amish buggy
(Jeff Brady/NPR)
September 03, 2013

Amish Community Not Anti-Technology, Just More Thoughtful

Many outsiders assume the Amish reject all new technology. But that's not true.

One Amish man in Lancaster County, Pa., checks his voicemail about four times a day. His shop is equipped with a propane-powered forklift, hydraulic-powered saws, cordless drills, and a refrigerated tank where milk from dairy cows is stored.

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don't buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They're more cautious — more suspicious — wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?"

There are 40 different Amish affiliations around the country, according to Kraybill, and they often reach different conclusions in answering those questions.

"Some of the subgroups are very conservative, very isolated and doing very well protecting their way of life because they basically reject much more technology than the more progressive ones," he says.

Kraybill says the process takes place from the ground-up — people try out new technologies and then leaders ultimately determine whether they are acceptable or not.

In Lancaster County, the Amish population is OK with using electricity, but they reject the grid that brings it into most Americans' homes. That's because they want to maintain a separation from the wider world.

The Amish believe this life on earth is part of their journey to heaven. Kraybill says if you're just here as a pilgrim, "Then you don't want to get too engaged and too embedded in this world... because you may lose your ultimate, eternal goal of completing the journey to heaven."

In recent years the Amish have begun embracing new technology at a faster rate. One reason is because more of them are working as entrepreneurs instead of on a farm. This shift creates new problems that technology often has an answer for.

Ben is an Amish man living in Lancaster County. He wants to be known only by his first name. In some Amish communities, using your full name in the media is considered showing off, or trying to speak for all Amish.

He owns a deli and says he tracks all his finances with paper and pencil. "I would really love to have Quickbooks, because it's a pain to balance my checkbook," he says. But that would require a computer, and Ben is reluctant to leap into the digital world. He plans to think long and hard before making a decision.

Ben plans to follow this advice: "You shouldn't be the first in your neighborhood to adopt the new technology and neither should you be the last."

The business owner says evaluating new technologies is something that takes place between the push of progress and the pull of tradition. And in the background there's always one big question: Will this new technology hurt the Amish way of life?

While that evaluation process can be slow, changes that have taken place so far have allowed Amish businesses to grow. Homestead Structures, in New Holland, Pa., constructs small buildings such as storage sheds and pool houses.

There are 19 employees in the large shop and they use drills, saws and nail guns. But the power for those tools doesn't come from the electrical grid. There are solar panels and a diesel generator for the electric tools.


This may look like a mad scientist's garage sale, but it's actually the most precise clock ever built.
(Jim Burrus/NIST)
August 22, 2013

The World's Most Precise Clock Could Prove Einstein Wrong

What a makes a good clock? Andrew Ludlow, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says one of the most important criteria is stability.

"If you could imagine a grandfather clock and see the pendulum swinging back and forth, ideally that pendulum would swing back and forth very uniformly," Ludlow says. "Each swing would take exactly the same amount of time."

That's stability. But what if something perturbs the system, like a mischievous toddler?

"Imagine that toddler shaking the grandfather clock itself — that oscillation period could vary quite a bit," Ludlow says. "How much that ticking rate varies determines the precision with which you can measure the evolution of time."

Ludlow is a clockmaker, but his clocks don't have pendulums or gears. They are atomic clocks that rely on what Ludlow calls "the natural internal ticking of the atom."

Every atom of a given element has its own characteristic resonant frequency. The speed of that vibration is very consistent and very fast — there are quadrillions of "ticks" every second. Atomic-clock makers use the regularity of these vibrations to keep time with extreme accuracy.

Toddlers can't mess up these clocks, but there's still a little instability. Atoms move around, and that makes their vibrations slightly harder to measure. So Ludlow and his team used a lattice of lasers to trap the atoms and then cool them down. With the atoms frozen in place, the scientists could more accurately measure their vibration.

Ludlow's clock is 10 times more accurate than the last model. It's the most precise atomic clock ever built.

"Obviously getting to a meeting on time doesn't require this type of precision," Ludlow says. "But believe it or not, there's a number of both scientific and technical applications."

Better atomic clocks will facilitate more precise GPS and faster telecommunication networks. And some physicists are excited about another application: testing Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

"Today many scientists believe that the theory of relativity is incompatible with other physical theories," Ludlow says.

