Thursday, June 30, 2016

Innovation at the 2016 White House Science Fair

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

In my youth, my proficiency and interest in science was stymied by my indecision regarding a career. When asked the famous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I almost never had an answer. Those who knew me believed that, one day, I would be involved in something either scientific or artistic. But it wasn’t until a month before I graduated high school that I finally realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

For others, no such problem exists. The factors that hindered me as a child—difficulty connecting to my peers, a hesitation to believe that I could make a real difference—do not hinder the many promising young participants of the annual White House Science Fair. And this is a wonderful thing.

The 2016 White House Science Fair, held this past April, was the largest to date. When the annual event first started in 2010, about 40 students participated. Six years later, that number has swelled to encompass more than 130 students from over 30 different states. President Obama, who has attempted to reach out and encourage the participation of young women and minorities in STEM fields, has seemingly done well with that goal. Maya Varma was one such young woman who was invited to the occasion, coming all the way from San José, California, to exhibit a lung-disease monitoring app that she had created using free software and a smartphone. Manasa Hari Bhimaraju, another accomplished young inventor from California, displayed a device she calls the Elementor, a tool that utilizes lights and various sounds to explain the elements on the atomic chart to blind and vision-impaired individuals.

“It’s hard to describe just how impressive these young people are,” reflected the president at the first fair. “We can think of Einstein, Edison, Franklin, Tesla, and the founders of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But now we’ve got some other people to think about.”

Past participants were also welcomed back, such as Elana Simon, who, in 2014, explored the cause of a rare liver cancer that she had been diagnosed with. In addition to attempting to help those with cancer or disabilities, other projects at the White House Science Fair have also focused on issues with the environment and LGBT youth. The work that these bright young innovators are doing definitely seems to demonstrate that the future of America is in good hands.

Did You Know?

Bill Nye the proverbial “Science Guy” was actually taught by the famous cosmologist Carl Sagan while studying for his bachelor of science degree. Nye is now the CEO of the Planetary Society, the largest non-governmental organization for the promotion of space exploration—an organization that Carl Sagan cofounded.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Attention Robot Aficionados: National Robotics Week

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

R2-D2 from the Star Wars series is one of the most beloved droids out there. Cute, loyal and resourceful, this little droid saves the day many times in the legendary epic. His successor, the spherical-shaped BB-8, also captured the heart of audiences when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters in 2015. Just like R2-D2, BB-8 is a great friend to the human characters and plays as important a role as they do.

Are you let down by the fact that these droids are fictional? This year, many students and adults around the country got to spend time with real-life androids as they learned about robots’ increasingly important role in the innovation landscape of the twenty-first century. The seventh annual National Robotics Week took place from April 2–8, with a chain of events across the nation related to robotics. 

The aim of the week is threefold: to recognize the importance of robotics technology in the United States, to highlight its various applications and potential impact on the future, and to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The affiliated events continue to steadily increase in numbers, from 50 events when it kicked off in 2010 to over 300 this year.

The Robot Party in Floresville, Texas, was one of those many events. The party, which took place at the Sam Fore Jr. Wilson County Public Library, included activities such as building a toy rover that runs on remote control; coding with Ozobot, a tiny robot designed to teach code language; and building LEGO WeDo robotics kit. The event welcomed a special guest, George, the library’s own robot. George is a Sphero, a robotic ball that a user can code through an app. Sphero is an eponymous creation from a company that also creates real-life mini BB-8s.

Halfway across the country in White Plains, New York, the Lower Hudson Valley Engineer Expo also celebrated National Robotics Week. During the event, the Carmel High School robotics team demonstrated its robots from the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high school robotics competition. As the team talked to the community about the competition, engineering and robots, they emphasized the immense educational impact of robotics competitions, underscoring the goal of National Robotics Week.

For all robot aficionados, National Robotics Week is a great chance to interact with code and even build robots. Next year’s National Robotics Week will take place from April 8–16, 2017.

Did You Know?

More than 400,000 students around the globe are predicted to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition 2015–16 season, creating a total of more than 37,000 robots.

Friday, June 24, 2016

When Languages Vanish: Keeping Culture Alive

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

Rather than take French or Spanish, I took Latin for four years in high school. I loved it, but people would always ask me why I was learning a “dead” language. You’re never going to speak Latin, they would tell me. Why learn it?

