Today’s Links

  • DARPA Unveils Teeny Infrared Camera With 5-Micron Pixels

    5 Micron Pixel Infrared Camera DARPA
    The secret to fighting a war at night? Tiny, tiny, tiny pixels.

    Human eyesight is such a limiting factor in military missions that DARPA is trying to fix it. Not with lasers; those are reserved for ships, but instead with a new infrared camera using pixels only five microns wide.

    Smaller pixels mean a high-resolution image can be captured in a tinier package. There are existing miniaturized infrared cameras, but their pixels are about three times the size of DARPA’s latest, and their resolution is at best half as good. The new technology has made it possible for the portable camera pictured above to do the work of the sort of long-wave infrared (LWIR) camera that till now has required a truck to carry.

    That tiny package should enable U.S. troops to finally master one of the great challenges of history: how to take advantage of the limits of enemy eyesight while bypassing the same limitation.

    Soldiers spent centuries figuring out the best way to see enemies at night without being seen. Early methods, like carrying torches, were more dangerous for the torch-carrier than his target, as the enemy’s eyes were already adjusted to the night, and the torches revealed where the advancing soldier was. In light of this, night attacks were relatively rare historical events, and daytime fighting remains the norm for regular armies.

    This is frustrating for commanders looking to exploit every possible advantage to win, because night attacks have some pretty distinct advantages. A larger portion of the enemy army is usually asleep, rarity adds an element of surprise, and the darkness, undisturbed by torches, lights, or a bright moon can conceal an army.

    Advancing without seeing is pretty difficult, however, which means a technological solution is the way around it. Night vision goggles, the ones with that famous green filter, amplify available light, which can turn low visibility into high visibility. The problem comes with regular light sources, which night vision also amplifies to a blinding extreme.

    Infrared, instead, focuses on a different part of the visual spectrum, and so is less affected by sudden changes in visible light. Previously, however, infrared cameras this advanced have been too large for individual people to carry, and instead had to be mounted on vehicles, which are not nearly as stealthy as troops on foot. With the new camera, DARPA hopes they can outfit individuals with such cameras, making night raids or defending against night raids that much easier.


  • Law Enforcement Thinks The Boston Bombs Were Constructed From Pressure Cookers

    A Pressure Cooker Wikimedia Commons

    According to NBC News, law enforcement is now saying that the bombs used in the attack on the Boston Marathon were constructed of pressure cookers filled with shrapnel. This is a common and low-rent bomb, typically made from a bit of TNT or other explosive in a sealed pressure cooker. They can be triggered remotely, and the pressure cooker itself turns into shrapnel. Time has a good history of the pressure cooker bomb, if you’re interested.

    Pressure cookers make ideal bombs; they’re inexpensive and legal, they’re designed to build up tremendous pressure while used legitimately, and can be outfitted with all sorts of timers and triggers, from stopwatches to garage door openers.

    Pressure cooker bombs were used as recently as 2006 to kill more than 130 people in Mumbai, and were part of the attempted (and failed) attack on Times Square in 2010.

    Read more at NBC.


  • Your Rented Computer Can No Longer Legally Spy On You

    Computer With Webcam Cropped from a photo by jbhalper on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
    Previously, some rent-to-own companies would log customers’ keystrokes and snap pictures using their webcams.

    According to a settlement that went into action yesterday (April 15), rent-to-own stores will no longer be allowed to peek at what their customers do. Previously, at least one piece of software allowed rent-to-own computer businesses to log their customers’ keystrokes and GPS locations, take screenshots of the rented computers while people are using them, and snap photos of users with the computers’ webcam.

    The new injunction only names eight companies, but it means that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission considers these actions illegal-and that applies to any other rent-to-own businesses that use similar software, Tracy Thorleifson, a commission attorney who worked on the case, tells Popular Science. The commission is also forbidding the company that made the software from “providing others with the means to commit illegal acts,” according to a commission statement.

    The software under fire is called PC Rental Agent–it was designed to help computer rental businesses in situations just like this. Ars Technica has a great description of PC Rental Agent’s different levels of features. Many are obviously helpful, such as the ability to clear a computer’s memory before renting it out to the next customer. But the software’s “Detective Mode” allowed stores to perform in-depth spying. It could also put up a fake “registration” notice on computers, enticing people to enter in their contact information.

