Previous month:
January 2004
Next month:
March 2004

Virtual History

eSchool News, Cara Branigan, February 24, 2004

A software start-up company relying on MIT-derived know-how is developing a historically accurate, high-tech video game that it hopes will engage high school and college students in World War II (WWII) history lessons. The game will employ state-of-the-art technology while meeting the standards and accommodating the limitations of today's classrooms, its developers say.

Making History will have shorter play segments, ranging from 45 to 90 minutes long, that are more suitable for school schedules. It also will have reporting and feedback features built in.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Guardian | Discomfort of strangers

David Goodhart's essay challenging liberals to rethink their attitudes to diversity and the welfare state has provoked a bitter debate among progressive thinkers. Here, The Guardian publishes it in full.

Britain in the 50s was a country stratified by class and region. But in most of its cities, suburbs, towns and villages there was a good chance of predicting the attitudes, even the behaviour, of the people living in your immediate neighbourhood.

In many parts of Britain today that is no longer true. The country has long since ceased to be Orwell's "family" (albeit with the wrong members in charge).

To some people this is a cause of regret and disorientation - a change that they associate with the growing incivility of modern urban life. To others it is a sign of the inevitable, and welcome, march of modernity. After three centuries of homogenisation through industrialisation, urbanisation, nation-building and war, the British have become freer and more varied. Fifty years of peace, wealth and mobility have allowed a greater diversity in lifestyles and values. To this "value diversity" has been added ethnic diversity through two big waves of immigration: the mainly Commonwealth immigration from the West Indies and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, followed by asylum-driven migrants from Europe, Africa and the greater Middle East in the late 1990s.

The diversity, individualism and mobility that characterise developed economies - especially in the era of globalisation - mean that more of our lives is spent among strangers. Ever since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, humans have been used to dealing with people from beyond their own extended kin groups. The difference now in a developed country such as Britain is that we not only live among stranger citizens but we must share with them. We share public services and parts of our income in the welfare state, we share public spaces in towns and cities where we are squashed together on buses, trains and tubes, and we share in a democratic conversation - filtered by the media - about the collective choices we wish to make. All such acts of sharing are more smoothly and generously negotiated if we can take for granted a limited set of common values and assumptions. But as Britain becomes more diverse that common culture is being eroded.

Read On

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

GCSE and GNVQ results

BBC NEWS Education

Some interesting statistics that need an explanation of the underlying factors...

Stephen Twigg - responding to an ethnic and gender breakdown of GCSE and GNVQ results.

It revealed particularly low averages among black Caribbean male pupils, with only a quarter achieving the benchmark of five good GCSEs or GNVQs.

The statistics also showed that Chinese pupils were achieving the best results of any ethnic group.

The analysis of exam results shows that all ethnic groups are improving their average results - but it also shows wide differences between boys, girls, rich, poor, blacks, whites and Asians.

"White British" pupils, representing about 84% of candidates, scored just above the national average for getting five good grades.

But the greater success of female students, in all ethnic groups, saw black African girls achieving better results than white British males.

The lowest-achieving group was not an ethnic group at all - but children eligible for free school meals, among whom one in seven left school without a single pass.

Chinese pupils scored much higher results than other ethnic groups - with 74.8% of pupils achieving five or more good grades, compared to a national average of 50.7%.

Indian pupils also achieved above-average results - with 65% getting above the benchmark - and Irish pupils also scored well, with 60% achieving five good grades.

Pupils defined as being of "mixed white and Asian heritage" also achieved above-average results.

Fewer than a third of black Caribbean pupils achieved five good grades - but behind this figure there is a sharp gender divide, with the average lowered by particular under-achievement among black male pupils.

Only 25% of black Caribbean teenage boys achieve five good grades - compared with 40% of girls.

Among black African pupils, 34% of boys achieve five good grades and 47% of girls.

Girls out-perform boys in GCSE and GNVQ results among white, black and Asian pupils - with the highest-scoring single group being Chinese girls, with almost eight out of ten achieving five good grades.

As well as differences between genders, the report highlights how the impact of poverty cuts across all ethnic groups.

Among pupils who are eligible for free school meals only 24% score five good grades, compared with an average of 55% among pupils who are not eligible.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Mass detection enters attogram regime


Physicists in the US have weighed objects with a mass of just 10-18 grams (attograms) for the first time. Harold Craighead and colleagues at Cornell University made their measurements on small gold dots using a nanoelectromechanical device. The new sensitivity far exceeds the best previous result, which was on the femtogram (10-15 grams) scale. The team hopes their device will be able to detect and identify tiny chemical and biological species, such as viruses (R Ilic et al. 2004 J. Appl. Phys. to be published).

The nanoelectromechanical device used by Craighead and colleagues consists of an oscillating cantilever made from a small wafer of silicon 4000 nanometres long and 500 nanometres wide. When a small particle is absorbed onto the wafer, it alters the frequency at which the wafer vibrates. The team was able to monitor this change by measuring laser light reflected off the wafer, which then allowed the mass of the particle to be calculated.

Using this technique, the physicists were able to "weigh" small gold dots, and coatings of molecules on the dots, with masses in the attogram range (see figure). Last year, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Lab in the US reported on being able to detect particles on the femtogram mass scale using a similar technique.

atto = 10-18
femto = 10-15
pico = 10-12
nano = 10-9
micro = 10-6
milli = 10-3

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Data Mining

extracts from Wired News article "U.S. Still Mining Terror Data"

David D. Jensen, University of Massachusetts is involved in US efforts to mine data about individuals who might pose a threat to the USA. ("Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery")

This is "technology not only for 'connecting the dots' that enable the U.S. to predict and pre-empt attacks, but also for deciding which dots to connect." It is among the US government's most controversial research programs.