I could always name plenty of reasons. The English language relies on Latin words and conventions (which definitely came in handy on the SAT Language Arts questions!). Latin phrases are found in the medical field, on our currency and even in the Harry Potter books. Although no one formally speaks the language, Latin is far from gone.

Unfortunately, other languages are not as lucky as Latin: they’re in danger of vanishing completely.

It may seem strange to think about a language dying out, but approximately two languages disappear every month. There are about 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, and if they keep dying out at this rate, more than half of them will disappear by the end of this century.

Luckily, the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project strives to protect endangered languages from fading away.

National Geographic, in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, identifies language hotspots: locations with “the most unique, poorly understood or threatened indigenous languages.” They work with the people who live in these hotspots to preserve their languages and cultures.

It’s imperative to preserve languages to keep the diverse cultures of the planet alive. If languages disappear, so does an entire culture and evidence of how we as humans communicate.

The Enduring Voices Project preserves languages through its Talking Dictionaries. It doesn’t just document endangered languages; it preserves them so people around the world and far in the future can hear. The interface is simple: you choose a language, type in a word or phrase and can hear it spoken back to you in the language you chose. This project gives people the chance to “hear some of the most little-known sounds of human speech.”

With enough dedication to preserving language and culture, more languages and cultures will survive extinction. Who knows—maybe they’ll even be as widely studied as Latin one day.

Did You Know?

Sperm whales have their own languages. They communicate in a series of clicks called codas, and different pods of whales use different dialects. Whales that “speak the same language” travel together, proving to scientists that sperm whales have their own cultures.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Phantom World of Ghostwriters

by Eileen Neary
Junior Project Manager

Legions of nameless writers, churning out manuscripts behind closed doors. Books in bookstores emblazoned in bold letters with the names of literary goliaths receiving credit for works they did not pen. It sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it’s not. Ghostwriters were once invisible forces in the publishing world, but in recent years, the practice of ghostwriting is more forthright than ever.

Literary agent Madeleine Morel represents several ghostwriters through her agency 2M Communications Ltd. In her estimation, “at least 60 percent of the books [were] ghostwritten” on the nonfiction bestseller list at the time she was interviewed for NPR. She goes on to say that “10 years ago . . . you’d maybe tell your best friend on pain of death never to tell anyone else cause there was a slightly ignominious feature to it.”

These days, ghostwriters are often able to reveal whom they have written for. Ghostwriter Daniel Paisner, for example, is behind the works of Daymond John from ABC’s Shark Tank, athletes Ray Lewis and Serena Williams, actor Denzel Washington, and many other politicians and prominent figures.

In the fiction universe, best-selling author James Patterson is perhaps the most open about his use of ghostwriters. Without them, he could never have achieved the massive output that has made him one of the most prolific authors of all time. Between 2008 and 2013, Patterson revealed the process: He writes a 30- to 80-page project, a ghostwriter steps in to complete the work, and the pair check in monthly on the progress.

Author K. A. Applegate is best known for her Animorphs series, targeted for young adults. Though she started her career as a ghostwriter, fans were upset to learn during a Reddit Q&A that ghostwriters wrote dozens of the books in her series. Like Patterson, Applegate (and her husband, Michael Grant, who partnered with her on some writing projects) would come up with outlines of varying length that were used as a frame of reference for the ghostwriter’s drafting. Her reason for this practice? “It was either use ghosts or end the series. Our schedule was 14 books a year. Plus other projects.”

It’s certainly no cakewalk working as a ghostwriter. In addition to often losing out on name recognition, there is a lot that goes into trying to sound like a different author. According to NPR, ghostwriter David Fisher “studies speech patterns, sentence structures, what jokes his subjects tell . . . and organize[s] all the bits of information into a coherent story.” And when it comes to the money? The ghostwriter receives about 30 percent of the book’s advance, plus an agreed-upon percentage of the book’s royalties.

It makes you wonder . . . will ghostwriting become further legitimized as time goes on? Or will these writers continue to hide in the shadows? Revealing the truth is fine by me. I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

Did You Know?

