Category Archives: Formats

Soil in the Forecast

For several days in late September 2015, heavy rains soaked the earth surrounding the district of El Cambray II in Guatemala. On the first night of the following month, steep slopes, long held in place by thick, tropical tree roots, suddenly gave way, burying hundreds of homes in mud up to 15 meters deep. At least 280 people died.

Officials had warned residents for years that the area was at risk, but a mixture of poverty and mistrust leads some of the poorest people in Central America and beyond to build and live on marginal land. Still, residents of El Cambray II might have been willing to temporarily evacuate, if they had received a credible and precise warning. And if such warnings were available worldwide, they could help reduce the 3,000 deaths attributed to landslides every year. Continue reading

How should we protect and preserve our history — on the moon?

The next several years are shaping up to be busy ones for the moon, with no fewer than 14 landings in the works. That includes the robotic missions soon to be undertaken by five privately funded teams vying for the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, in which the contestants must land a rover on a pre-planned spot, move it at least 500 meters “along an interesting path in a deliberate manner,” and transmit video and other data back to Earth. In fact, tracks from the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) rovers could be the next intentional tracks to be made by humans on the moon’s surface.

But amid the excitement of exploring the moon, we can’t overlook our lunar heritage, says Derek Webber, a commercial space exploration consultant and former satellite engineer (TEDxBudapest talk: Claiming the future; protecting the past). After all, humanity’s past isn’t just what has been left here on Earth — it’s in space, too. “Lunar heritage is the record of when we first reached the moon, and it captures the epoch-making reality of what happened back then,” he says. New voyagers will encounter 58 years’ worth of human-created artifacts on the moon, including flags and footprintsHere’s why we should be thoughtful about what we do with them. Continue reading

Taxonomy Goes Digital: Getting a Handle on Social Bots

Incoming messages for straight men on dating sites are… rare. Yet many of the dashing men who tried out Ashley Madison, a site aimed at the already-married, got messages soon after signing up. To see the messages, the men had to pay. The more perceptive among them soon noticed that their pen pals wrote similar come-ons, logged in and out at the same time every day, and oddest of all, had not visited the men’s profiles. Ashley Madison was using more than 70,000 bots to lure in users, Gizmodo found in a 2015 investigation.

The message-sending profiles were one iteration of a growing army of bots that populate our online social networks, affecting everything from our wallets to our politics. Now they are attracting academic study and government research dollars. Continue reading

Trial and error in a Mexican beach town

When general store owner Melchor Villanueva leans on his countertop he can see his whole world under his hands. The counter’s glass surface displays photos of his community: young soccer players, teens in their coming-of-age quince años finest, and bandanna-wearing fishermen. Many descend from survivors of Hurricane Janet, which in 1955 killed a third of the population of Xcalak, a beach town on the Mexico-Belize border, and destroyed the town’s coconut plantations. “It left only sand,” Villanueva recalls. Continue reading