How our brains tell the difference between real and fake

How our brains tell the difference between real and fake
Humans are better than computers at spotting differences so subtle they can’t be described

By Daniel Glaser
May 22 2016

If you walked into a toilet cubicle and saw a bomb strapped to the back of the door, would you know if it were real? You’d just run. And you would be right to. It’s difficult to tell the difference unless you’ve had years of bomb disposal training. Sometimes not even the smartest computerised system can do it.

With practice, the brain can spot distinctions so subtle they’re impossible to describe. In an experiment, humans and computers were asked to spot rocks and mines using sonar detection systems in a submarine. In time, sonar operators could tell if an object was a mine or a rock, but they couldn’t explain why. Yet the computers still struggled.

This form of brain training can also be seen in – don’t laugh – professional chicken sexers. To the untrained eye, male and female chickens’ genitals look the same. Experts learn to tell the gender of a chicken quickly and accurately – but they can’t describe the exact differences.

Sometimes, despite all the brain’s potential to spot detailed discrepancies, the safest thing to do with a dummy bomb left behind at a football stadium is to leg it and let the professionals conduct a controlled explosion.

Project Earth is leaving beta

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Project Earth is leaving beta
Get ready for a brand new experience!
By J.W. Alden
May 19 2016

Dear Backers,

The beta test of Project Earth is finally over. We can’t thank you enough for your patience and generosity during our crowdfunding period. But before we roll out Earth 1.0, there’s a few things you should know.

First, the bad news: this update comes with a server wipe. Yes, we know you’ve poured time and effort into your ‘lives’ on Earth, and it’s disappointing to lose your progress. Unfortunately, this can’t be helped. We experimented with methods of porting existing avatars into the new version, but it brings a host of compatibility issues with our new character-creation system (more on that later). As a consolation, we’re planning another exciting in-game ‘End of the World’ event, so you can go out with a bang.

Here are some big changes to expect in the new update:

NEW: Abuser Report System Every multiplayer experience comes with griefers and trolls. Unfortunately, the nature of Earth’s gameplay makes it very difficult to tell when someone is being an asshole on purpose, but we’ve implemented a system that lets you flag an avatar for review. This notifies our mod team, who will examine the player’s behaviour for signs of intentional griefing. Please don’t abuse this feature! Only report an avatar if it exhibits unreasonable hostility that could not possibly be the result of normal ‘human’ development.

NEW: Advanced Career Paths A limited number of political and business leadership careers will open to the general playerbase. Previous builds allowed only members with mod privilege to take on certain leadership positions in-game, which allowed us to shape the progress of ‘civilization’ as we saw fit. We’ve listened to your feedback on this policy, and we’re thrilled to open this aspect of the game to all players. We’re also hoping this will address the ‘conspiracy theory’ phenomenon that became prevalent in previous builds.

NEW: Space Exploration Many of you were quite vocal when we curtailed the space race during our ‘cold war’ in-game event. At the time, we worried about the playerbase advancing past the capabilities of our current build, so we steered focus back towards Earth itself. Since then, we’ve been working hard on a new procedural engine for the cosmos, and now we’re ready to roll it out. We hope this will revitalize many career questlines, including the astronaut path. Oh, and don’t think we haven’t heard your complaints about the light-speed barrier. These things take time.

FIXED: Character Imbalance We turned a blind eye to this for a while, because we knew a fix would cause waves, no matter how we approached it. But after long deliberation, we’ve given the character-creation suite an overhaul. A proprietary algorithm now determines your character’s congenital traits, including things such as gender, race and sexual orientation. Any trait your avatar is ‘born’ with will be free of manipulation from players or mods. We know this might upset those of you who feel these traits are a matter of player choice, but we believe this is the more realistic approach. An increase in diversity will only enhance our experience on Earth. Plus, the inexplicable dominance of the ‘straight white male’ template kept crashing parts of the system.

