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Check this out. It’s about the future of human-computer communication, and how the study of human neuroscience can help out. Plenty of science fiction stories about robots and artificial intelligence (AI) use neuroscience and biology as the basis for creating life-like (or actually sentient, AI) machines.

 

Scientific Blogging — August 14, 2009

“How Computers Will Learn to Listen”

A new mathematical model  could significantly improve the automatic recognition and processing of spoken language, meaning algorithms which imitate brain mechanisms could help machines to perceive the world around them.

Many people will have personal experience at how difficult it is for computers to deal with spoken language – people who “communicate” with automated telephone systems need a great deal of patience because if they speak just a little too quickly or slowly, or pronunciation isn’t clear, the system often fails to work properly.

The reason is that the computer programs that have been used rely on processes that are particularly sensitive to perturbations. When computers process language, they primarily attempt to recognise characteristic features in the frequencies of the voice in order to recognise words.

“It is likely that the brain uses a different process,” says Stefan Kiebel from the Leipzig Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The researcher presumes that the analysis of temporal sequences plays an important role in this. “Many perceptual stimuli in our environment could be described as temporal sequences.”

Music and spoken language, for example, are comprised of sequences of different length which are hierarchically ordered. According to the scientist’s hypothesis …

article continued here.

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Here’s a good update on the struggles of the Slumdog Millionaire kid actors in Indian — scenes “that seemed straight out of the gritty film,” as the journalist wrote. I also like the antithesis of hope pitted against desapir in the following quote:

” ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ brought to light an equally true reality: the hardscrabble lives of many slum children of an India brimming with optimisim and eagerness to be the world’s next superpower.”

 

Boston Sunday Globe — August 23, 2009

“For Child Actors, Life After ‘Slumdog’ Full of Promise, Poverty”

by Emily Wax (Washington Post)

MUMBAI – Never again would Azhar Mohammed Ismaill, 11, sleep in the overcrowded warren of shanties and festering lean-tos known as Garib Nagar, literally “city of the poor.’’ Azhar, one of the child stars of the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,’’ recently moved with his family to a new home in Mumbai: a modest two-room apartment on the ground floor of a high-rise called Harmony.

The apartment was a gift from “Slumdog’’ director Danny Boyle, whose film grossed $300 million. On the rooftop of his new building, Azhar, 11, danced as he watched jetliners take off from the airport. He recognized the emotion as similar to what his character, Salim, must have felt as he looked out over the Mumbai skyline and said: “India is the center of the world now, brother. I am at the center of the center.’’

Azhar’s real-life journey – and those of the other child stars in “Slumdog,’’ including his elfin costar Rubina Ali, 9 – has been a roller coaster of personal tragedy and red-carpet glamour. In many ways, they are experiencing at warp speed the masala of euphoria and turmoil that India’s vast poor feel as they emerge from the iron bonds of caste …

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Here’s a neat article about Internet freedom, its ability to foster political activism, and the governments who try to hold it down. It reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother — how the protagonist uses the Internet as a tool to fight an Orwellian government which attempts to control the technology. In fact, the article even mentions the Tor software created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (Doctorow’s main character used Tor in Little Brother, and Doctorow himself a former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation).

 

NewScientist — August 21, 2009

“Worldwide Battle for Control of the Internet: As dissidents exploit social networking sites to organise protests and get their messag eout, governments are searching for ways to clamp down”

by Jim Giles

WHEN thousands of protestors took to the streets in Iran following this year’s disputed presidential election, Twitter messages sent by activists let the world know about the brutal policing that followed. A few months earlier, campaigners in Moldova used Facebook to organise protests against the country’s communist government, and elsewhere too the internet is playing an increasing role in political dissent.

Now governments are trying to regain control. By reinforcing their efforts to monitor activity online, they hope to deprive dissenters of information and the ability to communicate.

The latest evidence of these clampdowns comes in a report on the Middle East and north Africa by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of researchers based in the UK and North America. Among the restrictions it reports are clampdowns on Facebook in Syria and the use of hidden cameras in Saudi Arabia’s internet cafes.

