and Chacha are meant to perpetuate the climate of fear and encourage more thorough self-censorship.

Still, some believe that the Internet—even while heavily censored—can have only positive impacts on society. Through blogs and message boards (the latter being incredibly popular), many young Chinese are developing a public voice previously unavailable to them; even while simply blogging about a favorite video game or television show, the new experience of contributing to a massive public forum can be profoundly liberating. It’s a captivating issue, one that will significantly affect the shape of China as an emerging superpower. —John Mahoney


Mobiloke Looks like I’m always singing the same tune: telephone karaoke! Previously, I wrote about a number you can call to sing along; soon, you'll be able to karaoke on the go without even dialing. The cellphone game Mobiloke will play songs with the lead singer’s voice removed while your screen scrolls through lyrics and highlights the current phrase, just like a real karaoke machine. We're not sure yet when the service will launch in the U.S., but word has it that a big distribution deal is about to be announced for Canada, where Mobiloke will probably be available in late May or early June. With any luck, we'll all be making sweet music by the end of summer. —Lauren Aaronson

Cellular Idol

Colliding Black Holes

Blackholes It’s notoriously difficult to model black holes on a computer. Computer simulations don’t much like infinities, and black holes are defined by their infinite density. What’s more, the flow of time literally stops at the event horizon—the point of no return surrounding the black hole—and computer simulations have trouble dealing with time that doesn’t flow. (Don’t we all?) Even getting the math into the machines in the first place is a challenge, since Einstein’s equations use mathematical objects called tensors that don’t easily translate into computer code. But scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center have found a way around these problems—unfortunately, the press release doesn’t detail exactly how—and created a simulation of two black holes merging that doesn’t crash their supercomputers. It also makes for a wicked-cool video. —Michael Moyer

Handy Handy

Eyemobile_screen1 The German word for cellphone is "handy." After a demonstration I recently saw, the name seems less silly. A Canadian company called Gesturetek has invented a technology that lets any cameraphone act like a joystick. That's right, your hand controls the movement of a cursor on the screen. The software, Eyemobile, compares successive views from the camera lens to judge the movement of your hand. That movement can propel a ball through a maze, as in its TiltaWorld demo, and more may come soon. It's like an old-fashioned handheld game, only electronic. Now that's handy. —Lauren Aaronson

A Seat of Sod

Grasschair Want to take advantage of the dawning spring weather with a little lounging in the grass, but can't get over nature’s annoying lack of cushioned furniture? Worry no more--the "Grass Armchair" is here to fill nature's La-Z-Boy void. Simply assemble the kit's wooden frame, put it on your lawn, fill it with soil and grass seed, and within a few weeks you can enjoy a nice, comfortable, quasi-naturalistic sit. Now, if only one could get a little grassy TV to sprout nearby... —John Mahoney

Blogging for Understanding

Map_botswana We’re always reading about ways that technology can improve our health, from pills to robotic nurses. Now there’s another way. The Blogswana project, currently under development by the Committee to Protect Bloggers, plans to give online voices to people in Botswana affected by AIDS. Since many of them don’t have easy access to technology, local journalism students will interview them regularly, post their stories for them, and return to them with comments and questions submitted by blog readers. The effort will not only bridge the digital divide, it will bring important information about AIDS to the African community and to the rest of the world. —Lauren Aaronson

Octopus Elbows

Octopus_eye There have been many studies documenting the uncharacteristically high intelligence of the octopus (for a mollusk, anyway), and it seems as though scientists continue to learn fascinating new things about the mysterious undersea cephalopod. Most recently, it was discovered that octopuses can use their muscular tentacles to form basic joints while feeding. Bodily joints are defined by their degrees of freedom—that is, the types of motion they allow. The human elbow, for instance, has only one degree of freedom—up/down—whereas the wrist has three—up/down, left/right and circular rotation. An octopus' tentacles have infinite degrees of freedom, but when it comes to bringing food to their mouths, it's apparently easier to cut down on the tentacles' range of motion by briefly forming muscular one-degree joints.

Aside from this interesting tidbit, Web-surfing octopus enthusiasts have plenty to keep them busy. There are the videos of the species of octopus that taught itself to walk on two legs while rolled into a ball or disguised as a piece of drifting ocean flotsam, and also this astonishing clip of the octopus' camouflaging abilities. If you haven't had either of these sent to you via mass e-mail yet, check them out. —John Mahoney

Falling Ice Strikes Twice

Image: KCAL CBS 2

Californians should keep an eye skyward. It was entertaining enough when an unexpected and unexplained chunk of ice dropped from the heavens and cratered into an Oakland park last week, but another salvo of ice landed last Saturday, raising eyebrows and questions: Is this coincidence or something more sinister?