FIXED: Dreams We’ve finally isolated the cause of the ‘dream’ phenomenon, in which an avatar retains glimpses of the player’s real-world memories upon waking from logout status. Some team members argued that we should make this bug a supported feature, owing to the impact of dreams on art and culture in Earth 0.91. In the end, we’re not comfortable with the risk involved. Although it hasn’t happened yet, this dream glitch could lead to avatars realizing that their ‘lives’ are a game. We’re not entirely sure what would happen if this occurred, but we’re looking to avoid the sudden emergence of a secret resistance group working towards exposing the simulation, so we decided to remove them.


America’s schools are still segregated by race and class. That has to end

America’s schools are still segregated by race and class. That has to end
I was one of the congressmen who asked the Government Accountability Office to examine racial and class integration in schools. The results were shocking
By Bobby Scott
May 19 2016

This week marks the 62nd anniversary of the landmark supreme court ruling in Brown v Board of Education, which concluded that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”, and compelled states to provide for educational opportunity that is “available to all on equal terms”.

Thanks in large part to federal intervention in the decades following Brown, students experienced indisputable academic and social benefits inherent to racially and socioeconomically diverse learning environments. A recent report by the Century Foundation affirms that learning in diverse environments improves critical thinking and problem solving. But as time marched on, deliberate government action and meaningful federal oversight fell by the wayside in many communities.

Two years ago, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Brown, I joined two of my colleagues in formally asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine racial and socioeconomic isolation in K-12 public schools and the resulting impact on educational equity. I did this because research consistently shows that our nation’s public schools remain segregated by both race and class, producing inequitable access to educational opportunity that has robbed our nation’s most vulnerable students of learning gains and later life success. In the face of many skeptics who denied that segregation was occurring, we asked the GAO to confirm what researchers claimed.

The report resulting from this inquiry is staggering. The GAO has confirmed that our nation’s schools are, in fact, largely segregated by race and class. What’s more troubling in their findings is that segregation in public K-12 schools is not getting better, but it is rapidly getting worse. The report shows that more than 20 million students of color now attend racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools. That is up from under 14 million students in 2001.

The GAO also confirms that high-poverty, high-minority schools are under-resourced and over-disciplined. Students attending these schools are less likely to have access to advance coursework and more likely to be suspended or expelled. The GAO found that our nation’s public schools are separate, and they are unequal.

If our nation is going to close persistent achievement gaps and prepare all students for success in a 21st-century economy, we must seriously address racial and socioeconomic integration at every level in our public schools. 

Our children cannot afford for us to sit idly by in the face of these facts. This report is a call to action, and we urge our colleagues – Democrats and Republicans – to heed that call.

December marked enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), an overhaul of our nation’s K-12 policy and the replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Working across the aisle, we successfully enacted a new K-12 law that both affords more flexibility to states and school districts and upholds the civil rights legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The ESSA maintains strong federal protections for disadvantaged students.

As states and school districts work to implement the new law, Congress, the US Department of Education, and the US Department of Justice must bolster actions to reverse this alarming trend of resegregation in our nation’s public schools. And the federal government must respond when and where segregation and resulting racial disparities in education persists. The ESSA presents an opportunity to reinvigorate a national effort to integrate public K-12 education and advance opportunity for every child.


Hedy Lamarr Will Get Her Due If Susan Sarandon Has Her Way

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Crandall.  DLH]

Hedy Lamarr Will Get Her Due If Susan Sarandon Has Her Way
By Barb Darrow
May 19 2016

Despite a Google Doodle in her honor last November, Hedy Lamarr is still mostly known as a Hollywood bombshell of the 1930s and 1940s. But she was also a tech genius that helped pioneer technology that now underlies the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell phone networks we use every day.

That “frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology” was used to secure sensitive U.S. transmissions during the Cuban missile crisis and, as noted above, went on to do a lot more in the consumer realm.

