Good Reads: From teacher fundraisers, to an atomic timekeeper, to MazaCoin

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes crowdfunding for school teachers, parliamentary elections in North Korea, the timekeeper for the satellite clock, computer-generated recipes, and a currency for Lakota nation.

Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle/AP
Schoolchildren dance with a Nintendo Wii video game, bought with funds from DonorsChoose, as part of their gym class.

“Teachers know how to improve education, but they are a voice that is consistently overlooked or ignored,” says Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org, which Fast Company named as one of this year’s 50 Most Innovative Companies. His organization tries to break through the budget cuts, unions, and federal initiatives that he says can hamper great teachers. Instead, he raises money – $225 million so far – and gives it directly to teachers to fund specific projects and items, such as after-school programs, new books, and 3-D printers.

DonorsChoose has received large donations from Google, late-night host Stephen Colbert, and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, but Mr. Best prefers rallying communities to help fund programs within their own schools. His Kickstarter-style crowdfunding website has attracted more than 1.2 million donors.

“We’ve heard people say that teachers have no business going rogue and trying to select their own books, technology, and classes – and citizens have no business deciding what is worthy,” Best tells writer Peg Tyre. But, he adds, “We believe in teachers. We believe in the wisdom of the crowd.”

How ‘elections’ work in North Korea

On March 9, North Korea held its first parliamentary elections since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. Of course, the totalitarian state has a unique definition of “elections.” A single candidate for the Supreme People’s Assembly runs unopposed in each district. Abstaining or voting against the ruling party’s handpicked choice comes at great personal peril, explains Jake Scobey-Thal in Foreign Policy. Essentially, these elections, which come every five years, more closely resemble a national and political census. Local officials get a chance to count heads, and party leaders can monitor the loyalty and efficiency of their agents in the field.

“It’s nearly impossible to determine which individuals and institutions hold real power within the secretive North Korean government, but one thing is clear: The Supreme People’s Assembly is not one of them,” writes Mr. Scobey-Thal. “Still, the North Korean government remains determined to uphold at least the appearance of democratic legitimacy.”

An atomic timekeeper

Who is in charge of time? When GPS satellites pinpoint the location of your car and help navigate you home, they rely not only on an exact knowledge of what time it is, but also an understanding of how time changes at fast speeds and in low gravity. The same goes for banking systems, the Internet, and cellphone networks. To keep all these systems running smoothly, Demetrios Matsakis, chief scientist for time services at the US Naval Observatory, must think about time in radical ways.

“I like to tell people I don’t know exactly what time it is, but I can tell them exactly what a second is,” he told The Atlantic in a short video profile. “A second is 9,192,671,770 periods of oscillation of an undisturbed cesium atom.” He runs more than 100 atomic clocks, which together determine the “official” time for computers, phones, and satellites worldwide.

Computer-generated recipes

IBM supercomputer and “Jeopardy!” champion Watson has taken up a new hobby: cooking. “The system analyzed about 35,000 existing recipes and about 1,000 chemical flavor compounds, which allows it to make educated guesses about which ingredient combinations will delight and, just as importantly, surprise,” writes Adrianne Jeffries for The Verge. “From there, it tries to encourage unconventional combinations – like chocolate, coffee, and garlic – in order to produce dishes that have never been made before.”

IBM set up a food truck outside the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, this month so that people could try Watson’s culinary creations. Ms. Jeffries tried a kebab made with chicken, pork, strawberry, mushrooms, curry, and mint. She found the dish “delicious,” but not as surprising as the cooks seemed to think it was.

A currency for Lakota nation

Dollars are a scarce commodity in the Pine Ridge Indian reservation of South Dakota. Half of its residents live in poverty, and most of the money that flows into the Oglala Lakota Nation ebbs right back out of the community as people spend their cash in nearby cities. As a result, the tribe is largely dependent on the federal government. But programmer and native American activist Payu Harris has a plan to lift his tribe out of this hardship: a Bitcoin-style digital currency called MazaCoin that he designed specifically for the Lakota.

Merchants across the reservation will accept MazaCoin for everyday transactions. The currency may be purchased with dollars and traded through smart phones or computers. But as Mr. Harris tells Alysa Landry of Indian Country Today Media Network, MazaCoin represents more than a plan to keep money from evaporating out of the local economy. With MazaCoin, the “international community will look at us and realize we’re serious about our sovereignty,” he says. “Having our own currency would have a stabilizing effect.”

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