Uncategorized

The Past, Evenly Distributed: Europeana at 10

I was honored to be asked by Europeana, the indispensable, unified digital collection of Europe’s cultural heritage institutions, to write a piece celebrating the 10th anniversary of their launch. My opening words:

‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,’ science fiction writer William Gibson famously declared. But this is even more true about the past.

The world we live in, the very shape of our present, is the profound result of our history and culture in all of its variety, the good as well as the bad. Yet very few of us have had access to the full array of human expression across time and space.

Cultural artifacts that are the incarnations of this past, the repository of our feelings and ideas, have thankfully been preserved in individual museums, libraries, and archives. But they are indeed unevenly distributed, out of the reach of most of humanity.

Europeana changed all of this. It brought thousands of collections together and provided them freely to all. This potent original idea, made real, became an inspiration to all of us, and helped to launch similar initiatives around the world, such as the Digital Public Library of America.

You can read my entire piece at the special 10th anniversary website, along with pieces from the heads of the Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, and others. Allez culture and congrats to my friends at Europeana on this great milestone!

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Academia, Podcasts, Uncategorized

Bridging the Academic-Public Divide Through Podcasts

[The text of my keynote at the Sound Education conference at Harvard on November 2, 2018. This was the first annual conference on educational and academic podcasts, and gathered hundreds of producers of audio and podcast listeners to discuss how podcasting can effectively and engagingly reach diverse audiences interested in a wide range of scholarly fields.]

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It’s great to be back here in Andover Hall. I received a master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, and being in this chapel reminds me of what I was thinking about during my two years studying the history of religion. It is, perhaps surprisingly, germane to what I want to talk about today.

Studying religion means studying the biggest questions, the unanswerable questions. The study of religion is, necessarily, humbling. If it occasionally approaches higher truths, it also reminds us that human knowledge is woefully incomplete and fallible.

But this fallibility and the way we stumble toward the truth is not communicated regularly or well by academia to the outside world. Our formal communications take other forms that are more, shall we say, braggadocious. The academic monograph and article are necessarily shaped to show off expertise. These written forms have scholarly accoutrements, like the jewelry of footnotes, that make them dressed to impress. Mostly, of course, they are dressed to impress one’s peers.

On the other side of the academic house, press releases and magazine-like pieces from the university communications office are aimed at impressing the broader world, and to garner coverage beyond the walls of the academy. But these are also forms of writing that stay in a narrow lane, crowded as they are with spunky, crafted quotations from a world in which everything is a game-changing breakthrough.

But we’re here for podcasts. Let’s not dwell on these forms of academic expression other than to recognize them for what they are: genres. The press release and the academic article and the monograph may all be about scholarly research, but they are distinct genres, and throughout my brief remarks this morning, I want to encourage you to think about podcasts in terms of genres as well. I want you to think about the genre for your podcast.

Genres are enormously helpful structures. They are commonly agreed upon forms of communication that provide identifying signals to the audience about what they are reading, viewing, or in the case of podcasts, listening to. Genres give the audience, often unconsciously and rapidly, a general category for a creative work, which in turn colors its reception.

Genres prep the podcast listener’s ears and mind through repetition, recognition,and expectation. Conforming to a genre telegraphs structural information to the audience and makes audio more palatable and relatable.

Podcast elements like intro and outro music, for instance, are genre-building. They orient the listener, who after all might be tuning in for the first time, and communicate what kind of audio stream this is.

This conference is about podcasts, but there can be and indeed are many genres of podcasts. Podcasts no longer occupy the vast spectrum from two white guys talking about technology to three white guys talking about technology. What this conference represents is a wonderful flourishing of podcast genres.

Now we need to think more about the kinds of genres that academic work works well in, and that can take maximal advantage of the medium and have the maximal impact.

So let’s talk about how to situate educational and academic podcasts within the galaxy of possible genres.

We can take some helpful clues about this situation from other new media formats that have flourished on the web over the past quarter-century. For instance, since the advent of the web, and its ability to serve a wide array of text, in different lengths, sizes, and contexts, we have seen the birth of new genres that challenge traditional writing and break out of the constraints of print publication.

