November 8, 2016

1843 Magazine - The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive 15min

In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. ... Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. ... The human brain releases pleasurable, habit-forming chemicals in response to social interactions, even to mere simulacra of them, and the hottest triggers are other people: you and your friends or followers are constantly prompting each other to use the service for longer. ... the internet’s potential to inform and enlighten was at loggerheads with the commercial imperative to seize and hold the attention of users by any means possible.

Town & Country - Recounting a Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip to Mongolia's Gobi Desert 10min

More than half a million square miles (a thousand miles long and five hundred miles wide), the Gobi Desert is about twice the size of France and with an elevation of 3,000 to 5,000 feet—remote and austere and prized by paleontologists as one of the world's richest sources of dinosaur fossils. Most of it lies in Mongolia, but China rules its southern portion, which is known in that country as Inner Mongolia. ... the snow leopard, the shy Panthera uncia, which has been seen in the wild by only a handful of people and of which only an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 remain outside zoos. ... The Gobi is in many ways like the old American West, filled with abandoned hamlets and buildings, traces of disappeared peoples. Across its oceanic blond grass, horses and the black silhouettes of camels move languidly, as if they are the only inhabitants. Ancient Turkic nomads left enigmatic petroglyphs carved into boulders 2,000 years ago. ... The following morning we got up before first light and drove on across the same open plain toward a distant rim of mountains, guided only by shallow tracks that converged, separated, and reconverged hour after hour, pathways across the desert unreadable to anyone but Gobi drivers. On the far side of the plain, hidden within the low mountains, lay the small and winding valley where Jalsa's lead guide, Anand Munkhuu, who was with us, had seen the snow leopard a few days earlier drinking from a half-frozen stream that ran along its bottom. We went there morning after morning, hoping we too would see it.

Popular Mechanics - Inside The Jet Propulsion Laboratory: NASA’s Crazy, Kooky, Legendary Research Facility 16min

JPL, home to three thousand engineers and five hundred scientists, is very old—2016 is its eightieth anniversary—but it's only in the last few years that the close of the space shuttle program has left enough of an excitement gap for the center's singular brilliance to shine through. In contrast to NASA's other outposts, where you'll find a lot of unflappable pilot types with high-and tight haircuts, JPL is full of strange, excitable, idea people. Climate scientists who work side gigs as comedians and engineers who shave star shapes into their Mohawks before landings. ... Just off California Interstate 210, there are two signs on the side of the road. The bottom one shows an outline of the California mule deer that tend to meander out of the sagebrush and into passing traffic. The top one just says "Space," with an arrow pointing forward. The second sign is not an official JPL sign. No one really knows where it came from. People around here presume it was put there as a joke and no one ever bothered to take it down. ... Even though JPL is currently beholden to its parent organization's budgets and approvals, it is actually the reason NASA exists. ... The best way to understand what JPL does is to consider the center's "directorates," which is space-agency-speak for departments. Among these are four organized by planet. Taken together, they sound like a particularly difficult round of Jeopardy: Earth Science, Astrophysics, Mars, and Planets That Are Not Mars.

The Economist - Water scarcity: Liquidity crisis 9min

If water is not managed better, today’s crisis will become a catastrophe. By the middle of the century more than half of the planet will live in areas of “water stress”, where supplies cannot sustainably meet demand. ... Where water is available, when and in what condition matters hugely. About 97% of the water on earth is salty; the rest is replenished through seasonal rainfall or is stored in underground wells known as aquifers. Humans, who once settled where water was plentiful, are now inclined to shift around to places that are less well endowed, pulled by other economic forces. ... As people get richer, they use more water. They also “consume” more of it, which means using it in such a way that it is not quickly returned to the source from which it was extracted. ... To make matters worse, few places price water properly. Usually, it is artificially cheap, because politicians are scared to charge much for something essential that falls from the sky. This means that consumers have little incentive to conserve it and investors have little incentive to build pipes and other infrastructure to bring it to where it is needed most. ... around a fifth of the world’s aquifers are over-exploited. This jeopardises future use by causing contamination. It also damages the layers of sand and clay that make up aquifers, thereby reducing their capacity to be replenished. ... People do not drink much water—only a few litres a day. But putting food on their tables requires floods of the stuff. Growing 1kg of wheat takes 1,250 litres of water; fattening a cow to produce the same weight of beef involves 12 times more. Overall, agriculture accounts for more than 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. ... estimated that agricultural production will have to rise by 60% to fill the world’s bellies. This will put water supplies under huge strain. ... Hydrologists expect that a warming climate will see the cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation speed up. ... There is no single solution for the world’s water crisis. But cutting back on use, improving the efficiency of that use and sharing out water more effectively would all help.

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The New Yorker - Venezuela, A Failing State 34min

The medical student told me to use his name. He said he didn’t care. “Maduro is a donkey,” he said. “An a**hole.” He meant Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela. We were passing through the wards of a large public hospital in Valencia, a city of roughly a million people, a hundred miles west of Caracas. The hallways were dim and stifling, thick with a frightening stench. ... Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government. ... For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency. ... He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. ... After Chávez barely survived a 2002 coup attempt, the Cubans also sent teams of military and intelligence advisers who taught their Venezuelan counterparts how to surveil and disrupt the political opposition Cuban-style, with close monitoring, harassment, and strategic arrests. ... Polar employs about thirty thousand workers (it is the country’s largest private employer) and is responsible for more than three per cent of Venezuela’s non-oil gross domestic product. Besides corn flour and the country’s top-selling beer, Polar produces pasta, rice, tuna fish, wine, ice cream, yogurt, margarine, ketchup, mayonnaise, and detergent. Yet it operates in an atmosphere of continual uncertainty, its planners and logistics mavens never sure what roadblock or subterfuge the government will toss up next. ... The crisis has a small but crucial constituency, starting with the generals and other high government officials who are thriving financially, mainly through smuggling, graft, and import fraud.