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

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

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.

Recommended: Isabella Stewart Gardner: 5 books about the world's most audacious art theft

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.

The irony here is that PRISM is effective because American companies dominate information technology. By snooping around in their servers, could the government have ruined the companies’ competitive edge – and its own?

From a floating tire to the Ivy League

“The first time he arrived in the United States, three-year-old Juan Cerda ... was on a truck tire floating across the Rio Grande river,” writes Yanan Wang in the Yale Daily News. “All in all, Cerda has spent just four years of his life in Mexico – three as a toddler, and one as a child waiting for his mother to receive cancer treatment. But for almost all of the 16 years he has lived in America, Cerda has had no permission to live in this country.”

Mr. Cerda now attends Yale University as part of the class of 2015. Ms. Wang’s article, titled “Undocumented but Unafraid,” tracks Cerda’s remarkable journey from that floating tire to the Ivy League, and where he wants to head next.

Our friend, the Google search engine

Google is not making us dumber – the truth is much stranger than that, says Clive Thompson in Slate. Mr. Thompson argues that humans have never been good at holding on to details. A study from 1990 – well before the Web supposedly rotted our brains – asked participants to read and recall several sentences. About an hour later, the subjects could pretty much recite the lines verbatim. When asked again four days later, however, most of them remembered the gist of each sentence, but could not recall the specific wording. There is one exception, though: When people are passionate about a subject, they retain far more details.

Now, research suggests that in order to compensate for our leaky brains, many people start creating networks of shared memory between spouses, colleagues, and friends. “They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y,” writes Thompson. “So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse.” You remember our bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo; I’ll remember our relatives’ birthdays and where we keep the spare light bulbs.

In other words, a search engine isn’t a modern crutch, he says. It’s a close friend that just happens to be passionate about everything.

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