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No Tech Solution for Civilian IED Threat

The U.S. military's approach in dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been described by an expert at a military academic institution as "hide and pray: hiding behind more armor and praying that there’s a technical solution to all this." But there is no hiding for ordinary civilians caught in IED blasts. Even the latest battlefield technologies for countering IEDs may not be practical as protection for civilians in crowded urban areas.

Homemade bombs that represented the signature weapon used against United States and coalition military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken an increasingly deadly toll on civilians in recent years, according to The Guardian. The latest data suggests that IEDs have killed or maimed more than 53,000 civilians over the past three years during incidents ranging from the conflicts in the Middle East to the Boston Marathon bombings.

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IBM's Watson Learns to Cook from Bon Appetit Magazine

IBM's artificial intelligence program Watson has been training to be a doctor over the last few years, applying its machine learning skills to genetics and cancer. But apparently the AI likes to cook in its spare time. 

In a just-announced collaboration with Bon Appetit, Watson is using the 9000 or so recipes in the magazine's database to generate new recipes based on available ingredients and a suggested cuisine style. The AI uses both the magazine's archive and its own database of flavor compounds to determine what ingredients will go well together, and comes up with surprising new combinations. For more on how this works, check out the IEEE Spectrum article about IBM's cooking initiative for Watson from last year's special issue on food and technology

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Commercial Use of Google Glass Faces Tough UK Data Protection Act

British regulators began circling Google's smart glasses like buzzards even before the wearable device went on sale in the UK last week. Google Glass wearers using their device for personal reasons have less to worry about, but commercial users will have to comply with British data protection rules aimed at safeguarding personal privacy.

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Google's Cardboard Virtual Reality Kit

What do you need for a virtual reality experience? You need one image going into one eye and a different image going into the other – it’d be good if the images changed once in a while – and that’s basically it. Google Cardboard brings that to you with only a smartphone, a couple of lenses, and cardboard (and some magnets and rubber bands).

Wednesday at their I/O conference in San Francisco Google handed out unfoldable packages that assembled – via Velcro and some tearing on the dotted line – into fully functional 3-D displays upon adding an Android phone and a Cardboard-compatible app.

Like an old-school stereoscope, the Cardboard uses a lens in front of each eye to focus a user’s eyesight to two evenly-sized windows, creating the illusion of viewing a 3-D landscape. In this case, though, those windows are each half of a smartphone’s screen. The demos within the Cardboard app offer exploration of Google Earth and virtual environments, and there are some additional simple games and displays accessible via Chrome. The setup uses the smartphone’s movement sensors to explore a virtual interface, and a metal ring paired with a magnet clinging to the side of the device moves up and down, allowing users to click by triggering a phone’s magnetometer (normally used to measure the phone’s orientation compared to the Earth’s magnetic field).

Google also put do-it-yourself instructions with equally simple materials online for those who missed the conference.

The trickiest part to find are the lenses: Google’s recommendation is now unavailable on Amazon, and users on Cardboard’s quickly-expanding Google+ group have recommend substituting everything from disassembled reading glasses to extra Oculus Rift lenses. In addition to following the cardboard-based instructions, some adventurous group members report assembling headsets via laser-cut fiber board and 3-D printing, not to mention retro stereoscopes, magnifying glasses, and toys intended for still images. Nobody’s yet followed Google’s own suggestion for the frame: an extra-large pizza box.

Besides the built-in demo, developers have been creating their own free and paid apps—including a Minecraft-like game and a roller coaster simulation—with the help of the VR Toolkit. The toolkit is intended to help with perspective changes, head tracking, and movement in order to optimize apps for 3-D.

Cardboard is clearly not intended as an immersive virtual reality experience on par with the Rift or Sony’s Morpheus, and there's the possibility of blurriness,discomfort, and the inherent motion lag when using today's smartphones. But as a barebones 3-D platform, it's hard to resist. And if the next big app appears on Android for 3-D, you can bet Google will have a higher-quality successor to Cardboard out in a hurry.

That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA

According to my best reading of a notice the FAA announced on Monday, things like the US $154 Husban X4 quadcopter are no longer toys—they are true drone aircraft in the FAA's eyes and cannot be flown without a certificate of authorization or special airworthiness certificate.


Up to now, the FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, to use the FAA’s preferred terminology) according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. If you want to fly a 20-kilogram, turbine-powered radio-controlled model airplane, go right ahead, so long as you only do it as a hobby. Fly a 2-kilogram electric foamy for compensation, and you’re breaking the rules against commercial drone use, though. That was the basic argument the FAA had made against Raphael Pirker, who was issued with a $10,000 fine for flying a model airplane for hire in 2011.

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SCOTUS Rules That Cellphone Searches Require Warrants

In a unanimous ruling yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone. This will likely apply to computer and tablet searches as well, and acknowledges that a phone these days is far more like a file cabinet in a home, which historically cannot searched without a warrant, than a wallet, which can.

The court had looked at two cases, Riley v. California, in which officers searched a cell phone during a traffic stop and found information on the phone that connected the phone's owner to gang activity, and United States v. Wurie, in which information on the phone led the police to an apartment that was searched and found to contain drugs and a weapon.

The Justice Department, defending warrantless searches of cell phones, had argued that evidence on a phone could be destroyed remotely, were officers to wait to obtain a warrant to conduct the search. Preventing such destruction, however, can be as simple as switching a phone into airplane mode or slipping it into a Faraday bag, and these precautions are well understood by the law enforcement community.

Digital privacy advocates are relieved. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that filed briefs in the two cell phone search cases considered by the Supreme Court, stated yesterday that “these decisions are huge for digital privacy.”

“The court,” Fakhoury said, “recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim.”

Goose Bump Detector Senses Your Skin Crawling

A swell of music that evokes a long-forgotten memory, the rising tension of a horror film, or a sudden drop in temperature can all lead to tiny goose bumps on human skin—a physical response sometimes related to emotional states. New skin sensors capable of tracking such hair-raising moments in life could someday help detect a person's reaction to a new movie or online advertisement.

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Google Fit Wants to Rule All Your Wearable Health, Fitness Devices

human os iconGoogle is no longer satisfied just to know what you searched for online the last time you had a cold or suffered from heartburn. The Internet giant plans for its Google Fit service to track everything about your health by gathering data from fitness trackers, health apps, and wearable medical devices.

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Supreme Court Shoots Aereo Down

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with traditional broadcasters and ruled that Aereo, a New York City-based startup that provides TV streaming service based on “personal antennas,” has infringed the copyrights of producers and their licensed distributors.

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Google Bets $50 Million on Inspiring Girls to Become Coders

Fewer than one percent of high school girls express interest in becoming computer science majors in college—a dismal number that also points to why the percentage of women among computer science graduates has dropped in recent decades. Google aims to boost that number via a mentorship network aimed at getting girls interested in coding. The company plans to invest $50 million into its new "Made with Code" initiative over the next three years.

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