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Internet Television

HBO will unbundle from cable TV in 2015, but CEO hints at internet bundles
Oct. 15, 2014 - 8:45 AM PDT Oct. 15, 2014 - 8:45 AM PDT HBO will finally offer its HBO Go service to customers without a TV subscription next year: HBO Chairman and CEO Richard Plepler said at an investor meeting Wednesday that
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This is why Netflix loves the little ones: 75 of its kids shows have 2+ million viewers
Oct. 15, 2014 - 4:01 PM PDT Oct. 15, 2014 - 4:01 PM PDT Netflix continues to be everyone’s favorite babysitter: 75 of the kids shows currently on Netflix have attracted more than two million viewers in the U.S. alone this
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How did GamerGate become a lightning rod for violence — and is social media helping or making it worse?
Oct. 15, 2014 - 3:44 PM PDT Oct. 15, 2014 - 3:44 PM PDT Every now and then, the roiling sea of bitterness and even outright malevolence that lurks in the dark corners of the internet gets forced out into the open, and the
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In Q3 Netflix added two international subscribers for every new U.S. member, but price hike slowed growth
Oct. 15, 2014 - 1:10 PM PDT Oct. 15, 2014 - 1:10 PM PDT Netflix experienced slower-than expected growth in Q3 of 2014, adding a total of 3 million members worldwide. Growth was especially slower on the domestic side: Netflix
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Here comes the Nexus Player: Google and Asus release first Android TV device for $99
Oct. 15, 2014 - 9:18 AM PDT Oct. 15, 2014 - 9:18 AM PDT Android TV is here: Google will start to sell the very first Android TV device next month. The Nexus Player, which was announced in conjunction with the Nexus 6 phone,
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Earth News Reports

Michigan Poised to Start Banning Tesla Sales 19 October 2014, 22.26 Transportation
Michigan Poised to Start Banning Tesla Sales
Share on TumblrEmail Michigan just passed a bill in state legislature that essentially bans Tesla from selling cars within the state. HB 5606 prohibits vehicle manufacturers from selling cars directly to
Read More 121 Hits 0 Ratings
The Startram Maglev Train Could Make Space Travel Cheaper & More Efficient
Share on TumblrEmail Space travel is a costly and inefficient process. Not only does it take a large amount of fuel to send the lightest payload into orbit (the Space Shuttle used over one million pounds of
Read More 115 Hits 0 Ratings
Insane Russian Attack Bike is Powered by a Chainsaw 19 October 2014, 22.26 Transportation
Insane Russian Attack Bike is Powered by a Chainsaw
Share on TumblrEmail Other than the fact that it was constructed in Russia, we aren’t entirely sure who’s responsible for this mean-looking chainsaw bike. While it may look like it’s designed for the
Read More 138 Hits 0 Ratings
The Key Art Awards 2014: the best movie posters of the year 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
The Key Art Awards 2014: the best movie posters of the year
The Key Art Awards are more famous for their focus on teasers and previews, but they also reward posters. On this post you can see a few of the print finalists, for the full list, just check this page on their website. The post
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Print love: new fine art prints published this week 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
Print love: new fine art prints published this week
Poetic, funny, witty, or just beautiful, new art prints are published online every day. With this new weekly feature, I’ll try to share the best of new digital printmaking projects on a regular basis. The great escape by
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20 awesome typographic packaging designs 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
20 awesome typographic packaging designs
In this competitive marketplace, if you want to survive with your products then packaging design plays a vital role. For a designer, when it’s the matter of packaging designs, typography is the first thing that hits his/her
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6 WordPress plugins to create cool image effects 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
6 WordPress plugins to create cool image effects
As we all know “A picture speaks a thousand words,” it is very essential to pay close attention to images in websites. It has the power to attract your potential customers. That is why today we are here with 6 WordPress
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Illustrations by Jared Muralt 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
Illustrations by Jared Muralt
Stunning illustrations by Jared Muralt, a talented illustrator from Bern, Switzerland. Make sure you don’t miss his shop. The post Illustrations by Jared Muralt appeared first on Design daily news. Download the free
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Amazing wooden tables by Lee Jae-Hyo 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
Amazing wooden tables by Lee Jae-Hyo
Someone please explain me how these are made technically. Lee Jae-Hyo, a Korean artist, created a set of tables and furnitures made of pieces of wood attached together by some kind of magical technique. He also creates
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Historic photos where guns are replaced by flowers 19 October 2014, 22.26 Green Architecture
Historic photos where guns are replaced by flowers
Blick, a French creative artist, had fun with old war photos and made a pacific statement by exchanging guns in the pictures with flowers. Some powerful images. The post Historic photos where guns are replaced by flowers
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Technology News Reports

