Monthly Archives: November 2012

Review: Apps that Keep You from Getting Lost in Translation

via MIT Technology Review: 

There are plenty of translation apps for smartphones, but sometimes they speak better than they listen.

When I was 16, I spent a summer studying Spanish in Spain. Armed with a pocket-sized Spanish-English electronic dictionary—high-tech at the time— I stumbled through the country.

Now language translation apps for smartphones can do much, much more than that old plastic device with the rubbery buttons and one-line display. Many of them let you speak or type a question in English and have that instantly translated into a foreign tongue, which the app can speak out loud or display on the phone’s screen. A response from a local can be translated right back into English for you. A single app may include the ability to translate dozens of languages—more than a backpack full of dictionaries.

I put these promising features to the test by heading into Korean, Chinese, and Japanese neighborhoods in San Francisco with three translation apps—two on the iPhone and one that works on the iPhone or Android phones.

The results were mixed. It’s quicker to use these apps than to look up words in a dictionary or phrasebook, and they can understand complete sentences. But apps with voice recognition don’t always capture spoken words in noisy situations, especially when those words aren’t in English. This made interacting with strangers even more awkward than usual.

I’m still excited about the future possibilities, but for now there’s a long way to go.

SayHi Translate

Availability: iPhone; the company says an Android version is coming in a few months

Price: currently 99 cents; generally $2.99

This is my favorite of the three. It’s the most visually appealing and easiest to use. After choosing your language and the one into which you want your words translated, you press a blue on-screen button, say or type what you need, and let it speak the translation aloud (the words are also shown as on-screen text). The people you’re talking to can then tap a green button and respond in their language, and SayHi will translate that back into your tongue.

The app supports about two dozen languages, including Arabic, Korean, Swedish, and Italian, plus a number of common dialects, and can speak most of these aloud. You can select conversation snippets to share on Facebook or elsewhere, choose a male or female voice for the app, and control how quickly it speaks.

SayHi usually understood what I was saying, as long as I enunciated and spoke at an even pace. But when non-English speakers tried to respond to questions, such as “how do I cook this?” or start their own line of conversation, it generally couldn’t understand their words.

I found that it was often best to say or type what I wanted in advance. Later on, you can always tap on that phrase on the screen and hit “Speak” to play back the translation, or just point it out to the person you’re asking for help. I suspect it might also work better if I asked simpler questions, and, when possible, convinced people to type their answers.

Another thing to keep in mind: While you can see the text of past translations without wireless service, you must have access to a wireless network to get new translations or play existing translations aloud. This could be expensive if you’re planning to use your phone in another country.

Google Translate

Availability: Android, iPhone, Web

Price: free

The coolest part about Google Translate is the sheer number of languages it knows: It can translate the text and speech of more than 60 languages into spoken and typed words.

In typical Google style, the app is fairly simple to use but nothing fancy to look at. Near the top of the screen are two language buttons; you change them by tapping on them. Between the buttons is a two-way arrow that determines the input and output tongue. You can type words into an on-screen box, or speak them aloud. If you’re using the Android version, there’s also an augmented reality feature that lets you snap an image of printed text, highlight it, and receive a translation.

Unfortunately, like SayHi, Google Translate had a hard time understanding what was said by people I met. And while its translations of what I was saying in English were sometimes understood, a kind Japanese video store employee told me that he really had to think about the meaning of what popped up on the screen because it wasn’t quite clear.

The small two-way translation button also led to mishaps. For example, I’d think it was set for me to speak in English so it could translate to Japanese, but it was actually prepared to translate Japanese to English. It would be easier if the button were larger or more boldly labeled.

As with SayHi, you must be connected to the Internet to use Google Translate for anything but viewing past translations.


Availability: iPhone

Price: free for limited version with Chinese and Japanese phrases; $3.99 per language.

Because Mantaphrase forces you to choose from an assortment of preset phrases that are sorted by topic, I thought it might be easier to use than the others. It’s also the only app I tested that works fully without wireless network access.

But I ran into some trouble. The app features a long list of phrases you can scroll through, as well as a search bar and four big topic listings (Commerce, Essential, Directions, and Transport) that are each subdivided into more topics (tap “Transport,” for example, and you’ll see “Air,” “Car & Taxi,” “Train,” and “Bus”) that each yield more specific situations. All these layers quickly got confusing, as I couldn’t always remember where I’d seen a phrase before (you can search within the app by keyword, fortunately).

You can tap a phrase to pull it up on the screen in both English and the language you’ve chosen (Chinese or Japanese are all that it has now, but the company says Spanish and French are coming soon). When appropriate, virtual “yes” and “no” buttons appear for the person you’re trying to communicate with to tap in response. That is clever, but doesn’t account for the fact that strangers may hesitate to touch your phone (they seemed pretty shy with mine). It’s also easy to see appropriate follow-up phrases by tapping the bottom of the screen, or display all the questions you’ve asked in a single conversation by swiping down from the top.