Scientists can’t seem to decide. The FAA is investigating the incidents and assuming that the ice chunks originated on aircraft. Scientists at the Planetary Geology Laboratory in Madrid find the aircraft explanation convincing but also suggest global warming as a possible cause. Warmer-than-usual air pushes the next layer of the atmosphere to higher—and colder—altitudes. The resulting temperature differential might lead to the formation of the mystery mega-hail—even when skies are clear. El Niño, anyone? —Eric Mika

Link (via the San Francisco Chronicle)
Link (via KCAL CBS 2)

Smart Spoon

Spoon2 In last month’s The Goods section of PopSci, we featured a hotpot that reads recipe cards via RFID and guides you through the preparation of over 100 different foods. Now, it seems the list of cool tech-infused kitchen implements has gotten a bit longer, after two MIT students whipped up a sensor-laden smart spoon, which monitors the temperature, acidity, salinity and viscosity of whatever it happens to be stirring and feeds the info to a computer for processing. If you’re like me, you’ve been dying to precisely quantify just how viscous your tuna salad gets after stirring in that extra bit of mayo. Clearly my kitchen just isn’t suiting my viscosity-measuring needs. MIT, when can I get one? —John Mahoney

Hungry for Hybrids

Gaspump It may not be the first thing you think of when you’re filling your SUV’s 20-gallon tank with $100 worth of gas every week, but the skyrocketing price of oil might actually be good for us—eventually. This week, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll revealed that because of increasing gas prices, 54 percent of Americans would seriously consider purchasing a hybrid vehicle for their next car were it not for one major barrier: price. Currently, hybrid versions of existing models (Honda’s Civic and Accord, Ford’s Escape SUV) are priced much higher—anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 more—while lower-cost hybrids like Toyota’s Prius still come with significant performance tradeoffs in comparison with similarly-priced conventional cars. The big automakers have taken their sweet time pushing hybrid technology into the mainstream, but as the survey shows, there is real demand. Hopefully this demand won’t have to wait much longer for an adequately economical supply. —John Mahoney

Robots on a Rampage

Mitfraternitycomp I’m a sucker for The Onion, especially when it picks on nerds. This week, robot fraternity hazing makes the front page. According to the article, three robots—a biped, a hexapod and one with treads—were kidnapped from their recharge cradles by human fraternity members and forced to perform dangerous and repetitive tasks. “The third robot, a tread-driven 38-inch-tall rover, is feared drowned after being forced to consume over 40 terabytes of data and then swim across the Charles River with a burning candle stuck in its rear port.” If convicted of first-degree botslaughter, the perpetrators face a maximum penalty of life banishment from the MIT Media Lab. —Martha Harbison

Gettin’ Jiggy in the Gyroscan

Aroused_uterus It sure would be cool to be a university-supported scientist in the Netherlands. Then, instead of just wondering what the moving parts on the inside look like when you’re doing the humpty dance, you could use grant money to find out! That’s what these clever researchers did, anyway, by soliciting amateur street acrobats to have sex in an MRI machine. They shot the first images showing how tab A fits into slot B, and also how slot B responds to orgasm in a multiparous (mother of multiple kids) woman.  Go ahead—take a gander. It's riveting. They say you know porn when you see it, right? Um, this isn’t porn. —Megan Miller

My Kingdom for a Microscope

If this guy were tiny, would he be less ridiculous-looking?

In honor of Make-It-Tinier Week at PopSci.com (see “Flies Staying Fly with Microengineering”), I wanted to point out the timely awesomeness of a recent piece of New Yorker fiction. In his short story “In the Reign of Harad IV,”  author Steven Millhauser gives us a fairytale take on nanotech through the eyes of a courtesan who crafts miniature versions of his king’s castle and gardens. The maker of miniatures grows obsessed with creating ever-smaller versions of the kingdom until they’re not only invisible to the naked eye, but no longer visible with the help of any magnifying instruments either. In short, his quest to make molecule-size replicas of the royal ostriches drives him to madness, and he ends up tinkering with air. Let that be a lesson to all you wacky engineers out there. —Megan Miller

Flies Staying Fly with Microengineering
Big Wheels for Little Cars

Like Butta (On a Hot Skillet)

Someday lasers will melt away your fat cells like so many
pats of Plugra

Fat is under fire once again, this time in the crosshairs of a free-electron laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. By carefully limiting the laser’s wavelength, researchers found a way to heat up different tissues at different rates, sending fat up in (figurative) flames while the contents of neighboring cells (most importantly, water) remain pleasantly cool. Tests on skin samples show promising results: Fat cells get about twice as hot as surrounding tissues. The fat is thus destroyed, and the body processes and removes it just like any other waste. Scientists have high hopes that the laser will one day erase ill-intentioned fat from all corners of the body. Possible targets include clogged arteries, acne-ridden skin and, yes, the occasional patch of cellulite. —Eric Mika

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