Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

ReCaptcha inventor Luis von Ahn introduced Duolingo in 2012, hoping to help users master a new language. In minutes a day, the app promised, you could learn English, Spanish, French, or German—no books required, no instructors. And all for free.

The pitch sounded convincing enough. But in the first year after its debut, Duolingo had a hard time persuading hopeful linguists to keep up with the lessons. For every eight users who downloaded and tried Duolingo, seven never returned.

So von Ahn set out with his developers to make the app as addictive as Candy Crush and other popular games—in a good way. The addiction Duolingo cultivates, he says, isn’t harmful in the way the World Health Organization says compulsive video-game playing is; the organization classifies excessive video-gaming alongside opioid or amphetamine abuse. Duolingo really is about self-improvement, von Ahn says—time otherwise spent playing games, on social media, or doing nothing, is applied to developing a skill. What’s so bad about that?

Good or bad, Duolingo’s addiction rate is way up. Next-day retention is 55 percent, up from 13 percent in 2012. “That’s about as good as a middle-of-the-road game,” von Ahn says. And with about 300 million users, Duolingo is the largest language-teaching company in the world, by user base.

Continue reading Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

Businessweek: This Thiel-Backed Startup Says It Can Clean Up the Seas. Scientists Have Doubts

Boyan Slat, a Dutch 23-year-old who’s collected $30 million for his plastic-removal startup, is ready to test Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 prototype, but he hasn’t assuaged his expert critics.

Of all the things San Francisco has brought into the wider world, few have been as big and curious-looking as Ocean Cleanup’s System 001, the contraption an offshore supply ship towed to sea through the Golden Gate last month. Black, snakelike, and 2,000 feet long, System 001 was beginning a slow 1,300-mile journey to a remote garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. When it arrives in mid-October, it will spend a year drifting around and around in a circular current, gathering as much plastic as possible, like a gigantic pool skimmer.

The idea can be attributed to Boyan Slat, a slight, 23-year-old Dutchman of Croatian descent who wears his curly brown hair in a mop and favors sunglasses made of recycled plastic. He says he became concerned about ocean debris when he was 16, scuba diving off the coast of Greece. In the intervening seven years, with the help of a viral explainer video, he’s raised more than $30 million from Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff, Palantir Technologies Inc. co-founder Peter Thiel, and others to try to prove that setups such as System 001’s can, in great enough numbers, help rid the ocean of plastic by 2050.

There’s just one problem, say ocean scientists: The device can’t possibly work on the scale imagined, and it could end up becoming just another piece of litter in the ocean. “People think that it’s an easy, sexy solution, but it’s not,” says Kim Martini, an oceanography postdoc at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Given that only single-digit percentages of the plastic entering oceans each year wind up in the garbage patches, “it’s clear that the problem is much bigger than what we’re able to solve,” admits Ocean Cleanup spokesman Joost Dubois.

Slat says Ocean Cleanup has conducted extensive modeling and prototype testing and that the outcry from his more credentialed peers (he dropped out of college) just proves he’s on to something. “If you don’t have any critics, it means that what you’re doing is easy and obvious,” he says.

Continue reading Businessweek: This Thiel-Backed Startup Says It Can Clean Up the Seas. Scientists Have Doubts

New York: Coding Kids

coding131202_katie_wenger_250The doorbell rings, and Katie Wenger, 13, leaps up from the family dinner table and throws open the front door. On the stoop of her family’s building in Chelsea stands a 26-year-old Yale graduate named Allison Kaptur. Formerly a financial analyst, Kaptur quit to teach herself how to program and now works as a facilitator at Hacker School, a “writers’ retreat for programmers,” with a sideline as a coding tutor. The two descend the stairs to a basement study, and Katie shuts the door. “I’ve got exciting news,” she says. “I’m going to launch a start-up! It’s called Let Us.”

“What will it do?”

“It’ll be like Chatroulette, but connected to Facebook.” Katie describes her concept for an online environment in which strangers can randomly meet and either just chat or interact educationally as student and teacher. Kaptur nods. “Okay,” she says. “A little later, we can talk about the pieces we would need to make that work.”

For most people, software programming’s social cachet falls somewhere between that of tax preparation and autism. But it’s catching fire among forward-thinking New York parents like Katie’s, who see it as endowing their children both with a strategically valuable skill and a habit for IQ-multiplying intellectual rigor. According to WyzAnt, an online tutoring marketplace, demand for computer-science tutors in New York City has doubled each of the past two years. And if one Silicon Alley–backed initiative pans out, within a decade every public-school kid in the city will have access to coding, up from a couple of thousand.

