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« April 2007 | Main | June 2007 »

Uh Oh...

I just spent a nice night outdoors drinking some frozen margaritas at my favorite solar-powered NYC watering hole, Habana Outpost. Which made a headline that I ran across today doubly disturbing:


I was fully prepared to make some personal sacrifices for our embattled planet's health (as you know, we're not all that pumped about the Bush administration's hype of ethanol), but this hit a little too close for comfort. I guess it's good that I'm a bourbon drinker first and foremost. —John Mahoney

Gates vs. Jobs, Post-Bout Wrap Up

Yes, Halley's Comet shows up only once every 75 years, and the Red Sox may win the World Series only once every century or so, but to everyone gathered in Carlsbad, California, for veteran tech reporter Walter Mossberg's annual digital schmoozefest, these rare wonders of the world were nothing compared to what was witnessed on stage last night: Bill Gates! Steve Jobs! One stage! Sitting next to each other and answering moderately exciting questions!

But seriously, as the video shows, it was an interesting talk. A few observations:

  1. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are rival professionals with tons of mutual respect. They don't hate each other.
  2. For someone who is arguably the most important single human being in the world of computers and technology, Bill Gates can seem awfully loopy sometimes with regard to what he's interested in seeing technology accomplish.

    He might just still be high on the Surface prototype shown at the same conference the day before, but does he really believe that someday our homes will have rooms in which "every vertical and horizontal surface will have a projector so you can put information—you know, your desk could be a surface where you could sit and manipulate things?" Or that, in response to a hilarious audience question basically asking "When can I have a Holodeck?" we'll all be blessed to find that "short of the transporter, most things you see in science fiction are, in the next decade, the kinds of things you'll see. The virtual presence, the virtual worlds . . . movement in space as a way of interacting with a machine" will all show up in the next 10 years?

    More evidence to this point can be found in Gates's hokey CES 2007 keynote. I saw it in person, and man, it was weird.

    It may seem ridiculous for Popular Science to fault an overly ambitious view of the future (and hey, I'm about as excited about the future and its technology as anyone can be), but coming from a man who actually has the power to shape this future, such pie-in-the-sky visions just don't feel right. Maybe Bill's lived in his super-connected house for too long.

  3. Jobs's ruminations on the longevity of the PC form factor, as well as the skyrocketing growth in the "post-PC" device category (specialized gadgets with powerful microprocessors like iPods, smartphones and so on) and the "cloud" of Internet services like Google Maps fueling them seems pretty spot on. His trademark insistence on simplicity seems to resonate more than Gates's envisioned forest of devices stuffing our homes and pockets.

    But Jobs is still a jerk.

  4. Many mentions of tech CEOs "betting the company" came up—Apple "betting the company" on the Mac in the 1980s, both Apple and Microsoft "betting the company" on the graphical user interface versus text interfaces (duh), AT&T "betting the company" on IPTV and building digital infrastructure. Maybe Apple and Microsoft (and corporations in general) have simply grown too large and diverse to bet the company on any single idea, but this is something I'd love to see more of, in as extreme a form as possible: $100 billion on R&D!
  5. Another interesting bet: How much longer can Jobs ride out the black turtleneck and jeans?
  6. Not only do they not hate each other, but Gates and Jobs might have a bond deeper than anyone may have known. The best part of the interview by far came at the very end, with Jobs summing up their relationship with these words: “I think of most things in life as either a Bob Dylan or a Beatles song, but there's that one line in that one Beatles song ["Two of Us" (!!)], "You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead." And that's clearly true here.” So adorable.

All right, enough blabbing. Check out the full interview videos after the jump. —John Mahoney

Continue reading "Gates vs. Jobs, Post-Bout Wrap Up" »

A Show of Hands

Msoft_table_145 Today Microsoft took the wraps off Microsoft Surface, the smartest coffee table you’ll ever touch. The tabletop is actually a projection screen infrared cameras underneath that track the movement of hands, pencils or virtually any object, allowing you to interact with the computer inside just by making gestures.

