Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (DVD)

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a documentary DVD that explores the influence of the internet on human life.

It begins by following internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock into a room on the UCLA campus where the first internet communication took place at 10:30pm on Oct 29, 1969, between UCLA and Stanford Research Institute. Kleinrock describes the moment he began typing the very first internet message, “Login.” Before he could complete it, the computer system crashed, and the first message transmitted by the internet turned out to be “Lo” – thus the movie’s name.

Danny Hillis, an American inventor and computer scientist, describes the phone book he owned back in the early days of the internet. It contained the names of everyone on the internet. Can you imagine a directory of everyone on the internet today? It is estimated it would be 72 miles thick.

Director Werner Herzog takes us to Stanford Dept of Robotics, where we learn how the discovery of biomolecule patterns was enhanced by the creation of a crowdsourced video game called EteRNA. Crowdsourcing, as defined by Wikipedia (itself a famous example of crowdsourcing) is “to divide work between participants to achieve a cumulative result.” In this case, a videogame played by a multitude of interested laypeople -“lawyers, grandmas, students, bedridden people” contributed in useful ways to the collective knowledge base about RNA (Ribonucleic Acid), which is present in all living cells. Crowdsourcing has been used in a variety of other ways for the common good. In addition to Wikipedia, another well-known example of crowdsourcing is crowdfunding, the collection of funds from a crowd (for example, Kickstarter). If you would like to learn more about how you can be similarly involved in contributing to the universe of knowledge (sometimes even by playing video games!) see this list of crowdsourcing projects.

While at Stanford, Herzog takes us to Professor of Computer Science and director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, Sebastian Thrun, who is designing self-driving cars. He addressed the concern for safety of self-driving cars by saying, “When a computer makes a mistake, it learns from it, along with all the other computers (in use and unborn.) When a human makes a mistake, just that one person learns from it.” He shares a fascinating anecdote about a certain class he taught to 200 students enrolled at Stanford. He was able to offer the same course online to interested members of the general public. Over 1000 people signed up for the online class. When he tested them, he found that the best Stanford student ranked 412th among all the students combined. From this he said he learned that for every one great Stanford student, there are 412 better out there in the world who couldn’t or didn’t go to Stanford.

Then, we are presented with some particularly dark sides of the internet. The family of Nikki Catsouras shares their story, explaining why they no longer use email or the internet. Nikki died in a car accident in 2006 when she was 18 years old. Gruesome photos of her decapitated body were posted online shortly after the accident. Then, the family began receiving anonymous emails containing the photos, one with the caption “Woohoo Daddy! Hey daddy, I’m still alive.” The Catsouras family deeply lamented the lack of accountability on the internet.

What would today’s landscape be like without the internet? We find out more about that by visiting Green Bank, West Virginia, home of a telescope 100 meters in diameter that picks up radio waves from outer space. To eliminate interference with the radioastronomy project, all wireless transmissions are disabled within a 10 mile radius. The area has become a haven for people who experience severe physical reactions to being in the presence of radio waves. Diane Schou and Jennifer Wood describe their lives before they moved to Green Bank. They spent all their time inside Faraday cages –  boxes named for the 19th century scientist Michael Faraday, designed to shield their contents from electromagnetic fields. Some regard their condition as a supersense. They regard it as a nightmare.

We visit an internet addiction treatment center near Seattle, Washington where we hear the personal stories of some clients. We learn about a South Korean couple who were imprisoned for allowing their newborn daughter to starve to death while they were consumed with playing a video game. Ironically, it was a game in which they were nurturing an electronic baby.

Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz tells us about large solar flares called Carrington Events, which have the power to disable communications and create widespread power outages, and how we could see the next powerful solar event soon. We are given a glimpse of what that might look like from footage of a recent, relatively small-scale blackout in New York City. Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss warns “if the internet shuts down, people will not remember how they lived before that.”