Baseball agent Christy Walsh penned the term ghostwriting. Walsh went on to set up the Christy Walsh Syndicate in 1921 to “exploit the literary output of America's sporting heroes.” He and his firm went on to ghostwrite under the names of many famous athletes.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Technology of the Future Understands How You’re Feeling

by Arige Shrouf
Spring 2016 Intern

While shopping for a computer, I fell in love with a laptop that had facial recognition software. Naturally that laptop went home with me, and the face recognition, which works with the built-in camera, was one of the first things I set up. Instead of asking me for a password or passcode when I turned it on, my laptop would show a screen that would scan my face. Within seconds the software would recognize my face and the laptop would unlock. In addition to making me feel like the lead in a spy movie, this technology makes logging in much easier for laptops in tablet mode. Unfortunately, the software is quite literal in its face recognition. When the lighting is not great or I make strange facial expressions or I’m having a bad hair day, my laptop has a hard time recognizing me and I have to resort to inputting the password.

My laptop’s facial recognition failures were the first thing I thought of when I came across the term affective computing. Affective computing enables machines to be better capable of understanding and even influencing human emotion, which would in turn make them better capable of supporting people. The name of the software comes from the term used to describe the physical signs of users’ emotions, or “affect.” With this technology, my laptop would recognize the emotions, such as anger or frustration, registering on my face; it would no longer be confused by my changing facial reactions or refuse to acknowledge that I am actually myself, rather than a lookalike trying to break into my computer.

Affective computing could be used for more than just enhancing facial recognition software. Machines with affective computing capabilities could better equip humans to understand affect. For instance, in a classroom environment, this technology could analyze students’ affect and alert a teacher as students lose or gain interest in the topic being discussed. The technology could also be useful to people with autism who have a difficult time understanding or deciphering human emotions or reactions in others; the technology would pick up on social cues that could otherwise be missed or misinterpreted. Thanks to the efforts of researchers around the world, new developments in this technology are quickly making it a reality for practical uses in fields of science and medicine that would go beyond the initial translation of emotions into binary code.

Did You Know?

Affective computing researchers at MIT have worked on several projects, including automatic stress recognition sensors. When worn on the wrist, these biosensors were able to determine the stress levels of nine call center employees in their real-life environments. While still in its early stages, this technology could potentially help to prevent chronic stress, and the risks associated with it, by tracking early indicators.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

PSG Musicians: A Talented Office

by Kate Domenichella
Spring 2016 Intern

PSG boasts a surprising number of musicians in the office. Almost every staff member has had experience playing music at some point, and the staff’s talents range from beginner’s experience in elementary school with a recorder to playing the clarinet in a high school competition in Hawaii.

Currently, Ken sings with his church choir, but in the past, he sang with several college groups and was also a member of the Columbus Symphony Chorus in Ohio. He also enjoys playing the harmonica.

Eileen began playing the violin in third grade but did not continue after graduating high school. Her high school orchestra competed annually in the Large Group Festival, where they were judged on sight-reading and performance. When she was a senior, the orchestra traveled to Disney World and performed the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song in Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs).

Another string instrumentalist, Alyssa played the viola from fourth to eighth grade. But because she struggled to read sheet music, she did not continue in high school.

I began exploring my musical talents with the recorder in third grade. I hated it and cried every time I had to go in front of my class to “prove” I knew what I was doing. Like Eileen, I also participated in school competitions and even played the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. I played the clarinet from fourth grade to just after my freshman year of high school. I thought I was pretty good at it—and maybe I was at the time—but I couldn’t play any of the high notes and I was always the one who squeaked.

Chelsea was also a clarinet player, having played in middle school, high school (competitive marching band) and college bands. During her senior year of high school, her school band was able to fly to Hawaii and compete in the same stadium as the Hawaii Bowl and perform at the SS Constitution.

Nora played the piano for many years, and when she was a sophomore in high school she was able to get the role of Kelsey in “High School Musical” because she could play the songs on the piano, as the character did.

Tess used to play the violin from third grade until her senior year of high school. She hated every minute of it, so she jokes now that it didn’t seem like she had been playing for as long as she did.

Although my days of playing an instrument are long over and I know for a fact I can’t sing, that doesn’t stop me from busting out my air guitar and singing along to my favorite songs on the radio. The staff at Publishing Solutions Group is actually quite musically gifted. Perhaps a concert is in our future?

Did You Know?

A recent study [PDF link] from Northwestern University explored how full musical engagement allows students to better develop “neurophysiological distinction,” or the ability to process and distinguish sounds they hear. The more this is developed, the better students tend to improve in literacy.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Apps Making Language Barriers a Thing of the Past

by Nora Chan
Spring 2016 Intern

Traveling can be stressful, especially if you visit a place in which the native language does not match your own. But now you can use your phone to translate what you are saying or seeing in real time.

