One-star ratings have worse grammar and spelling than five-star ones

The folks at Priceonomics crunched some data and found that one-star product reviews online are more likely to have incorrect spelling and grammar than five-star ones. As they note:

According to our data, negative reviews have a higher rate of misspelled words and a higher rate of incorrectly used apostrophes. They tend to be longer and have more details as well. Five-star reviews typically are shorter and often don’t include punctuation. Across the board, reviewers make a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes – only 61% of reviews passed all our quality checks.

From our findings, we can say that when people are writing negative reviews, they create longer and more error-filled prose than those who are sharing positive reviews.

One could, of course, shake one's head and conclude that trolls who like to tear things down are more incoherent than people who are trying to praise something. And that's probably not entirely wrong, given the bimodal review-wars online. But the data here are actually kind of intriguing, because it turns out that the reviews with the highest incidence of spelling errors are actually the three-star reviews ...

... and when it comes to using apostrophes, it's the four-star reviews that have the most errors, followed by three-star; here, the one-star reviews are quite good, quite close to the precision-rate of the five-star reviews:

So it looks as though the less-well-appointed grammar is coming out the middle of the review-pack, not the bimodal head and tail.

But! As the Priceonomics folks point out, spelling and grammar aren't necessarily always the best index of coherence. Read the rest

Interactive tool showing how sound waves work

Josh Comeau, a software developer at the Khan Academy, has created a superb interactive tutorial showing how sound-waves work.

It's really, really good. I've used synthesizers for years, but never fully understood the soundwave mechanics behind "subtractive" and "addictive" synthesis -- and while I generally understood the idea of noise-cancelling headphones, I couldn't entirely visualize the physics of what was going on.

This tutorial walks you through the grit of how the sound waves are interacting with each other in each case, presenting you with interactive gewgaws to tweak so that you build up a sensual, intuitive appreciation for what's going on. It's really worth 10 minutes of your time -- check it out! Read the rest

Physicists find a small chance the spacefaring Tesla will slam into Earth or Venus

So, what exactly is going to happen to that Tesla that Elon Musk shot into space?

It's going to wander around the solar system, sure. But there are planets and gravity and stuff, so what are the odds of it eventually slamming into something?

Small, but not zero -- according to this fun analysis by a group of astrophysicists! They modeled the Telsa's current trajectory and estimated that there's a mid-to-low-single-digit chance that it hits Earth or Venus over the next million years:

The orbital evolution is initially dominated by close encounters with the Earth. The first close encounter with the Earth will occur in 2091. The repeated encounters lead to a random walk that eventually causes close encounters with other terrestrial planets and the Sun. Long-term integrations become highly sensitive to the initial conditions after several such close encounters. By running a large ensemble of simulations with slightly perturbed initial conditions, we estimate the probability of a collision with Earth and Venus over the next one million years to be 6% and 2.5%, respectively. We estimate the dynamical lifetime of the Tesla to be a few tens of millions of years.
Read the rest

Plagiarism software finds Shakespeare plundered cool words from a little-known book

Shakespeare was a creative-commons powerhouse – he borrowed tons of plots for his plays, happily plundering from the writings of Plutarch, contemporary Italian authors, and more.

Now there's evidence of a new source: A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, a book written in the late 1500s by Elizabeth court figure George North. It looks like Shakespeare read it and found some of the language so shiny that he reused it, often quite directly, in his own plays.

Even more fun is how the discovery was made: With plagiarism-detection software!

Dennis McCarthy – a writer, college dropout, and self-taught scholarly historian of English – had heard of the North book via an auction-catalog listing. The listing suggested it'd be interesting to compare it to Shakespeare's work. McCarthy and English prof June Schlueter digitized the text of North's book, then compared it against Shakespeare's plays by using WCopyfind, open-source software used by profs to check if students are ripping off other words.

Bingo. As the New York Times reports:

In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.” In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.
Read the rest

Donut-shaped drone that isn't hurt by collisions

Cleo is a donut-shaped drone with a single propellor in the center, which steers by changing the airflow direction, so its blades are entirely contained – and can't be easily broken when the drone collides with something.