Microsoft has been developing the basic technology for about five years. In our November 2006 issue we covered a version designed for meeting collaboration called TouchLight that resembles the hand-reading screen used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Don’t expect to set one of these tables in front of your couch anytime soon, but they will appear in stores, casinos and hotels in the coming months. T-Mobile, for example, will use them as kiosks in its mobile-phone stores. Instead of chasing down a salesperson or reading spec sheets about phones, you'll be able to just touch a phone to the screen, which will read a tag on the bottom of it and display the pertinent details in a bubble next to each item. On the same screen, you'll tap on various rate plans and brush your hand over the table to send the one you like into the phone.

For now, the low-res (48-dot-per-inch) cameras can read only special tags designed by Microsoft, but later versions may have the resolution to decipher UPC bar codes, as well as transceivers to read RFID tags.

Harrah’s Entertainment will also be installing the tables in its casinos, such as Caesar’s Palace, to provide information about activities at the resorts or even to host games. A few months ago I tried a game of poker on a prototype, where multiple players could flick cards around the table. (The surface can currently track up to 52 hands simultaneously.)

If you want one for your own poker games, you’d better plan on winning a lot of dough—the tables sell for $5,000 to $10,000 each. But, Microsoft says, the technology may some day trickle into other devices, such as touch surfaces that will plug into your computer’s USB port. —Sean Captain

Fire up the Grill: The Cicadas are Coming

Courtesy: Jillian

Ah, summer. The gentle breezes, the warm sun, the sound of a billion bugs desperately trying to get it on before dying. . .

After 17 years of underground maturation, a group of periodical cicadas is beginning to emerge in the Midwest. This particular group, known as Brood XIII, appears once every 17 years—wriggling free from the ground, shedding their last juvenile coat, and mating like mad.

While non-periodical cicadas rarely live more than eight years, these not only reach the ripe old age of 17 but do so with nearly perfect synchronization. Periodical cicadas emerge in 13- and 17-year cycles, separated out by geographical range. The species in Brood XIII will infest only the Midwest (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, to be precise), leaving the rest of the country untouched (at least until next summer, when Brood XIV emerges in 13 states).

Specific species of cicada evolved into hibernating creatures mainly to avoid run-ins with predators like the cicada-killer wasp and the praying mantis. Since the hibernators are out of sight for so many years, their life cycle falls out of step with the cycles of their natural enemies, making them an unreliable food source. Meanwhile, the cicadas' insane density (their population has been known to reach 1.5 million per acre) means that the opportunistic predation bound to occur when dogs, birds and rodents see the feast set forth will have no substantial effect on their numbers.

Which, of course, leaves intrepid Midwesterners with only one tool to combat their massive numbers: the BBQ. We're not kidding. Mmm, good.—Abby Seiff

For  more info, see:
A Trill of a Lifetime
The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Insect Divisions
Cicadas for Dinner

A Ferrari-Killing...Volkswagen?


It sounds preposterous, and it is—just look at this thing! This striking Volkswagen GTI concept features a host of performance upgrades and some dramatic design modifications to accommodate them. Most notable are the flared wheel wells to house the really big tires, necessary to manage the 650 horsepower being delivered by a six-liter W-12 engine. Zero-to-60 in 3.7 seconds. Top speed: 202 mph. Ferrari F430: dusted. —Eric Adams

Link for more photos [leftlanenews.com]

Announcing: The PopSci Podcast/Jonathan Coulton "I Feel Fantastic" Video Contest


If you've already tuned in to Jonathan's latest podcast episode, you may be wondering what the contest he mentioned is all about. As he said right before the Lunar Base One lockdown was complete, we're giving away a brand-spanking-new 80-gigabyte iPod complete with a laser-engraved JoCo autograph on the back to the fan who cranks out the coolest music video to accompany “I Feel Fantastic,” the smashing power-pop number about how a future life might be better with a handful of specialized performance-enhancing pills. It's just one of five great songs Coulton wrote to accompany PopSci's Future of the Body issue.

So crank up the webcam and karaoke your heart out. Or throw together a touching Ken Burnsian photomontage. Or make a flip book and film it. We'll take anything. The most fantastic entry will bag the iPod (bear in mind, this isn't some lame-o Apple-engraved message—we'll be taking this down to Brooklyn to have Mr. Coulton's official mark engraved on Phil and Limor's Epilog laser cutter. In short, it's going to look awesome).

