Professor of Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois John Rogers shows off one of the flexible circuit patches he's been working on.
(John Rogers)
May 07, 2014

U Of I Research Into Wearable Flexible Circuits

Researchers at the University of Illinois are currently working on flexible circuits that can adhere to the skin like a bandage. It would be a less intrusive, more comfortable way of monitoring things like temperature and motion in real time.

Picture yourself going into the hospital or doctor’s office. Instead of large or intrusive machines used to monitor your vital signs, a small patch embedded with circuits is attached to your skin.

John Rogers is a professor of Material Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, "The result is something that is really sort of almost biological in its properties. It’s like a thin piece of skin or an ultra-thin piece of meat. It’s very floppy and soft to the touch you can stretch it back and forth almost like a rubber band."

Rogers is also part of a company created to explore the commercial aspects these flexible, wearable circuits. They are currently working with Reebok to create impact sensors for sports equipment to better understand the causes and effects of concussions.

"It’s a device that treads into a soft good essentially a skull cap and provides very precise, three-axis accelerometery and rotational sensing of the head during an impact one might suffer on the football field for example," he said.

They are also finishing clinical trials on uses for skin care, wound healing, and even possibly detecting cancer. A report on these circuits was published in the April 4th edition of Science.

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September 20, 2013

BlackBerry To Lay Off 4,500 Employees

BlackBerry says it will lay off 4,500 employees, or 40 percent of its global workforce, as it reports a nearly $1 billion second-quarter loss in a surprise early release of earnings results.

The stock dropped 19 percent to $8.50 after reopening for trading. Shares had been halted pending the news.

BlackBerry had been scheduled to release earnings next week. But the Canadian company said late Friday afternoon it expects a loss of about $950 million to $995 million for the quarter, including a massive inventory charge due to increasing market competition.

The BlackBerry, pioneered in 1999, was the dominant smartphone for on-the-go business people and other customers before Apple debuted the iPhone in 2007. Since then, BlackBerry Ltd. has been hammered by competition from the iPhone as well as Android-based rivals like Samsung.


In the last few years, the feds have expanded efforts to collect tips about people's behavior in the real world. At a fusion center in Las Vegas, workers like Daniel Burns, a program coordinator, analyze suspicious activity reports. The ACLU on
(Monica Lam/Center for Investigative Reporting)
September 19, 2013

ACLU Posts Fed-Collected 'Suspicious' Activity Reports Online

With all the talk of spying by the National Security Agency, it's easy to forget the government engages in off-line surveillance, too. In the last few years, the feds have expanded efforts to collect tips about people's behavior in the real world; they're called suspicious activity reports.

Hal Bergman, a freelance photographer in Los Angeles, has a fondness for industrial scenes, bridges, ports and refineries.

"They're large and they're hulking and they're utilitarian and they look interesting," he says, "and they are spewing steam and I find that visually fascinating."

The problem is Bergman's fascination raises suspicions. He's routinely challenged by security guards and police officers — even when he's shooting on public property. Most of the time, the officials accept his explanation, but every now and then, they report him to the feds.

Once, two FBI agents showed up at his door, wanting to know what he'd been up to at the Port of Los Angeles.

"I show my portfolio. I show 'em what I was shooting. I may have shown 'em what I shot that day. And after five minutes of this, what felt like a really tense interrogation, they got really friendly. They realized I was harmless," Bergman says.

A year later, one of the same agents called him again, following up on another report. Bergman said the agent already knew he wasn't a threat, but he couldn't close the file until he'd asked him certain questions.

"He said to me, 'Do you hold any ill will toward the United States of America?' And I said, 'No, no I don't." And he says, 'OK.' "

What a waste of time says Mike German, who spent 16 years in the FBI.

"This is a system that is dulling the response, rather than helping," he says.

German is now senior policy counsel at the ACLU in Washington, D.C. His organization has obtained more than 1,800 of these suspicious activity reports, gathered in central California.

The ACLU got the reports through public records requests and posted them online. They're a fun read. You can see all the reports of suspicious people taking pictures of dams.

But there's also the two Middle Eastern men who bought $1,700 in cigarettes. There's the Sikh with the suspicious tattoo. And there's the inmate in Sacramento who was caught with a drawing that reads: "I Hate America."

