Saturday, July 17, 2010

'I Write Like' Website Goes Viral, Authors Bewildered

NEW YORK — For anyone who has ever thought Charles Dickens was lurking inside his or her prose, a new website claims it can find your inner author.

The recently launched I Write Like has one simple gimmick: You paste a few paragraphs that exemplify your writing, then click "analyze" and – poof! – you get a badge telling you that you write like Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway or Chuck Palahniuk.

The site's traffic has soared in recent days and its arrival has lit up the blogosphere. Gawker tried a transcript from one of the leaked Mel Gibson phone calls. The suggested author: Margaret Atwood.

The New Yorker found that an invitation to a birthday party was James Joycean. Many others were aghast to discover they wrote similarly to "The Da Vinci Code" scribe Dan Brown.

The New York Times tried putting in actual novels, such as "Moby-Dick." Herman Melville, it turns out, writes less like himself than King, according to I Write Like.

Atwood, herself, tried the site only to discover she also apparently writes like King. "Who knew?" she tweeted.

Obviously, I Write Like isn't an exact science. But simply the idea of an algorithm that can reveal traces of influence in writing has proven wildly popular.

Though the site might seem the idle dalliance of an English professor on summer break, it was created by Dmitry Chestnykh, a 27-year-old Russian software programmer currently living in Montenegro. Though he speaks English reasonably well, it's his second language.

"I wanted it to be an educational thing and also to help people write better," he said.

Chestnykh modeled the site on software for e-mail spam filters. This means that the site's text analysis is largely keyword based. Even if you write in short, declarative, Hemingwayesque sentences, its your word choice that may determine your comparison.

Most writers will tell you, though, that the most telling signs of influence come from punctuation, rhythm and structure. I Write Like does account for some elements of style by things such as number of words per sentence.

Chestnykh has uploaded works by about 50 authors – three books for each, he said. That, too, explains some of its shortcomings. Melville, for example, isn't in the system.

But Chestnykh never expected the sudden success of the site and he plans to improve its accuracy by including more books and adding a probability percentage for each result. He hopes it can eventually be profitable.

"I think that people really like to know how they write, even if it's not accurate results," said Chestnykh. "Still it's fun for them."

It's easy to find a laugh. Obama's Oval Office speech in June? David Foster Wallace. Lady Gaga's lyrics to "Alejandro"? William Shakespeare.

Whatever the deficiencies of I Write Like, it does exude a love of writing and its many techniques. The site's blog updates with inspiring quotations from writers, and Chestnykh – whose company, Coding Robots, is also working on blog editing and diary writing software – shows a love of literature. He counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Agatha Christie among his favorites.

"I had a typewriter when I was 6 years old," he said. "But I'm not a published writer and I don't think I write very good."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It is an age-old riddle that has perplexed generations: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Now British scientists claim to have finally come up with the definitive answer: The chicken.
The scientific and philosophical mystery was purportedly unraveled by researchers at Sheffield and Warwick universities, according to the Daily Mail newspaper.
The scientists found that a protein found only in a chicken's ovaries is necessary for the formation of the egg, according to the paper Wednesday. The egg can therefore only exist if it has been created inside a chicken.
The protein speeds up the development of the hard shell, which is essential in protecting the delicate yolk and fluids while the chick grows inside the egg, the report said.
"It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first," said Dr. Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University's Department of Engineering Materials, according to the Mail.
"The protein had been identified before and it was linked to egg formation, but by examining it closely we have been able to see how it controls the process," he said.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

NASA delivers Mars in high definition

A virtual rendering of the planet Mars, provided by the WorldWide Telescope program, is centered on Arsia Mons, one of the suggested targets for a human mission to the Red Planet.
NASA is partnering with Microsoft Research's WorldWide Telescope to offer half a billion high-resolution images of Red Planet sights, ranging from past rover tracks to future landing zones for Mars-bound astronauts. The collaboration is part of NASA’s public-private strategy for making cosmic imagery more widely available to students and space fans.
"We want to have this be an example of what public outreach means ... not just putting things up on a website, but really connecting with an audience," Chris Kemp, chief technology officer for information technology at NASA Headquarters, told me today.
"Our hope is that this inspires the next generation of explorers to continue the scientific discovery process," Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said in today's announcement about the project.
The virtual Mars database was unveiled today at a gathering for researchers at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (Microsoft and NBC Universal are partners in the joint venture.) It's now available as part of the latest version of the WorldWide Telescope as well as WWT's Web-based client.
The good stuff includes a new series of Mars-themed guided tours, narrated by a couple of NASA's best-known Marsologists, Carol Stoker and Jim Garvin. Stoker's tour addresses the question"Is there life on Mars?" and focuses on the findings of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. Garvin traces the three geological ages of Mars (Noachian, Hesperian and Amazonian) and points out three of the leading sites for future human missions to Mars:
• Jezero Crater in Nili Fossae, which provides a window on the Noachian age, when water is thought to have flowed freely on Mars.
• Mangala Valles, whose channels may record the transition between that ancient warm, wet planet and the current cold, dry world.
• Arsia Mons, one of Mars' giant shield volcanoes, which is the site of glacial deposits as well as caves that could provide a haven for human visitors.
You can zoom in on high-resolution views of the planet, fly over mountains and craters and touch down for a virtual landing on the Martian surface. "The new Mars experience allows people to feel as though they're actually there," Dan Fay, director of Microsoft Research's Earth, Energy and Environment effort, said in a NASA news feature.
The dataset includes 13,000 gigapixel-scale images from the main camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, known as the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment or HiRISE for short. Those giga-images are blended with 74,000 images from an earlier probe, Mars Global Surveyor, then broken down into mosaics that comprise a half-billion smaller pictures.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

