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The Engineer's Notebook

The Engineer's Notebook is a shared blog for entries that don't fit into a specific CR4 blog. Topics may range from grammar to physics and could be research or or an individual's thoughts - like you'd jot down in a well-used notebook.

Anyone Actually Reading Terms of Service Agreements? Anyone???

Posted January 12, 2017 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: privacy social media

If you’ve been using the internet for longer than a few days or so, you’ve probably agreed to a handful of terms of service (TOS) agreements. (If you’re reading this as a registered CR4 user, I can think of at least one.) Some TOS agreements are legally binding contracts with potentially severe consequences, and though many are agreed to, very few are read either in whole or part.

The TOS became common with the growth of social media and e-commerce websites or services that deal with a user’s private, personal, or financial data. There are lots of logical reasons why they’re not read; I’ve tried to get through a few but as the last step of a website registration process my impatience typically gets the better of me and I click “Accept” without reading them. Many who have the patience to read a TOS get lost in the dense legalese and give up. This is especially problematic for children, who are likely to be using one or many social media services to communicate.

Jenny Alfia, a British privacy lawyer, recently translated Instagram’s 5,000+ word TOS into plain English to serve the younger population. The translation was released this month as part of the UK Children’s Commissioner’s Growing Up Digital report, which found that very few if any teens understood Instagram’s full TOS but signed up anyway. Here are a few gems from the rewritten TOS, all of which probably would’ve taken an entire page of legal code in the original:

“We might send you adverts connected to your interests which we are monitoring. You cannot stop us doing this and it will not always be obvious that it is an advert.”

“We can change or end Instagram, or stop you accessing Instagram at any time, for any reason and without letting you know in advance. We can also delete posts and other content randomly, without telling you, for any reason. If we do this, we will not be responsible for paying out any money and you won’t have any right to complain.”

“Although you are responsible for the information you put on Instagram, we may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram. This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

Many 12-15 year olds who had blindly agreed to the TOS questioned their use of direct messaging after reading the translated version, and one quit the service altogether. Of course, it goes without saying that most TOS agreements are some form of contract, and a straightforward contract weeds out the suckers, a situation often disadvantageous for the issuer.

As average consumers get wise to the use of their supposedly private data a number of services have sprung up to help. Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (a riff on tl;dr) classifies TOSs into five classes and provides users with simple thumbs up/down feature ratings. Class A agreements are best and typically allow users plenty of choice over the copyrights and their right to retain their data and painlessly leave the service. In contrast, the lower D and E classes tend to stockpile rights for the service provider, including the ability to change terms without notice and retain user copyrights without permission. YouTube seems to be the most well-known site with a poor Class D rating.

The vast majority of high schoolers I know use some form of social media (usually Snapchat, these days) for almost all communication, and I’d bet that very few understand the terms of service. As a member of the last generation to spend part of my teens without the internet, I don’t envy them.

40 comments; last comment on 01/17/2017
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Tetris: Infiltrating Dreams and Memories Since 1984

Posted January 09, 2017 12:00 AM by Jonathan Fuller
Pathfinder Tags: neuroscience PTSD stickgold tetris

Just before this past holiday season, I took what I thought was a novel approach to reducing daily stress: I started playing Tetris for about 15 minutes each day. After about a week I found that it was indeed helping me wind down at the end of each day, but I also noticed that my gameplay was improving much faster than I’d expected. Then a few days later, it happened—I started dreaming about tetrominoes, the little four-block figures at the heart of the game.

As strange as it sounds, this phenomenon is common to many if not all regular Tetris players. In 1994, a Wired magazine article dubbed the game’s entry into dreams and real-life the Tetris effect. The author, Jeffrey Goldsmith, described a weeklong Tetris bender in Tokyo in which he started to visualize tetrominoes in floor tiles and unconsciously tried to combine people, cars, and trees when out of the house. Tetris seems like the most potent video game equivalent of an earworm, and playing it regularly more or less ensures that its shapes will come back to visit in unexpected places.

