SciTechBlog
February 27, 2009

Where did my files go?

Posted: 12:00 PM ET

Think back to the last time someone handed you a floppy disk that had valuable files on it.  It's probably been a few years.  Most people no longer even have a floppy drive with which to access the disk. This is where problems start to arise for some people and businesses. 

Will today's technology become obsolete as quickly as this floppy drive computer?

For years, individuals and companies have stored important data on floppy disks and magnetic tapes that have either decayed in quality or are no longer accessible due to lack of available hardware to run them. Up to 20 percent of the information recorded by NASA for the 1976 Viking mission was lost because it was on magnetic tape.

Thousands of years ago people were writing on stone tablets.  Over time stone tablets turned into writing on paper and then all of a sudden we were recording onto magnetic tape, floppy disks, flash memory and most recently, Blu-Ray DVDs. Recording formats are changing so quickly nowadays that people need to be thinking about whether their files are going to be accessible in a few years in their current format. 

Preserving digital material isn’t as easy as filing away a few papers.  You must make sure the file format you store them on will make them easily accessible in the years to come. 

Take, for example, JVC’s Everio line of hard-drive camcorders.  Instead of recording in a standard format such as .avi or .mpeg, they record in .tod.  Only a few programs can even read that file format because it is so obscure.  So you have to go through a lengthy conversion process where there is a potential for a loss of image and audio quality.  Who knows - maybe in 10 years .tod files will not be supported by any program, and those videos will be lost.

Technology has helped us preserve history at a greater rate than in years past but it requires us to be more proactive while doing it.

So here's the question: Should there be more of a standard format for preserving digital files, and should there be better support for future use of those varied formats? 

- Christopher Piatt, CNN Media Coordinator

Filed under: computers


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February 26, 2009

Tweets on the Hill

Posted: 12:31 PM ET

Transparency seems to be all the rage on Capitol Hill these days. And what better way for Congress to connect directly with constituents than through Twitter, the free social-messaging site?

Members of Congress listen to President Obama's address Tuesday night. Some Twittered during the speech. Photo: Getty Images.

As I began following the 100 or so members who currently use Twitter through a site called http://tweetcongress.org, I found the Democrat-to-Republican tweeting ratio a bit surprising. There are only 29 Democrats tweeting compared to 57 or so Republicans.

As we saw in the last election campaign, Democrats have a reputation as being hipper and more plugged-in than their GOP counterparts. So are Republicans now trying to drum up support with the tech-savvy crowd through this hot medium that seems to be spreading like wildfire?

Twitter gives the public a sense of what’s happening in now in the halls of Congress. It’s like a real-time backstage pass to Capitol Hill. We elected these people to do a job, and Twitter gives us a way to connect with them more directly than ever.

During President Obama's speech Tuesday night to the joint session of Congress, Texas Republican congressman John Culberson posted, "This is always an awe-inspiring experience no matter who is President," and "Capt Sully is here - awesome!" These personal messages give us a behind-the-scenes look at how our government works, humanize our elected leaders and avoid the cumbersome rhetoric that we find in formal congressional correspondence.

However, there are a handful of potential pitfalls in congressional tweeting, which might be why not every senator or congressman has jumped on the Twitter bandwagon. There are no Twitter filters or copy editors, and once a tweet is out there, there is no turning back. This can be a dicey prospect for a politician.

During President Obama’s speech, one such tweet slipped through the cracks for congressman Joe Barton, another Texas Republican, who Twittered, “Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren’t going to bother watching Pelosi smirk for the next hour.”

Oops! Several minutes later another message followed, saying, “Disregard that last tweet from a staffer.” Insert tweet in mouth.

So, should there be some filter or editor to protect our congressmen from themselves? Or can we benefit from these raw, unpolished glimpses at our elected representatives? Let us know what you think!

- Callie Carmichael, CNN.com

Filed under: Internet • Politics


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February 25, 2009

Don't mess with this gang (of birds)

Posted: 10:53 AM ET
Common ravens, contrary to what was thought, sometimes forage in gangs.
Common ravens, contrary to what was thought, sometimes forage in gangs.

You may think of ravens as solitary creatures rapping at chamber doors, but new research shows that some of young ones form gangs when they look for meals, which consist of animal carcasses.

