Students Revolt after Professor Bans Laptops in Class

From the Memphis "Commercial Appeal":

Over the past week, dissent has been building in the student lounge, in
hushed conversations in the library and halls, and in fervent debates
over e-mail.

All because one professor at the University of Memphis law school
banned the use of laptops in her class. Other professors are
considering a ban.


Entman said students were spending too much time typing notes on laptops, and not enough time listening and discussing.

"My main concern was they were focusing on trying to transcribe every word that was I saying, rather than thinking and analyzing," Entman said. "The computers interfere with making eye contact. You’ve got this picket fence between you and the students."

Entman’s students have had three classes without laptops. Cory Winsett, a first-year law student, said his participation in class has dropped because he’s too busy writing notes on the lecture. And his notes are less organized and hard to read when he gets home. "If we continue without laptops, I’m out of here. I’m gone; I won’t be able to keep up," Winsett said.

Classmate Jean Holbert already has applied for a transfer to the University of Mississippi law school because of the ban.

Link: – Memphis, TN: Education.

Clive Thompson has some interesting comments on his blog, which is where I spotted this: Should students be banned from using laptops in class?

There’s also much discussion at Plastic: The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Laptops.

Taking Your Cellphone with You to the Grave

From the BBC:

More people than ever are asking to be buried or cremated with their mobile phones when they die, say researchers.

The trend, which began in South Africa, has now spread to a number of countries, including Ireland, Australia, Ghana, and the US.

Martin Raymond, director of international trend-spotting think-tank, The Future Laboratory said that this had started off "in the realm of the urban myth", but was fast becoming fact.

"You hear about it, the idea that people are being buried with their mobile phones, but you can’t really believe it," he told the BBC World Service’s Culture Shock programme.

He explained that the first cases of people asking to be buried with their phone originated in Cape Town, where some people’s belief in witchcraft meant they feared that "they could fall under a spell, be put to sleep and actually be buried.

"In fact, they were asking for the phones to be put into the coffins with them in case they woke up."

Mr Raymond said that in Australia the trend was more about affluence.

"People wanted to be buried with the totems that they felt represented their lifestyle," he explained.

"We came across one guy who asked to be buried with his mobile phone and his Blackberry, and also with his laptop."

Link to full story: BBC NEWS | Technology | Handsets get taken to the grave.

DNA Testing: Do You Really Want to Know?

Some good thoughts on DNA testing by Clive Thompson in Wired.  Excerpt:

Here’s the thing: You pay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars for a genetic test, but what you’re really buying is a sense of control. You want to know your dread future and prepare for it – or even prevent it. But with most big genetic scares, like a predisposition for colon cancer, heart problems, or diabetes, what will the doctors tell you? Eat better, stop smoking, get more exercise. You don’t need the Delphic Oracle to figure that out. Yes, in very rare circumstances, radical measures can be taken, such as a double mastectomy to forestall the likelihood of breast cancer. But genetic results are probabilities, not certainties. Run a broad enough test and nearly everyone could have a red flag for something.

Maybe you just want the peace of mind that comes with knowing, if only
partially, what cards you may be dealt. Fair enough. But if you get bad
news, you’ll still have to cope with untidy ethical and political
issues. Should you tell your blood relatives? After all, it’s their
DNA, too. The next time you apply for health insurance, you’ll have to
decide whether to disclose your genetic mark of Cain and risk getting
turned down.

Link: Wired 14.04: START.

Update on Technology Review’s Aubrey de Grey Challenge

Apparently Technology Review’s debate on the merits of Aubrey de Grey’s ideas (or his ‘science’, if you wish) is set to heat up again.  Last year, after publishing a critical profile of de Grey in the magazine and taking much heat for it, they sought to back it up with more authority by soliciting a response from a working biogerontologist.  Recall that de Grey is the guy with the ambitious program to cure all diseases, including aging (if you call it a disease, which he basically does), so that eventually people will live forever.  Only it turned out the real scientists were too busy to respond (or they don’t have a response), so the next step was to offer a reward ($20K), which is where we’re at now.  From their web site:

In July 2005, Technology Review announced a prize for any molecular biologist working in the field of aging who could successfully meet the following challenge: demonstrate that SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), Aubrey de Grey’s prescription for defeating aging, is so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate. We pledged to pay $10,000 to the authors of a winning submission. Not to be upstaged, The Methuselah Foundation, an organization founded by de Grey and devoted to promoting anti-aging science, pledged an additional $10,000 to anyone who meets the requirements of the challenge.

