Friday, July 1, 2016

[tt] NYT: Christo's Newest Project: Walking on Water

Click the URL for some great photos

Christo's Newest Project: Walking on Water
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/arts/design/christos-newest-project-walking-on-water.html

For 16 days, "The Floating Piers," a saffron-colored walkway, will
connect two small islands in a lake in Northern Italy to the
mainland.

By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO

PILZONE, Italy--It was a long-held dream, but finally, this week,
the conceptual artist Christo walked on water.

On Thursday, he tried out his latest project, "The Floating Piers,"
a walkway stretching three kilometers, or nearly two miles, that
connects two small islands in Lake Iseo, in Italy's Lombardy region,
to each other and to the mainland.

Christo stepped out on the floating walkway of puckered
yellow-orange nylon fabric, designed to change color according to
the time of the day and the weather. On Thursday, it was pockmarked
with bright orange blotches left by footsteps treading on the
rain-drenched fabric.

Video
A Walk on Water

The artist Christo inaugurated his first outdoor installation in
over a decade, also the first since the death of his partner
Jeanne-Claude in 2009.

"It's actually very painterly, like an abstract painting, but it
will change all the time," Christo, 81, a Bulgarian-born American,
said of his project.

"The Floating Piers" is his first outdoor installation since 2005,
when he and Jeanne-Claude, his collaborator and wife, installed
7,500 saffron-paneled gates in Central Park in New York City. Like
his other environmental artworks, which try to reframe familiar
landscapes, the 15 million euro project (or $16.8 million), will be
funded through the sale of his original drawings and collages.

"I think this is a record in the history of Christo's special
projects because he and the team realized it in 22 months; normally
it takes decades," the curator Germano Celant, the project's
director, said. "So I will say that it's an Italian and American
miracle at the same time."

Walking on the floating pier, as I discovered, is akin to being on a
lightly rocking boat, without feeling wary about suddenly toppling
over should a strong wave arrive. Shoes are optional, and it's
probably worth taking them off, at least for a moment, to feel the
fabric's texture. (There is a layer of felt beneath the saffron
cover.) When wet, the walkway is a little squishy; when sunny, it
should feel warm to the toes.

"Look!" Christo said, pointing to a juncture where two pathways
joined to form a bright saffron-colored V, contrasting against the
deep blue of the lake. "You see! It falls in that way so you can see
the movement," he said. "It's actually breathing."

Getting the walkway to both gently undulate and remain securely
affixed to the uneven lake bottom was a feat that has occupied
engineers, construction companies, French deep-sea divers and even a
team of Bulgarian athletes drafted over the past two years. The
walkway is assembled from 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes
that form its 16-meter-wide (53 feet) spine, covered this week with
a waterproof and stain-resistant fabric made by a German company for
the project.

"Each project is like a slice of our lives," Christo said, "and part
of something that I will never forget."

From Saturday through July 3, the project will be open and free to
the public 24 hours a day, with a legion of boat hands, lifeguards,
monitors and information officers standing guard to avert
unintentional dips in the lake.

"It's really a physical thing, you need to be there, walking it, on
the streets, here," Christo said. "And it's demanding." The route,
which laps around the small island of San Paolo, also includes
pedestrian areas in the towns of Sulzano, on the mainland, and
Peschiera Maraglio, on Monte Isola, an islet rising out of the lake.

The project, he said, "is all this"--the piers, the lake, the
mountains, "with the sun, the rain, the wind, it's part of the
physicality of the project, you have to live it."

"I know these projects are totally irrational, totally useless," he
added. "The world can live without them, nobody needs them, only me
and Jean-Claude. She always made the point that they exist because
we like to have them, and if others like them, it's only a bonus."

Christo, whose full name is Christo Javacheff, and his wife, who
died in 2009, envisaged a floating piers project 46 years ago, when
they were approached by an Argentine art historian who suggested the
R�o de la Plata basin in South America as a site, but the plans fell
through. Drawings for that version are on display at the Museo di
Santa Giulia, in nearby Brescia.

In 1995, they considered reviving it in Tokyo Bay, but that project,
too, was never realized. Yet Christo was determined. "Some projects
remain in your heart," he said.

Apart from the sporadic protests of labor unions and a national
environmental organization that was worried about the impact on the
lake, the Italian project went smoothly after local officials and
administrators came on board.

Christo said it was about positively exploiting "the incredible
chemistry of humans" from all walks of life, each member of the team
focusing energy on "something that does not exist"--to the point
where it does. He was also relieved that there was never a
discussion with officials about installing a safety fence along the
sides of the walkway, allowing visitors to walk to the edge of the
water. "The moment you have a parapet, forget it," he said, the
feeling of walking on water is gone.

Other concerns about the ability of a small lake community to deal
with the avalanche of visitors that the walkway is expected to draw
--an estimated 40,000 people a day--appear to have been muted for
now by enthusiasm for the project. Lake Iseo is perhaps northern
Italy's least famous lake, overshadowed by the neighboring Lake
Garda. But hotels and other lodging options here and in nearby towns
are nearly booked for the duration of the run.

"Lake Iseo won't be the same after this event," said Fiorello Turla,
the mayor of Monte Isola. "Monte Isola will change skin," as its
exposure to the global spotlight puts it on the map, he added. "It's
a great opportunity that we've been given and that we want to seize
and bring forward."

At the close of its 16-day run, the walkway will be dismantled and
its parts recycled and resold. "The important part of this project
is the temporary part, the nomadic quality," Christo said. "The work
needs to be gone, because I do not own the work, no one does. This
is why it is free."

[tt] Science Daily: Children less likely to trust ugly people

Children less likely to trust ugly people
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160613111652.htm
June 13, 2016

Summary:
Is beauty only skin deep? Children don't seem to think so,
like adults and babies, children think the uglier you are,
the less trustworthy you are.


Is beauty only skin deep? Children don't seem to think so, like
adults and babies, children think the uglier you are, the less
trustworthy you are.

In a study recently published in Frontiers in Psychology,
researchers have found that as children, how we perceive someone's
trustworthiness is linked to how attractive we find them. Our
ability to make this trustworthiness judgement develops as we grow,
becoming more consistent as we approach adulthood, and, girls are
better at it than boys.

Many psychology studies have proven the existence of the so-called
"beauty stereotype." This describes the phenomenon whereby more
attractive people are also considered to be smarter, more sociable
and more successful. To be attractive is to be treated better by
your peers, and preferred by new-born babies, than uglier people.

People use facial cues to make judgements on a person's character--
and this ability to infer social traits is a crucial part of social
functioning and development. Although well researched in babies and
adults, the development of this ability in children was not
previously known.

Understanding this process paints a more complete picture of this
development from birth through to adulthood. It also adds to a
growing body of work showing that attractiveness is a universal
language when it comes to that all-important first impression.

Dr Fengling Ma and Dr Fe Xu of Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, and Dr
Xiaming Lu of Wenzhou Medical University, China, assessed 138
participants--groups of children aged eight, ten and 12 years old,
and compared them to a group of adults.

They used a face generation program (FaceGen) to produce 200 images
of male faces--all with a neutral expression and direct gaze. In
the first of two sessions, each participant was shown each face, and
asked to rate how trustworthy they thought that person was. A second
session followed a month later where participants repeated the
exercise, this time rating the attractiveness of the same faces.

The study analysed the responses of the children and adult control
groups. The researchers looked firstly at the ratings of
trustworthiness, and level of agreement of the ratings within and
between the groups. Did the children within the same age groups
agree on how trustworthy each of the faces was?

Did the responses of the different age groups agree with each other,
and with the adult group? They found that the level of agreement
within and between the age groups and the adult group increased with
age. From this they were able to infer that the children's ability
to judge trustworthiness therefore also increased with age.

Next, the researchers looked at the ratings of trustworthiness and
attractiveness given to each face. They found a strong, direct
relationship between the two traits--the faces deemed more
trustworthy were also considered to be more attractive. This
relationship also strengthened with age, and reveals that, like
adults, children also look to a person's attractiveness as an
indication of their character.

So, it appears that judging a book by its cover, however
incorrectly, is something we are born to do and only increases with
age.

Journal Reference:
1. Fengling Ma, Fen Xu, Xianming Luo. Children's Facial
Trustworthiness Judgments: Agreement and Relationship with
Facial Attractiveness. Frontiers in Psychology, 2016; 7 DOI:
10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00499
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[tt] WaPo: The world's oldest computer is still revealing its secrets

The world's oldest computer is still revealing its secrets
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/06/14/the-worlds-oldest-computer-is-still-revealing-its-secrets/
By Sarah Kaplan

Item 15087 wasn't much to look at, particularly compared to other
wonders uncovered from the shipwreck at Antikythera, Greece, in
1901. The underwater excavation revealed gorgeous bronze
sculptures, ropes of decadent jewelry and a treasure trove
of antique coins.

Amid all that splendor, who could have guessed that a shoebox-size
mangled bronze machine, its inscriptions barely legible, its gears
calcified and corroded, would be the discovery that could captivate
scientists for more than a century?

"In this very small volume of messed-up corroded metal you
have packed in there enough knowledge to fill several
books telling us about ancient technology, ancient science and the
way these interacted with the broader culture of the time," said
Alexander Jones, a historian of ancient science at New York
University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. "It would
be hard to dispute that this is the single most information-rich
object that has been uncovered by archaeologists from ancient
times."

Jones is part of an international team of archaeologists,
astronomers and historians who have labored for the past 10 years to
decipher the mechanism's many mysteries. The results of their
research, including the text of a long explanatory "label" revealed
through X-ray analysis, were just published in a special issue of
the journal Almagest, which examines the history and philosophy of
science.

The findings substantially improve our understanding of the
instrument's origins and purpose, Jones said, offering hints
at where and by whom the mechanism was made, and how it might have
been used. It looks increasingly like a "philosopher's guide to the
galaxy," as the Associated Press put it--functioning as a teaching
tool, a status symbol and an elaborate celebration of the wonders of
ancient science and technology.

[The key to these ancient riddles may lie in a father's love for his
dead son]

In its prime, about 2,100 years ago, the Antikythera
(an-ti-KEE-thur-a) Mechanism was a complex, whirling, clockwork
instrument comprising at least 30 bronze gears bearing thousands of
interlocking tiny teeth. Powered by a single hand crank, the machine
modeled the passage of time and the movements of celestial bodies
with astonishing precision. It had dials that counted the days
according to at least three different calendars, and another that
could be used to calculate the timing of the Olympics. Pointers
representing the stars and planets revolved around its front face,
indicating their position in relation to Earth. A tiny, painted
model of the moon rotated on a spindly axis, flashing black and
white to mimic the real moon's waxing and waning.

The sum of all these moving parts was far and away the most
sophisticated piece of machinery found from ancient Greece. Nothing
like it would appear again until the 14th century, when the earliest
geared clocks began to be built in Europe. For the first half
century after its discovery, researchers believed that
the Antikythera Mechanism had to be something simpler than it
seemed, like an astrolabe. How could the Greeks have developed
the technology needed to create something so precise, so perfect--
only to have it vanish for 1,400 years?

But then Derek de Solla Price, a polymath physicist and science
historian at Yale University, traveled to the National
Archaeological Museum in Athens to take a look at the enigmatic
piece of machinery. In a 1959 paper in Scientific American, he
posited that the Antikythera Mechanism was actually the world's
first known "computer," capable of calculating astronomical events
and illustrating the workings of the universe. Over the next two and
a half decades, he described in meticulous detail how the
mechanism's diverse functions could be elucidated from the
relationships among its intricately interlocked gears.

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing
comparable to it is known from any ancient scientific text or
literary allusion," he wrote.

That wasn't completely accurate--Cicero wrote of a instrument made
by the first century BCE scholar Posidonius of Rhodes that "at each
revolution reproduces the same motions of the Sun, the Moon and the
five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night."
But it was true that the existence of the Antikythera
Mechanism challenged all of scientists' assumptions about what the
ancient Greeks were capable of.

"It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their
great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age,
not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology,"
Price said.

Still, the degree of damage to the ancient plates and gears meant
that many key questions about the the instrument couldn't be
answered with the technology of Price's day. Many of the internal
workings were clogged or corroded, and the inscriptions were faded
or covered up by plates that had been crushed together.

[Broken pottery reveals the sheer devastation caused by the Black
Death]

Enter X-ray scanning and imaging technology, which have
finally become powerful enough to allow researchers to peer beneath
the machine's calcified surfaces. A decade ago, a diverse group of
scientists teamed up to form the Antikythera Mechanism Research
Project (AMRP), which would take advantage of that new capability.
Their initial results, which illuminated some of the complex inner
workings of the machine, were exciting enough to persuade Jones to
jump on board.

Fluent in Ancient Greek, he was able to translate the hundreds of
new characters revealed in the advanced imaging process.

"Before, we had scraps of the text that was hiding inside these
fragments, but there was still a lot of noise," he said. By
combining X-ray images with the impressions left on material that
had stuck to the original bronze, "it was like a double jigsaw
puzzle that we were able to use for a much clearer reading."

The main discovery was a more than 3,500-word explanatory text on
the main plate of the instrument. It's not quite an instruction
manual--speaking to reporters, Jones's colleague Mike Edmunds
compared it to the long label beside an item in a museum display,
according to the AP.

"It's not telling you how to use it. It says, 'What you see is such
and such,' rather than, 'Turn this knob and it shows you something,'" he
explained.

