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Good Reads: gun laws, lottery winners, online education, and tech gets sensory

A round-up of this week's long-form good reads include Britain's gun laws, the burden of lottery winners, online courses vs. the college experience, and sensory developments in high-tech.

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Online courses vs. college life

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the wave of the future, “the end of higher education as we know it,” as one university president has predicted.
Or are they? Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?”), Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk give Luddites their due. While it’s true that an online course conducted by a top teacher might trump a large lecture class offered by a second-rate live lecturer, those pushing MOOCs as inevitable should be heard with a skeptic’s ear.

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Gregory M. Lamb is a senior editor and writer.

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“The idea that [students] can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. “There is an awful lot of hype about ... the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”

Even David Stavens, a founder of the MOOC provider Udacity, concedes that “there’s a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.” 

High-tech touch and taste

IBM forecasts that within the next five years technology will vastly improve the way humans experience the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch), according to a report in the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence newsletter. Online shoppers, for example, will be able to “touch” a product using mobile devices, “using haptic, infrared and pressure-sensitive technologies to simulate touch – such as the texture and weave of a fabric as a shopper brushes their finger over the image of the item on a device screen.”

Clever sensors will also be able to detect sounds in the form of pressure, vibrations, and sound waves. This data will allow predictions of events such as when a tree might fall or when a landslide is about to happen. “Baby talk” will be decoded as a language, letting parents or other caregivers know what infants are trying to communicate. Computer systems will learn to detect emotions and sense a person’s mood by analyzing factors such as pitch, tone, and hesitancy in speech, allowing automated call centers to be more helpful and understanding between human cultures to improve.

Even the finest chefs will be challenged by technology. Computer programs “will break down ingredients to their molecular level and blend the chemistry of food compounds with the psychology behind what flavors and smells humans prefer,” IBM predicts.

Healthy foods will be made more palatable – and programming will pair up foods in ways that maximize taste and flavor. “A system like this can also be used to help us eat healthier,” IBM predicts, “creating novel flavor combinations that will make us crave a vegetable casserole instead of potato chips.”

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