Today in Technology November 9, 2013

  • Why China Has A Love/Hate Relationship With Social Media
    Huffington Post’s Peter Goodman discusses how China’s leaders view social media with Jon Erlichman on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.”
  • Study: Teens Taking Steps to Avoid Identity Theft
    You might think that kids and teens don’t need to worry about identity theft but that’s not the case. It turns out that ID thieves love kids because most have a clean credit record. And often teens won’t find out that their identity has been stolen until they apply for their first credit card or a college loan.

    That’s the bad news. The good news is that teens are starting to get the message that they should guard their identity. A study commissioned by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and conducted by Hart Research Associates, found that the percentage of teens who say they are “very concerned” about their identity being stolen has gone from 43 percent a year ago to 51 percent this year. Just under three quarters (73 percent) agree that “because teens are more likely to have clean credit histories and are less likely to monitor their credit, it is reasonable to think they could be victims of identity theft.”

    But, when it comes to their own situation, only 29 percent of teens think they they are personally vulnerable to having their identity stolen.

    Risky and not-so risky behaviors

    Just over a third (34 percent) of teens said that they have shared at least one username and password with someone other than their parents. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) say they have shared it with a friend or significant other.

    Password sharing is a particularly risky behavior because it can not only lead to crimes but can result in impersonation such as someone logging onto your social networking account and posting as if they were you.

    The study was released at FOSI’a annual convention taking place November 6 and 7 in Washington, DC. The research consisted of two focus groups held in September 2013 and a nationwide online survey conducted in October 2013 among 558 teens ages 13 to 17 who access the Internet.

    Kids are posting other information online that isn’t particularly risk such as their full name (75 percnt), a photo (69 percent), their date of birth (54 percent), the name of their school (48 percent), and their e-mail address (47 percent). With the possible exception of full date of birth (it’s a good idea to leave off the year), none of these types of information constitute high risk, considering the hundreds of millions of people who post this type of information on Facebook and other social networks.

    There are some good signs when it comes to teens and privacy. More than three fourths (76 percent) of teens said that they are very or somewhat concerned about the privacy of their personal information while 69 percent have set up one or more devices to auto-lock so that a password or PIN is required to access the device (or maybe a fingerprint if it’s an iPhone 5S).

    Take aways for teens and parents

    It’s a good idea to remind teens that they are vulnerable to both financial crimes and an impersonation and that it’s important to keep their passwords confidential. Friends can sometimes become ex-friends so even if they trust someone, its a good idea to keep their passwords to themselves. And while teens will of course want to share some information — and that’s OK — but they need to realize that some data is best kept secret. Have a conversation with your kids but don’t make it a lecture. Start by asking what they know about identity theft and if they know how to protect themselves.

    Tips from Identity Theft Resource Center

    The Identity Theft Resource Center offers tips to prevent ID theft, including:

    • Don’t give out your SSN unnecessarily (only for tax reasons, credit or verified employment.) Before providing personal identifiers, know how it will be used and if it will be shared.
    • Use a cross-cut shredder to dispose of documents with personal information. Also, use a specialized gel pen when writing out checks.
    • Place outgoing mail in collection boxes or the U.S. Post Office.
    • Password protect your financial accounts. A strong password should be more than eight characters in length, and contain both capital letters and at least one numeric or other non alphabetical character. Use of non-dictionary words is also recommended.
    • Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact.
    • Use firewall software to protect computer information. Keep virus and spyware software programs updated.

    For more on identity theft and other security issues, see A Parents’ Guide to Cybersecurity from ConnectSafely.org.

  • Well, Martha, Most Bloggers Really ARE Experts
    2013-10-29-WomanWithGlassessmaller.jpg

    This is a wonderful time to be a real person. Ordinary people — folks just like you and me — are popping up all over the place. You see us in ads for e-readers, Fords, and room fresheners. Today’s conventional wisdom, according to AdWeek, suggests that real people make a brand seem “more genuine and authentic.” If you happen to be a real person and possess an opinion, Madison Avenue wants to know what you have to say. Martha Stewart? If the brouhaha in the blogosphere is any indication, maybe not so much.

    The domestic diva got herself in the soup for remarks she made in an interview with Stephanie Ruhle of Bloomberg Television. By now, everyone on the world wide web knows what Stewart said:

    Who are these bloggers? They’re not trained editors at Vogue magazine. I mean, there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create kind of a popularity, but they are not the experts. And we have to understand that. [Emphasis added].

    Stewart ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere, especially since many bloggers gauged her comments as hypocritical; she has been a keynote speaker at BlogHer, and her publicists actively seek bloggers to help promote her merchandise.

    I’ve sat this out until now, but after considering the incident, it does seem to merit discussion about nuance, authenticity, the nature of expertise, and what bloggers can and shouldn’t do.

    Some disclosure is probably in order. Stewart’s aides have never reached out to me, although as a member of the Viewpoints Blogger Reviews Panel and a contributor to its website I have offered my opinion on the Kindle Paperwhite and the KitchenAid Pro Line Dicing Food Processor, among other items. And a publicist for Verizon Wireless invited me to become a member of its Verizon Boomer Voices program, in which I offer my opinion on such mobile devices as the DROID RAZR MAXX HD smart phone and the Fitbit One.