Other newly translated excerpts included descriptions of a calendar
unique to the northern Greek city of Corinth and tiny orbs--now
believed lost to the sandy sea bottom--that once moved across the
instrument's face in perfect simulation of the true motion of the
five known planets, as well as a mark on the dial that gave the
dates of various athletic events, including a relatively minor
competition that was held in the city of Rhodes.

That indicates that the mechanism may have been built in Rhodes--a
theory boosted by the fact that much of the pottery uncovered by the
shipwreck was characteristic of that city. The craftsmanship of the
instrument, and the two distinct sets of handwriting evident in the
inscriptions, makes Jones believe that it was a team effort from a
small workshop that may have produced similar items. True, no
other Antikythera Mechanisms have been found, but that doesn't mean
they never existed. Plenty of ancient bronze artifacts were melted
down for scrap (indeed, the mechanism itself may have included
material from other objects).

It's likely that this particular mechanism and the associated
Antikythera treasures were en route to a Roman port, where they'd be
sold to wealthy nobles who collected rare antiques and intellectual
curiosities to adorn their homes.

The elegant complexity of the mechanism - and the use its makers
designed it for - are emblematic of the values of the ancient world:
For example, a dial that predicts the occurrence of eclipses to the
precision of a day also purports to forecast what the color of the
moon and weather in the region will be that day. To modern
scientists, the three phenomena are entirely distinct from one
another--eclipses depend on the predictable movements of the sun,
moon and planets, the color of the moon on the scattering of light
in Earth's atmosphere, and the weather on difficult-to-track local
conditions. Astronomers may be able to forecast an eclipse years in
advance, but there's no scientific way to know the weather that far
out (just ask our friends at the Capital Weather Gang).

But to an ancient Greek, the three concerns were inextricably
linked. It was believed that an eclipse could portend a famine, an
uprising, a nation's fate in war.

"Things like eclipses were regarded as having ominous significance,"
Jones said. It would have made perfect sense to tie together "these
things that are purely astronomical with things that are more
cultural, like the Olympic games, and calendars, which is astronomy
in service of religion and society, with astrology, which is pure
religion."

That may go some way toward explaining the strange realization Price
made more than 50 years ago: The ancient Greeks came dazzlingly
close to inventing clockwork centuries sooner than really happened.
That they chose to utilize the technology not to mark the minutes,
but to plot out their place in the universe, shows just how deeply
they regarded the significance of celestial events in their lives.

In a single instrument, Jones said, "they were trying to gather a
whole range of things that were part of the Greek experience of the
cosmos."
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[tt] CHE (Richard McKenzie): MOOCs, Money, and the Untold Story of a Professor Who 'Bought the Hype'

He is a fine economist indeed.

MOOCs, Money, and the Untold Story of a Professor Who 'Bought the Hype'
http://chronicle.com.mutex.gmu.edu/article/MOOCs-Moneythe-Untold/236708

By Steve Kolowich June 05, 2016

Richard McKenzie posed with his latest book in 1998. The economist
has written dozens of titles, many aimed at popular audiences.

On February 21, 2013, Richard McKenzie stood in a California yacht
club and prepared to address a modest audience. He was there to talk
to members of a local Rotary Club about massive open online courses,
or MOOCs, a technological wonder that would soon shake the windows
and rattle the walls of college campuses the world over.

A few dozen people had shown up. Mr. McKenzie, an emeritus professor
of economics at the University of California at Irvine's business
school, was there to warn them: Don't buy the hype.

This was not the message Mr. McKenzie had planned to deliver when he
pitched the talk two months earlier. Back then he had been convinced
that the free, online courses were about to change higher education,
and also his own life.

He had spent the fall and winter watching the registration count for
his course "Microeconomics for Managers" the way most economists
watch a stock ticker. It climbed by hundreds per day: to 10,000,
then 20,000, then 30,000--more students than he had taught in 45
years in the classroom, and more than were enrolled on the Irvine
campus.

It had stoked his ambition. Nobody knew what kind of fame or fortune
might lie in store for those who staked out territory on the right
side of the revolution, but as far as anyone could tell, the
potential was huge.

"There is the bragging rights that go with the new course ('I can
now teach tens of thousands of students a quarter')," the professor
wrote that winter in an email to a colleague, as well as "potential
financial benefits" from the sale of textbooks and other course
materials.

That was before everything fell apart. Before he became overwhelmed
by the unwieldiness of a massive online classroom. Before the chief
executive of his university's corporate partner badmouthed him.
Before his bosses took her side. Before he lost his intellectual
property, then his dignity. Before he decided to sue.

Court documents, along with hundreds of other records obtained by
The Chronicle in an open-records request, shed new light on a case
that, while covered only briefly in the press, cast a long shadow
over one university's attempt to navigate the uncertainties of
innovation.

The records, some of which were heavily redacted by the university's
lawyers before they were turned over to The Chronicle, show how
officials and a professor tripped over one another as they raced
into the future. At a time when universities faced pressure to adopt
the "fail fast" mantra of the tech industry, the records offer a
stark reminder of what haste, and failure, can cost.

It was 2012, and disruption was in the air, in the news, and on the
conference agendas.

People were enthralled by MOOCs, online classrooms that could draw
bigger crowds than the Rose Bowl. College leaders wondered if the
courses, the offspring of Stanford University computer scientists
and stepkids of Silicon Valley speculators, were about to turn
traditional institutions into dinosaurs. Some professors were
pioneers, and others were skeptics.

Richard McKenzie became something rarer: He was a casualty.

Mr. McKenzie, who is now 74, was never supposed to become a
successful academic. He grew up in Raleigh, N.C., raised by abusive,
alcoholic parents. At age 10, following his mother's suicide, he was
sent to live at a rural orphanage. According to Mr. McKenzie, during
his senior year of high school, a professor from a nearby university
looked at his IQ and SAT scores and suggested he become a truck
driver.

He went to college anyway, eventually earning a doctorate from
Virginia Tech. A few years into his academic career, Mr. McKenzie
teamed up with Gordon Tullock, a renowned economist who was then at
Virginia Tech, on a textbook called The New World of Economics. The
text, which focused on using economics to understand human behavior,
became a hit. Now in its sixth edition, it is considered a classic
of the genre--and a precursor, in Mr. McKenzie's view, to best
sellers such as Freakonomics.

"Richard has always been fairly optimistic about these projects he
gets himself in."

The Irvine economist remained a man in search of an audience. He
wrote dozens of books, some with splashy titles meant to appeal to
mainstream readers. Sometimes he would position himself in the
slipstream of other, commercially successful texts. After a pair of
business professors struck gold with The Millionaire Next Door in
1996, he teamed up with Dwight R. Lee, a Georgia-based economist, to
write Getting Rich in America. When Dan Ariely, a behavioral
economist at Duke University, made a hit with his 2008 book
Predictably Irrational, Mr. McKenzie wrote Predictably Rational?, a
rejoinder that used an almost identical cover design.

None of those books catapulted him to national prominence, but he
kept cranking out new work. "Richard has always been fairly
optimistic about these projects he gets himself in," said Mr. Lee,
who has collaborated with Mr. McKenzie on several books, in an
interview. "That's part of his productivity. Despite the evidence,
he's pretty convinced the next one is going to be a winner."

In one of his more personal works, The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up
in an Orphanage, Mr. McKenzie connected his tireless work ethic to
his traumatic early childhood. "When you have been hollowed out,
emotionally emptied, at a very early age, denied a sense of
self-worth," he wrote, "something needs to be created to fill that
void."

He filled the void with numbers. After entering academe, the young
economist sought things to count to his name. First it was degrees,
then it was books. "When all else I've got seems relatively
unimportant," he wrote, "I can remember there are a bunch of cards
with my name on them in the Library of Congress."

And yet in his reflective moments he understood the futility of
these attempts to quantify his esteem. Numbers can impress, but they
don't always reflect true value.

"It's all too easy," Mr. McKenzie wrote in The Home, "for the count
itself, as distinguished from the quality of what is counted, to
take on a life of its own."

In 2012 the MOOC peddler that had counted the most online learners
was Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based company founded that April by
Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, a pair of talented and supremely
well-connected Stanford computer scientists.

The company itself was small enough to fit in a handful of offices
in Mountain View, Calif., and yet it quickly surpassed two million
registrations for its free courses, a number 30 times as great as
the enrollment of the largest state university. The company's
founders were ubiquitous, appearing on campuses and in the press
with ominous tidings from the near future.

"The tsunami is coming whether we like it or not," Ms. Koller told
The Atlantic that spring. "You can be crushed or you can surf, and
it is better to surf."

The upside of allying with the company seemed huge. The exposure
afforded by Coursera's massive classrooms meant that professors
could, in theory, become gurus of their disciplines. Colleges that
weren't even the most popular institutions in their regions had a
chance to become household names in India, China, or Brazil.
Publishers salivated at the possibility of selling their products to
even a fraction of the thousands of students who were signing up for
MOOCs.

Mr. McKenzie, who had retired from Irvine's business school a year
earlier, sensed an opportunity. He had seen the promise in video
lectures long before the term "MOOC" entered the lexicon. For years
he had been recording video tutorials based on a textbook, called
Microeconomics for MBAs, that he and Mr. Lee had written.

The textbook had been a dud--"I don't think we paid off the
advance," said Mr. Lee--but Mr. McKenzie had high hopes for the
videos. A decade earlier, he had started making video modules to
supplement his teaching on the Irvine campus. When YouTube came
along, he posted lessons there, using an overhead camera to film
himself making notes as he narrated off-screen. The production
values on the videos were not great, but the lack of polish gave
them a kind of office-hours intimacy.

As Mr. McKenzie approached retirement, he built a recording studio
in a shed behind his house and filmed nearly 30 hours of lectures,
which he planned to sell as a series of five DVDs. He imagined them
being used in business classes around the world. "I look forward to
talking with professors about quantity discounts for adoptions for
classes," he said in a 2011 promotional video.

When massive online courses took off, in 2012, it seemed like
kismet. Mr. McKenzie approached administrators in Irvine's extension
school that spring and told them he had an online course recorded
and ready to go.

Gary Matkin, dean of the extension school, a money-making arm of the
university that focuses on adult learners, also saw opportunity in
MOOCs. Irvine had been early to open education, and having an
existing inventory of online courses that could be fitted to
Coursera's platform meant the university could possibly jump the
line of institutions that were clamoring to join the company's
exclusive club of course providers.

Late that summer, a brisk negotiation commenced between the
university and the upstart company. Coursera wanted to deal directly
with Irvine's professors, according to Mr. Matkin, but the dean
refused. He later said he was trying to put himself in a position to
protect the university's interests as well as the intellectual
property of its professors.

"We wanted to make the university the intermediary between the
faculty member and Coursera," he told The Chronicle, "so we could
really make sure faculty members knew what they were giving up."

Things moved quickly. Coursera wanted to announce its new university
partners by mid-September; Irvine hurried to get its papers in order
and just barely made the company's deadline. "A lot of processes
were not fully worked out," said Mr. Matkin.

On September 17, 2012, Irvine signed a contract with the company.
The plan was to offer seven courses beginning in January, including
Mr. McKenzie's microeconomics course.

People started signing up for "Microeconomics for Managers"
immediately after Coursera listed it: 2,700 students registered in
the first 36 hours. After 10 days the number had risen to 8,000,
shooting upward at a rate of 650 per day.

Watching the count rise, Mr. McKenzie wondered how many new
customers he might have for Microeconomics for MBAs, the
underperforming textbook upon which he had based the course. The
usual barrier to selling textbooks, of course, is the incremental
work of persuading individual faculty members who would instruct a
few dozen students to buy the text each semester. But a massive
course could give Mr. McKenzie a direct line to droves of students
all at once.

Mr. McKenzie promised to push the textbook in his MOOC. "You can
understand that I want to drive sales as much as you do," he wrote
in an email to an official at Cambridge University Press.

The Irvine economist joined the choir of true believers. He told
friends and colleagues that he was embarking for the "Wild West of
education." He offered to preach about the coming revolution on the
radio, on a policy blog, at the Rotary Club gathering. He wrote an
essay on MOOCs and pitched versions of it to The Chronicle, The Wall
Street Journal, and other publications.

"Many university administrators and professors are oblivious to what
is happening in their midst," Mr. McKenzie wrote in the essay. "The
technology waves will surely shake the foundation of the
conventional university model."

In the week leading up to the debut of his massive course, however,
the professor found himself on shaky ground with his supervisors.

By mid-January, registrations for Irvine's seven inaugural MOOCs had
surpassed 225,000, and the university had a few other "irons in the
fire" with Coursera, Mr. Matkin said in an email to Dean Florez, a
former California state senator who had taken a special interest in
MOOCs.

Still, Irvine officials doubted that the courses would make any real
money in the short term. "There absolutely is no business model
yet," wrote Mr. Matkin in an email to colleagues at Irvine's medical
school. "Any actual financial return to UCI or other faculty members
is really vague right now."

Mr. McKenzie, however, was developing a business model of his own.

As sign-ups for his course ticked past 30,000, the professor pitched
his Irvine bosses on an "executive concierge service" for his
microeconomics course. His idea was to let as many as 200 students
pay for a privileged status that would entitle them to email him
directly as often as 10 times per week. He offered to manage the
experiment himself--and collect the revenues.

"There are many loose ends in almost all aspects of this current
gold rush."

Irvine officials resisted, but Mr. McKenzie did not let the issue go
easily. He also objected to the university's reluctance to use his
preferred grading system in the course, a letter-based scheme that
was incompatible with Coursera's gradebook. Melissa Loble, an
associate dean at the extension school, reassured Mr. McKenzie that
it was a technical issue and that the company was not trying to
change the way he had taught for decades.

