White House Honors Two Techies for Making Programming Cool

Bay Area residents Carlos Bueno and Kimberly Bryant are helping to prepare kids to use programming concepts in daily life and work.

Tech Titans Join Forces on Internet Surveillance

More than 60 technology firms and other groups are urging the federal government to let companies disclose Patriot Act data requests.

Novelist and Programmer Vikram Chandra Sees the Beauty in Code

Computer code has changed the world. But is it beautiful? That's the question at the heart of Vikram Chandra's first non-fiction book, "Geek Sublime." Best known as a novelist and UC Berkeley English professor, Chandra is also a computer programmer. We'll talk with him about the links between literary theory, aesthetics and the craft of writing code.

Hacking for Democracy: Code for America Summit

Roughly 800 people gathered in San Francisco this week for the fourth annual Code for America summit. The nonprofit embeds coders, designers and other techies into government offices and agencies around the country to help aging bureaucratic infrastructure serve citizens better.

PBS NewsHour

Tracking killer comets before they strike


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a different kind of space mission, finding asteroids and other large objects before they get close to Earth.

This Sunday, a comet will be making an unusually close fly-by near Mars. In fact, it will be coming closer to Mars than any other comet has come near Earth in recorded history. It’s also a moment when scientists are assessing our own risk from such objects.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has our report.

MILES O’BRIEN: Traveling 40 times faster than a speeding bullet, it is a menacing messenger from the very distant past. The comet known as Siding Spring, a dirty snowball packed with four-billion-year-old leftovers from the dawn of our solar system, will streak ever so close to Mars and NASA’s armada of spacecraft, for scientists, an unprecedented bonanza, for all of us, a stark reminder.

Jim Green is the space agency’s director of planetary science.

JIM GREEN, NASA: There’s not only the scientific interest of where these objects fit in, in the origin and evolution of our solar system, but indeed ignorance is not bliss. We can’t, in all consciousness, expect us to ignore the near-Earth population.

MILES O’BRIEN: By that, he means the millions of comets and asteroids that come close enough to Earth that they could collide with the planet.

Don Yeomans runs the Near-Earth Object Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

DON YEOMANS, NASA: It’s just a matter of time before a large one is on an Earth-threatening trajectory. The only question then is, will we discover it well ahead of time and do something about it?

MILES O’BRIEN: We humans got a stunning shot across the bow in February of 2013, when a 60-foot-wide asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Equivalent to 30 atomic bombs, it shattered windows, injuring about 1,500.

DON YEOMANS: I think we have gotten over that stage where people dismissed this with a Chicken Little-type attitude and a giggle factor.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Mount Lemmon Observatory near Tucson is one of three facilities funded by NASA to tackle the problem by searching the night sky for asteroids and comets that might be a threat.

ERIC CHRISTENSEN, Catalina Sky Survey: Yes. So, on an average night, we’ll find two or three new near-Earth objects. It’s almost like a fisherman going out to the lake and spending the day, and maybe you catch something, maybe you don’t, but there’s always the chance that you’re going to find something.

MILES O’BRIEN: Astronomer Eric Christensen showed me how he trolls for trouble using a 60-inch telescope built in the 1970s, now outmoded for more distant discoveries.

ERIC CHRISTENSEN: So we might take four visits to the same field within about half-an-hour or 45 minutes. And then we have software that processes these images and compares each of the visits and identifies the stationary objects, the stars and galaxies, and identifies objects that are potentially transients.

So, this is a near-Earth object. It is moving in a different direction at a much faster rate. That’s because it is much closer to the Earth.

MILES O’BRIEN: Collectively, near-Earth object surveys have catalogued about 12,000 asteroids and comets, including 1,000 that are six-tenths-of-a-mile in diameter and larger, big enough to cause a global catastrophe. They have found 95 percent of them.

Now they are looking for objects down to 450-feet wide, which could take out a region. NASA’s congressionally mandated goal is to find 90 percent of those by 2020. Operating on old, small telescopes and a budget of $40 million a year, the survey has found only 10 percent of those objects and will come nowhere near to that goal.

