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OpenLearn Live: 12th April 2016

Updated Tuesday 12th April 2016

The birth of commercial spam, and the customer services stars you probably don't even notice. Free learning from across the day.

How does free learning make sense in your world? That's where OpenLearn Live comes in. This page will be updated across the day.

Yesterday, we discovered why Kansas gets the blame for dodgy websites; revisted 1975 and caught up with FutureLearn

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live

Today's posts

The scale of space

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space - Douglas Adams


Find out how to study space with The Open University

And this is your brain on drugs...

A team at Imperial - including Professor David Nutt, a visiting research professor with the OU - have published the first visualisations of what's happening to your brain when you take LSD:

A major finding of the research is the discovery of what happens in the brain when people experience complex dreamlike hallucinations under LSD. Under normal conditions, information from our eyes is processed in a part of the brain at the back of the head called the visual cortex. However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas - not just the visual cortex - contributed to visual processing.

Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the research, explained: "We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were 'seeing with their eyes shut' - albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world.  We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD - even though the volunteers' eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers' ratings of complex, dreamlike visions."

If you're not sure what this might look like, the BBC have helpfully illustrated it:

Read the full story at Imperial College: The brain on LSD revealed

How LSD fits in to the 1960s

The invisible men and women of customer service

If you have a rubbish time at a hotel, or at an airport, some of us will be on Twitter before we're out the door. When things go well, though, it's easy to forget the people who work to make that good experience happen. David Zweig doesn't forget them, though. In fact he's written a book celebrating the hard work of the people who drive good customer service. Peter Greenberg met David for the Travel Detective series:

Read Greenberg on Zweig

Did you know the OU offers certified courses in customer service? Find out more

Who was Mary Magdalene?

She appears in all four gospels, but not very much is known for sure about Mary Magdalene. Oh, you think you know her - but do you? For example, you might be convinced she was a sex worker who had turned her back on her past. But the Bible doesn't actually say that:

Luke, one of the Gospel writers, tells a story about a sex worker. She – or her reputation – was known to a certain Pharisee who had Jesus over for a dinner. The woman enters, and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, kisses his feet, and anoints them with expensive perfume. We aren’t told anything else of her story, but the incident becomes a spiritual metaphor for forgiveness, as Jesus said “… I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little”. And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven”.

Despite a lack of evidence identifying this woman with Mary of Magdala, the story has undermined her character, particularly since the 6th century when Pope Gregory the Great declared that she [External link]  , along with Mary, sister of Martha from Bethany, and the repentant sinner of Luke 7 were the same person.

Read the full article Who was Mary Magdalene?

Growing lasers on silicon

Typing this on a computer which is so slow that we're seriously thinking of investing in pigeons to speed up our instant messaging capabilities, anything which holds out the promise of faster data processing gets us excited - so we were excited by news of breakthrough from a consortium of UK unviersities:

Researchers from UCL, the University of Sheffield and Cardiff University have demonstrated the first practical telecommunications wavelength quantum dot laser grown directly on a silicon substrate. The device shows a high efficiency and long lifetime in realistic conditions, and is a step towards breaking the current limits on data processing.

The demand for more and faster data and computation shows no sign of stopping, but a key bottleneck is the time taken to send signals between processing units. To remove this speed limit, designers would like to communicate with light instead of electronic pulses. The challenge is connecting to the silicon chips which do the computation. An ideal solution would be a semiconductor laser grown directly on silicon, as this is high efficiency, high-speed, connects directly to silicon electronics, and can carry a large amount of data.

And that's a challenge the team think they've solved.

With their nearly defect-free on-silicon laser, the team were able to produce continuous lasing up to 75C, a realistic operating temperature. At room temperature the laser output power was over 105mW, with a low current requirement for operation, and a projected lifetime of over 100,000 hours. This demonstrates the ability to grow uniform high-quality compounds of group III and group VI elements across a silicon substrate. Removing this obstacle opens up new possibilities for silicon photonics and for the direct integration of optical interconnects with silicon-based microelectronics.

Read at UCL: The next level to integrate optics and electronics

How lasers can help people with hearing problems

A week in April: The birth of commercial spam

This week, we're revisiting events of Aprils past. Yesterday, we travelled back to April 11th, 1913, and a Suffragette attack on a cricket ground. Today, we're visiting a dark day in internet history - April 12th, 1994.