"Honestly," wrote Ms. Loble to her fellow administrators, "I think
he is trying to raise issues with anything he can, in order to use
it as leverage for this concierge service."

Mr. Matkin finally intervened. He explained to the professor that
they could not allow the concierge service or "anything that looks
like a grade" on the MOOC, for technical reasons having to do with
Irvine's course-approval process. The university also had
contractual and good-faith obligations to Coursera, said the dean,
and did not want to spring any surprises on the company now, two
days before "Microeconomics for Managers" was supposed to debut.

"I hope you understand that this whole MOOC thing and our
involvement in it has been accomplished at breakneck speed," wrote
Mr. Matkin, "and there are many loose ends in almost all aspects of
this current gold rush."

On January 21, the day the course was set to go live, the two sides
reached a d�tente. Mr. McKenzie agreed to drop his grading system
and the concierge service but insisted that his intellectual
property rights be respected.

"You definitely won and have the rights to the material you produced
and convey those rights only in writing," replied Mr. Matkin,
"except that in this case we went ahead so quickly that the whole IP
thing lagged behind."

That sentence would become a sticking point in an investigation and,
later, in a lawsuit against Mr. Matkin and the university.

At the time, it was merely confusing. Mr. McKenzie told a colleague
the next day that he no longer trusted the dean's intentions and
feared that the university was attempting a "rights grab." But he
was also eager to move past their disagreement and get excited once
more about exploring higher education's new frontier.

That day Mr. McKenzie's economics course went live to more than
35,000 students from all over the world.

That's when the real problems began.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera (shown at a 2014 conference),
told a dean at the U. of California at Irvine that she didn't like
the way Mr. McKenzie was chastising students for their lack of
participation in his MOOC.

Counting registrations for an online course was easy--
exhilarating, even. The reality of actually teaching all those
people was trickier.

The diversity of the massive audience was overwhelming. There were
students who didn't seem to have graduated high school and others
who had doctorates. And many of them, no matter how educated, seemed
determined to clog the forums with comments that, in Mr. McKenzie's
opinion, did not reflect thoughtful engagement with the course
material.

The professor doubted if they were even watching his free videos,
let alone buying and reading his textbook.

"How do you teach courses when the spread of backgrounds, and
privilege, is so great?" he wrote to a former student. "Don't have a
clue as to how I can work my way through this maze."

Mr. McKenzie tried to get the students on the same page. In the
absence of a common text, he posed economic riddles about how beer
costs less than water in the Czech Republic and why it might be more
environmentally conscientious to drive to work than to walk. Unable
to shut down runaway discussions, as he might in a normal classroom,
he urged students to sort themselves in groups, hoping to weed out
the ones who didn't do the homework and "just want to expound their
views."

The professor openly lamented the state of the discussion forums. He
called them an example of the "tragedy of the commons"--an
economic concept that refers to the ruination of a free, open space
by people who use it to serve their own ends.

The hundreds of students thronging the forums were just part of the
problem. The professor was more disturbed by the thousands who were
not participating at all.

The course went live to more than 35,000 students. Then the real
problems began.

Fewer than half of the 37,000 people who registered for
"Microeconomics for Managers" actually logged in when the course
opened, according to an analysis Mr. McKenzie later sent to
students. Only a quarter watched a single one of his video lectures,
the professor said, and fewer than 2 percent participated in the
discussion forums. In the notes he prepared for his talk to the
Rotary Club, Mr. McKenzie suggested that only "several hundred" did
all their homework in those first weeks.

Where were the others? Why did they register if they weren't going
to show up?

The worst-kept secret about massive courses is that relatively few
of the students who register for MOOCs actually finish them, but in
early 2013 colleges were only beginning to understand what sort of
behavior to expect from students in massive courses.

In March 2012, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's first
massive course had attracted 155,000 sign-ups. But only 23,300
people ever tried a problem set, and only 10,500 stuck around for
the midterm. That September, Duke opened an astronomy course to
60,000 registered students, but only 16,700 ever tried a problem
set, and 2,900 contributed to discussion forums. Those numbers still
dwarfed the capacities of even the largest lecture halls, but in
general the huge registration figures seemed to have more to do with
aspiration than with education.

Mr. McKenzie was dismayed to find this out firsthand. On January 30,
nine days after the course started, he vented his frustration in a
message to students.

"When I signed on to teach this course, I believed that the
enrollment count would be real," he wrote, but he now understood
that the headcount was "meaningless." He suggested that the inactive
majority either join in or drop out. But Coursera would not let him
kick them out of the course, he later told a former student in an
email.

"I think," said Mr. McKenzie of the company, "they want to keep the
numbers pretense going."

The first two weeks of the course were bad, but things really
started coming apart in the third. And it had nothing to do with Mr.
McKenzie's students.

That's when Mr. McKenzie discovered that Coursera had been giving
away his video lectures.

There was a button on the course website, it turned out, where users
could download the videos free. Fifteen days after the course
opened, the videos already had been downloaded more than 20,000
times, according to Mr. McKenzie.

The professor thought the videos would be available only to stream
online, not given away. "Did I miss something in our discussions on
this matter?" he wrote to Irvine officials. "Did I sign away the
download rights in some way?"

He had not. Mr. Matkin, the dean, later told an investigator that he
did not know about Coursera's free-download feature.

The next morning Mr. McKenzie met with Mr. Matkin, Ms. Loble, and
Larry Cooperman, associate dean for open education at Irvine, at a
cafe on the west side of campus. The professor had proposed an
in-person meeting weeks earlier, noting the "inherent limitations of
emails." He hoped it would be an opportunity to smooth things over
after their tense exchange over the grading policy and his proposed
"concierge service."

Instead, Mr. McKenzie felt as if he had walked into an ambush.

A day earlier, Ms. Koller visited the Irvine campus to give a talk
about the "online revolution." The Coursera president had impressed
Mr. Matkin and his team throughout the winter, and she had seemed
enthusiastic about including Irvine in some of the company's
strategic projects. They had discussed the possibility of licensing
some of the university's courses, including Mr. McKenzie's, to other
institutions.

During her visit, however, Ms. Koller told extension-school
officials she was disturbed by some of the things Mr. McKenzie was
saying to his students.

Specifically, she pointed to two messages the professor had posted
during the first two weeks of the course: one in which he told
inactive students to either tune in or drop out, and another in
which he pressed students to buy his textbook.

Mr. McKenzie's finickiness had tested Mr. Matkin's patience even
before his course opened, and Ms. Koller's complaints seemed to
reignite the dean's frustration.

At the cafe, he told Mr. McKenzie that he had created an
embarrassment.

Mr. McKenzie was taken aback. The way he saw things, he had gone
above and beyond the level of effort that had been asked of him,
spending, by his own accounting, 25 to 50 hours a week on the
course.