The Tetris effect is a well-known example of hypnagogic imagery, or images that appear during the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep. Many people see, feel, taste, or smell sensations they experienced that day just before falling asleep (the period known as hypnagogia), especially when their experiences are novel. But Tetris appears to have a unique effect on the brain, as shown by a 2000 study by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Stickgold. Stickgold recalled that when he was mountaineering in Vermont, he could still feel the rocks under his hands as he was drifting off to sleep. Intrigued at this phenomenon and not wanting to press study volunteers into climbing a mountain, he decided to study the effects of Tetris instead. Interestingly, he also ran the study on five amnesiacs who had short-term memory loss due to brain damage. All his participants, even the amnesiacs, reported seeing falling tetrominoes while falling asleep, but none could report seeing the computer, keyboard, or any other details about the environment. The amnesiacs could not remember the name or face of the study administrator or having played Tetris at all, but they still reported seeing “shapes floating down a screen.”

Stickgold theorized that the brain seemed to have extracted the tetrominoes and stored them in the neocortex, where general information and facts are stored apart from actual events. This is in contrast to the hippocampus, the area of the brain containing information about life events, and an area permanently damaged in someone with complete amnesia. Stickgold also posited that the study supports the theory that sleep seems to function as a pre-defined time to process and store recent memories.

Since the Tetris effect was formally named 22 years ago, a number of research groups have found the game to have interesting and wide-reaching effects on the brain and cognition. Moderate daily use increases general cognitive functions like critical thinking and general processing, as well as cerebral cortex thickness. This might explain why even casual players are able to rapidly improve their gameplay. The game may have some niche uses in psychology and medicine as well. A 2009 Oxford University research group found that Tetris could be useful in reducing or lessening PTSD flashbacks, and a separate study found that playing the game corrected amblyopia (lazy eye) in adolescents more effectively than patching the patient’s well eye.

Despite its simplicity and age, the lowly Tetris is still one of the most intriguing and useful games out there. Not too shabby for a 32-year-old Soviet side project.

Image credit: @joefoodie / CC BY 2.0

9 comments; last comment on 01/11/2017
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Breaking the Habit – How Long Does it Truly Take

Posted January 05, 2017 4:00 PM by lmno24

As the New Year is upon us, many will try and adopt new, healthier habits or eliminate bad ones. There’s a lot of information circulating about exactly how long it takes to adopt a new habit, and it seems to not be the 21 day span that many have come to believe.

The 21 day idea has roots in a book released in 1960 by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. In Psycho-Cybernetics, he wrote that it commonly took his patients about 21 days to get used to their new face, or the same for an amputee to adapt to no longer having their limb.

However, according to several articles, his thought was misunderstood and marketed in a surge of self-help and “pop-psychology.” The idea that you could break a bad habit or adopt a new one in about three weeks seems achievable and an easy sell.

More modern research finds that it takes much longer to form a new habit, about 66 days on average. A study from 2009 done by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher, had a group of study participants adopt simple hobbies like drinking water at lunch or running 15 minutes a day. After about 12 weeks, the participants were assessed and reported on average, it took about 66 days for the habit to become second nature. The shortest span was 18 days, and the longest was 254 days.

Humans are creatures of habit, and once we get used to doing something it can be hard to change. There also can be a difference in results depending on if you’re trying to break a bad habit or pick up a new one from scratch. For example, if you’re trying to break a habit like drinking diet soda, you’ll likely need to replace your daily drink with something else like seltzer or water. The act of breaking a bad habit and forming a new one can be trickier than adding something entirely new to your routine – like meditating before bed or eating vegetables at every meal.

"It's much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behaviour," says neuroscientist Elliot Berkman in an article on "That's one reason why smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gum or inhalers tend to be more effective than the nicotine patch."

One thing is pretty much certain; it takes a combination of willpower, personality, motivation and circumstances to make breaking or forming a habit a success. However, a two month window seems to be a good starting point for making something happen, or stop happening. Patience is also key, experts say. Only in rare circumstances do people snap out of a habit extremely quickly, like if you suddenly become allergic to whatever toxin you ingested or what you consume or use becomes unavailable suddenly.