To enter, download the track here. Then submit your video to YouTube and send it as a video message via YouTube to “Popscivideo” (our YouTube user name). Please include “Coulton Contest” in the subject line and—if you don't want us to contact you through YouTube if you win—your e-mail address. We'll be taking entries until the contest closes on June 18, so get cracking!

Check out some classic Coulton fan videos after the jump for inspiration (as well as some good ol' legalese) —John Mahoney

Continue reading "Announcing: The PopSci Podcast/Jonathan Coulton "I Feel Fantastic" Video Contest" »

U.K. Seeks Extradition of Suspected Litvinenko Assassin

Litvenenko_slideshow_10The British Crown Prosecution Service announced today that it is seeking the extradition of Russian businessman Andrei Lugovoi to face accusations that he murdered Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who died last November after being poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210, a rare and highly toxic radioactive compound [see our story " The First Assassination of the 21st Century," from the June issue]. "I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr. Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning," Ken MacDonald, the director of public prosecutions, told reporters.

Litvinenko, a spy turned entrepreneur who rose to prominence as an ally of expatriate tycoon Boris Berezvosky during the free-market 1990s, emigrated to England and railed loudly and publicly against the increasing authoritarianism of Russian president Vladimir Putin's regime. Litvinenko fell ill after a November 1 meeting at the Millennium Hotel in central London with Lugovoi and possibly two other associates. He suffered a slow, agonizing death, and his murder was widely believed to be retribution, directly or indirectly, for his comments about the Kremlin.

Only hours after the British expatriation request, the Russian prosecutor-general said that it would not hand Lugovoi over to British officials but that it would consider using evidence collected by British investigators. "A citizen who has committed a crime on the territory of a foreign state can be prosecuted with evidence provided by the foreign state,
but only on the territory of Russia," said a spokeswoman, Marina Y. Gridneva, in a televised statement.

According to Russian news agencies, Lugovoi denies killing Litvinenko and said that he would soon make statements that would be "a sensation for public opinion in Britain."

The poisoning highlights fears about Russia's decommissioned chemical and radioactive weapons. Several international reports on the state of the former Soviet arsenal point up the dangers of poorly guarded or unguarded weapons and substances in the region.—Jake Ward

For more information, read "The First Assassination of the 21st Century"

Episode 37: Super Paint

Yes, I know, it's been a long time since I posted a podcast. I've been very busy here on the moon doing...important things. Let's not discuss it anymore.

PopSci editor Nicole Dyer is obsessed with paint, in particular the new Aura paint from Benjamin Moore. Not only does it cover most colors with only one coat (no need for primer), but it's low in smog-producing VOC's, dries quickly and doesn't stink. Nicole was so excited about it, and her excitement was so infectious, that we both forgot to even talk about the breakthrough chemistry that makes it possible - new and improved surfactants that bond better with pigment molecules. That's how exciting this story about paint is.

I also asked her for an update on the "Red Rain" story from an earlier podcast, but as you'll see, the paint insanity seems to have distracted her from more important things (like aliens)—Jonathan Coulton


Subscribe and listen:

Play now:

Geeks Post on a Blog, Rich Men Lose $4 Billion


For anyone still doubting the power of blogs and bloggers to effect change in the real world, take a look at this: Yesterday morning, Engadget.com reported on what it believed to be a legitimate internal e-mail from Apple that stated that the hotly anticipated iPhone would miss its slated June release and be delayed until October. Additionally, the e-mail said, the next version of Apple's OS X operating system would also be delayed, until next January.

Now, the interesting part: Almost instantly (seven minutes, to be exact) after the Engadget announcement hit, at around noon EST, Apple's stock price tumbled by over $4.50 in a massive sell-off (the drop took only an additional six minutes). That amount might not seem like much for a stock valued at around $107 at the start of trading today, but applied to the full volume of shares on the market, the drop represents a market-capitalization loss of just over $4 billion. In the blink of an eye, a lot of people (Steve Jobs more so than anyone) lost a lot of money. All from a blog post.

