The Dark Corners of the Internet

The Physics arXiv Blog— • 26 October 2013

Information is not a disease. The overused analogy of information sharing as viral infection doesn't really hold up—after all, passing on a message is a lot more selective than spreading germs. Read on for more on how researchers in China are using this insight to build new network simulation models that acknowledge users who "never receive the information and make up a kind of underclass who eke out an information-poor existence in a few dark corners of the network."

A good antidote to the notion that information can be transferred exactly like a virus, this article puts some science behind that expression we often hear after a well-publicized event catches some people by surprise: "apparently the word didn't get out." Well, it did, but transmitting does not equal receiving. The cited paper was (to my non-expert eye) impenetrable, but the summary is worth a read, if only for this priceless description of the Internet: "These steps are repeated until the network reaches a steady state in which everybody is either exhausted or uninformed." Sounds about right. (Washburn)

All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines

The Atlantic • 23 October 2013

Automation nation. Nicholas Carr warns of the "de-skilling" of some professions, including aviation and surgery, where computer automation has relegated a practitioner to the status of "high-tech clerk—entering data, monitoring outputs, and watching for failures." The narrowed focus "alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes and skills of people taking part." Read on for more on the decoupling of skill and understanding from results and what it means to become "people of the screen."

The sky is falling! (Again!) Nicholas Carr, author of the 2008 article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" has set his sights even higher now, indicting automation in the dumbing of the world. His claim is that, "Automation turns us from actors into observers" and that our brains work best when actively engaged in a task rather than passively monitoring a task. There is clearly some truth in this and he recounts incidents from a couple of industries where the level of engagement by the participants affects their measured skill levels. Carr sees the shape of the solution to the problem: software that engages the participants more actively, but de-emphasizes it. We are not yet at the pinnacle of software creation and the problems he identifies don't make the task of programming easier. But this is all part of a learning curve as we adapt to our new tools and as we better adapt them to us. (LeVan)

Edison's Revenge

The Economist • 19 October 2013

Current events. Check out these predictions for USB cable-delivered electricity using direct current (DC) technology. A new USB PD (Power Delivery) standard will launch next year, and energy experts are already working on ways to harness low-voltage DC power to run a wide range of devices, from laptops to computer server farms.

The potential impact of this development is much greater than the synopsis reveals. A direct current electrical grid can send data as well as electricity in both directions. This can enable small "smart grids" that can, for example, move power around where it is most needed while cycling down devices that can give up power for a time. Imagine a solar-powered home with the native intelligence to charge all your devices when the sun is shining and allow them to use that stored power while the array refills the house-wide electricity storage system. This is potentially huge, and it's astonishing to think that the technology that allows you to carry around gigabytes of storage on your keychain may one day be the foundational technology of your new, much smarter, home and place of business. (Tennant)

The More Time We Spend Online, the Less Time We Spend Working

HBR Blog Network • 22 October 2013

No surprise here. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research used data from the American Time Use Survey to determine that for each additional minute that Americans spend online socializing, .27 fewer minutes are spent working, .12 fewer minutes are spent sleeping, and .6 fewer minutes are spent on education. Read on for a snapshot of how online leisure activities are cutting into people's basic productivity potential.

Although at first this seems alarming, there's a nod to the potential upside of time spent online ("for some workers at least, time spent on social media can improve work-related knowledge and skills") and also an acknowledgement that there's overlap in between online and offline activities. I'm socializing face to face less (maybe) but I'm also more caught up, at least with some people. Yes, I'm doing it online but I'm planning tomorrow's workout (no, really!). And for me, social media is an important place to get work done. But you must excuse me, someone just mentioned me in a Tweet . . .  (Proffitt)

The Many Lives of Iron Mountain

The New Yorker • 23 October 2013

Storage stories. Anyone who's ever been involved in archival document storage has heard of Iron Mountain. New Yorker archive editor Joshua Rothman toured the cavernous facilities, which date back to 1951 (following a previous life producing iron for horseshoes and cannonballs). Iron Mountain has housed everything from Monets to mushrooms; in the face of myriad cloud storage solutions, Rothman's account is a reminder that physical artifact preservation is a whole different business.

RLG and then OCLC have been storing microfilm masters in a former limestone mine since the mid 1980s, when it was part of National Underground Storage (it was acquired by Iron Mountain in 1998). There are now about 70,000 rolls of film in our vaults. Our cave-mates include the National Archives, Warner Brothers, and Corbis. Iron Mountain's first facility, in 1938, was a place to grow mushrooms. In 1951 it evolved into a fallout shelter for corporate information. Under new ownership, Iron Mountain expanded at a fast rate beginning in the 1970s, focusing on paper storage, and continuing today, with the fastest growth in computer data storage and acquisitions. They now have over 1000 storage locations. Decidedly not in the cloud. (Erway)

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