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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Has the Internet created a less informed society or a more informed society?

Consider the false information that spreads like a cancer over chat lines, specialized so called .orgs with very specific and take no prisoners agendas, the creation of insulated sources where anyone can read only what they already believe or want to believe, and a polarization of perceptions of truth, reality and politics that results.

Consider how fast information travels and how very little, if any, research and lag time exist between an event, a written statement or communication and its wide spread distribution/

Consider how few people check sources, research both sides, study history and events that may have led to current beliefs and affairs and in general bother to take the time to really understand an issue.

How many people believe reality TV is real?  How many believe that a picture is proof? How many believe that quotes on Facebook or even blogs like this one are accurate?

A large amount of quickly accessible information does not make for an informed society. An informed society reads, listens, understands all side to and issue and take what they then conclude is the best course of action.

With a wealth of academic sources, primary sources and diverse opinions on the web, how many people take the time to use them as tools for knowledge?

And above all, how can a society that attacks, uses foul language, has strong racist or sexist tendencies be truly seen as more informed now that their beliefs can be put on the fast track and those who agree with them can provide almost instantaneous support and affirmation?

-Art Lynch

The Night A Computer Predicted The Next President

Walter Cronkite (right) listens as Dr. J. Presper Eckert (center) describes the functions of the UNIVAC I computer he helped develop in the early 1950s.
Walter Cronkite (right) listens as Dr. J. Presper Eckert (center) describes the functions of the UNIVAC I computer he helped develop in the early 1950s.
Some milestone moments in journalism converged 60 years ago on election night in the run between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democratic Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. It was the first coast-to-coast television broadcast of a presidential election. Walter Cronkite anchored his first election night broadcast for CBS.
And it was the first time computers were brought in to help predict the outcome. That event in 1952 helped usher in the computer age, but it wasn't exactly love at first sight.
The 'Electronic Brain'
CBS' Charles Collingwood was the reporter assigned to UNIVAC, one of the world's first commercial computers.
"This is the face of a UNIVAC," Collingwood told the CBS audience. "A UNIVAC is a fabulous electronic machine, which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of early returns as they come in."
The "face" Collingwood refered to was just the console. He sat in front of a mock-up of the console in New York. It was the size of a large desk, with something that looked like a blinking bookcase sitting on top. The real UNIVAC, which took up the better part of a room, was nearly 100 miles away in Philadelphia with its programmers and a CBS camera crew.
Much of the UNIVAC system was housed in a cabinet big enough for a person to walk in. There were more than 5,000 vacuum tubes and tanks of mercury where data was stored as sound waves for memory.
Much of the UNIVAC system was housed in a cabinet big enough for a person to walk in. There were more than 5,000 vacuum tubes and tanks of mercury where data was stored as sound waves for memory.
Courtesy of the Computer History Museum
"It's there with its operator," Collingwood said. "On the right of the UNIVAC, there's something which looks like a typewriter. That's the way UNIVAC talks."
This explanation was rudimentary but the general public had never seen a computer work a live event before. And Collingwood was trying very hard to personify what was being called an "electronic brain" with lines like: "He's sitting there in his corner humming away."
Ira Chinoy, associate dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, wrote a dissertationexamining the introduction of computers on election night entitled: Battle of the Brains: Election-Night Forecasting at the Dawn of the Computer Age.
"It was by no means a done deal that computers should be a technology used in news in any way, let alone on election night," Chinoy says.
For CBS, using a computer was a bit of a gimmick — a sideshow. But for Remington Rand, the company that made the UNIVAC, this was an enormous gamble.
"There was a clear awareness that if they messed this up on election night, it might set their nascent industry back quite a bit," Chinoy says.
And there was good reason for worry. Early in the evening things weren't going well for UNIVAC.
"Have you got a prediction for us, UNIVAC?" Collingwood asked.
There was no response. The typewriter didn't move and to the audience at home the UNIVAC must have looked like a big, dumb box.
"You're a very impolite machine I must say," Collingwood said. "But he's an awfully rapid calculator."
An Unlikely Result
This was the common scenario during the few times Walter Cronkite actually turned to Collingwood and the UNIVAC that night. But behind the scenes in Philadelphia not everything was as it seemed. The UNIVAC did make a prediction, but someone held it back. Most likely, it was the computer programmers themselves, and the most likely reason: because the prediction seemed so ridiculous.
Before election night 60 years ago, the race between Stevenson and Eisenhower looked close. But early in the night, with just over 3 million votes counted, UNIVAC predicted the odds were 100 to 1 in favor of Eisenhower.
A printout of the UNIVAC prediction of the 1952 presidential prediction.
A printout of the UNIVAC prediction of the 1952 presidential prediction.
Courtesy of the Computer History Museum
Even early returns, without the aid of a computer, were indicating an Eisenhower landslide. But the odds still seemed inconceivable. The computer printout, revealed hours later, read: "It's awfully early, but I'll go out on a limb ... The chances are now 00 to 1 in favor of the election of Eisenhower." The printout read 00 instead of 100 because the programmers never imagined needing an odd greater than two digits.