Most of these actions are aimed at stifling political debate. “Political filtering is the common denominator,” says Helmi Noman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Boston, who compiled the report. “It’s the main target.”

Noman asked volunteers to check whether roughly 2000 sites covering a range of subjects, including gambling, political news and humour …

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Here’s a funny article about zombies, math, and infection. It’s actually very interesting to see how math can be applied to zombie attacks. And the fact that the mathematical model that the students created can also be applied to the spread of real diseases in the real world is pretty cool.

Before I went to the Alpha science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing workshop this summer (check out my post about that), I didn’t have much of a regard for zombie fiction or zombies in general. Today, I still think that zombie stories can get pretty stupid, but when I went with the other kids at Alpha to the Confluence science fiction convention one of our teachers, David Barr Kirtley, did a late night reading of his short story “The Skull-Faced City” — a sequel to his story “The Skull-Face Boy,” which appeared in John Joseph Adams‘ anthology The Living Dead (the short story collection is currently on the World Fantasy Award ballot). “The Skull-Faced City” turned out to be a really good story — the thing just worked, and worked so well. It fit exactly with all the writing stuff Kirtley taught us about at the Alpha workshop.

After that, I felt a strong desire to write my own zombie story — though I’m not yet sure what about. But I will write one. Someday.

So this zombie article sparked my interest, as I’ve developed a recent appreciation for the elegance of math. And maybe for zombies too.

 

Inside Higher Ed — August 21, 2009

“Students Model Zombie Attack”

Historically, zombie attacks have been the dominion of science-fiction fanatics and Hollywood producers, not scholars. But in a paper scheduled to be published this year, three Canadian graduate students expose the popular sci-fi trope to some long-awaited academic scrutiny.

For the paper, set to be included in the book Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, Philip Munz and Ioan Hudea of Carleton University, in Ottawa, and Joe Imad, of University of Ottawa, used advanced mathematical modeling to examine the chances of mankind surviving a typical zombie epidemic.

Munz said he conceived the study last fall as a term project, and recruited classmates Hudea and Imad (the two universities share a math program) before pitching the idea to assistant professor Robert J. Smith? — who, fortuitously, is a fan of zombie cinema (and whose taste for the unconventional may be evident in his decision to legally add a question mark to his last name).

“It kind of came as a crazy idea on my part while doing math homework with a movie on in the background,” Munz said.

That movie was Shaun of the Dead — a parody of the 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead and of zombie films in …

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Writer’s Digest interviewed Cory Doctorow for the magazine’s September issue. It’s not available online as far as I know, so I’ve just typed up the first 200 words below. If you get Writer’s Digest, I recommend that you read this interview — it’s a great one. I like how he talks about sitting down at the keyboard and “opening a vein.” For me, that’s what makes writing writing — taking the risks.

 

Writer’s Digest — September 2009

“Revolutionary Road: Can technology bridge the gap between science fiction and social activism? Broad-reaching author Cory Doctorow says it can — and that taking risks online can reap rewards in print.”

by Christina Katz

Science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist Cory Doctorow is used to being criticized. Some write to the prolific author to say he’s foolish for giving away his books online at the same time they come out in print. Others write to say he’s foolish for working with traditional publishers in the first place. But thousands of Doctorow’s fans write to say they discovered his books through a free download in only a few clicks online. And as long as some of those readers go on to become book buyers, Doctorow says he and his publisher, Tor Books, will keep coming out ahead.

So much for being foolish. The Canadian-born author doesn’t shy away from experimenting in new forms: He’s authored five novels, including Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, bestseller Little Brother and the forthcoming Makers; as well as two co-written nonfiction books; two short story collections; and an essay collection — while also co-editing the popular blog Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and writing for publications ranging from The New York Times to Wired and Popular Science.