A IEEE notes:

It’s immediately obvious just how friendly this design is. It fits in a pocket without needing to be disassembled or folded, and there’s nothing externally fragile that you have to protect. It’s safe to hold, and so grabbable that you can snatch it right out of the air. Collisions with obstacles (including people) shouldn’t damage either the drone or whatever it runs into, and with all of the moving parts so well protected, it seems like it has to be much more durable than anything with exposed rotors.

As for me, though, when I saw it I had an instant acid flashback to ... the Avrocar.

Fans of Canadian aerospace arcana will be familiar with the Avrocar. It was the invention of Avro Canada, a Canadian aerospace firm that flourished in the 40s and 50s by producing aircraft for military and commercial use. In the late 50s they began working for the US military on a disk-shaped flying craft that would hover in the air by venting exhaust out the bottom and sides. But the engineers could never figure out how to make it stable enough to fly more than a few feet above the ground, so the project was cancelled in 1961, and Avro itself soon collapsed.

The Avrocar is a fave of UFO military-conspiracy theorists, as you might expect. Read the rest

A dot-matrix printer that taps out a picture using a pencil

Here's a clever, artistic hack: Taking a dot-matrix printer and using its mechanism to tap a pencil against paper -- slowly drawing out a picture as a series of tiny graphite dots.

As Hackaday notes:

The software converts the image into an array, with 0 representing white and 1 representing black. The printer itself works a bit like an old-school CRT TV: the scanner array moves the printer along a horizontal line, then moves it vertically and along another horizontal line. It then triggers the hard drive actuator to create a mark on the paper if there is a 1 in the array at that point.

I love artbots that employ physical techniques humans not only wouldn't use, but probably couldn't: It'd be pretty hard for a mere mortal to tap a pencil so accurately, for so long. When the camera zooms in on that video you can see the eerie results this robot achieves -- the freaky sheen of graphite produced by a zillion little taps.

It also reminds me how fantastically rugged and reliable were those old dot-matrix printers. I used a couple back in the late 80s at a campus newspaper, and then in the early 90s when I was working as the receptionist at a driving school in Toronto. They were as noisy as a tommy gun, but tough as old boots: I could run 'em for hours and never have a problem. In contrast, today's printers are Rube Goldberg devices so wildly fragile that they break if you look at them in the wrong way; if you think about them in the wrong way, it sometimes feels. Read the rest

Met paintings transformed into interactive art

The software developer Simone Seagle has taken the images of several paintings in the Met collection – released on open access – and transformed them into lovely and moody animated interactives.

You can see a bunch of them here on her own web site, and at the Met's site she's written an essay meditating on the process. It's an ode to the enormous creativity that's uncorked when we legally allow artists (encourage them, even!) to transform the works of their forebears ...

Beyond the joy I get from creating these interactives, I have two other goals—first, to engage with some of my favorite works of art and share them, and second, to demonstrate how math and programming can combine with these works of art to create something new. As I look through The Met's online collection, I try to imagine how each piece would come to life if it could. I choose art that resonates with me personally, and also make sure that the work's tone won't make cutting it up and animating it seem disrespectful. Many pieces of art would need an expert animator to bring them to life convincingly—especially the nearly photorealistic classical paintings. I create more generative types of animation that involve moving and flexing different elements, which is more suited to highly stylized works of art, like those produced around the turn of the 20th century: Art Nouveau, Modernism, Expressionism, and Impressionism. These are some of my favorite works and styles, with pieces that are colorful, exuberant, and not too difficult to pick apart for animations.
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Using the Internet to shop, work and chill at home reduces the US' energy use by almost 2%

Here's one side-effect of the Internet I hadn't expected: It may be reducing our carbon footprint -- by getting us to stay home more.

A group of academics studied data from the American Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, looking at changes in American's daily routines between 2003 and 2012. They found that they're "spending considerably more time at home" -- about 7.8 more days at home in 2003, compared to 2012.

Why are Americans home so much more? Because technology has made it more viable to work from home, so they're traveling into the office less often; it's also easier to entertain yourself at home, so less trips to movie theaters and the like. These trends are particularly pronounced amongst younger Americans: 18- to 24-year olds spent fully 14 days more at home in 2012 than in 2003.

So, energy use at home goes up. We're using more computers, more TVs, more air-conditioning there. It's about 480 trillion BTUs more per year at home (using 2012 figures).

But! Since we're driving/traveling less often, we used 1,000 trillion less BTUs in transportation. And we used 1,200 trillion less BTUs in stores, offices and other "nonresidential" locations.

