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A Little Bird Told Me You Love Literary Theory

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I can say from personal experience that Twitter is a great tool for procrastination, but could it also be one for learning and productivity? A new study says it might be the tool that literature teachers have been looking for. Lots of professions (including science writing!) now practically require an active Twitter presence, but many still scoff at the idea that the social media site could actually become part of the serious literary world.


Stalk your favorite celebrity or write a novel, the choice is yours

Launched in July 2006, Twitter takes microblogging to an extreme by allowing a maximum of 140 characters per entry, or “tweet”. With over 500 million users, it’s easily the most popular platform for social blogging. Twitter has destroyed careers and fueled movements, and following the site during a presidential debate is arguably more interesting than watching the real thing.

“Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literary Practice,” addresses the idea that Twitter could be considered a new literacy practice, or a tool to use in increasing student literacy. The study, published by Christine Greenhow of Michigan State University College of Education, compiles previous research on Twitter and other forms of social media. Greenhow concludes that using Twitter for literature classes makes college students feel more connected to what they’re reading. Use of the website improved communication between students and professors, taught students how to voice their thoughts succinctly, and even allowed students to reach out to authors and researchers.

Outside the classroom, the site has already become a new literary platform: Of course there are thousands of authors on Twitter, but some of them are actually authoring on Twitter. Much as Charles Dickens once released his classics in serial form, some writers have taken to breaking down their novels into 140-character tweets. Perhaps less gimicky are those who use Twitter to publish high-concept poetry, who use the website without leaving their readers literally hanging on each sentence of a long story.

Wanting to celebrate their new position as a literary form, Twitter has announced the first Twitter Fiction Festival, a “storytelling celebration” to “feature creative experiments in storytelling from authors around the world.” If you think you have a good idea for a literary experiment that’s made for tweeting, you can submit it now. The five-day festival will start on November 28th and highlight the most creative proposals.

Just keep in mind how short 140 characters is! It’s really easy to run out of room, especially when you’re just getting to the really good–

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s The Pirate Bay!

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Founded by Swedish rapscallions, TPB has been going strong for almost a decade

The Pirate Bay, the site of choice for illegal downloaders everywhere since 2003, has moved its operations skyward. The site, which serves as a sort of search engine for available files, partners users with shareable data with users who want to download it for themselves. Self-billed as “the galaxy’s most resilient BitTorrent site”, The Pirate Bay will now use multiple cloud servers across the globe instead of existing in physical locations that can be raided.

But how on earth do they get away with it? It’s not like The Pirate Bay pretends not to offer free downloads of copyrighted material, after all. It’s the whole wide world’s one-stop-shop for absolutely free music, games, movies, porn, and now even templates for use with 3D printers. Technically, European Union law states that someone who provides an information service is not responsible for the information that is shared on it, but the line is blurring between allowing copyright infringement on your website and encouraging it. That gray area is where The Pirate Bay often gets caught.


The Pirate Party: Always here to remind you that Sweden is just cooler than you are

Although Sweden is notoriously supportive of file-sharing and has a political party based on the support of it, the founders of The Pirate Bay have been convicted of aiding copyright infringement before, and probably will be again.

The Pirate Bay is always adapting to thwart enemies of file sharing. This past February, the site made the switch from hosting torrent files to hosting magnet links. While torrent files are stored on a server, leaving the website vulnerable to legal threats,  magnet links only hold enough info to connect you to other users who have the file on their computers.

Now The Pirate Bay has gone a step further by shifting to cloud computing hosts located in two different countries. With bits of data stored on virtual machines instead of in physical servers, the website will now be even more difficult to shut down.

Whatever your views on illegal file-sharing, you can’t deny that The Pirate Bay has got moxie. It has over five million registered users (and really, who registers before downloading?) and over four million available downloads. Its resilience is owed in part to the conviction of its founders, who in launching it were motivated as much by their belief in anti-copyright activism as they were by profit. Whether it’s a modern-day Robin Hood or a menace to society, The Pirate Bay is here to stay.

Lake Vostok: Totally next year’s hot vacation spot

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Last week, I wrote about the possibility of putting a permanent base on the moon. This week we’re boldly going where no man has gone before.

About 4,000 meters under a glacier, to be exact.

