This week the hosts debate whether one wheel is better than two, and whether having a few buttons on a smartphone is better than none at all.
There’s an old joke about Steve Jobs, that he never wore a suit because he hated buttons. There’s some truth to that old trope about designers always trying to refine their creations to their absolute core. Minimize the clutter, clear the mind, purify the experience. That’s what consumer electronics manufacturers are still doing, and we explore this trend by pointing at two recent developments in our world: new smartphone designs totally devoid of buttons, and the rising numbers of one-wheeled vehicles on the streets and bike lanes designed for two- and four-wheelers.
This week on Gadget Lab, we first talk with show producer Boone Ashworth about why people are obsessed with single-wheeled devices. Then, a conversation with WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu about the coming wave of buttonless phones.
Lauren Goode can be found on Twitter @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Julian is @JulianChokkattu. Boone is @BooneAshworth. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Michael Calore: As you know, I’m a vegetarian. So I asked them, do you have any vegetarian weasel? And in fact they did. Beyond makes it. It’s a vegan weasel. It’s a little hairy, but I liked it actually. It was pretty good. I put mustard on it, a little bit of hot sauce. It was quite good, went well with potatoes.
Lauren Goode: Hi everyone. I’m Lauren Goode. I’m a senior writer at WIRED, and you’re listening to Gadget Lab. I’m joined by my cohost, WIRED senior editor, Michael Calore.
LG: Michael’s a little sick.
MC: Just a little bit.
LG: Just a tad. Originally he was supposed to host this show. We called an audible last minute. He said, “Would you mind stepping in?” And I said, “Anything for you, Mike.” But I am sorry that your voice is not up to par.
MC: I appreciate you, Lauren.
LG: Yes. Today we’re going to be talking about wild concepts and realities in product design. These are big ideas that are impacting the way you live right now, though you may not realize it, like the way you drive or the way you ride your monowheel. Yes, we’re going to spend an entire portion of the show talking about one-wheeled devices and why people would ride them when there are plenty of perfectly good two-wheel transport options out there. We’re also going to be talking about buttonless phones, why phone makers are designing them right now, some of the pros and cons of both of them, some of the things you might not think about when it comes to products without buttons. And our colleague, Julian Chokkattu is going to join us later to talk about that.
LG: But first I’m really excited because we’re bringing on our very own Boone Ashworth for the first segment about electric unicycles. Boone is normally our podcast producer. He’s now a writer on our team at WIRED, and he’s joining us for the pod. Thanks for joining.
Boone Ashworth: Hi. Thanks for having me.
LG: Boone, you wrote a story about why people are obsessed with single-wheel devices. Tell us about this.
BA: OK, so single-wheel devices, you’ve probably seen these if you’ve ever been in a major city. If you spend like 10 seconds in San Francisco, you’ll have a one-wheeled zooming past you on the sidewalk. So the biggest one is probably one wheel. It’s like a skateboard with just one giant, fat tire right in the middle of it. There’s also electric unicycles, which you basically stand on them and face forward and just kind of zoom down the street like a cyborg. And these have gotten really popular along with other electronic personal vehicles like scooters, electric skateboards, things like that. And they kind of come from a long history of single-wheel devices. People have been interested in these for since like the late 1800s hundreds. At least that’s when the first patented monowheel came out. And monowheels were these giant contraptions where basically people sat inside one giant wheel and peddled it and tried to move around, and it was kind of unwieldy and gigantic and inefficient. And there was something about them that captured our attention, though.
They got big in the 1920s and ’30s, and you would see them on the covers of like popular science magazine. They’d be these giant concept drawings of like one-wheeled tanks, one-wheeled like plane, boat things, just a combination. And even today you see them in movies. You see them in Star Wars, people riding in one-wheeled vehicles, things like Men in Black 3, I think. The one-wheeled vehicle is kind of a shorthand for futuristic technology, something that’s just beyond our grasp. It kind of looks impossible, but it seems like it should kind of work because we have two-wheel vehicles, so what if we could just take one wheel off? So there’s been this sort of fascination with it for a long time. And we are now in a point where people are actually riding them, and they’re a viable means of transportation, and people are on the streets with them.
