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October 11, 2007
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport today, the US government began testing a "millimeter wave" airport body-scanning machine that could eventually be used instead of metal detectors, reports the Associated Press.
Since February, the Phoenix airport has been testing a similar machine that uses "backscatter radiation" (a narrow, low-intensity x-ray beam) to scans the entire body at a high speed. A millimeter wave full-body scanning system -- already in use in Amsterdam's airport -- uses non-ionizing electromagnetic waves to generate an image based on the energy reflected from the body. What's the difference, you ask?
Here's a backscatter x-ray scan:
And here's a millimeter wave scan:
"To protect privacy, the image will be shown on screens in a completely different area than where the screening is taking place," the AP reports. The Transportation Security Administration officer doing the screening will never see the computer image, and images will not be saved, according to a TSA spokeswoman.
Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's program on technology and liberty, doesn't buy it. "I continue to believe that these are virtual strip searches," Steinhardt said. "If Playboy published them, there would be politicians out there saying they're pornographic."
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 08:04 PM
October 11, 2007
Over at the Huffington Post, "Fear of Flying" author Erica Jong praises the Nobel committee for having awarded this year's literature prize to Doris Lessing. Excerpt:
They could have given it to Philip Roth for paeans to his penis. They could have found some previously untranslated shepherd in Transylvania writing haiku in a language spoken by a dozen other shepherds. They could have found some trendy political prisoner, jailed for his writing. But, amazingly, the Nobel committee decided to recognize a woman writer whose work has opened up the female soul to literary scrutiny, chronicled and questioned the war between the sexes, refused to categorize the human species by cliche or received wisdom and allowed her great imagination to engage the universe. This prize gives me hope that one day women writers maybe celebrated for their creativity rather than diminished for their gender.
I think it's great that Lessing got the Novel nod, and everything. But who is Jong sniping at, here?
By "Philip Roth," does she really mean Saul Bellow, who won the prize in 1976? The Transylvanian shepherd, of course, can only be Elfriede Jelinek, of whom nobody (in New York, anyway) had heard before she won in '04. Is the "trendy political prisoner" business a reference to Orhan Pamuk, who won in '06, around the time that criminal charges were being pressed against him, in his native Turkey, because of his outspoken comments on the Armenian Genocide?
Don't mince words, Ms. Jong. Inquiring minds want to know!
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 02:32 PM
October 11, 2007
The Globe's Business section reported today on Enemybook, "one of several new online applications developed by computer-savvy twentysomethings who say they are tired of bogus online friendships."
Kevin Matulef, a 28-year-old MIT grad student doing a doctoral thesis on algorithms, designed Enemybook, which lets people list enemies on their personal Facebook page.
Back in 2003, just a few months after the beta-launch of the social networking site Facebook, Matulef -- then still an undergrad -- came across "an Examined Life item in the Boston Globe's Ideas section that blew my mind," he says. "It was called 'The Friend of My Friendster Is My Enemy' -- it reported on [anti-Friendster] parody sites like Enemyster, Fiendster, and Introvertster. None of these sites actually did anything, so I've been working ever since to make that dream a reality."
Oops! Matulef didn't really say that. But I did write about anti-Friendster activism in 2003. Like many Examined Life items, it's not on Boston.com, but now you can read it here.
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 02:15 PM
October 11, 2007
So, how many cigarettes did you smoke last week? How many times did you "engage in sexual intercourse"? What do you earn?
Social scientists have a problem on their hands: People don't answer questions on sensitive subjects accurately. One survey of women wound up underreporting the number of abortions occurring nationally by about half, for example. (The answers could be cross-checked against hospital data.) And some researchers have found that people are even less likely to speak honestly about income than sex. Often, they just won't answer. (A curiosity about those sex questions: Asking them how often they "have sex" leads to better answers than references to "sexual intercourse.")
According to Roger Tourangeau and Ting Yan, survey specialists at the University of Maryland and Michigan respectively, the problem is getting worse, because of homo sapiens' growing annoyance over surveys, period. (Think: call screening.) "The need for methods of data collection that elicit accurate information is more urgent than ever," they write in the latest issue of Psychological Bulletin. [Subscribers only.]
The key to accurate data collection, they conclude based on a review of the literature, is to depersonalize the process as much as possible. The goal is to decrease the shame factor. Machines help -- but not phones. Respondents are as unlikely to tell the truth to a fellow human during a phone call as they are to a human sitting on their couch.
When an interview takes place in person, asking the respondent to write down the answer and place it into an immediately sealed envelope helps. Having them type the answer into a computer is even better, some research suggests.