Jensen's work shows how flexible such powerful software can be. Jensen used two online databases, the Internet Movie Database and the Physics Preprint Archive, to develop tools that would predict whether a movie would gross more than $2 million its opening weekend and would identify authoritative physics authors.

University of Southern California professor Craig Knoblauch said he developed software that automatically extracted information from travel websites and telephone books and tracked changes over time.

ARDA sponsors corporate and university research on information technology for U.S. intelligence agencies. It is developing computer software that can extract information from databases as well as text, voices, other audio, video, graphs, images, maps, equations and chemical formulas. It calls its effort Novel Intelligence from Massive Data.

ARDA said it has not given researchers government or private data and obeys privacy laws.

The project is part of its effort "to help the nation avoid strategic surprise ... events critical to national security ... such as those of September 11, 2001," the office said.

The hope is that it may be possible to develop software that could quickly analyze "multiple petabytes" of data. One petabyte would fill the Library of Congress space for 18 million books more than 50 times. It could hold 40 pages of text for each of the more than 6.2 billion humans on Earth.

Software would have to deal with "typically a petabyte or more" of data. It noted that some intelligence data sources "grow at the rate of four petabytes per month." Experts said those are probably files with satellite surveillance images and electronic eavesdropping results.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Absolute Power

Guardian Unlimited, 24 Feb 2004, Associated Press

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, today dismissed the prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, and his cabinet, saying that he wanted to appoint a new government to steer the country after next month's presidential elections.

Announcing the move on national television, Mr Putin said: "This decision bears no relation to any assessment of the performance of the former composition of the government.

"It was dictated by my desire to once again delineate my position on the issue of what development course the country will take after March 14 2004."

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Outlook - Gloomy


Sun 22 February 2004

A world thrown into turmoil by drought, floods, typhoons. Whole countries rendered uninhabitable. The political capital of the Netherlands submerged. The borders of the US and Australia patrolled by armies firing into waves of starving boat people desperate to find a new home. Fishing boats armed with cannon to drive off competitors. Demands for access to water and farmland backed up with nuclear weapons. Sound like the ravings of doom-saying environmental extremists? It's actually the latest Pentagon report on how to ready America for the coming climate Armageddon.

Fifteen years ago, some of us were warning of the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate. The science was inconclusive, but we believed that the consequences were of such magnitude that immediate action was prudent. Today, environmentalists aren't the only ones saying that. The World Bank and the Pentagon have both commissioned studies which finally admit that our world is in serious peril, and the biggest threat to our future is not terrorism, but our own dependence on fossil fuels. In other words, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

This year, the small circle of remaining climate "skeptics" -- scientists and politicians who don't believe that global warming is happening, or who refuse to accept a human element in its making, narrowed so far that Exxon/Mobil and the President of the United States may soon be the sole, shrill naysayers.

Sir David King, Chief Scientist in Tony Blair's government, has said that global warming is a greater threat than terrorism. Hans Blix, who ran the UN weapons inspection programme in Iraq, says the same thing.

And now, two of the most conservative institutions in the world, the Pentagon and the World Bank, have published studies recommending immediate action to address imminent threats posed by global warming, with the Pentagon itself agreeing that global warming is a greater threat than terrorism.

Key findings of the Pentagon Report (source: The Observer)

  • Future wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion, ideology or national honour.
  • By 2007 violent storms smash coastal barriers rendering large parts of Holland inhabitable.
  • In California the delta island levees in the Sacramento River area are breached, disrupting the aqueduct system transporting water from north to south.
  • Between 2010 and 2020 Europe suffers an average annual temp drop of 6F degrees. Weather patterns in Britain begin to resemble Siberia.
  • Nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable. Japan, South Korea, and Germany develop nuclear-weapons capabilities, as do Iran, Egypt, and North Korea.
  • A 'significant drop' in the planet's ability to sustain its present population will become apparent over the next 20 years.
  • Rich nations like the US and Europe would become 'virtual fortresses' to prevent millions of migrants fleeing flooded or starving lands.
  • Deaths from war and famine run into the millions until the planet's population is reduced to a point the earth can support.
  • Access to water becomes a major battleground. Nile, Danube and the Amazon are all mentioned as high risk.
  • Europe will face huge internal struggles as it copes with massive numbers of migrants washing up on its shores.
  • Bangladesh becomes nearly uninhabitable because of a rising sea level, which contaminates inland water supplies.
  • Read the full report here.

    Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

    US military creates second Earth

    BBC Technology

    The US Army is building a second version of Earth on computer to help it prepare for conflicts around the world.

    The detailed simulation will be drawn from a real-world terrain database and will be drawn to the same scale as the original.

    The software Earth is being created for the US Army by gaming company There, which is currently working on a virtual world for gamers.

    The first version of the virtual planet should be finished by September.

    The ambitious project aims to help the US Army plan future conflicts which are unlikely to involve set-piece battles and instead be smaller in scale.

    Details of the project were revealed by Robert Gehorsam, a senior vice president at There, during a lengthy interview posted on the Homelan Fed gaming website.

    Mr Gehorsam said the world being created will not be a game but instead will be a "massively multi-user persistent environment" that will model real world physics as closely as possible.

    Douglas Adams would be so proud...

    Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston