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Good Reads: gun laws, lottery winners, online education, and tech gets sensory

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(Read caption) Arizona Lottery officials stand next to an enlargement of the winning $587.5 Million Powerball ticket last week during a news conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. Phoenix resident Matthew Good claimed the second half of last month's record $587 million Powerball jackpot, pocketing $192 million after taxes.

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The Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut brought a deluge of media attention to gun control. One useful perspective came from the Lexington’s Notebook column in The Economist magazine. Britain’s gun-related homicide rate is drastically lower than that of the United States not only because guns are harder to purchase, but because ammunition is scarce, the writer points out. In one recent incident in a crime-plagued British neighborhood, for example, “the gang had had to make its own bullets, which did not work well....”

In one recent year England and Wales experienced 39 fatalities from crimes involving firearms; the US had 12,000. In Britain, “The firearms-ownership rules are onerous, involving hours of paperwork. You must provide a referee who has to answer nosy questions about the applicant’s mental state, home life (including family or domestic tensions) and their attitude towards guns. In addition to criminal-record checks, the police talk to applicants’ family doctors and ask about any histories of alcohol or drug abuse or personality disorders.”

Some US gun owners argue that they might need firearms to fight a tyrannical government. But “I don’t think America is remotely close to becoming a tyranny, and to suggest that it is is both irrational and a bit offensive to people who actually do live under tyrannical rule,” the writer responds.

Lottery burdens

Are you eager to win the next big lottery? BloombergBusinessWeek writer David Samuels offers the cautionary tale of Jack Whittaker, a contractor in Scott Depot, W. Va., who 10 years ago found that his $1 Powerball lottery ticket had won him a $93 million payout after taxes.

Mr. Whittaker tried to do good with his bonanza, giving away a good portion to charitable groups, especially churches. But he still descended into alcohol addiction; was divorced by his wife; became tied up (by his own count) in some 460 legal actions; and lost his beloved granddaughter, on whom he had lavished piles of cash, to drug addiction. Before his lottery “win,” Whittaker’s contracting business had afforded him a comfortable life. “Nobody knew I had any money,” Whittaker said. “All they knew was my good works.” His life back then, he notes sadly, “was a lot easier.”

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Online courses vs. college life

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the wave of the future, “the end of higher education as we know it,” as one university president has predicted.
Or are they? Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?”), Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk give Luddites their due. While it’s true that an online course conducted by a top teacher might trump a large lecture class offered by a second-rate live lecturer, those pushing MOOCs as inevitable should be heard with a skeptic’s ear.

“The idea that [students] can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. “There is an awful lot of hype about ... the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”

Even David Stavens, a founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, concedes that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” 

High-tech touch and taste

IBM forecasts that within the next five years technology will vastly improve the way humans experience the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch), according to a report in the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence newsletter. Online shoppers, for example, will be able to “touch” a product using mobile devices, “using haptic, infrared and pressure-sensitive technologies to simulate touch – such as the texture and weave of a fabric as a shopper brushes their finger over the image of the item on a device screen.”

Clever sensors will also be able to detect sounds in the form of pressure, vibrations, and sound waves. This data will allow predictions of events such as when a tree might fall or when a landslide is about to happen. “Baby talk” will be decoded as a language, letting parents or other caregivers know what infants are trying to communicate. Computer systems will learn to detect emotions and sense a person’s mood by analyzing factors such as pitch, tone, and hesitancy in speech, allowing automated call centers to be more helpful and understanding between human cultures to improve.

Even the finest chefs will be challenged by technology. Computer programs “will break down ingredients to their molecular level and blend the chemistry of food compounds with the psychology behind what flavors and smells humans prefer,” IBM predicts.

Healthy foods will be made more palatable – and programming will pair up foods in ways that maximize taste and flavor. “A system like this can also be used to help us eat healthier,” IBM predicts, “creating novel flavor combinations that will make us crave a vegetable casserole instead of potato chips.”

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