Thursday, July 16, 2015

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A New Way of Thinking Science: Video Games

A new computer game, Foldit, recently helped scientists unravel the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme, helping scientists get closer to a possible cure (CNN, 2011). Unlocking the structure of the enzyme was a quest going for a decade in the scientific community until Foldit finally put a stop to it. The game may help find cures for other protein-related diseases as well such as cancer and Alzheimers by helping scientists understand the shape and function of proteins. 

Proteins, composed of any combination of 20 amino acids, are key components to cell functions. DNA in the cell determines the type and sequence of the protein, which carries out the vital functions in each cell such as muscle movement, digestion, and defense against infections. Creating and joining amino acids, however, are not enough. To carry out their task, proteins must fold into a complex three-dimensional structure ( And, this is pretty much what the video game builds on. Foldit, as the name suggests, is a protein-folding game. After a 20-minute instruction session in the beginning of the game, each player can become a Foldit scientist and start wiggling, pulling and stretching proteins in 3D to give them meanings and functions.  As the first law of thermodynamics suggests, energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The same goes for protein folding. In a process that requires energy, Foldit players get awarded when they make proteins that use the least amount of energy. And, this is how, in only three weeks, Foldit players modeled the structure of the retroviral protease and contributed to the design of antiretroviral drug development to cure AIDS.

What does this development mean for science communication?

First of all, it confirms that the field of journalism and communication need to recruit more scientists in the digital media era. In my previous blog on Social Media Week, I agreed with Dan Gillmor, the author of Mediactive, that we need more computer science majors in the field. In today’s evolving digital environment, we are seeing more effective communication tools that are increasingly being designed by computer scientists. Video-game examples support the view that we need to keep encouraging more communicators to work with scientists and vice versa.  

Second, it illustrates that videogames are encouraging a new way of thinking. By playing video games, we can now think more productively not just about science, but also about policy, art, and education as Ian Bogost (the author of How to do things with videogames) suggests. In science, videogames do something that textbooks cannot always accomplish, and that is teaching the scientific method. Instead of memorizing science, we now get to practice the  scientific method by asking questions and seeking answers. The new way of thinking applies to policy issues as well. In Fate of the World, players jump through the scientific, political, and economic hoops to mitigate the impacts of global warming. Check out the YouTube trailer for Fate of the World!

Third, digital era is not a threat to journalism unlike those who argue that the web will kill the newspaper. If anything, it increases the democratization process by incorporating everyone’s input. No matter how sophisticated technology might be, the human brain is still the driving mechanism for computers. Videogames, in that sense, simply provide the platform where humans’ puzzle solving abilities can find answers to unknown scientific problems. Isn’t this what journalism is about in the end: asking questions and investigating answers? 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Facebook, Privacy, Surveillance Society

Wired magazine’s most recent issue featured a piece this month on the country’s biggest spy center that is currently under construction. The spy center, located in a valley in Utah, will be watching all sorts of communication including “complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter (Wired 04/ 2012).” The $2 billion facility is being built by the National Security Center, which, according to Wired, became the largest and most intrusive intelligence agency ever. And, it is not just governments, but also any average citizen with computer access will be under surveillance. A senior intelligence official says

“Everybody with communication is a target (Wired 04/ 2012).”

And, Wired, on the same issue, warns its readers: “Watch what you say”

