Archive for month: June 2017

Meet the new intern!

Meet the new intern!

Hi. My name is Abigail, and I am the new intern at Easy Internet Now. I will be writing the articles and news stories about all things tech here on EasyInternetNow.com. Furthermore, as the content creator, it is my job to introduce the new employees to the world. So, it is my pleasure to introduce myself, Abigail Eskew, to you, world. World, Abigail Eskew. Abigail Eskew, world. Nice to meet you. Charmed, I’m sure.

On to the interview!

Me: Hello, thanks for meeting with me on short notice.

Also me: Not a problem. I’m on the clock anyway.

Me: Well…yes. But you are interning for school credit, not cash money. Didn’t you know that?

Also me: What?

Me: So where do you go to school?

Also me: I’m a senior at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, and I major in Professional Writing. Sorry, what did you say about no money?

Me: Professional Writing? And what do you tell your parents you major in?

Also me: Ha. Ha. It is a career, and one in demand, I might add. These days the business world reaches a very significant portion of their customers online, and someone has to write all that content. Not to mention user manuals, safety information, proposals, progress reports…hey, wake up!

Me: Oh, sorry, I was just resting my eyes. Sooo…you are the friendly face of the money-grubbing corporate world. Tell me, how does it feel to sell out?

Also me: Excuse me, I didn’t sell out. I happen to think access to the internet is extremely important, especially to kids in school. Education is freely available to those who want it, as long as they have internet. And besides, I don’t think someone who isn’t being paid can sell out.

Me: Keep telling yourself that, corporate jockey. I can’t believe you sold out for no money. What a rube. So what are you going to write first? Some advertisements for your new corporate overlords?

Also me: Actually, Easy Internet Now is a company with a desire to help people who otherwise would be left without internet by existing corporations, and set them up with a reliable connection.

Me: Exactly. Blink twice if you need help.

Also me: A company can thrive without being evil, you know. It’s called supply and demand, filling needs…

Me: …filling pockets…

Also me: …and providing value to our clients. In that spirit, I plan to kick off my content with a series I’m calling Internet 101. It will be a series of informative how-to articles that people can refer back to when they need to. It will cover things like tips and tricks for effective and efficient Google searches, where to put your free modem for the best function and access, and best practices for keeping your personal details safe online.

Me: Sounds boring.

Also me: I’ll also be covering new tech developments, trends and viral content.

Me: Ooh, did you see that video with the cats?

Also me: I don’t know which one you mean, but probably yes.

Me: Those cats are so silly.

Also me: Yes they are.

Me: Well I look forward to your cat articles, and working with you in the future. Welcome to the company!

Also me: Thanks! I’m excited to be here!

Help me welcome our newest member of the Easy Internet Now family! You can follow her/me on Twitter @willreadforfood, and please tweet any suggestions about internet skills you would like to develop @easyinternetnow, and I/her will consider including your suggestions in future how-tos!

Iggy sleeps on my desk

This is why it takes me so long to write anything.

Summer Sale on Steam 6/22-7/5

Summer Sale on Steam 6/22-7/5

Steam, online retailer of PC games, is having their annual massive Summer Sale, running from June 22-July 5, and steep discounts on a large catalog of popular games seem almost too good to be true. 30%, 50%, even 90% discounts have been taken on popular classic games, major franchises, and new releases. During the writing of this article, I had to stop and buy some games myself, one of which was Fallout 4 ($14.99), which I’ve coveted since it was released. Maybe the weather is too nice to stay inside and play games, and maybe I’m chronically too busy anyway, but at least I know it’s sitting there waiting for me if ever I do find myself at leisure. Just like about 25 books I haven’t read yet.

Here are just a few of the titles on sale:

Classics

Some games never lose their charm, even when newer and more sophisticated titles have been released. Maybe you are nostalgic for the games you used to play; or maybe, like me, you are interested in titles that have maintained their draw long enough that you need to see what all the talk is about. Here are a few classic titles you can find:

  • RollerCoaster Tycoon Classic Collection – $11.24 (66 percent off)
  • Star Wars: Dark Forces – $1.49 (75 percent off)
  • Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces 2 – $1.49 (75 percent off)
  • Doom Classic Complete – $3.74 (75 percent off)
  • Wolfenstein 3D – $1.24 (75 percent off)
  • Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour – $9.99 (50 percent off)
  • Fallout Classic Collection – $4.99 (75 percent off)

Big Franchises

Some of the games coming out lately look incredible, with cutting-edge graphics and game-play, and dynamic story-telling. And no one thinks they are more incredible than the game studios producing them: some of these games normally retail for $50 and $60. If you are anything like me, that kind of price tag gives you chest pain. Move fast while these deals last!

  • Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor– $3.99 (80 percent off)
  • Dishonored 2 – $19.99 (50 percent off)
  • The Witcher 3 – $24.99 (50 percent off)
  • Dark Souls 3 – $23.99 (60 percent off)
  • Fallout 4 – $14.99 (50 percent off)
  • Stardew Valley – $8.99 (40 percent off)
  • Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon– $3.39 (66 percent off)
  • Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier– $6.79 (66 percent off)
  • Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands– $40.19 (33 percent off)
  • All Final Fantasy games, 3-10, 10-2, and Type O are 50% off

Stickers and Trading Cards

Every day of the Summer Sale, new quests are available to you on the Steam site. Quests involve things like viewing all the games in your Steam Discovery Queue and reviewing your preferences. Completing quests unlocks stickers, which you can arrange in your virtual Sticker Book.