    I don’t at all mind that I’ve not been asked to serve as one of Martha Stewart’s brand ambassadors, although, had I been approached, I would have said yes. I have admired Stewart’s aesthetic and contributions to the domestic arts for years. But I find her comments troubling, especially in light of her active recruitment of bloggers. As many bloggers will tell you, our authenticity as real people who use real products gives us enormous credibility. There’s a case to be made for life experience contributing to expertise. It would appear as though the Martha Stewart brand was looking for this authenticity.

    So what exactly do we mean by the word “expert” anyway?

    Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, defines an expert as one “having special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.” Let’s deconstruct this a moment, using my blog and one of its sections as an example.

    In naming my site “The Midlife Second Wife,” I made two explicit declarations: I have lived a fair number of years and am therefore no spring chicken, and I have married for the second time. I am, at the present moment, 57 years old and have been cooking for at least 35 years. A section on my blog features recipes, many of which are mine and all of which I have prepared. In working with these recipes over the course of a lifetime, it’s fair to say that I have “tested” them. Every recipe I’ve shared on the blog has been wildly popular with my family and friends (trust me, I’m not about to share the occasional flop with you), so it’s safe to assume they are “very good.” In cases where I include recipes from some of my favorite cookbook authors–dishes I also have in my regular cooking rotation–I have asked for, and received, permission to reprint them. I make no claims to be chef, professional cook, or restaurateur; in that sense I am not an expert. But you can take to the bank the fact that I’m an excellent home cook with decades of experience in the kitchen. In that respect, I am an expert.

    As for blogging, I bring experience as a published writer and editor to the enterprise. While the Oberlin Conservatory Magazine is hardly Vogue, it is nevertheless a beautiful publication featuring the students, faculty, and alumni of one of the most renowned music schools in the United States. I served as its editor for 10 years, from 2001 to 2010. I also majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing at Oberlin College, so I learned a thing or two about what it takes to craft a narrative.

    These are my credentials — I know many other bloggers who have résumés with similar bona fides. I present mine here not because this incident is about me, but because I’m a blogger, and the Stewart incident raises the question about what we choose to blog about, what our experience has been, and how we go about the whole enterprise. I’m happy to offer my opinion in areas where I believe I have something worthwhile to contribute, and where I can provide useful and enlightening information in what I hope is an enjoyable read for you. I also tend to agree with Linda Lacina, who posits in Entrepreneur.com that the real battle bloggers might consider waging isn’t necessarily with Martha Stewart, but with shoddy content. That could have been the point Stewart was trying to make, but unfortunately, her remarks painted all bloggers with a push broom-sized brush.

    Let me add that I have never — and I promise you that I will never — pass myself off as an expert by adding to the critical literature on figure-skating, cross-bow hunting, parachuting, or hand surgery. What I will do is write, to the best of my ability, about what I know. In cases where I feel compelled to write about what I don’t know, but wonder about (hand surgery, anyone?), I’ll bring in the experts. (I’ve already interviewed a few on Monday Morning Q&A.)

    And I promise to edit myself as carefully as I can.


    Related articles:

    “Martha Stewart Speaks Out: Bloggers are not Experts,” Bloomberg.com

    “Note to Bloggers: Fight Bad Content, not Martha Stewart”
    by Linda Lacina, Entrepreneur.com

    “Whatever, Martha” by Adam Roberts, The Huffington Post

    “Does Martha Stewart Owe Food, Lifestyle Bloggers an Apology?” by Rene Lynch, the Los Angeles Times

    “Dear Martha Stewart, Here’s What You Should Have Said About Bloggers” by Julie Ross Godar, BlogHer.com

    “Martha Stewart Likes Bloggers. I Have Proof.” by Gabrielle Blair, DesignMom.com

    “Martha Stewart and the Case of the Not-So-Expert Food Blogger” by Tracy Beckerman, LostinSuburbia.com

    Earlier on Huff/Post50:

  • 15 Remarkable Colorized Photos Will Let You Relive History
    One thing we really need to thank the internet for: colorized historical photographs. Of course, the phenomenon comes to us courtesy of Photoshop and the talented editors who transformed black and white images into digital works of art. We’re just happy we get to feast our eyes upon them.

    Thanks to a Reddit user named Brinkman87, we have a plethora of polychromatic snapshots that bring history back to life. Behold, 15 of the best colorized photos on the web:

    1. This boy clutching a stuffed toy in 1945 London.

    Abandoned boy holding a stuffed toy animal. London 1945

    2. Albert Einstein enjoying a Long Island summer in 1939.

    Albert Einstein, Summer 1939 Nassau Point, Long Island, NY

    3. This young boy in Baltimore in 1938.

    Young boy in Baltimore slum area, July 1938

    4. This stunning snapshot of Audrey Hepburn.

    Audrey Hepburn

    5. This unemployed lumber worker in 1939.

    Unemployed lumber worker, circa 1939

    6. These Japanese archers circa 1860.

    Japanese Archers circa 1860

    7. The tragic Hindenburg Disaster of 1937.

    Hindenburg Disaster – May 6, 1937

    8. These British troops on the first stage of their trip to the front lines in England, 1939.

     British troops cheerfully board their train for the first stage of their trip to the front – England, September 20, 1939

    9. This startling picture of Joseph Goebbels allegedly frowning at photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt after finding out he’s Jewish, 1933.