Read the rest in this week’s issue of New York magazine.

Distant Tracks

A striking visual echo between two very different things:

The image on the left was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. (I found it here.) It’s a zoom-in from outer space, showing the newly arrived Curiosity rover shortly after it began trundling around on the surface of the Red Planet. As a science fan, I find it incredibly wonderful that we not only have a brand-new mobile lab roaming Mars, but we can look down on the surface from orbit with telescopes so powerful they can make out the rover and even the twin tracks it has left behind in the soil. In this image Curiosity has just left its touchdown spot; the bluish (false color, btw) splotch to the lower right is where the “sky hook” retro rockets have blasted away the dust from the underlying bedrock. What we have, in essence, is a story in a single image — the arrival of a visitor to a distant planet, and the beginning of its exploratory career.

The image to the right shows another wanderer and its strikingly similar set of tracks. It’s a little hard to read, so here’s a rendering of the tracks alone, without all the extraneous background detail:

Here we see not the beginning of a journey, but the end.  The circle to the left is the fossilized remains of a horseshoe crab very much like the kind that wash up on beaches today. Some 150 million years ago, during the reign of the dinosaurs, this individual got swept by a wave out of the ocean and into a stagnant lagoon. The water there had no oxygen, so the clock was ticking. The creature managed to scurry along the muddy bottom for 32 feet before expiring. Apparently it’s not entirely unusual for fossilized horseshoe crabs to turn up alongside traces of their final steps; what’s special about this one is that this particular set of tracks tells an entire story, from the disturbed area of mud where the wave deposited the beast, to the meandering course it took as it sought to escape, to its moment of death. To see the whole set of tracks, and read a more detailed story, click here.

What I love about these pictures is how similar they seem, though they represent two very different kinds of wanderers, separated by hundreds of millions of years and hundreds of millions of miles. Nabokov famously opined that true literature can be recognized as a thing that creates an “indescribable tingle of the spine.” What tends to be overlooked, it seems to me, is that science can create that same feeling.

Facebook’s Fatal Flaw

Given the fact that Facebook just filed for a public offering of its shares which will value the company at $100 billion and make thousands of its current investors wealthy beyond imagination, you might be forgiven for thinking that Facebook is a wild success. That, and the fact that some 800 million people currently use Facebook, or more than 10 percent of the total world population.

But despite all that, I think that Facebook is failing.

Do I think that Facebook is going to go bankrupt tomorrow? Far from it. I’m sure that it will continue to print money for years to come, based on sheer momentum alone. (Hey, AOL still exists.) But if you listen to the way that people talk about Facebook you sense – or at least I do – that its cultural moment has passed. This is just based on a very unscientific analysis of my own very small circle of acquaintances, but once upon a time, Facebook was this awesome cool thing that you just had to try. Lately, all everyone seems to say about Facebook is “I don’t get it” or “I find it annoying but I feel like I have to go on once in a while.” Facebook, in other words, is heading the way of MySpace.

Becoming MySpace, of course, is the specter that haunts the nightmares of every Facebook investor. The company has been super aggressive in trying to avoid that fate by trying to metastasize into something grander than an automated blogging site, sending out tentacle everywhere in order to become a ubiquitous presence that binds together every aspect of the internet experience. They have striven for immortality through intrusiveness. And this, I think, will be their undoing. Continue reading Facebook’s Fatal Flaw

How GPS Makes Clueless Drivers

We were driving somewhere in central New York State, along a two-lane blacktop that wound a spectacular course through farm-dotted valleys, past placid lakes and along forested hillsides.  My brother’s attention, though, was on the unwavering purple line on the dashboard-mounted GPS unit. At last we reached the interstate on-ramp – and he drove right past it. “Turn left in 50 feet,” the GPS said. My brother obeyed, hanging a left onto the access road. According to the machine we were smack on the highway, yet here we were, stuck behind a tractor pulling a load of hay. “Time to destination, 30 minutes,” the GPS announced.

As we idled along behind the cloud-belching agriculture machinery, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Not for this exact moment of farm-machinery-induced frustration, but for that hot moment of clarity when you realize that you’ve been suckered by the self-assurance of modern technology.

It’s something I find happening more and more often. In the 25 years I’ve been a travel writer, the information revolution has changed everything. Once, we visited travel agents, bought paper maps, consulted destination guides. Now, all of those needs can be taken care of by a few flicks of a finger across a phone’s touch screen. Because information is so cheap, we don’t need to pay much attention to it. We can browse around the world the way we browse around the web.

