Category Archives: Academia

How to create mini-NSAs to spy on social media


The NSA, the National Security Agency, is America’s super-agency for monitoring global communications. While it’s only nominally no to spy on US citizens, the policy is more honored in the breach than in the observance.

But, still, local law enforcement agencies can’t access the massive cache of our digitally expressed thoughts and feelings, and. my. how they’d like to.

So what to do?

Well, why not start with create a program to monitor social media for all the things cops want to know?

From the University of North Carolina, Charlotte:

Yong Ge, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the College of Computing and Informatics’ Department of Computer Science.  Through funding from the National Institute of Health, Ge has developed a tool that leverages social media data to help analyze use patterns of illegal drugs by young adults across the country.

“Up until now the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducts a national survey once a year in which thousands of people are randomly selected to supply information,” says Ge.  “Essentially it tries to determine what types of illegal drugs people are using. Not only was it very costly but it generated hundreds of pages of information, some of which might not even be accurate based on the responses of those being surveyed.”

Ge says by doing the survey only once a year it makes it nearly impossible to capture the dynamics of illegal drug usage on an ongoing basis. He says through the use of social media analysis that has all changed.  Ge says they can now capture and analyze data on an ongoing basis, track trends, etc., which gives them a much more powerful tool to figure out what is actually going on out there.

Ge says another challenge is creating a database for all of the different names being used to describe drugs.

“People use many different street names to describe illegal drugs,” says Ge.  “Therefore we need to capture that data in order to get a good sampling of what people are using. It is very rare that folks will use the real names of the illegal drug.”

Ge says by tracking illegal drug use via social media analysis they are able to see where certain illegal drugs are being used, sort patterns of usage of drugs, detect new ways of using drugs, etc.  He says as they acquire this real time information they will be able to detect and report immediately what is trending and where.

Ge says eventually they hope to be able to supply this information to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and law enforcement authorities.

Julian Assange begins his fifth year of asylum


Today, 19 June 2016, marks the start of the fifth year of the political asylum of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who remains within the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, sheltered from extradition that would likely see his removal to the U.S. and trial on espionage charges for publishing diplomatic cables and other documents furnished by the now-imprisoned Chelsea Manning.

To commemorate the date and raise a renewed call for his freedom, notable figures in journalism, governance, human rights, law, environmentalism, academia, art, film, and even fashion raised their voices in events around the world.

For a full list of participants, see thje #freeassagenow website, but meanwhile, from The Press Project, here are a few videos recorded for the event:

We begin with a familiar face:

Noam Chomsky in support of Julian Assange


Next, a Slovenian philosopher:

Slavoj Žižek in support of Julian Assange


And a Chinese artist:

Ai Wei Wei in support of Julian Assange


Followed by a world renowned composer and musician:

Brian Eno in support of Julian Assange


And Italy’s most esteemed investigator reporter, a journalist who lives with round-the-clock police protection because of his brilliant exposes of organized crime:

Roberto Saviani in support of Julian Assange


Finally, the British fashion designer and human rights activist who brought the punk style into the mainstream:

Vivienne Westwood in support of Julian Assange

Europe warned to regulate endocrine disruptors


We’ve posted endlessly about the dangers posed by plastics and other chemicals [including those used in fracking, flame retardants, food packaging, and more] flooding the environment now demonstrated to disrupt the healthy operation of the body’s endocrine system [glands in common parlance].

Chemicals secreted by the endocrine system regulate a wide range of bodily process, everything to weight and stature to sexual characteristics.

And now the organization representing the physicians, researchers, and educators specializing in endocrine studies has called upon the European Union to strictly regulate chemicals identified as endocrine disruptors.

From the Endocrine Society:

To protect human health, Endocrine Society members called on the European Commission to adopt science-based policies for regulating endocrine-disrupting chemicals in an opinion piece published today in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.

The publication comes two days before the European Commission is expected to announce its final criteria for identifying endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) mimic, block or interfere with the body’s hormones – the chemical signals that regulate brain development, reproduction, metabolism, growth and other important biological functions. EDCs can be found in common products including food containers, plastics, cosmetics and pesticides.

