A Quest For Skeuomorphic Noise

Toyota_Prius_III

Your Toyota Prius, or other electric vehicle, is a good environmental citizen. It helps reduce pollution and carbon emissions and does so rather efficiently. You and other eco-conscious owners should be proud.

But wait, not so fast. Your electric car may have a low carbon footprint, but it is a silent killer in waiting. It may be efficient, however it is far too quiet, and is thus somewhat of a hazard for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists — they don’t hear it approaching.

Cars like the Prius are so quiet — in fact too quiet, for our own safety. So, enterprising engineers are working to add artificial noise to the next generations of almost silent cars. The irony is not lost: after years of trying to make cars quieter, engineers are now looking to make them noisier.

Perhaps, the added noise could be configurable as an option for customers — a base option would sound like a Citroen CV, a high-end model could sound like, well, a Ferrari or a classic Bugatti. Much better.

From Technology Review:

It was a pleasant June day in Munich, Germany. I was picked up at my hotel and driven to the country, farmland on either side of the narrow, two-lane road. Occasional walkers strode by, and every so often a bicyclist passed. We parked the car on the shoulder and joined a group of people looking up and down the road. “Okay, get ready,” I was told. “Close your eyes and listen.” I did so and about a minute later I heard a high-pitched whine, accompanied by a low humming sound: an automobile was approaching. As it came closer, I could hear tire noise. After the car had passed, I was asked my judgment of the sound. We repeated the exercise numerous times, and each time the sound was different. What was going on? We were evaluating sound designs for BMW’s new electric vehicles.

Electric cars are extremely quiet. The only sounds they make come from the tires, the air, and occasionally from the high-pitched whine of the electronics. Car lovers really like the silence. Pedestrians have mixed feelings, but blind people are greatly concerned. After all, they cross streets in traffic by relying upon the sounds of vehicles. That’s how they know when it is safe to cross. And what is true for the blind might also be true for anyone stepping onto the street while distracted. If the vehicles don’t make any sounds, they can kill. The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that pedestrians are considerably more likely to be hit by hybrid or electric vehicles than by those with an internal-combustion engine. The greatest danger is when the hybrid or electric vehicles are moving slowly: they are almost completely silent.

Adding sound to a vehicle to warn pedestrians is not a new idea. For many years, commercial trucks and construction equipment have had to make beeping sounds when backing up. Horns are required by law, presumably so that drivers can use them to alert pedestrians and other drivers when the need arises, although they are often used as a way of venting anger and rage instead. But adding a continuous sound to a normal vehicle because it would otherwise be too quiet is a challenge.

What sound would you want? One group of blind people suggested putting some rocks into the hubcaps. I thought this was brilliant. The rocks would provide a natural set of cues, rich in meaning and easy to interpret. The car would be quiet until the wheels started to turn. Then the rocks would make natural, continuous scraping sounds at low speeds, change to the pitter-patter of falling stones at higher speeds. The frequency of the drops would increase with the speed of the car until the rocks ended up frozen against the circumference of the rim, silent. Which is fine: the sounds are not needed for fast-moving vehicles, because then the tire noise is audible. The lack of sound when the vehicle is not moving would be a problem, however.

The marketing divisions of automobile manufacturers thought the addition of artificial sounds would be a wonderful branding opportunity, so each car brand or model should have its own unique sound that captured just the car personality the brand wished to convey. Porsche added loudspeakers to its electric car prototype to give it the same throaty growl as its gasoline-powered cars. Nissan wondered whether a hybrid automobile should sound like tweeting birds. Some manufacturers thought all cars should sound the same, with standardized noises and sound levels, making it easier for everyone to learn how to interpret them. Some blind people thought they should sound like cars—you know, gasoline engines.

Skeuomorphic is the technical term for incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer play a functional role. Skeuomorphic designs are often comfortable for traditionalists, and indeed the history of technology shows that new technologies and materials often slavishly imitate the old for no apparent reason except that it’s what people know how to do. Early automobiles looked like horse-driven carriages without the horses (which is also why they were called horseless carriages); early plastics were designed to look like wood; folders in computer file systems often look like paper folders, complete with tabs. One way of overcoming the fear of the new is to make it look like the old. This practice is decried by design purists, but in fact, it has its benefits in easing the transition from the old to the new. It gives comfort and makes learning easier. Existing conceptual models need only be modified rather than replaced. Eventually, new forms emerge that have no relationship to the old, but the skeuomorphic designs probably helped the transition.

When it came to deciding what sounds the new silent automobiles should generate, those who wanted differentiation ruled the day, yet everyone also agreed that there had to be some standards. It should be possible to determine that the sound is coming from an automobile, to identify its location, direction, and speed. No sound would be necessary once the car was going fast enough, in part because tire noise would be sufficient. Some standardization would be required, although with a lot of leeway. International standards committees started their procedures. Various countries, unhappy with the normally glacial speed of standards agreements and under pressure from their communities, started drafting legislation. Companies scurried to develop appropriate sounds, hiring psychologists, Hollywood sound designers, and experts in psychoacoustics.

The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a set of principles along with a detailed list of requirements, including sound levels, spectra, and other criteria. The full document is 248 pages. The document states:

This standard will ensure that blind, visually-impaired, and other pedestrians are able to detect and recognize nearby hybrid and electric vehicles by requiring that hybrid and electric vehicles emit sound that pedestrians will be able to hear in a range of ambient environments and contain acoustic signal content that pedestrians will recognize as being emitted from a vehicle. The proposed standard establishes minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles when operating under 30 kilometers per hour (km/h) (18 mph), when the vehicle’s starting system is activated but the vehicle is stationary, and when the vehicle is operating in reverse. The agency chose a crossover speed of 30 km/h because this was the speed at which the sound levels of the hybrid and electric vehicles measured by the agency approximated the sound levels produced by similar internal combustion engine vehicles. (Department of Transportation, 2013.)

As I write this, sound designers are still experimenting. The automobile companies, lawmakers, and standards committees are still at work. Standards are not expected until 2014 or later, and then it will take considerable time for the millions of vehicles across the world to meet them. What principles should be used for the sounds of electric vehicles (including hybrids)? The sounds have to meet several criteria:

Alerting. The sound will indicate the presence of an electric vehicle.

Orientation. The sound will make it possible to determine where the vehicle is located, roughly how fast it is going, and whether it is moving toward or away from the listener.

Lack of annoyance. Because these sounds will be heard frequently even in light traffic and continually in heavy traffic, they must not be annoying. Note the contrast with sirens, horns, and backup signals, all of which are intended to be aggressive warnings. Such sounds are deliberately unpleasant, but because they are infrequent and relatively short in duration, they are acceptable. The challenge for electric vehicles is to make sounds that alert and orient, not annoy.

Standardization versus individualization. Standardization is necessary to ensure that all electric-vehicle sounds can readily be interpreted. If they vary too much, novel sounds might confuse the listener. Individualization has two functions: safety and marketing. From a safety point of view, if there were many vehicles on the street, individualization would allow them to be tracked. This is especially important at crowded intersections. From a marketing point of view, individualization can ensure that each brand of electric vehicle has its own unique characteristic, perhaps matching the quality of the sound to the brand image.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Toyota Prius III. Courtesy of Toyota / Wikipedia.

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It’s a Woman’s World

Well, not really. Though, there is no doubting that the planet would look rather different if the genders had truly equal opportunities and pay-offs, or if women generally had all the power that tends to be concentrated in masculine hands.

A short movie by French actor and film-maker Eleonoré Pourriat imagines what our Western culture might resemble if the traditional female-male roles were reversed.

A portent of the future? Perhaps not, but thought-provoking nonetheless. One has to believe that if women had all the levers and trappings of power that they could do a better job than men. Or, perhaps not. It may just be possible that power corrupts — regardless of the gender of the empowered.

From the Independent:

Imagine a world where it is the women who pee in the street, jog bare-chested and harass and physically assault the men. Such a world has just gone viral on the internet. A nine-minute satirical film made by Eleonoré Pourriat, the French actress, script-writer and director, has clocked up hundreds of thousands of views in recent days.

The movie, Majorité Opprimée or “Oppressed Majority”, was made in 2010. It caused a flurry of interest when it was first posted on YouTube early last year. But now it’s time seems to have come. “It is astonishing, just incredible that interest in my film has suddenly exploded in this way,” Ms Pourriat told The Independent. “Obviously, I have touched a nerve. Women in France, but not just in France, feel that everyday sexism has been allowed to go on for too long.”

The star of the short film is Pierre, who is played very convincingly by Pierre Bénézit. He is a slightly gormless stay-at-home father, who spends a day besieged by the casual or aggressive sexism of women in a female-dominated planet. The film, in French with English subtitles, begins in a jokey way and turns gradually, and convincingly, nasty. It is not played for cheap laughs. It has a Swiftian capacity to disturb by the simple trick of reversing roles.

Pierre, pushing his baby-buggy, is casually harassed by a bare-breasted female jogger. He meets a male, Muslim babysitter, who is forced by his wife to wear a balaclava in public. He is verbally abused – “Think I don’t see you shaking your arse at me?” – by a drunken female down-and-out. He is sexually assaulted and humiliated by a knife-wielding girl gang. (“Say your dick is small or I’ll cut off your precious jewels.”)

He is humiliated a second time by a policewoman, who implies that he invented the gang assault. “Daylight and no witnesses, that’s strange,” she says. As she takes Pierre’s statement, the policewoman patronises a pretty, young policeman. “I need a coffee, cutie.”

Pierre’s self-important working wife arrives to collect him. She comforts him at first, calling him “kitten” and “pumpkin”. When he complains that he can no longer stand the permanent aggression of a female-dominated society, she says that he is to blame because of the way he dresses: in short sleeves, flip-flops and Bermudas.

At the second, or third, time of asking, interest in Ms Pourriat’s highly charged little movie has exploded in recent days on social media and on feminist and anti-feminist websites on both sides of the Channel and on both sides of the Atlantic. Some men refuse to see the point. “Sorry, but I would adore to live such a life,” said one French male blogger. “To be raped by a gang of girls. Great! That’s every man’s fantasy.”

Ms Pourriat, 42, acts and writes scripts for comedy movies in France. This was her first film as director. “It is rooted absolutely in my own experience as a woman living in France,” she tells me. “I think French men are worse than men elsewhere, but the incredible success of the movie suggests that it is not just a French problem.

“What angers me is that many women seem to accept this kind of behaviour from men or joke about it. I had long wanted to make a film that would turn the situation on its head.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Majorité Opprimée or “Oppressed Majority by Eleonoré Pourriat.

 

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Daddy, What Is Snow?

No-snow-on-slopes

Adults living at higher latitudes will remember snow falling during the cold seasons, but most will recall having seen more snow when they were younger. As climate change continues to shift our global weather patterns, and increase global temperatures, our children and grand-children may have to make do with artificially made snow or watch a historical documentary of the real thing when they reach adulthood.

Our glaciers are retreating and snowcaps are melting. The snow is disappearing. This may be a boon to local governments that can save precious dollars from discontinuing snow and ice removal activities. But for those of us who love to ski and snowboard and skate, or just throw snowballs, build snowmen with our kids or gasp in awe at an icy panorama — snow, you’ll be sorely missed.

From the NYT:

OVER the next two weeks, hundreds of millions of people will watch Americans like Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin ski for gold on the downhill alpine course. Television crews will pan across epic vistas of the rugged Caucasus Mountains, draped with brilliant white ski slopes. What viewers might not see is the 16 million cubic feet of snow that was stored under insulated blankets last year to make sure those slopes remained white, or the hundreds of snow-making guns that have been running around the clock to keep them that way.

Officials canceled two Olympic test events last February in Sochi after several days of temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a lack of snowfall had left ski trails bare and brown in spots. That situation led the climatologist Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, to analyze potential venues for future Winter Games. His thought was that with a rise in the average global temperature of more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit possible by 2100, there might not be that many snowy regions left in which to hold the Games. He concluded that of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, as few as 10 might be cold enough by midcentury to host them again. By 2100, that number shrinks to 6.

The planet has warmed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s, and as a result, snow is melting. In the last 47 years, a million square miles of spring snow cover has disappeared from the Northern Hemisphere. Europe has lost half of its Alpine glacial ice since the 1850s, and if climate change is not reined in, two-thirds of European ski resorts will be likely to close by 2100.

The same could happen in the United States, where in the Northeast, more than half of the 103 ski resorts may no longer be viable in 30 years because of warmer winters. As far for the Western part of the country, it will lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen.

The facts are straightforward: The planet is getting hotter. Snow melts above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The Alps are warming two to three times faster than the worldwide average, possibly because of global circulation patterns. Since 1970, the rate of winter warming per decade in the United States has been triple the rate of the previous 75 years, with the strongest trends in the Northern regions of the country. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and this winter is already looking to be one of the driest on record — with California at just 12 percent of its average snowpack in January, and the Pacific Northwest at around 50 percent.

To a skier, snowboarder or anyone who has spent time in the mountains, the idea of brown peaks in midwinter is surreal. Poets write of the grace and beauty by which snowflakes descend and transform a landscape. Powder hounds follow the 100-odd storms that track across the United States every winter, then drive for hours to float down a mountainside in the waist-deep “cold smoke” that the storms leave behind.

