News from Mars: Put Your Name on a Crater!

mars_lifeMars is a interesting and varied place, with enough mysteries to sate appetites both subtle and gross. But as we come to study it up close and get to know it better, a peculiar challenge arises. Basically, there are thousands of geological features on the Martian surface that don’t yet have names. Up until now, only those mountains, hills and craters that are observable from space have been designated.

With the Mars rovers pouring over the surface, each new feature is being named and designated by NASA scientists – The Gale Crater, Yellowknife Bay, Mount Sharp, etc. But what of the public? Given that this is the age of public space travel where regular people have access to the process, shouldn’t we be able to toss our hats in the ring and get a chance at naming Martian features?

Mars_impact_craterThat’s the goal of Uwingu, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing public participation in space exploration. In addition to naming exoplanets, they have begun a project to that gives people the opportunity to name over 550,000 craters on Mars. By getting people to pledge donations in exchange for naming rights, the company hopes to raise over $10M to help fund space science and education.

The project touched off in late February, with their map of Mars uploaded to the site and half a million plus craters indicated. Just like how Apollo astronauts have named landing site landmarks during their Moon missions or how Mars scientists have named features they’ve encountered on robotic missions, Uwingu proclaims that, “Now it’s your turn.”

Mars_cratersNot only are there craters to name, but people can also help name the map grid rectangles of all the Districts and Provinces in Uwingu’s “address system” – which they say is the first ever address system for Mars. Prices for naming craters vary, depending on the size of the crater, and begin at $5 dollars apiece. For each crater a person purchases and names, Uwingu gives them a shareable Web link and a naming certificate.

In the past, Uwingu has been a source of controversy, particularly with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming celestial objects and planetary features. In general, they are opposed to Uwingu’s methods of selling naming rights to the public. As the organization states on their website:

The IAU is the internationally recognized authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Mars_craters1But Alan Stern, NASA’s former science program and mission director, claims that Uwingu is independent. He also stated that in 50 years of Mars exploration, only about 15,000 features have ever been named. What’s more, he and the rest of the Uwingu team – which includes several space notables, historians and authors – know that the names likely won’t officially be approved by the IAU.

Nevertheless, they claim that they will be similar to the names given to features on Mars by the mission science teams (such as Mt. Sharp on Mars –the IAU-approved name is Aeolis Mons) or even like Pike’s Peak, a mountain in Colorado which was named by the public, in a way. As early settlers started calling it that, it soon became the only name people recognized. Uwingu hopes that their names will also stick, given time.

mountsharp_galecraterIn the past, Stern has admitted that having people pay to suggest names with no official standing is sure to be controversial, but that he’s willing to take the chance – and the heat – to try and innovative ways to provide funding in today’s climate of funding cuts. As he stated in a series of recent interviews:

Mars scientists and Apollo astronauts have named features on the Red Planet and the Moon without asking for the IAU’s permission… We’re trying to do a public good. It’s still the case that nobody in this company gets paid. We really want to create a new lane on that funding highway for people who are out of luck due to budget cuts. This is how we’re how we’re trying to change the world for a little better.

He also pointed out that Uwingu is independent, and that this map is one they are generating themselves through crowdfunding and public participation. Whether or not the names stick is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the process will not be determined by any single gatekeeper or authority – in this case, the IAU. It will reflect a new era of public awareness and involvement in space.

mars-mapIn the past, Uwingu’s procedure has been to put half of the money they make into a fund to be given out as grants, and since they are a commercial company, the rest of the money helps pay the their bills. So no matter what – even if you pitch a name and its outvoted by another, or the names just fail to stick when the cartographers finish mapping Mars – you’ll still be raising money for a good cause.

For those interested in naming a crater on the Red Planet, click on the link here to go to Uwingu’s website. Once there, simply click on a spot on the map, select the crater you want (the price for the crater is indicated when you select it), offer a name and explain why you’ve chosen it. And be sure to check out some of the one’s that have been named already.