Using the Chinese setting, I got someone to point me in the direction of the nearest drugstore, learned the price of a scarf in a variety store, and was politely denied when I asked if I could pay for groceries with a credit card. But when I tried to get food recommendations at a bakery and at a restaurant, Mantaphrase seemed off its game: both times, the people I encountered suggested a restaurant down the street, thinking I was asking where—not what—to eat.

Five New Government-Backed Energy Projects that Stand Out

via MIT Technology Review: 

Sixty-six new energy research projects were announced on Wednesday. Here are some interesting ones.

The U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E)—one of the few government agencies with solid, bipartisan support in Congress—announced 66 new research projects on Wednesday that will collectively receive $130 million. Here are five projects from the list that stand out.

Liquid fuel from natural gas

The most striking difference between this set of ARPA-E research awards and previous ones is the explosion of natural-gas-related projects, something no doubt prompted by the surge of natural gas production in the United States.

Several projects to receive funding propose to develop technology to inexpensively convert natural gas into chemicals and fuels that are liquid at room temperature. This is something researchers have been trying to do for decades, in part because a cheap way to use natural gas in conventional engines would greatly decrease oil imports. Among these projects is a nearly $4 million award to Pratt & Whitney to develop an approach that would partially oxidize natural gas at high temperatures and pressures in a gas turbine, creating compounds that could more easily be converted to liquid fuel. One of the benefits of the process, the company says, is that the turbine could, at the same time, be used to generate electricity.

A possible solution to the rare-earth crisis

Rare-earth materials are vital to the manufacture of wind turbines, hybrid cars, and consumer electronics due to their powerful magnetic properties. But they are also expensive and come almost entirely from China, which sometimes restricts exports.

Electron Energy, based in Landisville, Pennsylvania, is getting $3 million to develop a new manufacturing process that could greatly reduce the amount of rare-earth materials needed for the magnets. The idea is to seed cheaper materials with tiny particles of rare-earth materials, using the magnetic field from these particles to change the magnetic properties of the surrounding material.

“The magic sauce is knowing how to get the right material with the right atomic structure to propagate the magnetic field,” says Eric Toone, ARPA-E’s director.

Electron Energy is also focused on keeping down the cost of manufacturing the new materials. “It has to be cheap,” adds U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu. “We can hand-tailor this material, building it atom by atom, but that’s not cheap.”

Cheaper superconductors

In a similar project, Grid Logic of Lapeer, Michigan, is receiving nearly $4 million to create cheaper superconductors by using superconducting particles to improve the superconducting properties of other less expensive materials. This could make it more practical to transport power over long distances, helping to enable renewable power like wind.

Wind turbines made of cloth

The bigger the wind turbine, the more efficient it can be. But the size of wind turbines is limited by the challenge of delivering extremely long wind turbine blades, which have to be maneuvered through towns and under power lines to reach a turbine.

GE Water and Power is getting nearly $4 million to develop a new kind of wind turbine blade made of cloth stretched over a frame. The blades could be shipped in pieces and assembled on site, making larger wind turbines more practical.

Halving natural gas use at power plants

If you could burn natural gas in pure oxygen, at extremely high temperatures, you could greatly improve the efficiency of power plants, cutting fuel consumption in half while keeping pollution under control. But the high temperatures could melt the materials usually used in gas turbines.

Pratt & Whitney is receiving $600,000 to apply its experience with liquid-fueled rocket engines to develop a cooling system that could make such turbines practical. It’s one of the smallest awards from ARPA-E, but the impact of cutting fuel consumption in half would, of course, be huge.

Five Christmas Presents That Could Change Your Life

via Business Insider: 

A chair with no back; a helmet that’s not really there; a ‘Star Trek’-style replicator. The Christmas gifts of the future are already here.


Cast your mind back to the beginning of 2010. A certain groundbreaking product was about to change the world. “Still no one is certain what the hell this creation is actually going to be for,” wrote the technology journalist Charles Arthur, “nor even what it will be called.” The Telegraph’s then technology correspondent, Claudine Beaumont, called it the “so-called iTablet”. She was far from convinced. “People might not know what they’ll use the tablet for,” she wrote somewhat grudgingly, “but they know that they need one.”

She was right. By Christmas 2011, the iPad was already being described as a true “game-changer”. In just a few years it has transformed the way we play, do business, socialise and learn. Will we ever see its like again? In this age of hyper-creativity and rapid technological advancement, it is impossible to tell. In the meantime, however, here are some recent innovations hoping to change how we travel to work, drink, and even the way we sit:

The Intelligent chair

When I meet Roger Golten for a coffee, he is sitting in an upright yet relaxed fashion on the chair he has brought with him. It’s an odd sight; he is able to swivel, tilt any which way, and – strangest of all – spread and raise each leg independently.

“As a race, we are transforming from homo sapiens to homo sedens,” says Golten, a therapist specialising in posture improvement and this chair’s sole UK importer. “We’re not designed to sit all day, yet most of us have incredibly sedentary lifestyles. It causes all sorts of health problems.”

