3/31/2009 4:22:24 PM
The year 2009 looked very different when seen from the 1950s. Nuclear powered cars roamed the streets and people feasted on meal pills for dinner. Matt Novak sifts through these past visions of the future and compiles them on his blog Paleo-Future.
For the latest episode of the UtneCast, senior editor Jeff Severns Guntzel and assistant web editor Bennett Gordon sit down with Novak to talk about what these paleo-futuristic visions mean to our culture, and what the future might look like. Other topics covered in the episode include the greatest hits of corporate jargon and a guide to war photography.
3/30/2009 4:46:49 PM
It turns out there’s still a couple things humans can do that computers can’t—like decipher those online security checks: “squiggly, distorted letters that look like a cross between a Rorschach test and a four-year-old’s signature—a CAPTCHA, as computer scientists call them.” Computers also can’t decode scanned pages of antiquated texts with blurry, misaligned fonts, or outdated words. So a computer scientist from Guatemala, Luis von Ahn, transformed many of those seemingly useless CAPTCHAs into a fruitful endeavor.
The Walrus explains: “Now a growing number of websites, from e-commerce (Ticketmaster) to social networking (Facebook) to blogging (Wordpress), have implemented the precocious professor’s new tool, dubbed reCAPTCHA. If you’ve visited those sites, your squiggly-letter-reading ability has been harnessed for a massive project that aims to scan and make freely available every out-of-copyright book in the world, by deciphering words from old texts that have stumped scanning software.”
“The service is supplied free to any website that wants it, and in addition to helping decipher books scanned for the Internet Archive, reCAPTCHA has been recruited to assist in the digitization of the entire archive of the New York Times back to 1851…The pursuit of such public goods, von Ahn hopes, will deflect any resentment from his human scanners. ‘We could do other things, like digitizing cheques,’ he notes. ‘But banks already make enough money.’”
Source: The Walrus
Image by vlima.com licensed under Creative Commons
3/30/2009 12:14:33 PM
There are plenty of memory games, crossword puzzles, and sodoku websites that promise a workout for your brain, even if the science behind the claim is a bit shaky. Discover magazine offers six websites—most of them free—that promise to keep your brain stimulated, and maybe make you smarter. Whether or not the science behind them is true, the games are still pretty fun.
3/26/2009 11:13:10 AM
Americans need to get away from their computers and get some sun. Three out of every four American teens and adults aren’t getting enough vitamin D, the nutrient you can get from standing in the sunshine. And the problem is getting worse, according to research published in Archives of Internal Medicine and reported by Scientific American: From 1988 to 1994, 45 percent of people tested had sufficient vitamin D. One decade later, that number had dropped to 23 percent. Among African Americans, 12 percent had sufficient vitamin D a decade ago, while just 3 percent of people had the recommended levels more recently.
Vitamin D deficiencies, “are increasingly blamed for everything from cancer and heart disease to diabetes,” according to the Scientific American. The study’s co-author Adit Ginde blames the lack of vitamin D in part on the proliferation of sunscreen and other efforts to prevent skin cancer. A lack of vitamins in regular diets also may play a role.
Some of the study’s critics claim the results inflate the problem, but still admit that vitamin D deficiencies are hugely prevalent and problematic.
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Source: Scientific American
3/25/2009 2:58:03 PM
The internet spreads information around the world, but freedom is more difficult. Believers in a coming tech-utopia have plenty of evidence to show the web’s democratizing force: The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was facilitated in part by new-media technologies, and blogging platforms have given a voice to dissenters in Burma, Iran, China, and many other places. The problem is, Evgeny Morozov writes for the Boston Review, “no dictators have been toppled via Second Life, and no real elections have been won there either; otherwise, Ron Paul would be President.”
Reports of China’s growing internet dissent can make for compelling reads in mainstream media outlets, but Morozov writes that they’re often overblown. YouTube users recently tweaked censors with videos about a “grass-mud horse,” the name of which, in Chinese, sounds a lot like a dirty sex pun. The New York Times said the videos “raised real questions about China’s ability to stanch the flow of information over the Internet.”