Gangs, in this context, mean groups of juvenile ravens that forage together and overwhelm the territorial adults defending the animal carcass, said researcher Sasha Dall of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail. In other words, the kids get together try to chase off the adults defending the food, which may influence their social standing among their peers.

This is the first time that flock foraging has been observed in common ravens, Dall said. In a typical raven roost, a bird attains dominance by finding a carcass alone.

"Since most birds will therefore have to suffer being bullied a lot, there is a strong advantage to doing things to avoid giving any one bird such finder advantages," Dall said. "Turns out foraging in gangs is one such tactic."

In fact, the birds' behavior can be explained by game theory, a branch of mathematics that looks at strategic interactions, Dall's research found. The ravens forage in gangs when searching for food alone is no more efficient than foraging with others, the model shows. It's unlikely that the birds are consciously making such calculations, however, and these responses are likely hard-wired, Dall said.

Any analogies to human behavior are limited, but the research does illustrate how food availability, environment, and other external factors can influence social advancement and the stability of groups, Dall said. Scientists believe human ancestors also faced problems of food scarcity, and one solution to surviving in particular environments is to pool the food-finding efforts. If the group solution works in particular circumstances, it's "nevermore" to individual foraging.

The research is published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

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Filed under: Animals • Birds


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February 20, 2009

Al Gore, stem cells, and the perfect kiss

Posted: 12:32 PM ET
Former Vice President Al Gore addresses the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Former Vice President Al Gore addresses the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

From former Vice President Al Gore's speech to a slew of fascinating presentations, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Illinois, was a whirlwind tour of innovative ideas. Here are some highlights of what we did:

-Saw Gore's presentation: Given that pop-culture conferences have concerts as their evening highlights, it makes sense that the AAAS would have America's climate-change rock star - who recently won a Grammy, no less - to get people on their feet. More than a thousand scientists, journalist, educators and students greeted Gore with a standing ovation as he took the stage.

In his speech, Gore identified a common thread between global warming, our national security and the world financial meltdown - our "absurd" dependence on carbon-based fuels. When you pull on the thread, he said, "then all three of these crises can begin to unravel.” The solution: shifting to an infrastructure based on fuels that are free, such as solar and wind power, and bolstering the science of clean and sustainable energy.

Gore seemed optimistic about Obama’s appointments to the Cabinet and the direction our country is taking to address the issue of climate change, which he called "a historic struggle." He emphasized the importance of us all working together as a species in order to prevent further threats to the entirety of human civilization.

Through a series of slides, which included the most recent scientific findings on climate change, Gore communicated his "inconvenient truth" to the audience while urging scientists to get more involved in their communities. He also called on scientists to get involved in politics, to speak out as “civic scientists” and to “find ways to communicate the truth." He concluded by saying, “Keep your day job, but start getting involved in this historic debate. We need you."

P.S. Gore uses an iPhone, too - he had to turn it off during the speech.

-Learned about stem cells: Bone marrow is one important source of adult stem cells, researchers say. And did you know that humans make 10 billion red blood cells every hour of every day? Dr. Will Li of the Angiogenesis Foundation talked about the potential of endothelial progenitor cells in the marrow for treatments of conditions such as diabetes.

-Got in touch with our emotions: People commonly feel better by writing their feelings down, and now scientists are beginning to understand why. Brain-imaging studies indicate that putting your feelings into words has the effect of regulating emotions, said Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles.

-Became kissing experts: Researchers presented their findings on the hormones involved in kissing, and the role of kissing in beginning (or ending) relationships. Full story

More from the conference: learn about a face transplant patient, think about foods of the future, and ponder Darwin's connection to Buddhism.

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Filed under: Uncategorized


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February 19, 2009

iReporters weigh in on Facebook flap

Posted: 05:46 PM ET

Chances are that most of you have never read the terms of service agreement on any Web site you visit. You probably haven’t even noticed all the junk that sits in tiny print at the bottom of most sites.

iReporter Katy Brown

So why did Facebook’s slight change in their Terms of Service policy cause such an uproar? Well, partly because those of us with a Facebook account tend to check and re-check our pages constantly, obsessively even. We live on Facebook.

But as far as privacy goes, unless you’re planning on becoming a politician or other public figure in the near future, would it really matter if Facebook kept a permanent copy of your information after your account is deleted?

