CR4® - The Engineer's Place for News and Discussion®

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.

The Trouble with DNA Kits

Posted June 16, 2018 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: DNA Internet

With the recent capture of the Golden State Killer through a match with DNA data held on a Florida-based ancestry website comes mounting concern for privacy.

While fascinated by the science of capturing a killer through the DNA of loved ones, you have to feel somewhat uncomfortable for those who only sent in a cheek swab wanting to find out if they were part Viking or related to royalty and not, let’s say Ted Bundy’s third cousin, twice removed.

As concerns for how this data is handled mounts, news is now emerging that personal information from ancestry websites, like the one that held the familial DNA of the Golden State Killer, is likely vulnerable to hacking.

According to reports, data about customers of the ancestry site MyHeritage had been stolen from pre-October 26 users. The data, which included customer email addresses and hashed passwords, was held on a private server until an unaffiliated security researcher notified the company.

Although MyHeritage has assured that the breach did not include data such as family trees and DNA, it does advise that information such as medical histories and biological relationships can be made available via legal avenues. According to the site, MyHeritage will, in some cases, release data to third parties in “limited circumstances,” including to honor requests made by law enforcement with a court order.

Yet, not every ancestry site has such protections in place concerning DNA data, as was demonstrated by GEDmatch, the Florida-based ancestry site that pointed investigators in the direction of Joseph James DeAngelo as the alleged “Golden State Killer,” responsible for a number of rapes and murders in 1970’s and 1980’s California. GEDmatch does not require a court order to share data, stating on its site that "users participating in this site should expect that their information will be shared with other users."

Responding to the hack, MyHeritage is asking users to change their passwords and is assuring customers that it will soon be launching a two-factor identification authentication system.

Does news that a family member’s DNA was used to capture a serial killer have you regretting your decision to send in a DNA swab to one of these sites or, have you reconsidered conducting such DNA research entirely?

23 comments; last comment on 06/18/2018
View/add comments

Could Real Books Disappear Amid Growing e-Book Popularity?

Posted June 09, 2018 12:00 AM by M-ReeD

While I am apt to ask myself any number of questions throughout the course of the day, the ones that seem to hang on for dear life, often keeping me up at night, include questions about whether my next-door neighbor is actually a serial killer or just a gentleman keeping odd hours, whether Bono would like me if he ever met me and whether or not books are on the verge of obsolescence because of their availability on electronic devices.

Thanks to recent research, it seems I have an answer for at least one of these questions….

Although it seems that tech-savvy millennials would prefer getting their literature from convenient e-books, it turns out that this generation of readers would prefer actual books over e-readers — maybe even more than older readers — according to a study from the University of Arizona.

Likewise, the study also determined that across all adult age groups, consumers look on e-book ownership much differently than actual physical ownership of a book.

"We looked at what's called psychological ownership, which is not necessarily tied to legal possession or legal rights, but is more tied to perceptions of 'what is mine,'" said lead study author Sabrina Helm, a UA associate professor who researches consumer perceptions and behaviors.

The feeling of control over the object, whether the object defines who they are and if the object gives the possessor a sense of belonging in society were all factors that contribute to psychological ownership, according to the research.

"Psychological ownership is important in people's perception of how they value certain products or services or objects," said Helm. "In the context of digital products, we thought it would be appropriate to look at how people take ownership of something that's not really there — it's just a file on your computer or device or in the Cloud; it's more of a concept than an actual thing."

Publishing their findings in the journal Electronic Markets, researchers divided participants into four different focus groups with two groups of millennials, one group of Baby Boomers and one group of Generation Xers.

As researchers moderated, the groups revealed their feelings about ownership of physical books versus e-books. Some findings:

  • Because they don’t have full control of the e-book (i.e., they can’t copy a digital file to a number of devices), they don’t feel they have complete ownership of it.
  • Because they couldn’t share the e-books with their friends as well as being unable to gift the e-books or sell them, participants reported the items felt less valuable that physically possessing a book.
  • Because participants experienced physical books via senses such as touch, sound and smell, they reported feeling more emotionally attached to the physical books.
  • Because the process surrounding the purchase of e-books made it feel more like renting the book versus actually buying it, the participants reported feeling less ownership over the product.
  • Because physical books can be displayed, readers associate that with an expression of their identity to others.

Yet, despite all of the resistance expressed concerning e-books, there were some in favor of the technology, namely minimalists who don’t enjoy the clutter of books as well as older populations who are able to manipulate text size and lighting using e-books, making for a more comfortable reading experience.

"One of the conclusions of our research was that digital books and physical books are entirely different products," said Helm. "E-books feel like more of a service experience; overall, they seem to offer a more functional or utilitarian experience. You have much more richness if you deal with a physical book, where all your senses are involved."

"Physical books are very special products, and we know that physical books have a lot of meaning for a lot of people," Helm continued, "Digital reading is still fairly new, digital books are still a fairly new product category, and thinking about ownership in the context of these kinds of products is new for most people."

That being said, it seems that actual books are least for now.

Do you prefer electronic devices or the real deal when it comes to reading?

41 comments; last comment on 06/18/2018
View/add comments

A Tool That Might Help Us From Fighting with Our Facebook Friends

Posted June 02, 2018 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: politics social media

The last two years have dramatically changed how most of us interact with friends and family online, particularly on social media. What was once a safe haven for obnoxious meal pictures and images of middle-aged women adorned in deer antlers and fairy wreathes is now a dangerous political landscape dotted with potentially catastrophic landmines in the shape of posts that all but guarantee passionate displays of outrage in comment sections the world over.