    Tim Kelly, a co-founder of DesignerWare LLC and developer of PC Rental Agent, told Ars Technica that stores were only supposed to activate the spying features as a part of their efforts to recover the computer from would-be thieves. He also said he doesn’t agree with the Federal Trade Commission’s ruling, although he has settled.

    In a filing it made in September, the federal agency alleged that stores did not alert customers to the fact that the stores might be tracking and logging sensitive customer information such as social security numbers, banking information, and passwords. Because Detective Mode automatically snaps what it sees in computers’ webcams, many stores ended up with photos of kids, undressed people and people having sex. Stores often activated Detective Mode on computers that customers were late in making payments for, but didn’t intend to steal, the commission said.

    With the new settlement, rent-to-own companies can’t perform any spying on customers. They can’t put up fake registration notices. They can only track machines’ locations with customers’ consent.

    The settlement allows the commission to follow up on the eight named companies any time over the next 20 years, to make sure they’re complying.


  • Twitter Is The New Police Scanner

    Cambridge Police Department feed tweets from April 15th, 2013, responding to suspicious object reports and issuing all-clears. Twitter
    After the explosions yesterday at the Boston Marathon, police departments used social media to send out immediate updates.

    Since the mid-1970s, police scanners have been the only way for civilians to access real-time updates from police departments. Scanners work by flipping through multiple open radio conversations on emergency channels, providing an overall picture of a crisis from the people on the ground reacting to it. Because they offer fast and direct first-hand accounts, scanners have been invaluable for coordinating and linking emergency response.

    But yesterday, the real-time updates from Boston came mainly through Twitter. In fact, the news broke on Twitter more than 10 minutes before national media began reporting on the explosions. This photo was tweeted just four minutes after the first bomb went off:

    What the fuck just happened?#bostonmarathon…

    — Tyler Wakstein (@theoriginalwak) April 15, 2013

    Deadspin was first to publish a news story, 13 minutes after the attack (and the post consisted almost entirely of updates from journalists and witness on Twitter.) As more news from Boston came in, I joined at least 53,000 people in following along with the Boston, Police, and EMS emergency feed. How’d I find the feed? Twitter. Over the scanner, authorities urged listeners and Bostonians to take to social media, as phone networks were likely to be overloaded. The Cambridge Police Department Twitter account became an invaluable source of information for many as it tweeted reports of new threats and then issued all-clears when appropriate.

    As with all security broadcasting, there’s a potential downside-nothing filters this information away from criminal ears or eyes, and easy access to police communication poses a risk to officers who could be ambushed.

    Some Twitter users have even begun transcribing mundane police scanner exchanges for a national, online audience. Mashable recently profiled Alex Thompson, the woman behind the @Venice311 Twitter account, which broadcasts scanner chatter in the Los Angeles metro area as easily-digestible written information. She was inspired to do so after witnessing a gross crime (literally, not metaphorically-someone dumped “50 gallons of raw sewage from his RV onto the street” where she lived.)

    Thompson isn’t alone in going directly from police scanner to Twitter. In January, students at Ohio University began tweeting scanner chatter from around Athens, Ohio, adding humor and college-specific insights.

    What makes Twitter the next logical leap from the police scanner is the immediate interactivity it provides the public: Police can respond to and broadcast inquiries like a real-time FAQ. And unlike scanners, Twitter isn’t regionally restricted, and it doesn’t cost $100 to $500 to access.


  • Ale Yeast Running For Official State Microbe Of Oregon

    Saccharomyces and Oregon State Seal
    I, for one, welcome our new unicellular overlords.

    Oregon lawmakers in the House just voted 58-0 to approve its new state microbe. If the state Senate also approves, Oregon will boast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the humble ale yeast, as its unicellular avatar. It makes sense: according to Mark Johnson, the bill’s sponsor, the craft brewing business brings Oregon some $2.4 billion in revenues each year.

    Contrary to reports you’ll read elsewhere, Oregon is not the first state attempt to have its own microbe. That honor goes to Wisconsin. In 2010, lawmakers in the state Assembly tried to elevate Lactococcus lactis, the bacteria used to make buttermilk and cheese, to official state microbe. But the apparently narrow-minded or scientifically incompetent Wisconsin state Senate did not embrace the measure, and so the L. lactis bill languished. Recalcitrant politicians are why Wisconsinites can’t have nice things, but let’s hope that the Oregonian variety is a bit more enterprising. (It should be noted that Hawaiian lawmakers have also proposed two different, rare microbes to represent Hawaii, but neither have been made official, either.)

