Friday, August 31, 2012

Control Computers With Plants? Disney Magic Makes It Happen

Control Computers With Plants? Disney Magic Makes It Happen:

Will you control your computer in the future by touching a plant? Perhaps not, but the possibilities of new kinds of gesture control are intriguing.
What if anything — a surface, a plant, or even parts of your own body — could become a touch interface that controls a computer? That’s what the Disney Human-Computer Interaction Research Team has been trying to make into a reality for the last few years. The group has been working out unique ways to interact with objects, whether developing circuits to provide tactile feedback or broadening the kinds of experiences that touch interactions can make possible.
At this year’s SIGGRAPH, the 39th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, the group unveiled their recent project named ‘Botanicus Interacticus‘, which allows touch and gesture control using plants. This noninvasive fusion of living plants and computers is more than just a novelty, as it opens the door to a much richer interactivity with physical environments that could incorporate music and art in new creative experiences.
Watch the demo video to see how ‘Disney magic’ can transform plants into new interactive devices:
Noting the “increasingly tactile and gestural nature of our interactions with  digital devices,” the project asks a simple question: “What if…a broad variety of objects in living, social and working spaces become aware and responsive to human presence, touch and gesture?” Ivan Poupyrev, the Senior Research Scientist at Disney, told Fast Company that he decided to turn the plants into a sensor because he thought “it should be as far away from a man-made object as possible…I thought a plant would be more surprising. It was, as a matter of fact.”
Though it may seem like you’d need to genetically alter plants to make them gesture sensitive, use motion-sensing cameras, or embed each plant with an Arduino board, the hardware is much simpler: an wire placed in the soil. The software uses machine-learning techniques to map the gestures to certain commands. Interestingly, the developers note that “for each type of plant certain gestures are more natural then  others, e.g.  an orchid invites users to slide fingers along it’s stem, while a gardenia suggests unstructured, playful interaction.”
In nature, plants rarely demonstrate observable responses to human interactions, with a notable exception being the Mimosa pudica whose leaves fold when touched. That the group’s minimally-intrusive method could extend the interactions that people can have with plants promises a world of possibilities.
At the conference, the Disney group set up an exhibit to show how this gesture detection could be used to create interactive animations as well as responsive environments and interfaces. This short video shows the potential theremin-like interactivity that’s made possible:
Botanicus Interacticus is an extension of the Touché project, which uses the swept frequency capacitive sensing technique that Disney Research announced last May. Disney has also been experimenting with artificial tactile technology that provides users dynamic sensory information with almost any surface or object. This latest project demonstrates that developers are only scratching the surface of what touch interfaces are going to be like in the coming years.
Whether the thought of imbuing a plant with touch sensitivity sounds trivial, morally mirky, or the stuff of nightmares, it’s a pretty cool and simple execution that could make for incredibly creative applications.
[Sources: Disney Research, Fast Company]

A Scientific Revolution Driven by Meditation?

A Scientific Revolution Driven by Meditation?:

Picture: Tevaprapas Makklay (CC)
Most of us probably assume that scientists have little time for the mysteries of Eastern spirituality and meditation. And until just a few years ago that assumption might well have been true. But in recent years the emerging field of contemplative science has been having a real effect on the perception of meditation in the scientific community, a shift that might be the start of a new scientific revolution.
David Vargo is an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, and has held the position of Senior Research Coordinator for the Mind and Life Institute, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to fostering dialogue and research at the highest possible level between modern science and the great contemplative traditions. In this episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast he gives a cogent overview of the state of scientific research in to meditation.
Buddhist Geeks Episode 262 : The Emerging Science of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness is the concept that science is taking seriously. Whereas meditation is often perceived as a means of relaxing, or bringing obout altered states of consciousness, mindfulness is simply about paying full attention to the present moment. And most importantly, being aware of your own thoughts as they arise. Sounds easy, right? Sounds like you do it all the time? Not according to mindfulness practitioner  Jon Kabat Zin, whose teaching on the subject points out how much time most people spend lost in their own thoughts, fantasies and delusions.
Jon Kabat Zin talks about mindfulness as a way of ‘tuning the mind’. We tune instruments before playing a concert, and we train our bodies before running a marathon. So why don’t we think more about tuning and training our mind, by paying more attention to our own thoughts? This is the idea that scientists like David Vargo are now applying across disciplines including psychology and medicine, but also less obviously connected areas like physics, business and even sports. We live in a world of technology and science, but our minds are still stuck in the stone age. Is mindfulness the key to upgrading our own psychological firmware?
Damien Walter is a writer of weird stories, columnist for The Guardian and teacher of writing. You can find him on @damiengwalter or