After coffee, Ms. Loble wrote Mr. McKenzie a diplomatic email. She
praised his passion for the course and the quality of his teaching
materials, but said she agreed with Ms. Koller and Mr. Matkin about
the professor's tone. Communicating to a large, diverse, public
audience required sensitivity to how one's words might be
interpreted, explained the associate dean. She offered to ghostwrite
messages to Mr. McKenzie's students in the future.

"At the end of the day," Ms. Loble told the professor, "we all just
want to make sure that anyone enrolled in the course, regardless of
his/her intentions, can have a positive experience."

Once again, the future of Mr. McKenzie's massive course was in
doubt.

Ms. Loble warned the professor that canceling the course could hurt
his reputation and the university's. Earlier that week, a professor
at the Georgia Institute of Technology had been forced to suspend
her Coursera course because of technical difficulties. That
professor had been shamed in the media, said Ms. Loble, along with
Georgia Tech and Coursera.

The associate dean made a similar case against turning off the
button that was allowing people to download free copies of Mr.
McKenzie's lectures. Coursera alone had the power to disable the
button, she said in an interview with The Chronicle, and the company
did not want to do it.

Ms. Loble said Coursera officials had told her a story about a pair
of professors at the University of Washington who made a similar
request to disable the download feature. Those professors had ended
up regretting it, according to the company officials; there had been
a backlash, and their reputations had been tarnished.

Ms. Loble relayed this story to Mr. McKenzie, and advised him
against pressing Coursera to disable the button.

Mr. Matkin told Mr. McKenzie that he had no one to blame but himself
for the loss of his intellectual property.

"We do not accept responsibility," wrote the dean in an email, large
portions of which were redacted by the university, "for your
ignorance of the downloadable feature of the videos."

"A lot of processes were not fully worked out."

Mr. McKenzie and his bosses eventually reached an agreement: The
professor stepped aside, and "Microeconomics for Managers" would go
on without him. The university offered to pay him his full $2,500
teaching stipend, plus $15,000 for permission to use his videos and
quizzes through the end of the course. During that time, people
would continue to be able to download the course materials free.

On February 16, 2013, Mr. McKenzie sent a farewell note to his
students. "Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this
course," he wrote, "I've agreed to disengage from it, with regret."

A professor dropping out of his own MOOC was news. Two days later,
The Chronicle reported on Mr. McKenzie's departure. Both Mr. Matkin
and Ms. Koller alluded to the difficulty of teaching a course as
vast and diverse as a MOOC. Mr. McKenzie declined to comment.

A few days later, the professor gave his talk to the Rotary Club,
which he titled "The MOOC Mess." It's been a "tough and sad two
weeks," he told the Rotarians, according to his outline of the talk.

On February 25, Mr. Matkin sent Mr. McKenzie a new contract that
would permit the university and Coursera to keep using his videos
and quizzes for the duration of the term. With the contract was a
message:

"It is important that we not raise any more red flags to the press,"
wrote the dean, "so the less said (or written) about your stepping
back, the better."

He offered Mr. McKenzie any assistance he needed in dealing with the
press, or communicating with any students from the courses, or with
anything in general.

"Thanks," he said, "for your continued cooperation."

The professor did not cooperate for long.

That May, Mr. McKenzie filed a complaint against his former
supervisors under the state's whistle-blower laws. The university
opened an investigation and enlisted Thomas R. Bradford, a tort
lawyer from nearby Burbank, to look into whether it had engaged in
"improper governmental activity" in its dealing with the professor.

Five months later, Mr. Bradford delivered his report. The
investigator concluded that the university had failed to protect the
professor's intellectual property. "As dean of continuing
education," wrote Mr. Bradford, "the responsibility for the failure
rests with Dean Matkin."

On February 3, 2014, Mr. McKenzie filed a lawsuit against Mr.
Matkin, the University of California, Ms. Koller, and Coursera.

Lawyers for the professor argued that Irvine's failure to protect
his property had cost Mr. McKenzie $230,000, since the video
lectures ended up being downloaded "more than 230,000 times." The
professor was entitled to at least that amount, they argued, plus
punitive damages for "willful and wanton conduct," which had
inflicted "significant emotional injuries in the form of shame,
mortification, and hurt feelings."

Over all, the complaint painted a picture of university officials
who were more interested in staying in the good graces of a powerful
corporate partner than in preserving a longtime professor's academic
freedom, his intellectual property, and his basic dignity.

The lawsuit was settled in April 2014, on undisclosed terms.

Not long after Mr. McKenzie left his course, a backlash against
MOOCs began to gather force.

Faculty members began speaking out about the possible consequences
of working with MOOC companies. A bill was shelved that would have
pressed California's public universities to grant credits to
students who completed the free, online courses. Several projects
aimed at merging MOOCs with traditional degree programs failed to
gain traction.

Coursera continued to grow, as did its registration count, but
colleges leaders and faculty members gradually realized that it was
not going to change their lives.

Mr. Matkin, who is still dean of continuing education at Irvine,
declines to comment on the case directly, citing legal reasons,
except to call it an "anomaly" involving "special issues" and
"special personalities."

"In the early days of MOOCs, none of us really knew what we were
getting into, including the professors who were involved," he says.
"We were all learning together."

The dean resists the idea that Irvine officials had been overly
deferential to Coursera in those early months. The university was
accommodating to its corporate partner, he says, but not
inappropriately so. "Any time we enter a partnership, we want to
keep our end of the bargain," says Mr. Matkin, "so we were very
anxious to be responsive to what they wanted."

Irvine's relationship with the company has changed since those early
days. The university signed a new contract last summer. Instructors
now have to promise not to sue the university or Coursera or any of
their officers for pretty much any reason having to do with the
course, including copyright infringement, libel, slander,
defamation, right of publicity, and invasion of privacy.

LaunchSquad, a company that handles media relations for Coursera,
declined to make Ms. Koller available for an interview. A detailed
list of questions sent to a spokeswoman went unanswered. "We're not
interested in chatting about 2014," said Kelsey Nelson, the
spokeswoman, in an email.

Ms. Nelson sent The Chronicle a statement from the company, which
read in part: "Over the last four years, we have been transparent
with our partners about the varying levels of engagement they can
expect on the platform compared to traditional on-campus classroom
environments."

These days, Irvine's massive courses typically run on their own.
It's easier for everyone that way, says Mr. Matkin. "What we learned
is you try to present a MOOC for what it is," says the dean. "It's a
free course, with relatively little interaction with faculty
members."

Quietly, the courses have started to make money through the sale of
certificates to students who complete them. The university and the
company split the revenues.

Mr. McKenzie declines to comment on the case to The Chronicle, also
citing legal reasons.

The professor says he still has great affection for the institution
where he taught for decades. In his notes for his talk at the Rotary
Club, he emphasized a distinction between the university proper and
its extension school. "What has happened to me," he wrote, "would
never have been tolerated by the faculty and administration on
campus."