    While researching this story, I found an interesting letter to Microbe magazine from two microbiologists at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, on the topic. The authors mused that while Wisconsin (and now Oregon) have positive microbes associated with them, efforts by microbiologists to give other states their own microbes are up against some unsavory characters.

    If one were to choose a microbe historically associated with a state (due to it being discovered there or to its prevalence in the region) Montana would likely end up with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (Rickettsia rickettsii), Louisiana would get Hansen’s Disease, aka leprosy, (Mycobacterium leprae), Connecticut would inherit Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) and Nevada would merit gonorrhea (Neisseria gonorrhoeae). In 2010, another wag suggested certain cities should get their own microbe, and nominated Clostridium botulinum, the unicellular producer of face-freezing Botox, for Los Angeles.


  • How To Make Beer [Infographic]

    How 1933 brewed beer Popular Science archives
    Check out this beautiful 1933 brewing guide from the pages of Popular Science.

    When the United States ratified the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933, Popular Science celebrated the end of Prohibition by getting completely wasted (probably) and publishing this lovely infographic on how to make beer. “With the removal of national restrictions against the manufacture and sale of beer, American brewers are again in action,” said our June 1933 issue. “Their operations represent one of the most extensive applications of modern industrial chemistry.”

    Brewing beer hasn’t changed much in 80 years (and Popular Science still loves drinking it.) View the larger version of the infographic to see how the newly legal brewers turned barley into tasty, tasty beer.

    Read “Beer Making Is Marvel of Industrial Chemistry” in our June 1933 issue.

    This article originally appeared on on December 13, 2012.


  • The 3 People Who Love The Facebook Phone

    Facebook Home: Who’s It For? Facebook
    Spoiler: None of them are you.

    Professional reviewers have been positive about Facebook Home, the Android skin/launcher that turns your phone’s homescreen into a sort of portal for Facebook photos and messages. The reviews almost exclusively come to the same conclusion, saying things like, “if you’re a Facebook fanatic, you’ll love Facebook Home.” And yet it’s simultaneously described as a flop. There are a billion Facebook users. How can this app, which is entirely designed to give you more Facebook, be a flop?

    At the time of writing, the Facebook Home app has a 2.3 rating (out of 5) on the Google Play store. That’s a worse rating than an app that turns your phone into a “Hello My Name Is” sticker, so it seems fair to say the public response to Facebook Home has not been particularly positive.

    As BuzzFeed’s John Herrman articulated well here, the problem is that those “Facebook fanatics” the reviewers are so sure will love this phone don’t really exist anymore. Teens, who made Facebook what it is, all have Facebook, but they don’t interact with it to the degree they used to, according to a recent Piper Jaffray survey. They spend less time on Facebook than ever before–it’s something that exists, but as a utility, not something they’re passionate about. It hasn’t been embraced by the older generation, either; there’s already LinkedIn, which is mostly a “grownup” version of Facebook. Rusty Foster summed it up (on Twitter, no less) this way: “Young people think FB is for the olds. Old people think it’s for teens. No one thinks ‘Facebook is for people like me.'”

    I searched through social networks, search engines, reviews both professional and amateur, trying to find someone, anyone, who legitimately likes Facebook Home and finds that it suits their mobile lifestyle. It was pretty much futile. The reviews on Google Play are littered with thoughts from the Android tinkerers; they want to try out any alternative launcher, especially a free one, because why not? They’ll try anything. They mostly write things like “It seems to work fine for what it is” and “I guess if i was a facebook-holic id be more excited about it but im not” [sic]. There are plenty of 5-star reviews, but they are almost exclusively either vague “Great job Facebook!” comments or compliments for the aesthetics of the app–most of whom note that they, too, won’t be using it.

    Commenter Dan Reichert wrote, “this is by far the best Android product facebook as produced. Unfortunately I will not be using it as my life doesn’t come close enough to revolve so much around facebook. It’s definitely a solid app though.” That’s the equivalent of the professional reviewers saying that those who love Facebook will love Facebook Home–but they don’t, nor do they really know anyone who does.

    Here’s who loves Facebook Home:

    1: Advertisers

    Business Insider spoke to a few advertising execs, who misguidedly adore Facebook Home. Advertisers love Zuckerberg’s pitch: More user engagement for “Facebook addicts,” clicking more stories, spending more time looking at photos and reading status updates. Advertisers will be able to insert ads into Facebook Home–ads were part of the original pitch–and get more eyeballs on their ads.

