Posts with «author_name|andrew tarantola» label

What we bought: How DeWalt's 20V Max cordless drill became my most versatile home-reno tool

I live in a creaky old house that’s in constant need of repair. The electric drill that came with the place, ah, looks like it was used to build the place. It has a power cord that’s just barely holding together through a combination of duct tape and anxiety. Two electrical shocks, a blown fuse and several delightful new curse words into my first home improvement project, I was convinced to get with the 21st century and purchase a cordless drill. Way too many YouTube tool-review rabbit holes, three trips to my local Ace Hardware and one exhaustive excel spreadsheet after that, I’d found the drill I would buy.

Now, DIYers have more choice than ever when it comes to battery-powered electric tools. Makita, Ryobi, Bosch, Black and Decker, Milwaukee, Kobalt, and Rigid all make solid products but I opted for the DeWalt 20V 1/2-inch cordless drill. Let me tell you why.

First off, the price was right. The DCD771C2 comes bundled with a pair of 1.3Ah 20V batteries, charging base and storage case for $160 MSRP, though since April when I first started looking, I have yet to not see it on sale for under $100. I bought mine during Home Depot’s Memorial Day sale along with a 16-piece screwdriver bit set for $120 out the door. You can also find them at Lowes, Ace stores and on Amazon.

Second, it offered the features I needed with a 20V power level I could handle. Sure I could have opted for the heavy-duty DCD991P2 — probably even eventually convinced myself I had need for a commercial-duty DCH614X2. But in reality, I’m mostly installing banisters, building trellises and doing light handiwork, not installing siding or anchoring things into concrete, so a 60V rotary hammer would be overkill.

My DCC771C2 weighs a little under four pounds, with most of the mass at the bottom of the unit where the battery sits. It outputs 300W (530 in-lbs torque), the two-speed transmission switches between 0 - 450 and 1,500 RPM while the 16-stop clutch lets me fine tune the amount of torque the drill exerts. With it, I can just as easily screw a fire alarm bracket into drywall as I can bore holes through a pressure-treated 4x4.

Third, I really like DeWalt’s 20/60 FlexVolt battery system and it’s a big part of why I went with that brand. DeWalt makes a variety of power tools that largely work off 20V for light duty stuff like string trimmers, drills, circular saws and routers, and 60V for medium-duty gear like chainsaws, lawnmowers, grinders and impact drivers. If I own a 20V drill and buy a 60V lawn mower, I’d normally be stuck buying separate 20V and 60V batteries, separate 20V and 60V chargers — basically doubling up because the two systems have incompatible power units. With FlexVolt, all of the batteries are 60V max but their output can be stepped down to accommodate a 20V system. This way, I just need one set of batteries and a single charger. And even if I stick with just 20V tools, the FlexVolt batteries can reportedly deliver longer runtimes in 20V than the regular 20V Max batteries can.

Of course, a pair of DeWalt’s non-FlexVolt 1.3Ah “20V Max” batteries came with my drill, and I can go buy larger capacity batteries (up to 12Ah) if I need them — but they won’t work on a 60V tool, just as a 60V battery won’t work in my 20V drill. All of which means I’ll have to eventually spring for a FlexVolt charger once I expand my power tool menagerie.

Hitting the Books: How much that insurance monitoring discount might really be costing you

Machine learning systems have for years now been besting their human counterparts at everything from Go and Jeopardy! to drug discovery and cancer detection. With all the advances that the field has made, it's not unheard of for people to be wary of robots replacing them in tomorrow's workforce. These concerns are misplaced, argues Gerd Gigerenzer argues in his new book How to Stay Smart in a Smart World, if for no other reason than uncertainty itself. AIs are phenomenally capable machines, but only if given sufficient data to act on. Introduce the acutely fickle precariousness of human nature into their algorithms and watch their predictive accuracy plummet — otherwise, we'd never have need to swipe left. In the excerpt below, Gigerenzer discusses the hidden privacy costs of sharing your vehicle's telematics with the insurance company.

MIT Press

Excerpted from How to Stay Smart in a Smart Worldby Gerd Gigerenzer. Published by MIT Press. Copyright © 2021 by Gerd Gigerenzer. All rights reserved.


When Your Car Reports You to the Police

If self-driving cars are not going to happen, one alternative appears to betraining humans to use AI as a support system but to stay alert and retain control if it fails — which is called augmented intelligence. It amounts to partial automation, that is, to sophisticated versions of Level 2 or 3. Yet augmented intelligence entails more than just adding useful features to your car and may well lead us into a different future, where AI is used to both support and surveil us. That possible future is driven more by insurance companies and police than by car manufacturers. Its seeds are in telematics.

Young drivers are reckless, overconfident, and an insurance risk, according to the stereotype. Some indeed are, but many are not. Nevertheless, insurers often treat them as one group and charge a high premium. Telematics insurance can change this by offering better rates for safe drivers. The idea is to calculate the premium from a person’s actual driving behavior instead of from that of the average driver. To do so, a black box that connects to the insurer is installed in the car (using a smartphone is possible and cheaper but less reliable). The black box records the driver’s behavior and calculates a safety score. Figure 4.6 shows the scoring system of one of the first telematics insurers. It observes four features and assigns them different weights.

MIT Press

Rapid acceleration or harsh braking is assigned the greatest weight, followed by driving over the speed limit. Each driver starts with a monthly budget of 100 points for each of the four features. An “event” results in points being subtracted, such as 20 points for the first rapid acceleration or for driving over the speed limit. At the end of the month, the remaining points are weighted as shown and summed up to a total safety score. Although telematics is often called black box insurance, the algorithm is not at all a black box like most love algorithms. It is explained in detail on the insurer’s web-site, and everyone can understand and verify the resulting score.

Personalized tariffs are advertised as promoting fairness. They do so by taking individual driving style into account. But they also create new sources of discrimination when driving at night and in cities is punished. Hospital staff, for instance, may have little choice to avoid working at night and in cities. Thus, some of the features are under the driver’s control, but not all. Interestingly, one feature that is under the driver’s control is absent in virtually all personalized tariffs: texting while driving.

