A more comprehensive and devious approach

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

An enterprising group of hackers targeted a Brazilian bank with a more comprehensive and devious approach than usual:

At 1 pm on October 22 of last year, the researchers say, hackers changed the Domain Name System registrations of all 36 of the bank’s online properties, commandeering the bank’s desktop and mobile website domains to take users to phishing sites. In practice, that meant the hackers could steal login credentials at sites hosted at the bank’s legitimate web addresses. Kaspersky researchers believe the hackers may have even simultaneously redirected all transactions at ATMs or point-of-sale systems to their own servers, collecting the credit card details of anyone who used their card that Saturday afternoon.

“Absolutely all of the bank’s online operations were under the attackers’ control for five to six hours,” says Dmitry Bestuzhev, one of the Kaspersky researchers who analyzed the attack in real time after seeing malware infecting customers from what appeared to be the bank’s fully valid domain. From the hackers’ point of view, as Bestuzhev puts it, the DNS attack meant that “you become the bank. Everything belongs to you now.”

It conquered the office

Friday, April 21st, 2017

Adam Smith famously used a pin factory to illustrate the advantages of specialization, Virginia Postrel reminds us — just before the Industrial Revolution really kicked off:

By improving workers’ skills and encouraging purpose-built machinery, the division of labor leads to miraculous productivity gains. Even a small and ill-equipped manufacturer, Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, could boost each worker’s output from a handful of pins a day to nearly 5,000.

In the early 19th century, that number jumped an order of magnitude with the introduction of American inventor John Howe’s pin-making machine. It was “one of the marvels of the age, reported on in every major journal and encyclopedia of the time,” writes historian of technology Steven Lubar. In 1839, the Howe factory had three machines making 24,000 pins a day — and the inventor was clamoring for pin tariffs to offset the nearly 25 percent tax that pin makers had to pay on imported brass wire, a reminder that punitive tariffs hurt domestic manufacturers as well as consumers.


Nowadays, we think of straight pins as sewing supplies. But they weren’t always a specialty product. In Smith’s time and for a century after, pins were a multipurpose fastening technology. Straight pins functioned as buttons, snaps, hooks and eyes, safety pins, zippers, and Velcro. They closed ladies’ bodices, secured men’s neckerchiefs, and held on babies’ diapers. A prudent 19th century woman always kept a supply at hand, leading a Chicago Tribune writer to opine that the practice encouraged poor workmanship in women’s clothes: “The greatest scorner of woman is the maker of the readymade, who would not dare to sew on masculine buttons with but a single thread, yet will be content to give the feminine hook and eye but a promise of fixedness, trusting to the pin to do the rest.”

Most significantly, pins fastened paper. Before Scotch tape or command-v, authors including Jane Austen used them to cut and paste manuscript revisions. The Bodleian Library in Oxford maintains an inventory of “dated and datable pins” removed from manuscripts going as far back as 1617.


But a better solution was on its way. In 1899, an inventor in the pin-making capital of Waterbury, Connecticut, patented a “machine for making paper clips.” William Middlebrook’s patent application, observed Henry Petroski in The Evolution of Useful Things, “showed a perfectly proportioned Gem.”

It was that paper clip design that conquered the office and consigned pins to their current home in the sewing basket.

One-handed zipping

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Under Armour introduced an ingenious new zipper design created by engineer Scott Peters a couple years ago:

Although the fastening still relies on the interlocking of two bands of metal teeth, the clasps at the bottom have received a thoughtful re-design. The motivation for Peters, he says, was watching his uncle, who suffers from myotonic dystrophy, struggle to engage the conventional clasps. The solution is the inclusion of magnets and a unique catch, so that the two halves automatically align with one another and the zipper can even be done up one handed.


More on the MagZip‘s development:

The eureka moment of a magnetic zipper was crucial. But the exact millimeter grooves making the process practical would require painstaking nuance.

“Magnets in and of themselves won’t work. They’ll drive components together, but you have issues of alignment, issues of holding things together without popping out – and pulling them apart can be a nightmare,” Peters explains. “We had to figure out the combination of mechanical design so it self-aligns and easily locks itself in place, enabling you to zip with one hand.”

“We started rapid prototyping, getting parts machined, and testing. We’d make a part, assemble it, and glue it on a zipper to find out what worked and didn’t work. I had one part that actually broke, and when this had broken, it kind of showed me the way. . .we were able to evolve the design to where it is today, a more open hook-and-catch.”

Cutting Air Freight Costs In Half

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Natilus [sic] hopes to cut air-freight costs in half with drones — thanks to a more efficient use of fuel and the lack of an expensive crew:

Natilus, which has raised $750,000 from venture capitalist Tim Draper and was incubated at the aviation-oriented Starburst Accelerator in Los Angeles, will power its drones with turboprop and turbofan engines and standard jet fuel, sending them on missions at an altitude of approximately 20,000 feet. That’s well below commercial planes, but high enough to be fuel-efficient. Matyushev says trips across oceans would cost about half of what current commercial air freight transport runs, traveling a bit slower than manned cargo aircraft.

Natilus vs. Cargo Ship and 747

“Air cargo is all about speed at high price,” he says. “Ocean freight is longer transit times at lower pricing. And with certain goods — be it perishables, or goods that are looking for that middle ground — that idea of middle price for middle transit times is that sweet spot.”

Creating deep-learning systems is more like coaching than playing

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Larry Zitnick is a walking, talking, teaching symbol of how quickly deep-learning techniques have ascended:

At Microsoft, he spent a decade working to build systems that could see like humans. Then, in 2012, deep learning techniques eclipsed his ten years of research in a matter of months.

In essence, researchers like Zitnick were building machine vision one tiny piece at time, applying very particular techniques to very particular parts of the problem. But then academics like Geoff Hinton showed that a single piece—a deep neural network—could achieve far more. Rather than code a system by hand, Hinton and company built neural networks that could learn tasks largely on their own by analyzing vast amounts of data. “We saw this huge step change with deep learning,” Zitnick says. “Things started to work.”

For Zitnick, the personal turning point came one afternoon in the fall of 2013. He was sitting in a lecture hall at the University of California, Berkeley, listening to a PhD student named Ross Girshick describe a deep learning system that could learn to identify objects in photos. Feed it millions of cat photos, for instance, and it could learn to identify a cat—actually pinpoint it in the photo. As Girshick described the math behind his method, Zitnick could see where the grad student was headed. All he wanted to hear was how well the system performed. He kept whispering: “Just tell us the numbers.” Finally, Girshick gave the numbers. “It was super-clear that this was going to be the way of the future,” Zitnick says.

Within weeks, he hired Girshick at Microsoft Research, as he and the rest of the company’s computer vision team reorganized their work around deep learning. This required a sizable shift in thinking. As a top researcher once told me, creating these deep learning systems is more like being a coach than a player. Rather than building a piece of software on your own, one line of code at a time, you’re coaxing a result from a sea of information.

Masters of reality, not big thinkers

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth attempts to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around?

He reminds us that the skirmishing of philosophers and their ideas, the preoccupation of popular historians, is in many ways a sideshow — that the revolution that gave Europe dominance was, above all, scientific, and that the scientific revolution was, above all, an artisanal revolution. Though the élite that gets sneered at, by Trumpites and neo-Marxists alike, is composed of philosophers and professors and journalists, the actual élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans — masters of reality, not big thinkers.

Mokyr sees this as the purloined letter of history, the obvious point that people keep missing because it’s obvious. More genuinely revolutionary than either Voltaire or Rousseau, he suggests, are such overlooked Renaissance texts as Tommaso Campanella’s “The City of the Sun,” a sort of proto-Masonic hymn to people who know how to do things. It posits a Utopia whose inhabitants “considered the noblest man to be the one that has mastered the most skills… like those of the blacksmith and mason.” The real upheavals in minds, he argues, were always made in the margins. He notes that a disproportionate number of the men who made the scientific and industrial revolution in Britain didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but got artisanal training out on the sides. (He could have included on this list Michael Faraday, the man who grasped the nature of electromagnetic induction, and who worked some of his early life as a valet.) What answers the prince’s question was over in Dr. Johnson’s own apartment, since Johnson was himself an eccentric given to chemistry experiments — “stinks,” as snobbish Englishmen call them.

