July 17, 2013
Yes, he’s the founder of Space X, the first commercial venture to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.
And yes, he’s the co-founder of PayPal and chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.
And yes, he’s head of Tesla Motors, which produced the world’s first all-electric sports car, its first electric luxury car and actually turned a profit in the first quarter of 2013.
But earlier this week Elon Musk did something that made even some of his fans wonder if he’s about to fly a little too close to the sun. Or maybe that he’s spent a little too much time out in the sun.
What Musk did was tweet about an invention he calls the “Hyperloop,” promising that in less than a month, he’ll be revealing more details, including its design.
In case you missed it, Musk first started talking about the Hyperloop last summer, describing it as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table,” and suggesting that a sun-powered tube could whisk vehicles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.
He referred to it as the “fifth mode” of transporation,” but one that, as he sees it, could leave the other four–planes, trains, boats and cars–in the dust. Here’s what else he told Pando Daily in that interview:
“How would you like something that never crashed, was immune to weather, that goes three or four times as fast as the bullet trains we have now or about twice the speed of an aircraft, that would get you from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes and it would cost you much less than any other type of transportation.”
A few months later, he would tell Bloomberg News that the Hyperloop would also allow you to leave as soon as you arrive “so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”
Sounds great. And I assume that you’ll also be able to get giant donuts that turn fat into muscle.
Okay, that’s probably not fair. In truth, Musk’s idea is not all that far-fetched. As Business Insider pointed out recently, it sounds a bit like a 21st century version of a concept pitched by a Rand Corporation physicist named R.M. Salter way back in 1972. He proposed something he called Very High Speed Transit, or VHST, which was essentially an underground tube that could shoot pods from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 20 minutes.
As Salter saw it, the vehicles would have been driven by electromagnetic waves much as a surfboard rides the ocean’s wave. The VHST would have used all its kinetic energy to accelerate, and that power would be returned when it decelerated, through energy regeneration.
It’s not clear how the Hyperloop would work–that’s what Musk will share next month. What is known is that a Colorado company named ET3 is working on a system using vacuum-sealed tubes that it says could propel capsules as fast as 4,000 miles per hour, while exposing passengers to the G-forces of an ordinary car ride. It’s been reported that ET3 hopes to have a three-mile test track functioning by the end of the year. But Musk is not known to have any connection to the company.
He promises that he won’t patent the Hyperloop concept, that he wants to keep it open source. Musk says he’s looking for “critical feedback” and that he’d welcome partners–so long as they’re like-minded.
As he tweeted on Monday “Happy to work with the right partners. Must truly share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast w/o wasting money on BS.”
There’s been news in the other modes of transportation recently, too. Here’s some of the latest.
- You are here: Researchers at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago have devised a system that allows cars to know where they are without relying on GPS. By using two cameras and software that determines when and how the road curves, it can nail down a location by comparing the layout of the route and its intersections to a map of the area from OpenStreetMap. The designers claim that in 20 seconds, the system can figure out where you are, even if you’re in a tunnel.
- Siri, I’ve met something new: GM announced recently that some of its new models rolling out later this year will come with their own apps store. Instead of living in a smartphone, these apps would be directly accessible from your car. It’s part of the accelerating trend 0f turning cars into moving smartphones, with the goal of not just creating another source of revenue for car makers, but also allowing dealers to stay connected to their customers. Among the possibilities: Diagnostic apps that can monitor your car’s condition and send e-mail or text alerts if it needs servicing, Internet radio apps for a more customized selection of music, or news, traffic, and weather apps for real-time information on what’s happening on the road ahead.
- Talk fast, this is my stop: Coming soon to the Prague subway: A car on each train that’s set aside for singles. The idea is to give time-crunched singles a chance to meet up while riding to work or elsewhere. What’s not clear is how they’ll keep married lurkers out.
- Pump it up: A team of Canadian engineers recently conquered one of aviation’s greatest challenges by designing a helicopter of sorts that is powered by a human pumping pedals. For their effort, they won the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 challenge that had gone unclaimed since it was first offered by the American Helicopter Society 33 years ago.
