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Soulskill

FuzzNugget writes "ReadWrite has posted a thought-provoking piece on how mobile devices killing our boredom may also be killing our creativity. Quoting: 'Numerous studies and much accepted wisdom suggest that time spent doing nothing, being bored, is beneficial for sparking and sustaining creativity. With our iPhone in hand — or any smartphone, really — our minds, always engaged, always fixed on that tiny screen, may simply never get bored. And our creativity suffers. ... For example, psychology professor Gary Marcus distinguishes between the two primary types of pursuits we use to defeat boredom. "Boredom is the brain's way to tell you you should be doing something else. But the brain doesn't always know the most appropriate thing to do. If you're bored and use that energy to play guitar and cook, it will make you happy. But if you watch TV, it may make you happy in the short term, but not in the long term." So much of what we do on our smartphones, however, is decidedly short-term: a few moments playing a game while we stand in line, a minute to scan Instagram as the person in front of us at the grocery store pulls out their checkbook. ' Of course, you'll probably be reading this on a smartphone."

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For the last year or so, I've been getting these two page energy assessment reports in the mail from Pacific Gas & Electric, our California utility company, comparing our household's energy use to those of the houses around us.

Here's the relevant excerpts from the latest report; click through for a full-page view of each page.

Pge-page-1-small

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These poor results are particularly galling because I go far out of my way to Energy Star all the things, I use LED light bulbs just about everywhere, we set our thermostat appropriately, and we're still getting crushed. I have no particular reason to care about this stupid energy assessment report showing our household using 33% more energy than similar homes in our neighborhood. And yet… I must win this contest. I can't let it go.

  • Installed a Nest 2.0 learning thermostat.
  • I made sure every last bulb in our house that gets any significant use is LED. Fortunately there are some pretty decent $16 LED bulbs on Amazon now offering serviceable 60 watt equivalents at 9 watt, without too many early adopter LED quirks (color, dimming, size, weight, etc).
  • I even put appliance LED bulbs in our refrigerator and freezer.
  • Switched to a low-flow shower head.
  • Upgraded to a high efficiency tankless water heater, the Noritz NCC1991-SV.
  • Nearly killed myself trying to source LED candelabra bulbs for the fixture in our dining room which has 18 of the damn things, and is used quite a bit now with the twins in the house. Turns out, 18 times any number … is still kind of a large number. In cash.

(Most of this has not helped much on the report. The jury is still out on the Nest thermostat and the candelabra LED bulbs, as I haven't had them long enough to judge. I'm gonna defeat this thing, man!)

I'm ashamed to admit that it's only recently I realized that this technique – showing a set of metrics alongside your peers – is exactly the same thing we built at Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. Notice any resemblance on the user profile page here?

Stack-overflow-user-page-small

You've tricked me into becoming obsessed with understanding and reducing my household energy consumption. Something that not only benefits me, but also benefits the greater community and, more broadly, benefits the entire world. You've beaten me at my own game. Well played, Pacific Gas & Electric. Well played.

Davetron5000-tweet

This peer motivation stuff, call it gamification if you must, really works. That's why we do it. But these systems are like firearms: so powerful they're kind of dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. If you don't think deeply about what you're incentivizing, why you're incentivizing it, and the full ramifications of all emergent behaviors in your system, you may end up with … something darker. A lot darker.

The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!

Since I left Stack Exchange, I've had a difficult time explaining what exactly it is I do, if anything, to people. I finally settled on this: what I do, what I'm best at, what I love to do more than anything else in the world, is design massively multiplayer games for people who like to type paragraphs to each other. I channel their obsessions – and mine – into something positive, something that they can learn from, something that creates wonderful reusable artifacts for the whole world. And that's what I still hope to do, because I have an endless well of obsession left.

Just ask PG&E.

[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.

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Enlarge / Scanning electron micrograph of graphene, showing the hexagonal structure of the single layer of carbon atoms.

Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory

Graphene—a two-dimensional sheet of carbon one atom thick—is exciting stuff. Combining good electrical properties, flexibility, mechanical strength, and other advantages, graphene can seem like a miracle material, especially when potential applications are listed. Talk of graphene-based protective coatings, flexible transparent electronics, super powerful capacitors, and so forth may seem like something from a Neal Stephenson science fiction novel, but they've all been seriously considered.

The material's potential is so high that its discovery merited the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics, awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. Certainly my fellow Ars Technica writers and I have spilled a lot of digital ink on the subject.

However, with so much excitement, you would be forgiven for wondering if at least some of it is hype. (After all, graphene has been around for a number of years, but we don't have our transparent computers yet.) For this reason, Nobel Laureate Konstantin Novoselov and colleagues have written a critical, yet optimistic, assessment of the state of graphene research and production.