The snow I learned to ski on in northern Maine was more blue than white, and usually spewed from snow-making guns instead of the sky. I didn’t like skiing at first. It was cold. And uncomfortable.

Then, when I was 12, the mystical confluence of vectors that constitute a ski turn aligned, and I was hooked. I scrubbed toilets at my father’s boatyard on Mount Desert Island in high school so I could afford a ski pass and sold season passes in college at Mad River Glen in Vermont to get a free pass for myself. After graduating, I moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for the skiing. Four years later, Powder magazine hired me, and I’ve been an editor there ever since.

My bosses were generous enough to send me to five continents over the last 15 years, with skis in tow. I’ve skied the lightest snow on earth on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, where icy fronts spin off the Siberian plains and dump 10 feet of powder in a matter of days. In the high peaks of Bulgaria and Morocco, I slid through snow stained pink by grains of Saharan sand that the crystals formed around.

In Baja, Mexico, I skied a sliver of hardpack snow at 10,000 feet on Picacho del Diablo, sandwiched between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, a crew of skiers and I journeyed to the whipsaw Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey to ski steep couloirs alongside caves where troglodytes lived thousands of years ago.

At every range I traveled to, I noticed a brotherhood among mountain folk: Say you’re headed into the hills, and the doors open. So it has been a surprise to see the winter sports community, as one of the first populations to witness effects of climate change in its own backyard, not reacting more vigorously and swiftly to reverse the fate we are writing for ourselves.

It’s easy to blame the big oil companies and the billions of dollars they spend on influencing the media and popular opinion. But the real reason is a lack of knowledge. I know, because I, too, was ignorant until I began researching the issue for a book on the future of snow.

I was floored by how much snow had already disappeared from the planet, not to mention how much was predicted to melt in my lifetime. The ski season in parts of British Columbia is four to five weeks shorter than it was 50 years ago, and in eastern Canada, the season is predicted to drop to less than two months by midcentury. At Lake Tahoe, spring now arrives two and a half weeks earlier, and some computer models predict that the Pacific Northwest will receive 40 to 70 percent less snow by 2050. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise — they grew 41 percent between 1990 and 2008 — then snowfall, winter and skiing will no longer exist as we know them by the end of the century.

The effect on the ski industry has already been significant. Between 1999 and 2010, low snowfall years cost the industry $1 billion and up to 27,000 jobs. Oregon took the biggest hit out West, with 31 percent fewer skier visits during low snow years. Next was Washington at 28 percent, Utah at 14 percent and Colorado at 7.7 percent.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of USA Today.

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13.6 Billion Versus 4004 BCE

The first number, 13.6 billion, is the age in years of the oldest known star in the cosmos. It was discovered recently by astronomers in Australia at the National University’s Mount Stromlo SkyMapper Observatory. The star is located in our Milky Way galaxy about 6,000 light years away. A little closer to home, in Kentucky at the aptly named Creation Museum, the Synchronological Chart places the beginning of time and all things at 4004 BCE.

Interestingly enough both Australia and Kentucky should not exist according to the flat earth myth or the widespread pre-Columbus view of our world with an edge at the visible horizon. But, the evolution versus creationism debates continue unabated. The chasm between the two camps remains a mere 13.6 billion years give or take a handful of millennia. But perhaps over time, those who subscribe to reason and the scientific method are likely to prevail — an apt example of survival of the most adaptable at work.

Hitch, we still miss you!

From ars technica:

In 1878, the American scholar and minister Sebastian Adams put the final touches on the third edition of his grandest project: a massive Synchronological Chart that covers nothing less than the entire history of the world in parallel, with the deeds of kings and kingdoms running along together in rows over 25 horizontal feet of paper. When the chart reaches 1500 BCE, its level of detail becomes impressive; at 400 CE it becomes eyebrow-raising; at 1300 CE it enters the realm of the wondrous. No wonder, then, that in their 2013 book Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, authors Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton call Adams’ chart “nineteenth-century America’s surpassing achievement in complexity and synthetic power… a great work of outsider thinking.”

The chart is also the last thing that visitors to Kentucky’s Creation Museum see before stepping into the gift shop, where full-sized replicas can be purchased for $40.

That’s because, in the world described by the museum, Adams’ chart is more than a historical curio; it remains an accurate timeline of world history. Time is said to have begun in 4004 BCE with the creation of Adam, who went on to live for 930 more years. In 2348 BCE, the Earth was then reshaped by a worldwide flood, which created the Grand Canyon and most of the fossil record even as Noah rode out the deluge in an 81,000 ton wooden ark. Pagan practices at the eight-story high Tower of Babel eventually led God to cause a “confusion of tongues” in 2247 BCE, which is why we speak so many different languages today.

Adams notes on the second panel of the chart that “all the history of man, before the flood, extant, or known to us, is found in the first six chapters of Genesis.”

Ken Ham agrees. Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis (AIG), has become perhaps the foremost living young Earth creationist in the world. He has authored more books and articles than seems humanly possible and has built AIG into a creationist powerhouse. He also made national headlines when the slickly modern Creation Museum opened in 2007.

He has also been looking for the opportunity to debate a prominent supporter of evolution.

And so it was that, as a severe snow and sleet emergency settled over the Cincinnati region, 900 people climbed into cars and wound their way out toward the airport to enter the gates of the Creation Museum. They did not come for the petting zoo, the zip line, or the seasonal camel rides, nor to see the animatronic Noah chortle to himself about just how easy it had really been to get dinosaurs inside his ark. They did not come to see The Men in White, a 22-minute movie that plays in the museum’s halls in which a young woman named Wendy sees that what she’s been taught about evolution “doesn’t make sense” and is then visited by two angels who help her understand the truth of six-day special creation. They did not come to see the exhibits explaining how all animals had, before the Fall of humanity into sin, been vegetarians.

He has also been looking for the opportunity to debate a prominent supporter of evolution.

And so it was that, as a severe snow and sleet emergency settled over the Cincinnati region, 900 people climbed into cars and wound their way out toward the airport to enter the gates of the Creation Museum. They did not come for the petting zoo, the zip line, or the seasonal camel rides, nor to see the animatronic Noah chortle to himself about just how easy it had really been to get dinosaurs inside his ark. They did not come to see The Men in White, a 22-minute movie that plays in the museum’s halls in which a young woman named Wendy sees that what she’s been taught about evolution “doesn’t make sense” and is then visited by two angels who help her understand the truth of six-day special creation. They did not come to see the exhibits explaining how all animals had, before the Fall of humanity into sin, been vegetarians.

They came to see Ken Ham debate TV presenter Bill Nye the Science Guy—an old-school creation v. evolution throwdown for the Powerpoint age. Even before it began, the debate had been good for both men. Traffic to AIG’s website soared by 80 percent, Nye appeared on CNN, tickets sold out in two minutes, and post-debate interviews were lined up with Piers Morgan Live and MSNBC.

While plenty of Ham supporters filled the parking lot, so did people in bow ties and “Bill Nye is my Homeboy” T-shirts. They all followed the stamped dinosaur tracks to the museum’s entrance, where a pack of AIG staffers wearing custom debate T-shirts stood ready to usher them into “Discovery Hall.”

Security at the Creation Museum is always tight; the museum’s security force is made up of sworn (but privately funded) Kentucky peace officers who carry guns, wear flat-brimmed state trooper-style hats, and operate their own K-9 unit. For the debate, Nye and Ham had agreed to more stringent measures. Visitors passed through metal detectors complete with secondary wand screenings, packages were prohibited in the debate hall itself, and the outer gates were closed 15 minutes before the debate began.

Inside the hall, packed with bodies and the blaze of high-wattage lights, the temperature soared. The empty stage looked—as everything at the museum does—professionally designed, with four huge video screens, custom debate banners, and a pair of lecterns sporting Mac laptops. 20 different video crews had set up cameras in the hall, and 70 media organizations had registered to attend. More than 10,000 churches were hosting local debate parties. As AIG technical staffers made final preparations, one checked the YouTube-hosted livestream—242,000 people had already tuned in before start time.

An AIG official took the stage eight minutes before start time. “We know there are people who disagree with each other in this room,” he said. “No cheering or—please—any disruptive behavior.”

At 6:59pm, the music stopped and the hall fell silent but for the suddenly prominent thrumming of the air conditioning. For half a minute, the anticipation was electric, all eyes fixed on the stage, and then the countdown clock ticked over to 7:00pm and the proceedings snapped to life. Nye, wearing his traditional bow tie, took the stage from the left; Ham appeared from the right. The two shook hands in the center to sustained applause, and CNN’s Tom Foreman took up his moderating duties.

Inside the hall, packed with bodies and the blaze of high-wattage lights, the temperature soared. The empty stage looked—as everything at the museum does—professionally designed, with four huge video screens, custom debate banners, and a pair of lecterns sporting Mac laptops. 20 different video crews had set up cameras in the hall, and 70 media organizations had registered to attend. More than 10,000 churches were hosting local debate parties. As AIG technical staffers made final preparations, one checked the YouTube-hosted livestream—242,000 people had already tuned in before start time.

An AIG official took the stage eight minutes before start time. “We know there are people who disagree with each other in this room,” he said. “No cheering or—please—any disruptive behavior.”

At 6:59pm, the music stopped and the hall fell silent but for the suddenly prominent thrumming of the air conditioning. For half a minute, the anticipation was electric, all eyes fixed on the stage, and then the countdown clock ticked over to 7:00pm and the proceedings snapped to life. Nye, wearing his traditional bow tie, took the stage from the left; Ham appeared from the right. The two shook hands in the center to sustained applause, and CNN’s Tom Foreman took up his moderating duties.

Ham had won the coin toss backstage and so stepped to his lectern to deliver brief opening remarks. “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era,” he declared, blasting modern textbooks for “imposing the religion of atheism” on students.

“We’re teaching people to think critically!” he said. “It’s the creationists who should be teaching the kids out there.”

And we were off.

Two kinds of science

Digging in the fossil fields of Colorado or North Dakota, scientists regularly uncover the bones of ancient creatures. No one doubts the existence of the bones themselves; they lie on the ground for anyone to observe or weigh or photograph. But in which animal did the bones originate? How long ago did that animal live? What did it look like? One of Ham’s favorite lines is that the past “doesn’t come with tags”—so the prehistory of a stegosaurus thigh bone has to be interpreted by scientists, who use their positions in the present to reconstruct the past.

For mainstream scientists, this is simply an obvious statement of our existential position. Until a real-life Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown finds a way to power a Delorean with a 1.21 gigawatt flux capacitor in order to shoot someone back through time to observe the flaring-forth of the Universe, the formation of the Earth, or the origins of life, or the prehistoric past can’t be known except by interpretation. Indeed, this isn’t true only of prehistory; as Nye tried to emphasize, forensic scientists routinely use what they know of nature’s laws to reconstruct past events like murders.

For Ham, though, science is broken into two categories, “observational” and “historical,” and only observational science is trustworthy. In the initial 30 minute presentation of his position, Ham hammered the point home.

“You don’t observe the past directly,” he said. “You weren’t there.”

Ham spoke with the polish of a man who has covered this ground a hundred times before, has heard every objection, and has a smooth answer ready for each one.

When Bill Nye talks about evolution, Ham said, that’s “Bill Nye the Historical Science Guy” speaking—with “historical” being a pejorative term.

In Ham’s world, only changes that we can observe directly are the proper domain of science. Thus, when confronted with the issue of speciation, Ham readily admits that contemporary lab experiments on fast-breeding creatures like mosquitoes can produce new species. But he says that’s simply “micro-evolution” below the family level. He doesn’t believe that scientists can observe “macro-evolution,” such as the alteration of a lobe-finned fish into a tiger over millions of years.

Because they can’t see historical events unfold, scientists must rely on reconstructions of the past. Those might be accurate, but they simply rely on too many “assumptions” for Ham to trust them. When confronted during the debate with evidence from ancient trees which have more rings than there are years on the Adams Sychronological Chart, Ham simply shrugged.

“We didn’t see those layers laid down,” he said.

To him, the calculus of “one ring, one year” is merely an assumption when it comes to the past—an assumption possibly altered by cataclysmic events such as Noah’s flood.

In other words, “historical science” is dubious; we should defer instead to the “observational” account of someone who witnessed all past events: God, said to have left humanity an eyewitness account of the world’s creation in the book of Genesis. All historical reconstructions should thus comport with this more accurate observational account.

Mainstream scientists don’t recognize this divide between observational and historical ways of knowing (much as they reject Ham’s distinction between “micro” and “macro” evolution). Dinosaur bones may not come with tags, but neither does observed contemporary reality—think of a doctor presented with a set of patient symptoms, who then has to interpret what she sees in order to arrive at a diagnosis.

Given that the distinction between two kinds of science provides Ham’s key reason for accepting the “eyewitness account” of Genesis as a starting point, it was unsurprising to see Nye take generous whacks at the idea. You can’t observe the past? “That’s what we do in astronomy,” said Nye in his opening presentation. Since light takes time to get here, “All we can do in astronomy is look at the past. By the way, you’re looking at the past right now.”

Those in the present can study the past with confidence, Nye said, because natural laws are generally constant and can be used to extrapolate into the past.

“This idea that you can separate the natural laws of the past from the natural laws you have now is at the heart of our disagreement,” Nye said. “For lack of a better word, it’s magical. I’ve appreciated magic since I was a kid, but it’s not what we want in mainstream science.”

