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May 2004

Personalised Education


Personalising public services by involving users in their design and delivery would create a wave of demand-led reform in the public sector. This is the conclusion of Demos associate Charles Leadbeater in a short pamphlet, which was produced as part of continuing work on personalisation with the Department for Education and Skills.

Demos and the DfES will be co-hosting a major international conference on personalisation on 17-18 May 2004 in London.

Highlights include:

Charles Clarke on Personalising Learning

Thursday 6 May: At this seminar, Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education and Skills will set out his vision of how personalisation can act as a compelling goal and a set of principles for reshaping educational provision. The discussion will focus on the possibilities and challenges of personalising education services and focus on the ingredients of successful implementation. These issues will include teaching and learning, the curriculum, workforce development, assessment and accreditation, funding and technology.

Logged on learning: personalisation, ICTs and the future of FE and HE

Monday 10th May: Professor Diana Laurillard (Head of E-Learning Strategy Unit, DfES), Christine Vincent (Director of Teaching, BECTA) and Demos associate Charlie Leadbeater will be questioning how technology could help to deliver a truly personalised education system.

How does being an e-learning provider affect teachers? Is online learning a new form of pedagogy or a new form of support for an existing pedagogy? What does ICT mean for the relationship between learning institutions, homes and communities?

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Noah's Ark Found?

Satellite pictures taken last summer of Mount Ararat in Turkey may reveal the final resting place of Noah's ark, according to Daniel McGivern, the businessman and Christian activist behind a planned summer 2004 expedition to investigate the site.

"We're telling people we're 98 percent sure," said McGivern, a member of the Hawaii Christian Coalition. "In one image we saw the beams, saw the wood. I'm convinced that the excavation of the object and the results of tests run on any collected samples will prove that it is Noah's ark."

McGivern began his quest in earnest in 1995, when the publication of a book on the topic moved him to arrange for satellite images to be taken of Mount Ararat.

Attempts to take satellite images in previous years had been foiled by clouds, unavailability of imaging equipment, and lack of image resolution. But the attempts had helped pinpoint the location. In the summer of 2003, everything came together.

"Last year was the hottest summer in Europe since 1500; more than 21,000 people died of the heat wave," McGivern said. "The summer melt was far more extensive than it has been in years."

DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite-imagery company, confirmed that they took the images that McGivern is using.

An international team of archaeologists, forensic scientists, geologists, glaciologists, and others is being recruited to investigate the site sometime between July 15 and August 15.

Ahmet Arslan, a professor in Turkey who has climbed the mountain 50 times in 40 years, will lead the expedition. Arslan reported an eyewitness sighting of the ark and took a photograph in 1989 from about 220 yards (200 meters) away. However, he couldn't get any closer, and the picture is not definitive.

"We hope to assemble what we're calling the Dream Team," Arslan said. "The slopes are very, very harsh and dangerous on the northern face—it is extremely challenging, mentally and physically."

Noah's Ark

The story of Noah's ark is told in the Book of Genesis. It says God saw how corrupt the Earth had become and decided to "bring floodwaters on the Earth to destroy all life under the heavens." God is said to have told Noah, an honorable man, to build an ark 450 feet (137 meters) long, 75 feet (23 meters) wide, and 45 feet (14 meters) high, and fill it with two of every species on the Earth. It reportedly rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After about seven months, the waters receded, and the ark came to rest, according to the Bible.

Three major world religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—believe in Noah and his ark. Reports of ark sightings have been numerous. Witnesses often describe an old wooden structure sticking out of the snow and ice near the summit of Mount Ararat.

Despite the numerous sightings and rumors—of pictures taken by the CIA and locked in vaults, of lost photographs taken by a Russian expedition at the behest of Tsar Nicholas Alexander in 1918—no scientific evidence of the ark has emerged.

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Does Landmark Unmanned Flight Spell Doom for Test Pilots?

Does Landmark Unmanned Flight Spell Doom for Test Pilots?

U.S. Navy Comdr. Bill Reuter, chief test pilot of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23, releases a load of inert bombs while in a supersonic dive in an F/A-18E Super Hornet during a test flight at Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Last month an experimental aircraft called the X-43A hit a velocity of 5,000 miles (8,045 kilometers) an hour - more than seven times the speed of sound. It was the first time an oxygen-powered "scramjet" flew freely. But one thing was missing during the aeronautical milestone: the pilot.

The X-43A's pilotless flight signaled a growing trend in modern aviation: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Economics, pilot error, and concern for human safety are all motivations to replace human test pilots with computers.

Dana Purifoy is a top NASA test pilot for the agency's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Purifoy flew the B-52B launch aircraft that carried the X-43A and its Pegasus booster rocket to a launch destination over the Pacific Ocean.

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iTunes on Campus


Give your students easy access to iTunes. The best digital jukebox with the # 1 music download store inside. For Windows and Mac users.

