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Notes & Briefs 

Eco-Vandalism, Noise Laws, the Billion-Dollar Click, etc.

The movement of scientific journals to the Internet is narrowing the scope of research, according to a recent article in the journal Science. James Evans of the University of Chicago analyzed 34 million articles and their citations, going back to 1945. He found that as a journal made more of its back issues available online, the average age of articles cited from that journal paradoxically decreased. More surprising was the fact that, on average, when a journal released five additional years of back articles, the number of articles in the journal receiving a citation dropped by a factor of three.

Evans speculates that the fundamental difference between the print and digital media accounts for the changed behavior. He believes the ability to immediately find cited articles online prevents researchers from seeing seemingly irrelevant articles, as they would by flipping through paper journals and browsing physical libraries. The ability to quickly reach prevailing opinion, Evans concludes, hastens the process of scientific consensus. But it may also lessen the cross-pollination of ideas by squelching findings that do not quickly become part of that consensus.

The billion-dollar click: In the wee morning hours of Sunday, September 7, 2008, a reader on the website of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel browsed an old article on the 2002 bankruptcy of United Airlines. With hardly any other traffic on the site, that single hit moved the article into the “Popular Stories” list of the paper’s business section. Soon after, Google News scanned the site and saw the article, but since it didn’t find a 2002 dateline, it interpreted the article as new and added it to its index. Google News users began reading the story within minutes, and by Monday morning the “news” had been picked up by Bloomberg, a top news service for traders. When investors falsely believed the article referred to a new bankruptcy, stock for the airline fell by 70 percent in fifteen minutes, dropping the value of United Airlines by a billion dollars before NASDAQ froze trading.

The stock eventually regained most of its value, but legal action may result from the mix-up, and both Google and the news organizations involved are pointing fingers in the other direction. Google claims that human readers and its program Googlebot alike had no way to discern the date of the story, while a spokesman for the Sun-Sentinel argues that details from the story make clear that it refers to events from 2002 — indicating that nobody who passed along the story actually took the trouble to read it.

While details of Google’s classification methods will determine who, if anyone, is ultimately responsible, the run on the United Airlines stock has brought to light another potentially troubling aspect of how computers affect trading. The sell-off was initiated by human investors who saw the erroneous story, but the plunge was apparently magnified by automated trading algorithms which detected the drop and quickly dumped their own shares. These programs are projected to account for half of all trading volume by 2010.

China successfully completed its third manned spaceflight in September 2008. The Shenzou 7 mission stayed in space for three days, with a crew of three — the largest complement yet on a Chinese ship. The mission highlight was China’s first spacewalk. Zhai Zhigang floated outside the space capsule in a tethered suit for twenty minutes, collecting experiments and waving the Chinese flag in open space, just five years after the country’s first manned mission reached orbit. Chinese plans for space exploration include an orbiting station and a mission to the moon by 2020.

In a bid to clean up its streets, one Israeli town has created a program of reward and punishment to encourage residents to dispose of their dogs’ waste. The pets of Petah Tikva may soon find their DNA entered into a database used to identify their droppings. Owners who choose to enter a voluntary six-month trial program are eligible for discounted pet products if they scoop the poop into marked bins placed on city streets, while stray droppings matching a dog in the database may earn the dog’s owner a municipal fine. Although volunteering for potential fines may seem like a disincentive, the city’s chief veterinarian and conceiver of the program, Tika Bar-On, reports enthusiasm and cooperation on the part of residents. Based on the results of the trial, the city may choose to make the program permanent and mandatory for dog owners. “The sky is the limit on how far we can take this,” Bar-On told Reuters.

In October 2007, five Greenpeace activists scaled the chimney of Britain’s Kingsnorth power station, intending to paint on the 630-foot chimney a message to Prime Minister Gordon Brown: the words “Gordon, bin it” in giant letters. They completed only the first word before they were arrested. The aging coal-fired power plant has been scheduled for replacement with another coal-fired plant, drawing heavy criticism from environmentalists who claim that the new plant will contribute to global warming both through its substantial carbon emissions and the symbolic failure to embrace clean energy technology.

At the conclusion of their trial in September 2008, the activists were acquitted of all charges, the jury having concluded that the Greenpeaceniks had a “lawful excuse” for their property damage: that it was necessary in order to prevent the even greater damage of climate change. In their defense, the vandals invoked the Criminal Damage Act of 1971, a law intended to protect from prosecution those responsible for excusable damage, such as breaking down the door of a house in order to put out a fire.

A number of curiosities surround the case, but none so strange as the testimony at the trial of many public figures who described the grave threat of climate change, apparently in order to support the conclusion that it justifies property damage. The most notable witness was James Hansen, a prominent climatologist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who flew to England to speak for an hour on behalf of the vandals. Hansen used the very public opportunity to appeal directly to Prime Minister Brown to abandon new coal-fired plants in favor of cleaner technology, and described at length the danger posed by climate change. Emily Hall, one of the cleared activists, spoke to reporters outside the courthouse after her acquittal: “The jury heard from the most distinguished climate scientist in the world. How could they ignore his warnings and reject his leading scientific arguments?”

In May 2008, Honda’s ASIMO became the first robot to conduct a live performance, leading the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” for a sold-out concert crowd. Programmed to imitate the motions of a human conductor, ASIMO was “a little stiff, but very humanlike, much more fluid than I thought,” bassist Larry Hutchinson told the Associated Press, though the robot did have trouble staying in sync with the orchestra during early rehearsals.

While concert music in the United States is being infiltrated by Japanese robots, professional musicians in Europe are now required to keep their sonances below 90 decibels — about the noise level produced by a food blender — or risk harsh sanctions for breaking EU health and safety laws. While initially the “noise-at-work” regulations only applied to industry sectors, as of April 2008 they have been extended to include the music and entertainment sectors as well. The limit falls below the level of practically all bagpipe and rock performances and many classical performances. Some conductors, unwilling to sacrifice their fortissimi, have responded by asking their musicians to wear earplugs during rehearsals and performances. Oboist Alan Garner thinks that’s crazy. “It’s like saying to a racing-car driver that they have to wear a blindfold,” he told the New York Times. “I’ve spent nearly thirty years in music and I know all about noise, and occasionally, if I’m not playing and there’s a loud bit next to me, I might shove my fingers in my ears for a few bars. But I have yet to find a musician who says they can wear earplugs and still play at the same level of quality.”

The noise laws have also got up the gander of Scottish bagpipers, who say the statutes effectively proscribe pipe bands altogether. A pipe band can be as loud as 122 decibels (a chainsaw is 116); the law mandates that loud bursts of noise be counterbalanced with quiet stretches — quiet credits, if you will — to attain a weekly average of 85 decibels, meaning that practice is limited to fifteen minutes a day. RAF Leuchars pipe major Ian Hughes claims it is the first time in more than 250 years that bagpipes have been outlawed, ever since the failed Jacobite rising of 1745. “If we have to go with these regulations,” he told the London Times, “pipe bands won’t exist.”

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "Notes & Briefs," The New Atlantis, Number 22, Fall 2008, pp. 109-112.