As in painting and drawing, manual dexterity counted for as much as deep thoughts — more, in truth, for everyone had the deep thoughts, and it took dexterity to make telescopes that really worked. Mokyr knows Asian history, and shows, in a truly humbling display of erudition, that in China the minds evolved but not the makers. The Chinese enlightenment happened, but it was strictly a thinker’s enlightenment, where Mandarins never talked much to the manufacturers. In this account, Voltaire and Rousseau are mere vapor, rising from a steam engine as it races forward. It was the perpetual conversation between technicians and thinkers that made the Enlightenment advance. ted talks are a licensed subject for satire, but in Mokyr’s view ted talks are, in effect, what separate modernity from antiquity and the West from the East. Guys who think big thoughts talking to guys who make cool machines — that’s where the leap happens.

The Church of Electronic Culture

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Long before there were hackers and makers, there were tinkerers, and long before magazines like Wired and Mondo 2000 pushed a vision of the cyber-future, magazines like Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories pushed a vision of the electronic future. Hugo Gernsback was the tinkerer who coined the term scientifiction and published many of the magazines that blended science and fiction:

First, though, he was a radio man, immersed in and obsessed with the new technology of wireless communication. He was an inventor in the turn-of-the-century generation inspired by Thomas Edison; among his eighty patents are “Radio Horn”; “Detectorium”; “Luminous Electric Mirror”; “Ear Cushion” (for telephone receivers); “Combined Electric Hair Brush and Comb” (“may also be used as a massage instrument”). He formed the first radio hobbyist group, the Wireless Association of America, when he was twenty-five years old, and incorporated its successor, the Radio League of America, six years later; created Radio News magazine; and started one of New York’s first stations, WRNY, broadcasting from atop the Roosevelt Hotel on Madison Avenue. The station and the league promoted the magazine, and the magazine promoted the station and the league, and all promoted Gernsback. He was an evangelist for the church we might call electronic culture. Most of us are its parishioners nowadays, with our magic boxes.

Gernsback left a trail of technical writings, patents, interviews, newspaper clippings, and prophetic essays, and the best of these have now been gathered into a beautifully illustrated compendium and sourcebook titled The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction, by Grant Wythoff, a Columbia University historian of media studies.

Hugo Gernsback wearing his Isolator

Born Hugo Gernsbacher, the son of a wine merchant in a Luxembourg suburb before electrification, he started tinkering as a child with electric bell-ringers. When he emigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen, in 1904, he carried in his baggage a design for a new kind of electrolytic battery. A year later, styling himself in Yankee fashion “Huck Gernsback,” he published his first article in Scientific American, a design for a new kind of electric interrupter. That same year he started his first business venture, the Electro Importing Company, selling parts and gadgets and a “Telimco” radio set by mail order to a nascent market of hobbyists and soon claiming to be “the largest makers of experimental Wireless material in the world.”

His mail-order catalogue of novelties and vacuum tubes soon morphed into a magazine, printed on the same cheap paper but now titled Modern Electrics. It included articles and editorials, like “The Wireless Joker” (it seems pranksters had fun with the new communications channel) and “Signaling to Mars.” It was hugely successful, and Gernsback was soon a man about town, wearing a silk hat, dining at Delmonico’s and perusing its wine list with a monocle.

Public awareness of science and technology was new and in flux. “Technology” was barely a word and still not far removed from magic. “But wireless was magical to Gernsback’s readers,” writes Wythoff, “not because they didn’t understand how the trick worked but because they did.” Gernsback asked his readers to cast their minds back “but 100 years” to the time of Napoleon and consider how far the world has “progressed” in that mere century. “Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress,” he wrote in the first issue of Amazing Stories “and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations — impossible 100 years ago — are brought about today.”

So for Gernsback it was completely natural to publish Science Wonder Stories alongside Electrical Experimenter. He returned again and again to the theme of fact versus fiction — a false dichotomy, as far as he was concerned. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were inventors and prophets, their fantastic visions giving us our parachutes and submarines and spaceships. “In time to come,” he wrote in one editorial, “there is no question that science fiction will be looked upon with considerable respect by every thinking person.” He declared, and believed, that science fiction would be the true literature of the future.

