Thursday, May 24, 2007

Researchers Turn Web Blather to Books

"A few simple keystrokes may soon turn blather into books. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have discovered a way to enlist people across the globe to help digitize books every time they solve the simple distorted word puzzles commonly used to register at Web sites or buy things online.

The word puzzles are known as CAPTCHAs, short for "completely automated public Turing tests to tell computers and humans apart." Computers can't decipher the twisted letters and numbers, ensuring that real people and not automated programs are using the Web sites.

Researchers estimate that about 60 million of those nonsensical jumbles are solved everyday around the world, taking an average of about 10 seconds each to decipher and type in.

Instead of wasting time typing in random letters and numbers, Carnegie Mellon researchers have come up with a way for people to type in snippets of books to put their time to good use, confirm they're not machines and help speed up the process of getting searchable texts online.

Humanity is wasting 150,000 hours every day on these," said Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. He helped develop the CAPTCHAs about seven years ago. "Is there any way in which we can use this human time for something good for humanity, do 10 seconds of useful work for humanity?"

Many large projects are under way now to digitize books and put them online, and that's mostly being done by scanning pages of books so that people can "page through" the books online. In some cases, optical character recognition, or OCR, is being used to digitize books to make the texts searchable.

But von Ahn said OCR doesn't always work on text that is older, faded or distorted. In those cases, often the only way to digitize the works is to manually type them into a computer.

Von Ahn is working with the Internet Archive, which runs several book-scanning projects, to use CAPTCHAs for this instead. Internet Archive scans 12,000 books a month and sends von Ahn hundreds of thousands of files that are images that the computer doesn't recognize. Those files are downloaded onto von Ahn's server and split up into single words that can be used as CAPTCHAs at sites all over the Internet.

If enough users decipher the CAPTCHAs in the same way, the computer will recognize that as the correct answer.

"If we can correct these books so that they are really in good shape, then you can go and use these books in other type devices more easily" such as handheld computers or in programs for reading to the blind, said Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Internet Archive.

Von Ahn approached the Internet Archive to get help in developing the new system, but it has not been put into use yet. Theoretically, von Ahn said the new book-based CAPTCHAs could be used in place of any CAPTCHA currently on the Web.

The project, named reCAPTCHA, is one of many projects that enlist computer users from the community to help out. For example, Cloudmark Inc. uses its base of users to judge what is spam and what isn't. News aggregation sites like Digg Inc.'s and Time Warner Inc. (TWX)'s ask visitors to recommend and vote on items to go on top.

For von Ahn's project, Intel Corp. (INTC) donated equipment and the work was sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded von Ahn a "genius grant" last year.

Kahle, whose Internet Archive has about 200,000 books currently online, is working with libraries in three countries to digitize their books. Kahle said von Ahn's project is "harnessing human power in exactly the right way."

"It's definitely a barn-raising to try to build the great library," Kahle said."

On the net:

Saturday, May 19, 2007

What if Abe Lincoln had survived?

"Abraham Lincoln might have survived being shot if today’s medical technology had existed in 1865.

Given that scenario, the question is whether Lincoln would have recovered well enough to return to office, a doctor and a historian said Friday at an annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference on the deaths of historic figures.

While the conference has traditionally re-examined the deaths of historic figures to determine if the diagnosis of the time was correct, this year’s event asks if Lincoln could have been saved and what impact that would have had.

Dr. Thomas Scalea, the physician in chief at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma Center, said brain injuries are unpredictable but Lincoln would have stood a good chance of surviving.
“I don’t believe that the president had a uniformly fatal injury,” said Scalea, who explained how

Lincoln would have been treated at his center, the world’s first dedicated trauma center.
The trauma center can conduct CT scans, X-rays and a host of other tests within minutes of arrival. Physical therapy, nutrition and other rehabilitative treatment also can make for dramatic improvements, though recovery varies from patient to patient, Scalea said.

“He probably would have been left with substantial disability, but you never really know,” the surgeon told the conference.

Lincoln died within 10 hours of being shot in the head at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. If modern methods could have saved the 16th president, he may have also retained his cognitive abilities because the fatal shot did not damage the frontal lobes of Lincoln’s brain, which are responsible for language, emotion and problem solving, Scalea said.