And the black box that allows fairness also enables surveillance. Consider a possible future. Why should the black box send a record of speeding only to the insurer? A copy to the police would be extremely handy and save them much effort. It would make all speed traps obsolete. If you speed, the car prints out the ticket on time or, more conveniently, deducts the fine automatically from your online account. Your relationship to your beloved car may change. There is a slippery slope between fairness and total surveillance.

Would you be in favor of a new generation of cars that send traffic violations directly to the police? In a survey I conducted, one-third of the adults said yes, more so among those over sixty and less among those younger than thirty. The technology for this future already exists, as most new cars come with a black box installed. The data it collects do not belong to the car owner and can be used in court against the driver. In Georgia, the police obtained black box data without a warrant after a deadly accident, and the driver was found guilty of reckless driving and speeding.

While the motives for surveillance vary, digital technology supports all of them. One need not even buy telematics insurance. Modern cars have built-in internet connections, and — without it being made transparent inthe owner’s manual — most send their car manufacturer all the data they can collect every couple of minutes, including where the driver currently is, whether harsh braking occurred, how often the position of the driver seat was changed, which gas or battery-charging stations were visited, and how many CDs and DVDs were inserted. Moreover, as soon as you plug in your smartphone, the car may copy your personal information, including contacts’ addresses, emails, text messages, and even photos. Car manufacturers are remarkably silent about this activity, and when asked with whom they share this data, they typically do not reply. That information helps to find out many other things of interest, such as how often drivers visited McDonald’s, how healthily they live, and whom they occasionally visit at night. Connected cars can support justice and improve safety but also spy on you. Telematics insurance embodies the double face of digital technology: surveillance in exchange for convenience.

Meta unleashes BlenderBot 3 upon the internet, its most competent chat AI to date

More than half a decade after Microsoft's truly monumental Taye debacle, the incident still stands as stark reminder of how quickly an AI can be corrupted after exposure to the internet's potent toxicity and a warning against building bots without sufficiently robust behavioral tethers. On Wednesday, Meta's AI Research division will see if its latest iteration of Blenderbot AI can stand up to the horrors of the interwebs with the public demo release of its 175 billion-parameter Blenderbot 3.

A major obstacle currently facing chatbot technology (as well as the natural language processing algorithms that drive them) is one of sourcing. Traditionally, chatbots are trained in highly-curated environments — because otherwise you invariably get a Taye — but that winds up limiting the subjects that it can discuss to those specific ones available in the lab. Conversely, you can have the chatbot pull information from the internet to have access to a broad swath of subjects but could, and probably will, go full Nazi at some point. 

"Researchers can’t possibly predict or simulate every conversational scenario in research settings alone," Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Wednesday blog post. "The AI field is still far from truly intelligent AI systems that can understand, engage, and chat with us like other humans can. In order to build models that are more adaptable to real-world environments, chatbots need to learn from a diverse, wide-ranging perspective with people 'in the wild.'" 

Meta has been working to address the issue since it first introduced the BlenderBot 1 chat app in 2020. Initially little more than an open-source NLP experiment, by the following year, BlenderBot 2 had learned both to remember information it had discussed in previous conversations and how to search the internet for additional details on a given subject. BlenderBot 3 takes those capabilities a step further by not just evaluating the data it pulls from the web but also the people it speaks with.  

When a user logs an unsatisfactory response from the system— currently hovering around 0.16 percent of all training responses — Meta works the feedback from the user back into the model to avoid it repeating the mistake. The system also employs the Director algorithm which first generates a response using training data, then runs the response through a classifier to check if it fits within a user feedback-defined scale of right and wrong. 

"To generate a sentence, the language modeling and classifier mechanisms must agree," Zuckerberg wrote. "Using data that indicates good and bad responses, we can train the classifier to penalize low-quality, toxic, contradictory, or repetitive statements, and statements that are generally unhelpful." The system also employs a separate user-weighting algorithm to detect unreliable or ill-intentioned responses from the human conversationalist — essentially teaching the system to not trust what that person has to say. 

"Our live, interactive, public demo enables BlenderBot 3 to learn from organic interactions with all kinds of people," Zuckerberg wrote. "We encourage adults in the United States to try the demo, conduct natural conversations about topics of interest, and share their responses to help advance research."

BB3 is expected to speak more naturally and conversationally than its predecessor, in part, thanks to its massively upgraded OPT-175B language model, which stands nearly 60 times larger than BB2's model. "We found that, compared with BlenderBot 2, BlenderBot 3 provides a 31 percent improvement in overall rating on conversational tasks, as evaluated by human judgments," Zuckerberg said. "It is also judged to be twice as knowledgeable, while being factually incorrect 47 percent less of the time. Compared with GPT3, on topical questions it is found to be more up-to-date 82 percent of the time and more specific 76 percent of the time."

GM is doubling the size of its Super Cruise network in the US and Canada

Since introducing its Super Cruise advanced driver assistance suite in the Cadillac CT6 back in 2017, General Motors has worked steadily to expand the number of lidar-mapped roads that the system can handle hands-free. The SuperCruise Network first expanded from 130,000 to 200,000 miles of divided highways in 2019, and will soon double in size — to 400,000 miles across the US and Canada — by the end of the year, GM announced on Wednesday. 

The Super Cruise system — and its successor, Ultra Cruise — relies on a mix of high-fidelity LiDAR maps, GPS, and onboard visual and radar sensors to know where the vehicle is on the road. So far, those maps, which dictate where features like Hands-Free Driving can operate, have only included major, divided highways like interstates with the big median barriers. Smaller, undivided public highways — aka State Routes — were not included, in part because of the added ADAS challenges presented by oncoming traffic, until now.

"This expansion will enable Super Cruise to work on some additional divided highways, but the big news is this the bulk of the expansion will allow Super Cruise to operate on non-divided highways," David Craig, GM's Chief of Maps, said during Tuesday's call. "These non-divided highways are typically the state and federal highways... that connect the smaller cities and townships across the US and Canada."