Going back to the article, Social Networking in the Surveillance Society, the author suggests that as citizens are also subject to, what he calls, “economic surveillance.”  In a typical business model, corporations that own social networking sites, provide free access to users. Over time, as networking sites accumulate information on personal data and user behavior, data is eventually sold to advertising clients (Fuchs, 2010). In the same study, students say that better public information and discussion on privacy issues would improve their understanding of the surveillance society. Even though this sounds like a good idea, protest and consumer groups took similar actions in the past, but they rarely accomplished anything solid. Before the “news feed” function, users would only receive very general notifications from Facebook about their friends' updates. For instance, if friend X updated his “quotes” on his profile, Facebook would tell you to go to that friend's profile for details about the update.When “news feed” was launched, many users protested, as they perceived constant feed of detailed updates as a threat to privacy. A number of protest groups were created on Facebook at the time with titles such as “Facebook takes stalking a whole new level.” Well, over the following months, all those efforts only led to more invasive features such as the new “Timeline” or “Ticker,” which updates stories in real-time on the right side of the screen. My overall argument is that solely vocalizing the problem does not solve the problem. Protest groups and consumer groups need to take a more effective action, if they want to make a difference. They should partner with computer scientists or with people with related technical expertise. If they want to put up a good fight, they need to speak the same language as Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Amazon speak, and that is the language of computer science.

I agree with the articles that support the notion that people care about their privacy more than some might assume. However, it should not be measured by the number of people who read privacy agreements. One problem with privacy statements is that they are hard to understand! To me they could as well be in French, a language that scares me even from a distance. Several times I attempted to read such privacy terms, but the result was failure. The second problem is that, corporations make you feel entitled to “agree.” For example iTunes, if you do not agree, it will not give you access. You can't pick which statements of the term you would like to agree. It is an all-or-nothing deal.  So, why bother reading, if you have to agree in the end anyways?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Climate change adaptation: Communication strategies to improve individual decision making

Zeynep Altinay (Louisiana State University); Lauren Land (Louisiana Sea Grant)
  • Global climate change is one of the greatest environmental problems of our century. Despite being a global phenomenon, its impacts are local. When sea level rise, flooding, and extreme weather conditions are taken into account, climate change poses an immediate threat to coastal land. Given that these communities are most vulnerable to local impacts of climate change, why do many of these communities fail to take adaptive measures to severe coastal hazards? In order to identify what contextual factors— like wealth, education, or experience with flooding— make residents in these vulnerable areas more likely to act, we are conducting a mixed methods research design.
  • First, we have designed a survey instrument to investigate predictors of behavioral outcomes of climate-related risks in coastal Louisiana. In doing so, we surveyed approximately 300 residents compiled by the Sea Grant members. Results suggest that information seeking behavior is highly correlated to gender, community ties, and self-efficacy; whereas taking actual adaptive measures is mostly related to having access to technical knowledge. Second, in order to better understand how new ideas and practices regarding household level adaptations diffuse within a community, we have invited community leaders for an in-depth discussion. Results of this focus group study will help us examine current emergency preparedness patterns within the community, and identify the factors that play role in encouraging early adaption of non-structural measures. Deriving from the combined results of this quantitative and qualitative data, we will be able to identify the barriers that hinder behavioral change, and make recommendations on how to best communicate technical information regarding coastal hazards to the lay public.
  • Read More: Fostering Hazards Resilience in Coastal Communities 


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Governing with the Internet

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov brings up some important aspects of “the dark side of the Internet freedom.” Most of the articles I have read so far about the Internet focused on the democratization aspect of the Internet. Scholars were agreeing that the social networking sites improve political discussion, and that the web as a whole is one big market of ideas. I specifically enjoyed Morozov’s The Net Delusion because it opens up the discussion from a unique perspective. What if the revolution is not tweeted, and the Internet empowers authoritarian governments?

Another reason why I like this book is that it incorporates one of my all-time favorite books, 1984, by George Orwell. I joined Facebook in 2005, and at the time, it was only open to college students. Those who wished to join the site had to have a “.edu” email account to become a member. In a sense, Facebook used to be a more elite network, which did not have most of its “invasion” capabilities it does today. Even then, I thought the social networking site reminded me of Orwell’s “Big Brother,” which, by the way, did not stop me from being a big Facebook fan. I am a little bit surprised that Morozov did not make any referral to Rad Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I think Bradbury’s book provides a perfect illustration of  the censored society that is constantly distracted by commercials and cheap entertainment-- something Morozov discusses in detail in his book. One big difference between the fiction novels and our society is that in the novels, it is the government, which does not allow public its privacy. In our day, however, it is the public that volunteers private/ personal information in the exchange of entertainment. 

