Nov 27, 2010

The wisdom of crowds – just how wise are they?

The Wisdom of crowds is not a new concept – but research in to it’s use is. Derren Brown used this very concept in his show “How To Predict The Lottery” – it powers the interest in his websites and often is at the core of his live shows. MIT have this to say:

The rise of the Internet has sparked a fascination with what The New Yorker’s financial writer James Surowiecki called, in a book of the same name, “the wisdom of crowds”: the idea that aggregating or averaging the imperfect, distributed knowledge of a large group of people can often yield better information than canvassing expert opinion.

But as Surowiecki himself, and many commentators on his book, have pointed out, circumstances can conspire to undermine the wisdom of crowds. In particular, if a handful of people in a population exert an excessive influence on those around them, a “herding” instinct can kick in, and people will rally around an idea that could turn out to be wrong.

Fortunately, in a paper to be published in the Review of Economic Studies, researchers from MIT’s Departments of Economics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science have demonstrated that, as networks of people grow larger, they’ll usually tend to converge on an accurate understanding of information distributed among them, even if individual members of the network can observe only their nearby neighbors. A few opinionated people with large audiences can slow that convergence, but in the long run, they’re unlikely to stop it.

In the past, economists trying to model the propagation of information through a population would allow any given member of the population to observe the decisions of all the other members, or of a random sampling of them. That made the models easier to deal with mathematically, but it also made them less representative of the real world. “What this paper does is add the important component that this process is typically happening in a social network where you can’t observe what everyone has done, nor can you randomly sample the population to find out what a random sample has done, but rather you see what your particular friends in the network have done,” says Jon Kleinberg, Tisch University Professor in the Cornell University Department of Computer Science, who was not involved in the research. “That introduces a much more complex structure to the problem, but arguably one that’s representative of what typically happens in real settings.”

More Over at MIT

Is this the most realistic CGI you’ve ever seen?

Are the best computer animators only as good as the technology they use, or does natural talent distinguish their work from the rest? The question has been debated online this week after a new super-realistic computer-generated video appeared on YouTube.

At first glance, the minute-long commercial for kitchen worktops looks like slick, well-timed slow-motion footage of fruit falling in a shiny kitchen. It’s only when the peppers and pears smash like glass on the counter that it becomes clear these are not real fruit.

Full details at NewScientist

Nov 25, 2010

Tiny Supercomputers The Size of a Sugarcube

The world's most powerful supercomputer could be the size of a sugar cube and more energy efficient than you might ever imagine.

Researchers at IBM's Zurich Labs have developed a prototype supercomputer called the Aquasar that uses a water-cooling principle to keep the system from overheating. The Aquasar is a normal-sized computer; there's nothing tiny about it. But IBM thinks that the water-cooling technology that's proven effective in this supercomputer could work just as well in a vastly smaller machine.

The processors in today's computers get very hot, and they have to be cooled off, usually by air. IBM found that using water to cool off a computer's processors is 4,000 times more efficient than using air.

In fact, up to 50 percent of an average air-cooled data center's energy consumption and carbon footprint today is just from powering the necessary cooling systems to keep the processors from overheating.

Dimos Poulikakos is the head of the Laboratory of Thermodynamics in New Technologies, ETH Zurich. His team of researchers worked with IBM to help develop Aquasar.

"With Aquasar, we make an important contribution to the development of sustainable high performance computers and computer system," he says in a press release from IBM. "In the future it will be important to measure how efficiently a computer is per watt and per gram of equivalent CO2 production."

In IBM's water-cooling system, the processors and several other parts in the computer are cooled with water that is no warmer than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's still pretty hot, but it's enough to keep the computers from overheating. As long as the processors remain well below 185 degrees Fahrenheit, the system will operate normally.

This water runs throughout the computer system in what IBM calls "micro-channel liquid coolers," but they are essentially tiny tubes full of water. Every processor in the computer has these tubes directly attached to them, so no processor in the system overheats.