    2: Google

    Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, loves Facebook Home. Sort of. He gave a speech during the All Things D conference in which he talked about Facebook Home in terms that made it seem as though Google was permitting the launcher rather than in love with it. Facebook had “read the rules and adhered to them,” he said, not exactly a ringing endorsement. His moment of actual enthusiasm came later. “I think it’s a tremendous endorsement of the [Android] platform,” he said. “And what you can do with it.”

    3: Mark Zuckerberg

    In an interview with Wired, Zuckerberg noted that he’d “love” Facebook Home to move outside of Android to other mobile operating systems like Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. “I think people really care about Facebook,” he said. “In a lot of ways, this is one of the best Facebook experiences that you can get.”

    Aaaaaand…that’s it. The people who love Facebook Home aren’t Facebook fanatics or Facebook addicts or Facebookaholics. They’re people with a vested financial interest in the success of the app. And that doesn’t bode well for its success; it doesn’t matter if they like it. It matters if we like it.


  • New Surgical Tape Works Like A Parasitic Worm

    Spiny Proboscis An artist’s rendition of Pomphorhynchus laevis, a parasitic worm Image courtesy of Karp lab
    The bandage is inspired by the spiny proboscis of the intestine-infecting Pomphorhynchus laevis.

    Scientists have built a better bandage that’ll stick to you like a leech. Literally. The new prototype adhesive bandage sticks even to wet skin, using a technique inspired by a parasitic worm that attaches itself to the insides of its hosts’ intestines. Yum.

    In the future, for certain surgeries, the bandage could replace stitches, staples and adhesive tapes that are already on the market, the bandage’s inventors wrote in a paper they published today in the journal Nature Communications. Compared to sutures and staples, the bandage is quicker and easier to use, and it sticks better than other tapes, they wrote. In addition, its surface of small spines could inject drugs into the skin, they said.

    The inventing team, including researchers from universities and hospitals in the Boston area, got their inspiration from a worm that infects freshwater fish. The worm, Pomphorhynchus laevis, has a spine-covered proboscis on top of its head. The body part looks a bit like a small cactus. When it infects a fish, the worm plunges its proboscis into the fish’s intestinal wall, and then, using muscles, plumps up the “cactus,” giving it a firm grip inside the fish’s tissue.

    The new bandage is covered with a neat array of tiny spines made of a special combination of plastics. The spines are normally stiff and easily pierce the skin. Once the spines contact water inside the skin, however, they plump, locking themselves inside the skin. In experiments done on pigs, the bandage held 3.5 times better than surgical staples.

    Although this pierce-and-plump method sounds painful, the new bandage actually damages the skin minimally because the spines are small and don’t penetrate into the skin very far, the Boston team wrote. Removing the bandage also is minimally damaging compared to other surgical stitching techniques, they said.

    [Brigham and Women’s Hospital via EurekAlert]


  • Zap Away Would-Be Attackers With This 3800kv Anti-Rape Bra

    Anti-Rape Bra SHE via BBC
    Feeling unsafe? Switch on your protective lingerie.

    In the wake of a highly publicized series of brutal rapes in India, a group of engineering students devised a way to help women deter sexual assault: Make their underwear a weapon.

    Manisha Mohan, a 20-year-old student at SRM University in Chennai, developed an undergarment called the “Society Harnessing Equipment,” or SHE, with two of her friends in response to the December gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi.

    The white nightgown’s bra area is lined with pressure sensors calibrated to differentiate between more violent actions like squeezing, pinching or grabbing as opposed to say, hugging. Women can switch the garment on when they feel they might be unsafe. If the pressure sensor is activated, SHE sends a 3800kv electric shock through the garment, up to 82 times. The wearer is insulated from the shock by a polymer lining on the inner side.

    It’s also designed to alert others of the danger by sending a text message to a family member or friend and to the police with the wearer’s GPS location.

    The team is still working out a few kinks, like figuring out how to make it machine washable, and Mohan told the BBC they’d like to make the electronics smaller and link them to a smartphone app through Bluetooth.

    “My vision is to see every women [sic] walking confidently on the streets in all parts of the world, even at odd hours,” Mohan told the BBC.

    [The Daily Beast]


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