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Engineering Better Rice, Wall-Climbing Robo-Snakes, and Reinventing FORTRAN—The Download, May 5, 2017

The most fascinating and important news in technology and innovation delivered straight to your inbox, every day.

Can we design rice that stands up against climate change?
Over ten years ago, UC Davis plant geneticist Pamela Ronald was part of an effort to isolate a gene that helps rice to survive extended periods of flooding. That finding led to new varieties of the crop, which are currently used by over five million farmers. Now, she’s trying find ways to help rice grow successfully in the face of other extreme conditions brought about by climate change. Our own James Temple stepped into her stifling greenhouses to find out more.

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Wal-Mart is still desperate to out-Amazon Amazon.
It’s no secret that America’s biggest retailer sees Jeff Bezos as its arch rival. Recently, Wal-Mart has patented an automatic ordering device designed to work more easily than Amazon’s Dash button, offered up discounts intended to directly compete with the e-tailer, and even begun experimenting with automation. This week's Bloomberg Businessweek cover story asks the billion-dollar question: can Wal-Mart's new e-commerce efforts ever pull the rug from beneath Amazon?

You might be pretty disappointed by your Tesla Model 3.
The automaker's first mass-market car is expected to start rolling off production lines this year. But this week Elon Musk has taken pains to remind people that they shouldn't expect too much: "We want to be super clear, the Model 3 is not version 3 ... [it's] a smaller, more affordable version of the Model S with fewer features." And as production lines gear up, Wired reports that the firm is struggling more than ever with quality control of its other vehicles. Time to manage expectations.

Ten Fascinating Things

  1. For years, advertising firms promised that targeted ads could give big-name brands laser-focused marketing. Now some are questioning whether it works.
  2. What happens if you toss aside the structural parts of a cell, keeping just the good stuff, like DNA, within? Perhaps a whole new approach to biotech.
  3. This frankly unsettling robotic snake is able to climb up metal walls.
  4. A new 3-D printing approach can embed copper wires and glass fibers into objects, turning the results into self-contained electrical or optical devices.
  5. Facebook's virtual reality unit, Oculus, has shut down its film studio. That may be a sign of things to come as firms try and actually commercialize VR.
  6. Cheap stuff is so tempting—and a new breed of websites selling goods direct from Chinese factories know it. Is this the future of consumerism?
  7. Anyone who learned to code in the 70s (or 80s, or even 90s) will be familiar with FORTRAN. Now NASA wants to make it 10,000 times faster.
  8. Uber’s facing federal investigation by the Justice Department over its controversial greyball software, which it allegedly used to deceive regulators.
  9. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 50.8 percent of American homes have at least one cell phone but no landline.
  10. Once the preserve of nerds, memes are now mainstream culture. The Atlantic explores what happens when they cross over into the real world.

Quote of the Day

"The guys with hoodies have changed our world. But they’re not the only technologists."

— AI researcher Fei-Fei Li describes a new initiative that she’s leading along with Melinda Gates to diversify the field of machine learning.

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