India fights surge in honor killings

KODERMA, India — When Nirupama Pathak left this remote mining region for graduate school in New Delhi, she seemed to be leaving the old India for the new. Her parents paid her tuition and did not resist when she wanted to choose her own career. But choosing a husband was another matter.
Her family was Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste, and when Ms. Pathak, 22, announced she was secretly engaged to a young man from a caste lower than hers, her family began pressing her to change her mind. They warned of social ostracism and accused her of defiling their religion.
Days after Ms. Pathak returned home in late April, she was found dead in her bedroom. The police have arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak, on suspicion of murder, while the family contends that the death was a suicide.
The postmortem report revealed another unexpected element to the case: Ms. Pathak was pregnant.
“One thing is absolutely clear,” said Prashant Bhushan, a social activist and lawyer now advising Ms. Pathak’s fiancĂ©. “Her family was trying their level best to prevent her from marrying that boy. The pressure was such that either she was driven to suicide or she was killed.”
In India, where the tension between traditional and modern mores reverberates throughout society, Ms. Pathak’s death comes amid an apparent resurgence of so-called honor killings against couples who breach Hindu marriage traditions.
This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered a cabinet-level commission to consider tougher penalties in honor killings.
In June, India’s Supreme Court sent notices to seven Indian states, as well as to the national government, seeking responses about what was being done to address the problem.
The phenomenon of honor killings is most prevalent in some northern states, especially Haryana, where village caste councils, or khap panchayats, often operate as an extralegal morals police force, issuing edicts against couples who marry outside their caste or who marry within the same village — considered a religious violation since villages are often regarded as extended families.
Even as the court system has sought to curb these councils, politicians have hesitated, since the councils often control significant vote blocs in local elections.
New cases of killings or harassment appear in the Indian news media almost every week. Last month, the police arrested three men for the honor killings of a couple in New Delhi who had married outside their castes, as well as the murder of a woman who eloped with a man from another caste.
Two of the suspects are accused of murdering their sisters, and an uncle of the slain couple spoke of their murders as justifiable.
“What is wrong in it?” the uncle, Dharmaveer Nagar, told the Indian news media. “Murder is wrong, but this is socially the best thing that has been done.”
An ancient attitude
Intercaste marriages are protected under Indian law, yet social attitudes remain largely resistant. In a 2006 survey cited in a United Nations report, 76 percent of respondents deemed the practice unacceptable. An overwhelming majority of Hindu couples continue to marry within their castes, and newspapers are filled with marital advertisements in which parents, seeking to arrange a marriage for a son or daughter, specify caste among lists of desired attributes like profession and educational achievement.
“This is part and parcel of our culture, that you marry into your own caste,” said Dharmendra Pathak, the father of Ms. Pathak, during an interview in his home. “Every society has its own culture. Every society has its own traditions.”
Yet Indian society is also rapidly changing, with a new generation more likely to mix with people from different backgrounds as young people commingle on college campuses or in the workplace.
Ms. Pathak had studied journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in New Delhi before taking a job at a financial newspaper. At school, she had met Priyabhanshu Ranjan, a top student whose family was from a middle-upper caste, the Kayastha.
“The day I proposed, she said, ‘My family will not accept this. My family is very conservative,’ ” Mr. Ranjan recalled. “I used to try to convince her that once we got married, they would accept it.”
Ms. Pathak deliberated over the proposal for months before accepting in early 2009. Convinced her family would disapprove, she kept her engagement a secret for more than a year, until she learned that her father was interviewing prospective Brahmin grooms in New Delhi to arrange a marriage for her. Her parents were also renovating the family home for a wedding celebration.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Annual "Mud Day" Celebration Lets Kids Get Dirty

Rachael Natiw (L), age 12, of Canton, Michigan, and her friend Alyssa Braun, age 12, of Canton, relax in a giant lake of mud at the annual Mud Day celebration July 8, 2008 in Westland, Michigan. Sponsored by the Wayne County Parks Department, the event consists of 200 tons of topsoil mixed with 20,000 gallons of water, and about 1000 children 12 and under.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Indians 'Shocked,' 'Offended' By Joel Stein's TIME Article

Joel Stein says he was going for humor in his opinion piece, "My Own Private India," which ran in Monday's TIME Magazine. But the Indian-American community — members of which serve as the butt of many of Stein's jokes — aren't laughing.

Stein's piece focuses on the cultural changes immigration has brought to his hometown of Edison, N.J. since he grew up there in the 1970's and 80's:

"I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers....

For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.
Stein's cracks are not exclusively directed at Indian immigrants — he pokes fun at himself and his (presumably white) childhood friends:

"The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas," wrote Mr. Stein. "The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime."
Several organizations have responded with outrage, criticizing TIME's decision to publish the article. For example, the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) issued a statement and online petition in response to Stein's piece.

"Most offensive is his remarkably blasé tone about the discrimination and hate crimes that targeted the New Jersey South Asian Community during the 1980s," the SAALT statement reads.

Both Stein and TIME have issued online apologies, saying they never intended to offend readers.

TIME statement:
We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein's recent humor column "My Own Private India." It was in no way intended to cause offense.