Provide your students with the best legal solution to manage, acquire, and listen to music by participating in the iTunes on Campus program. This program provides an institutional site license for iTunes and materials you can use for student communications. The program is easy-to-administer and is free.

Why iTunes?

Over the past year, the illegal downloading of music by students has emerged as a top ethical, economic, and political issue for universities and colleges across the country. The iTunes on Campus program enables universities to provide students with a legal option for downloading music from the Internet and managing their digital music collection.

With iTunes students can easily import CDs, create playlists, burn CDs, download audio books, and transfer their music to the top-selling portable digital music player, the iPod.

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You have no privacy. Get over it


Robots, ID cards, Privacy and Security seem to be flavour of the month... And Hollywood is leading most people's thinking...

In January 1999, not long after Intel had been thrown into a flap over apparently being able to track people through their recently launched Pentium III chip, Sun's CEO, Scott McNeally famously said at a press conference, "You already have zero privacy. Get over it".

Needless to say, this upset a lot of people - partly for it's glibness and partly for its candor - but the buzz around Internet privacy more or less died down in the five years following. People started to turn their Internet thoughts to keeping their businesses alive and their privacy thoughts to the far more tangible and material issues of national ID card schemes, backed by the handmaidens of biometrics and DNA databases.

After spending much of the nineties in the trenches of the Internet privacy debate, only to see it's importance retreat, it's great to see that serial innovators like Google, Amazon and the founders of Skype are once again pushing the boundaries of what we understand as private and public space as they advance respectively into e-mail, search and telephony. Although thanks to the weblogs you can browse the issues, it makes you regret not being able to make this week's annual privacy pilgrimage to the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference or CFP, as its devotees better know it.

There are few more serious havens than CFP for crypto-nauts and data-freaks and a brief glance at this year's speakers, who include the brains behind Amazon's search and the policy guru behind Google's e-mail adventures, is enough to get your brain cells working overtime. CFP holds a special place in my heart, and not just because in 1999 I was tasked with accepting on behalf of Microsoft, Privacy International's Annual Big Brother Award, but because if you want to know all about data - it's uses and abuses - then you'll get no better versions of the good, the bad and the ugly than the sessions and hallways at CFP. CFP is a real leveler, where although the attendees may dress differently, the language of data binds them all together and hackers happily rub shoulders with the FBI.

If like Scott McNeally you've already come to the conclusion that none of this remotely bothers you, or you think we're better off leaving these debates to the conspiracy theorists and policymakers then you probably stopped reading some time ago. But if even a little bit of you wonders whether we should actually be taking this seriously, or if you've ever used e-mail, Googled, made an online purchase or considered making a free Internet phone call, then there could not be a better time to join the debate.

The privacy and data protection implications of widespread and networked services are enormous and bring up the most fundamental issue: who do you trust to manage your private space? Traditionally, as part of the social contract we make in civil society, we have given this role to government. But now private space can be managed by private companies and at increasingly low-cost as the prices of storage, computation and global-connectivity plummet. Isn't this now too personal to just say, "get over it"?

At CFP this year, like every year, the key issue will come down to whether we trust anyone enough to be our big brother. Would you prefer your government, a CEO or Google%u2019s computers to determine your access to information, ability to communicate freely and the protection you can expect, when you leave an ever-expanding digital trail as you skate happily through private and public space?

The people from law enforcement and the corporate worlds will say - as ever - that it's all part of the social contract and if you want to play, you have to pay. That's pay with your freedom of expression or your freedom to withhold personal information. Serious issues to ponder when you consider that by 2010, you may well be carrying as many as ten RFID tags, with the capacity to wirelessly transmit information, harmlessly allowing you to pass through the barriers at a train station, while pinpointing your location to a prying eye.

Sounds like a nightmare reserved for the science fiction judgments of Minority Report. But as we use the Internet for more and more of our daily life, we have an absolute need (and in many countries a right) to understand what and who is managing our information. We also need to understand and perhaps reconsider what we perceive to be private and public space - legally, technically and emotionally.

Today, with over 600m people using the apparently private spaces of search and e-mail, Google's entry into e-mail has asked us all an amazingly interesting new question. Is it ok for your Big Brother to be a machine? According to Google, as long as that machine obeys the company's golden rule: don't be evil.

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Slow wander towards AI

The New York Times

In Richard Powers's postmodern science fiction "Galatea 2.2," a young novelist, very much like the author, returns from the Netherlands to a Midwestern university, where he teaches a computer called Implementation H, or Helen, the meaning of beauty.

By feeding it example after example of the world's great literature and music and engaging it in conversation, researchers hope to imbue the machine with so deep a grasp of human culture that it can pass a comprehensive master's degree examination. Instead it prefers to sing.

Galatea was the name of the statue brought to life by Pygmalion, and the novel, published in 1995 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, captures the dream of artificial intelligence: the creation of a computer so smart and engaging that you might want to keep it as a friend. Efforts nearly as ambitious continue to plod on.

