CAPTCHAs are a time-worn way for humans to tell computers that we are human. They are those little boxes filled with distorted text that we’ve been told humans can decipher, but computers—the bad guys’ computers—cannot. So, Watson-be-damned, we enter the letters and gain access to whatever is behind the veil, leaving the bad bots steaming outside the pearly, CAPTCHA’d gates. As Google’s ReCAPTCHA website puts it: “Tough on bots, easy on humans.”
It is a satisfying display of human superiority built into the daily experience of the web. And, BONUS, you’re often helping do optical character recognition on old books at the same time. Take that, Machines, you don’t even have any books.
But then along comes Google today noting, in a showily short and breezy blog post, that their machines can beat ReCAPTCHAs 99% of the time.
When we see patterns in the atmosphere from space, they tend to be in the clouds of powerful storms. These all have roughly the same form: they look like a spiral galaxy with arms spinning out from the core.
But meteorologists have detected other organizational principles at work. Like, take the fascinating image above. It shows …. well, I wasn’t sure exactly what it showed. A meteorologist’s blog post described them as “convectively-generated mesospheric airglow waves,” but that did not quite explain how they worked or what they were.
So I got in touch with Steven Miller, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA) at Colorado State University. Miller and his colleagues discovered these concentric rings while working with the newish satellite Suomi satellite’s next-generation low-light sensor. (They published a paper on the discovery in PNAS.)
Miller told me I was looking at glowing ripples in the atmosphere itself!
“These are literally ‘ripples of glowing atmosphere’ whose structure is the result of a train of gravity waves that is passing through a thin layer of the atmosphere that produces a very faint veil of light called ‘nightglow,’” he said. “These are not clouds (although they were forced by the thunderstorms below), and they do not occur in the troposphere, where our ‘weather’ is. They are much higher up—at the interface between the mesosphere and the thermosphere—about 90 km [55 miles] above the surface! The glow is revealing important dynamics of our atmosphere that would otherwise be completely invisible to us.”
Read more. [Image: Suomi]
The world is loud. As a partial result of this, the typical human aging process involves hearing loss that ranges from mild to severe. And though that loss can be a big problem—”blindness separates people from things,” Helen Keller said, while “deafness separates people from people”—it’s one that has a solution: Get a hearing aid.
It’s a solution that should be both easy and obvious. At this point, hearing aids are relatively advanced; digital technology means that the devices have gotten very good at filtering out background noise, minimizing feedback, and emphasizing human voices in noisy environments. The little machines have become adept, as one audiologist puts it, at making "soft sounds audible, average sounds average, and loud sounds okay to hear."
The main problem with hearing aids, though, has less to do with technology and more to do with culture: Many people who need the aids don’t want to get them. They associate them with age. They associate them with ailment. They associate them with the ailment that comes with age. As a result, in a society that values youth above almost all else, the people who can benefit most from hearing aids are often the ones least likely to take advantage of them.
While hearing aid manufacturers have responded to this by designing devices that are as small as possible and custom-fitted to the ear canal, one company has come up with another solution: a hearing aid that is integrated into smartphones. Starkey Hearing Technologies recently launched Halo, a hearing device that syncs with iPhones and iPads. The technology, the company says, doesn’t just amplify hearing; it also allows users to listen to music, sync movies, receive phone calls, and chat over Facetime. It allows for geotagging according to specific places—so, for example, it calibrates itself to the volume of a user’s favorite restaurant or coffee shop. It joins devices across wireless networks. It’s a medical-tech answer, basically, to the broad aspiration of the connected home.
Read more. [Image: TruLink/Starkey Hearing Technologies]
The future is vast, and scifi provides but a tiny porthole to see it.
Read more. [Image: Library of Congress]
They’re portable, economical, and helping more than 800 million Indians cast ballots in this year’s election.
Read more. [Image: Sivaram V/Reuters]
Amazon the corporate entity doesn’t actually produce a guide for dealing drugs, but its purchase-recommendation algorithm sure seems to have done just that.
The discovery would push back the pre-history of the emoticon by (at least) 200 years.
Read more. [Image: Robert Herrick]
The app economy is concentrating ever-more deeply in the Valley.
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
Social media companies constantly collect data on their users because that’s how they provide customized experiences and target their advertisements. All Twitter and Facebook users know this, and there is a broad array of feelings about how good or bad the persistent tracking of their social relationships is.
What we do know, though, is that—when they want to—they are aware of how to go behind the machine’s back. They know how to communicate with just the humans without tipping their intentions to the algorithm.
In a new paper, University of North Carolina sociologist Zeynep Tufekci explores some of these strategies among Turkish protesters. She looks at these behaviors as analytical challenges for researchers who are trying to figure out what’s going on. “Social media users engage in practices that alter their visibility to machine algorithms, including subtweeting, discussing a person’s tweets via ‘screen captures,’ and hate-linking,” Tufekci writes. “All these practices can blind big data analyses to this mode of activity and engagement.”
The same practices, though, from the user perspective, can be understood as strategies for communicating without being computed. All they require to execute is thinking like an algorithm.
Read more. [Image: Renee Magritte via Wikimedia Commons/The Atlantic]
New Jersey’s second district lies vast across its south. Atlantic City to the Delaware River, cranberry bogs and the Pine Barrens: Where the state’s other districts have been gerrymandered into twiddly bits, the second district seems large, substantial, and plausibly contiguous.
Unlike the state’s Gotham-gorged north, south Jersey is known for farmland, shore towns, and a struggling economy. It’s not exactly the district where you’d expect a ‘coder to run for Congress’—but that’s exactly what Dave Cole, native New Jerseyan and Obama campaign veteran is doing.
In fact, that’s his core pitch: He began his campaign with a Medium post announcing, “I’m a coder running for Congress.” He calls himself an engineer, and he brings a startup’s sensibility, systems—and, perhaps, naïveté—to the campaign.
Chief among these? He’s placed his full campaign platform on the code management software Github, and he’s invited anyone to edit it.
Read more. [Image: Cole for Congress]