Science and Technology

The First Call Is Free; the Rest Are a Fortune.

Pressure mounts for prisons to improve their outdated and costly phone systems.

(flickr/truthout)
(Flickr/ danostamper714) P aying a $4.25 connection fee and then 75 cents per minute thereafter seems costly, unless, perhaps, we're talking about a phone call from our future Mars colony back to Earth. It is, though, what an operator at the phone company Global Tel*Link says it costs for a call from Pennsylvania's Carbon County Correctional Facility to anywhere beyond the local calling area. That's in line with the rates other companies charge for prisoners around the country to make simple long-distance phone calls. To compare, prepaid cell phones on the outside top out at about 20 cents a minute, and a standard residential landline plan at just half that. If you find it difficult to rally sympathy for prisoners' hefty monthly phone bills, consider two things. First, we know that contact with the outside world while in prison is tied to better outcomes after prison . Second, those costs are generally borne by families and friends, either through collect charges or the refilling of...

How We Should (Voter) Roll

(Flickr/crownjewel82)
David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that should please folks on both sides of the political divide. Far-right groups argue that voter fraud is rampant, and demand that states do more to delete names on the lists. The left brushes off the fraud claim (citing facts), focusing instead on voter registration drives. There's not much common ground. But an investment in better tools to manage voter registration—and allow for online registration—would make a huge difference to both camps: It would...

You Can Hide, But You Can't Run

Resistance is futile.
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped. The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA , the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to...

Quest for Immortality Suffers Setback

Now try not to overstuff yourself. (Flickr/whologwhy)
Ever since the 1930s, researchers have known that calorie restriction could dramatically extend life in some organisms. Radically reduce the calories an organism gets–say by 40 percent or more–and the organism will often live longer than you would have thought possible. This effect was seen in worms, mice, and some other species, with the attendant hope that it might work in humans as well. While the precise mechanism hasn't been understood completely, essentially it seemed that when it's getting less nutrition, the body goes into some kind of survival mode that allows it to forestall the ravages of age. The joke about calorie restriction is this: If you eat nothing but lettuce and millet for the rest of your days, you may not live forever, but it'll sure seem like forever. Nevertheless, there are some hardy souls who are trying ( see here , for example), subsisting on meager meals and poking new holes in their belts while they contemplate what things will be like when 100 is the new...

Rep. Akin and Fun with Fake Facts

Honestly, some days I can’t tell real news from The Onion . Representative Todd Akin’s staggering comment on Sunday about the female body’s amazing ability to reject unwanted sperm actually made my jaw drop. If only it didn’t represent what so many people believe, as Amanda Marcotte explained so clearly here yesterday. The good news is that it flushed those beliefs out into the open. As she said, it’s not a gaffe; it’s an insight into the anti-choice movement’s distrust of women and its ignorance of science. (The fact that Akin’s on the House Science Committee is just one of those hilariously horrifying Onion -style bits of data: Do we really live in a country where a “don’t confuse me with the facts” anti-science ideologue makes policy about … science?) That magical thinking behind Akin's statement arises from an attitude similar—in ideology, not in degree—to that behind honor killings, in which raped girls who refuse to marry their rapists are killed by male relatives for sullying...

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...

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