Tuesday, March 3, 2009

It's Square Root Day


Sort of like a comet, it only comes around several times a century (ok 9, or 10 this time, since the next century mark will end in "100").

Enjoy it while it lasts. You might not live to see that many more:


(Props to NPR, as usual, for raising this important bit of information on Morning Edition today.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wikipedia's Days May Be Numbered

Is Wikipedia the future of journalism -- where anyone can edit the content and by sheer force of numbers and peer pressure, the truth wins out at least as often as it does in mainstream media sources?

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman thinks not. He believes Wikipedia essentially hit on the right formula for its time, but now it's grown so popular that it will be doomed by its own success. He argued on Future Tense yesterday that:

1) The popularity of Wikipedia makes it an increasingly juicy target for spammers and vandals, who could ruin the site by posting large amounts of fake or inaccurate content, thus undermining the credibility of everything found on Wikipedia.

2) These spammers and vandals have largely been kept in check by the dedicated cadre of volunteer editors that monitor most of the content on the site, but many of these editors are likely to start losing interest in the site in the coming years as life changes confront them (getting married, new jobs, having kids, moving, etc.) and it's unclear that they will be replaced by a new generation of volunteers. All this just as the need for these editor-monitors becomes greater in the face of increasing threats to the site.

This confluence of circumstances could render Wikipedia an online ghost town, Goldman says.

Recognizing as much, the Wikipedia powers-that-be are now faced with a difficult choice: keep the site as it is -- freely editable by all -- and risk this happening, or begin to raise the drawbridge more and more -- making it more difficult for regular people to edit the site -- which would of course undermine the founding premise of Wikipedia.

The next couple years will definitely offer up an extremely interesting lesson in where journalism is heading.

It's clear that citizen journalism will become more and more important as newspapers and other media outlets continue to hemorrhage money and cut reporting staff. Plus, as technology -- like video-enabled mobile phones and Flip Video cameras -- improves, reporting will become more feasible for the regular guy or gal.

But that doesn't mean most regular guys and gals have the proper journalistic sensibilities to offer up the whole story -- not just a piece of it -- or recognize when they're being led astray by a particular source. That's where the editors come in.

My guess: Wikipedia and the New York Times are headed toward the same point -- where citizens will provide the content (just some of the content in the Times' case, all of it in Wikipedia's), but professional journalists will vet and follow up on that content with the citizen reporters before finalizing and publishing articles (in Wikipedia's case, the publishing may continue to come before the finalizing).

Don't be too scared, journalism students, there will still be some jobs for you 20 years from now.

Check out the whole interview with Eric Goldman discussing the future of Wikipedia:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Millions of Kenyans Are on the Brink of Starvation

Have we become totally numb to hunger in Africa? The Red Cross Red Crescent is telling the world that as many as 10 million people in Kenya are on the brink of starvation and there's practically no mention of it in the world's news.

A friend of mine sent me some g-chat messages from Nairobi today saying that even there, in the country's modern(ish) capital city,
the cost of basic needs has gone up so bad
this time, short supply of everything
and limiting ppple to the number of commodities you can buy

In an article posted on OneWorld.net today, Red Cross Red Crescent explains that the food crisis was brought on by particularly severe drought over the past year.

Standing in the middle of his half-acre plot, Bernard Munyao stretches his arm in a wide circle over the scorched earth dotted with dry stems of maize. The planting season was so bad that most seeds did not even germinate.

Farmer Bernard Munyao, 52, shows Yulu Munayo, a Kenya Red Cross worker, his empty food storage in the village of Kevengo, in lower Eastern Kenya. “All crops died up and we are starving,” he says. (Photo: Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu/IFRC).
Farmer Bernard Munyao, 52, shows Yulu Munayo, a Kenya Red Cross worker, his empty food storage in the village of Kevengo, in lower Eastern Kenya. “All crops died up and we are starving,” he says. (Photo: Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu/IFRC).

"I planted 50 kg of maize and 40 kg of beans in November but I have nothing to harvest. Now I have to burn charcoal so that I can get some money to buy food. My wife is weaving baskets to earn a few extra coins," says the 52-year-old.

In the Kevengo village, some 200 kilometres away from Nairobi, Munyao is aware that his only source of income may rapidly be exhausted as thousands of other hunger-stricken villagers are engaged in this same unsustainable and mostly illegal economic activity.

The knowledge that desertification will result in harsher droughts in the future is not a threat he considers seriously. "I have no other choice but struggling to survive today," he says.

In the makeshift market places along the main roads, the only products on sale are mango and bananas. Those who can afford will buy the fruits and fry them to complete their poor diets.

"For two seasons, we have not harvested anything in our farms. All crops have dried up and many people are starving," said Eunice Lai, 30, a squatter living in Kiboko settlement of the Lower Eastern region.

"We depend on wild fruits, or mauwa, which at times cause diarrhoea and constipation especially among young children."