    Joseph Goebbels scowling at photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt after finding out he’s Jewish, 1933

    10. This ‘Old Gold’ store in 1939.

    ‘Old Gold’, Country store, 1939

    11. This portrait of Walt Whitman in 1887.

    Walt Whitman, 1887

    12. This car crash in Washington D.C. in 1921.

    Auto Wreck in Washington D.C, 1921

    13. Mark Twain lounging circa 1900.

    Mark Twain in the garden, circa 1900

    14. Charlie Chaplin in 1916, at the beautiful age of 27.

    Charlie Chaplin at the age of 27, 1916

    15. Elizabeth Taylor in 1956.

    Elizabeth Taylor – Giant (1956 film)

  • Should Your Children Be The Center Of Your World?
    In the latest parenting post to go viral, Stephanie Metz reaches an important conclusion for all the wrong reasons.

    “Why My Kids Are NOT The Center of My World,” is the title of her piece, and in it she worries that today’s parents have raised a generation that won’t be able to cope. How will our sheltered, coddled, indulged children — raised to believe the world revolves around them — handle their first critical professor or unhappy boss?

    A question worth asking, to be sure. But Metz’ examples of our misguided parenting? Her definition of the kind of choices that are bubble-wrapping our children? Those are confusing at best and damaging at worst. She begins with the moment her son decided not to take his favorite action figure to show and tell because an accessory to that toy, which her son had always treated as “a drill”, she writes, might look like a gun to the teacher “and then I’ll get in trouble.”

    Which led her to this:

    My boys are typical little boys.  They love to play guns.  They love to play good guy versus bad guy.  They love to wrestle and be rowdy.  That’s the nature of little boys, as it has been since the beginning of time.
     
    How long will it be before their typical boy-ish behavior gets them suspended from school?  How long before they get suspended from daycare???  How long will it be before one of them gets upset with a friend, tells that friend to go away and leave them alone, and subsequently gets labeled as a bully?
     
    The mentality of our society in 2013 is nauseating to me, friends. 

    She goes on to lament that time was when bullying was “slamming someone up against a locker and stealing their lunch money,” not merely calling names, and she yearns for the good old days when “kids got called names and got picked on, and they brushed it off.” Nowadays, she writes, “if Sally calls Susie a bitch (please excuse my language if that offends you), Susie’s whole world crumbles around her, she contemplates suicide, and this society encourages her to feel like her world truly has ended, and she should feel entitled to a world-wide pity party.  And Sally – phew!  She should be jailed!  She should be thrown in juvenile detention for acting like – gasp – a teenage girl acts.”

    Oh please.

    Have we gone overboard as a society in protecting our children? Yes. I think we all agree that we have. But Metz’ view that all these OTHER parents are crazy and if we could only go back to the good old days all would be dandy, is simplistic to the point of caricature.

    First, she discusses these changes as if they occurred in a vacuum –as if one morning parents just woke up and decided to hover over their kids while, in that same moment, schools decided on a whim to enforce no tolerance policies against bullying and violence.

    In reality, of course, this new paradigm is a reaction more than a cause. It’s a direct result of a long list of reasons, starting with the fact that the good old days Metz misses weren’t always that good at all and ending with the reality that the new days are more complicated.

    Did kids used to “brush it off” when called names or threatened? Some did, but others carried scars for decades, which we failed to notice back then. Also, social media now acts as a magnifying lens for bullies, multiplying the damage and the danger.

    Did parents used to insert themselves into their children’s schooling as much as they do now? No. But learning issues also went unrecognized, and expectations of what a child needed to achieve in order to successfully navigate the classroom were lower then, too. College admissions was not the arms race that it is today, and the job market was not an impenetrable fortress.

    Could “boys be boys” and shoot ‘em up for fun on the playground? Yes. Did shooting up playgrounds carry the same history and baggage that it does right now? No. Did boys being boys in preschool lead to a culture of macho swagger and college campus violence? Not necessarily. But maybe. And that’s enough reason to question the way things used to be.

    Metz is angry about the new ways. I am sad. Her anger is rooted in the fact that she sees these changes as frivolous political correctness. I am sad because I see them as heartfelt scrambling by concerned parents reacting to real dangers. And the answer is to fix rather than ignore those dangers. To figure out how to ward off bullying without shackling our kids, how to help those who learn differently without spoon feeding them, how to allow boys to be boys and girls to be girls — heck, children to be children — without fear that their pretend play will reflect an armed camp of a world.

    Our first reactions have been over-reactions, but many first drafts of social change are. So Metz is right that we need to recalibrate — not so we can go back to the way things were, but so we can finally get to wherever they are supposed to be.

  • How One Scientist Learned to Tweet and Love to Blog
    Recently I surpassed 5,000 followers on Twitter, achieving a milestone I set for myself when I began to use the social media platform in November 2011. I initially used Twitter in support of a gathering we hosted here at the Gates Foundation for grantees and partners working on Achieving Impact at Scale in Family Health. Passing this milestone caused me to pause and reflect on my journey with social media, and ask myself some questions: Why do I spend time engaging in social media? What do I get out of it? What does it achieve for the women and children in poor communities that I strive to reach with global health and development solutions? Might I do things differently going forward?

    I originally engaged in social media as a means to be more transparent about our strategies in Maternal Newborn and Child Health, Nutrition, and Family Planning. The Gates Foundation has been and continues to be criticized for a lack of transparency, so I was looking for new ways to communicate and dialogue more effectively and comprehensively with our grantees and partners around the world. I wanted our grantees, partners and engaged public to have a better idea of who we are, what we focus our work on and why, how we work and who we work with to achieve our goals, what we are learning along the way, and what we are doing to improve our performance and impact.

