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Archive for the ‘Science/Technology’ Category

Google Users All Want to Know If Ryan Lochte Is Single

Google’s suggestions feature (that is, when you start typing something in and it guesses in advance what question you’re going to ask) is a great way to get a snapshot of things the world is thinking, by showing what search queries tend to be on people’s minds.

For example, while watching the Olympics over the weekend, I did a quick search during a commercial break to find out more information on Ryan Lochte, the gold-medal winning swimmer. Notice the second suggestion:

Second Google search result for "ryan l" is "Ryan Lochte girlfriend 2012"

You can read a lot into “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

Who’s Higgs? And Who’s Boson? The Arbitrary Power of Names

Physicists Peter Biggs and Satyendra Nath Bose

Where did your name come from? Possibly from one of your parents, or a more distant, long-dead ancestor. Maybe you were named after a song, or a character from a book or movie your parents liked. Or maybe your parents looked at your squishy newborn features and decided you simply looked like a (insert first name here).

In other words, it’s fairly arbitrary. But that makes it no less important. Names are potent things. I’m not even aware of the thousand tiny ways my self-perception would be changed if I had been named Adam or Joshua or Maximilian instead of Chris. I might have even come out a little different if I was Christian instead of Christopher.

This doesn’t just go for people. It’s no less important with the names we give just about anything else. Look at dinosaurs. Everyone knows velociraptors from Jurassic Park, but actual raptors were feathered and about the size of dogs. The dinosaurs in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie were closer to deinonychus. But the name “velociraptor” is more versatile (it can be shortened to raptor), easier to remember, and sounds more intimidating. So the misappropriated name stuck. Similarly, the spinosaurus is bigger and likely more vicious than a tyrannosaurus, but only one of these two gets the Latin “rex” slapped on the end of its name. Thus, the king stays the king.

Just like your name, the names of everything we discover or invent usually end up coming from a pretty arbitrary place: a parent, a long-dead ancestor, a pop-culture reference, or the first impressions of the inventor/discoverer. Almost half the planet bears the name of merchant, mapmaker, and sometime explorer Amerigo Vespucci, simply because he suggested, “Hey, maybe that’s not Asia.”

You’ve heard about the discovery of the Higgs boson by now, right? This is the so-called “God particle.” If you haven’t, here’s the simple version, coming from a guy who needed it really dumbed down before he understood it: Bosons are elementary subatomic particles of energy that do not occupy space, in the way particles like electrons, protons, or quarks do. The Higgs boson was a theoretical but (until recently) unobserved particle that permeates all of observable reality and allows all the stuff of the universe to have mass, giving all objects with mass a consistent set of properties. Got it, Jesse Pinkman?

Actor Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad saying 'Yeah, science!"

While it’s nearly impossible to speculate on the practical possibilities of this discovery, it’s a major scientific breakthrough because it helps us get a tiny bit closer to understanding the most basic mechanisms of the universe. So what do you call something that permeates all matter in the universe? You name it after the guy whose name came first on a paper suggesting that something like this could exist back in the 60′s. I can’t imagine the hubris associated with having a fundamental piece of existence named after you.

Meanwhile, poor Satyendra Nath Bose (whom bosons are named after) gets a bit of a snub. One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, his work was more fundamental and more revolutionary, and, along with Einstein, he laid the groundwork that gave rise to Higgs’ theory, the eventual construction of the Large Hadron Collider, and the discovery of the particle. But because it’s not immediately apparent that “boson” (lower case “b”) comes from somebody’s name, it’s undeniable that more people will know the name “Higgs.”

Giving something so universally fundamental some guy’s name is one approach, but giving it a name that actually indicates its importance is another. As mentioned above, the Higgs boson has also been dubbed “the God particle,” by Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi from the title of their book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? By and large, it’s a name that makes physicists cringe, since it suggests a science vs. religion debate where there is none. And the actual source of the “God” moniker is even more harmless. The authors originally called their book “The Goddamn Particle” (after the frustration scientists trying to detect it felt), but their editors weren’t comfortable with the profane title. So Lederman and Teresi changed it to “God,” with the after-the-fact justification that the particle is powerful and omnipresent.