- Is it me or did the window just try to sell me a car?: The British online broadcaster Sky Go, along with the German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf, are planning to use a new technology that would allow windows on buses or trains to send ad messages directly into your brain. It works like this: When a commuter rests his or her head against a window, oscillations beamed into the glass are converted into sound through a process called bone conduction, and he or she will hear the ad message while other passengers remain oblivious.
Video bonus: No one’s quite sure what Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be, but the closest thing to it may be the “evacuated tube transport” concept being developed by ET3. Now this is 21st century travel.
Video bonus bonus: It doesn’t look like any helicopter you’ve ever seen, but the Atlas gets airborne through one guy pedaling.
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June 7, 2013
Andrea, the first tropical storm of hurricane season is churning up the East Coast today and while it’s not expected to do much more than deliver a heavy drenching, it has kicked off the first wave of storm tracking.
Will it hug the coast or drift inland? Will it dump and inch of rain or three? Will it provide us with our first 2013 image of a TV reporter doing unintended slapstick on a beach?
Already we’ve been told that this could be one nasty season, with a prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be major–that’s with winds of 111 mph or higher. And hurricane experts at Colorado State University are pretty confident–they put the likelihood at 72 percent–that at least one of those major hurricanes will make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard. Keep in mind that Sandy was not considered a major hurricane when it swept in over New Jersey last fall.
Hurricane forecasting is much more science than crapshoot these days. Computer models have become amazingly accurate, considering how many variables need to be taken into account–temperature, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, topography–from many different locations at different times. All told, there can be hundreds of thousands of factors that need to be weighed. And the task is complicated by the fact that we only have about 60 years of good historical data to plug into the models.
Most of the real-time data that gets fed into the computers comes from dropsonde sensors that are dropped into the storms from big, heavy “hurricane hunters,” planes that are essentially flying laboratories. These are impressive machines. They also are quite expensive. One plane costs about $22 million.
Kamran Mohseni thinks there may be a better way to gather storm data. It’s about thinking small.
Mohseni, an engineering professor at the University of Florida, believes the next generation of hurricane hunters will be drones small enough to almost fit into the palm of your hand, but able to engage fierce hurricanes by riding the wind rather than trying to punch through it. Its weight–about as much as an iPod Nano–is an asset in his mind. “Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane,” he says. “We use the hurricane to take us places.”
His take is that instead of relying on a few “super-duper” aircraft, why not use hundreds of little drones that through their sheer numbers, could make the data that much more accurate or, as he put it, “You get super duper on an aggregate level.”
Mohseni’s drones, with their sensors, would be launched with commands from a laptop, and then, with the help of mathematical models that predict where the best wind currents can be found, would be able to hitch a ride into the storm. Once there, the drones can be powered up or down as needed, with the goal of taking advantage of the wind’s power to explore the hurricane.
Riding the waves
But Mohseni is not just talking about flying drones. He also has developed underwater vehicles designed to mimic jellyfish as they move through the ocean. He envisions them as a tiny naval fleet working in tandem with a squadron of his flying drones, and that could allow scientists to also gather data from under the sea, which can be particularly difficult to collect.
He realizes, of course, that even though his drones–since they won’t resist the wind–aren’t likely to be blown apart, a lot of them will be lost once they take on a hurricane. But because they’re so small and light, they’re not likely to do much damage if they hit something. And he figures the data gained will be worth the expense.
Each of his drones costs about $250.
Eyes of the storm
Here are other recent developments in weather tech:
- It’s a wind win: The Canadian firm Aeryon Labs has developed an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) designed to do military reconnaissance in bad weather. It promises that its SkyRanger drone can remain stable in winds for 40 and survive gusts of 55 mph and also can function in temperatures from -22 to 122º Fahrenheit.
- It was a dark and stormy flight: Later this summer NASA will send a pair of large unmanned aircraft loaded with instruments out over the Atlantic to study more closely how hurricanes form and build in intensity. Last fall, the agency used one of these drones, called Global Hawk, but will add another as it expands its focus to wind and rain bands inside hurricanes.