Trading cards are granted for playing games through Steam, and you can craft badges with the cards which are then displayed in your profile. The badges can be traded, sold, or bought, and grant certain community perks. This also increases your Steam level, and additional cards can level up your badge. Summer Sale trading cards are only available during the sale, however, so if you want one (or more), act fast! More details can be found on store.steampowered.com, once you sign into your account.

 

I know Christmas is a long way off, but with prices like these, it’s time to treat yoself.

Why Pokemon Go became an instant phenomenon

Image 20160715 2120 am8bjjPokemon Go puts virtual characters in the real world – which is just part of its appeal.
Dalton White/YouTube, CC BY

Katherine Isbister, University of California, Santa Cruz

In the last week, Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game for mobile phones, has taken off. Daily traffic for the game exceeded Twitter and Facebook use. What is driving this intense interest and involvement? One way to understand is to take a closer look at the game’s design.

First, for those who haven’t played or watched, a brief overview of how the game works. To play Pokemon Go, you download an app onto your phone, which allows you to search for and “see” virtual creatures called Pokemon that are scattered throughout the real world. You need to be physically close to a Pokemon’s location to see it on your mobile screen. Pokemon Go uses augmented reality technology – the game overlays the creature image on top of video from your phone’s camera, so it looks as if the creature is floating in the real world. When you find a Pokemon, you try to catch it by swiping an on-screen ball at it. The simplest aim of the game is to “catch ’em all.”

Pokemon can appear almost anywhere!
scoobie1993/flickr, CC BY-NC

To do this, you’ll have to wander outside your own real-world neighborhood, because different types of creatures are scattered throughout your town and all around the world. You can easily share snapshots of creatures you’ve collected and where you found them on social media sites like Facebook, if you want. As you get better at the game, you discover that you can train the creatures in “gyms,” which are virtual spaces accessible by visiting real world public locations (for example, the White House is a gym). When you’ve reached level 5 in the game, you get a chance to join one of three teams: Team Mystic, Team Valor or Team Instinct. These teams compete to maintain control over the gyms where Pokemon go and train. You and your friends can choose the same team, and work together if you like. You’ll also have teammates from around your community (and the world) who join in.

Several aspects of the game’s design help to make the experience so compelling. A look at gaming research shows several of the game’s elements can explain why playing Pokemon Go has been such a massive worldwide hit for players of all ages.

Simple gameplay

Catch one by flicking the Poke Ball catcher up toward the Pokemon.
scoobie1993/flickr, CC BY-NC

Playing Pokemon Go is simple and accessible. It’s easy to grasp what to do – just “catch ’em all” by walking around. In contrast to many “hard core” games such as League of Legends that can require hours or even years of skills training and background, Pokemon Go’s design draws upon the principles of folk games such as scavenger hunts. Folk games have simple rules and typically make use of everyday equipment, so that the game can spread readily from person to person. They often involve physical interaction between players – think of duck-duck-goose or red rover.

These sorts of games are designed to maximize fun for a wide age range, and are typically extremely quick to grasp. Pokemon Go’s designers made it very simple for everyone to learn how to play and have fun quickly.

Getting moving

The game requires players to be on the go.
nepascene/flickr, CC BY-NC

Pokemon Go also leverages the power of physical movement to create fun. Simply moving about in the world raises one’s arousal level and energy, and can improve mood. Exercise is frequently recommended as part of a regimen to reduce depression.

Pokemon and points of interest exist throughout the real world.
erocsid/flickr, CC BY

Pokemon Go’s design gives players powerful motivation to get out of the house and move around. Not only are the creatures distributed over a wide geographic area, but also, players can collect Pokemon eggs that can be hatched only after a certain amount of movement. Players have reported radically increasing the amount of exercise that they get as they start playing the game.

Connecting with others

The most powerful wellspring of fun in the game’s design is how it cultivates social engagement. There are several astute design choices that make for increased collaborative fun and interaction. For one thing, everyone who shows up to collect a creature at a location can catch a copy of that creature if they want. So players have motivation to communicate with one another and share locations of creatures, engaging in deeply collaborative rather than competitive play. Not all gamers like fierce competition, so the collaborative aspects of the game broaden its appeal.

For those who do love competition, the three-team structure allows for friendly rivalry and challenge. The ease of joining a team keeps it from being exclusionary, preserving the game’s inclusive style. Because there are only three teams worldwide, there’s a lot of friendly banter online about which team is the best, adding to the fun.

Friends can play it together, and strangers can meet each other too.
nepascene/flickr, CC BY-NC

Also, collecting Pokemon is a distinctive-looking thing to do with a phone. Players can tell when a stranger is collecting Pokemon at a place they happen to be, and can join in and collect for themselves. This has sparked many conversations among strangers. Finally, making it easy to take snapshots of collected creatures and share them on social media has meant that players recruit other players into the game at astonishing rates. Building collaboration and connection into the game in these ways creates a broadly accessible flavor of play, so that many people are willing to engage and share.

The ConversationPokemon Go’s rapid success demonstrates the potential for well-designed augmented reality games to connect people to one another and their physical environment. That forms a stark contrast to the typical stereotype of video games as socially isolating and encouraging inactivity. It bodes well for the future of augmented reality gaming.

Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Are esports the next major league sport?

File 20170530 23653 ccfywqTwo basketball teams go head-to-head in an esports competition, with spectators cheering them on.
Dan Steinberg/Invision for NBA 2K/AP Images

Galen Clavio, Indiana University

In late 2016, a sports championship event was held in Chicago, drawing 43 million viewers during the series finals. That was 12 million more people than watched the 2016 NBA Finals.

It wasn’t soccer, or football, or even the World Series of Poker. Instead, it was the “League of Legends” World Finals, an esports competition.

Video games have been popular for more than 30 years, but competitive gaming, or esports, has recently emerged as a spectator activity that can draw thousands of attendees and viewers. Major sports networks such as ESPN, Fox Sports, MLB Advanced Media and the Big Ten Network have started broadcasting esports competitions, often partnering with major gaming companies like EA Sports, Riot and Blizzard. What is driving this phenomenon, and where is it taking us next?

Wide popularity

At first glance, the idea seems crazy, particularly to older consumers. Why would anyone want to watch other people playing video games? As a researcher focused on user experiences with social media, I have been watching the esports phenomenon develop over the last few years. My current work, with Matthew Zimmerman from Mississippi State University, looks at why users watch esports. Our preliminary findings suggest that esports spectators often play the games themselves, using the viewing process as a way to learn more about the games in question and improve their own skills as players.

In addition, many spectators take genuine pleasure in watching others play, finding the competitive culture immersive and experiencing watching esports very similarly to how they watch traditional sports.

Esports viewing has increased markedly over the past few years: The global market grew to US$696 million in 2016, and may exceed $1 billion by 2019. Media payments for rights to cover the events total nearly $100 million of that; consumers are paying $64 million for event tickets and merchandise. Most of the rest comes from advertising and sponsorship spending. The combined markets of China and North America account for more than half of global esports revenues.

A key attraction of esports is that regular people can play the very same games as the esports stars, often in real-time multiplayer tournaments. Millions of people play “Overwatch,” “League of Legends” and “Dota 2” in their own homes, and many of them participate in collaborative games and battles on communal video game servers or networks such as Steam. Familiar with the games, eager to learn new techniques and excited to celebrate expertise, these at-home players are very interested in watching top-level players in action.

Game 1 of the Grand Finals for the 2016 League of Legends World Championships.

Sean Morrison, a digital media associate for ESPN who specializes in esports coverage, told me he isn’t surprised by the surge in esports attention.

“I think the growth of esports is a generational shift more so than people suddenly becoming interested in video games,” says Morrison. “This generation of teens grew up on YouTube, watching streams, communing on internet forums – you name it. And esports is big business, too; it’s natural that people would wonder what the big deal is. All the hype kind of fuels itself, and that, combined with how many people have now grown up with this as a form of normal entertainment, has made it so big.”

Michael Sherman, college esports lead for Riot Games, the makers of “League of Legends” and other games, agrees.

“Watching video games is a very social behavior. Now you as a spectator have an opportunity to see the best people play. Aspirationally, you watch and say ‘I want to do that,‘” Sherman said to me. “It’s different from traditional sports like the NFL. I don’t watch football and go outside and throw the ball around. In esports, a lot of people watch and then they go play.”

An easy daily fix

While large sports media properties such as ESPN and the Big Ten Network have staked out territory in the esports world, many spectators get their daily fix from Twitch.Tv, a personal streaming service that specializes in video game streams. Twitch allows users to broadcast their own gameplay, while also hosting esports competitions and other video game shows. The service, which was purchased by Amazon for almost $1 billion in 2014, has helped esports to grow, by allowing gamers and viewers to directly connect with each other.

Twitch capitalizes on the very familiar practice of communal game watching. Over time, many video gamers have gotten used to watching others playing games while waiting for their turn with the controller. Twitch globalizes that experience, and – just as friends together in front of a TV can comment on each other’s play – lets viewers and the player interact directly online.

This is a boost beyond what many games allow. It’s quite common for games to have online components where players can take on opponents from anywhere in the world. But only on Twitch and similar esports platforms can nonplayers watch the action. Twitch’s elite gamers generated $60 million in subscriptions and advertising revenue in 2015 alone, per a CNBC report.

League and game growth

The interest and money have been encouraging the adaptation of games into leagues and sanctioned sports for years. Worldwide leagues exist for “Call of Duty,” “FIFA,” “Overwatch” and “Halo.”

The final match of the 2016 FIFA Interactive World Cup.

Lately, college teams have been getting in on the action. “The biggest development has been universities adopting ‘League of Legends’ as a sport,” says Riot’s Sherman. “In 2014, Robert Morris University was the first school to launch a varsity program. Now we’re up to about 25 schools.”

University-based teams allow several important elements of sport organization to coalesce in the esports marketplace. These teams feature young, enthusiastic gamers who are good enough to be competitive internationally, and institutions of higher learning who are keen to utilize the marketing potential of a rapidly developing sport to spread their brand. Esports have existed for many years outside of the official university environment, but official sanctioning by universities could help to boost the visibility of esports, as well as the games played in competitions.