GM

These will include Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway (aka CA Route 1), the Overseas Highway (aka US Route 1) and the Trans-Canada Highway. "if you look at I-35 which is the interstate that runs North and South up the middle of the United States, and look to the West, you will see that the Super Cruise coverage currently is just the major interstates, which is fairly sparse," Craig continued. "But in the expansion, you can see that it's just a spiderweb of roads covering the entire area. All the little townships are going to be connected now." 

GM

GM executives explained on a press call Tuesday that every new Super Cruise-enabled GM vehicle that rolls off the assembly line will be equipped with the full 400,000-mile capabilities, as will 2021 and 2022 GM vehicles outfitted with the VIP (Vehicle Intelligence Platform) architecture, such as the Escalade and CT5, via OTA update later in 2022. Vehicles with Super Cruise but without VIP which cannot eventually upgrade to Ultra Cruise, such as the early model CT6s, will receive a smaller update. 

There will be no impact on the annual Super Cruise subscription cost, but you will have to have the Super Cruise hardware already installed. GM execs on the call noted that folks who bought SC-capable vehicles during the chip shortage that didn't actually have the SC hardware installed cannot go back and get the system retrofitted in after the fact to take advantage of this update. In all, GM hopes to offer nearly two dozen Super Cruise-enabled vehicle models by the 2023 model year

Hitting the Books: How Moderna dialed-in its vaccine to fight COVID's variants

The national news cycle may have largely moved on from coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic — despite, as of this writing, infections being on the rise and more than 300 deaths tallied daily from the disease. But that certainly doesn't diminish the unprecedented international response effort and warp speed development of effective vaccines. 

In The Messenger: Moderna, the Vaccine, and the Business Gamble That Changed the World, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Loftus takes readers through the harrowing days of 2020 as the virus raged across the globe and biotech startup Moderna raced to create a vaccine to halt the viral rampage. The excerpt below takes place in early 2021, as the company works to adapt its treatments to slow the surging Delta variant's spread.

Harvard Business Review Press

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Messenger: Moderna, the Vaccine, and the Business Gamble That Changed the World by Peter Loftus. Copyright 2022 Peter Loftus. All rights reserved.


Delta

Viruses of all types frequently change. They mutate as they jump from person to person. The coronavirus was no different. Throughout the pandemic, health officials tracked variants of the SARS CoV-2 virus first found in Wuhan, China, as those variants arose. None seemed a big concern, until one was flagged in the United Kingdom in December 2020, right as Moderna’s vaccine neared approval. This UK variant appeared to be as much as 70 percent more transmissible. It was given the name the Alpha variant.

Alpha reinforced the possibility that the virus could mutate enough to become resistant to vaccines and treatments that were designed to target the earlier, predominant strain. Or it could fizzle out. But variants would keep coming. Shortly after Alpha, researchers identified another variant circulating in South Africa. Beta.

In late December—just a few days after the United States authorized its vaccine — Moderna issued a statement that it was confident the vaccine would be effective at inducing the necessary immune response against variants. The original vaccine targeted the full length of the spike protein of the coronavirus, and the new variants appeared to have mutations in the spike protein that represented less than a 1 percent difference from the original.

“So, from what we’ve seen so far, the variants being described do not alter the ability of neutralizing antibodies elicited by vaccination to neutralize the virus,” Tal Zaks said during a virtual appearance at the all-important J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January 2021. “My definition of when to get worried is either when we see real clinical data that suggest that people who’ve either been sick or have been immunized are now getting infected at significant rates with the new variants.”

Even if the vaccine proved less effective against a new variant, Moderna could use its mRNA technology to quickly tweak the design of its Covid-19 vaccine, to better target a variant of the virus, Zaks said. After all, the company and its federal health partners had already demonstrated the year before how quickly they could design, manufacture, and test a new vaccine.

Still, Moderna needed to run a series of tests to see if its original vaccine offered the same high level of protection against variants as it showed in the big Phase 3 clinical trial.

Moderna collaborated again with researchers from NIAID including Barney Graham and Kizzmekia Corbett. They analyzed blood samples taken from eight people who were vaccinated with Moderna’s shot in the Phase 1 trial back in early 2020. They essentially mixed these blood samples with the coronavirus variants, engineered so they copied the mutations of the variants but couldn’t replicate and pose a threat to lab researchers. Researchers then analyzed whether the vaccine-induced antibodies present in the human blood samples could effectively neutralize the virus variants.

The results were mixed. They suggested the vaccine worked as well against the UK Alpha variant as against the original strain of the coronavirus. That was good news. Even if the UK variant spread more easily than the original virus, Moderna’s vaccine could probably mute its effects.

But the Beta variant first identified in South Africa seemed to pose a problem. The vaccine-induced antibodies had a significantly reduced neutralization effect on this strain in the lab tests. “Oh shit,” Bancel said when Stephen Hoge showed him the data. It wouldn’t be the last time. Moderna’s leaders saw the data on a Friday in late January 2021 and spent the weekend discussing it. They hoped that a modified, variant- targeted vaccine wouldn’t be needed, and that Moderna’s original vaccine would suffice, even if it had a reduced neutralizing effect. But Moderna didn’t want to be caught flat-footed if a variant-specific booster was needed.

They decided by the next Monday it was time to take action. They would develop a new version of the vaccine, one that more closely matched the mutations seen in the strain that circulated in South Africa, and which could potentially be given as a booster shot to better protect people who had gotten the original vaccine.

“It really highlights the fact that we need to continue to stay vigilant,” Moderna’s president, Stephen Hoge, said. “This virus is evolving, it’s changing its stripes. And we need to keep testing the new variants, and make sure the vaccine works against them.”

Moderna repeated the steps it took a year earlier: it quickly designed a new variant vaccine and manufactured an initial batch for human testing, shipping it to NIAID in late February, a year to the day after it had shipped the original batch of the original vaccine. The new batch was called mRNA-1273.351, appending the “351” because researchers initially called the variant seen in South Africa “B.1.351.”

“Moderna is going to keep chasing the variants until the pandemic is under control,” Bancel said that day.

Moderna also developed other plans to test. It would try a third dose of its original vaccine, given several months after the second dose, to see if that booster shot would protect against variants. It would also develop a combined vaccine that targeted both the original strain and the Beta strain.