If there’s a rumble, I’m sticking with him

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

I don’t know that I’d call Stewart Brand the last prankster, but he is an interesting character:

Brand served in the Army as an officer from 1960 to 1963. I’m initially puzzled by how early and often in our conversations Brand praises his time in the military, but I come to see how much this period in his life defines him. He credits the Army with teaching him how to judge character, how to accomplish goals. “I learned how to back the fuck off and let the ‘sergeants’ do their work,” he says. Although in some respects a flower child, Brand never grew a beard or long hair, last dropped acid in 1969, calls Zen boring, and dismisses the New Left activists of his youth as all talk and no action – a failing Brand clearly cannot abide. In ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’ Tom Wolfe’s book on the psychedelic peregrinations of Kesey and his hippie companions, Brand is identified as the “restrained, reflective wing of the Merry Pranksters.” (Krassner describes his time rooming with Brand as “a New Age Odd Couple,” with Brand as Felix.) It was Brand who organized the Merry Pranksters’ famous Trips Festival, a music-and-light show attended by 10,000 people, many of whom saw their first (of many) Grateful Dead shows there.

Maybe most famously, during an LSD-induced vision in 1966, Brand wrote in his journal, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” The first space launch was more than a decade old, and Brand believed the image would transform how humans conceived of the planet. He began distributing buttons displaying his question – they quickly became popular in the Haight, in Oakland, and eventually at NASA. Photographs from space were released in 1968 and soon appeared on the covers of both the first Whole Earth Catalog and ‘Life’ magazine (and later on your Mac screen), providing just the jolt to environmental consciousness that Brand had envisioned. Two years later, more than 20 million Americans attended rallies for the inaugural Earth Day.


He is not cool in any conventional sense, nor is he slick in presentation or attire, like some Timothy Ferriss type. Nor does he possess the laid-back vibe of, say, Steve Jobs, with his faded Levi’s and mock turtles. Brand has dressed that evening in a moisture-wicking, triple-stitched 5.11 tactical shirt with a half-dozen pockets, including ones hidden along the chest that are specifically marketed as just right for a small backup piece. Brand informs me that he has 10 of these shirts, presumably all in tan, gray, or pea green, the only colors I see him wearing. Two knives hang conspicuously from Brand’s belt – not just a practical Swiss Army but also his “dress knife,” an ornate specimen reserved for formal occasions. “If there’s a rumble,” a guy seated behind me remarks, “I’m sticking with him.”

Japan prefers lower-key missions in the opposite direction

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

Japan hopes to win the space race by focusing on small-scale experiments and tools that are useful for daily life:

The U.S. and China are spending billions of headline-grabbing dollars in a tacit race to put humans on Mars. Japan prefers lower-key missions in the opposite direction, sending mechanical explorers toward Venus and Mercury for a fraction of the price.

A $290 million probe orbiting Venus is collecting information about the scorching atmosphere that may foretell Earth’s future. A collaborative mission with Europe will measure Mercury’s magnetic field and electromagnetic waves. Another craft is gliding toward an asteroid to search for water.

With a budget less than a 10th the size of NASA’s, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is more about scientific endeavors with earthly applications than spectacular travels. JAXA-launched satellites track movements in the Earth’s crust that can portend volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and its astronauts are helping a Tokyo drug developer pursue a cure for cancer.

Anti-Helicopter Mines?

Friday, January 20th, 2017

The U.S. Army is now concerned about anti-helicopter mines:

Bulgaria, which seems to have developed these devices as far as as the late 1990s, offers several mines such as the AHM-200, a 200-pound device which looks like a mortar tube mounted on a tripod. The mine, which is emplaced on the surface rather than buried in the dirt, has an acoustic sensor which arms the weapon when it picks up the sound of the helicopter as far away as 1,500 feet. At a range of 500 feet, a Doppler radar tracks the target. When the helicopter gets within 300 feet, the mine detonates both an explosively formed projectile and an explosive charge packed with steel balls.

A 2012 Russian news video shows what looks a similar device. A Russian expert in the video claims that anti-helicopter mines were developed because shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are ineffective against helicopters flying lower than 300 feet.

Other nations have also developed anti-helicopter mines. Poland has one, while Austria has developed an infrared-guided version.