In January 2015, Google released a new feature of the Google Translate app, which allows users of iOS and Android devices to speak to the app, which will then generate a written translation of your speech on the screen. Some languages may also read the translation aloud. So instead of struggling to speak a different language, you may be able to communicate faster and more clearly. Although Google has long had the capability to translate into more than 90 languages in written form, this new speech feature of the app currently only works for 32 languages, including English to and from French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. However, Google has promised users that more languages will be added in the future.

In addition to bettering communication, this app also makes traveling to another country easier by acting as a personal guide: It will translate directions as well as conversation. The Word Lens tool further eases traveling anxiety by using the phone’s camera and augmented reality technology to translate text on road signs, menus, newspapers, etc. so that you can see the translation on the camera view of your phone. By downloading offline language packs, users can also use the app without an internet connection. This feature currently only works offline for Android devices, but other companies produce translator apps for use without an internet connection across iOS devices as well.

Before Google, Microsoft’s Skype also released a preview program of a voice-translating feature on its software in December 2014. This software translates the voice input during a voice call from an English or Spanish speaker into text and also provides translated audio. The software is primarily being marketed as a tool for classrooms and has been tested in classrooms in the United States and Mexico. Originally only supporting English and Spanish, the feature now includes Arabic, French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Brazilian Portuguese. The Skype Translator does not work offline, but Microsoft also has a separate Translator app that recently was made available for iOS devices. Both iPhone and Android users can take advantage of the app by downloading the needed offline packs before internet connection is lost.

As a Chinese minor, I believe in the value of learning a new language and immersing yourself in that cultural perspective, but this app seems to be incredibly useful for quick translations of words or phrases.

Did You Know?

Sinologist Stephen Owen has recently published the first complete English translation of Chinese poet Du Fu’s work into a 3,000-page, six-volume book that weighs nine pounds. Du Fu is considered “the Shakespeare of China” and around 1,400 of his poems are included in the book.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bridging the Gap Between Deaf and Hearing Individuals

by Tess Renault
Editorial Assistant

When I was in college, one of my most memorable courses was Intro to Deaf Studies. Early on in the semester we had to attend an event called “Deaf, Deaf, World,” in which hearing students like myself would be paired with deaf individuals. Within these pairings, we had to carry out what would seem like simple role-playing scenarios: ordering takeout, booking a flight, buying clothes. But it was intimidating. Beyond the phrase “Hi, my name is Tess” and the alphabet, I had no other knowledge of American Sign Language (ASL). That was not going to get me very far—no one would have the patience to wait as I spelled out every single word. I found myself wishing for my professor, who was fluent in ASL, to come over and be the middleman. But that was the whole point of the event: for hearing students to understand the communication barriers deaf individuals encounter on a daily basis.

Fortunately, there are more and more services that are bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing communities. ASL Services, a call center in Kissimmee, Florida, is a great example. Since 1989, the call center has been serving deaf and hard of hearing individuals by connecting with or dispatching ASL interpreters depending on a client’s needs. Relying on FaceTime, Skype and other video relaying sources, interpreters have become increasingly accessible. Says ASL Services founder, Angela Roth: “Years ago, a deaf person might have to wait an entire day for an interpreter to arrive. We now have a one-hour commitment.” Ordering food, making a doctor’s appointment and even attending a theatrical performance have become easier to accomplish than ever before.

The Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. (CSD), an international nonprofit organization, offers deaf and hard of hearing individuals another resource: Vineya. Named after the once large deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, Vineya is an online marketplace for scheduling ASL interpreters and translators. Currently, Vineya has 1,900 certified interpreters and offers its services in all 50 states. Additionally, the web-based nature of Vineya allows its customers to choose an interpreter—either in person or over a video connection. These various options allow deaf individuals to have more control over their communication needs.

Developing technology has also enabled interpreters to virtually follow their clients just about anywhere. Recently, ASL Services connected interpreters to deaf students who were studying abroad in Israel and Japan. Through the means of a video connection, interpreters based in the United States were able to assist the students, despite being on different continents.

Essentially, today’s booming technology is making it simpler for deaf individuals to communicate within an increasingly digitized and global society.

Did You Know?