The “Limbic” chair is designed to eliminate those problems, and looks nothing like a chair at all. It comprises a pair of carbon-fibre wings, curved to accept the precise dimensions of the thighs of the owner. Each of these moves independently on a complex system of hydraulics. There is no back, and no cushioning to speak of. “It’s very comfortable once you get used to it,” says Golten. “It makes sitting a dynamic process rather than a fixed, static position. You can move whenever you like, and pause in a fixed position as well. It also keeps the brain stimulated.”

The chair was invented by a Swiss doctor called Patrik Künzler at MIT, in collaboration with engineers from Formula One. “Chairs have been around for 4,000 years,” he says, “but we still haven’t adapted to them. Our bodies are essentially asymmetric – when our right foot goes forwards, it is accompanied by our left hand, and vice versa. A regular chair forces us into strict, static symmetry, and prevents us from the micro-movements of the sort that we naturally make when stationary, for example in sleep.” According to Künzler, small, regular movements are essential to keep nutrients and blood flowing, and to keep the back’s vertebrae lubricated.

“This chair,” he says, “allows you to make asymmetrical micro-movements whenever you like.” I climb on. It’s a strange experience, like being cradled by a robotic hand. Instantly, however, I can understand the benefits. The chair adjusts to me. There’s an immense feeling of freedom at being able to move in any direction at will. It’s almost like floating.

Just 50 of these chairs have been sold in the world, and only two currently exist in Britain. They cost £6,500, plus VAT. Golten says it particularly suits people who have to work in a fixed position for long periods. “My ideal client,” he explains, “is someone who sits all day, and makes a lot of money doing so.”

The ‘invisible’ bike helmet

In Spring 2005, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin, two Swedish industrial designers, were studying at Lund University when they became interested in cycle safety. The catalyst for their thesis project – the “Hövding” invisible bike helmet – was the introduction of new tough laws in Sweden that made bicycle helmets compulsory for children under the age of 15.

According to their research, 40 people die and 30,000 are injured each year in cycling accidents in Sweden alone, but the vast majority of cyclists do not wear helmets. The reason?

“Bicycle helmets are bulky and impractical to carry around when you’re not on your bicycle,” says Haupt. “People think bicycle helmets look hideous and make them look silly. They ruin your hair and you can’t get a hat on underneath.”

Their “invisible” solution has to be, well, seen to be believed. It takes the form of a scarf-like collar that zips up around the neck and is available in different coloured and patterned sleeves. When sensors pick up “abnormal movements of a bicyclist in an accident”, an airbag hood pops out instantaneously, protecting the head.

Amazingly, the Hövding complies with safety requirements. It is, according to the designers, “a practical accessory [that] will save your life”. It is available now, for the price of ¤499 (£400). Sleeves cost an additional ¤59 (£47.50)

The cardboard BiCYCLE

Izhar Gafni, an Israeli inventor and cycling enthusiast, is also an expert in designing automated mass-production lines. These skills and interests came together in the invention of the cardboard bicycle, which will last for years, costs as little as £10 and, to answer everyone’s first question, can indeed withstand the rain.

“It has always excited me to take old raw materials and then turn it into something completely different, something useful,” he says. “The idea is like Japanese origami. You fold it once and it doesn’t gain twice the strength, but three times the strength.” The initial inspiration came when he heard about a man who managed to build a canoe from cardboard. “I thought, why not make a bicycle out of cardboard?”

The initial prototype looked like “a hybrid between a packaging box and a bicycle – a package on wheels”. It was only when he realised it needed to look like a serious bicycle that “the real challenges started”. Part of the design’s success is the special coating, made of an undisclosed combination of organic materials, which rendered the bicycle waterproof and fireproof. To finish the product, a layer of lacquer is applied.

Although Gafni is prevented by patenting issues to reveal the precise details of the design, he says the bicycle will contain no metal parts at all, not even in the brakes, chain and pedal bearings. All will be made of recycled and recyclable materials.

Gafni believes that his cardboard bicycle will be a game-changer in Africa. Plans are already under way to produce child-sized versions, as well as a cardboard wheelchair. Grants will cover the cost of production in Africa, and the product will be free on delivery. His latest prototype has reached the requisite standard, and mass production will begin in the next few months.

The wine-enhancing glass

According to Château Baccarat, the French wineglass manufacturer, it’s all in the shape. The company’s signature glass has a wide, heavy bowl that tapers into a cylindrical funnel. It looks rather odd, but there is method in the madness; this, it says, could be the wineglass of the future.

The shape of the Baccarat glass – which has different iterations for reds, whites and bubbles – has three features. The concave bottom and wide base prevents the alcohol from climbing up the glass when swirled, and keeps the aromas contained. The sharp, closed angle of the walls condenses the alcohol’s “volatile matter” and allows the aromas to billow around the glass as it is rotated. The vertical chimney acts to reunify and consolidate the aromas. The result is a punchy hit on the nose, which acts as a potent precursor to the wine and influences the perception of taste.