So whether you’re naming a building block of existence or a cat you adopted, take your time with its name. It will inevitably affect the way everyone thinks about he, she, or it. Or you can just defy all expectations and go the “Boy Named Sue” route. It’s your call.

Ray Bradbury Loved and Hated the Future

Last week, legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. If you’ve only read one of his books, it was probably Fahrenheit 451, but if you read more, they’d probably include Something Wicked This Way Comes or a few of the hundreds of short stories he published in his lifetime, such as There Will Come Soft Rains. Or maybe you’d be more familiar with the screenplays he wrote for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

To say he was an influential writer is a pretty massive understatement. It would be better to say that he bridged the gap between classic and modern science fiction. He was equally comfortable with the wildly imaginative (strongly influenced by a childhood full of L. Frank Baum, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) as the psychological and personal. He wrote apocalyptic and distopian fiction, pure fantasy, noir, dark comedy, and sometimes two or three of these at the same time.

Last year, Ray Bradbury made a few headlines when he finally agreed to let Fahrenheit 451 be distributed as an ebook. He was a long hold-out against the technology, saying:

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

To be honest, I’m a little confused about his complaint against portability, when that’s exactly what ebooks are supposed to offer. And I’ve also never understood why “smell” always comes up as an argument about ebooks. (I guess because it’s the sense closely associated with memory.) But I’m not criticizing Bradbury or his viewpoint at all. If I ever make it to 91, I’m going to hate whatever fancy new garbage inventions my grandkids come up with.

What’s important to take away from the story is that Bradbury felt there were certain more intimate aspects of human interaction that couldn’t be replaced by technology, as much as technology was going to try. You can see that viewpoint running through all of his books. There Will Come Soft Rains tells the story of the gadgets in an automated household running through all their daily motions long after the human inhabitants have died. Fahrenheit 451 includes a subplot about protagonist Guy Montag’s wife, who’s addicted to a wall-size interactive television, which provides her with a virtual version of a social life. That’s a powerful image, probably even more so today in a world with social media sites and video games that primarily serve as social settings, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft.

(As an aside, director Frank Darabont has long been saying he wants to release an updated film version of Fahrenheit 451. If it ever gets made, I wonder if those sort of details from the book will be updated for a modern view of the future.)

But while it’s easy to think of Bradbury’s prescient fiction as condemning future tech and attitudes, that’s really not the case. He was critiquing, not condemning. No one who becomes a science fiction writer can be a complete technophobe. Bradbury clearly loved the promise of exploration that came with the future. Shortly before he died, he even stated that he wants his remains to be entombed on Mars. (And proving how much he wasn’t intimidated or threatened by new technology, he said this on a podcast.)

I want to be buried on Mars. I don’t want to be the first live person to arrive there. It’ll be too late. But I want to be the first dead person that gets there. I want to arrive in a Campbell’s soup can.

Anytime Bradbury did express caution about technology, whether through his fiction or through interviews, the theme was always the same. There’s never any reason to be afraid of progress. We should just always be aware of the weaknesses of human nature. Another great quote:

I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.

Bradbury both loved and hated the future and that conflict is precisely what made him such a brilliant writer. His voice was perfectly poised between excitement and trepidation. He was fascinated with the creations of humanity’s progress, and terrified of how they could be twisted and exploited.

Why the Government Confiscated High School Sports Footage

Source: Talking Points Memo IdeaLab

Where do you save your files? I mean the really important ones. Ones that you couldn’t afford to lose if your computer went kaput. Do you have an external hard drive? Do you stash them in a cloud service like Dropbox? Or do you just keep them in “My Documents” and hope that nothing bad ever happens to your CPU?

Kyle Goodwin tried to do the responsible thing and back up the videos for his business OhioSportsNet, a company that creates highlight reels and documentaries on local high school athletes for prospective colleges. But he made the mistake of entrusting them to the recently FBI-raided file-sharing site Megaupload. When the government locked down Megaupload, they also locked down Goodwin’s access to all his files.