How do scientists know that these natural laws are correctly understood in all their complexity and interplay? What operates as a check on their reconstructions? That’s where the predictive power of evolutionary models becomes crucial, Nye said. Those models of the past should generate predictions which can then be verified—or disproved—through observations in the present.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Mississippi is Syria; Colorado is Slovenia

US-life-expectancy

A fascinating map re-imagines life expectancy in the United States, courtesy of Olga Khazan over at measureofamerica.org. The premise of this map is a simple one: match the average life expectancy for each state of the union with that of a country having a similar rate. Voila. The lowest life expectancy rate belongs to Mississippi at 75 years, which equates with that of Syria. The highest, at 81.3 years, is found in Hawaii and Cyprus.

From the Atlantic:

American life expectancy has leapt up some 30 years in the past century, and we now live roughly 79.8 years on average. That’s not terrible, but it’s not fantastic either: We rank 35th in the world as far as lifespan, nestled right between Costa Rica and Chile. But looking at life expectancy by state, it becomes clear that where you live in America, at least to some extent, determines when you’ll die.

Here, I’ve found the life expectancy for every state to the tenth of a year using the data and maps from the Measure of America, a nonprofit group that tracks human development. Then, I paired it up with the nearest country by life expectancy from the World Health Organization’s 2013 data. When there was no country with that state’s exact life expectancy, I paired it with the nearest matching country, which was always within two-tenths of a year.

There’s profound variation by state, from a low of 75 years in Mississippi to a high of 81.3 in Hawaii. Mostly, we resemble tiny, equatorial hamlets like Kuwait and Barbados. At our worst, we look more like Malaysia or Oman, and at our best, like the United Kingdom. No state approaches the life expectancies of most European countries or some Asian ones. Icelandic people can expect to live a long 83.3 years, and that’s nothing compared to the Japanese, who live well beyond 84.

Life expectancy can be causal, a factor of diet, environment, medical care, and education. But it can also be recursive: People who are chronically sick are less likely to become wealthy, and thus less likely to live in affluent areas and have access to the great doctors and Whole-Foods kale that would have helped them live longer.

It’s worth noting that the life expectancy for certain groups within the U.S. can be much higher—or lower—than the norm. The life expectancy for African Americans is, on average, 3.8 years shorter than that of whites. Detroit has a life expectancy of just 77.6 years, but that city’s Asian Americans can expect to live 89.3 years.

Read the entire article here.

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Business Decison-Making Welcomes Science

data-visualization-ayasdi

It is likely that business will never eliminate gut instinct from the decision-making process. However, as data, now big data, increasingly pervades every crevice of every organization, the use of data-driven decisions will become the norm. As this happens, more and more businesses find themselves employing data scientists to help filter, categorize, mine and analyze these mountains of data in meaningful ways.

The caveat, of course, is that data, big data and an even bigger reliance on that data requires subject matter expertise and analysts with critical thinking skills and sound judgement — data cannot be used blindly.

From Technology review:

Throughout history, innovations in instrumentation—the microscope, the telescope, and the cyclotron—have repeatedly revolutionized science by improving scientists’ ability to measure the natural world. Now, with human behavior increasingly reliant on digital platforms like the Web and mobile apps, technology is effectively “instrumenting” the social world as well. The resulting deluge of data has revolutionary implications not only for social science but also for business decision making.

As enthusiasm for “big data” grows, skeptics warn that overreliance on data has pitfalls. Data may be biased and is almost always incomplete. It can lead decision makers to ignore information that is harder to obtain, or make them feel more certain than they should. The risk is that in managing what we have measured, we miss what really matters—as Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did in relying too much on his infamous body count, and as bankers did prior to the 2007–2009 financial crisis in relying too much on flawed quantitative models.

The skeptics are right that uncritical reliance on data alone can be problematic. But so is overreliance on intuition or ideology. For every Robert McNamara, there is a Ron Johnson, the CEO whose disastrous tenure as the head of JC Penney was characterized by his dismissing data and evidence in favor of instincts. For every flawed statistical model, there is a flawed ideology whose inflexibility leads to disastrous results.

So if data is unreliable and so is intuition, what is a responsible decision maker supposed to do? While there is no correct answer to this question—the world is too complicated for any one recipe to apply—I believe that leaders across a wide range of contexts could benefit from a scientific mind-set toward decision making.

A scientific mind-set takes as its inspiration the scientific method, which at its core is a recipe for learning about the world in a systematic, replicable way: start with some general question based on your experience; form a hypothesis that would resolve the puzzle and that also generates a testable prediction; gather data to test your prediction; and finally, evaluate your hypothesis relative to competing hypotheses.

The scientific method is largely responsible for the astonishing increase in our understanding of the natural world over the past few centuries. Yet it has been slow to enter the worlds of politics, business, policy, and marketing, where our prodigious intuition for human behavior can always generate explanations for why people do what they do or how to make them do something different. Because these explanations are so plausible, our natural tendency is to want to act on them without further ado. But if we have learned one thing from science, it is that the most plausible explanation is not necessarily correct. Adopting a scientific approach to decision making requires us to test our hypotheses with data.

While data is essential for scientific decision making, theory, intuition, and imagination remain important as well—to generate hypotheses in the first place, to devise creative tests of the hypotheses that we have, and to interpret the data that we collect. Data and theory, in other words, are the yin and yang of the scientific method—theory frames the right questions, while data answers the questions that have been asked. Emphasizing either at the expense of the other can lead to serious mistakes.

Also important is experimentation, which doesn’t mean “trying new things” or “being creative” but quite specifically the use of controlled experiments to tease out causal effects. In business, most of what we observe is correlation—we do X and Y happens—but often what we want to know is whether or not X caused Y. How many additional units of your new product did your advertising campaign cause consumers to buy? Will expanded health insurance coverage cause medical costs to increase or decline? Simply observing the outcome of a particular choice does not answer causal questions like these: we need to observe the difference between choices.

Replicating the conditions of a controlled experiment is often difficult or impossible in business or policy settings, but increasingly it is being done in “field experiments,” where treatments are randomly assigned to different individuals or communities. For example, MIT’s Poverty Action Lab has conducted over 400 field experiments to better understand aid delivery, while economists have used such experiments to measure the impact of online advertising.

Although field experiments are not an invention of the Internet era—randomized trials have been the gold standard of medical research for decades—digital technology has made them far easier to implement. Thus, as companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon increasingly reap performance benefits from data science and experimentation, scientific decision making will become more pervasive.

Nevertheless, there are limits to how scientific decision makers can be. Unlike scientists, who have the luxury of withholding judgment until sufficient evidence has accumulated, policy makers or business leaders generally have to act in a state of partial ignorance. Strategic calls have to be made, policies implemented, reward or blame assigned. No matter how rigorously one tries to base one’s decisions on evidence, some guesswork will be required.

Exacerbating this problem is that many of the most consequential decisions offer only one opportunity to succeed. One cannot go to war with half of Iraq and not the other just to see which policy works out better. Likewise, one cannot reorganize the company in several different ways and then choose the best. The result is that we may never know which good plans failed and which bad plans worked.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Screenshot of Iris, Ayasdi’s data-visualization tool. Courtesy of Ayasdi / Wired.

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Mr. Magorium’s Real Life Toy Emporium

tim-rowett

We are all children at heart. Unfortunately many of us are taught to suppress or abandon our dreams and creativity as a prerequisite for entering adulthood. However, a few manage to keep the wonder of their inner child alive.

Tim Rowett is one such person; through his toys he brings smiles and re-awakens memories in many of us who have since forgotten how to play and imagine. Though, I would take issue with Wired’s characterization of Mr.Rowett as an “eccentric”. Eccentricity is not a label that I’d apply to a person who remains true to his or her earlier self.

From Wired (UK):

When Wired.co.uk visited Tim Rowett’s flat in Twickenham, nothing had quite prepared us for the cabinet of curiosities we found ourselves walking into. Old suitcases overflowing with toys and knick-knacks were meticulously labelled, dated and stacked on top of one another from room to room, floor to ceiling. Every bookshelf, corner and cupboard had been stripped of whatever its original purpose might have been, and replaced with the task of storing Tim’s 25,000 toys, which he’s been collecting for over 50 years.

For the last five years Tim has been entertaining a vast and varied audience of millions on YouTube, becoming a perhaps surprising viral success. Taking a small selection of his toys each week to and from a studio in Buckinghamshire — which also happens to be an 18th century barn — he’s steadily built up a following of the curious, the charmed and the fanatic.

If you’re a regular user of Reddit, or perhaps occasionally find yourself in “the weird place” on YouTube after one too many clicks through the website’s dubious “related videos” section, then you’ve probably already come across Tim in one form or another. With more than 28 million views and hundreds of thousands of subscribers, he’s certainly no small presence.

You won’t know him as Tim, though. In fact, unless you’ve deliberately gone out of your way, you won’t know very much about Tim at all — he’s a private man, who’s far more interested in entertaining and educating viewers with his endless collection of toys and gadgets, which often have mathematically or scientifically curious fundamental principles, than he is in bothering you with fussy details like his full name.

Greeted with a warm and familiar hello, Tim offered us a cup of tea, a biscuit and and a seat by the fire. “Toys, everywhere, toys.” He said, looking round the room as he sat down. “I see myself as an hourglass. A large part of me is 112, a small part is my physical age and the last part is a 12-year-old boy.”

This unique mix of old and new — both literally and figuratively — certainly displays itself in his videos, of which there are upwards of 500 at rarely no more than 10 minutes in length. The formula is refreshingly simple. Tim sits at a table, demonstrates how a particular toy works, and provides background information to the piece before explaining how the mechanism inside (if it has one) functions — a particular delight for the scientifically-minded collector: “The mechanism is the key thing” he explained, “and some of them are quite remarkable. If a child breaks a toy I often think ‘oh wonderful’ because it means I can get into it.”

The apparently simple facade of the show is slightly deceptive however — Tim works with two ex-BBC producers: Hendrik Ball and George Auckland, who are responsible for editing and filming the videos. Hendrik’s passion for science (fuelled by his BSc at Bristol) ultimately landed him a job as a producer at the BBC, which he kept for 25 years, specialising in science and educational material. Hendrik has his own remarkable history in tech, having written the first website for the BBC that ever accompanied a television programme (called Multimedia Business), back in 1996, making him and George “a little nucleus of knowledge of multimedia in our department at that time”.

With few opportunities presenting themselves at the BBC to expand their newly developed skills in HTML, the two hatched a plan to create a website called Grand Illusions, which would not only sell many of the various toys and gadgets Tim came across in his collection, but would also experiment with video, with Tim as the presenter: “George and I wanted to get some more first-hand experience of running a website which would feed into our BBC work.” Said Hendrik, “so we had this idea, which closely involved a bottle of Rioja — wilder rumours say there were two bottles — and we came up with Grand Illusions. Within about a week we’d finished the website and at one point we were getting more hits than the BBC education website.”

Having only spent two hours with Tim, it’s clear why Hendrik and George were so keen to get him in front of the camera. During our time together, Tim played up to his role as the restless prestidigitator, which has afforded him such great success online — “I’m a child philosopher” he said, as he waved a parallax-inspired business card in front of us.  “You can either explore the world outside, as people do,” he placed a tiny cylindrical metal tube in my hand, “or you can explore the world inside, which is equally meaningful in my mind — there are still dragons and dangers and treasures on the inside as well as the outside world.” He then suggested throwing the cylinder in the air, and it burst into a large magic wand.

This constant conjuring was what initially piqued Hendrik’s interest: “He’s a master at it. Whenever he goes anywhere he’ll have a few toys on him. If there’s ever a lull he’ll produce one and give a quick demonstration and then everyone wants a go but, just as the excitement is peaking, Tim will bring out the next one.”

On one occasion, after a meal, Tim inflated a large balloon outside of a restaurant using a helium cylinder he stores in the boot of his car. He attached a sparkler to the balloon, lit it and then let the balloon float off into the sky. “It was an impressive end to the evening,” says Hendrik.

When we asked Hendrik what he thought the appeal of Tim’s channel was, on which nearly two million people have watched a video on Japanese zip bags and a further million on a spinning gun, he stressed that sometimes his apparent innocence worked in their favour. “Tim produced a toy some while ago, which looked like a revolver but in black rubber. It has a wire coming out of it and there’s a battery at the other end — when you press a button the end of the revolver sort of wiggles,” says Hendrik, who assures us that Tim bought this from a toy shop and has the original packaging to prove it. He also bought a rather large rubbery heart, which kind of throbs when you push a button.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Tim Rowett / Grand Illusions. Courtesy of Wired UK.

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The Persistent Self

eterni-screenshot

Many of us strive for persistence beyond the realm of our natural life-spans. Some seek to be remembered through monuments, buildings and other physical objects. Others seek permanence through literary and artistic works. Still others aim for remembrance through less lasting, but noble deeds: social programs, health initiatives, charitable foundations and so on. And yet others wish to be preserved in frozen stasis for later thawing and re-awakening. It is safe to say, that many of us would seek to live for ever.

So, it comes as no surprise to see internet startups exploring the market to preserve us or facsimiles of us — digitally — after death. Introducing Eterni.me — your avatar to a virtual eternity.