Put simply, it makes great wines taste even better, and not so great – i.e., cheap – wines taste good.

Hugues Lepin, the head sommelier at The Connaught Hotel in London’s Mayfair, now uses Baccarat glasses exclusively as they “open the potential of the wine”. Whereas most wines are “unlocked” when they are decanted, he says with the Baccarat glasses it is unnecessary; these are “decanting glasses”.

This radical design, Lepin says, is “the ultimate sommelier’s glass”.

The HAND-HELD 3D scanner

The Go!SCAN 3D portable scanner may look like a hairdryer, but it’s in fact the closest science has come to producing a Star Trek-style “replicator”. Created by a Canadian company, Creaform, it makes an exact, three-dimensional image of an object on a computer screen, which can be spun around through 360 degrees and manipulated at will. Then, using a 3D printer, a copy can be made.

3D scanning isn’t exactly a new technology, but professional-quality scanners have long been prohibitively costly and cumbersome. This portable version can go anywhere, and theoretically scan – and copy – any object you can point at. The applications for the scanner are wide ranging. Museum curators, restorers and archivists will be able to digitise and archive artefacts online. Archaeologists and palaeontologists may use the gadget to assemble the parts of a fossil or ancient site. Or, if you’re a car enthusiast who can afford the £16,000 retail price, you’ll have access to an infinite supply of spare parts without ever needing to bother the manufacturer. The American talk-show host Jay Leno demonstrated this with the valve of a rare 1907 steam car. It was broken, and getting a replacement was impossible. So he scanned it and printed a plastic version of the valve with a 3D printer; this was used as a mould to produce a metal version.

The Japanese company Omote 3D scans human beings, prints a statue of them, and paints it to look lifelike. This, they say, will be the family photograph of the future.

Nick Allen, founder of 3D Print UK, admits that the process is “expensive and slow, so will not replace traditional mass-production methods. But for bespoke objects it is ideal.”

New possibilities for using this technology are still being discovered, not all of them good. Allen, for example, was once asked to scan and print multiple ATM skimmers, which could record card details. He immediately informed the police.

According to Simon Bradshaw, a barrister who has made a detailed study of the intellectual property issues of 3D printing, copying an object purely for private use isn’t strictly illegal – yet. “What I expect will happen is that there will be growing pressure to regulate this area,” he says. The case, as they say, continues.

Twitter Case Exposes the Downside of Grandstanding

via Wired: 


Twitter always fancied itself a more benevolent, open startup than most. It referred to its “ecosystem” rather than its customers and, as recently as this January, referred to itself as “an information utility” rather than a mere social network.

But that rhetoric may come back to haunt the microblogging service: A state superior court judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order forcing Twitter to keep providing a smaller startup with a river of Twitter data. Twitter wants to curtail the data access amid a broader crackdown on use of its stream of tweets and relationship data, but the startup, San Francisco-based PeopleBrowsr, says Twitter created the impression the data would remain available for a long period of time. “Twitter has built its business on the promise of openness,” PeopleBrowser wrote of the case on its blog. In court papers it added that “Twitter has repeatedly and consistently promised that it would maintain an ‘open ecosystem’ for its data.” (You can read the full complaint here.)

PeopleBrowsr wants to prevent Twitter from exercising a contract provision allowing either party to terminate the deal for any reason with just 30 days’ notice. Twitter, meanwhile, has said this flies in the face of “Contracts 101.” A hearing for a preliminary injunction is slated for Jan. 8.

Twitter provides PeopleBrowsr with access to its full “firehose” of data, a massive stream of tweets that could not be collected from Twitter’s open website without violating the company’s terms of service and without circumventing technical blockades. PeopleBrowsr sifts and analyzes the data for marketers and other clients including, the company says in court papers, the Department of Defense. Getting cut off by Twitter will invalidate contracts with those clients, including a $3 million deal involving the DoD, and harm competition in the data analytics space, PeopleBrowsr maintains.

If PeopleBrowsr gains further traction with its argument, it could create a precedent that forces startups well beyond Twitter to weigh their statements more carefully and to ensure that any open interfaces they provide are not misconstrued as long-term promises. Would Facebook need to provide an aggregated feed of all public status updates from users? Would social networks like Foursquare be prevented from curtailing their APIs without some minimum notice?

There have been tensions for decades between the owners of tech platforms and the companies who build on those platforms; it’s historically been common for platforms like Twitter to subsume functions built by outsiders on top of the platform. What’s not so common is for a platform creator to be as vocal and convincing as Twitter has been about what a unique and good-hearted company it is.

Twitter’s uniquely successful evangelism of its own technology might just turn the company into a test case for how technology companies can and should communicate with one another in the age of social media.

via Chicago Tribune: 

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Twitter Inc’s steadily tightening grip over the 140-character messages on its network has set off a spirited debate in Silicon Valley over whether a social media company should or should not lay claim over its user-generated content.

That debate has now landed in court.

