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Monthly Archives: August 2009

A Data Deluge Swamps Science Historians

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In a vault beneath the British Library here, Jeremy Leighton John grapples with a formidable challenge in digital life. Dr. John, the library’s first curator of eManuscripts, is working on ways to archive the deluge of computer data swamping scientists so that future generations can authenticate today’s discoveries and better understand the people who made them.

His task is only getting harder. Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them. Computer-intensive experiments and the software used to analyze their output generate millions of gigabytes of data that are stored or retrieved by electronic systems that quickly become obsolete.

“It would be tragic if there were no record of lives that were so influential,” Dr. John says.

Usually, historians are hard-pressed to find any original source material about those who have shaped our civilization. In the Internet era, scholars of science might have too much. Never have so many people generated so much digital data or been able to lose so much of it so quickly, experts at the San Diego Supercomputer Center say. Computer users world-wide generate enough digital data every 15 minutes to fill the U.S. Library of Congress.

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(via Yorgos)

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Listening in to 35,000-year-old music

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Nature (460, p.663) has reported on the discovery of a 35,000-year-old flute in southern Germany, which demonstrates that the earliest modern human inhabitants of Europe had a sophisticated musical tradition. In evolutionary terms, this is not that long after the development of language, which is thought to have happened between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

This set me thinking about what sort of tunes these early humans would have played and whether we would recognise them as music. Certainly there is a sense that certain intervals in Western music (the fifth, the fourth, the major third, for example) sound pleasant because of the mathematical relationships between the frequencies of their two notes.

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Japanese smileys vs. Ekman faces

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Some medias and the blogosphere (see here, here and here) are celebrating a new study published in Current Biology, allegedly showing that recognition of facial expressions is not universal. Psychological universalists and relativists never seem to get tired of chewing on that old bone of contention.

There are two aspects to the study. The first is a very nice exploration (by means of eye-tracking) of the way Asians process facial expressions, replicating the earlier work of Masaki Yuki and colleagues three years ago (read what Karim wrote of it at the time). Japanese subjects tend to focus on the eyes instead of the mouth to decode emotions – as one could have guessed from looking at Japanese Smiley faces :        (^_^)     for ‘happy’,       (T_T)        for ‘sad’, and other such          (*_*)       …

Yet the authors don’t stop at that fascinating result, and go on to try and prove another point : that because of this difference in face-processing style, East Asian subjects and ‘Caucasian’ subjects are not equally good at recognizing some of Paul Ekman‘s supposedly universal facial displays of emotions, like disgust and fear. And indeed East Asian subjects are significantly likelier than Caucasians to misinterpret happy or fearful faces.

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Etre ou ne pas être cyberdépendante ?

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Difficile pourtant de dégager un profil type de l’internaute cyberdépendant. “Autrefois, il s’agissait majoritairement d’hommes âgés de 25 à 35 ans (…). Maintenant, il semble y avoir une certaine parité entre les hommes et les femmes”, observe le psychologue canadien Jean-Pierre Rochon. Dans son ouvrage sur Les Accros à Internet, le créateur du site psynternaute.com précise que les adolescents sont proportionnellement plus nombreux à souffrir de troubles obsessionnels que les adultes.

Malgré cela, rares sont les études consacrées exclusivement à la cyberdépendance. Les plus sérieuses, publiées en Asie et aux Etats-Unis dès le milieu des années 1990, se fondent sur le résultat de tests, généralement accessibles en ligne. Le premier de ces questionnaires, mis au point par le docteur Kimberly Young en 1994, se présente sous la forme d’un questionnaire à choix multiples (QCM) en vingt points. Alain Dervaux accepte de m’y soumettre. Avec un résultat de 57 sur 100, je me classe dans la catégorie des usagers abusifs, mais curables.

“Le problème de ces tests, c’est qu’ils s’appuient sur des critères trop larges pour évaluer précisément la cyberdépendance d’un individu”, tempère mon docteur. Pour la plupart des internautes, et j’en fais partie, le Web agit plutôt comme une drogue douce. Socialement obligatoire mais rarement néfaste pour la santé, c’est avant tout un instrument de liberté.

Dans le pire des cas, il agit comme un accélérateur de narcissisme. Comme le précise mon docteur, “tout en offrant l’anonymat, Internet permet de diffuser une projection de soi contrôlée, valorisée, sculptée et optimale. Rompre avec ce miroir, c’est se couper de la meilleure partie de soi-même. Un processus d’autant plus douloureux, narcissiquement, qu’on s’exclut de la communauté des internautes”. Mais Alain Dervaux en est convaincu, “ce sentiment de frustration dont vous m’avez parlé finirait par se dissiper si vous prolongiez l’expérience”.