Einstein predicted that certain physical properties, like the strength of the interaction between photons and electrons, or the ratio of the mass of electrons and protons, should never change. But competing theories say that those "fundamental constants" might actually fluctuate and such changes would slightly influence the ticking speed of atomic clocks.

"As clocks become better and better, they become more and more useful tools to explore this possible variation," Ludlow says.

Einstein also predicted that clocks in different gravitational fields would tick at different speeds. For example, a clock in Boulder, Colo., which is a mile above sea level, would feel a slightly weaker gravitational pull than a clock at sea level in Washington, D.C. As a result, it would tick just a bit faster — and after 200,000 years it would be a full second ahead.

That's not much of an effect, but it's big enough for most atomic clocks to measure. And Ludlow's clock can register the change in gravity across a single inch of elevation. That kind of sensitivity will allow scientists to test Einstein's theories with greater precision in the real world.


August 22, 2013

Danville Police Want Database Of Security Cameras

The Danville Police Department wants to create a database of security cameras locations in the city.

Public Safety Director Larry Thomason says knowing which businesses and other organizations have cameras could help police during investigations. Authorities are asking business and homeowners who have cameras to voluntarily share the locations with police.

Currently, burglar and fire alarm systems must be registered with the city but security cameras do not.

Thomason tells the (Champaign) News-Gazette that cameras do more than protect individual businesses. They also capture images of nearby activity.

This month, a business's security camera showed a getaway car used in a bank robbery. The image was not caught by the bank's cameras.

Police say having to canvass an area for cameras during an investigation eats up valuable time.

August 21, 2013

Ameren Unveils Smart Grid Research Center At U Of I

A new testing center unveiled Wednesday at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will give businesses the chance to test out smart grid technologies like household appliances, electric cars, and transformers.

Ameren Illinois said the Technology Applications Center, located west of the Research Park, includes a working substation, and a connection to the live grid. Ameren Illinois President and CEO Richard Mark said that is valuable for businesses.

“The uniqueness of this facility is that it can test the newest technology. Its fiber optically connected to the University of Illinois," Mark said. "They have several research things going on, so we can work together in collaboration with the university, and I don’t know of another one in the state that has these advanced technologies that this one has. ”

Speaking at the dedication ceremony, U of I Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the substation will help strengthen the university's smart grid research.

“As a research university, we’ve charged ourselves with thinking about what the world is going to be like 20-to-50 years from now, and what the role of a public research university is in solving those challenges,” Wise said. “I think the resiliency of our power supply is one that fits both in the challenges of the next 20-to-50 years, and what a public research university can do.”

Ameren Illinois said it will use the center to find ways of helping customers better manage their energy usage.

Ameren is spending more than $640 million over the next decade to make the electric grid more reliable and efficient, and create hundreds of new jobs. That is because of legislation passed two years ago by the General Assembly that allows utility companies to raise rates to finance those projects.

The new University Pages on LinkedIn show which businesses employ a college's graduates, and the sectors of the economy in which they work.
August 19, 2013

University Pages: LinkedIn Launches New College Profiles

The professional connections site LinkedIn is launching a new section of its social network Monday: University Pages targets younger users who want to connect with colleges. More than 200 schools now have profile pages, according to LinkedIn. As part of the new effort, the company also dropped its minimum age to 14 in the U.S.

The new college profiles allow prospective students to see how many of a school's graduates are on LinkedIn, as well as a breakdown of the main fields in which they work. The pages also list the top employers of alumni.

Those details, along with a graph that shows how a user is connected to a school's alumni, could help applicants glean advice or perhaps even a letter of recommendation, in a real-world twist on LinkedIn's "recommend" function.

The service also could serve as a funnel for LinkedIn to grow its membership base — and for the company to tap into the large potential market of users under 25.

Christina Allen, LinkedIn's director of product management, says the idea for the pages came after she saw her daughter and others struggle to find usable information on colleges.

"I knew that hidden in millions of member profiles were powerful insights about the career outcomes of educations from universities around the world," Allen writes, in a blog post unveiling the new profile pages for schools.

Many of LinkedIn's more than 238 million users include information about their education and work history in the profiles they create on the professional networking site.

"If harnessed, these insights could provide incredible value for students," she says.