Yet Tourangeau and Yan add that as our relationship to technology changes, survey-takers will have to stay one step ahead of the game. Evidence suggests that survey-takers do not trust networked computers, for example. And computerized voices -- anything that makes the computer seem "human" -- elicit some of the same defensive mechanisms as do queries from live researchers.
There have always been some oddball solutions to these survey challenges: Asking a teenager to blow into a tube and informing him that his answers about drug use over the past month will be verified against the contents, to take one example, tends to elicit truthful responses. But that's a lie, so the technique faces ethical hurdles. Same with the old "I'm carrying a lie detector in my pocket" gambit -- which, surprisingly, works, too. The quest for honest answers about embarrassing matters continues ...
(How much do you make again?)
Posted by Christopher Shea at 02:13 PM
October 11, 2007
Ok, Brainiac the blog isn't 40 -- but I am! My 40th birthday was on October 6, and I'm still recovering from the three-day-long celebration. Which is why I haven't been posting. Sorry...
As if I needed a reminder of my mortality, I noticed in this morning's Globe that "Roxbury's own Bobby Brown was released from an LA hospital yesterday after suffering what his attorney termed a mild heart attack."
According to the Globe:
TMZ.com was the first to report that the former boy-band star had been hospitalized Tuesday, suffering a "heart-attack scare" that began with tightening in his chest and tingling in one of his arms. According to the website, the 40-year-old R&B singer was rushed to the hospital by girlfriend Alicia Etheridge, and even recorded a video message to his family in the event he didn't survive.
Yikes! A heart attack at 40? Actually, I think Brown is only 38, since he was a grade or two behind me at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School, on Humboldt Avenue. (The Trotter is sometimes described as being in Dorchester, sometimes Roxbury. Actually, it's in Grove Hall, a no-man's land between the two neighborhoods. Now you know.) I didn't really know him, though he stole my calculator once.
Of course, he's led a much more active lifestyle than I have. When I was entering Boston Latin School in 1980, Brown was founding New Edition; and when I was going off to college in '86, he was getting kicked out of the group because of his "lewd on-stage antics." When I was dropping out of grad school in '92, he was marrying the divine Whitney Houston. And in 2003-04, when I was toiling away as a columnist for Ideas, Brown was getting himself arrested for battery and drunk driving. I've published one book; he's got over half-a-dozen albums and a reality TV show under his belt.
Brown also rapped these immortal lines: "Too hot to handle, too cold to hold/They're called the Ghostbusters and they're in control/Had 'em throwin' a party for a bunch of children/While all the while the slime was under the building/So they packed up their group, got a grip, came equipped/Grabbed their proton packs off their back and they split/Found about Vigo, the master of evil/Try to battle my boys? That's not legal!"
Let's face it: I don't deserve a heart attack.
Brown has denied that he'd had a heart attack, telling Associated Press Radio that he was simply at the hospital for a check-up. "I did go to the hospital, to just get a check-up, get everything tested out so that I could go on this tour, and everything is fine," he said. Brown added: "I don't know where the heart attack thing came from. I got my heart and everything checked out earlier this morning, and I'm just fine."
Phew! I, for one, am willing to believe that Brown is telling the truth. Stay healthy, Bobby.
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 01:34 PM
October 9, 2007
As I mentioned last week, when I was blogging from the Ideas Boston 2007 conference, MIT wunderkind Erik Demaine is not only brilliant -- he's a MacArthur-winning young computer science professor who researches data structures for improving web searches, the geometry of understanding how proteins fold, and the computational difficulty of playing games -- but he also seems funny and cool.
So I hope he won't take this the wrong way:
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 11:46 PM
October 8, 2007
Of this once-funny locution, as deployed, in classic fashion, by Frank Rich this weekend?
What's the difference between a low-tech lynching and a high-tech lynching? A high-tech lynching brings a tenured job on the Supreme Court and a $1.5 million book deal. A low-tech lynching, not so much.
He's speaking, of course, of Justice Clarence Thomas's favorite metaphor. Not that Rich doesn't have a point -- and I realize this is Jan's territory. But having read the "not so much" punchline in 8,000 blog entries and precisely 103 Gawker items (never mind the comments section), it's D.O.A. every time now, at least to my ears.
But back to Thomas. You know those angry emails you sit on for a day and then delete? Thomas has had a decade and a half to rethink that inflammatory rhetoric. Not only doesn't he rethink the similarities and differences between his own status and that of a man hanged by racist vigilantes ... he takes it up a notch and puts it between hard covers.
[Edited for clarity, 10/9/07, 10:20 a.m. -- CS]
Posted by Christopher Shea at 04:11 PM