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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)

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”.

Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?
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In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Avidly seeking personal gain, they could “lose sight of the close connection which exists between the private fortune of each of them and the prosperity of all” and ultimately undermine both democracy and prosperity.

The genius of America in the early nineteenth century, Tocqueville thought, was that it pursued “productive industry” without a descent into lethal materialism. Behind America’s balancing act, the pioneering French social thinker noted, lay a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty—virtues that grew out of the pervasiveness of religion, which Tocqueville called “the first of [America’s] political institutions, . . . imparting morality” to American democracy and free markets. Some 75 years later, sociologist Max Weber dubbed the qualities that Tocqueville observed the “Protestant ethic” and considered them the cornerstone of successful capitalism. Like Tocqueville, Weber saw that ethic most fully realized in America, where it pervaded the society. Preached by luminaries like Benjamin Franklin, taught in public schools, embodied in popular novels, repeated in self-improvement books, and transmitted to immigrants, that ethic undergirded and promoted America’s economic success.

What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? ()

Chaos and censorship at Beijing’s inaugural 798 Biennale

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The inaugural Beijing 798 Biennale, held in the sprawling 798 art district in China’s capital, saw a chaotic opening on 15 August, with major works by Chinese artists widely censored by authorities. The biennale was arranged with international contributions operating independently at numerous private galleries in the 798 complex, which were not affected by the censorship and avoided the operational issues that hampered the main exhibition hall.

Billed as the first non-government biennale in China, the event was hampered by a lack of funds, operational support, and some inexperience on the part of the organisers, who were predominantly Chinese art journalists.

In steaming temperatures of around 40ºC, hundreds stood out in the sun to listen to opening speeches by assembled dignitaries. The ceremony was briefly interrupted by a demonstration and water being thrown at the platform. The demonstration, whose purpose seemed obscure, was performed by a group including a deaf mute in ancient Chinese costume, a man wheeling a cart of bedpans and another man wearing a metal mask accompanied by someone dressed as a bride. ()

Gaza we are Coming

A moving docu-thriller.

In August 2008, two wooden Greek ships laden with 44 activists from 17 different countries managed something no other vessel had in 41 years and broke the marine blockade that Israel has unilaterally imposed in Gaza, in contravention of international law.

The mission was the brainchild of the Free Gaza Movement, founded in 2006, who realised that the only realistic way of breaking through the blockade was via the sea.

However the project was fraught with delays and risks from the outset and in the words of Paul Larudee from the group: “This project died a thousand deaths and every time it was about to die someone, somebody new, stepped forward to save the project.”

The last such person was Vangelis Pissias, a Greek who was touched by the Palestinian issue during his youth in Egypt and provided the boats for the group to undertake the mission to Gaza.

All involved were aware of the perilous nature of the mission. Previous attempts have been thwarted and boats even exploded. Activists have also been found dead in suspicious circumstances.

Gaza, We Are Coming, is a special documentary that charts the history of the project to break the blockade of Gaza by sea.

It explores the motives of those involved including the ordinary Greeks who volunteered to participate in this dangerous but successful operation.

It also recounts how the boats were built secretly in Greek shipyards, the logistics involved, the attempts to thwart the mission and why it was laden with such historical importance and pressure to succeed.