Water in Them Thar Hills

Curiosity, the latest rover to explore Mars, has found lots of water in the martian soil. Now, it doesn’t run freely, but is chemically bound to other substances. Yet the large volume of H2O bodes well for future human exploration (and settlement).

From the Guardian:

Water has been discovered in the fine-grained soil on the surface of Mars, which could be a useful resource for future human missions to the red planet, according to measurements made by Nasa’s Curiosity rover.

Each cubic foot of Martian soil contains around two pints of liquid water, though the molecules are not freely accessible, but rather bound to other minerals in the soil.

The Curiosity rover has been on Mars since August 2012, landing in an area near the equator of the planet known as Gale Crater. Its target is to circle and climb Mount Sharp, which lies at the centre of the crater, a five-kilometre-high mountain of layered rock that will help scientists unravel the history of the planet.

On Thursday Nasa scientists published a series of five papers in the journal Science, which detail the experiments carried out by the various scientific instruments aboard Curiosity in its first four months on the martian surface. Though highlights from the year-long mission have been released at conferences and Nasa press conferences, these are the first set of formal, peer-reviewed results from the Curiosity mission.

“We tend to think of Mars as this dry place – to find water fairly easy to get out of the soil at the surface was exciting to me,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author on the Science paper which confirmed the existence of water in the soil. “If you took about a cubic foot of the dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple of pints of water out of that – a couple of water bottles’ worth that you would take to the gym.”

About 2% of the soil, by weight, was water. Curiosity made the measurement by scooping up a sample of the Martian dirt under its wheels, sieving it and dropping tiny samples into an oven in its belly, an instrument called Sample Analysis at Mars. “We heat [the soil] up to 835C and drive off all the volatiles and measure them,” said Leshin. “We have a very sensitive way to sniff those and we can detect the water and other things that are released.”

Aside from water, the heated soil released sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and oxygen as the various minerals within it were decomposed as they warmed up.

One of Curiosity’s main missions is to look for signs of habitability on Mars, places where life might once have existed. “The rocks and minerals are a record of the processes that have occurred and [Curiosity is] trying to figure out those environments that were around and to see if they were habitable,” said Peter Grindrod, a planetary scientist at University College London who was not involved in the analyses of Curiosity data.

Flowing water is once thought to have been abundant on the surface of Mars, but it has now all but disappeared. The only direct sources of water found so far have been as ice at the poles of the planet.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. Courtesy: Nasa/Getty Images

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Ode to Gasoline (Petrol)

Photography writer David Campany has collected some extraordinary photographs of American gas stations in a new book, Gasoline, which tells the story of our foremost liquid addiction — alcoholism pales in comparison.

From the Guardian:

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas.” So begins John Updike’s novel Rabbit Is Rich, which is set in the 1970s, when it seemed like the world was indeed running out of gasoline.

Set against a backdrop of American unease heightened by petrol rationing and long fractious queues at gas pumps, Updike’s story illustrates how important oil is to the smooth running of things, both automotive and sociopolitical. America runs on gasoline. So does the American dream, as shown in so many stories, songs and films that hymn the open road and the fast car as the ultimate symbol of freedom.

This is one of the subtexts of Gasoline, a book of photographs of American gas stations rescued from various newspaper archives and edited into a visual meta-narrrative by the British photography writer David Campany. It’s an intriguing book, not least because its publication chimes with the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic photobooks of all time: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Ruscha commercially printed his book of wilfully anonymous photographs as an antidote to the overly precious, limited-edition, collectable artist’s book, producing a first print run of 400 and selling it for $3 a copy. As Campany notes in an interview included in Gasoline, the very “stylelessness” of Ruscha’s images has become their defining aspect. “The problem is that photographs don’t remain unspecial and styleless for long. In unforeseen ways, the passing of time renders them significant.”

So it is with these found images of gasoline stations. They are, Campany notes, “a good measure of what is going on in society”, whether that is austerity or growth, changes in car manufacture or the decline of industrial cities and the freeways that link them. The cover image is one of the most striking: a young woman slumped on the steering wheel of her car, her head resting on her forearm as if exhausted or exasperated. This is the image from which the entire project sprang. Her name is Pat Sullivan and she was photographed while waiting in line at a gasoline station in Baltimore in 1979. A press cutting on the back of the original image, also included in the book, reads: “Pat Sullivan lowers her head in despair while waiting for gas in a long line yesterday at Lafayette and Charles. The lines were long again this morning …”

Campany was struck by the beauty of the image, which like most of these photographs has been marked by the grease pen of a newspaper’s art director. “The hair and the car have been retouched almost as if the newspaper wanted her to look her best even at this low point … But that image was so evocative that I felt I wanted to place it in a story of the second half of the 20th century.” Which is just what Gasoline does. There are images of gas station attendants and customers, iconic signage from a time before global corporations became tarnished – Gulf, Shell, Esso, BP – as well as local roadside stations in all their vernacular splendour, and sites where gasoline stations are about to be built or have just been demolished. There is black humour – a neon sign that reads We Wash Foreign Cars With Imported Water – and characteristic American stoicism – another reads No Gas Happy Holidays. There are images of gas stations that have just been robbed, destroyed by hurricanes, flooded and hit by cars.

Gasoline is an observational history of post-war America that is as richly suggestive as Twentysix Gasoline Stations is blank and detached. It shows how central gasoline is to the American way of life but, as Campany notes, it could also be read as “an allegory about news photography. Or a minor history of car design, or vernacular architecture, or street graphics, or outfits worn by pump attendants. All of the above.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Gasoline Shortage Baltimore & Maryland. 15 June 1979. Pat Sullivan, Frustrated. Photograph: Richard Childress. David Campany / Guardian.

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Text Stops. LOL

Another sign that some humans are devoid of common sense comes courtesy of New York. The state is designating around 100 traffic rest stops as “Text Stops”. So, drivers — anxious to get in a spontaneous email fix or tweet while behind the wheel — can now text to their thumbb’s content without imperiling the lives of others or themselves.

Perhaps this signals the demise of the scenic rest stop, only to be replaced by zones where drivers can update their digital status and tweet about reality without actually experiencing it. This is also a sign that evolution is being circumvented by artificially protecting those who lack common sense.

From ars technica:

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiative to stop drivers from texting on the road—turn rest areas into “Text Stops” and put up signage that lets people know how many miles they’ll have to hold off on tweeting that witty tweet.

91 rest stops, Park-n-Ride facilities, and parking areas along the New York State Thruway and State Highways will now become special texting zones for motorists who may not have noticed the wayside spots before. WBNG (a local news site) lists the locations of all 91 Text Stops.

“We are always looking at new and better ways to make the highway even safer,” Thruway Authority Executive Director Thomas J. Madison said yesterday, according to WBNG. “Governor Cuomo’s Text Stops initiative is an excellent way for drivers to stay in touch while recognizing the dangers of using mobile devices while driving.”

In total, 289 new signs will alert motorists of the new texting zone locations. The signs advertising the re-purposed zones will be bright blue and will feature messages like “It Can Wait” and the number of miles until the next opportunity to pull over. The state is cracking down on texting in terms of fines as well—the penalty for texting and driving recently increased to $150 and five points on your license, according to BetaBeat. WBNG also notes that in the summer of 2013, New York saw a 365 percent increase in tickets issued for distracted driving.

Read the entire article here, but don’t re-tweet it while driving.

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Linguistic Vectors

Our friends at Google have transformed the challenge of language translation from one of linguistics to mathematics.

By mapping parts of the linguistic structure of one language in the form of vectors in a mathematical space and comparing those to the structure of a few similar words in another they have condensed the effort to equations. Their early results of an English to Spanish translation seem very promising. (Now, if they could only address human conflict, aging and death.)

Visit arXiv for a pre-print of their research.

From Technology Review:

Computer science is changing the nature of the translation of words and sentences from one language to another. Anybody who has tried BabelFish or Google Translate will know that they provide useful translation services but ones that are far from perfect.

The basic idea is to compare a corpus of words in one language with the same corpus of words translated into another. Words and phrases that share similar statistical properties are considered equivalent.

The problem, of course, is that the initial translations rely on dictionaries that have to be compiled by human experts and this takes significant time and effort.

Now Tomas Mikolov and a couple of pals at Google in Mountain View have developed a technique that automatically generates dictionaries and phrase tables that convert one language into another.

The new technique does not rely on versions of the same document in different languages. Instead, it uses data mining techniques to model the structure of a single language and then compares this to the structure of another language.

“This method makes little assumption about the languages, so it can be used to extend and re?ne dictionaries and translation tables for any language pairs,” they say.

The new approach is relatively straightforward. It relies on the notion that every language must describe a similar set of ideas, so the words that do this must also be similar. For example, most languages will have words for common animals such as cat, dog, cow and so on. And these words are probably used in the same way in sentences such as “a cat is an animal that is smaller than a dog.”

The same is true of numbers. The image above shows the vector representations of the numbers one to five in English and Spanish and demonstrates how similar they are.

This is an important clue. The new trick is to represent an entire language using the relationship between its words. The set of all the relationships, the so-called “language space”, can be thought of as a set of vectors that each point from one word to another. And in recent years, linguists have discovered that it is possible to handle these vectors mathematically. For example, the operation ‘king’ – ‘man’ + ‘woman’ results in a vector that is similar to ‘queen’.

It turns out that different languages share many similarities in this vector space. That means the process of converting one language into another is equivalent to finding the transformation that converts one vector space into the other.

This turns the problem of translation from one of linguistics into one of mathematics. So the problem for the Google team is to find a way of accurately mapping one vector space onto the other. For this they use a small bilingual dictionary compiled by human experts–comparing same corpus of words in two different languages gives them a ready-made linear transformation that does the trick.

Having identified this mapping, it is then a simple matter to apply it to the bigger language spaces. Mikolov and co say it works remarkably well. “Despite its simplicity, our method is surprisingly effective: we can achieve almost 90% precision@5 for translation of words between English and Spanish,” they say.

The method can be used to extend and refine existing dictionaries, and even to spot mistakes in them. Indeed, the Google team do exactly that with an English-Czech dictionary, finding numerous mistakes.

Finally, the team point out that since the technique makes few assumptions about the languages themselves, it can be used on argots that are entirely unrelated. So while Spanish and English have a common Indo-European history, Mikolov and co show that the new technique also works just as well for pairs of languages that are less closely related, such as English and Vietnamese.

Read the entire article here.

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100-Year Starship Project

As Voyager 1 embarks on its interstellar voyage, having recently left the confines of our solar system, NASA and the Pentagon are collaborating with the 100-Year Starship Project. This effort aims to make human interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. While this is an admirable goal, let’s not forget that the current record holder for fastest man made object — Voyager 1 — would still take around 50,000 years to reach the nearest star to Earth. So NASA had better get its creative juices flowing.

From the Guardian:

It would be hard enough these days to find a human capable of playing a 12-inch LP, let alone an alien. So perhaps it is time for Nasa to update its welcome pack for extraterrestrials.

The agency announced earlier this month that its Voyager 1 probe has left the solar system, becoming the first object to enter interstellar space. On board is a gold-plated record from 1977.

It contains greetings in dozens of languages, sounds such as morse code, a tractor, a kiss, music – from Bach to Chuck Berry – and pictures of life on Earth, including a sperm fertilising an egg, athletes, and the Sydney Opera House.

Now, Jon Lomberg, the original Golden Record design director, has launched a project aiming to persuade Nasa to upload a current snapshot of Earth to one of its future interstellar craft as a sort of space-age message in a bottle.

The New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto in 2015, then is expected to leave the solar system in about three decades. The New Horizons Message Initiative wants to create a crowd-sourced “human fingerprint” for extra-terrestrial consumption that can be digitally uploaded to the probe as its journey continues. The message could be modified to reflect changes on Earth as years go by.