We also pledged to form an independent panel to judge the submissions, and there we had some difficulty. The prize has languished, not for a shortage of submissions, but because we wanted to assemble a suitably distinguished group of judges.

Link: The SENS Challenge: Update – Technology Review.

The criteria of "so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate" seems a bit stricter than the original phrasing.  There are cases where results or methods are wrong, yet still worthy of debate, I think… but I’m probably parsing that wrong.  The article goes on to list judges.  Presumably there will be more about the entries soon.

Previous posts about Aubrey de Grey: search.

Electrosensitivity: Does Power Corrupt?

The Globe and Mail has a long article today about the controversy over so-called "Electrosensitivity".  It’s worth reading in full.  Here’s an excerpt:

The WHO has been looking at electrical sensitivity as one aspect of a larger investigation into the health effects of the cocktail of electromagnetic fields enveloping people in modern societies via everything from power lines to cellphones. It says that exposure to electromagnetic fields represents "one of the most common and fastest growing environmental influences, about which there is anxiety and speculation spreading."

Until now, most of the medical researchers looking at electricity and health have searched for links to cancer, rather than the fatigue-related symptoms the electrically sensitive claim.

The cancer research has linked childhood leukemia to power-line magnetic fields. About 5 per cent of the U.S. population is regularly exposed to fields of the strength associated with leukemia in children, a percentage that is probably similar in Canada. For adult leukemia and brain tumours, some studies have found links to electricity, as they have with Lou Gehrig’s disease, but the research is less conclusive than that for childhood leukemia.

Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center, has been studying electricity for nearly two decades, and first advanced the hypothesis that the use of electricity is a factor behind the rise in some cancer rates in developed countries. He says there is strong evidence linking the use of night lighting to cancer because exposure to light at night disrupts people’s production of the hormone melatonin.

But he’s unsure what impact the fields around electric wiring and devices might be having. Some studies have found that magnetic fields suppress melatonin in animals, something that might explain the allergy-like symptoms, but this effect hasn’t been observed in humans. "Whether or not magnetic fields have any effect at all, I do not know," Dr. Stevens says.

The allergy-like symptoms are a far different medical condition than the cancers Dr. Stevens studies, and some researchers are speculating that a possible culprit is the recent deterioration in the quality of electricity flowing in power wires.

Link: : Does power corrupt?.
via Techdirt.

See also: World Health Organization: Electromagnetic Fields

For sure there’s lots to be skeptical about, but it’s not unthinkable that this could be a real effect.  Hopefully there will be solid research results soon.


Can Video Games Help Stop the Crisis in Darfur?

From Wired:

"While critics contend that violent video games can turn kids into
tiny terrors, some government agencies and nonprofit groups want to
harness the joystick to help churn out model citizens.

"To that end, competitions are under way that are designed to achieve
such diverse goals as boosting America’s profile overseas and drawing
attention to genocide in Sudan. […]

"Stephen Friedman, general manager of mtvU, is using the internet and his company’s 24-hour college network to call students to activism through viral video games. The company, in partnership with the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group, is focusing on the genocide taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"The Darfur Digital Activist competition drew 12 viral game submissions from colleges across the United States. More than 15,000 students have played the three finalist selections hailing from Carnegie Mellon University (Peace Games: Darfur), USC (Darfur: Play Your Part and Stop Genocide) and Digipen Institute of Technology (The Shanti Ambassadors: Crisis in Darfur).

"Genocide in the Sudan has been going on for a year and a half and it’s not being reported in the news here," said Friedman. "We decided to look at viral games to spread the word. Activism is being reinvented in this medium."

Link:  Wired News: Games Fight the Good Fight.

Pictured: a screen shot from Fetching Water: "In the ‘Fetching Water’ game you are a Darfurian trying to make it to the well to get water without becoming a victim of the Janjaweed."

Wasting power in standby mode

From The Economist:

Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle—in “standby” mode—more than 99% of the time. And they are not alone: many other devices, such as televisions, DVD players, stereos and computers also spend much of their lives in standby mode, collectively consuming a huge amount of energy. Moves are being made around the world to reduce this unnecessary power consumption, called “standby power”.

Full article: Pulling the plug on standby power |,

via Gristmill: Giant power sucking sound.

