Monthly Archives: August 2019

Cell launches “Article of the Future” format

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During the last year, Cell has spearheaded an initiative to change the way readers interact with research articles on the Internet. They note that, for a long time, research papers on the Web laid flat and lifeless on the screen, much as print articles do on the page, but they were capable of so much more. Cell came up with new layouts for research papers that take advantage of current Web technology, and presented the prototypes to its authors and readers, who voted and gave feedback on the designs.

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What Cell came up with was a format it has christened “Article of the Future.” Articles of the Future are broken down into their respective sections (Introduction, Discussion, Figures, and so on) with a navigation section at the top, allowing readers to jump to the sections they are most interested in. The landing section of each article is a bullet-point summary and abstract next to a representative image, allowing readers a quick take-away message if that’s all they’re looking for (video descriptions called a “PaperFlick” appear here, when available). You can even zoom in on images (!), which are presented under the Data tab as a film strip. The citations in the body of the paper are also linked to a separate section, where readers can view the citation in full.

Hold on, don’t reach for your smelling salts just yet. Doesn’t this sound a little familiar? It should—to an extent, all Cell has done is take features from dozens of websites and apply them to scientific publications. But, similarities aside, any effort to make research more accessible and readable is a good thing, and rare among Cell’s peers. Maybe this will encourage other publications to step into the Future—or, you know, at least 2001.

An embarrassment of Kepler riches, planetary and otherwise

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Earlier this week, we described a brief announcement from the team behind the Kepler space observatory, designed to spot the transit of planets in front of their host stars. That announcement was followed up by a paper in Thursday’s issue of Science, which provided a few more details on some of the planets and other things that have been spotted within its field of view. But that paper was really a vehicle for a massive information dump; it contains information about 22 papers submitted to the Astrophysics Journal, many of which have been posted on an arXiv preprint server.

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Many of these describe the instrument aboard the Kepler in greater detail, and others the scientific pipeline that handles the data it returns—eliminating false positives and coordinating follow-up observations are central to the process. One paper lists the follow-up resources available to the team, which include the Hubble and Spitzer in space, and Hawaii’s Keck telescope back on Earth. As of the end of 2009, there were already 177 items that were in or had been through the planetary pipeline. Five of these have already been confirmed to be signals from planets, and another 52 appear to be promising candidates. Another 65 are still under observation, status unknown.

Some of the planets are rather unusual, at least based on the bodies in our solar system. One, Kepler-4b is quite similar to Neptune (nearly the same size, and 1.4 times the mass). But, as the authors note in a fit of understatement, “A major difference between Kepler-4b and Neptune is the irradiancelevel for Kepler-4b is over 800,000 times larger.” If Kepler-4b and Neptune had the same composition, then that much heat (its equilibrium temperature is 1650K) would have caused the planet to swell dramatically. So, although the paper’s title refers to the planet as “Hot Neptune-like,” there seem to be some substantial differences in composition.

Another planet, Kepler-6b, does seem to have undergone some temperature-related bloating. Despite being only about two-thirds the mass of Jupiter, at 1,500K, it’s bloated up to a radius of 1.3 times Jupiter’s. That leaves it with a density of 0.35g/cm3 (for the metrically unaware, water’s value is 1). Although this seems odd based on our familiar planets, the authors describe these features as “fairly typical.” Kepler-8b, however, falls off the far end of typical. It’s got a density of 0.26g/cm3, making it one of the lowest density planets known.

Returning to a known planet, HAT-P-7 (which Kepler used to validate its instruments, scientists were actually able to detect the fact that the massive planet, orbiting so close to its host star, induced disturbances in the star’s surface. That’s good news for the observatory’s future. “The Kepler light of HAT-P-7 curve reveals ellipsoidal variations with an amplitude of approximately 37 ppm,” the authors of that paper note. “This is the first detection of ellipsoidal variations in an exoplanet host star, and shows the precision Kepler is capable of producing even at this early stage. For comparison, a transit of an Earth-analog planet around a Sun-like star would produce a signal depth of 84 ppm, a factor of 2 larger than this effect.”

Some of the other papers point out that, although Kepler’s primary mission is to hunt planets, it’s unusual in that it does so by staring intently at a the same stars, day in and day out (the ESA’s CoRoT does something similar). That is allowing researchers to do some asteroseismology, tracking the variations in stars over the short term, and allowing them glimpses into the processes that drive stellar evolution.

They’re also using the data to observe the orientation of the orbits of these planets in order to constrain our understanding of the development of planetary systems. These hot Jupiters can’t possibly form so close to the host star, but this the data will help identify whether they are typically dragged inwards by that star’s gravity, or shoved inwards by interactions with other planets.

All that in the first six months that Kepler has been operational.

Science, 2009. DOI: 10.1126/science.1185402

Greenpeace gives Apple gold stars for green efforts

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Despite the two companies’ somewhat spotted history together, Greenpeace has awarded Apple four giant gold stars for its efforts to rid its products of brominated flame retardants (BFR) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). (BFRs and PVC have long been on Greenpeace’s hit list of environmentally unfriendly chemicals.) In fact, Apple received a large gold star—the highest rating Greenpeace gave out—in each of the four categories rated in its latest report: desktops, portables, cell phones, and displays. Of the six companies with products in all four categories, Apple was the only one to receive a large gold star in any category, and, in general, it blew away the other five. Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and LGE received only one small gold star each.

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Apple also made progress in Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics,where it now moves up into fifth place out of the 18 companies Greenpeace chose to rate. With a cumulative score of 5.1, Apple has moved up six places since July of 2009. Apple did lose points, however, for not providing “public positions” on some issues and not communicating future plans with regard to the elimination of certain chemical compounds.