Yet Lamarr, who died 16 years ago, was buried in an unmarked grave in Vienna. She had received no compensation and little credit for the work she did with her neighbor George Anthiel in developing this very important technology.

Now Fund Dreamer and Reframed Pictures, Susan Sarandon’s production company, are backing a campaign to pay for the memorial. In a statement, Sarandon noted:

This is the story of a Hollywood actress, defined by her appearance, who was secretly a brilliant inventor and helped change the course of history, Until recently, Hedy Lamarr has laid in an unmarked grave in the Vienna Central Cemetery.

The grave-side memorial incorporates 88 steel rods representing the 88 frequencies in Lamarr’s patented frequency hopping technology. Those rods, when viewed from the right angle, generate an illusion of Lamarr’s face.


NASA and the author of ‘The Martian’ tell us exactly how we’ll get to Mars

NASA and the author of ‘The Martian’ tell us exactly how we’ll get to Mars
By Brian Fung
May 18 2016

In “The Martian,” Matt Damon plays a NASA astronaut who’s been stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to survive until the space agency can devise a daring plan to rescue him.

But Earth’s first manned mission to Mars will share little resemblance to the hit film — not to mention the book it’s based on, according to author Andy Weir and top NASA officials.

Despite winning plaudits for making “The Martian” as scientifically accurate as possible, Weir thinks the real thing is likely to involve a smaller role for NASA and a bigger role for robots and private spaceflight companies.

“It won’t look anything like it looked in the movie,” he said at “Transformers,” an event hosted by The Washington Post Wednesday.

It might surprise you to hear that NASA completely agrees.

“Andy … he’s absolutely right,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “If you look at what NASA’s doing today, a big part of my life is spent growing international partners, looking out for what we call non-traditional partners, countries that want to be a part of the space program.”

[‘The Martian,’ NASA and the rise of a science-entertainment complex] 

An actual human mission to Mars, according to Bolden and Weir, will involve a lot more of these actors. It won’t be just NASA sending a team to the red planet; instead, it’ll likely be a multi-national coalition of governments and corporations. By the time we’re ready for a manned mission, this group will already have set up some infrastructure in low-earth orbit designed to support interplanetary travel.

Because it’s costly and difficult to fit enough supplies for a mission onto a single spaceship launched from Earth itself, it’ll be a lot easier and cheaper if we can assemble all the necessary equipment from a staging point in space before firing the whole package off to Mars. This is where private companies like SpaceX come into play.

“If I were king of NASA,” said Weir, “if I could just make edicts and have things go the way I wanted, I would concentrate on commercial space side — get as much of my money into the commercial side as possible, because they will very quickly drive down the price to [low-earth orbit], and that makes the cislunar- and Mars-related missions affordable.”

Right now, it costs tens of thousands of dollars to put even a single kilogram of cargo into space. But if competition for commercial space launches can drive costs down to the level of conventional air shipping, that figure might drop to less than $50 per kilogram, said Weir.


On the anniversary of Brown v. Board, new evidence that U.S. schools are resegregating

On the anniversary of Brown v. Board, new evidence that U.S. schools are resegregating
By Emma Brown
May 17 2016

Poor, black and Hispanic children are becoming increasingly isolated from their white, affluent peers in the nation’s public schools, according to new federal datashowing that the number of high-poverty schools serving primarily black and brown students more than doubled between 2001 and 2014.

The data was released by the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday, 62 years to the day after the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional.

That landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education began the dismantling of the dual school systems — one for white kids, one for black students — that characterized so many of the nation’s communities. It also became a touchstone for the ideal of public education as a great equalizer, an American birthright meant to give every child a fair shot at success.

But that ideal appears to be unraveling, according to Tuesday’s GAO report.

The proportion of schools segregated by race and class — where more than 75 percent of children receive free or reduced-price lunch and more than 75 percent are black or Hispanic — climbed from 9 percent to 16 percent of schools between 2001 and 2014. The number of the most intensively segregated schools — with more than 90 percent of low-income students and students of color — more than doubled over that period.

