The folks at the NSA and their defenders used to use the argument that we were on the verge of a "cyber pearl harbor" in their constant attempts to change laws to give the NSA and others in law enforcement and intelligence more powers to spy on everyone (the argument being that they would do this in order to "protect" us). But... it's beginning to look like the "cyber pearl harbor" wasn't an attack from foreign hackers... but from the NSA itself. Eric Schmidt recently noted that the NSA's actions were a hostile "attack" and it appears that many Americans agree. A new poll found that nearly half of American adults who responded have changed some form of online behavior because of the NSA stories, and they think a lot more carefully about where they go, what they say and what they do online.
We've pointed out (since the Snowden revelations began) that this was going to have a negative impact on the tech industry, but much of the concerns was from overseas users. However, it's clear that it's impacting how Americans view their online habits as well:
When it comes to specific Internet activities, such as email or online banking, this change in behavior translates into a worrying trend for the online economy: over one quarter of respondents (26%) said that, based on what they have learned about secret government surveillance, they are now doing less banking online and less online shopping. This shift in behavior is not good news for companies that rely on sustained or increased use of the Internet for their business model.
Importantly, the study also found that, contrary to the claims of many, the Snowden revelations aren't just being followed by security-obsessed techies. While the general public may not be keeping tabs on all the details, they are getting the basics.
And in case anyone is tempted to think that this is a narrow issue of concern only to news junkies and security geeks, let me be clear: according to this latest survey, 85% of adult Americans are now at least somewhat familiar with the news about secret government surveillance of private citizens’ phone calls, emails, online activity, and so on.
Once again, it appears that the federal government, and the NSA in particular, have created a huge cost for innovation and economic growth, while having almost no real benefit to show for it.
Studying how language can predict behavior is a fascinating field. As communications are increasingly digital, everyone's messages are more easily data mined for all sorts of analysis (ahem, and not all of it is done by the CIA). Marketing folks are looking at how catchy phrases might increase sales -- which may be why you're seeing more headlines like "8 simple ways to ..." and "one simple trick that ..." in ads. Here are just a few other linguistic studies for you to peruse. Also, happy belated National Grammar Day!
Can the language you speak influence your behavior? Speakers of languages with weak future tense grammar (eg. German, Finnish and Estonian) seem to correlate with more future-oriented behaviors such as an increased rate of financial saving, lower rates of smoking and higher rates of exercise, and higher condom usage -- compared to speakers of languages with stronger future tense grammar like English and French. [url]
One of the reasons that the total surveillance programs of the NSA and GCHQ are possible is that computers continue to become more powerful and cheaper, allowing ever-more complex analyses to be conducted, including those that were simply not feasible before. Here's another example of the kind of large-scale monitoring that is now possible, as reported by Nikkei Asian Review:
NEC announced that it has developed the world's first crowd behavior analysis technology. Based on the simulated behavioral patterns exhibited by people in emergencies, the system is designed to detect any abnormalities in the behavior of congested public places.
The primary objective is to develop advanced and innovative algorithms for human decision support in combating terrorism and other criminal activities, such as human trafficking, child pornography, detection of dangerous situations (e.g. robberies) and the use of dangerous objects (e.g. knives or guns) in public spaces. Efficient tools for dealing with such situations are crucial to ensuring the safety of citizens.
Like INDECT, the key justification for the NEC surveillance system is to "prevent crimes and terrorist attacks". Another Japanese company is also exploiting the immense power of computer systems to offer blanket surveillance:
Hitachi Kokusai Electric began marketing a new surveillance system that can search and identify a target individual by using an enormous volume of recorded footage from surveillance cameras. The company extracts facial features of individuals -- including profile shape, eye size and the shape of a nose bridge -- and stores them in a database. The system can then compare the features of the person in question against this data. It can complete the search within one second using a database of 36 million faces.
This search technology could be used to quickly identify terrorists in public places. The company said the system could register faces of up to 7 billion people if 50 servers are linked up.
In other words, the claim is that this system could scale up to store facial features of the entire world. And it's not just the Japanese who will be making money from spying on you:
EMC of the U.S., a leading information-technology storage hardware provider, has developed a surveillance system that uses external storage technology. The system can hold data of up to 20 petabytes by linking up as many as 144 storage devices. This is enough to store 13 years of continuous footage from 100 cameras.