More recently, when China blocked access to YouTube, allegedly over videos showing Chinese police beating Tibetan protestors, many assumed this would backfire on the government. Writing for Time, Austin Ramzy said that blocking YouTube gives the impression that the Chinese government is afraid of the internet and that a “ shift in how people cover the Internet in China may be lost on the government.”
In fact, draconian blocking of websites is just one part of a two-pronged strategy for Chinese information control. The Chinese government is also trying to use the internet as a tool to forward their agenda. The government has trained an estimated 280,000 people to “neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views” David Bandurski reports for the Far Eastern Economic Review. This group—known as the 50 Cent Party, because of the money they are rumored to be paid for each pro-government message—posts to chat rooms and web forums, and also reports dissident content.
“The goal of the government is to crank up the ‘noise’ and drown out progressive and diverse voices on China’s internet,” Chinese web entrepreneur Isaac Mao told Bandurski.
Even if political information is allowed to flow, assuming that information will lead to democracy and freedom is not necessarily true. Western journalists often focus on the blogs written in English, which tend to be more progressive and pro-Western. In other languages, the political landscape is much different. Morozov writes that “investing in new media infrastructure might also embolden the conservatives, nationalists, and extremists, posing an even greater challenge to democratization.”
Another threat may lie in the structure of the internet itself. The web may actually serve in polarizing political atmospheres, according to Cass Sunstein, both in the United States and abroad. A recent article for Harvard Magazine explores Sunstein’s idea that personalized news services like Google News, and Time Magazine’s new “Mine” service are blocking out ideas diverse opinions, allowing people to read about what they want and filter out the rest. Without an “architecture of serendipity,” where people can happen upon diverse opinions and news, the internet could lead to extremism.
None of this disregards the web’s potential for good. Sunstein calls new technologies “more opportunity than threat,” but serious work will need to be done to promote progressive voices and politics. It also means acknowledging that the techno-utopia envisioned in a free internet may not be worth the paper its printed on.
Image adapted from photo by
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Sources: Boston Review, Time, New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Harvard Magazine
3/25/2009 10:17:02 AM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is POZ editor Regan Hofmann. POZ won an Utne Independent Press Award last year for its work covering one of the most diverse audiences out there: people living with HIV/AIDS. Here are Hofmann's picks (check back tomorrow for Geez editor Will Braun):
The stigma around HIV has yet to significantly wane after 28 years of a global epidemic. As an openly HIV positive woman involved in a daily struggle against the stigmatization of people living with HIV, I sometimes ask myself whether it is possible to change people’s perceptions. When you’re fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle every day, it’s helpful to remind yourself that there are many other people around the world fighting arguably even more difficult wars of social injustice and that they occasionally win.
Here are links to five people I have met have who inspire me with their incredible commitment to preserving the health and dignity of humanity despite unspeakable odds. They serve as reminders that a single person with the right level of determination and motivation can do what armies of people sometimes cannot.
Fighting Bondage: Somaly Mam, a Cambodian activist and founder of the Somaly Mam Foundation, strives to end the slavery of women and children by eradicating human trafficking. Freed herself from a life of bondage, she fights an industry profiting between $7-12 billion U.S. dollars a year and gives victims and survivors a voice, empowering them to “create and sustain lives of dignity” despite the atrocities they have survived.
On the Ground: Christopher Morrison is the founder and executive director of Care Highway, an organization that responds swiftly to natural and manmade disasters around the world. Based on the notion that everyone has the right to freedom and security, Care Highway works with human rights “on a practical level and not with issues concerning governments, political factions, ideologies, economic interests, or religious creeds.” When political unrest or faith-based issues keep some relief organizations from a given area, Care Highway goes in.