The True Story Of Mitt Romney At Bain Capital

The True Story Of Mitt Romney At Bain Capital:
Via Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi explains how what Bain does to the companies it takes over pretty much mirrors what Romney has in mind for America:
In Romney’s version of the tale, Bain Capital – which evolved into what is today known as a private equity firm – specialized in turning around moribund companies (Romney even wrote a book called Turnaround that complements his other nauseatingly self-complimentary book, No Apology) and helped create the Staples office-supply chain.
The reality is that toward the middle of his career at Bain, Romney made a fateful strategic decision: He moved away from creating companies like Staples through venture capital schemes, and toward a business model that involved borrowing huge sums of money to take over existing firms, then extracting value from them by force.
Here’s how Romney would go about “liberating” a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent. When an LBO is done without the consent of the target, it’s called a hostile takeover; such thrilling acts of corporate piracy were made legend in the Eighties, most notably the 1988 attack by notorious corporate raiders Kohlberg Kravis Roberts against RJR Nabisco, a deal memorialized in the book Barbarians at the Gate.
Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company’s management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.
But here’s the catch. When Bain borrows all of that money from the bank, it’s the target company that ends up on the hook for all of the debt.
Now your troubled firm – let’s say you make tricycles in Alabama – has been taken over by a bunch of slick Wall Street dudes who kicked in as little as five percent as a down payment. So in addition to whatever problems you had before, Tricycle Inc. now owes Goldman or Citigroup $350 million. With all that new debt service to pay, the company’s bottom line is suddenly untenable: You almost have to start firing people immediately just to get your costs down to a manageable level.
Fortunately, the geniuses at Bain who now run the place are there to help tell you whom to fire. And for the service it performs cutting your company’s costs to help you pay off the massive debt that it, Bain, saddled your company with in the first place, Bain naturally charges a management fee, typically millions of dollars a year. So Tricycle Inc. now has two gigantic new burdens it never had before Bain Capital stepped into the picture: tens of millions in annual debt service, and millions more in “management fees.” Since the initial acquisition of Tricycle Inc. was probably greased by promising the company’s upper management lucrative bonuses, all that pain inevitably comes out of just one place: the benefits and payroll of the hourly workforce.
Once all that debt is added, one of two things can happen. The company can fire workers and slash benefits to pay off all its new obligations to Goldman Sachs and Bain, leaving it ripe to be resold by Bain at a huge profit. Or it can go bankrupt – this happens after about seven percent of all private equity buyouts – leaving behind one or more shuttered factory towns. Either way, Bain wins. By power-sucking cash value from even the most rapidly dying firms, private equity raiders like Bain almost always get their cash out before a target goes belly up.

People Seem Surprised Yet Again that David Koch Believes Libertarian Things

People Seem Surprised Yet Again that David Koch Believes Libertarian Things:
Red meat to the right. Red cape to the left.Politico took note
that billionaire political bankroller David Koch – a
New York delegate at the GOP convention – still believes
libertarian things even while steering money toward GOP candidates
who might not feel the same:
The 1980 vice presidential nominee for the socially liberal —
but fiscally conservative — Libertarian Party, Koch told POLITICO
“I believe in gay marriage” when asked about the GOP’s stance on
gay rights.
Romney opposes gay marriage, as do most Republicans, and when
that was pointed out to Koch, he said “Well, I disagree with
Koch said he thinks the U.S. military should withdraw from the
Middle East and said the government should consider defense
spending cuts, as well as possible tax increases to get its fiscal
house in order — a stance anathema to many in the Republican
I shrugged when I saw the story yesterday, thinking this
revelation is certainly not new – his view on gay marriage is in
the guy’s Wikipedia entry
(though I didn’t know his attitude about tax increases).  But
today I’ve noticed the story bouncing around the gay blogosphere
with typical comments from people who think he's lying or ask why
he’s not using his money to support the fight for marriage
Koch is notably on the board for the Reason Foundation (which
publishes this site and Reason magazine) and lately rather
infamously on the board for the Cato Institute. Both Reason and
Cato have published a significant number of
and arguments positive of
government recognition for gay marriage (while getting government
out of marriage entirely is preferable, it’s not likely). Ted
Olson, one of the attorneys who represented the American Foundation
for Equal Rights’ lawsuit to overturn California’s Proposition 8 gay marriage ban, also
happens to be the counsel for Koch Industries (and a board member
at Cato).
Clearly – and unfortunately – the anti-gay elements of the GOP

won the day
when writing the Republican Party’s platform for
2012. But while their talking heads were extremely disciplined at
staying on message in front of the cameras, we know just from the
way the
Ron Paul delegates
were treated, that the Grand Old Party is
not in the lockstep the left thinks it is.

Social TV becoming a hit #GETGLUE

Social TV becoming a hit:
Social TV, or the use of social media while watching television, is becoming a mass-market phenomenon, according to a study by Ericsson ConsumerLab.
The survey’s data were collected from various countries including the UK, US, South Korea, and China. In total, 12,000 quantitative and 14 qualitative online interviews were conducted, representing over 460 million consumers.
ConsumerLab’s study revealed that the number of people using social media while watching television rose by 18 percentage points to 62 percent in one year. Only 58 percent of men engage in this kind of behaviour compared to 66 percent of women.
Moreover, 25 percent of the respondents ...

The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs - Smithsonian (blog)

The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs - Smithsonian (blog):

The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs
Smithsonian (blog)
As part of yesterday's showings at the Republican National Convention, famed actor and director Clint Eastwood startled and amused viewers by mock-debating an empty chair, meant to represent President Obama. Many who saw the scene thought it to be ...

and more »

O.C. biotech firm Oxygen Biotherapeutics moves to North Carolina

O.C. biotech firm Oxygen Biotherapeutics moves to North Carolina: Oxygen Biotherapeutics Inc. has relocated its headquarters and research facilities from Costa Mesa to North Carolina, laying off three Orange County employees, the company said this week.
The company is developing products to improve delivery of...