What's truly frightening about all these systems is that this is just the beginning. As computers become faster, and storage cheaper, it's easy to imagine the output from every surveillance device on the planet being stored forever, and constantly re-analyzed to find those awkward "abnormalities", AKA individuals...
It shouldn't be too surprising that primates (besides humans) can exhibit some pretty amazing complex behavior. We haven't quite managed to get enough skilled (real, not virtual) monkeys together with typewriters to reproduce the works of Shakespeare, but maybe they just need iPads and touchscreen keyboard input (because who hasn't gotten frustrated with a typewriter?). The more we watch our genetic cousins, the more we see how smart they are -- and could be. Here are just a few examples of smart monkeys.
As humanity continues to grapple with the question of how video games impact behavior in children, we find ourselves with no shortage of studies. From the Macbeth Effect, to the studies themselves causing aggression, to studies directly looking at a potential link between violent games and real-life violence, we have plenty of data points, yet the results tend to range from ambiguous to non-existent. That tends to be a problem for everyone involved, because it creates an intelligence vacuum ripe to be filled with supposition and grand-standing. What we really need is more studies of a longer nature and with a greater sample size that go further in demonstrating a concrete answer.
Here to provide a study of a longer nature and with a greater sample size to demonstrate a concrete answer is the University of Glasgow, who used Great Britain's enormous ten-year Millenium Cohort Study to study the link or absence of a link between playing video games and real-life behavior. Their findings were a resounding affirmation for all of us who believe in common sense.
TV is generally thought of as more harmless than video games when it comes to the emotional health of kids but the Glasgow study found that "watching TV for 3 h or more daily at 5 years predicted increasing conduct problems between the ages of 5 years and 7 years." No corollary effect was found with video games, likely because parents are more likely to monitor or regulate video game screen time than TV screen time.
This indicates a couple of things. First, parents are likely way too wary of video games compared to television. And second, while one might suggest that the vigilance shown to games by parents is a mitigating factor, the fact remains that the study showed a minor correlation in television and none in games. So, whatever your quibbles, the practical reality of video games in society is one that has no discernible effect on child behavior.
That said, because this is science, we wouldn't want to suggest that this ends the debate entirely.
As with any study, there are caveats. This isn't a be-all, end-all set of findings. The authors themselves say that "the study highlights the need for more detailed data to explore risks of various forms of screen time, including exposure to screen violence." Nevertheless, given the breadth of data drawn from 10 years and more than 10,000 participants, this could be an important cornerstone for future research and conversations about how video games do—or do not—affect behavior.
In other words, also because this is science, it should be noted that it is incumbent upon those claiming there is a link to show their evidence for that position. Studies like this are going to be a problem for that side of the debate moving forward. While it may be very hard to prove a negative, it's not as difficult to show a void of evidence for the position that behavior and video games are linked.
People tend to have an irrational fear of spiders, which are more often than not completely harmless and also beneficial because they help control the insect pest population around homes and gardens. Perhaps, instead of focusing on their "creepiness," people should learn about how cool these little creatures really are. Here are a few examples of some interesting behavior in spiders.
Yes, spiders eat bats too. Apparently, bat-eating spiders live on every continent (except Antarctica). Most of them catch bats in their webs, but huntsman spiders and tarantulas have been observed eating bats on forest floors. [url]
Spiders can adapt to zero-gravity. A "Johnson Jumper" spider named Nefertiti survived 100 days on the International Space Station, during which it demonstrated a new technique for catching fruit flies in zero-gravity. Instead of jumping on its prey, it would sidle up to it. [url]
Contrary to popular belief, spiders can be sociable. Of the more than 43,678 species of spiders out there, about 24 social spider species have been identified. In a most recent discovery, researchers found that females from a social species of spider called Chikunia nigra were surprisingly tolerant of other spiders from the same colony and were willing to look after another's eggs/hatchlings as if they were her own. [url]
If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.
People love their pets, but sometimes pet behavior is hard to understand. Sure, there are technologies like Bowlingual and Meowlingual to help us understand cats and dogs, but automated translations are notoriously imperfect. So here are just a few interesting links on studying domesticated animals.
Spiders exhibit a wide variety of fascinating behaviors that are intriguingly complex. They don't just build nice webs and trap unsuspecting insects. Spiders have bizarre mating rituals that seem to suggest a surprising amount of intelligence for their size. Here are just a few examples.