Take the blog. Originally a “web log” of interesting links, it evolved two decades ago in places like LiveJournal into personal musings and then in other platforms like MoveableType and ultimately WordPress into a fairly flexible, but always recognizable, reverse chronological, largely textual genre, one that accommodates posts of different lengths and purposes.

Because it lived on the web, and given its origins, the blog was colonized by a less formal, more freeform style that beneficially allowed academics who started blogs to loosen up a bit. I moment ago I used the word braggadocious. I would feel, shall we say, uncomfortable using that word in an academic article in my native field of history, but I’ve owned the domain dancohen.org for 20 years now and if I want to drop a braggadocious or two in a blog post there so be it.

More seriously, although the genre of the blog didn’t line up well with the strict structures needed for the peer-reviewed article, it did line up well with other aspects of academia. For instance, while the article and the book provide a final, formal genre for the results of research, they do not accommodate well, or often at all, the detailed, day-to-day research process that led up to the book or article. Indeed, most academic writing involves obscuring our processes and complexities and doubts behind the scenes, the starts and stops that happen throughout academic work, before the article or book is complete. (Note that this obscuring has led to such bad things as the replication crisis.)

The blog excels, in extraordinarily helpful ways, in portraying this process, and so we now have the distinct genre of the process blog. For example, one of the blogs I subscribe to is by a particle physicist who is providing daily updates on the fusion reactor his team is building. That is just plain cool, but will never appear in his submissions to physics journals. I have colleagues in history who blog about the ups and downs of archival research, the rare finds and the drudgery, the thousands of hours of research and writing. Those sentiments, revealed in a blog, and can enrich and humanize academic work.

Also, like a good movie, a successful article or book leaves on the cutting room floor dozens of other great scenes, half-baked but still pretty tasty thoughts, and possible connections that must wait until another time, or be forgotten forever. A blog can document the incredible swirl of evidence and thinking and knowledge that emerges out of an academic project. Blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and ongoing glosses in research areas that perhaps only a handful of others worldwide know much about, but that may fascinate the wider world if framed well.

Podcasts provide a fantastic opportunity, in many ways much better than the blog, to communicate the complex processes involved in acquiring new knowledge and passing it on to students and the public, and to show the bumps along the road, and the methods and heartache and excitement along the way.

For instance, last week on our What’s New podcast, we had a brilliant young biochemist, Heather Clark, on to talk about the nanosensors her lab is creating to determine the level of certain chemicals in the body. They custom design extraordinarily tiny molecules that light up when they find lithium or sodium in the bloodstream, and an electronic tattoo on the skin can then register and transmit that information.

This is truly the stuff of science fiction, but the best part of the podcast was Heather’s response to my question about how such nanotechnology is actually created. We hear this word “nanotechnology” all the time in the news, but do you have any idea what it actually looks like in practice? I didn’t. So I asked Heather to describe what goes on in her lab during a normal day. And she digressed into a remarkable discussion of how making nanosensors actually looks a lot like making salad dressing—literally mixing various oils and ingredients together to make the right blend. And she’s laughing as she’s describing this process because on the one hand it’s kitchen counter work, but on the other hand it’s a profound synthesis of physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering.

As Heather revealed these scientific principles and bench-science techniques, I couldn’t help but think of how magical, alchemical, her work is. Indeed, podcasts can frame academic expertise in a way that can thrill an audience because of this magical element. Teller, the shorter, quieter magician in Penn & Teller, has made the point that a big part of what makes magic what it is is that magicians will spend an unbelievable amount of time practicing a very specific skill or pursuing a trick, far more time than the audience considers humanly possible.

By this definition there is a lot of magic in the academy. Our colleagues spend years or even decades deciphering papyri, learning long-lost languages, trying to solve fantastically complex mathematical theorems, or tracking down the smallest bits of evidence or assembling the largest imaginable data sets. Audio, done well, can display this incredible obsession to audiences, and as Teller notes, revealing how a magic trick is done—by grit and practice and sheer will—often enhances appreciation for magic rather than dissipating it.

