AS WE WERE putting together this special issue on how Big Data is supercharging our ability to understand and transform the world, I was struck by the sheer range of ways that data itself can be understood. Data is information. It's numbers. It's bits.
In September, we explored the automotive laboratories of Silicon Valley, assessed the future of education, and showed how to build a drive-in theater at home. Surprisingly, the most spirited reader responses came in defense of a discontinued compact car, the Geo Metro.
Scientists unravel gene networks to learn how worm gonads grow
The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans has been a staple of biology research for almost 50 years, but, thanks to advances in molecular-biology techniques, scientists are just now able to study how multiple genes (C. elegans has 20,470 genes in its genome) act in concert to produce complex organs.
Space heaters cause approximately 20,000 home fires and 400 deaths in the U.S. every year, often because of the scorching devices' unfortunate tendency to set flammable objects within a three-foot radius ablaze. The Dyson Hot, on the other hand, stays at a safe temperature while still heating rooms faster than any other heater.
After years of baby steps, BMW will enter the plug-in-vehicle race
It’s been hard in recent years to tell how seriously BMW takes electric cars. In 2009, BMW-owned Mini put 600 experimental electric Mini Coopers into test fleets, but the cars were clunky and the program was beset with logistical problems.
Google's payment app makes your phone as good as gold
HOW MOBILE PAYMENTS WORK
IN RELATED NEWS: YOUR PHONE AS A TRAINER
In 2003, MasterCard introduced PayPass, a system in which a credit card outfitted with a near-field communication (NFC) chip could be passed within a couple inches of a reader to pay without swiping. Google Wallet, a new app for Android smartphones, takes NFC a step further, allowing users to make purchases with a wave of a smartphone.
Two new saw blades that easily tear through lumber, asphalt and even nails
As the DeWalt blade works its way through cuts, eight resinfilled slots absorb the vibration that's usually transferred to the arm of the person holding it. To help the blade glide easily across rough materials, DeWalt glazes the blade's teeth with a Teflon-like coating. $10; dewaltdewalt.com
The Daredevil's cutting edges also have a nonstick coating to inhibit friction. Meanwhile, Bosch reinforced its 7.25-inch steel blade with manganese, an element that slightly raises the metal's melting point so that it won't warp and wobble during long cutting sessions. $10; boschtools.com
We tested the blades on the same 15-amp heavy-duty circular saw. First we made 71 eight-foot cuts through a 2.5-inch-thick stack of plywood with each blade. After neither one so much as flinched, we pushed them through two layers of asphalt shingles sandwiched between two-inch-thick pressure-treated boards interlaced with 15-gauge nails.
Cell-connected home monitors put security within reach, no matter where you are
HOW YOU'LL BENEFIT
Forgetting to close the door to an attached garage can leave a home vulnerable to theft. The AssureLink garage-door opener allows users to check the door in a password-protected app and close it remotely. Craftsman AssureLink $290; craftsman.com
2GIG Go!Control Panel
Controllable via the Web, the Go!Control console acts as the hub of a DIY wireless security system. The panel works with accessories, such as motion sensors and cameras, over ultra-high-frequency radio. If a yard motion sensor goes off, it could lock doors and send you a video feed. 2GIG Go!Control Panel $500 (est.); 2gig.com
FireText Smoke Alarm
The FireText sends a text message to you and up to three neighbors when it senses a problem. The alarm works with prepaid AT&T and T-Mobile SIM cards and draws so little power that you'll only have to change the batteries once a year. FireText Smoke Alarm $145; firetext.me
Home security devices that text, e-mail, or stream video online, enabling users to monitor and control their abode from afar As telephone landlines become obsolete, so do the hardwired security systems that rely on them. Cellular modems and Wi-Fi receivers are now so affordable that manufacturers can install them in security devices for a nominal cost.