HIV in China: Dr. Gao Yaojie and Li Dan are both AIDS activists in China who helped daylight the problem of HIV polluting the blood supply in rural Zhengzhou, Henan province when the Chinese government maintained it was not a concern. Despite being put under house arrest because of their efforts to highlight the AIDS epidemic there, they both continue to fight unrelentingly for justice for people living with HIV in China.
Twana Twitu: Mwende Edozie is the founder of the Twana Twitu orphanage in Kenya. While on vacation in Africa, she saw the faces of many children on the obituary pages of the local newspapers. She asked, “How had Kenya allowed the pandemic to reach such catastrophic heights? Why were all these deaths not raising more fear? Were their interventions in place to prevent further spread? And finally, did support systems exist to protect the survivors particularly the children?” Seeking the answers led to Twana Twitu. Today, she sends food, money, clothing and medical care to 55 children in and around the Migwani division, near her hometown.
News by You: I also like Demotix, a new site for citizen journalism that allows people to upload stories and photos; they then get sent to the mainstream media.
BIO: Regan Hofmann is the editor-in-chief of POZ magazine and poz.com. She is on the boards of The National Association of People with AIDS and The Names Project (which uses the AIDS Memorial Quilt for HIV education and prevention). She is an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She has a memoir coming out this September describing her personal journey from secrecy to public AIDS advocacy and entitled “I Have Something to Tell You." Regan is currently working with the staffs of POZ and NAPWA on The Denver Principles Project that aims to reawaken the spirit of self-empowerment for people living with and affected by HIV.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: Josh Breitbart, Andrew Lam, Jessica Valenti, Jessica Hoffmann, Noah Scalin, Rinku Sen, Paddy Johnson, Melissa Mcewan, Fatemeh Fakhraie , Joe Biel , Anne Elizabeth Moore
3/24/2009 11:57:25 AM
Team Obama looks a lot like the Bush Administration, at least in its position on fines imposed under the federal Copyright Act. David Kravets reports for Wired that the Justice Department has weighed in on the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) file sharing lawsuits, and the news isn’t good for music-downloading college students and other defendants. The government supports damages of up to $150,000 per music track, echoing the former administration’s views.
The Justice Department’s intervention responds to a counterclaim by former Boston University student and RIAA target Joel Tenenbaum, who challenged the Copyright Act’s constitutionality, claiming that the excessive nature of the RIAA’s fines amounts to an abuse of civil and criminal legal processes.
According to Kravets, the government’s position should surprise no one, since former RIAA lawyers litter the top jobs in Obama’s Justice Department, including Associate Attorney General Tom Perelli.
Since 2003 the RIAA has sued over 30,000 citizens under the Copyright Act, including students, grandparents, mothers, children, and even the dead.
3/19/2009 11:46:16 AM
“Is it knowledge, ownership or curiosity that drives us to collect?” asks photographer Justine Cooper. “Are we by nature obsessive, preservationist, or sentimental?”
The subjects of Cooper’s Saved By Science photographs, shot in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History, include a 100-year-old locker filled with elephant feet; a bone from the middle finger of a T-Rex relative wrapped in a century-old newspaper; and Lord Walter Rothschild’s stuffed birds, which he sold off when a former mistress blackmailed him. SEED Magazine has posted a mesmerizing slideshow with smart commentary from the photographer.
Source: SEED Magazine
3/19/2009 10:06:53 AM
Imposing a distance on wealth, by calling money “stocks” or “derivatives” or “mortgage-backed securities” makes it easier for people to cheat, behavioral economist Dan Ariely told the TED conference. Ariely’s research has also found a social factor in cheating, where people feel more comfortable lying when they know that others in their social group are lying, too. The distance factor and the social factor have converged in the stock market, and in places like Enron, where money doesn’t seem like real money and cheating runs rampant. You can watch the whole talk below:
3/18/2009 11:54:29 AM
Musicians are able to identify emotions more quickly and accurately than non-musicians, according to research reported in LiveScience. For the experiment, participants watched a subtitled nature film and listened to a 250 millisecond clip of a baby crying. Using brain scans, the researchers found that musicians were more sensitive to the emotional content than non-musicians.