Since 1984, scientists at the Cyc project (short for encyclopedia) have been spinning a vast database of the sprawling web of everyday knowledge that people use to get by in the world: water is a liquid, liquids can be carried in containers, a cup is a container, for the water to stay in the cup it must be held right side up. The idea is to equip computers with good old-fashioned common sense.

Most A.I. researchers content themselves with narrower, more practical tasks: machines that can diagnose a certain type of illness or an ailing stock portfolio, that can crawl through the World Wide Web or across the surface of Mars. Recently I've become acquainted with one of these idiot savants, a software robot called SpamProbe. Its one modest talent is learning by example to recognize junk e-mail messages and keep them from my in-box.

At the heart of this and similar programs is a statistical method called Bayesian inference, a simple learning procedure that works so well in this limited domain that perhaps something like the fictional Helen is not so far-fetched after all. Within minutes, the program had discovered rules of spam identification that had taken me years to acquire. The results were so reliable that I have almost abdicated the responsibility. Part of my brain has been replaced by 2.9 megabytes of computer code downloaded free from the Internet.

Bayesian statistics were invented in the 18th century by Thomas Bayes, a theologian and mathematician whose works include "Divine Benevolence, or an Attempt to Prove That the Principal End of the Divine Providence and Government Is the Happiness of His Creatures." The system has been a staple of A.I. research for years. Based on what has happened in the past, a Bayesian-savvy computer can estimate the odds that it will happen again. It learns from experience through something that seems very much like the process of induction.

With SpamProbe as my Helen, I began its education. First I tutored the program with a list of 2,948 spams that my carefully handcrafted filters had caught in recent weeks. Then to demonstrate what more desirable e-mail looks like, I gave it the 695 messages piled up in my electronic letter box. Silently grinding away, SpamProbe generated a database of 565,000 "tokens": words, word pairs and e-mail formatting symbols each ranked according to how likely it was to indicate that a message was spam.

Toward the top of the list, rated with a probability near 0.99999, were tokens like "our price," "we ship," "confidentiality assured," "most trusted," and "call today" along with deliberate misspellings and manglings meant to elude conventional filters: "not intreseted" "genierc virgaa," "shipped worlswide," and "qualityisassured."

Conversely, SpamProbe had gleaned that an e-mail message with the terms "Canyon Road," "your article," "quantum computing," "been thinking," "meanwhile if" or "artificial intelligence" was most likely to be all right.

It was a little eerie seeing the subjects of my interest parsed so succinctly. I was eager to see how SpamProbe would do in the real world. I deactivated my old filters, closed my eyes and let the full force of Internet slime come coursing into my computer. The next morning, apprehensively peeking inside the dustbin, I found that overnight I had received 126 spams, and only 2 of them had slipped by, a success rate of 98.4 percent. Even better, there was not a single false positive, a good message discarded as spam.

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Synthetic Life

Scientific American, W. Wayt Gibbs

An excellent article from Scientific American

Biologists are crafting libraries of interchangeable DNA parts and assembling them inside microbes to create programmable, living machines...

Evolution is a wellspring of creativity; 3.6 billion years of mutation and competition have endowed living things with an impressive range of useful skills. But there is still plenty of room for improvement. Certain microbes can digest the explosive and carcinogenic chemical TNT, for example--but wouldn't it be handy if they glowed as they did so, highlighting the location of buried land mines or contaminated soil?

Wormwood shrubs generate a potent medicine against malaria but only in trace quantities that are expensive to extract. How many millions of lives could be saved if the compound, artemisinin, could instead be synthesized cheaply by vats of bacteria? And although many cancer researchers would trade their eyeteeth for a cell with a built-in, easy-to-read counter that ticks over reliably each time it divides, nature apparently has not deemed such a thing fit enough to survive in the wild.

Continue reading "Synthetic Life" »

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Climate issue 'critical'

BBC News


There is "no bigger long-term question facing the global community" than the threat of climate change, Tony Blair has said.

The UK Prime Minister was speaking at the launch of the Climate Group, an international campaign aiming to speed up greenhouse gas emission reductions.

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Legoland Tracks Kids by Wi-FI

via Wi-Fi Networking News

Legoland in Denmark uses WiFi to track children in the park

For a rental fee, parents can choose to Wi-Fi enable their children preventing their unintentional loss across the 10-hectare (25 acre) theme park. If your child disappears, the parent uses SMS with their child's number, and they're providing with exact location information in response. It's the largest location-based Wi-Fi network in the world, the release says, meaning it is the largest network of its kind in which you can track items within it.

Bluesoft's technology is behind Kidspotter. They separately announced today that their Wi-Fi/radio frequency ID (RFID) tracking technology AeroScout WLAN Location is available for tracking all kinds of valuable assets (not just children) with precise location information across Wi-Fi networks. Because of the high per-unit cost, the company lists applications like tracking people, cars, and containers.

Other options include playing full-size games of "Battleships"... see which suggests that there must be military applications as well...

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