Monday, September 29, 2014

Silly Science

We Americans are an odd lot. We loudly complain about our government leaders, second guess our coaches and managers, curse contractors and mechanics, loath banks and lenders. Even though we all came from somewhere else, we tell the rest of the world to “get off our lawn.”

You would think we were an unfriendly bunch.

Yet we bestow honors and awards on thousands of people at the drop of a hat. Who among us hasn’t received a plaque, a trophy, a cup, a ribbon?

Every town and city in the land is awash in beauty contests, spelling bees and athletic honors.

That’s ground level stuff. On the big stage, television this year overwhelmed us with the Eclipse Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, the Oscars, the Grammies and the Tonys. 

Then there are the NAACP Image Awards, the Hispanic Heritage Awards, the Movieguide Faith & Values Awards, the Kids’ Choice Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the Do Something! Awards and the Guys’ Choice Awards.

Lesser known but just as noteworthy are the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, the Foot in Mouth Awards and the Rotten Sneakers Award.

A person could become wealthy leasing out red carpets.

Still, there is one awards presentation that draws our rapt attention. That would be the Ig Noble Prizes, staged annually at Harvard University by the editors of a not-to-be-taken-too-seriously group known as the Annals of Improbable Research.

They are awarded for "research that makes people laugh, and then think" and are often presented by actual Nobel laureates.

Past winners include a team from UC Davis for exploring why woodpeckers don't get headaches; researchers who calculated the number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed; a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards know no bounds. The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year's honorees carried on the lofty traditions established by past winners.

Physics Prize: To Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that's on the floor.

Neuroscience Prize: To Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

Psychology Prize: To Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning. 

Public Health Prize: To Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

Art Prize: To Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro, and Paolo Livrea, for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.

Economics Prize. To the Italian government's National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

Medicine Prize: To Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating "uncontrollable" nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.

Nutrition Prize: To Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated From Infant Feces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

This is truly news we can use. For example, I concluded that I would go insane if I owned a cat, that there is no end to the wonders of bacon, and that the next time I’m in Spain, I’ll pass on the fermented sausages.

Since we failed to report on last year’s festivities, the highlights included a study that confirmed by experiment that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive; a team that concluded some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond if those people and that pond were on the moon; and a discovery that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized.

A special Peace Prize was awarded to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Ain’t science grand?

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Have They No Shame?

The folks up in San Francisco, never ones to shun the bizarre in the conduct of their civic affairs, have come up with a new way to impose order on an often eccentric citizenry.

In order to force building owners to comply with new seismic regulations by agreeing to inspections, city fathers are threatening to “shame” those who are slow to comply.

Signs will be affixed to buildings with red lettering and a drawing of a destroyed building. They read "Earthquake warning!" in all-caps, followed by, "This building is in violation of the requirements of the San Francisco building code regarding earthquake safety," according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.

Patrick Otellini, the city's director of earthquake safety, was quoted as saying that  other tactics, such as fines, too often proved tepid and ineffective.

So they’ve decided to try embarrassment and ridicule instead.

This is nothing new. In the good old days, we would put people in stocks to humiliate them into submission. The stocks partially immobilized its victims and they were often exposed in a public place such as the site of a market to the scorn of those who passed by.

History tells us that insulting, kicking, tickling, spitting and in some cases urinating and defecating on its victims could be applied at the free will of any of those present.

Those Colonists knew how to keep people in step.

In San Francisco, shaming seems to be something of a pastime. Just this past spring, a graphic designer names Brian Singer began taking photos of people texting while driving on the 101 Freeway and posting them to a website, Texting While In Traffic, or TWIT for short.

Lately, Singer has been paying out of his own pocket to put some of the photos on billboards around town, according to published reports.

Bay Area cops gleefully publish pictures of those arrested for everything from soliciting to bike theft as a deterrent.

Expect Dunce Caps for parking scofflaws some time soon.

Lest we dismiss shaming as an effective tool in achieving meaningful reform, maybe we should apply it to a few other institutions.