With the backing of numerous space experts, Lomberg is orchestrating a petition and fundraising campaign. The first stage will firm up what can be sent in a format that would be easy for aliens to decode; the second will be the online crowd-sourcing of material.

Especially given the remote possibility that the message will ever be read, Lomberg emphasises the benefits to earthlings of starting a debate about how we should introduce ourselves to interplanetary strangers.

“The Voyager record was our best foot forward. We just talked about what we were like on a good day … no wars or famine. It was a sanitised portrait. Should we go warts and all? That is a legitimate discussion that needs to be had,” he said.

“The previous messages were decided by elite groups … Everybody is equally entitled and qualified to do it. If you’re a human on Earth you have a right to decide how you’re presented.”

“Astronauts have said that you step off the Earth and look back and you see things differently. Looking at yourself with a different perspective is always useful. The Golden Record has had a tremendous effect in terms of making people think about the culture in ways they wouldn’t normally do.”

Buoyed by the Voyager news, scientists gathered in Houston last weekend for the annual symposium of the Nasa- and Pentagon-backed 100-Year Starship project, which aims to make human interstellar travel a reality within a century.

“I think it’s an incredible boost. I think it makes it much more plausible,” said Dr Mae Jemison, the group’s principal and the first African-American woman in space. “What it says is that we know we can get to interstellar space. We got to interstellar space with technologies that were developed 40 years ago. There is every reason to suspect that we can create and build vehicles that can go that far, faster.”

Jeff Nosanov, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, near Los Angeles, hopes to persuade the agency to launch about ten interstellar probes to gather data from a variety of directions. They would be powered by giant sails that harness the sun’s energy, much like a boat on the ocean is propelled by wind. Solar sails are gaining credibility as a realistic way of producing faster spacecraft, given the limitations of existing rocket technology. Nasa is planning to launch a spacecraft with a 13,000 square-foot sail in November next year.

“We have a starship and it’s 36 years old, so that’s really good. This is not as impossible as it sounds. Where the challenge becomes ludicrous and really astounding is the distances from one star to another,” Nosanov said.

Read the entire article here.

Image: USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). Courtesy of Star Trek franchise.

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Of Shoons, Shakes and Slumgullions

One of the keys to the success of the English language is its flexibility — over time it has proven rather adept at borrowing and stealing from other languages. Of course, as the language adapts and evolves it sheds lesser used words and phrases. For writers this is a double-edged sword — new words enable an author to delve into the contemporary lexicon, but some beautiful old words fall out of favor and daily use.

From the New York Times:

A “slumgullion” is a stew of leftovers, and while the dish has been described as “watery,” the word itself is delectably unusual and juicily descriptive. Alas, you won’t find many people cooking up anything with that name these days, so we’re denied the pleasure of rolling the lovely sounds of slumgullion — let alone its more questionable flavors — on the tongue.

A certain kind of novelist — my kind — looks for opportunities to use such interesting bits of English, and one way to do that is to set a novel in the past. My predilection for stories of squalor and glitter, hysteria and moral complexity, led me most recently to 19th-century New York, which offers interesting parallels to the present-day city, and a dragon’s pile of linguistic loot. It’s an era recent enough that its speech is still comprehensible, but it’s sufficiently long ago to offer up lost words and expressions that reinvigorate language and make the past come alive.

The problem for a writer who has seized upon a story set in the past is how to create a narrative voice that conjures the atmosphere of its historical times, without alienating contemporary readers. It’s a complicated sort of ventriloquism. The worst perils and most intense attractions lie in dictionaries.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, guardian of the mother tongue, regularly offers up such treasures as “I’ll misguggle your thrapple! I’ll mashackerel ye to rights!” This dazzling way of saying, “I’ll choke you,” was written by the Scottish playwright James Bridie, in his 1930 play “The Anatomist,” using language first documented a hundred years earlier.

My favorite of all dictionaries is “The Secret Language of Crime” a mother lode of forgotten words. This little volume was published in 1859 by the New York City police chief, George W. Matsell. Mr. Matsell was also the editor of a newspaper, The Police Gazette, which fed New Yorkers a steady diet of murder, rape, abduction and thievery.

He kept notes on the slang of thugs and criminals, and wrote up a guide, so his cops and reporters would know what the bad guys were talking about when they went on like this: “He told Jack as how Bill had flimped a yack, and pinched a swell of a spark-fawney.” In other words, “He told Jack that Bill had hustled a person, and obtained a watch, and also robbed a well-dressed gentleman of a diamond ring.”

According to Mr. Matsell, a “shickster” was a woman. “A shake” was a prostitute. A “shoon” was a lout. And that’s just three words in the “sh” section. His “vocabulum” or “Rogue’s Lexicon” is a mash-up of all the languages that have made American English the vibrant and evolving idiom we know, with words derivative of Irish, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, German. “Shickster,” for example, is probably how Chief Matsell heard “shiksa,” the Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman. A “fen” he defines as “a common woman” but in Ireland, a “fen” is a boggy marsh — which gives us a good idea of how an insult seeds itself and germinates on new soil.

But woe to the novelist who succumbs entirely to such specialized vernacular, whether it be a “rogue’s lexicon,” modern street slang or regional dialect. There’s no faster way to alienate a reader than to write, as Matsell did in his lexicon: “Jack speeled to the crib, when he found Johnny Doyle had been pulling down sawney for grub.” (Translation: “Jack fled home and saw that Johnny had stolen some bacon to eat.”) That’s far too much “vocabulum” to wade through, and readers have little patience for such thickets of gobbledygook. Novels overburdened in this way make good projectiles for heaving at the wall.

The best writers — from Charles Frazier in “Cold Mountain” to Junot Diaz in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — deploy foreign or arcane words sparingly, to give a realistic flavor of an era or a culture, but they also channel the atmosphere of time and place through the rhythms of speech.

“I am an old gimper,” says Knucks, a character in “The Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow’s novel of New York in the 1870’s. “I must live by wits alone… and the wits tell me a man mustn’t show himself too inquirous about such dark matters.”

Reading this bit of dialogue, we know we’re not in the present. The word “gimper” is not in common use, but needs no translation. The syntax, too — “a man mustn’t show himself too inquirous” — is stiffer and more formal than a contemporary speaker’s. Certainly Doctorow’s characters talk in a manner true to their times, but his own narrative voice hews to a more contemporary English, and his work never crosses the line into overkill.

For novelists to get a realistic feel for “what it was like” in the past, reading original texts of the period is invaluable. Old newspapers, for example, full of advertisements for medicines like “liver invigorator,” or devices like the “toilet mask,” and headlines screaming about the crimes of a certain “Hag of Misery,” or “The Ghoul of Chatham Street,” help color the imagination with a sense of how the world looked and sounded, what people dreamed of and feared, how they went about their lives while wearing cage crinolines, deerstalker hats and whalebone corsets, before they were turned all sepia-tinted by time.

By perusing period novels, magazines, advice books, letters, medical texts and sermons, contemporary novelists can conjure up a fresh narrative voice not only out of the vocabulary of bygone days, but from the rhythms of speech, the values of an era. A 19th-century “swell” is not going to speak the “secret language of crime,” but will have his own “vocabulum,” one that will reflect a worldview. For example, the Rev. Charles Loring Brace, who founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, referred to homeless children as a “happy race of little heathens,” or “flibbertigibbets,” which reflected the 19th-century belief that such children were lighthearted and “merry.”

Read the entire article here.

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Daddy, What’s a Stamp?

Sadly for philatelists and aficionados of these sticky, miniature works of art, stamps may be doomed to the same fate as cassette tapes, vinyl disks, 35mm film, floppy drives, and wrist watches.

From the New York Times:

It could easily be a glorious Pharaonic tomb, stocked with all the sustenance a philatelist might require for the afterlife. The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, which opened on Sunday here at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, includes an $18 million array of display spaces, artifacts, trays and touch screens. Its 20,000 items have been culled from more than 6 million at the museum, one of the world’s great collections. And the gallery’s 12,000 square feet are devoted to a single object that seems on the brink of extinction: the postage stamp.

But why should those of us who have never been consumed by the desire to hunt down a rare Inverted Jenny or a Brazilian Bull’s-eye give stamps (or their extinction) much attention? For most of us, they are utilitarian: we lick or peel, stick and use. And if, like me, you find a serious drop-off in the aesthetic values of American stamps in recent decades, what inspiration is there for collecting or contemplation? Why care that neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night are any longer the main hurdles for snail mail’s continuing rounds?

The Post Office has been struggling to reinvent itself, reeling from deficits and awaiting rescue. Maybe that’s why many recent stamps seem so hyped-up and saturated with color: they are straining to cheer up mail carriers, as well as customers.

But this new exhibit space provides more vigorous cheer. It is the world’s largest stamp gallery, we are told, made possible by a $10 million gift from William H. Gross, founder of the investment company Pimco. And surprisingly, until now, the National Postal Museum has had no major philatelic display showing off its collection; its main galleries focus on mail technology and delivery, not its sticky symbols. You might not begin collecting stamps immediately after a visit to their new home (though every visitor will get a head start with a selection of six free stamps), but you will start to think differently about them. Their current inconsequence is a far cry from the trust and influence they once possessed.

The Postmaster General, for example, was once so powerful that the position was included in the president’s cabinet. The mails were once the nation’s premier courier; in 1958, even the priceless Hope diamond was entrusted to the Postal Service for a cost of $145.29, including $1 million worth of insurance. (The heavily stamped and metered envelope is here; the diamond is nearby, at the Natural History Museum.)

And stamp images once had so much authority that in 1901, an engineer opposed to the digging of a Nicaraguan canal scared United States senators by presenting each with a Nicaraguan stamp showing the eruption of the nearby Mount Momotombo; the canal was dug in Panama instead.

We see, too, how mail delivery affected all modes of transportation. Nineteenth-century ocean liners could carry passengers because they were heavily subsidized by government mails. The RMS Titanic was so called because it was a Royal Mail Ship: we see a rusty set of mail keys, found on the drowned body of the Titanic’s sea post clerk.

The museum’s philatelic curator, Cheryl R. Ganz, explores the full range of stamps’ importance. Some are collector’s “gems,” including the famous Inverted Jenny stamp of 1918, in which a flying biplane was printed upside down on a single sheet of 100 stamps. There are discussions of delivery methods (in 1929, seaplanes carrying mail were catapulted off ocean liners); disasters (the Church Street post box damaged on Sept. 11 is here); and counterfeits (Jean de Sperati, once the “world’s most famous stamp forger,” was arrested in France in 1943 “for exporting rare stamps without a license,” but he beat the charge by proving that the stamps were his own forgeries).

There are also primers on stamp preservation, manufacture and design. On a touch-table, you can survey American stamps released since World War II, then e-mail a selection. One wall is lined with photographs of famous stamp collectors, offering riddlers untapped possibilities: How was Charlie Chaplin like Ayn Rand? What did Franklin Delano Roosevelt share with John Lennon?

Collectors, we see too, are entranced by the stamp’s physical trace, the path it takes through the world. And many have arrived here. Even the most experienced philatelist will find wonders in hundreds of sliding vertical frames that can be pulled out from the walls. One room offers an in-depth survey of American stamps; another space provides a broad international sampling.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search.

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The Case for Less NSA Spying

Cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier makes an eloquent case of less intrusion by the National Security Agency (NSA) into the private lives of US citizens.

From Technology Review:

Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and author on security topics, last month took on a side gig: helping the Guardian newspaper pore through documents purloined from the U.S. National Security Agency by contractor Edward Snowden, lately of Moscow.

In recent months that newspaper and other media have issued a steady stream of revelations, including the vast scale at which the NSA accesses major cloud platforms, taps calls and text messages of wireless carriers, and tries to subvert encryption.