A San Francisco judge on Wednesday granted a temporary restraining order compelling Twitter to continue providing access to its “Firehose” – the full daily stream of some 400 million tweets – to PeopleBrowsr Inc, a data analytics firm that sifts through Twitter and resells that information to clients ranging from technology blogs to the U.S. Department of Defense.

As part of a broader revenue-generating strategy, Twitter in recent months has begun clamping down on how its data stream may be accessed, to the dismay of many third-party developers who have built businesses and products off of Twitter’s Firehose.

PeopleBrowsr, which began contracting Firehose access in July 2010, has continued to buy Twitter data on a month-to-month basis until this July, when Twitter invoked a clause in the agreement that allowed for terminating the contract without cause.

The court’s decision to extend the two San Francisco-based companies’ contract has not settled the legal spat; a judge will hear PeopleBrowsr’s arguments for a preliminary injunction against Twitter on January 8.

But the case could provide the first, in-depth look at issues surrounding one of the Internet industry’s most prominent players in Twitter.

In a court filing, PeopleBrowsr founder John David Rich argued the Twitter move was a “commercial disaster” for his business and contradicted the spirit of repeated public statements that Twitter has made regarding its data.

“Twitter has repeatedly and consistently promised that it would maintain an ‘open ecosystem’ for its data,” Rich said in his company’s request for a temporary injunction.

In its response, Twitter’s lawyers argued: “This is Contracts 101.”

Twitter said in a statement after the court decision: “We believe the case is without merit and will vigorously defend against it.”

Powerball winning ticketholders named in Mo.

via CBS:


DEARBORN, MO.Cindy Hill, a laid-off office manager who lives in a small town in Missouri, called her husband Thursday with urgent news that would change everything: “We won the lottery.”


“What?” he asked.


“We won the lottery,” she repeated. But Mark Hill, a 52-year-old mechanic who works at a meat processing plant, is the kind of person who carefully checks the prices for everything he buys, and he needed proof. This is the “Show-Me State” after all.


Once lottery officials learned the Hills’ identities Thursday, they were whisked away from their home and kept hidden until Friday’s press conference. At a hotel, Mark Hill realized he left some sundries at home and needed to pick up some items.


“I found myself at the store looking at the prices of stuff,” he told reporters. “Old habits are hard to break.”


He drove to his mother’s house, where his wife was waiting with their quick-pick ticket, and confirmed for himself that the numbers matched those drawn for a record Powerball jackpot of nearly $588 million that they’ll share with an unknown winner who bought a ticket in Arizona.

The Arizona ticket might be in the hands of a man in Maryland, who may have been caught on tape when he found out he hit the jackpot, CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds reports.

Missouri lottery officials officially introduced the Hills as winners Friday in front of reporters and townspeople gathered at the high school in Dearborn, which is about 40 miles north of Kansas City. The announcement was not a surprise. The Hills’ name began circulating Thursday, soon after lottery officials said a winning ticket had been sold at a Trex Mart gas station and convenience store on the edge of town.


“I think I’m having a heart attack,” Cindy Hill recalled telling her husband on the phone after matching the ticket she bought with the winning numbers.


The Hills chose to take their winnings in a lump sum, not annual payments. Lottery officials estimated the cash payment at about $385 million, or about $192.5 million for each ticket.


The oversized novelty check handed to the Hills on Friday was written in the amount of $293,750,000, but Missouri Lottery spokeswoman Susan Goedde said that after taxes, they will receive about $136.5 million.


“We’re still stunned by what’s happened,” said Cindy Hill, 51, who was laid off in June 2010. “It’s surreal.”


The couple has three grown sons and a 6-year-old daughter they adopted from China five years ago. They said they are now considering a second adoption with their winnings, and they plan to help other relatives, including their grandchildren and nieces and nephews, pay for college. They’re planning vacations, and their daughter, Jaiden, wants a pony. Mark Hill has his eye on a red Camaro.


More immediately, they’re preparing for “a pretty good Christmas” and anticipating an onslaught of requests for financial help.


“When it’s that big of a Powerball, you’re going to get people coming out of the woodwork, some of them might not be too sane,” Cindy Hill said. “We have to protect our family and grandkids.”


The jackpot was the second-largest in U.S. history and set off a nationwide buying frenzy, with tickets at one point selling at nearly 130,000 per minute. The other winning ticket was sold at 4 Sons Food Store in Fountain Hills near Phoenix. No one has come forward with it yet, lottery officials said.


Before Wednesday’s drawing, the jackpot had rolled over 16 consecutive times without someone hitting the jackpot.


Myron Anderson, pastor of the Baptist Church in nearby Camden Point, said he heard Thursday that the Hills had won the huge prize. Anderson said he has known Mark Hill since they attended high school together.


“He’s a really nice guy, and I know his wife, and they have this nice little adopted daughter that they went out of their way to adopt,” Anderson said. Funeral services for Hill’s father were at the Baptist church, but the family attends church elsewhere, he said.


