The Washington Post – For those who say that learning history can be dull, Making History: The Calm & the Storm attempts to rebut that by transporting players into leadership roles in the 1930s and ’40s. The original game only allows you to lead the major combat nations of World War II, but a recent patch allows almost any nation to be played.

You control almost every aspect of your chosen nation, including economic and production goals, scientific research, military strategy, foreign relations, world trade, infrastructure investment and its economy.

You’ll quickly learn that the geopolitical climate before World War II was not easy to navigate. Sure, you may want to take a stab at Germany before the Nazis begin their rampage, but they are already fairly strong. Nations that could oppose them directly, such as France, are in a terrible recession, so supporting a grand army isn’t really possible. Plus, nobody really wants to ally with anyone else. Instead, every nation is looking out for its own interests. That may seem shortsighted, but it makes perfect sense when you see the scenario unfolding.

Say you are playing Italy. England and France are your friends initially, but Germany’s emerging fascist government has borrowed many of your ideals. And requests for aid from fascists fighting a civil war in Spain can’t be ignored, even though that may weaken ties with friendly nations. It’s easy to see how Italy could be lured into the Axis sphere of power.

Or you could play as Germany or Japan. Perhaps you won’t attack right away, because diplomacy might be more useful at first. Perhaps you won’t strike at all, though playing a peaceful Germany or Japan is a sure route to a crashing economy, as you will find out if you try.

Making History is turn-based, so you won’t feel rushed to make decisions. Each turn represents one week, so it may take many turns to move armies and fleets, or to produce new units. As in real life, time often is not on your side.

Given the detailed economy and diplomacy interface, it’s surprising to find that combat is somewhat simplistic. It’s basically a numbers game with little player interaction once begun.

Making History isn’t the best war game, but it’s one of the best titles for learning why wars happen.
— John Breeden II

Making History: The Calm and the Storm; PC Windows XP/2000/Vista ($40)

By Ryan Paul | Published: November 10, 2007 – 10:10AM CT

Electronic Arts announced yesterday plans to donate the original version of the SimCity computer game to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project so that it can be distributed to schoolchildren in developing countries on OLPC’s XO laptop.

The original SimCity game, which won numerous awards and paved the way for an immensely successful franchise, transforms the player into the mayor of a virtual city. The simulation encourages cultivation of problem-solving skills and requires users to plan elaborate city infrastructure and respond to the needs of virtual citizens. The idea of including SimCity on the OLPC XO laptop was conceived by Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder and OLPC advisor John Gilmore.

The game is currently being ported to the OLPC by Don Hopkins, the man responsible for the original multiplayer Unix port of the game. Hopkins created the Unix port of SimCity—which uses TCL and Tk—for DUX software in 1991. When the ten-year distribution contract between Maxis and DUX expired, Hopkins contacted Maxis parent company EA and attempted to negotiate for licensing rights so that he could adapt the program for educational uses and continue distributing. He didn’t succeed at the time, but now that EA is gifting the program to the OLPC project, Hopkins finally has a new chance to reinvent SimCity for academic uses.

Hopkins has already managed to port the game and make it run on the XO laptop and is now working on making it integrate well with the OLPC’s Python-based Sugar environment. Hopkins says that the final version of SimCity for the XO will be fully scriptable in Python and he hopes to make much of the underlying components reusable in order to provide generic building blocks for building XO games.

“The goal is to enable the open-source community to renovate SimCity and take it in new educational directions, by applying Seymour Papert’s ideas about constructionist education, Alan Kay’s ideas about interactive user interfaces and object-oriented programming, Ben Shneiderman’s ideas about direct manipulation and info visualization, and many exciting ideas about multiplayer games, blogging, storytelling, game mods, player created content, and lessons learned from World of WarCraft, The Sims, Spore, etc,” Hopkins wrote in a comment at Slashdot earlier this year.

Those of us who have fond memories of the original SimCity know that EA’s contribution will provide many students with a valuable and entertaining learning experience. The continued involvement of Don Hopkins in the porting effort is a promising sign that the game will remain true to its roots while it continues to evolve.