Once again, volunteers stepped up to test these various approaches. Neal Browning, the Microsoft engineer who was the second person to get Moderna’s vaccine, showed up once again to volunteer. In the intervening year, he had gotten married, in a small outdoor ceremony to minimize Covid risk. Now he received a third dose of the Moderna vaccine. He felt tenderness at the injection site and a low-grade fever and chills, but the symptoms went away after several hours. He continued to visit the research site to give blood samples to be analyzed for immune responses.

By early May, Moderna had some answers. It gave booster shots — either the original vaccine or the Beta variant – targeting vaccine — to people about six to eight months after they had been vaccinated with two doses of the original vaccine. The company found that in the new analysis, both types of booster shots increased neutralizing antibodies against the Beta variant. And they increased antibodies against a related variant that had been detected in Brazil. But the newer version of the vaccine that targeted Beta induced a stronger immune response against the Beta variant than the booster shot of Moderna’s original vaccine.

At the time, Moderna’s plan was to continue testing the different booster approaches, with an eye toward possibly getting government approval to sell the booster shot that specifically targeted the Beta variant. But it didn’t seem particularly urgent. The existing mass vaccination campaign was making good progress at the time.

Then, with the virus on the retreat in the United States, scientists discovered a new variant driving an alarming surge in India. This variant had already jumped to other countries, including the United States. Initially, it was code-named B.1.617.2. It was even more contagious than the Alpha variant and there were fears that it could evade vaccines. This was the Delta variant.

The previous winter the hope provided by vaccines was juxtaposed with the deadliest virus surge in the United States. Again, in early summer 2021, the lifting of mask mandates and reopening of public life was bringing great hope and a sense of relief. And again, this would be juxtaposed with public-health officials sounding the alarm about the Delta variant. It could become the dominant strain of the virus in the United States, they said. The best way to stop its spread, officials said, was to get more people vaccinated, with any of the three vaccines available.

By mid-June, about 55 percent of the US adult population was fully vaccinated, which was good but still left many people exposed to the new Delta variant that spread much more easily than earlier strains. And there were clear geographic vulnerabilities. The Northeast United States had higher vaccination rates than the national average, particularly in some New England states, like Vermont with its 62 percent vaccination rate. But in the South the numbers were much lower in states like Alabama, where only 30 percent were fully vaccinated.

The high proportions of unvaccinated people in those places would serve as a breeding ground for Delta. And the more the variant spread, the more it could mutate into more variants.

By late July, the effects of an ill-fated combination — stubbornly low vaccination rates in some regions, the winding down of masking and distancing, and a rapidly spreading Delta strain—were clearer. Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths were climbing again, especially in open states like Florida, which suffered one of the highest rates of Covid-19 hospitalizations, and low-vaccinated states.

Doctors and nurses who thought they had put the worst of the pandemic behind them were once again scrambling to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients in intensive-care units. By the end of August, the United States was averaging about fifteen hundred Covid-19 deaths a day, versus fewer than two hundred in early July. Nearly all of the patients who ended up in the ICU were unvaccinated.

Some vaccinated people were beginning to test positive for Covid-19, too — commonly called “breakthrough” cases—and a few progressed to severe cases. The vaccines, after all, weren’t 100 percent effective in the clinical trials, either. A small percentage of vaccinated people in the studies got sick with Covid. But it was becoming clear that the vaccines weren’t entirely blocking transmission of the virus or stopping asymptomatic infections, as initially hoped.

Vaccinated people were better protected than unvaccinated people, even when Delta took over. In states like Massachusetts, less than 1 percent of fully vaccinated people in the state had tested positive for Covid-19 by the fall of 2021. Other analysis showed that people who weren’t fully vaccinated were nearly five times more likely to get infected, ten times more likely to be hospitalized and eleven times more likely to die from Covid than fully vaccinated people.

But Delta reminded people, or made them understand for the first time, that the vaccines weren’t bullet-proof. New indoor mask mandates were imposed, including at schools, where educators just weeks earlier had been eager for the first normal back-to-school season in two years. No vaccine was yet authorized for children under twelve (both Moderna and Pfizer were studying that population), raising concerns that Delta would spread rapidly among them as they gathered in classrooms.

By the end of the summer, people wondered if the pandemic would ever end. Some started talking about the coronavirus as endemic, not a pandemic.

And a big slice of America was still saying “No thanks” to the vaccine.

DeepMind's AI has now catalogued every protein known to science

In late 2020, Alphabet's DeepMind division unveiled its novel protein fold prediction algorithm, AlphaFold, and helped solve a scientific quandary that had stumped researchers for half a century. In the year since its beta release, half a million scientists from around the world have accessed the AI system's results and cited them in their own studies more than 4,000 times. On Thursday, DeepMind announced that it is increasing that access even further by radically expanding its publicly-available AlphaFold Protein Structure Database (AlphaFoldDB) — from 1 million entries to 200 million entries.

Alphabet partnered with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) for this undertaking, which covers proteins from across the kingdoms of life — animal, plant, fungi, bacteria and others. The results can be viewed on the UniProt, Ensembl, and OpenTargets websites or downloaded individually via GitHub, "for the human proteome and for the proteomes of 47 other key organisms important in research and global health," per the AlphaFold website.

"AlphaFold is the singular and momentous advance in life science that demonstrates the power of AI," Eric Topol, Founder and Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, siad in a press statement Thursday. "Determining the 3D structure of a protein used to take many months or years, it now takes seconds. AlphaFold has already accelerated and enabled massive discoveries, including cracking the structure of the nuclear pore complex. And with this new addition of structures illuminating nearly the entire protein universe, we can expect more biological mysteries to be solved each day."

AlphaFold has been leveraged in a number of applications, from advancing Leprosy and Chagas Disease research to conserving honeybees and addressing plastic pollution. DeepMind has also developed AIs that can outmatch top human players, master games without even knowing the rules and even improve traffic patterns. DeepMind's co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman, left the company in January in order to launch a new venture, Inflection.AI, with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, shortly before accusations of ongoing sexual harassment were leveled at the company by a former employee.