“I hope it’s good news for them,” Anderson said. “I’ve heard awful horror stories about people who get all that money in their lap and how everybody treats them, and if you don’t mind me saying, I mean just the fact that the press is going to be after them.”


Kevin Bryan, a lifelong Dearborn resident, said the only other local lottery winner he could remember was a farmer who won about $100,000 in scratch-off game years ago “and bought himself a combine.”


In a Mega Millions drawing in March, three ticket buyers shared a $656 million jackpot, the largest lottery payout of all time.

Congress Looks at Eliminating the $1 Bill

via AP:


WASHINGTON (AP) — American consumers have shown about as much appetite for the $1 coin as kids do their spinach. They may not know what’s best for them, either. Congressional auditors say doing away with dollar bills entirely and replacing them with dollar coins could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Vending machine operators have long championed the use of $1 coins because they don’t jam the machines, cutting down on repair costs and lost sales. But most people don’t seem to like carrying them. In the past five years, the U.S. Mint has produced 2.4 billion Presidential $1 coins. Most are stored by the Federal Reserve, and production was suspended about a year ago.

The latest projection from the Government Accountability Office on the potential savings from switching to dollar coins entirely comes as lawmakers begin exploring new ways for the government to save money by changing the money itself.

The Mint is preparing a report for Congress showing how changes in the metal content of coins could save money.

The last time the government made major metallurgical changes in U.S. coins was nearly 50 years ago when Congress directed the Mint to remove silver from dimes and quarters and to reduce its content in half dollar coins. Now, Congress is looking at new changes in response to rising prices for copper and nickel.

At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, the focus was on two approaches:

  • Moving to less expensive combinations of metals like steel, aluminum and zinc.
  • Gradually taking dollar bills out the economy and replacing them with coins.

The GAO’s Lorelei St. James told the House Financial Services panel it would take several years for the benefits of switching from paper bills to dollar coins to catch up with the cost of making the change. Equipment would have to be bought or overhauled and more coins would have to be produced upfront to replace bills as they are taken out of circulation.

But over the years, the savings would begin to accrue, she said, largely because a $1 coin could stay in circulation for 30 years while paper bills have to be replaced every four or five years on average.

“We continue to believe that replacing the note with a coin is likely to provide a financial benefit to the government,” said St. James, who added that such a change would work only if the note was completely eliminated and the public educated about the benefits of the switch.

Even the $1 coin’s most ardent supporters recognize that they haven’t been popular. Philip Diehl, former director of the Mint, said there was a huge demand for the Sacagawea dollar coin when production began in 2001, but as time wore on, people stayed with what they knew best.

“We’ve never bitten the bullet to remove the $1 bill as every other Western economy has done,” Diehl said. “If you did, it would have the same success the Canadians have had.”

Beverly Lepine, chief operating officer of the Royal Canadian Mint, said her country loves its “Loonie,” the nickname for the $1 coin that includes an image of a loon on the back. The switch went over so well that the country also went to a $2 coin called the “Toonie.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., affirmed that Canadians have embraced their dollar coins. “I don’t know anyone who would go back to the $1 and $2 bills,” he said.

That sentiment was not shared by some of his fellow subcommittee members when it comes to the U.S. version.

Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said men don’t like carrying a bunch of coins around in their pocket or in their suits. And Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the $1 coins have proved too hard to distinguish from quarters.

“If the people don’t want it and they don’t want to use it,” she said, “why in the world are we even talking about changing it?”

“It’s really a matter of just getting used to it,” said Diehl, the former Mint director.

Several lawmakers were more intrigued with the idea of using different metal combinations in producing coins.

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said a penny costs more than 2 cents to make and a nickel costs more than 11 cents to make. Moving to multiplated steel for coins would save the government nearly $200 million a year, he said.

The Mint’s report, which is due in mid-December, will detail the results of nearly 18 months of work exploring a variety of new metal compositions and evaluating test coins for attributes as hardness, resistance to wear, availability of raw materials and costs.

Richard Peterson, the Mint’s acting director, declined to give lawmakers a summary of what will be in the report, but he said “several promising alternatives” were found.

Bread that lasts for 60 days could cut food waste

via BBC:


An American company has developed a technique that it says can make bread stay mould-free for 60 days.

The bread is zapped in a sophisticated microwave array which kills the spores that cause the problem.

The company claims it could significantly reduce the amount of wasted bread – in the UK alone, almost a third of loaves purchased.

The technique can also be used with a wide range of foods including fresh turkey and many fruits and vegetables.

World of waste

Food waste is a massive problem in most developed countries. In the US, figures released this year suggest that the average American family throws away 40% of the food they purchase – which adds up to $165bn (£102bn) annually.

Bread is a major culprit, with 32% of loaves purchased in the UK thrown out as waste when they could be eaten, according to figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Machine microwaveThe machine uses similar technology to a home microwave

One of the biggest threats to bread is mould. As loaves are usually wrapped in plastic, any water in the bread that evaporates from within is trapped and makes the surface moist. This provides excellent growing conditions forRhizopus stolonifer, the fungus that leads to mould.

