Yesterday afternoon, someone wrote a short post on the music and culture forum Hipinion titled, "My housemate got arrested for hacking." A recent San Francisco transplant posting under the handle "Jef Costello" claimed he came home to find his housemate gone, and a search and seizure order that mentioned hacking, the anonymizing software Tor, the virtual currency Bitcoin, and Silk Road in his place.
"Dude was kinda vague about what he did for a living, so this isn't too surprising, I guess," he wrote. "Rent is due tomorrow :S."
To other members of the forum, the story sounded immediately familiar.
"Is your housemate Ross William Ulbricht," another user asked, referring to the man who was arrested for running the online drug operation known as Silk Road.
"Fuuuuuccccck," wrote Jef.
If Jef is in fact Ulbricht's roommate, he didn't know much; Jef said he hadn't even known Ulbricht's last name until Monday. Ulbricht is a "really nice person, very smart," and the two had bonded over the social science tome Gödel, Escher, Bach. Ulbricht was artistic; he showed Jef his DeviantART page a few weeks before the arrest.
"On Saturday nite we went to the beach and later we jammed. He played his Djembe drum while I played piano and my friend sang. Everything seems really surreal right now," Jef wrote.
He played his Djembe drum while I played piano
It's possible that Jef is an imposter. However, Ulbricht's roommates are named Jeff and Chris, according to his best friend René Pinnell. Jef also posted a recent picture of a smiling Ulbricht with a puppy in a sack around his neck, saying it was from Saturday night.
The feds left things tidy after they searched the apartment, Jef said, although they did misplace an old PowerBook G4 that was sitting under the coffee table. "It doesn't turn on and I can only assume the cops thought it was 'the device' when they first saw it," he wrote.
Ulbricht has been charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy in New York. He has also been charged in Maryland with drug offenses as well as ordering a hitman to kill a Silk Road employee. (The hitman turned out to be a cop.) His roommate, friends, and relatives all describe him as mild and kind, a stark contrast with the criminal mastermind known on the Silk Road as Dread Pirate Roberts.
Ulbricht's roommate, friends, and relatives describe him as mild and kind
Jef seems to have gotten a little spooked after posting his tale. "I have nothing to hide regarding all this, but I am still extremely shaken/anxious," he wrote. He echoed a suggestion that the thread be moved to a members-only area "so only the FBI can listen in and not CNN." The page is now inaccessible to non-privileged members. The Verge was unable to reach Jef for comment.
It's been more than 30 years since Eileen Pollack earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Yale University. A talented student, she considered pursuing graduate work in the field — only to opt out because of social pressures that dissuaded women from chasing science careers. Now, some three decades later, Pollack worries that qualified young women are still struggling with that same phenomenon.
In an insightful essay for The New York Times, Pollack examines the ongoing disparity between women and men where careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are concerned. What she finds, largely through in-depth interviews with professors and students at her own alma mater, is discouraging: some students recall being teased by their science teachers, while others feel pressure to conceal their scientific interests in order to fit in with peers. And the situation often doesn't improve for women who do end up working in the sciences. Pollack notes that they're often paid less, allotted fewer resources, and bequeathed with fewer awards than their male peers.
Ah, the fabled "truth-serum." You don't have to watch many Hollywood movies to find out that you can get the bad guy to reveal his lie by injecting him with sodium thiopental. It all seems a bit far-fetched, but some police forces still use the drug, which was first developed in the 1930s as an anaesthetic. The drug has similar effects as alcohol, reducing some brain functions and generally reducing inhibition — which ultimately makes people more chatty, and hopefully, more likely to tell the truth. The BBC's Michael Mosley has decided to put it to the test, trying to keep to his lie that he's a world famous cardiac surgeon under interrogation. As you can see in the video over at The BBC, his lie certainly becomes less-than-convincing, but what happens when the doctors upped the dosage is particularly interesting.