Greenpeace has been riding Apple since as far back as 2006 when it issued a similar report and tried to light up the 5th Avenue Apple store in NYC with green flashlights in an attempt to bring Apple’s environmental failings into the spotlight. That same year, the organization went as far as making a mock Apple website lambasting the company. In 2007, Greenpeace tried another tactic by pressuring Al Gore (who is a board member at Apple) into changing the company’s ways. Though this certainly won’t be the last time we hear from Greenpeace, it’s nice to see the organization has finally let up a little thanks to Apple’s environmental improvement.

Microsoft: Google’s Nexus One will hurt Android

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Earlier this week, Google unveiled the Nexus One; the search giant’s first branded mobile phone. Then the company confirmed that Nexus One, and all subsequent Google phones sold via the company’s online store, will be available unlocked for use on every participating carrier. Microsoft has weighed in on this development, specifically where Google is both offering Android to its partners and allowing one partner to benefit from having a Google-branded phone, concluding that it is a flawed strategy. The software giant says that Google will have a hard time attracting partners to its mobile operating system after introducing its own handset, even if it is developed by HTC.

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Microsoft has been rumored to be working on its own mobile phone for months, if not years. Officially though, the company insists that releasing its own branded smartphone would be contrary to its strategy of offering just the operating system to a number of partners who then provide various hardware options so that consumers can have a myriad of devices to choose from. Thus it’s not too big of a surprise to hear Microsoft Entertainment and Devices President Robbie Bach bash Google for the move, saying that handset makers may fear the company will prioritize its own product over theirs and ditch Android as a result.

“Doing both in the way they are trying to do both is actually very, very difficult,” Bach said at CES 2010 yesterday, according to Bloomberg. “Google’s announcement sends a signal where they’re going to place their commitment. That will create some opportunities for us and we’ll pursue them. Over time you have to decide whether your approach is with the partners or more like an Apple approach that is more about Apple. Google’s is an interesting step. We’ll see how people react.”

Google may have a hard time convincing their licensees that they’re not in competition with them. Still, Google has at least one advantage over Microsoft: Android is free for licensees to put on their devices. If Google started off by launching the Nexus One and then began distributing Android, it would be a big problem. Since it’s the other way around, we must remember that gratis is an addiction hard to drop once you’ve had it for a few months.

The e-book wars of 2010: displays and hardware

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If I had any doubts that the e-book wars are officially on, my first day at CES dispelled them thoroughly. Note that I said “e-book wars,” and not “e-reader wars.” That’s because there’s a tidal wave of E-Ink-based e-readers that are about to hit the US, so that by the second half of this year (at the latest) E-Ink screens will be a dime a dozen. And on top of the E-Ink screens will be the tablets, and on top of those will be LCD/E-Ink tablet combos in various configurations.

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But as thick as the market will be with e-book hardware, the readers aren’t the only crowded part of the market. Everyone also wants to control a distribution platform. And then there are the publishers, who are scrambling to adapt to the new medium.

In short, right now, the emerging e-book market is in a full-blown melee—a free-for-all where everyone along the chain from content producer to reader is trying to be the first to figure it all out. Over the next few days, we’ll talk about how the battle lines are shaping up in the following areas: displays, chips, storefronts, and publishers. Many of the combatants are involved in more than one of these areas—Qualcomm is in displays and chips; newcomer Copia is pushing hardware and a storefront; Sprint, Hearst, Skiff, and LG are all allied across displays, storefronts, and publishers under the Skiff banner; and so on.

The Sprint/Hearst Skiff and the Plastic Logic QUE

Most of the e-readers coming out in the next few months are based on E-Ink, but that doesn’t mean that the displays will be identical. Reading devices will compete with each other on size, thickness, resolution, contrast, and price. The screens will also compete to offer color as quickly as possible.

Of the readers that I saw, the Skiff has the edge on size so far with an 11.5″ diagonal screen. Plastic Logic comes in a close second, but, to be 100 percent honest I couldn’t actually tell that there was much of a difference in sizes (I saw them one after the other); the Skiff executive I talked to told me that the Skiff’s screen was a bit bigger. Regardless, both are easily large enough to view a full 8.5 x 11 inch page without doing any scaling, and both have solid industrial design.

The Sprint/Hearst Skiff

As far as contrast goes, Plastic Logic’s screen definitely looks better than my Kindle DX—the latter has a grayish cast, while the former presents a much cleaner black-on-white look. I can’t judge between the Skiff and the Plastic Logic screens on contrast, though, because I didn’t see them in similar lighting conditions.

The Plastic Logic QUE

Both the Skiff and the Plastic Logic QUE were incredibly thin—about quarter of an inch or less. This thinness is made possible in part by the fact that both have flexible display substrates—Skiff’s uses a foil substrate developed by LG, while Plastic Logic’s uses a plastic substrate developed in-house. Both of these make for flexible displays, but of the two only the Skiff itself is physically flexible (you can actually bend the device a bit and it doesn’t hurt it).

On the resolution front, the Skiff wins at 174dpi to Plastic Logic’s slightly lower 150dpi. I couldn’t visually tell a difference, but again, lighting conditions were drastically different.

Color E-Ink is in the offing, and I saw a prototype of it at the Skiff presentation. At this point, the technology looks promising but it needs a lot of work. Color saturation was pretty poor, and right now I’d prefer the black-and-white to it. There are supposedly better color E-Ink prototypes than the one I saw, and if I can catch a glimpse of a superior iteration of the tech then I’ll post an update.