“We announced in August that we had 100 million active monthly players globally for ‘League of Legends,’” Sherman says. “That was up from 64 million two years prior.”

While “League of Legends” continues to expand on the collegiate level, “Overwatch” has an eye on further changing the esports marketplace.

The Overwatch League, likely to launch in 2018, looks to have existing sports franchises in major cities across the globe own esports teams as well. The game designer, Blizzard, wants to create fan interest based on geographical and cultural relevance. The Overwatch League would also include regular broadcasts of matches on both TV and internet-based channels, as well as player contracts.

ESPN’s Morrison expects the Overwatch League model to help spur on esports spectator base growth. “‘Overwatch’ is going to blow up in the next couple of years,” he said. “Between the Overwatch League, which is going to be more like traditional sports than any league before it, and the number of competitive series popping up within it, ‘Overwatch’ will likely become the number one esports title before long. Multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games like ‘League of Legends’ have long been the center of the esports universe, but games like ‘Overwatch’ that combine MOBA elements in hero choice with faster-paced gameplay are becoming a mainstay.”

The ConversationThe sports media landscape continues to change, and esports seem to be a natural evolution of that process. Competitive video gaming was hard to conceive of 20 years ago, and even harder to conceive of as a spectator sport. But broadband internet, online video, social media and shared gaming experiences have taken esports to the brink of worldwide acceptance as a legitimate form of consumer entertainment. The next five years promise to be fascinating to watch – or to play.

Galen Clavio, Associate Professor of Sports Media; Director of the National Sports Journalism Center, Indiana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Family matters: how video games help successful aging

Image 20160517 9476 17doywpGaming makes getting older better, and more fun.
City and County of San Francisco Bandwidth Opportunities Program

Sanela Osmanovic, Louisiana State University and Loretta Pecchioni, Louisiana State University

Sitting quietly in the corner, we watch a daily family ritual: in the living room awash with soft afternoon light, a six-year-old boy is sitting on the floor, controller in hand, eyes firmly on the television screen. His fingers expertly guide the colorful character in Skylanders, from time to time glancing over his shoulder and grinning at the figure on the sofa, his 68-year-old grandmother.

Perched on the edge of the seat, she follows his game dutifully, exclaiming and clapping when he finishes a task or meets a challenge, responding with enthusiasm and praise to his frequent inquiries: “Did you see me, Gram?” Every day after school, the two of them do this. Sometimes he plays with friends, but still asks his grandmother to watch. Sometimes he sits calmly on the sofa by her, and they play Minecraft together. Well, he plays; she watches.

Such a scenario has become common in households across America, with older family members partaking in the gaming activities of the younger generation – and not just watching them play. From 1999 to 2015, the share of American gamers older than 50 increased from 9 to 27 percent. They enjoy the challenge, the fun and especially the social side of playing video games. A major draw is that gaming can be a way to spend time together with others, including their children and grandchildren.

Our research shows that members of all generations – young and old – view family togetherness as a benefit, and many play video games with that as a specific purpose. They enjoy the games, they enjoy playing, but what they really enjoy is the interaction, which helps to create connections among family members. Better yet, these connections can improve mental and physical well-being and improve relationships, which are all keys to maintaining a high quality of life as people age.

Changing families need to remain connected

America’s population is aging, and the world’s population of people over 65 is growing quickly: according to the National Institute on Aging, by 2030 one billion people will be 65 or older. Rising life expectancy combined with declining birth rates makes older adults an increasingly large fraction of the world’s population, changing the relationships and the structure of family.

Three and even four generations are now likely to share significant parts of their lives, whether living together or separately. As the numbers of grandparents and great-grandparents increase, it becomes more important to form and maintain strong bonds among older and younger adults in families. As newly independent adolescents become involved in the unforgiving whirlpool of romantic, academic and social activities, family ties take a back seat. The frequency and intensity of family connections weaken, especially with grandparents.

One way to maintain the important intergenerational relationships within families is through shared activities. Spending time in ways that appeal to both sides of the age spectrum also creates closeness to further strengthen connections. Video games are one important way to achieve this.

Playing for togetherness

Through many conversations with families like the one at the start of this story, we found that older adults who regularly play video games with their relatives find the experience enjoyable, fun and, most importantly, bonding. Mainly partaking in casual, social games, they relish the informal daily contact and the common ground gaming creates between them and their children and grandchildren.

“Time together, and something that is just ours, that just the two of us do,” one 63-year-old told us, explaining why she plays video games with her granddaughter. “It is like a secret language when we talk about it in front of the rest of the family, something that ties us. I feel like I have been more a part of my granddaughter’s life now that we get to do something closer to her generation.”

‘We’re just visiting with Grandma!’
ianturk/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Younger adults, in turn, play video games with older family members mainly as a means of maintaining or deepening their relationships. In most cases, they carefully select the games based on their family member’s perceived interests and abilities. When playing with friends, they typically focus on games with higher levels of control complexity or story involvement, such as Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. But when playing with older adults they select “exergames” such as Dance Dance Revolution or app games such as Words with Friends, meeting the perceived necessity for simple controls, as well as outcomes beyond mere enjoyment, such as physical or mental exercise.

They use the gaming to spend time together, to connect and to talk about both simple and complex topics in a setting they find comfortable and comforting. “Playing helps me talk to my dad more, because I don’t have the luxury of going home every week,” one 19-year-old man told us. “So, playing online games together helps me in continuation of the bond I have with my dad.”