How Amazon innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Timothy B. Lee explains how Amazon innovates in ways that Google and Apple can’t:

Amazon has figured out how to combine the entrepreneurial culture of a small company with the financial resources of a large one. And that allows it tackle problems most other companies can’t.


Google’s approach — solve the hard technical problems first, worry about the business model later — is rooted in the engineering background of Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In contrast, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spent almost a decade working for several Wall Street firms before starting Amazon — a background that gives him a more pragmatic outlook that’s more focused on developing products customers will actually want to pay for.

Bezos has worked to create a culture at Amazon that’s hospitable to experimentation.

“I know examples where a random Amazon engineer mentions ‘Hey I read about an idea in a blog post, we should do that,’” Eric Ries says. “The next thing he knows, the engineer is being asked to pitch it to the executive committee. Jeff Bezos decides on the spot.”

A key factor in making this work, Ries says, is that experiments start small and grow over time. At a normal company, when the CEO endorses an idea, it becomes a focus for the whole company, which is a recipe for wasting a lot of resources on ideas that don’t pan out. In contrast, Amazon creates a small team to experiment with the idea and find out if it’s viable. Bezos famously instituted the “two-pizza team” rule, which says that teams should be small enough to be fed with two pizzas.

Ries says that new teams get limited funding and clear milestones; if a team succeeds in smaller challenges, it’s given more resources and a larger challenge to tackle.

But Amazon doesn’t spend too much time on internal testing. “They prioritize launching early over everything else,” one engineer wrote in an epic 2011 rant comparing Amazon’s culture to other technology companies. Launching early with what Ries has dubbed a “minimum viable product” allows Amazon to learn as quickly as possible whether an idea that sounds good on paper is actually a good idea in the real world.

Of course, this method isn’t foolproof; Amazon has had plenty of failures, like its disastrous foray into the smartphone market. But by getting a product into the hands of paying customers as quickly as possible and taking their feedback seriously, Amazon avoids wasting years working on products that don’t serve the needs of real customers.

This seems to be the approach Amazon is taking with Amazon Go, its new convenience store concept. It’s a technology that could work in many different types of retail stores, but Amazon’s initial approach is modest: a single, relatively small convenience store. Media reports suggest that Amazon plans to open 2,000 retail stores, but the company disputes this. The Amazon way, after all, isn’t to open one store because there’s a plan for 2,000. It’s to open one store and then open thousands more if the first one is a big success.

In the abstract this approach — minimize bureaucracy, start out with small experiments, expand them if they’re successful — sounds so good that it’s almost banal. But it’s surprisingly difficult for big companies to do this, especially when they’re entering new markets.

Over time, big companies develop cultures and processes optimized for the market where they had their original success. Companies have a natural tendency to establish uniform standards across the enterprise.


“It doesn’t matter what technology” teams use at Amazon, one of the company’s former engineers wrote in 2011. Bezos has explicitly discouraged the kind of standardization you see at companies like Google and Apple, encouraging teams to operate independently using whatever technology makes the most sense.

Bezos has worked hard to make Amazon a modular, flexible organization with a minimum of company-wide policies.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

The U.S. Army’s Radical Idea to Save Its Tanks from Enemy Missiles

Friday, January 13th, 2017

The U.S. Army’s radical idea to save its tanks from enemy missiles involves a shield:

OBJECTIVE: Develop and demonstrate a model for a mechanism capable of moving an armor panel of at least 1 square foot with an areal density of 100 pounds per square foot (PSF) 10” horizontally in less than 5 seconds. The movement is intended to be repeatable and controlled from the interior of the vehicle and shall not pose harm to dismounted personnel.

DESCRIPTION: Conventional armor solutions currently being integrated are “not adaptable” in providing increased threat capability and protection from a greatly expanded set of threats. A solution is needed for threats that are not feasibly addressed with conventional armor systems. Conventional armor systems are essentially static and unable to respond to unanticipated changes in threats deployed against the system; essentially the army has limited potential to increase the capabilities of current static armor recipes in order to balance size, weight, and performance requirements.

Increased threat defeat using conventional armor is prohibitive due to the significant weight burdens associated with increased protection. Any increase in weight has secondary effects such as limited off-road mobility and increased logistics burden.

This SBIR topic solicits new, innovative approaches to incorporate mechanisms into an armor system to provide protection against increased threats. For the purpose of this effort the system shall be designed to interface with a 1” plate of Rolled Homogenous Armor (RHA) Plate that represents a surrogate vehicle structure. The mechanism needs to be capable of moving a 100 PSF armor panel 10 inches horizontally in less 5 seconds. The mechanism needs to be able to withstand automotive loading as well as environmental conditions typical of a combat vehicle. The proposal should discuss in detail how the system could be incorporated onto a vehicle platform and what the projected Space, Weight, Power, and cooling (SWAP-C) at the vehicle level.

The proposal shall not include a system that could be describe as an Active Protection System (APS). A system is considered an APS system if any of the two statements apply: 1. A light-weight hit avoidance vehicle defense system which, when integrated on a ground combat vehicle, can detect, track; and then interdict by diversion, disruption, neutralization, or destruction of incoming line-of-sight threat munitions. 2. A system that deploys a counter-measure that does not providing any inherent protection to the vehicle system when the counter-measure does not perform as designed.

Lego Boost

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Lego’s new Boost line was designed to be less complex than its Mindstorms line:

My favorite was Vernie, a bowtie-clad robot with amazing moving eyebrows. There’s also a cat, a space rover, a factory and a guitar.

LEGO Boost

While most of the pieces resemble the billions out there in the wild, Lego Boost kits come with a special Move Hub. Inside is a computer, a wireless chip and a tilt sensor. Attach that, along with included motors and a special sensor that detects color and distance, and the creations come to life.

Actually, there’s one additional step: coding. Lego Boost connects to an Android or iOS tablet app—at launch, no phones, however. The app demonstrates how to assemble simple lines of instruction. No typing required. Like real-world Lego bricks, these digital blocks of code stack up to make your Lego creation respond to stimuli or perform a routine. In a few minutes, I was able to make Vernie do a little dance, and the cat meow when I gave it a milk bottle made from bricks.

The rest of us are end users

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

More people believe in magic than we would care to admit, Richard Fernandez says:

ISIS is currently carrying out a campaign against wizards in their midst and is executing those they suspect of dabbling in it. But that is understandable given their world view.


When the last cellphone in the Caliphate is destroyed or worn out no one will know how to make another. Their 8th century is capable of producing fanaticism but probably couldn’t make a ball point pen. Objects in the ISIS universe are “magical” — put there by Allah in the possession of the infidel for holy warriors to plunder and enjoy until the power which inheres in them gradually fades away.

Surprisingly much of the modern world is not very different. Many people treat technology like magic even in the West. How does a cell phone work? Dunno. Where does it come from? The store. Civilization depends on the knowledge of a small fraction of the world’s 7.5 billion population. The know-how to make pharmaceuticals, complex devices, aircraft, computers, industrial chemicals from scratch is probably confined to a few million people concentrated in North America, Europe, Russia and North Asia. The rest of us are end users.

If a global catastrophe destroyed all of civilization’s works yet spared these few million they could re-create every object in the world again. By contrast if only these few millions perished the remaining billions though untouched could continue only until things broke down. It is knowledge which sustains civilization.

Mix of Graphene With ‘Silly Putty’ Yields Extremely Sensitive Sensor

Monday, December 12th, 2016

Mixing graphene — a material made of single-atom-thick layers of carbon — with homemade “Silly Putty” produces a sensor so sensitive that it can detect the tiny footsteps of spiders:

Dr. Coleman’s lab has a long tradition of incorporating household products into nanotechnology research. For instance, they have made graphene using a kitchen blender. The idea of mixing graphene with silly putty came from one of Dr. Coleman’s students. He greenlit the project, thinking it would be a good outreach tool. The material turned out to have unusual and interesting properties.

Silly Putty manufacturer Crayola didn’t respond to a request for comment.

To do their tests, the scientists hooked up their G-putty using wires to a recording device. When pressure is applied—by a spider’s walking or a heart’s pulsing—they showed G-putty’s resistance, or ability to conduct electricity, changed in a measurable way, giving scientists the “basis of a sensor,” according to Dr. Coleman. G-putty, he says, is about 10 times as sensitive as other similar technologies. (In a wearable, it would be connected to some sort of battery, he said.)