However, Lincoln would have faced months of recovery before he could have returned to office, and whether he would have been able to communicate is unclear, the surgeon said.

U.S. presidential historian Steven Lee Carson said Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who made a number of important decisions the day after the assassination, would likely have played a greater role if Lincoln had survived.

Vice President Andrew Johnson would not automatically have taken charge had Lincoln lived because the 25th Amendment, which deals with the transfer of power when a president is incapacitated, was not in place until after the Kennedy assassination. The decision as to who took charge was handled on a case-by-case basis until then, Carson said.

For example, Woodrow Wilson’s wife essentially took over when her husband fell ill, Carson said.
Johnson, who took office after Lincoln’s death, was the only Southern senator not to leave office upon secession. Lincoln had put him on the presidential ticket as a symbol of unity, but Johnson was a southern Democrat who was not sympathetic to Lincoln’s Republican party or to helping the newly freed slaves, said Carson, who spoke at the conference Friday.

If Lincoln had survived and “could reason and somehow get his thoughts across, the United States certainly would have been a better and more just nation, especially on matters of race, and in a far quicker fashion,” Carson said."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Meet The Women Of Mercury 13

"They were aviation pioneers who were virtually unknown for nearly half a century.

But as CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller reports, a sea of graduating seniors recognized them for having had the right stuff at the wrong time.

The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh awarded honorary doctorates to eight of the remaining Mercury 13 – thirteen of America's finest female pilots who trained secretly to become astronauts at the dawn of the space race.

"We were ready to lay our lives on the line to be an astronaut," 75-year-old Jerrie Cobb said.

But when NASA said "manned space flight," it meant just that. Sexism and prejudice scrubbed their mission and their dreams.

"I finally got to talk with Vice President Johnson and he said, 'Jerrie if we let you or other women into the space program, we have to let blacks in, we'd have to let Mexican-Americans in, we have to let every minority in and we just can't do it'."

Jerrie Cobb was the first of what NASA called the "First Lady Astronaut Trainees." She had set records as a pilot and logged twice as many flight hours as John Glenn.

All of the Mercury 13 were accomplished. All aced the same rigorous training as the Mercury 7 men, and sometimes outperformed them.

"The women took part in much more strenuous tests," said Martha Ackmann, who wrote the book that introduced these trailblazers to the world. She also gave Saturday's key note address.

While the Mercury 13 women were grounded, the Russians launched the first woman into space in 1963.

It would take the U.S. two more decades to send up astronaut Sally Ride, and another 12 years before Eileen Collins would pilot a space mission.

"I'm just sorry that it took our government so long," Cobb said. "We wanted to go. We were qualified and we were ready."

The glass ceiling remains in aviation. Only a quarter of the nation's 154 astronauts are women. The numbers are even smaller for female pilots. They account for just 2.5 percent of pilots flying military jets and 3.5 percent of pilots of commercial aircraft.

The men who made up the Mercury 7 got fame and glory, and many believe it's time the Mercury 13 got their due.

"I think something like a congressional gold medal would be an honor," Ackmann said. "I think their names should be in the Smithsonian."

For Jerrie Cobb, finding the right reward would be simple.

'I still expect to go into space," Cobb said. "It's what I was born to do, it's my destiny.'"

See the CBS video here.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Activists Want Chimp Declared a 'Person'

"VIENNA, Austria (AP) - In some ways, Hiasl is like any other Viennese: He indulges a weakness for pastry, likes to paint and enjoys chilling out watching TV. But he doesn't care for coffee, and he isn't actually a person - at least not yet.

In a case that could set a global legal precedent for granting basic rights to apes, animal rights advocates are seeking to get the 26-year-old male chimpanzee legally declared a "person."

Hiasl's supporters argue he needs that status to become a legal entity that can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests.

"Our main argument is that Hiasl is a person and has basic legal rights," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge on behalf of the Association Against Animal Factories, a Vienna animal rights group.

"We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions," Theuer said.

"We're not talking about the right to vote here."

The campaign began after the animal sanctuary where Hiasl (pronounced HEE-zul) and another chimp, Rosi, have lived for 25 years went bankrupt.

Activists want to ensure the apes don't wind up homeless if the shelter closes. Both have already suffered: They were captured as babies in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled in a crate to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned the chimps over to the shelter.

Their food and veterinary bills run about $6,800 a month. Donors have offered to help, but there's a catch: Under Austrian law, only a person can receive personal donations.

Organizers could set up a foundation to collect cash for Hiasl, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But without basic rights, they contend, he could be sold to someone outside Austria, where the chimp is protected by strict animal cruelty laws.

"If we can get Hiasl declared a person, he would have the right to own property. Then, if people wanted to donate something to him, he'd have the right to receive it," said Theuer, who has vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

Austria isn't the only country where primate rights are being debated. Spain's parliament is considering a bill that would endorse the Great Ape Project, a Seattle-based international initiative to extend "fundamental moral and legal protections" to apes.

If Hiasl gets a guardian, "it will be the first time the species barrier will have been crossed for legal 'personhood,'" said Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which is working to end the use of primates in research.

Paula Stibbe, a Briton who teaches English in Vienna, petitioned a district court to be Hiasl's legal trustee. On April 24, Judge Barbara Bart rejected her request, ruling Hiasl didn't meet two key tests: He is neither mentally impaired nor in an emergency.

Although Bart expressed concern that awarding Hiasl a guardian could create the impression that animals enjoy the same legal status as humans, she didn't rule that he could never be considered a person.

Martin Balluch, who heads the Association Against Animal Factories, has asked a federal court for a ruling on the guardianship issue.

"Chimps share 99.4 percent of their DNA with humans," he said. "OK, they're not homo sapiens. But they're obviously also not things - the only other option the law provides."

Not all Austrian animal rights activists back the legal challenge. Michael Antolini, president of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he thinks it's absurd.

"I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved, said Antolini, who worries that chimpanzees could gain broader rights, such as copyright protections on their photographs.

But Stibbe, who brings Hiasl sweets and yogurt and watches him draw and clown around by dressing up in knee-high rubber boots, insists he deserves more legal rights "than bricks or apples or potatoes."

"He can be very playful but also thoughtful," she said. "Being with him is like playing with someone who can't talk."

A date for the appeal hasn't been set, but Hiasl's legal team has lined up expert witnesses, including Jane Goodall, the world's foremost observer of chimpanzee behavior.

"When you see Hiasl, he really comes across as a person," Theuer said.

'He has a real personality. It strikes you immediately: This is an individual. You just have to look him in the eye to see that.'"

Visit the Great Ape Project website here.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Myths Abound About U.S. Bee Disappearance

"The answer to what happened to America's vanishing honeybees is simple, a caller told entomologist May Berenbaum: Bee rapture. They were called away to heaven.

No, wait, it is Earth's magnetic field, another caller told the University of Illinois professor.

And when Berenbaum went on the Internet, she found a parody news site that quoted her as blaming rapper Kevin Federline, Britney Spears' ex-husband, and his concerts for the disappearance of the bees. Berenbaum loved it.

The sudden disappearance of one-quarter of America's honeybees has brought out some strange ideas and downright myths.

“I just can't get any work done,” Berenbaum said. “I'm overwhelmed by e-mails. I can't keep up.”

A couple of bee myths are big on the Internet.

A small German scientific study looking at a specific type of cordless phones and the homing systems of bees exploded over the Internet and late night television shows. It morphed into erroneous reports blaming cell phones for the honeybee die-off, which scientists are calling Colony Collapse Disorder.

The scientist who wrote the paper, Stefan Kimmel, e-mailed The Associated Press to say that there is “no link between our tiny little study and the CCD-phenomenon ... anything else said or written is a lie.” And U.S. Department of Agriculture top bee researcher Jeff Pettis laughs at the idea, because whenever he goes out to investigate dead bees, he cannot get a signal on his cell phone because the hives are in such remote areas.

Also on the Internet is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein on how humans would die off in four years if not for honeybees. It is wrong on two counts.

First, Einstein probably never said it, according to Alice Calaprice, author of “The Quotable Einstein” and five other books on the physicist.

“I've never come across it in anything Einstein has written,” Calaprice said. “It could be that someone had made it up and put Einstein's name on it.”

Second, it is incorrect scientifically, Pettis said. There would be food left for humans because some food is wind-pollinated.

For his part, Pettis jokes that the bees are out creating crop circles 'and it's working them to death.'"