Ben Stein on Cellphones in Flight

From today’s NYT:

[There] is a decision pending within the bowels of the federal government that may be the single most incomprehensibly wrongheaded decision of the century. It’s small when compared with Iraq, but it’s still maddening. It involves allowing passengers to talk on their cellphones while they are in flight.

Now, as everyone who has the misfortune to fly commercially knows, air travel today is mind-bogglingly uncomfortable. The seats are small. The flights are nearly always full to overflowing. The food is unspeakable. The air is fetid and filled with germs. Many a time I board an airliner hale and hearty, only to emerge with a raging pneumonia.

But there is one saving grace. Unless you are seated behind or next to really rude people — which happens surprisingly rarely — air travel is fairly quiet. Yes, the flight attendants stand around and talk. Yes, before the plane takes off people scream into their cellphones, but along about three hours into the flight from, say, Kennedy to LAX, it’s pretty peaceful.

That’s solely because passengers can’t use cellphones aloft. That prohibition was one of the great decisions ever. Now, in a fit of idiocy, some airlines are suggesting that they be allowed to sell the use of cellphones in the air at nominal prices. This will mean yelling and screaming and boasting and complaining for almost all the time you’re sealed in that sardine can. The government is apparently planning to allow this anarchy.


Please, Mr. Bush, step into this one and just say no to turning airplanes into penal colonies. It is only a matter of time before someone gets killed over this, and I don’t want it to be on my flight.

Link: Cellphones in Flight? This Means War! – New York Times.

Sleep Awareness Week

Next week is Sleep Awareness Week.  The "Take Back Your Time" folks are co-sponsors and write:

"Take Back Your Time is proud to be a co-sponsor of the National Sleep
Foundation’s SLEEP AWARENESS WEEK, March 27- April 2nd.

"Taking place before the return of Daylight Saving Time, when millions of
people may lose an hour of sleep, the theme for this year’s Sleep
Awareness Week is:

        SLEEP: As Important As Diet and Exercise (Only Easier)

"We encourage you to take a moment to check out some of NSF’s terrific resources:

+ data and information on everything from the effects of obesity on sleep to the dangers of drowsy driving;

+ recommendations for how to change your habits to improve your sleep;

+ and educational tools & quizzes, including the "Caffeine IQ Quiz" & the "Snore Score."

National Sleep Foundation:

Seymour_2 Seymour here knows what’s important.

Previously: You need more sleep.



Video Game Utopia

In a Wired column from last week*, Will Wright, creator of The Sims, tries to convince us of the new, unprecedented learning potential of video games.  Excerpts:

[An] entire generation has grown up with a different set of games than any before it – and it plays these games in different ways. Just watch a kid with a new videogame. The last thing they do is read the manual.  Instead, they pick up the controller and start mashing buttons to see what happens. This isn’t a random process; it’s the essence of the scientific method. […] it’s a fundamentally different take on problem-solving than the linear, read-the-manual-first approach of their parents.

In an era of structured education and standardized testing, this generational difference might not yet be evident. But the gamers’ mindset – the fact that they are learning in a totally new way – means they’ll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption. This is the true impact videogames will have on our culture.

Learning in a totally new way?  Nonsense.  You want unstructured play, go outside!  Sure, video games have progressed in the past 20 years, but it’s an incredibly restricted medium.  You exercise a tiny fraction of your senses and play within a fantasy world created by programmer geeks who probably haven’t read a novel since high school.  (Okay, more writing is done these days by professional script writers, but the story depth still doesn’t usually approach good literature.)

It should go without saying that kids have been playing, and learning, for a lot longer than video games have been around.  Only someone isolated in the short-sighted gaming world could imagine spinning the improvements in games in the past few years as heralding a "totally new way" of learning.

Society, however, notices only the negative. Most people on the far side of the generational divide – elders – look at games and see a list of ills (they’re violent, addictive, childish, worthless). Some of these labels may be deserved. But the positive aspects of gaming – creativity, community, self-esteem, problem-solving – are somehow less visible to nongamers.

Video games aren’t without their pleasures, but they offer very few, if any, that can’t be found through more natural, healthier means.  They’re an entertaining diversion, but not much more.

And not all critics of video games are old fuddy-duddies who’ve never played one, nor does that particularly matter.  (For the record, this fuddy-duddy is a 30-something computer science PhD who has played games, developed games and virtual reality systems, and known many avid gamers.)

Link: Wired 14.04: Dream Machines.

*Edit: Actually it’s the intro to the April issue of the magazine, which he guest-edits.  The theme of the issue is The New World of Games.