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Good Reads: From a Van Gogh find, to undocumented students, to Web memory

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a newly discovered masterpiece, a new approach to save disappearing languages, how spying on foreigners could hurt the US economy, a tale of arriving to the United States on a tire, and how Google has become a 'friend.'

By Staff writer / October 11, 2013

‘Sunset at Montmajour’ has recently been confirmed as a painting by Van Gogh.

Peter Dejong/AP

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A newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh went on display last month. “Sunset at Montmajour,” painted in 1888, spent a century trapped in an attic. Now, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has embraced the work as genuine, turning what was long considered to be a fake into a potential multimillion-dollar find.

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Chris Gaylord is the Monitor's Innovation Editor. He loves gadgets, history, design, and curious readers like you.

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In the early 1900s, the painting changed hands from Van Gogh’s sister-in-law to a Paris art dealer and then on to Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad. Mustad “purchased it in 1908 as a young man in one of his first forays into art collecting, but was soon told by the French ambassador to Sweden that it was a fake,” writes Toby Sterling in a feature for The Associated Press. “Embarrassed, Mustad banished it to the attic.”

This year, the Van Gogh Museum confirmed its authenticity through a combination of chemical analysis and researching the letters of Van Gogh, who described both the painting and the landscape it depicts.

Saving endangered languages

The same technology that allows Apple’s Siri to recite movie times could also save dying languages. Of the 6,000 languages on earth, close to a third are in danger of disappearing.

“Some of them may only have a few hundred speakers – could be wiped out by a volcano, say, and that’s happened before,” says David Teeple in a video by The Verge. Mr. Teeple is a linguist for the text-to-speech software company Nuance.

The company hires voice actors to record lines that are then broken down into their phonetic parts and reassembled into any English word. Teeple says the same software could also record the speakers of endangered languages, digitally protecting their culture.

Nobody likes a snoop

This year, leaked classified documents revealed that the National Security Agency has secretly collected the online communications of foreigners. The PRISM program has gathered data from nine American tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Setting aside the legal and moral arguments against such a program, Glenn Derene writes in Popular Mechanics that spying on foreigners could hurt the US economy.

“Collecting vast quantities of user data from American-based multinational companies could end up poisoning their reputations and harming their business,” he says. It forces foreign firms to question whether they want to work with American companies, and raises national security questions for other governments thinking about contracting US firms.

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