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Brilliant Ten Winner Gaspar Bakos

Look, I'll be honest. Sitting down with a hyper-intelligent scientist and discussing his or her work for a few hours isn't always the most socially comfortable situation. Fascinating? Absolutely. But there can be quite a few awkward silences as well.

Astrophysicist Gaspar Bakos, one of this year's Brilliant Ten, eased my pre-interview jitters right away when he suggested we leave his tiny office in Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and head up to the roof. Up there, standing around the corner from what was one of the world's great observatories a century ago, he proceeded to clearly and comfortably explain the intricacies of his technique for hunting down extrasolar planets. So I went back with a camcorder, to capture him using his water bottle as a stand-in for a planet, a star and even a telephoto lens. Enjoy. —Gregory Mone

Why Some People Shouldn't be Allowed to Own Nail Guns

Nailgunhand_3 Apparently 14,800 nail-gun accidents occur each year. Who knew? We can't seem to tear our eyes from the ponderable X-rays posted on thisoldhouse.com. Check it out while we mull over the question: just how did that nail get into this part of the head?—Abby Seiff

Laser Tag

Photo by urban_data

Take a handful of international graffiti artists, an abandoned building in Rotterdam, a smattering of hot tech (a super-high-intensity 60-milliwatt green laser pointer, a 5,000-lumen DLP projector and a sensitive security camera) all crammed into an old RV; add a sprinkle of the DIY spirit, and what do you get? The coolest thing we saw on the Internet today, that's what.

Basically, the folks at Graffiti Research Lab ("Dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication." Hmm, sound familiar?) cooked up the world's largest Etch-a-Sketch. Only instead of twisting those little knobs, you write on an 18-story building with a laser pointer that's capable of popping balloons and igniting match heads on contact. Their whole setup is fully documented (along with the source code to the software they wrote).

Basically, a sensitive security camera and a powerful DLP projector are both trained on the facade of a building. A laptop processes the camera's output and indicates the presence of the laser's cursor, which is then fed to the projector and onto the building in the form of a streak of "paint," all in real time. It looks too fun for words. 

Click ahead for an amazing video of the whole setup in action. —John Mahoney

Continue reading "Laser Tag" »

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Crw_79052 When my old-timey 3G iPod bit it a few months back, I was lucky enough to have on hand (a) another broken 3G to harvest some working parts from and (b) the recklessness (some might say genius) to pry my precious 'pod open with a thin piece of scrap aluminum (from a broken Wii, no less). Fortunately, everything turned out fine, and I'm now the proud owner of a 3G Frankenpod that's still alive and clicking.

If you too are the keeper of an iPod that's fallen prey to a case of the ol' planned obsolescence, an easier fix may be at ipodhowtovideo.com, where not only will you find (as you might expect) helpful how-to videos illustrating how to more, ahem, responsibly open up your player, but also an online shop to buy all manner of replacement batteries, LCD screens, hard drives and opening tools at reasonable prices. Don't just stand there mourning—resurrect your iPod today! —John Mahoney

[via Lifehacker]

Aqua Teen Hunger Force = Terrorism?!

Athf This morning, artist Peter Berdovsky and his partner Sean Stevens were arrested for placing magnetic light boards of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters the “Mooninites” [shown in the adjacent image, flipping the bird] around Boston, as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network. As you may have heard on the news, the lights were mistaken for bombs—a gaffe that led to the closure of several major roads and the deployment of an anti-terrorism squad.

Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of the Cartoon Network and a division of TimeWarner (which just sold PopSci), has claimed responsibility for the marketing campaign. Humorless Boston mayor Thomas Menino has likewise vowed to “take any and all legal action” against Turner.

OK, so let’s step back for a second. The New York Times reported that similar light boards have been in placed in 10 cities (including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin and Philadelphia) for two weeks, and none of the other cities called out bomb squads. What was it about the Boston incident that set off alarms? The boxes were placed in the Boston subway and on a bridge, which was kind of an idiotic idea. But it’s a shame that Berdovsky has become the scapegoat for this stunt. He’s an artist! He did installations (view a video of the ATHF “mission” here), which is what he was hired to do, and it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t think of his art as a potential terrorist threat. Turner Broadcasting certainly should have considered that possibility when it approved the marketing plan—a fact the company has implicitly admitted.

The CEO of the marketing company who came up with the idea, Interference, seems to have skipped town. That firm is probably basically out of business now but protected from most of the lawsuits by virtue of not being the entity in this case with the deepest pockets. (Good job on the name, there, by the way, Interference.)

So right now, people are protesting outside a Massachusetts court while Berdovsky waits to be arraigned. And good for them, because this guy should not be spanked for making neat-o hackerish LED sculptures. Don’t shoot the messenger, folks. In support of the artist, we’re thinking it might be fun to make some light boards of our own. Anybody have plans? Tell us about it in the comments section. Just don’t, you know, hang them up on any bridges. —Megan Miller

UPDATE: This press conference video with Berdovsky and Stevens is not to be missed. Also, our friends over at MAKE have some detailed pictures of one of the offending devices. Check them out here.

Project Ideas for Chaos Lovers

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.

Dvb21. 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.

Lojban 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.

Onelaptop 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?

Strap 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

Tech Tats

Laseretch 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

Chuck Cage: Real-Life Guitar Hero

Postghhead_1 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

What's Your Web-Surfing Fingerprint Look Like?


Hey, you. Yeah, you, reading this blog. What are you doing with your life? Killing time at work, are you? Fair enough, I suppose, but where's the creativity gone? What are you doing right now that could someday hang on somebody's wall? Nothing, right? Heck, even monkeys and elephants are millionaire artists in these modern times, and here you are, reading. Jeesh.

Never fear, though, for as it often does, human ingenuity has prevailed. You can now turn your idle Web surfing and e-mailing into fairly interesting illustrations—just one of the functions for the brilliantly hacked 2X Mouse. Just splice together two old serial mice according to this how-to [link], and hook your new mutant mouse into two computers. Start up a full-screen drawing application in one (like the free Gimp) and go about your business on the other. After a while, the second computer will render a unique visual record of your everyday clicking and dragging.

My data-visualization fetish just keeps coming up on this blog, but the 2X Mouse takes it to new heights. A concrete visual record of something as abstract (and ubiquitous) as using a computer? What will my surfing fingerprint look like? Will it look like yours? Bill Gates's? My dad's? A monkey's?? I guess there's only one way to find out. To the IT room's garbage bin!

If you've happened to take the plunge yourself, we'd love to see the results. Post links to your images in the comments, or mail them to [email protected] —John Mahoney

PS - Bigup to Instructables where this hack resides—a great site.

Geotagging Flickr Photos

The World's Best Paper Airplane?

Paperairplane Everyone has that one paper airplane they are able to make. And most will claim that the one kind of paper airplane they are able to make is the best one known to man. I know I’ve got mine, and it flies like a dream. This one, though, has been getting a lot of attention from bloggers today for its claim to be the best in the world. It’s a slow day at PopSci HQ today, so I guess there’s only one way to find out... —John Mahoney

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