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News and Trends
September 7, 2009


Brain vs. Hard Drive
Junk-Food Justice
White House Mail Call
Climate Change Culprits?
The Perils of Wikipedia
Does Surgery Belong Online?

Brain vs. Hard Drive
This TV game show is the latest challenge for artificial intelligence.
What is Jeopardy!?
That's correct!
Tech giant I.B.M. is in the final stages of developing a Jeopardy! computer program to compete against humans. If the program wins, it will be a major leap forward for artificial intelligence. In 1997, a chess program devised by I.B.M. beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. But chess is a game of limits, with pieces that have clearly defined powers. Jeopardy!, on the other hand, requires a program that can deal with analogies, puns, and concepts like size and location—all at lightning speed. Computer scientists say the main challenge is not searching a database but getting the computer to understand what it should be searching for. "The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms, and we're not there yet," says the I.B.M. team leader, David Ferrucci. Jeopardy!'s producers are already thinking about who the human contestants will be. One candidate is Ken Jennings—the longest-reigning Jeopardy! champ—who won 74 consecutive times and collected over $2.5 million in 2004.

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Junk-Food Justice
The question has long puzzled late-night snackers: What, exactly, is a Pringle? Britain's highest court has now provided an answer: In the eyes of the law, a Pringle is a potato chip. If you're wondering why Britain's courts took a break from robberies and murders to think about Pringles, it's actually a fight about taxes. Although most foods in Britain are tax exempt, there are exceptions, including potato chips. Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles, argued that the chips, which are 40 percent potato flour, but also contain corn, rice, and wheat, are not potato chips, but "savory snacks.'' Lord Justice Robin Jacob of the Supreme Court of Judicature disagreed: He ruled that the potatoe-ness of Pringles is a "matter of overall impression," and his impression is that they're potato chips, and taxable—which means Procter & Gamble now owes the government $160 million in potato chip taxes.

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White House Mail Call
Every day, tens of thousands of letters, e-mails, and faxes arrive at the White House. It's the job of Mike Kelleher, director of the White House Office of Correspondence, to select the 10 letters per day that will actually reach—and be read by—President Obama. Kelleher says he tries to pick letters that provide a sampling of what Americans are thinking: Some are from people who have lost jobs or homes, others from parents of troops serving overseas. Obama answers some of the letters by hand and uses others to make points with officials: Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, says Obama will sometimes turn to advisers in a meeting and say, "No, no, no. I want to read you a letter I got. I want you to understand."

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Climate Change Culprits?
Every year, the average cow belches 200 to 400 pounds of methane, a heat-trapping gas that's been linked to global warming. But changing the bovine diet might help. Since January, cows at 15 farms in Vermont have had their feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed. Unlike the corn or soy that cows are usually fed today, these foods mimic the grasses that cows evolved to eat, and the methane output of one herd has already dropped 18 percent. Methane is the second-most-significant gas associated with global warming after carbon dioxide, which comes mostly from tailpipe emissions. A 2006 United Nations report on the environmental impact of cows, including forest-clearing to create pasture, suggested that cows might be more dangerous to Earth's atmosphere than trucks and cars combined.

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The Perils of Wikipedia
When a French composer named Maurice Jarre died in March, Shane Fitzgerald added a fake quote to Jarre's Wikipedia biography. Fitzgerald, a 22-year-old sociology major at University College Dublin in Ireland, says it was simply an experiment to see how the Internet affects media accuracy. But the results offer a cautionary tale to anyone using the Web for research. The fake quote immediately appeared on newspaper Web sites around the world—even though Wikipedia twice caught its lack of attribution and removed it. A month later, Fitzgerald alerted media outlets to the hoax. "I am 100 percent convinced that if I hadn't come forward," he told the Associated Press, "that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up."

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Does Surgery Belong Online?
The point of Shila Mullins's brain surgery was to remove a tumor that threatened to paralyze her left side. But Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, also saw an opportunity to promote itself—with a webcast of her surgery. Mullins had an awake craniotomy, which means she remained awake and talking during the surgery. (The video shows Mullins reciting ABC's while doctors separate the tumor from her brain.) The hospital's marketing department promoted the webcast—which was not broadcast live, like other surgeries at the hospital—in infomercials and newspaper ads, and tracked the number of viewers and the number of appointments made in response. Hospitals are using unconventional methods, like Tweeting from operating rooms and posting surgeries on YouTube, to attract patients, donors, and doctors. But some ethicists say these practices raise questions about patient privacy. As for Mullins, although the surgery didn't prevent partial paralysis of her left arm, leaving her unable to work, the video includes her testimonial praising the hospital's care.

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