fishmike writes with this excerpt from a Reuters report: "American high school students are terrible writers, and one education reform group thinks it has an answer: robots. Or, more accurately, robo-readers — computers programmed to scan student essays and spit out a grade. The theory is that teachers would assign more writing if they didn't have to read it. And the more writing students do, the better at it they'll become — even if the primary audience for their prose is a string of algorithms. ... Take, for instance, the Intelligent Essay Assessor, a web-based tool marketed by Pearson Education, Inc. Within seconds, it can analyze an essay for spelling, grammar, organization and other traits and prompt students to make revisions. The program scans for key words and analyzes semantic patterns, and Pearson boasts it 'can "understand" the meaning of text much the same as a human reader.' Jehn, the Harvard writing instructor, isn't so sure. He argues that the best way to teach good writing is to help students wrestle with ideas; misspellings and syntax errors in early drafts should be ignored in favor of talking through the thesis."
Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive
kodiaktau writes "An interesting article from the BBC News Magazine explores the reasons why most fantasy worlds use British as their primary accent. Citing specific examples from recent and upcoming shows and movies like Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, the article concludes British accents are 'sufficiently exotic,' 'comprehensible' and have a 'splash of otherness.' It would be odd to think of a fantasy world having a New Jersey accent, or even a Mid-West accent, which tends to be the default for TV and movies in the U.S., but how do UK viewers feel about having British as a default? More specifically, what about the range of UK accents, like Scottish, Welsh, Cockney? The International Dialects of English Archive shows at least nine regional sounds, with dozens of sub-regional pronunciations in England alone. In the U.S., there have always been many regional accents that might be used in interesting ways. Filmmakers should consider looking at speech accents from other areas of the world to create more interesting dialects."
An anonymous reader tips news that electronics retailer Best Buy will be closing 50 of its big-box stores across the U.S. this year, and laying off hundreds of corporate workers besides. The company plans to start testing new types of outlets as it tries to adapt to the changing face of retail sales. From the article: "Best Buy shares were off 7.7% at $24.56 on Thursday afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange. Also Thursday, Best Buy reported a $1.7 billion loss for its fourth quarter ended March 3. ... Consumers armed with mobile phones are increasingly using stores as showrooms to check out merchandise they later purchase for less online, a trend greatly benefiting Internet retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. that aren't encumbered by the costs of running physical locations and in many cases don't have to collect sales tax. Meanwhile Apple Inc.'s phones and tablets, showcased in its own namesake stores, have eroded the status of specialty chains as the one-stop shop for the latest in gadgetry. In response, Best Buy said it will launch large-scale tests of what it calls new 'connected store' formats in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., as well as San Antonio. The stores, which will emphasize services such as technology support and wireless connections, will feature large new hubs at their center to assist shoppers, as well as reconfigured checkout lanes and new areas to accelerate the pickup of items purchased earlier online."
New submitter butilikethecookie writes with news that the 2012 federal budget for Canada calls for the Royal Canadian Mint to stop producing pennies. "The budget calls the lowly penny a 'burden to the economy.' 'It costs the government 1.6 cents to produce each new penny,' the budget says, adding the government will save about $11 million a year with its elimination (PDF). Some Canadians, it says, consider the penny more of a nuisance than a useful coin. ... Rounding prices will become the norm as the penny is gradually removed from circulation, the budget says. If consumers find themselves without pennies, cash transactions should be rounded to the nearest five-cent increment 'in a fair and transparent manner,' it says. Noncash payments such as checks and credit cards will continue to be settled by the cent, however."
Fluffeh writes "While it is a bit disappointing that companies might need a law to avoid providing tools that censor free speech to overseas regimes, an updated version of a bill that's been floating around for a few years — the Global Online Freedom Act — has passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights. The version that made it out of committee took out some controversial earlier provisions that had potential criminal penalties for those who failed to report information to the Justice Department. However, the Center for Democracy and Technology has raised some concerns: 'While some companies – such as GNI members Google, Microsoft, Websense, and Yahoo! – have stepped up and acknowledged these responsibilities in an accountable way, other companies have not been so forthright. GOFA, however, is a complex bill. While it presents a number of sensible and innovative mechanisms for mitigating the negative impact of surveillance and censorship technologies, it also raises some difficult questions: can export controls be meaningfully extended in ways that reduce the spread of (to borrow words from Chairman Smith) "weapons of mass surveillance" without diminishing the ability of dissidents to connect and communicate? How can – and should – U.S. companies engage with so-called "Internet-restricting" countries?'"
New submitter AcMNPV writes "A news release from UCLA describes a new process for producing biofuels using microorganisms, electrical current and carbon dioxide (abstract). Quoting: 'Liao and his team genetically engineered a lithoautotrophic microorganism known as Ralstonia eutropha H16 to produce isobutanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol in an electro-bioreactor using carbon dioxide as the sole carbon source and electricity as the sole energy input. Photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy to chemical energy and storing it in the bonds of sugar. There are two parts to photosynthesis — a light reaction and a dark reaction. The light reaction converts light energy to chemical energy and must take place in the light. The dark reaction, which converts CO2 to sugar, doesn't directly need light to occur. "We've been able to separate the light reaction from the dark reaction and instead of using biological photosynthesis, we are using solar panels to convert the sunlight to electrical energy, then to a chemical intermediate, and using that to power carbon dioxide fixation to produce the fuel," Liao said.'"
concealment writes with news that VISA and MasterCard have been warning banks of an incident at a U.S. card processor that may have compromised as many as 10 million credit card numbers. From the article: "Neither VISA nor MasterCard have said which U.S.-based processor was the source of the breach. But affected banks are now starting to analyze transaction data on the compromised cards, in hopes of finding a common point of purchase. Sources at two different major financial institutions said the transactions that most of the cards they analyzed seem to have in common are that they were used in parking garages in and around the New York City area." According to the Wall Street Journal, the breached company is Global Payments Inc.