He has taken down the recording equipment from the shed behind his
house. But he hasn't stopped writing. In retirement, he hopes to add
a couple more books to his count. "You want to make your mark," he
says. Right now he's working on a unified-field theory that reframes
economics as a "brain-centered discipline." He thinks it could be a
winner.

He has written a book about MOOCs, too, but he keeps that one to
himself.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying
the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich,
or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

[tt] NYT: Yoga May Be Good for the Brain

Yoga May Be Good for the Brain
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/yoga-may-be-good-for-the-brain/

By Gretchen Reynolds

A weekly routine of yoga and meditation may strengthen thinking
skills and help to stave off aging-related mental decline, according
to a new study of older adults with early signs of memory problems.

Most of us past the age of 40 are aware that our minds and, in
particular, memories begin to sputter as the years pass. Familiar
names and words no longer spring readily to mind, and car keys
acquire the power to teleport into jacket pockets where we could not
possibly have left them.

Some weakening in mental function appears to be inevitable as we
age. But emerging science suggests that we might be able to slow and
mitigate the decline by how we live and, in particular, whether and
how we move our bodies. Past studies have found that people who run,
weight train, dance, practice tai chi, or regularly garden have a
lower risk of developing dementia than people who are not physically
active at all.

There also is growing evidence that combining physical activity with
meditation might intensify the benefits of both pursuits. In an
interesting study that I wrote about recently, for example, people
with depression who meditated before they went for a run showed
greater improvements in their mood than people who did either of
those activities alone.

But many people do not have the physical capacity or taste for
running or other similarly vigorous activities.

So for the new study, which was published in April in the Journal of
Alzheimer's Disease, researchers at the University of California,
Los Angeles, and other institutions decided to test whether yoga, a
relatively mild, meditative activity, could alter people's brains
and fortify their ability to think.

They began by recruiting 29 middle-aged and older adults from the
Los Angeles area who told the researchers that they were anxious
about the state of their memories and who, during evaluations at the
university, were found to have mild cognitive impairment, a mental
condition that can be a precursor to eventual dementia.

The volunteers also underwent a sophisticated type of brain scan
that tracks how different parts of the brain communicate with one
another.

The volunteers then were divided into two groups. One began a
well-established brain-training program that involves an hour a week
of classroom time and a series of mental exercises designed to
bolster their memory that volunteers were asked to practice at home
for about 15 minutes a day.

The others took up yoga. For an hour each week, they visited the
U.C.L.A. campus to learn Kundalini yoga, which involves breathing
exercises and meditation as well as movement and poses. The
researchers chose this form of yoga largely because people who are
out of shape or new to yoga generally find it easy to complete the
classes.

The yoga group also was taught a type of meditation known as Kirtan
Kriya that involves repeating a series of sounds--a mantra--
while simultaneously "dancing" with repetitive hand movements. They
were asked to meditate in this way for 15 minutes every day, so that
the total time commitment was equivalent for both groups.

The volunteers practiced their programs for 12 weeks.

Then they returned to the university's lab for another round of
cognitive tests and a second brain scan.

By this time, all of the men and women were able to perform
significantly better on most tests of their thinking.

But only those who had practiced yoga and meditation showed
improvements in their moods--they scored lower on an assessment of
potential depression than those in the brain-training group--and
they performed much better on a test of visuospatial memory, a type
of remembering that is important for balance, depth perception and
the ability to recognize objects and navigate the world.

The brain scans in both groups displayed more communication now
between parts of their brains involved in memory and language
skills. Those who had practiced yoga, however, also had developed
more communication between parts of the brain that control
attention, suggesting a greater ability now to focus and multitask.

In effect, yoga and meditation had equaled and then topped the
benefits of 12 weeks of brain training.

"We were a bit surprised by the magnitude" of the brain effects,
said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A. who
oversaw the study.

How, physiologically, yoga and meditation had uniquely changed the
volunteers' brains is impossible to know from this study, although
reductions in stress hormones and anxiety are likely to play a
substantial role, she said. "These were all people worried about the
state of their minds," she pointed out.

Movement also increases the levels of various biochemicals in the
muscles and brains that are associated with improved brain health,
she said.

Whether other forms of yoga and meditation or either activity on its
own might likewise bulk up the brain remains a mystery, she said.
But there may be something especially potent, she said, about
combining yoga with the type of meditation practiced in this study,
during which people were not completely still.

The Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, which partially
funded this study, provides information on its website about how to
start meditating in this style.
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[tt] NYT: Meet the Ultra-Fat, Super-Cushioned Running Shoe

I have a Hoka One One. Great shoe, except mine was too wide, meaning I have
to wear heavy socks, which is fine, since I by and large use them on cold
days. I also love my minimalist shoes.

Meet the Ultra-Fat, Super-Cushioned Running Shoe
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/08/meet-the-ultra-fat-super-cushioned-running-shoe/

By Gretchen Reynolds

Can fat-soled shoes that appear to have been constructed in part
from marshmallows help you run better? The first study of a new kind
of thickly cushioned running shoe suggests that this type of
footwear may not make running any easier. But it probably also will
not make it harder. And nobody knows yet whether these maximalist
running shoes, as they're called, are the answer to preventing the
painful injuries that sideline as many as 90 percent of runners at
some point.

Anyone who hangs out with distance runners has doubtless noticed the
sudden popularity of these shoes, which provide two or three times
as much foam padding between the foot and the pavement as most
running shoes. The voluptuous Hoka One One shoes are perhaps the
most recognizable of the new maximalist footwear, but almost every
athletic shoe company offers models now with similarly extreme
padding.

Maximalist shoes would seem to be a fervent reaction to and rebuke
of the other recent fad in running-related footwear, which consisted
of minimalist or barefoot-style shoes that provide little if any
cushioning.

But according to John Mercer, a professor of biomechanics at the
University of Nevada in Las Vegas, and senior author of the new
study, both types of footwear were developed in response to the same
concern: the desire to prevent running injuries.

Many hoped that barefoot-style shoes, by removing most padding,
would change how people run in beneficial ways. Researchers had
noted that people who grow up running barefoot (which means, mostly,
young Kenyan runners) typically strike the ground near the middle or
front of their foot and tend to have relatively few injuries.
Perhaps, the researchers speculated, that style of running would
result in fewer injuries for the rest of us.

So some runners began wearing flat, minimalist shoes that mimic
running barefoot.

But the results were not altogether salutary. No agency collects
data about running injuries, but anecdotal reports suggest that
quite a few barefoot-style runners wound up getting hurt, in part
because their feet and legs were unused to the new patterns of
pounding that occur when shoes provide little or no cushioning.

Human nature being what it is, people then turned to shoes with far
more cushioning than had been used in running shoes before.