From Wired (UK):

“We don’t try to replace humans or give false hopes to people grieving.” Romanian design consultant Marius Ursache, cofounder of Eterni.me, needs to clear this up quickly. Because when you’re building a fledgling artificial intelligence company that promises to bring back the dead — or at least, their memories and character, as preserved in their digital footprint — for virtual chats with loved ones, expect a lot of flack.

“It is going to really suck — think Cleverbot with weird out-of-place references to things from that person’s life, masquerading as that person,” wrote one Redditor on the thread “Become Virtually Immortal (In the creepiest way possible)”, which immediately appeared after Eterni.me’s launch was announced last week. Retorts ranged from the bemused — “Now that is some scary f’d up s**t right there. WTF!?” — to the amusing: “Imagine a world where drunk you has to reason with sober AI you before you’re allowed to drunk dial every single person you ever dated or saw naked. So many awkward moments avoided.” But the resounding consensus seems to be that everyone wants to know more.

The site launched with the look of any other Silicon Valley internet startup, but a definitively new take on an old message. While social media companies want you to share and create the story of you while you’re alive, and lifelogging company Memoto promises to capture “meaningful [and shareable] moments”, Eterni.me wants to wrap that all up for those you leave behind into a cohesive AI they can chat with.

Three thousand people registered to the service within the first four days of the site going live, despite there being zero product to make use of (a beta version is slated for 2015). So with a year to ponder your own mortality, why the excitement for a technology that is, at this moment, merely a proof of concept?

“We got very mixed reactions, from ecstatic congratulations to hate mail. And it’s normal — it’s a very polarising topic. But one thing was constant: almost everybody we’ve interacted with truly believes this will be a reality someday. The only question is when it will be a reality and who will make it a reality,” Ursache tells us.

Popular culture and the somewhat innate human need to believe we are impervious, has well prepared us for the concept. Ray Kurzweil wants us to upload our brains to computers and develop synthetic neocortexes, and AI has featured prominently on film and TV for decades, including in this month’s Valentine’s Day release of a human-virtual assistant love story. In series two of British future-focused drama Black Mirror Hayley Atwell reconnects with her diseased lover using a system comparable to what Eterni.me is trying to achieve — though Ursache calls it a “creepier” version, and tells us “we’re trying to stay away from that idea”, the concept that it’s a way for grieving loved ones to stall moving on.

Sigmund Freud called our relationship with the concept of immortality the “real secret of heroism” — that we carry out heroic feats is only down to a perpetual and inherent belief that our consciousness is permanent. He writes in Reflections on War and Death: “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality… Our unconscious therefore does not believe in its own death; it acts as though it were immortal.”

This is why Eterni.me is not just about loved ones signing up after the event, but individuals signing up to have their own character preserved, under their watchful eye while still alive.

The company’s motto is “it’s like a Skype chat from the past,” but it’s still very much about crafting how the world sees you — or remembers you, in this case — just as you might pause and ponder on hitting Facebook’s post button, wondering till the last if your spaghetti dinner photo/comment really gets the right message across. On its more troubling side, the site plays on the fear that you can no longer control your identity after you’re gone; that you are in fact a mere mortal. “The moments and emotions in our lifetime define how we are seen by our family and friends. All these slowly fade away after we die — until one day… we are all forgotten,” it says in its opening lines — scroll down and it provides the answer to all your problems: “Simply Become Immortal”. Part of the reason we might identify as being immortal — at least unconsciously, as Freud describes it — is because we craft a life we believe will be memorable, or have children we believe our legacy will live on in. Eterni.me’s comment shatters that illusion and could be seen as opportunistic on the founders’ part. The site also goes on to promise a “virtual YOU” that can “offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away”, a comfort to anyone worried about leaving behind a spouse or children.

In contrast to this rather dramatic claim, Ursache says: “We’re trying to make it clear that it’s not replacing a person, but trying to preserve as much of the information one generates, and offering asynchronous access to it.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Eterni.me screenshot. Courtesy of Eterni.

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The Persistent Panopticon

microsoft-surveillance-system

Based on the ever-encroaching surveillance systems used by local and national governments and private organizations one has to wonder if we — the presumed innocent — are living inside or outside a prison facility. Advances in security and surveillance systems now make it possible to track swathes of the population over periods of time across an entire city.

From the Washington Post:

Shooter and victim were just a pair of pixels, dark specks on a gray streetscape. Hair color, bullet wounds, even the weapon were not visible in the series of pictures taken from an airplane flying two miles above.

But what the images revealed — to a degree impossible just a few years ago — was location, mapped over time. Second by second, they showed a gang assembling, blocking off access points, sending the shooter to meet his target and taking flight after the body hit the pavement. When the report reached police, it included a picture of the blue stucco building into which the killer ultimately retreated, at last beyond the view of the powerful camera overhead.

“I’ve witnessed 34 of these,” said Ross McNutt, the genial president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, which collected the images of the killing in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, from a specially outfitted Cessna. “It’s like opening up a murder mystery in the middle, and you need to figure out what happened before and after.”

As Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with traditional surveillance cameras, a new, far more powerful generation is being quietly deployed that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time. Though these cameras can’t read license plates or see faces, they provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses, even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements.

Already, the cameras have been flown above major public events, such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, McNutt said. They’ve been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police. They’ve also been used for traffic impact studies, for security at NASCAR races — and at the request of a Mexican politician, who commissioned the flights over Ciudad Juarez.

Video: A time machine for police, letting them watch criminals—and everyone else.

Defense contractors are developing similar technology for the military, but its potential for civilian use is raising novel civil-liberty concerns. In Dayton, where Persistent Surveillance Systems is based, city officials balked last year when police considered paying for 200 hours of flights, in part because of privacy complaints.

“There are an infinite number of surveillance technologies that would help solve crimes .?.?. but there are reasons that we don’t do those things, or shouldn’t be doing those things,” said Joel Pruce, a University of Dayton post-doctoral fellow in human rights who opposed the plan. “You know where there’s a lot less crime? There’s a lot less crime in China.”

McNutt, a retired Air Force officer who once helped design a similar system for the skies above Fallujah, a key battleground city in Iraq, hopes to win over officials in Dayton and elsewhere by convincing them that cameras mounted on fixed-wing aircraft can provide far more useful intelligence than police helicopters do, for less money. The Supreme Court generally has given wide latitude to police using aerial surveillance so long as the photography captures images visible to the naked eye.

A single camera mounted atop the Washington Monument, McNutt boasts, could deter crime all around the National Mall. He thinks regular flights over the most dangerous parts of Washington — combined with publicity about how much police could now see — would make a significant dent in the number of burglaries, robberies and murders. His 192-megapixel cameras would spot as many as 50 crimes per six-hour flight, he estimates, providing police with a continuous stream of images covering more than a third of the city.

“We watch 25 square miles, so you see lots of crimes,” he said. “And by the way, after people commit crimes, they drive like idiots.”

What McNutt is trying to sell is not merely the latest techno-wizardry for police. He envisions such steep drops in crime that they will bring substantial side effects, including rising property values, better schools, increased development and, eventually, lower incarceration rates as the reality of long-term overhead surveillance deters those tempted to commit crimes.

Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, a supporter of McNutt’s efforts, has even proposed inviting the public to visit the operations center, to get a glimpse of the technology in action.

“I want them to be worried that we’re watching,” Biehl said. “I want them to be worried that they never know when we’re overhead.”

Technology in action

McNutt, a suburban father of four with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is not deaf to concerns about his company’s ambitions. Unlike many of the giant defense contractors that are eagerly repurposing wartime surveillance technology for domestic use, he sought advice from the American Civil Liberties Union in writing a privacy policy.

It has rules on how long data can be kept, when images can be accessed and by whom. Police are supposed to begin looking at the pictures only after a crime has been reported. Pure fishing expeditions are prohibited.

The technology has inherent limitations as well. From the airborne cameras, each person appears as a single pixel indistinguishable from any other person. What they are doing — even whether they are clothed or not — is impossible to see. As camera technology improves, McNutt said he intends to increase their range, not the precision of the imagery, so that larger areas can be monitored.

The notion that McNutt and his roughly 40 employees are peeping Toms clearly rankles. They made a PowerPoint presentation for the ACLU that includes pictures taken to aid the response to Hurricane Sandy and the severe Iowa floods last summer. The section is titled: “Good People Doing Good Things.”

“We get a little frustrated when people get so worried about us seeing them in their back yard,” McNutt said in his operation center, where the walls are adorned with 120-inch monitors, each showing a different grainy urban scene collected from above. “We can’t even see what they are doing in their backyard. And, by the way, we don’t care.”

Yet in a world of increasingly pervasive surveillance, location and identity are becoming all but inextricable — one quickly leads to the other for those with the right tools.

During one of the company’s demonstration flights over Dayton in 2012, police got reports of an attempted robbery at a bookstore and shots fired at a Subway sandwich shop. The cameras revealed a single car moving between the two locations.

By reviewing the images, frame by frame, analysts were able to help police piece together a larger story: The man had left a residential neighborhood midday, attempted to rob the bookstore but fled when somebody hit an alarm. Then he drove to Subway, where the owner pulled a gun and chased him off. His next stop was a Family Dollar Store, where the man paused for several minutes. He soon returned home, after a short stop at a gas station where a video camera captured an image of his face.

A few hours later, after the surveillance flight ended, the Family Dollar Store was robbed. Police used the detailed map of the man’s movements, along with other evidence from the crime scenes, to arrest him for all three crimes.

On another occasion, Dayton police got a report of a burglary in progress. The aerial cameras spotted a white truck driving away from the scene. Police stopped the driver before he got home from the heist, with the stolen goods sitting in the back of the truck. A witnessed identified him soon after.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Surveillance cameras. Courtesy of Mashable / Microsoft.

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The Persistent Threat to California

california-drought

Historians dispute the etymology of the name California. One possible origin comes from the Spanish Catalan phrase which roughly translates as “hot as a lime oven”. But while this may be pure myth there is no doubting the unfolding ecological (and human) disaster caused by incessant heat and lack of water. The severe drought in many parts of the state is now in its third year, and while it is still ongoing it is already recorded as the worst in the last 500 years. The drought is forcing farmers and rural communities to rethink and in some cases resettle, and increasingly it also threatens suburban and urban neighborhoods.

From the NYT:

The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply.

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said that the number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.

State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.

“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last major drought here, in 1976-77.

This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has already produced parched fields, starving livestock, and pockets of smog.

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Already the drought, technically in its third year, is forcing big shifts in behavior. Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on even planting, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to sell off cattle as fields that should be four feet high with grass are a blanket of brown and stunted stalks.

Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect endangered salmon and guard against fires. Many people said they had already begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering their lawns.

Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at the week’s end — people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke into applause upon seeing rain splattering on the sidewalk — but they were nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.

“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. “We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening.”

Officials are girding for the kind of geographical, cultural and economic battles that have long plagued a part of the country that is defined by a lack of water: between farmers and environmentalists, urban and rural users, and the northern and southern regions of this state.

“We do have a politics of finger-pointing and blame whenever there is a problem,” said Mr. Brown. “And we have a problem, so there is going to be a tendency to blame people.” President Obama called him last week to check on the drought situation and express his concern.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, said in an interview that his agency’s ability to help farmers absorb the shock, with subsidies to buy food for cattle, had been undercut by the long deadlock in Congress over extending the farm bill, which finally seemed to be resolved last week.

Mr. Vilsack called the drought in California a “deep concern,” and a warning sign of trouble ahead for much of the West.

“That’s why it’s important for us to take climate change seriously,” he said. “If we don’t do the research, if we don’t have the financial assistance, if we don’t have the conservation resources, there’s very little we can do to help these farmers.”

The crisis is unfolding in ways expected and unexpected. Near Sacramento, the low level of streams has brought out prospectors, sifting for flecks of gold in slow-running waters. To the west, the heavy water demand of growers of medical marijuana — six gallons per plant per day during a 150-day period — is drawing down streams where salmon and other endangered fish species spawn.

“Every pickup truck has a water tank in the back,” said Scott Bauer, a coho salmon recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There is a potential to lose whole runs of fish.”

Without rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels, as evident from the brown-tinged air. Homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in their fireplaces.

In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached for most of December and January. Schools used flags to signal when children should play indoors.

“One of the concerns is that as concentrations get higher, it affects not only the people who are most susceptible, but healthy people as well,” said Karen Magliano, assistant chief of the air quality planning division of the state’s Air Resources Board.

The impact has been particularly severe on farmers and ranchers. “I have friends with the ground torn out, all ready to go,” said Darrell Pursel, who farms just south of Yerington, Nev. “But what are you going to plant? At this moment, it looks like we’re not going to have any water. Unless we get a lot of rain, I know I won’t be planting anything.”

The University of California Cooperative Extension held a drought survival session last week in Browns Valley, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, drawing hundreds of ranchers in person and online. “We have people coming from six or seven hours away,” said Jeffrey James, who ran the session.

Dan Macon, 46, a rancher in Auburn, Calif., said the situation was “as bad as I have ever experienced. Most of our range lands are essentially out of feed.”

