Is Online Reading Better?

There was an interesting and somewhat provocative article about the future of reading in the Christian Science Monitor last week: (Link: How the Web changes your reading habits.)

Computers and the Internet are changing the way people read. Thus far, search engines and hyperlinks, those underlined words or phrases that when clicked take you to a new Web page, have turned the online literary voyage into a kind of U-pick island-hop. Far more is in store.


Since people are still largely reading the way they always have, they ask, why not use technology to make reading itself more efficient?

The reading experience online "should be better than on paper," Chi says. He’s part of a group at PARC developing what it calls ScentHighlights, which uses artificial intelligence to go beyond highlighting your search words in a text. It also highlights whole sections of text it determines you should pay special attention to, as well as other words or phrases that it predicts you’ll be interested in. "Techniques like ScentHighlights are offering the kind of reading that’s above and beyond what paper can offer," Chi says.

I hope to write more about this at a later date.  I think some kinds of reading are suited for the screen but some are not.  Paper affords more attentive reading.  Whether that’ll change when we have interactive e-paper, I don’t know.

(Via bookninja, Families and Technology.)

Firefox Extension for BugMeNot

This is very handy — BugMeNot Firefox extension.  As Steve Outing at Poynter writes, hopefully this will prompt newspapers to wise up:

My Boulder neighbor Christopher Ryan of Future of News pointed out a "great add-in" for the Firefox browser, which makes using BugMeNot to bypass mandatory website user registration a breeze.

Installation of the BugMeNot extension takes only a few seconds, then when you right-click on a mandatory-registration log-in form, it automatically connects to BugMeNot to find a log-in for that site and automatically fills in the fields (with bogus information). This is a significant time-saver over having to manually use BugMeNot to find a log-in/password combo — and of course a huge time-saver over going through the actual site registration process.

Ryan and I pretty much view this in the same way. He comments: "Now if newspapers would just realize what an incredibly bad idea mandatory registration is. … They need to make registration worthwhile for readers, especially since presenting junk registration data to advertisers is just going to get them sued." […]

Link: Poynter Online – E-Media Tidbits.

Do Games Prime the Brain for Violence?

New Scientist reports on a new study of brain activity and video game violence.  Excerpt:

Klaus Mathiak at the University of Aachen in Germany set out to discover what is happening in gamers’ brains as they encounter violent situations. […]

He found that as violence became imminent, the cognitive parts of the brain became more active. And during a fight, emotional parts of the brain, such as the amygdala and parts of the anterior cingulate cortex, were shut down. This pattern is the same as that seen in subjects who have had brain scans during other simulated violent situations such as imagining an aggressive encounter. It is impossible to scan people’s brains during acts of real aggression so Mathiak argues that this is as close as you can get to the real thing. It suggests that video games are a "training for the brain to react with this pattern," he says.

Niels Birbaumer of the University of Tübingen in Germany speculates that playing violent video games regularly would strengthen these circuits in the brain. A regular player confronted with a similar real-life situation, might be more primed for aggression, Birbaumer says.

Link: New Scientist News – Do games prime brain for violence?.

This appears to support arguments that Dave Grossman has been making for several years — see his classic book
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society and more at his website Killology.


99997561f1From New Scientist Breaking News – Robo-pups created with curiosity in mind:

A litter of robotic puppies exhibiting a form of artificial curiosity is being put through kindergarten at Sony’s research and development lab in Paris, France.

The Aibo pups display an innate artificial curiosity similar to that seen in baby animals. They slowly learn to explore the surrounding world, before playing with toys and trying to communicate with other Aibo dogs.


In an experiment called the Aibo Playground Project, Oudeyer and
Kaplan placed the robotic pups in a child’s activity-pen and left them
to investigate. They found that the robots learned progressively,
initially just moving their limbs in an uncoordinated manner, before
tentatively exploring their surroundings and biting nearby soft toys.

After several hours, however, the bots started kicking their toys and even trying to interact with conventional Aibo dogs. A short video
(Windows Media Video 7.8MB), available from the researchers web site,
shows an Aibo pup that has learnt to play with its toys and bark at
another robot nearby.

The project’s web site is at The Playground Experiment / Sony CSL Paris.

I watched the videos… um, let’s just say it’s no Puppy Bowl.