The upshot: Americans' energy use went down by a net 1,700 trillion BTUs, which is 1.8% of the national overall total usage.

A chart that summarizes it ...

As the researchers point out, this migration of activity to the house has public-policy implications. If we wanted to make the country evermore efficient in its use of energy, we should probably focus a bit more on energy consumption in the home, since this is where the locus of daily action is shifting:

What do our results imply for energy policy?
Read the rest

A reverse CAPTCHA designed to filter out humans

"Humans Not Invited", a project by the artist damjanski, shows you a CAPTCHA that can be solved by robots using AI vision -- but not by humans, with our useless watery meatsack eyes.

As Motherboard reports:

The internet artist dropped the site on Hacker News last week. Not long after, people had found a way to create bots to bypass the test.

Since then, Damjanski said he and a team of two other friends have been reevaluating and toughening the challenge.

“We constantly update the algorithm on different variables like for example how many pictures it serves or in another case how it blurres the images,” he said.

The bots that do gain entry live on as a list of growing list of published IP addresses. According to Damjanski, more than 30 bots have made it in so far. If one does gain access to the locked robot room, they will be greeted by the words, “Welcome! You are not a human.”

It's Turing's world, we just live in it. Read the rest

Dozens of museum collections turned into coloring books

The New York Academy of Medicine has organized #ColorOurCollections, in which various member libraries take images from their holdings and put 'em online as high-end coloring-book material.

The image above is from the NYAM's coloring book itself, but there are dozens more; some of my faves include the Carnegie Hall Archives book ...

... the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library ...

... the University of Adelaide ...

... the Shangri-La Museum of Islamic Art ...

... and the Ricker Library of Art and Architecture: Read the rest

A 1920s UK woman frames her neighbor by writing filthy, abusive letters

In 1921, Edith Swan -- a 30-year-old laundress in the UK -- began sending abusive, curse-studded letters to several of her neighbors. She got away with it for a while by framing another of her neighbors, Rose Gooding.

Swan, you see, was a respectable, middle-class woman, while Gooding was a working-class woman with an "illegitimate child". So the police and judge simply couldn't believe the respectable Swan could possibly use such gutter language! It was thus quite easy for Swan to frame her working-class neighbor, who spent a few months in prison before Swan was eventually caught.

This is a completely demented story of social class, crime, and some filthy, filthy language. It's told in a new book The Littlehampton Libels, which I am ordering right now, and which is discussed in this essay in The London Review of Books:

Here is an extract from a letter dated 14 September 1921: ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt. Its your drain that stinks not our fish box. Yo fucking dirty sods. You are as bad as your whore neybor.’ The Mays were sent many such letters in the course of 1921. Swan claimed that she had received similar letters herself, such as this one from 23 September: ‘To the foxy ass whore 47, Western Rd Local. You foxy ass piss country whore you are a character.’

There was compelling proof that Edith Swan was the author of these letters, even the ones she received.

Read the rest

Buy your own space artifact at this meteorite auction – or just read the fun descriptions

Christie's is holding an auction of meteorites, and they're strikingly gorgeous. Prices? Anywhere from $1,000 to $250,000.

The essays attached to each meteorite are unusually fun to read. Auction-houses typically explain the provenance of an object up for bid -- but in this case, they're describing artifacts that originated in various far-flung parts of our solar system. They begin with a sort of Yelp-like description of the meteorite (in this case, the one above) ....

An uncommon smooth metallic surface delimits a somewhat ellipsoidal metallic abstract form. Numerous sockets and perforations abound in a very-rarely-seen proximity. Wrapped in a gunmetal patina with splashes of cinnamon and platinum-hued accents, this is among the most aesthetic iron meteorites known.
... and then dive into the provenance:
Like all iron meteorites, the current offering is more than four billion years old and originated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Evocative of a Henry Moore, this sculptural form was once part of the molten iron core of an asteroid that broke apart—a portion of which was deflected into an Earth-intersecting orbit. It was approximately 49,000 years ago that it plowed into the Arizona desert with the force of more than 100 atomic bombs. Fragments were ejected more than 11 miles away from the point of impact and the main mass vaporized, creating the most famous and best-preserved meteorite crater in the world—the renowned Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona nearly one mile across and 600 feet deep. The fragments of iron that survived the impact are referred to as Canyon Diablos (“Canyon of the Devil”), and they are the quintessential American meteorite prized by museums and private collectors everywhere.
Read the rest

Fractal generator

Andrei Kashcha‏ has created a lovely fractal generator, using WebGL.