In September, NASA’s Inspector General’s Office released a report critical of the agency’s efforts to identify near-Earth objects and mitigate hazards. It concludes the effort lacks structure, has limited resources, needs to improve oversight and grants and forge partnerships inside the federal government and internationally as well.

JIM GREEN: You know, we were in the middle of the program. Yes, it’s sort of walking into a car factory and say, how come you don’t have fenders on the car? Well, we’re getting in the process of putting them on. And if the I.G. came back even within a year, I think they would see a much more methodical and solid program operating under a well-defined plan.

MILES O’BRIEN: But as the search homes in on smaller objects, the size of the task grows exponentially.

ED LU, Sentinel Mission: If you want to find a million asteroids, finding 1,000 a year doesn’t cut it, right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Ed Lu is a former NASA astronaut, now CEO of the nonprofit B612 Foundation. The organization hopes to raise $450 million to build launch and operate an infrared space based telescope designed to find a few hundred thousand asteroids in its first year of operation alone.

ED LU: And this is all being done by a private organization, because NASA simply doesn’t have the money to do this. And it’s within the capability of individuals to solve that problem, because NASA simply isn’t doing it.

MILES O’BRIEN: The magnitude of the problem became a reality in July of 1994 with the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Jupiter’s gravity broke it into 21 fragments. It then plowed into the giant planet over the course of a week.

ROBERT MACNEIL, Anchor: Jupiter’s collision with a giant comet is next.

Mrs. Shoemaker, thank you for joining us. Are you satisfied with the splash your little comet is making?

CAROLYN SHOEMAKER, Astronomer: Oh, Robin, I’m thrilled with the splash my comet is making.


MILES O’BRIEN: The whole world was watching, thanks to the eagle eyes of Carolyn Shoemaker.

I caught up with her recently at the Lowell Observatory, near her home in Flagstaff.

You knew it was real. You saw it with your own eyes.


MILES O’BRIEN: Who saw the comet 16 months before impact week began.

CAROLYN SHOEMAKER: That thrilled us, in part because so many people had said, you’re not going to see anything at all; it’s just going to break up and nothing will be seen.

MILES O’BRIEN: She, her late husband, geologist Gene Shoemaker , and amateur astronomer David Levy were conducting an early survey of near-Earth objects at California’s Palomar Observatory when they had the eureka moment.

DAVID LEVY, Astronomer: Shoemaker-Levy 9 was famous not because of what it was, but because of what it did. It was the first time we saw the process of collision.

MILES O’BRIEN: Could something like that happen to Earth? Just one look at the moon offers case in point. We orbit the sun in a rough neighborhood; 65 million years ago, an asteroid six miles’ wide hit what is now Mexico, wiping out the dinosaurs. The evidence of this and other impacts is mostly buried, but not Arizona’s Meteor Crater.

In the 19th century, geologists thought this might have been caused by some sort of volcanic explosion. There was a lot of debate over this in the first half of the 20th century, but then in 1960, Gene Shoemaker settled it once and for all. He found minerals here that are smoking gun proof that was a high-powered impact and an explosion.

So what can we do to defend our planet against this inevitable threat? Surprisingly, scientists say that is the easy part. The method considered simplest, crashing a spacecraft into the asteroid with enough force to knock an it off of its collision course with Earth. In fact, it is something NASA has already done. In 2005, the Deep Impact spacecraft plowed into comet Tempel 1, changing its orbit.

DON YEOMANS: There’s three important ingredients for asteroid or comet impact mitigation. We need to find them early, we need to find them early, and we need to find them early.

MILES O’BRIEN: Meanwhile, the scientists in charge of the NASA research satellites that orbit Mars have gradually changed their orbits, so that they will be shielded from the hazards posed by the whizzing debris in Siding Spring’s tail.

Still, they will try to gather as much data as they safely can.

Rich Zurek is the chief scientist for the Mars program at JPL.

RICH ZUREK, NASA: Our instruments, our cameras and such, aren’t really designed to look at a diffuse object. However, we have a ringside seat. If we knew a comet was coming, we might have done something different.