Congress, for example.   We could (and should) attach a poster to the office door of every single member of Congress which would read:   “Warning, The occupant inside has neither the time nor the inclination to understand issues. His actions are governed solely by what will enhance his own party’s political power, thus plunging our country into governmental gridlock of historical proportions. Do not feed or re-elect.”

Or how about the NFL:   Let’s start the broadcasts with, “The following is a presentation of the NFL which, contrary to popular belief, stands for Nimble Felons on the Lose. Spousal abuse?   Child abuse?  Drug abuse?   These aren’t football teams, it’s a collection of street gangs.  Tune-in at your own risk.”

Shaming might not fix the league’s image problem in a hurry. But this will: Adopt a one-strike rule in football.  One felony arrest, it’s a suspension for as long as it takes the legal system to resolve the case. One conviction, and you run a deep post pattern right out of the league. There are enough good athletes with character in this country that can play the game.   

And while we’re shaming people, shame on us for not objecting much sooner and much louder.

Time Warner Cable:   Talk about people who have no shame. In an empty and cynical gesture, the cable company has magnanimously agreed to broadcast the last six regular season Dodger games.  This, after TWC decided to prevent 70 per cent of the L.A. population from watching televised games as part of hard-ball negotiating stance.  

These guys paid $8.35 billion for the broadcast rights and are shocked to discover that other media companies don’t want to help them pay the bill.

“Time Warner Cable is part of this community, and we’re Dodger fans too,” said an ad that ran in the region’s newspapers recently.   That’s slicing the baloney a bit thick.  They are in fact corporate automatons that operate out of New York.  And if they think broadcasting a few games will create goodwill, they ran out that commodity a long time ago.

We don’t need to shame them.  They’ve done a great job by themselves.

The Pentagon: Shame the military?  In one recent case, it is deserved.

Consider:  If there was ever a person who exemplified heroism under fire, it is Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins.   In a 38-hour battle with North Vietnamese forces in 1966, he killed up to 175 enemy troops while suffering 18 wounds, then led his men to safety.  

For this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.   Last Week.  Forty Eight years after the fact. At the age of 80.

The details are hair raising. Then a 32-year-old sergeant first class, Adkins was working with South Vietnamese troops when his camp was attacked by a large North Vietnamese and Viet Cong force, according to an Army report.

"Adkins rushed through intense enemy fire and manned a mortar position defending the camp," the Army report says. "He continued to mount a defense even while incurring wounds from several direct hits from enemy mortars. Upon learning that several soldiers were wounded near the center of camp, he temporarily turned the mortar over to another soldier, ran through exploding mortar rounds and dragged several comrades to safety.

"As the hostile fire subsided, Adkins exposed himself to sporadic sniper fire and carried his wounded comrades to a more secure position."

Later, under enemy fire, some of it coming from South Vietnamese allies who had defected to the North during the battle, Adkins took wounded troops to an airstrip outside the camp for evacuation and drew enemy fire away from the evacuation aircraft.

He went outside the camp again to retrieve supplies from an airdrop that fell into a minefield. And that was just day one. His heroics continued to a second day when he led his outnumbered troops into the jungle where they hid until evacuated, but not before a tiger circled around them, apparently attracted by their bloody wounds.

It is shameful it took nearly 50 years to honor Sgt. Adkins. He is why we call ourselves the Home of the Brave.  Considering his actions during that battle in 1966, he not only deserved the Medal of Honor, he should have a military installation named in his honor. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Masters and Slaves

If you haunted the public libraries at some point in your life and had a taste for science fiction, you read a lot about robots.

It wasn’t always a pretty picture.  Robots would either become an entity unto themselves and enslave each and every one of us or cause us to question our own humanity.

In Issac Asimov’s “I, Robot,” the androids are programmed to do no harm to their human overlords but a suspicious suicide points the finger of blame at a robot which spells big trouble for the human race.

Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” a bounty hunter is faced with "retiring" six escaped androids while a secondary plot follows a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. At play here is what it is to be human.