The Right Way to Fix the Internet 19 October 2014, 22.26 Tech
The Right Way to Fix the Internet
If you’re like most people, your monthly smartphone bill is steep enough to make you shudder. As consumers’ appetite for connectivity keeps growing, the price of wireless service in the United States tops $130 a month in
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Carbon Sequestration: Too Little, Too Late? 19 October 2014, 22.26 Tech
Carbon Sequestration: Too Little, Too Late?
A few carbon capture and sequestration projects are under way, but economics and politics are holding the technology back. By David Talbot on October 13, 2014 This coal power plant in Saskatchewan is the first
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Microsoft’s Quantum Mechanics 19 October 2014, 22.26 Tech
Microsoft’s Quantum Mechanics
In 2012, physicists in the Netherlands announced a discovery in particle physics that started chatter about a Nobel Prize. Inside a tiny rod of semiconductor crystal chilled cooler than outer space, they had caught the first
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How a Wiki Is Keeping Direct-to-Consumer Genetics Alive
When Meg DeBoe decided to tap her Christmas fund to order a $99 consumer DNA test from 23andMe last year, she was disappointed: it arrived with no information on what her genes said about her chance of developing
Read More 32 Hits 0 Ratings
Air Traffic Control for Drones 19 October 2014, 22.26 Tech
Air Traffic Control for Drones
If large numbers of commercial drones are to take to the skies, they’ll need an air traffic control system. By Tom Simonite on October 17, 2014 Drones at the San Francisco headquarters of Airware. The company will soon
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Can Apple Pay Do to Your Wallet What iTunes Did for Music?
The point-of-sale terminal at the CVS drugstore in Palo Alto, California, can accept payments through a quick tap from a smartphone. The clerk isn’t sure how it works, though he knows it does because “a few kids” have
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Michigan Poised to Start Banning Tesla Sales 19 October 2014, 22.26 Transportation
Michigan Poised to Start Banning Tesla Sales
Share on TumblrEmail Michigan just passed a bill in state legislature that essentially bans Tesla from selling cars within the state. HB 5606 prohibits vehicle manufacturers from selling cars directly to
Read More 121 Hits 0 Ratings
The Startram Maglev Train Could Make Space Travel Cheaper & More Efficient
Share on TumblrEmail Space travel is a costly and inefficient process. Not only does it take a large amount of fuel to send the lightest payload into orbit (the Space Shuttle used over one million pounds of
Read More 115 Hits 0 Ratings
Insane Russian Attack Bike is Powered by a Chainsaw 19 October 2014, 22.26 Transportation
Insane Russian Attack Bike is Powered by a Chainsaw
Share on TumblrEmail Other than the fact that it was constructed in Russia, we aren’t entirely sure who’s responsible for this mean-looking chainsaw bike. While it may look like it’s designed for the
Read More 138 Hits 0 Ratings
Nexus 6: The best Android smartphone for wireless and LTE connectivity
Google’s new Motorola-made Nexus 6 is a monster of a phone — both in terms of form and function — with cellular wireless capabilities that outclass any other Android device on the market today. Launching with Android
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How to watch Apple’s iPad event live stream on Windows and Android
Updated @ 12:38, October 16: If you’re trying to watch the live stream of Apple’s iPad event on Windows or Android, the following instructions (which were for the iPhone 6 event in September) should still work. The only
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Google finds critical vulnerability in SSL 3.0 called POODLE
The web is built on standards — but as those standards evolve and change, it’s common for previous standards to remain as options for compatibility reasons. The dangers of this practice are highlighted in a recent Google
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Samsung develops 60GHz WiFi capable of 4.6Gbps, will be in devices next year
Samsung has announced that it’s entering the 60GHz 802.11ad WiFi game. Samsung says it has a commercialized version of 60GHz WiFi (aka WiGig) that’s capable of 4.6Gbps, or 575 megabytes per second — about five times
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Gadget Lab Podcast: Did You Hear That Apple Had an Event This Week?
The iPad Air 2 is demonstrated at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. Apple unveiled the thinner iPad with a faster processor and a better camera as it tries to drive excitement for tablets amid
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Game|Life Podcast: Software Sales Slump and Bayonetta Makes a Comeback
Bayonetta 2. Nintendo The NPD Group has released (some tiny amount of) data on the game industry’s September sales, and it’s not all good news, as we discuss on this week’s Game|Life podcast. While hardware sales are
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What’s Scarier, Haunted Houses or Haunted People?
Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. Warner Bros. Halloween season is the perfect time to watch horror movies, and a reliable standby of the genre is the haunted house story. Recent examples range from the understated (The Woman
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The Tragic Medical History Behind That Crazy Knick Finale
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax [Spoiler alert: The following piece contains spoilers for The Knick season finale, "Crutchfield." Stop here if you haven't seen it. You've been warned.] There were about a bajillion “Oh, crap!”
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Snapchat Ads Are Heading Your Way Starting This Weekend
WIRED It’s happened to Twitter. And Tumblr. And Instagram. And now, Snapchat’s day has finally come. Beginning this weekend, the ephemeral messaging app will start rolling out paid advertisements for the first time. The
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The Internet Sleeps at Night. Really. 19 October 2014, 22.24 Tech
The Internet Sleeps at Night. Really.
Gif: University of Southern California Here in the United States, we spend most of our time in an always-on world—a place where internet connections are as constant and reliable as the lights or running water. But this
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How does PlayStation Now on the PS3 compare to the PS4?
In September, Sony rolled out the PlayStation Now beta service to the PS3. The public beta has been available on the PS4 for a while now, but this additional release spurred me to take another look at the service. This
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HP announces split into two companies, but sadly they won’t be called H and P
HP, after years of will-they-won’t-they deliberation, has officially announced that it will be split into two separate companies: HP Inc, which will focus on PCs and printers, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which will
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Hong Kong protesters turn to mesh networks to evade China’s censorship
The rather cramped streets of Hong Kong are currently lined with tens of thousands of people — the Umbrella Revolution. They are mostly students and members of Occupy Central, who are protesting for a fully democratic
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You can now stream Photoshop to your Chromebook: A huge win for Google
In a somewhat surprising move, Adobe and Google have announced a streaming version of Photoshop for Chromebooks (Chrome OS) and the Chrome browser. This is potentially massive news for Chromebooks, as the lack of Big Software
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IBM leaves the x86 market at long last: Lenovo’s $2.1 billion acquisition approved (updated)
Updated @ 9:09am, September 29: Lenovo has finally received approval from US and EU regulators for its acquisition of IBM’s low-end x86 server business. The $2.1 billion acquisition should be finalized by Wednesday this
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Shellshock: A deadly new vulnerability that could lay waste to the internet (updated)
Updated @ 8:10am, September 29: Another remote code execution vulnerability has been found in Bash. It is unrelated to the first Shellshock vulnerability, but it is essentially the same deal: It’s very easy to exploit, and
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The Contrarian’s Guide to Changing the World
Is the technology investor Peter Thiel brilliant, or is he just strange? He is nothing if not industrious. Since he cofounded PayPal, in 1998, Thiel has had a hand in some of the most important and unexpected tech companies
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Can Sucking CO2 Out of the Atmosphere Really Work?
Physicist Peter Eisenberger had expected colleagues to react to his idea with skepticism. He was claiming, after all, to have invented a machine that could clean the atmosphere of its excess carbon dioxide, making the gas
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Should Industrial Robots Be Able to Hurt Their Human Coworkers?
Standards bodies are wrestling with the impact of accidental robot strikes. By Tom Simonite on October 6, 2014 Baxter, a collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics, works on a mocked-up assembly line. How much should a
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Fun with Food 08 October 2014, 23.44 Tech
Fun with Food
Things reviewed Nordic Food LabNoma Copenhagen, Denmark Ever since cooks began playing with the equipment of the food industry, chefs have felt compelled to join one of two camps. The first believes any kitchen is
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What It Will Take for Computers to Be Conscious
The world’s best-known consciousness researcher says machines could one day become self-aware. By Antonio Regalado on October 2, 2014 Christof Koch Is a worm conscious? How about a bumblebee? Does a computer that can
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An Industrial-Size Generator That Runs on Waste Heat, Using No Fuel
Startup Alphabet Energy has its first product: what it says is the world’s largest thermoelectric generator. By Kevin Bullis on October 9, 2014 Alphabet Energy’s new generator uses thermoelectric materials to convert
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NSA Mind-Bender: We Won’t Tell You What Info We Already Leaked to the Media
NSA headquarters. Wikimedia Commons Longtime reporters who cover the NSA know that any time we ask the obstinate spy agency for information, we’re probably going to hit a brick wall. But who would have thought that trying
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New iRobot App Lets You Control a ‘Bot Army With an Android Tablet
irobot You may be familiar with iRobot’s Roomba vacuums, but some the company’s other robots perform much harder (and more dangerous) tasks. There are around 6,000 iRobot’s defense and security robots deployed
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Two Incredible Views of Super Typhoon Vongfang From Space
NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team This beautiful image of Super Typhoon Vongfon over the Philippine Sea was taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite at 12:25 a.m. ET this morning. Below, another incredible view of the massive
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The Design Thinking Behind London’s New $4B Subway Trains
The London Underground revealed new plans today for subway cars, designed by British travel design firm PriestmanGoode. Photo: PriestmanGoode The London Underground revealed new plans today for subway cars,
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How Facebook Made Your Mobile Messages Move at Super Speed
If you’ve noticed your Facebook mobile messages zipping around a little more quickly over the past few months, you can thank a little-known open-source project called Apache Thrift. Facebook designed Thrift and has long
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Amazon Is Opening a Store in NYC, But It’s Not Really for Shopping
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Jim Merithrew/WIRED It had to happen: Amazon is opening a store. A physical store. At least, that’s what The Wall Street Journal is reporting, citing unnamed sources. The Journal says the
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INTERVIEW: Tesla Climate Riders Drive 1,100 Miles to People’s Climate March
Share on TumblrEmail  A team of sustainability leaders from Orlando, Florida, drove a  Tesla Model S Sedan 1,100 miles to the People’s Climate March in New York City to demonstrate that zero emission
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TEST DRIVE: 10 Things You Need to Know About Toyota’s 2015 Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle
Share on TumblrEmail For the past 20 years, Toyota has been working on a vehicle that could revolutionize the way we get around. It’s virtually silent, its emissions are so clean you could drink them, and
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Japan Conducts First Public Test of New 311 MPH ‘L-Zero’ Maglev Train
Share on TumblrEmail Japan invented high-speed rail (HSR) in 1964 with the Shinkansen bullet train – and now The Land of the Rising Sun is leading the way towards the next generation of fast trains with the
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Towards infinite-capacity wireless networks, with twisted vortex radio waves
Researchers at the University of Southern California, building on its previous work on infinity-capacity twisted laser vortex networks, has now adapted its technology to work with boring ol’ radio waves. The previous
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iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus: The world’s best phones for wireless and LTE connectivity
With every release of the iPhone, Apple dramatically improves the wireless radio capabilities in ways that no other device maker has ever matched. With the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus , Apple continues that trend, setting the
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Amazing Self-Driving Stained Glass Car Lets You Sleep on the Way to Work!
Share on TumblrEmail Dominic Wilcox knows that driverless cars will become a reality in the not-too-distant future – and since drivers will not actually need to
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Audi Nabs California’s First Autonomous Driving Permit 20 September 2014, 19.54 Transportation
Audi Nabs California’s First Autonomous Driving Permit
Share on TumblrEmail Audi has a lot to celebrate as it has just announced that it is the first automaker to receive an autonomous driving permit in California. A range of new autonomous vehicle laws have gone
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LAST CHANCE: Win a PUBLIC Bike (Worth $574) or a Solar Power Backpack in Inhabitat’s Back to School Contest!
Share on TumblrEmail It’s that time of year again – school bells are ringing across the States, and students everywhere are getting ready for a brand new year. To encourage you to green your
Read More 214 Hits 0 Ratings
Technology Stalled in 1970 20 September 2014, 19.53 Tech
Technology Stalled in 1970
Peter Thiel says he’s trying to get entrepreneurs to go after bigger problems than the ones Silicon Valley is chasing. By Tom Simonite on September 18, 2014 Peter Thiel Peter Thiel has been behind some prominent
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Radical New DNA Sequencer Finally Gets into Researchers’ Hands
A DNA sequencer the size of a cell phone could change where, and how, gene research occurs. By Antonio Regalado on September 17, 2014 The DNA sequencer built by Oxford Nanopore draws power from a computer’s USB
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Making Innovation 20 September 2014, 19.53 Tech
Making Innovation
The hubs of advanced manufacturing will be the economic drivers of the future because innovation increasingly depends on production expertise. By Nanette Byrnes on September 16, 2014 Visitors to the Crosspointe
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Audi Drives Innovation on the Shop Floor 20 September 2014, 19.53 Tech
Audi Drives Innovation on the Shop Floor
A carmaker’s automated body shop illustrates how German manufacturing is moving forward. By Russ Juskalian on September 16, 2014 The frame of an A3 sedan sits in the laser brazing chamber at Audi’s Ingolstadt
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Gene-Silencing Drugs Finally Show Promise 20 September 2014, 19.53 Tech
Gene-Silencing Drugs Finally Show Promise
The disease starts with a feeling of increased clumsiness. Spilling a cup of coffee. Stumbling on the stairs. Having accidents that are easy to dismiss—everyone trips now and then. But it inevitably gets worse. Known as
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Intel Says Laptops and Tablets with 3-D Vision Are Coming Soon
Your next laptop or tablet may have 3-D sensors that let it recognize gestures or augment a real scene with virtual characters. By Tom Simonite on September 12, 2014 Look out: Intel’s 3-D sensing technology is small
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Launching Levi’s Stadium: A Day in Digital Content
Craig Howe Documenting the launch of a new stadium is a once in a lifetime experience, let alone a stadium in the heart of Silicon Valley. On Sunday Scott Kegley, Senior Manager of Digital and Social Media for the San
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Tech Time Warp of the Week: A Look Back at Larry Ellison’s Most Outrageous Moments as a CEO
Oracle founder and all-around Silicon Valley legend Larry Ellison is stepping down as CEO of the world’s most frighteningly powerful database company after 37 years at the helm. And though this is largely ceremonial—he
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Game|Life Podcast: Destiny, Hyrule Warriors, Smash Bros, Minecraft
Hyrule Warriors Nintendo You know how sometimes on the Game|Life podcast we don’t really know what to talk about? No chance of that happening this week. Tune in to hear Bo Moore and me discuss Destiny, Hyrule Warriors,
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New Resident Evil Tries to Finally Bring Back the Horror
Claire Redfield, amateur prison janitor, has a rough first day. Capcom Claire Redfield, amateur prison janitor, has a rough first day. Capcom Resident Evil Revelations 2's settings evoke horror, but the
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Alibaba Is Already Bigger Than Facebook, Amazon, and IBM
Alibaba CEO Jack Ma outside the New York Stock Exchange prior to his company’s initial public offering Friday. Jason DeCrow / AP Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Intel. As of midday on Friday, Alibaba is now worth more than all of
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This Burly, $65K Motorcycle Is Inspired by a Fighter Plane
The F6F Hellcat fighter plane was the original inspiration for the bikes in the Hellcat series. Confederate Motorcycles The F6F Hellcat fighter plane was the original inspiration for the bikes in the Hellcat
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Aerofex Develops a Working Hover Bike That’s Straight Out of Return of the Jedi!
Share on TumblrEmail How many of you watched Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and wished you had a speeder bike like the ones Luke and Leia race through the forests of Endor? Well, you may not have to wait much
Read More 390 Hits 0 Ratings
Local Motors 3D-Prints Incredible Full-Scale Car in Just 44 Hours!
Share on TumblrEmail Arizona-based Local Motors has succeeded in creating the world’s first 3D-printed car at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago. Called the Strati, the
Read More 394 Hits 0 Ratings
Analyzing Bitcoin: Why BTC is so valuable, and whether it will still be in the future
This article is the result of a year-long collaboration between myself and Dr. Justin Gash, Associate Professor Mathematics at Franklin College. For the past year, we’ve tracked and analyzed the movements of the Bitcoin
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Apple unveils Apple Pay, a digital wallet for your iPhone 6 and Apple Watch
Apple has announced its new mobile payments system: Apple Pay. As expected, it will allow you to use your iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, or Apple Watch as a digital wallet, paying at one of the 220,000 contactless payment locations
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The great Internet Slowdown: Join tomorrow’s protest against the FCC’s new net neutrality rules
Tomorrow, September 10, will mark the first great Internet Slowdown — a protest by some of the web’s largest companies over the FCC and US government’s handling of net neutrality. All across the web, on sites such as
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How to watch Apple’s iPhone 6 event live stream on Windows and Android
Later today, Apple will unveil the iPhone 6 at a special event in Cupertino, California. Somewhat unusually for Apple, it will be broadcasting a live video stream of the event — but, for reasons we still can’t fathom,
Read More 60 Hits 0 Ratings
Win a PUBLIC Bike (Worth $574) or a Solar Power Backpack in Inhabitat’s Back to School Contest!
Share on TumblrEmail It’s that time of year again – school bells are ringing across the States, and students everywhere are getting ready for a brand new year. To encourage you to green your
Read More 300 Hits 0 Ratings
Toyota’s New Transforming Urban Utility Vehicle is the Swiss Army Knife of Cars!
Share on TumblrEmail Makers, meet your DIY dream car. Toyota‘s Calty Design Research Studio just unveiled its brand new Urban Utility concept car – an ultra flexible vehicle with a transforming interior
Read More 349 Hits 0 Ratings
This Family is e-Biking 6200 Miles Across the US to Set a World Record!
Share on TumblrEmail How do you top crossing the Americas by car with the entire family in tow? If you are the Camper Clan family, you do it by setting a Guinness World Record by traveling 6,200 miles across
Read More 226 Hits 0 Ratings
“Hello, Computer” -- Intel’s New Mobile Chips Are Always Listening
Tablets and laptops coming later this year will be able to constantly listen for voice commands thanks to new chips from Intel. By Tom Simonite on September 5, 2014 New processors: A silicon wafer etched with Intel’s
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Google Launches Effort to Build Its Own Quantum Computer
Google’s crack at a quantum computer is a bid to change computing forever. By Tom Simonite on September 3, 2014 Quantum core: Techniques developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to build this device,
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On the Horns of the GMO Dilemma 10 September 2014, 18.52 Tech
On the Horns of the GMO Dilemma
Can genome-editing technology revive the idea of genetically modified livestock? By Antonio Regalado on September 2, 2014 Four years ago, Scott Fahrenkrug saw an ABC News segment about the dehorning of dairy cows, a
Read More 59 Hits 0 Ratings