The test samples were quite small—only 30 people—but scientists hope the information could lead to innovative treatments for people with dyslexia or autism, who often have trouble processing the emotional content in sounds. Neuroscientist Nina Kraus told LiveScience, “It would not be a leap to suggest that children with language processing disorders may benefit from musical experience.”
Other brain scan tests have revealed that musicians’ brains actually sync up when they play music together, according to Science a GoGo. Researchers from the Max Plank Institute recorded the electrical activity in the brains of pairs of guitarists, and found that the brainwave patterns synchronized when the musicians played together. The tests aren’t done yet, however. The results don’t show whether the synchronization happens from watching and listening to the other person play music, or if the brainwaves sync first, and then facilitate the coordinated action.
Image by Tom Marcello, licensed under Creative Commons.
Sources: LiveScience, Science a GoGo
3/17/2009 12:16:04 PM
Recording college lectures gives students the opportunity to learn beyond the restraints of a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse. The audio and video recordings also give professors the opportunities for disaster. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that one professor was placed on administrative leave after appearing in a video called “apparently baked professor” that was posted on YouTube. Another recording pushed the lines of legality after a private conversation between a professor and a student about grades—a subject protected by federal statutes—was recorded and almost posted online.
The new recordings may threaten “the traditional freewheeling spirit of the classroom” according to the Chronicle, if professors are scared of saying the wrong thing on camera. Colleges are working to curb this tendency by making it easier on faculty to edit the recordings at will. With camera phones sitting in the pockets of nearly every student in college, however, the editing software may not offer much protection.
Image by Emily Walker, licensed under Creative Commons.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
3/17/2009 10:26:09 AM
For gamblers, a near miss at a payoff can trigger the same neurological reaction as winning, according to Science News. Even if the subjects lose money, having two cherries line up in a slot machine, with a third one close by, can activate the same areas of the brain as a win. After a near-miss, the subjects reported that they wanted to gamble more, which could explain some of the allure of gambling.
Casinos likely know this fact, on some level, and are able to exploit it for profit. Some casinos have come up with advanced techniques to exploit people’s neurological biases and keep them losing money. WNYC’s Radio Lab profiled the efforts of Harrah’s Casino, which uses “loyalty cards” to great success in the casino business. Loyalty card users get a few extra dollars to gamble with, and, in exchange, Harrah’s computers monitor the gambler’s every move, figuring out their innate gambling tendencies.
The computers are able to deduce the breaking points of individual gamblers. For example, a person might tend to leave the casino after losing $85. Using that knowledge, Harrah’s will send attendants to distract that person with a free meal or tickets to a show after that person loses $72. This tactic eases the pain of loss, and keeps people gambling.
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Source: Science News, Radio Lab
3/10/2009 2:44:01 PM
As the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to rise, robots are looking like an increasingly attractive alternative to human soldiers. Sending robots into battle is politically easy, because it ostensibly avoids some of the human cost of war. There is, however, a hidden, paradoxical cost of waging war with robots, P. W. Singer writes in the Wilson Quarterly: “By appearing to lower the human costs of war, they may seduce us into more wars.”
Technological advancements now allow everyone to watch combat footage from anywhere, and sometimes to be a part of it. Soldiers may be able to drive to work, launch some missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and then drive home in time for dinner. Singer, the author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, connects that to the popularization of “war porn” videos, some of which show UAVs launching missiles at people. The footage allows viewers to “watch more but experience less,” according to Singer, which “widens the gap between our perceptions and war’s realities.”
Even supporters of the robotic soldiers concede that the technology can lead to overconfidence. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb is quoted by Singer saying, “Leaders without experience tend to forget about the other side, that it can adapt. They tend to think of the other side as static and fall into a technology trap.”