Hitoki Trident hands-on: Precision craftsmanship meets a stoney day at the planetarium

There is no better, brighter, more shining example of humanity’s immeasurable resourcefulness and engineering imagination than in the myriad ways we’ve come up with to get stoned, whether we’re smoking it, eating it, drinking it, pressing it between two really hot plates and then smoking the gooey runoff or gently heating it in a ceramic crucible to hoover off the atomized happy crystals. But never before in human history — even though you gotta assume those CERN folks know how to party — have we smoked weed with lasers. The Hitoki Trident is the desktop flower water pipe that goes pew pew pew to get you high high high, and I am in love love love.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The Trident oozes futuristic sophistication, like if the Death Star were a bong. I am really impressed with its precise design and quality machined aluminum construction. You can hear it as the water chamber seal securely hisses closed, feel it in the clunk-click as the upper laser housing seats onto the heating chamber — it’s the same self-assured thunk you get in the closing doors of a Rolls-Royce — even the silicon hose feels of superior-quality material, not that cheap-as-shit PVC tubing some brands use. Nothing leaks, nothing rattles, nothing sloshes, nothing gets weirdly hot for no reason. I am genuinely impressed.

I feel like using the Trident should be more complicated than it is given how many bits and pieces go into it. The machine is composed of three sections: the lower water chamber, the center water filter base, and the upper battery/laser assembly. Unscrew the acrylic water cylinder, fill it a quarter full, twist it back onto the water filter base holding the ceramic loading chamber, which you should have filled with shredded plant material. Insert the draw hose (or optional $30 silicone mouthpiece) into its port on the side of the unit. Slot and twist the upper stage onto the two lower sections and double-tap the power button on top to unleash a 9-second blast from its 445nm laser, vaporizing the vegetation. Now, when I say vaporizing in this context, I don’t mean like what a Volcano does, leaving desiccated but still-intact plant matter behind. I mean vaporized, like Terminator 2 vaporized.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The smoke will filter through the lower water chamber as you draw and an integrated carb on the back of the unit allows for easy chamber clearance. The Trident can handle both flower and concentrate, though just plunking a glob of budder in the heating chamber is a surefire method of clogging everything up — you’ll need to pad the bottom of the bowl with a bit of flower and top the concentrate instead.

The unit can even pull double duty as an aroma therapy machine but if you’re paying this much just to incinerate some dried lavender and make the room smell pretty, we’re going to need to talk about your spending priorities. There are candles for that.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

You will need to remove the upper section between draws and poke at the heating chamber to clear the airflow ports, though you’ll only need to do it once per bowl because there’s generally nothing left but a bit of carbon ash after two rounds with the laser. Cleaning is straightforward as well — give the lower chamber a wipedown whenever you change the water, sweep out the heating chamber between sessions, and occasionally rub the crucible out with a bit of isopropyl. Just don’t drop the laser assembly, that’s the only piece that the company doesn’t sell individual replacements of.

The 1400 mAh capacity battery charges via a USB-C port and an included 5A wall plug. It’ll take about 90 minutes after unboxing to fully charge the unit for the first time but after that, requires only occasional powerups. The company claims that each full battery is good for nearly 300 sessions and I have yet to recharge it, 6 grams and a couple dozen bowls into testing.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

I appreciate the immediateness of the process as well. You’re not sitting there waiting for a bag to fill or a chamber to electronically heat, or even for leaves to catch fire and burn. You activate the laser, and by the time you think to begin inhaling, there are clouds of dense smoke — cool, filtered and ready to say hello to your alveoli.

My only two bugaboos are with the length of the hose and its power button color scheme. Given the Trident’s tall, narrow and generally top-heavy cylinder shape, I do worry about misjudging the length of hose available and tipping the unit over to potentially disastrous consequences. And if I’m going to use the Trident as a conversion piece — a central focal point for my smoking room — I don’t want something that will be passed around like a common light bulb. A longer hose could accommodate a more sophisticated social smoking experience — give me something gaudy, shiny and metallic, that I can poke guests with while making a point.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Also, and I know this is dumb but the fact that the heat level indication at the top of the unit starts at red as the coolest setting, then green for medium and blue for the highest heat drives me nuts. That’s the inverse of what the rest of the industry uses — blue or green is always the coolest with red and white at the top. It kinda makes sense to have blue be hottest here since the laser’s wavelength is in the blue part of the spectrum but it still throws me. With an MSRP of $500, the Trident is expensive — PS5-level pricey. Available in either black or rose gold, it’s $30 more than a Volcano Classic (though still $200 less than the newer Hybrid version) and $100 more than the Puffco Peak Pro.

The best trail cameras for keeping an eye on your backyard wildlife

Daffodils flourishing in sidewalk cracks, pigeons and starlings congregating on overhead power lines, rats living in your apartment walls — no matter how urban humans strive to make our environments, nature’s flora and fauna will make themselves right at home next to us. Sometimes that’s cute, like Pizza Rat, sometimes it’s not, like Pescadero High’s recent feline transfer student. But if we’re going to be moving into their habitats and living alongside them anyway, we might as well get to know our furry new neighbors by going full Rear Window to surreptitiously observe their daily (and nightly) lives. And for that you’re going to need a trail camera. Here’s what to look for to get the most out of your backyard Big Brothering.

What the heck even is a trail camera?

Trail cameras are what you’ve got integrated into your smartphone but in a ruggedized (albeit largely immobile) casing — think, waterproof digital sensors outfitted with laser tripwires and IR vision. Like traditional cameras, trail cams come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities, all of which will determine how well the camera works in the environment you put it in.

“The human desire to observe wild animals without disturbing them goes back at least to hunter-gatherers who constructed blinds,” Kucera and Barrett write in A History of Camera Trapping. “Our ability to do so was greatly enhanced with the development of photography and other, even more recent, innovations such as small, portable batteries, electric lights, and digital equipment.”

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Trail cameras already play an important role in field research, allowing scientists to remotely monitor habitats and herd movements, as well as in wildlife conservation and land management, for the same reasons. These devices can serve much the same purpose for citizen scientists and backyard photographers.

“The most common friction point [between people and wildlife] is the destruction of a yard or a garden, that's currently what we get the most calls about,” Denys Hemen, Hospital Manager at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, told Engadget, noting that Koi ponds are particularly popular attractions for both people and raccoons in Southern California.

Placing camera traps won’t do much to stop the local coyotes and falcons from eating the neighborhood cats, but the devices can help expose urbanites to the natural world around them, ease suburbanites’ fears about what comes sniffing around the trash at night and help rural landowners monitor the movements of game herds on their properties.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

They’re also far preferable than the alternative, Hemen argues. “The worst case for animals is [homeowners] calling a trapper,” Heme said, explaining that in California, trapped animals cannot legally be relocated into the wild (to minimize disease transmission) and may be euthanized if they cannot be rereleased locally. So before you go calling animal control, maybe see what’s actually bustling in your hedgerow first.

Trail camera tests: Browning Strike Force Max HD vs Reolink Keen Ranger PT

There are as many trail camera brands on the market today as there are ways to fall out of a tree with iconic hunting names like Browning and Bushnell joined by OG trail cam maker Cuddeback and more recently established brands like StealthCam and SpyPoint. Cameras themselves run anywhere from the dozens to the hundreds of dollars and offer a huge variety of traits and accessories at every price point.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common features as they appear in our two test models: Browning’s mixed-modality Strike Force Max HD and the mid-range, solar-powered Keen Ranger PT from Reolink.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The $99 Strike Force is a solid entry-level trail camera capable of capturing up to 18MP images — plus 2MP, 4MP, 8MP shots — and 1600x900 video up to 30fps at 900p during daylight hours (20 fps and 720p at night). You’ll need to balance the image and video quality against the storage capacity of the SD card they’re being stored on or the cellular data plan they’re being transmitted through. Compared to conventional cameras, the Strike Force user has very little control over what is actually being photographed, so if you’ve got the camera set up to take 5-shot bursts at 18MP or record 2 full minutes of HD video every time it triggers, you’re going to fill up your storage capacity in as little as a day.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The Strike Force allows the user to dictate the quality and quantity of captured images — including the shutter and trigger speeds, the trigger distance and cooldown timing between shots — all through the camera’s onboard menu system. Alternately, because this stores its data to an onboard SD card, you can just as easily just slot in a higher capacity card. The downside to that is you’ll have to regularly check on the camera to empty the card once it’s filled — not a big deal in urban backyards but more so of one when you’re trying to monitor a two-acre homestead. The six AA batteries that power it will have to be occasionally renewed as well. The Strike Force can be affixed to a vertical surface either with a dedicated mounting plate or using the included nylon strap which lets you lash the camera to trees, branches, fence posts, or drainage pipes.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The $350 Ranger PT takes a very different approach (and price) to wildlife photography than the Strike Force. Reolink was a security camera company before it began adapting its products to wildlife photography, the Keen brand actually came into being after Reolink discovered that some of its customers were using their outdoor security cameras as trail cams. As such, the company ran with the idea, incorporating features like infrared sensors and forest camo color schemes onto its existing security camera platforms.

So rather than a blocky, front-facing camera body and sensor, the Ranger uses a gimballed dome that can pan and shift. This gives users a nearly 360-degree view of the area around the camera, which can be mounted on both vertical surfaces and ceilings.

The Ranger’s placement options are only slightly limited — it works best in a high vantage spot so as to get maximum coverage and needs a broad field of view to maximize the utility of its pan and tilt feature. How high up you set the Ranger could make accessing it for maintenance — swapping out full SD cards or replacing the batteries — a real chore, which is why the Ranger doesn’t use either.

Instead the Ranger comes with a rechargeable lithium battery and solar panel for continuous charging, and a WCDMA or FDD LTE SIM card instead of an SD (though there is a microSD slot for backup). Rather than picking through reams of jpegs, users can send videos and stills from the Ranger directly to their smartphones using the Keen app as well as control the camera directly. The Ranger shouldn’t be employed to run continuously as a live streaming camera, the quick start guide warns, “it’s designed to record motion events and to live view remotely only when you need it.”

The Ranger’s camera 4MP resolution is only a fraction of that offered by the Strike Force but it can record video at 2K quality. What’s more, despite all of the helpful connectivity and live monitoring features, the Ranger cannot and does not work without a SIM card. The included microSD slot is only for occasional backup when cell service is unavailable and the unit has no WiFi connection so you’ll need a monthly 4G subscription from your local carrier — and the SIM card in hand — before this thing will even pair with the smartphone app.

It’s not that the Strike Force is inherently a better device than the Ranger, or vice versa, just that they’re built with different applications and use cases in mind. So, when you’re picking out a trail camera for yourself, go into the process with a solid idea of what you want to use it for in mind. That doesn’t mean you need a specific camera just for photographing deer, another for songbirds and a third for small mammals, but you will want to “change up the settings on the camera based on the particular type of animal you intend to capture images of,” a Browning rep told Engadget. That is, if you plan on photographing primarily birds and other fast moving wildlife, you’ll want a camera with faster shutter speed to minimize motion blur and a quicker trigger speed to more likely catch the animals unaware before they have a chance to flee. The Strike Force, for example, can snap its shutting in as little as .2 seconds but takes as much as .6 seconds to cycle between shots.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

If you plan to do a lot of nighttime surveillance, the type of infrared flash the camera uses becomes an important consideration. “Some believe that a standard IR flash camera may spook wildlife because the flash/red glow can be seen,” the Browning rep explained. “Others believe it doesn’t make a difference at all and some believe that it may scare them at first but then they get used to it. All of the above can be true and to some animals it won’t even be an issue at all. The best way to tell is to just try it for yourself and observe the animal’s behavior on your property to figure out the best option for you.”

Alternatively, if you expect to regularly get shots at both day and night, look for a camera with dual lenses — one dedicated to visible light, the other to IR. They’re more complicated and expensive than single lens cameras but deliver better quality photos regardless of the lighting. Additional accessories like a built-in viewing screen can prove useful when using the camera trap in a remote location (so you don’t have to lug your laptop out to the site with you), while lock boxes and secured mounting hardware will ensure that your gear is still there when you come back round to collect it.