With each parched sunrise, a sense of alarm is rising amid signs that this is a drought that comes along only every few centuries. Sacramento had gone 52 days without water, and Albuquerque had gone 42 days without rain or snow as of Saturday.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water during the dry season, was at just 12 percent of normal last week, reflecting the lack of rain or snow in December and January.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Dry riverbed, Kern River in Bakersfield, California. Courtesy of David McNew/Getty Images / New York Times.

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Your iPhone is Worth $3,000

iphone_5C-colors

There is a slight catch.

Your iPhone is worth around $3,000 based on the combined value of a sack full of gadgets from over 20 years ago. We all know that no IPhone existed in the early nineties — not even inside Steve Jobs’ head. So intrepid tech-sleuth, Steve Cichon, calculated the iPhone’s value by combining the functions of fifteen or so consumer electronics devices from 1991, found at Radio Shack, which when all combined offer comparable features to one of today’s iPhones.

From the Washington Post:

Buffalo writer Steve Cichon dug up an old Radio Shack ad, offering a variety of what were then cutting-edge gadgets. There are 15 items listed on the page, and Cichon points out that all but two of them — the exceptions are a radar detector and a set of speakers — do jobs that can now be performed with a modern iPhone.

The other 13 items, including a desktop computer, a camcorder, a CD player  and a mobile phone, have a combined price of $3,071.21. The unsubsidized price of an iPhone is $549. And, of course, your iPhone is superior to these devices in many respects. The VHS camcorder, for example, captured video at a quality vastly inferior to the crystal-clear 1080p video an iPhone can record. That $1,599 Tandy computer would have struggled to browse the Web of the 1990s, to say nothing of the sophisticated Web sites iPhones access today. The CD player only lets you carry a few albums worth of music at a time; an iPhone can hold thousands of songs. And of course, the iPhone fits in your pocket.

This example is important to remember in the debate over whether the government’s official inflation figures understate or overstate inflation. In computing the inflation rate, economists assemble a representative “basket of goods” and see how its price changes over time. This isn’t difficult when the items in the basket are milk or gallons of gasoline. But it becomes extremely tricky when thinking about high-tech products. This year’s products are dramatically better than last year’s, so economists include a “quality adjustment” factor to reflect the change. But making apples-to-apples comparisons is difficult.

There’s no basket of 1991 gadgets that exactly duplicates the functionality of a modern iPhone, so deciding what to put into that basket is an inherently subjective enterprise. It’s not obvious that the average customer really gets as much value from his or her iPhone as a gadget lover in 1991 would have gotten from $3,000 worth of Radio Shack gadgets. On the other hand, iPhones do a lot of other things, too, like check Facebook, show movies on the go and provide turn-by-turn directions, that would have been hard to do on any gadget in 1991. So if anything, I suspect the way we measure inflation understates how quickly our standard of living has been improving.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Apple iPhone 5c. Courtesy of ABC News / Apple.

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MondayPoem: Lines: The Cold Earth Slept Below

Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_ClintIt’s been rather cold across much of the United States recently — even in areas of the South that rarely see below zero on a thermometer. So, how better to honor the cold than to soak in Shelley’s chillingly beautiful Lines.

By Percy Bysshe Shelley:

 Lines: The cold earth slept below

The cold earth slept below;
         Above the cold sky shone;
                And all around,
                With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
                Beneath the sinking moon.

The wintry hedge was black;
         The green grass was not seen;
                The birds did rest
                On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
                Which the frost had made between.

Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
         Of the moon’s dying light;
                As a fen-fire’s beam
                On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
                That shook in the wind of night.

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
         The wind made thy bosom chill;
                The night did shed
                On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
                Might visit thee at will.

Poem courtesy of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Image: Percy Bysshe Shelley, portrait by Alfred Clint (1819).

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Wolfgang Pauli’s Champagne

PauliAustrian theoretical physicist dreamed up neutrinos in 1930, and famously bet a case of fine champagne that these ghostly elementary particles would never be found. Pauli lost the bet in 1956. Since then researchers have made great progress both theoretically and experimentally in trying to delve into the neutrino’s secrets. Two new books describe the ongoing quest.

From the Economist:

Neutrinoa are weird. The wispy particles are far more abundant than the protons and electrons that make up atoms. Billions of them stream through every square centimetre of Earth’s surface each second, but they leave no trace and rarely interact with anything. Yet scientists increasingly agree that they could help unravel one of the biggest mysteries in physics: why the cosmos is made of matter.

Neutrinos’ scientific history is also odd, as two new books explain. The first is “Neutrino Hunters” by Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Toronto (and a former contributor to The Economist). The second, “The Perfect Wave”, is by Heinrich Päs, a neutrino theorist from Technical University in the German city of Dortmund.

The particles were dreamed up in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, an Austrian, to account for energy that appeared to go missing in a type of radioactivity known as beta decay. Pauli apologised for what was a bold idea at a time when physicists knew of just two subatomic particles (protons and electrons), explaining that the missing energy was carried away by a new, electrically neutral and, he believed, undetectable subatomic species. He bet a case of champagne that it would never be found.

Pauli lost the wager in 1956 to two Americans, Frederick Reines and Clyde Cowan. The original experiment they came up with to test the hypothesis was unorthodox. It involved dropping a detector down a shaft within 40 metres of an exploding nuclear bomb, which would act as a source of neutrinos. Though Los Alamos National Laboratory approved the experiment, the pair eventually chose a more practical approach and buried a detector near a powerful nuclear reactor at Savannah River, South Carolina, instead. (Most neutrino detectors are deep underground to shield them from cosmic rays, which can cause similar signals.)

However, as other experiments, in particular those looking for neutrinos in the physical reactions which power the sun, strove to replicate Reines’s and Cowan’s result, they hit a snag. The number of solar neutrinos they recorded was persistently just one third of what theory said the sun ought to produce. Either the theorists had made a mistake, the thinking went, or the experiments had gone awry.

In fact, both were right all along. It was the neutrinos that, true to form, behaved oddly. As early as 1957 Bruno Pontecorvo, an Italian physicist who had defected to the Soviet Union seven years earlier, suggested that neutrinos could come in different types, known to physicists as “flavours”, and that they morph from one type to another on their way from the sun to Earth. Other scientists were sceptical. Their blueprint for how nature works at the subatomic level, called the Standard Model, assumed that neutrinos have no mass. This, as Albert Einstein showed, is the same as saying they travel at the speed of light. On reaching that speed time stops. If neutrinos switch flavours they would have to experience change, and thus time. That means they would have to be slower than light. In other words, they would have mass. (A claim in 2011 by Italian physicists working with CERN, Europe’s main physics laboratory, that neutrinos broke Einstein’s speed limit turned out to be the result of a loose cable.)

Pontecorvo’s hypothesis was proved only in 1998, in Japan. Others have since confirmed the phenomenon known as “oscillation”. The Standard Model had to be tweaked to make room for neutrino mass. But scientists still have little idea about how much any of the neutrinos actually weigh, besides being at least 1m times lighter than an electron.

The answer to the weight question, as well as a better understanding of neutrino oscillations, may help solve the puzzle of why the universe is full of matter. One explanation boffins like a lot because of its elegant maths invokes a whole new category of “heavy” neutrino decaying more readily into matter than antimatter. If that happened a lot when the universe began, then there would have been more matter around than antimatter, and when the matter and antimatter annihilated each other, as they are wont to do, some matter (ie, everything now visible) would be left over. The lighter the known neutrinos, according to this “seesaw” theory, the heftier the heavy sort would have to be. A heavy neutrino has yet to be observed, and may well, as Pauli described it, be unobservable. But a better handle on the light variety, Messrs Jayawardhana and Päs both agree, may offer important clues.

These two books complement each other. Mr Jayawardhana’s is stronger on the history (though his accounts of the neutrino hunters’ personal lives can read a little too much like a professional CV). It is also more comprehensive on the potential use of neutrinos in examining the innards of the sun, of distant exploding stars or of Earth, as well as more practical uses such as fingering illicit nuclear-enrichment programmes (since they spew out a telltale pattern of the particles).

Read the entire article here.

Image: Wolfgang Pauli, c1945. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Fast Fashion and Smartphones

google-search-teen-fashion

Teen retail isn’t what it used to be. Once dominated by the likes of Aeropostale, Abercrombie and Fitch, and American Eagle, the sector is in a downward spiral. Many retail analysts place the blame on the internet. While discretionary income is down and unemployment is up among teens, there are two other key factors driving the change: first, smartphones loaded with apps seem to be more important to a teen’s self identity than an emblazoned tee-shirt; second, fast-fashion houses, such as H&M, can churn out fresh designs at a fraction thanks to fully integrated, on-demand supply chains. Perhaps, the silver lining in all of this, if you could call it such, is that malls may soon become the hang-out for old-timers.

From the NYT:

Luring young shoppers into traditional teenage clothing stores has become a tough sell.

When 19-year-old Tsarina Merrin thinks of a typical shopper at some of the national chains, she doesn’t think of herself, her friends or even contemporaries.

“When I think of who is shopping at Abercrombie,” she said, “I think it’s more of people’s parents shopping for them.”

Sales are down across the shelves of many traditional teenage apparel retailers, and some analysts and others suggest that it’s not just a tired fashion sense causing the slump. The competition for teenage dollars, at a time of high unemployment within that age group, spans from more stores to shop in to more tempting technology.

And sometimes phones loaded with apps or a game box trump the latest in jeans.

Mainstays in the industry like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Aéropostale, which dominated teenage closets for years, have been among those hit hard.

The grim reports of the last holiday season have already proved punishing for senior executives at the helm of a few retailers. In a move that caught many analysts by surprise, the chief executive of American Eagle, Robert L. Hanson, announced he was leaving the company last week. And on Tuesday, Abercrombie announced they were making several changes to the company’s board and leadership, including separating the role of chief executive and chairman.

Aside from those shake-ups, analysts are saying they do not expect much improvement in this retail sector any time soon.

According to a survey of analysts conducted by Thomson Reuters, sales at teenage apparel retailers open for more than a year, like Wet Seal, Zumiez, Abercrombie and American Eagle, are expected to be 6.4 percent lower in the fourth quarter over the previous period. That is worse than any other retail category.

“It’s enough to make you think the teen is going to be walking around naked,” said John D. Morris, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “What happened to them?”

Paul Lejuez, an analyst at Wells Fargo, said he and his team put out a note in May on the health of the teenage sector and department stores called “Watch Out for the Kid With the Cough.” (Aéropostale was the coughing teenager.) Nonetheless, he said, “We ended up being surprised just how bad things got so quickly. There’s really no sign of life anywhere among the traditional players.”

Causes are ticked off easily. Mentioned often is the high teenage unemployment rate, reaching 20.2 percent among 16- to 19-year-olds, far above the national rate of 6.7 percent.

Cheap fashion has also driven a more competitive market. So-called fast-fashion companies, like Forever 21 and H&M, which sell trendy clothes at low prices, have muscled into the space, while some department stores and discount retailers like T. J. Maxx now cater to teenagers, as well.

“You can buy a plaid shirt at Abercrombie that’s like $70,” said Daniela Donayre, 17, standing in a Topshop in Manhattan. “Or I can go to Forever 21 and buy the same shirt for $20.”

Online shopping, which has been roiling the industry for years, may play an especially pronounced role in the teenage sector, analysts say. A study of a group of teenagers released in the fall by Piper Jaffray found that more than three-fourths of young men and women said they shopped online.

Not only did teenagers grow up on the Internet, but it has shaped and accelerated fashion cycles. Things take off quickly and fade even faster, watched by teenagers who are especially sensitive to the slightest shift in the winds of a trend.

Matthew McClintock, an analyst at Barclays, pointed to Justin Bieber as an example.

“Today, if you saw that Justin Bieber got arrested drag-racing,” Mr. McClintock said, “and you saw in the picture that he had on a cool red shirt, then you can go online and find that cool red shirt and have it delivered to you in two days from some boutique in Los Angeles.

“Ten years ago, teens were dependent on going to Abercrombie & Fitch and buying from the select items that Mike Jeffries, the C.E.O., thought would be popular nine months ago.”

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Techo-Blocking Technology

google-glass2

Many technologists, philosophers and social scientists who consider the ethics of technology have described it as a double-edged sword. Indeed observation does seem to uphold this idea; for every benefit gained from a new invention comes a mirroring disadvantage or a peril. Not that technology per se is a threat — but its human masters seem to be rather adept at deploying it for both good and evil means.

By corollary it is also evident that many a new technology spawns others, and sometimes entire industries, to counteract the first. The radar begets the radar-evading material; the radio begets the radio-jamming transmitter; cryptography begets hacking. You get the idea.

So not a moment too soon comes PlaceAvoider, a technology to suppress capturing and sharing of images seen through Google Glass. So, watch out Brin and Page and company, the watchers are watching you.

From Technology Review:

With last year’s launch of the Narrative Clip and Autographer, and Google Glass poised for release this year, technologies that can continuously capture our daily lives with photos and videos are inching closer to the mainstream. These gadgets can generate detailed visual diaries, drive self-improvement, and help those with memory problems. But do you really want to record in the bathroom or a sensitive work meeting?

Assuming that many people don’t, computer scientists at Indiana University have developed software that uses computer vision techniques to automatically identify potentially confidential or embarrassing pictures taken with these devices and prevent them from being shared. A prototype of the software, called PlaceAvoider, will be presented at the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium in San Diego in February.