Famous hacker Kevin Mitnick is interviewed about the methods he employed to gain access to secured information. He goes into detail about how he manipulated weaknesses in cybersecurity systems, noting that he always found them in the people, not the systems.

In the final third of the documentary, the possible future of Artificial Intelligence is explored. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who made a fortune through PayPal, talks about the rockets he is launching into space, and his goals of creating a colony on Mars in case Earth becomes unlivable.

Marcel Just and Tom Mitchell, brain scientists at Carnegie Mellon postulate on whether or not it is possible for computers to dream.

The Wikipedia Emergency Project is described. It is a plan that people should print out hard copies of the information found on its website and store them somewhere our heirs can find them should a catastrophic planetary event occur.

The documentary prompted much thought, and left me with so many questions the first time around, I eagerly watched it a second time a couple of weeks later, after I gave myself some time to let the ideas rattle around in my mind for a while. If you like to explore multiple sides of issues relating to the past, present, and future of technology I would recommend you watch Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.

 

 

 

Fake News – What It Is and How to Evaluate It

There is a lot of talk in the U.S. and around the world right now about fake news. What, exactly, is fake news? Generally, fake news is information that is wholly or partially made up, but designed to look like an authentic news report and to attract lots of attention – often resulting in advertising revenue. It often appeals to the strong emotions of its targeted audience.

Oxford Dictionary acknowledged its influence by announcing the 2016 word of the year: post-truth, an adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

I think we should all exercise caution especially when dealing with those stories that do cause an emotional reaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake news (just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean it is fake news) but it can be a red flag that the story merits double-checking with additional sources. Seek those not related to the first source where you encountered it.

Here are some websites that you can use to evaluate news sources:

The Media Bias/Fact Check news website has a search bar on its main page where you can type in the name of a news source and retrieve a scale that attempts to qualify how far to the left or right that news source typically leans. They maintain a list of questionable sources. The website also has a list of what is generally accepted to be the least biased news sources, which you can find here. MBFC explains their methodology and acknowledges that no evaluation is 100% without bias. Check out the list – you may learn about a new source that you will want to make a habit of checking on a regular basis. I’ll admit the ads are bothersome, but it is how they pay to keep the site running.

FactCheck.org is one source you can use to double-check information. Facebook recently announced that it is partnering with this source to help identify and flag fake news circulated on its platform. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. According to their website, their mission is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics…Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.” This site is primarily focused on U.S. politics. During election years, they will report on the accuracy of what is aired on political TV ads and in debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.

Another source to verify political information is Politifact.com, self-described as “an independent, nonpartisan news organization… not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest.” They have a long history, which you can read about here. The system of evaluation they use is called the Truth-o-meter, which ranges from “Truth” on one end to “Pants on Fire” on the other. They have a newsletter to which you can subscribe if you wish to receive information updates on the latest fact-checks. They are also partnering with Facebook to help flag fake news when it is shared.

For information that covers a broader array than politics, Snopes.com can be helpful. I like the search option at the top of the page where you can easily type in any keywords and retrieve information on rumors and urban legends. It began in 1995 and has become a well-known online source for debunking falsehoods or verifying facts with evidence.

As an information professional, I encourage people to take some time to verify information sources before accepting them as completely true. When presented with information in any form, take care to ask yourself these questions:

 

  • Who wrote/originally said this? Is the author clearly identified? What else has the author written and has it been disputed in any way?
  • What is this? Is it a presentation of facts? An opinion piece? An advertisement?
  • When was it written? Is there new information available that could shed more light on or take the place of this information?
  • Where was the information gleaned? Was the person reporting it actually a witness to the events reported? Is there data/photos to back it up and are the sources cited? Are there quotes from others in the know and are they relevant to the topic being reported?
  • Why did the author write this? Is it designed to entertain, to influence my purchases or affect my decisions in a certain way?

 

We at the library want to help you build awareness about information and what it is designed to do. Not all information is presented to simply inform. Much of the information we are deluged with on a daily basis is designed to influence. That is not necessarily bad, but we all need to be aware of how information influences us. Likewise, we need to acknowledge our own personal biases and be honest and gracious with ourselves and others that they exist.