It wasn't until after midnight that a Remington Rand representative, Art Draper in Philadelphia, came on the air with an explanation.
"As more votes came in, the odds came back and it was obviously evident that we should have had the nerve enough to believe the machine in the first place," he said. "It was right. We were wrong. Next year we'll believe it."
A Cultural Icon
UNIVAC's early "faltering" turned into a publicity coup for the company. Some newspapers later carried headlines like: "A Machine makes a Monkey out of Man." And UNIVAC became a cultural icon.
"It became synonymous with the product — like Kleenex and Xerox and Scotch Tape," says Alex Bochannek, a curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
The UNIVAC showed up on the cover of a Superman comic book. A Warner Bros. cartoon had Wile E. Coyote build one to help him capture the elusive Bugs Bunny.
Warner Bros./YouTube
Wile E. Coyote builds a UNIVAC to help him capture Bugs Bunny.
But there was often an undercurrent of mockery, a hint that this supposedly all-knowing machine wasn't quite what it was cracked up to be.
"This idea of calling them Giant Brains gave them a lot more credit than they really deserved back then," Bochannek says. "They didn't have quite the brain capacity a lot of people attributed to them."
The Computer History Museum has one of the few remaining original UNIVAC consoles on display. It's a large panel propped on top of a 1940s-era steel desk with a keyboard. An operator used the keyboard to send instructions directly to the computer.
Much of the system was housed in a cabinet big enough for a person to walk in. There were more than 5,000 vacuum tubes and tanks of mercury (Mercury Delay Lines) where data was stored as sound waves for memory. But UNIVAC also had rows of magnetic tape drives for long-term storage.
"That is what really made this machine so useful to businesses," Bochannek says. "You had tapes with large capacity, which wasn't really available on these early computing devices."
Man Vs. Machine
Back in 1952, NBC also used a computer on election night: the Monrobot. It was much smaller than UNIVAC and less powerful, but it didn't falter on its prediction of an Eisenhower landslide. Still, says Chinoy, ambivalence about using a computer on election night continued for much of the decade.
"The way we think about technology, if we look in the rearview mirror," he says. "They march in, they became a fixture on election night and that's it. NBC actually backed away from using a computer in 1954 and decided a good reporter is better than any kind of statistical device."
Yet, all three networks were using computers by the next presidential election in 1956. ABC, however, staged a challenge: "Man vs. Machine."
The network invited pollster Lou Harris and a team of 100 reporters in the field to compete against a computer, Underwood's Elecom, to see who could call the election first. Again, it was a matchup between Eisenhower and Stevenson.
When it came to crunching numbers, the computer was untouchable, but the predictive models used in its programming were simplistic. UNIVAC was taking the early raw vote count and making comparisons with some past presidential elections.
Harris, who based his prediction on specific voting districts that he thought would mirror the overall outcome, tallied results with slide rules. His team won. And incumbent Eisenhower won by an even bigger landslide than in '52.
"Basically patterns emerge from data," says Harris, now 91. "If you can't read them right, then you can't tell the story."
Improving The Technology
Harris wondered if computers could do better. So he spent time at IBM, which by now had become the industry's leader. There, Harris pushed the IBM programmers to create more sophisticated election night software.
"I said, 'Look, I've got to get the computer to print out this, this and this,' " Harris says. "And they said, 'Good Lord.' It was multiple dimensions versus simple dimensions."
Harris, who had been John Kennedy's pollster for the 1960 presidential race, was contracted by CBS for the 1962 midterm elections. Harris, and his computer-generated predictions, were fed to Cronkite.
"He said to me after we made the first prediction, he said, 'Lou you better be right. My whole future depends on it.' I said, 'Walter, I'm sure it will be,' " Harris says.
Cronkite was calling race after race before anyone else, including the Michigan governor seat for George Romney. It was quite a coup because the returns, two hours after the polls closed, had Romney behind Democratic incumbent John Swainson.
The only governor race Harris couldn't call was in Massachusetts. And that vote resulted in a recall. Harris has been credited with coining the phrase "too close to call" that election night in 1962.
The Computerized Future
Although NBC walked away with more ratings share for its popular Huntley-Brinkley team, there was no doubt about who really won that night.
"This was a huge triumph for the then newly created CBS News election unit," says Martin Plissner, author of The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.
Plissner joined CBS in 1963 and was the network's political director for more than three decades. Newsrooms, he says, were no longer questioning the value of computers on election night.
"They understood that the quality of the information they were getting out of it depended considerably on the quality of the information they were putting into it," he says.
In the last 60 years there have been election night disasters, but when the information was good and the programming was clever, computers could be immensely powerful tools.
In retrospect, Chinoy says, it may be hard to understand why computers didn't "march in" and take a central place immediately on election night 1952.
"New things engage us and also scare us," he says. "We're drawn to them, but they're disruptive."
You can see that on the CBS broadcast 60 years ago.
"This is not a joke or a trick," Collingwood told his television audience, "It's an experiment. We don't know. We think it'll work. We hope it will work."
In the end, it did. And of course, computers were also getting faster, more powerful. Big hulking early computers like the UNIVAC were shrinking. By the late 1960s, tiny electronic circuits, or microchips, would transform the industry and computers would begin to find their way into all of our lives.
Produced by Cindy Carpien.