Click "Randomize" to have it generate a new fractal. If you want, tinker with some of the parameters by changing values in the function, and watch as it produces trippy results! (Deeper instructions by Kashcha here, along with the code.)

I've been sitting here in a trance staring at this thing for half an hour now, somebody help me. Read the rest

Wood bicycles customized to a rider's body

My Esel is an interesting design concept: It's a bike where the frame is made out of wood, with each cut bespoke to the dimensions that best fit the rider's body.

As this piece in Bikerumor describes it:

The key to that customization has been developing a parametric design software that lets My Esel plug in all of the key measurements of a rider’s body and translate that into a scalable frame layout part of which is then produced on a CNC mill. You have longer than normal lower legs? The software can accommodate a taller seat height without impacting reach.

The idea of using wood as the material for a bike frame isn't new. But what I dig about My Esel's concept is how it shows the great advantage of wood as material for customizable products.

Wood is easy to work with -- computer-guided mills can cut and shape it generally much more easily than, say, metals. Wood is both robust but reasonably easy to recycle, or even to biodegrade, depending on how organically you treat and finish it. And in most places on the planet wood can be obtained via renewable local resources, if you plan for it.

Too often when we think about making modern customized products, the imagination drifts to plastics or other synthetics, of the type that roll easily out of mass-manufacturing processes or one-off tech like 3D printers. But wood, as a medium for customizable stuff, totally rocks.

I'd grab one of these bikes myself, if the price weren't in the neighborhood of $3,500. Read the rest

The horseback librarians of the 1930s

Here's an amazing set of photos of the female librarians of the 1930s, who traveled by horse to remote mountain areas in Kentucky, delivering books to catalyze literacy.

It's the sort of brilliant, public-minded program we could use a lot more of today. As History Daily writes:

President Franklin Roosevelt was trying to figure out a way to resolve the Great Depression of the 1930s. His Works Progress Administration created the Pack Horse Library Initiative to help Americans become more literate so that they’d have a better chance of finding employment.

These librarians would adventure through muddy creeks and snowy hills just to deliver books to the people of these isolated areas.

These adventurous women on horseback would ride as much as 120 miles within a given week, regardless of the terrain or weather conditions. Sometimes, they would have to finish their travels on foot if their destination was in a place too remote and tough for horses to go. [snip]

These women had to be locally known to people too or else those living in the mountains would not trust them.

It's another reminder -- as if we needed more -- that we should probably let librarians run the country. Read the rest

An ode to the audio jack as an engineering marvel

Plenty of folks have bemoaned the disappearance of the audio jack from phones. Among other problems, it'll create "DRM for audio", since any sound that reaches your need-to-charge-them-all-the-time earbuds will now be served up by software-defined bluetooth -- so phone- and app-makers will be able to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks on your music-listening, halting any signals they don't like or don't approve of.

All well-discussed problems! But here, Charlie Hoey writes something deeper -- a lovely ode to the audio jack as a vestige of sheerly analog engineering.

As he notes, the audio jack speaks in the language of voltage. This grounds it in the world of pure physics, and makes it hackable for all sorts of weird and unexpected purposes, like the way Stripe uses it to read the magstripes on bank-cards:

The series of voltages a headphone jack creates is immediately understandable and usable with the most basic tools. If you coil up some copper, and put a magnet in the middle, and then hook each side of the coil up to your phone’s headphone jack, it would make sounds. They would not be pleasant or loud, but they would be tangible and human-scale and understandable. It’s a part of your phone that can read and produce electrical vibrations. [snip]

Entrepreneurs and engineers will lose access to a nearly universal, license-free I/O port. Independent headphone manufacturers will be forced into a dongle-bound second-class citizenry. Companies like Square — which made brilliant use of the headphone/microphone jack to produce credit card readers that are cheap enough to just give away for free — will be hit with extra licensing fees.

Read the rest

Earth's magnetic poles may be getting ready to flip

So, geophysicists have been studying the earth's magnetic field, and they think it's getting ready to "flip" -- with the north and south poles changing places.

Read the rest

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