And Doctorow won’t even think about signing a book contract without Creative Commons licensing, which grant a nonexclusive right to create free …

Here’s a (somewhat depressing) article from The Nation about the sorry state of science journalism today — dying out of the newspapers and appearing more often in electronic media as exaggerations or misconceptions. The authors make a good point about the idea of “balance” and impartiality which journalists love to stick to. They wrote that in science journalism, this type of journalistic ethic might entail (for example) having an equal amount of a factually innaccurate opinion as a factually accurate opinion. The authors wrote that the journalism idea of covering new, interesting ideas and making stories appeal to the public can confuse readers as well. Think of it this way: if every theory, invention, or discovery (regardless of the contradictions to each other) is given audience-hooking attention, it becomes unclear as to which of the publicized opposing concepts are more believable or not.

 

The Nation — August 17/24 issue

“Unpopular Science: the crisis in journalism has gutted intelligent science reporting — just when we need it most”

by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

For twenty-three years Sabin Russell worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. A top medical writer specializing in global health and infectious diseases, Russell covered subjects ranging from bioterror threats to the risk of avian flu and traveled throughout Africa to report on the AIDS epidemic. He won numerous accolades, including a 2001 Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers for his reporting on the flaws of the flu vaccine industry.

Then came March 30, 2009–his last day on the job. Russell was at MIT, on leave from his paper for a fellowship. The struggling Chronicle had been cutting staff and now suddenly forced many older career journalists to either take a buyout or risk a reduced pension. At 56, Russell was at the peak of his game, but for him, as for many of his colleagues, there was really just one option. “We have not left journalism; journalism has left us,” Russell remarked recently from San Francisco, where he is setting up a freelance office and looking for work.

Now the painful irony: Russell was pressured out of his job just as swine flu murmurs began to emerge from Mexico. This was his beat …

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Halal Fried Chicken

In my previous post, I emphasized a funny quote from Cory Doctorow’s short story “The Right Book”: “No one could have predicted how well books and halal fried chicken went together.” So I think this is a good opportunity for me to talk about halal fried chicken — or halal in general, at least.

Curiously enough, last night hosted multiple coincidences. Not only did I discover that Cory Doctorow also wrote a story about the future of literature (as I’d done with “After the Age of Giant Sundials”), but his story mentioned — briefly, of course — halal. As it happens, I watched the reading of “The Right Book” just after hearing my dad deliver a speech about halal foods and socially conscious business.

He talked about a bunch of stuff — how he used “guerilla tactics” to start up a business from almost nothing, how to give back to the community, how to make sure your employees get paid right, how religious Sharia business rules stick so well with the socially conscious model. Most importantly, he talked about the halal/organic food business. There’s a strong demand for organic, quality halal food among American Muslims.

But the biggest idea is that even non-Muslims will go for halal. My dad assured his audience — the Muslim Business Alliance of Connecticut — that halal is a huge opportunity for anyone going into business, not just in financial terms but also in moral and spiritual terms. He and many others who are involved with halal business see that non-Muslims will jump for ethnic halal foods and will be attracted to the fact that halal regulations demand the humane treatment of animals.

This also opens the doors to interfaith work and eliminates Islamophobia. In other words, when people find plenty of halal food — good halal food —  in their grocery stores, then they connect it to Muslims. Opinions just might change. My dad is also helping start “Profits for Peace,” meant to establish relations between people of different religions.

A lot of times people — including myself — tend to complain about the serious issues we might see around us, but we never talk about the solutions because either it’s too hard to think about solving problems or we don’t even think about thinking about solving problems. Sometimes I try to excuse myself by saying that if I write about a problem, then other people are the ones who should figure out how to do the mending. But that’s not the case. As a writer, if you reveal an unsettling conflict, then you better think about how to fix it up. In my post “Why Cory Doctorow is ‘The Man'” I mentioned the elimination of the mental divide between East and West via “a wrinkle in time” — the web. Halal business is just as valid a method — it reaches out not only to Muslims, but to everyone else as well. Food, as a representation of culture, is a great way to unify people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities.