May 2006

Science bashing in politics

Leonard Susskind has a nice quote on the recent anti-science frenzy we’ve seen the past few years. This is from his chapter / essay called The Good Fight, published in Intelligent Thought: Science Versus The Intelligent Design Movement:

What is the reason for the recent upsurge of antiscientific passion? My own view is that it is, in part, a result of the anger, fear, frustration, and humiliation suffered over the years by the losers in the culture wars: those who would have kept women in the kitchen, blacks in the back of the bus, and gays in the closet. It is also a consequence of the deep and terrible universal fear of old age and death. But I don’t believe these emotions, by themselves, could have created the antiscientific backlash of recent years. The fault may well lie in the ease with which these emotions can be cynically manipulated. It is pretty clear that the battle was engineered by provocateurs who may not even have wanted to win the battles they provoked. What seems much more likely, in view of the gingerly way that politicians have skirted such issues as Roe v. Wade, is that the provocateurs want to lose the battles and in that way keep the anger and humiliation at fever pitch.

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World’s largest collection of baby home movies

Professor Deb Roy at the MIT Media Lab has launched what sounds to me like the biggest “record absolutely everything” type project to date. He and his wife had their first child nine months ago, and have outfitted their home with 11 ceiling-mounted omni-directional cameras, 14 microphones and a 5-terabyte disk cache in the basement to record all their daily interactions with their new son. (As you might expect, they’ve also got several systems in place to maintain privacy, including easy-to-access off and erase buttons.)

Previous projects of this nature have been designed with the eventual goal of becoming memory aids (notably EuroPARC’s Forget-Me-Not, Ricoh Innovation’s Infinite Memory Multifunction Machine, and Microsoft BARC’s MyLifeBits), as training data for context-aware applications (Brian Clarkson’s Life Patterns) or as performance art (Steve Mann’s Wearable Wireless Webcam). In contrast, though Deb is interested in the memory augmentation aspects of the project, his main purpose is purely scientific — he’s using this Human Speechome Project to build up a huge data bank that he can later mine to better understand how human language acquisition works:

“Just as the Human Genome Project illuminates the innate genetic code that shapes us, the Speechome project is an important first step toward creating a map of how the environment shapes human development and learning,” said Frank Moss, director of the Media Lab.

Once at the Media Lab, the data is stored in a massive petabyte (1 million gigabyte) disk storage system donated by several companies: Bell Microproducts, Seagate Technology, Marvell and Zetera. To test hypotheses of how children learn, Roy’s team will develop machine learning systems that “step into the shoes” of his son by processing the sights and sounds of three years of life at home. The effort constitutes one of the most extensive scientific analyses of long-term infant learning patterns ever undertaken.

Update 5/31/06: For more info see the paper, to be presented at the 28th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society in July.

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Making English the nation’s lingua franca

As I’m sure everyone knows, last week the US Senate voted to make English our “national” language. All through this debate I keep thinking back to when my dad was a professor at Georgia Tech Lorraine, Georgia Tech’s campus in Metz, France.

Back in 1997 Georgia Tech Lorraine was sued for violating a French law forbidding the sale of “goods and services” in France in any single language other than French. The lawsuit was brought by two French organizations, the Défense de la Langue Française and Avenir de la Langue Française Defense de la Langue, because the campus (which taught classes only in English) did not have a French version of their website. I remember smugly thinking how idiotic it was that the French had organizations dedicated to the “defense” of the French language, and how much more sensible we Americans were. Of course, I should have realized my smugness would be short-lived: the French may be known for their jingoism and petulant national pride, but the US has always envied that title.

So now I have to wonder — how would the Senators that voted for “defending our English language” react to the accusation that they’re acting, well, French?

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Social dynamics in MMOGs

It’s a common belief that Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are more interesting than their single-player counterparts because of the ability to socialize in the game. A paper presented at this year’s ACM Computer Human Interaction conference, “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games, offers a different spin on that. After installing /who-bots on several World of Warcraft servers and watching people’s play habits, researchers from PARC and Stanford University concluded:

“Our observations show that, while MMOGs are clearly social environments, the extent and nature of the players’ social activities differ significantly from previous accounts. In particular, joint activities are not very prevalent, especially in the early stages of the game. WoW’s subscribers, instead of playing with other people, rely on them as an audience for their in-game performances, as an entertaining spectacle, and as a diffuse and easily accessible source of information and chitchat. For most, playing the game is therefore like being “alone together”— surrounded by others, but not necessarily actively interacting with them.”

Some other interesting tidbits from the paper:

  • Players who never grouped tended to level up about twice as fast as those players who grouped more than 1% of the time. (The paper doesn’t mention this possibility, but this makes me wonder whether these anti-social players are actually farmers working in a virtual sweatshop.)

  • Median guild size was only 9 (6 if you include “one-person guilds”), and the 90th percentile of the distribution is only 35 active members.

  • Guilds tend to be sparsely-knit social networks, with a guild member tending to ever see only one in four other guild members and only playing in the same zone as one in ten. (Again the paper doesn’t say, but I imagine this statistic is influenced by people playing multiple characters in the same guild, which already forces some exclusion since people can’t play more than one character at a time.)

  • Guilds tend to have one or two groups of tight-knit “core” players who play together regularly and are all of roughly the same level. This is probably a result of the level treadmill and the fact that people of radically different levels can’t really adventure together — which means people who get out of synch with other guildmates can’t adventure with their friends anymore and are more likely to quit the game or find a different guild.

(Thanks to Amy Bruckman for the pointer!)

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We’re all terrorists now, part 2

By way of TPM: Brian Ross and Richard Esposito at ABC News report that the federal government is tracking the phone numbers that reporters call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

In case you haven’t been keeping score, the Bush administration claims they don’t need a warrant to:

  • Listen to phone calls where at least one participant is outside the country.
  • Automatically intercept, store, transcribe and process phone conversations and email that are entirely domestic, so long as the contents of the communication (the actual conversation, or the body of the email) are not listened to by a human until a secret FISA warrant is obtained. The “metadata” information that they consider unprotected includes date, from and to fields of email and the time, duration, and phone numbers called by tens of millions of Americans, including phone calls by reporters who break stories that embarrass the administration.

So far the administration’s response to criticism that such warrantless surveillance is illegal has been to threaten the people with leaking evidence of their criminal activities with prosecution, no doubt trying to ferret out the whistleblowers by trolling through the phone logs of every reporter who’s mentioned the subject.

Update: fixed typo.

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We’re all terrorists now

Declining to answer questions about revelations that Vice President Dick Cheney argued for allowing the NSA to intercept entirely domestic telephone calls and e-mail without warrants, his spokeswoman simply responded:

“As the administration, including the vice president, has said, this is terrorist surveillance, not domestic surveillance.”

The response follows last week’s revelation in USA Today that the NSA has secretly collected the phone records of tens of millions of terrorists currently living in the United States.

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