5 Intriguing Things: Friday, 2/7

MOOCs, eukaryotes, city-wide surveillance, transportation in the year 2050, and the weirdest dinner party ever. 

1. Stanford President points out a failing of the term MOOC

"Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, may be higher education’s current fad but they fail on two counts – mass and openness – according to the president of Stanford University, which has helped pioneer teaching via the internet.

John Hennessy, the computer scientist who heads the Californian university, said such courses were too large to engage and motivate most students successfully. 'Two words are wrong in ‘MOOC’: massive and open,' he said.

His comments come amid a rethink by academics and entrepreneurs of a model that many thought would revolutionise education when the idea emerged in 2011. The courses, which promise free access to material being taught in top universities, have drawn millions of users from around the world."

2. How the cellular format of all intelligent life came to be

'According to the sudden-origin ideas, mitochondria were not just one of many innovations for the early eukaryotes. “The acquisition of mitochondria was the origin of eukaryotes,' says Lane. 'They were one and the same event.' If that is right, the rise of the eukaryotes was a fundamentally different sort of evolutionary transition than the gradual changes that led to the eye, or photosynthesis, or the move from sea to land. It was a fluke event of incredible improbability—one that, as far as we know, only happened after a billion years of life on Earth and has not been repeated in the 2 billion years since. 'It’s a fun and thrilling possibility,” says Lane. “It may not be true, but it’s beautiful.'"

3. The ethics of this surveillance technology seem unconsidered by its proponents

"As Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with traditional surveillance cameras, a new, far more powerful generation is being quietly deployed that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time. Although these cameras can’t read license plates or see faces, they provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses and even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements...

'We get a little frustrated when people get so worried about us seeing them in their backyard,' McNutt said in his operation center, where the walls are adorned with 120-inch monitors, each showing a different grainy urban scene collected from above. 'We can’t even see what they are doing in their backyard. And, by the way, we don’t care.'"

4. An expert considers transportation in the year 2050.

"Less urban sprawl so that it is much easier to use neighborhood electric vehicles, biking and walking for local trips. The small electric vehicles might be automated and would operate on electrified lightweight tracks that can be constructed easily and cheaply because the cars would be light. When the vehicles go off the tracks, they would have a small battery or fuel cell that would allow them to go on local streets and travel perhaps thirty miles into rural areas. On top of that, we’d also want to develop a suite of new mobility services that take advantage of modern communication technologies. We’d be able to access demand-responsive vans though smart phones to pick us up within a few minutes—kind of like a SuperShuttle to the airport but with a quicker response and able to access any destination in a metropolitan area, not just airports. We would also have smart carpooling services, so if people are going to a ballgame, or to work, and if they knew their neighbors were also going in that direction, they could carpool. All of these new mobility services exist, but there are all kinds of barriers that inhibit them from being more successful. We have to create incentives to support these companies and not try to quash them. By 2050 I think these transit options will be very common. They will account for a significant share of passenger travel by then."

5. Hey, it's Friday! Perhaps you can re-enact Dinner Party by artist Oliver Walker. If you try it at home, report back.

"Four guests are invited to a dinner party. They do not know each other. They are seated around a table and each wears a headphone in one ear.

In separate rooms sit four more guests. They have also been invited to the dinner party. They too do not know each other. They have already been seated in their 'booths', from where they are able to observe and listen to the guests at the dinner table via audio and video links.

Each 'table'-guest is paired up with a 'booth'-guest. For the duration of the dinner party the booth-guest will, via the headphone link, instruct the table-guest on what to say. Unless prompted, the table-guests say nothing. The booth-guests conduct the conversation authentically as themselves, as if they personally were at the table.

The table-guests engage in every other aspect of a dinner party in the usual way: food is served, wine is drunk, a physical experience is shared. The conversation, however, is the responsibility of the booth-guests, who are not physically present.

The dinner party takes place in a private domestic setting. There is no audience: only the guests and the organisers are present. Nothing is recorded."

+ Read an interview with the artist on WMMNA.

Your 1957 American English usage tips will return on Monday, but in the meantime, check out James Brown performing in Paris in 1967.

 A Different Grainy Urban Scene Collected from Above

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