Are Your Politics In Your Genes?

An interesting article in the New York Times today reports on a new study that claims political views may be influenced by genes.  Excerpt:

[On] the basis of a new study, a team of political scientists is arguing that people’s gut-level reaction to issues like the death penalty, taxes and abortion is strongly influenced by genetic inheritance. The new research builds on a series of studies that indicate that people’s general approach to social issues – more conservative or more progressive – is influenced by genes. […]

In the study, three political scientists – Dr. John Hibbing of the
University of Nebraska, Dr. John R. Alford of Rice University and Dr.
Carolyn L. Funk of Virginia Commonwealth – combed survey data from two
large continuing studies including more than 8,000 sets of twins.

From an extensive battery of surveys on personality traits, religious
beliefs and other psychological factors, the researchers selected 28
questions most relevant to political behavior. The questions asked
people "to please indicate whether or not you agree with each topic,"
or are uncertain on issues like property taxes, capitalism, unions and
X-rated movies. Most of the twins had a mixture of conservative and
progressive views. But over all, they leaned slightly one way or the

The idea is a little puzzling and the story leaves a lot of questions unanswered (which may be answered in the original journal article — I haven’t had a chance to read it).

One should always be suspicious when researchers in one field (politics in this case) take data from another field (genetics) and then apply their own selective analysis — it invites statistical abuse, whether intentional or not.

The researchers talk about "two broad genetic types, more conservative and more progressive," but choosing those particular labels seems rather specific to 21st-century America.  Surely our genes aren’t that time- and location-specific.  And does it have to be just two types?  I don’t think all countries are quite so bipolar in their politics.

Their ultimate conclusion seems like quite a leap to me:

The researchers are not
optimistic about the future of bipartisan cooperation or national
unity. Because men and women tend to seek mates with a similar
ideology, they say, the two gene pools are becoming, if anything, more
concentrated, not less.

Hopefully this will get more coverage.  I would love to read a critique by someone more knowledgeable about genetics.

Link: Some Politics May Be Etched in the Genes – New York Times.

SciFi: Uniquely valuable literature or geek opiate?

In the literature corner, Margaret Atwood tells us why we need science fiction (and I think she’s right):

I have written two
works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The
Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. Here are some of the things these
kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do.

They can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in
graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational. […]

They can explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in
graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it will go.


We want wisdom. We want
hope. We want to be good. Therefore we sometimes tell ourselves warning
stories that deal with the darker side of some of our other wants.

Link: Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | ‘Aliens have taken the place of angels’.

In the geek corner, Slashdot readers debate whether science fiction is an opiate for the geek masses, or something like that.

"After reading Geoff Ryman’s Mundane SF
website, where he promotes a new form of science fiction based on real
science, I got to wondering if traditional science fiction is just the
opiate of the geek masses? […]
Proponents of the Mundane Manifesto
readily admit that traditional science fiction is just harmless fun,
but I have to ask, how many people out there have a positive view on
life because they believe in Star Trek in the same way that other
faithful do."

Link: Slashdot: Is Science Fiction the Opiate of the Geek Masses

Short answer: yes.

Clearly there are two kinds of audiences for sci-fi.  Maybe it’s just than I’m over 30, but I find it troubling when I read, for example, that roboticist Rodney Brooks was inspired to create robots by Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I worry about people who misread forewarning or dystopic sci-fi as "harmless fun" or sci-porn or something to imitate.  Maybe I just don’t get it…

“Exertainment” Nonsense

Mark at the Families and Technology blog points out the insanity of one school district’s plan to use PlayStation games for phys-ed.

Quoting the original Wired story:

    The proposed program would require space in the school for exertainment, with five to seven different stations capable of handling a full class of 35 children for the 50 minutes they’d ordinarily spend on the basketball court.

    …the district is looking into other types of exertainment software, such as products that marry stationary bikes with video-game displays and devices that use special controllers to teach students how to throw a baseball correctly.

Quoting Families and Technology:

They’re going to replace traditional physical education with video game-based exertainment. I think that’s insane. A stationary bike can provide aerobic exercise, but it doesn’t do anything for developing coordination, agility, and physical skills that you can get by playing basketball, baseball, tennis, kickball, hockey… It’s simple aerobic exercise combine with the mind-numbing qualities of video games.

When they talk of special controllers to teach sudents how to throw a baseball correctly, I’m simply floored. When I was a kid, we had coaches and phys. ed. teachers that fulfilled this role very well.

Link: Families and Technology: School Sees Exertainment as a Valid Solution, but Seems to Miss the Obvious.

Technology Missionaries

A BBC article today describes efforts in the UK to reach out and convert those sad folks who don’t yet worship at the alter of the Internet.  Their main source is the UK group "Citizens Online, a charity which exists solely to address the issue of digital inclusion" (and, surprisingly enough, is sponsored by various computer and internet corporations).

Some sample demographics of the underserved/undermarketed — the blind:

For blind and partially-sighted people, something as
simple as being able to shop online can make a huge difference which is
why the RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind) worked closely
with retail giant Tesco to make its website accessible to blind and
partially-sighted people.

The system has opened up a previously untapped market for Tesco.

Old people:

Of all the sections of society that have been singled
out as being on the wrong side of the digital divide, older people are
perhaps set to gain the most.

The net can keep their often dwindling social networks
alive, re-ignite interest in old hobbies and, perhaps most importantly,
help them to maintain a place in a society which increasingly
marginalises those who do not have youth on their side.

Um, help them to find a place in society onlineThat’s not marginalising?

Link: BBC NEWS | Technology | Reaching out to digital refuseniks.

When your employer is watching… your calories

Sony headquarters in Japan is using new technology to monitor employee eating habits and other health data and then suggest improvements.  Privacy?  What privacy?

From RFID in Japan: Employee Health Management a la RFID:

Tanita and Sony Communication Network (SCN) developed an RFID-based health management system. The system uses FeliCa RFID cards to automatically record the calories and nutoritional data of what workers eat at corporate cafeteria. This captured information is integrated with other data captured by medical devices such as blood pressure sensors and body fat sensors. (workers’ RFID tags are read when they use these devices.) Dieticians and other experts view the accumulated data and suggest how the workers should improve their living habit.

It is now being used at the corporate cafeteria of Sony’s headquarter office (on a experimental basis.)

The First Wikitorial

Wikitorials[UPDATE: They’ve taken down the Wikitorial and posted the following explanation:

Where is the wikitorial?

Unfortunately, we have had to
remove this feature, at least temporarily, because a few readers were
flooding the site with inappropriate material.

Thanks and apologies to the thousands of people who logged on in the right spirit.

Ernest Miller has more.]

The LA Times launched its first user-editable editorial today.  Here’s the original, unedited: War and Consequences, and edited: Wikitorial – LATWiki.

I’m sure others will offer lots of analysis of the experiment, but here are a few quick observations for what it’s worth.

The first edit was a thoughtful one from the founder of Wikipedia himself, Jimbo Wales ("Yes, it’s really me," he wrote, so I’ll take his word for it).  He started a second, counterpoint editorial for opposing views.  It’s a pretty good idea: give both sides a place to work on their arguments in order to head off wholesale deleting and vandalism from each side.  His rationale, from the history page:

It seems impossible for someone who disagrees with the central thrust
of the original editorial to both respect the intentions of the
authors, and also to have a voice. So I’m proposing this page as an
alternative to what is otherwise inevitable, which is extensive editing
of the original to make it neutral… which would be fine for
Wikipedia, but would not be an editorial. — Jimbo Wales

It didn’t work.  The anti-Bush side just went and deleted the counterpoint and did so repeatedly, despite pleas from Jimbo and others to be courteous.  (I’m calling the two sides pro-Bush and anti-Bush just for simplicity.)

So far there have been about 30-40 edits to each of the two documents, much of it vandalism and typical political blog shouting, but there are some sincere efforts at rewriting and introducing more detail… lots more detail.  The current version is about three times the length of the original (not including the counterpoint, which is pretty short anyway, probably because people keep deleting it, and there’s not much pro-Bush presence apparent).  Many terms are now links that take you to their own wiki pages, so it’s got that whole hypertext-ADD look about it now.  It looks like it’s evolving into a pamphlet of everyone’s favorite lefty anti-war screeds rather than a concise editorial.  (Most of which screeds I agree with, just for the record.)