IBM says Aquasar is almost 50 percent more efficient than the world's most powerful supercomputers.

Bruno Michel of IBM's Zurich Labs tells the BBC a supercomputer's energy efficiency is a lot more important than it used to be. "In the future, computers will be dominated by energy costs; to run a data center will cost more than to build it."

IBM says it's important for supercomputers to become more energy efficient not just about saving money, but also about helping the environment. About two percent of the world's energy is consumed by building and operating computer equipment.

Until recently, the most powerful supercomputer in the world could perform about 770 million computational operations per second at a cost of one watt of power. The Aquasar prototype clocked up nearly half again as much, at 1.1 billion operations per second. Now the task is to shrink it.

Read more at Discovery News

Novice angler catches monster halibut worth £25,000

“Hansel took more than two hours to reel in the 2.5m (8ft 2in) monster of the deep off Bolungarvik, in Iceland’s Western Fjords, where it took five men to eventually haul the 970-portion fish on board. ‘This is the fish I have been fishing for all my life,’ said the 70-year-old German. He used a 30lb line and a plastic lure to snare the halibut. Once he got it alongside their boat, a rope was tied around its tail so it could be hoisted on to the deck.

Herbert Loechel, managing director of the fishing tour operator, said: ‘After the bite, we had to worry that Gunther would land the fish. It took him 135 minutes. ‘But the boat’s crew helped hoist the giant fish, with more anglers on board to help, on to the boat. ‘Back at port, the giant fish was celebrated vigorously.’ The mighty fish has broken all records – beating the previous best by 8.2kg (18lb). The earlier record was held by anglers Bosse Carlsson and Hans-Olov Nilsson, weighing 210kg (464lb), caught off Norway in July 2009.

Atlantic halibut are native to the northern Atlantic ocean, from Greenland to the Barents Sea and as far south as the Bay of Biscay. They can reach up to 5m (15ft) in length, weigh up to 320kg (700lb) and can live for 50 years. Commercial fishing of the Atlantic variety has largely collapsed since overfishing led to it being registered as endangered in 1996.

Read more at The Metro

Upper-class people have trouble recognizing others’ emotions

“Upper-class people have more educational opportunities, greater financial security, and better job prospects than people from lower social classes, but that doesn’t mean they’re more skilled at everything. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds surprisingly, that lower-class people are better at reading the emotions of others.

The researchers were inspired by observing that, for lower-class people, success depends more on how much they can rely on other individuals. For example, if you can’t afford to buy support services, such as daycare service for your children, you have to rely on your neighbors or relatives to watch the kids while you attend classes or run errands, says Michael W. Kraus of the University of California-San Francisco. He cowrote the study with Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto and Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley.

One experiment used volunteers who worked at a university. Some had graduated from college and others had not; researchers used educational level as a proxy for social class. The volunteers did a test of emotion perception, in which they were instructed to look at pictures of faces and indicate which emotions each face was displaying. People with more education performed worse on the task than people with less education. In another study, university students who were of higher social standing (determined from each student’s self-reported perceptions of his or her family’s socioeconomic status) had a more difficult time accurately reading the emotions of a stranger during a group job interview.

These results suggest that people of upper-class status aren’t very good at recognizing the emotions other people are feeling. The researchers speculate that this is because they can solve their problems, like the daycare example, without relying on others—they aren’t as dependent on the people around them.”

Read more at Lab Spaces

Nov 24, 2010

Birth of baby captured on Google Street View

A photograph taken in the Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf shows a woman lying in the street after apparently giving birth while a kneeling man cradles a newborn baby.

A second woman is shown crouching to support the head of the new mother, who appears to be lying on a towel. A car is haphazardly parked next to them in the road with its door open.

The image, taken on Hubertusallee Street, has created a buzz on technology blogs, but some users have speculated that it may be a prank.

A German reader wrote on the Gizmodo website: "There is a hospital across the street and they have no knowledge of a birth right in front of their door.

"In the house is also an advertising agency that has no knowledge of a birth in front of their house."