LG: Why is it that now people are using them as a viable commute option? Is it the technology that’s pushing them forward? Is it just kind of what you said, like people are like, “Hey, we have these two-wheel things. Why don’t we just strip away the design and make it one”? Why are these captivating the public now?
BA: I think that they’re big now because of the technology. I mean, you have tens of thousands of people riding one wheels alone. And I think it’s because you kind of go back to things like the Segway, which pioneered self-balancing technology. And then there’s this sort of gyroscopes and accelerometers that you have on your smartphone along with electric motors. These things are getting really cheap to produce and cheap to make. And so that’s why there’s so many scooters all over the place. And so just naturally, that same fascination that we’ve had with a single wheel is now able to come out in an actual form that people can ride because you have it so that it can balance you when you’re moving forward in one direction. I mean, you might still fall, and you’re probably going to if your ride one, but we have a means that it’s not just like balancing on a unicycle where a unicycle is all in your … Your body is the one kind of keeping it upright. With this technology, it balances on its own, and then you just have to keep it moving, basically.
MC: I think there’s something to be said about this design succeeding right now based on its modularity and its portability. For example, with the one wheel, you can take the whole battery and controller and just pop it out and pop a new one back in or repair it. There are ways to sort of make it easier to carry. I think they make a smaller … the company Future Motion that makes the one wheel. They make a smaller version of it called the Pint, which comes with a handle built in. But you can actually buy handles for your one wheel and carry them. And they’re pretty easy to carry. That speaks to the portability aspect of it. And also, I mean, the other device that you mentioned, the electric unicycle, where you stand, and you face forward, and it spins sort of between your ankles. Those devices, I’ve seen people carry those onto the bus because you step off of them, the feet fold up, and then you can carry it, and it’s like a briefcase.
BA: Well, they have a handle.
BA: Sometimes they have a handle that pops out, and you can walk it like a dog. You just push it down the street. Or it looks like a briefcase handle or something like that. And so you don’t even need to pick it up. It’s just one wheel. You really can get these things to be very small and very portable. And I think that’s a huge part of the appeal. The sacrifice obviously is balance.
LG: No big thing.
BA: Yeah, no big deal.
LG: Just your ability to stand up.
BA: Right, right.
LG: But a small thing to sacrifice for faster transport and improving the environment.
LG: Oh no.
MC: Oh no.
BA: I’m OK. But yeah, so that was like oh OK, these really can hurt you. If you go on the one-wheeled subreddit, it just seems like there’s a ton of posts on there that are about people nosediving and falling, and it’s kind of like a rite of passage, I guess, not to make it sound like it’s any more dangerous than a bicycle is because you can crash on a bicycle or an electric scooter or whatever, but there is just an extra step that you have to take. It’s not as easy as jumping on a scooter and just going. You have to learn how to balance on this thing because you’ve got more directions that you can fall over in.
LG: Now, recognizing that each city has its own rules and regulations, what are typically the rules around using these things? Can you use the bike lane? Are you supposed to go where scooters go? How does that work?
BA: It’s sort of a free for all right now, at least as far as I understand. I mean, I think they have the same level of regulation as like electric scooters do. They don’t have a dedicated lane. Some people ride them in the bike lane. Some people ride them on the sidewalk. The reason I wanted to write this story is because there’s a guy who rides past me on an electric unicycle every single day on my way to work, and I have to jump out of his way. The way our cities are designed, they’re not really designed for these kinds of personal vehicles. There are car lanes. There are bike lanes and everything, but there aren’t electric personal vehicle lanes yet.
MC: I think that those are coming honestly with the growth of micromobility in general, not only just more bicycles on the street, as people start to make the move towards bicycles because they care about the environment, but also with things like bike share, scooter share, and the rise of these devices, we’re going to have to redesign the city streets. And anybody who is redesigning a street in 2020 is going to have to take these things into account. So you talk to urban designers, you talked to urban planners, and they will all tell you that yeah, bike lanes as they are now generally suck. We have good bike lane designs. There are cities in Europe, in European countries, that are really stepping up and making more accessible designs for bicycles necessarily. I don’t know if they’re addressing the scooter influx or the one-wheeled device influx, but I mean, this is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about now because there’s only ever going to be more of these.