Ah, the TSA. Apparently among the "behavioral factors" that the TSA uses in determining who might be a criminal or a terrorist is... if you complain about the TSA. I guess that means I'm in line for some extra scrutiny. Honestly, though, this sounds a lot more like punitive action against people who complain, rather than a legitimate characteristic of someone who deserves extra scrutiny. Specifically, one of the factors is if someone is:
"Very arrogant and expresses contempt against airport passenger procedures."
An ACLU person quoted in the article wonders if this violates the First Amendment, in that it's going after someone for expressing their opinion:
"Expressing your contempt about airport procedures -- that's a First Amendment-protected right," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who now works as legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We all have the right to express our views, and particularly in a situation where the government is demanding the ability to search you."
"It's circular reasoning where, you know, I'm going to ask someone to surrender their rights; if they refuse, that's evidence that I need to take their rights away from them. And it's simply inappropriate," he said.
Honestly, you'd have to think that a real terrorist or criminal, hoping to avoid calling attention to themselves, wouldn't be openly hostile to the search procedure, but would try to be quiet and blend in. Perhaps the TSA will defend this latest ridiculousness by saying it's all okay because it's standard operating procedure.
Back in April, I wrote a post about Daniel Pink's new book, Drive, in which he highlights the rather stunning amount of counterintuitive research that suggests that money can actually make people less motivated to do creative works. Since then, I got a copy of the book myself, but it's in the stack with about five books that I want to get to before it, so I may not get to it for a while. However, a lot of folks have been passing around this great video of a 10 minute presentation that Pink did, which was then whiteboard animated. It's really well done and fun to watch and basically summarizes the idea in the book:
The same point is made in the presentation, but it clarifies it a bit. It's not that money isn't important. That finding would make little sense at all. As people note all the time, you need to be able to make money to survive. But, it's that once people have a base level of money that makes them comfortable, using monetary incentives to get them to do creative work fails. Not just fails, but leads to worse performance. As we noted in the original blog post about this, my initial inkling was that this highlighted a point often forgotten by economists and non-economists alike: while marginal benefit is often considered in terms of dollars, that doesn't mean that cash is the the equivalent of marginal benefit. That is, you can't just replace other benefits with cash. Sometimes people value other types of rewards even greater than the equivalent in cash. And, Pink's book and presentation highlight how it's often things like meaning and working on something fulfilling that are much more beneficial to people than cash. So it's not that money is bad for creativity -- but that having a direct pay-for-performance type scheme seems to create negative consequences when it comes to cognitive work (it works fine for repetitive work, however) -- and other types of non-monetary rewards are a lot more effective.
And while it isn't discussed in the presentation (and I don't know if it's discussed in the book), I wonder if the high monetary rewards in a "if you do this task, we'll give you $x amount" manner actually has a strong cognitive cost. That is, the pressure to then do the task well in order to "earn" that money actually ends up causing a creativity cost that takes away from the output. When you're just doing creative work for non-cash rewards, the pressure doesn't feel quite as strong. When you put the dollar signs in, it adds mental costs, and those costs outweigh the cash rewards. It's even possible, then, that the higher the cash reward, the greater the mental costs.
Related to all of this, Clay Shirky has also just come out with a new book, Cognitive Surplus (which isn't yet in the pile on my desk, but probably will be soon) that builds on an idea that he's talked about for years: about how all these claims that people doing stuff online for free is a "waste" totally misses the point. For the past few decades, people have devoted billions of hours to watching television. Yet, with the internet, rather than watching TV, they're actually doing some creative work (sometimes for free). So when looked at in isolation, doing stuff for free may seem weird, when combined in the larger scheme of things as a substitute for mind-numbing TV watching, it's actually a huge advancement.
Wired had the smart idea of having Shirky and Pink sit down and chat with each other, and they rehash some of these ideas, and how the concepts put forth in the two books seem to overlap. Moving people away from merely consuming content towards creating content leads to a huge boost in creativity and creative output -- exactly what we've seen happening. And, it's not because of monetary incentives -- in fact, it's often because of the exact opposite.
The more you think about it, the more this all makes sense, and the more you realize just how screwed up so many incentive structures are today, because so many people think that purely monetary incentives work best.