- After all, why shouldn’t clouds be able to get that inner glow: With the goal of seeing how lasers might affect cloud formation, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that lasers can actually make a cirrus cloud glow. Unfortunately, lasers aren’t able to do this yet with real clouds; the scientists produced the effect on clouds created in the lab.
- Not to mention, an awesome shield against flying beer: And now, meet the Rainshader, an umbrella that looks more like a motorcycle helmet on a stick. Designed to protect you from rain at sporting events, it promises not to blow inside out, poke people in the eye, or drip on those sitting next to you. And, best of all, because it can he held to sit low on your head, it shouldn’t block anyone else’s view.
Video bonus: Watch Kamran Mohseni’s little hurricane hunters taking flight.
Video bonus bonus: And for old time’s sake, the lighter side of big storms.
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April 30, 2013
Bet you didn’t know that Texas has more solar energy workers than ranchers and California has more of them than actors, and that more people now work in the solar industry in the U.S. than in coal mines.
Or that in March, for the first time ever, 100 percent of the energy added to the U.S. power grid was solar.
Okay, so now you know all that, but I’m guessing you’re no more aquiver over solar energy than you were five minutes ago. That’s the way it is in America these days. Most people think solar is a good thing, but how jazzed can you get about putting panels on a roof.
Bertrand Piccard understands this. Which is why later this week, weather permitting, he will take off from Moffett Field near San Francisco and begin a flight across the U.S. in a plane entirely dependent on the sun. Called Solar Impulse, it will move at a snail’s pace compared to commercial jets–top speed will be under 50 miles per hour–and will stop in several cities before it ends its journey in New York in late June or early July.
But the point isn’t to to mimic a plane in a hurry, crossing the country on thousands of gallons of jet fuel. The point is to show what’s possible without it.
To do this, Piccard and his partner, André Borschberg, have created one of the strangest flying machines ever–a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, but one that weighs about a ton less than an SUV. Its power is generated by nearly 12,000 silicon solar cells over the main wing and the horizontal stabilizer that charge lithium-polymer battery packs contained in the four gondolas under the wing. The batteries in total weigh almost 900 pounds–that’s about one quarter of the plane’s weight–and they’re capable of storing enough energy to allow the plane to fly at night.
Piloting the Solar Impulse is neither comfortable nor without a good deal of risk. Only one pilot can be in the cockpit–a second adds too much weight–and the engines are vulnerable to wind, rain, fog and heavy clouds. But Piccard is, by blood, an inveterate risk-taker. In 1999, he co-piloted the first gas-powered balloon to travel non-stop around the world. In 1960, his father, Jacques, was one of the two men aboard the bathysphere lowered into the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, was the first balloonist to enter the Earth’s stratosphere.
It was near the end of his own record-setting balloon trip that Bertrand Piccard was inspired to find a way to fly without needing to rely on fuel. He almost ran out of propane while crossing the Atlantic. He and Borschberg spent years planning, designing and finding investors–that was no small challenge–but they persevered and, in 2010, the Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered night flight over Switzerland. Last year it completed the first solar intercontinental flight, from Europe to Africa.
The ultimate goal–after the flight across America–is to fly a solar plane non-stop around the world. That’s tentatively scheduled for 2015, but it will require a bigger plane than the Impulse. Since they estimate that it will take three days to fly over the Atlantic and five to cross the Pacific, Piccard and Borschberg have been making other alterations, too–the larger version will have an autopilot, more efficient electric motors and a body made of even lighter carbon fiber. It also will have a seat that reclines and yes, a toilet.
There certainly are easier ways to go around the world, but Piccard sees his mission as stretching our imaginations about the sun’s potential. “Very often, when we speak of protection of the environment, it’s boring,” he said during a recent interview with Popular Science. “It’s about less mobility, less comfort, less growth.”
Instead, he wants to show that clean energy can just as easily be about being a pioneer.