“There simply isn’t the time to manually curate the thousands of images these devices can generate per day, and in a socially networked world that might lead to the inadvertent sharing of photos you don’t want to share,” says Apu Kapadia, who co-leads the team that developed the system. “Or those who are worried about that might just not share their life-log streams, so we’re trying to help people exploit these applications to the full by providing them with a way to share safely.”

Kapadia’s group began by acknowledging that devising algorithms that can identify sensitive pictures solely on the basis of visual content is probably impossible, since the things that people do and don’t want to share can vary widely and may be difficult to recognize. They set about designing software that users train by taking pictures of the rooms they want to blacklist. PlaceAvoider then flags new pictures taken in those rooms so the user will review them.

The system uses an existing computer-vision algorithm called scale-invariant feature transform (SIFT) to pinpoint regions of high contrast around corners and edges within the training images that are likely to stay visually constant even in varying light conditions and from different perspectives. For each of these, it produces a “numerical fingerprint” consisting of 128 separate numbers relating to properties such as color and texture, as well as its position relative to other regions of the image. Since images are sometimes blurry, PlaceAvoider also looks at more general properties such as colors and textures of walls and carpets, and takes into account the sequence in which shots are taken.

In tests, the system accurately determined whether images from streams captured in the homes and workplaces of the researchers were from blacklisted rooms an average of 89.8 percent of the time.

PlaceAvoider is currently a research prototype; its various components have been written but haven’t been combined as a completed product, and researchers used a smartphone worn around the neck to take photos rather than an existing device meant for life-logging. If developed to work on a life-logging device, an interface could be designed so that PlaceAvoider can flag potentially sensitive images at the time they are taken or place them in quarantine to be dealt with later.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Google Glass. Courtesy of Google.

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Your Friends Are Friendlier… And…

friends-cast

Your friends have more friends than you. But wait there’s more not-so-good news. Not only are your friends friendlier and befriended more than you, they are also likely to be wealthier and happier. How can this be, you may ask? It’s all down to averaging and the mathematics of networks and their interconnections. This so-called Friendship Paradox manifests itself in the dynamics of all social networks — it applies online as well as in the real world.

From Technology Review:

Back in 1991, the sociologist Scott Feld made a surprising discovery while studying the properties of social networks. Feld calculated the average number of friends that a person in the network has and compared this to the average number of friends that these friends had.

Against all expectations it turned out that the second number is always bigger than the first. Or in other words, your friends have more friends than you do.

Researchers have since observed the so-called friendship paradox in a wide variety of situations. On Facebook, your friends will have more friends than you have. On Twitter, your followers will have more followers than you do. And in real life, your sexual partners will have had more partners than you’ve had. At least, on average.

Network scientists have long known that this paradoxical effect is the result of the topology of networks—how they are connected together. That’s why similar networks share the same paradoxical properties.

But are your friends also happier than you are, or richer, or just better? That’s not so clear because happiness and wealth are not directly represented in the topology of a friendship network. So an interesting question is how far the paradox will go.

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Young-Ho Eom at the University of Toulouse in France and Hang-Hyun Jo at Aalto University in Finland. These guys have evaluated the properties of different characteristics on networks and worked out the mathematical conditions that determine whether the paradox applies to them or not. Their short answer is yes: your friends probably are richer than you are.

The paradox arises because numbers of friends people have are distributed in a way that follows a power law rather than an ordinary linear relationship. So most people have a few friends while a small number of people have lots of friends.

It’s this second small group that causes the paradox. People with lots of friends are more likely to number among your friends in the first place. And when they do, they significantly raise the average number of friends that your friends have. That’s the reason that, on average, your friends have more friends than you do.

But what of other characteristics, such as wealth and happiness, which are not represented by the network topology?

To study other types of network, Eom and Jo looked at two academic networks in which scientists are linked if they have co-authored a scientific paper together. Each scientist is a node in the network and the links arise between scientists who have been co-authors.

Sure enough, the paradox raises its head in this network too. If you are a scientist, your co-authors will have more co-authors than you, as reflected in the network topology. But curiously, they will also have more publications and more citations than you too.

Eom and Jo call this the “generalized friendship paradox” and go on to derive the mathematical conditions in which it occurs. They say that when a paradox arises as a result of the way nodes are connected together, any other properties of these nodes demonstrate the same paradoxical nature, as long as they are correlated in certain way.

As it turns out, number of publications and citations meet this criteria. And so too do wealth and happiness. So the answer is yes: your friends probably are richer and happier than you are.

That has significant implications for the way people perceive themselves given that their friends will always seem happier, wealthier and more popular than they are. And the problem is likely to be worse in networks where this is easier to see. “This might be the reason why active online social networking service users are not happy,” say Eom and Jo, referring to other research that has found higher levels of unhappiness among social network users.

So if you’re an active Facebook user feeling inadequate and unhappy because your friends seem to be doing better than you are, remember that almost everybody else on the network is in a similar position.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Cast of the CBS TV show Friends. Courtesy of Vanity Fair, CBS and respective rights holders.

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3D Printing Grows Up

cubify-3dme

So, you’d like to print a 3D engine part for your jet fighter aircraft, or print a baby — actually a realistic model of one — or shoe insoles or a fake flower. Or perhaps you’d like to print a realistic windpipe or a new arm, or a guitar or a bikini or a model of a sports stadium or even a 3D selfie (please, say no). All of these and more can now be printed in three-dimensions courtesy of this rapidly developing area of technology.

From the Guardian:

As a technology journalist – even one who hasn’t written much about 3D printing – I’ve noticed a big growth in questions from friends about the area in recent months. Often, those questions are the same ones, too.

How does 3D printing even work? What’s all this about 3D-printed guns? Can you 3D-print a 3D printer? Why are they so expensive? What can you actually make with them? Apart from guns…

The ethical and legal questions around 3D printing and firearms are important and complex, but they also tend to hoover up a lot of the mainstream media attention for this area of technology. But it’s the “what can you actually make with them” question that’s been pulling me in recently.

There’s a growing community – from individual makers to nascent businesses – exploring the potential of 3D printing. This feature is just a snapshot of some of the products and projects that caught my attention, rather than a definitive roundup.

A taste of what’s happening, but one that’s ripe for your comments pointing out better examples in these categories, and other areas that have been left out. All contributions are welcome, but here are 30 things to start the discussion off.

1. RAF Tornado fighter jet parts

Early this year, BAE Systems said that British fighter jets had flown with the first time with components made using 3D printing technology. Its engineers are making parts for four squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft, with the aim of saving £1.2m of maintenance and service costs over the next four years. “You are suddenly not fixed in terms of where you have to manufacture these things,” said BAE’s Mike Murray. “You can manufacture the products at whatever base you want, providing you can get a machine there.”

2. Arms for children

Time’s article from earlier this month on the work of Not Impossible Labs makes for powerful reading: a project using 3D printers to make low-cost prosthetic limbs for amputees, including Sudanese bomb-blast victim Daniel Omar. But this is just one of the stories emerging: see also 3Ders’ piece on a four-year old called Hannah, with a condition called arthrogryposis that limits her ability to lift her arms unaided, but who now has a Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX for short) to help, made using 3D printing.

3. Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium

Manchester-based company Hobs’ business is based around working with architects, engineers and other creatives to use 3D printing as part of their work, but to show off its capabilities, the company 3D printed models of the city’s two football stadia – Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium – giving them away in a competition for Manchester Evening News readers. The models were estimated to be worth £1,000 each.

4. Unborn babies

Not actually as creepy as it sounds. This is more an extension of the 4D ultrasound images of babies in the womb that have become more popular in recent years. The theory: why not print them out? One company doing it, 3D Babies, didn’t have much luck with a crowdfunding campaign last year, raising $1,225 of its $15,000 goal. Even so, its website is up and running, offering eight-inch “custom lifesize baby” models for $800 a pop.

5. Super Bowl shoe cleats

Expect to see a number of big brands launching 3D printing projects this year – part R&D and part PR campaigns. Nike is one example: it’s showing off a training shoe called the Vapor Carbon Elite Cleat for this year’s Super Bowl, with a 3D-printed nylon base and cleats – the latter based on the existing Vapor Laser Talon, which was unveiled a year ago.

6. Honda concept cars

Admittedly, not an actual concept car that you can drive. Not yet. But Honda has made five 3D-printable models available from its website for fans to download and make, including 1994’s FSR Concept and 2003’s Kiwami. So it’s more about shining a light on the company’s archives and being seen to be innovative – although the potential of 3D printing for internal prototyping at all kinds of manufacturers (cars included) is one of the most interesting areas for 3D printing.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Cubify’s 3DMe figures. Courtesy of Cubify.

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Post-Siri Relationships

siri

What are we to make of a world when software-driven intelligent agents, artificial intelligence and language processing capabilities combine to deliver a human experience? After all, what does it really mean to be human and can a machine be sentient? We should all be pondering such weighty issues, since this emerging reality may well happen within our lifetimes.

From Technology Review:

In the movie Her, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture this year, a middle-aged writer named Theodore Twombly installs and rapidly falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system who christens herself Samantha.

Samantha lies far beyond the faux “artificial intelligence” of Google Now or Siri: she is as fully and unambiguously conscious as any human. The film’s director and writer, Spike Jonze, employs this premise for limited and prosaic ends, so the film limps along in an uncanny valley, neither believable as near-future reality nor philosophically daring enough to merit suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, Her raises questions about how humans might relate to computers. Twombly is suffering a painful separation from his wife; can Samantha make him feel better?

Samantha’s self-awareness does not echo real-world trends for automated assistants, which are heading in a very different direction. Making personal assistants chatty, let alone flirtatious, would be a huge waste of resources, and most people would find them as irritating as the infamous Microsoft Clippy.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that these qualities would be unwelcome in a different context. When dementia sufferers in nursing homes are invited to bond with robot seal pups, and a growing list of psychiatric conditions are being addressed with automated dialogues and therapy sessions, it can only be a matter of time before someone tries to create an app that helps people overcome ordinary loneliness. Suppose we do reach the point where it’s possible to feel genuinely engaged by repartee with a piece of software. What would that mean for the human participants?

Perhaps this prospect sounds absurd or repugnant. But some people already take comfort from immersion in the lives of fictional characters. And much as I wince when I hear someone say that “my best friend growing up was Elizabeth Bennet,” no one would treat it as evidence of psychotic delusion. Over the last two centuries, the mainstream perceptions of novel reading have traversed a full spectrum: once seen as a threat to public morality, it has become a badge of empathy and emotional sophistication. It’s rare now to hear claims that fiction is sapping its readers of time, energy, and emotional resources that they ought to be devoting to actual human relationships.

Of course, characters in Jane Austen novels cannot banter with the reader—and it’s another question whether it would be a travesty if they could—but what I’m envisaging are not characters from fiction “brought to life,” or even characters in a game world who can conduct more realistic dialogue with human players. A software interlocutor—an “SI”—would require some kind of invented back story and an ongoing “life” of its own, but these elements need not have been chosen as part of any great dramatic arc. Gripping as it is to watch an egotistical drug baron in a death spiral, or Raskolnikov dragged unwillingly toward his creator’s idea of redemption, the ideal SI would be more like a pen pal, living an ordinary life untouched by grand authorial schemes but ready to discuss anything, from the mundane to the metaphysical.

There are some obvious pitfalls to be avoided. It would be disastrous if the user really fell for the illusion of personhood, but then, most of us manage to keep the distinction clear in other forms of fiction. An SI that could be used to rehearse pathological fantasies of abusive relationships would be a poisonous thing—but conversely, one that stood its ground against attempts to manipulate or cower it might even do some good.

The art of conversation, of listening attentively and weighing each response, is not a universal gift, any more than any other skill. If it becomes possible to hone one’s conversational skills with a computer—discovering your strengths and weaknesses while enjoying a chat with a character that is no less interesting for failing to exist—that might well lead to better conversations with fellow humans.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Siri icon. Courtesy of Cult of Mac / Apple.

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The Spacetime Discontinuum

Einstein transformed our notions of the universe, teaching us, amongst other things, that time is relative to the velocity of the observer. While he had in mind no less than the entire cosmos when constructing his elegant theories, he failed to consider relativity in the home and workplace, and specifically how women and men experience time differently.

From the WSJ:

Several years ago, while observing a parenting group in Minnesota, I was struck by a confession one of the women made to her peers: She didn’t really care that her husband did the dishes after dinner. Sure, it was swell of him, and she had friends whose husbands did less. But what she really wanted, at that point in her day, was for her husband to volunteer to put the kids to bed. She would have been glad to sit in the kitchen on her own for a few minutes with the water running and her mind wandering. Another woman chimed in: “Totally. The dishes don’t talk back to you.”

According to the American Time Use Survey—which asks thousands of Americans annually to chronicle how they spend their days—men and women now work roughly the same number of hours a week (though men work more paid hours, and women more unpaid). Given this balanced ledger, one might guess that all would finally be quiet on the domestic front—that women would finally have stopped wondering how they, rather than their husbands, got suckered into such a heavy load. But they haven’t. The question is: Why?

Part of the problem is that averages treat all data as if they’re the same and therefore combinable, which often results in a kind of absurdity. On average, human beings have half an Adam’s apple, but no one thinks to lump men and women together this way. Similarly, we should not assume that men and women’s working hours are the same in kind. The fact is, men and women experience their time very differently.