Of course, if you squint real hard, most any run-of-the-mill outdoor security camera, smart or not, can be adapted for use as a video trail cam. So long as it has a power source, data storage or transmission, and is weatherproof/concealable — you know, all the aspects used to describe an outdoor security camera — there’s very little stopping you from pointing it at wildlife instead of potential burglars. Ring doorbell cameras are so adept at catching critters on people’s porches, in fact, that the company has dedicated an entire page to wildlife interaction videos on its site. Or you could just adapt an old DSLR into a makeshift camera trap using an inexpensive aftermarket Passive Infrared (PIR) sensor.

Setting the thing up

If you can tie a box to a post, you can set up a camera trap. Manufacturers offer a wide array of attachment systems in varying degrees of permanence so pick the option that best fits with how long and how securely you want it set. Just don’t go nailing your camera to a living tree, that’s what the straps are for.

Positioning the camera effectively is key to capturing the best shots. “Make sure the camera is the correct height off the ground,” a representative for Feradyne Outdoors told Engadget. “In most situations we recommend around three feet.” However, if you’re concerned that the IR camera flash might spook the wildlife, the rep added, try to position the camera above their line of sight.

But before you go burying your camera in the foliage to conceal it from wary wildlife, remember that it is triggered by movement — any movement — even and especially movement not made by animals. Would you like to see the 200-plus pictures of grass that it took to get the four shots you see in this post? Because those were the ones that I actually copied over to my laptop and didn’t just summarily delete. A branch bends in the wind, leaves rustle, sun glimmers off water, a butterfly in Cambodia flaps its wings — each and every one of these events will set off your camera so make sure that you point it away from as many of them as you can. 

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Many cameras have a trigger range option, set it to the shortest distance the space can accommodate and clear out any brush directly in front of the camera that might set it off. And, I say this from experience, before you walk away from the newly-installed camera, take a second to make sure the damn thing is turned on.

GM's 'EV Live' online showroom is here to answer your most pressing EV questions

It's been a while since EVs shed their fringe curiosity reputation and become a mainstream transportation technology, but they're still not yet ubiquitous enough that the general public is really comfortable with the vagaries of their day to day use. Basically, EVs are the shiny new toy and people still have questions. GM is here to answer them. The company announced on Monday that it is opening an online showroom/studio, dubbed EV Live, that will host Q&A sessions with the general public about electrification, the ins and outs of EV ownership and GM's Ultium 360 charging network and electric vehicle offerings.

The free service will allow anyone in the US, over the age of 18, with an internet connection to contact one of GM's EV liaisons to "answer EV-related questions in real-time and give virtual tours of the EV Live studio." That studio will feature mockups of GM's home and public chargers, the company's battery technology, and of course GM EVs. The liaisons will be able to speak on a wide range of subjects — from the engineering and chemistry that goes into the batteries, to explaining the home charger installation process and select a certified vendor — but don't expect the answers to be all-encompassing.     

"If somebody's got a question about a Tesla battery pack, I'm sure they've done a lot of resources at their fingertips," Hoss Hassani, GM vice president of EV Ecosystem, said during a press call on Friday. "We want to talk to people about EV considerations overall where the opportunity presents to talk specifically about the GM advantage."

"We are not looking for our EV specialists to offer any editorial commentary, or get into a political discussion about federal policy, or state policy, or any of that," he added. The showroom is focused primarily on electric cars, trucks and SUVs but Hassani hinted that ebikes, electric ATVs and other offroad electric transports could eventually become topics of discussion as well. 

GM expects both prospective EV buyers and recent purchasers to find value in this service. "If you're someone who owns an EV, if you drove off a lot and then realized — like many of us do — 'oh shoot, I have a whole bunch of questions that I didn't get answered,' this is an awesome place to come to to understand how you can make the most of what you're already driving," a GM representative noted during the call.  

Visitors will be able to schedule a live one-on-one tour with a liaison — on-demand live group tours and prerecorded walkthroughs are coming later this year — and ask questions either through voice or text chat. But before you go whipping out your junk on camera, know that the liaisons will not abide. 

"The staff are empowered," Hassani said. "If they find a conversation is just headed in a direction that is untoward, or that somebody is treating them inappropriately... well, it's very easy to disconnect the call." The studio will be open Monday to Thursday from 9am to midnight ET, Friday from 9am to 9pm ET, and Saturday to Sunday, 11am to 7pm ET.

Hitting the Books: COVID set off an exodus of urban artisans

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed where we live and work, how we socialize, and what we do to earn a living. The pandemic, like past microbic and economic plagues, set off an exodus of well-heeled professionals out of cities to the suburbs, exo-burbs and beyond. But in an era where working from home has become easier than ever — among the privileged classes, at least — will the easing of COVID restrictions see a boomerang migration back to metro centers? Or, like catered corporate lunches and hugging coworkers, has the office, as both a place of business and a social institution, thankfully been made obsolete?  

In his new book, Return of the Artisan, Grant McCracken explores how a post-war America gradually rediscovered its home-spun roots, sprouting amidst the sterile futurism of the 1950s, growing through the 1960s and '70s counterculture revolution, and blooming with the maker movement at the start of the 21st century. In the excerpt below, McCracken discusses the accelerating effect the COVID pandemic has had on America's rejection of "smart city" living and embrace of a more rural, artisanal lifestyle.

Simon & Schuster

Excerpted from Return of the Artisan. Copyright © 2022, Grant McCracken. Reproduced by permission of Simon Element, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.


The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 transformed the American economy and culture in many ways. It was manifestly bad for hotels, airlines, restaurants, anyone who supplied restaurants, performing arts, live music, gyms, and country fairs. It was (mostly) good for people who were selling online or could seize new opportunities there. (Etsy-based artisans were quick to bring face masks to market; at their height, masks made up a tenth of all Etsy sales.) To say COVID was a mixed blessing would be an understatement.