This year Schneier is also a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In a conversation there with David Talbot, chief correspondent of MIT Technology Review, Schneier provided perspective on the revelations to date—and hinted that more were coming.

Taken together, what do all of the Snowden documents leaked thus far reveal that we didn’t know already?

Those of us in the security community who watch the NSA had made assumptions along the lines of what Snowden revealed. But there was scant evidence and no proof. What these leaks reveal is how robust NSA surveillance is, how pervasive it is, and to what degree the NSA has commandeered the entire Internet and turned it into a surveillance platform.

We are seeing the NSA collecting data from all of the cloud providers we use: Google and Facebook and Apple and Yahoo, etc. We see the NSA in partnerships with all the major telcos in the U.S., and many others around the world, to collect data on the backbone. We see the NSA deliberately subverting cryptography, through secret agreements with vendors, to make security systems less effective. The scope and scale are enormous.

The only analogy I can give is that it’s like death. We all know how the story ends. But seeing the actual details, and seeing the actual programs, is very different than knowing it theoretically.

The NSA mission is national security. How is the snooping really affecting the average person?

The NSA’s actions are making us all less safe. They’re not just spying on the bad guys, they’re deliberately weakening Internet security for everyone—including the good guys. It’s sheer folly to believe that only the NSA can exploit the vulnerabilities they create. Additionally, by eavesdropping on all Americans, they’re building the technical infrastructure for a police state.

We’re not there yet, but already we’ve learned that both the DEA and the IRS use NSA surveillance data in prosecutions and then lie about it in court. Power without accountability or oversight is dangerous to society at a very fundamental level.

Are you now looking at NSA documents that nobody has yet seen? Do they shed any light on whether ordinary people, and not just figures like al-Qaeda terrorists and North Korean generals, have been targeted?

I am reviewing some of the documents Snowden has provided to the Guardian. Because of the delicate nature of this, I cannot comment on what I have seen. What I can do is write news stories based on what I have learned, and I am doing that with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian. My first story will be published soon.

Will the new stories contain new revelations at the scale we’ve seen to date?

They might.

There have been many allusions to NSA efforts to put back doors in consumer products and software. What’s the reality?

The reality is that we don’t know how pervasive this is; we just know that it happens. I have heard several stories from people and am working to get them published. The way it seems to go, it’s never an explicit request from the NSA. It’s more of a joking thing: “So, are you going to give us a back door?” If you act amenable, then the conversation progresses. If you don’t, it’s completely deniable. It’s like going out on a date. Sex might never be explicitly mentioned, but you know it’s on the table.

But what sorts of access, to what products, has been requested and given? What crypto is, and isn’t, back-doored or otherwise subverted? What has, and hasn’t, been fixed?

Near as I can tell, the answer on what has been requested is everything: deliberate weakenings of encryption algorithms, deliberate weakenings of random number generations, copies of master keys, encryption of the session key with an NSA-specific key … everything.

NSA surveillance is robust. I have no inside knowledge of which products are subverted and which are not. That’s probably the most frustrating thing. We have no choice but to mistrust everything. And we have no way of knowing if we’ve fixed anything.

Read the entire article (and let the NSA read it too), here.

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Happy Listening to Sad Music

Why do we listen to sad music, and how is it that sad music can be as attractive as its lighter, happier cousin? After all we tend to want to steer clear of sad situations. New research suggests that it is more complex than a desire for catharsis, rather there is a disconnect between the felt emotion and the perceived emotion.

From the New York Times:

Sadness is an emotion we usually try to avoid. So why do we choose to listen to sad music?

Musicologists and philosophers have wondered about this. Sad music can induce intense emotions, yet the type of sadness evoked by music also seems pleasing in its own way. Why? Aristotle famously suggested the idea of catharsis: that by overwhelming us with an undesirable emotion, music (or drama) somehow purges us of it.

But what if, despite their apparent similarity, sadness in the realm of artistic appreciation is not the same thing as sadness in everyday life?

In a study published this summer in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, my colleagues and I explored the idea that “musical emotion” encompasses both the felt emotion that the music induces in the listener and the perceived emotion that the listener judges the music to express. By isolating these two overlapping sets of emotions and observing how they related to each other, we hoped to gain a better understanding of sad music.

Forty-four people served as participants in our experiment. We asked them to listen to one of three musical excerpts of approximately 30 seconds each. The excerpts were from Mikhail Glinka’s “La Séparation” (F minor), Felix Blumenfeld’s “Sur Mer” (G minor) and Enrique Granados’s “Allegro de Concierto” (C sharp major, though the excerpt was in G major, which we transposed to G minor).

We were interested in the minor key because it is canonically associated with sad music, and we steered clear of well-known compositions to avoid interference from any personal memories related to the pieces.

(Our participants were more or less split between men and women, as well as between musicians and nonmusicians, though these divisions turned out to be immaterial to our findings.)

A participant would listen to an excerpt and then answer a question about his felt emotions: “How did you feel when listening to this music?” Then he would listen to a “happy” version of the excerpt — i.e., transposed into the major key — and answer the same question. Next he would listen to the excerpt, again in both sad and happy versions, each time answering a question about other listeners that was designed to elicit perceived emotion: “How would normal people feel when listening to this music?”

(This is a slight simplification: in the actual study, the order in which the participant answered questions about felt and perceived emotion, and listened to sad and happy excerpts, varied from participant to participant.)

Our participants answered each question by rating 62 emotion-related descriptive words and phrases — from happy to sad, from bouncy to solemn, from heroic to wistful — on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much).

We found, as anticipated, that felt emotion did not correspond exactly to perceived emotion. Although the sad music was both perceived and felt as “tragic” (e.g., gloomy, meditative and miserable), the listeners did not actually feel the tragic emotion as much as they perceived it. Likewise, when listening to sad music, the listeners felt more “romantic” emotion (e.g., fascinated, dear and in love) and “blithe” emotion (e.g., merry, animated and feel like dancing) than they perceived.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Detail of Marie-Magdalene, Entombment of Christ, 1672. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Nuclear Near Miss

Just over 50 years ago the United States Air Force came within a hair’s breadth of destroying much of the South Eastern part of the country. While on a routine flight along the eastern seaboard of the United States, a malfunctioning B-52 bomber accidentally dropped two 4-Megaton hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961.

Had either one of these bombs exploded — with a force over 200 times that of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima — the effects would have been calamitous.

From the Guardian:

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Though there has been persistent speculation about how narrow the Goldsboro escape was, the US government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans’ lives in jeopardy through safety flaws. But in the newly-published document, a senior engineer in the Sandia national laboratories responsible for the mechanical safety of nuclear weapons concludes that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe”.

Writing eight years after the accident, Parker F Jones found that the bombs that dropped over North Carolina, just three days after John F Kennedy made his inaugural address as president, were inadequate in their safety controls and that the final switch that prevented disaster could easily have been shorted by an electrical jolt, leading to a nuclear burst. “It would have been bad news – in spades,” he wrote.

Jones dryly entitled his secret report “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb” – a quip on Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film about nuclear holocaust, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The accident happened when a B-52 bomber got into trouble, having embarked from Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro for a routine flight along the East Coast. As it went into a tailspin, the hydrogen bombs it was carrying became separated. One fell into a field near Faro, North Carolina, its parachute draped in the branches of a tree; the other plummeted into a meadow off Big Daddy’s Road.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Nuclear weapon test Romeo (yield 11 Mt) on Bikini Atoll. The test was part of the Operation Castle. Romeo was the first nuclear test conducted on a barge. The barge was located in the Bravo crater. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Dawkins: Radical Atheist

At any point in time, every major religion seems to be home to a handful of outspoken radicals who act as both standard-bearers and lightening rods for the broader movement. And, atheism is no different. If you Google “atheist” it is highly likely that the most frequent hits will highlight Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, our beloved, and recently departed, Chris Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.

Of course, they all have their very own, very different approaches to prosletyzing — that is, if atheists are indeed allowed to do such a thing. Hitchens, for example, used his unsurpassed erudition, elephantine memory and linguistic eloquence, and logic, to crush contrary opinion in a relentless but very thoughtful and charming way. Dawkins on the other hand comes across as more arrogant and impatient. He’s on a mission to save the world from the believers.

From the Guardian:

On the top floor of Random House’s offices in London, the world’s number one thinker – according to Prospect magazine’s annual poll – walks in from the roof terrace and shakes my hand. Richard Dawkins is a trim 72-year-old with one of those faces that, no matter the accumulation of lines, will always draw the adjective “boyish”.

There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.

Perhaps the renowned evolutionary biologist and the world’s most famous atheist was feeling especially cautious. The day before I met him he had become embroiled in a Twitterstorm, which grew into a broader media monsoon, after he had tweeted the following: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the middle ages, though.”

He defended himself in the ensuing furore by saying that he was merely stating a fact. And it’s true, it was a fact. Many objected that it was a fact used to demonise Muslims, that it was racist (Dawkins responded by pointing out that Islam is not a race), and that, out of context, it was, at the very least, mischievous and misleading.

I returned later to this dispute, but first of all we got down to discussing his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, a sort of portrait of the scientist as a young man. The first of two volumes, it takes us from boyhood to the publication of his landmark bestseller, The Selfish Gene. The story begins with his colonial childhood in Kenya and Nyasaland (now Malawi), and is full of dusty anecdotes of our young hero rummaging without a care in the great African outdoors. Does he look back with nostalgia at that now largely disappeared way of life?

“Yes,” he says slowly, as if watchful for hidden traps. “It’s now unfashionable and in many ways it’s something we British have to live down. But yes, there is a nostalgia for it and, although I was never in India, I get it reading novels of the Raj. It’s a lost era that you can’t help having a certain affection for, even if you disapprove politically.”

His parents were hardy, practical types, unflustered by war or life in the bush or, it seems, anything else. His father was a botanist, working in the agricultural office in Nyasaland, so Dawkins grew up in a family that took a scientific interest in living organisms, though he insists he never inherited his parents’ extensive knowledge of flora and fauna.

He moved to England when he was nine and went through a very typical public school experience for the era, except that he managed to fend off the sexual predations of older boys. Other than in relation to genetic research, sex doesn’t raise its titillating head at all in the book – apart from one occasion. We learn that at the ripe age of 22 he lost his virginity to a cellist in London. She “removed her skirt in order to play to me in her bedsitter (you can’t play the cello in a tight skirt) – and then removed everything else.”

But that’s all that Dawkins allows in terms of romance.

“Well that was a little token to say, ‘This is all you’re going to get,’?” he says firmly. “I wanted to announce that this is not going to be that kind of autobiography.”

Why not? “Fear of betraying confidences,” he says, shifting in his chair. “These things are private. Some people let it all hang out but I prefer not to.”

You can say that again. Dawkins may have an appetite for wonder, but he is positively anorexic when it comes to personal revelation. Perhaps the most confessional section – and it can hardly be called exposing – deals with his years teaching at Berkeley in the late 60s, when the campus was a hotbed of countercultural revolt. Dawkins took part in protests against the Vietnam war, of which he remains proud, but also got caught up in a local militant initiative to take over some university waste ground and turn it into a “people’s park”. “With hindsight,” he writes, “it was a trumped-up excuse for radical activism for its own sake.”

I suggest that radical movements invariably function on peer pressure and he agrees that he succumbed to the impulse to belong. “There was a sort of feeling of flower power and drugs,” he says. “I never actually took drugs, oddly enough. I never had the opportunity. But the music of the time and the atmosphere – there was a feeling of loyalty to the protesters: these are my people. The same people who marched against the Vietnam war marched for the people’s park and it was an automatic decision to join them. One should be more independent-minded than that.”

That’s Dawkins at his most self-reflective. He avoids any details of interest about his first marriage – to the ethologist Marian Stamp. And according to him, he is unlikely to be any more forthcoming in the second volume about his second marriage to Eve Barham, or his third to the actress Lalla Ward, a former assistant to Dr Who, who was introduced to him by his late friend Douglas Adams.