Here comes the sun
Here’s other recent developments related to solar power:
- It’s always good to save some for later: A team of researchers at Stanford University has devised a partially liquid battery that could lead to the development of inexpensive batteries which can store energy created by solar panels and wind turbines. One of the challenges of both sun and wind power is to be able to store energy efficiently so it’s available when the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing.
- Forget the undercoating, we’ll throw in solar panels: BMW, which will begin selling its first electric cars later this year, says it will offer buyers the opportunity to get a solar-powered home charging system designed to be installed in their garages.
- Go ahead and fold. Avoid spindling and mutilation: A Milwaukee middle school teacher-turned-inventor has created a small, foldable solar array that can charge an iPhone in two hours. Joshua Zimmerman turned what had been a hobby into a company named Brown Dog Gadgets and he’s already raised more than $150,000 on Kickstarter to get his business off the ground.
- And you thought your shirt was cool: An Indian scientist has designed a shirt containing solar cells that power small fans to keep the wearer cool. The shirt would also be able to store enough juice to charge cell phones and tablets.
- Charge of the light brigade: Since you never know when you need a lantern, there’s now a solar powered bottle cap that lights up your water bottle. Its four bright, white LED lights can turn your beat up water bottle into a shiny beacon.
Video bonus: Take a peek at the Solar Impulse during its test flight over San Francisco last week.
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February 8, 2013
When John Brennan, President Obama’s choice to be the next head of the CIA, appeared before a Senate committee yesterday, one question supplanted all others at his confirmation hearing:
How are the decisions made to send killer drones after suspected terrorists?
The how and, for that matter, the why of ordering specific drone strikes remains largely a mystery, but at least one thing is clear–the decisions are being made by humans who, one would hope, wrestle with the thought of sending a deadly missile into an occupied building.
But what if humans weren’t involved? What if one day life-or-death decisions were left up to machines equipped with loads of data, but also a sense of right and wrong?
That’s not so far fetched. It’s not going to happen any time soon, but there’s no question that as machines become more intelligent and more autonomous, a pivotal part of their transformation will be the ability to learn morality.
In fact, that may not be so far away. Gary Marcus, writing recently in The New Yorker, presented the scenario of one of Google’s driverless cars before forced to make a split-second decision: “Your car is speeding along a bridge at 50 miles per hour when errant school bus carrying 40 innocent children crosses its path. Should your car swerve, possibly risking the life of its owner (you), in order to save the children, or keep going, putting all 40 kids at risk? If the decision must be made in milliseconds, the computer will have to make the call.”
And what about robotic weapons or soldiers? Would a drone be able to learn not to fire on a house if it knew innocent civilians were also inside? Could machines be taught to follow the international rules of war?
Ronald Arkin, a computer science professor and robotics expert at Georgia Tech, certainly thinks so. He’s been developing software, referred to as an “ethical governor,” which would make machines capable of deciding when it’s appropriate to fire and when it’s not.
Arkin acknowledges that this could still be decades away, but he believes that robots might one day be both physically and ethically superior to human soldiers, not vulnerable to the emotional trauma of combat or desires for revenge. He doesn’t envision an all-robot army, but one in which machines serve with humans, doing high-risk jobs full of stressful snap decisions, such as clearing buildings.
Beware of killer robots
But others feel it’s time to squash this type of thinking before it goes too far. Late last year, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Clinic issued a report, “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” which, true to its title, called on governments to ban all autonomous weapons because they would “increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict.”
At about the same a time, a group of Cambridge University professors announced plans to launch what they call the Center for the Study of Existential Risk. When it opens later this year, it will push for serious scientific research into what could happen if and when machines get smarter than us.
The danger, says Huw Price, one of the Center’s co-founders, is that one day we could be dealing with “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us”.
The art of deception
Shades of Skynet, the rogue artificial intelligence system that spawned a cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator movies. Maybe this will always be the stuff of science fiction.
But consider other research Ronald Arkin is now doing as part of projects funded by the Department of Defense. He and colleagues have been studying how animals deceive one another, with the goal of teaching robots the art of deception.