MILES O’BRIEN: Backyard astronomers will also be out in force. At David Levy’s home and observatory near Tucson, where the sky is big and beautiful by day and night, he will be on the lookout as Siding Spring slides by the Red Planet.

DAVID LEVY: Comets are not your Facebook activity. Comets are a reminder that the universe is all about time. And it takes its time about showing us things.

MILES O’BRIEN: Levy reminds us the ancients viewed comets as bad omens. If we moderns don’t tackle the threat posed by near-Earth objects, we may prove our ancestors right.

The post Tracking killer comets before they strike appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Did air conditioning play a role in Reagan’s election? Searching for ripple effects of history-making tech


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GWEN IFILL: Finally, an unconventional look at big ideas and how they lead to unintended and transformative consequences.

That’s the subject of a new book and PBS series that debuts tonight called “How We Got to Now.”

The host is a popular science writer, author and theorist, Steven Johnson.

Here’s a clip from an episode about what air conditioning set into motion after Willis Carrier designed the first modern system.

STEVEN JOHNSON, Author, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World”:  In 1951, Carrier’s company introduces an air conditioning unit that is miniaturized and affordable for a mass market.

And that’s when A.C. starts to go crazy. Now, just see what this does to where people are living. Tucson, Arizona, grows 400 percent in 10 years, Phoenix 300 percent, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, population double, triple. And it’s the same story everywhere you look. Carrier’s invention is circulating people, as well as air, changing lives, changing America.

But then something even more interesting happens. You see, people moving to the hot states are older and tend to vote Republican. And the growing population in the conservative South means more Electoral College votes there. So, check out what happens to the political map of America. Between 1940 and 1980, Northern states lose an incredible 31 Electoral College votes, while Southern states gain 29.

GWEN IFILL: Hari Sreenivasan sat down with Johnson recently in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The book is called “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.”

Steven Johnson, why did you pick glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light? What is it about these innovations?

STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, we didn’t want to just have stories about the things that we think of as high technology today, right?

So there’s no chapter on the smartphone or something like that, right? What I was really interested in is basically objects and innovations that are so ubiquitous now that we don’t even think about them as technology or a scientific breakthrough.

And I also wanted to have things that have had a really interesting history and that involved kind of characters that were interesting and that had interesting stories, and that led us to a series of unanticipated consequences once they got unleashed in the world.

And so there was the long process of trying to figure out what to include. But we ended up with these six.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, draw — connect the dots for us between Gutenberg’s press and the selfie.



Well, everybody — you think you know the story of Gutenberg, right? He invents the printing press, books get into circulation, there’s this revolution in theology and science because of this.

But there’s this other funny side effect of the printing press which no one really talks about, which is that, as soon as people started to read in large numbers, as soon as literacy become — became a part of kind of European life, all of a sudden, all across Europe, people started to say, I can’t read this because I’m farsighted. I can’t actually like make this out on the page.

And it was a problem that people basically just hadn’t had before. They hadn’t noticed it, because they didn’t have any need to kind of look at small little forms on a page. And so, because of this, all across Europe, people started making spectacles. And lens making becomes this very important craft.

And because of this expertise with lenses, all of a sudden, people started thinking, hey, we could put these two lenses together, and we could make a telescope or we could make a microscope. And then you have this amazing scientific revolution because of this lens making. So Gutenberg actually leads to, in this very indirect way, because of glass, because of lenses, he leads to the scientific revolutions in astronomy and biology and health.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right. And then eventually even mirrors become more common in the Renaissance, and really those are the first kind of selfies that we see, right?

STEVEN JOHNSON: Well, there’s an explosion in self-portraiture that happens in the Renaissance.

Basically — and it’s funny to think about this now — mirrors really didn’t exist in their kind of modern form, where you could see a very clear image of yourself, until right at the beginning of the Renaissance. So, most people just walked around their entire lives never really catching a full glimpse what they looked like as a person.