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The Right Way to Fix the Internet PDF Print E-mail

If you’re like most people, your monthly smartphone bill is steep enough to make you shudder. As consumers’ appetite for connectivity keeps growing, the price of wireless service in the United States tops $130 a month in many households.

Two years ago Mung Chiang, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, believed he could give customers more control. One simple adjustment would clear the way for lots of mobile-phone users to get as much data as they already did, and in some cases even more, on cheaper terms. Carriers could win, too, by nudging customers to reduce peak-period traffic, making some costly network upgrades unnecessary. “We thought we could increase the benefits for everyone,” Chiang recalls.

Chiang’s plan called for the wireless industry to offer its customers the same types of variable pricing that have brought new efficiencies to transportation and utilities. Rates increase during peak periods, when congestion is at its worst; they decrease during slack periods. In the pre-smartphone era, it would have been impossible to advise users ahead of time about a zig or zag in their connectivity charges. Now, it would be straightforward to vary the price of online access depending on congestion and build an app that let bargain hunters shift their activities to cheaper periods, even on a minute-by-minute basis. When prices were high, consumers could put off non-urgent tasks like downloading Facebook posts to read later. Careful users could save a lot of money.

Excited about the prospects, Chiang patented his key concepts. He formed a company, now known as DataMi, to build the necessary software. Venture capitalists and angel investors put $6 million into the company. A seasoned wireless executive, Harjot Saluja, signed on to be the chief executive, while prominent people such as Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, joined DataMi’s advisory board. Everything seemed aligned for Chiang and Saluja as they set out to make “smart data pricing” a reality.

Today, DataMi’s variable pricing idea is on ice. The startup has regrouped in favor of other services, including one that helps businesses calculate how much of their employees’ cell-phone bills should be reimbursed because of work-related usage. The reasons for the switch have little with DataMi’s technical ability to make good on the promise of variable pricing. In early user tests, it delivered everything that DataMi’s patents predicted.

But politics got in the way.

A huge debate has erupted about the degree to which Internet carriers should be subject to a concept known as net neutrality. In its simplest form, the idea is that Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon shouldn’t offer preferential treatment to certain types of content. Instead, they should send everything to their customers with their “best efforts”—as fast as they can manage. Nobody can pay your ISP for a “fast lane” to your house. Carriers can’t show favoritism toward any of their own services or applications. And nobody providing lawful content can be slowed or blocked.

At this point, net neutrality is only a principle and not a law. Though the FCC put an ambiguously worded version on the books in 2010, it was struck down this year by a federal district court. But now, as the FCC is deliberating how to redo the policy, it’s facing passionate demands to restore and possibly even tighten the rules, giving ISPs even less leeway to engage in what regulators have typically called “reasonable network management.”

Protesters rallied at the Federal Communications Commission in May as the agency considered new Internet rules.

Until about a year ago, Chiang and his colleagues thought their data-pricing idea had so much common-sense appeal that no one would regard it as an assault on net neutrality—even though it would let carriers charge people more for constant access. But then, as the debate heated up, everything got trickier. Ardent defenders of net neutrality began painting ever darker pictures of how the Internet could suffer if anyone treated anyone’s traffic differently. Even though Chiang and Saluja saw variable pricing as pro-consumer, they had no lobbyists or legal team and decided they couldn’t afford a drawn-out battle to establish that they weren’t on the wrong side.

For network engineers, DataMi’s about-face isn’t an isolated example. They fear that overly strict net neutrality rules could limit their ability to reconfigure the Internet so it can handle rapidly growing traffic loads.

Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who studies telecom issues as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University, points out that the Internet never has been entirely neutral. Wireless networks, for example, have been built for many years with features that help identify users whose weak connections are impairing the network with slow traffic and incessant requests for dropped packets to be resent. Carriers’ technology assures that such users’ access is rapidly constrained, so that one person’s bad connection doesn’t create a traffic jam for everyone. In such situations, strict adherence to net neutrality goes by the wayside: one user’s experience is degraded so that hundreds of others don’t suffer. As Raychaudhuri sees it, the Internet has been able to progress because net neutrality has been treated as one of many objectives that can be balanced against one another. If net neutrality becomes completely inviolable, it’s a different story. Inventors’ hands are tied. Other types of progress become harder.

Rather than debate such subtleties, net neutrality’s loudest boosters have been staging a series of simplistic—but highly entertaining—skits in an effort to rally the public to their side. In September, popular websites such as Reddit and Kickstarter simulated page-loading debacles as a way of getting visitors to believe that if net neutrality isn’t enacted, the Internet could slow to a crawl. That argument has been picked up by TV comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel, who showed a track meet in which the best sprinters represented cable companies with their own fast lanes. A stumbling buffoon in his underwear portrayed the shabby delivery standards that everyone else would endure.

Even President Barack Obama has been publicly reminding regulators of his commitment to net neutrality. In August he declared, “You don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users. You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed.”

Clearly, most Americans aren’t happy with their Internet service. It costs more to get online in the United States than just about anywhere else in the developed world, according to a 2013 survey by the New America Foundation. In fact, U.S. service is sometimes twice as expensive as what’s available in Europe—and slower, too. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan found in a recent public survey that U.S. Internet service providers rank dead last in customer satisfaction scores against 42 other industries. Specific failings range from unreliable service to dismal call-center performance.

With lots of U.S. consumers wanting the government to do something about Internet service, strengthening net neutrality feels like a way to do it. Given that most Internet providers are urging the FCC to let this principle disappear from the books, it’s natural to call for the opposite approach. Yet that would probably be the wrong move. It’s possible to overdose on something even as benign-sounding as neutrality.

Bitstreams

The two sides in the net neutrality debate sometimes seem to speak two different languages, rooted in two different ways of seeing the Internet. Their contrasting perspectives reflect the fact that the Internet arose in an ad hoc fashion; there is no Internet constitution to cite.

Nonetheless, many legal scholars like to point to their equivalent of the Federalist Papers: a 1981 article by computer scientists Jerome Saltzer, David Reed, and David Clark. The authors’ ambitions for that paper (“End-to-End Arguments in System Design”) had been modest: to lay out technical reasons why tasks such as error correction should be performed at the edges, or end points, of the network—where the users are—rather than at the core. In other words, ISPs should operate “dumb pipes” that merely pass traffic along. This paper took on a remarkable second life as the Internet grew. In his 2000 book Code, a discussion of how to regulate the Internet, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig said the lack of centralized control embodied in the 1981 end-to-end principle was “one of the most important reasons that the Internet produced the innovation and growth that it has enjoyed.”

The Internet has progressed because net neutrality has been one of many objectives that can be balanced against one another. If neutrality becomes completely inviolable, it’s a different story.

Tim Wu built on that idea in a 2002 article published when he was a law professor at the University of Virginia. In that and subsequent papers, he wrote that the end-to-end principle stimulated innovation because it made possible “a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the Internet so that only the best survive.” To promote that competition, he said, “network neutrality” would be necessary to eliminate bias for or against any particular application.

Wu acknowledged that this was a new concept, with “unavoidable vagueness” about the dividing line between allowable network-management decisions and impermissible bias. But he expressed hope that others would refine his idea and make it more precise.

That never happened. The line remains as blurry as ever, which is one reason the debate over net neutrality is so intense.

Barbara van Schewick, a leading Internet scholar at Stanford and a former member of Lessig’s research team, expresses concern that if profit-hungry companies are left unfettered to choose how to handle various types of traffic, they “will continue to change the internal structure of the Internet in ways that are good for them, but not necessarily for the rest of us.” She warns of the perils of letting Internet providers promote their own versions of popular services (such as Internet messaging or Internet telephony) while degrading or blocking customers’ ability to use independent services (such as WhatsApp in messaging or Skype in telephony). Such practices have occasionally popped up in Germany and other European markets, but they have rarely been seen in the United States, a disparity that van Schewick credits to the FCC’s explicit or implicit commitments to net neutrality.

Internet service providers such as AT&T have publicly insisted that they wouldn’t ever rig their networks to promote their own applications, because such obvious favoritism would cause customers to cancel service en masse. Skeptics counter that in many locales, consumers have little choice but to stick with their current broadband provider, because there is barely any competition.

Van Schewick also argues that it would be a mistake to let the likes of AT&T or Comcast charge independent content and service creators (including Internet telephony providers such as Skype or Vonage) to secure the best possible access to end users. Though such access fees exist in other industries—cereal and toothpaste companies, for example, pay “slotting fees” to major grocers in order to get optimal shelf space in stores—van Schewick warns that charging such fees to online companies would “make it more difficult for entrepreneurs to get outside funding.” In other recent writings, she has said it would be ill-advised to let carriers decide without input from customers whether to optimize different versions of their services for different types of traffic, such as video versus speech and text.

But while van Schewick and other advocates are trying to promote an “open Internet,” codifying too many overarching principles for the Internet makes many engineers uncomfortable. In their view, the network is a constant work in progress, requiring endless pragmatism. Its backbone is constantly being torn apart and rebuilt. The best means of connecting various networks with one another are always in flux.

“You can’t change congestion by passing net neutrality or doing that kind of thing,” says Tom Leighton, cofounder and chief executive of Akamai Technologies. His company has been speeding Internet traffic since the late 1990s, chiefly by providing more than 150,000 servers around the world that make it possible for content creators to store their most-demanded material as close to their various users as possible. It’s the kind of advance in network management that helped the Internet survive the huge increases in traffic over the last two decades. To keep traffic humming online, Leighton says, “you’re going to need technology.”

If some people want their Internet connections to deliver ultrahigh-resolution movies, they might be better served by flexible arrangements that eschew strict equity for all bits and instead prioritize video.

A central tenet of net neutrality is that “best efforts” should be applied equally when transmitting every packet moving through the Internet, regardless of who the sender, recipient, or carriers might be. But that principle merely freezes the setup of the Internet as it existed nearly a quarter-century ago, says Michael Katz, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked for the FCC and consulted for Verizon. “You can say that every bit is a bit,” Katz adds, “but every bitstream isn’t the same bitstream.” Video and voice transmissions are highly vulnerable to errors, delays, and packet loss. Data transmissions can survive rougher handling. If some consumers want their Internet connections to deliver ultrahigh-resolution movies with perfect fidelity, those people would be better served, Katz argues, by more flexible arrangements that might indeed prioritize video. Efficiency might be more desirable than a strict adherence to equity for all bits.

House of Cards

About a year ago, Netflix’s customers noticed something disquieting when they tried to stream popular shows such as House of Cards. Their download speeds became annoyingly slow and some shows wouldn’t load at all, regardless of whether these customers relied on Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast. Network congestion had taken hold—with transmission speeds dropping as much as 30 percent, according to Netflix’s own data. Last March, Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, lashed out at the major U.S. Internet service providers, accusing them of constraining Netflix’s performance and pressuring his company to pay big interconnection fees.

Over the next few months, Netflix and its allies portrayed this slowdown as an example of cable companies’ most selfish behavior. In communications with the FCC, Netflix called for a “strong version” of net neutrality that would block the companies from charging fees to online service providers. In his blog, Hastings declared that net neutrality must be “defended and strengthened … to ensure the Internet remains humanity’s most important platform for progress.”

But the situation isn’t as black-and-white as Hastings’s indignant posts suggested.

For many years, high-volume sites run by Facebook, YouTube, Apple, and the like have been negotiating arrangements with many companies that ferry data to your Internet service provider—backbone operators, transit providers, and content delivery networks—to ensure that the most popular content is distributed as smoothly as possible. Often, this means paying a company such as Akamai to stash copies of highly in-demand content on multiple servers all over the world, so that a stampede for World Cup highlights creates as little strain as possible on the overall Internet.

There’s no standard way that these distribution arrangements are negotiated. Sometimes no money changes hands. In other situations, content companies pay for distribution. In theory, distribution companies could pay for content. In Netflix’s case, as demand has skyrocketed for its movies and TV shows, the company has negotiated a wide range of ways to help route its content around the Internet as efficiently as possible.


As Ars Technica reported earlier this year, Netflix started to realign its distribution methods in mid-2013. As its traffic soared, that created greater demands on all the Internet service providers that needed to handle House of Cards and its kin. By some estimates, Netflix last year was accounting for as much as one-third of all U.S. Internet traffic on Friday evenings. One of Netflix’s distribution allies (Level 3) restructured its terms with Comcast, reflecting the expenses associated with extra network connections, known as peering points, that Comcast needed to install in order to handle this rising traffic. Another (Cogent Communications) balked at the idea of defraying Comcast’s costs, and as a result, additional connections from Cogent to Comcast weren’t installed.

The result: Netflix’s videos began to stutter. In the short term, Netflix resolved the problem by paying for more of the peering points that carriers such as Comcast and Verizon required. More strategically, Netflix is arranging to put its servers in Internet service providers’ facilities, providing them with easier access to its content.

In the long run, carriers and content companies are likely to keep tussling about the ways they connect—simply because these are the sorts of business contracts that must be revisited as circumstances change. That’s why Hundt, FCC chairman from 1993 to 1997, says it’s a mistake to portray Netflix’s scuffle with the carriers as a critical test of the neutrality principle. It’s more like a routine business dispute, he says. “This is a battle between the rich and the wealthy,” he adds. “Both sides will have to figure out, on their own, how to get along.”

Hundt says the Netflix fight shouldn’t distract regulators who are trying to figure out the best way to keep the Internet open. They should be focusing, he says, on making sure that everyday customers are getting high-speed Internet as cheaply and reliably as possible, and that small-time publishers of Internet content can distribute their work. It’s worth noting that much of the lobbying in favor of net neutrality is coming from large, publicly traded companies that make momentary allusions to the well-being of garage-type startups but are mainly focused on disputes that apply to the Internet’s biggest players. A tiny video startup doesn’t generate enough volume to force Comcast to install extra peering points.

Zero Rating

In the rest of the world, where net neutrality is not insisted on, innovative approaches to wireless Internet pricing are catching on. At the top of the list is “zero rating,” in which consumers are allowed to try certain applications without incurring any bandwidth-usage charges. The app providers usually pay the wireless carriers to offer that access as a way of building up their market share in a hurry.

In much of Africa, people with limited usage plans can enjoy free access to Facebook or Wikipedia this way. In Europe, many music-streaming sites have hammered out arrangements with various wireless carriers in which zero-rating promotions become a major means of marketing. In China and South Korea, subsidized wireless options are springing up too. Such arrangements can help hold down mobile-phone bills and possibly even get people online for the first time.

Much of the lobbying in favor of net neutrality is coming from large, publicly traded companies that make momentary allusions to the well-being of garage-type startups.

In the United States, T-Mobile lets customers tap into a half-dozen music sites, such as Pandora and Spotify, without incurring usage charges. And AT&T has been experimenting with zero rating. But overall, things are moving slowly.

Consumers around the globe may find zero rating delightful, but net neutrality champions such as Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, object on principle because it lets content providers pay carriers for access to consumers. In his view, carriers can’t be trusted in any situation that involves special deals for certain services.

When Tim Wu talked about net neutrality a decade ago, he framed it as a way of ensuring maximum competition on the Internet. But in the current debate, that rationale is in danger of being coöpted into a protectionist defense of the status quo. If there’s anything the Internet’s evolution has taught us, it’s that innovation comes rapidly, and in unexpected ways. We need a net neutrality strategy that prevents the big Internet service providers from abusing their power—but still allows them to optimize the Internet for the next wave of innovation and efficiency.

George Anders is a writer based in Northern California. He shared in the 1997 Pulitzer Prize given to the Wall Street Journal for national reporting. 

This story was updated on October 15 to delete a reference to GreenByte. DataMi is still developing a service with that name even though it has put the variable-pricing aspect of it on hold.

Credits: Illustration by Matt Dorfman, photo by Alex Wong | Getty Images, data source from Sandvine

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Carbon Sequestration: Too Little, Too Late? PDF Print E-mail

A few carbon capture and sequestration projects are under way, but economics and politics are holding the technology back.

SaskPower plant

This coal power plant in Saskatchewan is the first commercial-scale coal power plant to capture and bury most of its carbon dioxide emissions.

To impede climate change, scientific studies suggest, billions of tons of carbon dioxide need to be captured from hundreds of fossil-fuel power plants in the next few decades—and as soon as possible. Without large-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), other measures—including rollouts of renewable and nuclear power—will not avert catastrophic climate effects in the coming century and beyond (see “The Carbon Capture Conundrum”).

CCS technologies are getting more sophisticated and efficient, and a few full-scale projects are going online. At the same time, researchers warned last week in Austin, Texas, at the world’s largest conference on CCS that the technology remains economically practical in only a few situations.

The most significant recent advance was the opening of a 110-megawatt coal power and CCS plant in Saskatchewan, called Boundary Dam, built by the provincial utility SaskPower (see “In a First, Commercial Coal Plant Buries Its CO2”). Michael Monea, president of SaskPower’s carbon capture and storage initiatives, spoke with almost religious fervor at the conference about the project, which will capture 90 percent of its carbon dioxide. “Build more of them, build them bigger, and it will have an effect on the world—I believe that,” he said.

That plant will use the CO2 it captures to help push more oil out of the ground, a process called enhanced oil recovery, or EOR. The sale of the carbon dioxide for EOR is a key mechanism to financing early CCS projects, but this application of carbon burial tends to perpetuate the problem.

“We’re lucky we have these commercial units at all,” says Gary Rochelle, a chemical engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, who is working on a carbon capture project at a coal plant south of Houston. “A few folks have stepped out and are taking risks, and EOR enables them to do it.”

CCS imposes big capital costs and energy penalties: the Saskatchewan plant’s CCS unit cost $800 million to build and consumes 21 percent of the coal plant’s power output in order to scrub out the carbon dioxide and compress it into a liquid for burial. Yet the work of Rochelle and others has steadily reduced the energy required to do this, and they are developing numerous new ways of removing carbon dioxide. Monea added that thanks to lessons learned from the pioneering facility, “the next carbon capture plant could be built for 20 percent to 30 percent less.”

China and the United States are responsible for about half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While China has no commercial-scale CCS projects, like other nations it has several pilot projects under way. In the United States, a handful of projects of significant scale are nearing completion, including ones in Port Arthur, Texas, and Mobile, Alabama. The largest of the four is a 565-megawatt coal and CCS plant in Kemper, Mississippi. It is similar to Boundary Dam but is five times larger, and is nearing completion at nearly double its projected $2.5 billion cost. It will also use the carbon dioxide for oil recovery.

Some sort of policy that would put a price on carbon emissions seems to be needed to drive CCS forward. Nothing is forcing the fossil-fuel industry’s hand, and the coal industry is loath to see more costs imposed on its product.

Despite the inertia, Julio Friedmann, a deputy assistant secretary for clean coal in the Office of Fossil Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, claims other policy tweaks could achieve a lot. Just as existing policies allow utilities to charge customers extra for installation of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, future policies could do the same for carbon-sequestration projects. “A carbon price is not the only way to do this,” Friedmann said.

“In a way I am more optimistic for China,” says Jiemin Lu, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin. “If the top level decides to do something at a larger scale, it will be quickly implemented and resources will be pulled together very swiftly. So to meet this kind of challenge at this scale, it will be more effective in that kind of political system. In the West, it’s always going to be a deadlock.”

Meanwhile, the facts on the ground—and in the air—are quite grim. “So far, we have achieved almost nothing in terms of mitigation of emissions, which are tracking at the upper limit for future emission scenarios. Indeed, in the last decade the world economy has actually recarbonized—shifted back to coal,” says David Victor, professor of international relations and director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego.

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Microsoft’s Quantum Mechanics PDF Print E-mail

In 2012, physicists in the Netherlands announced a discovery in particle physics that started chatter about a Nobel Prize. Inside a tiny rod of semiconductor crystal chilled cooler than outer space, they had caught the first glimpse of a strange particle called the Majorana fermion, finally confirming a prediction made in 1937. It was an advance seemingly unrelated to the challenges of selling office productivity software or competing with Amazon in cloud computing, but Craig Mundie, then heading Microsoft’s technology and research strategy, was delighted. The abstruse discovery—partly underwritten by Microsoft—was crucial to a project at the company aimed at making it possible to build immensely powerful computers that crunch data using quantum physics. “It was a pivotal moment,” says Mundie. “This research was guiding us toward a way of realizing one of these systems.”