    Publishing results in peer reviewed journals is critically important, but our obligation for knowledge sharing does not stop there.

    I was responding, in part, to a deeply held belief that our fundamental “currency” or value-add as a foundation is the knowledge and learning that we create. In order to optimize the spread and use of this knowledge, and ultimately to “leverage” our investments and fulfill our mission to give everyone the chance to live a healthy and productive life, we must reach out proactively to share this learning and to catalyze the adoption of knowledge by policy makers, researchers, program managers, frontline health workers, mothers, etc. Publishing results in peer reviewed journals is critically important, but our obligation for knowledge sharing does not stop there. The learning generated by our investments must be made more widely available, and ultimately be adopted, for it to impact women, children, families and communities.

    A favorite social media activity of mine has been twitter chats linked to blog series each spring which attempt to capture our learning and stimulate dialogue on key challenges we are facing. The twitter chats were highly engaging, but the blog series seemed to be primarily a one-way flow of information out, with relatively little commentary coming back outside of the “chats.” And the twitter chats didn’t have the reach into poor communities that I look for. I felt that we were primarily “preaching to the choir,” although it was encouraging to see many partners grappling with us to solve our most pressing challenges.

    I continue to wrestle with these questions (as I know others do as well): How do I increase the two-way dialogue, and how do I achieve greater reach to women and families in poor communities?

    In addition to using Twitter and blogging to share what we are learning, I use these vehicles as a chief means for my own learning. My “followers” become my teachers.

    One mechanism that I have been excited to be part of as a founding curator is Catapult. This crowd-funding site enables me to link followers and people I meet in person and in social media spaces to a place where they can engage, identify projects and partners doing work they want to support, and follow the impact of their investments, which can be of any size. It’s been very exciting for me to see several of the projects I highlighted become fully funded, and to see the boost this gives to the organizations and the communities that are supported.

    In addition to using Twitter and blogging to share what we are learning, I use these vehicles as a chief means for my own learning. My “followers” become my teachers! I learn new perspectives and gain factual information on topics of interest, I become aware of important events, and I learn more about what resonates with an engaged public and how to communicate ideas more clearly and compellingly.

    My followers also become catalysts for change through further spread of ideas and information. In tweeting out a message, I often imagine myself standing in front of an audience of 5000 enthusiastic listeners, each of whom, in turn, is speaking to an audience of their own. What do I want to tell them and how can I say it in a way that captures their interest and sparks their imagination, and stimulates them to spread the idea? What an amazing network of passionate individuals that I can tap into at any moment!

    Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter has offered an analogy: While television shows were previously limited to the people watching in any one room, “Twitter expands the room… you’re often better off focusing on the people who are likely to watch a particular program and then be inclined to talk about it.”

    In this way, I see Twitter and blogging as ways to reach a select group of people who are inclined to action, providing an important avenue for “leverage” and for achieving impact in the lives of women and children at scale.

    Being a scientist who is driven by data and evidence, another shortcoming of social media that I also continue to grapple with is defining the return on the time I am investing in these vehicles. I have fun. I learn. I feel better connected. I am gratified to know that people are “listening” to my ideas. But what tangible impact is really being achieved by my presence on social media channels? This is a rapidly evolving and exciting area for monitoring and evaluation. I don’t have an answer yet but I’m still tweeting and still blogging… for the health (and development) of it.

    This post was written by Dr. Gary Darmstadt, Senior Fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow him at @gdarmsta.

  • Few Options For Obama To Fix Cancellations Problem
    WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says he’ll do everything he can to help people coping with health insurance cancellations, but legally and practically his options appear limited.

    That means the latest political problem engulfing Obama’s health care overhaul may not be resolved quickly, cleanly or completely. White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that the president has asked his team to look at administrative fixes to help people whose plans are being canceled as a result of new federal coverage rules. Obama, in an NBC interview Thursday, said “I am sorry” to people who are losing coverage and had relied on his assurances that if they liked their plan, they could keep it.

    The focus appears to be on easing the impact for a specific group: people whose policies have been canceled and who don’t qualify for tax credits to offset higher premiums. The administration has not settled on a particular fix and it’s possible the final decision would apply to a broader group.

    Still, a president can’t just pick up the phone and order the Treasury to cut checks for people suffering from insurance premium sticker shock. Spending would have to be authorized by law.

    Another obstacle: Most of the discontinued policies appear to have been issued after the law was enacted, according to insurers and independent experts. Legally, that means they would have never been eligible for cancellation protections offered by the statute. Its grandfather clause applies only to policies that were in effect when the law passed in 2010.

    More than five weeks after open-enrollment season started for uninsured Americans, Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement is still struggling. Persistent website problems appear to have kept most interested customers from signing up. Repairs are underway. Friday the administration said the website’s income verification component will be offline for maintenance until Tuesday morning. An enrollment report expected next week is likely to reflect only paltry sign-ups.

    Website woes have been eclipsed by the uproar over cancellation notices sent to millions of people who have individual plans that don’t measure up to the benefits package and level of financial protection required by the law.

    “It was clear from the beginning that there were going to be some winners and losers,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, who supports the health overhaul. “But the losers are calling reporters, and the winners can’t get on the website.”