For instance, they’ve been working on programming robots so that they can, if necessary, feign strength as animals often do. And they’ve been looking at teaching machines to mimic the behavior of creatures like the eastern gray squirrel. Squirrels hide their nuts from other animals, and when other squirrels or predators appear, the gray squirrels will sometimes visit places where they used to hide nuts to throw their competitors off the track. Robots programmed to follow a similar strategy have been able to confuse and slow down competitors.
It’s all in the interest, says Arkin, of developing machines that won’t be a threat to humans, but rather an asset, particularly in the ugly chaos of war. The key is to start focusing now on setting guidelines for appropriate robot behavior.
“When you start opening that Pandora’s Box, what should be done with this new capability?,” he said in a recent interview. “I believe that there is a potential for non-combatant casualties to be lessened by these intelligent robots, but we do have to be very careful about how they’re used and not just release them into the battlefield without appropriate concern.”
To believe New Yorker writer Gary Marcus, ethically advanced machines offer great potential beyond the battlefield.
The thought that haunts me the most is that that human ethics themselves are only a work-in-progress. We still confront situations for which we don’t have well-developed codes (e.g., in the case of assisted suicide) and need not look far into the past to find cases where our own codes were dubious, or worse (e.g., laws that permitted slavery and segregation).
What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.”
Machines march on
Here are more recent robot developments:
- Hmmmm, ethical and sneaky: Researchers in Australia have developed a robot that can sneak around by moving only when there’s enough background noise to cover up its sound.
- What’s that buzzing sound?: British soldiers in Afghanistan have started using surveillance drones that can fit in the palms of their hands. Called the Black Hornet Nano, the little robot is only four inches long, but has a spy camera and can fly for 30 minutes on a full charge.
- Scratching the surface: NASA is developing a robot called RASSOR that weighs only 100 pounds, but will be able to mine minerals on the moon and other planets. It can move around on rough terrain and even over bolders by propping itself up on its arms.
- Ah, lust: And here’s an early Valentine’s Day story. Scientists at the University of Tokyo used a male moth to drive a robot. Actually, they used its mating movements to direct the device toward an object scented with female moth pheromones.
Video bonus: So you’re just not sure you could operate a 13-foot tall robot? No problem. Here’s a nifty demo that shows you how easy it can be. A happy model even shows you how to operate the “Smile Shot” feature. You smile, it fires BBs. How hard is that?
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November 20, 2012
Most Americans have already kicked into Thanksgiving mode, looking ahead to Thursday when they’ll sit down with family and friends, pile an unfathomable amount of food on their plates and then sleep it off to the soothing sound of supersized men smacking helmets on TV.
But between now and then madness lies. There will be traffic jams and long security lines and countless other aggravations that will make you wish that this year you had stayed home and opened a can of tuna.
Don’t despair. Believe it or not, traveling is getting easier. Here are 10 innovations that can help you now or give you hope about the future.
1) You’re the one who likes his cranapple juice shaken, not stirred: British Airways is breaking ground in showing passengers how much it knows about them. As part of its “Know Me” program launched last summer, the airlines is using data it has accumulated about its customers to allow flight crews to give them particularly personal service.
For instance, say a person is flying business class for the first time. That would be flagged 0n the crew’s iPads and a flight attendant could offer a special welcome and make sure he or she knew how to use the seat. Or someone who usually flies business class might instead be in coach taking a vacation trip with his family. A crew member might offer a free drink and make a fuss in front of the whole gang. That’ll score some points.
The big question, though, is when does knowing so much a customer slide from solicitous to creepy?
2) People you meet at airports can be so shallow: When they started showing up at a dozen or so airports around the world this summer, greeter avatars were by no means a sure hit. There was some concern that arriving passengers would be creeped out by holograms that go into a 90-second rap on airport info–location of baggage claim, bathrooms, etc.–as soon as anyone comes within 30 feet of them.