Earthquake off Philippines triggers tsunami warning

Earthquake off Philippines triggers tsunami warning:
Residents flee coastal areas after 7.6-magnitude quake hits 66 miles east of Philippines
A 7.6-magnitude undersea earthquake has struck off the eastern coast of the Philippines, destroying roads and bridges, sending people fleeing to higher ground and triggering tsunami warnings across the region.
The quake hit at a depth of 21.7 miles (34.9km) and was centred 66 miles (106km) east of Samar Island, the US Geological Survey said.
"People are fleeing to higher ground," the Samar congressman Ben Evardone told local radio.
A disaster agency official said residents in the area should get to higher ground immediately.
"Strong earthquake here in Taft, Eastern Samar! And it lasted very long too!" Evardone said by text message earlier. He said the quake had destroyed some roads and bridges.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
A radio reporter in Leyte province, near Samar, said people had run out of their homes when the quake struck. "It felt like we were being rocked," he said.
A tsunami alert was originally issued for several countries including Japan and for Pacific islands as far away as the Northern Marianas, but most of them were soon lifted, leaving warnings only for the Philippines, Indonesia and Palau, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said.
"My neighbours and I have evacuated. We are now on our way to the mountains," a fisherman, Marlon Lagramado, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview from the coastal town of Guiwan in Eastern Samar.
The head of the Philippine seismology agency, Renato Solidum, said residents living along the coastline of eastern Samar Island had been advised to evacuate to high ground in case of a tsunami.
A local radio station reported one house had collapsed in southern Cagayan de Oro city and there was no electricity in several other towns and cities across the central and southern Philippines. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

My Robot Helper of Tomorrow

My Robot Helper of Tomorrow:

The helper robot brings the child of the future something to drink in bed (1981)
When I was a kid growing up in the late 1980s and early ’90s there were only two things that I was certain of when it came to my future: I was going to grow up to be an animator for Disney, and I was going to have a robot.
Sadly, my drawing skills peaked around the age of 10 and I still don’t have a robot.
The 1980s saw a steady rise in the use of industrial robots (especially in Japan) which led people to believe that domestic robots were indeed just around the corner. We’ve already looked at two different restaurants of the mid-1980s — one in Southern California, the other in Tokyo — that did their best to make robot waiters a reality. But it was the household robot servant of the future that was promised to every kid who ever saw Rosey zipping around on The Jetsons.
The 1981 children’s book Tomorrow’s Home by Neil Ardley included some illustrations of what those robots might look like. Above we have a picture of the child’s bedroom of the future.
Soon another day dawns and it’s time to get up. If there’s no one to rouse you, then you will have told the home computer to wake you at a certain hour. It draws the curtains back, talks to you, plays some music or starts the radio — however you like to start the day. Or maybe you don’t need to get up early today, so you’ve asked the computer to await your instructions on waking. Once you’re awake, you may not feel like getting up right away. You can summon one of the household’s electronic servants, and instruct it to bring you breakfast in bed, or perhaps to put out a particular set of clothes for you. Then you can ask the computer to display the day’s news and any mail it has received for you. But you can’t stay in bed all day, so it’s off to the bathroom before dressing. Here you may get into a special machine that will wash and tone up your body to clean and refresh you totally for the day that lies ahead.

Robot helps pour breakfast in the future (1981)
If you’d prefer to go all the way to the kitchen for breakfast, you’ll still find a helpful robot serving up your cereal. Though it looks like you have to dispense your own milk. Forget flying cars and jetpacks, where’s my milk robot!?!

Robot Vs. Human: Drum Cover Of Classic Punk Hit By The Ramones

Robot Vs. Human: Drum Cover Of Classic Punk Hit By The Ramones:

George Lucas was right...four-armed robots are totally punk!
Looking like the twin brother of Star Wars villain General Grievous but sporting a mohawk, this four-armed, drum-playing robot mysteriously showed up on YouTube a few days ago with little information provided, but all the potential for going viral. Though the bot could have performed a drum cover of a variety of old school ditties, it’s been programmed to embrace its inner rebel by covering The Ramone’s Blitzkrieg Bop.
Now, automated drumming was first achieved with electronic drum machines, which have been commercially available for over 50 years. But having a robot play real drums is altogether different as it captures the action and attitude that makes drummers rock stars as well as sounding authentic.
So perhaps this can serve as a gauge of where robotics technology is at by asking the question, who can perform a drum cover of punk classic better: a robot or a human?
To answer this, watch the following video (courtesy of lichenthrope) as the head-banging bot tries to channel drummer Tommy Ramone:
Surprisingly, this robot is not new. In fact, two videos of the bot were posted on YouTube (here and here) from the same performance at Glastonbury 2008, which also profiled two robot pole dancers. Since then, the origins of this bot remain murky (anyone know? comment below).
Now, here’s the second video performed by a biological organism with two arms fewer and a smaller drum kit:
I’m not a trained musician, but the human drummer seems to play the song tighter and have a better feel for the musical style. Adje1960, who uploaded the video to YouTube as part of a collaboration, is probably also comfortable playing with other human musicians. I’m guessing the robot drummer is a solo player.
CHALLENGE: Drum cover of a punk classic

Yet, it’s a short-lived victory. Other similar robot drummers have been in the works for years (such as Steve and P.E.A.R.T.). Look to the future of music and you will see that robots and artificial intelligence are all up in its business. On the robot side, Toyota has been developing Partner Robots to accompany human musicians and the German company Festo recently announced the development of a robotic quintet that can compose music and then perform it, just to name a few examples. Artificial intelligence is also poised to take over the music world with apps like Shazam that can identify any song by just a portion of the tune and algorithms that can predict whether a song with be wildly popular or not.
Will robot performers be the mainstay of bands some time in the future? A magic eight ball would probably read “All signs point to yes!” But like many activities in the Robot Vs. Human realm, humans still derive great pleasure from doing things that robots can do. Otherwise, wouldn’t drum machines be the standard instead of the exception?