No-one has yet claimed responsibility for the image, which Google has replaced with a new photograph of the street.

It is the latest in a series of bizarre events to be captured on Street View. Earlier this week, a naked man was spotted climbing into the boot of his car on the driveway of a house in Mannheim, south-west Germany.

Read more at The Telegraph

Ghostly Creature Emerges from Ocean's Depths

Scientists unveiled on Wednesday a gossamer, ghostly creature discovered in the deepest reaches of the ocean between Indonesia and the Philippines.

The squidworm, up to 9.4 centimeters (3.7 inches) in length, is far more elegant than its name would suggest.

Swimming upright, it navigates by moving two body-length rows of thin, paddle-shaped protrusions that cascade like dominoes.

Ten tentacles as long or longer than its body stick out of its head, along with six pairs of curved nuchal organs that allow the squidworm to taste and smell underwater.

Using a remotely-operated submersible, a trio of marine biologists led by Karen Osborn of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California found the previously unknown animals in the Celebes Sea at a depth of 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles).

"I was really excited," Osborn said of her first glimpse. "It was so tantalizing because the animal was so different from anything previously described, with the fantastic headgear."

Squidworms live about 100 to 200 meters (328 to 656 feet) above the ocean floor, a layer rich in undiscovered fauna and flora, scientists say.

"I would estimate that when exploring the deep water column, more than half the animals we see are undescribed or new to science," Osborn said in an email.

Up to now, this region has been largely inaccessible because tools for collecting samples either scraped along the ocean floor, or mangled specimens so badly that they were useless or unrecognizable once brought to the surface.

The squidworm, Teuthidodrilus samae, does not appear to be a predator, feeding instead on bits of so-called "marine snow," a mix of sinking microscopic plants and animals, fecal material and cast-off mucus.

Read more and see more pictures at Discovery News

'David and Goliath' Black Hole Clashes Analyzed

Just a few years ago they said it couldn't be done, but now astrophysicists have succeeded in simulating the most extreme collision of two black holes yet: one black hole a hundred times more massive than the other. The accomplishment comes after simulations had pushed from one-to-one mass collisions five years ago all the way up to ten to one mass mergers.

"When two black holes collide in realistic astrophysical scenarios, they don't have the same size," said Carlos Lousto of the Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT) Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation.

Colliding galaxies would be the sort of scenario in which black holes of very different masses -- everything from two-to-one up to a million-to-one -- would fall into each other as they leak massive amounts of orbital energy by emitting gravitational waves.

Until now simulations had succeeded reproducing black hole collisions up to a 10-to-one mass ratio and reached the limits of those techniques, said Lousto. Going further seemed like something that would take five to 10 years to solve. But that was before researchers met in Canada last summer and came up with some new techniques.

"In a few months we came up with a solution," Lousto told Discovery News. "We think we can go beyond this mass ratio, maybe to a thousand-to-one."

"This is such a complex problem," said Lousto. "It had to be solved by supercomputers. We needed really large resources."

In fact, it took the 70,000-processor supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center nearly three months to complete the simulation.

Read more at Discovery News

Nov 23, 2010

When Snakes Fly

The worst nightmare of ophidiophobes, people with a phobia of snakes, may have just been realized.

Scientists have captured footage of "flying" snakes, explaining how five related snake species stay airborne for up to 79 feet.

The acrobatic arboreal snakes, all in the genus Chrysopelea, use what's known as gliding flight to sail from tree to tree in their Southeast and South Asia habitats.

The new research, presented today at the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting in Long Beach, explains how the snakes accomplish their seemingly improbable feat.

"The snake isn't defying gravity or doing something out of the blue," project leader Jake Socha told Discovery News. "It's the magnitude of the forces that are somewhat surprising. Given that this is a snake, and its cross-sectional body shape is more like a blunt shape than a typical streamlined wing, we wouldn't have expected such good aerodynamic performance."

