What's in the Backlog of Documents the Government Hasn't Declassified?

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1. Data mining which classified documents the government releases to see what they've left out.

"In early 2012, Connelly put aside his research on the Cold War and began studying US secrecy policy. He learned everything he could about how federal records are created, maintained, and released to the public. He learned that since the 1970s, the government’s budget for reviewing and declassifying sensitive documents had failed to keep pace with the production of new ones. The backlog of secrets had grown significantly following the September 11, 2001, attacks, when federal employees were instructed to be more cautious in deciding whether to release old documents. After Barack Obama became president, the glut shrank a bit, as government censors were told to relax their standards. By the end of Obama’s first term, though, progress plateaued and the size of the backlog stabilized at about 360 million pages. Then Connelly had an idea: could he use data mining to infer what types of information were being left out of the public record?"

declassification-engine.org

 

2. Microsoft researchers model the network of genes that control stem cell behavior.

"It has been known for a while that maintenance of the stem-cell pluripotent state is regulated by a small number of key genes—about 20. But how they were linked together remained a mystery, and a complex one at that. There are literally billions of possible ways to combine them. The scientists and researchers analyzed correlations between the genes and created a meta-model of the network, using techniques used to identify software bugs and guarantee program correctness—particularly in safety-critical systems—to distill the connections that result in observed stem-cell behaviors."

 

3. Ad targeting on steroids.

"Tracking people using their real names—often called 'onboarding'—is a hot trend in Silicon Valley. In 2012, ProPublica documented how political campaigns used onboarding to bombard voters with ads based on their party affiliation and donor history. Since then, Twitter and Facebook have both started offering onboarding services allowing advertisers to find their customers online. 'The marriage of online and offline is the ad targeting of the last 10 years on steroids,' said Scott Howe, chief executive of broker firm Acxiom at a conference earlier this year."

 

4. The tunnel, the diary, and the conspiracy

"The DOT’s latest gripe, and the reason for the angry phone call, stemmed from Diamond’s long-held belief that behind a wall of rocky sediment sealing off the westernmost 400 feet of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel are two Civil War treasures: an 1830s wood-burning steam locomotive and the lost pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary, which together, he believes, would prove the mayor and other top ranking New York City officials conspired to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Since the early 1990s, Diamond had been lobbying to excavate the tunnel, and while the DOT had always been irked by his historical detective work, it had for many years supported Diamond’s efforts to show the tunnel to the public."

 

5. Can you learn synaesthesia? 

"Natural synaesthesia does seem have an element of learning though–or at least, can sometimes be shaped by memorable experiences. Colizoli recalls a woman who identified each letter as having a distinct colour. One day she visited her elementary school classroom and discovered the brightly-coloured alphabet hanging on the wall matched how she saw letters–in learning to read and write, she may have subconsciously absorbed the colour as well as the shape of the letters. And last year, a study of 11 synaesthetes discovered that the particular colours they associated with letters were 'startlingly similar' to those of a very famous Fisher Price fridge magnet alphabet set sold between 1972 and 1989. Ten of the test subjects recalled owning the set, and the 11th beat odds of a billion to one in matching 14 of their colour associations with the fridge magnets. So while these people may have been predisposed to synaesthesia via their genetics, how it manifested may well have been learned in childhood."

 

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip

brain(s), in the sense of 'wits' may often be either singular or plural, the latter being, perhaps, the familiar, & the former the dignified use. In pick a person's brain(s), the number is indifferent; Has no brains is commoner than Has no brain, but either is English. Some phrases, however, admit only one number or the other, e.g. cudgel one's brainshave a thing on the brainhave one's brain turned.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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