BA: Right. And I don’t think they’re making regulations specifically for one wheels, but they fall into that category, these electric vehicles. Our own Alex Davies wrote a piece called “Save the Scooters, Redesign the Streets, and Save San Francisco” about how these scooters get dumped into the city, and some people see them as a menace, but electric vehicles really, these small ones, are really the way that people are going to get around because cities are getting more and more congested. It’s really one of the only options we have other than just walking everywhere, which I don’t entirely recommend because I walked to work today, and my pants are still soaked because it’s pouring rain out there. So yeah, I definitely see the appeal of these things.
LG: I think scooters and possibly we’ll see one-wheeled devices tend to get a bad rep too because of the ownership model, which I guess doesn’t exist in the same way as it does with bikes, and the way that some of the technology enables people to just leave them in places. So with bikes, a lot of people do own their own bikes, and even if you’re in a city that has a bike share program, it’s often city-sponsored or has some big corporate sponsor wrapped around it, and then they take care to place the docking stations at specific locations. And the same has been done with jump scooters or scoot scooters and things like that. But with some of the other scooters, they don’t have a place to go, and so some people just ditch them in places. And then people who do own them, maybe they carry them on the train as they would their backpack. But people who have a bike have to go to the bike car on the train and have a specific pass to get their bike on the train. So because there isn’t the same kind of structure or infrastructure that exists around smaller personal mobility devices at this point, they do seem a little bit more haphazard, which as a result gives them a bad rep, even though in reality we should be embracing more of the micromobility trends.
BA: Right. Part of the thing about the one-wheeled vehicles too is there’s like a cyborg aspect of it, right?
BA: More so than just writing like a scooter or a bicycle. Those look like familiar means of transportation. I think when you see someone on a one-wheeled device, it seems cyborg. It seems kind of alien and weird, and so you’re kind of put off by it. But I also think that is part of the appeal. I mean, there was people that I talked to, electric unicycle enthusiasts, who kind of described being on a one-wheeled vehicle as a form of transhumanism, basically. I think it speaks to our desire to want to constantly be optimizing, be improving ourselves. We don’t want to accept our biological limitations of being on two feet, and so there’s always going to be something appealing about jumping on one wheel and just being able to zoom around like you’re a space wizard or something.
LG: I still find it a little jarring to see all of us as adults adulting and wearing our adult clothing on our way to our adult jobs and being like, “I’m going to take the scooter.” I don’t know. It’s just something I need to wrap my head around still, but this is the future.
MC: It helps if you vape while you’re doing it.
LG: Yeah, exactly, maybe like make a TikTok of it while you’re doing it.
BA: That’s how you really be cool. Just don’t be on the sidewalk.
LG: Yes, no sidewalks people. And don’t just ditch them on the sidewalk when you’re done either. Use the kickstand. OK, we’re going to take a quick break to fire Boone. Thanks Boone. That was fun. And then we’ll be back to talk about smooth, buttonless phones.
LG: Welcome back. All right, let’s talk about buttonless phones, button-free phones, phones without buttons. How many times can I say the word buttons, especially since I tend to get made fun of for how I say buttons?
LG: Buttons, buttons, buttons. All right. WIRED senior associate editor, Julian Chokkattu, is joining us from New York, so he is remote. If he sounds a little bit different or like he’s not in the room, that’s because he’s not in the room. Hi Julian. Thanks for joining us.
Julian Chokkattu: Hello. Thanks for having me.
LG: So take us through this emerging trend of buttonless phones.
JC: Yeah, so at CES I ran into, and quite literally ran into, two companies that were showing off buttonless phones. They just had prototypes of these really cheap looking Android phones, and they had no buttons around the sides. It was purely just a seamless sort of design, no buttons, and you could just use your fingers to turn on the power button or the volume rocker and all sorts of other things. So one of the companies is called Sentons, and the other companies Sensel, or sensing, if you sort of get the drift of where this is going. But basically one company, Sentons, we’ve already seen their technology in phones like the HTC U12 Plus, which basically they’re using ultrasonic waves and something called a stream gauge to measure force around the sides of the phone. And theoretically the idea is that you’re just using your fingers to place your hands somewhere around the phone to mimic the actions of a power button or a volume rocker, for example.