Target Health Inc. has spoken with Will Wright at one of the PopTech conferences 2 years ago. He is one of the most interesting visionaries we’ve met and happens to be the creator of Sim City. His latest creation is his dream of a universe game — one in which the player could evolve life from the simple cellular level all the way up through galactic scale civilizations. This game is called Spore. Wright wanted to create a game that would enable players to experience the wonder and creative potential of the universe at all levels of scale. If it sounds amazing, try it; it is!

You’re invited to scroll down and view, ten works of art, all on silicon chips.

This sailboat, from a 1970s Texas Instrument chip, is the earliest example of chip artwork found so far.

This cheetah appeared in a Hewlett-Packard memory controller chip. This art was problematic: The cheetah’s aluminum spots flaked off, causing short circuits elsewhere on the chip.

Marvin the Martian appears on an image sensor chip used on the Mars rovers.

This image of Thor, god of thunder, appears in a Hewlett-Packard chip. It’s drawn with an unusual method: Tiny dots appear where “via” wires extend downward through the chip to connect different layers. This is the largest chip image in the Silicon Zoo.

This image of Waldo from the “Where’s Waldo” children’s book series was the first silicon artwork found by Silicon Zoo curator Michael Davidson.

A tiny train rides “tracks” that are used in charge-coupled devices to convert electrical signals into digital information.

A chip used in Digital Equipment’s MicroVax 3000 and 6200 minicomputers carries a message in Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet: “VAX–when you care enough to steal the very best.” The message was intended for technicians on the other side of the Cold War who might try to reverse-engineer the VAX designs by looking closely at the originals.

In a burst of symbolism, Intel engineers crafted an image of a shepherd looking after a two-headed ram. The real purpose of the Intel 8207 chip: a dual-port RAM (random access memory) controller.

A rendition of a Mickey Mouse watch is shown on a Mostek 5017 alarm clock chip.

Catchphrases appear in this chip’s mock fine print, including “Keep away from fire,” “Not for resale” and “No purchase necessary.”


August 06, 2007

Dial-up | Broadband Help

When it comes to generating neurons, researchers have found that not all embryonic stem (ES) cell lines are equal. In comparing neurons generated from two NIH-approved embryonic stem cell lines, scientists have uncovered significant differences in the mature, functioning neurons generated from each line. The discovery implies that culture conditions during ES cell generation — which have yet to be identified — can influence the developmental properties of human ES cells.

The report, which was published August 6, 2007, in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also describes a new technique for producing functioning neurons from stem cells that will be important for creating models of human neurodegenerative diseases.

The research team was led by UCLA stem cell biologist Yi Sun and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Thomas Südhof at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Embryonic stem cells are developmentally immature cells that are capable of self-renewal and of differentiating into any type of tissue in the body. Researchers believe they hold the potential for generating neural, cardiac and other cells that can be implanted to restored damaged tissue.

“To the best of my knowledge, until now there have been few functional studies of the neurons derived from embryonic stem cells,” said Südhof. “People in the field have traditionally been interested in whether they can make neurons and what molecular markers characterize those neurons. However, because different embryonic stem cell lines were derived under diverse conditions, the possibility existed that cell lines would produce neurons with distinct properties.”

The researchers compared mature neurons grown from two embryonic stem cell lines approved for research by the National Institute of Health. Sun and her colleagues developed procedures to differentiate the two stem cell lines first into neural progenitor cells, and then into mature neurons. They were also able to purify those neurons for study.

To probe how the neurons functioned, the researchers developed a culture technique that induced the newly produced neurons to establish synapses with one another. Synapses are the critical junctions between neurons where much of the signaling and communication between neural cells occurs.

Through functional analyses of these neurons, Sun, Südhof and their colleagues found that the two ES cell lines differentiated into two distinct types of neurons that are actually found in different parts of the brain.