Sources: news.cnet.com, universetoday.com, uwingu.com

The Future is Bright: Positive Trends to Look For in 2014

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersWith all of the world’s current problems, poverty, underdevelopment, terrorism, civil war, and environmental degradation, it’s easy to overlook how things are getting better around the world. Not only do we no longer live in a world where superpowers are no longer aiming nuclear missiles at each other and two-thirds of the human race live beneath totalitarian regimes; in terms of health, mortality, and income, life is getting better too.

So, in honor of the New Year and all our hopes for a better world, here’s a gander at how life is improving and is likely to continue…

1. Poverty is decreasing:
The population currently whose income or consumption is below the poverty line – subsisting on less than $1.25 a day –  is steadily dropping. In fact, the overall economic growth of the past 50 years has been proportionately greater than that experienced in the previous 500. Much of this is due not only to the growth taking place in China and India, but also Brazil, Russia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, while developing nations complain about debt crises and ongoing recession, the world’s poorest areas continue to grow.

gdp-growth-20132. Health is improving:
The overall caloric consumption of people around the world is increasing, meaning that world hunger is on the wane. Infant mortality, a major issue arising from poverty, and underdevelopment, and closely related to overpopulation, is also dropping. And while rates of cancer continue to rise, the rate of cancer mortality continue to decrease. And perhaps biggest of all, the world will be entering into 2014 with several working vaccines and even cures for HIV (of which I’ve made many posts).

3. Education is on the rise:
More children worldwide (especially girls) have educational opportunities, with enrollment increasing in both primary and secondary schools. Literacy is also on the rise, with the global rate reaching as high as 84% by 2012. At its current rate of growth, global rates of literacy have more than doubled since 1970, and the connections between literacy, economic development, and life expectancy are all well established.

literacy_worldwide4. The Internet and computing are getting faster:
Ever since the internet revolution began, connection speeds and bandwidth have been increasing significantly year after year. In fact, the global average connection speed for the first quarter of 2012 hit 2.6 Mbps, which is a 25 percent year-over-year gain, and a 14 percent gain over the fourth quarter of 2011. And by the second quarter of 2013, the overall global average peak connection speed reached 18.9 Mbps, which represented a 17 percent gan over 2012.

And while computing appears to be reaching a bottleneck, the overall increase in speed has increased by a factor of 260,000 in the past forty years, and storage capacity by a factor of 10,000 in the last twenty. And in terms of breaking the current limitations imposed by chip size and materials, developments in graphene, carbon nanotubes, and biochips are promising solutions.

^5. Unintended pregnancies are down:
While it still remains high in the developing regions of the world, the global rate of unintended pregnancies has fallen dramatically in recent years. In fact, between 1995 and 2008, of 208 billion pregnancies surveyed in a total of 80 nations, 41 percent of the pregnancies were unintended. However, this represents a drop of 29 percent in the developed regions surveyed and a 20 percent drop in developing regions.

The consequences of unintended pregnancies for women and their families is well established, and any drop presents opportunities for greater health, safety, and freedom for women. What’s more, a drop in the rate of unwanted pregnancies is surefire sign of socioeconomic development and increasing opportunities for women and girls worldwide.

gfcdimage_06. Population growth is slowing:
On this blog of mine, I’m always ranting about how overpopulation is bad and going to get to get worse in the near future. But in truth, that is only part of the story. The upside is while the numbers keep going up, the rate of increase is going down. While global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100, this represents a serious slowing of growth.

If one were to compare these growth projections to what happened in the 20th century, where population rose from 1 billion to just over 6, they would see that the rate of growth has halved. What’s more, rates of population growth are expecting to begin falling in Asia by 2060 (one of the biggest contributors to world population in the 20th century), in Europe by 2055, and the Caribbean by 2065.

Population_curve.svgIn fact, the only region where exponential population growth is expected to happen is Africa, where the population of over 1 billion is expected to reach 4 billion by the end of the 21st century. And given the current rate of economic growth, this could represent a positive development for the continent, which could see itself becoming the next powerhouse economy by the 2050s.

7. Clean energy is getting cheaper:
While the price of fossil fuels are going up around the world, forcing companies to turn to dirty means of oil and natural gas extraction, the price of solar energy has been dropping exponentially. In fact, the per capita cost of this renewable source of energy ($ per watt) has dropped from a high of $80 in 1977 to 0.74 this past year. This represents a 108 fold decrease in the space of 36 years.

solar_array1And while solar currently comprises only a quarter of a percent of the planet’s electricity supply, its total share grew by 86% last year. In addition, wind farms already provide 2% of the world’s electricity, and their capacity is doubling every three years. At this rate of increase, solar, wind and other renewables are likely to completely offset coal, oil and gas in the near future.

Summary:
In short, things are looking up, even if they do have a long way to go. And a lot of what is expected to make the world a better place is likely to happen this year. Who knows which diseases we will find cures for? Who knows what inspirational leaders will come forward? And who knows what new and exciting inventions will be created, ones which offer creative and innovative solutions to our current problems?

Who knows? All I can say is that I am eager to find out!

Additional Reading: unstats.un.org, humanprogress.org, mdgs.un.org

The Future of Education: Facial Recognition in the Classroom

https://i1.wp.com/edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/intel-bridge-the-gap.pngFor some time now, classroom cameras have been used to see what teachers do in the course of their lessons, and evaluate their overall effectiveness as educators. But thanks to a recent advances in facial recognition software, a system has been devised that will assess teacher effectiveness by turning the cameras around and aiming at them at the class.

It’s what’s known as EngageSense, and was developed by SensorStar Labs in Queens, New York. It begins by filming student’s faces, then applying an algorithm to assess their level of interest. And while it might sound a bit Big Brother-y, the goal is actually quite progressive. Traditional logic has it that by filming the teacher, you will know what they are doing right and wrong.

https://i1.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/slideshow_large/slideshow/2013/10/3018861-slide-makerfaire1.jpgThis system reverses that thinking, measuring reactions to see how the students feel and react, measuring their level of interest over time to see what works for them and what doesn’t. As SensorStar Labs co-founder Sean Montgomery put it:

This idea of adding the cameras and being able to use that information to assist teachers to improve their lessons is already underway. Where this is trying to add a little value on top of that is to make it less work for the teachers.

Montgomery also emphasized that the technology is in the research and development research and development  phase. In its current form, it uses webcams to shoot students’ faces and computer vision algorithms to analyze their gaze – measuring eye movement, the direction they are facing, and facial expressions. That, coupled with audio, can be transformed into a rough, automated metric of student engagement throughout the day.

https://i2.wp.com/endthelie.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/facial-recognition-data-points.jpgAfter a lesson, a teacher could boot up EngageSense and see, with a glance at the dashboard, when students were paying rapt attention, and at what points they became confused or distracted. Beyond that, the concept is still being refined as SensorStar Labs looks both for funding and for schools to give EngageSense a real-world trial.

The ultimate goal here is to tailor lessons so that the learning styles of all students can be addressed. And given the importance of classroom accommodation and the amount of time dedicated to ensuring individual student success, a tool like this may prove very useful. Rather than relying on logs and spreadsheets, the EngageSense employs standard computer hardware that simplifies the evaluation process over the course of days, weeks, months, and even years.

https://i2.wp.com/image.slidesharecdn.com/technologyandeducation2-110922110134-phpapp01/95/slide-1-728.jpgAt the present time, the biggest obstacle would definitely be privacy concerns. While the software is designed for engaging student interest right now, it would not be difficult at all to imagine the same technology applied to police interrogations, security footage, or public surveillance.

One way to assuage these concerns in the classroomstudents, according to Montgomery, is to make the entire process voluntary. Much in the same way that smartphone apps ask permission to access your GPS or other personal data, parental consent would be needed before a child could be recorded or their data accessed and analyzed.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, labs.sensorstar.com

News From Space: Center of the Universe Closing!

center_universeYeah, that title might be a bit misleading. Technically, the news comes from Earth, but has everything to do with our study of the heavens. And this story comes to you from my own neck of the woods where – just a few kilometers from my house – the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is about to shut down due to budget cuts.

Typically, it goes by the name of Center of the Universe, a national historic site and a hub for astronomy education in Victoria. And at the end of the summer, in what I can only say its a tragedy, it will be closed to the public for good. The National Research Council (NRC) put the official closing date at the end of August, right after the last of the student summer camps ends.

center_universe2In addition, the facility houses historical artifacts like the original 1.8 metre mirror from the Plaskett Telescope and runs historical tours, multimedia shows, and youth programs. Unfortunately, this all costs about $32,000 to operate and $245,000 in employee wages, and brings in only about $47,000 per year in revenue. This gives the NRC a deficit of about $230,000 a year for this facility alone.

Naturally, Charles Drouin, spokesman for the NRC in Ottawa, said that the decision did not come easy, but was necessary. He confirmed that the active astronomy facility and national historic site will have no public outreach come late August or early September, and locals and visitors will no longer be able to tour the Plastkett Telescope, in operation since May 6, 1918.

center_universe3On the bright side, the historical artifacts and displays in the Centre of the Universe building will remain in place after the facility is closed. The NRC will also be working with local community groups to find volunteers to use the space, so it will remain in operation, though in a limited capacity. This much is good news, since the loss of the site in its entirety would be an immeasurable loss for this community.

Interestingly enough, Drouin also claimed that the decision to close the facility was unrelated to the federal governments announcement in May to reorganize the NRC as an “industry-focused research and technology organization.” In short, the budget-driven decision is not being blamed on funding cuts or the desire to privatize. I wonder…

center_universe1Personally, I am sad and ashamed to hear this news. The wife and I have been saying for ages that we need to go to this place and take a tour. Granted, that is not the easiest thing in the world to arrange, what with all the booked tours and the way the place seems to have an odd schedule. But you’d think we could have arranged something by now. It’s a national observatory, and right in my backyard for God sakes! To think we might have missed our chance is just plain sad…

However, there is still time, and I strongly recommend that anybody in the Saanich, Victoria, or Vancouver and Island region get their butts out and do what they can to see the place in operation before it shuts down. No telling what kind of hours and limited services it will be offering once its got only volunteers manning it. We need to take a gander at this star-gazing facility now before we lose the opportunity!

And be sure to check out their website too!

Source: vicnews.com, nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

The Future of the Classroom

virtual_learning2As an educator, technological innovation is a subject that comes up quite often. Not only are teachers expected to keep up with trends so they can adapt them into their teaching strategies, classrooms,and prepare children in how to use them, they are also forced to contend with how these trends are changing the very nature of education itself. If there was one thing we were told repeatedly in Teacher’s College, it was that times are changing, and we must change along with them.

And as history has repeatedly taught us, technological integration not only changes the way we do things, but the way we perceive things. As we come to be more and more dependent on digital devices, electronics and wireless communications to give us instant access to a staggering amount of technology, we have to be concerned with how this will effect and even erode traditional means of information transmission. After all, how can reading and lecture series’ be expected to keep kid’s attention when they are accustomed to lighting fast videos, flash media, and games?

envisioning-the-future-of-education

And let’s not forget this seminal infographic, “Envisioning the future of educational technology” by Envisioning Technology. As one of many think tanks dedicated to predicting tech-trends, they are just one of many voices that is predicting that in time, education will no longer require the classroom and perhaps even teachers, because modern communications have made the locale and the leader virtually obsolete.

Pointing to such trends as Massive Open Online Courses, several forecasters foresee a grand transformation in the not too distant future where all learning happens online and in virtual environments. These would be based around “microlearning”, moments where people access the desired information through any number of means (i.e. a google search) and educate themselves without the need for instruction or direction.

virtual_learning3The technical term for this future trend is Socialstructured Learning = an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. This trend may very well be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education–from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey–talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. The only difference is that today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

One such tool comes in the form of augmented reality displays, which are becoming more and more common thanks to devices like Google Glass, the EyeTap or the Yelp Monocle. Simply point at a location, and you are able to obtain information you want about various “points of interest”. Imagine then if you could do the same thing, but instead receive historic, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

virtual_learningThis is the reasoning behind projects like HyperCities, a project from USC and UCLA that layers historical information on actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. The Smithsonian also has a free app called Leafsnap, which allows people to identify specific strains of trees and botany by simply snapping photos of its leaves.