In Karel Capek’s “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” artificially manufactured people  are happy to work for humans, then a rebellion breaks out, causing the extinction of the human race.  It was written in the 1920s.

Indeed, the question of who is slave and who is master is already making itself known in the real world.

New research coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab suggests that letting robots have control over human tasks in manufacturing is not just more efficient — it’s actually preferred by workers.

Specifically, in the study, groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: manual (all tasks allocated by a human); fully autonomous (all tasks allocated by the robot); and semi-autonomous (one human allocates tasks to self, and a robot allocates tasks to other human).

The fully-autonomous condition proved to be not only the most effective for the task, but also the method preferred by human workers. The workers were more likely to say that the robots “better understood them” and “improved the efficiency of the team.”

All of which makes we wonder if we are so world weary, so skeptical about the future of the planet that we are prepared to hand the car keys to the human race over to robots.

They couldn’t do worse.  They just might do better. Take the wheel, HAL.

That day is closer than you may think.  Consider this:

Harvard University scientists have devised a swarm of 1,024 tiny robots that can work together without any guiding central intelligence.

Like a mechanical flash mob, these robots can assemble themselves into five-pointed stars, letters of the alphabet and other complex designs. No humans needed.

Even scarier is a robot called BINA48, created and programmed by David Hanson of Terasem Movement and modeled after the co-founder of Terasem’s wife, Bina Rothblatt, according to the website Listverse.

While everyone can agree that BINA48 has an uncanny physical resemblance to an actual person, what makes the robot so groundbreaking is that she is actually made up of the real Bina’s thought, memories, emotions, and feelings.

BINA48 now has the ability to hold conversations on a number of topics using the actual Bina’s mannerisms. BINA48 also has the ability to continually learn, and her vocabulary and knowledge continues to grow each day that she interacts with other humans.

Not only can BINA48 make choices on her own based on her past memories and tastes, she is also learning to reinforce her decisions with data and reasons.

Then there’s this:  By some estimates, before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation.

A not so fanciful scenario by Kevin Kelly, writing in Wired, put it this way:

“First, machines will consolidate their gains in already-automated industries. After robots finish replacing assembly line workers, they will replace the workers in warehouses.

“Speedy bots able to lift 150 pounds all day long will retrieve boxes, sort them, and load them onto trucks. Fruit and vegetable picking will continue to be robotized until no humans pick outside of specialty farms. Pharmacies will feature a single pill-dispensing robot in the back while the pharmacists focus on patient consulting.

“Next, the more dexterous chores of cleaning in offices and schools will be taken over by late-night robots, starting with easy-to-do floors and windows and eventually getting to toilets. The highway legs of long-haul trucking routes will be driven by robots embedded in truck cabs.”

What’s next, robotic reporters?  You bet your sweet press pass.

The Los Angeles Times is already using an algorithm called Quakebot that extracts data from U.S.Geological Association reports, plugs it into a template and produces a story.

The Associated Press is using story-writing software to automate stories on corporate earnings.

What’s missing in this equation is judgment,   That’s why a story on a 3.0 earthquake in, say, Eureka, ends up front and center on the Times website, even though it is a minor occurrence of dubious news value. 

Or that an automatically generated earnings report story lacks any kind of analysis or context. 

That’s not to say that some stone-faced android will someday be cranking out quality journalism.

 Or that his or her comrades will be cleaning your teeth. Or cutting your hair. Or fixing you coq au vin for dinner. Or remodeling your bathroom.  Or doing your taxes.

And if they do, what if robots one day evolve to the point that they demand the same citizen's rights as humans? Will they vote?  Pay taxes?

It seems clear that the day of the androids will surely come. How we use them may be one of the most pivotal questions in human history, one that will overshadow all that has come before.

As the old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.”