As the Engadget post has now been updated to say, the e-mail was quickly denounced by Apple as a fake—even though it was supposedly confirmed that it came from Apple's own e-mail system. To say this is suspicious is an understatement, and the Apple camp is surely scurrying to figure out how this e-mail was sent with what amounts to their e-letterhead.

After the e-mail was outed as a fake, people rushed to take advantage of the dip to buy up more shares, propelling the price back up to $109.44 at the close of business today (a 2 percent gain on the day). Still, many are wondering what will happen next. Most on the Web are assuming that Engadget has little liability in the situation, but if anyone over at Weblogs, Inc. (Engadget's parent company, which is owned by AOL) shorted a ton of Apple stock during those 15 minutes of action, there could be some explaining to do. Apple's liability is less clear—if the e-mail did in fact come from its servers, it could also be investigated for some form of securities fraud.

Any securities-law whizzes want to jump in here and speculate on what might happen? —John Mahoney

[via TechCrunch]

Prominent Gadget Designers on their Favorite Tech Toys

Sx70 There's a great article over on MIT's Technology Review site about prominent industrial designers in the tech field and their all-time favorite gadgets. I'm very much in agreement with Frog Design's Andrew Logan on the Polaroid SX-70—I found one in a neighbor's junk pile a few years ago in perfect condition and have been loving its sweet leather-accented accordion folding ever since.

Check out the photo gallery for a few others. But more important, what's your favorite gadget of all time? The one that fills you with that unique form of satisfaction that only a piece of well-designed tech can give? Let us know in the comments below, and we'll throw together a gallery of our own. —John Mahoney

Link [via kottke.org]

The Deep End

The Fanfin Seadevil is found at nearly 9,000 feet below;
photo by David Shale

In her introduction to The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, Claire Nouvian says she was inspired to create the book after seeing a film of deep-sea creatures made by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: "As crazy as it might seem, I had fallen in love at first sight. Like an adolescent surprised by the power of love . . . " (and so on). But if Nouvian seems overemotional initially, it becomes easier to understand her fervor once you brush aside the intro and skip to the meat: the photos.

Most of the book is composed of giant (frequently larger-than-life-size) photographs of deep-sea creatures: the gelatinous Pandea rubra, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a police strobe light; the seed-like larvae of the Spantagoid heart urchin, whose appendages stretch at near-perfect right angles; glass octopi like living x-rays, frilled sharks, furry lobsters. In all, nearly 200 creatures, some of which have never been photographed before, many of which are unknown species, all of which seem unreal, incomprehensible even.

Nouvian divides the organisms roughly in half—"Life at the Bottom" is one cluster, "Life in the Water Column" another—and intersperses the photos with short essays written by marine biologists from around the world. These pieces cover everything from the history of deep-sea exploration to the truth about sea monsters to the science behind bioluminescence ("without any doubt the most widely used mode of communication on the planet") and, thankfully, are both excellently written and spare. They provide background without ever detracting from the point—the creatures themselves.

Although the deep sea constitutes the single largest habitat on Earth, we understand very little of what exists there. Only 5 percent of the ocean's floor, for instance, has been mapped in any degree of detail. Over the past 25 years, meanwhile, a new creature has been noted nearly every other week. Nevertheless, as Nouvian is quick to point out, that most uncharted of territories is also the least protected. Because we cannot see it, because we're unaware of what is there, she argues, we cannot understand or care about the irreparable damage we are causing. When tropical reefs disappear, it's easy to see the effects our boats, trash and pollution have and to act accordingly. When deep-sea reefs disappear, only a handful of specialized scientists realize what that means.

Early on, Nouvian includes a telling quote by deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard (of Titanic-discovery fame): "At a time when most think of outer space as the final frontier, we must remember that a great deal of unfinished business remains here on Earth." The Deep highlights just how accurate that outlook is.—Abby Seiff

PopSci Podcaster Jonathan Coulton in the New York Times

13blog1901 PopSci's official contributing troubadour and podcaster Jonathan Coulton got some major love in the Sunday New York Times Magazine this week as the centerpiece of a story on how musicians are using the Internet to interact directly with their fans in ways that were previously not possible. When he's not interviewing the best and brightest minds of the science world from his PopSci office on the moon or performing at our swanky Future Lounge in Second Life, Jonathan is a full-time, self-supported singer-songwriter. We're all crazy about his tracks here at PopSci (if you haven't heard "Code Monkey" yet, do so at your earliest convenience) and thrilled that Jonathan will probably have an even larger audience to interact with online after this week's piece.

You can read the whole thing online here. And after you're done, why not check out Jonathan's PopSci Podcast and our video coverage of this year's Consumer Electronics Show that also featured Mr. Coulton. And last but certainly not least, find out what being a magazine's "contributing troubadour' actually means by checking out Jonathan's five-track digital soundtrack to 2005's Future of the Body Issue called "Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms," still available for a free download. Great stuff.

How to Survive a Nine-Meter Kiddie-Pool High Dive

Of all the phenomenally difficult, profoundly asinine ways to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, this high-dive-into-shallow-pool feat has got to be one of the worst. Me? I’d rather walk backward for a while, à la Cliffy in Cheers, or try to master one of those balancing-balls tricks.

That said, someone did put a little bit of thought into this setup. First, there are a few sequences in the video that afford a wider view of the glorified kiddie pool and reveal that the base is a cushioned mat of some sort. This proves critical: If you watch closely, you can see the jumper bend his knee just before impact. His knee enters the water like a wedge—albeit a rounded one. If that was a real floor underneath the water, he wouldn’t have been capable of standing up and throwing that double-fisted pumper at the end.

Second, aside from that knee drop (undoubtedly a last-second effort by the diver’s brain to abort), he does have fairly perfect technique. University of Virginia physicist Lou Bloomfield says the belly-flop posture is the key to stopping short in that shallow pool. “For him to avoid injury, he has to use as much of his surface as possible to get rid of his downward momentum,” Bloomfield says. “A good belly slam helps.”

One thing science won’t be able to tell us, though, is why he’s wearing that god-awful unitard. —Gregory Mone

Improving Real Lineups in a Virtual World

Virtual_police_lineup_1_2 Sure, virtual reality is pretty cool to begin with, but when it's paired with police investigations and is used to take down the criminal underbelly? Ah, the possibilities.

Using computers, cameras and a $25,000 virtual-reality helmet (the type with big, blocky glasses and everything), Stanford University scientists have created an improved police-lineup system. With the new system, victims view suspects up close, with different clothing and features (with facial hair, for instance, or without scars) and in an environment similar to where the crime took place (like a dark alley or used-car lot). Instead of looking at potentially outdated, two-dimensional mug shots, a victim could see suspects out of the corner of his eye, or towering over him, mimicking the circumstances in which the criminal was originally seen and reducing the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Although the system is only in the early stages of testing, given the advances being made in digital imaging [see here for a particularly jarring example], it may be just a matter of time before it becomes standard criminal-collaring equipment.—Abby Seiff

Putin Restricts Russian Researchers, Spurring Sputnik Nostalgia

Sputnikstampussr Surprisingly little media attention has been paid to Russian president Vladimir Putin's recent attempts to rein in the power of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which has operated with a sizeable amount of autonomy since it was founded by Peter the Great in 1724. Even under the Soviet Union, the Academy managed to defy the authorities by denying unqualified Communist party officials entry and refusing to expel the physicist Andrei Sakharov, who was an active campaigner for human rights and political reform.

Perhaps it was this defiance that spurred the government to take its first steps against the Academy last year, by trying to stack the institution with members of parliament and prominent businessmen, most of whom were turned away for insufficient scientific competence. That move may have failed, but a few months ago, the government took a different tack, declaring the institute moribund and in need of a new charter. The proposed charter would place the Academy's multibillion-dollar property holdings under state control, give Putin final approval of the Academy president, and put many of the organization's decisions in the hands of government oversight committees. With this loss of autonomy, research priorities would be taken out of the hands of scientists, and basic research could lose out to more immediately profitable projects.

The scientists, not surprisingly, are quite upset by these maneuvers. In an article printed this week in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, Vitaly Ginzburg, a 90-year-old Nobel Prize winner and vice president of the Academy, said that, sure, science was bad under Stalin, but not this bad. "In those days you could come up with an idea and create," he said, "That's how we put the first Sputnik satellite into space. Now the government thinks science must bring only income and profit, which is absurd." Key members of the Academy have expressed concern that the government’s moves signal an attempt to seize the institution’s property holdings and dismantle any challenges to Putin’s power. In late March, they voted almost unanimously to approve their own version of the charter, in defiance of the Kremlin's wishes, which has put the sides in a temporary stalemate.

Government officials say the Academy is in need of fresh blood and blame Russia's brain drain in part on the institution’s inflexibility. But given Putin's history of consolidating power, the scientists aren't alone in viewing this as another chapter of the same old story. The international community is beginning to sound alarms about the future of science in Russia—but in the meantime, government restrictions are leaving Russian scientists nostalgic for the golden age of Sputnik. —Kevin Friedl

Far Out: NASA's Golden Gift to the Aliens

Goldenrecord In a few months, NASA scientists and the press will note the passing of the 30th anniversary since the launches of Voyagers I and II. By now, both interstellar probes have passed beyond Pluto's orbit and are speeding out toward neighboring star systems, carrying with them copies of the Golden Record, a phonograph record full of images, music and recordings of life on Earth intended for any extraterrestrials who might happen upon the probe and wonder who sent it. It's the same idea behind the plaque that was bolted onto the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, both of which are currently gliding out of the solar system behind the Voyager probes.

While many Americans have heard of the record, most probably don't remember just what was on it. Fortunately, you can find the amazing images, which were chosen over the course of six months by a committee headed by Carl Sagan, compiled here.

Today it's unlikely that we would choose to include this gee-whiz shot of the U.N. headquarters; or this greenhouse gas nightmare in India to portray ourselves. Not that we'd do so much better now than we did then; the aliens would probably be just as confused by a photo of President Bush, or an image of a kid using a laptop, or a YouTube video of Dancing with the Stars.

It was the late '70s when these pictures were chosen, and Carl Sagan was probably smoking a lot of grass, but that doesn't quite explain some of the stranger images. What is this picture, exactly, and who let Archie Bunker in?

Although the images don't always work, there's something admirable and humble about creating a record like this in the infinitesimal chance that it would be discovered by other intelligent beings. You could argue that launching a photo album of the human race is the height of egotism, or you can take President Jimmy Carter at his word when he says, in a message on the record:

"Of the 200 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe."

For better or worse, we don't really do things like this anymore. New Horizons, the last spacecraft NASA launched that will eventually pass beyond the edge of the solar system, carries the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto, along with a piece of another spacecraft, an American flag and, for some reason (probably because people paid for the privilege), the names of more than 430,000 people stored on a CD. Apparently we've replaced attempts at interstellar communication with marketing stunts that will seem far kitschier in 30 years than Sagan's Golden Record does today. —Kevin Friedl

Nessie's Neighbor

Deep Toad

Every so often, news of a mysterious creature at Loch Ness comes trickling out of Scotland. Usually these “Nessie” sightings come in the form of an odd blurry shape in the background of a tourist’s family photo, disappointing monster hunters everywhere when yet another floating hunk of twigs and lake kelp, or perhaps a runaway inflatable raft, is pulled from the deep. It’s not often, however, that irrefutable evidence of life in Loch Ness comes from a source as highly esteemed as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A team from MIT was conducting a sonar scan to map the lake floor recently when it ran across an unexpected beast: a common toad. Rather than the toad itself being mysterious, though, scientists were more in awe of its diving abilities. It was spotted crawling around in the mud 324 feet below the surface, which apparently is pretty deep for an amphibian and well below the depth at which the researchers were expecting to find anything other than your standard bottom-dwelling fish, mollusks and supersized swimming dinosaur-lizard hybrids. Maybe the MIT team should ask the toad if it’s seen anything suspicious lately . . . —Bjorn Carey

In the Zone

Cloud What do you get when clear blue sky turns out to be filled with previously unknown, invisible particles? The twilight zone. At least according to NASA.

Last month, scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Israel's Weizmann Institute discovered that the space around clouds previously thought to be only empty atmosphere is instead composed, up to 60 percent, of transitional particles of dying and forming clouds.

Besides clouds, dry aerosols (like dust and smog) and cloud droplets influence the climate by trapping and reflecting solar energy. These known atmospheric components, however, continually failed to yield accurate climate-change predictions. The discovery of the cloud particles may be the missing key. Although the new discovery confuses the matter further by adding another unstable element—understanding and predicting climate change was already complicated by the variety and continuous movement of clouds—knowledge of its existence will undoubtedly improve prediction in the long run, as climatologists learn to account for the particle matter in modeling programs.

Currently, scientists' analysis of how solar energy is absorbed and reflected is incomplete at best. NASA believes this latest finding may provide the means for forecasting the future of global warming.—Abby Seiff

Rocket Racing League Hitting the Skids?

Rrllogo Leading Edge Rocket Racing, which in October 2005 became the first team to join Peter Diamandis’s ambitious Rocket Racing League, has officially left the organization. The league is in the process of developing rocket-powered aircraft that will race in Nascar-like events around the country. It is already more than a year behind its initial schedule, which was to have included 10 full races in 2007. As of right now, it hasn’t even test-flown a prototype aircraft, let alone certified one for safe flight and produced enough for actual competitive racing.

Leading Edge, founded by former F-16 pilots Robert Rickard and Don Grantham, announced the move via a terse memo on Friday, and were vague about their reasons—though they’re clearly disgruntled. "After working with Rocket Racing League for the past 17 months, we have concluded that our vision, business practices, and communication standards are incompatible with those of the league,” said Rickard in the press release. “We had very high hopes for this enterprise and tried very hard to find a common way forward.”

And: "There hasn’t been a working relationship between our company and the RRL for some time now. This announcement makes it official so we can move on,” said Grantham. “It's time to focus our resources on something more compatible with Leading Edge’s goal of being the premiere operators of high performance rocket powered aircraft." (Neither Rickard nor Grantham could be reached for clarification or additional comment.)

RRL chief executive Granger Whitelaw didn’t wish to comment on the departure, except to say that Leading Edge was “welcome to come back and race whenever they get their internal organization funded and structured appropriately.” When asked about the status of the RRL, Granger said, “Terrific! Wonderful!” before adding that the league expects to test-fly its first rocketplane this July.

So, reading between the lines (and it certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do that), Leading Edge seems to be implying that the Rocket Racing League is something of a sham, and the RRL thinks Leading Edge doesn’t have its act together enough—most likely in terms of fund-raising—to play on the RRL’s level.

Will the rocket racers ever start flying? We’ve still got our hopes up, but today’s news is certainly a significant obstacle for the fledgling league to overcome. —Eric Adams

Related: For more, see our February 2006 feature story on the RRL, as well as our reporting from this year's X-Prize Cup.

Magnetosphere: Turn on and (i)Tune(s) Out

Magnet The repetitive graphics of most iTunes visualizers are about as appealing as The Osmond Family doing an album of Public Enemy covers. But just in time for springtime party season, The Barbarian Group (usually a crackerjack Web design team; now, all of a sudden, software developers) has released Magnetosphere, a mesmerizing new open-source plugin you can customize to pulse and glimmer according to your own personal tripping-out style.

Compatible with Mac OSX and most versions of Windows (probably works with Linux, too, but we haven’t tried it yet), Magnetosphere takes about a minute to install and run. The graphics are superior to any of the myriad other visualizers available right now and you can even adjust the sensitivity of the on-screen splashes and sparks by hitting the + and – keys, or add and subtract the number of particles in each image with the A and S keys. Be careful, though: If you go crazy with the key punching, your computer will get a little angry and, Fred Sanford-style, call you a dummy by freezing the app. That’s why this is the beta version. While Barbarian works the kinks out, just restart iTunes and all is well.

Developer-types will appreciate that Magnetosphere was built in the open-source environment, Processing, and is licensed as freeware for non-commercial use (mushrooms not included). This is the first of five upcoming software releases from Barbarian, and I’m anxious to see what comes next. In the meantime, excuse me while I get back to staring at my computer screen. —Adam Dorn (Mocean Worker)

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