Microsoft is now almost a decade into that project and has just begun to talk publicly about it. If it succeeds, the world could change dramatically. Since the physicist Richard Feynman first suggested the idea of a quantum computer in 1982, theorists have proved that such a machine could solve problems that would take the fastest conventional computers hundreds of millions of years or longer. Quantum computers might, for example, give researchers better tools to design novel medicines or super-efficient solar cells. They could revolutionize artificial intelligence.

Progress toward that computational nirvana has been slow because no one has been able to make a reliable enough version of the basic building block of a quantum computer: a quantum bit, or qubit, which uses quantum effects to encode data. Academic and government researchers and corporate labs at IBM and Hewlett-Packard have all built them. Small numbers have been wired together, and the resulting devices are improving. But no one can control the physics well enough for these qubits to serve as the basis of a practical general-purpose computer.

Microsoft has yet to even build a qubit. But in the kind of paradox that can be expected in the realm of quantum physics, it may also be closer than anyone else to making quantum computers practical. The company is developing a new kind of qubit, known as a topological qubit, based largely on that 2012 discovery in the Netherlands. There’s good reason to believe this design will be immune from the flakiness plaguing existing qubits. It will be better suited to mass production, too. “What we’re doing is analogous to setting out to make the first transistor,” says Peter Lee, Microsoft’s head of research. His company is also working on how the circuits of a computer made with topological qubits might be designed and controlled. And Microsoft researchers working on algorithms for quantum computers have shown that a machine made up of only hundreds of qubits could run chemistry simulations beyond the capacity of any existing supercomputer.

In the next year or so, physics labs supported by Microsoft will begin testing crucial pieces of its qubit design, following a blueprint developed by an outdoorsy math genius. If those tests work out, a corporation widely thought to be stuck in computing’s past may unlock its future.

Stranger still: a physicist at the fabled but faded Bell Labs might get there first.

Tied Up in Knots

In a sunny room 100 yards from the Pacific Ocean, Michael Freedman, the instigator and technical mastermind of Microsoft’s project, admits to feeling inferior. “When you start thinking about quantum computing, you realize that you yourself are some kind of clunky chemical analog computer,” he says. Freedman, who is 63, is director of Station Q, the Microsoft research group that leads the effort to create a topological qubit, working from a dozen or so offices on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Fit and tanned, he has dust on his shoes from walking down a beach path to lunch.

If his mind is a clunky chemical computer, it is an extraordinary one. A mathematical prodigy who entered UC Berkeley at the age of 16 and grad school two years later, Freedman was 30 when he solved a version of one of the longest-standing problems in mathematics, the Poincaré conjecture. He worked it out without writing anything down, visualizing the distortion of four-dimensional shapes in his head. “I had seen my way through the argument,” Freedman recalls. When he translated that inner vision into a 95-page proof, it earned the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics.

That cemented Freedman’s standing as a leading light in topology, the discipline concerned with properties of shapes that don’t change when those shapes are distorted. (An old joke has it that topologists can’t distinguish a coffee cup from a doughnut—both are surfaces punctured by a single hole.) But he was drawn into physics in 1988 after a colleague discovered a connection between some of the math describing the topology of knots and a theory explaining certain quantum phenomena. “It was a beautiful thing,” says Freedman. He immediately saw that this connection could allow a machine governed by that same quantum physics to solve problems too hard for conventional computers. Ignorant that the concept of quantum computing already existed, he had independently reinvented it.

Freedman kept working on that idea, and in 1997 he joined Microsoft’s research group on theoretical math. Soon after, he teamed up with a Russian theoretical physicist, Alexei Kitaev, who had proved that a “topological qubit” formed by the same physics could be much more reliable than qubits that other groups were building. Freedman eventually began to feel he was onto something that deserved attention beyond his rarefied world of deep math and physics. In 2004, he showed up at Craig Mundie’s office and announced that he saw a way to build a qubit dependable enough to scale up. “I ended up sort of making a pitch,” says Freedman. “It looked like if you wanted to start to build the technology, you could.”

Mundie bought it. Though Microsoft hadn’t been trying to develop quantum computers, he knew about their remarkable potential and the slow progress that had been made toward building them. “I was immediately fascinated by the idea that maybe there was a completely different approach,” he says. “Such a form of computing would probably turn out to be the basis of a transformation akin to what classical computing has done for the planet in the last 60 years.” He set up an effort to create the topological qubit, with a slightly nervous Freedman at the helm. “Never in my life had I even built a transistor radio,” Freedman says.

Distant Dream

In some ways, a quantum computer wouldn’t be so different from a conventional one. Both deal in bits of data represented in binary form. And both types of machine are made up of basic units that represent bits by flipping between different states like a switch. In a conventional computer, every tiny transistor on a chip can be flipped either off to signify a 0 or on for a 1. But because of the quirky rules of quantum physics, which govern the behavior of matter and energy at extremely tiny scales, qubits can perform tricks that make them exceedingly powerful. A qubit can enter a quantum state known as superposition, which effectively represents 0 and 1 at the same time. Once in a superposition state, qubits can become linked, or “entangled,” in a way that means any operation affecting one instantly changes the fate of another. Because of superposition and entanglement, a single operation in a quantum computer can execute parts of a calculation that would take many, many more operations for an equivalent number of ordinary bits. A quantum computer can essentially explore a huge number of possible computational pathways in parallel. For some types of problems, a quantum computer’s advantage over a conventional one grows exponentially with the amount of data to be crunched. “Their power is still an amazement to me,” says Raymond Laflamme, executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. “They change the foundation of computer science and what we mean by what is computable.”

In the next year or so, physics labs supported by Microsoft will begin testing its qubit design.

But pure quantum states are very fragile and can be observed and controlled only in carefully contrived circumstances. For a superposition to be stable, the qubit must be shielded from seemingly trivial noise such as random bumping from subatomic particles or faint electrical fields from nearby electronics. The two best current qubit technologies represent bits in the magnetic properties of individual charged atoms trapped in magnetic fields or as the tiny current inside circuits of superconducting metal. They can preserve superpositions for no longer than fractions of a second before they collapse in a process known as decoherence. The largest number of qubits that have been operated together is just seven.

Since 2009, Google has been testing a machine marketed by the startup D-Wave Systems as the world’s first commercial quantum computer, and in 2013 it bought a version of the machine that has 512 qubits. But those qubits are hard-wired into a circuit for a particular algorithm, limiting the range of problems they can work on. If successful, this approach would create the quantum-computing equivalent of a pair of pliers—a useful tool suited to only some tasks. The conventional approach being pursued by Microsoft offers a fully programmable computer—the equivalent of a full toolbox. And besides, independent researchers have been unable to confirm that D-Wave’s machine truly functions as a quantum computer. Google recently started its own hardware lab to try to create a version of the technology that delivers.

The search for ways to fight decoherence and the errors it introduces into calculations has come to dominate the field of quantum computing. For a qubit to truly be scalable, it would probably need to accidentally decohere only around once in a million operations, says Chris Monroe, a professor at the University of Maryland and co-leader of a quantum computing project funded by the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Today the best qubits typically decohere thousands of times that often.

Microsoft’s Station Q might have a better approach. The quantum states that lured Freedman into physics—which occur when electrons are trapped in a plane inside certain materials—should provide the stability that a qubit builder craves, because they are naturally deaf to much of the noise that destabilizes conventional qubits. Inside these materials, electrons take on strange properties at temperatures close to absolute zero, forming what are known as electron liquids. The collective quantum properties of the electron liquids can be used to signify a bit. The elegance of the design, along with grants of cash, equipment, and computing time, has lured some of the world’s leading physics researchers to collaborate with Microsoft. (The company won’t say what fraction of its $11 billion annual R&D spending goes to the project.)

The catch is that the physics remains unproven. To use the quantum properties of electron liquids as bits, researchers would have to manipulate certain particles inside them, known as non-Abelian anyons, so that they loop around one another. And while physicists expect that non–Abelian anyons exist, none have been conclusively detected.

Majorana particles, the kind of non-Abelian anyons that Station Q and its collaborators seek, are particularly elusive. First predicted by the reclusive Italian physicist Ettore Majorana in 1937, not long before he mysteriously disappeared, they have captivated physicists for decades because they have the unique property of being their own antiparticles, so if two ever meet, they annihilate each other in a flash of energy.

No one had reported credible evidence that they existed until 2012, when Leo Kouwenhoven at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, who had gotten funding and guidance from Microsoft, announced that he had found them inside nanowires made from the semiconductor indium antimonide. He had coaxed the right kind of electron liquid into existence by connecting the nanowire to a chunk of superconducting electrode at one end and an ordinary one at the other. It offered the strongest support yet for Microsoft’s design. “The finding has given us tremendous confidence that we’re really onto something,” says Microsoft’s Lee. Kouwenhoven’s group and other labs are now trying to refine the results of the experiment and show that the particles can be manipulated. To speed progress and set the stage for possible mass production, Microsoft has begun working with industrial companies to secure supplies of semiconductor nanowires and the superconducting electronics that would be needed to control a topological qubit.

For all that, Microsoft doesn’t yet have its qubit. A way must be found to move Majorana particles around one another in the operation needed to write the equivalent of 0s and 1s. Materials scientists at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen recently found a way to build nanowires with side branches, which could allow one particle to duck to the side while another passes. Charlie Marcus, a researcher there who has worked with Microsoft since its first design, is now preparing to build a working system with the new wires. “I would say that is going to keep us busy for the next year,” he says.

Success would validate Microsoft’s qubit design and put an end to recent suggestions that Kouwenhoven may not have detected the Majorana particle in 2012 after all. But John Preskill, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, says the topological qubit remains nothing more than a nice theory. “I’m very fond of the idea, but after some years of serious effort there’s still no firm evidence,” he says.

Bob Willett’s quantum computing research at Bell Labs is showing promise.

Competitive Physics

At Bell Labs in New Jersey, Bob Willett says he has seen the evidence. He peers over his glasses at a dull black crystal rectangle the size of a fingertip. It has hand-soldered wires around its edges and fine zigzags of aluminum on its surface. And in the middle of the chip, in an area less than a micrometer across, Willett reports detecting non-Abelian anyons. If he is right, Willett is farther along than anyone who is working with Microsoft. And in his series of small, careworn labs, he is now preparing to build what—if it works—will be the world’s first topological qubit. “We’re making the transition from the science to the technology now,” he says. His effort has historical echoes. Down the corridor from his labs is a glass display case with the first transistor inside, made on this site in 1947.

Willett’s device is a version of a design that Microsoft has mostly given up on. By the time the company’s project began, Freedman and his collaborators had determined that it should be possible to build a topological qubit using crystals of ultrapure gallium arsenide that trap electrons. But in four years of experiments, the physics labs supported by Microsoft didn’t find conclusive evidence of non-Abelian anyons. Willett had worked on similar physics for years, and after reading a paper of Freedman’s on the design, he decided to have a go himself. In a series of papers published between 2009 and 2013, he reported finding those crucial particles in his own crystal-based devices. When one crystal is cooled with liquid helium to less than 1 Kelvin (−272.15 °C) and subjected to a magnetic field, an electron liquid forms at its center. Willett uses electrodes to stream the particles around its edge; if they are non-Abelian anyons looping around their counterparts in the center, they should change the topological state of the electron liquid as a whole. He has published results from several different experiments in which he saw telltale wobbles, which theorists had predicted, in the current of those flowing particles. He’s now moved on to building a qubit design. It is not much more complex than his first experiment: just two of the same circuits placed back to back on the same crystal, with extra electrodes that link electron liquids and can encode and read out quantum states that represent the equivalent of 0s and 1s.

Willett hopes that device will squelch skepticism about his results, which no one else has been able to replicate. Microsoft’s collaborator Charlie Marcus says Willett “saw signals that we didn’t see.” Willett counters that Marcus and others have made their devices too large and used crystals with important differences in their properties. He says he recently confirmed that by testing some devices made to the specifications used by other researchers. “Having worked with the materials they’re working with, I can see why they stopped doing it, because it is a pain in the ass,” he says.

One of the crystals on which Willett says he has detected topological qubits.

Bell Labs, now owned by the French telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent, is smaller and poorer than it was back when AT&T, unchallenged as the American telephone monopoly, let many researchers do pretty much anything they desired. Some of Willett’s rooms overlook the dusty, scarred ground left when an entire wing of the lab was demolished this year. But with fewer people around than the labs had long ago, it’s easier to get access to the equipment he needs, he says. And Alcatel has begun to invest more in his project. Willett used to work with just three other physicists, but recently he began collaborating with mathematicians and optics experts too. Bell Labs management has been asking about the kinds of problems that might be solved with a small number of qubits. “It’s expanding into a relatively big effort,” he says.

Willett sees himself as an academic colleague of the Microsoft researchers rather than a corporate competitor, and he still gets invited to Freedman’s twice-yearly symposiums that bring Microsoft collaborators and other leading physicists to Santa Barbara. But Microsoft management has been more evident at recent meetings, Willett says, and he has sometimes felt that his being from another corporation made things awkward.

It would be more than just awkward if Willett beat Microsoft to proving that the idea it has championed can work. For Microsoft to open up a practical route to quantum computing would be surprising. For the withered Bell Labs, owned by a company not even in the computing business, it would be astounding.

Quantum Code

On Microsoft’s leafy campus in Redmond, Washington, thousands of software engineers toil to fix bugs and add features to Windows and Microsoft Office. Tourists pose in the company museum for photos with a life-size cutout of a 1978 Bill Gates and his first employees. In the main research building, Krysta Svore leads a dozen people working on software for computers that may never exist. The team is figuring out what the first generation of quantum computers could do for us.

The group was established because although quantum computers would be powerful, they cannot solve every problem. And only a handful of quantum algorithms have been developed in enough detail to suggest that they could be practical on real hardware. “Quantum computing is possibly very disruptive, but we need to understand where the power is,” Svore says.

“We believe that there’s a chance to do something that could be the foundation of a whole new economy.”

No quantum computer is ever going to fit into your pocket, because of the way qubits need to be supercooled (unless, of course, someone uses a quantum computer to design a better qubit). Rather, they would be used like data centers or supercomputers to power services over the Internet, or to solve problems that allow other technologies to be improved. One promising idea is to use quantum computers for superpowered chemistry simulations that could accelerate progress on major problems in areas such as health or energy. A quantum computer could simulate reality so precisely that it could replace years of plodding lab work, says Svore. Today roughly a third of U.S. supercomputer time is dedicated to simulations for chemistry or materials science, according to the Department of Energy. Svore’s group has developed an algorithm that would let even a first-generation quantum computer tackle much more complex problems, such as virtually testing a catalyst for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in just hours or minutes. “It’s a potential killer application of quantum computers,” she says.

But it’s possible to envision countless other killer applications. Svore’s group has produced some of the first evidence that quantum computers can be used for machine learning, a technology increasingly central to Microsoft and its rivals. Recent advances in image and speech recognition have triggered a frenzy of new research in artificial intelligence. But they rely on clusters of thousands of computers working together, and the results still lag far behind human capabilities. Quantum computers might overcome the technology’s limitations.

Work like that helps explain how the first company to build a quantum computer might gain an advantage virtually unprecedented in the history of technology. “We believe that there’s a chance to do something that could be the foundation of a whole new economy,” says Microsoft’s Peter Lee. As you would expect, he and all the others working on quantum hardware say they are optimistic. But with so much still to do, the prize feels as distant as ever. It’s as if qubit technology is in a superposition between changing the world and decohering into nothing more than a series of obscure research papers. That’s the kind of imponderable that people working on quantum technology have to handle every day. But with a payoff so big, who can blame them for taking a whack at it?

This story was updated on October 10 to delete an erroneous reference to a bust of Thomas Edison.

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How a Wiki Is Keeping Direct-to-Consumer Genetics Alive PDF Print E-mail

When Meg DeBoe decided to tap her Christmas fund to order a $99 consumer DNA test from 23andMe last year, she was disappointed: it arrived with no information on what her genes said about her chance of developing Alzheimer’s and heart disease. The report only delved into her genetic genealogy, possible relatives, and ethnic roots.

That’s because just a month earlier, in November 2013, the Food and Drug Administration had cracked down on 23andMe. The direct-to-consumer gene testing company’s popular DNA health reports and slick TV ads were illegal, it said, since they’d never been cleared by the agency.

But DeBoe, a mommy blogger and author of children’s books, found a way to get the health information she wanted anyway. Using a low-budget Web service called Promethease, she paid $5 to upload her raw 23andMe data. Within a few minutes she was looking into a report with entries dividing her genes into “Bad news” and “Good news.”

As tens of thousands of others seek similar information about their genetic disposition, they are loading their DNA data into several little-known websites like Promethease that have become, by default, the largest purveyors of consumer genetic health services in the United States—and the next possible targets for nervous regulators.

After the FDA crackdown, consumers are trading information on where to learn about their genes. “Don’t let the man stop you,” said one.

Promethease was created by a tiny, two-man company run as a side project by Greg Lennon, a geneticist based in Maryland, and Mike Cariaso, a computer programmer. It works by comparing a person’s DNA data with entries in SNPedia, a sprawling public wiki on human genetics that the pair created eight years ago and run with the help of a few dozen volunteer editors. Lennon says Promethease is being used to build as many as 500 gene reports a day.

Many people are arriving from directly from 23andMe. After its health reports were blocked, consumers complained angrily about the FDA on the company’s Facebook page, where they also uploaded links to the Promethease website, calling it a “workaround,” a way to get “exhaustive medical info” in reports that are “similar, but not as pretty.” The mood was one of civil disobedience. “Don’t let the man stop you from getting genotyped,” wrote one.

The FDA is being cautious with personal genomics because although DNA data is easy to gather, its medical meaning is less certain.

Consumer DNA tests determine which common versions of the 23,000 human genes make up your individual genotype. As science links these variants to disease risk, the idea has been that genotypes could predict your chance of getting cancer or heart disease, or losing your eyesight. But predicting risk is tricky. Most genes don’t say anything decisive about you. And if they do, you might well wish for a doctor at your side when you find out. “I don’t believe that this kind of risk assessment is mature enough to be a consumer product yet,” says David Mittelman, chief scientific officer of Gene by Gene, a genetic laboratory that performs tests.

In barring 23andMe’s health reports, the FDA also cited the danger that erroneous interpretations of gene data could lead someone to seek out unnecessary surgery or take a drug overdose. Critics of the decision said it had more to do with questions about whether consumers should have the right to get genetic facts without going through a doctor. “It’s an almost philosophical issue about how medicine is going to be delivered,” says Stuart Kim, a professor at Stanford University who helped developed a DNA interpretation site called Interpretome as part of a class he teaches on genetics. “Is it going to be concentrated by medical associations, or out there on the Internet so people can interact?”

Now a question is whether Promethease and sites like it could, or should, be the next target of regulators. Lennon believes his service is outside the FDA’s reach, because it doesn’t offer a spit kit or perform DNA tests itself but instead operates like a “literature retrieval service,” presenting a version of what’s in the science journals. Regulate us, says Lennon, and you’d have to shut down WebMD and Wikipedia, too.

Reached by MIT Technology Review, the FDA said it has authority to regulate software that interprets genomes, even if such services are given away free. The agency does not comment on specific companies.

“We know that they know about us,” says Lennon. “They have not knocked on our door. We don’t know if they will come knocking tomorrow.”

Gene Results

Promethease can reanalyze the results of genotype tests sold legally for $99 to $199 by a variety of genealogy companies, including 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and National Geographic’s human ancestry project. Several other “interpretation-only” websites, including Interpretome, LiveWello, and Genetic Genie, also analyze the results of these tests, which are provided to customers as a text file containing a list of genetic variations.

To Barbara Evans, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, the idea that people can gather DNA from one company and analyze it elsewhere is a significant legal development. Previously, the same lab that tested you would be the one to tell you what the results meant. But DNA information is essentially digital. That means it can plug and play anywhere. “It’s going to be quite difficult to regulate,” Evans predicts. She believes that services like Promethease could invoke free-speech arguments and other legal defenses if regulators ever approached them.

“It’s not reasonable to think there’s some specific date—May 18, 2035—that the genome will all make sense, and that’s the day you are allowed to see it.”

MIT Technology Review tested several interpretation-only sites using DNA data of anonymous donors posted publicly by the Personal Genome Project, a data-sharing initiative started by Harvard Medical School. All the sites quickly reported gene variants contained in the files, although the number of variants reported varied, from as few as 35 to as many as 17,667 for Promethease. Some of the reports were also more detailed than others.

Two of the sites appeared designed to steer users toward alternative medicine. Genetic Genie, a free service that carries ads for vitamins, reported the fewest genes in what it called a “detoxification profile.” LiveWello charged $19.95 and included more genes, as well as links to scientific reports. That site, however, directed users to get an “explanation” of the results by contacting chiropractors, dieticians, and mind-body healers whose telephone numbers it provided.

The Promethease report was the most detailed, although its clunky, bare-bones design is not easy to use. It organizes a person’s genetic variations under categories such as “medical conditions” and “medicines.” Users can then click to see information about individual genes that scientific research has suggested could raise, or lower, their risk for drug reactions, common diseases, or personality traits such as a lack of empathy.

The information in the report is similar to that in 23andMe’s banned “Personal Genome Service,” but there are differences. Promethease makes little effort to combine the genetic risks for any one disease into a single comprehensible number. That makes the report more like a jumble of facts than a diagnosis. Lennon says this is intentional. He says 23andMe stepped on shaky scientific ground by trying to merge risks into one neat score.