The ConversationRegardless of age, the ability to stay connected through gaming is the most prominent motive for playing. For the young, playing simple, casual games that do not necessarily excite them is still a good way to feel the comfort of family. For the old, working through frustrations of learning to use new technologies is a small price to pay to actively participate in the lives of their children and grandchildren. The results are happiness and enjoyment stemming from the bonding, the conversations, the feelings of being closer to loved ones and even maintaining relationships across distances.

Sanela Osmanovic, Ph.D. Candidate in Communication Studies, Louisiana State University and Loretta Pecchioni, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Louisiana State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Electrically stimulating your brain can boost memory – but here’s one reason it doesn’t always work

File 20170512 3682 f4tcyeIs electrical pulse to the brain your favorite memory enhancer?
U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr., CC BY-NC

Shelly Fan, University of California, San Francisco

The first time I heard that shooting electrical currents across your brain can boost learning, I thought it was a joke.

But evidence is mounting. According to a handful of studies, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the poster child of brain stimulation, is a bona fide cognitive booster: By directly tinkering with the brain’s electrical field, some research has found that tDCS enhances creativity, bolsters spatial and math learning and even language aquisition – sometimes weeks after the initial zap.

For those eager to give their own brains a boost, this is good news. Various communities have sprung up to share tips and tricks on how to test the technique on themselves, often using self-rigged stimulators powered by 9-volt batteries.

Scientists and brain enthusiasts aren’t the only people interested. The military has also been eager to support projects involving brain stimulation with the hope that the technology could one day be used to help soldiers suffering from combat-induced memory loss.

But here’s the catch: The end results are inconsistent at best. While some people swear by the positive effects anecdotally, others report nothing but a nasty scalp burn from the electrodes.

In a meta-analysis covering over 20 studies, a team from Australia found no significant effects of tDCS on memory. Similar disparities pop up for other brain stimulation techniques. It’s not that brain stimulation isn’t doing anything – it just doesn’t seem to be doing something consistently across a diverse population. So what gives?

It looks like timing is everything.

When the zap comes is crucial

We all have good days when your brain feels sharp and bad days when the “brain fog” never lifts. This led scientists to wonder: Because electrical stimulation directly regulates the activity of the brain’s neural networks, what if it gives them a boost when they’re faltering, but conversely disrupts their activity when already performing at peak?

In a new study published in “Current Biology,” researchers tested the idea using the most direct type of brain stimulation – electrodes implanted into the brain. Compared to tDCS, which delivers currents through electrodes on the scalp, implanted ones allow much higher precision in controlling which brain region to target and when.

Blue dots indicate overall electrode placement in the new study from the University of Pennsylvania; the yellow dot (top-right corner) is the electrode used to stimulate the subject’s brain to increase memory performance.
Joel Stein and Youssef Ezzyat, CC BY-ND

The team collaborated with a precious resource: epilepsy patients who already have electrodes implanted into their hippocampi and surrounding areas. These brain regions are crucial for memories about sequences, spaces and life events. The electrodes serve a double purpose: They both record brain activity and deliver electrical pulses.

The researchers monitored the overall brain activity of 102 epilepsy patients as they memorized 25 lists of a dozen unrelated words and tried to recall them later on.

For each word, the researchers used the corresponding brain activity pattern to train a type of software called a classifier. In this way, for each patient the classifier eventually learned what types of brain activity preceded successfully remembering a word, and what predicted failed recall. Using this method, the scientist objectively classified a “foggy” brain state as the pattern of brain activity that preceded an inability to remember the word, while the pattern of activity common before successfully recalling is characteristic of being on the ball.

Next, in the quarter of patients for whom the classifier performed above chance, the researchers zapped their brains as they memorized and recalled a new list of words. As a control, they also measured memory performance without any stimulation, and the patients were asked whether they could tell when the electrodes were on (they couldn’t).

Here’s what they found: when the zap came before a low, foggy brain state, the patients scored roughly 12 to 13 percent higher than usual on the recall task. But if they were already in a high-performance state, quite the opposite occurred. Then the electrical pulse impaired performance by 15 to 20 percent and disrupted the brain’s encoding activity – that is, actually making memories.

Moving beyond random stimulation

This study is notably different from those before. Rather than indiscriminately zapping the brain, the researchers showed that the brain state at the time of memory encoding determines whether brain stimulation helps or hinders. It’s an invaluable insight for future studies that try to tease apart the effects of brain stimulation on memory.

The next big challenge is to incorporate these findings into brain stimulation trials, preferably using noninvasive technologies. The finding that brain activity can predict recall is promising and builds upon previous research linking brain states to successful learning. These studies may be leveraged to help design “smart” brain stimulators.

For example: Picture a closed-loop system, where a cap embedded with electrodes measures brain activity using EEG or other methods. Then the data go to a control box to determine the brain state. When the controller detects a low functioning state, it signals the tDCS or other stimulator to give a well-timed zap, thus boosting learning without explicit input from the user.

Of course, many questions remain before such a stimulator becomes reality. What are the optimal number and strength of electrical pulses that best bolster learning? Where should we place the electrodes for best effect? And what about unintended consequences? A previous study found that boosting learning may actually impair a person’s ability to automate that skill – quickly and effortlessly perform it – later on. What other hidden costs of brain stimulation are we missing?