How watching 3-D will become as natural as staring out the window
NOW: LIGHTER GLASSES
SOON: LIGHTER GLASSES, BETTER PICTURE
LATER: NO GLASSES AT ALL
LG LW9800 Nano full LED Cinema 3D HDTV
Instead of flickering the screen between left and right images, as is necessary with active glasses, LG’s system puts both images onscreen at once. A filter polarizes each alternating horizontal line on the screen to match the polarization of pairs of passive glasses. The trade-off with this type of 3-D: Each eye receives only half of a high-def image-540 horizontal lines per frame, instead of 1,080. LG LW9800 Nano full LED Cinema 3D HDTV $3,800 (includes four pairs of glasses); lg.com
RealD RDZ 3D
RealD, a company that makes movie theaters 3-D, is developing a screen that will work with polarized glasses without halving resolution. While the TV flickers at 120 hertz between left and right images, a polarizing filter shifts with it, directing the light alternately toward either side, providing each eye with a full 1080p picture. The display will pop up in Samsung computer monitors next year and HDTVs soon after. RealD RDZ 3D Price not set; reald.com
Current glasses-free 3-D TV prototypes use a static, thinly striped LCD overlay to point images left and right, but such displays have limited viewing angles and can come out looking like cheap holograms. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab have refined that technique, replacing the old pinstripe overlay with a matrix of thousands of tiny slits. A processor pre-scans the images to identify the subject of each frame. The system then configures the overlay to match the contours of the picture, so there’s the illusion of depth only where it’s needed. A Mini Cooper's roof, for example, gains a more pronounced curve. MIT HR3D media.mit.edu
3-D TV is still experiencing some growing pains, in large part because of its reliance on bulky, uncomfortable and expensive active-shutter glasses. That's now changing. A new wave of 3-D sets are using lighter glasses to make immersing yourself in the third dimension less cumbersome.
Suddenly, we can know the world completely. Next, we reprogram it
ADVANCE OF THE DATA CIVILIZATION
Late in the first day of this year's TED Conference, its understated curator, Chris Anderson, took the stage and made a pronouncement. "The computing power in some of the things that we're seeing is really startling," he said. "It feels to me as if things have suddenly notched up a level in an unexpected way.
Before the telescope was invented in 1608, our picture of the universe consisted of six planets, our moon, the sun and any stars we could see in the Milky Way galaxy. But as our light-gathering capabilities have grown, so too have the boundaries of the visible universe.
Can a criminal act be prevented before it begins? By turning its crime problem into a data problem, one city is reinventing police work for the 21st century
TOMORROW'S CRIMES TODAY
For a city of 60,000, that's about average. And so are the challenges facing its police force. Since 2001, the SCPD has laid off 10 of its 104 officers, even as the city's population grew by 5,500. The department now has to do more with less, which is the story of just about every police force in America.
Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar invented the first commercially successful mechanical calculator in 1820. It was 100 years before mechanical calculators gave way, in the 1930s, to electromechanical calculators, which then quickly gave way to the first general-purpose electronic computer, ENIAC, in 1946.
A database isn't a vault—it's a garden. The 10 most amazing among them do more than store knowledge. They provide researchers with new ways to solve long-cold crimes, predict economic recessions, and save lives
COMBINED DNA INDEX SYSTEM
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIFE
THE GENOGRAPHIC PROJECT
INTERNATIONAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE DATA DISTRIBUTION CENTRE
SLOAN DIGITAL SKY SURVEY DATABASE
THE WAYBACK MACHINE
RENA MARIE PACELLA
Solving cold cases with genetic data In 1990, when the FBI began building its master DNA database—the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS—investigators could generally use DNA analysis only for cases in which they possessed both crime-scene evidence and a specific suspect.
Data storage takes power, and the world is storing about 40 percent more data every year. U.S. data centers now draw about 2 percent of the electricity used here—enough to light one fifth of the country. By some estimates, data centers worldwide will emit more carbon dioxide than airlines within a decade.
In 1989 the English engineer Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web by linking together documents on the Internet using hypertext. Now he plans to create the world's largest and most useful database: Linked Data. Just as today's Web links HTML documents, Linked Data will connect information found in open databases on the Web.
As scientists cache, crunch and quantize the world, will they ever reach the end? (Answer: Yes)
A HARD LESSON to learn was the difference between a message and the paper on which it was written. The telegraph was a great teacher. The information had to be divorced from the physical object. It was abstracted— encoded, first as dots and dashes and then again as electrical impulses, to be sent along wires and, soon, beamed through the ether.
