Science and Technology

Corn, Corn Everywhere, But Not a Bite to Eat

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) President Barack Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, inspect drought damaged corn on the McIntosh farm with members of the McIntosh family including Don McIntosh, third from right, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in Missouri Valley, Iowa, during a three day campaign bus tour through Iowa. L ast week, the United States Department of Agriculture released a report on the state of the country’s corn, and the verdict is not good. The report—the first that estimates production based on surveying the fields of U.S. farmers—shows that farmers are on track to produce 10.8 billion bushels of corn this year, a 17 percent drop from last year. This summer’s drought has parched King Corn: some ears have only a few sweet kernels to offer, others droop, brown and defeated. 10.8 billion bushels is still a lot of corn. The USDA report notes that this year’s harvest could be the smallest since 2006. What it doesn’t point out is there are only two years in U.S. history...

Is the Driverless Car Menace 2012's Sleeper Issue?

A Florida senior just after her brush with death.
As someone who has gone on record in support of driverless cars, I simply must raise my voice in objection to this ad targeting Florida state representative Jeff Brandes, who is running for state senate. An inconsequential local race, you say? Not when this kind of vicious anti-technological filth is sent out to paralyze our nation's seniors with fear of walking the streets! If you think American politics is no fun, just take a gander: Clearly, this Brandes character is some kind of fifth column infiltrator preparing us for the coming robot apocalypse, when Roombas start mowing down helpless seniors in their homes and ATMs reach out and swallow you when all you wanted was to take out $20 and make it to the early bird on time. For all we know, Brandes might be a robot himself. Actually, before long robots will actually be used to provide companionship and assistance to seniors. It's already happening in Japan. And also, help them pull off jewel heists:

Curiosity Killed the Space Program

Because of budget cuts and lack of commitment, it may be a long time before we land on Mars again.

(NASA)
(NASA) A panoramic view of the Mars surface by the Curiosity rover A bit over a week ago, a one-ton spacecraft bearing the poetic name Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars. The landing was widely celebrated, not just by the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who worked for years on the mission, but by the general public—from those following the landing on the Internet to a crowd that gathered in Times Square to watch the event on a giant video screen. In the coming weeks, Curiosity will set out on a multi-year mission to explore its landing site, Gale Crater, and search for evidence of whether Mars was once capable—and possibly still is—of supporting life. Lost in the euphoria of the landing, however, was a more sobering thought: Curiosity could be something of a grand finale for NASA’s current era of Mars exploration. Currently, NASA has only one mission planned after Curiosity, a more modest orbiter called MAVEN that’s slated for launch in...

Other NASA Firsts

From the first Lunar Orbiter to the just-landed Curiosity Rover, a slide show of great moments in NASA's history.

Slideshow Other NASA Firsts At 10:32 PM PST last night, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover had safely landed in the Gale Crater on Mars. Here's a slide show of great photos from NASA history, from one taken by the first Lunar Orbiter to a picture of Mars's surface sent back from the Curiosity Rover last night.

The Latest Example of our Broken Patent System

Monsanto
About 15 years ago, the St. Louis-based Monsanto corporation developed "Roundup Ready," genetically modified soybean seeds that are resistant to herbicides also produced by the company. In other words, Monsanto made herbicides to kill weeds, then made soy-bean plants that are resistant to the herbicide. Its competitor, Pioneer Seeds, a Des Moines company owned by DuPont and Company, licensed the Roundup Ready formula but also attempted to create genetically modified seeds that could compete with it. Pioneer developed a seed called "Optimum GAT" that combined the Roundup Ready trait with another trait. Mosanto sued DuPont for violating the licensing agreement and for patent infringement, while DuPont claimed that the patent should be considered unenforceable. On July 1, a jury sided with Monsanto, and although Pioneer said in a statement that it "has never sold a single Optimum GAT seed and has no plans to do so in the future" a jury awarded Monsanto a whopping award of $1 billion...