But it sort of opens it up to different types of ideas of now without any buttons around a phone, you’re not restrained to a particular type of design. But also you can do things like put the power button on the left side of the phone if you’re left-handed, for example. Or maybe you want to add a different type of button. Maybe you want to add something to help you focus better when you’re shooting a video, for example. And when you open up the camera app, you can turn half of the right side of the phone to just do that, measure your focus or something like that.
So different types of ideas, and the whole idea is kind of weird because I don’t think I know anyone that has said, “Yes, I want a buttonless phone.” But it is a sort of reminding me of the whole headphone jacket situation a couple of years ago when Apple decided to remove that. They took it away. People were like, “Wait, we still want that.” And now here we are a couple of years later with most people, I think, safe to say … I know there’s going to be some people that may be angry about this, but most people, I say, don’t care that a phone doesn’t have headphone jacks anymore because we’ve all kind of moved on into wireless earbuds. So who knows if buttonless phones will really take off the way that some of these companies are claiming they will? But in large part, I think the coolest part really is the fact that you’re going to be able to customize some of those directions so anyone can sort of … You don’t have to deal with a Bixby button from Samsung. You can just get rid of it or put something else there or do something else.
It does open up a lot of questions into muscle memory and all of that. I have no idea how. If I gave my phone to my mom to have her check something out, she’s going to be very confused as to how to operate my phone. So I don’t exactly know how that’s going to work.
JC: So, yeah, it is mostly coming from the manufacturers right now, but I think they’re sort of talking to a lot of Chinese phone manufacturers, and they’re saying that those companies are the ones that are really into this idea. And you can see phone’s like the ASUS Rog phone, R-O-G phone? I never know how to say that. But basically that phone augments physical buttons right now with actual digital buttons. So you can use these shoulder buttons that don’t actually exist on the phone when you’re playing a game as complimentary buttons when you’re gaming. So I think a lot of what we’re going to see is some of those phone makers making augmenting the experience of using a phone with digital buttons and existing physical buttons, but I think in large part at the moment it’s just those small companies. I don’t know if you can call ASUS small, but not basically Samsung, Apple, and Google.
But I did ask Sentons if they are planning on adding any kind of software support or talking to operating system manufacturers to implement better software support so that any app can easily make use of these sensors, and they did mention that they’re in early conversations with Google, but I wasn’t sure exactly if he was supposed to mention that to me because he kind of muttered it quietly.
LG: You’re hearing it here on the Gadget Lab podcast. Mike, what do you make of this?
MC: I personally don’t think that all of the buttons are ever going to go away. The home button disappearing I think has proven to be something that is actually helpful because, like Julian was saying, when you remove that button, then you end up with a portion of the screen that you can sort of assign to do whatever you want. Software makers have gotten really good at turning that into something that you can use an onscreen gesture for. Like Android, for example, you can get rid of the home button on the screen and turn it into more of like a gesture button, so you can swipe this way and that to switch between apps or to knock apps out of your doc, so to speak. I’m using air quotes. That has proven to actually be something that’s useful.
However, I don’t think the volume rocker’s necessarily going to go away anytime soon. There is something very powerful about being able to, while you’re walking down the street, reach your hand into your pocket, find the volume rocker with your thumb, and turn the volume of what you’re listening to up or down. And yes, as we get more wireless headphones that have touch controls or ways to turn the volume up and down on your ear just by touching, tapping various parts of the wireless headphone, that is probably not going to be as much of a problem, but I think that that idea of reaching into your pocket and pressing a button to change the volume without having to look at your phone in order to make that adjustment is very powerful. You take that away, and people are going to be absolutely up in arms.
MC: Sure. And like eliminating the floppy disk drive from the iMac and instead putting the CD-ROM drive in is the thing that drove adoption of the CD-ROM. I mean, I think the key thing there is if Apple does it, then everybody else is going to follow. It will take a company of massive, massive scale in order to enforce a new mode of interaction by changing the design. Otherwise, it’s just going to be oh, you have that weird phone that doesn’t have any buttons on it. If the iPhone doesn’t have any buttons on it, then it’s going to become the standard. And I don’t think that there’s any other company that can push the industry in a direction other than Apple.