I invite you to learn more about this topic by attending a panel discussion about fake news, hosted at the Eastern Avenue branch library on Monday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 pm. The event is free of charge and refreshments will be provided. Please come with questions for our panelists, which include representatives from local television, print and radio news sources as well as writers and educators in the field of journalism. Visit our webpage for more details.

 

Holiday Shopping Ideas

Even if you haven’t actually started your holiday shopping yet, it is bound to be on your mind. Shopping for the holidays can be very stressful, especially when you are shopping for someone that has everything. If you have teenagers, maybe you aren’t sure what’s really “in” right now. Budgets are always a factor too. If you have a lot of people on your list, you may be looking for great gifts that don’t break the bank. There are many resources available to help shoppers find great gift ideas. The best part is, you don’t have to leave home to find them.

Let’s talk about a database called Zinio. Zinio is a magazine internet database that is free for Davenport library card holders. All you need is your library card number and you can create a free account. Once your account is created, you can check out magazines and read them online in your browser.  This database is a no limit, permanent check out. Which means you can check out as many as you like and keep them for as long as you like.

More and more libraries are subscribing to this database. If you are a patron of a different library, check with your library to see if they subscribe. Below are some of the magazines available right now through this database. Not only are there tons of gift ideas inside, but it is a one stop holiday destination. To get started browsing magazines, click here.

If you are just looking for some quick ideas, check out the links below.

For Him... Top 25 Gifts for Him    Gifts for Boyfriend    Top 32 Gifts for Men this 2015 Holiday Season

For HerBest Christmas Gifts for Her in 2015    100 Best Christmas Gifts for Women 2015    Gifts for Her

For TeensGifts for Teens    Best Christmas Gifts for Tweens

Gift Guides for EveryonePopsugar Gift Guide    2015 Holiday Gift Guide    Zumiez Holiday Gift Guide

Gifts that won’t break the bank…Unique Gifts Under $25    Cool Gifts Under $10

The Origin of Black Friday

black-fridayAs Thanksgiving and the inevitable Black Friday shopping day nears, I found myself wondering how this shopping frenzy all began. I scoured the internet for as many sources as I could find that would tell me not only when Americans started shopping in masses the day after Thanksgiving, but why. Most importantly, how did that day get the name Black Friday? The answers to these questions are not so cut and dry as one might think.

We begin our journey during the Civil War on October 3rd, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln announces that the United States will officially celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and that this holiday will be held on the 4th Thursday of November each year. The first Thanksgiving was thus celebrated on November 26, 1863. As Thanksgiving falls on November 26th this year, we will be celebrating 152 years of tradition to the day.

By the early 1920’s, several retailers sponsored parades to celebrate this national holiday. In 1924 Macy’s held their first Thanksgiving Day Parade. At the end of each parade came Santa Claus and officially marked the beginning of the holiday season. It became wide practice that retailers would not advertise Christmas sales until after the conclusion of Thanksgiving. With such a hard fast unwritten rule in place, the day after Thanksgiving quickly became the day to shop for the holidays and be the first to see all the specials.

As time went on, shopping on the day after Thanksgiving increased in popularity. Many businesses treated the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday in itself. Even school was not held on this day. However there were some groups of workers that were forced into working the day after Thanksgiving each year. In as early as 1951, business owners were using the term ‘Black Friday’ to refer to the number of employees to call in sick the day after Thanksgiving.

Philadelphia is more widely credited with boosting the popularity of the phrase during the 1960’s. Things were particularly troublesome the day after Thanksgiving as police were forced into working twelve hour shifts and crowds filled the streets. According to snopes.com, “the term ‘Black Friday’ came out of the old Philadelphia Police Department’s traffic squad. The cops used it to describe the worst traffic jams which annually occurred in Center City on the Friday after Thanksgiving.” During the 1980’s, retailers began using the phrase in association with the big shopping day to signify when their red (negative or loss) accounting book entries turned to black (positive or profits). By the 90’s retailers were using the term in advertising for holiday specials and sales taking place the day after Thanksgiving.