Socha, a Virginia Tech biologist, and his team launched the flying snakes from an over 49 foot tower and recorded the snakes' every move to the finest detail.

The scientists, whose work has been accepted for publication in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, next developed a mathematical model to explain how the snakes use gliding flight to travel over such long distances.

"The snake creates lift using a combination of its flattened cross-sectional shape and the angle that it takes to the oncoming airflow, known as the angle of attack," Socha explained.

To take off from a tree branch, for example, these snakes will drop the front of their bodies to create a "J"-shaped loop before jumping and accelerating upwards. That motion hurls the snake into the air.

The researchers determined that the airborne snakes never reach an "equilibrium gliding" state, when the forces generated by the snakes' undulating bodies exactly counteract the force pulling the animals down. The snakes did not just immediately fall to the ground either.

Instead, "the snake is pushed upward -- even though it is moving downward -- because the upward component of the aerodynamic force is greater than the snake's weight," Socha said.

"Hypothetically, this means that if the snake continued on like this, it would eventually be moving upward in the air -- quite an impressive feat for a snake," he added. "But our modeling suggests that the effect is only temporary, and eventually the snake hits the ground to end the glide."

Read more at Discovery News

The July 7 bombings and heritability: carrying trauma to the next generation

It is often said of a particularly dramatic event – such as the September 11 attacks or the July 7 bombings – that its consequences will "reverberate for generations". It can seem like hyperbole, yet new evidence suggests that traumatic events can affect the genes, and lives, of children as yet unborn. Take the July 7 London bombings. As the harrowing evidence continues to emerge, the psychological impact on the survivors has been all too clear.

As many as 30 per cent of those directly caught up in the atrocities have gone on to develop full post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is in line with similar incidents: after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, 41 per cent of survivors were diagnosed with PTSD after six months, and 26 per cent were still suffering after seven years. Among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the British Armed Forces reckon that 10 per cent develop PTSD. However, an American study gave a figure as high as 30 per cent.

Yet new evidence suggests that the trauma is not just psychological, but biological and even heritable. By altering the chemical mechanisms regulating gene expression, these modifications may become embedded in the male germ line, and can be passed down to the victim's children.

This idea is deeply controversial, not least because it seems to cast doubt on one of the key principles of modern evolutionary theory. The doctrine of natural selection holds that it is our DNA alone that is passed down to our children – and that this remains unaffected by our actual experiences.

Conventional biologists groan with horror at the spectre of the 18th-century French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck rising from the grave.His theory – that characteristics acquired during a creature's lifetime can be passed on to its offspring – is intuitively appealing, but it is rank heresy.

According to the scientific orthodoxy, our only genetic inheritance from our parents is our DNA. Yet this, it now appears, is not entirely the case. Embedded within the DNA sequence are epigenetic regulators, chemical marks that control which genes are expressed and which are not. This is a crucial function, given that every cell in our bodies contains our entire lexicon of DNA. It is the regulators that selectively silence some genes so that particular cells become, say, skin or brain cells, and stay like that when they divide.

The heretical proposition here is that these epigenetic marks can be transmitted along with the DNA. It is the result of intensive research into how these mechanisms work. The best understood is DNA methylation, in which methyl molecules latch on to some areas of the DNA strand and act as switches that render a gene active or inactive.

Read more at The Telegraph

Attractiveness is all in tilt of the head

The research shows that men and women can make themselves more appealing to the opposite sex by changing the way they angle their face.
Women are more alluring if they angle their head forwards so they have to look slightly upwards.
In contrast, men become more masculine if they tilt their head back a bit and look slightly down their nose, according to scientists.

It is believed this difference is down to the usual height differences between men and women.

By tilting his head backwards, a man is mimicking the angle a shorter woman would view him from.

When a woman tilts her head forwards she is recreating the way a taller man would see her.

Dr Darren Burke and Dr Danielle Sulikowski are the husband and wife team behind the research.

Dr Burke, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia, said: "Human facial attractiveness from an evolutionary perspective has been extensively studied.