LG: And oftentimes, phone makers when they change something like that that millions or billions of people use and are accustomed to and maybe react poorly to, they’ll make the argument that they’re actually making room in the device for other things too, that by eliminating some of the ports, buttons, modules, fill in the blank from the side or bottom of a phone, that that enables them to put a new kind of mechanism in the device or a bigger battery in the device or things like that that actually do help us sort of inch forward in innovation. So it’s under the hood, and it’s not the kind of thing that you’re going to see necessarily. You’ll just be frustrated for a really long time that you don’t have a headphone jack. I’m still frustrated that there’s not a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, but they’ll always try to make the case for like, “Well, here’s why we … We actually think this is better. Here’s what it’s making room for.”
MC: Julian, this is something that you found when you were writing your story, right?
JC: Yeah. So actually, the first reason that the manufacturers that I was talking to said was seamless design. Apparently, designers are continually chasing for this seamless design and no buttons interrupting the sides of the phone thing. I don’t know if designers are really chasing that ideal. I think that’s something that the manufacturers are saying. But two of the other reasons that they did mention were 5G. They’re saying that because the antennas need to be around the phones that having no buttons would help enable them to, I guess, have better antennas around the sides of the phones. And the other reason is this new screen technology that’s coming out. It’s called waterfall screens, and we’ve only seen a couple of phones in China coming out with this tech. But basically it’s kind of like a Samsung Galaxy phone where the edges of the phones are more screening than ever.
LG: Julian, what are the explanations you’re hearing from companies involved in this when you ask them about accessibility?
JC: So no one really had an answer. I don’t think they’re really thinking about that yet, especially because no one has a phone. Well, actually I guess you could say HTC did sort of think about this problem back when they made the HTC U12 Plus because they had digital buttons completely on that phone, but they still had false cutouts just so you could feel the areas of the buttons. That’s a whole other thing because if you’re going to do that, what is the point of getting rid of the buttons? You’re really just adding digital buttons for the sake of digital buttons and still leaving that cutout there for a button. But I don’t think at the moment there’s any real discussion about how accessibility plays into a factor of a phone completely devoid of any type of button that you can sense.
I did ask some of the company’s about haptic touch, and obviously that’s an area where they’re going to have to really improve, so that sort of on the MacBook Pro, you can press on this track pad, and it feels like a button. Most people don’t really know that it’s not a real physical button. But that’s the kind of thing that I think a lot of these companies need to really invest more time and money into developing, something that actually feels like a button so that when someone is trying to feel for their phone, if they can’t see any buttons or there’s no buttons in the first place, at least they can get the right sensation that they are pushing and pressing a button.
LG: Julian, are you ready for a phone with no buttons?
JC: I don’t think I’m for or against either idea. I feel like I could definitely use a phone without a button, but I would also really need to … I hated my experience with the HTC U12 Plus, so maybe, hopefully things have gotten a lot better. Then I will maybe be ready for it.
LG: Yeah, I think I’d have to think about it. No. I thought about it. I’m not there, so not there. OK, let’s go to recommendations. I’m so excited by the group we have today because we have Julian on for the first time. We have Boone on for the first time. These are going to be some great recommendations. Let’s take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll tell you what you should be watching, listening to, eating, everything.
LG: Welcome back. Let’s go to Julian first. Julian, what’s your recommendation for this week?
JC: SwitchPod. It’s a mini tripod. I’ve been getting into videography lately as a side hobby, just shooting videos of random things, probably nothing very interesting, but I realized I kind of need a tripod, and I didn’t want to lug something heavy around all the time. And that’s when I sort of discovered this thing called a SwitchPod. It’s a mini tripod, and you just pop your camera right onto it. It works with almost any camera, and it sort of curves out so that when you’re holding it, you can use it as a blogging camera, giving you enough room so that you’re not cutting off your head. And you can also easily then just swap, or flip the camera around, I should say, and then you can use it, sort of a little more stabilization when you’re filming anything else. And it has these threads on it that let you attach things like shotgun mics and some key lights if you need to add some lights.
And all around, it’s just a very handy, nice little thing. And when you’re holding it like that, you can just with a flick of your wrist push out some of the legs, and it instantly transforms I think under five seconds into a mini tripod. So you can just pop it down whenever you want. So it’s sort of like a selfie stick blended into a tripod that is very, very easy to carry around. And it’s only like 80 bucks I think.
LG: That sounds cool. Boone, what’s yours?
BA: I’m recommending a show. It is a true TV show, but you can watch it on Netflix or Hulu. And it’s called I’m Sorry. And it’s created and starring comedian Andrea Savage. And it’s a comedy show. It stars a person named Andrea, and she’s a comedy writer. The format’s very similar to other comedian-type shows, but the reason I like this one is because some other shows about comedians that are essentially about themselves are just very mopey and depressing and kind of self-serving, and this one is just delightful. It’s very funny. It’s just about her kind of foibles navigating life as a slightly immature person in normal adult settings. And it’s just fun, and it doesn’t make you just kind of feel bad when you watch it.
Like you watch something else, like … It’s a terrible example, but like Louie, it’s just very self-deprecating and poor, pitiful me. And this is just not. This is a very smart and very funny without also getting into that self-serving kind of nonsense. So that’s my recommendation.
LG: Awesome. All right. Mike, what’s yours?
MC: So my recommendation is for people who are like me. And if you’re like me, and you like to write your appointments down on an actual calendar and write down important dates and make notes about the things that happen on those dates, and if you’re like me and you rolled straight into January without getting a new paper planner for 2020, and you’re still using the leftover months in 2019’s paper plater, then you need a new one. And I found one that is new to me this year. I used to use the At a Glance calendars, and those are great. I found one that’s even better. It is the Muji 2020 Monthly Weekly Planner. That’s what it’s called. It is from the brand Muji, the low-cost Japanese brand. I refer to it as a target for design nerds. It’s a big A5 paper size planner, so it’s like a little bit bigger than a normal sheet of American paper.
LG: I also love Muji’s, just their notebooks. You can get a really nice, unlined notebook for $3.
MC: Yeah, I think it’s like $4 now. But still.
LG: Oh, prices went up this year. Last time I bought them last year, they were $3. But they’re great.
MC: The paper’s very nice.
LG: Yeah. The binding broke on one of them once. But other than-
MC: Well, four buck is four bucks.
LG: I’ve been using then for years, years and years. I really, really like them. OK, my recommendation this week is the Scriptnotes podcast hosted by John August, who’s the screenwriter behind Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and other movies you probably know, and Craig Mazin, or it might be Mazin. I apologize if I … I think it’s Mazin … who’s the writer and director of Chernobyl. But this podcast is all about screenwriting, so whether you are a screenwriter, in which case you’ll probably understand some of the more inside baseball things they talk about, or whether you’re just fascinated by the screenwriting and movie-making process, It’s a great podcast. But in the latest episode, Craig is out, and Greta Gerwig is in. She’s in the hot seat. It’s great. Greta Gerwig is the writer and director behind Lady Bird and most recently Little Women. I have not yet seen Little Women. I’m really excited. I’m going to see it this weekend.
But in this episode … it’s about an hour and five minutes long … she breaks down her process behind writing and directing this film. Really just interesting anecdotes throughout. She talks about how she rediscovered Little Women. When she was around 30, she was moving apartments, and she found the book, and she started reading again and said, “I really want to write and direct this.” Initially, she was hired to just write it, not direct. She talks about how she handles past scenes in the film with what are supposed to be current scenes. So the past scene she’ll print out and read, and then the current scenes presumably are just in like standard black text on the page. And she’s very funny. She talks about how someone on set is like, “Well, it’s obvious to you that that’s the past scene, but how are the viewers going to know?” And she just kind of assumes that most viewers are sophisticated and can navigate between timelines and things like that.
MC: Very cool. I always need a good new podcast.
LG: Yeah, well, I’ll be honest. I haven’t listened to many others aside from this one, but Greta sold me. So John August, I think you should have her back on regularly. All right, everybody. That is our show for this week. Thank you so much for listening. If you have feedback, we love to hear it. You can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. Thank you to Boone for joining us.
BA: Thanks for having me.
LG: And thank you to Julian also for joining us from New York.
JC: Thank you.
LG: This show is produced by Boone Ashworth, the man, the legend himself, sitting here. Our consulting executive producers, Alex Kapelman. And we’ll be back next week.
This article first appeared in www.wired.com
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