Finally, and most importantly, podcasts have an unparalleled ability to convey the reality of academic work, and inculcate appreciation of it—better than the blog because of the nature of audio and especially the unique character of the human voice. From the time we are babies, we respond differently to voices than to other sounds in our world. As the most social of animals, we are incredibly adept at picking up subtle cues from the human voice—excitement, nervousness, ambivalence, assurance.

The human voice can thus communicate one’s humanity to the listener in a way that most academic writing has enormous trouble with—and as I noted earlier, was never really structured to do.

But it has to be the right type of voice, a topic of many of the sessions at this conference today. If you are an academic, are you projecting a know-it-all voice, the voice of the article and the academic monograph, or the more cautious, thoughtful voice that is really in your head as you pursue your research? Are you merely recounting the end results of a process, or pulling the curtain back and showing the human—and often engrossing—processes behind the discoveries?

Academic podcasts are often criticized as raw and unedited, but they can take advantage of this lack of polish in comparison to a monograph or an article. In podcasts, we can hear a potent and unique combination of the expertise of academics with the informality of extemporaneous speech.

Done well, educational podcasts as a whole, the range of podcasts represented here today, can foster audiences who may not always agree with us or our research or conclusions, but who can grasp much more deeply the very human pursuits of the academy and see how those pursuits relate to their own lives. Critically, this has never been more important, as there is a growing skepticism about the value of the academy. All universities are struggling with how to communicate their worth to the public.

In his recent book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, literary scholar Alan Jacobs calls on us to foster what he calls “like-hearted, rather than like-minded” audiences. We are never to get everyone to agree with us about everything, but that shouldn’t be our ultimate goal. We should instead seek to cultivate receptivity to academic subjects again, and that hard work isn’t being adequately done through our formal writing or press releases. Podcasts give us the opportunity to show the humanity and relevance and relatability of academic practice, something that significant portions of the public have lost sight of.

Your podcast can be an important addition to this humanizing goal, one more step in expanding the audience of curious listeners, and the general population of the like-hearted.

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Education, Internet, Journalism, Libraries, News, Social Media, Society

What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students

Over the last year, I was fortunate to help guide a study of the news consumption habits of college students, and coordinate Northeastern University Library’s services for the study, including great work by our data visualization specialist Steven Braun and necessary infrastructure from our digital team, including Sarah Sweeney and Hillary Corbett. “How Students Engage with News,” out today as both a long article and accompanying datasets and media, provides a full snapshot of how college students navigate our complex and high-velocity media environment.

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This is a topic that should be of urgent interest to everyone since the themes of the report, although heightened due to the more active digital practices of young people, capture how we all find and digest news today, and also points to where such consumption is heading. On a personal level, I was thrilled to be a part of this study as a librarian who wants students to develop good habits of truth-seeking, and as an intellectual historian, who has studied changing approaches to truth-seeking over time.

You should first read the entire report, or at least the executive summary, now available on a special site at Project Information Literacy, with data hosted at Northeastern University Library’s Digital Repository System (where the study will also have its long-term, preserved form). It’s been great to work with, and think along with, the lead study members, including Alison Head, John Wihbey, Pakis Metaxas, and Margy MacMillan.

“How Students Engage with News” details how college students are overwhelmed by the flood of information they see every day on multiple websites and in numerous apps, an outcome of their extraordinarily frequent attention to smartphones and social media. Students are interested in news, and want to know what’s going on, but given the sheer scale and sources of news, they find themselves somewhat paralyzed. As humans naturally do in such situations, students often satisfice in terms of news sources—accepting “good enough,” proximate (from friends or media) descriptions rather than seeking out multiple perspectives or going to “canonical” sources of news, like newspapers. Furthermore, much of what they consume is visual rather than textual—internet genres like memes, gifs, and short videos play an outsized role in their digestion of the day’s events. (Side note: After recently seeing Yale Art Gallery’s show “Seriously Funny: Caricature Through the Centuries,” I think there’s a good article to be written about the historical parallels between today’s visual memes and political cartoons from the past.) Of course, the entire population faces the same issues around our media ecology, but students are an extreme case.

And perhaps also a cautionary tale. I think this study’s analysis and large survey size (nearly 6,000 students from a wide variety of institutions) should be a wake-up call for those of us who care about the future of the news and the truth. What will happen to the careful ways we pursue an accurate understanding of what is happening in the world by weighing information sources and developing methods for verifying what one hears, sees, and reads? Librarians, for instance, used to be much more of a go-to source for students to find reliable sources of the truth, but the study shows that only 7% of students today have consulted their friendly local librarian.

It is incumbent upon us to change this. A purely technological approach—for instance, “improving” social media feeds through “better” algorithms—will not truly solve the major issues identified in the news consumption study, since students will still be overwhelmed by the volume, context, and heterogeneity of news sources. A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential. Along these lines, for example, we’ve greatly increased the number of workshops on digital research, information literacy, and related topics at Northeastern University Library, and students are eager attendees at these workshops. We will continue to find other ways to get out from behind our desks and connect more with students where they are.

Finally, I have used the word “habit” very consciously throughout this post, since inculcating and developing more healthy habits around news consumption will also be critical. Alan Jacobs’ notion of cultivating “temporal bandwidth” is similar to what I imagine will have to happen in this generation—habits and social norms that push against the constant now of social media, and stretch and temper our understanding of events beyond our unhealthily caffeinated present.

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Podcasts

What’s New, Season Two

Last week we launched the second season of the What’s New podcast. My first guest was Dan Kennedy, who studies journalism and new media, and has a new book out on the changes happening right now to newspapers like the Washington Post. Dan’s got some great commentary on the difficulties of newspapers since the web emerged in the 1990s, the role of journalistic objectivity in the face of “fake news” criticism, and why someone like Jeff Bezos might want to buy the Post. His special focus on the future of news and newspapers is especially relevant right now. Do give it a listen.

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I’m also really excited about our fall lineup, which includes Tina Eliassi-Rad talking about bias in artificial intelligence algorithms, Margaret Burnham on the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project, and David Herlihy on the changes to the music industry in an age of streaming. In addition, close to the November election, former Governor Michael Dukakis will join us on the program.

To receive all of these shows and more, you can subscribe to What’s New on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks in advance for tuning in—hope you enjoy the new season.

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History, Society, Transportation

The Narrow Passage of Gortahig

You don’t see it until you’re right there, and even then, you remain confused. Did you miss a turn in the road, or misread the map? You are now driving through someone’s yard, or maybe even their house. You slow to a stop.

On rural road R575, also known as the Ring of Beara and more recently rebranded as part of the Wild Atlantic Way, you are making your way along the northern coast of the Beara Peninsula in far southwestern Ireland. You are in the hamlet of Gortahig, between Eyeries, a multicolored strip of connected houses on the bay, and Allihies, where the copper mines once flourished. The road, like the landscape, is raw, and it is disconcertingly narrow, often too narrow for two cars to pass one another.

But not as narrow as what you suddenly see in front of you, which seems too thin for even one car. This road that strings together the scenic green towns of the peninsula into a jade necklace somehow threads its way between an old house and an old shed at a 45-degree angle. Even in a small car, you take your time making your way through, so as not to hit the buildings that crowd the road. A stern sheep looks down at you from the hill nearby.

Dumbfounded, you ponder: “How do trucks and buses make it through here?”

The answer, of course, is that they don’t. Arriving in the next town, you ask at the pub about the narrow passage behind you, and the bartender fills you in.

No, large vehicles can’t get through there. If they leave from Eyeries or Allihies, when they get to that house they realize they can’t go any further, and they have to back up a mile or more just to turn around — in reverse on a winding mountain road that has drop-offs into the Atlantic. So this narrow passage of Gortahig restricts movement along the main circulating road of the Beara Peninsula — a choke point of a hundred feet along a hundred-mile stretch.