No stranger to the occasional post that has resulted in an argument with social media acquaintances and loved ones alike, over the last two years I have lost a handful of social media friends and family members myself.

Considering the climate, I know I’m not alone in this. Yet, where I am perfectly happy to no longer see posts from, let’s say, a spouse’s cousin’s friend’s racist husband (hypothetically speaking, of course), there are those out there mourning the absence of a Facebook friend or Instagram follower lost to a heated political debate.

For those bothered by these social media losses, a team of researchers might have a solution that could one day prevent future political arguments…at least of the online variety.

Considering that many online discussions have the potential to become contentious, researchers from Cornell University and the Wikimedia Foundation have created a template of sorts to predict when an online discussion might deteriorate.

Publishing the details of their research in arXiv, the team noted that many online conversations can evolve into arguments and ultimately personal attacks. This is particularly true on sites such as Wikipedia where editors offer critiques of work submitted by others in an effort to improve content on the site. Yet, many authors don’t take the critique well and will, oftentimes, post negative comments.

The Wikimedia Foundation would like to keep such conversations constructive, steering comments away from the negative, not only for the benefit of those engaged in the argument but to also keep the site from developing a bad reputation. As such, they have teamed with researchers from Cornell to develop a computer system that can recognize when a conversation veers into negative territory, either redirecting it or halting the entire conversation altogether.

Looking at more than 1,000 online discussions on the Wikipedia Talk pages, the system has been programmed to look for “cues” of polite discussion, focusing on words such as “please” and “thanks,” suggesting that their use would not likely result in the conversation spiraling into negative territory.

Conversely, discussions that began with direct questions or the word “you” had a much better chance of degrading the conversation as they are often associated with being contentious and hostile.

Applying that data to an algorithm, the system was able to detect, early in the conversation, when a conversation was apt to become negative with a rate of accuracy of 61.6 percent.

Would you use such a tool to prevent future, potentially relationship-damaging discussions on your social media page?

8 comments; last comment on 06/07/2018
View/add comments

Humans are Filthier than Chimpanzees

Posted May 26, 2018 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: animals bacteria

And nowhere is that more evident than in where they sleep, according to new research.

Publishing their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science, researchers took swab samples from a chimpanzee nest and compared them with swabs taken from a human’s bed.

In both settings, researchers found traces of sweat, saliva, feces and skin. However, the team found significantly more of those “impurities” in the human bed (35 percent) than the chimpanzee nest (3.5 percent).

“We know that human homes are effectively their own ecosystems, and human beds often contain a subset of the taxa—or types—of organisms found in the home. For example, about 35 percent of bacteria in human beds stem from our own bodies, including fecal, oral and skin bacteria” said Megan Thoemmes, lead author and Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University.

Researchers conclude that the reason for such a disparity in cleanliness has to do with chimpanzees sleeping in a new bed nearly every night while humans are apt to keep the same bed for decades, shedding these “impurities” night after night.

“We have created sleeping places in which our exposure to soil and other environmental microbes has all but disappeared, and we are instead surrounded by less diverse microbes that are primarily sourced from our own bodies,” the authors wrote in the study.

This finding is less likely to surprise you if you’ve ever lived in a communal setting (let’s say a dorm). That was where I discovered that people have varying definitions of hygiene and that people will do just about anything on a bed when space is limited (i.e., eating, studying, using it as a napkin after eating, or as seating when entertaining hordes of strangers).

8 comments; last comment on 05/29/2018
View/add comments

When Are You Too Old to Learn a New Language?

Posted May 19, 2018 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: cognition language

If you are under the age of 17, there is still time for you to learn a new language. However, for those of us nowhere near 17, sadly, that ship has sailed, according to new research on the subject.

As determined by previous studies of its kind, to speak a different language as fluently as a native speaker, a person must begin to learn the language at a much earlier age because, as studies have shown, children are better at picking up different languages. As such, the ability to learn a new language begins to decline after age 17 and the ability to learn a new language and to speak it as proficiently as a native speaker begins to decline after age 10, according to the study.

"If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old," says team psychologist Joshua Hartshorne, who worked on the study at MIT.

"We don't see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that."

To reach the conclusion that the capacity to learn a new language diminishes after the age of 17, researchers analyzed the test results of roughly 670,000 people who had taken a grammar quiz. Additionally, they asked some of the test-takers other questions such as what their native language was and their current age. The combined information was eventually fed to a number of computational models where it eventually settled on the age of 17 as the limit for learning a new language.

"This is one of those rare opportunities in science where we could work on a question that is very old, that many smart people have thought about and written about, and take a new perspective and see something that maybe other people haven't."

What isn’t given, however, is an explanation for such a decline in the ability to learn a new language. Some scientists suggest that the issue has to do with our brains while others suggest that it could be due to changes in a person’s life.

Also expected to go unanswered: Why is it that I’ve forgotten every bit of Latin I learned in the several years of Latin class I took leading up to age 17, yet still remember every bad Russian word the senior citizens from an adult day care center I once worked in taught me well after the age of 17?

18 comments; last comment on 06/01/2018
View/add comments

Previous in Blog: Would You Give Amazon the Keys to Your Car?  
Show all Blog Entries in this Blog