When Gaming Is Good for You

Hours of Intense Play Change the Adult Brain; Better Multitasking, Decision-Making and Even Creativity

Videogames can change a person's brain and, as researchers are finding, often that change is for the better.
Love them or hate them, online videogames are a treasure trove for researchers who are studying how all those keyboard taps, mouse clicks and joystick moves may affect behavior, perception and even cognitive skills. WSJ's Robert Lee Hotz reports.

A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability.

People who played action-based video and computer games made decisions 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy, according to a study. Indeed, the most adept gamers can make choices and act on them up to six times a second—four times faster than most people, other researchers found. Moreover, practiced game players can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared with the four that someone can normally keep in mind, said University of Rochester researchers. The studies were conducted independently of the companies that sell video and computer games.

(clockwise from top left) Rockstar Games; Take -Two; Blizzard Entertainment; Activision; Electronic Arts; Blizzard Entertainment; Eli Meir Kaplan for the Wall Street Journal (cyclist)
Scientists also found that women—who make up about 42% of computer and videogame players—were better able to mentally manipulate 3D objects, a skill at which men are generally more adept. Most studies looked at adults rather than children.

Electronic gameplay has its downside. Brain scans show that violent videogames can alter brain function in healthy young men after just a week of play, depressing activity among regions associated with emotional control, researchers at Indiana University recently reported. Other studies have found an association between compulsive gaming and being overweight, introverted and prone to depression. The studies didn't compare the benefits of gaming with such downsides.

The violent action games that often worry parents most had the strongest beneficial effect on the brain. "These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing," said cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, who studies the effect of action games at Switzerland's University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York.

Different Games' Effects on Your Brain

Blizzard Entertainment
Learn how different games do different things to your brain

Computer gaming has become a $25 billion-a year entertainment business behemoth since the first coin-operated commercial videogames hit the market 41 years ago. In 2010, gaming companies sold 257 million video and computer games, according to figures compiled by the industry's trade group, the Entertainment Software Association.