"What we see here with these reports is that they are being based on people's political speech in some cases," German says. "And people's other First Amendment activity, like photography, and often based on their religion."

German says this violates a federal regulation that prevents police from sharing derogatory information about people if that information falls short of a reasonable suspicion of a crime. He says this program "dumbs down" the very concept of reasonable suspicion.

 
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The front of the postal card that potential jurors in Champaign County will get. A QR code is displayed, which directs people to the website with the questionnaire.
(Champaign County Circuit Clerk)
September 19, 2013

Champaign County Upgrades Jury Questionnaires

Jury selection questionnaires are getting a face-lift in Champaign County.

The county sends out about 13,000 paper questionnaires each year with a self-addressed postage stamp, but Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman said only about 30 percent of them are returned

Under the new system, people will receive postcards that give them the option to fill out the questionnaire online, by text message, or through an automated phone system. Blakeman said she hopes this new digital format increases the response rate, and leads to a more diverse jury pool.

“We will hopefully then have a larger pool from which to draw, whch would hopefully assist in the formation of juries that are more representative of the makeup of our community,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman estimated the new system will save the county roughly $5,000 a year in mailing and printing costs. She also said when people are summoned for jury duty, they will have the option to sign up for e-mail or text message alerts notifying them if they don’t have to show up to court the next day.


September 19, 2013

Illinois Troopers Getting Tasers That Record Video

Illinois State Police patrol officers will soon be carrying tasers with a video camera attached. 

State police say it has purchased about 800 of these devices, which officers can use once they undergo specialized training.

“This is a less lethal use of force, which gives (police) another option to defend themselves, or to possibly subdue a combative motorist or a fleeing motorist” explained ISP spokeswoman Monique Bond.

Bond said a specialized unit has been given tasers, but she said all officers will now have access to them.

Lieutenant Brian Mennenga with the Champaign County Sheriff’s office said his department already uses tasers, and equips officers in the jail with the tasers that record video.

“Whatever happens in that facility, then it’s on video,” Mennenga said. “That way you can see first-hand the officer’s point of view when they did have to use a taser, or even if they didn’t have to use the taser, they can have the video activated to show the circumstances around that.”

Mennenga said the video can also become a valuable training tool for law enforcement.

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Police said its tasers will be distributed in the next few months.


September 18, 2013

Put A Camera On An Eagle And What Do You Get? Soaring VIDEO

If this is a trick, it's a spectacular one.

A video that purports to have been taken by a GoPro or similarly small camera strapped to an eagle soaring above Chamonix, France, is quickly going viral.

As France's version of The Local newssite says, "for now, the author of the video remains unknown, but until then we can only watch and admire.

We hope this is more along the lines of the very real "Decorah Eagle Cam" and not the very fake "Eagle Snatches Kid." Experts' opinions are welcome in the comments thread.

Before we leave, we do need to mention Fly Like An Eagle — just to be sure it's running through everyone's brains.

 


The future of the Internet is at stake in a case before a D.C. court.
(Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
September 09, 2013

Net Neutrality In Court: Here's What You Need To Know

The beauty of the Internet — and the reason for its ubiquitous place in our lives — is that just about anyone can use it to offer services, products or information. But the link between what's out there on the Internet, how fast it gets to us and how much data can get to us is dependent on Internet service providers and the rules that govern them. That's where things get thorny for the principle of net neutrality.

If your eyes are already glazing over, consider this: This debate could affect the speed, quality and cost of your Hulu or Netflix binge-viewing.

Net neutrality is back in the news Monday because a landmark case is getting its day in a D.C. federal court. The case challenges whether the federal government can enforce net neutrality rules. Here's a primer to get you up to speed:

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality refers to the notion that's governed the Internet since the beginning — all Internet users deserve equal access to online information, no matter whether you use Verizon or Comcast. Internet service providers should be "neutral" to the content their customers consume.

The Way Things Are Now

As things are now, the Federal Communications Commission regulates net neutrality by "policing" an open Internet. The current rules, passed in 2010, prevent broadband Internet service providers from blocking lawful content and other Internet services. Time magazine sums up the three rules:

"First, the order requires ISPs to be transparent about how they handle network congestion; second, the ISPs are prohibited from blocking traffic such as Skype or Netflix on wired networks; third, the order outlaws 'unreasonable' discrimination, meaning the ISPs can't put such services into an Internet 'slow lane' in order to benefit their own competing services."