What do the arts mean to our lives? To at least some researchers, they're a way that we learn how the people around us think. Previous studies have concluded that reading fiction is correlated with various measures of empathy — as you learn how characters interact, you can transfer that to the real world. But for David Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research, some types of fiction may be better at this than others. The results of their experiments, published today in Science, suggest that reading "literary" fiction, as opposed to its more mainstream or pulpy counterparts, could especially prime people to understand others' thoughts and emotions.
The authors' theory isn't that literary fiction is more artistically important or of better quality. It's that the writing we commonly describe as literary is designed to make readers actively interpret how characters think and feel, mirroring a psychological concept called theory of mind. If reading any fiction flexes our empathetic muscles, Kidd and Castano believe reading more ambiguous or difficult literary work could be the equivalent of lifting heavier weights.
"What's the value of having students read about a 19th-century Russian axe murderer?"
Testing social concepts with empirical research is hard, but this notion is particularly fraught. How do you even define literary fiction, which can be considered everything from a genre to a way of writing to a marker of prestige? And why draw the distinction at all? At least in part, it's to provide reference material in the ongoing war over what schools teach. Existing tests measure fiction reading in comparison to non-fiction or no reading at all, but Kidd and Castano wanted to specifically test the sort of books that wouldn't necessarily be picked up for fun. "There have been doubts about the value of fiction. What's the value of having high school students read about a 19th-century Russian axe murderer?" asks Kidd, referencing Crime and Punishment. "Why have them read that rather than, say, Malcolm Gladwell?"
With this paper, Kidd and Castano are sparring with "practical education" proponents on their own turf. "We shouldn't dismiss the arts without having a good sense of what they actually contribute to our lives," says Kidd. "We believe that we should have an evidence-based debate." To define literariness, they turned to theories about fiction that describe relatively straightforward delivery of plot, character, and situation as "readerly" and work that actively requires filling in gaps and inferring meaning as "writerly." Literary fiction, by that token, is writerly — to them, it's fiction that forces readers to grapple with the text and characters. More practically, literary fiction is what people say is literary fiction: if it wins a literary award or is described by a large sample of participants as literary, it probably counts.
A story by Alice Munro could go up against one by Robert Heinlein
From there, Kidd and Castano needed to come up with a way to pick examples of both kinds of fiction and to measure how readers responded. Testing how well people can interpret others' feelings and thoughts isn't a clear-cut business, but there's a framework for it, says Kidd. On one side of the equation, there are tests meant to measure something like emotional empathy: one gives subjects a face with only eyes showing, then asks them to pick the face's emotion from a list. Measuring how well people can interpret thought processes, however, proved harder. One method they tried was meant for young children — "all of our adults basically aced the test," says Kidd. They later used a more sophisticated system called the Yoni task, in which participants must guess what a cartoon face is thinking of or referencing.
Over five tests, groups of between 70 and 350 participants were asked to read samples of either literary fiction, genre or popular fiction, or nonfiction. The "literary" category was drawn from the PEN / O. Henry fiction awards, while the genre fiction was drawn from bestseller lists and anthologies. In some experiments, that could pit something like an award-winning Alice Munro story against one by Robert Heinlein or successful romance writer Rosamunde Pilcher. Since Kidd and Castano found that one of the easiest ways to find "literary" fiction was to look at examples picked by experts like the awards panel, they wanted correspondingly lauded genre examples. "We didn't want to just compare something that was well-written to fiction that was not well-written," says Kidd.
"There are so many good reasons to read, and this is just one of them."
After reading the sample, participants took the aforementioned theory of mind tests. Some of the results were inconclusive, especially those that involved interpreting thought processes. But in other tests, particularly those where people interpreted emotions, participants with "literary" samples did significantly better than those with genre samples. To Kidd and Castano, this suggests that we could see a difference over time as well. If previous work has shown a correlation between reading fiction and interpreting behavior, and their priming experiments show that there could be both a causal relationship and a difference between styles, there's reason to believe that specifically reading literary fiction can have long-term effects.