The ConversationI’m not sure if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of zapping my brain. But this new study and the many others sure to follow give me more confidence: If I do take the leap into electrical memory enhancement, it’ll be based on data, not on anecdotes.

Shelly Fan, Postdoctoral Scholar in Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Understanding net neutrality: Seven essential reads

Image 20170124 16094 16yxnfhVia shutterstock.com

Jeff Inglis, The Conversation

Editor’s note: The following is a roundup of archival stories.

Ajit Pai.
Federal Communications Commission

With the selection of Ajit Pai to chair the Federal Communications Commission, President Trump has elevated a major foe of net neutrality from the minority on the commission to its head. Pai, already a commissioner and therefore needing no Senate approval to become its chair, would need to be reconfirmed by the end of 2017 to continue to serve.

But what is net neutrality, this policy Pai has spent years criticizing? Here are some highlights of The Conversation’s coverage of the controversy around the concept of keeping the internet open:

Public interest versus private profit

The basic conflict is a result of the history of the internet, and the telecommunications industry more generally, writes internet law scholar Allen Hammond at Santa Clara University:

Like the telephone, broadcast and cable predecessors from which they evolved, the wire and mobile broadband networks that carry internet traffic travel over public property. The spectrum and land over which these broadband networks travel are known as rights of way. Congress allowed each network technology to be privately owned. However, the explicit arrangement has been that private owner access to the publicly owned spectrum and rights of way necessary to exploit the technology is exchanged for public access and speech rights.

The government is trying to balance competing interests in how the benefits of those network services. Should people have unfiltered access to any and all data services, or should some internet providers be allowed to charge a premium to let companies reach audiences more widely and more quickly?

Pushing back against corporate control

There is fairly limited competition, it turns out. Across America, most people have very little – if any – choice in who their internet provider is. Communication studies professor Amanda Lotz at the University of Michigan explains the concerns raised by a monopoly marketplace and the potential effects of turning back the current policy of net neutrality:

The rules were created out of concern internet service providers would reserve high-speed internet lanes for content providers who could pay for it, while relegating to slower speeds those that didn’t – or couldn’t, such as libraries, local governments and universities. Net neutrality is also important for innovation, because it protects small and start-up companies’ access to the massive online marketplace of internet users.

In this view, the internet is a public utility that should be preserved and protected for all to access freely.

Getting around the rules

Even with net neutrality rules in place, companies were pushing the boundaries of what is legal. In recent years, many mobile internet providers have been simultaneously imposing and creating exemptions from limits on how much data their customers can use in a given month. Called “zero rating policies,” these exemptions omit from the monthly cap certain types of data, or certain companies’ data. For example, T-Mobile customers can listen endlessly to Spotify internet radio regardless of how much high-speed data they use for other purposes. Information systems scholars Liangfei Qiu, Soohyun Cho and Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay at the University of Florida examined the effects of those policies on the marketplace:

At first glance, zero rating plans would seem to be good for consumers because they allow users to consume traffic for free. But our research suggests the variety of content may be reduced, which in the long run harms consumers.

Their findings suggest that keeping the internet open would be best for the public.

Regulation isn’t always a good solution

However, regulating with that sort of goal could be risky because of the fast-changing nature of the internet, writes technology policy scholar Scott Wallsten at Georgetown:

Today’s business models may not be viable in the future. Net neutrality rules run counter to that reality by freezing in place a particular industry structure, making it difficult for firms to respond to underlying changes in technology and consumer demand over time.

Pai may be getting additional allies

Nevertheless, as the Trump administration takes shape, Pai will likely find himself with strong support in the FCC. Digital communications scholar Luis Hestres at the University of Texas-San Antonio noted that Trump himself appears to be an outspoken opponent of net neutrality. As Hestres wrote,

His appointments look like bad news for supporters of an open internet. President-elect Trump has named Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison to oversee the transition at the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees internet communications policy. Both are staff members at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and former lobbyists for major telecommunications companies. Both are also vocal opponents of net neutrality. Also on his FCC transition team are Roslyn Layton, another staff member at AEI and vocal net neutrality opponent, and North Carolina telecom entrepreneur David Morken.

The decisions they make will shape the internet for years to come.

A vestige of the 20th century

Whether net neutrality rises or falls, however, the debate will continue. The rules and frameworks the government uses to try to regulate the internet are long out of date, and were written to address a very different time, when landline telephone service was not yet ubiquitous. Boston University communication and law professor T. Barton Carter explained what the real solution is:

The laws governing the internet were written in the early 20th century, decades before the companies that dominate the internet like Google and YouTube even existed. The only solution is a complete rewrite of the 80-year-old Communications Act – unfortunately a fool’s errand in today’s Washington.

Can net neutrality even happen?

And maintaining net neutrality itself could be a major challenge, if not a fool’s errand, thanks to important technical details that could make the ideal impossible, writes University of Michigan computer scientist Harsha Madhyastha:

If one user is streaming video and another is backing up data to the cloud, should both of them have their data slowed down? Or would users’ collective experience be best if those watching videos were given priority? That would mean slightly slowing down the data backup, freeing up bandwidth to minimize video delays and keep the picture quality high.

