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The Seven Coolest Things Online This Week

Super-strong artificial muscles and telephony iPods? The future looks brighter—especially if you listen to President Obama's plans, as he laid them out for Jay Leno on Thursday. And with Gmail's new "Undo" feature, even the past got a facelift this week. Here's's roundup of the coolest things online right now.

Carbon Nanotube Muscles Better Than Ours

We think of prostheses as second-rate substitutes to our own flesh and blood. But what if they could outperform what nature gave us?

In today's issue of Science, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas discuss their research into artificial muscle made of carbon nanotubes. Made of aerogel, the nanotubes were gathered into muscle-like bundles of ribbons that are lighter than air, super-strong and yet promise incredible elasticity.

When electricity is applied to the bundles of nanotubes, they either attract or repel one another, creating a compression or expansion similar to the action of a working muscle. And it can happen with stunning speed: while real human muscles can expand about 50% in a second, this synthetic muscle can expand 37,000% per second, making it about 700 times as fast as our natural limbs.

The material's strength lies in its lateral stiffness. When the nanotubes expand, they do so along their width; the length of the each tiny tube stays static. That gives the material diamond-hardness in one direction, and rubber-like properties in the perpendicular direction.

The material's weakness is power: it can only do about three-quarters of the work of real muscle per gram. But it can do it at temperatures from 25 degrees centigrade to over 1200 degrees centigrade, making the material ideal for new technology like solar cells that may have to endure extreme conditions.

How to Turn Your iPod Touch into an iPhone

The folks at LifeHacker have applied a little bit of hacker chicanery to an iPod Touch so that it can make calls. What you need: a microphone called the Touchpod Mic, a jailbroken iPod Touch, and some free SIP-VoIP software like Fring. Once you get an account with a VoIP application—unfortunately, Skype won't work, but FreeCall, Gizmo5 and others will—you just need to buy some minutes to make outgoing calls.

You can even set up an incoming number and receive calls, and all you need is a Wi-Fi connection. This whole workaround might be rendered moot, now that Apple has announced it'll soon allow VoIP calls using Wi-Fi—but for the time being, you can have the satisfaction of eluding an AT&T contract and still using your Apple hardware.

Helicopters Like You've Never Seen Them

Helicopters are haunting contraptions, both because of the age of the concept and the unlikelihood of their strength. So it stands to reason that this small collection of monster helicopter photos making the rounds on the social news sites this week inspire awe. Many of them are relics of a defunct, power-obsessed Soviet Union, making them even more alien. Most unbelievable: the anemic-looking cargo copters whose slight frames belie their formidable hauling power.

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Obama on the Tonight Show

In case you've forgotten just how personable the former Senator from Illinois can be, check him out here, laying out his case in plain English. Among the highlights: his outrage at AIG's foolhardy derivative instruments.

Use the Internet to Feel Bad About Yourself

This site's a one-trick pony, but a good one. Put in your age, and this Web exhibit of the Museum of Conceptual Art will generate a list of people who achieved major accomplishments at that same age. Apparently by the time he was at my station in life, Charlie Chaplin had starred in 34 films. Feelings of under-accomplishment? Check.

If that's too sad, check out another page in the same exhibit: Help for the Attitudinally Challenged.

E-mail Trails Blogs and Social Networks in Popularity

Used to be that people went online to do searches and check their e-mail. New data from Nielsen Online shows that in the last year, social network use and blogging have wedged themselves in between the two, bumping e-mail down to the fifth most popular task online. Overall, time spent on social network and blogging is growing three times as quickly as Internet use at large.

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As eMarketer notes, this probably won't ignite a re-alignment of advertising dollars; social network users are notoriously fickle about clicking on ads, and even for those who do, buying something is rarely the outcome. E-mail marketing, by contrast, is considered very effective.

The Gmail Feature You've Been Waiting For

It used to be that in a closed e-mail system (like at a school or business), you could unsend an e-mail even if it had been read, and you could even check the status of an e-mail you had sent—if the recipient had read, forwarded, or deleted it. The ubiquity of webmail seemed to have put those days to rest, but no: Google announced this week a new feature in Gmail called Undo, in which you have five seconds from the time you hit "send" to call back a message. If you wait longer than five seconds, or you logout, your e-mail is as good as sent—but if you can think quickly, you may avoid one of those forgot-the-attachment e-mails, or save yourself the headache of writing something you'll regret.


The feature works like this: once you turn on "undo," Gmail holds any outgoing message for five seconds before executing the send; that's your recall window. Of course, this means that your e-mails now travel five seconds slower than they once did, but if your boss or significant other really cares about that five seconds, you should probably hit the trail and look for a new one.