In the early 2000’s retailers began opening their doors earlier and earlier. In 2011, several major retailers announced they would open doors at midnight. The next year, Walmart opened their doors at 8:00 PM Thanksgiving Day. Today stores are opening as early as 5 PM on Thanksgiving Day. With this new trend, I can’t help but wonder how long we will continue to call it Black Friday?

Will you be out shopping on Black Friday or clicking on computer keys enjoying cyber deals from the comfort of your own home? Perhaps you will be boycotting the holiday by remaining firmly on your couch digesting those delicious holiday foods. If you are one of the hard working Americans that will be taking up a post directing traffic or ringing up items, I thank you and wish you a happy day after the day after Thanksgiving.

Where are all the tax forms?

taxesFriends:

The IRS informed us on January 9th, 2015:

“As you may be aware, IRS appropriations were significantly cut in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill recently passed by Congress. Unfortunately this puts us in a position where we have very few options. We want to honor our commitment to you by providing some key products, but we cannot deliver nearly what we have in the past.”

The only forms we will receive will be the 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ.    We will NOT receive instruction booklets.

The IRS has suggested the following alternate methods

• IRS.gov/Forms – to view and download
• IRS.gov/orderforms – to order tax products to be delivered by mail
• 1-800-829-3676 – to order tax products to be delivered by mail

Frugal Librarian #44: Liquid Markup

We’ll file this one next to “what kinds of products keep places like Best Buy in business”?

Today we’ll simply focus on fluids.

1)LCD screen cleaner – How selfless of them to offer everything you need in an easy to use kit?  Too bad it’s just a microfiber cloth, isopropyl alcohol, and distilled water. You can make a gallon for 3% of that price.

2) Shredder oil – Paper shredders are an excellent way to fight identity theft. The action of shredding paper generates a large amount of dust that is detrimental to the life of the printer.  Big box stores sell a lubricant for this purpose.  I don’t know if I’d want to stir fry with it, but according to lifehacker, this product is canola oil placed in a different container.

Frugal Librarian #43: Great goober shortage of 2011

These are the times that try mens souls.  Food charities are concerned, and the benevolent food industry giants like Con Agra are raising prices 40 percent just to keep up.  Classic cheap source of protein and kid appeaser, peanut butter, is in short supply due to the invisible hand of the market.

If you’re not inclined to switch to Vegamite like our Aussie pals, plan to pay more or make other sandwich plans until the next crop.

Frugal Librarian #42: Weekly savings cycle

We’ve all heard the cheapest day for airline ticket purchases, for which there has been no definitive ruling about the mythical master mainframe of all airfares that mystically opens up pumpkin coach-class seats at midnight on a Wednesday.

According to site Extrabux, there is also some data out there that backs up weekly price trends for computers, TV’s, jewelry, appliances, books, and more.

And if you want a deal, don’t worry that cyber Monday has passed.   The biggest online day of the shopping year usually ends up being something like December 10th.   On which, the odds of getting pepper-sprayed/trampled by your fellow retail shopper significantly decrease.

Frugal Librarian #41: Vitaminimalist

The most expensive multivitamin is the better one, because the price reflects a company with more stringent quality controls, right?  Not at all.  But the cheaper ones aren’t any good either, right?  Wrong again.  Some of them are stellar.  Some.

It turns out there is pretty much no correlation between cost and quality, from a few cents per dose to some over fifty cents a pill.  Some don’t have the the advertised  RDA of certain vitamins.  Some have unhealthful contaminates.  Some are of such low quality they don’t disintegrate properly, rendering them ineffective.

So, just don’t take vitamins then?  Also, a bad idea.  Read the results of this experiment and buy the cheapest with a passing score.