In normal conditions, bread will go mouldy in around 10 days.

But an American company called Microzap says it has developed a technique that will keep the bread mould free for two months.

At its laboratory on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, chief executive Don Stull showed off the long, metallic microwave device that resembles an industrial production line. Originally designed to kill bacteria such as MRSA and salmonella, the researchers discovered it could kill the mould spores in bread in around 10 seconds.

“We treated a slice of bread in the device, we then checked the mould that was in that bread over time against a control, ” he explained.

“And at 60 days it had the same mould content as it had when it came out of the oven.”

Question of taste

The machine the team has built uses much the same technology as found in commercial microwaves – but with some important differences, according to Mr Stull.

“We introduce the microwave frequencies in different ways, through a slotted radiator. We get a basically homogeneous signal density in our chamber – in other words, we don’t get the hot and cold spots you get in your home microwave.”

20th-Century history of bread

Bread making competition 1965
  • 1928: First bread slicing machine, invented by Otto Rohwedder, exhibited in US
  • 1930: Large UK bakeries take commercial slicers and sliced bread first appears in shops
  • 1933: About 80% of US bread is pre-sliced and wrapped, and the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” is coined
  • 1941: Calcium added to UK flour to prevent rickets
  • 1942: The national loaf – much like today’s brown loaf – introduced to combat shortage of white flour
  • 1954: Conditions in bakeries regulated by the Night Baking Act
  • 1956: National loaf abolished
  • 1961: The Chorleywood Bread Process introduced

Source: The Federation of Bakers

The company’s device has attracted plenty of interest from bread manufacturers – but it is worried that it could push up costs in an industry where margins are very tight.

And there is also a concern that consumers might not take to bread that lasts for so long. Mr Stull acknowledges it might be difficult to convince some people of the benefits.

“We’ll have to get some consumer acceptance of that,” he said. “Most people do it by feel and if you still have that quality feel they probably will accept it. ”

Mr Stull believes that the technology could impact bread in other ways. He said that bread manufacturers added lots of preservatives to try and fight mould, but then must add extra chemicals to mask the taste of the preservatives. If bakers were able to use the microwave technology, they would be able to avoid these additives.

While a wholesale change in the bread industry might be difficult to achieve, there may be more potential with other foods, including ground turkey.

In 2011, food giant Cargill had to recall 16 million kg of the product after a salmonella outbreak. Mr Stull believes that using microwaves would be an effective way of treating this and several other products ranging from jalapenos to pet foods.

The only fruit that his device was unable to treat effectively were cantaloupes.

“We’ve used our tumbler machine to treat them, he says “but you can’t tumble cantaloupes because they damage.”

Internet down across Syria for second day

via Telegraph: 


Phone and internet networks were down across most of Syria for a second straight day on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Syria: rebels fight to unite opposition-held areas before 'final push' for Damascus

Rami Abdel Rahman, Observatory director, said in some areas it was still possible to access the internet “but with great difficulty”.

“It is also very difficult to reach people by phone. But we have received reports that it is possible to communicate between certain regions via fixed telephone lines,” he added.

The official news agency SANA had still not resumed transmission Friday after its feed was cut on Thursday at midday. Its website was also inaccessible.

On Thursday afternoon, when communications were first cut in Syria, activists accused the regime of preparing a “massacre” while the authorities explained this interruption as “maintenance”.

The United States on Thursday accused the Syrian regime of cutting off internet and telecommunications links in the war-torn country, branding the move a sign of desperation.

Amnesty International said on Twitter that reports of an internet shutdown were “very disturbing”.

Meanwhile delegates from more than 60 countries agreed in Tokyo to ramp up pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime and urged the international community to unite to force change in Syria.

The “Friends of Syria” condemned the “incessant killings, bombings of residential areas” and the “gross violation of human rights” that have taken place since Assad’s forces moved to crush an uprising.

At a meeting in the Japanese capital, the group’s fifth since its inception, they called for a full oil embargo on Syria, a move aimed at cutting off a rich source of currency for the regime.

In a statement released after the meeting, the group, which includes Western and Arab countries, called on “all members of the international community, especially members of the United Nations Security Council, to take swift, responsible and resolute action”.

Two of the five permanent members of the Security Council – China and Russia – have blocked action.

The statement welcomed the formation of the National Coalition, a newly-unified opposition group that has been recognised by Britain, France and Spain as the legitimate representatives of Syria.

It also called for ramping up of sanctions to tighten the noose around the regime, insisting that any ill effects suffered by the populace were the fault of the government in Damascus.

“The group called on the international financial and business communities to diligently comply with ongoing and forthcoming measures against the Syrian regime,” it said.

“The group reiterated its call on all states to impose an embargo on Syrian petroleum products and a ban on the provision of insurance and reinsurance for shipments of Syrian petroleum products.”