The couple live in Oxford, where Dawkins has resided almost all of his adult life, and where he spent 13 years until his retirement in 2008 as the professor for public understanding of science. As he was free in that role to pursue his own interests, he says his “nominal retirement” has made no difference at all.

The memoir is strong on the professional excitement of his early years as an academic, but it assiduously sidesteps the rivalries and disputes that mark even the most unremarkable scientific careers, let alone one as distinguished as Dawkins’s. He didn’t want any score settling, he says, or to “appear hostile”.

So although he notes that the biologists Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose were two of the rare voices who criticised The Selfish Gene on its widely acclaimed publication in 1976, he fails to discuss their arguments or his thoughts on them, other than to say that both came from the “political left”. Did he think their case against him was political rather than scientific?

“Yes, I think politics,” he says after another anxious pause. “I actually wrote a fairly savage review of the joint book they produced later [Not in Our Genes] which I suppose I’ll probably mention in volume two.” He weighs his words again and then adds, “It was sarcastic rather than savage.”

Dawkins seems determined in both the memoir and our interview to present a calm, conciliatory side to his character that has not always been associated with his public image. Later the photographer, Andy Hall, will tell me that Dawkins requested to look at the screen on Hall’s camera to see what he had captured during the shoot. “You’ve made me look too harsh,” complained the biologist.

Hall told him he was merely giving him appropriate gravitas.

“I don’t want fucking gravitas,” Dawkins snapped. “I want humanity.”

One senses that for all the recognition he’s garnered – the world’s leading intellectual, the bestselling books, the rapt audiences etc – Dawkins would like to be a little more loved. I ask him if he thinks he’s misunderstood by the media and the general public.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Richard Dawkins, 2010. Courtesy of Cooper Union / Wikipedia.

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When the Gold Rush is Over

Bryan Schutmaat chronicles the slow death of communities in decline.

His images are stark and eerily beautiful.

From the Guardian:

Weatherbeaten male faces stare out from the land they struggle to make a living from. The landscapes seem both elemental and despoiled; the men at once stoic and sad. Around them, the houses are rundown, while abandoned cars and trucks rust in wintry sunlight.

Photographer Bryan Schutmaat’s series Grays the Mountain Sends shows rural working-class mining communities in decline across the Amerian midwest. Inspired by the fiction of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford as well as the poetry of Richard Hugo, from whom he borrowed the title, Schutmaat’s images are tough yet lyrical. “The stories of some of these men run parallel to those of the towns they live in, or even of the nation at large,” Schutmaat told the critic Aaron Schuman. “Once young and full of promise, now their great expectations have been shed somewhere during the course of history.”

Here and there, photographs of fresh-faced young men interrupt the narrative of fading hope, but the inference is that their destiny is linked to their land and to a mining industry now struggling to survive. Schutmaat’s interior landscapes are more poignant: a battered armchair sits on a messy carpet beneath a fading print of an idealised rural landscape. Beside it, a hunting trophy stands under a cluttered tabletop. There is a sense throughout of things fading into history.

See more images and read the entire article here.

Image: Pinos Altos, New Mexico, 2012. Courtesy of Bryan Schutmaat / Guardian.

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Post-Apocalyptic Transportation

What better way to get around your post-apocalyptic neighborhhood after the end-of-times than on a trusty bicycle. Let’s face it, a simple human-powered, ride-share bike is likely to fare much better in a dystopian landscape than a gas-guzzling truck or an electric vehicle or even s fuel-efficient moped.

From Slate

There’s something post-apocalyptic about Citi Bike, the bike-sharing program that debuted a few months ago in parts of New York City. Or perhaps better terms would be “pre-post-apocalyptic” and “pre-dystopian.” Because these bikes basically are designed for the end of the world.

Bike-sharing programs have arisen around the world—from Washington, D.C., to Hangzhou, China. The New York bikes are almost disturbingly durable: Human-powered, solar-charged, and with aluminum frames so sturdy that during stress testing the bike broke the testing equipment. Sure, riding one through Midtown Manhattan is like entering a speedboat race on a manatee. And yes, they’re geared so that it feels you’re at a very goofy spinning class when riding up Second Avenue. But if you think post-apocalyptically, that gear ratio means a very efficient bike for carrying heavy loads. With the help of the local blacksmith, as long as he’s not too busy making helmets for fight-to-the-death cage matches, you could find a way to attach a hitch to the back of a Citi Bike and that could carry, say, a laser cannon, or a seat for the local warlord. Now all that’s left to do is to attach a hipster to one of the bikes, perhaps with an iron neck collar. Voila! The Citi Bike has become the Escalade SUV in the cannibal culture that arises after peak oil.

A Citi Bike would have made perfect sense in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Imagine:

The man put the boy on the handlebars of the bicycle.

It had once been blue. Streaks of cerulean remained in the spectral lines of dulled gray aluminum. It was heavy and his leg ached as he pedaled.

Who used to ride this bicycle, Papa?

No one person rode this bicycle. The bike was shared by everyone who could pay.

Did the people who shared the bikes carry the fire?

They thought they carried the fire.

Turns out the lack of bikes in end-of-the-world narratives has been identified as a cultural issue of significance; there’s even a TV Tropes page called “No Bikes in the Apocalypse” that takes this sort of story to task for forgetting that bicycles would work just fine if there wasn’t any gasoline.

The real problem is that your typical grizzled mutant-killing protagonist wearing a bandolier and carrying a shotgun would look ridiculous huffing up a hill on an 18-speed Trek. And think about where movies are made. In Hollywood, bikes are for immature losers, like Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Heroes don’t downshift. In a good Hollywood post-apocalypse, if the hero doesn’t have a jacked-up Dodge Charger with guns mounted on top, he (it’s always a he) trudges through the ashes, cradling his gun—or, if they haven’t all been eaten, he scores himself a horse.

There is one notable recent exception (not including Premium Rush, which wasn’t post-apocalyptic, and which no one saw): In the film version of World War Z, Brad Pitt and company have to sneak from a bunker to an airplane on creaky old bicycles. (The zombies are sensitive to noise.) It was obvious from the moment you first saw these old janky bikes that they were going to cause trouble. Future citizens facing a zombie pandemic should note the Citi Bikes tend to whirr, not rattle, so they would be perfect for slow, quiet travel through stumbling sleepy zombies.

The NYC bike-share program is also very much for-profit–it’s owned by Alta Bike Share, a global company that builds out programs like this–and super-mega-ultra-branded by Citicorp, down to the i in Citi Bike. It almost feels like they’re tempting fate, because nothing satisfies the consumer of science fiction like the failed optimism of a logotype creeping out from under dangling scraps of fabric and glue (see this Onion AV Club article on brands in post-apocalytic films). It’s magic when brands poke through under a pile of bones.

Why is this? Well, from a narrative-efficiency viewpoint it’s a pretty elegant way to set up your world. Marketing is so relentlessly positive, the smiles so big, that the sight of a skeleton wearing Lululemon or holding an iPhone does a lot of your expository work for you. Which, back in reality, is one of the things that makes branded stadiums slightly disturbing. The Coliseum got its name from the colossal statue of Nero that adjoined it. (The statue was given a number of different heads over the years, depending on who was in power.) As the Venerable Bede wrote in the eighth century: “as long as the Colossus stands, so shall Rome; when the Colossus falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world.” The stadium is still there, the statue is gone, and today photos of the Coliseum, and its cheesy fake gladiators posing with tourists, serve as a global shorthand for “empires eventually fall.” (If you want to know who’s in charge of a culture, look at what they name their stadiums.) Citi Bikes thus also seems particularly well-suited for a sort of Hunger Games-style future: 1) The economy crashes utterly 2) poor, hungry people compete in hyperviolent Citi Bike chariot races at Madison Square Garden, now renamed Velodrome 17.

A trundling Citi Bike would make sense in just about any post-apocalyptic or dystopian book or movie. In the post-humanity 1949 George R. Stewart classic Earth Abides, about a Berkeley student who survives a plague, the bikes would have been very practical as people rebuilt society across generations, especially after electricity stopped working. And Walter M. Miller Jr.’s legendary 1960 A Canticle for Leibowitz, about monks rebuilding the world after “the Flame Deluge,” could easily have featured monks pedaling around the empty desert after that deluge. Riding a Citi Bike (likely renamed something like “urbem vehentem”) would probably have been a tremendous, abbot-level privilege, and the repair manual would have been an illuminated manuscript. It’s gotten so that when I ride a Citi Bike I invariably end up thinking of all the buildings with their windows shattered, gray snow falling on people trudging in rags on their way to the rat market to buy a nice rat for Thanksgiving.

You have to wonder if “sharing” could survive. Probably not. I mean, at some level working headlights are more liability than asset, especially if you’re worried about being eaten. But the charging stations? As reliable sources of a steady flow of electricity, it’s pretty easy to imagine local chieftains taking those over, and lines of desperate people lining up to charge their cracked mobile devices so that they can look one last time at pictures of the people they lost, trading whatever of value they still possess for one last hour with their smartphones. It will be like the blackout, but forever.

If you prefer a nice total-surveillance dystopia to an absolute apocalypse, Citi Bikes are eminently trackable—they have a GPS-driven beacon installed in case they need to be retrieved. Three million rides have been made, 3 million swipes of the little Citi Bike keyfob that is used to keep track of who has which bike for how long. The service knows who you are and where you ride, and data visualizations show where people are traveling.

It’s only a matter of time, then, before a 24-style TV show gives us a bike-riding serial killer being tracked around New York City, clusters of incognito cops waiting by the docking station for their target to dock his bike with a ca-chunk. But that sort of government surveillance is almost passé in the age of the NSA.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Citi Bike, New York City. Courtesy of Velojoy.

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Time-Off for Being Productive

If you are an IT or knowledge-worker, computer engineer, software developer or just use a computer for the majority of your working day, keep the following in mind the next time you negotiate benefits with your supervisor.

In Greece, computer-using public sector employees get 6 extra days-off per year because they use a computer. But austerity is now taking its ugly toll as the Greek government works to scrap this privilege — it already eliminated benefits to workers who show up at the office on time.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Greek civil servants stand to lose the six extra days of paid vacation they get each year—just for using a computer—after the government moved Friday to rescind a privilege that has been around for more than two decades.

The bonus, known as “computer leave,” applied to workers whose job involved sitting in front of a computer for more than five hours a day—basically most of the staff working in ministries and public services.

“It belongs to another era,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the administrative reform minister, said. “Today, in the era of crisis, we cannot maintain anachronistic privileges.”

Doing away with this bonus, which dates to 1989, represents “a small, yet symbolic, step in modernizing public administration,” he said.

But the public-sector union Adedy said it would fight the decision in court.

“According to the European regulation, those using a computer should take a 15-minute break every two hours,” the general secretary Ermolaos Kasses said. “It is not easy to have all those breaks during the day, so it was decided back then that it should be given as a day off every two months.”

Inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are expected in Athens later this month to review Greece’s performance in meeting the terms of its second bailout.

Apart from shrinking the public sector, raising taxes and cutting wages and pensions, the government wants to show that it is moving forward with abolishing costly perks.

It has already limited the pensions that unmarried daughters are allowed to collect when their father dies, and scrapped a bonus for showing up to work on time. It has also extended the work week for teachers.

Read the entire article here.

Image: City of Oia, Santorini. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Comedy Athiest Assemblies

Religion pervades the public consciousness, and events fueled by religion still seem to dominate the news on a daily basis. Yet, atheism continues to make significant inroads — numerous studies show continued growth in non-belief and atheism, especially in the West. But not content in their non-belief, some atheists are organizing local assemblies to compete with the flocks who attend churches, mosques, and synagogues. After all, it should not be left only to the members of organized religions to have some communal fun.

From the Guardian:

It started, as a number of the world’s great religions have done, with a small group of friends and a persuasive idea: why should atheists miss out on all the good things churches have to offer? What would happen if they set up a “godless congregation” that met to celebrate life, with no hope of the hereafter?

Eight months after their first meeting in a deconsecrated church in north London, the founders of the Sunday Assembly have their answer: on Sunday they will announce the formation of satellite congregations in more than 20 cities across Britain and the world, the first wave of an expansion that they believe could see 40 atheist churches springing up by the year and as many as 1,000 worldwide within a decade.

From Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and Dublin, to New York, San Diego and Vancouver, to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, groups of non-believers will be getting together to form their own monthly Sunday Assemblies, with the movement’s founders – the standup comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans – visiting the fledgling congregations in what they are calling, only partly in jest, a “global missionary tour”.

Though he always suspected he was not the only one to regret that his lack of faith excluded him from a church-style community, Jones admits to being a little bewildered by the speed and scale at which his idea has caught on. “When I had the idea for this, I always thought if it was something I would like to go to in London then it was something other people would like to go to in other places.

“The one thing that we didn’t take into account was the power of the internet, and I think even more than that, the fact that there is obviously a latent need for this kind of thing. People have always congregated around things that they believe in. I think people are going to look back at the fact that it didn’t happen as the oddity, not this part.”

Satellite assemblies will agree to the central charter of Jones and Evans’s original gathering – which still meets monthly in central London – and Jones expects them, initially at least, to stick to a similar format, in which a “host” leads several hundred congregants through songs, moments of contemplation and a sermon-like (but secular) talk.

“If we do it in London and there are 400 people who come, that’s brilliant, but if we find a way to help hundreds of people to set one up then we can have a bigger impact than we could ever dream of,” says Jones. Their vision, he says, is “a godless gathering in every town, city or village that wants one”.

Stuart Balkham is one of a small group of Brighton unbelievers who next weekend will hold their inaugural assembly – the theme is beginnings – in a disused church in Hove.

He and his partner went to the London gathering where, he says, “there was just something that clicked”. Part of the appeal was the style of non-worship: “It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”

Balkham says he has envied churches the sense of community they can offer, and thinks atheists can learn from the social good that many churches do. “It’s naive to deny that there’s a lot of good that comes out of organised religion, and I think helping in the community is another thing that Sunday Assemblies should be aspiring to unashamedly copy.”

Nick Spencer, research director of Theos, a thinktank looking at religion’s role in society, says the growth of the movement may appear striking but it is not necessarily new. “This contemporary idea of people who are not religious but wanting to maintain some kind of church-like existence has got form. We’ve been here before.”

Spencer, who will publish a book next year on the history of atheism, sees echoes of the late 19th century, when hundreds of “ethical unions” were founded in response to the growing atheism of the times. The movement, he says, similarly concentrated on good works and community around a recognisably church-like liturgy, but petered out within a generation or two.

“The reason for that was because you need more than an absence to keep you together. You need a firm common purpose. What you can see in these modern-day atheist churches is people united by a felt absence of community. I suspect what brings them together is a real desire for community when in a modern, urbanised individualised city like London you can often feel very alone. That creates a lot of camaraderie, but the challenge then becomes, what actually unites us?”

Read the entire article here.

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Bring Your Parents to Work Day

Some businesses open their doors to the children of employees, enabling kids to get a taste of cubicle life. Some businesses even let their employees bring pets into the office. Now, a growing number of companies is urging prospective recruits to bring their parents to job interviews and corporate events.

(A few words of advice if you’re a millennial looking for a job — by all means bring mom and dad to the interview, but leave the boozy uncle and the grandmother who speaks her mind back at home).

From the Wall Street Journal:

Paul From was used to meeting the spouses and children of employees at company events. As chief executive of Central Wire Industries, a manufacturing firm based in Perth, Ontario, he has long held regular baseball games to get to know his employees better.

But in the past five years, he has noticed his 20- and 30-something employees have started bringing new guests to company socials: Mom and Dad.

Millennials—people born between 1981 and the early 2000s—are much closer to their parents than previous generations, and they have gained a reputation for being coddled by so-called helicopter parents, say researchers who study Millennials. But when they started joining the workforce in the early 2000s, managers balked at parents getting involved in their kids’ workplace struggles or job searches.

That was then. Now, some firms have begun embracing parental involvement and using it to attract and hold onto talent and boost employee morale.

One of them is Northwestern Mutual. Michael Van Grinsven, field-growth and development director at the Milwaukee-based financial firm, says the company does everything it can to accommodate the parents of college-aged interns, including regularly inviting them to the office for open houses.

“It’s become best practice,” Mr. Van Grinsven says, noting that parents can influence their children’s career decisions. Some Northwestern Mutual managers call or send notes to parents when interns achieve their sales goals and let parents come along to interviews and hear details of job offers. They may even visit parents at home.

Mr. Van Grinsven says the efforts have paid off: The number of interns meeting the company’s benchmark for success in sales has risen more than 40% since 2007, a productivity improvement that he attributes in part to more parental support.

In May, Google Inc. held its second annual “Take Your Parents to Work Day,” hosting more than 2,000 parents at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Participation numbers showed that the event was valuable to employees, the company says.

It may be on the rise, but parental involvement in the U.S. doesn’t begin to match countries in Asia and South America, according to a 2013 study from the global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

The study, which surveyed 44,000 people from more than 20 countries, found that just 6% of recent college graduates surveyed in the U.S. wanted their parents to receive a copy of their offer letters. That’s well below the global average of 13% and much less than some other countries, where it was as high as 30%. The study also found that just 2% of young employees in the U.S. want their parents to receive a copy of their performance review, compared with the global average of 8%.

Nate Kruse, a financial representative and college unit director at Northwestern Mutual, says that including his parents in the hiring process made them more supportive of his career choice. His mother, Deb Kruse from Hildreth, Neb., says she met her son Nate’s intern coordinator at Northwestern Mutual when he stopped by her house to introduce himself in 2008.

Since then, she has attended several company events, including the company’s annual meeting for employees and their families. Once she attended an intern open house to answer questions from other parents.

“My parents were unsure at first,” Mr. Kruse says. “But seeing the office firsthand allowed them to be that much more confident with the company.”

Read the entire article here.

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Biological Gears

We humans think they’re so smart. After all, we’ve invented, designed, built and continuously re-defined our surroundings. But, if we look closely at nature’s wonderful inventions we’ll find that it more often than not beat us to it. Now biologists have found insects with working gears.

From New Scientist:

For a disconcerting experience, consider how mechanical you are. Humans may be conscious beings with higher feelings, but really we’re just fancy machines with joints, motors, valves, and a whole lot of plumbing.

All animals are the same. Hundreds of gizmos have evolved in nature, many of which our engineers merely reinvented. Nature had rotating axles billions of years ago, in the shape of bacterial flagella. And weevil legs beat us to the screw-and-nut mechanism.

The insect Issus coleoptratus is another animal with an unexpected bit of machinery hidden in its body. Its larvae are the first animals known to have interlocking gears, just like in the gearbox of a car.

In high gear

I. coleoptratus is a type of planthoppers – a group of insects known for their prodigious jumping. It takes off in just 2 milliseconds, and moves at 3.9 metres per second. “This is a phenomenal performance,” says Malcolm Burrows of the University of Cambridge. “How on earth do they do it?”

Burrows first ran into the larvae of I. coleoptratus in a colleague’s garden. “We were poking around and there were these bugs, jumping around like crazy.” He took a closer look, and noticed that each larva had meshing gears connecting its two hind legs. The gears had been seen before, by a German biologist called K. Sander, but his 1957 paper isn’t even on the internet.

The bulb at the top of each hind leg has 10 to 12 teeth, each between 15 and 30 micrometres long. Effectively, each hind leg is topped by a biological cog, allowing the pair to interlock, and move in unison.

Working with Gregory Sutton of the University of Bristol, UK, Burrows filmed the gears at 5000 frames per second and confirmed that they mesh with each other (see video, top).

Great timing

The two hind legs moved within 30 microseconds of each other during a jump. Burrows and Sutton suspect that the gears evolved because they can synchronise the leg movements better and faster than neurons can.

Other animals have gears, but not gears that mesh, says Chris Lyal of the Natural History Museum in London. “When you look at [I. coleoptratus‘s gears], you wonder, why can’t anything else do that?” he says.

The German study from 1957 claims that all 2000-odd planthoppers have gears. “I’ve looked at about half a dozen, and they all have them,” says Burrows. “I’d be hesitant to say no other animal has them,” says Burrows. “But they haven’t been described.”

Read the entire article here.

Video courtesy of New Scientist.

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Above and Beyond

According to NASA, Voyager 1 officially left the protection of the solar system on or about August 25, 2013, and is now heading into interstellar space. It is now the first and only human-made object to leave the solar system.

Perhaps, one day in the distant future real human voyagers — or their android cousins — will come across the little probe as it continues on its lonely journey.

From Space:

A spacecraft from Earth has left its cosmic backyard and taken its first steps in interstellar space.

After streaking through space for nearly 35 years, NASA’s robotic Voyager 1 probe finally left the solar system in August 2012, a study published today (Sept. 12) in the journal Science reports.

“Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and as it enters interstellar space, it adds a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors,” NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. “Perhaps some future deep-space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their future.”

A long and historic journey

Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, about two weeks after its twin, Voyager 2. Together, the two probes conducted a historic “grand tour” of the outer planets, giving scientists some of their first up-close looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the moons of these faraway worlds.

The duo completed its primary mission in 1989, and then kept on flying toward the edge of the heliosphere, the huge bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that the sun puffs out around itself. Voyager 1 has now popped free of this bubble into the exotic and unexplored realm of interstellar space, scientists say.

They reached this historic conclusion with a little help from the sun. A powerful solar eruption caused electrons in Voyager 1’s location to vibrate signficantly between April 9 and May 22 of this year. The probe’s plasma wave instrument detected these oscillations, and researchers used the measurements to figure out that Voyager 1’s surroundings contained about 1.3 electrons per cubic inch (0.08 electrons per cubic centimeter).

That’s far higher than the density observed in the outer regions of the heliosphere (roughly 0.03 electrons per cubic inch, or 0.002 electrons per cubic cm) and very much in line with the 1.6 electrons per cubic inch (0.10 electrons per cubic cm) or so expected in interstellar space. [Photos from NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 Probes]

“We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data — they showed us that the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble,” study lead author Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, the principal investigator of Voyager 1’s plasma wave instrument, said in a statement.

It may seem surprising that electron density is higher beyond the solar system than in its extreme outer reaches. Interstellar space is, indeed, emptier than the regions in Earth’s neighborhood, but the density inside the solar bubble drops off dramatically at great distances from the sun, researchers said.

Calculating a departure date

The study team wanted to know if Voyager 1 left the solar system sometime before April 2013, so they combed through some of the probe’s older data. They found a monthlong period of electron oscillations in October-November 2012 that translated to a density of 0.004 electrons per cubic inch (0.006 electrons per cubic cm).

Using these numbers and the amount of ground that Voyager 1 covers — about 325 million miles (520 million kilometers) per year — the researchers calculated that the spacecraft likely left the solar system in August 2012.

That time frame matches up well with several other important changes Voyager 1 observed. On Aug. 25, 2012, the probe recorded a 1,000-fold drop in the number of charged solar particles while also measuring a 9 percent increase in fast-moving galactic cosmic rays, which originate beyond the solar system.

“These results, and comparison with previous heliospheric radio measurements, strongly support the view that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause into the interstellar plasma on or about Aug. 25, 2012,” Gurnett and his colleagues write in the new study.