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Deutche-borse-list

This year’s Deutche Börse Photography Prize exhibition opens tommorrow – July 13 – at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. The annual competition was was founded in 1996 by the gallery and since 2005 had run in collaboration with the Deutche Börse Group (hence the name). It aims to reward £30,000 to a contemporary photographer of any nationality who has made the most significant contribution to photography this past year – either in the contexts of publication or exhibition.

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It's still premature to say you need firewall or antivirus protection for your television set, but a duo of recently diagnosed firmware vulnerabilities in widely used TV models made by two leading manufacturers suggests the notion isn't as far-fetched as many may think.

The most recent bug, found in a wide range of high-definition TVs from Samsung, was disclosed on Thursday by Luigi Auriemma, an Italy-based researcher who regularly finds security flaws in Microsoft Windows, video games, and even the industrial-strength systems used to control dams, gas refineries, and other critical infrastructure. While poking around a Samsung D6000 model belonging to his brother, he inadvertently discovered a way to remotely send the TV into an endless restart mode that persists even after unplugging the device and turning it back on.

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paolo_pedercini.jpg[Following the news that Molleindustria's latest game Phone Story had been removed from the App Store by Apple, Leigh Alexander from sister site Gamasutra talked to dev Paolo Pedercini about what the team plans to do next.]

The rise of the iPhone has revolutionized communication in the modern world, and the game development industry has been one of the largest beneficiaries of this paradigm shift. Thanks to Apple's touch screen and App Store, mobile game development was dredged from its cultural ghetto to a legitimate avenue for big studios and indies alike.

It arrived in the nick of time, too, after the rapid contraction of packaged goods and the recession of a few years ago forced so many developers to seek more agile, less expensive and lower-risk spaces within the industry. Since then, powerhouse studios have been built and careers have been rescued on the back of Apple's must-have device.

But until now, few have been willing to turn the lens on this boom and examine what mass-market gadget lust is costing us ethically. Though we've since heard of suicides at Foxconn, deplorable working conditions and hazards to the environment involved in the manufacture of the latest hot smartphones, game developers were mostly silent -- until now.

It seems natural that provocative serious games developer Molleindustria was the one to take the step. The studio, which has taken on forces like the Catholic church, McDonalds and Big Oil with games like Operation Pedopriest, McDonalds Video Game and Oiligarchy, never pulls its punches as it uses games to sharply deconstruct the social and economic constructs most people take for granted.

Its latest title, Phone Story, uses a series of minigames with voice-over narration to shed light on the human cost and high environmental impact of smartphone development on. In one, while the narrator explains that most electronic devices require the mining of coltan, a conflict mineral in Congo whose demand spurs war and child labor, the player must use the touch screen to guide armed soldiers to bark at exhausted child miners in order to meet the goal in time.

In another, the voice-over explains about the suicides at electronics manufacturers in China, and the facile solution of "prevention nets" -- while the player must catch tumbling workers using a stretched trampoline.

Of course, Phone Story is more interesting for the fact that players must interact with these messages while holding one of the devices discussed. Imagine being served hamburgers on a tour of a slaughterhouse. And all of the developer proceeds -- 70 percent of total App Store revenues, as per usual -- will be pledged to organizations fighting corporate abuses, starting with Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, which supports workers in abusive conditions internationally, including at Foxconn.

Or they would be, if Phone Story had been allowed to stay on the App Store. Apple yanked it just a few hours after the game was officially announced, citing four code violations: 15.2, which prohibits depictions of child abuse, and 16.1, which prohibits apps depicting "objectionable or crude" content. The other two, 21.1 and 21.2, pertain the Phone Story's charitable bent -- and they don't seem to quite apply, intended instead for games that allow their users to make donations within a game, rather than a pledge by the developer to donate revenues.

Molleindustria makes an iPhone game to criticize the iPhone platform, and that Apple's chosen to silence it is an interesting punctuation mark on the developer's statement.

Gamasutra reached out to Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini about iPhone Story, who credits the game's idea to recent international affairs graduate Michael Pineschi, whom he spoke to through creative activism group YesLab. At the time, Pedercini already had some unusual ideas in the works for projects that could act as commentary on gadget fetishism.

"One of them was a multi-touchable virtual-pet vagina, monologuing about technological lust and willful submission to consumerism," he reflects. "Unfortunately, the flesh engine didn't work as I hoped so I went for a straightforward educational game."

But the intent was always to develop a game as commentary on the hardware industry. "Most of the adults in the Western world are somewhat aware that most of our objects are manufactured far away, in conditions that we would consider barbaric," Pedercini says.