The researchers next performed electrophysiological studies of the synaptic connections between the neurons. “We found that the neurons derived from the two cell lines have completely different properties in terms of what type of synapses they develop and at what time course this happens during culture,” said Südhof. Furthermore, the studies showed that the neurons derived from the two cell lines used different chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with one another, he said.

Sun and her colleagues compared the microRNAs produced by the two types of neurons. MicroRNAs are small snippets of genetic material that are believed to be significant regulators of stem cell differentiation.

“It’s been proposed that microRNAs might be part of the defining signatures for human ES cells, and many are expressed in the brain,” said Sun. “It was comforting that our analysis showed that as the ES cells matured into neural progenitors and neurons, the expression of the microRNAs genes specific to ES cells dropped thousands of times, and those specific to brain cells increased thousands of times. But on the other hand, when we compared the two lines, we found differences in microRNA gene expression that might contribute to this neuronal bias in the lines,” she said.

Südhof said that the differences among ES cell lines could have implications for potential treatments using the cells. “It’s clear that if you’re going to treat a motor neuron disease, you need those types of neurons; whereas if you want to treat a forebrain disease like Huntington’s, you need ES cells that differentiate into that type of neuron,” he said.

The differences in neurons produced by cell lines may offer both advantages and disadvantages for treatment, he said. “On the one hand, it may actually be good to have ES cells with a particular propensity for differentiation, because it may make it easier to get certain types of tissue. On the other hand, it may also limit the ability of these ES cells to fully replicate those types of tissues.”

Sun said that her technique for differentiating ES cells into mature neurons is likely to have important future research applications. “This technique enables us to produce pure cultures of functioning human neurons that we can genetically manipulate to mimic human disorders,” she said. “Before, it was only possible to use mouse or other animal cells to model neurodegenerative diseases, but the genetic background is so different from that of humans that key aspects of diseases such as Alzheimer’s could not be reproduced.”

Both Sun and Südhof said that their findings have implications for the production of ES cell lines. “There is absolutely no question that these findings mean that there need to be more embryonic stem cell lines for research purposes and for use in potential treatments,” said Südhof.

Sun said that developing more ES cell lines is important “because right now we still don’t know the causes for the functional differences we found. Understanding the causes will require more cell lines for study. And once we understand the causes, we can take them into account in generating new cell lines that will be better defined and enable more reproducible applications.”

Malcolm Gladwell takes the lessons of psychology and sociology and applies them to business in ways we’ve never thought of before. Here, he deep-dives into the world of office chair invention and soft drink taste tests to answer the question, “Can we believe what people tell us?” Gladwell is the best selling author of, Blink and The Tipping Point. This presentation is deceptively simple; however, Malcom Gladwell is extremely perceptive, with interesting insights. This is worth listening to for approx 20 minutes, say on a lunch break.

Click on the image to see The “throbbing oil” experiment video.

You can try this experiment at home. Pour clean water onto a small plate. Wait for all the ripples to stop. Then mix a small amount of mineral oil with an even smaller amount of detergent. Squeeze a tiny drop of that mixture onto the water and watch in amazement as the oil appears to pump like a beating heart.

It’s a simple experiment, but explaining what makes the drop of oil throb–and then stop when deprived of fresh air–has long mystified the scientific community. Now, in work that could have applications in fields from biology to environmental engineering, an MIT team has cracked the case.

In the July 25 issue of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, MIT Professors Roman Stocker of civil and environmental engineering and John Bush of mathematics explain what happens when an oil drop containing a water-insoluble surfactant (or material that reduces the surface tension of a liquid, allowing easier spreading) is placed on a water surface.

“It’s an easy experiment to make. But getting the theory for it was not straightforward,” Bush said. “Roman turned a microscope loose on the problem–which was key to finally understanding it.”

The question of the physical phenomenon of oil spreading on a surface has been around for some time. Benjamin Franklin wrote about it in 1774 in the Transaction of the American Philosophical Society, after he saw Bermuda spear fishermen use oil to damp waves so they could more easily see fish under the ocean surface.