To make matters worse, Goodwin’s hard drive crashed shortly before the raid. Everything was either lost or turned into evidence for a copyright infringement case against Megaupload. Remember, this is all footage that customers were paying him to film and edit. No copyright infringement here, just a man getting punished for using the wrong company.

You could say that Goodwin should’ve known better than to trust a seedy website with important business files. I’m going to assume that Goodwin had never heard about Megaupload founder and CEO Kim Dotcom. (Yes, he did legally change his name to “Dotcom.” I can see it on an XFL jersey now.) Because even if he didn’t know that Dotcom had initially earned his millions off insider trading and embezzlement, a picture of the human-doughboy hybrid should be more than enough info to know just how classy of an operation he was running. But even if Goodwin’s decision was shortsighted, it wasn’t wrong. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his business over this one bad call.

I’ve got no sympathy for Dotcom, but plenty for people like Goodwin. And unfortunately, there will probably be a lot more people like him caught in the crossfire as the government tries to regulate the Internet to shut down piracy.

On our old blog, I wrote a lot about SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the many, many problems with the way its broad definition could incriminate a lot of innocent people. Fortunately, the strongly vocal opposition to the bill forced it to fizzle out. But there’s a new, similar bill in Congress now called CISPA. It allows for information sharing between the government and companies in the name of security. It hasn’t yet generated the sort of outrage SOPA did, but its opponents are complaining about the same thing: The language is too broad to work as a policy.

I’m definitely not one of those Guy Fawkes-masked Anonymous types. There needs to be some level of regulation on the Internet to protect owners of intellectual property. But even when lawmakers mean well, they always seem to get the details wrong. I really believe that SOPA and CISPA aren’t intended to actively trample your rights, they’re just written by people with a terrible understanding of how the Internet works.

A lot more time needs to be spent figuring out how to punish the Kim Dotcoms of the world without hurting the Kyle Goodwins in the process.

Building a Better Comment Board

Source: xkcd

At SXSW (the annual massive digital/interactive festival in Austin, TX), Gawker founder Nick Denton complained about the dire state of online commenting. Now the Gawker empire is built on the blogification (to make up a word) of news, creating a more intimate and reader-focused platform for delivering news, rumors, and gossip. It’s supposed to be about engaging with people. That’s why it was pretty brutal to hear Denton bite the hand that feeds him with this quote:

“The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership — that’s a joke.”

Ouch. I can’t imagine how viciously online commenters would tear apart someone for mocking their collective intelligence like that. Hey, readers of this article, why don’t you show me?

Even though Denton comes off as more than a little pompous, he does kind of have a point. Have you ever tried to read the comments on YouTube? Yikes. Denton says that for every two thoughtful comments, there are eight that are just off-topic or toxic. I’d say he’s overlooked at least another ten comments in that same ratio that aren’t off-topic per se, they just contribute nothing at all to the conversation, like “first!”, “lolololol,” “omg sooooooo weird,” and “thumbs up if u agree.”

And it’s not like the comments you see on CNN, The Huffington Post, ESPN, or 90% of the other sites out there are much better. Meaningful comments are usually buried underneath petty bickering, offensive insanity, and recycled internet memes.

Still, hearing Denton say that feels a little hypocritical. His empire is built on harnessing collective contributions. Calling it a “joke” feels cynical and dismissive to the spirit of his business, even if he’s right.

What Denton means, or at least what he should have said, is that we need to figure out a better way to manage comments. Allowing the readers to contribute is essential to the spirit of the Internet. Taking that away is just going to make a site less attractive. But there has to be a better way to reward good comments and punish bad ones, right? Sure, lots of places use “likes” or “thumbs up, thumbs down” to boost good comments, but from my observation, people usually just vote for something that’s funny, even if it’s not particularly insightful. Lots of places also hand power over to an editor to manage the comments, but that’s time-consuming and irritating for the editor, as well as granting him or her power that’s easily abused.

The ideal system needs to be both curated and open to the public. It’s probably not possible to get those two things in perfect balance, but that’s no reason to be dismissive of commenting in general. Besides, there’s no rule that says you have to read or post in the comments. And I think most people who scroll all the way to the bottom of the page know what they’re getting into.

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