Apps and gadgets of every kind allow us to summon instant expertise that otherwise would have required years of study. But they also remove the need to learn, to engage, and to be curious. We can ignore context. And so even when we know exactly where we’re located, we have no idea where we are.

Pilots have a word for the state of presence in the world around you; they call it situational awareness. “Keep your eyes out of the cockpit,” my flight instructor always used to tell me. Meaning: look at the world around you. Don’t get fixated on what your instruments are telling you. Understand the context of what you’re seeing. Situational awareness means understanding where things are in relation to one another.  It means knowing what’s going on, and what you can do when your plans start to unravel.

Electronic gadgets, in contrast, urge us to forget all that tiring mental work and just follow the purple line. They’re the mental equivalent of the electric scooters that obese people ride around at amusement parks to save themselves the effort of walking. Continue reading How GPS Makes Clueless Drivers

Could a Sendai-sized Earthquake Hit the US?

The massive tremors and ensuing tsunami that devastated Japan earlier this month was an order of magnitude more destructive than anything that has hit the continental Unites States in historical times. But seismologists say that a similar event could well strike here. In fact, it’s only a matter of time. And compared to Japan, we’re far less prepared to deal with the consequences.

The danger zone is not California. While Los Angeles and San Francisco suffer frequent damaging quakes, they owe their seismic woes to a relatively shallow phenomenon called a slip-strike fault, caused by two tectonic plates sliding against each other. Sendai was a result of something far more dangerous: a so-called subduction zone, a deep-lying discontinuity caused by one plate slowly burying itself under another.

In both cases, earthquakes are caused by the slow building of pressure as the two plates move relative to one another, but remained locked together at the fault line. The strain increases steadily until the fault gives way, releasing the energy in the form of an earthquake. While strike-slip faults are relatively shallow, a subduction fault is deeper and can release a lot more energy. “One of the signatures of this type of fault,” says Mike Blanpied, associate director of the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, “is that they sit quietly until they create a giant quake.”And by giant, he means monster. The Sendai event contained more than 30 times the energy of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Only one such region lies within the Lower 48. Continue reading Could a Sendai-sized Earthquake Hit the US?

Glee’s Walking Machine: Fact and Fiction

As a loyal devotee of Glee, I was stunned to see the the ReWalk exoskeleton featured in last night’s climactic scene. I won’t get into the plot details, but basically the ReWalk functions as a Christmas miracle, letting Artie walk again, albeit in a limited way.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of this rather arcane technology is the fact that the show’s description of if was entirely accurate. (This is, after all, a rather fantastical show.) They got the name right, and the fact that it’s been developed in Israel. And, true to life, the machine doesn’t let Artie just hop around. In order to use it, he has to press an arm-mounted keypad, and then take tentative steps one at a time. But by golly, he’s actually up and moving!

The most unrealistic aspect of the presentation was that, a) you can’t just buy a ReWalk yet; to use one you’d need to be enrolled in a clinical trial, of which there’s only one in the US, near Philadelphia b) it takes a fair bit of training to master.

UPDATE: With just a few days of shopping left before Christmas, word comes that ReWalk has been approved for sale by the FDA. Not for home use, as seen in Glee, but for use by patients in clinics and hospitals. “The ReWalk system will be available for sale as of January, for institutional use only,” says Heather Newcomb, Director of Communications at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network near Philadelpha. “The cost will be around $85,000.” So even though no one will be finding one under their Christmas tree, a lot more people with spinal-cord injury will have a chance to ambulate again.

Here’s some video I took in January of one of the patients in the clinical trial, a man named Floyd Morrow:

And here’s a link to the story I wrote in Parade.

Breaking the Oldest Land-Speed Record

Looks fast, right? It isn’t.

A few weeks ago Popular Mechanics posted my article about the British Steam Car Challenge and how they managed to break (barely) a record that dates back (if you squint at it the right way) to 1906. The full story is here, but today I wanted to take the opportunity to post some video from my time out in the desert with the team, so that interested readers can get a sense of what this thing looks like in action. In the video, it seems like it’s scorching, but the official speed on this run was only 127 mph.

They managed to up that figure later, but as one astute PM commenter observed, “3 Megawatts is equivalent to 4,000 horsepower, and they only got 150 mph? Something is very wrong with their design.”

The Exact Opposite of a Prius

Here’s another video from last Saturday night in Morocco, Indiana. Al Zukakas of Chicago takes his “Hot Blade” jet dragster to 269 mph in the quarter mile. The speed is impressive, but what really gets the crowd going is the sheer power of the sound, heat, and flame coming out of that big turbine. You can feel the thumping in your bones.