For scientists, the industry unintentionally launched a mass experiment in the neurobiology of learning. Millions of people have immersed themselves in the interactive reward conditioning of electronic game play, from Tetris, Angry Birds, and Farmville, to shooter games and multiplayer, role-playing fantasies such as League of Legend, which has been played 1 billion times or so in the two years since it was introduced.

"Videogames change your brain," said University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green, who studies how electronic games affect abilities. So does learning to read, playing the piano, or navigating the streets of London, which have all been shown to change the brain's physical structure. The powerful combination of concentration and rewarding surges of neurotransmitters like dopamine strengthen neural circuits in much the same the way that exercise builds muscles. But "games definitely hit the reward system in a way that not all activities do," he said.
"There has been a lot of attention wasted in figuring out whether these things turn us into killing machines," said computational analyst Joshua Lewis at the University of California in San Diego, who studied 2,000 computer game players. "Not enough attention has been paid to the unique and interesting features that videogames have outside of the violence."

Broadly speaking, today's average gamer is 34 years old and has been playing electronic games for 12 years, often up to 18 hours a week. By one analyst's calculation, the 11 million or so registered users of the online role-playing fantasy World of Warcraft collectively have spent as much time playing the game since its introduction in 2004 as humanity spent evolving as a species—about 50 billion hours of game time, which adds up to about 5.9 million years.

Games People Play

Top five video games in 2010 (by units sold)
1. Call of Duty: Black Ops
2. Madden NFL 11
3. Halo: Reach
4. New Super Mario Bros.
5. Red Dead Redemption
Top five computer games in 2010 (by units sold)
1. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
2. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Expansion Pack
3. The Sims 3
4. World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Expansion Pack
5. Civilization V
Source: Entertainment Software Association, NPD Group

With people playing so many hundreds, if not thousands, of different games, though, university researchers have been hard-pressed to pinpoint the lasting effects on cognition and behavior.
Blizzard Entertainment Inc. in Irvine, Calif., which sells World of Warcraft, StarCraft II and other popular games, did not respond to queries about whether the company supports gaming research or conducts its own studies. Neither did RiotGames Inc. in Santa Monica, which markets League of Legends.

The vast majority of the research did not directly compare gaming with hours of other intense, mental activities such as solving math equations. Almost any computer game appears to boost a child's creativity, researchers at Michigan State University's Children and Technology Project reported in November.

A three-year study of 491 middle school students found that the more children played computer games the higher their scores on a standardized test of creativity—regardless of race, gender, or the kind of game played. The researchers ranked students on a widely used measure called the Torrance Test of Creativity, which involves such tasks as drawing an "interesting and exciting" picture from a curved shape on a sheet of paper, giving the picture a title, and then writing a story about it. The results were ranked by seven researchers for originality, length, and complexity on a standardized three-point scale for each factor, along with detailed questionnaires.

In contrast, using cellphones, the Internet, or computers for other purposes had no effect on creativity, they said.

Several new studies shed new light on how videogames affect the brain and behavior -- and it's not necessarily for the worse. A new study suggests videogames boost creativity in children and offer other neural benefits. Lee Hotz has details on Lunch Break.

"Much to my surprise, it didn't matter whether you were playing aggressive games or sport games, not a bit," said psychologist Linda Jackson, who led the federally funded study of 491 boys and girls at 20 Michigan schools.

Even so, researchers have yet to create educational software as engaging as most action games. Without such intense involvement, neural circuits won't change, they believe. "It happens that all the games that have the good learning effect happen to be violent. We don't know whether the violence is important or not," said Dr. Bavelier. "We hope not."

Until recently, most researchers studied the effects of gaming on small groups of volunteers, who learned to play under laboratory conditions. Some scientists now are turning the commercial games themselves into laboratories of learning.

In the largest public study of electronic gaming so far, Mark Blair at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, is analyzing the behavior of 150,000 people who play the popular online game called StarCraft II, pulling together more than 1.5 billion data points of perception, attention, movement and second-by-second decision-making.

By analyzing so much game play, he hopes to learn how people become experts in an online world. That may shed light on how new knowledge and experience can become second nature, integrated into the way we react to the world around us.

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at
A version of this article appeared Mar. 6, 2012, on page D1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When Gaming Is Good for You.