But generally the response has been positive, with plenty of passengers reaching for their cell phones to snap shots of these virtual women for the folks back home. And why not? They’re happy to be on a first-name basis. (Hi, I’m Eva…or Paige or Emily or Heather or Carla.) And they no doubt they bring back memories of Princess Leia, only they’re taller, have much better hair and are way too cheery to bring up anything having to do with Death Stars.
3) Because the real adventure starts after you leave the airport: Last year the Australian start-up Rome2rio launched its search engine designed to provide you with all the travel details for any trip–not just airport-to-airport, but door-to-door. So it includes train schedules and prices, driving routes, even ferry times, if that’s part of the journey. And just last month, it came out with an iPhone app that digs up the same info for you.
4) But can it make the cheapest be the fastest?: Madrid-based Amadeus has been in the airfare search business for several years now, but next year it hopes to take a big leap forward in simplifying the process for travelers.
Using a technology it calls Featured Results, it will be able to do a high-speed search of all possible fares between two locations and, in a matter of seconds, provide the top option in three different categories–the cheapest, the fastest, and the most popular.
5) The next best thing to not having a layover: Another tech product that’s been around for a few years is the mobile app GateGuru. It gives travelers the lowdown on the mysterious world beyond the gate–where you can find the best food, the best airport bar, the fastest security lines, a place to get a massage, the ATMs.
Now it’s entered into a partnership with JCDecaux, a company that handles advertising at airports. Which means the GateGuru content will soon be showing up in digital displays in airports. The first will be at Baltimore-Washington Airport.
6) And then you shoot on down to LA: You have to admit that Elon Musk has earned some cred when it comes to transportation. He’s co-founder of Tesla Motors–its Model S was just chosen Motor Trends’ “Car of the Year”–and founder of SpaceX–which last month flew the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station.
So when he talks about a transit system that he says could move people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a half hour, you can’t dismiss him as someone who’s been munching on a bowl of crazy. Musk’s idea is something he calls “Hyperloop,” which he described as a cross between the Concorde and a railgun. Based on the few details he’s provided, it would be some kind of tube vehicle that would be able to leave as soon as you arrive and then get you to SF or LA in half the time a plane would take.
7) While you’re in the neighborhood: Airbnb started out as an online service that hooked up people looking for a place to sleep in another city or country with people willing to have strangers stay over. And it’s grown quickly–it has listings of 250,000 properties in 30,000 different cities around the world.
Now it’s taken a leap toward becoming more of a full-blown travel service by launching guides to the lesser-known neighborhoods where Airbnb clients are more likely to be staying. So far neighborhood guides have been rolled out in New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro.
8) What did you expect in Vegas, a milk store?: Given the location, this seems long overdue, but now an operation called the Liquor Library is open for business in Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport. It’s just as it sounds, a place where travelers can pick up beer, wine or booze–and not in some duty-free shop, but in a real live liquor convenience store that calls itself a library.
9) Surprise! There’s a Cracker Barrel in your future: Yes, we’d all like to be able to predict the future, but sometimes we’d settle for being able to know what’s off the next exit. That’s where mobile apps, such as Road Ninja, can make your life easier. It not only lets you know what’s up ahead, but you can also call ahead or read a restaurant review, although there’s only so much you can say about Denny’s Grand Slam.
10) What, no free cocktails for the parents?: Early next year, Air Asia will start setting aside a kid-free zone on its flights. And now a California consulting firm, RKS Design, has gone even further by dreaming up how an all-family airline might work.
They’ve named it cAir and it would feature express check-in services, stroller rentals and play lounges to keep the kids amused. The seats would be arranged so parents would face their kids, bathrooms would be large enough for diaper changes, and sound curtains could be pulled around a noisy little tyke. A kid would even be able to pick out a toy to play with during the flight–which parents would have the opportunity to buy if they can’t wrench it from his hands.
For now, it’s only a concept–no one’s sure if you could actually make a business out of the idea.
Video bonus: The Hobbit opens soon and fittingly Air New Zealand has started airing safety videos featuring a few flight attendants who look like they took a detour from Middle Earth. Sit back and relax, my precious.
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