The regulations don't fully cover wireless carriers, something that Internet rights groups aren't pleased with. The FCC says the exemption recognizes that the wireless Internet gets overused because of new customers constantly signing up and that carriers, therefore, need flexibility to put limits on use.

The Politics

President Obama supported net neutrality in his 2008 campaign, and then after he was sworn in, he appointed Julius Genachowski, a net neutrality supporter, as chairman of the FCC.

In December 2010, when the FCC approved a plan to implement the net neutrality regulations, the vote was 3-2, along party lines. Congressional Republicans argue that net neutrality is unnecessary government involvement that stifles innovation; the GOP-controlled House has even voted to strip the FCC of funding for net neutrality enforcement.

The Recent History

For nearly a decade, companies have challenged the net neutrality principle, a move they say better serves their customers.

In 2007, customers accused Comcast of "throttling," or purposely slowing down downloads. Comcast and other companies argued that they needed to discriminate between the bits of information being shared to conserve bandwidth given the growing number of customers on the Web. The FCC cited Comcast, Comcast appealed, and the same court hearing Monday's case decided the FCC didn't prove it had the authority to regulate broadband Internet.

Here's a full timeline from GigaOm.

The Case Before Judges

It's an understatement to say communications companies aren't pleased with existing FCC regulations. Verizon filed suit in federal court to overturn the rules, arguing the FCC overstepped its regulatory authority and that the rules are unnecessary. Verizon points out that the FCC has documented only four examples in the past six years of ISPs' possibly blocking content.

Verizon also said that net neutrality rules violate the First Amendment, since broadband companies transmit the speech of others. That gives the providers "editorial discretion," according to Verizon.

The FCC argues that it has the authority to enforce net neutrality under provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Communications Act of 1934.

Internet rights groups believe the open Internet is what lets companies like Twitter, Facebook and Skype flourish. Supporters say net neutrality prevented existing market players from slowing down or blocking the connections of Skype calls, for instance, to protect their businesses. As The New York Times lays out:

"The F.C.C. ... believes that Internet service providers must keep their pipelines free and open, giving the creators of any type of legal content — movies, shopping sites, medical services, or even pornography — an equal ability to reach consumers. If certain players are able to buy greater access to Internet users, regulators believe, the playing field will tilt in the direction of the richest companies, possibly preventing the next Google or Facebook from getting off the ground."

The three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are hearing the case now.

The Implications

Advocates of net neutrality fear that if the federal government stops enforcing rules to keep the pipelines free and open, then certain companies will be able to get greater access to Internet users. That, they say, creates a system of haves and have nots — the richest companies could get access to a wider swath of Internet users, for example, and that could prevent the next Google from getting off the ground. GigaOm explains:

"If the courts decide the FCC doesn't have the legal authority to enforce the network neutrality rules, it not only could gut the rules, but it also gives ISPs a free pass to start making decisions about the information aspects of their service — and in today's non-competitive broadband environment — that could mean throttling Netflix or charging Google more money to deliver a clean YouTube stream. It also neuters the agency moving forward when all content will flow as information over broadband pipes — from TV to your doctor visits."

Judges aren't expected to issue a ruling for months. But now you're up to speed.


September 09, 2013

Entrepreneur Replaces Amish Buggy’s Horse With Solar Power

Travelling through Amish country, you're likely to see a horse-drawn carriage or two. One Sullivan entrepreneur has transformed the traditional buggy by giving it a touch of solar power.

Larry Yoder’s buggy has four solar panels attached to the roof, which pull in sunlight to power a motor. It goes about eight miles an hour in reverse and 14 forward. It can run about three hours without sunlight. Because this is green technology, Yoder chose green seats.

“Early one morning I thought I got this buggy, and I’ve got access to some solar panels. Why not make it solar-powered?” he said. “As far as I know, it’s the world’s first Amish solar-powered buggy.”

Yoder is not Amish, but used to own an Amish-style restaurant where customers could sit in an authentic buggy. A couple of years ago, after the restaurant closed, he upgraded the buggy with solar power – an idea he got after noticing the Amish using solar energy to power lights on their carriages.