Some children are already down to just one meal per day, and families have been split up as some members leave to find work elsewhere.

Twenty-one-year-old Mueni fears for her two children, aged nine months and two years old respectively. Like many heads of family, her husband went in search of labour. He will only return once he is able to provide food for them. Sheltered from the scorching sun in the shade of a mud hut serving as a kitchen, she is about to feed her baby.

“I am trying to feed my babies twice a day on Isyo, a mixture of boiled maize and beans, but sometimes I can only feed them once,” says 21-year-old mother-of-two Mueni Munyao standing in front of her mud hut serving as a kitchen. District clinics and dispensaries across Eastern Kenya are treating increased numbers of children of malnutrition-related illnesses. (Photo: Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu/IFRC)
Mueni Munyao and one of her children. District clinics and dispensaries across Eastern Kenya are treating increased numbers of children of malnutrition-related illnesses. (Photo: Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu/IFRC

"I am trying to feed my babies twice a day on Isyo (a mixture of boiled maize and beans). Sometimes I can only give them food once a day. There is no milk or even clean water for them to take."

Check out the article for more stories of what people are doing to cope, and what the Red Cross Red Crescent thinks the world should do to help.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin and Lincoln Were Born on the Same Day

Nobody alive on Feb. 12, 1809 could have known what was going on around them that day as these two influential men were born some 3,980 miles apart in Shrewsbury, England and on Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky, USA.

They would both be 200 today.

I posted an interesting faux interview with Darwin yesterday.

Here's the C-SPAN coverage of Lincoln's birthday celebrations on Capitol Hill today. Check out the speeches by Barack Obama and Dick Durbin if you have a few minutes. Jim Bunning was not bad too. You can also check out highlights on Minnesota Public Radio's Midday show from today.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darwin Once Considered Becoming a Priest

The Scientific American has done a great fictitious interview with Charles Darwin to celebrate his 200th birthday tomorrow. The questions are all made up, but Darwin's responses are all direct quotes from various sources.

Among them, he notes that his father heard that young Charles hated the idea of becoming a doctor and so took him out of the University of Edinburgh, where he was studying medicine, and sent him to the University of Cambridge where he thought he could study to be a priest.

Darwin explains:
I read with care Pearson on the creed and a few other books on divinity; and as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our creed must be fully accepted. It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible. I might have said with entire truth that I had no wish to dispute any dogma; but I never was such a fool as to feel and say, "credo quia incredibile" ["I believe because it is incredible"]. If I think of how vehemently I have been attacked by the orthodoxy, it is very amusing to think that I had once entertained intentions of becoming a priest.

He then talks about the process of losing his Christian faith, beginning with a memory of his time on the HMS Beagle, during which Darwin first began to hone his powers of observation while helping to study the geological conditions of the places they visited.

On board the Beagle I was completely orthodox, and I recall how several officers laughed at heartily when I quoted the Bible as an irrefutable source on some point of morality. But during the period from 1836 to 1839, I had slowly come to understand that the Old Testament, with its evidently wrong history of the world, its Tower of Babel, its rainbow as a sign, and tendency of ascribing to God the sentiments of a revengeful tyrant, were no more worthy of credence than the holy scriptures of the Hindus or the beliefs of a savage. Despite all my powers of deluding myself, it became more and more difficult to find proof enough to satisfy me.

And that is how faithlessness stalked me and took hold over me slowly, till I became totally disbelieving.

So you are an atheist?
I think it would be more and more appropriate to call me an agnostic, in general and as age advances.

Do you see your lack of faith as a loss, then?
Disbelief crept in on me so slowly that I did not feel any discomfort, and since then, never have a doubted for even a single second the correctness of my conclusions. And I cannot really understand, either, how anyone might want to believe that Christianity were true, because if it were, then, in the plain terms of the text, it is said that people who do not believe would be punished for eternity, and that would include my father, my brother and almost all my best friends. And that is a terrible doctrine!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Water Expands 9% When It Freezes

And this is what is opening the Grand Canyon wider and wider at the top. In the winter, water seeps into cracks along the top rim and then freezes at night. As the water expands when freezing, it tears the cracks wider and wider until chunks of rock fall down into the canyon below.

This was one of just many many fascinating things I learned today watching Discovery's Fearless Planet show about the Grand Canyon. Check it out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Buenos Aires Is Running Out of Coins

Apparently the public transit system in Buenos Aires only takes coins, so people have been hoarding them (I'm talking warehouses full of barrels of coins) to keep them out of circulation, so that they can sell them at a premium.

When the government made it illegal to sell coins for more than they're worth, people started selling the coins in a package with outrageously priced cookies and biscuits.

Now the government's working to create an electronic ticketing system for public transit. It's expected that the coins will all reappear in the city as soon as the new payment options come into effect.

Here's the whole story from the BBC.