It’s Time To Build A Space Elevator, Says LiftPort Group In Successful Kickstarter Campaign

It’s Time To Build A Space Elevator, Says LiftPort Group In Successful Kickstarter Campaign:

Liftport is turning to Kickstarter to gather a community excited about building a space elevator.
Building a tower into the Heavens is a prospect that is likely as old as human civilization itself, and for the last 50 years or so, scientists have proposed that the best way to realize the idea is to construct a space elevator. NASA scientists put together plans for such a tower in 2000, but those efforts have been toppled by funding cuts. Now, a once abandoned group of companies aiming to build the first space elevator has reformed and recommitted to the dream with a campaign on Kickstarter. The LiftPort Group launched the project in mid August with a $8,000 goal and had raised over $40,000 just past the halfway point.
For all the excitement about undertaking such an endeavor, the group’s Kickstarter pitch speculates that a functional Earth Space Elevator is “a long way off. Perhaps 20-25 years. Before that happens there are some vital interim steps.”
One step that is a significant change since LiftPort initially conceived of the project is to build the first space elevator not on Earth, but on the Moon. Citing that “several more breakthroughs” are required to build an elevator for Earth, the group says a Lunar elevator can be built with existing technology in about 8 years and serve as a precursor to building the Earth elevator. To accomplish this, a one-year feasibility study for building the infrastructure needs to be conducted that is estimated to cost $3 million, which is just a fraction of the estimated $800 million to $1.5 billion cost for a completed Lunar elevator with a payload of 40-240 kg, according to a podcast form the spring.
Additionally, a precursor to the Lunar elevator will initially be attempted, called the Tethered Towers. Based on the group’s previous work using a ribbon as a tower, the plan is to design a robot capable of climbing 2 km or higher and building a tethered test platform suspended by high-altitude balloons. The previous LiftPort team accomplished a similar feat in 2006 when they had a robot climb 1.5 km up, but Michael Laine, President of LiftPort, stated in the Kickstarter description that the current team consists of a lot of new blood and needs a reachable milestone to fuse as an organization.
If the first tower is a success, the team will set out to tether a 3-5 km tower, which will present its own challenges because of the colder temperatures encountered at those altitudes.
You may be wondering, why a space elevator instead of just using good old rockets? Rockets require propulsion for lift, which is provided by the burning of fuel. Because of the total mass of a rocket and the speed required to overcome air friction and Earth’s gravity, it take an enormous amount of chemical energy to be released and hence, massive quantities of fuel. That just isn’t feasible for getting lots of equipment or people of this rock. A space elevator, on the other hand, provides a mechanical or even an electromagnetic means for ascending into orbit. This could not only be a safer and cheaper way to launch satellites, probes, and spacecraft into orbit, it could also be a very successful way for humans to pass to and from a tethered spaceport with ease.
Back in 2003 when the LiftPort Group got its start, a roadmap toward a Earth space elevator was within reach. Carbon nanotube research suggested that it would be possible to create long durable tubes that could stretch into space from Earth. Though growing long carbon nanotubes proved to be more challenging than first anticipated, the LiftPort 1.0 team had early successes on another front: making a climbing robot. With the sky the limit, the group marched into 2007 with 60 university partners and hundreds of volunteers when the economy started to slip. Additionally, the company was hit by financial problems and legal difficulties with the State of Washington. The company closed and the team dispersed.
Check out this 2007 NOVA scienceNOW piece on space elevators featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Laine believes now is the time to bring the space elevator project back and has put together LiftPort 2.0 to do it.
However, $8,000 isn’t much of a goal to fund the R&D for a prototype, so what’s this Kickstarter really all about? As the description makes clear, “The goal of this Kickstarter event is to rebuild our community.” The collapse of LiftPort as a company also meant that the community of enthusiasts, advocates, and investors dispersed, pursuing other opportunities and laying the space elevator dream to rest. Resurrecting that community could be accomplished through a variety of strategies, including traditional or social media, but Kickstarter has proven to be the best boostrapping force around for getting affinity groups assembled, excited, and vested in a very short period of time. And, of course, media outlets are swimming in the wake of much of what’s happening on crowdfunding sites (guilty!).
Whether Laine can accomplish this goal is still up for debate. Though the LiftPort website is touted as being a place to find lots of information about where the company is headed, it has an incredibly dated design and has minimal content describing the latest efforts. According to his biography page, Laine is also in the middle of an MBA program, which may just be the business savvy to complement his decade of space elevator research.
Regardless, his passion for the project is evident and that may be why over 1,300 backers have contributed to its funding.
In 1979, a novel called The Fountains Of Paradise was released by Arthur C. Clarke, which was based on an Air Force report envisioning how an actual space elevator could be made. That novel has served as inspiration for over 30 years. While many ideas from science fiction may have been deemed impossible or the stuff of fantasy, Clarke’s vision of a space elevator continues to draw in the imagination of many. It’s that same community of dreamers that LiftPort is hoping to draw together in this Kickstarter project, so that one of the oldest aspirations of humanity can be realized.