“Everyone wants to sell a simple answer: ‘Here is your risk.’ But we don’t know how these things interact,” he says. At the same time, he believes the uncertain value of DNA information is not a reason to keep it away from lay people. “It’s not reasonable to think there’s some specific date—May 18, 2035—that the genome will all make sense, and that’s the day you are allowed to see it,” he says.

For now, consumers have to fend for themselves in a thicket of scientific information—and make their own decisions about risks. To DeBoe, the blogger, this meant bringing some “perspective and common sense” to the report she purchased from Promethease. It told her that her versions of 11 genes carried some increased risk of breast cancer, and one lowered it. But she wasn’t alarmed, because it turns out that’s not really unusual. “It’s not a crystal ball. I think a lot of people make that mistake,” she says. “That said, I did go into it wanting to know a few specific things: if I had a high risk [or] genetic predisposition toward heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s. I don’t, which was relieving.”

Determining whether her relief is really justified might require the help of a trained geneticist. At least that’s the current view of the FDA and medical societies. But DeBoe did take the report to her doctor. It said she had a gene for caffeine sensitivity, and DeBoe says her doctor agreed she should stick to decaf and avoid drugs like Novocain. “I think that’s how people should be using this—as a conversation-starter with medical professionals,” she says.

Under the Radar

To Lennon and Cariaso, the surge of interest in Promethease and SNPedia represents a triumph for a no-frills approach to genetics. In 2006, the same year 23andMe was founded, they launched SNPedia as a site that would let them—and anyone else—keep tabs on what science was learning about each gene variant. Lennon says the site was modeled on Wikipedia. “That was the promise of the genome, that it should be for everybody,” he says.

These days, SNPedia keeps tabs on about 57,000 gene variants (known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs) with the help of a few dozen volunteers. One frequent contributor is James Lick, an entrepreneur who owns two Subway sandwich franchises in Taipei. Lick, who is adopted, says he became interested in genetics while searching for his birth parents and now spends a few hours a week updating SNPedia. Last month, he created a new listing for a gene called NGLY1, adding a link to a New Yorker article that discussed the gene and its role in a rare childhood disease. Unlike the government-run dbSNP, which tracks millions of variations whether or not anything is known about them, SNPedia focuses on variations that have known effects on a person. “It’s not everything—just what’s interesting and where someone goes through the bother to create a page,” says Lick.

Consumers have to fend for themselves in a thicket of scientific information—and make their own decisions about risks.

The effort has been low-key; SNPedia is mostly a place for what Cariaso calls “recreational genomics.” Lennon, who had soured on venture capital, also didn’t want investors involved. As a result, their work was overshadowed by 23andMe, which raised $126 million and hired more than a dozen PhD geneticists to curate its own gene lists. Its CEO, Anne Wojcicki, who is married to Google cofounder Sergey Brin, landed on magazine covers, and a board member predicted that her startup would “become the Google of personalized healthcare.”

It didn’t happen that way. And following the FDA’s action to block 23andMe’s reports, traffic to interpretation-only sites jumped. Interpretome, maintained by Konrad Karczewski, a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, now has 80 to 100 visitors per day, twice as many as last year. Even more are heading to Promethease. Lennon says the site averages between 50 and 500 reports per day, including a free version and a faster-running paid product. He won’t get too specific about the numbers or say how much money Promethease is earning. “We are somewhat shy about saying how much business we are doing,” he says.

That could be out of a desire not to rouse regulators. The FDA has wide discretion to act but often chooses to ignore small-time operators that bend the rules, especially if they avoid making overt health claims. But Cariaso and Lennon can’t say they didn’t anticipate trouble. After all, they named their software after Prometheus, the titan who defied the gods by stealing fire from Mt. Olympus and giving it to mankind. (According to myth, he was later punished and chained to a rock for eternity.)

“Fire is knowledge of your own DNA,” says Cariaso. “The gods are anyone who would try to prevent me from knowing about myself.”

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Air Traffic Control for Drones PDF Print E-mail

If large numbers of commercial drones are to take to the skies, they’ll need an air traffic control system.

Drones at the San Francisco headquarters of Airware. The company will soon begin flying some of them on NASA bases in California as part of a project developing an air traffic control system for drones.

How do you keep small drone aircraft safe in the world’s busiest national airspace? One idea is to have them use cellphone networks to feed data back to an air traffic control system made just for drones.

A startup called Airware is working with NASA on a project exploring how to manage the swarms of commercial drones expected to start appearing in U.S. skies. The four-year program will create a series of prototype air traffic management systems and could shape how widely commercial drones can be used. Airware’s main business is selling control software and hardware to drone manufacturers and operators.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has yet to propose rules to govern the use of commercial robotic aircraft in U.S. skies. But it predicts that 7,500 unmanned craft weighing 55 pounds (25 kilograms) or less will be operating in the U.S. by 2018. There is strong interest from agriculture, mining, and infrastructure companies in using drones for tasks like inspecting crops or gathering geospatial data (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2014: Agricultural Drones”).

That could mean gridlock in the skies, or at least increasingly unsafe traffic patterns. “You will have competing interests trying to use the same space,” says Jesse Kallman, head of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware. “Imagine Amazon trying to deliver packages in an area that an energy company is trying to survey their power lines.”

The first prototype to be developed under NASA’s project will be an Internet-based system. Drone operators will file flight plans for approval. The system will use what it knows about other drone flights, weather forecasts, and physical obstacles such as radio masts to give the go-ahead.

Later phases of the project will build more sophisticated systems that can actively manage drone traffic by sending out commands to drones in flight. That could mean directing them to spread out when craft from multiple operators are flying in the same area, or taking action when something goes wrong, such as a drone losing contact with its operator, says Jonathan Downey, CEO of Airware.

If a drone strayed out of its approved area, for example, the system might automatically send a command that made it return to its assigned area, or land immediately. The commands could vary depending on the situation—such as how close the drone is to a populated area—or the size and weight of the aircraft, says Downey. Ultimately, NASA wants its system to do things like automatically steer drones out of the way of a crewed helicopter that unexpectedly passes through.

Getting that to work will require a reliable way for drones to communicate with the traffic system. Airware believes that equipping drones with cellular data connections could be the best option. The equipment that conventional aircraft use to communicate or send digital data to air traffic control systems is too bulky for use on drones.

Airware is set to perform a series of flight and lab tests on different drone craft, ranging from quadcopters to helicopters to fixed wing planes, on a NASA base in California, perhaps as soon as this year. The first stage of testing is aimed at understanding how different craft could respond to commands from a traffic control system.

Ella Atkins, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, says that so-called general aviation—unscheduled private flights—pose the most difficulty to integrating drone traffic into U.S. airspace. “The most challenging thing would be to combine a large fleet of Amazon Prime drones carrying packages and the Piper Clubs that just want to punch a hole in the sky on the weekend,” she says.

Atkins says that is as much a regulatory issue as a technological one, and suggests it may be time to reconsider FAA rules written for when only crewed craft took to the skies. Giving drones relatively free reign below an altitude of a few hundred feet, except in the vicinity of airports, would mostly remove conflict between drones and general aviation, she suggests.

Such major changes to FAA rules appear unlikely. People in the nascent commercial drone industry often point out that the U.S. regulator has been slower than its counterparts in other countries to clear the way for commercial drone flights, even just for research. Airware already has customers using its control systems on drones flying over mining operations in France, and inspecting oil rigs in Australia, for example.

However, those countries have not so far begun work on drone traffic control systems. “I’m not familiar with any other system,” says Downey. “This is an area the U.S. has an opportunity to take the lead on.” 

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Can Apple Pay Do to Your Wallet What iTunes Did for Music? PDF Print E-mail

The point-of-sale terminal at the CVS drugstore in Palo Alto, California, can accept payments through a quick tap from a smartphone. The clerk isn’t sure how it works, though he knows it does because “a few kids” have used it. But one shopper tries it by taking out his Android phone and clicking on Google’s “wallet” app intended to allow instant payment and taps the terminal. Nothing happens. Then he tries PayPal’s payment app. Nothing. Out comes the leather wallet.

Over the past decade, tech companies including Google, eBay’s PayPal, and upstart Square, along with mobile carriers, credit-card companies, and various retailers, have all proclaimed the “death of the wallet.” The promise: their digital wallet equivalents would make paying for things in physical stores much easier. Instead, they ran into countless technical glitches, resistance from merchants, banks, and phone carriers, and consumer indifference.

Though mobile payments at U.S. retail stores will nearly double this year, to $3.5 billion, according to market researcher eMarketer, they remain a rounding error on the more than $4 trillion worth of in-store credit-card and cash transactions. Cash and cards are simply good enough, says payments expert Bill Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. “All of these mobile wallets are looking for a problem to solve.”

That was before Apple jumped into the market with Apple Pay in a bid to take mobile payments mainstream. Standing in front of a photo of an overstuffed billfold, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled its mobile wallet at a September 9 event where he also debuted new iPhones and the Apple Watch. When Apple Pay launches this month on new iPhone 6 models, all it will take to buy a sandwich at Subway or an air-chilled chicken at Whole Foods Market is to hold your iPhone near a wireless reader and press your thumb on the home button.

Notwithstanding Apple’s own recent iCloud breach that exposed nude celebrity photos, Apple Pay “is probably the most secure mobile payment solution to date,” says David Brudnicki, chief technology officer for Sequent Software.

The iPhone’s Touch ID fingerprint sensor, already used to unlock the phone, recognizes it’s really you. Behind the scenes, a payment processor such as Visa recognizes an encrypted version of your credit card such as the one in an iTunes account, along with a one-time security code for that particular transaction, and approves the sale—all in less than 10 seconds.

That is indeed an easier process than the other digital wallets, which require unlocking the phone, opening an app, checking into a store, typing in a code, or other steps that can take much longer than swiping a credit card. Apple’s ability to create elegant, user-friendly products helped it popularize and seize commanding positions in music players and smartphones. If Apple Pay works as promised, it could do something similar for payments, making mobile wallets appeal to the masses, starting with its influential army of iPhone users. “Mobile payment is finally hitting that pivotal moment when all the pieces are coming together,” says Matthew de Ganon, senior vice president of product and commerce for Softcard, a rival mobile wallet joint venture of T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon.

In the U.S. there are only about 220,000 merchant point-of-sale terminals featuring the wireless payment communications system known as near field communication (NFC). That represents a small fraction of the more than six million U.S. retail outlets. They are used so rarely that wags joke that “NFC” stands for “not for commerce” or “nobody freaking cares.”

But Apple’s often adroit timing may prove spot-on once again, because a new development could bring NFC to many more stores. In a bid to force adoption of more secure credit cards that use a chip and a PIN number instead of a magnetic strip for payment authentication, Visa and other payment networks will, starting next October, make merchants liable for fraudulent charges unless they use new readers compatible with the new cards. That’s expected to speed installation of new readers, most of which will include NFC capability.

Apple’s focus on security is timely, too. In recent months, card data breaches at Home Depot, Target, and others have alerted consumers that credit and debit cards aren’t very secure. Such lapses expose them to identity theft and the annoyance of being forced to change credit-card numbers on file with dozens of merchants. At the same time, 38 percent of consumers surveyed early this year by Javelin Strategy & Research cited security concerns as a key reason they’re holding back on mobile payments.

Although credit cards are used in Apple Pay, it’s more secure because card numbers aren’t stored directly on the phone or on Apple’s servers. Instead, digital tokens, encrypted numbers that look like card numbers, are assigned by a payment network such as Visa to each card and stored on a secure chip in the phone. During a purchase, that token and a one-time transaction-specific code are sent to process the payment, so even if hackers intercept the numbers, they can’t do anything with them. Though Google Wallet and others have used tokens, Apple Pay will deploy them more widely.

Notwithstanding Apple’s own recent iCloud breach that exposed nude celebrity photos, “it is probably the most secure mobile payment solution to date,” says David Brudnicki, chief technology officer for Sequent Software, which provides mobile wallet services to banks, retailers, and mobile operators.

Improved security is even more important to banks and retailers than it is to consumers, who have limited liability for fraudulent charges on stolen cards. Apple Pay has already signed up the three big payment networks—Visa, MasterCard, and American Express—as well as banks handling 83 percent of credit card transactions in the U.S., including Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, and Citibank. Better security seems to have made up for any reservations that banks may have about Apple’s role as a powerful new middleman on transactions, or the small cut of transaction revenues they’ll be paying the company. Another potential bonus: Apple Pay could help the card networks capture transactions currently completed with cash.

For all that, Apple’s impact will be small at first. For one, only iPhone 6 and eventually iPhone 5 owners with an Apple Watch can use Apple Pay. Moreover, some merchants and banks don’t want to cede relationships with customers and data about them to Apple, says Richard Crone, CEO of the payments advisory firm Crone Consulting. Large retail chains including Walmart and Best Buy, which are part of the Merchant Customer Exchange consortium pushing its own wallet app, say they won’t accept Apple Pay. The Softcard mobile wallet joint venture of T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon is touting its support of more than 80 Android phones and the ability to pay at retailers including McDonald’s, Subway, and Walgreens. PayPal, soon to split off from eBay, and Google continue to push their wallet apps as well.

Individual retailers which have persuaded customers to use their own apps have no intention of replacing them with Apple Pay. Starbucks, for instance, lets customers pay by launching an app and holding up the phone screen with a QR code to a reader on its cash registers. But spokeswoman Maggie Jantzen says the bigger reason that 15 percent of Starbucks purchases—some six million transactions a week—are now completed via mobile is the combined appeal of payment, a rewards program, and a store locator all in one app.

Apple will have to offer a lot more to merchants than it currently does if it hopes to gain the support of more of them, says Javelin mobile strategy director Mary Monahan. In particular, Apple Pay will need to incorporate loyalty programs and discount offers. Payments experts think the company will allow outside software developers to create apps that can add such features to Apple Pay.

By all accounts, it’s going to take years for mobile payments to catch on widely. Apple Pay’s success ultimately will come down to persuading consumers to change longstanding habits using payment methods that, after all, work pretty well.

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Gadget Lab Podcast: Did You Hear That Apple Had an Event This Week? PDF Print E-mail

The iPad Air 2 is demonstrated at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. Apple unveiled the thinner iPad with a faster processor and a better camera as it tries to drive excitement for tablets amid slowing demand.

The iPad Air 2 is demonstrated at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. Apple unveiled the thinner iPad with a faster processor and a better camera as it tries to drive excitement for tablets amid slowing demand. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

New Apple hardware was released this week. Maybe you heard about it. The hosts, joined this week by Gadget Labber Tim Moynihan, sat down to record the show just a couple of hours after the big announcements from Cupertino. Up for debate: the iPad’s importance, both as a consumer product and as a cultural force, now that the design is pretty much baked and we’re only seeing small improvements to its functionality. Also, the trio discusses iPad etiquette (Mat takes pictures with his), and Apple’s newfound sense of humor that came across in Thursday’s presentation. It’s not all Apple this week, though. Other topics: new Nexus hardware, the Whisper location-tracking controversy, the mysteries of Minecraft, and the awesomeness of Carcassonne. Lastly, you’ve heard the one about trying to get a Nobel Prize through airport security—but wait until you hear Tim’s tale of trying to explain to TSA agents why he’s carrying an Internet of Things hub that looks like a bowling pin with a creepy smiley face on it.

Programming notes: A few F-bombs get dropped in this one near the end, so wake the kids. Also, the WIRED offices are currently undergoing some light construction (we’re remodeling). So during the podcast, you’ll hear background banging noises, some concrete polishing, and the occasional barking dog.

Listen to this week’s episode or subscribe in iTunes.

Send the hosts feedback on their personal Twitter feeds (Mat Honan is @mat, Michael Calore is @snackfight, and Tim Moynihan is @aperobot) or to the main hotline at @GadgetLab.

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Game|Life Podcast: Software Sales Slump and Bayonetta Makes a Comeback PDF Print E-mail

Bayonetta 2.

Bayonetta 2. Nintendo

The NPD Group has released (some tiny amount of) data on the game industry’s September sales, and it’s not all good news, as we discuss on this week’s Game|Life podcast.

While hardware sales are up considerably over last year (thanks to the availability of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), sales of new physical software took a big 35 percent hit versus last year. While NPD did point out that September 2013 was boosted considerably by the release of Grand Theft Auto V, this past month saw the release of Destiny.

I’ve been playing some Bayonetta 2 and have some brief thoughts on the range of review scores that we’ve seen (coupled with a memory about the last time I actually got annoyed at someone else’s game review, 10 years ago), a few early thoughts on Fantasy Life, the new Level-5 RPG for 3DS that Nintendo is about to publish here in the U.S., and Bo talks more about Shadow of Mordor.

Game|Life’s podcast is posted on Fridays, is available on iTunes, can be downloaded directly and is embedded below.

Game|Life Audio Podcast

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What’s Scarier, Haunted Houses or Haunted People? PDF Print E-mail

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring.

Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring. Warner Bros.

Halloween season is the perfect time to watch horror movies, and a reliable standby of the genre is the haunted house story. Recent examples range from the understated (The Woman in Black) to the sensationalized (The Conjuring) to the crassly commercial (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones). Such tales of domestic tranquility disrupted by malevolent spirits have been popular for over two centuries, tracing their lineage back to The Castle of Otranto, generally regarded as the first gothic novel.

“It specifically foregrounds the importance of the home, especially the ancestral home, the home with a certain amount of history to it,” says horror author and English professor John Langan. “Which does seem to have become one of the requirements for a haunted house setting.”

Later books and films have largely followed that lead, featuring houses whose dark histories are replete with slaughtered children and desecrated burial grounds. The idea that locations resonate with their collected history is one that appeals to South African author Lauren Beukes. Her new novel Broken Monsters is set amidst the blighted urban landscape of modern-day Detroit.

“You step into these places and there’s a vacancy,” she says. “And it’s what you bring to that vacancy—whether it’s your own baggage and malaise and malevolence and psychology, or whether there’s something there waiting to feed into it, is what makes it so interesting. And that dynamic of what rushes in to fill the vacuum is really the haunting.”

But author Grady Hendrix says that in his experience it’s not so much places that are haunted but people. His work with a parapsychology group taught him that pretty much everywhere feels haunted to someone.

“There were haunted novelty supply warehouses and medical record filing facilities and gardens and sidewalks and barns,” he says. “They were really subjective, very emotional experiences, like they were just for them.”

He points to The Amityville Horror as another example of haunted people. America’s most famously haunted house has been the subject of countless investigations, but in all that time no one ever saw the real horror, the abuse of the children living there, a tragic situation highlighted in the recent documentary My Amityville Horror.

“No one ever stopped to listen to them, no one ever did anything for those kids,” says Hendrix. “It was the people, it wasn’t the house.”

Listen to our complete discussion of haunted houses in Episode 121 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast—featuring Langan, Beukes, Hendrix, and David Barr Kirtley—above, and check out some highlights from the discussion below.

John Langan on materialism:

“One of Marx’s critiques of capitalism is that in capitalism things become more real than people are, and he talks about these moments where an object ‘hails’ you, as he puts it, the object gives you reality. I guess we would think about it in status terms—I’ve got my sports car, or whatever it is, and that makes me real, having this thing. … In The Amityville Horror you’re buying that house, you’re buying that house and it’s all full of horrible things. Oh my god, think about the money! Think about the bills! … And I do think the economics of haunted house stories are kind of interesting. You don’t see a lot of haunted house stories that are about a haunted shack or a haunted double-wide trailer or something like that. It’s almost as if it has to be opulent to be haunted.”

Grady Hendrix on rational explanations:

“There was a guy I knew a long time ago named Bill Roll who did a lot of research on electromagnetics and haunted houses and things like that, and a British TV crew brought him over to London to do a show. There was a guy who was living in SoHo over there, which had just been built up, and his house was an old warehouse, and they were like, ‘Look, even in this modern flat with all these modern appliances this guy’s got a ghost, and he hears children calling his name, and he feels cold spots, and his bed shakes at night.’ And so when they got there Bill Roll was looking at it, and he’s like, ‘Well, actually where the guy’s bed is … there’s the electrical transformer for the neighborhood right on the other side of that wall. … Can we just move his bed to the other side of the loft and see if this stuff persists?’ And none of it persisted. It all went away. And the TV crew was so pissed off.”

Lauren Beukes on haunted places:

“I think what’s also interesting is looking at the psychogeographies. … There are really horrible things that happen in the world all the time, or good things—I went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for forty years, and stepping into that cell, this tiny cell where he spent so much of his life, is very poignant. There’s something powerful there. And that’s powerful good, because good came out of it, but if you go to horrible places where bad things happened, these layers of history endure, and I think that we are haunted by the past in the way that we make mistakes over and over again, and that we have to acknowledge that, and that that kind of echoes into personal hauntings and things that we’ve done in our own lives.”

Grady Hendrix on labyrinths:

“Haunted houses are designed to produce one effect, and that’s the labyrinth. … It’s circuitous, and it takes you to the middle, and it’s almost like spinning someone around in blind man’s bluff. It’s designed to disorient you, and make you forget about your daily life, and cut you off from your day-to-day life. … Whether it’s the Overlook Hotel or in The Haunting of Hill House where they can never quite go to the same room by the same route. … That was one of the interesting things about writing a haunted house book set in an Ikea, because at Ikea the route you take is specifically designed to produce something called ‘the Gruen transfer,’ which is you disorient people when they come into a space—it’s the reason casinos have densely patterned carpets and no clocks—because what happens when people get disoriented in a new space is they walk slower, they pay more attention to their surroundings, and they’re a lot more suggestible. So labyrinths are what haunted houses are, they’re designed to disorient you.”

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