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Researchers create magic sponge to clean up oil spills

Researchers at Australia's Deakin University claim to have developed a new material that's capable of cleaning up large oil spills in a flash. A team, led by Professor Ying Chen, has created a new method that uses boron nitride powder as the building block for a sponge that can absorb oil separate from water. Since you couldn't just sprinkle the substance onto the area around a crashed oil tanker, it had to be built into a porous 3D structure. In doing so, the team has been able to increase the surface area per gram to roughly five and a half tennis courts.

VTech's data breach affected five million customers

Kiddie toymaker VTech tried to downplay the extent of last week's data breach, which affected its "Learning Lodge" app store, but now it's revealed that five million customer accounts were compromised. Vtech says it's alerted Learning Lodge customers of the hack, and if you've got one of its devices, you should change your password (and password retrieval info) immediately. While the attack didn't reveal credit card data or sensitive personal information (like Social Security numbers or driver license IDs), it gave hackers access to customer's names, addresses, encrypted passwords and even birthdays and genders for kids. VTech says it's still investigating the situation, and it'll look into ways to strengthen its security. Breaches like this aren't unusual (it's thought to be the result of a relatively easy SQL injection attack), but it's notable since it involves products aimed at kids, which normally don't get much attention when it comes to data security.

UN says dating apps helped foster a teen HIV epidemic

Dating apps certainly have their virtues, but a new UN study suggests that they could sometimes play a big role in spreading sexually transmitted diseases. The report finds that dating apps helped spread an HIV epidemic among teens in the Asia-Pacific region by facilitating more casual sex. Effectively, they created networks where infections could quickly spread -- one HIV-positive person could easily ruin numerous lives.

Must Reads

  • DARPA wants to protect critical infrastructures from cyber attacks

    Hackers have been breaking through a lot of government agency's defenses these past years, and DARPA thinks it's high time to do something about it. Pentagon's mad science division has launched a new program called Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization (RADICS), which aims to develop...

  • FCC hires a privacy guru to help lead its telecom investigations

    If you want proof that the Federal Communications Commission is getting serious about privacy, you only need to look at its latest recruit. The agency has hired Jonathan Mayer, one of the masterminds behind Do Not Track browsing, as the chief technologist for its Enforcement Bureau. He'll help lead investigations...

'Top Gear' returns in May 2016 without Clarkson

While Clarkson, May and Hammond develop a new motoring show for Amazon, the BBC is working on its biggest Top Gear reboot in years. Presenter Chris Evans (no, not Captain America) is taking over Clarkson's role and revealed last weekend exactly when the first episode will be airing. Well, sort of. During the BBC's live Saturday Kitchen show he said it would be broadcast on Sunday, May 5th. Which would be fine, if May 5th wasn't actually a Thursday. Whoops. The Guardian seems to have cleared up the issue though, clarifying that filming will finish on May 5th before the first episode airs on May 8th.

Cyber Monday: Save up to 98 percent on eLearning resources

Now that your Thanksgiving hangover has subsided, it's time to take advantage of some of the best deals on the web for Cyber Monday. This year, treat yourself (or a loved one) to the gift of knowledge with these premier eLearning resources, available today for up to 98 percent off. That means you can get lifetime access to eduCBA's 500-plus tech training courses for just $36.75, and the comprehensive Learn to Code 2015 bundle for just $44. Check out some of these other premium eLearning deals, and use code CYBERMONDAY25 at checkout to apply the full discount.

Black hole ejects massive energy jet after devouring a star

For the first time, scientists have caught a glimpse of a black hole ejecting a hot "flare" of matter after devouring a star the size of our sun. The discovery was made thanks to the quick action of of scientists from John Hopkins University, who worked in conjunction with a team from the University of Oxford. Hubble fellow Sjoert van Velzen from Hopkins heard last year that Ohio State U researchers had spotted a transient star that was caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole some 300 million light years away. In theory, the event (dubbed ASASSN-14li) would result in a "tidal disruption" of the star, resulting in a hot flare burst energy jet emitted by the supermassive black hole.

BlackBerry is leaving Pakistan over demands for backdoor access

BlackBerry has announced it's formally shutting down shop in Pakistan over demands from the country's Telecommunications Authority that backdoor access be granted to the company's encrypted services. Back in July, local carriers were ordered to shut off BlackBerry Enterprise Service from the end of November, because "security reasons." While the order has been pushed back to the end of the year, Pakistan's government isn't budging, leaving BlackBerry no other option but to abandon the country. As the company explains, "remaining in Pakistan would have meant forfeiting our commitment to protect our users' privacy. That is a compromise we are not willing to make."

Swatch's payments watch is coming to the US

Swatch has announced that the mobile payments watch that it's sending to China will also make its way over here. The watchmaker has teamed up with Visa in order to offer the Swatch Bellamy in the US, Brazil and Switzerland. It's the third entry on that list that's the most eyebrow-raising, since Swatch CEO Nick Hayek very recently criticized his home nation's own banks for being slow to embrace new payments tech. It looks as if Visa has stepped in to make its relations in Switzerland look fusty and slow by comparison.

Gates, Zuckerberg and Bezos invest in huge clean energy fund

After announcing the Mission Innovation program to convince nations to double their clean energy investment budgets, Bill Gates has launched another massive initiative at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition is backed by a who's who of tech leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Richard Branson. The idea is to develop new green technology that will increase the world's energy output -- especially in poor countries -- without contributing to global warming. Such tech, however, poses a risk that regular investors might shy away from. "We need the basic research, but we need to pair that with people who are willing to fund high-risk, breakthrough energy companies," said Gates.

