Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mr. Know-It-All: Sex-Offender Witch Hunt, Facebook Fibs, Radio-Tagged Deer

Tech Biz : People
Mr. Know-It-All: Sex-Offender Witch Hunt, Facebook Fibs, Radio-Tagged Deer
By Brendan I. Koerner 09.25.07 | 2:00 AM

Illustration: Christoph Niemann Start
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I was recently browsing my state's online registry of sex offenders and discovered that one such ex-con lives on my block — a block with many young children, including my own. Should I tell my neighbors?

Take a deep breath before you and your angry mob of neighbors waste hours trying to find the torches/pitchforks/nooses aisle at Home Depot. You at least want to find out the specifics, if you can — some states publish details of the crime and some don't. "A serial child molester may be listed on the same registry as someone convicted of indecent exposure for urinating in public," says Karen Terry, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Sexual Offenses and Offenders.

Spreading the word could also have unintended consequences. People made to feel like pariahs are more likely to reoffend. "One of the most important factors relating to a sex offender's recidivism is high levels of stress and pressure," says Richard Tewksbury, a professor of justice administration at the University of Louisville.

Now, if you really can't sleep at night without spilling the beans, tread lightly. No need to call a neighborhood-watch meeting — some casual conversation over the back fence is a more reasonable approach. And lastly, a little perspective: Less than 10 percent of sexual attacks on children are committed by strangers; the rest are perpetrated by people the victim already knows, particularly relatives. That said, you probably don't want your kids playing at the perp's house unattended.

Is it OK to fib a little on my social-network profile?
Facebook and MySpace pages certainly aren't résumés, but these days plenty of companies comb social-networking sites when vetting potential employees. In one University of Dayton survey of employers, 40 percent of respondents said they'd consider Facebook data when making hiring decisions. So while social- network lies might not immediately cost you a job, they could come back to haunt you. "We don't know how long the information you post today will remain on the Web," says Susan Barnes, associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "Once information is out there, it's really difficult to erase." Imagine how bummed you'll be if, 15 years hence, you get passed over for a job because someone unearths a fudged profile from 2007 (linked to those pictures from Mardi Gras where you're, let's say, underdressed).

Not every fib is equally perilous. It's one thing to say your favorite movie is The 400 Blows when it's really Meatballs Part II, and quite another to lie about your education or job history. Lying about your tastes may not be ethical, but it's also less likely to cause you future agony — unless you start dating a Truffaut aficionado you met through Facebook. Although we don't recommend that in any case.

Illustration: Christoph NiemannI feel sad when I see pictures of animals tagged with radio transmitters. How do we know these devices don't cause pain?
Not one bear, deer, or lemur would respond to our interview requests, so there's no way to be certain that they're cool with wearing radio collars. But researchers have every reason to make their subjects as comfortable as possible. "It's of paramount importance that the tag does not produce abnormal behavior," says Alejandro Purgue, a scientist with the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If the transmitters caused animals to act strangely or made them easier targets for predators, what would be the point?

Researchers test tracking hardware on captive animals to ensure that it doesn't alter behavior. The devices are constructed from materials that don't irritate skin, and they're made as light as possible — the ones used on dozens of bat species worldwide, for example, weigh a measly 0.5 gram. The trickiest part comes when scientists need to swap out a dead transmitter, a process that requires a dose of anesthesia. But such hardware changes are less frequent nowadays, thanks to improved battery technology. That's good news for researchers, too — especially those who deal with the surlier members of the animal kingdom.

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