Collection of Wikipedia Rejects

How bad must an article be that even Wikipedia won’t make room for it?  Find out at The Wikipedia Knowledge Dump, a new blog started by pop science writer Clifford Pickover to collect the "best of the Wikipedia rejects."  The results are funny and a little sad.  Among the early entries:

Karlmarx"The Beard Theorem is a political theorem that relates to the Communist Party and its members. The Beard Theorem is a theory that suggests that the size of one’s Beard, whether it be a puff, French Fork or Mutton Chop, has a direct correlation to the radicality of a person’s Socialist views."

"Kynoid refers to any being whose body structure resembles that of a dog especially in the context of science fiction and fantasy fiction."

Via Law and Technology Theory.

CMU Study: Laptops Isolate Students and Don’t Improve Performance

A recent study looked at how laptops affected behavior and performance of sophomores at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design.  Among the findings:

* Students interacted with a broader audience and received more diverse sources of feedback while using laptops. Laptop students were more likely to show their work to and get feedback from nondesign students. Instructors saw this increase in diversity of audience and critique as a positive learning experience for students.

* Students who used laptops spent more time on assignments and worked for longer periods of time than students who did not use laptops.

* While laptops led students to devote more time to their assignments, this did not translate into higher quality work. Students often interrupted their work to check email and surf the Web, or they spent significant time searching the Web for pictures or diagrams they could have created more quickly themselves.

* Students with laptops were more likely to work from home and reported home as their preferred place to work.

* Students with laptops were more likely to work alone than other students.

[…]  "It’s not that laptops are good or bad for learning. It depends on how they are used," said Anne Fay, author of the study and director of assessment for the Eberly Center and the Office of Technology for Education. "Laptops can provide students with new creative tools and resources, adding to their intellectual toolbox of strategies, techniques and skills. The problem arises, however, when students use them as replacements for all their other tools. Used in this way, laptops serve to narrow the range of students’ skills, not broaden them." […]
The Carnegie Mellon study showed that laptops allowed students to enjoy the freedom to work whenever and wherever they wanted, without the constraints imposed by desktop computers or computer cluster hours. But many students complained that without externally imposed constraints, they often failed to manage their time and as a result were more likely to work through the night to meet deadlines.

Link: Spotlight News – Carnegie Mellon University,

via Inside Higher Ed.

Doom on the $100 Laptop

Who needs textbooks when it’ll run Doom?  Engineers from the One
Laptop Per Child Project have posted videos of themselves playing the
videogame Doom on the new children’s laptop.

Up next: the Darfur game?

Link: OLPC News: DOOM on the OLPC XO!, via BoingBoing.

More: The NYT features the project again today: For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs Big Debate, and also has an active reader discussion about it.

Alberto Manguel on the Internet and the Future of Books

The CBC has a profile of Alberto Manguel, whose new book is The Library at Night:

Manguel describes himself as a “moderate skeptic” when it comes to
the internet. He seems to regard it as a tantalizing diversion rather
than an outright threat — like snacking on an energy bar instead of
eating a proper meal. He cites its value in making texts available
online that may otherwise be difficult to access, and acknowledges that
its speed and multiplicity are alluring. But his preference is
unhurried contemplation. To him, “reading often requires slowness,
depth and context,” which skimming Web pages doesn’t provide.

we become an increasingly online culture, electronic media are grabbing
a bigger share of the public library’s scarce resources, a trend U.S.
novelist Nicholson Baker attacked in Double Fold: Libraries and  the Assault on Paper (2001). In The  Library at Night,
Manguel takes the sharp edges off Baker’s tone of outrage, but
passionately echoes his concerns about junking valuable archives of
newspapers and books in favour of electronic data storage.

“What worries me the most is that the impulse behind the replacement of
paper-and-ink collections by a virtual collection is not an
intellectual or even scientific impulse,” he says. “It is a purely
material one that benefits the creators of the electronic media, who
are making a fortune by inventing for us a fear of the fragility of
paper, and laying no stress on the fragility of the electronic media.
We don’t know how long memory sticks or CDs will last. We do know that
books last for thousands of years.”

Link: – Arts – The Constant Reader: Alberto Manguel investigates the meaning of libraries,

via Bookninja.

Transhumanists Care About Overcoming (Your) Biases

The writing that comes out of the "transhumanist" crowd often baffles me.  I’m not really equipped to follow most high-level philosophy discussions, so maybe it’s just me, or maybe I’m right and there’s a large dose of bluster and nonsense mixed into it.  Here are some recent offerings that seem interesting, if a bit opaque.

The Future of Humanity Institute has launched the Overcoming Bias blog.  It is described as follows:

How can we better believe what is true? While it is of
course useful to seek and study relevant information, our minds are
full of natural tendencies to bias our beliefs via overconfidence,
wishful thinking, and so on. Worse, our minds seem to have a natural
tendency to convince us we that are aware of and have adequately
corrected for such biases, when we have done no such thing.

In this forum we discuss whether and how we might avoid this fate,
by spending a bit less effort on each specific topic, and a bit more
effort on the general topic of how to be less biased. Here we discuss
common patterns of bias and self-deception, statistical and other
formal analysis tools, computational and data-gathering aids, and
social institutions which may discourage bias and encourage its
correction. Other topics may be discussed to the extent they exemplify
important biases and correction issues.

(Via IEET, Sentient Developments.)

As best I can tell, this blog is not about bias in discussions about transhumanism, which was how I first read it.  It’s about discussing how future humans might not be biased.  That’s what I gather from the abstract to a paper by Robin Hansen called "Enhancing Our Truth Orientation", to which the site links:

Humans lie to themselves, and often choose beliefs for reasons other than how
closely those beliefs approximate truth. This is mainly why we disagree. Three future
trends may reduce this epistemic vice. First, increased documentation and surveillance
should make it harder to lie and self-deceive about the patterns of our lives. Second,
speculative markets can create a relatively unbiased consensus on most debated topics
in science, business, and policy. Third, brain modifications may allow our minds to be
more transparent, so that lies and self-deception become harder to hide. In evaluating
these trends, we should be wary of moral arrogance.

Nick Bostrom (also of the Future of Humanity Institute) has posted a paper called "Dignity and Enhancement," Commissioned for the President’s Council on Bioethics.  The abstract reads:

Does human enhancement threaten our dignity as some have asserted? Or could our dignity perhaps be technologically enhanced? After disentangling several different concepts of dignity, this essay focuses on the idea of dignity as a quality (a kind of excellence admitting of degrees). The interactions between enhancement and dignity as a quality are complex and link into fundamental issues in ethics and value theory.

James Hughes and others from the same crowd are on a panel taking place at the UN to "discuss the impacts of emerging neurotechnologies on cognitive liberty."  The meeting theme is described as follows:

Growing knowledge in the neurosciences, enhanced by exponential
advances in pharmacology and other neurotechnologies (technologies that
monitor and manipulate the brain) are rapidly moving brain research and
clinical applications beyond the scope of purely medical use. These
emerging neurotechnologies offer expanded intelligence, memory and
senses, giving us greater ability to understand and control our own
minds. But they also expand the avenues for possible coercion and
invasion of mental privacy. What is the state of cognitive liberty
today? What steps do we need to take to protect cognitive liberty,
mental privacy and freedom of choice in light of these
neurotechnologies? (Link)

Kinsley on MySpace

Michael Kinsley has an amusing piece in Slate about social networking sites on the web.  Excerpt:

But anonymity does not actually seem to interest many of the Web’s most
devoted users. They are the ones who start their own sites, or sign up
for MySpace, or submit videos to YouTube. Quite the opposite: The most
successful Web sites seem to be those where people can abandon
anonymity and use the Internet to stake their claims as unique
individuals. Here is a list of my friends. Here are all the CDs in my
collection. Here is a picture of my dog. On the Internet, not only does
everybody know that you’re a dog. Everybody knows what kind of dog, how
old, your taste in collars, your favorite dog food recipe, and so on.

Link: On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog – Slate

Michael Crichton Tackles Genetics (and Web Spoofing)

The marketing wizards at HarperCollins are getting creative with the web in order to promote Michael Crichton’s new novel, Next.  There’s a website for a fictional company from the book, NEXTgencode, whose tag-line is "Your Destiny is No Longer in Question."  The site features spoof ads for their products, such as Perma Puppies ("ever wish they didn’t grow up?"), ControlGene ("The gene found in every leader. You Choose: Leader, President, Dictator!"), and an ad about the possible extinction of blondes ("Never fear… We own the gene").  The ads are also posted on YouTube.

The site even has a "forum," which takes you to a blog called Ethics in Genetics.  The marketing connections on both sites are well hidden.  The only clue on the blog is a link to the NEXTgencode site, and the only clue there is a buried page about a new book that "reveals trade secrets" — the Crichton book.

I learned about this at The Daily Transcript (at ScienceBlogs), which points to the blog Genetics and Health, which has a few posts about the book and the spoof sites.

I find this all kind of annoying.  Good fiction about biotech can foster discussion of the issues, but Crichton’s credibility is pretty much zero given his previous anti-environmentalism/global-warming-doubting book (or at least a book that was widely perceived that way).  Having his name attached to biotech criticism does no favors to those who are genuinely trying to bring the issues to public attention.  (For instance, the people at the Center for Genetics and Society.)

The same goes for the spoof websites and blogs.  I can’t tell if the "Ethics in Genetics" blog is sincere about discussion or not.  If the people behind this were really interested in educating readers they’d give some pointers to resources on the web and elsewhere instead of just muddying the waters.

Update:  Maybe I was a little unfair, to the book at least.  According to this Washington Post review the book contains "a seven-page bibliography of books and articles on genetics": Freaking Out Over Gene Tinkering.

Giving Old Mobile Phones to Toddlers as Toys: A Bad Idea in So Many Ways

I spotted this story at Techdirt, but it apparently originated with stories in the Times Online and Asian News International (links are below).  The stories quote a UK professor:

Lydia Plowman, Professor of Education at the University of Stirling, says parents should stop feeling pressurized into buying computerised toys for young children because they are no better than traditional methods of teaching children the basics.

Families eager to introduce their children to new technology should use lap-tops, mobile phones and other gadgets already in the home rather than splashing out on custom-built computers, she says.

"These toys are not particularly beneficial, although they are not particularly harmful either. There is no problem having them in the home. But in terms of literacy and numeracy they are certainly not more effective than more traditional methods of helping children to learn," she was quoted by Times Online, as saying.

In particular, she recommends giving children old mobile phones to play with so they can pretend to call their friends. "Family members often change their phone every year and give their old one to their young child. That’s a very good way of introducing them to technology in an authentic setting," she said.

Link: Zee News: Old mobile phones are the best educational toys for your kids!

She begins with a good, though not terribly original, point: kids certainly don’t need the newest electronic toys.  The problem is with her suggestion that you discard your old phones or other gadgets by giving them to young children as toys.  This is a stunningly bad idea for many reasons:

  • Mobile phones have small parts that can break off and be a choking hazard.
  • Mobile phones have toxic parts inside.
  • If you turn the phone on so that it will make pleasant beeps (which people apparently do, according to the Techdirt story), you could be exposing your child to radiation.  Not enough is known yet about the effects of mobile phone radiation, but if it’s dangerous you can be sure it’s most dangerous to young children, who have thinner skulls.
  • Apparently toddlers have been known to dial 911 on old mobile phones (according to Techdirt).  In the U.S. all phones will connect to emergency 911 services, even if service hasn’t been paid for on the phone.
  • Finally, and less importantly, the idea that toddlers need to be "introduced to technology in an authentic setting" is just silly — no kid is going to be left behind because they weren’t exposed to cell phones early enough.

In the ZDNet story about this, the writer is baffled by how to safely dispose of an old cell phone:

You were probably wondering what to do with that old cell phone anyway.
It’s bad karma to throw it away and have its components toxins leach
into the landfill. The thrift stores won’t take it.

It’s not that difficult — and it’s worse than "bad karma" to throw it in the trash.  Here are a few ideas; you can find more on the web.

  • Many women’s shelters and senior centers accept old mobile phones so that they can be used in emergencies.
  • Many office supply stores have recycling bins for phones and other electronics that need to be disposed of safely because of toxic batteries and other components.
  • Some cell phone manufacturers are (finally) initiating take-back
    programs so that you can return them to the manufacturer for safe
    recycling and disposal.
  • Check out your community’s hazardous waste disposal guidelines.

Links to stories mentioned: 

Friday is Buy Nothing Day

The day after Thanksgiving is known for being the busiest shopping day of the year in the U.S.  If the crowds aren’t enough of a reason for you to stay at home, here’s another: participate in "Buy Nothing Day" by not shopping or by attending an event in your area to draw attention to consumerism out of control.  Buy Nothing Day is a project of Adbusters; it began in 1992 and is now a global phenomenon. 
Link: Buy Nothing Day – ADBUSTERS.ORG.

Are Tobacco Companies Advertising on YouTube?

An Australian researcher is investigating possible undercover advertising:

IS THIS the last frontier in tobacco marketing or simply a
global stage for the look-at-me generation?

Thousands of videos of sexy, smoking teens are appearing on the
internet phenomenon YouTube, possibly being posted by tobacco
manufacturers to recruit the next generation of smokers.

A global authority on tobacco marketing, Professor Simon
Chapman, of the School of Public Health at Sydney University, has
accused tobacco manufacturers of hijacking YouTube by flooding it
with videos of glamorous, smoking teens. Each day 100 million video
clips are viewed on YouTube.


A digital marketing expert, Jean-Claude Abouchar, of Capture
Communications, said YouTube’s anonymity – users can hide behind
aliases – provided the perfect cover for companies wanting to
infiltrate the teen world.

"It’s the perfect Trojan horse," he said. "They can upload
videos of stars smoking in movies and call the clips ‘celebrities’
or add the actor’s name or movie title to the video. And while
that’s not incorrect, it’s a sneaky way of embedding their message
that smoking is sexy or cool."

Link: Whiff of tobacco firms on net (Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 18),
via PR Watch.

This wouldn’t be surprising if it’s true.  An unregulated net is a windfall for companies seeking new advertising space.  Wade Roush has a related article in the current Technology Review, about the commercialization of MySpace: Fakesters.  But cigarette advertising would be a new low, and possibly illegal.