At that point, Voyager 1 was about 11.25 billion miles (18.11 billion km) from the sun, or roughly 121 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The probe is now 11.66 billion miles (18.76 billion km) from the sun. (Voyager 2, which took a different route through the solar system, is currently 9.54 billion miles, or 15.35 billion km, from the sun.)

Read the entire article here.

Image: Voyager Gold Disk. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Graffiti and Women

Merits or not aside, graffiti is usually associated with men, and until recently those men would have been disaffected, urban youth, and graffiti would have been looked down upon as a fringe anti-establishment pseudo-art form.

More recently, pop culture embraced it, and even the staid art establishment yielded and finally welcomed graffiti as an official vehicle for serious artistic self-expression. Of course, this was mostly driven by money — witness the pilfering and subsequent auctioning of works by Banksy and some of his lesser-known peers. Thus, it is now big business.

But now come the women, and not a moment too soon. Perhaps, they will help rescue it from the money-obsessed establishment and return it to its expressive, contra-cultural roots.

From the Telegraph:

When Aiko Nakagawa speaks, she looks down at her paint-spattered hands. Her nails are varnished a shiny silver, each is adorned with a tiny black crucifix. They’re a little chipped. “It’s hard being a girl and a graffiti artist”, she sighs.As one of the world’s leading practitioners of street art, 38-year-old Nakagawa – who was born in Japan but now lives in Brooklyn, New York – is something of a rarity. The leading figures of international street art may work almost exclusively under aliases (Nakagawa goes by the moniker Lady Aiko or, simply, Aiko) but it is no secret that the overwhelming majority of them are men.

Over the past few decades, street art has gone from a niche, underground artform to a multi-million dollar industry; at the top of the market, original works by Bristolian Banksy are sold in major auction houses for five and six-figure sums. Martha Cooper, an American photojournalist who began documenting graffiti on subway trains and in the Lower East Side of New York in the Seventies and Eighties, was instrumental in bringing street art into the mainstream consciousness. When her book, Subway Art, was published in 1984 it became known as the Bible of Street Art.

Having witnessed the scene from its infancy, Cooper still laments its gender inequality. “I wish there were more female artists and I have no idea why the number of women is so tiny,” she tells me. “because the one thing you can say about the movement is that it is democratic. It is open to anyone who wants to take the time and energy and effort.

Women have been painting the street since the beginning, although there are few contemporary photographs of them and Cooper admits she regrets “not making more of an effort to track them down at the time”. To make up for lost time, Cooper, now 70, has thrown herself into the promotion of women in street art, arranging events and publishing books on the subject. “I want to celebrate the women who have, on their own, gotten into it, with the hope that they would be role models for younger generations of girls that might be contemplating doing some of these things but feeling that the doors are closed,” she says.I meet both Cooper and Nakagawa in the Norwegian town of Stavenger which is hosting Nuart, an international street art festival held annually since 2001.

Cooper is exhibiting a selection of her photography while Nakagawa is creating a new mural in her signature style: joyfully, subversively feminine and heavily inspired by 18th century Japanese woodblock printing, which she sees as a precursor to street art, in the sense that it was a practice adopted by the untrained working classes.

Nakagawa’s intricate stencil work dominates two walls of one of the five tunnels underneath TouScene, and depicts a dozen strong, scantily-clad women, silhouettes and angels surrounded by a rabbit holding a spray can, butterflies, Mount Fuji and flowers. “I think I represent female energy through my work,” she explains, “while at the beginning it was tough, I like the fact I am a woman in a boy’s world. I might need an extra step on the ladder [Aiko stands at 152cm] but I can still do it.” In 2012, she became the first woman to paint on the Bowery Wall, Manhattan’s legendary street art spot, with a piece entitled Here’s Fun For Everyone.

Among the 11 artists taking part in Nuart this year, three are women. In addition to Cooper and Nakagawa, there is Faith47, a South African artist who prefers not to disclose her real name and whose murals have been displayed around the world for 15 years. When I ask her about the role gender plays in her work, she will say only that she “doesn’t let [herself] get distracted by that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Alko Bunny, part of Aiko Nakagawa’s wall at Nuart. Courtesy of Andy Phipps / Telegraph.

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Creative Apocalypse

Following our story last week about artist Thomas Doyle’s miniature dystopian diaramas, we take a step further into nightmarish artistic visions, and of course, still small ones.

From Wired:

How will the world end? Will it be an asteroid, extreme climate conditions, a viral pandemic? No one really knows, which is why apocalypse scenarios are such rich territory for imaginative artists like Lori  Nix. The Brooklyn-based photographer creates and then documents detailed miniature dioramas of the end times — visions of what might be left behind once humans are gone.

Constructing the dioramas is a painstaking process, and Nix completes only three in a given year. As such, she makes very conscious decisions about what scenes she conjures. Crumbling institutions of science and learning turn up often in the work and are depicted with a gratifying realism.

“I think these are incredibly important places to learn about ourselves, learn what it means to be human,” says Nix. “These institutions are telling us about our pasts so that we may avoid the same mistakes in the future. Unfortunately, we’re not listening very well.”

The Kansas-born artist gravitates to destruction in part because she is no stranger to natural disasters.

“I have been in floods, tornadoes, blizzards; and when you are a kid, your parents are there to deal with the stress, but for me it was such an adventure. My boring life became suddenly exciting,” Nix says.

One time a tornado came through her neighborhood in Topeka and destroyed the houses right next door.

“A couple of days later, I was playing in the woods, seeing all of the scattered debris. And I came upon a stove, and when I opened the oven door, there was a perfect golden ham. The tornado hit right at dinner time,” she says.

Nix started working in photography at a newspaper, but soon realized the world of breaking news was not for her. She found herself moving towards darkroom work and constructed images.

She begins her sets by first drawing the floor plan of the building, creating the color scheme, and considering mood and lighting. Then Nix and her assistant build the entire set, including trees, books, and furniture using hot glue, foam, wood, and cardboard. Finishing each tiny piece means sanding, painting, and detailing.

Finally, it’s time to light and then shoot the scene with her 8×10 camera — Nix makes the sets to be seen by the camera from one viewpoint. When Nix showed the actual dioramas to the curator at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, she had to explain that she never intends to make models viewable from any angle. The edges remain unfinished.

“You could see the pink foam and the hot glue, but that is how we work,” she says.

Nix does not use Photoshop, and instead proofs her images as contacts and then as mural prints to look for any flaws. Once she is satisfied, she shoots an extra sheet of film and then takes apart the diorama and throws it away.

See more of Lori Nix’s apocalyptic constructions here.

Image: Circulation Desk, Lori Nix. Courtesy of Lori Nix / Wired.

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Filter Bubble on the Move

Personalization technology that allows marketers and media organizations to customize their products and content specifically to you seems to be a win-win for all: businesses win by addressing the needs — perceived or real — of specific customers; you win by seeing or receiving only items in which you’re interested.

But, this is a rather simplistic calculation for it fails to address the consequences of narrow targeting and a cycle of blinkered self-reinforcement, resulting in tunnel vision. More recently this has become known as filter bubble. The filter bubble eliminates serendipitous discovery and reduces creative connections by limiting our exposure to contrarian viewpoints and the unexpected. Or to put it more bluntly, it helps maintain a closed mind. This is true while you sit on the couch surfing the internet and increasingly, while you travel.

From the New York Times:

I’m half a world from home, in a city I’ve never explored, with fresh sights and sounds around every corner. And what am I doing?

I’m watching exactly the kind of television program I might watch in my Manhattan apartment.

Before I left New York, I downloaded a season of “The Wire,” in case I wanted to binge, in case I needed the comfort. It’s on my iPad with a slew of books I’m sure to find gripping, a bunch of the music I like best, issues of favorite magazines: a portable trove of the tried and true, guaranteed to insulate me from the strange and new.

I force myself to quit “The Wire” after about 20 minutes and I venture into the streets, because Baltimore’s drug dealers will wait and Shanghai’s soup dumplings won’t. But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon.

I’m not talking about the chain hotels or chain restaurants that we’ve long had and that somehow manage to be identical from time zone to time zone, language to language: carbon-copy refuges for unadventurous souls and stomachs.

I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.

This coddling involves more than earphones, touch pads, palm-sized screens and gigabytes of memory. It’s a function of how so many of us use this technology and how we let it use us. We tune out by tucking ourselves into virtual enclaves in which our ingrained tastes are mirrored and our established opinions reflected back at us.

In theory the Internet, along with its kindred advances, should expand our horizons, speeding us to aesthetic and intellectual territories we haven’t charted before. Often it does.

But at our instigation and with our assent, it also herds us into tribes of common thought and shared temperament, amplifying the timeless human tropism toward cliques. Cyberspace, like suburbia, has gated communities.

Our Web bookmarks and our chosen social-media feeds help us retreat deeper into our partisan camps. (Cable-television news lends its own mighty hand.) “It’s the great irony of the Internet era: people have more access than ever to an array of viewpoints, but also the technological ability to screen out anything that doesn’t reinforce their views,” Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico last year, explaining how so many strategists and analysts on the right convinced themselves, in defiance of polls, that Mitt Romney was about to win the presidency.

But this sort of echo chamber also exists on cultural fronts, where we’re exhorted toward sameness and sorted into categories. The helpful video-store clerk or bookstore owner has been replaced, refined, automated: we now have Netflix suggestions for what we should watch next, based on what we’ve watched before, and we’re given Amazon prods for purchasing novels that have been shown to please readers just like us. We’re profiled, then clustered accordingly.

By joining particular threads on Facebook and Twitter, we can linger interminably on the one or two television shows that obsess us. Through music-streaming services and their formulas for our sweet spots, we meet new bands that might as well be reconfigurations of the old ones. Algorithms lead us to anagrams.

Read the entire article here.

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All Conquering TV

In almost 90 years since television was invented it has done more to re-shape our world than conquering armies and pandemics. Whether you see TV  as a force for good or evil — or more recently, as a method for delivering absurd banality — you would be hard-pressed to find another human invention that has altered us so profoundly, psychologically, socially and culturally. What would its creator — John Logie Baird — think of his invention now, almost 70 years after his death?

From the Guardian:

Like most people my age – 51 – my childhood was in black and white. That’s because my memory of childhood is in black and white, and that’s because television in the 1960s (and most photography) was black and white. Bill and Ben, the Beatles, the Biafran war, Blue Peter, they were all black and white, and their images form the monochrome memories of my early years.

That’s one of the extraordinary aspects of television – its ability to trump reality. If seeing is believing, then there’s always a troubling doubt until you’ve seen it on television. A mass medium delivered to almost every household, it’s the communal confirmation of experience.

On 30 September it will be 84 years since the world’s first-ever television transmission. In Armchair Nation, his new social history of TV, Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, recounts the events of that momentous day. A Yorkshire comedian named Sydney Howard performed a comic monologue and someone called Lulu Stanley sang “He’s tall, and dark, and handsome” in what was perhaps the earliest progenitor of The X Factor.

The images were broadcast by the BBC and viewed by a small group of invited guests on a screen about half the size of the average smartphone in the inventor John Logie Baird’s Covent Garden studio. Logie Baird may have been a visionary but even he would have struggled to comprehend just how much the world would be changed by his vision – television, the 20th century’s defining technology.

Every major happening is now captured by television, or it’s not a major happening. Politics and politicians are determined by how they play on television. Public knowledge, charity, humour, fashion trends, celebrity and consumer demand are all subject to its critical influence. More than the aeroplane or the nuclear bomb, the computer or the telephone, TV has determined what we know and how we think, the way we believe and how we perceive ourselves and the world around us (only the motor car is a possible rival and that, strictly speaking, was a 19th-century invention).

Not not only did television re-envision our sense of the world, it remains, even in the age of the internet, Facebook and YouTube, the most powerful generator of our collective memories, the most seductive and shocking mirror of society, and the most virulent incubator of social trends. It’s also stubbornly unavoidable.