"I first saw these extremely cushioned shoes being worn by
ultra-runners and trail runners" covering long distances, Dr. Mercer
said. More recently, less intense runners have begun wearing the
maximalist shoes, he said.

These shoes promise plush comfort without a decrease in athletic
performance, Dr. Mercer said. Rather surprising (to me), most
maximalist shoes weigh about the same as thinner models, Dr. Mercer
said, because the foam used for cushioning has a cotton-candy
airiness.

However, these shoes are still so new that scientists had not yet
examined their effects on how people run.

So for the new study, which was presented last week at the annual
meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Boston, Dr.
Mercer and his colleagues asked 10 experienced runners to eschew
their usual shoes for a few days.

At the university's human performance lab, the runners donned
alternately an average pair of running shoes and a pair of maximally
cushioned shoes. They ran in each type of shoe at three different
speeds and two different inclines on a treadmill, while wearing a
mask that measured precisely how much oxygen the runner was taking
in. Each run lasted eight to 10 minutes.

If shoes make it more or less difficult to run, Dr. Mercer said, the
amount of oxygen that a runner wearing those shoes breathes in
should commensurately rise or fall.

As expected, the runners all gasped in far more oxygen when they ran
at higher speeds and increased slopes. But their footwear did not
affect their oxygen intake. The runners required about the same
amount of oxygen at the various paces and inclines whether they wore
super-fat or average shoes.

In other words, the maximalist shoes did not make running more
tiring. But they also did not make it easier.

The results might encourage some comfort-loving runners, like me, to
consider trying the fat-soled shoes.

But this study was quite small-scale and did not address the
pressing issue of injuries. No one knows at this point whether
wearing maximalist shoes will keep people from getting hurt, Dr.
Mercer said. The shoes might, for example, turn out to contribute to
certain injuries if their added height makes runners less stable or
less able to feel and respond to changes in the ground beneath them.

Dr. Mercer and his colleagues hope to study injury patterns from
these shoes in the future.

For now, the broader import of the study's findings could be that
shoes may matter less for running ease than many of us might expect.
So if you like your current shoes, stick with them. If, however, you
do wish to try maximally--or minimally--cushioned shoes, visit
your local running specialty store and wear a pair for a jog around
the block to judge whether you enjoy how they feel.
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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

[tt] NYT: New Fossils Strengthen Case for 'Hobbit' Species

New Fossils Strengthen Case for 'Hobbit' Species
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/science/hobbit-fossils-flores.html

by Carl Zimmer

Scientists digging in the Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of
Flores years ago found a tiny humanlike skull, then a pelvis, jaw
and other bones, all between 60,000 and 100,000 years old.

The fossils, the scientists concluded, belonged to individuals who
stood just three feet tall--an unknown species, related to modern
humans, that they called Homo floresiensis or, more casually, the
hobbits.

On Wednesday, researchers reported that they had discovered still
older remains on the island, including teeth, a piece of a jaw and
149 stone tools dating back 700,000 years. The finding suggests that
the ancestors of the hobbits arrived on Flores about a million years
ago, the scientists said, and evolved into their own distinct branch
of the hominin tree.

But without other parts of a skeleton, such as the skull, hands or
feet, they can't be sure whether the newly discovered fossils also
belong to Homo floresiensis or instead to some other ancient
relative of humans (known generally as hominins).

"We have to be careful," said Gert van den Bergh, a paleontologist
at the University of Wollongong in Australia and a co-author of the
new study. "Until we find those elements, we cannot really say much
more about it."

Dr. van den Bergh and his colleagues found the new fossils at Mata
Menge, an archaeological site on Flores that had already yielded
stone tools dating back 800,000 years--a clue that hominins of
some sort had once lived there.

Starting in 2004, the researchers chiseled fossils out of the
cementlike rock. For years, they found only animal fossils,
including dwarf elephants.

In 2014, Dr. van den Bergh and his colleagues got their first stroke
of good luck: six feet below the surface, they found a cracked
molar. Very quickly they discovered six other teeth, as well as a
piece of a jaw. The fossils come from three hominins.

The researchers were intrigued to find a wisdom tooth erupting from
the jaw. "That means that it was an adult," said Dr. van den Bergh.

Yet this adult must have been very small. The researchers estimate
the jawbone was 23 percent smaller than the Homo floresiensis jaw
found at Liang Bua.

"They were truly little people, smaller even than the Liang Bua
hobbits," said Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong, who
was part of the team that originally discovered Homo floresiensis
but was not involved in the new study.

More Reporting on Human Origins

Critics have argued that the Liang Bua bones might have come from a
member of our own species who suffered some kind of growth disorder,
such as Down syndrome. Several experts agreed that the Mata Menge
fossils put to rest any doubts that Homo floresiensis is its own
distinct species.

In another study published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS One,
Karen L. Baab, a paleoanthropologist at Midwestern University in
Glendale, Ariz., and her colleagues compared skeletons of people
with Down syndrome with the Liang Bua fossils.

The researchers concluded that any resemblance was superficial, and
that the fossils belonged to a separate species. "There continues to
be no very good evidence that this is a pathological modern human,"
Dr. Baab said.

In their new study, Dr. van den Bergh and his colleagues propose
that the hobbits evolved from a tall, relatively large-brained
hominin called Homo erectus that lived in Indonesia at least 1.5
million years ago.

Dr. van den Bergh said it was unlikely that Homo erectus could have
built boats that could have taken them to Flores. "Personally, I
think it was some freak event like a tsunami," he said.

By 700,000 years ago, the Mata Menge fossils suggest, the
descendants of these castaways had shrunk to three feet in height.
It's possible that their brains shrank as well, as an adaptation to
life on a small, harsh island.

Dr. Baab said the scenario was plausible, but not airtight. The
hobbits have some anatomical similarities to Homo erectus in
Indonesia, but they're not just scaled-down versions.

For example, the fossils from the Liang Bua cave show that they had
longer arms and shorter legs than Homo erectus. It's possible that
they evolved from a smaller, more primitive Asian population of Homo
that scientists haven't yet discovered.

A few critics of Homo floresiensis still aren't convinced, saying
the debate over whether this really was a species couldn't be
settled by the new finding.

"Isolated teeth and jaw fragments have nothing to contribute to that
issue," said Robert D. Martin, an emeritus curator at the Field
Museum in Chicago, who has argued that the Liang Bua fossils
belonged to a human with microcephaly.

Dr. van den Bergh is optimistic that he and his colleagues will find
a skull and other bones at Mata Menge that may satisfy such critics.
The layer of rock where they found the hominin teeth and jaw is
chock-full of fossils from other species.

The geology of the rock indicates that the fossils come from a
streambed that was suddenly buried in mudslides from a nearby
volcanic eruption. The disaster seems to have claimed a number of
victims at once--including, possibly, more hobbits.

"I'm sure we will find more stuff," said Dr. van den Bergh.
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