Another factor to remember is the amount of time you’ve already been doing something. If you’ve been smoking for 20 years, that habit is entrenched into your brain as a regular occurrence, as it has been happening for so long. But in time, all things can become a habit, even the reverse of what you were doing before.

Be strong, be patient, but don’t expect change in a few weeks.


12 comments; last comment on 01/10/2017
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Celebrating Hanukkah Where the Sun Never Sets

Posted December 24, 2016 1:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: Antarctica hanukkah McMurdo

All around the world, Hanukkah celebrations are in full swing tonight, or at sunset in your geographical location. For some locales—like at the Israel Institute of Technology, where four years ago they created a Rube Goldberg machine to light their menorah —sunset is easily defined, but at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, they have a tougher time deciding when to celebrate.

McMurdo Station, established in December 1955, is “the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program.” The station is home to about 85 buildings, which include “repair facilities, dormitories, administrative buildings, a firehouse, [and] a power plant.” One notable building is the Crary Lab, which hosts a variety of activities from environmental monitoring to snow and ice mechanics.

A byproduct of being in Antarctica, the staff at McMurdo experience only two seasons: summer and winter, with six months of daylight and six months of darkness, respectively. At the South Pole (90 degrees south), sunlight works exactly as described above. At McMurdo Station, the transition from daylight to darkness is less linear because it’s located at 77 degrees, 51 minutes south, 166 degrees, 40 minutes east.

For comparison purposes, you can also see the hours of daylight for IEEE GlobalSpec, Inc.’s headquarters. (By the way, I got these graphics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s amazing Daylight Hours Explorer, and the Australian Antarctic Division also has a great video clip showing the change of daylight hours across their various stations.)

By now, you may have forgotten why I’ve told you all of this. The point is: Hanukkah (celebrated at sunset) falls only three days after the winter solstice, in the middle of Antarctica’s summer season when the sun never sets. According to Jenna Kloosterman, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow who spent the 2015-2016 Antarctic summer at McMurdo, “there was no actual consensus about when the candle lighting should actually take place” during last year’s Hanukkah celebration. Evidently, some wanted to sync their celebrations with Israel, home (the U.S.), or the closest sunset (New Zealand), but the decision was eventually made by the fire marshal—he was available at 7:15 PM.

The fire marshal at McMurdo had so much sway in the decision making because “lighting candles is strictly forbidden at McMurdo,” but “the base requested special permission,” which was granted so long as the fire marshal was present for the lighting of the one menorah permitted in the McMurdo gallery for the occasion.

Image Credit for “Lighting the Hanukkah candles in McMurdo” to Jenna Kloosterman

2 comments; last comment on 12/25/2016
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Gifts to Give Kids This Holiday Season

Posted December 21, 2016 12:00 AM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: gift guide holidays kids

Last week, Chelsey H posted “An Engineer’s Christmas List” with some great ideas for what to get the engineer in your life (I may borrow a few myself), but what do you do if you want to create a future engineer? What do you get?

For the past few years, gender norm-defying gifts have been all the rage. One particular toy brand that seems to define this movement is GoldieBlox. Although, there are others like Roominate, and still more big brand toys like LEGO—and even Mattel with their computer engineer Barbie—that hopped on the trend.

So, GoldieBlox will make my list, but there are other toys and books you can get your favorite little kid that may just turn him or her into an engineer:

Because every little kid has a dream house.

Because your engineer-in-training loves video games.

Because a head start on learning the periodic table can’t be bad.

Because sometimes, you want to go with the “old faithful” products that helped you or your kids build, design, and create.

Because some kids love to read—and every future engineer, architect, or scientist needs some inspiration.

Because three years old isn’t too early to teach them about coding.

Because sometimes the story is as important as the invention.

Because games are really fun.

Because what parent doesn’t want an adorable robot lobbing balls at them?

Because arduinos are cool no matter how old you are.

12 comments; last comment on 12/26/2016
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