In many respects, it reminds me of the impact these sorts of developments are having on politics and industry as well. Consider how quickly blogging and open source information has been supplanting traditional media – like print news, tv and news radio. Not only are these traditional sources unable to supply up-to-the-minute information compared to Twitter, Facebook, and live video streams, they are subject to censorship and regulations the others are not.

Attractive blonde navigating futuristic interfaceIn terms of industry, programs like Kickstarter and Indiegogo – crowdsources, crowdfunding, and internet-based marketing – are making it possible to sponsor and fund research and development initiatives that would not have been possible a few years ago. Because of this, the traditional gatekeepers, aka. corporate sponsors, are no longer required to dictate the pace and advancement of commercial development.

In short, we are entering into a world that is becoming far more open, democratic, and chaotic. Many people fear that into this environment, someone new will step in to act as “Big Brother”, or the pace of change and the nature of the developments will somehow give certain monolithic entities complete control over our lives. Personally, I think this is an outmoded fear, and that the real threat comes from the chaos that such open control and sourcing could lead to.

Is humanity ready for democratic anarchy – aka. Demarchy (a subject I am semi-obsessed with)? Do we even have the means to behave ourselves in such a free social arrangement? Opinion varies, and history is not the best indication. Not only is it loaded with examples of bad behavior, previous generations didn’t exactly have the same means we currently do. So basically, we’re flying blind… Spooky!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, envisioningtech.com

Video Breakdown of Fahrenheit 451

fahrenheit_451Hello all, and welcome to another glorious Friday! I feel fortunate today, due largely to the fact that yet another person who is dedicated to media literacy, science fiction, books and issues has chosen to get in contact with me and asked to be featured on this site. It’s always good to hear from people and know that what you are doing is garnering attention. But when they ask permission to share their message in your forum, well that’s just the bee’s knees!

F451Apparently. it was my tribute to Ray Bradbury which got this particular gentleman’s attention, and for good reason too. Through a site known as Academic Earth, where one can create and post educational videos on a variety of subject, Mr. Jack Collins created a video breakdown of Fahrenheit 451 that was both educational and insightful. In his brief but poignant segment, he takes a look at the major plot points, themes and motifs of Bradbury’s enduring classic.

To quote from his description of the video:

Ray Bradbury wrote his dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 at the height of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia. In the novel, Guy Montag is employed as a fireman who burns books. The whole of American society has descended into a zombie-like stupor of instant gratification, and books are seen as challenging and disruptive relics, which must be destroyed at any cost.

Today, with the increasing proliferation of surveillance equipment in American cities, the spread of digital books and the decline of attention spans the world over, Fahrenheit 451 remains a startlingly relevant work of fiction today. Watch this video and be instantly gratified (irony alert) with your knowledge of Bradbury’s most famous novel.

Trust me when I say it’s a fine educational short, one which I would definitely use if and when I got the chance to teach this novel. And after watching it, I couldn’t help but reflect upon a certain irony. More and more today, educators find themselves taking advantage of new media and video breakdowns in order to help students make sense of complex subject matter and lengthy texts. A few decades ago, they would simply be expected to read it, internalize it, and report on what they read.

One could easily argue that all this sort of trend really is a part of our society’s growing preoccupation with sound bites and easy accessibility. But then again, in our quest to maintain attention spans and promote thoughtfulness, we’d be fools to not take advantage of the very technology that is making it quicker and easier for people to do the opposite in the first place.

Enjoy the video! As you can tell, it got me thinking, and that’s not always the easiest thing for someone else to do 😉 Check out the video by following the link below, and be sure to comment!

academicearth.org/electives/tldr-fahrenheit-451/