Conservatives Explore New Arenas of Self-Caricature

The internet, sort of. (Flickr/jurvetson)
In one of those now-frequent "I can't believe we're actually going to argue about this" moments, conservatives have now decided that the United States government did not actually have any meaningful role in the creation of the Internet, despite what everyone, including all the people who were there at the time, have always known. Why have they suddenly come to this revelation? All you need to know is that Barack Obama has recently been using the Internet as an example of where government can create conditions that allow private enterprise to flourish, and as Simon Malloy says , if Obama says something, "that, ipso facto, makes it false." Part of what's so crazy about this is that the tale of the Internet's creation and development is actually a story of public/private partnership that both liberals and conservatives ought to be able to celebrate. The conservatives' "evidence" for their brand-new claim is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz claiming that the...

RIP, Sally Ride

Sally Ride (Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records Administration)
Yesterday, the day before Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday, Sally Ride joined the skies for a final time. At 61, she died of pancreatic cancer—a horrible disease. Back in 1983, it was thrilling to watch her smash the American gender barrier as she zoomed into space. When she headed off into the final frontier, it was not as it was with the subordinate Lieutenant Uhuru on the Enterprise—the closest analogue there was at the time—but as an equal astronaut. Ride strode up to the Challenger as if she belonged there—which, of course, she did. She had degrees in physics, astrophysics, and English—what an underachiever! When she saw a NASA newspaper ad seeking astronauts, she applied and got the job. Sally Ride was one of a host of exhilarating barrier-smashers in that decade when young feminists like me thought all barriers would soon come crashing down, from Sandra Day O’Connor to Geraldine Ferraro. Of course women could do anything, including fly to the stars! It’s funny now to read The...

Frank Kameny Blazes Through the Skies

As some of you know, Frank Kameny was the real thing, one of the great trailblazers in the American gay-rights movement. In the 1950s, he worked as an astronomer for U.S. Army map service—until they discovered he was gay, and fired him. He spent his life fighting back, and by the time he died last October, he had been vindicated. He was in the room when President Barack Obama signed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." He had a Washington, D.C. street named after him. How do you top that? You name an asteroid after him, that's how: When astronomer Gary Billings read Kameny’s obituary, he consulted with others in the astronomy world. They decided to submit a citation to the Paris-based International Astronomical Union and the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., seeking to designate Minor Planet 40463 as Frankkameny. ... After Billings read Kameny’s obituary, he wrote to Kinne. “Hey, I have a few asteroids I discovered that I haven’t named yet,” he said. “What do you say we name...

Move Over, Mario

Recent sexist spats in the gaming world belie the fact that women are here to stay.

(Flickr/Anita Sarkeesian)
(Courtesy of Anita Sarkeesian/Flick) Anita Sarkeesian's Wikipedia page, which was vandalized after she put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games. If you’re in any way connected to the world of gaming, you will have noticed in the last few months a series of nasty dustups over the role of women in the community. The ugliness kicked off in May, when vlogger Anita Sarkeesian put together a Kickstarter to raise money for a documentary about sexist tropes in video games. Various male-dominated gaming forums organized a harassment campaign against her, which included posting porn on her Wikipedia page and creating a video game in which players beat her up . (Warning: Pictures from the game are upsetting.) A month later, Slate culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a thoughtful piece about why she thought the rape scene in the new Tomb Raider was a bad idea. The commentary incited a bunch of trolls to share their ugly rape fantasies with...

Why Windows 8 Might Force Microsoft into the Laptop Game

(Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect)
Farhad Manjoo has a great column on the pitiful performance of PC trackpads: I switched to Apple notebooks more than five years ago, and I did so precisely because of things like the trackpad. I’ve searched high and low for a Windows notebook with a touchpad that comes close to the buttery bliss offered by the MacBook line. I haven’t found it, and you won’t either. At best, you’ll find a trackpad that can perform satisfactorily after you tweak a lot of settings—which may work fine for pros, but it’s not the kind of just-works experience that most computer users want. This has been my exact experience as well. The thing that sold me on Macs wasn’t OS X—it was the trackpad. Of course, Apple has a natural advantage here—because it has complete control over hardware and software, it can achieve the tight integration necessary to make a highly responsive trackpad. By contrast, PC manufacturers—who rely on commodity parts–can’t fine tune components to Windows. Now that Microsoft has entered...

The Internet, Explained

60 Hudson Street in New York, which is sort of the Panama Canal of the Internet. (Flickr/Wally Gobetz)
Like many complex technologies, the Internet works because of systems and processes that are opaque to most of us who use it. But it turns out that at its most basic level, it's really not that complicated. What is a bit surprising, in that of-course-that's-true-but-I-never-thought-about-it kind of way, is that there are a lot of physical pieces to the Internet. Wires, obviously, but also buildings you could point to and say, "There's the Internet," and you'd sort of be right. So what happens when you click on a link to go to a web site? The friendly nerds at the World Science Festival created a little video to explain it (via BoingBoing ): Simple! And also pretty amazing. Never forget that it's a great time to be alive, particularly if you enjoy pictures of corgis, or the rapidly growing sideboob industry . Or Prospect.org, of course. And I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that the Internet exists because the United States government, that socialist, freedom-killing leviathan, paid...

How to Save the Internet—Again

Online organizing helped stop SOPA and PIPA, but how much staying power does the internet freedom movement have?

(Flickr/witness.org)
On January 18, the Internet went on strike. Tens of thousands of Web sites—including Google, Wikipedia, and Wordpress—went offline or blacked out their interfaces to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Many feared the breadth of the proposed anti-piracy laws—which could force entire domains to shut down because of the actions of a small number of users—would be used to censor online content and chill innovation. Protestors sent millions of e-mails and placed calls. Organizers of the strike estimate that nearly one billion people were exposed to their message. PIPA and SOPA were tabled. It was, by all measures, an overwhelming success. But the larger legislative battles over Internet privacy and freedom are by no means over. Next week, the Senate is expected to take up a version of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which passed the House in April. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, which dealt with intellectual property, CISPA and its...

Eternal Coach Class

So no complaining.
Ever wonder what it'll be like when we can finally live forever? Oh, come on, sure you have. In case you're new to this subject, there are essentially two possibilities out there. One is that an ever-growing series of advances in the science of aging allows us to arrest the process to where we can keep our bodies going indefinitely, or at least for a very long time. The other is that advances in brain science eventually allow us to map your entire brain down to every last neuron, and we're able to upload your mind . At that point, provided nobody drops the thumb drive containing your consciousness down the toilet by mistake, we can either transfer the file into some kind of robotic body, or, more plausibly, download you into a virtual environment where you can exist forever. And presumably, by the time we're able to do that, the virtual environments we're able to create will be orders of magnitude more realistic, complex, and vivid than what we can create today. In other words, you'll...

Keyboard Jihadist?

(John Ritter)
I t’s unusual for a domestic terrorism suspect to have a fan club. But every morning of Tarek Mehanna’s eight-week trial late last year on federal terrorism charges, supporters packed the domed, ornate courtroom in downtown Boston, smiling and waving whenever Mehanna turned to face them. Their support was unflagging, even though Mehanna was charged with crimes prosecutors called “among the most serious a person can commit,” including material support of terrorism and conspiracy to kill American soldiers in Iraq. The government had been collecting information on Mehanna, a 29-year-old second-generation Egyptian American, for more than eight years. In court, prosecutors provided transcripts from online chats in which Mehanna had praised Osama bin Laden, calling him “my real father,” and invited friends over for “movie night” to watch a video of a beheading in Iraq that he called “Head’s Up.” Most damning, the government also claimed that Mehanna had gone to Yemen to find a terrorist...

Six States, Six Fates for Pro-Life Bills

(Flickr/SMN)
As states around the country consider legislation to limit access to abortion and reproductive rights, the outlook isn't bright for women's health advocates. Here's the latest from five states: Through a tied-vote, the Iowa Senate defeated a measure that would stop public dollars from funding abortions in rape and incest cases. Iowa currently allows tax dollars to fund abortion procedures for low income women if there's a danger to the life of the mother or if the pregnancy came through rape or incest. The House already approved the bill earlier in the week. In Tennessee, the state House has approved a measure that creates criminal penalties for harming embryos. The state can already prosecute someone for harming a fetus, but those laws don't include the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Of course that may be because, in the first eight weeks, many don't know they're pregnant yet and many embryos die from a variety of natural causes. The bill passed 80-18 Thursday in the House and now...

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