We asked our iReporters to weigh in on the issue:

iReporter Katy Brown has a simple solution. Don’t post something if you think you might regret it later.

But some argue that it’s trickier than that.

iReporter Chris Morrow posted some views expressed by the 'People Against the new Terms of Service (TOS) community” on Facebook. One person writes, "Let's say that 10 years down the road, I become famous. Let's also say that, despite Mark Zuckerberg's well-intentioned promise [not to use members' information], a large multinational corporation buys out Facebook. Per these new TOS, my likeness, photographs, etc., could then be used, for all eternity, to hock Sony products in any way they want."

Morrow's report raises a valid question, but how many of the 175 million active Facebook users will actually become famous?

That’s not the point, according to iReporter Katy Brown, who mentions the Patriot Act in her post. It’s about the right to privacy, not whether you’ll become famous or have your image used for profit later on down the road, she says.

Even though Facebook has since reverted to its original TOS agreement, the episode still has many of us thinking twice about how much we reveal about ourselves on the Web.

What about those artists and writers who rely on social-networking sites to get their work out there? Is there some sort of assurance for them that their work won’t get swiped?

Tell us what you think at iReport.com.

- Callie Carmichael, CNN.com

Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites


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Shooting endangered whales with a crossbow

Posted: 11:32 AM ET

ST. AUGUSTINE, Florida - Katie Jackson has one of those jobs that must be fun to explain at a cocktail party: She uses a crossbow to fire darts at endangered whales.

whale.rescue.florida

When right whales become entangled in fishing rope, Katie Jackson and crew throw grappling hooks from a boat to try to disentangled the endangered mammals.

The marine mammal biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses her sharpshooting skills to try to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which, with a population of only 400, is thought to be the most endangered large whale in the world.

This time of year, the whales are giving birth off the coast of north Florida and Georgia (see CNN.com story here).

After new calves are born, Katie and crew are close behind in a boat. She fires a crossbow dart at the rump of the baby whales, which already weigh a ton. The hollow point of the dart removes a chunk of tissue scientists use to learn about the genetics of each whale.

Katie says the darts don't hurt the whales. They feel about like a paper cut would to a human.

The genetic samples are important, she says, because not much is known about right whales. The information helps researchers set up family trees for the whales. They also use the close encounters as a rare chance to observe the right whales' habits.

So far, scientists are on track to see a record number of new calves this year. The birthing season comes to a close at the end of March.

But scientists also are seeing more right whales entangled in fishing rope. The ropes restrict their movements and can cause cuts and infections that kill the whales. Katie's team also works to free entangled whales. From the front of an inflatable boat, she and other scientists toss grappling hooks toward the whales, hoping to catch and then remove the lines that threaten to kill them.

- John Sutter, CNN.com

Filed under: Animals • environment


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February 18, 2009

Could jailbreaking your iPhone land you in jail?

Posted: 09:56 AM ET
ALT TEXT

Well probably not jail – but if Apple has its way, in some sort of legal trouble.  I saw this over at Wired’s Threat Level blog. Apparently Apple is asserting that hacking the phone to run non-approved applications violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Jailbreaking is a process that opens up the iPhone's or iPod Touch's OS to installing applications not purchased or downloaded from Apple’s official application store.

This means you can get apps that do things like allow you to use your iPhone as a 3G modem for your laptop – or a host of other things that Apple and AT&T don’t approve of. Jailbroken phones also can be moved from AT&T to other wireless carriers.

If you want to read Apple's comments on the matter, check out this 31-page PDF.

Apple has always been very keen on protecting its property - some would say to the point of being a bully. In this case, it puts the company up against a community of software developers and users who would prefer everything to be open.

(For the record, I haven’t jailbroken my iPhone – but I do see the attraction. I mainly don’t want to deal with the issues that hacking my phone might have on its functionality.)

So here’s the question: Since Apple built the iPhone, should they be able to tell you what you can and can’t do once you’ve bought it? Or are we merely renting this device along with our AT&T service plan?

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Filed under: Apple • iPhone


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February 17, 2009

Whales' 'first line of defense'

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

FLAGLER BEACH, Florida - The wind is out today in Florida, and that means my quest to see one of the most endangered whales in the world will be shifted a bit.

whale.watchers.florida

Patsy Sater and Paul Henderson watch for endangered right whales from a restaurant balcony in northern Florida.