Each university page also includes standard information, such as the gender breakdown of the student body, tuition costs, student/faculty ratio, and the school's graduation rate.

A separate blog post announced changes in LinkedIn's terms of service, dropping the minimum age to 14 in the United States, and to other ages — from 13 to 18 years old — elsewhere in the world. For comparison purposes, the minimum age to create a profile on Facebook is 13.

For examples of existing college pages, you can check these out:

August 16, 2013

Gov. Quinn Signs Bill Banning Hand-Held Phones In Cars

Using a hand-held cellphone while driving in Illinois will be illegal on Jan. 1.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation Friday aimed at reducing distracted driving. It requires motorists to use speakerphones or headsets that allow for one-digit or audio dialing.

Illinois joins 11 other states and Washington, D.C. in banning hand-held phone use on the road.

Texting while driving is already illegal in Illinois.

Sen. John Mulroe (muhl-ROH') -- a Chicago Democrat and sponsor -- says he wants motorists to "keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.''

The U.S. Transportation Department says drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to get in a crash causing injuries. Distracted driving caused 387,000 injuries and 3,000 deaths in 2011.

August 11, 2013

The Tricky Business Of Predicting Where Media Will Go Next

What's next for The Washington Post? With a new owner, the paper is stepping into a new era. Its path may lead to the ever-evolving future of journalism.

"There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy," said Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with the announcement of his purchase Monday. "We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment."

Experimentation and leaps of faith led to the Huffington Posts and the BuzzFeeds of the current media world. While advertising revenues decline and newspapers change hands, some still see a place for institutions like The Post (apparently, Bezos thought it was worth $250 million). But the face of legacy media will not look or feel the same.

Hope For The Post, In '92

Bezos' message on Monday echoes a prescient one made two decades earlier, by the Post's then-Managing Editor Robert Kaiser.

Kaiser had just attended a conference convened by Apple in Tokyo. On the plane back to Washington, D.C., he wrote his takeaway on a yellow legal pad, now available online. The conference, involving leaders in the computer, software and media worlds, offered a glimmer of how technology could — and would — revolutionize the media industry.

"The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes," Kaiser wrote in 1992. "We'll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it."

(One of his recommendations: "Create the first electronic newspaper — put the paper into a computer and see if we can create something that was easy to read, fun to play with and so on.")

Though he had his warnings, Kaiser wrote that he could "find no one at this conference who would predict the demise of the newspaper. No one. All saw an important place for us."

And so, Kaiser expected, "There's a big and important role for The Washington Post in this new world." But the revolution didn't happen the way Kaiser had hoped.

"The fact is, because we were so big, so fat and so happy, and because everything seemed to be going our way, we were just in no frame of mind to take the big, adventurous steps that would have been required to really, you know, try to become pioneers in this realm," he tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

The Elements Of The Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington upended the traditional news model in 2005 by starting The Huffington Post, but she doesn't see ventures like hers as substitutes for newspapers.

"I don't really think it's a question of replacing newspapers. I think it's a convergence," she tells NPR.

But The Huffington Post, aggregating and re-posting content from across the Web, had many skeptics. "I think there were definitely many more naysayers than people who thought it would work," Huffington says.

One LA Weekly review was particularly unsupportive: "This website venture is the sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable. Her blog is such a bomb that it's the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven's Gate rolled into one."

But in what others saw as lowbrow Web content, Huffington saw opportunity to share and engage. She breaks the model down into four elements: blogging, curation, commenting/audience engagement and original reporting (which played a larger role as the site's popularity and profitability grew).

At first, curation, or aggregating content from other websites, in particular received backlash from traditional media, which viewed the practice as hawking others' work for free.

But, Huffington says, if curation is done accurately and fairly, it "is of tremendous benefit to the creators of the content, because it brings them many more eyeballs, a lot more traffic, which they can monetize." Now, curation is a common practice among news organizations of all statures.

The result of mixing these elements was something that didn't look quite like anything else.

"The fact that we can have the prime minister of France next to a homeless teenager who has something interesting to say, is something that is very much at the heart of what distinguishes HuffPost as a purely digital operation," Huffington says.

The Social Web

But in eight short years, even The Huffington Post is now challenged by forward-moving competitors, like BuzzFeed. Its founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti, came up with the idea for the site while working at The Huffington Post, which he co-founded.