The problem is not just that students are more isolated, according to the GAO, but that minority students who are concentrated in high-poverty schools don’t have the same access to opportunities as students in other schools.

High-poverty, majority-black and Hispanic schools were less likely to offer a full range of math and science courses than other schools, for example, and more likely to use expulsion and suspension as disciplinary tools, according to the GAO.

The GAO conducted its study during the past two years at the request of Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Bobby Scott (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, and Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Scott on Tuesday announced legislation that would make it easier for parents to sue school districts for civil rights violations, saying the GAO report provided evidence of an “overwhelming failure to fulfill the promise of Brown.”

“Segregation in public K12 schools isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse, and getting worse quickly, with more than 20 million students of color now attending racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools,” he said in a statement Tuesday, calling on GOP leaders in the House to hold hearings on tackling segregation.

The resegregation of schools during the past two decades has for the most part happened quietly, in the shadows of loud battles over standardized testing, teacher evaluations, charter schools and Common Core academic standards.

Segregation has returned to the forefront of education policy discussions only recently, amid broad public debates about race, racism and widening inequality.

The persistence of racial divisions in the nation’s public schools was underscored Friday when a federal judge ordered a Mississippi district to integrate its middle and high schools, capping a legal battle that had dragged on for five decades.


Complex life on Earth began billion years earlier than previously thought, study argues

Complex life on Earth began billion years earlier than previously thought, study argues
Fossils from China are said to prove that multi-cellular organisms evolved as early as 1.5bn years ago – but some experts dismiss findings
May 17 2016

A claim by researchers that complex life on Earth may have evolved a billion years earlier than previously thought has immediately divided scientists in the field, with some hailing the evidence as rock-solid and others unconvinced.

The researchers, writing in the journal Nature Communications, said they had uncovered fossils showing that complex life on Earth began more than 1.5bn years ago.

After first emerging from the primordial soup, life remained primitive and single-celled for billions of years, but some of those cells eventually congregated like clones in a colony. Scientists took to calling the later part of this period the “boring billion” because evolution seemed to have stalled.

But at some point there was a leap – arguably second in importance only to the appearance of life itself – towards complex organisms with multiple cells.

This transition progressively gave rise to all the plants and animals that have ever existed.

Exactly when multi-celled “eukaryotes” – organisms in which differentiated cells each contain a membrane-bound nucleus with genetic material – showed up has inflamed scientific passions for many decades.

“Our discovery pushes back nearly one billion years the appearance of macroscopic, multi-cellular eukaryotes compared to previous research,” said Maoyan Zhu, a professor at the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

The fossils were uncovered in the Yanshan region of Hebei province in China. Zhu and colleagues said they had found 167 measurable fossils, a third of them in one of four regular shapes – an indication of complexity. The largest measured 30cm by 8cm.

Taken together they were “compelling evidence for the early evolution of organisms large enough to be visible with the naked eye”, said Zhu. 

“This totally renews current knowledge on the early history of life.”

Previously, eukaryotes of comparable size had not been known to appear in the fossil record until about 600m years ago, when a multitude of soft-bodied creatures inhabited the world’s oceans.

Phil Donoghue, a professor of palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, described the discovery as a “big deal”.

“They are not the oldest eukaryotes, but they are certainly the oldest demonstrably multicellular eukaryotes,” he said. 

Their very existence 1.56bn years ago would mean that “oxygen levels were sufficiently high to allow for such large organisms to subsist”.

But other experts were more sceptical.

“There is nothing here to suggest that the specimens are eukaryotic, as opposed to bacterial,” said Jonathan Antcliffe, a senior researcher in the University of Oxford’s department of zoology. Bacteria are, by definition, unicellular, and do not have distinct nuclei containing genetic material.

Antcliffe suggested the fossils were more likely corresponded to colonies of bacterial cells, rather than a single complex organism.