Have they ever thought about, you know, widening the road?

Well, it is someone’s house and shed, you’re gently told, a family that’s lived there a long time. Some years ago, the owner evidently offered to let the shed be knocked down to open some more room for the road, but others in west Cork County weren’t passionate about forcing that change. The only group motivated to alter the road were the tour companies that wanted to send large coaches around the Ring of Beara, like they do on the next peninsula over, Kerry.

Given the history of the property and the cost of a new road, the majority decided just to let things be. So the narrow passage of Gortahig remains.

And as you think more about it, the more you realize how much this tiny dot on the map changes everything in western Ireland. Because the big tour buses can’t make it around the Ring of Beara, they stick to the Ring of Kerry. Because they stick to the Ring of Kerry, that peninsula to the north has dramatically more tourists than Beara, even though they are equally beautiful. Because there are far fewer tourists on Beara, large hotels haven’t been established there like they have been across Kerry. Because there aren’t many hotels or tourist infrastructure, the scene on Beara is decidedly calmer, smaller, and more local.

When you arrive in Castletownbere, the largest, but still rather small, town on the Beara Peninsula, you notice that it remains primarily an active fishing port, despite abundant natural beauty and an island just off the coast with medieval ruins. It’s a tourist magnet with the polarity reversed. The fair that comes to Castletownbere in August doesn’t have the pop acts that show up for Galway’s summer arts festival, but it does feature an egg toss and a fish packing box stacking contest.

All it would take to change all of this is to relocate a modest house or its even more modest shed, but they’ve chosen not to do that on Beara. They like things as they are.

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Email

In Praise of Email

Remember a decade or two ago when it was our national pastime to complain about email? More recently, as I’ve reassessed this blog, my social media presence, and our centralized digital platforms in general, I’ve come to realize just how much the email system got right, in spite of full inboxes, spam, and security issues. Despite, or perhaps because of, its early inception, email avoided many of the worst aspects of our modern media environment.

Let’s review:

  • Email is radically interoperable and universal.
  • You can have your own email address, using your own domain name, independent of any centralized service, and portable between providers. If you wish, you can also choose an email address at a centralized provider.
  • Regardless of provider, you can easily download all of your email onto your local computer or device. You can locally search your email archive; you are not beholden to any provider’s indexing system.
  • Identity on email is [username] at [domain name] rather than just a username that presumes that you are on a specific site or service. Leaving off the domain or service name prevents interoperability because of potential namespace confusion.
  • There are commonly implemented and generally respected standards and protocols for uploading, downloading, and syncing email between machines that are not under the control of a single entity.
  • Most email systems do not signal to others that you are online, and such signaling is not part of the email protocols themselves.
  • Filtering (e.g., spam filtering) is a separate system, and you can choose different filtering systems. Those filtering systems can do many things, including blocking, muting, suppressing images, sorting, and responding — all at the discretion of the user.
  • Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.
  • The creation of groups (e.g., email listservs) is decentralized and yet effective.
  • You can attach files of any kind to an email, not just an image or video.
  • There are a wide range of clients to compose and read email, with features to match every style of interaction with the email system.
  • You can end-to-end encrypt email.
  • It is possible to have an email environment without distracting ads.

Compare that list with other, newer platforms we use today. I think it looks pretty darn good. Now think about structuring some of those platforms in the same way, and how much better they would be.

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Podcasts

Looking Back at Season 1 of the What’s New Podcast, and Ahead to Season 2

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When I arrived at Northeastern University a year ago, I wanted to start a new podcast that highlighted new ideas and discoveries through interviews with a wide range of faculty and researchers. Snell Library has incredible facilities not only for quiet study but also for the production of media and digital scholarship, and so it was natural to use our professional recording studio and the expertise of our staff to create this podcast. The result was What’s New, which wrapped up its first season a couple of months ago.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I had a prior podcast, Digital Campus, which began in 2007, during the first wave of podcasting. Created with my friends at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, it was a roundtable discussion of how digital media and technology were affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums. Digital Campus lasted through 2015, and built up a nice audience of fellow practitioners in digital humanities, academia, and cultural heritage institutions over those eight years.