Excessive optimism is already a psychological bias that leads countries into war, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote for Foreign Policy in 2007. One doesn’t need to look beyond the predictions of a “cakewalk” in Iraq to know the problems of overconfidence in the lead up to a conflict. The distance allowed by military robots could exacerbate this psychological bias.
The hidden costs of these robotic warriors doesn’t mean the military should abandon technological advances, according to Singer. In an excerpt from the New Atlantis, Singer writes, “High technology is not a silver bullet solution to insurgencies, but that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t matter in these fights.”
3/10/2009 1:51:36 PM
Psychologists have found that people who are too cautious or deliberate can be perceived as racist, according to the We’re Only Human blog of the Association for Psychological Sciences. For the experiment, researchers from Tufts University tried to sap white volunteers of the cognitive abilities needed for self-discipline through a series of mental exercises. Then, the participants sat down to talk about race with black men who served as judges. According to the blog:
Those who were mentally depleted—that is, those lacking discipline and self-control—found talking about race with a black man much more enjoyable than did those with their self-control intact. That’s presumably because they weren’t working so hard at monitoring and curbing what they said. What’s more, independent black observers found that the powerless volunteers were much more direct and authentic in conversation. And perhaps most striking, blacks saw the less inhibited whites as less prejudiced against blacks. In other words, relinquishing power over oneself appears to thwart over-thinking and “liberate” people for more authentic relationships.
3/6/2009 5:00:11 PM
Harold R. Garner didn’t set out to uncover plagiarists. He and his team of researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas wanted to develop software to help researchers find papers that covered congruent topic areas. The idea was to point out similar research, and hopefully to uncover new directions for study. What they found, according to Science News, was widespread un-credited copying in scientific journals.
Some reactions to Garner’s findings have been posted by The Scientist. One author who may have been plagiarized told the magazine, “We were very sorry and somewhat surprised when we found their article. I don't want to accept them as scientists.”
One accused plagiarist’s defense was predictably scientific:
There are probably only 'x' amount of word combinations that could lead to 'y' amount of statements.... I have no idea why the pieces are similar, except that I am sure I do not have a good enough memory—and it is certainly not photographic—to have allowed me to have 'copied' his piece.
3/6/2009 4:27:49 PM
This May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear the appeal of Paul Shanley, a Catholic priest who, famously and several years ago, was sentenced to a dozen plus years in prison after four men recovered memories of alleged abuse in the 1980s. But how, exactly, do we judge the science of repressed memories?
In the March 16, 2009 issue of the Nation, reporter JoAnn Wypijewski provides the fascinating back story of how—flush with moral panic—judges, lawyers, and jurors allowed a scientific leap of faith to preclude due process. “People who may not believe in God or aliens believe in repressed memory, with no more justification and maybe less,” she writes. Yet to date there is no conclusive evidence of the hypothesis of repressed memories, which means the theory should be inadmissible in court.
Wypijewski reported on the Shanley case in 2004 for the much lamented, no-longer-in-print Legal Affairs, and her expertise shows as she navigates the legal terrain. “Shanely had had sex,” she writes for the Nation. “He’d had sex with hustlers and teenagers and other men. And he, a priest, had lied about it. That any else might be lying, or confused, or seeking attention, or wanting money, or needing an explanation for the mess of a life only muddied up a good gothic tale.”
Sources: The Nation, Legal Affairs
3/2/2009 10:38:23 AM
With 40 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages in danger of extinction, the recording of endangered languages is becoming ever more important to linguistic research. Anthony Kaufman previews for Seed the documentary The Linguists, which examines the global issue of language endangerment and loss. This PBS documentary features researchers K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who are on a mission to locate speakers of rare languages and record them. Harrison and Anderson are amassing an online dictionary of remote languages, which includes sound files of native speakers. Interestingly, Anderson also cites technology like Youtube, text messaging, and chat rooms as increasingly popular ways for communities to share and thereby preserve endangered languages.
Sources: Seed, PBS, Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages
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