Hugh Pickens writes "Time Magazine reports that after the massacre in which Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly killed 17 civilians in Afghanistan, the Pentagon has ordered an urgent review of the use of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine, also known as Lariam, known to have severe psychiatric side effects including psychotic behavior, paranoia and hallucinations. 'One obvious question to consider is whether he was on mefloquine (Lariam), an anti-malarial medication,' writes Elspeth Cameron Ritchie in Time. 'This medication has been increasingly associated with neuropsychiatric side effects, including depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.' The drug has been implicated in numerous suicides and homicides, including deaths in the U.S. military. For years the military used the weekly pill to help prevent malaria among deployed troops, however in 2009 the U.S. Army nearly dropped use of mefloquine entirely because of the dangers, using it only in limited circumstances, including sometimes in Afghanistan. Army and Pentagon officials would not say whether Bales took the drug, citing privacy rules. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson has ordered a new, urgent review to make sure that troops were not getting the drug inappropriately. 'Some deployed service members may be prescribed mefloquine (PDF) for malaria prophylaxis without appropriate documentation in their medical records and without proper screening for contraindications,' the order says. It notes that this review must include troops at 'deployed locations.'"
mdsolar writes "Climate change is amplifying risks from drought, floods, storms and rising seas, threatening all countries, but small island states, poor nations and arid regions in particular, UN experts warned on Tuesday. In its first-ever report on the question, the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said man-made global-warming gases are already affecting some types of extreme weather. And, despite gaps in knowledge, weather events once deemed a freak are likely to become more frequent or more vicious, inflicting a potentially high toll in deaths, economic damage and misery, it said."
An anonymous reader writes "Telia, a Swedish telecommunications company, is now looking into possible solutions to block free VoIP services like Skype and Vibr, claiming the losses are beginning to take its toll on the total earnings. Critics are saying the companies have wrongly implemented outdated pricing models, and the act could threaten net transparency and Independence. A new report from regulators of the European phone market shows that more and more telecommunications companies will block their subscribers from using free services. The European Commission is investigating whether it is possible to prohibit the blocking of legal services online."
hackingbear writes "After China unblocked certain sensitive keywords in search engine baidu.com last week, YouTube is now partially, quietly unblocked. Users inside China can, without bypassing the Great Firewall, visit the site, search for sensitive keywords, and see uncensored results and comments. The videos themselves, including those not related to politics, remain blocked, however. Given that the Chinese government likes to make major changes in gradual, experimental steps, it is unclear what this round of Internet loosening will lead to eventually. At the meantime, many netizens in the country express their welcome of the moves as a good start through microblogging."
wiredmikey writes "As the Federal Government aims to make use of the massive volume of digital data being generated on a daily basis, the Obama Administration today announced a 'Big Data Research and Development Initiative' backed by more than $200 million in commitments to start. Through the new Big Data initiative and associated monetary investments, the Obama Administration promises to greatly improve the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data. Interestingly, as part of a number of government announcements on big data today, The National Institutes of Health announced that the world's largest set of data on human genetic variation – produced by the international 1000 Genomes Project (At 200 terabytes so far) is now freely available on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. Additionally, the Department of Defense (DoD) said it would invest approximately $250 million annually across the Military Departments in a series of programs. 'We also want to challenge industry, research universities, and non-profits to join with the Administration to make the most of the opportunities created by Big Data,' Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy at OSTP noted in a blog post. 'Clearly, the government can't do this on its own. We need what the President calls an 'all hands on deck' effort.'"
snydeq writes "Mozilla's 'endless parade' of Firefox updates adds no visible benefit to users but breaks common functions, as numerous add-ons, including the popular open source TinyMCE editor, continually suffer compatibility issues, thanks to Firefox's newly adopted auto-update cycle, writes InfoWorld's Galen Gruman. 'Firefox is a Web browser, and by its very nature the Web is a heterogeneous, uncontrolled collection of resources. Expecting every website that uses TinyMCE to update it whenever an incremental rev comes out is silly and unrealistic, and certainly not just because Mozilla decided compatibility in its parade of new Firefox releases was everyone else's problem. The Web must handle such variablility — especially the browsers used to access it.'"
First time accepted submitter wynterwynd writes "In a move that seems to be in line with Gawker Media founder Nick Denton's opinion of his sites' commenters, some Gawker Media sites are now instructing their commenters that they will have to link their Gawker commenter ID with their Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts in order to log in. Is this really a good idea, considering the security issues Gawker has had in the past? Per the article, for 'security purposes' Gawker is 'putting our account security layer in the hands of some of the best in the business — major sites with more security expertise and resources than anyone else on the web.' To my mind, it's hard to see this as anything but a grab to milk Gawker commenters' social networking accounts for targeted ad revenue — which really shouldn't be a surpirse considering Denton's contempt for most of the Gawker community. Is this a step too far for an online community? Is it a cash grab or a genuine effort to encourage secure and responsible posting?"