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Redskins, Recliners and Retirements

Catching up:
Skins games: The pressure continues to mount on the Washington Redskins professional football team to dump its archaic and racist nickname, which the team has steadfastly refused to do.
Recently, two influential NFL voices — including CBS lead analyst Phil Simms — said they likely won’t use the term “Redskins” when discussing the franchise. 
NBC’s Tony Dungy, one of the most prominent voices in the league as a Super Bowl-winning coach and now as a studio commentator, plans to take the same route as Simms.
A longtime referee asked NFL officials not to assign him to any Redskins games. “It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me,” said Mike Carey, who recently retired after 19 years of officiating.
In the meantime, the Washington Post, in what can be best described as the most spineless editorial stand in recent memory, said it will no longer used the term “Redskins” in their editorials but would allow it to continue in news and sports stories.
The Post should also avoid the term “courageous” when referring to themselves.
I visited this topic in a column that ran last November. In it, I wrote that my choice for the team name would be the Warriors. This not only honors the men and women who have fought and died for this country but acknowledges the bravery of the American Indians who fought to preserve their lands.
There are more light-hearted options, of course. In keeping with the current atmosphere in Washington, we could call the team the Bureaucrats, or the Spendthrifts, the Fillibusterers, Gridlockers or Can Kickers. Better yet, the Partisans.
But I have an even better idea. Why not name the team after the administration that holds power at any given time? We could have the Obamacats, the Bushwackers, the Slick Willies, the Gippers, the Tricky Dicks…you get the idea.
Just think of the millions the team would make in sales and marketing revenue by changing its name every four or eight years.

Squeeze Play:  For the third time in nine days, a fight over reclining seats caused a commercial airline flight to be diverted.
Not surprising. That’s what happens when there’s more room in a MRI tube than an economy class seat.
It seems that an effort over the past decade by carriers to expand higher-fare sections has shrunk the area devoted to coach on many big jetliners. But airlines don’t want to dump passengers. So they slimmed seats to add more rows.
Now, according to data collected by MSN, the 16.7-inch seat is becoming the norm. Just for the sake of comparison, a stadium seat is 19 inches wide, Amtrak coach seats are 20.5 inches and movie theater seats 25 inches.
A first-class seat measures in at 21 inches,
So now we have a cabin full of snarling passengers who are prepared to divert a flight rather than surrender an inch of space caused by a reclining seat.
Thank God first-class passengers have a curtain to separate them from the Dickensian rabble in the back of the plane.
This isn’t new. Three years ago, I wrote about an incident that occurred as I was flying to Denver and became a hapless victim of Abrupt Recliner Syndrome.
I was sitting in the last row of seats. A woman sitting in front of me quickly thrust her seat as far back as it would go but I couldn’t recline in self defense because last row seats don’t adjust.
She was so close I could smell her toothpaste.
I eventually called the flight attendant because I couldn’t drop the tray table in front of me.
No fisticuffs ensued. No fighter jet escorts were required. But my fellow passenger was clearly miffed and I was just as determined not to spend the flight in the pre-natal position. We didn’t exit the plane holding hands.
I realize that in this day and age it’s frowned upon to seek help from the federal government. But if we don’t want to be stacked in economy class like the galley slaves of old, maybe someone should intervene.

Ex-Press:   Newbie journalist Chelsea Clinton announced this week that she is retiring her NBC press pass to devote her energies to the Clinton Foundation and more importantly, the impending birth of her first child.
Don’t look for an outbreak of going-away parties.
I wrote last month that she had been hired to do feel-good stories as part of NBC News’s “Making a Difference” franchise. And for that she was paid $600,000 per year, three to six times the salary that people from less-high-profile families snare only through years of tireless work covering the news, according to the Washington Post.
That boils down to roughly $26,724 for each minute she appeared on air, according to one estimate.
“I’m sure that that salary figure is going to make other NBC correspondents’ heads spin right off their shoulders,” the Post story concluded.
Chelsea wasn’t the only big-bucks celebrity journalist to hit the jackpot. Sarah Palin allegedly hauled in $1 million a year working for Fox. That figures out to about to about $15.85 a word during her two-year stint, according to one study.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.