    In the House, a Republican-sponsored bill that would give insurers another year to sell individual policies that were in effect Jan. 1, 2013, is expected to get a floor vote late next week. In the Senate, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu has introduced legislation that would require insurers to keep offering current individual plans. Democrats, who as a group have stood firmly behind the new law so far, may start to splinter if the uproar continues.

    The legislation faces long odds to begin with, but it may not do the job even if it passes. The reason: States, not the federal government, regulate the individual insurance market. State insurance commissioners have already approved the plans that will be offered for next year. It may be too late to wind back to where things stood at the beginning of this year.

    “It has taken the industry many months to rejigger their systems to comply with the law,” said Bob Laszewski, a health care industry consultant. “The cancellation letters have already gone out. What are these guys supposed to do, go down to the post office and buy a million stamps?”

    The insurance industry doesn’t like the legislative route either. “We have some significant concerns with how that would work operationally,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans.

    Behind the political and legal issues, a powerful economic logic is also at work.

    Shifting people who already have individual coverage into the new health insurance markets under Obama’s law would bring in customers already known to insurers, reducing overall financial risks for the insurance pool.

    That’s painful for those who end up paying higher premiums for upgraded policies. But it could save money for the taxpayers who are subsidizing the new coverage.

    Compared with the uninsured, people with coverage are less likely to have a pent-up need for medical services. At one point, they were all prescreened for health problems.

    A sizable share of the uninsured people expected to gain coverage under Obama’s law have health problems that have kept them from getting coverage. They’ll be the costly cases.

    Obama sold the overhaul as a win all around. Uninsured Americans would get coverage and people who liked their insurance could keep it, he said. In hindsight, the president might have wanted to say that you could keep your plan as long as your insurer or your employer did not change it beyond limits prescribed by the government.

    ___

    Associated Press writers Julie Pace, David Espo and Kevin Vineys contributed to this report.

  • Putting Computers in Their Place: <em>Computer Chess</em> and The Nerd Origins of Today's Technopoly
    Computers need to be put in their place. They really do.

    That’s why I’ve been looking forward to the DVD release this week of Andrew Bujalski’s cult Sundance hit Computer Chess. Computer Chess finally spills the beans about where these little monsters came from in the first place.

    Every time I pick up a newspaper these days — I’m one of the twelve people left who still read physical newspapers — I read about how computers are spying on us, destroying jobs, or infuriating health insurance customers. Like a hungry Rottweiler off its leash, computers are getting out of control and tearing up the neighborhood.

    If you believe what you read, computers are also in the process of wrecking the book publishing and music industries, eliminating celluloid photography — and just this week computers claimed their latest victim, one near and dear to my heart: the local video store, as Blockbuster finally succumbed to laptops, smartphones and tablets as the preferred ways of renting all those movies you couldn’t afford to see (or were too embarrassed to see) when they were in theaters.

    2013-11-08-VideoStoreaisle.jpg

    No more video stores — who would’ve believed it, even just ten years ago? That means no more pimply teenagers to recommend midnight horror movies to me (“Sir, I definitely recommend C.H.U.D. over TerrorVision“), no more aimless browsing or listening to neighbors argue over which Steven Seagal movie to rent, no more cheap licorice sticks at the checkout counter.

    I never thought I’d miss those things so much — but suddenly I do. And it’s all because of our ‘friend’ the computer. Computers are becoming like the Yankees during the ’90s: gobbling up everybody else’s talent, then telling us how good it is for baseball.

    The propaganda over the wonders that computers supposedly bring to our lives is getting out of hand. In the very least, it’s out of proportion to the destruction computers are simultaneously causing — that ‘disruptive’ effect Silicon Valley gurus salivate over, like vampires at a blood drive.

    So as Twitter — the company currently reducing our public discourse to snarky, 140-character outbursts — celebrates its gaudy IPO right now, I’d like to recommend a new movie out on DVD this week that casts digital technology in a very different light: Computer Chess.

    You probably haven’t heard of Computer Chess. After all, it has no stars in it. Neither Disney nor Sony are building spin-off franchises around its characters. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t swing a hammer in the film, and Kate Upton wasn’t invited to the premiere (although it would’ve been funny if she was).

    What Computer Chess has going for it, though, is that it tells the unvarnished, gawky truth about the early days of this public menace we’ve come to know as the ‘computer.’

    Actually, Computer Chess isn’t all that obscure a film. Written and directed by mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski, the film debuted to critical acclaim earlier this year at Sundance (where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize), where I had the pleasure of seeing the funky little movie in a packed house with an appreciative crowd. It was a total hoot, especially for people like me who remember how uncool computers used to be before Steve Jobs arrived on the scene. In fact, you arguably can’t appreciate Jobs’ legacy properly unless you’ve seen Computer Chess — and witnessed what a clunky, nerdy, socially maladroit computer world Jobs inherited.

    Computer Chess is set around 1980, in a shabby suburban motel that serves as the film’s entire setting over the course of one weekend. The aristocracy of the computer science world – the geek gods of Cal Tech, MIT, Bell Labs and elsewhere — have gathered for their annual computer chess tournament, with the winning machine getting the chance to face off against the pompous tournament host, who has never yet lost a game to a computer.

    So it’s game on, as Apple IIs and Tandy TRS-80s — and their nerd jockeys — take each other on for all the marbles.

    The film follows the impossibly awkward programmers as they compete with each other for the (slightly dubious) title, haul blocky computer mainframes around on push-carts, debate the future of computers in late-night bull sessions, and make cringe-inducing attempts at romance and/or sexual conquest with the tournament’s lone female competitor, a hopelessly bespectacled programmer named Shelly. The programmers also have a few droll encounters with a New Age group that shares the motel with them, who try to open up the nerdy programmers’ repressed emotional lives.

    Good luck with that.

    The performances Bujalski gets out of his mostly non-professional cast are uniformly natural and believable — with special kudos going out to Patrick Riester and Wiley Wiggins as the no-nonsense leads, Myles Paige as the egomaniac/would-be lothario ‘Michael Papageorge,’ and Robin Schwartz as the sweet, ungainly female programmer.

    Indeed, Bujalski’s strategy of keeping things real (several cast members are actually programmers themselves) is the best thing Computer Chess has going for it. It’s easy to see how this film could’ve been botched by importing a Michael Cera or Jonah Hill into the mix with their pre-packaged nerd schtick. Computer Chess is too austere and genuinely indie for such Hollywoodisms — to the point that the movie was actually shot in low-res, black-and-white 4:3 analog video using a Sony AVC-3260 camera, dating from the late 1960s.

    Bujalski clearly intends Computer Chess to feel like a ‘found object’ of the era — and the film does seem incredibly authentic as a depiction of early-80s geek culture.

    The special kick of watching Computer Chess, though, is knowing how the awkward misfits depicted in the film — and the big, blocky, semi-functional machines they cart around — will someday conquer the world. Today’s gods of Silicon Valley (who are apparently getting pretty full of themselves these days) — the slick young guys in hoodies who debut their stock offerings with multi-billion dollar valuations, or who get played by Jesse Eisenberg or Justin Timberlake in the movies are of course no longer the introverted weenies of yesteryear, as depicted in Bujalski’s film. Today’s techies are more likely to drive Porsche 918 Spyder-hybrids, date swimsuit models, or eat granola parfait at Palo Alto’s University Cafe.

    What a difference 30 years makes.

    2013-11-08-ComputerChessstill.jpg

    Computer Chess is probably not the kind of movie these newer guys — and they’re still mostly guys (with all due respect to Sheryl Sandberg) — want to watch, because it doesn’t suit their current self-image. Computer Chess is like that embarrassing family album from the ’70s you keep in the attic, filled with horrid images of bad hair, braces and bell-bottom jeans — where everybody looks like they just stepped off the set of The Hardy Boys. It’s the kind of thing your relatives pull out during the holidays to keep you humble.

    And this is actually why Silicon Valley’s geek aristocracy — and you know who you are – should embrace this film, because it does something vital: it humanizes them, at a time when a lot of us feel that what they’re doing to our society is, well, inhuman. Reading about the NSA and Healthcare.gov these days is depressing enough, but it’s even worse after years of reading about how companies like Google and Facebook have been undermining our basic sense of privacy, which is the delicate foundation of our freedom.

    By the way, Computer Chess actually hints — in a sly, fun way — that the Cal Tech team’s fictional TSAR chess program might be the forerunner of dystopian supermachines of the future, like Skynet from the Terminator films. But the movie is pretty gentle and non-conspiratorial about these things. It could get much worse.

    For example, Computer Chess could’ve more been more hard-edged, like Panos Cosmatos’ dystopian cult thriller Beyond the Black Rainbow, released here in the U.S. in 2012. Similarly set in the early 1980s, Black Rainbow depicts a young woman’s escape from a controlling, futuristic New Age research institute. The film’s high-tech ‘Arboria Institute’ — led by a psychotic, permanently disfigured scientist — harbors pretentions of harnessing technology in the achievement of higher spirituality. (By the way, the ‘Arboria Institute’ could easily have been the forerunner to the sinister, New Agey internet company ‘The Circle’ from Dave Eggers’ new novel of the same name.) Black Rainbow‘s Dr. Barry Nyle — along with his mentor, Dr. Mercurio Arboria – represents the dark side of the early ’80s tech and self-actualization gurus depicted comedically in Computer Chess.

    Of course, even Black Rainbow doesn’t compare to a film recently unearthed by Criterion: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 sci-fi classic World on a Wire, which originally aired on German television as a two-part miniseries. In World on a Wire (based on American author Daniel F. Galouye’s novel Simulacron-3), an ‘Institute for Cybernetics and Future Research’ develops a computer simulation program featuring an artificial world — based on the real one — with over 9,000 avatars living as human beings, unaware that their world is only a simulation subject to manipulation. The purpose of the simulation? Advanced market research, of course. Things get dicey when the movie’s hero, Dr. Fred Stiller (actor Klaus Löwitsch), begins to suspect that this simulation may actually have multiple layers — and that he himself might be one such avatar.

    Such dark visions suggest the will-to-power, the urge to control and manipulate, that many people now associate — with good reason — with a fully computerized society (what Neil Postman back in 1992 called a ‘technopoly‘). Whether that society is controlled by unseen government bureaucracies or huge and indifferent corporations hardly seems to matter anymore.

    So the honeymoon is now over. Computers just aren’t that cool any more — mainly because of all the precious things in our lives that they’re destroying. That’s why a lot of us are now looking at the fine print when we buy in to the latest gadget or app, as we ask ourselves this basic question: as shiny and empowering as this new piece of digital technology is, what is it going to destroy that I don’t know about?

    All of this stuff seemed a lot more innocent back in 1980, when Computer Chess is set. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Computer Chess is basically about the race to create a machine that can outperform and (thereby replace) a human being. Back in 1980, that premise just seemed a lot funnier and more charming than it does right now.

    Right now computers just don’t know their place.

  • Schildi, Abandoned And Disabled Tortoise, Gets Lego Wheel Prosthetic Leg (PHOTO, VIDEO)
    When an abandoned tortoise called Schildi lost his leg, most likely from an accident, he had trouble adapting to his new prosthetic. The artificial leg given to him by his German rescuers had a double-wheel structure that made it difficult to turn corners, according the Local. But one of his veterinarians found a positively charming solution — he fitted Schildi with a single Lego wheel leg.

    Story continues below.
    tortoise amputee

    Dr. Panagiotis Azmanis, of a veterinary called Bird Consulting International, came up with the idea, and found the Lego piece after raiding a co-worker’s daughter’s toy box, according to Bild.de.

    Now, with his new Lego leg, Schildi is back on the move, recovering at an animal rescue and “doing really well again.”

    “We will see him again once in a while for check-ups,” Azmanis told the Local. “If he gets a ‘flat tire’ it will be a simple matter to replace the wheel. They move around quite a lot so I’d expect to see him for a new wheel about once a year.”

    We’re dying from the cuteness.

    H/T: msnNOW

  • Angry Mom Uncovers 'Toddler Bashing' Facebook Group That Makes Fun Of 'Ugly' Babies
    A Florida mother is speaking out against a group of mean moms after uncovering a secret Facebook group apparently dedicated to “toddler bashing.”

    Melissa Antenucci, of Boca Raton, told ABC-affiliate WPBF 25 News that she was horrified when she accidentally found the Facebook group online. She said the group comprised mothers who were secretly taking photos of children from other Facebook accounts before re-posting them online and making fun of the kids.

    “It’s horrible,” Antenucci said. “The things that these mothers said were the most horrific things I have ever seen, being a mom and knowing that they are moms.”

    Antenucci says that many of the group’s targets were children with disabilities. Toddlers that were dubbed “ugly” were also subject to ridicule.

    Describing some of the group’s Facebook posts, Fox 10 News wrote:

    Under one photo of a baby, a woman wrote, “It’s hideous.” Another woman commented, “You can absolutely not fix ugly.” Another wrote, “An ugly baby thread.. I have died and gone to heaven. Why can’t you guys live near me so we can do this over cocktails?”

    A mom named Ellen Veach, who says her 2-year-old daughter was a victim of this online bullying, told Fox 10 News that she was shocked when she saw her child’s photo being ridiculed by strangers.

    “So I’m posting pictures of my [kids], just naively posting it up there so my friends can see, not realizing there’s a group that takes these pictures and targets these children and makes fun of them. Like that’s just something I wouldn’t even think a mother or grown woman would do,” she said.

    News of the group has prompted worldwide outrage, with The Stir’s Nicole Fabian-Weber calling the practice “disgusting.”

    Internet cruelty rarely comes as a shock these days, because sadly, it’s so pervasive. But making fun of random babies and toddlers — the most innocent people there are — truly takes things to a new low and just makes me, personally, sad about humanity. Imagine finding your kid’s photo up on a website with a string of comments underneath it from strangers, talking about how ugly they are. It’s disgusting.

    The “toddler bashing” page has reportedly been taken down, and many of the moms associated with the page are said to have disabled their Facebook accounts. However, some moms involved with the group have defended themselves, citing freedom of speech.

    “This is Facebook, not the Salem witch hunt,” one woman wrote on Facebook, according to WPBF. “This is a free country and I was laughing because it was funny… Thanks for your comments, next.”

  • WATCH Captain Disillusion Debunk The Viral Ping Pong Knife Act
    Here’s where this ping pong video went wrong.

    Last month, Tumba Ping Pong Show released a particularly impressive video that showcased their ping pong knife act with Miss Ping.

    The video attracted as much skepticism as attention, because the death-defying stunts look too sharp to be real.

    Luckily, Captain Disillusion is here to put an end to the head-scratching. Watch him give a play-by-play commentary outlining how each trick might have been accomplished with some simple sleight of hand and digital erasing.

    We’re sorry to ruin the magic, but we still have mad respect for the crafty skills of Miss Ping, Slightly Mad Max and DJ Coolman.

    [H/t Tastefully Offensive]

  • Is Online Learning Transforming Education?
    “Brick and mortar schools will still exist, and the overwhelming majority of children will attend them, but the schools will be center of individualized learning, with engaging interactive content rather than a series of chalk-and-textbook, grade-delineated classrooms. At high school and potentially middle school, each child will have a computer to work at his or her own pace in customized programs; technology will deliver it to them in ways best suited to their individual needs and strengths.”

    Is this scenario science fiction? Can this type of set up ever happen? And if it did, would it even improve quality? What then would be the role of our teachers in managing these disruptive changes?

    Ron Packard addresses these important questions in his recent book Education Transformation. In particular, he highlights the specific ways in which technology can provide meaningful educational alternatives, especially for lower-income students in communities with struggling schools.

    While Packard writes about the US, his arguments also hold true in Latin America. As he said to me in a recent interview, “In South America, online education could leapfrog brick-and-mortar schools in many remote places where building infrastructure is more expensive.”

    Indeed, expanded online education could help thousands of schools in the region where children of different ages often study together due to lack of teachers and other resources. The personalization of content that it allows could make a big difference in allowing each student to progress at his or her level, and it can be distributed at a low marginal cost. This can impact the students who drop out of school, the athlete that can’t make regular school hours, the bored but gifted child, and the kids with special needs of all types. They can all study – and advance – at their own rhythm.

    Nor is the use of such technologies foreign to this generation. “Kids in even the poorest countries have smart phones now,” as Packard argues. “The US has long been ahead but I think that’s changing pretty rapidly.”

    But while education is one of the largest sectors of Latin America’s economies, these technologies haven’t yet had the impact one might expect. As with health care and other public services, education lags behind sectors like manufacturing, services, and consumer goods in adapting to and taking advantage of the productivity gains and disruptive effects of the “knowledge society”.

    It is ironic — and troubling — that those technological advances haven’t permeated the one sector that is most crucial to preparing our citizens for the challenges and opportunities of this knowledge society.

    As Packard says, “Schools have not adequately incorporated the advances in how technology can deliver information, communicate, respond and shape learning. The ineffective use of technology has left education behind in the enormous productivity gains the economy has achieved over the past twenty to twenty five years.”

    But Packard offers more than an analysis of the problem — for over a decade he has been successfully implementing his ideas in the real world as CEO and founder of K12, the largest online education provider in the US. Founded in 1999, K12 has worked with more than 2,000 school districts, and is used by students in all 50 US states and 70 countries. The company has poured more than $320 million into its curriculums and programs. Despite at times heavy criticism from political opponents as well as some investors, Packard has persisted, proving that a for-profit company can apply innovation to education.

    Nor is he a stranger to Latin America, having lived three years in Chile, and having traveled to almost every country in the region. K12 serves thousands of students in Latin American schools, which utilize its programs to complement their curriculums. He foresees an expanding role for online education in the region.

    And the Chilean entrepreneur Carlos Ortiz, a pioneer in education technology and founder of KalaKai, agrees with him. Ortiz says that “technology is changing how we teach. The biggest opportunity it gives us is to recognize the diversity of learning styles, and put the student back at the center of teaching and learning. In this sense, technology is a catalyst for the democratization of education.”

    A number of other innovators, both from the non-profit and the for-profit sectors, agree with this vision and are offering new models of education to students and teachers in Latin America. There is Educabilia, Educatina, and many other online services offering content for students and parents. Mexico’s Carlos Slim Foundation, for example, has partnered with the online Khan Academy to provide its content in Spanish.

    All of this has led Packard to the conclusion that “Our school system won’t work the way it should until we can offer different choice so that a child can find the education that is right for them.” In this light, online education is just one more option to be considered among many. While it may not be the best for everyone, it is clear that the “one-size-fits-all” approach that currently predominates is no longer an option if we want our children to be prepared for the 21st century.

  • Wikipedia Entries On Professors Mean Nothing, Study Finds
    Just because your professor has a Wikipedia entry doesn’t mean they’re special.

    A new study from Anna Samoilenko and Taha Yasseri at the University of Oxford shows that Wikipedia entries or citations attributed to researchers and professors does not indicate that they are more prominent scholars.

    “Our findings suggest that the inspection of Wikipedia is not useful in finding highly cited researchers,” Samoilenko and Yasseri wrote.

    The study, submitted on Oct. 31, looked at 400 biographical Wikipedia entries in four disciplines and concluded prominent researchers in a field were not more likely to be cited on Wikipedia than less influential sources.

    “Wikipedia metrics of the articles about the prominent researchers … were not statistically larger than the same metrics from the less cited subset,” the study said.

    The only thing Wikipedia references are good for, the study found, is measuring social impact or public engagement of a scientist.

    Why does this matter? Because Wikipedia is read by so many people.

    Despite Wikipedia inconsistency with the traditional view of scientific c impact, its content is highly visible and virtually unavoidable. The encyclopedia is making its way into society, playing a role in forming public image on a variety of issues, not excluding science; and this rise of Wikipedia is di fficult to ignore. As its articles are being actively edited and viewed, individual scientists, their fi elds, and entire academic institutions, can be easily aff ected by the way they are represented in this important online medium.

    In addition, the study noted that three percent of scholars edited their own Wikipedia entry and a quarter check in their own references on the site.

    [h/t The Atlantic]

  • YouTube Founder Says What We're All Thinking About Google+
    Stop trying to make Google+ happen. It’s not going to happen.

    Google’s perpetual insistence upon shoving its social network down everyone’s throats has finally reached a boiling point. YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim came out of the woodwork to post his first comment in eight years on the video-sharing site he helped create, bashing Google. In 2006, he and his two fellow co-founders sold YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion.

    youtube founder google
    Screenshot via Mashable’s Todd Olmstead

    Karim is reacting specifically to Google’s integration of YouTube comments with Google+, a change made on Thursday. You now must have a Google+ account in order to comment on a YouTube video. Google argues that the new system will streamline the commenting system and lower the high number of inflammatory and offensive comments on the site.

    Reining in YouTube trolls, among the worst on the Internet, is a worthy goal. The problem is: A lot of people don’t like Google+, and are mad that they are being forced to create Google+ accounts in order to participate on YouTube.

    Popular YouTuber Cr1TiKaL created this video, calling the new system “soggy dog sh*t”:

    Cr1TiKaL isn’t the only one taking the news poorly. YouTuber Snazzapplesweet also made a video called “Dear Google,” which made its anti-Google+ message clear:

    As the video so eloquently puts it:

    youtube founder google

    Seriously.

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