Virtual wound will teach medics how to treat soldiers

Field medics have ways to practice their craft before they're helping soldiers on the battlefield, but it's hard for them to understand how wounds work until they're involved in a life-or-death rescue. UCLA scientists may have the tool these medics need, however: they've developed the first detailed injury simulation to show medics what to expect. The virtual gash could make you a bit queasy (sorry!), but it's uncannily accurate. A mix of fluid dynamics and in-depth mechanics (such as bones, skin and vessels) makes sure that blood flows much as it would from a real person.

Kobe Bryant decides to announce his retirement online

Kobe Bryant announced his retirement at the end of the NBA season through the web and social media -- not by press conference. Sure, Twitter retirement announcements aren't a new thing: Shaq did so in 2011, not to mention David Ortiz and Steve Nash. It wasn't a completely Twitter-specific announcement. He linked to his farewell message / poem in full on The Players' Tribune (a site launched by fellow former-athlete Derek Jeter). The site, which allows pro athletes to self-publish (and say what they want to), meant Bryant gets to say his piece -- although it's not specific. That said, it's already been retweeted over 70,000 times, and half an hour later, the NBA followed up itself on Twitter. The response was so strong that Jeter's site crashed under the strain. It's back online now, so if you'd like to see a portrait of Bryant whispering his farewell sonnet into a basketball, here's where to go.

Turning sunlight into clean fuel is now cheap and simple

Scientists have already produced artificial photosynthesis, but it has been an exotic process until now. You aren't about to replace the oxygen-giving plants around your home, in other words. However, researchers at Florida State University researcher have found a way to make it practical. They've developed a single-layer manganese oxide material that efficiently traps sunlight and makes it easy to break down that energy into hydrogen and oxygen. Current light-gathering techniques, like solar cells, frequently need multiple layers just to work at all -- this would be far cheaper and simpler to make.

Scientists show that gene editing can 'turn off' human diseases

Gene editing has already been used to fight diseases, but there's now hope that it might eliminate the diseases altgether. Researchers have shown that it's possible to eliminate facial muscular dystrophy using a newer editing technique, CRISPR (Clusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to replace the offending gene and 'turn off' the condition. The approach sends a mix of protein and RNA to bind to a gene and give it an overhaul.

App turns your writing into trippy 3D images

It's easy to imagine a piece of art in your head, but making it real is another matter if you're not an artist. Wouldn't it be nice if you could simply describe what you wanted? WordsEye is trying just that. Its beta web app lets you describe a scene using natural-language text, and uses statistical parsing to translate that into a 3D image. You can name objects and their qualities using terms that are as fuzzy or exacting as you like, including relative concepts like position. It's easy to use, although the results can be more than a little surreal -- just look at the pictured rat on a cat on a Christmas cow if you need proof.

The Pirate Bay won't be blocked on its home turf

Numerous countries order their internet service providers block The Pirate Bay, but its home country of Sweden won't be one of them... at least, for now. A Stockholm court has ruled that Sweden can't make ISPs block the piracy site, since those companies aren't responsible for what their customers do. The networks aren't participating in any crimes, according to the ruling -- they're just the delivery medium.

Amazon and Jeremy Clarkson hint at the future of delivery drones

Former Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson isn't just working on a new motoring show for Amazon... he's helping the internet giant pitch its vision for delivery drones, too. Amazon has unveiled a splashy new Prime Air ad where Clarkson shows off a new, more powerful drone design (with promises of a "whole family" of others) and outlines how these robots would ship a pair of running shoes. All you'd have to do is place your order and plunk down a marker to tell the drone where to land. From there, the robot would use its mix of horizontal and vertical propellers to ferry your cargo (up to 15 miles from its home base) in 30 minutes or less. You'd even get a heads-up when the drone is close, so you wouldn't have to worry about someone swiping your package the moment it arrives.

VW reportedly knew its fuel economy figures were wrong a year ago

If one report is accurate, Volkswagen execs didn't just know that their cars' emission estimates were fishy -- they knew the fuel efficiency figures were off, too. German newspaper Bild claims that top brass was aware of misleading fuel economy estimates about a year ago, or months before it became public. Former CEO Martin Winterkorn reportedly went so far as to yank one model off the market, the Polo TDI BlueMotion, because its fuel consumption was simply too far off the mark (18 percent above estimates).

The AfterMath: A week of excesses

Too much food? Too many bargains? With a handful of antacids nearby, we hope you've enjoyed this Thanksgiving week. Following in tradition of all that indulgence, we're all about size and excess here at TAM. Nuclear-powered data centers, puffy nuggets of gold, huge numbers of user names hacked... and a suggestion for next year's Thanksgiving dessert. We'd suggest you start making room now.

Inhabitat's Week in Green: Tesla Model S recall, and more!

When a problem comes along, you must fix it. This week Tesla noticed a defective seatbelt in one of its Model S sedans, so the automaker immediately issued a recall for all 90,000 vehicles on the road out of "an abundance of caution." In other transportation news, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin beat out Elon Musk's SpaceX in the race to develop a rocket that can return intact from space. Porsche announced plans to offer a hybrid version of one of the most-loved sports cars of all time. We also spotted several outlandish infrastructural hazards: a three-day traffic jam snared drivers in Kenya and a highway suddenly lifted towards the sky and splintered into pieces in California.

Professor saves home with smart sprinklers from 3,000km away

Deadly bushfires have swept across South Australia this week, destroying countless properties and natural spaces. One ingenious professor was able to save his rural home, however, by remotely activating sprinklers using a smartphone. Simon Maddocks, the President and Vice-Chancellor of Charles Darwin University, had been notified of the fires by friends and messages sent by the Country Fire Service (CFS). He was sitting comfortably in his Darwin office, far from danger, but knew his wheat farm on the other side of the country was at risk. Maddocks started tracking the flames from over 3,000 kilometers away using CFS maps on his phone before connecting to CCTV cameras at his house.