"A lot of tech-aware people heard about the story of the Foxconn suicides or about the issue of electronic waste," he continues. "But with Phone Story, we wanted to connect all these aspects and present them in the larger frame of technological consumerism."

He specifically wanted to highlight the goal that "must-have" consumer electronics culture plays in perpetuating these high-impact cycles; one of the levels of Phone Story tasks the players with tossing brand-new boxed phones to swarming would-be buyers rushing a storefront. In his view, the marketing machine that makes people believe they absolutely need an upgraded hardware device on the day it comes out is what causes extremism in the supply chain.

"We don't want people to stop buying smartphones," he notes, "but maybe we can make a little contribution in terms of shifting the perception of technological lust from cool to not-that-cool. This happened before with fur coats, diamonds, cigarettes and SUVs -- I can't see why it can't happen with iPads."

Pedercini says it was essential to use the platform itself to stage a critique of that platform. "Almost like the device itself was speaking to the user," he suggests. "The idea was to make a sort of reminder that you can keep with you, like a way-less-permanent tattoo or a bumper sticker, something that you carry around and maybe show off as a conversation-starter."

But although Apple's immediate removal of Phone Story makes for an interesting conversation point, Pedercini says he never intended it to happen this way: "I'm very familiar with the App Store policy, and the game is designed to be compliant with it," he asserts.

"If you check the guidelines, Phone Story doesn't really violate any rule except for the generic 'excessively objectionable and crude content' and maybe the 'depiction of abuse of children'. Yes, there's dark humor and violence but it's cartoonish and stylized - way more mellow than a lot of other games on the App Store."

"What makes these depictions disturbing is the connection the player makes with real-world situation," adds Pedercini. "Of course, the goal was to sneak an embarrassingly ugly gnome into Apple's walled garden, but not to provoke the rejection. "If it was just a matter of provocation I would have gone way further... I'd be much happier if the game was actually available to everybody, and possibly generating discussions around the issues it clumsily addresses."

Editing the game to make it truthful without being objectionable will be some task: "a new version of Phone Story that depicts the violence and abuse of children involved in the electronic manufacturing supply chain in a non-crude and non-objectionable way... will be a difficult task," he notes wryly.

"This morning, a dry and polite Apple employee called me personally to talk about the specific violations of Phone Story," says Pedercini. "When I asked if I can submit a new version, there was a moment of silence and then he answered, 'Yes, if you can make it compliant to the guidelines.' But the truth is that there is no way to know what's 'excessive' and 'objectionable' in Cupertino."

Most alarming to Pedercini is how complacent so many developers have become to mobile development's culture. "Here's the problem: the unanimous reaction from developers community has been, 'Wow, it's incredible Phone Story made through Apple's review process,'" he says. "To me, this signals a full acceptance of a regime of censorship, the equivalent, for developers, of what journalists call the 'chilling effect'.

"I'm sure that Apple doesn't spend that much time in policing its marketplace, because the developers are already censoring themselves." he continues. "Of course, Apple has the right; it is the acceptance of Apple view about the cultural status of the 'App'. For them, games and applications are not part of culture like books or music."

Adds Pedercini: "Try to imagine what kind of reaction iTunes would provoke if they banned all the songs with 'excessive objectionable' content."

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Phil Torrone's written a call-to-arms for geeks and makers to learn to speak and read Chinese. I'm not sure I'm confident in his premise that the Chinese economic revolution will continue to produce strong returns and thus increase Chinese economic and technical dominance to the point where this is a must-have for anyone who cares about technology, but you don't have to accept this to believe that knowing Chinese is an enormous asset to anyone trying to make sense of the world (and especially the world of manufacturing and technology) today.

Phil's written up a bunch of tips for approaching Chinese language instruction, which is an admittedly daunting prospect for a lot of westerners, with its trifecta of unfamiliar tones, non-Roman script, and absence of Latinate/Germanic cognates.


Fast forward almost a decade, and I'm living in NYC and talking, reading, or emailing with someone in China. If you make anything, eventually you'll find that there isn't a supply chain that beats what China has; while a lot of people will claim goods are made in China only because of lower costs, that's not 100% true. The supply chain of components to assembly are almost impossible to find elsewhere. If you look at once-booming industrial cities in the USA, you'll see a lot of the work, from parts to assembly, happened in big chunks of locations -- this is efficient and allows manufacturing to flourish...

You're going to see and hear about more and more open source hardware and maker businesses visiting China, and we'll likely even see and hear some familiar faces in the maker community spending extended time living/working in China. Makers are smart, nimble, and efficient. Being on-site and on the assembly line is usually how we think; we don't mind getting our hands dirty and participating in all parts of the process. It's only going to make sense that more and more of the most prolific makers will consider learning a new language the more time they spend in China.

Why Every Maker Should Learn Chinese

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