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The Slow and Painful Death of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin Exchange

I've always considered the death scene in Cyrano de Bergerac to be a bit too drawn out and overly wrought. But when watching it, you at least know that Cyrano is in fact going to die, that the show will end and catharsis will be yours.

Today, I'm watching what I think may be the last gasping breaths of Mt. Gox, Bitcoin's most fabled online exchange. And yet, neither I nor anyone else seems to know whether it is actually going to die.

Last night, the Mt. Gox rumor mill caught fire and exploded. Kindling for the blaze was supplied at around midnight when a mysterious and unverified document surfaced on Ryan Galt's blog, "The Two-Bit Idiot." The document, which allegedly originated from within Mt. Gox (a claim which Galt has not been able to prove) details the finances of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange and outlines a strategy for its gradual re-entry into the market. It claims that, over a period of several years, theft and incompetence drained the company of more than 744 000 bitcoins. The theft was blamed primarily on a flaw in the Bitcoin software, called transaction malleability, which Mt. Gox highlighted earlier this month but which the core developers of the Bitcoin protocol have understood for many years. If the numbers in the document are correct, the amount of lost coins adds up to a staggering six percent of the total bitcoins in circulation.

And now, everyone who has money tied up in the Mt. Gox exchange has nothing to do but wait and see whether the rumors are true. Mt. Gox itself is remaining defiantly taciturn. The company has deleted the entire history of tweets from its official Twitter account and just this morning, after initially disabling its website, Mt. Gox has put it back up with a short message that, in essence, says absolutely nothing.

Dear MtGox Customers,

In the event of recent news reports and the potential repercussions on MtGox's operations and the market, a decision was taken to close all transactions for the time being in order to protect the site and our users. We will be closely monitoring the situation and will react accordingly.

Best regards,
MtGox Team

Other Bitcoin companies seem to know more about what is going on behind the curtain at Mt. Gox, but as yet, none have gone on record to definitely accuse Mt. Gox of being insolvent. Today, Coinbase, a bitcoin wallet provider located in San Francisco, published a joint statement signed by the CEOs of five influential Bitcoin companies (including Mt. Gox's main competitors, Kraken, BitStamp, and BTC China).

They write, "as with any new industry, there are certain bad actors that need to be weeded out, and that is what we are seeing today. Mtgox [sic] has confirmed its issues in private discussions with other members of the bitcoin community."

However, the statement neglected to elaborate on what those issues were. Instead, it looked to the future. "We strongly believe in transparent, thoughtful, and comprehensive consumer protection measures. We pledge to lead the way."

The comments were clearly calibrated to shore up confidence in a community of rattled investors. These most recent disruptions arrived just as the value of Bitcoin was floating high at around US $800. Today, it has crashed down around $500.

Since the document in question was published, Bitcoiners have rallied on both sides, either calling it a fake or embracing it as the evidence they've been needing. After a day spent parrying threatening emails and a deluge of backlash in the comment section of his blog, Galt, who also writes about Bitcoin for CoinDesk, is standing by his decision to publish the document. Galt claims to have sold all of his own bitcoins shortly after acquiring the leaked document.

At this point, it doesn't even matter whether it is a fake. At the very least, it is a reflection of what everyone fears. And today, those fears are ruling the market.

Ford's Smooth-Driving Autonomous Research Car

Ford's first autonomous research vehicles, with protruding sensors and instruments, “kind of look[ed] like a science project” says Chris Attard, a Ford research engineer who works on their replacement. The new one, a Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle—announced in December and displayed here at at this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain—looks like someone installed a few gas canisters on the car's roof rack, except that the canisters spin.

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Why a Simple Messaging App's Technology Is Worth $19 Billion to Facebook

Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion may sound like a Silicon Valley tycoon's ransom for a simple mobile messaging service. But the acquisition gives Facebook access to a mobile messaging service that can reach millions of people worldwide who access mobile Internet services through either smartphones or simpler feature phones.

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Moon Rover Teams Gear Up for $6 Million X Prize Purse

Now might be the time to start keeping closer tabs on the Google Lunar X Prize. Today, five of the 18 registered teams in the competition have been named finalists for interim "Milestone Prizes". Over the coming months, they'll work to demonstrate how far they've progressed in three categories: landing systems, rover mobility, and imaging subsystems. All three technologies will be needed to make it to the moon and nab the top prize (set at $US 20 million, minus any money awarded in the interim).

An independent panel of judges selected the finalists, and two teams swept all three categories. One is the Silicon Valley-based team Moon Express. The other is Astrobotic, a company based in Pittsburgh that was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. (We covered some of Astrobotic's early efforts in 2009 in our special report on Mars.)

The performance of these teams might lead you to conclude that there are really only two horses left in the running. But when I caught up today with Andrew Barton, director of technical operations at the Google Lunar X Prize (GLXP), he told me not to read too much into the rankings. Only a handful of slots were available in each category, he said, and the two teams just so happened to be quite mature in all three.

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5G Service On Your 4G Phone?

A new San Francisco-based start-up, Artemis Networks, announced today that it plans to commercialize its “pCell” technology, a novel wireless transmission scheme that could eliminate network congestion and provide faster, more reliable data connections. And the best part? It could work on your existing 4G LTE phone.

If it proves capable of scaling, pCell could radically change the way wireless networks operate, essentially replacing today’s congested cellular systems with an entirely new architecture that combines signals from multiple distributed antennas to create a tiny pocket of reception around every wireless device. Each pocket could use the full bandwidth of spectrum available to the network, making the capacity of the system “effectively unlimited,” says Steve Perlman, Artemis’s CEO.

First introduced in 2011 under the name DIDO (for distributed input, distributed output), pCell seems almost too fantastic to believe. And no doubt Artemis will have plenty of critics to pacify and kinks to smooth out before operators like Verizon or AT&T pay serious attention. But there are at least a couple reasons why the idea might have some real legs.

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Renewable Power Tops Climate Change Solutions in Expert Survey

How would you advise a $100-billion venture capital fund to spend its money on preventing dangerous levels of global warming over the next 100 years? Climate experts recently chose distributed renewable energy, energy efficiency, and next-generation nuclear power as the ones most likely to make a big impact on climate change.

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Philips Creates Shopping Assistant with LEDs and Smart Phone

If you're like me, fumbling around the supermarket looking for obscure items is a pretty common—and frustrating—occurrence. Lighting giant Philips has developed a solution: smart lights.

The company yesterday introduced a system that connects in-store LED lights with consumers' smart phones. Using a downloadable app, people will be able to locate items on their shopping lists or get coupons as they pass products on the aisles. Retailers can send targeted information such as recipes and coupons to consumers based on their precise location within stores, while gaining benefits of energy-efficient LED lighting, says Philips.

“The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning. The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store," said Philips Lighting's Gerben van der Lugt in a statement.

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A Visit to the Magnetic Monopole Lab

One year ago this month, a physics lab in Amherst, Mass. came the closest yet to something physicists have been chasing since it was proposed in 1931—a magnetic monopole, an entity containing pure magnetic "charge" like an electron contains pure electric charge. The researchers have made the first so-called “Dirac monopole.” (The name comes from the physicist Paul A.M. Dirac, who described monopoles interacting with a quantum field, which is what the Amherst experiment was the first to do.)

Despite some sensationalistic media coverage that might have suggested otherwise, no one saw an actual particle that carried its own magnetic “charge.” Natural magnetic monopoles, whose existence if confirmed would have the benefit of explaining why electric charge is quantized, have still never been observed.

Instead what Amherst College physics professor David Hall and his postdoctoral researcher Michael Ray, created was an analog of a magnetic monopole in a collection of ultracold cloud of rubidium atoms known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Consider their quasi-magnetic monopole, Hall says, as being a little like an electron “hole” in a semiconductor. In a lattice of atoms like doped silicon, the absence of an electron behaves much like a particle itself, propagating down the lattice as if it were the positively-charged twin of the electron. And of course holes aren’t actual particles. So, neither, are these quantum monopoles.

“We’ve created a magnetic monopole, but it’s just not in a magnetic field that a compass would respond to,” Hall says. “It’s a different field, a synthetic field or an emergent field, which we actually have a lot of control over.” An actual magnetic monopole particle would have two important properties—a quantum wavefunction describing the probability that it would be found in any point in space—and the magnetic field the particle generates. The Amherst monopole's "wavefunction" is just the density of the Bose-Einstein condensate. The probability density of a monopole particle's quantum state, in other words, is directly analogous in this system to the physical density of condensate. Following the experiment's analogy, then, the magnetic field of the "monopole" is represented by the orientation of atomic spins in the condensate. Thus both quantum and magnetic fields of the monopole analogue are found in this experiment, making it an attractive medium for further study and perhaps one day the capture and study of a real, honest-to-goodness magnetic monopole particle.

To create the condensate, Hall and Ray as well as the recently graduated Amherst student Saugat Kandel worked in collaboration with a team of Finnish researchers to laser-cool and magnetically-cool a cloud of rubidium atoms in their basement lab on the Amherst College campus.

They did it again for IEEE Spectrum last week [see video].

In one atomic trap they cooled the rubidium atoms down to microKelvins, millionths of degrees above absolute zero. Then shuttling the cooled cloud down a tube a meter or so away to a second trap, they further cooled the atoms by evaporation—shunting away all but the stillest of atoms in their increasingly frigid cloud. The overall effect, then, was to create a cloud that was 10 to 100 billionths of degrees above absolute zero—nanokelvins, in other words.

And at this temperature nature behaves quantum mechanically, even in the macroscopic realm. The Bose-Einstein Condensates, subject of the 2001 Physics Nobel Prize, can be manipulated and moved around with zero viscosity, a property called superfluidity.

Creating the “monopole,” from the condensate, involves a few extra steps they couldn’t show us. Hall says a powerful infrared laser is turned on to trap the condensate cloud. (The tool is a familiar one, called optical tweezers.) Then the magnetic field that once kept the cloud in place is free to manipulate the condensate.

And it is this magnetic field,  that can finally knead, twist and bend its extremely supple subject, the condensate, so that it can simulate the presence of a “particle” of magnetic charge in its midst. [See the other video.]

Jonathan Morris, visiting assistant professor of physics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, described in IEEE Spectrum in 2013 his own group’s work creating quasi-magnetic monopoles in atomic networks of linked spins called “spin ices.” Morris says the qualifier “quasi” is important to stress in both discoveries.

“I doubt that particle physicists will consider these as fundamental magnetic monopole particles and they will continue in their search for such objects,” Morris told IEEE Spectrum’s Rachel Courtland. “The authors of this new study distinguish between their emergent magnetic monopole and the magnetic monopole particle by calling the latter a ‘natural magnetic monopole’ just as we distinguished between the spin-ice monopoles by saying that we had entities that ‘resembled magnetic monopoles,’" he says.

[The spin-ice monopoles are explained in this video.]

To Hall, the Bose-Einstein condensate's quantum properties are the reason his group's experiment is a noteworthy complement to  previous groups' ersatz monopoles. "We have access to the analog of the electronic wavefunction," Hall says. "That’s something that no other system has. So we can study the analog of the electron-monopole interaction—how the system behaves once we’re done creating it." Moreover, he says, "If you think of our condensate/superfluid as a kind of 'monopole detector' then of course we might learn more about how to efficiently detect natural magnetic monopoles, or what their signatures might be."

This article was updated on 19 February 2014.

Smart Mortar Rounds Make Good Spies

CORRECTION: ST Kinetics informs us that the 40-mm munition is not technically a mortar round. It has a smaller caliber than a mortar. 

Long a staple of the infantry unit, the 40-millimeter round comes in many shapes and functions: low and high velocity, training, green, non lethal, and whatnot. The large volume of the round itself has prompted a manufacturer to think outside the box and consider this popular standard as a projectile with a payload. 

ST Kinetics, a defense subsidiary of the Singapore Technologies conglomerate, has devised a couple of interesting tricks. The coolest gimmick ST Kinetics pulled is with a round called SPARCS, or Soldier Parachute Aerial Reconnaissance Camera System. The round will usually climb 150 meters and travel down range about that same distance, then deploy a small camera that gently falls from the sky via parachute while transmitting images to a ground unit. The photos are are then stitched into a bigger and higher resolution version that can be shared and zoomed. 

It's the kind of thing a drone is usually called in for, but a mortar round is smaller, more expendable, and does the job with an immediacy that's hard to match.

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