For starters, not all work is created equal. An hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another. Take child care, a task to which mothers devote far more hours than dads. It creates much more stress in women than other forms of housework. In “Alone Together” (2007), a comprehensive look at the state of American marriage, the authors found that if women believe child care is unevenly divided in their homes, this imbalance is much more likely to affect their marital happiness than a perceived imbalance in, say, vacuuming.

Or consider night duty. Sustained sleep deprivation, as we know, consigns people to their own special league of misery. But it’s generally mothers, rather than fathers, who are halfway down the loonytown freeway to hysterical exhaustion, at least in the early years of parenting. According to the American Time Use Survey, women in dual-earner couples are three times more likely to report interrupted sleep if they have a child under the age of 1, and stay-at-home mothers are six times as likely to get up with their children as are stay-at-home fathers.

Funny: I once sat on a panel with Adam Mansbach, the author of the best-selling parody “Go the F— to Sleep.” At one point in the discussion, he conceded that his partner put his child to bed most nights. He may have written a book about the tyranny of toddlers at bedtime, but in his house, it was mainly Mom’s problem.

Complicating matters, mothers assume a disproportionate number of time-sensitive domestic tasks, whether it’s getting their toddlers dressed for school or their 12-year-olds off to swim practice. Their daily routine is speckled with what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call “pressure points,” or nonnegotiable demands that make their lives, as the authors put it, “more frenetic.”

These deadlines have unintended consequences. They force women to search for wormholes in the time-space continuum simply to accomplish all the things that they need to do. In 2011, the sociologists Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers spend, on average, 10 extra hours a week multitasking than do fathers “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.”

When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, it reduces their odds of multitasking by over 30%. Which may explain why, a few years ago, researchers from UCLA found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently” in their close study of 32 families at home. It may also explain why many fathers manage to finish the Sunday paper while their wives do not—they’re not constantly getting up to refill bowls of Cheerios.

Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.

Read the entire essay here.

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Your Toaster on the Internet

Toaster

Billions of people have access to the Internet. Now, whether a significant proportion of these do anything productive with this tremendous resource is open to debate — many preferring only to post pictures of their breakfasts, themselves or to watch last-minute’s viral video hit.

Despite all these humans clogging up the Tubes of the Internets most traffic along the information superhighway is in fact not even human. Over 60 percent of all activity comes from computer systems, such as web crawlers, botnets, and increasingly, industrial control systems, ranging from security and monitoring devices, to in-home devices such as your thermostat, refrigerator, smart TV , smart toilet and toaster. So, soon Google will know what you eat and when, and your fridge will tell you what you should eat (or not) based on what it knows of your body mass index (BMI) from your bathroom scales.

Jokes aside, the Internet of Things (IoT) promises to herald an even more significant information revolution over the coming decades as all our devices and machines, from home to farm to factory, are connected and inter-connected.

From the ars technica:

If you believe what the likes of LG and Samsung have been promoting this week at CES, everything will soon be smart. We’ll be able to send messages to our washing machines, run apps on our fridges, and have TVs as powerful as computers. It may be too late to resist this movement, with smart TVs already firmly entrenched in the mid-to-high end market, but resist it we should. That’s because the “Internet of things” stands a really good chance of turning into the “Internet of unmaintained, insecure, and dangerously hackable things.”

These devices will inevitably be abandoned by their manufacturers, and the result will be lots of “smart” functionality—fridges that know what we buy and when, TVs that know what shows we watch—all connected to the Internet 24/7, all completely insecure.

While the value of smart watches or washing machines isn’t entirely clear, at least some smart devices—I think most notably phones and TVs—make sense. The utility of the smartphone, an Internet-connected computer that fits in your pocket, is obvious. The growth of streaming media services means that your antenna or cable box are no longer the sole source of televisual programming, so TVs that can directly use these streaming services similarly have some appeal.

But these smart features make the devices substantially more complex. Your smart TV is not really a TV so much as an all-in-one computer that runs Android, WebOS, or some custom operating system of the manufacturer’s invention. And where once it was purely a device for receiving data over a coax cable, it’s now equipped with bidirectional networking interfaces, exposing the Internet to the TV and the TV to the Internet.

The result is a whole lot of exposure to security problems. Even if we assume that these devices ship with no known flaws—a questionable assumption in and of itself if SOHO routers are anything to judge by—a few months or years down the line, that will no longer be the case. Flaws and insecurities will be uncovered, and the software components of these smart devices will need to be updated to address those problems. They’ll need these updates for the lifetime of the device, too. Old software is routinely vulnerable to newly discovered flaws, so there’s no point in any reasonable timeframe at which it’s OK to stop updating the software.

In addition to security, there’s also a question of utility. Netflix and Hulu may be hot today, but that may not be the case in five years’ time. New services will arrive; old ones will die out. Even if the service lineup remains the same, its underlying technology is unlikely to be static. In the future, Netflix, for example, might want to deprecate old APIs and replace them with new ones; Netflix apps will need to be updated to accommodate the changes. I can envision changes such as replacing the H.264 codec with H.265 (for reduced bandwidth and/or improved picture quality), which would similarly require updated software.

To remain useful, app platforms need up-to-date apps. As such, for your smart device to remain safe, secure, and valuable, it needs a lifetime of software fixes and updates.

A history of non-existent updates

Herein lies the problem, because if there’s one thing that companies like Samsung have demonstrated in the past, it’s a total unwillingness to provide a lifetime of software fixes and updates. Even smartphones, which are generally assumed to have a two-year lifecycle (with replacements driven by cheap or “free” contract-subsidized pricing), rarely receive updates for the full two years (Apple’s iPhone being the one notable exception).

A typical smartphone bought today will remain useful and usable for at least three years, but its system software support will tend to dry up after just 18 months.

This isn’t surprising, of course. Samsung doesn’t make any money from making your two-year-old phone better. Samsung makes its money when you buy a new Samsung phone. Improving the old phones with software updates would cost money, and that tends to limit sales of new phones. For Samsung, it’s lose-lose.

Our fridges, cars, and TVs are not even on a two-year replacement cycle. Even if you do replace your TV after it’s a couple years old, you probably won’t throw the old one away. It will just migrate from the living room to the master bedroom, and then from the master bedroom to the kids’ room. Likewise, it’s rare that a three-year-old car is simply consigned to the scrap heap. It’s given away or sold off for a second, third, or fourth “life” as someone else’s primary vehicle. Your fridge and washing machine will probably be kept until they blow up or you move houses.

These are all durable goods, kept for the long term without any equivalent to the smartphone carrier subsidy to promote premature replacement. If they’re going to be smart, software-powered devices, they’re going to need software lifecycles that are appropriate to their longevity.

That costs money, it requires a commitment to providing support, and it does little or nothing to promote sales of the latest and greatest devices. In the software world, there are companies that provide this level of support—the Microsofts and IBMs of the world—but it tends to be restricted to companies that have at least one eye on the enterprise market. In the consumer space, you’re doing well if you’re getting updates and support five years down the line. Consumer software fixes a decade later are rare, especially if there’s no system of subscriptions or other recurring payments to monetize the updates.

Of course, the companies building all these products have the perfect solution. Just replace all our stuff every 18-24 months. Fridge no longer getting updated? Not a problem. Just chuck out the still perfectly good fridge you have and buy a new one. This is, after all, the model that they already depend on for smartphones. Of course, it’s not really appropriate even to smartphones (a mid/high-end phone bought today will be just fine in three years), much less to stuff that will work well for 10 years.

These devices will be abandoned by their manufacturers, and it’s inevitable that they are abandoned long before they cease to be useful.

Superficially, this might seem to be no big deal. Sure, your TV might be insecure, but your NAT router will probably provide adequate protection, and while it wouldn’t be tremendously surprising to find that it has some passwords for online services or other personal information on it, TVs are sufficiently diverse that people are unlikely to expend too much effort targeting specific models.

Read the entire story here.

Image: A classically styled chrome two-slot automatic electric toaster. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Online Social Networks as Infectious Diseases

Yersinia_pestis

A new research study applies the concepts of infectious diseases to online social networks. By applying epidemiological modelling to examine the dynamics of networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, researchers are able to analyze the explosive growth — the term “viral” is not coincidental — and ultimate demise of such networks. So, is Facebook destined to suffer a fate similar to Myspace, Bebo, polio and the bubonic plague? These researchers from Princeton think so, estimating Facebook will lose 80 percent of its 1.2 billion users by 2017.

From the Guardian:

Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University (pdf).

The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.

The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.

“Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,” the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.

“Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other. Idea manifesters ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of ‘immunity’ to the idea.”

Facebook reported nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users in October, and is due to update investors on its traffic numbers at the end of the month. While desktop traffic to its websites has indeed been falling, this is at least in part due to the fact that many people now only access the network via their mobile phones.

For their study, Cannarella and Spechler used what is known as the SIR (susceptible, infected, recovered) model of disease, which creates equations to map the spread and recovery of epidemics.

They tested various equations against the lifespan of Myspace, before applying them to Facebook. Myspace was founded in 2003 and reached its peak in 2007 with 300 million registered users, before falling out of use by 2011. Purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580m, Myspace signed a $900m deal with Google in 2006 to sell its advertising space and was at one point valued at $12bn. It was eventually sold by News Corp for just $35m.

The 870 million people using Facebook via their smartphones each month could explain the drop in Google searches – those looking to log on are no longer doing so by typing the word Facebook into Google.

But Facebook’s chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted on an earnings call with analysts that during the previous three months: “We did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.”

Investors do not appear to be heading for the exit just yet. Facebook’s share price reached record highs this month, valuing founder Mark Zuckerberg’s company at $142bn.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Scanning electron microscope image of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

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Lies By Any Other Name

Lies_and_the_lying_liarsCertain gestures and facial movements are usually good indicators of a lie in progress. If your boss averts her eyes when she tells you “what a good employee you are”, or if your spouse looks at his finger nails when telling you “how gorgeous your new dress looks”, you can be almost certain that you are being told some half-truths or mistruths. Psychologists have studied these visual indicators for as long as humans have told lies.

Since dishonesty is so widespread and well-studied it comes as no surprise that there are verbal cues as well — just as telling as sweaty palms. A well-used verbal clue to insincerity, ironically, is the phrase “to be honest“. Verbal tee-ups such as this are known by behavioral scientists as qualifiers or performatives. There is a growing list.

From the WSJ:

A friend of mine recently started a conversation with these words: “Don’t take this the wrong way…”

I wish I could tell you what she said next. But I wasn’t listening—my brain had stalled. I was bracing for the sentence that would follow that phrase, which experience has taught me probably wouldn’t be good.

Certain phrases just seem to creep into our daily speech. We hear them a few times and suddenly we find ourselves using them. We like the way they sound, and we may find they are useful. They may make it easier to say something difficult or buy us a few extra seconds to collect our next thought.

Yet for the listener, these phrases are confusing. They make it fairly impossible to understand, or even accurately hear, what the speaker is trying to say.

Consider: “I want you to know…” or “I’m just saying…” or “I hate to be the one to tell you this…” Often, these phrases imply the opposite of what the words mean, as with the phrase, “I’m not saying…” as in “I’m not saying we have to stop seeing each other, but…”

Take this sentence: “I want to say that your new haircut looks fabulous.” In one sense, it’s true: The speaker does wish to tell you that your hair looks great. But does he or she really think it is so or just want to say it? It’s unclear.

Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as “I am writing to say…” At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.

“Politeness is another word for deception,” says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. “The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.”

In other words, “if you’re going to lie, it’s a good way to do it—because you’re not really lying. So it softens the blow,” Dr. Pennebaker says.

Of course, it’s generally best not to lie, Dr. Pennebaker notes. But because these sayings so frequently signal untruth, they can be confusing even when used in a neutral context. No wonder they often lead to a breakdown in personal communications.

Some people refer to these phrases as “tee-ups.” That is fitting. What do you do with a golf ball? You put it on a peg at the tee—tee it up—and then give it a giant wallop.

Betsy Schow says she felt like she was “hit in the stomach by a cannonball” the day she was preparing to teach one of her first yoga classes. A good friend—one she’d assumed had shown up to support her—approached her while she was warming up. She was in the downward facing dog pose when she heard her friend say, “I am only telling you this because I love you…”

The friend pointed out that lumps were showing beneath Ms. Schow’s yoga clothes and said people laughed at her behind her back because they thought she wasn’t fit enough to teach yoga. Ms. Schow had recently lost a lot of weight and written a book about it. She says the woman also mentioned that Ms. Schow’s friends felt she was “acting better than they were.” Then the woman offered up the name of a doctor who specializes in liposuction. “Hearing that made me feel sick,” says Ms. Schow, a 32-year-old fitness consultant in Alpine, Utah. “Later, I realized that her ‘help’ was no help at all.”

Tee-ups have probably been around as long as language, experts say. They seem to be used with equal frequency by men and women, although there aren’t major studies of the issue. Their use may be increasing as a result of social media, where people use phrases such as “I am thinking that…” or “As far as I know…” both to avoid committing to a definitive position and to manage the impression they make in print.

“Awareness about image management is increased any time people put things into print, such as in email or on social networks,” says Jessica Moore, department chair and assistant professor at the College of Communication at Butler University, Indianapolis. “Thus people often make caveats to their statements that function as a substitute for vocalized hedges.” And people do this hedging—whether in writing or in speech—largely unconsciously, Dr. Pennebaker says. “We are emotionally distancing ourselves from our statement, without even knowing it,” he says.