"But, although the influence of feminine and masculine features is relatively well known there is a gap in our knowledge as to what is considered masculine and feminine about facial features.

"We investigated whether looking at a face from different perspectives as a result of the height differences between men and women influenced perceived masculinity or femininity.

"The research found the way we angle our faces affects our attractiveness to the opposite sex."

The research used computer-generated, three-dimensional models of male and female faces.

As they were tilted up and down in five different positions, participants rated each face for attractiveness and also masculinity and femininity.

Dr Sulikowski said the findings offer some clues to help unravel 'the mysteries of mateship rituals'.

Further research is now planned to see if people sub-consciously tilt their faces when flirting.

Read more at The Telegraph

Nov 22, 2010

3,000-Year-Old Trumpet Played Again

Now you can hear a marine-inspired melody from before the time of the Little Mermaid's hot crustacean band. Acoustic scientists put their lips to ancient conch shells to figure out how humans used these trumpets 3,000 years ago. The well-preserved, ornately decorated shells found at a pre-Inca religious site in Peru offered researchers a rare opportunity to jam on primeval instruments.

The music, powerfully haunting and droning, could have been used in religious ceremonies, the scientists say. The team reported their analysis Nov. 17 at the Second Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics in Cancun, Mexico.

"You can really feel it in your chest," says Jonathan Abel, an acoustician at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. "It has a rough texture like a tonal animal roar."

Archaeologists had unearthed 20 complete Strombus galeatus marine shell trumpets in 2001 at Chavín de Huántar, an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes. Polished, painted and etched with symbols, the shells had well-formed mouthpieces and distinct V-shaped cuts. The cuts may have been used as a rest for the player's thumb, says study co-author Perry Cook, a computer scientist at Princeton University and avid shell musician, or to allow the player to see over the instrument while walking.

To record the tunes and understand the acoustic context in which the instruments, called pututus, were played, the researchers traveled to Chavín.

As an expert shell musician blew into the horn, researchers recorded the sound's path via four tiny microphones placed inside the player's mouth, the shell's mouthpiece, the shell's main body and at the shell's large opening, or bell. Similar to a bugle, the instruments only sound one or two tones, but like a French horn, the pitch changes when the player plunges his hand into the bell.

The team used signal-processing software to characterize the acoustic properties of each trumpet. Following the sound's path made it possible to reconstruct the ancient shell's interior, a feat that normally involves sawing the shell apart or zapping it with X-rays.

The researchers also wanted to know how the site's ceremonial chamber, a stone labyrinth with sharply twisting corridors and ventilation shafts, changed the trumpet's sound. To find out, the team arranged six microphones around the musician and reconstructed the sound patterns on a computer.

If the trumpets were played inside the stone chamber in which they were found, the drone would have sounded like it was coming from several different directions at once. In the dimly lit religious center, that could have created a sense of confusion, Abel says.

Read more at Discovery News

Children of divorcees 'more likely to have strokes'

The finding is from a life-long survey of over 13,000 people, of whom 10.4 per cent had experienced parental divorce during childhood.
Esme Fuller-Thomson and colleagues at the University of Toronto carried out the analysis, which found that the children of divorced parents were 2.2 times more likely to have had a stroke.
She said: "We were very surprised that the association between parental divorce and stroke remained so strong even after we had adjusted for smoking, obesity, exercise and alcohol consumption."

From The Telegraph

‘Countries vote to accept execution of gays’

“The United Nations has removed a plea for lesbians, gays and bisexuals not to be executed in a narrow vote.
For the last 10 years sexual orientation has been included in a list of discriminatory grounds for executions – gay rights activists say the vote to remove that listing is “dangerous and disturbing.”

The UN resolution urges countries to protect the right to life of all people, calling on them to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds. Sexual orientation was previously listed as one of these forms of discrimination, alongside ethnicity, religious belief and linguistic minorities.

Others protected by the resolution were human rights defenders (like journalists, lawyers and demonstrators), street children and members of indigenous communities.