This, though, is just a preliminary study, working with a concept that will always remain amorphous. Kidd and Castano admit that they've just scratched the surface of figuring out what could actually be causing the difference in results — "literariness" covers a broad range of techniques, and the results were mixed enough that it's still hard to pinpoint exactly what reading makes you better at. Like other sociological studies, it's also difficult to say how much this would affect day-to-day life. Even if literary readers are, on average, slightly better at reading others, the variation between individuals would mean it might be hard to see the difference. And no study is going to satisfactorily settle the debate over what counts as literary, or what schools should be teaching.
No matter what the results, Kidd doesn't want to turn reading into another kind of exercise or professional training. The study's implications "are not in any way that people should not read popular or genre fiction, nor do we mean to suggest that the only value of literary fiction is to improve theory of mind," he says — though his study may end up exacerbating the existing tension between some genre and literary writers and readers. "There are so many good reasons to read, and this is just one of them."
Pseudonyms, foreign bank accounts, IP traces, and an intentionally botched body of work. The elements of a newly unveiled sting operation sound like a top-secret, high-tech undertaking to bring down some criminal mastermind. But in reality, the sting’s target was something far more mundane: a league of peer-reviewed scientific journals that want to give research away for free.
In a report published today by Science, the sting’s organizer, writer John Bohannon, reveals that many of these journals seem to be far less rigorous than they claim. Earlier this year, Bohannon penned a bogus research paper and began submitting it to a number of these publications — just over 300 altogether. The experiments that his paper detailed, he writes, "are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless." Any upstanding publication ought to have rejected the paper after its editor or a reviewer looked it over, he writes, but that didn’t always happen. More than half of the publications ended up accepting the research.
Then, they asked him to pay for it to be published.
The debate over open access has been long running
In the scientific community, there are two places that research papers tend to be published: subscription journals, which only allow paying subscribers to read them, and "open-access" journals, which allow anyone to take a look. There’s long been debate over these oppositional approaches to access, particularly because academic research often receives public funding and then becomes locked behind publication paywalls.
But scientists choose subscription publications nonetheless, and they can hardly be faulted for doing so. A subscription journal like Nature offers a level of prestige and credibility that’s largely unrivaled by open-access journals, simply because of its legacy: many subscription journals are known for only publishing work of the highest caliber, making them an alluring platform for researchers.
That prestige is compounded by the fact that all of the work has been peer reviewed. When a scientific paper goes through peer review, a committee of researchers read through its results to make sure that they add up. The reviewers won’t necessarily repeat the experiments, but the goal is to ensure that nothing with inaccuracies or inconsistencies gets published. Many open-access journals also use peer review, but Bohannan makes it clear that quite a few of them fall short of vigorous quality control.
As his report points out, there may be good reason that open-access as an ideal hasn’t attained a comparable level of prestige. The journals that agreed to publish his paper don’t strictly have to worry about quality — and therefore don’t have to worry about papers passing peer review — because they aren’t earning money from subscribers looking for quality content. Instead, they ask that researchers pay a fee once their work is accepted for publication. Sometimes it’s $90. Sometimes it’s $3,100.
"Several unethical publishers have entered the market."
"During the last three or four years, several unethical publishers have entered the market and are trying to make a business on article-publishing charges," Lars Bjørnshauge tells The Verge. Bjørnshauge is the founder and managing director of the Directory of Open Access Journals, a not-for-profit resource that Bohannan describes as a "who’s who of credible open-access journals." The majority of publications Bohannon submitted to came from the directory, but a whopping 45 percent of those listed accepted his paper. In a further trail of deceit, Bohannon discovered through tracing emails and bank accounts that many of these journals didn’t even hail from the countries they claimed to. "Some of them surely aren't scams but rather just low-quality journals run by people who don't know how peer review really works," Bohannon writes in an email to The Verge. "Some are probably real (intentional) scams."
Bjørnshauge says that only 30 percent of open-access journals collect publication fees, however — a payment model that Bohannon singled out. The rest are usually supported by universities, government agencies, and philanthropic funds. "I see no differences in quality issues from open-access journals to subscription journals," Bjørnshauge tells us. "You have high-quality subscription journals and you have high-quality open-access journals, and you have low quality subscription journals and you have low quality open-access journals."