The ConversationThen again, just because an ideal can’t be achieved doesn’t mean it’s not worth aiming for.

Jeff Inglis, Editor, Science + Technology, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fidget toys aren’t just hype

File 20170517 2399 pt8l8nBalancing and doing tricks requires visual attention.
ThamKC via shutterstock.com

Katherine Isbister, University of California, Santa Cruz

The fidget spinner craze has been sweeping elementary and middle schools. As of May 17 every one of the top 10 best-selling toys on Amazon was a form of the hand-held toy people can spin and do tricks with. Kids and parents are even making them for themselves using 3D printers and other more homespun crafting techniques.

But some teachers are banning them from classrooms. And experts challenge the idea that spinners are good for conditions like ADHD and anxiety. Meanwhile, the Kickstarter online fundraising campaign for the Fidget Cube – another popular fidget toy in 2017 – raised an astounding US$6.4 million, and can be seen on the desks of hipsters and techies across the globe.

My research group has taken a deep look at how people use fidget items over the last several years. What we found tells us that these items are not a fad that will soon disappear. Despite sometimes being an annoying distraction for others, fidget items can have some practical uses for adults; our inquiry into their usefulness for children is underway.

Understanding fidgeting

Fidgeting didn’t start with the spinner craze. If you’ve ever clicked a ballpoint pen again and again, you’ve used a fidget item. As part of our work, we’ve asked people what items they like to fidget with and how and when they use them. (We’re compiling their answers online and welcome additional contributions.)

People fidget with everyday items such as paper clips.
MaIII Themd via shutterstock.com

One thing people often report is that fidgeting with an object in the hand helps them to stay focused when doing a long task or sitting still and attentive in a long meeting. Many examples people have told us about are ready-to-hand objects like paper clips, USB thumb drives, headphone earbuds and sticky tape. But people also buy specialized items like a fidget spinner or a Fidget Cube for this purpose.

Another common thread involves people using some fidget objects – like a favorite smooth stone – to calm themselves down, helping them achieve a more relaxed, contemplative, even mindful state.

Fine-tuning for focus

Psychology research about sensation seeking tells us that people often seek to adjust their experiences and their environments so that they provide just the right level of stimulation. Different people function well under different circumstances. Some people like total quiet to help them focus, while others are happiest working in a busy, noisy environment.

The optimal level of stimulation (or lack thereof) not only varies among people but even can change for one person throughout the day depending upon what he or she is trying to do. So people fine-tune their environments to get things just right: for example, putting on headphones in a noisy office environment to substitute less distracting noise.

A person who can’t get up and walk around to wake up a bit, or go have a nice cup of tea to calm down, may find it helpful to use a fidget item to get in the right frame of mind to stay focused and calm while staying put.

What researchers say

Our results align with anecdotal accounts about fidget toys helping children with attention or anxiety issues to stay focused and calm in the classroom. In fact, fidget toys have been available for kids for quite some time.

There hasn’t yet been a definitive study of the impact of these toys in the research world. In one preliminary study looking at stress ball use, sixth graders who used these fidget toys during instruction independently reported that their “attitude, attention, writing abilities, and peer interaction improved.”

The closest significant research is UC Davis behavioral science professor Julie Schweitzer’s study of letting children with ADHD fidget – wriggling, bouncing or otherwise moving gently in place – while they worked on a lab-based concentration task called the “flanker paradigm.” She found that more overall movement (measured using an accelerometer on the ankle) in children with ADHD did help them perform this cognitively demanding task.

Of course, it’s a big step from that finding to a claim that fidgeting with small objects in the hand can work, too. However, therapists tend to focus more on results than theoretical findings. They use what gets results and throw out what doesn’t, so practical experience suggests these toys may help kids.

Avoiding distraction

And yet, schools are banning the spinners and teachers are taking them away. The reason is that not all fidget items are created equal.

The items that therapists recommend are primarily tactile – a user holds it in a hand and can manipulate it without looking. But fidget spinners require hand-eye coordination.

The basics of using a fidget spinner.

To use a fidget spinner, a person holds the center of the spinner with thumb and finger, and then uses the other hand (or other fingers on the same hand) to get the spinner rotating. Once it’s spinning, there are tricks to be explored, like balancing the rotating spinner on a thumb.

Balancing a moving object really requires keeping an eye on it, and doing tricks is a lot of what makes the spinners fun. It’s also what draws the eyes of the user away from the teacher, and likely also the eyes of nearby students. This is the bane of a teacher trying to keep a classroom focused.

Less spinning, more focus?
idan gamliel via shutterstock.com

By contrast, putty, stress balls and other therapeutic fidget items don’t have this visual attention problem. They can serve the same purpose as the spinners, but are more classroom-ready and less distracting. In the same way, the Kickstarted Fidget Cube, too, is probably also more classroom-friendly.

The ConversationFidget items do seem to serve a valuable purpose. There’s still science to be done, but they’re not just a fad. They embody an enduring phenomenon that nearly everyone uses at some point – just watch your own behavior when doing desk work or sitting in meetings. My research team continues to study fidgeting behavior and design, working to create next-generation smart fidget objects that support managing attention and keeping calm.

Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media, University of California, Santa Cruz

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Star Wars turns 40 and it still inspires our real life space junkies

File 20170524 5782 sj1edu
The dramatic opening of Star Wars.
Star Wars/20th Century Fox/Screenshot

Jonathan Roberts, Queensland University of Technology

It was 40 years ago today, on May 25, 1977, that Star Wars first burst onto cinema screens, and from that time the world changed for the better.

Star Wars introduced the world to Jedi knights with lightsabers, an evil empire building a moon size planet killer weapon, a rebel alliance with X-wing fighters and countless cool droids that were often smarter than their owners.

The original trailer.

Quite why Star Wars was such a massive hit has been debated ever since. It was clearly not for the dialogue.

It was probably due to the fast-paced action. In fact, Star Wars popularised the notion that some films do not need opening credits, just an opening crawl to set the scene.

Director George Lucas wanted the action to start as soon as the film did, and for audiences to be engrossed from the first few seconds.

Star Wars was re-released in 1981 as a Episode IV: A New Hope.

What made Star Wars different to the already loved Star Trek TV series was that Star Wars was not a prediction of our human future. Instead it was a story set in another galaxy in the ancient past.

Some of us had our lives and careers shaped by Star Wars, and by longing to create the things we saw when we were young.

Forty years on, who and what has been shaped by this revolutionary movie?

Space technology

The first Star Wars film was revolutionary in its depiction of high-speed battles between spaceships.

Star Wars, one of the original film posters.
20th Century Fox/IMDB

The dog fights around the Death Star seemed so realistic, even though it was not obvious how some of the spaceships actually manoeuvred so well.

When I took spacecraft design courses at university in the late 1980s (as part of my undergraduate degree), I did not dream that fellow Star Wars fans might one day be influential enough to actually design real spacecraft.

We were taught that bringing a rocket back to Earth from space was impossible. I now realise that my lecturers were probably not Star Wars fans.

The billionaire inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk is one of those millions of mega Star Wars fans. He says that Star Wars was the first movie that he ever saw, and from that he has had an obsession with space travel and for turning humans from a single planet species into a multi-planet civilisation.

In 2002, Musk created the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX, with the stated aim of creating spacecraft to regularly fly hundreds of humans to and from Mars.

To Mars.

Musk named his series of rockets “Falcon”, after Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. And in 2017, a Falcon rocket became the first orbital class booster to return from space, land and later re-fly back into space.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lands after returning from space. Falcon rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

In 2000, fellow billionaire inventor Jeff Bezos started his rocket and spaceship company Blue Origin off the back of his success creating Amazon. His New Shepard rocket was the first suborbital booster to return from space, land and later re-fly back into space.

New Shepard rocket: takeoff and landing.

Bezos is more of a Trekkie. He is so obsessed with Star Trek that he has even acted in it, appearing as an alien in the 2016 movie Star Trek Beyond.

At this point, the Star Wars mega-fan (Musk) is ahead of the Trekkie (Bezos) in delivering commercial space flight with reused rockets. But only time will tell who will win.

Speeders

Star Wars introduced us to the Landspeeder. This is the car-like vehicle that Luke Skywalker uses to get to and from the family moisture farm, and which he sells so he can part-pay Han Solo to fly with him to the Alderaan system.

Luke’s X-34 landspeeder is very much like a hovercraft that did exist long before Star Wars. But hovercraft are noisy and kick up a lot of dust, which is not great in the desert driving situations encountered on Tatooine!

In 1978, a toy landspeeder was the must have toy, and I was lucky enough to have one. I still have it of course. The way it appeared to float across the floor on its highly sprung and hidden wheels was brilliant design.

Subsequent Star Wars films such as Return of the Jedi showed us speeder bikes, and since then engineers have tried to replicate these amazing vehicles.

Some great engineering efforts include the Jetovator speeder bike that works over water and connects to a jet ski. The makers were clearly inspired by Star Wars.

The Jetovator speeder bike works on water.

Others have recently created and tested hoverbikes that if they were fully commercialised would be very close to the speederbikes of Star Wars.

Colin Furze’s homemade hoverbike.

One group have even made a speeder, the Aero-X, to test in the desert to ensure that Luke would be able to use it if need be.

Remember Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder in Star Wars?

Droids

But for me, it was the droids of Star Wars that had the greatest impact. There can be no greater pair of onscreen robots as R2-D2 and C-3PO. They were perfect.

Some original Star Wars scenes have been recreated in LEGO (with some modification).

I have written before about Star Wars and robots. The vision that George Lucas and his team had in creating these robots (and the others that are found in the original 1977 movie) has had a major impact on robotics development, by inspiring many current day roboticists.

We are beginning to see real high quality automatic translation services – something C-3PO was designed to do. We have medical robots, military robots and even farm robots.

All of these were shown in Star Wars. Our present-day robots are not as capable as the Star Wars robots, but us roboticists are working hard to make that happen.

New fans

It is unlikely that any film in the future will be as surprising as Star Wars was. It was new and exciting and surely that is one of the reasons for its success.

But yet there are new Star Wars fans being born every day. It helps that many of their parents and grandparents are possibly also Star Wars fans, and that at the moment there is a new Star Wars film out every year.

The ConversationIf the love of Star Wars is handed down the generations then who knows what it will have inspired in another 40 years’ time.

The next Star Wars film is due out in December this year.

Jonathan Roberts, Professor in Robotics, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.