And then all of a sudden, you get — these advanced mirrors get created. And artists embrace it completely. People like Rembrandt do endless self-portraits, the kind of early selfie. But it also — people get — the culture gets more introspective. And the idea of selfhood becomes important to art and to philosophy. And I think the mirror is part of that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, in your chapter on cold, you draw basically a line between our ability to control the cold or refrigeration and Reagan’s electoral win. How is that?


It seems crazy, but there’s a direct line. So, air conditioning gets invented in the — in the beginning of the 20th century. There’s a printing shop in Brooklyn that’s trying to do these high-quality magazine prints. And in the summer, the humidity is so bad that the ink is smearing.

And so they hire this young engineer named Willis Carrier, who goes on to found the Carrier Corporation. And he solves this by dehumidifying the air, but it has this side effect, which it also makes the air cooler. And so everybody in the printing shop was like, I’m going to have my lunch there, where the — like, it’s really — the air is really nice in there.

And so he decides to build this whole technology. And about 50 years later, it gets popularized in terms of home air conditioning, the small window units and then home central air. And it triggers one of the single largest migrations of human beings in the history of the United States, where everybody moves to the Sun Belt, everybody moves to Florida, people move to Vegas and Phoenix and places that basically just weren’t inhabitable without air conditioning.

And that triggers a huge swing in the Electoral College, about 50 or 60 votes that swing towards the South. And that Sun Belt coalition is crucial to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Now, it’s possible that Reagan could have gotten elected without air conditioning, but he would have had to have built a completely different political coalition to do it. So A.C. is absolutely a part of that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, there’s a quote in here that sort of summarizes an idea that you keep coming back to in the book, is, when we think of ideas, we tend to constrain ourselves by the scale of the original invention.

So, what you’re doing is really saying — looking at these concepts and all these ripple or what you call hummingbird effects.


When we tell history, right, we tend to tell the story of great men and women or great social movements or great kind of military conflicts. And that’s an important part of our historical story. And we need to tell those stories.

But what this book and the show we have is trying to do is to basically show how these objects and these ideas in a sense had a life of their own. And so someone is trying to solve this one problem, but that ends up creating all these unintended consequences in all these other fields. And that’s a big part of who we are now.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Steven Johnson.

The book is called “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World”:

Thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN JOHNSON: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch “How We Got to Now” tonight on most PBS stations.

The post Did air conditioning play a role in Reagan’s election? Searching for ripple effects of history-making tech appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

Researchers hope search engine will shed light on dark data

The vast majority of information on the Internet, such as old photos, videos, sound files and social media content, is
         locked away in outdated file formats. Researchers are developing a search engine to simplify the process of accessing this
         endangered data. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Niv Singer

The vast majority of information on the Internet, such as old photos, videos, sound files and social media content, is locked away in outdated file formats. Researchers are developing a search engine to simplify the process of accessing this endangered data. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Niv Singer

As much as 90 percent of information on the Internet is “dark” — locked away in clunky or outdated formats that makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to access.

Kenton McHenry gets frustrated just talking about what he had to go through to open a research paper in the now-obsolete format PostScript. That was in 2000, when he was still a college student. First he had to download a viewer and then uncompress the document before he could read the article — all to determine if it even had information he could use.

“It would drive me nuts,” he said. “I don’t want the tools to uncompress the thing. I just want the data.”

McHenry, now a senior research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes in accessing data as quickly and efficiently as possible, whether that’s your old wedding video or a massive scientific dataset. And he’s developed a search engine to do just that.


Brown Dog is designed to convert defunct computer files into accessible formats, preserving information in those files for generations to come. This means that one may no longer need a patchwork of computer applications to use scientific datasets, read old thesis papers or access family videos uploaded onto the Internet.

The search engine has two functions, McHenry says. First, the user can feed a file saved in an outdated format into Brown Dog’s “Data Access Proxy” bookmarked onto their web browser. Within the cloud, stored computer coding transforms the file into something the browser can read and the user can access. Brown Dog’s other function, its Data Tilling Service, enables users to look at otherwise inaccessible data while cloud-based coding assigns metadata to previously unreadable images, audio, video and other uncurated data. That allows users to use keywords to search a collection of photos to find what they need.

