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Holographic Food, Brain-Kitchenware Interface, and Other Future of Home Concepts

The best kinds of concepts are things that are so futuristic that they don’t exist yet, but not so futuristic that you couldn’t convince yourself that just maybe, in five or 10 years, the concept might deliver on its promises. Every year, the Electrolux Design Competition tries to hit this sweet spot, and the theme for 2014 is “Creating Healthy Homes.” Perhaps not the most exciting theme at first glance, but the winner this year is a concept for a system that lets you hunt down holographic fish as they swim through your living room.

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A New Hypersensitive Magnetometer Based on Kinetic Inductance

During the 1960s, researchers at the Ford Motor Company developed one of the early practical applications of superconductors, the SQUID (short for superconducting quantum interference device). A SQUID consists of a superconducting loop incorporating two Josephson junctions—very thin insulating barriers in the superconducting loop. Cooper pairs—paired electrons that are not scattered by atoms and form the supercurrent—jump this gap, even when no voltage exists over the junction, a phenomenon called quantum tunneling. However, when a voltage appears over the Josephson junction, the current starts to oscillate at a very high frequency, with the frequency determined by the voltage.

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Which Mobile Apps Are Worst Privacy Offenders?

You may want to think twice about playing Angry Birds on your Android device.

All mobile applications need to generate money somehow—and for the ones free to download and use, revenue is almost entirely collected through advertisements. Many free apps share contact lists with third parties or use a user’s location to deliver targeted ads.

Most users have no clue, which led to the genesis of PrivacyGrade.org, a project spearheaded by the Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Human Interaction: Mobility Privacy Security (CHIMPS) Lab. The site grades Android apps on a scale of A+ to D based on a model that gauges how much private information an app mines from a user’s device—and how closely that’s in line with a user’s expectations. The model was developed using the preference ratings of 725 different users on 837 free Android app.

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Global Warming: Soon with 50% More Lightning

Lightning may be full of sound and fury, but it also signifies important things on the earth below. Though lightning deaths are falling steadily (there were 23 in the United States in 2013), it continues to ignite some 10,000 wildfires that consume more than 4.1 million acres in the United States each year. Lightning is also, among other things, the leading cause of serious fires in wind turbines. And every flash converts about 7 kilograms of nitrogen into smog-producing nitrogen oxides, to the tune of about 8.6 billion kilograms of NOx per year.

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Smartphone System Combines Gait Measurements, Magnets for Indoor Navigation

Global Positioning Systems have spoiled us. With a glance at our smartphones we expect to immediately know not only exactly where we are but also where we’re going and how to get there. But GPS doesn’t work indoors, which has resulted in what I assume are millions of people getting hopelessly lost in shopping malls worldwide, as they try and figure out how to get from Brookstone to Hot Dog on a Stick.

Researchers at Fraunhofer Portugal think that they have this problem licked, with an innovative cell phone-based indoor localization system that combines magnetic beacons with inertial tracking of your gait to pinpoint your location with sub-meter accuracy.

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IBM Is Redesigning Supercomputers to Solve Big Data Problems

Traditional supercomputers focused on performing calculations at blazing speeds have fallen behind when it comes to sifting through huge amounts of “Big Data.” That is why IBM has redesigned the next generation of supercomputers to minimize the need to shuffle data between the memory  that stores the data and the processors that do the computing work. The tech giant recently earned US $325 million in federal contracts to build the world’s most powerful supercomputers for two U.S. government labs by 2017.

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The Hackaday Prize Awarded to Satellite Ground Station Project

First place in the Hackaday Prize was awarded today to “SatNOGS,” a project aiming to spin up a worldwide network of satellite ground stations—hence the project’s name, which is an abbreviation of “Satellite Network Of Ground Stations.” Its creators will receive either one paid ride into space, when such a ticket becomes available, or $196,418 (whose odd numeric value some astute readers may recognize as being a Fibonacci number).

The SatNOGS team edged out four other contenders in the final round of judging. Second place went to ChipWhisperer (a platform for security testing of embedded systems), third to PortableSDR (a compact software-defined radio), fourth to the Open Source Science Tricorder (a gadget for sensing various environmental parameters), and fifth to ramanPi (a Raman spectrometer based on the Raspberry Pi).

The SatNOGS project aims to serve enthusiasts who like to listen in to transmissions from the many satellites zipping around Earth in low or medium orbits. You can’t, of course, do that with a dish bolted to the side of your house. To do this right, you need a radio coupled to a high-gain antenna that can remain pointed in the right direction as the satellite of interest passes overhead.

The open-source design for such a DIY ground station is the main component of the SatNOGS project. But the project also includes facilities so that people from around the world can monitor satellites cooperatively. The idea is that  the ground stations will communicate with a central server on the internet. The server acts like a network manager, sending instructions to the ground stations and receiving digital copies of the signals they record. Assuming enough people build these ground stations, and that they have good geographic distribution, the system should allow much more comprehensive monitoring of satellite signals than anybody working in isolation could manage.

So congratulations to the SatNOGS team. Not that they need my advice, but I’ll give it anyway: Take the money.

How I Stopped Cosmonauts From Carrying Guns

Since the dawn of the Space Age, diplomats and their legal staffs have wrestled with the challenge of constraining the use of space for overtly militaristic purposes, especially as a stage for deploying or actually using weapons.

They made well-paid careers of negotiating and signing “Outer Space Treaties,” despite the lack of generally accepted definitions of  “space” or “weapon,” or even an inkling about  how compliance with any such treaty would be monitored or enforced. Such practical angles were supposedly best left to the engineers to figure out later.

And all the time, various prototype weapons were tested, sometimes deployed, then usually discovered to be useless, and were scrapped. A lot of engineers were well-paid for such careers, too.

For decades, the one exception to this sequence was the little-known Russian practice of packing sidearms on space stations. This continued into the International Space Station partnership, in the form of a “survival gun” in the emergency kit of every Soyuz crew vehicle. Treaty negotiators made sure to grandfather-in such pre-existing weapons—and the Russians were the only ones that had them.

But where the lawyers and diplomats couldn’t get the weapon banned, one pushy space engineer may have done the trick. Without any official declaration from Moscow or Houston, a few years ago the rumor began to spread: “The guns are gone.”

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