With What’s New I wanted to draw on a larger canvas than Digital Campus, and try to reach an even larger audience. This wasn’t purely populist. In part the new podcast was my audio answer to the ongoing question about the social role and value of the academy; to me, that answer is not very complicated, and can be seen just by walking around a campus and talking to people. For the most part, despite all of the criticism and hand-wringing, universities still foster the people, environment, time, and resources to allow us to delve into topics far more deeply than anywhere else, and that process leads to profound, applicable, and enriching ideas in the broadest sense: not only scientific and technical breakthroughs but also a better understanding of ourselves as human beings.

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

Podcasts have generally been more off the cuff than rigorous. Sure, there are now many NPR, BBC, and other podcasts that are professional and well-produced, but a majority of podcasts are still unedited conversations. Sometimes that format can work well — I’m biased, but I think Digital Campus was fun to listen to, in part because we were friends and could joke with each other, or quickly grasp where one of us was going with a topic and then riff off of that.

Before launching, we had a lot of discussions about the structure and tone of What’s New, and settled on a simple half-hour interview format that we thought would go deep enough into a topic but not exhaustively so, and that would not be casual conversation that dragged on for an hour or two. That gave us the opportunity to cover a number of challenging topics and do them justice, while not being exhaustive. We left it to the listener to learn more through links, by reading a related book, etc.

I’m thrilled with how the first season went, audience-wise. Last time I checked we had over 30,000 streams so far, and the weekly numbers continue to grow. I’ve really enjoyed reading articles and books on topics I know nothing about and then having 30 minutes to frame complicated subjects in plainspoken ways, and to ask some probing questions of the guests on the show. It’s allowed me to get to know the incredible faculty at Northeastern, and to promote their work. (At the end of the season, we had a special guest from off campus, and that is likely to happen more in the future.)

If there’s one bit of self-criticism, the format of What’s New, especially within the strictures of a professional recording studio, could occasionally come across as a bit too formal, and so as we think ahead to Season 2, we’re going to sprinkle in some looser elements. We’re changing up the sound design a bit and recording the podcast outside of the studio, potentially with sounds from the field (e.g., within a lab). There will be a new, less ponderous theme song. I think I got better and less stiff as an interviewer as the season went on, but I’ll be working on that too; I have to admit to being used to being the interviewee rather than the interviewer.

For now, it’s a good time to catch up on Season 1 if you haven’t done so already, and subscribe to the podcast (just use one of the links at the top of the What’s New site) for the launch of Season 2 in September. Here are the episodes from Season 1:

1. How We Respond to Disaster – how cities bounce back from natural disasters or terrorism

2. Fake News and the Next Generation – the news consumption habits of young people, and the elusiveness of the truth

3. The Steamship Revolution – the spaceships of the 19th century

4. Enabling Engineering – an incredible group that designs devices for those with physical and cognitive disabilities

5. Inventing Writing – a fascinating story of how the Cherokee language went from oral to written

6. The Secrets of Hollywood Storytelling – a screenwriter and film producer on how movies are written and sonically designed

7. Tracking the Invisible Infrastructure of Our Cities – what you learn when you attach GPS devices to your trash

8. The Algorithms That Shape Our Lives – clever methods reveal how Facebook, Amazon, and other big internet companies work

9. The Hidden Universe of Comics – beyond the superheroes you see at the multiplex

10. Designing for Diversity – how to design digital systems to be more attentive to the true diversity of humanity

11. The Future of Energy – adding solar power to the grid is not so simple

12. Fractivism – how communities are responding to this new energy production method

13. The Evolution of Cities – the collision of people, transportation, and buildings as seen through the eyes of a city planner

14. Privacy in the Facebook Age – or what’s left of it, and whether regulation will help

15. Addressing Neglected Diseases – discovering vaccines and cures for these diseases requires a completely different model

16. Engineering the Future: Boston’s Big Dig – inside one of the biggest engineering projects in history, from its primary engineer and advocate

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