Presently, the United States has banned the import of Syrian oil and gas, but the EU has not.

On Thursday Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said Washington was weighing what further help it could give the Syrian opposition rebels.

“We are going to carefully consider what more we can do,” Clinton told a Washington forum, saying the United States was constantly evaluating the situation and adding: “I’m sure we will do more in the weeks ahead.”

But she stopped short of saying whether the US would recognise the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

Privately, US officials have said the Obama administration would likely go ahead and recognise the group at some point.

“We hope the National Coalition … will play a further role as an entity that represents a wider range of the Syrian society, with a common objective of having all the Syrians enjoy peace and prosperity in the new Syria,” Gemba said on Friday.

Along with sanctions on the Assad regime, “providing assistance to refugees and internally displaced people” is essential, said Gemba, adding the world also had to “look ahead to a post-Assad” Syria.

Two Big Conservatives Explain Why Republicans Are Screwed In The Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

via Business Insider: 

As the battle starts to heat up between President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans on the deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff,” two influential conservative writers provide the GOP with a dose of reality today.

Ramesh Ponnurru

Matt K. Lewis writes in The Daily Caller that Republicans are “screwed” in the talks, and the notion they have any leverage is “silly.” In The National Review, meanwhile, Ramesh Ponnuru says that House Republicans would be unwise to pass a bill extending all the tax cuts.

Here’s an excerpt of Lewis’ column:

The fix is in. Democrats control the presidency, the senate, and the mainstream media. Elections have consequences; they hold the cards. Republicans control the House — just enough levers of power to allow them to be blamed for obstruction.

Republicans are so screwed.

Ponnuru suggests another option — pass the middle-class tax cuts, which Democrats would also pass, and live with the fact that taxes on incomes above $250,000 will go up.

“That way at least Republicans wouldn’t get blamed for middle-class tax increases,” Ponnuru writes.

Their arguments make sense. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans support the type of increases President Barack Obama is proposing as the key element of his plan. And if no deal is reached, the vast majority say would blame Republicans for the failure.


This Is The Thing The World’s Amateur Psychologists Get Dead Wrong

via Business Insider: 


Psychology is one of those fields where just about everyone feels as if they have some insight. In medicine or physics, we are more likely to rely on the experts.
But for whatever reason we feel that in the field of psychology our personal experiences somehow provide us with a direct window into the workings of the human psyche.

And in many ways we don’t rely on the experts because we feel we are an expert in ourselves.

But that is precisely the danger: That we are so much an expert in ourselves that when we are faced with data that does not fit our personal profile, we tend to disregard it.

You can see this tendency on Psychology Today, where many intelligent commentators will point out that their personal experience shows just the opposite of the finding of the article, or that their uncle Bob was an exception to the rule.

Findings in psychological research are often based on averages.  For example, in my article How Brainy Is Your Major? I compared the average ability levels of the various major groups (for example, engineering was higher than social science).  I stressed throughout the article that this data was based on averages and this did not mean that all individual cases were at the average of their respective group.  In fact, the majority were not.

I mention this article in particular because whenever I have presented this research-even to extremely smart researchers-there has inevitably been someone who notes that they are an exception to the rule.  For example, a psychologist has told me that there are many psychologists who are smarter than many engineers.  And this is most certainly true because the groups overlap.

But this does not remove the fact that there are average differences between the groups and that on average engineers are smarter than psychologists.

I also was confronted by a Professor of education at a prestigious university when I was giving a talk about this article and he told me that if there were not equal numbers in each group how could I make appropriate comparisons?  I had to patiently explain to him that there were huge samples within each group so that average comparisons could be made.  I have yet to have an engineer, mathematician, or physicist (the groups at the top) confront me about the results of my study.

Another area of research that is highly documented is that people who score higher on standardized or intelligence tests tend to perform better in education and work, on average. This past year I went to a medical specialist at Duke University who kindly asked what my research was about.  When I explained how standardized tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test can be used to predict success on important real world outcomes such as earning a Ph.D., patent, publication, a higher income, and even tenure at a top university, he politely listened.

Then, he proceeded to tell me that he had performed poorly on standardized tests and that he didn’t think that these tests predicted anything important at all. And he was proof, because he had performed well in medical school and beyond.  I had to explain to him that he was an exception to the rule, or in the famous name of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, one of the Outliers.  And this was a trained medical professional who I’m sure understood the importance of using statistical averages within the context of his discipline.

I provide these examples to simply make the point that our personal experiences bias us heavily when we are making assessments of research findings, in particular findings in the field of psychology.

So remember, the next time you don’t agree with a finding because your personal experience tells you the opposite, keep in mind that your personal anecdote is precisely that-an individual experience that cannot falsify the finding that is based on an average.  Certainly our personal experiences can help us generate hypotheses and be useful in thinking about a problem or issue.  And perhaps you may be right and the finding you disagree with is wrong.  But you should always keep in mind that even the plural of anecdote is not data.  And it is findings based on large samples of data that begin to allow psychology to be considered a science.