But in one way COVID was unambiguously good news for the artisanal movement. People began to flee the city for suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and the countryside. By some estimates, three hundred thousand people left New York City, heading to upstate New York and the far end of Long Island. Sometimes this meant merely activating summer homes. Sometimes it meant renting. Sometimes it meant purchase. For all, it meant giving up their treasured city, at least for a while.

Most of these people were not migrants.They had no intention of staying. After all, a real New Yorker scorned the idea of the “bridge and tunnel” world beyond the city.This was the world God created for suburbanites, “breeders,” the weak of head and heart, people without real cultural currency, those who choose to wallow in the wasteland of popular culture.

Bridge and tunnel is the world so heartlessly captured by Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman. In this “mockumentary,” Guest gives us a town called Blaine, Missouri, a place where everyone is a clueless hick except for one man, Corky St. Clair. Corky is in fact a total dunce. Corky has failed to make it on Broadway and returned to Blaine to start again. Poor Corky.When he realizes that Blaine too must betray him, he lashes out.

“And I’ll tell you why I can’t put up with you people: because you’re bastard people! That’s what you are! You’re just bastard people!”

In a culture where expressions of outrage are crafted for us by the best writers in Hollywood, “bastard people” seems a little ineffectual. This was Guest’s point exactly. In bridge and tunnel world, people aren’t really very good at anything. They can’t even manage convincing indignation.

The bridge and tunnel stereotype had long kept New Yorkers in place, in check, at home. Things could get very bad in the city—you could lose your job.You could fail to complete that novel or win that contract. But until you actually left the city, you were still a New Yorker, an insider. You were not yet Corky St. Clair.

The artisanal movement managed to shift this stereotype. It helped us see small towns and the countryside as a virtuous choice, instead of a Corky-scale failure.With the artisanal lens in place, the world outside of New York City became a more attractive place. Human scale, handmade, historical, authentic, kinder, gentler, less competitive. Quite suddenly, bridges and tunnels were less a source of shame than a method of escape.

...

Some people began to hear echoes of the 1970s and early ’80s, when the city suffered from so much unemployment and lawlessness that people began to leave, taking their taxes with them and pushing the city into a downward spiral. Fifty years later, New York City appeared poised for yet another fall. Three hundred thousand people left. Fewer people threatened a small tax base, fewer services, and more chaos. This would mean diminished police and fire support.This would mean more crime and chaos. This would mean more flight. A self-renewing cycle had been set in train.

New Yorkers are perpetual motion machines. And now that New York City was pushing (thanks to COVID and crime) and places like upstate New York were pulling (thanks to the artisanal revolution), departure felt like a compelling option.

What a gift for the revolution! Every small town got an infusion of people. In the early part of 2020, Litchfield, Connecticut, got two thousand newcomers in a period that would normally bring them sixty. Most came bearing the big salaries that can be made in a big city. And virtually all these people had been inducted into the artisanal movement while still living in the city, by the diasporic chefs doing Waters’s work there. They were newcomers, but not entirely unwitting when it came to local culture.

This is what every social movement dreams of. New recruits who are sophisticated and well-heeled. For people living in a subsistence economy, barely eking out an artisanal existence, this was water in the desert, manna from heaven. Restaurants flourished. CSAs finally passed their break-even point. Farmer’s markets filled to overflowing. Life was good, or at least better.

But, of course, there is always a tension.The newcomers might grasp the general idea of the artisanal mission, but some of the realities escaped them. They could be rude and clueless. In Winhall, Vermont, the locals were feeling a bit overwhelmed:

The post office ran out of available P.O. boxes in mid-June. Electricians and plumbers are booked until Christmas. Complaints about bears have quadrupled.And as far as the [town] dump is concerned, as [one town resident] put it,“the closest word I can tell you is sheer pandemonium.”

In the worst cases, the newcomers were driving real estate prices up and old-timers out. The irony was palpable. Writing from the small town of Kingston, New York, Sara B. Franklin warned of the “potential loss of people who’ve kept our community vibrantly diverse, not to mention alive and functioning.”

Still. The COVID moment brought together people with taste, money, and commitment with locals who had been making small towns and artisanal economies work for generations. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But generally speaking, the artisanal movement was massively augmented.

The key question was whether the newcomers would stay.And this depended on a series of smaller questions.Would they put down roots? Would they “take” to life outside the big city? Would their employers let them stay, or would they call everyone back to headquarters the moment it was safe to do so.

I did a research project on American families in the COVID era. Mothers were clear on whether they wanted to go back to work outside the home. For most, the answer was a resounding “no.” These women now had proof that they could work from home. And now that they were working from home, they looked back at the pre-COVID era with a sense of puzzlement.

“Why was it,”one of them asked me,“that we had to spend all that time commuting, all that time on our clothing and hair, all that time in the office with lots of empty engagements and pointless meetings? For what?” In the ensuing conversation, some women were prepared to entertain the suspicion that work had been a kind of “theater.”This had nothing to do with functionality or practicality. My respondents thought something else was going on. One of them said:

I think it must be men. Women can do lots of things at the same time. We can work at home.We can manage a family. It’s men who need to have a separate time and place to work.They need a box to work in. It’s also a question of ego. Men like to see cars in the parking lots.Why do women go into the office? They do it to satisfy male egos in the C suite.

But it was not just women who took this point of view. The New York Times talked to a guy who gave up his home in LA and bought a place in Vermont. Apparently, Jonny Hawton “finds it hard to conceive of returning to his old commuter lifestyle, which allowed him only an hour a day with his 1-year-old daughter.”

If someone told me I had to go back to do that tomorrow, I don’t know what I would do,” he said.“It’s almost like we were in a trance that everyone went along with. I used to see Millie for an hour a day. This whole crisis has kind of hit the reset button for a lot of people, made them question the things they sacrificed for work.

These folks will want to stay outside the city, and they are prepared to make extraordinary sacrifices to do so. The research told me that these women had used the time saved in the COVID era to change their families, to get to know their kids better, to build new relationships with their daughters, to restructure mealtime, and to give the family new centrality. At one point I thought I was looking at the possibility of the emergence of a more fully, more emphatically matrifocal family.