There is good television, bad television, too much television and even, for some cultural puritans, no television, but whatever the equation, there is always television. It’s ubiquitously there, radiating away in the corner, even when it’s not. Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?”

Like all the best comic lines, it contains a profound truth. The presence of television is so pervasive that its very absence is a kind of affront to the modern way of life. Not only has television reshaped the layout of our sitting rooms, it has also reshaped the very fabric of our lives.

Just to take Friends as one small example. Before it was first aired back in 1994, the idea of groups of young people hanging out in a coffee bar talking about relationships in a language of comic neurosis was, at least as far as pubcentric Britain was concerned, laughable. Now it’s a high-street fact of life. Would Starbucks and Costa have enjoyed the same success if Joey and friends had not showed the way?

But in 1929 no one had woken up and smelled the coffee. The images were extremely poor quality, the equipment was dauntingly expensive and reception vanishingly limited. In short, it didn’t look like the future. One of the first people to recognise television’s potential – or at least the most unappealing part of it – was Aldous Huxley. Writing in Brave New World, published in 1932, he described a hospice of the future in which every bed had a TV set at its foot. “Television was left on, a running tap, from morning till night.”

All the same, television remained a London-only hobby for a tiny metropolitan elite right up until the Second World War. Then, for reasons of national security, the BBC switched off its television signal and the experiment seemed to come to a bleak end.

It wasn’t until after the war that television was slowly spread out across the country. Some parts of the Scottish islands did not receive a signal until deep into the 1960s, but the nation was hooked. Moran quotes revealing statistics from 1971 about the contemporary British way of life: “Ten per cent of homes still had no indoor lavatory or bath, 31% had no fridge and 62% had no telephone, but only 9% had no TV.”

My family, as IT happened, fitted into that strangely incongruous sector that had no inside lavatory or bath but did have a TV. This seems bizarre, if you think about society’s priorities, but it’s a common situation today throughout large parts of the developing world.

I don’t recall much anxiety about the lack of a bath, at least on my part, but I can’t imagine what the sense of social exclusion would have been like, aged nine, if I hadn’t had access to Thunderbirds and The Big Match.

The strongest memory I have of watching television in the early 1970s is in my grandmother’s flat on wintry Saturday afternoons. Invariably the gas fire was roaring, the room was baking, and that inscrutable spectacle of professional wrestling, whose appeal was a mystery to me (if not Roland Barthes), lasted an eternity before the beautifully cadenced poetry of the football results came on.

Read the entire article here.

Image: John Logie Baird. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Interstellar Winds of Change

First measured in the early-seventies, the interstellar wind is far from a calm, consistent breeze. Rather, as new detailed measurements show, it’s a blustery, fickle gale.

From ars technica:

Interstellar space—the region between stars in our galaxy—is fairly empty. There are still enough atoms in that space to produce a measurable effect as the Sun orbits the galactic center, however. The flow of these atoms, known as the interstellar wind, provides a way to study interstellar gas, which moves independently of the Sun’s motion.

A new analysis of 40 years of data showed that the interstellar wind has changed direction and speed over time, demonstrating that the environment surrounding the Solar System changes measurably as well. Priscilla Frisch and colleagues compared the results from several spacecraft, both in Earth orbit and interplanetary probes. The different positions and times in which these instruments operated revealed that the interstellar wind has increased slightly in speed. Additional measurements revealed that the flow of atoms has shifted somewhere between 4.4 degrees and 9.2 degrees. Both these results indicate that the Sun is traveling through a changing environment, perhaps one shaped by turbulence in interstellar space.

The properties of the Solar System are dominated by the Sun’s gravity, magnetic field, and the flow of charged particles outward from its surface. However, a small number of electrically neutral particles—mostly light atoms—pass through the Solar System. These particles are part of the local interstellar cloud (LIC), a relatively hot region of space governed by its internal processes.

Neutral helium is the most useful product of the interstellar wind flowing through the Solar System. Helium is abundant, comprising roughly 25 percent of all interstellar atoms. In its electrically neutral form, helium is largely unaffected by magnetic fields, both from the Sun and within the LIC. The present study also considered neutral oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which are far less abundant, but more massive and therefore less strongly jostled even than helium.

When helium atoms flow through the Solar System, their paths are curved by the Sun’s gravity depending on how quickly they are moving. Slower atoms are more strongly affected than faster ones, so the effect is a cone of particle trajectories. The axis of that focusing cone is the dominant direction of the interstellar wind, while the width of the cone indicates how much variation in particle speeds is present, a measure of the speed and turbulence in the LIC.

The interstellar wind was first measured in the 1970s by missions such as the Mariner 10 (which flew by Venus and Mercury) from the United States and the Prognoz 6 satellite from the Soviet Union. More recently, the Ulysses spacecraft in solar orbit, the MESSENGER probe studying Mercury, and the IBEX (Interstellar Boundary EXplorer) mission collected data from several perspectives within the Solar System.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Local interstellar cloud. Courtesy of NASA.

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Honey, I Shrank the House!

The (American) dream of home ownership comes under the microscopic, and somewhat surreal, analysis of sculptor Thomas Doyle. The result is a spectacular exhibit — albeit on a small scale — of miniature homes and landscapes sealed under glass domes, and all with a peculiar, dystopian twist.

From the Guardian:

Built in miniature, these dioramas reveal scenes of destruction, mayhem and hyperreality. An exhibition of the scaled-down worlds of New York-based artists Adrien Broom, Thomas Doyle and Patrick Jacobs opens at Ronchini Gallery in London on 6 September

See more images of Doyle’s miniature masterpieces here. And, visit the exhibit here.

Image: Torsten Roman/Palazzo Strozzi, Guardian.

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Art and Aliens Collide in Nevada

Not far from the alien conspiracy theories of Area 51, artists and revelers gather for the annual pilgrimage to burn the man in the Nevada desert. With attendees now numbering in the 50-80,000 range the annual, week-long Burning Man festival has become a mainstream media event.

It was originally a more humble affair — concocted by Larry Harvey and Jerry James as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice or as they called it an act of “radical self-expression”. They held the first event in 1986 on a San Francisco beach, where they burned a wooden effigy of a man and his dog. The event has since grown and moved to the Nevada desert; the Burning Man moniker has stuck ever since and the (radical) self-expression lives on.

For more images from this year’s event jump here or visit Burning Man online.

Image: Burning Man 2013, art installation. Courtesy of the Guardian.

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The Rim Fire

One of the largest wildfires in California history — the Rim Fire — threatens some of the most spectacular vistas in the U.S. Yet, as it reshaped part of Yosemite Valley and surroundings it is forcing another reshaping: a fundamental re-thinking of the wildland urban interface (WUI) and the role of human activity in catalyzing natural processes.

From Wired:

For nearly two weeks, the nation has been transfixed by wildfire spreading through Yosemite National Park, threatening to pollute San Francisco’s water supply and destroy some of America’s most cherished landscapes. As terrible as the Rim Fire seems, though, the question of its long-term effects, and whether in some ways it could actually be ecologically beneficial, is a complicated one.

Some parts of Yosemite may be radically altered, entering entire new ecological states. Yet others may be restored to historical conditions that prevailed for for thousands of years from the last Ice Age’s end until the 19th century, when short-sighted fire management disrupted natural fire cycles and transformed the landscape.

In certain areas, “you could absolutely consider it a rebooting, getting the system back to the way it used to be,” said fire ecologist Andrea Thode of Northern Arizona University. “But where there’s a high-severity fire in a system that wasn’t used to having high-severity fires, you’re creating a new system.”

The Rim Fire now covers 300 square miles, making it the largest fire in Yosemite’s recent history and the sixth-largest in California’s. It’s also the latest in a series of exceptionally large fires that over the last several years have burned across the western and southwestern United States.

Fire is a natural, inevitable phenomenon, and one to which western North American ecologies are well-adapted, and even require to sustain themselves. The new fires, though, fueled by drought, a warming climate and forest mismanagement — in particular the buildup of small trees and shrubs caused by decades of fire suppression — may reach sizes and intensities too severe for existing ecosystems to withstand.

The Rim Fire may offer some of both patterns. At high elevations, vegetatively dominated by shrubs and short-needled conifers that produce a dense, slow-to-burn mat of ground cover, fires historically occurred every few hundred years, and they were often intense, reaching the crowns of trees. In such areas, the current fire will fit the usual cycle, said Thode.

Decades- and centuries-old seeds, which have remained dormant in the ground awaiting a suitable moment, will be cracked open by the heat, explained Thode. Exposed to moisture, they’ll begin to germinate and start a process of vegetative succession that results again in forests.

At middle elevations, where most of the Rim Fire is currently concentrated, a different fire dynamic prevails. Those forests are dominated by long-needled conifers that produce a fluffy, fast-burning ground cover. Left undisturbed, fires occur regularly.

“Up until the middle of the 20th century, the forests of that area would burn very frequently. Fires would go through them every five to 12 years,” said Carl Skinner, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist who specializes in relationships between fire and vegetation in northern California. “Because the fires burned as frequently as they did, it kept fuels from accumulating.”

A desire to protect houses, commercial timber and conservation lands by extinguishing these small, frequent fires changed the dynamic. Without fire, dead wood accumulated and small trees grew, creating a forest that’s both exceptionally flammable and structurally suited for transferring flames from ground to tree-crown level, at which point small burns can become infernos.

Though since the 1970s some fires have been allowed to burn naturally in the western parts of Yosemite, that’s not the case where the Rim Fire now burns, said Skinner. An open question, then, is just how big and hot it will burn.

Where the fire is extremely intense, incinerating soil seed banks and root structures from which new trees would quickly sprout, the forest won’t come back, said Skinner. Those areas will become dominated by dense, fast-growing shrubs that burn naturally every few years, killing young trees and creating a sort of ecological lock-in.

If the fire burns at lower intensities, though, it could result in a sort of ecological recalibration, said Skinner. In his work with fellow U.S. Forest Service ecologist Eric Knapp at the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest, Skinner has found that Yosemite’s contemporary, fire-suppressed forests are actually far more homogeneous and less diverse than a century ago.

The fire could “move the forests in a trajectory that’s more like the historical,” said Skinner, both reducing the likelihood of large future fires and generating a mosaic of habitats that contain richer plant and animal communities.

“It may well be that, across a large landscape, certain plants and animals are adapted to having a certain amount of young forest recovering after disturbances,” said forest ecologist Dan Binkley of Colorado State University. “If we’ve had a century of fires, the landscape might not have enough of this.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Rim Fire, August 2013. Courtesy of Earth Observatory, NASA.

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Growing a Brain Outside of the Body

‘Tis the stuff of science fiction. And, it’s also quite real and happening in a lab near you.

From Technology Review:

Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria, have grown three-dimensional human brain tissues from stem cells. The tissues form discrete structures that are seen in the developing brain.

The Vienna researchers found that immature brain cells derived from stem cells self-organize into brain-like tissues in the right culture conditions. The “cerebral organoids,” as the researchers call them, grew to about four millimeters in size and could survive as long as 10 months. For decades, scientists have been able to take cells from animals including humans and grow them in a petri dish, but for the most part this has been done in two dimensions, with the cells grown in a thin layer in petri dishes. But in recent years, researchers have advanced tissue culture techniques so that three-dimensional brain tissue can grow in the lab. The new report from the Austrian team demonstrates that allowing immature brain cells to self-organize yields some of the largest and most complex lab-grown brain tissue, with distinct subregions and signs of functional neurons.