Piles of Spam in a shop Creative commons image Icon brownpau under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

There's nothing especially different about the internet when it comes to unwanted advertising messages - with phone calls, and junk mail, and billboards and banners being towed behind planes in the sky, adverts in places you might not have wanted them to appear are part of human experience. There's almost certainly a cave painting somewhere that's just pitching great quality buffalo hides in return for seven arrow heads. The internet just offered new channels for people with something to flog to find you.

If you have an email address, you'll be familiar with email spam. This dates back to May 3rd, 1978 when a chap called Gary Thuerk sent out a message about a computer sale. But the event of April 12th, 1994 was notable because it took things to a different level. The American National Science Foundation had maintained a ban on commercial messages on networks it controlled - so Thuerk was ticked off for breaking the rules. But in the early 90s, the internet was changing - and the April 12th spam came shortly after the injunction against commercial messages had been removed. This spam, perhaps unfairly, is seen by many as the start of the internet-as-goldrush.

The location of the message was novel, too - as this message went to usenet. (If you're too young to remember, let's just say usenet was the first social network. You could call it the Facebook of its day, and although that will make fans of both usenet and Facebook upset, it's near enough.) And, while the email spams had at least been sent to people who might have been vaguely interested in the messages contained (computer sales to people with a passion for computing), this was something different. Here's that first spam:

Green Card Lottery 1994 May Be The Last One!

The Green Card Lottery is a completely legal program giving away a 
certain annual allotment of Green Cards to persons born in certain 
countries. The lottery program was scheduled to continue on a 
permanent basis.  However, recently, Senator Alan J Simpson 
introduced a bill into the U. S. Congress which could end any future 


The only countries NOT qualifying  are: Mexico; India; P.R. China; 
Taiwan, Philippines, North Korea, Canada, United Kingdom (except 
Northern Ireland), Jamaica, Domican Republic, El Salvador and 

Lottery registration will take place soon.  55,000 Green Cards will be 
given to those who register correctly.  NO JOB IS REQUIRED.


For FREE information via Email, send request to [email]

Canter & Siegel, Immigration Attorneys
[contact details]

Although commercial use of the internet was no longer frowned on, this sort of activity was still a breach of terms of service. And, as the Wall Street Journal reported, retribution was swift:

Earlier this week, the lawyers' new ad -- beamed to thousands of users despite fierce opposition -- prompted the company that provides the firm with access to Internet to order the lawyers to "cease and desist."  Performance Systems International Inc., an Internet access provider in Herndon, VA., told the lawyers they must stop such ads or risk losing their account.

Martin Schoffstall, vice president at Performance Systems, said the lawyers' actions violate acceptable use of the network, "and that's actionable."

The same report, though, notes that the spam generated around 100,000 dollars' worth of business.

Ray Everett-Church - at the time working in the field of immigration law - was one of those who had to deal with the response to the unwanted messages. Being the dawn of the internet age, the complaints arrived via older communications methods. Writing in Wired, he recalled April 12th, 1994:

The faxes and phone calls I fielded asked what could be done to stop them and to sanction them for their activities. As a voluntary association, [American Immigration Lawyers Association] AILA's only recourse was to throw them out of the association. However, when I went to AILA's senior staff to ask what that procedure entailed, a director of the organization asked: "Canter and Siegel? What did they do this time?"

That's the other difference between Thuerk's email spam and the green card spam - Thuerk actually was selling something useful. The usenet spam was pushing a "service" which people could do for themselves with a postcard and a mailing address. (There are any number of scams built up around the US green card immigration system.)

In 1997, a Tennessee court barred Lawrence Carter from practicing law for a year, in part because of his involvement in unsoilicited online advertising:

"We disbarred him and gave him a one-year sentence just to emphasize that his email campaign was a particularly egregious offense," said William W. Hunt III of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility. Hunt said he believes that Canter, who was disciplined last month, is the first attorney disciplined for illegal advertising on the Net.

Learn how to protect yourself against spam - and other nefarious online activities

Try our free course Succeeding in the Digital World





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