After launching in 2006, BuzzFeed "was very much a laboratory" in the beginning, says company President Jon Steinberg. BuzzFeed started with six employees in a room in New York's Chinatown. The driving concept behind the operation: social sharing.

"Everything we write has to be shareable," Steinberg says. "And we think that's a really high bar. As opposed to writing for a search engine or writing for a robot of some kind, the content has to be compelling and novel and interesting enough that a person is willing to pass it along to another person."


Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has signed a bill that says school cannot require parents to dole out the account information of their children's social networking pages.
(Julien Lozelli/flickr)
August 02, 2013

Gov. Quinn Signs Student Social Networking Law

A new law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn will prohibit schools from requiring parents to give out students' social networking account information.

Quinn signed the measure on Friday. The law sponsored by Democratic state Rep. La Shawn Ford passed by a wide margin in the state Senate, but with a narrower vote in the state House this spring.

It applies to public elementary and high schools, as well as private schools recognized by the State Board of Education. It say they can't request or require a student or prospective student to provide account information for social networking sites unless it is believed a student violated school rules.

It is effective Jan. 1.

August 01, 2013

U of I Phone App Checks For Food Safety

Afraid there may be peanuts or other allergens hiding in that cookie? Thanks to a cradle and app that turn your smartphone into a handheld biosensor, you may soon be able to run on-the-spot tests for food safety, environmental toxins, medical diagnostics and more.

The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food.

Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.

A new National Security Agency (NSA) data center in Bluffdale, Utah. The center, a large data farm, is set to open in the fall of 2013.
(George Frey/Getty Images)
July 31, 2013

U.S. Declassifies Documents About Surveillance Programs

The National Security Agency declassified more documents that shed light on formerly secret programs that collect a vast amount of metadata on the phone calls made in the United States, as well as the electronic communication of foreigners.

In a statement, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the release was "in the public interest."

The most significant document is a 17-page ruling (pdf) by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that outlines so-called minimization procedures, or safeguards, the government must follow in order to deal with the data.

The New York Times wraps up the rest of the documents like this:

"The releases also included two formerly classified briefing papers to Congress from 2009 and 2011, when the provision of the Patriot Act that the court relied on to issue that order was up for reauthorization. The papers outlined the bulk collection of 'metadata' logging all domestic phone calls and e-mails of Americans and are portrayed as an 'early warning system' that allowed the government to quickly see who was linked to a terrorism suspect.

" 'Both of these programs operate on a very large scale,' the 2011 briefing paper said, followed by something that is redacted, and then: 'However, as described below, only a tiny fraction of such records are ever viewed by N.S.A. intelligence analysts.' "

All of the documents released include lots of redactions, and at first glance, they don't seem to reveal a lot more detail than what we had already learned from the leaked documents provided to The Guardian and The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

One thing that remains a mystery is the legal rationale for allowing the bulk collection of the electronic data of Americans to begin with. A hint is in the briefing documents (pdf) presented to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The government explains that the collection of phone metadata is authorized by section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. In a lot of ways, we've already gone over this explanation, when we touched on an October 2011 letter to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

This briefing document, however, points out that no "content" is being collected. In fact, it explains, the program is only collecting information that the Supreme Court has decided is "not protected by the Fourth Amendment."

Remember that is the Executive Branch's interpretation of the law; what many legal scholars and civil libertarians have been waiting for is the Judicial Branch's interpretation.

We'll continue sift through these documents and seek interpretations. If you find something in them that you think noteworthy, let us know in the comments. We'll update this post with more throughout the day.

Update at 1:31 p.m. ET. Exceptions For Technical Personnel:

One of the interesting passages in the FISC order is where it talks about exceptions for technical personnel. Essentially, the court says, the people who make this data searchable and usable are allowed to query it without having to adhere to the safeguards.

That said, any of the information queried is not allowed to be used for "intelligence analysis purposes."

Update at 12:35 p.m. ET. Seeking To Calm Privacy Fears:

Here's how The Washington Post frames the release of the FISC order:

"It is an apparent effort by the administration to allay privacy concerns raised by the leaking of a secondary court order by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that documented the NSA's program to collect 'all call detail records' of phone calls from U.S. phone companies for counterterrorism purposes."

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