On Tuesday February 5th, Russian scientists announced that they had finally breached the ice sheet separating us from Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake in Antarctica. Why do we care? Because Lake Vostok has been sealed off from the rest of the world for more than 15 million years. The life we find there will be different from anything we’ve ever seen.

Whatever lives in Vostok has been evolving separately from the rest of the world for a very, very long time, and in an extreme environment at that. What will we find in the dark, cold depths of the Antarctic?

Spoiler alert: the organisms probably won't be like those things in The Abyss

Scientists have already found micro-organisms in the ice above the lake, and expect to find much more once they get a rover into the liquid water. The most exciting material to collect is the sediment at the bottom, which will have been relatively unmoved and untouched in these 15 million years.

The implications go beyond our own planet. Jupiter and Saturn both have moons (Europa and Enceladus, respectively) with deep ice crusts covering liquid water. These subglacial lakes, warmed by the planet they sit on instead of by the sun, probably have a lot in common.

Lake Vostok via satellite, which looks suspiciously like the crack in space and time

Discovered using space-based radar in the early 90’s, Vostok is actually just the largest of a network of 200 subglacial lakes in the area. It measures about the same area as Lake Ontario, but with almost three times the volume. At its warmest the water in the lake is estimated to be at -3º C. It maintains a liquid state because of the incredibly high pressure of the ice above it.

Vostok is a textbook example of an oligotrophic environment, an extreme habitat with few nutrients to support life. Researchers have found it to be supersaturated with nitrogen and oxygen, its levels over fifty times those of a normal lake. This high gas concentration is also due to the lake’s pressured environment.


This high pressure makes an already difficult drilling job all the more dangerous. The drill team already has to work only during the Antarctic summer, limiting their visits to one or two months at a time each year. Even if they’ve truly broken to the surface of the lake this time, they won’t be able to continue the mission until December of 2012, when the water is warm enough to liquify again.

And that robot will return to the surface to teach us the meaning of love. Pixar, get on this.

Some worry that the high gas content of the lake will cause a catastrophic geyser when the last layer of ice is broken. If this did occur, the unique organisms living in Vostok could be lost forever. At this time, the Russian team is optimistic, and plans to sent a robot down for samples in December.



Republicans in space

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The man with a plan

Sometimes politicians just make it way, way too easy. Newt Gingrich set himself up for a whole lot of ridicule on January 25th, when he promised a crowd of supporters in Florida a permanent moon base by the end of his second term as president.

The not-so-aptly-named Newton went on to imply that this base could become “the 51st state” and gave this reasoning for the project:

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism, and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

Because everybody knows we’ve got to beat those Reds.

Still, an idea this grandiose deserves a moment of consideration. After all, American science programs have been lacking in a big way since the end of the original Space Race. NASA is basically dead, so all suggestions for getting us back on track are more than welcome by the scientific community.

So why are scientists still guffawing at Gingrich’s proposal? It’s not because we have no reason to build a moon base. NASA has actually published 181 reasons to do just that. If nothing else, a base on the moon could be our best way to get astronauts to Mars successfully.

That doesn’t mean that a colony, let alone a state of 13,000 US citizens, is feasible now or in the new future. Ray Villard at Discovery made a couple good points. First of all, getting 13,000 Americans to relocate to the moon in this economic climate? We can’t even get 13,000 Americans to buy new condos in Brooklyn. Secondly, do we really need a 51st state that ranges from about 220,000 to 250,000 miles away from the rest of us at any given time? Americans have a bad track record with the whole idea of shipping off to colonies far from the Motherland.

Probably the only way to fund this

We just don’t have the money for it. Private sector space exploration is coming, but space tourism is going to focus on much shorter trips for the foreseeable future. Unless Bill Gates and ten of his richest friends decide they want to set up permanent summer homes on the moon, there isn’t enough money to make it happen.

All this aside, there is actually a treaty against us up and claiming that we own the moon. Even if the first moon base is “American” in origin, we won’t be able to claim the satellite’s resources as our own, and we definitely won’t be able to declare it a state without some serious hubbub from our fellow space-faring nations.

We have the technology, and we have plenty of scientists who would totally geek out over the prospect of working on a moon base. It will happen eventually, but chances are it’s going to take awhile…and the USA probably won’t be the country in charge of the project.

Check out a version of this story at my school paper, The Llama Ledger