So, if tee-ups are damaging our relationships, yet we often don’t even know we’re using them, what can we do? Start by trying to be more aware of what you are saying. Tee-ups should serve as yellow lights. If you are about to utter one, slow down. Proceed with caution. Think about what you are about to say.

“If you are feeling a need to use them a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people,” says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others. “Don’t take this the wrong way…” is “ungracious,” she says. “It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, book cover, by Al Franken. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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NASA’s 30-Year Roadmap

NASA-logoWhile NASA vacillates over any planned manned missions back to the Moon or to the Red Planet, the agency continues to think ahead. Despite perennial budget constraints and severe cuts NASA still has some fascinating plans for unmanned exploration of our solar system and beyond to the very horizon of the visible universe.

In its latest 30 year roadmap, NASA maps out its long-term goals, which include examining the atmospheres of exoplanets, determining the structure of neutron stars and tracing the history of galactic formation.

Download the NASA roadmap directly from NASA here.

From Technology Review:

The past 30 years has seen a revolution in astronomy and our understanding of the Universe. That’s thanks in large part to a relatively small number of orbiting observatories that have changed the way we view our cosmos.

These observatories have contributed observations from every part of the electromagnetic spectrum, from NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory at the very high energy end to HALCA, a Japanese 8-metre radio telescope at the low energy end.  Then there is the Hubble Space Telescope in the visible part of the spectrum, arguably the greatest telescope in history.

It’s fair to say that these  observatories have had a profound effect not just on science , but on the history of humankind.

So an interesting question is: what next?  Today, we find out, at least as far as NASA is concerned, with the publication of the organisation’s roadmap for astrophysics over the next 30 years. The future space missions identified in this document will have a profound influence on the future of astronomy but also on the way imaging technology develops in general.

So what has NASA got up its sleeve? To start off with, it says its goal in astrophysics is to answer three questions: Are we alone? How did we get here? And how does our universe work?

So let’s start with the first question. Perhaps the most important discovery in astronomy in recent years is that the Milky Way is littered with planets, many of which must have conditions ripe for life. So it’s no surprise that NASA aims first to understand the range of planets that exist and the types of planetary systems they form.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor due for launch in 2018, will study the atmospheres of exoplanets, along with the Large UV Optical IR (LUVOIR) Surveyor due for launch in the 2020s. Together, these telescopes may produce results just as spectacular as Hubble’s.

To complement the Kepler mission, which has found numerous warm planets orbiting all kinds of stars, NASA is also planning the WFIRST-AFTA mission which will look for cold, free-floating planets using gravitational lensing. That’s currently scheduled for launch in the mid 2020s.

Beyond that, NASA hopes to build an ExoEarth Mapper mission that combines the observations from several large optical space telescopes to produce the first resolved images of other Earths. “For the first time, we will identify continents and oceans—and perhaps the signatures of life—on distant worlds,” says the report.

To tackle the second question—how did we get here?—NASA hopes to trace the origins of the first stars, star clusters and galaxies, again using JWST, LUVOIR and WFIRST-AXA. “These missions will also directly trace the history of galaxies and intergalactic gas through cosmic time, peering nearly 14 billion years into the past,” it says.

And to understand how the universe works, NASA hopes to observe the most extreme events in the universe, by peering inside neutron stars, observing the collisions of black holes and even watching the first nanoseconds of time. Part of this will involve an entirely new way to observe the universe using gravitational waves (as long as today’s Earth-based gravitational wave detectors finally spot something of interest).

The technology challenges in all this will be immense. NASA needs everything from bigger, lighter optics and extremely high contrast imaging devices to smart materials and micro-thrusters with unprecedented positioning accuracy.

One thing NASA’s roadmap doesn’t mention though is money and management—the two thorniest issues in the space business. The likelihood is that NASA will not have to sweat too hard for the funds it needs to carry out these missions. Much more likely is that any sleep lost will be over the type of poor management and oversight that has brought many a multibillion dollar mission to its knees.

Read the entire article here.

Image: NASA logo. Courtesy of NASA / Wikipedia.

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$28,000 Per Night

The New York Palace - Jewel Suite

A seven-night stay at an ultra-luxurious hotel suite for the super-rich will set you back a staggering $200,000. To put it into perspective, this is just slightly over $196,500 — the median U.S house price at the end of 2013. The Jewel Suite by Martin Katz at the New York Palace hotel commands a princely sum of $28,000 per night.

From the NYT:

In most hotels, luxury is measured by the thread count of the linens (minimum 400, please) or the brand of the bathroom toiletries. But for those at the highest end of the market, where the only restraint on consumption is how conspicuous they want to be, a race to the top has broken out, with hotels outdoing one another to serve this tiny, if highly visible, niche.

Take the Jewel Suite by Martin Katz at the New York Palace, one of two recently opened specialty suites. The three-story, 5,000-square-foot space — a sort of penthouse Versailles — itself resembles a jewel box, albeit one with its own private elevator and views of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.

It’s hard to imagine Louis XIV being left wanting. The floor in the entryway is glittering black marble arranged in a sunburst pattern, while a 20-foot crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The living room sofa is a brilliant sapphire blue and a tufted ivory chaise has a pearlescent sheen. Two floors up, in a second living room next to a vast private terrace, the wet bar (one of two in the suite) and half-bath are swathed in a sparkling wall covering, and an angular lavender sofa calls to mind an amethyst crystal. Iridescent tiles lining the private rooftop hot tub give the impression of sinking into a giant opal.

And then there are the jewels themselves: More than a million dollars of the jewelry designer’s work is displayed in five museum-like cases in the entryway, and a boudoir area in the master suite has lighting and floor-to-ceiling mirrors designed specifically for jewelry showings.

Such grandeur — or excess, depending on your point of view — is all there for the taking, starting at $25,000 a night.

“There is a very narrow market who want nothing less,” said Scott Berman, the United States hospitality and leisure practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Price is not an issue. We’re talking about the jet set of the jet sets — high-net-worth individuals, generally foreign travelers in the U.S. who are accustomed to opulence.”

“It’s bragging rights,” said Pam Danziger, president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of “Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury,” published in 2011.

“I think this is just a matter of other brands trying to play catch-up to that. They don’t want to be the only hotel on the block that doesn’t have this super, super high-end offering.”

In New York, the race to capture the highest end of the market continues. In November, the Mandarin Oriental, New York, opened a 3,300-square-foot suite that includes floor-to-ceiling windows and a dining room that seats 10; its rate is $28,000 a night. The Loews Regency Hotel in New York reopened last week after a yearlong, $100 million renovation, and six one-of-a-kind suites will open in April. (Rates haven’t been set yet.)

“We want to present an image that’s commensurate with the new product,” said Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels. “By doing six different designs, we can create a sense of luxury in six different ways.”

“We’ve seen more and more boutique hotels and the bigger-name hotels making suites that are one-off,” said Kris Fuchs, principal at Suite New York, a furniture showroom involved in the Regency’s suite renovation. “I think it makes it extra special that you’re in a room no one else in the hotel has.”

This trend of super-suites had overseas antecedents, with demand driven by a growing cadre of the ultra-rich from around the world.

“Some of the major European capitals have had this going on in the past few years,” said David Loeb, a senior hotel analyst at Robert W. Baird & Company.

Ms. Danziger said the trend started in places like Singapore, London and major Middle Eastern cities. “You find that the new money types are the kinds given to this excessive display, valuing the display of this excessive, over-the-top consumption,” she said. “Subtlety is not appreciated.”

In the United States, this luxury race took longer to get going, in part because of the recession and a resistance to overt displays of wealth. But now, any such concerns have given way. It is perhaps most noticeable in New York City’s thriving hotel market, although spaces with similar square footage and amenities (if slightly less stratospheric rates) are surfacing in cities including Las Vegas, Miami and Dallas.

“Development is strong again,” said David Chase, general manager of the New York Palace. After struggling through the aftermath of the recession, luxury hotels are recovering and investing in capital improvements.

This week, the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas will open a 5,135-square-foot suite wing, including three adjoining suites and two rooms, for travelers who bring an entourage. “We found this need for this private area,” its general manager, Roberto van Geenen, said. Multiple interconnected spaces make it more convenient to house the phalanx of nannies, assistants, bodyguards, personal chefs and other attendants that the super-wealthy bring with them on trips.

“There are more and more hotels in that market, in Miami in particular, that are competing for very high-end leisure travelers,” Mr. Loeb said. “The growth of international travel is affecting many of the major markets in the U.S.”

“Without question this will increase the prestige of the hotel,” said John Laclé, general manager of the Hilton Bentley Miami/South Beach in Miami Beach, which opened a 3,000-square-foot penthouse in December.

Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.

“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.

Read the entire story here.

Image: The New York Palace – Dining room, Jewel Suite by Martin Katz. Courtesy of Martin Katz / The New York Palace.

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If You Can Only Visit One Place…

scotland-2014

Travel editors at the New York Times have compiled their annual globe-spanning list of places to visit. As eclectic as ever, the list includes the hinderlands of Iceland, a cultural tour of Indianapolis, unspoilt (at the moment) beaches of Uruguay, a trip down the Mekong river, and a pub crawl across the hills and dales of Yorkshire. All fascinating. Our favorites are Aspen during the off-season, a resurgent Athens, the highlands of Scotland and the beautiful Seychelle Islands.

Read the entire article and see all the glorious images here.

Image: Hikers pause in the Loch Lomond area. Courtesy of Paul Tomkins/Scottish Viewpoint, New York Times.

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MondayMap: The Bear Necessities

A linguistic map of Europe shows how the word “bear” is both similar and different across the continent.

bear-etymology-map-in-europe-2000-1635

From the Washington Post:

The Cold War taught us to think of Europe in terms of East-versus-West, but this map shows that it’s more complicated than that. Most Europeans speak Romance languages (orange countries), Germanic (pink) or Slavic (green), though there are some interesting exceptions.

Map courtesy of the Washington Post.

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Waterproof Clothes

Another technology barrier falls by the wayside as textile and materials science researchers perfect an ultra-hydrophobic spray. No more getting your clothes wet in a downpour.

From the Guardian:

I hate being rained on. I especially hate it when it’s cold. You’d have thought that with all our 21st-century Google-Glass exploring-Mars engineering marvellousness, we would have made more progress on the problem of rain. But no. The umbrella is a few thousand years old and is nowhere near an optimal solution, especially in blustery windy weather. Wet-weather clothing works if you wear it, but most people don’t because it looks so awful.

From a materials-science perspective, the best solution for the British weather would be an invisible waterproof coating that you can spray on the clothes you actually do want to wear. Excitingly such materials have now been invented; they borrow tricks from nature, and they may yet get us singing in the rain.

Traditional waterproofing involves materials that are hydrophobic – in other words molecules that repel water. Waxes and other oily materials fall into this category because of the way they share their electrons at an atomic scale. Water molecules are polar, which means they have plus and minus charged ends. Waxes and oils prefer their electrons more equally distributed and so find it hard to conform to the polarity of water, and in the stand-off they repel each other. Hence oil and water don’t mix. This hydrophobic behaviour is bad for vinaigrettes but good for waterproofing.

Nature uses this trick too but is much better at it. Go into a garden during a rain shower and have a look at how many leaves repel water so effectively that water droplets sit like jewels glistening on their surface. Lotus leaves have long been known to have this superhydrophobic property, but no one knew why until electron microscopes revealed something very odd about the surface of the lotus leaf. There is a waxy material there, yes, but it is arranged on the surface in the form of billions of tiny microscopic bumps. When a drop of water sits on a hydrophobic surface it tries to minimise its area of contact, because it wants to minimise its interaction with the non-polar waxy material.

The bumps on the lotus leaf drastically increase this area of waxiness, forcing the droplet to sit up precariously on the tips of the bumps. In this, the Cassie-Baxter state, the droplet becomes very mobile and quickly slides off the leaf. So by manipulating just the bumpiness of its surface, lotus leaves are far better at repelling water.

The mobility of the droplets has another effect. By zooming around the surface of the leaf rather than sticking, the droplets of water collect small particles of dust, hoovering them up. This cleaning mechanism of these superhydrophobic surfaces is called the lotus effect.

Superhydrophobic surfaces have been synthesised and studied in labs for decades, but it is only recently that commercial versions have been produced. Now there are quite a few coming on to the market (eg neverwet.com), and they are impressive – when water is poured on to these surfaces it behaves like mercury and bounces off.

The trick, as with the lotus leaf, is to create a microscale patterned non-polar surface. The fact that these sophisticated surfaces can be sprayed out of a can is a triumph of nanotechnology. As with the lotus leaf these coatings not only keep things dry, they also keep them clean, since a lot of what constitutes dirt arrives on your clothes as splashes of liquid that subsequently dry leaving a residue. If the droplets of bolognese sauce, curry or mud don’t stick but bounce off, then they won’t leave a stain.

There are many other applications for these coatings, such as reducing the window cleaning bills on skyscrapers; keeping paint clean on cars; making sofas immune to red wine; and in its key role as waterproofer extraordinaire, keeping your mobile phone safe when it is dropped down the loo.

Read the entire article here.

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