More than 1,300 studies have linked EDC exposure to health problems such as infertility, diabetes, obesity, hormone-related cancers and neurological disorders, according to the Endocrine Society’s 2015 Scientific Statement. Recent studies have found that adverse health effects from EDC exposure cost the European Union more than €157 billion each year in healthcare expenses and lost productivity.

“A growing body of research has found endocrine-disrupting chemicals pose a threat not only to those who are directly exposed, but to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” said the Society’s European Union Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Task Force Co-Chair Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, MD, PhD, first author of the opinion piece, of the University of Liège in Liège, Belgium. “We need to protect the public and future generations with regulations that address the latest scientific findings and incorporate new information from emerging research.”

The European Commission has proposed four options for regulatory criteria identifying endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The Endocrine Society supports option 3, which would create multiple categories based on the amount of scientific evidence that a particular chemical acts as an endocrine disruptor. This option also allows for incorporating new data as more studies are published.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

And now for something completely different. . .


How about a drone and a couple of whales?

From the Auckland University of Technology:

Rare whale footage shot by drone thanks to AUT scientists

Program notes:

Unique footage of a Bryde’s Whale has been released by Auckland University of Technology. The footage shows an adult whale feeding, briefly joined by a young calf, and was filmed from a drone off the coast of Auckland. It is thought to be the first time the feeding behaviour of a Bryde’s Whale has been recorded by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

The footage was captured by AUT post-graduate students, Ticiana Fetterman and Lorenzo Fiori, while on the water conducting their respective Masters and PhD research. They were stunned to glimpse the whales, and to share the rarely seen moment with their research supervisor Dr Barbara Bollard Breen.

“Bryde’s Whales are critically threatened in New Zealand, so it’s thrilling to see them in the wild and to be able to record them feeding from above is very special,” says the Senior Lecturer in Geospatial Science.

“Using a UAV allowed Ticiana and Lorenzo to film without disturbing the surrounding wildlife – revealing footage of the whales feeding that we wouldn’t have been able to see from a boat-based survey.”

The team was using a custom-built multirotor UAV, one of a number of drones used by AUT’s Institute for Applied Ecology in their conservation and ecology research.

It flew at a distance of at least 40 meters from the whales, while recording clear, detailed footage. The adult whale is estimated to be approximately 12 metres long, 12 tonnes in weight and 10 years old.

Researchers crack the Amazon price puzzle


From Northeastern University.

From Northeastern University.

We have mixed feelings about online megaretailers like Amazon.

Their predatory pricing kills community-based businesses and reduces labor to role of automata.

But on the other hand, those same predatory prices are virtually irresistible, especially in a society where worker paychecks are steadily losing ground.

But once you’re seduced by the low prices, the rule of caveat emptor still applies.

That’s because the low price you see often isn’t the lowest you can get.

And now some academics have cracked the puzzle of just how to get that lowest price.

From Northeastern University:

You need a new Chrome­book com­puter, so you go online to Amazon and start your search. You click on an attrac­tive item on the product page—an Acer 11.6-Inch, CB3-111-C670. Up pops the computer’s price ($188.88, new, last Friday morning) and, to the right, the ubiq­ui­tous “buy box,” beck­oning “Add to Cart.” You oblige.
Had you looked more closely, you might have done better.

New research [open access PDF] led by Northeastern’s Christo Wilson, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, reveals that Amazon is much more likely to fea­ture sellers in the buy box who use an auto­mated prac­tice called algo­rithmic pricing, even though their prices may be higher than those who don’t. Algo­rithmic pricing read­justs product prices in real-time using com­puter algo­rithms, reacting to vari­ables such as com­peti­tors’ changing prices and sellers’ inven­tory levels. The research was presented at the 25th Inter­na­tional World Wide Web Conference.

That Acer is a case in point: A tiny link below the buy box takes you to 107 other sellers whose prices for the same new machine start at just $149.