Morozov talks about a number of cases, which illustrate how governments have failed censoring the Internet because it is not practical. Authoritarian governments learned their lesson, and instead of trying to censor the web, they are now using the web to push their own agenda. A good example of such case recently happened in Turkey when an important political figure’s sex type was leaked to the Internet. Following this scandal, a general belief was shaped in public that it was actually the government that leaked the type. Public had a good reason to believe it because several technical experts concluded that the technology behind the scandal was very sophisticated. By looking at the quality of audio, video and other technical elements, they concluded that such sophisticated technology had to be implemented, for instance, 12 hours before the event took place. How can someone know, when and where and with who, an event will occur 12 hours in advance? In order to accomplish that, one has to have access to phone records, email transcripts and such.  Guess who has access to this kind of technology, information, and logistics? Law enforcement! As a result, public was terrified by the idea that the government can creep inside bedrooms, tape citizens' private lives, and put on YouTube.

Overall, I agree with Morozov that we are seeing more cases of governments getting smart about using technology to their advantage. And, with the rise of social networking sites, as anonymity disappears, authoritarian governments are getting more successful in their efforts. Morozov’s face recognition discussion made me think of another great example, a scene from the movie The Minority Report. The movie depicts an era where everyone’s eyes are scanned by 3D screens. Tom Cruise eventually undergoes an eye replacement procedure in order to protect his true identity from the government agents (see the YouTube video).

Well, I am not as pessimistic about the future as Morozov is, but at the same time I agree with his argument that the technology may not always guide the ship called democratization in the right direction.

The cartoon below was published in 2008 as a response to Turkey's problematic Internet laws. It suggests that the government will eventually ban access to the Internet completely, and that citizens will have to submit a written request to the "State Department of Google Search Engine," if they want to do a basic keyword search. The cartoon reads:

1) Type the word you are searching legibly in the box above

2) Please state in detail for what purposes you will use this word 
3) Please state if you or anyone else in your family searched this word before

First Name/ Last Name:

Social Security Number:


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cultural Science and Digital Technology

In Greek mythology, there is something for everyone. So, a couple weeks ago, when I was writing my blog post about the digital media, I started thinking about which Greek god would best represent the communication technology of the 21st century. And, I had come up with Hermes, the messenger-god, who is also the guide to the Underworld. I was saying that the digital technology must be a product of Hermes since both carry very similar characteristics; they both innovate and steal at the same time (see my previous blog post). When I was reading John Hartley’s Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, I got very excited to see that John Hartley made a very similar comparison in his book between Hermes and the communication technology! Hartley says that “tricksters” are an essential part of the culture and evolutionary economics, because only the ones, who illustrate the creativeness and deceitfulness of Hermes, can “break up old traditions and create new ones” (p. 201). Hartley adds a very interesting perspective to my previous ‘Hermes argument’ by saying that when tricksters lie and steal, they do not do it to get everyday beneficiaries, but instead they do it to challenge the established system. That’s a viewpoint that I strongly agree but also something that I had never thought of before. Tricksters catalyze the change because they are not followers in the established system but they are the leaders. You cannot simply change the system, if you are passively following it. Therefore, my discussion question for this week is: What happens when the established system is protected by laws and regulations? For example, how do tricksters go around the copyright or privacy laws? How do they lead when the pathways are blocked by the rule of law?
(College students provide content at

Children in the digital era

Children have long been isolated from the political discussion simply because they cannot vote. Better yet, their opinions did not count for a long time, because adults always assumed that the younger generation does not have the emotional stability or the cognitive maturity to participate in policy-decision making. Hartley argues that, thanks to the digital media, children have become, arguably, the most productive members of today’s democracy. Polling reports illustrate that youth was one of the deciding factors in the past two elections (Hoffman & Thomson, 2009). There is an increasing amount of content crowding YouTube and social networking sites created by youth, who discuss political, academic, athletic, and artistic issues. According to Hoffman & Thomson (2009), late-night TV and local TV news had a positive, significant  effect on civic participation. And, guess which population do late night television shows (such as Colbert Report, the Daily Show, or Saturday Night Live) target? The answer is the youth. Digital kids have become the participatory citizens, raising their voices on almost every platform.
(Late-night shows are increasingly targeting the youth)

It is true that adolescents may have a different understanding of ethics and values, and that their products may not always “impress” the older generation. Nenand Sestan, from the Department of Neurobiology at Yale, once said that  it takes time to develop cognitive maturity, and that’s probably why five-year-olds are more likely to try bungee-jumping than adults (see my previous blog post). And, that’s probably why the society has a set of rules for adolescents,  banning kids from certain activities such as driving or drinking, which brings up my second discussion topic. What are the rights of kids in the digital age? Where should we stop parental control, software blocking, remote control and such?

(Obama-McCain dance-off; youth's perspective on political issues)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

… Hermes’ dirty little trick

Hermes is the son of Zeus. He is the messenger. He wears winged sandals, a winged hat, and a magic wand. He is the fastest of the gods. He is the god of thieves and he is the god of commerce. Even when he steals, he does it so gracefully. He is the guide for the dead to go to the underworld. He invented, the pipes, the musical scale, astronomy, weights and measures, boxing, gymnastics and the care of olive trees (*).
Hermes most recently invented the digital technology. Internet and smart phones are the new messengers. They wear winged cases and lids so they can uplift information over iClouds. They are the god of commerce. Even when they steal, they do it so gracefully that we do not even realize.  We “check-in” to give Mr. Facebook our geospatial location. Then, our smartphones tell us the closest cafĂ© we can spend our dollars. You thought 3G was fast, well try 4G. It is the fastest. It makes music for fun: “Share with friends,” “Listen on-the-go.” Digital technology reinvented everything we thought we liked. We like them even better now! They are the guide to go to the Underworld. Black markets are now based around mobile phones (Wired, December-2011). Blackberries and iPhones transformed New York’s sex trade (Wired, January-2011). Zeus bless Hermes. He got really smart this time.  

Limitations to Social Networking: Human Brain
Social scientists have been investigating the reason behind the wide dispersion of social networks. Katz (2007) pointed out that digital technology is trendy and convenient. Crawford explained the phenomenon in terms of ‘satisfying the need for reciprocal communication,’ which, by the way, can also occur through listening, according to Crawford. Based on an analysis on Foursquare, Lindqvist, Cranshaw & Wiese (2011) concluded that it is simply the excitement of presentation of self and coordinating with friends.  The question is, when we have all these digital tools to satisfy our need for socialization, where do we stop? How many friends are enough?  The answer is between 100 and 200. According to Bruno Goncalves, from Indiana University, our brains have a “saturation point,” which is the number of people can tweeters maintain contact with before they get overwhelmed. The study conducted on Twitter users illustrated that when information starts flooding from our social circles, we only tend to focus on the ones we have strong ties with. So, just because we can increase our social ties does not necessarily mean we can socialize more.  It is not enough to have a digital presence, but now one has to compete for attention.  

(Courtesy photo by Goncalves, Perra, Vespignani, 2011)  "The average weight of each outward connection gradually increases until it reaches a maximum near 150–200 contacts, signaling that a maximum level of social activity has been reached."