The question Stocker and Bush examined had another dimension: why oil with an added surfactant doesn’t come to rest, but instead contracts and repeats the process in a periodic fashion.

The mechanism, they now know, is surface tension, or more precisely, evaporation-induced variations in surface tension. These changes in surface tension cause the drop to expand, then contract, and repeat the process every couple of seconds until it runs out of gas, which in this case, is surfactant. Covering the experiment stops the process because it prevents evaporation of the surfactant.

“We’re dealing with three interfaces: between the oil drop, the water in the Petri dish, and the air above it,” Stocker said, explaining surface tension. “A detergent is a surfactant, which reduces the surface tension of a liquid. The detergent molecules we added to the oil drop prefer to stay at the interface of the oil and water, rather than inside the oil drop.”

Think of the oil detergent drop as a small lens with a rounded bottom. The surfactant in the drop moves to the bottom surface of the lens, where it interacts with the water to decrease the surface tension where oil meets water. This change in tension increases the forces pulling on the outer edges of the drop, causing the drop to expand.

The center of the drop is deeper than the edges, so more surfactant settles there, reducing the surface tension correspondingly. This causes the oil and surfactant near the outer edges of the drop to circulate. This circulation creates a shear (think of it as two velocities going in opposite directions), which generates very tiny waves rolling outward toward the edge. When these waves reach the edge, they cause small droplets to erupt and escape onto the water surface outside the drop. Videomicroscopy – essentially, attaching a video camera to a microscope – was critical in observing this step in the process. Those droplets of oil and surfactant disperse on the water and decrease the surface tension of the water surface, so the drop contracts.

As the surfactant evaporates, the surface tension of the water increases again, and the system is reset. Forces pull at the outer edges of the lens, and the cyclical process begins again.

But the beating ceases instantly when Stocker and Bush put a lid over it. If the surfactant can’t evaporate, the oil drop remains stable. In the end, it was being able to stop the beating process that made it clear to the researchers that evaporation played a central role in the mechanism.

“This is a bizarre and subtle mechanism. Everybody was flummoxed,” said Bush, whose recent research includes understanding how some insects walk on water.

He first heard about the oil drop phenomenon from Professor Emeritus Harvey Greenspan of mathematics, who had pondered it for some time. Bush in turn talked to Stocker, who was then an instructor in the Department of Mathematics. It took about three years of sporadic work (without funding), and the help of two undergraduate students who carried out the lab repetitions–Margaret Avener and Wesley Koo–but Stocker and Bush finally solved it.

To what end, the researchers don’t yet know. “One rationalizes the physical world by understanding the mechanisms,” said Bush, explaining the importance of basic scientific research. “One can never predict which mechanisms will be important.”

“Oil contamination of water resources is a prominent problem in environmental engineering,” said Stocker. “Awareness of the fundamental mechanisms governing the interaction between the two phases is critical to devise sound engineering solutions for remediation.”

Spontaneous oscillations are observed in many natural systems, including nerve cells, muscle tissue, and the biological clocks responsible for circadian rhythms, the professors said. And previous work published on the oil drop problem had been carried out by scientists interested in seeing if the mechanism could explain biological oscillations.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Photo / Donna Coveney
Professors Roman Stocker, left, and John Bush display a mixture of oil, detergent and water. Their research explains what happens when an oil drop containing a water-insoluble surfactant is placed on a water surface.

To reduce the spread of infections, a new automated hand-sanitizing system uses RFID to monitor how well health-care workers wash their hands.

By Beth Bacheldor
RFID Journal Inc.
Copyright RFID Journal LLC 2008, Used With Permission

June 20, 2007—RFID continues to make its way into a number of health-care applications. Now the technology is being employed in an automated, touchless hand-washing system, to help reduce the spread of infections at health-care institutions.

Next week, Resurgent Health and Medical is introducing its CleanTech IC line of automated hand-washing systems, which utilizes RFID tags and interrogators to identify each person using the hand-washing system—and records how long. The system will be unveiled at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology’s (APIC) 2007 Annual Conference in San Jose, Calif.

Health-care-associated infections affect nearly 2 million individuals annually in the United States, and are responsible for approximately 80,000 deaths each year, according to a guide published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with APIC, the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) and the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA). The transmission of health-care-related pathogens most often occurs via the contaminated hands of health-care workers, according to the guide, titled the “Guideline for Hand Hygiene in Healthcare Settings”.

This, says Resurgent Health and Medical, makes it important to promote and track the hand hygiene of health-care workers. Located in Golden, Colo., the manufacturer makes hand-washing and sanitizing systems for health-care, agriculture, food-processing and clean-room manufacturing companies.

The CleanTech IC will be available in three different versions: the IC In-Counter, designed to be built into existing workplace countertops or other small areas; the portable, freestanding IC Table Mount; and the IC Wall Mount, intended to keep workplace floors clear and accessible.

When washing hands, a caregiver wearing an RFID badge is identified by the CleanTech machine’s RFID interrogator. The reader identifies the employee by scanning that person’s unique tag ID number, associated with the caregiver’s name in a back-end database. The device records the date and time, as well as the beginning and end of the wash cycle, then communicates that information to the database, which uses the interrogator’s Ethernet card MAC address to identify each CleanTech and the department in which it is located.

The wash cycle automatically starts when the caregiver’s hands are inserted into the machine’s cylindrical openings. Water and sanitizing solution is applied for 10 seconds through 20 high-pressure nozzles, located in each opening and designed to clean the hands from fingertips to wrists.

If a caregiver removes the hands before the 10-second cycle finishes, the interrogator transmits this information to the back-end database. Hospital administrators can then run departmental statistics and other compliance reports to determine which caregivers have completed the washing cycles.

kohlenstoffnanoroehre_animation.gifMany experts believe that carbon nanotubes could eventually replace silicon in microelectronics because of their potential for superior speed and reduced power consumption. nanotube_circuit_x220.jpgAnd over the past several years, researchers have made transistors out of carbon nanotubes. However, it’s still difficult to make reliable circuits out of them. One problem is that the nanotubes, used for transistors that make up the circuits, tend to be fabricated in different directions, making it impossible to know which nanotube form which transistor. And such a chaotic arrangement can lead to electrical malfunctions. But now researchers at Stanford University have written a program that finds a working circuit layout, no matter how disorganized or misaligned the nanotubes.

by David M. Ewalt
Josh Tenenbaum

tenenbaum_josh.jpgJosh Tenenbaum, 34
Cognitive Scientist
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Science fiction is rife with intelligent, self-aware computers, from the benevolent “Mike” of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress to the murderous HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But before we can actually design and build super-smart machines like those in our books and movies, we need to better understand the nature of human intelligence. How do we learn and reason? What’s going on in our own heads that can be applied to our computers?

That’s where Josh Tenenbaum comes in. As a professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he’s using a combination of mathematical modeling, computer simulation and behavioral experiments to explain how people learn new things.

Take the example of a child learning the meaning of a simple word, like “horse.” When a parent points at one, how does a child so easily understand that the word applies to the strange animal in the field, and not to the field itself, or the color of the animal, or any number of other possible definitions? Cognitive scientists and child psychologists have determined that children develop a complex conceptual structure, a sort of mental taxonomy of the world around them, which they use to order and define objects when they see them. They also have a bias to focus on common nouns, so they’re more likely to assume that “horse” means the animal, rather than an adjective like “fuzzy” or “brown.”

Tenenbaum’s research aims to define and describe these cognitive tools, and build mathematical models to imitate them. “These are very rapid inductive leaps to abstract knowledge that we see children making, and that we’d like to have in computers,” he says. “Children have these abstract contextual models, and we can model how these can be learned.”

It all brings us closer to the complementary goals of understanding human learning in computational terms and building computers that learn like humans. “We’re not trying to build a machine child,” says Tenenbaum, “But our long-term goal is to build machine systems that have really deep cognitive capacity like that of a child.”

Next Page →