But now sexual orientation has been taken out of the list. The amendment was supported by Benin in Africa on behalf of the African Group in the UN General Assembly. It passed on a narrow vote of 79 for, 70 against , 17 abstentions and 26 absent.

Some of those voting to remove sexual orientation were countries where gays are known to be or thought to be executed or summarily killed including Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq.

The UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and many European countries voted in favour of gays.

Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said: “This vote is a dangerous and disturbing development. It essentially removes the important recognition of the particular vulnerability faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – a recognition that is crucial at a time when 76 countries around the world criminalise homosexuality, five consider it a capital crime and countries like Uganda are considering adding the death penalty to their laws criminalising homosexuality.””

Read more at Pink Paper

For The First Time, Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Are Released Into The Wild

“An Oxford-based research firm has announced the results of a release of genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, the first experiment with GM mosquitoes to take place in the wild. From May to October of this year, Oxitec released male mosquitoes three times a week in a 40-acre area. The mosquitoes had been genetically modified to be sterile, so that when they mated with the indigenous female mosquitoes there would be no offspring, and the population would shrink. Mosquito numbers in the region had dropped 80 percent by August, which the researchers expect would result in fewer dengue cases.

Since it’s only females who bite humans and transmit diseases like the untreatable dengue fever this study examined, British biologists suspected that introducing males sterilized by a genetic mutation into the gene pool could dramatically decrease their numbers over time. While many scientists and environmentalists object to killing off mosquitoes entirely for fear it would harm dependent species, Oxitec asserts that, since the sterilizing gene could not be passed on to subsequent generations, this method will have no permanent ecological impact.

Rather, GM males function like an insecticide, temporarily reducing numbers without the negative effects of using chemical toxins. They can also be more effective against insects that had developed resistance to certain commonly-used pesticides. In regions where booming mosquito populations are have caused epidemic outbreaks of dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria, dramatically reducing the population temporarily could reduce the death toll, and provide valuable lead time to vaccinate and treat hard-hit populations.

As the death toll caused by disease-carrying mosquitoes rises (over 2 million of the 700 million people infected by mosquitoes die annually), science has proposed a wide range of possible solutions to lessen the damage, from lasers to chemicals. But the release of transgenic animals into the wild is a very bold new step.”"

Read more at Pop Sci

Nov 21, 2010

Photographic Evidence Proves That Squid Can Fly

“Once, while boating off the coast of Jamaica in 2001, marine biologist Silvia Maciá and her husband caught a glimpse of an oddly familiar creature leaping from the waves, soaring with ease over the surface of the ocean. As the animal propelled itself for some 30 feet, Maciá realized she was witnessing the most unusual sight — a flying squid. So intrigued by what she saw that day, Maciá would go on to co-author a paper examining similar observations, though essential photographic evidence of the incredible phenomenon remained elusive. That is, until now.

Maciá’s study, featured in a 2004 issue of the Journal of Molluscan Studies, found that the gliding behavior of her squid wasn’t entirely uncommon, noting around six species known to leap from the water — occasionally winding up on the decks of boats. But from she witnessed that day near Jamaica, squids weren’t just exiting the water aimlessly. Rather, they appeared to be flying.

“From our observations it seemed like squid engaged in behaviors to prolong their flight,” she said. “One of our co-authors saw them actually flapping their fins. Some people have seen them jetting water while in flight. We felt that ‘flight’ is more appropriate because it implies something active.”

But unfortunately such eyewitness accounts were all that the scientific community had to go on. Soon, however, that would change.

According to Ferris Jabr, who wrote of the mystery surrounding flying squid in a piece for Scientific American, undeniable proof of the cephalopod’s airborne antics surfaced just recently. From the deck of a cruise ship along the coast of Brazil, a retiree named Bob Hulse snapped some high-resolution photographs of something unusual leaping from the sea: what appears to be dozens of squid propelling themselves through the air — quite possibly the first time the impressive display has been caught on film.”

Read more at Tree Hugger