The Crunch: “It’s Going to Happen In the Next Administration; Regardless of Who Wins This Election”

The Crunch: “It’s Going to Happen In the Next Administration; Regardless of Who Wins This Election”:
Our incumbent President says that things are getting better, jobs are being created, and America is on the road to recovery. His opponent, Governor Mitt Romney, says the opposite, but claims he has a plan that will turn things around and bring prosperity back.
According to free market proponent Peter Schiff, it doesn’t matter who wins, because the crunch is coming – and it’s going to become apparent during the next President’s administration.
He [Mitt Romney] is not going to prevent the crisis.
We’re headed for a real economic collapse regardless of who wins this election.

The government has over-promised. There are gigantic Ponzi schemes. They do not work.
Meanwhile, the only reason the economy has not collapsed is because interest rates are artificially low. the Fed cannot keep interest rates low indefinitely, and when interest rates go up the party is over. And then we’re not going to have a choice anymore.
We’re going to have to finally deal with these problems or destroy our currency, and that is a real economic crisis that is going to make 2008 look like a walk in the park.
[The crunch] is going to happen in the next administration.

We can’t fix these problems by repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. We have structural problems that underline the U.S. economy that are very deep that require real free market reforms, and unfortunately none of the major candidates are even talking about that right now.
Peter Schiff was ahead of the collapse of 2008, warning clients of his firm Euro Pacific Capital that global equities would crash as a result of fraud, unservicable debt levels and a failed monetary policy. After the crash he, like many others, urged Congress to address the fundamental problems within the US economy, including fiscal, monetary and economic policy reform.
He and the American citizenry were ignored as Washington not only didn’t listen, but engaged in exactly the opposite of what should have been done.
Four years on we’re worse off than ever before, with more money having been borrowed from foreign creditors and stolen by the government from taxpayers under the guise of bailing out essential financial and manufacturing sectors of the global economy.
We’re in too deep folks. At this point, it cannot be stopped.
Trillions of dollars are owed, and as a country we have no way to make good on that debt.
Confidence in the US dollar will soon be lost, and when that happens we will experience a collapse in the United States and the global economy unlike any that has ever been witnessed in the history of the world.
Historians will write about this era for centuries to come, just as they write of Rome today.

By Diana Guido – In Madrid, Spain

By Diana Guido – In Madrid, Spain:

On Facebook. By Sfhir Ogt Lcsiete. Photo by Diana Guido in Barrio Arganzuela, calle de la Batalla del Belchite, Madrid, Spain.

IEMA seeks volunteers for radiation emergencies

IEMA seeks volunteers for radiation emergencies: SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The Illinois Emergency Management Agency is looking for a few good volunteers - in case of a radiation accident near one of the state's six nuclear power plants. The agency says it will create a pool of volunteers trained to help ...
See all stories on this topic »

Supermarkets Begin Charging Different Prices To Different People

Supermarkets Begin Charging Different Prices To Different People:
Standardized price tags may soon be supplanted by personalized ones. Wealthy, high-spending shoppers will likely be courted by receiving the best prices, while the poor will be charged more for the same goods. Dystopia reportage from the New York Times:
Going to the grocery store is becoming a lot less egalitarian. At a Safeway in Denver, a 24-pack of Refreshe bottled water costs $2.71 for Jennie Sanford, a project manager. For Emily Vanek, a blogger, the price is $3.69.
The difference? The vast shopping data Safeway maintains on both women through its loyalty card program. Ms. Sanford has a history of buying Refreshe brand products, but not its bottled water, while Ms. Vanek, a Smartwater partisan, said she was unlikely to try Refreshe.
So Ms. Sanford gets the nudge to put another Refreshe product into her grocery cart, with the hope that she will keep buying it, and increase the company’s sales of bottled water. A Safeway Web site shows her the lower price, which is applied when she swipes her loyalty card at checkout.
The pricing model is expected to extend to other grocery chains — and over time could displace standardized price tags.

Cahokia: The First City In North America

Cahokia: The First City In North America:
While Europe was embroiled in the the Dark Ages, bustling Cahokia featured architectural marvels, and residents sipped a black coffee-like beverage and played a game similar to bocce ball. Via Live Science:
Cahokia was a city that, at its peak from 1050-1200 A.D., was larger than many European cities, including London. Located across the Mississippi River from modern-day St. Louis, it was the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. The inhabitants of Cahokia did not use a writing system, and researchers today rely heavily on archaeology to interpret it.
Cultural finds from the city include evidence of a popular game called “Chunkey” and a caffeine loaded drink. Artistic finds include stone tablets carved with images (such as a birdman) as well as evidence of sophisticated copper working, including jewelry and headdresses.
The city fell into decline after 1200 A.D., becoming abandoned by 1400. The name “Cahokia” is from an aboriginal people that lived in the area during the 17th century. Much of the city lies buried under 19th- and 20th-century developments, including a highway and the growth of the city of St. Louis.

The Origins Of Google Earth

The Origins Of Google Earth:
Via the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman on Google and Apple’s quests to map the world in ever greater detail, and how our maps’ creators shape how we engage with the world:
[Almost a decade ago], Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had been fascinated by the zooming satellite imagery used by US news networks to report on bombing raids in Iraq. Those terrain graphics were provided by Keyhole, Inc, a software company that the CIA had helped to fund. Unlike the rest of us, Page and Brin had the wherewithal to act upon their fascination: they bought Keyhole, repackaging and releasing the firm’s software as Google Earth in 2005.
“They say they bought it because it looked cool,” says Brotton. “But my view is that they absolutely knew what they were buying. They marketed it in this touchy-feely way, as an environmental thing, and they called it ‘Earth’ – ‘Google World’ would have sounded imperialist. But they knew that what they were getting with Keyhole would be integral to the search business.”
It can be easy to assume that maps are objective: that the world is out there, and that a good map is one that represents it accurately. But that’s not true. Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways: in terms of its natural features, its weather, its socio-economic profile, or what you can buy in the shops there.
Traditionally, the interests reflected in maps have been those of states and their armies, because they were the ones who did the mapmaking, and the primary use of many such maps was military. (If you had the better maps, you stood a good chance of winning the battle.) Now, the power is shifting. “Every map,” the cartography curator Lucy Fellowes once said, “is someone’s way of getting you to look at the world his or her way.” What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California?
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives. There’s no technical reason why, perhaps in return for a cheaper phone bill, you mightn’t consent to be shown not the quickest route between two points, but the quickest route that passes at least one Starbucks. If you’re looking at the world through Google glasses, who determines which aspects of “augmented reality” data you see – and did they pay for the privilege?

Gerry Rafferty, "Baker Street"

Gerry Rafferty, "Baker Street": The first of two lasting hits from Gerry Rafferty's AOR smash City to City, "Baker Street" marries a melancholy folk rock narrative of yuppie despair with gold standard production that includes a Godzilla-sized saxophone riff and enough overdubs for twelve Supertramp albums. The lyrics about hoping to ditch the rat race came true, as constant royalty checks allowed the talented, troubled Scot to pack it in for the countryside until his premature passing in 2011. – Nick Dedina, Google Play

"Baker Street" Gerry Rafferty

Jobless generation puts brakes on US

(title unknown): The Financial Times of London Spells Out What We Are Doing To Our Young People, And It Is A Tragedy That Will Go On For A Long, Long Time!!

July 30, 2012 3:27 pm

Jobless generation puts brakes on US

By Shannon Bond in New York
Andrew Grzywacz has a university degree, a job that pays $8.50 an hour, a stack of résumés ready to be mailed – and more than $30,000 in student debt.
                                                                                           “I knew I wouldn’t land the dream job right out of college,” says the 23-year-old, who graduated from Boston’s Emerson College in December with a degree in film and television writing. “The [entertainment] industry is a tough nut to crack, more so than most fields.”

Even so, Mr Grzywacz is luckier than many his age. The share of American 18- to 24-year-olds who were employed fell to 54 per cent last year, the lowest since the labour department began tracking data in 1948, according to the Pew Research Center. The share who are in college has risen, but the researchers say this only partly explains the drop. The jobless rate for Americans age 16 to 24 is above 16 per cent, more than twice the national rate.

Youth unemployment has reached crisis levels around the world, with almost 13 per cent of the global youth labour force out of work this year, according to the International Labour Organisation.

But the problem has a unique flavour in the US, where the weak job market has collided with record levels of educational debt – about $25,000 for the average graduate. Together, they pose a threat to the future earning power of young Americans such as Mr Grzywacz – and could have long-lasting effects on US growth.

The US government has made some moves to ease the student debt burden, accelerating a programme that cuts federal loan payments for low-income borrowers and forgiving unpaid balances after 20 years instead of 25. It is also easier now for nearly 6m borrowers with more than one federal loan to consolidate their debt.
The White House has pushed other measures to make college more affordable – efforts that could appeal to young voters, who played a key role in Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. Parts of the stimulus package passed in the wake of the financial crisis expanded tax credits for tuition, and last month Congress struck a deal to prevent interest rates on some new student loans from doubling.
But some advocates say such efforts are inadequate given the scale of the problem. A Michigan congressman this year proposed forgiving debt for some graduates – the bill is unlikely to pass – and others are urging the government to offer income-based repayment plans for private loans.
Proponents of such schemes say high student loan burdens are hindering the US recovery. Studies show that recent graduates from US universities are delaying purchases of cars and homes, inhibiting near-term economic growth.

Rohit Chopra, the official responsible for student loans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, added his voice to the debate last week, telling the FT that the student debt problem was hurting the US economy. “Student debt may be more intertwined with the housing market than we realise,” he warned.
With more young people living at home, the rate of household formation – a leading driver of housing demand – is now on par with the 1940s, according to a Harvard study. Just 600,000 to 800,000 new households were formed each year from 2007-2011, compared with 1.2m to 1.3m a year in the previous four years.

Americans under 35 have lost more than a third of their net worth since 2001, compared with a 27 per cent decline for all ages, according to the Federal Reserve.

Making up that ground will be difficult for Mr Grzywacz and his peers, who are earning less in today’s depressed labour market. Median income for those under 35 dropped 10.5 per cent from 2007 to 2010 – more than any other age group – compared with a 7.7 per cent overall decline
While a university degree still promises a higher income than a high school diploma, the median income of college graduates fell nearly 10 per cent from 2007 to 2010, according to the Fed, compared with a 5 per cent fall for high school graduates.

Young Americans are well aware of their precarious place in today’s economy, with only 16 per cent in a Rutgers University survey of recent university graduates believing their generation will have greater financial success than the one before. About half of the students surveyed had full-time jobs, and 40 per cent of the college graduates with loans reported putting off big purchases such as cars and homes.

This leaves a firmer economic recovery closely tied to the fortunes of a generation gripped by high levels of debt – and falling incomes from the jobs that require the education the debt buys.

Soon, the six-month grace period on Mr Grzywacz’s loan payments will expire, stretching his budget even further.

“Having student loan repayments thrown into that now is going to make things exceedingly more difficult,” he says. “I certainly knew that I would be in debt and that it would take years to pay it off. But it’s one thing to know that, and a completely different thing when, five years later, you’re actually looking at that debt square in the face.”
Additional reporting by Jason Abbruzzese

Reading List: A selection of must-read ebooks

Reading List: A selection of must-read ebooks:

“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’” —Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866)
Yes, an ebook may feel like a very recent concept. But the idea of a print book enhanced with sound, moving images and reader interaction has been kicking around for a long time; certainly since a restless Alice mused about such additions more than 150 years ago. These days, we have plenty of great ebooks to choose from, including our own line of TED Books. Here, a few wonderful ebooks to pick up in the last few weeks of summer, for those of you who’d rather curl up with a screen.
Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis by Al Gore

Perhaps the first real ebook showstopper when it arrived last year, this startling edition is based on the print volume Al Gore wrote about climate change. (Gore has given several TEDTalks, including this one from TED2009, “Warnings on the latest climate trends.”) The ebook version is deliciously packed with more than 400 photos, illustrations and charts, many of which are interactive. A lot of money went into the creation of this book, but it shows on every page. It’s a wonderful marriage of form and content. An ebook must-have.

The Instigators: How a Small Band of Digital Activists Risked Their Lives and Helped Bring Down the Government of Egypt by David Wolman

Atavist is a small publishing house out of Brooklyn offering a full range of ebooks that — like the best long-form magazine articles from which they draw their inspiration — inform as they entertain and surprise. This piece, about how a small band of digital activists risked their lives and helped bring down the government of Egypt, is a great example of their work, although you’ll find many gems among the Atavist lineup. Full disclosure: Atavist has created the content management system that we at TED Books built our app on. A quick glance will show you why we did.
After Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinnger

The Byliner promise is that ‘we’ll find you something good to read,’ and it offers both a curated database of outstanding writing from a wide variety of publications and writers, as well as its own line of Byliner Originals. While the Byliner line contains no multimedia, they are darn good reads. Their original books are starting to skew hard toward crime stories, but we’ll go with something that will serve as a nice lead-in to the upcoming football season. In a sequel to his best-selling Friday Night Lights, his extraordinary account of high school football, Buzz Bissinger continues to track and explore his complex long-time relationship with Boobie Miles, a star running back at his Odessa, Texas, high school but whose dreams of becoming a pro football player were sidetracked by a knee injury.
After 9/11: An E-Book Anthology by the New Yorker

A heart-breaking and moving collection of New Yorker articles that gathers some of their finest writing about the 9/11 attacks over the last decade. The ebook includes the entire Talk of the Town section published just days after the attacks. It’s a raw and moving account made by imaginative writers trying to make sense of the unimaginable. Later ruminations track the later chapters of the story, including such stand-out entries as Seymour Hersh on the U.S. government’s ongoing hunt for members of Al Qaeda and Nicholas Schmidle describing the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound.
And …one more.
Michael Hart is widely considered to be the father of the modern ebook. In 1971, as a college student, Hart created the first digital book when he typed the Declaration of Independence into a computer at the University of Illinois and made it available to download. Soon he began tapping in the Bible, as well as the work of authors like William Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Project Gutenberg – his effort to create one of the largest collections of free ebooks in the world – was born. Here’s where you can find the text.

Advertising's bumpy transition (and why it matters to you)