I had planned to venture into the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat with scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to search for right whales. But the wind gusts are too strong, which makes boat trips like this risky and unproductive. It's difficult for the researchers to spot the whales in choppy waters.

So I went to my plan B, which ended up being tons of fun: I traveled by foot and car up the Florida coast with a group of retirees who look for the school-bus-sized whales from the shore.

Right whales are sometimes called “urban whales” because they live in waters so near the East Coast of the U.S. These volunteer whale watchers say the massive black whales sometimes come very near to the beach. Last Friday they spotted 11 of them at once - a group of juveniles playing.

Armed with binoculars, they troll up and down the coast looking for blackish blobs of whale on the horizon. John Kostiak, 62, told me the whales look like black Sharpie marks on the blue ocean.  When they spot a whale, they call in backup from scientists who then alert the shipping community to their presence. Collisions with ships are a major cause of right whale deaths, and these volunteers see themselves as a first line of defense. If they see a whale before a ship does, they could save a life. Only 400 of these whales exist, so each is critically important to the species' survival.

The volunteers showed true dedication: One wore whale earrings and a whale necklace. Another goes out on these watches four days a week - spending four hours each day just looking for the behemoths. They all spoke of the intense joy they feel when they find a whale. That's relatively rare, though. One told me he's only called in two sightings in eight years.

Like others, they hope their efforts contribute a small part to protecting a creature they’ve come to love. They also say they're raising whale awareness through their efforts. Many people - even in this part of north Florida - don't realize right whales give birth right off the coast here, well within eyesight.

Each morning, the volunteers are doing their part to change that.

- John Sutter, CNN.com

Posted by: , , ,
Filed under: Animals • environment


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February 16, 2009

Was Darwin a Buddhist?

Posted: 05:35 PM ET
Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.
Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.

Just days after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, journalists and scientists from all over the world converged to confront a fascinating connection: Some of Darwin's views have a lot in common with Buddhist teachings.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, psychologist Paul Ekman, known for his research showing the universality of facial expressions across cultures, told us that Darwin's descriptions of compassion, as well as his view of morality as it relates to compassion, closely mirror Buddhist ideas.

"There’s always the possibility that two wise people looking at the same species will come up with the same conclusions," said Ekman, who co-wrote a book with the Dalai Lama on compassion called "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion."

It turns out that Darwin's friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist and explorer, visited Tibet in 1847. He became familiar with Buddhist views there. He also wrote letters to Darwin. This is just one of many ways that Darwin could have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, Ekman said.

For Darwin and Buddhists, the seed for compassion is in the mother-infant relationship - this is "simple compassion," Ekman said. Then there's global compassion - for example, sending money and clothes to victims of a natural disaster. Finally, heroic compassion means risking your own life to save another - and you probably don't know if you have heroic compassion unless you've been in a situation like that, Ekman said.

The fundamental idea in both Darwin's writings and Buddhist views of compassion is that "when I see you suffer, it makes me suffer, and that motivates me to reduce your suffering so I can reduce my suffering," Ekman said.

The curious coincidence of views serves as a backdrop for understanding the nature of compassion, he said.

"I’m not by any means accusing Darwin of plagiarism," he explained.

What do you think? Does this link between Darwin and Buddhism have greater implications? Read more about Darwin on CNN.com

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Filed under: Evolution • science


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February 14, 2009

The death of BitTorrent?

Posted: 09:55 AM ET
ALT TEXT

If Pirate Bay goes down for the count, could it take all of BitTorrent with it?

The people who run the massive BitTorrent site Pirate Bay (thepiratebay.org) are going on trial for copyright violations next week in Stockholm, Sweden.

BitTorrent is a popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol which is widely used to share large media files like television shows, movies and music.

TorrentFreak has an interesting article which quotes Raynor Vliegendhart of the Tribler P2P team at Delft University of Technology, who believes that the Pirate Bay’s servers support as much as 50 percent of all the BitTorrent traffic on the Internet.

So the general belief is if they go down for any extended time - or, God forbid, permanently - it could have a huge impact on torrenters everywhere, including leading to the failure of other trackers (sites that coordinate the sharing process) due to overload.

As always, can’t wait to hear what you, our valued viewers, have to say on this topic.

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Filed under: Internet


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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