Seth Lloyd, director of the Center for Extreme Quantum Information Theory at MIT, answers some (very) big questions
Q How are quantum computers different from ordinary ones? Quantum computers operate at the smallest, most fundamental levels allowed by physics. On a regular computer, a single bit of information is represented by a whole bunch of electrons.
How Albert-László Barabási went from mapping systems to controlling them
In 1736 the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler ended a debate among the citizens of Königsberg, Prussia, by drawing a graph. The Pregel River divided the city, now Kaliningrad, Russia, into four sections. Seven bridges connected them. Could a person cross all seven without walking over the same one twice?
To illustrate how hubs act as an organizing principle within complex networks, Mauro Martino, a computer scientist and interactive designer in Albert-László Barabási's lab, plotted 325,729 Web pages in the University of Notre Dame Web domain [green nodes].
THE AMOUNT of digital data available to us more than doubles every year, but the amount of time and energy we can devote to understanding it remains the same—and, as anyone who has ever stared at an overstuffed tax table knows, too much information is no less confusing than too little.
A second take on the ceaseless profusion of data, from a writer of the old school beset by misgivings and by misgivings about his misgivings
I find myself online all the time, mining for data, merrily skipping from one site to the next, passing the time of day after day (and night after night) in scattershot dalliances (sampling this and sampling that in a virtual delirium of free association), deploying my trove of finds in ever more elaborate collages of discovery (or is it recovery?
A remote-controlled drone designed to hack into communications systems
HOW IT WORKS
Richard Perkins and Mike Tassey both worked in information technology in the U.S. Air Force before decamping to various cybersecurity consulting roles in and around the Department of Defense. But throughout their careers they've always considered themselves hackers at heart, which is why they spent the past two years developing the ultimate mobile hacking device: a drone aircraft that can discreetly break into Wi-Fi networks, emit jamming signals, and even pose as a cellphone tower to intercept communications from the ground.
Turn an iPad into an accessory that can frame, light, and store professional-looking photographs
THREE NEW JOBS FOR AN IPAD
1 LIGHTS AND PROMPTS
2 REMOTE CONTROL
3 BACKUP AND EDITING
Photographers have been using Apple's tablet for viewing and sharing photos since it came out, but the device can also be a useful tool for enhancing shoots in the studio and on location. With the right apps and, in some cases, a few additional accessories, the iPad can work as a remote for setting up shots, an easy-to-maneuver light source, a second screen for editing, and more.
Deep-frying a turkey can be a delicious Thanksgiving treat— or a deadly conflagration
Oil and water don't mix: It's an old saying, but it's never more true than when you're talking about a pot of hot cooking oil and the moisture condensed on the surface of a frozen turkey. It's pretty incredible the amount of fire that simple combination can create.
WHAT FEATURES WILL THE NEXT GENERATION OF SMARTPHONES HAVE?
One of the most significant changes might be in speed, says Avi Greengart, the research director for consumer devices at market-intelligence firm Current Analysis. Carriers are rolling out faster 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) networks, and hardware manufacturers will soon produce smartphones with powerful multicore processors.
When I'm building something weird—my pedal-powered Panzer, for instance—I have to pull together all sorts of obscure parts. Over the years I've noticed that I continually reuse some of them in project after project. Here are the five that I can't live (or work) without.
Q WHY DO WE GET GOOSE BUMPS AND CHILLS WHEN WE'RE SCARED?
Can humans trigger earthquakes?
Why do old married couples look alike?
A For the same reason cats fluff up when they're threatened. "The general principle is, if you are going to be attacked, try to look as big as you can," says David Huron, a musicologist at Ohio State University. People don't have as much hair as cats, but goose bumps are a holdover from when we were furrier.
In 2009, POPULAR SCIENCE worked with Google to digitize the magazine's archives back to its inception in 1872, transforming 1,563 issues into mineable data. By counting the frequency of every word and two-word phrase in a 1.35-gigabyte file containing the full text from those issues, data visualizers Jer Thorp and Mark Hansen captured the rise and fall of technological trends throughout the magazine's history.