Disney World has employed consultants to come up with new signs for its characters and other Disney specific terms during ASL-interpreted parades and shows that the park offers. For instance, to sign Mickey Mouse, you would curl your fingers in a C-shape, place them on top of your head and smile.

Cleary’s Beloved Klickitat Street Goes Green

by Ken Scherpelz
VP, Sales & Business Development

Beverly Cleary, the treasured creator of Beezus and Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and Runaway Ralph (one my son’s favorites), recently celebrated her 100th birthday, to the delight of her fans. When asked about this accomplishment, the author and former school librarian humbly remarked, “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Any fan of Cleary’s classic children’s literature will recall Klickitat Street, the name of the thoroughfare in Portland, Oregon, where the author’s adored Quimby family lived. While Cleary’s fictionalized version of Klickitat Street served as the setting of many adventures, the real-life version has also recently been in the news.

The Portland street was part of a recent initiative to bring increased water conservation to the city. A few years ago the city turned a 60-block stretch of its famous Klickitat Street into a “green street” to help reduce the amount of polluted storm water entering the city’s sewer system. A green street is a system of special curbs and rain gardens that soak up stormwater runoff. Unlike a conventional street, the curbs of a green street are designed to direct the water from the streets into specially designed planters filled with soil, mulch and plants. These all quickly absorb the rainwater and roadway pollutants (like oil, salt and tire marks) instead of allowing the runoff to flow into sewers and waterways. These installations also increase the amount of urban green space and reduce the burden on the city’s aging sewer system. Portland now has 1,300 green street installations that soak up about 77 million gallons of storm runoff each year that would otherwise pollute Oregon’s streams and rivers.

Beverly Cleary and many of her characters—Beezus, Ramona, Henry and even Henry’s dog Ribsy—all grew up in this Portland neighborhood. You can imagine that they would be pleased to see that its current real-life residents are doing their part to preserve the environment for future generations of children (and their dogs!) to enjoy.

Did You Know?

Growing up, Beverly Clearly did not have a library in the small county of Yamhill, Oregon. Her mother arranged for books to be sent from the state library to Yamhill where she acted as a librarian in makeshift library in a room above the town’s bank. It was in this provisional library that Cleary learned to love reading.

PSG's Food for Thought: See What's Cooking At Home

by Arige Shrouf
Spring 2016 Intern

I can lose track of time experimenting in the kitchen and changing up old recipes. Since some of my favorite dishes involve hours of prep time, I don’t get to make them as often as I would like. I enjoy cooking almost as much as I love eating, a result of growing up with home cooked meals on the table every night. Since my family is Middle Eastern and Hispanic, we have a plethora of traditional recipes to fall back on for dinner. However, we have never written any of those down, so even when we make the same dishes, they turn out different each time. I’ve had rice and chicken cooked in so many different ways that I have lost count! At my house, we could be eating spaghetti or rice and beans for dinner one night and stuffed vine leaves or couscous the next.

Spending time in the kitchen is also important to my coworkers. Duncan and Alyssa both enjoy using quinoa in their culinary endeavors, since it is such a versatile grain. Colleen makes pulled pork that involves a three-day-long process of marinating in a dry rub, then more time in a slow cooker. Chelsea loves making tator tot hotdish. Duncan, Lori, and Colleen enjoy spicy foods and include hot sauce in their favorite dishes, whether for shredded chicken quinoa or rice and beans.

But while the PSG staff appreciates good food as much as I do, the office has more bakers than cooks. Annette is known for her pumpkin whoopie pies and Tess likes to bake banana bread and jellyrolls. Kate is quite the adventurous baker, always trying creative recipes she finds on Pinterest that look too good to eat.

While I don’t eat spicy foods, I find my coworkers’ outlook of “the spicier the better” rather impressive, and since I’m more of a dessert eater than a baker, I admire the office’s collective baking prowess. Even though we all seem to have varied tastes in our favorite foods and the recipes we like to prepare, we can all agree that discussions about food and dessert make us hungry. Cue the cravings!

Did You Know?

American Cookery (full name: American Cookery of the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all Kinds of Cakes from the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake Adapted to This Country and all Grades of Life) was the first cookbook to be written and printed in the United States. It was published in 1796 and included recipes that incorporated Native American ingredients into traditional dishes. Only four copies of this cookbook with its original 47-word-long title still exist today, and you can take a look at a few pages of one here.