Alex Pentland has carved a career path somewhere between the social sciences and science fiction, spearheading the development of everything from Google Glass to fitness trackers.
It all started with beavers. When Alex Pentland was three years into his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, in 1973, he worked part-time as a computer programmer for NASA’s Environmental Research Institute. One of his first tasks — part of a larger environmental-monitoring project — was to develop a method for counting Canadian beavers from outer space. There was just one problem: existing satellites were crude, and beavers are small. “What beavers do is they create ponds,” he recalls of his eventual solution, “and you can count the number of beavers by the number of ponds. You’re watching the lifestyle, and you get an indirect measure.”
The beavers were soon accounted for, but Pentland’s fascination with the underlying methodology had taken root. Would it be possible, the 21-year-old wondered, to use the same approach to understand people and societies, or use sensors to unravel complex social behavior? And in so doing, could we find a way to improve our collective intelligence — to create, in a sense, a world that was more suited to human needs, where cities and businesses alike were developed using objective data to maximize our happiness and productivity?
PUBLISHED: May 16, 2014
LENGTH: 14 minutes (3535 words)
The Twisted Saga of Jailhouse Boxer James Scott's Battle for Redemption:
Prison inmate No. 57735, accused of murder and serving a 30-40 year stretch inside Rahway State Prison for armed robbery, introduced himself in a letter to reporter Beth Schenerman at The New York Times on Dec. 17, 1978, writing, in a rare moment of understatement, "This is a unique story." After returning to prison three years earlier, the former professional boxer had long since been recognized as one of the most feared and dangerous of the 1,150 inmates then living behind the walls of New Jersey's most notorious maximum-security prison, a place journalist Ralph Wiley described "as if the world had dropped the sum of its sores into one of New Jersey's gritty smokestacks, then chose not to watch as the results of the experiment filtered down into place."
PUBLISHED: March 12, 2014
LENGTH: 37 minutes (9381 words)
Why is it so rare for audio to go viral?
It’s hardly a fair fight, audio vs. cat video, but it’s the one that’s fought on Facebook every day. DiMeo’s glum conclusion is an exaggeration of what Giaever reads as the moral of her own story: “People will watch a bad video more than [they will listen to] good audio,” she says.
Those in the Internet audio business tend to give two explanations for this disparity. “The greatest reason is structural,” says Jesse Thorn, who hosts a public radio show called “Bullseye” and runs a podcast network called Maximum Fun. “Audio usage takes place while you’re doing something else.” You can listen while you drive or do the dishes, an insuperable competitive advantage over text or video, which transforms into a disadvantage when it comes to sharing the listening experience with anyone out of earshot. “When you’re driving a car, you’re not going to share anything,” says Thorn.
PUBLISHED: Jan. 16, 2014
LENGTH: 22 minutes (5720 words)
Alaric hunt is writing detective novels, while serving a life sentence for murder, arson, robbery and other charges:
Alaric Hunt turned 44 in September. He last saw the outside world at 19. He works every day at the prison library in a maximum-security facility in Bishopville, S.C., passing out the same five magazines and newspapers to the same inmates who chose the library over some other activity. He discovered his favorite writer, Hemingway, at a library like this one, in a different prison. He found the Greek and the Roman philosophers there too. He rediscovered the science-fiction masters who wowed him as a boy and spurred him to write his own stories. And, one Friday three years ago, he found the listing for the contest that would change his life.
PUBLISHED: Jan. 10, 2014
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2823 words)
PUBLISHED: Jan. 10, 2014
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4200 words)
A visit to the "longest continuously running prison rodeo in America":
To run their maximum-security prison at near capacity, warden Burl Cain and his staff have to be able to inspire hope and put a measure of trust in their charges. Begun as a source of in-house amusement in 1964 and opened for public consumption in ’67, the rodeo is crucial to that effort. The revenue it brings in supplies and maintains on-site trade schools and re-entry programs, pays inmate teachers and funds improvements to Angola’s infrastructure—and the opportunity to rub shoulders with people outside their usual social circle is something inmates look forward to year round.
PUBLISHED: Dec. 6, 2013
LENGTH: 16 minutes (4163 words)
As head coach for women's track and field at the University of Texas, Bev Kearney won six NCAA championships and coached athletes who later competed at the Olympics. An affair with a student forced her to resign and her legacy is being tarnished:
"She was a magnetic, inspiring presence, and not only because of her success in Austin. In a near-fatal car accident in 2002, Kearney had been paralyzed from the waist down, and yet she now walked with two canes, like a mountain climber in a blizzard. Added to her already impressive life story—she had risen from a poor and rootless childhood, overcoming countless obstacles—the accident made her a formidable role model and a universal symbol of perseverance. 'Failure is not an option,' she liked to say, and she was living proof of her own maxim.
"That is, until this past spring, when Kearney was nowhere to be found at the 2013 Texas Relays. She didn’t ride onto the track on her burnt-orange scooter. No Divine Divas or Gents of Distinction were honored by her Pursuit of Dreams Foundation. At the parties held that weekend, there was no sign of the woman who had inspired so many people. That’s because right after Christmas, to the shock of many in the world of track and field and beyond, UT and Kearney had bitterly parted ways."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 3, 2013
LENGTH: 52 minutes (13126 words)
A diagnosed sociopath explains how she thinks and functions. Adapted from a book
by M.E. Thomas:
"I loved getting high marks in school; it meant I could get away with things other students couldn't. When I was young, what thrilled me was the risk of figuring out just how little I could study and still pull off the A. It was the same for being an attorney. During the California bar exam, people were crying from the stress. The convention center where the exam took place looked like a disaster relief center; people made desperate attempts to recall everything they had memorized over the prior eight weeks—weeks that I spent vacationing in Mexico. Despite being woefully ill-prepared by many standards, I was able to maintain calm and focus enough to maximize the knowledge I did have. I passed while others failed."
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3422 words)
It is "a national disgrace": The U.S. prison system, for years, failed to stop rampant sexual abuse from occurring behind bars. Inside the new program to stop it:
"The review panel’s most recent report describes the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, a maximum-security state prison in Troy, Virginia. About 1,200 women are confined there, and when the BJS surveyed them in 2009, 11.4 percent said they’d been sexually abused by other inmates in the preceding year alone; 6.0 percent said they’d been sexually abused by staff."
"The twelve months asked about in that survey came shortly after sexual misconduct by Fluvanna’s staff had already turned into scandal. Former inmate Melissa Andrews told the review panel about Patrick Owen Gee, who was chief of security at the prison—a man, she said, who seemed to hate women. When he started working at Fluvanna, he 'went from wing to wing in each building and told us, "you bitches think you’ve been living in Kindercare…things are going to change."' Andrews also testified that the warden to whom Gee reported, Barbara Wheeler, 'said to officers many times, that if she took anything and everything from us including our humanity maybe we would not return to prison' Gee was convicted of sexually abusing the inmates he was supposed to protect in 2008, and sentenced to five years in prison."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 4, 2012
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5463 words)