The work, published in Nature on Wednesday, is the latest advance in a field focused on creating more lifelike tissue cultures of neurons and related cells for studying brain function, disease, and repair. With a cultured cell model system that mimics the brain’s natural architecture, researchers would be able to look at how certain diseases occur and screen potential medications for toxicity and efficacy in a more natural setting, says Anja Kunze, a neuroengineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has developed three-dimensional brain tissue cultures to study Alzheimer’s disease.

The Austrian researchers coaxed cultured neurons to take on a three-dimensional organization using cell-friendly scaffolding materials in the cultures. The team also let the neuron progenitors control their own fate. “Stem cells have an amazing ability to self-organize,” said study first author Madeline Lancaster at a press briefing on Tuesday. Others groups have also recently seen success in allowing progenitor cells to self-organize, leading to reports of primitive eye structures, liver buds, and more (see “Growing Eyeballs” and “A Rudimentary Liver Is Grown from Stem Cells”).

The brain tissue formed discrete regions found in the early developing human brain, including regions that resemble parts of the cortex, the retina, and structures that produce cerebrospinal fluid. At the press briefing, senior author Juergen Knoblich said that while there have been numerous attempts to model human brain tissue in a culture using human cells, the complex human organ has proved difficult to replicate. Knoblich says the proto-brain resembles the developmental stage of a nine-week-old fetus’s brain.

While Knoblich’s group is focused on developmental questions, other groups are developing three-dimensional brain tissue cultures with the hopes of treating degenerative diseases or brain injury. A group at Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a three-dimensional neural culture to study brain injury, with the goal of identifying biomarkers that could be used to diagnose brain injury and potential drug targets for medications that can repair injured neurons. “It’s important to mimic the cellular architecture of the brain as much as possible because the mechanical response of that tissue is very dependent on its 3-D structure,” says biomedical engineer Michelle LaPlaca of Georgia Tech. Physical insults on cells in a three-dimensional culture will put stress on connections between cells and supporting material known as the extracellular matrix, she says.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Cerebral organoid derived from stem cells containing different brain regions. Courtesy of Japan Times.

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A Post-PC, Post-Laptop World

Not too long ago the founders and shapers of much of our IT world were dreaming up new information technologies, tools and processes that we didn’t know we needed. These tinkerers became the establishment luminaries that we still ove or hate — Microsoft, Dell, HP, Apple, Motorola and IBM. And, of course, they are still around.

But the world that they constructed is imploding and nobody really knows where it is heading. Will the leaders of the next IT revolution come from the likes of Google or Facebook? Or as is more likely, is this just a prelude to a more radical shift, with seeds being sown in anonymous garages and labs across the U.S. and other tech hubs. Regardless, we are in for some unpredictable and exciting times.

From ars technica:

Change happens in IT whether you want it to or not. But even with all the talk of the “post-PC” era and the rise of the horrifically named “bring your own device” hype, change has happened in a patchwork. Despite the disruptive technologies documented on Ars and elsewhere, the fundamentals of enterprise IT have evolved slowly over the past decade.

But this, naturally, is about to change. The model that we’ve built IT on for the past 10 years is in the midst of collapsing on itself, and the companies that sold us the twigs and straw it was built with—Microsoft, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard to name a few—are facing the same sort of inflection points in their corporate life cycles that have ripped past IT giants to shreds. These corporate giants are faced with moments of truth despite making big bets on acquisitions to try to position themselves for what they saw as the future.

Predicting the future is hard, especially when you have an installed base to consider. But it’s not hard to identify the economic, technological, and cultural forces that are converging right now to shape the future of enterprise IT in the short term. We’re not entering a “post-PC” era in IT—we’re entering an era where the device we use to access applications and information is almost irrelevant. Nearly everything we do as employees or customers will be instrumented, analyzed, and aggregated.

“We’re not on a 10-year reinvention path anymore for enterprise IT,” said David Nichols, Americas IT Transformation Leader at Ernst & Young. “It’s more like [a] five-year or four-year path. And it’s getting faster. It’s going to happen at a pace we haven’t seen before.”

While the impact may be revolutionary, the cause is more evolutionary. A host of technologies that have been the “next big thing” for much of the last decade—smart mobile devices, the “Internet of Things,” deep analytics, social networking, and cloud computing—have finally reached a tipping point. The demand for mobile applications has turned what were once called “Web services” into a new class of managed application programming interfaces. These are changing not just how users interact with data, but the way enterprises collect and share data, write applications, and secure them.

Add the technologies pushed forward by government and defense in the last decade (such as facial recognition) and an abundance of cheap sensors, and you have the perfect “big data” storm. This sea of structured and unstructured data could change the nature of the enterprise or drown IT departments in the process. It will create social challenges as employees and customers start to understand the level to which they are being tracked by enterprises. And it will give companies more ammunition to continue to squeeze more productivity out of a shrinking workforce, as jobs once done by people are turned over to software robots.

There has been a lot of talk about how smartphones and tablets have supplanted the PC. In many ways, that talk is true. In fact, we’re still largely using smartphones and tablets as if they were PCs.

But aside from mobile Web browsing and the use of tablets as a replacement for notebook PCs in presentations, most enterprises still use mobile devices the same way they used the BlackBerry in 1999—for e-mail. Mobile apps are the new webpage: everybody knows they need one to engage customers, but few are really sure what to do with them beyond what customers use their websites for. And while companies are trying to engage customers using social media on mobile, they’re largely not using the communications tools available on smart mobile devices to engage their own employees.

“I think right now, mobile adoption has been greatly overstated in terms of what people say they do with mobile versus mobile’s potential,” said Nichols. “Every CIO out there says, ‘Oh, we have mobile-enabled our workforce using tablets and smartphones.’ They’ve done mobile enablement but not mobile integration. Mobility at this point has not fundamentally changed the way the majority of the workforce works, at least not in the last five to six years.”

Smartphones make very poor PCs. But they have something no desktop PC has—a set of sensors that can provide a constant flow of data about where their user is. There’s visual information pulled in through a camera, motion and acceleration data, and even proximity. When combined with backend analytics, they can create opportunities to change how people work, collaborate, and interact with their environment.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications is a big part of that shift, according to Nichols. “Allowing devices with sensors to interact in a meaningful way is the next step,” he said. That step spans from the shop floor to the data center to the boardroom, as the devices we carry track our movements and our activities and interact with the systems around us.

Retailers are beginning to catch on to that, using mobile devices’ sensors to help close sales. “Everybody gets the concept that a mobile app is a necessity for a business-to-consumer retailer,” said Brian Kirschner, the director of Apigee Institute, a research organization created by the application infrastructure vendor Apigee in collaboration with executives of large enterprises and academic researchers. “But they don’t always get the transformative force on business that apps can have. Some can be small. For example, Home Depot has an app to help you search the store you’re in for what you’re looking for. We know that failure to find something in the store is a cause of lost sales and that Web search is useful and signs over aisles are ineffective. So the mobile app has a real impact on sales.”

But if you’ve already got stock information, location data for a customer, and e-commerce capabilities, why stop at making the app useful only during business hours? “If you think of the full potential of a mobile app, why can’t you buy something at the store when it’s closed if you’re near the store?” Kirschner said. “Instead of dropping you to a traditional Web process and offering you free shipping, they could have you pick it up at the store where you are tomorrow.”

That’s a change that’s being forced on many retailers, as noted in an article from the most recent MIT Sloan Management Review by a trio of experts: Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business; Yu Jeffrey Hu of the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Mohammed Rahman of the University of Calgary. If retailers don’t offer a way to meet mobile-equipped customers, they’ll buy it online elsewhere—often while standing in their store. Offering customers a way to extend their experience beyond the store’s walls is the kind of mobile use that’s going to create competitive advantage from information technology. And it’s the sort of competitive advantage that has long been milked out of the old IT model.

Nichols sees the same sort of technology transforming not just relationships with customers but the workplace itself. Say, for example, you’re in New York, and you want to discuss something with two colleagues. You request an appointment using your mobile device, and based on your location data, the location data of your colleagues, and the timing of the meeting, backend systems automatically book you a conference room and set up a video link to a co-worker out of town.

Based on analytics and the title of the meeting, relevant documents are dropped into a collaboration space. Your device records the meeting to an archive and notes who has attended in person. And this conversation is automatically transcribed, tagged, and forwarded to team members for review.

“Having location data to reserve conference rooms and calls and having all other logistics be handled in background changes the size of the organization I need to support that,” Nichols said.

The same applies to manufacturing, logistics, and other areas where applications can be tied into sensors and computing power. “If I have a factory where a machine has a belt that needs to be reordered every five years and it auto re-orders and it gets shipped without the need for human interaction, that changes the whole dynamics of how you operate,” Nichols said. “If you can take that and plug it into a proper workflow, you’re going to see an entirely new sort of workforce. That’s not that far away.”

Wearable devices like Google’s Glass will also feed into the new workplace. Wearable tech has been in use in some industries for decades, and in some cases it’s just an evolution from communication systems already used in many retail and manufacturing environments. But the ability to add augmented reality—a data overlay on top of a real world location—and to collect information without reaching for a device will quickly get traction in many enterprises.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) 2001 Series, circa 1977. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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MondayPoem: Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney, poet, Nobel Laureate and above all observer of the Irish condition passed away last week.

He is widely recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets; and was famous both for his critical acclaim and for being so widely read. He will be missed. Luckily for the rest of us, Heaney left behind a wonderful swathe of work, which current and future generations will come to cherish.

By Seamus Heaney

– Death of A Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Read more about Seamus Heaney here.

Image: Seamus Heaney. Courtesy: Murdo Macleod / Guardian.

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Chameleon Syringes

How does a design aesthetic save lives? It’s simpler than you might think. Take a basic medical syringe, add a twist of color-change technology, borrowed from the design world, and you get a device that can save 1.3 million lives each year.

From the Guardian:

You might not want to hear this, but there’s a good reason to be scared of needles: the most deadly clinical procedure in the world is a simple injection.

Every year, 1.3 million deaths are caused by unsafe injections, due to the reuse of syringes. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to 40% of the 40bn injections administered annually are delivered with syringes that have been reused without sterilisation, causing over 30% of hepatitis B and C cases and 5% of HIV cases – statistics that have put the problem at number five on the WHO priority list.

It is a call to arms that stirred Dr David Swann, reader in design at the University of Huddersfield, into action, to develop what he describes as a “behaviour-changing syringe” that would warn patients when the needle was unsafe – a design that is now in the running for the Index design awards.

“The difficulty for patients is that it is impossible to determine a visual difference between a used syringe that has been washed and a sterile syringe removed from its packaging,” says Swann. “Instigating a colour change would explicitly expose the risk and could indicate prior use without doubt.”

Keen to keep the price down to ensure accessibility, Swann turned to cheap technologies used in the food industry, using inks that react to carbon dioxide and packaging the syringes in nitrogen-filled packets – just the same as a bag of crisps. Once opened and exposed to the air, the syringe has a 60-second treatment window before turning bright red, while a faceted barrel design means that the piston will break if someone tries to replace it. Remarkably, the ABCs (A Behaviour Changing Syringe) cost only 0.16p more than a typical 2.5p disposable syringe.

Swann is trialling the product in India, as the country is the largest consumer of syringes in the world, accounting for 83% of all injections – over 60% of which are deemed unsafe, and 30% of which transmit a disease in some form, according to the WHO.

“There are landfill scavengers searching piles of waste for syringe devices that are then sold on to medical establishments,” says Swann. “We want to break that cycle.” He estimates that after five years, the ABCs will have prevented 700,000 unsafe injections, saved 6.5 million life years and saved $130m in medical costs in India alone.

Colour-changing technology is increasingly finding medical applications, as designers look to transfer innovations in reactive ink towards potentially lifesaving ends. Husband and wife doctor/designer duo Gautam and Kanupriya Goel have developed a form of packaging for medicine that gradually changes its pattern as the product expires.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Red for danger — ABCs syringe. Courtesy of David Swann / Guardian.

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