Brown Dog developers demonstrate how to use the search engine’s two primary functions at a workshop this year. Video courtesy of YouTube/ISDA Software

While that may sound just as cumbersome as opening Postscript, McHenry promises it’s not. The whole process, when working correctly, should take a few clicks.

Brown Dog fits into an emerging field of cyber infrastructure. It received a $10 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation* in 2013 as part of its Data Infrastructure Building Blocks program. This program is intended to complement several services that preserve and power cyber-based data, said Robert Chadduck, who directs the NSF program. For example, one program called Wrangler at the University of Texas at Austin focuses on constructing a data resource big enough to respond to scientific data analysis on a national scale. Another project uses geospatial data collected from maps, satellite images and more to analyze information ranging from the effects of climate change to how densely packed population centers are.

Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of the Internet Archive, knows the hassle of keeping digital files up to date in a time of rapidly changing technology. The San Francisco-based archive’s web collection, he said, contains more than 1 million video files alone, which have been moved into new file formats six times over the last decade. The process, Kahle said, is intended to ensure that the data remains relevant and accessible to people with “different devices and different expectations.”

“It’s an active job. You can’t just sit around,” Kahle said.

Technology, Chadduck said, should “proceed at the speed of app development which frankly is how we conduct our lives.”

“If you have baby pictures, wedding pictures, pictures of departed family members that are invaluable to all of us, the thing is…those images may be encoded or are on digital cameras that no longer exist or have become obsolete,” Chadduck said. “The images of all of our lives are invaluable to each of us. That’s the time machine part of Brown Dog.”

It’s still unclear when Brown Dog will be operational, but McHenry expects it to be available on a limited basis for demonstrations and testing in March 2015.

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is a funder of the NewsHour.

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Study of extinct Australian primate: These roos were ‘made’ for walking

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Image by Brian Regal

Around 100,000 years ago, the diversity of large kangaroo species went beyond the grey or red mammal you are most familiar with today. A study released Wednesday in the journal PLOS One examined the extinct Sthenurine kangaroo family, which researchers now suggest were “hop-less monsters” with rabbit-like faces, some attaining giant proportions.

While all kangaroos hop to move rapidly, they use pentapedal locomotion — the four- legged plus tail movement — at slow speeds. The Pleistocene members of the Sthenurine family are fundamentally different. The findings all come down to differences in anatomy and weight, which would have made the Sthenurines poor hoppers that were unable to do this slow pentapedal gait.

Research began in 2005 in a joint investigation between Brown University and the University of Malaga in Spain. The extinct Australian animal had a small face and long fingers, according to the study.

Sthenurine kangaroos were most likely bipedal walkers with a lumbering gait. They moved one foot in front of the other while standing upright. This meant they had a sturdy versus flexible backbone, which we see in the large kangaroos today as a necessity to hop great distances quickly.

Some species weighed 550 pounds – that’s up to three times more than modern species. In comparison, the Sthenurines also had really big butts — similar to what a human needs to balance body mass whilst walking. The pelvis was flared and wide to support the gluteal muscles. Other physical differences include the anatomy of their ankles, hip and knee joints, and their big bones.

As identified in earlier studies, Sthenurines had large hands with two especially long fingers for foraging. This coincides with the idea that the two front legs are ill suited for bearing their weight in a pentapedal walk, forcing them to adopt a new type of slow locomotion.

Lead researcher Christine Janis, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, believes in their reliance on walking.

“If it is not possible in terms of biomechanics to hop at very slow speeds, particularly if you are a big animal and you cannot easily do pentapedal locomotion, then what do you have left?”

She also noted that it may have been this gait that allowed some Sthenurine species to evolve to giant sizes, where the body weight would have limited the ability to hop.

The research was not able to explain why the Sthenurines went extinct. Janis speculates they may have had trouble escaping human hunters, who first arrived in Australia shortly before the Sthenurines disappeared, or were not able to travel efficiently for food when the climate shifted to more dry.

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