Subscription journals weren't tested by Bohannon's bogus paper
In a twist worth noting, however, Bohannon’s report on the rigor of open-access journals is both commissioned by and published by the news arm of the magazine Science, which is best known for operating a highly regarded subscription journal. And Bohannon doesn’t examine how subscription journals fare when faced with his bogus paper. "I'm really surprised that a high-quality journal like Science would allow an article to be published on their pages based on a research method which has an obvious problem," Bjørnshauge says, "namely without having a control group."
When asked if there’s a conflict of interest in Science sponsoring a paper that paints a swath of open-access journals as untrustworthy, Bohannon says that he doesn’t see one. "Science doesn't have anything to lose by the rise of open-access journals," Bohannon tells The Verge. He says that’s because journals like Science and Nature cover a wide variety of subjects, maintain their own news departments, and write for broader audiences as well. He also says there’s a "firewall" between the news and journal side of Science, and the latter wasn’t made aware of the sting until it was almost through. "There is no open-access version of journals like Science and Nature," Bohannon says. "It's apples and oranges."
Bohannon adds that he doesn’t take sides when it comes to debates about open access versus the subscription model. "I just wanted to map out the truthfulness of journals' claims to be ‘rigorous’ and ‘peer-reviewed,’" he notes. Bjørnshauge and the Directory of Open Access Journals have been working to make placement on their list subject to much stricter criteria, and Bohannon’s report only underscores that necessity. "I'm sure we will have both models side-by-side in a number of years, [and] I’m sure that in a course of not that many years we will reach the tipping point," Bjørnshauge says. "This will benefit research, it will benefit higher education, it will benefit society."
Samsung's mobile chief product officer Kevin Packingham has quietly left the company, The New York Times reports. Mobile industry veteran Packingham joined Samsung's US division in 2011, one year before the release of the Galaxy S III, which positioned Samsung as a competitor to Apple with a massive advertising blitz. No reason was given for his departure, and it's not known whether he was pushed out or left of his own accord. A spokesman told the Times only that "Kevin Packingham has departed Samsung Mobile. We thank Kevin for his contributions and wish him well in his future endeavors."
Before Samsung, Packingham worked for Sprint-Nextel, then founded a startup meant to help bring Huawei to the US. At Sprint, he helped negotiate the release of the Palm Pre, Epic 4G, and Evo 3D, working with manufacturers to develop the phones and bring them to market. The Samsung phones released under his watch have been unmitigated successes, and the Times notes that he also helped make deals that let Samsung release its big-name phones on every major US carrier. Less favorably, he presided over the company's US mobile division during a protracted patent battle with Apple — during which he criticized the proceedings as "fighting over rectangles."
Amazon's set-top box could make its way to stores this year. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Amazon hopes to begin selling a device that looks and acts like a Roku in time for the holiday season. While it would largely focus on delivering Amazon's own video content to buyers' televisions, the box would also allow other apps to run on it, helping it to compete with the vast content offerings from competitors like Roku. The set top box was first rumored earlier this year, though it was then targeted for a release during the fall, suggesting that development may have fallen behind.
Apps, streaming video, and a home for Amazon Prime
The box's pricing reportedly hasn't been discussed yet, but the Journal points out that Amazon has a history of pricing its devices fairly low and instead aiming to make money off of their use. Music services and video games could make their way to the device as well through third party apps, the Journal reports. Controlling the device will reportedly happen primarily through a companion smartphone app that serves as a remote, and it's still unclear if a standalone remote will be sold.
While the Journal doesn't say whether the set-top box will fall under Amazon's line of Kindle products, 9to5Google points out that Amazon recently registered a trademark for the name "Firetube" — a seeming portmanteau of "Kindle Fire" and "tube," as slang for television. Like its Kindle Fire line of devices, Amazon is likely hoping that a set-top box could bolster its own services, and in this case, Prime in particular because of the wide selection of streaming videos it grants access to. Prime isn't a bad deal as it is, and if the box ties into it nicely, it could get even better.