“I’m not really targeting them to change their ways to eliminate a horse or nothing like that. That’s not my intent,” Yoder explained.

Though, Yoder said he believes the solar-powered buggy could catch on in the Amish community in the next five to ten years. Even though they are not currently buying it, he said some Amish business owners did help him build it.

And other communities have expressed interest.

Stella Eads is a tour guide in nearby Arthur, Ill., which has a large Amish population. She gives more than a hundred tours each year to people from all over the world who are interested in Arthur’s Amish community. She says the solar-powered carriage might someday be part of her tours.

“Well, I just envision having it here, close to the shop, and then whenever people want to go out on a tour, just take them out and show them around and give them a true Amish experience, as close as we can get without the horse,” she said.

Yoder said he would like to get his buggy to go faster, so that he can ride it more than a thousand miles away to Sarasota, Fla.

“That’s where we go in the winter time,” Yoder said during a ride in the carriage. “As you can hear going down the road it’s got a little wind to it. I got a GPS. I’ve got cruise control.”

Larry Yoder showing off an earlier prototype of his solar powered buggy..

Larry Yoder showing off an earlier prototype of his solar powered buggy. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Inside his garage, Yoder has other, earlier solar-powered prototypes. There is a carriage that does not look anything like the one from earlier. He started working on it six years ago. It has two 5 ½ foot giant wheels with LED lights mounted on the spokes, a seat for two people, and a tractor engine. This buggy goes eight miles per hour, but it seems much faster if you are spinning around in circles.

“Don’t try walking right now,” Yoder cautioned after giving it a test swirl.

Yoder said he is still perfecting his Amish buggy, and he said he hopes to make it widely available soon.

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amish buggy
(Jeff Brady/NPR)
September 03, 2013

Amish Community Not Anti-Technology, Just More Thoughtful

Many outsiders assume the Amish reject all new technology. But that's not true.

One Amish man in Lancaster County, Pa., checks his voicemail about four times a day. His shop is equipped with a propane-powered forklift, hydraulic-powered saws, cordless drills, and a refrigerated tank where milk from dairy cows is stored.

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don't buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They're more cautious — more suspicious — wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?"

There are 40 different Amish affiliations around the country, according to Kraybill, and they often reach different conclusions in answering those questions.

"Some of the subgroups are very conservative, very isolated and doing very well protecting their way of life because they basically reject much more technology than the more progressive ones," he says.

Kraybill says the process takes place from the ground-up — people try out new technologies and then leaders ultimately determine whether they are acceptable or not.

In Lancaster County, the Amish population is OK with using electricity, but they reject the grid that brings it into most Americans' homes. That's because they want to maintain a separation from the wider world.

The Amish believe this life on earth is part of their journey to heaven. Kraybill says if you're just here as a pilgrim, "Then you don't want to get too engaged and too embedded in this world... because you may lose your ultimate, eternal goal of completing the journey to heaven."

In recent years the Amish have begun embracing new technology at a faster rate. One reason is because more of them are working as entrepreneurs instead of on a farm. This shift creates new problems that technology often has an answer for.

Ben is an Amish man living in Lancaster County. He wants to be known only by his first name. In some Amish communities, using your full name in the media is considered showing off, or trying to speak for all Amish.

He owns a deli and says he tracks all his finances with paper and pencil. "I would really love to have Quickbooks, because it's a pain to balance my checkbook," he says. But that would require a computer, and Ben is reluctant to leap into the digital world. He plans to think long and hard before making a decision.

Ben plans to follow this advice: "You shouldn't be the first in your neighborhood to adopt the new technology and neither should you be the last."

The business owner says evaluating new technologies is something that takes place between the push of progress and the pull of tradition. And in the background there's always one big question: Will this new technology hurt the Amish way of life?

While that evaluation process can be slow, changes that have taken place so far have allowed Amish businesses to grow. Homestead Structures, in New Holland, Pa., constructs small buildings such as storage sheds and pool houses.

There are 19 employees in the large shop and they use drills, saws and nail guns. But the power for those tools doesn't come from the electrical grid. There are solar panels and a diesel generator for the electric tools.

 
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