Lindqvist, Cranshaw & Wiese (2011) brought up the public concern about privacy in their study. Privacy, arguably, has always been one of the biggest drawbacks of technology. Even though the society vocalizes this concern from time to time, the problem simply has been escalating over the years. It was only 2001, when Wired magazine ran the headline: the Surveillance Society. Back then it was just regular phones, traffic cameras, EZ cards, and Bluetooth that raised concern. At the time, the society was scared of government ‘knowing too much.’ We were trading privacy for security. We are now trading privacy for entertainment using more sophisticated tools. It is also noteworthy how the biggest threat Wired could foresee for our privacy, when the article was written, was ‘nano-cameras.’ Fast-forwarding a decade, most of us probably wish nano-cameras were the problem.
“Orwell's greatest error, says Peter Huber, author of Orwell's Revenge, was his view that [only] the government had a monopoly on surveillance technologies.” (Wired, 9/12).


Goncalves B, Perra N, Vespignani A (2011) Modeling Users’ Activity on Twitter Networks: Validation of Dunbar’s Number. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22656.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022656
Lindqvist, J., Cranshaw, J., Wiese, J., Hong, J., & Zimmerman, J. (2011). I’m the mayor of my house: Examining why people use foursquare – a social-driven location sharing application. CHI
Katz, J. (2007) Mobile media and communications: Some important questions. Communication Monographs, 74(3), 389-394. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Perception of Bike Safety and Infrastructure Needs

PI: David Good Co-PI: Diane Henshel                                                                               
Master's students: Yonghua Zou, Zeynep Altinay, Max Jie Cui and Courtney Bonney  
IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs Sustainability Research Development Grant                              

  • The transportation sector in the US is a major contributor to carbon emissions (about 30%), and a major user of non-sustainable petroleum-based fuel (about 70%).  Thus altering transportation modes when possible can make a large contribution to decreasing use of non-sustainable resources and can also decrease the net emission of toxic pollutants into local air.
  • At Indiana University transportation plays a critical role in increasing campus sustainability.  The Steinhoff-Harpring report of August 2008 indicated that about 44% of the campus population overall commutes to work or classes in single occupancy vehicles (Steinhoff and Harpring, 2008).  Of these, the largest single vehicle modal split was for faculty and staff (~ 80%), while only about ¼ of the students commute in single occupancy vehicles.  Steinhoff and Harpring compared this modal split to the results of a similar survey done in 1998, which indicated that just under 25% of the students then commuted by single occupancy vehicles, indicating that (at least among students) there has been little change in the past decade.
  • Several organizations at IU have committed to increasing campus sustainability at the transportation level, including the Indiana University Task Force on Campus Sustainability. In January 2008, the Task Force issued the Campus Sustainability Report proposing the use of a series of specific metrics to track transportation-related sustainable practices.  The Transportation Working Group proposed five specific recommendations to decrease single vehicle occupancy rates, including supporting alternative transportation options, developing policies that improve pedestrian, bicycle, bus choice, and developing parking policies to reduce single-occupancy vehicle travel (Indiana University Task Force, 2008).  Increasing bicycling as a commuting mode was cited as one future goal for increasing sustainable transportation for the Indiana University Bloomington campus.  In the Steinhoff-Harpring survey, students, faculty and staff  uniformly cited that the biggest impediment to cycling to campus was the lack of safe routes to campus (almost 50% for students and above 70% for faculty and staff;  Steinhoff and Harpring, 2008).  
Specific Aims
  • As bicycle commuting can play a major role in reducing non-sustainable transportation practices among commuters, the focus of this project has been to predominantly examine and evaluate bicycle friendly commuting routes and attitudes about the road and safety features that might be used on bicycle friendly commuting routes.  The Specific Aims of the 2009 – 2010 Sustainable Transportation Project are:
1) Produce a set of standard metrics for future alternative transportation initiatives identifying the factors influencing and influenced by bicycle use.

2) Develop a set of predictive models that will enable the campus, county, and city planning groups to improve future bicycle-focused transportation projects and conduct a risk assessment to identify the change in health risks associated with implementing more bicycle-friendly commuting routes.

3)Provide fundamental data on attitudes about bicycle commuting following up on the 2008 Steinhoff-Harpring survey which will further study in the field of alternative transportation.

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