Advertising's bumpy transition (and why it matters to you):
Advertising has been around so long, they measure the prices in Roman numerals.
CPM is a mark of how much it costs to run an ad that appears in front of 1000 people (M is for thousand). Until recently, a full page ad in a national magazine that reached two million people could easily cost $80,000 ($40 cpm times 2000 thousand). (Much of what I say below applies to TV ads as well).
I started my career buying ads for $50,000 a pop and then made the transition to selling expensive online promotions to big brands. The opportunity was clear: find an audience, make a significant profit selling ads.
When the web was young, marketers like Yahoo said to P&G and Ford, "buy our banner ads, they cost about the same as a magazine ad, but people can click on them as a bonus." And so banner ads at the beginning were incredibly lucrative--easy to make, sell them for a lot.
Today, banner ads might sell for a tenth that, or, if we count ads on Facebook and the like, as little as 1% of the cost of a magazine ad on a per person basis. But of course, it's not a fair comparison, for a bunch of reasons:
  1. Magazine ad pricing counts the entire circulation of a magazine, even though very few people read every single page of the magazine. Web ads, on the other hand, measure how many people look at that precise page.
  2. A web ad salesperson can say, "well, even if one in a thousand people click on a web ad, it's still better than how many people click on a magazine ad." The problem with this is that while clicks are proof that something happened, they're rare indeed. Magazines don't offer advertisers clicks, but they do offer them hope, something advertisers love to buy.
  3. Magazines have always embraced mass. Advertisers pay extra for big circulation magazines, even though that means less focus. Even a magazine that's focused on a given topic (surfing, say, or gardening) can't distinguish whether the ad is being seen by a man or a woman, or by someone who just bought a new car. The web offers all that and much more, but advertisers are radically undervaluing this focus, because they grew up in a world of mass. It's fine to have a very fine focus, but if you're selling to people with blurry vision, it doesn't help much.
  4. And lastly, magazine ads were largely sold, not bought. Conde Nast and other big companies happily wined and dined ad executives for years to earn the huge buys (more than 700 pages in the new Vogue) that appeared in their magazines. Web sites, on the other hand, are inherently digital, and would like to be bought, not sold, which gives advertisers an enormous amount of choice and leverage.
The short version is that magazine ads were expensive because they were scarce, they worked (maybe) and they were sold, hard. Web ads have long been dramatically undervalued as measured media by people who don't want to measure, as focused media by people who want mass.
Magazine ads were great, a perfect industry, one that's being replaced by something impossible, something that doesn't work for all parties yet.
The result is that tonnage, huge ad inventories, inventory in the billions of impressions, are at the heart of much of what is currently paying the bills in web advertising. Which pushes advertisers to show you more pages, interrupt you when they can and try to keep you inside their site, clicking around. Most people are never going to click on an ad, even an ad that they will ultimately remember.
Google's Adwords is one exception to the tonnage rule, and, if it's not pushed to scale too much, opens the door for advertisers to start measuring the value of what they get when they buy a direct response web ad. Buy an ad for a dollar a click, and if you make $2 in profit, buy more ads! But this only moves the measurement argument forward, as these ads are only attractive to advertisers who measure their results. Most ads don't work because we click on them, though. They work because we remember them, or because they change our perception or tell us a story.
Until advertisers start to value the focused, memorable, impactful opportunity they have in buying the right ads in the right place for the right audience, web users are going to be stuck seeing irrelevant ads on sites that don't respect their time and attention as much as they should. We have salespeople and investors and agencies and buyers that come from a world of mass and scarcity, and the opportunities of focus and connection and abundance are taking a while to sink in.
Since advertising is paying for a big portion of the consumer web, it's being built to please advertisers. Right now, though, what advertisers are used to buying isn't what the web is good at building.
There's huge progress being made in perceptions, but there's a ways to go. Which is why, "we're ad supported" isn't as obvious a strategy as it should be.

New Zealand Spinach is the New . . . Spinach

New Zealand Spinach is the New . . . Spinach:

Spotted in a neglected corner of our backyard: New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides). What's interesting is that it self-seeded and grew with no supplemental water in the middle of summer in lead and zinc contaminated soil.  We've never been able to grow regular (and unrelated) spinach here. But there's no stopping the New Zealand spinach. Due to the heavy metal problem we won't be eating this particular specimen, but when I build our new raised beds you can bet I'll sow some New Zealand spinach for next year.

The internet as a tool for learning

The internet as a tool for learning:
Once upon a time the only way to get a qualification or improve knowledge was to go back to the classroom – literally. College or university day or evening classes offered courses in everything from GCSE maths to NVQ certificates in plumbing. Working adults who wanted to develop their academic qualifications would therefore find they had to endure a full working week, plus a journey to and from their nearest educational establishment two or three times per week for extra hours of study. Happily, there are now new ways to learn and brilliant new internet tools that give access to ...

Big waves, rip currents to greet Labor Day holiday beach crowds

Big waves, rip currents to greet Labor Day holiday beach crowds: It's what lifeguards refer to as "the perfect storm," a recipe for a busy and potentially dangerous beach weekend.
First, there's the warm weather that will drive crowds to the beach. Multiply that figure because it's a holiday weekend, and people...

Odd lifeforms invade O.C. coast

Odd lifeforms invade O.C. coast: Divers, boaters and scientists are seeing an infusion of oblong, transparent creatures called salps off the Southern California coast -- some that wash up onshore still pulsing with life, to the astonishment of beachgoers.
One species can grow "up to...

Challenger wins ballot-order drawing in battle of Bob Bakers

Challenger wins ballot-order drawing in battle of Bob Bakers: There will be no more bobbing up and down the ballot this election season in San Clemente. By luck of the draw, it's official – candidate "0 Robert 'Bob' Baker" will appear on the Nov. 6 City Council ballot ahead of candidate "1 Robert 'Bob'...

Hangouts in Google Calendar

Hangouts in Google Calendar: Posted by Boris Khvostichenko, Product Manager

Do you use Google Calendar to schedule catch ups with distant friends and family? Now, if you've upgraded to Google+, you can schedule a face-to-face video chat right from Google Calendar using Google+ Hangouts. It takes one click to add a hangout to an event and another click to join the hangout.

Now look here,you geocachers - Otago Daily Times

Now look here,you geocachers - Otago Daily Times:

Otago Daily Times

Now look here,you geocachers
Otago Daily Times
New Zealand Recreational GPS Society president Peter Walker and the global geocaching community mascot Signal the Frog stand at a site where a geocache is hidden on Otago Peninsula. Photo by Craig Baxter. Dunedin residents can expect to see many ...