When you go to a page on Amazon, what you’re seeing is typ­i­cally not the lowest price avail­able,” says Wilson. “For example, we found that 60 per­cent of sellers using algo­rithmic pricing have prices that are higher than the lowest price for a given product. Now, 70 per­cent of the time they only raise the price by $1, but there are many cases where the price increase is on the order of $20 to $60. So you really have to take that extra step and click through to the list of all sellers for a given product if you want to find the lowest price.”

Pick your strategy

If algo­rithmic pricing sounds too sophis­ti­cated for inde­pen­dent sellers, it’s not: For a fee, any one of Amazon’s more than 2 mil­lion third-party sellers can easily sub­scribe to an auto­mated pricing ser­vice through com­pa­nies such as Sellery, Feed­visor, and Repri­ceIt, becoming so-called algo sellers. They then set up a pricing strategy by choosing from a menu of options like these: Find the lowest price offered and go above it (or below it) by X dol­lars or Y per­centage, find Amazon’s own price for the item and adjust up or down rel­a­tive to it, and so on. The ser­vice does the rest.

Read the rest, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Map of the day III: Peak public paychecks


From Deadspin, the top public employee paycheck recipient in each of the 50 states:

BLOG Paychecks

Recording stars shill for unhealthy food sellers


Yep, if you see your favorite singer itching the virtues of something to eat or drink, odds are it ain’t good for you.

That’s the conclusion of Some NYU researchers who actually looked at the stuff being hustled and found it severely wanting in nutritional value and heavy on stuff that’ll make you fat.

Their research follows on earlier work that reached the same conclusion after examining the nutritional value of food and drink shilled by celebrity athletes.

Here are the two researchers describing their study, via Newswise:

More on their research from New York University’s Langone Medical Center:

Recording artists are frequently the face of commercial products—and children and adolescents are frequently their target audience. Now, a new study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center finds that the vast majority of the food and beverage products marketed by some of the most popular music stars are unhealthy. This type of advertising is contributing to the alarming rise in childhood and teen obesity, the authors warn.

Soda and other sugary drinks, fast food, and sweets, are among the most common food and beverage products endorsed by famous music personalities, according to the descriptive study, published June 6 in Pediatrics [$25 to access — esnl]. Equally alarming, none of the music stars identified in the study endorsed fruits, vegetables, or whole grains. Only one endorsed a natural food deemed healthy—pistachios.

This is believed to be the first study to use a rigorous nutritional analysis to evaluate healthfulness of food and drinks marketed by music stars, reviewing dozens of advertisements that were disseminated over a 14-year period. Lead author Marie Bragg, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone, conducted a study three years ago of celebrity athlete endorsements using similar methods.

“Because of our nation’s childhood and teenage obesity public health crises, it is important to raise awareness about how companies are using celebrities popular with these audiences to market their unhealthy products,” says Dr. Bragg, who is also a faculty member at the NYU College of Global Public Health. “Research has already shown that food advertising leads to overeating, and the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year marketing to youth alone.”

Study Methods: Identifying Pop Stars and their Endorsements

To identify popular music stars, the investigators went through Billboard Magazine’s “Hot 100” song charts from 2013 and 2014. The researchers also verified their popularity and marketing appeal with teens by reviewing Teen Choice Award winners and quantified the number of YouTube video views associated with the celebrities’ food and nonalcoholic beverage brand endorsements.

The investigators then catalogued every endorsement between 2000 and 2014 using AdScope, an advertisement database that contains all forms of ads, including television, magazine, and radio, and also searched for official commercials or endorsements on YouTube and in media sources. Endorsements were defined to include a celebrity’s participation in a concert sponsored by a product.

After sorting the endorsements into different marketing categories, the authors found that 65 of 163 identified pop stars were associated with 57 different food and beverage brands. Food and nonalcoholic beverages were the second-largest endorsement category, comprising 18 percent of endorsements and ranking after consumer goods at 26 percent and ahead of retail at 11 percent.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading