Monthly Archives: February 2015

For Your Consideration: Ed-Tech Security Blockade, Memex, Anarchist’s Cookbook – a History, SciShow and Bias

1. Your Kid’s School Is Missing the Tech Revolution, and It’s All Your Fault | WIRED

Let’s be honest. If we were always this cautious about data, the Internet economy as we know it would never exist. Many of the innovations of the last couple of decades have sprung directly from our willingness to blithely let Google track our web activity or post photos of our families on Facebook or share our innermost thoughts with the world on Twitter or allow apps to know where we are at any given moment. From time to time, we grow alarmed—when we learn that Facebook has changed its privacy settings or that the NSA has been storing our email or that Uber executives are sharing our real-time travel data to impress people at parties—but not enough to actually change our behavior. An entire ideology has sprung up among tech startups—move fast, break things; it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission—encouraging founders to trample convention, offend sensibilities, and risk screwing up. It’s the cost of progress.

For the most part, we’ve been able to accept that trade-off—for ourselves. But kids are different. They evoke almost unbearable wellsprings of emotion–love, sure, but also doubt, fear, and guilt. We lay awake at night worrying that we are failing them, that we aren’t giving them enough emotional support or the right skills, that we are too lenient or too strict, that we are too approachable or not approachable enough. We worry that we are bequeathing them a world that is worse than the one we inherited, that they will be forced to fend for themselves in a drought-besieged dystopia where only the mega-rich can afford such luxuries as, I don’t know, meat. We worry that the same technological advances that have both enchanted and enraged us will further dominate their lives—and we feel powerless to understand or predict precisely what that will mean.

Whoa, sorry, maybe I got a little carried away there. Am I projecting? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, I have to think that’s partly why educational technology remains so difficult to implement. We may know—deeply believe—that technology can have a miraculous impact on the education system, but we can’t help but become at least somewhat driven by our worst fears. We worry that the decisions we make today will have unintended consequences that follow our children for the rest of their lives. This is one realm where we don’t feel comfortable making mistakes and asking for forgiveness later, and that makes it difficult to take even the first, most innocuous steps.

2. As We May Think – Vannevar Bush - Jul 1 1945, 12:00 PM ET

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.

Will there be dry photography? It is already here in two forms. When Brady made his Civil War pictures, the plate had to be wet at the time of exposure. Now it has to be wet during development instead. In the future perhaps it need not be wetted at all. There have long been films impregnated with diazo dyes which form a picture without development, so that it is already there as soon as the camera has been operated. An exposure to ammonia gas destroys the unexposed dye, and the picture can then be taken out into the light and examined. The process is now slow, but someone may speed it up, and it has no grain difficulties such as now keep photographic researchers busy. Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

3. Amazing backstory on The Anarchist’s Cookbook
I found a way to get ahold of a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook when I was in high school. It was all terribly interesting; the seemingly secret knowledge of it. I will say the chapter on homemade Nitro-Glycerine did sound incredibly sketchy. You don’t just “sweat” dynamite… This was before the Internet and all information being a Google away. Still this expose makes it that much more interesting. The author of the AC, who later reformed to Christianity and spent a life in international education, spent the 40 years after publication trying to get it out of print.

Stuart had bet right again. Newspapers ran articles with titles such as “Book Teaches Do-It-Yourself Anarchy,” complete with images of bomb-planting hooligans. Stuart played up the controversy, stating that members of his staff were “appalled” that the book had been published and that shareholders were in “a state of shock.” The White House requested a copy and ordered the FBI to investigate. (They did, determining that the book broke no federal laws.) Concerned citizens wrote letters to J. Edgar Hoover. “DANGER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT THIS???,” a man in Florida scrawled above a clipping about the book. The Saturday Review wrote that it was “the starkest example of irresponsible publishing” since the magazine had been founded. At a press conference held at a Manhattan hotel, Powell was interrupted when someone threw a stink bomb. People ducked for cover, and Powell dove behind the lectern. Anarchists were supposedly to blame, angry that a phony such as Powell was cashing in on the revolution. But Powell says that he wouldn’t be surprised if Stuart, master of the media stunt, had orchestrated the show. When the smoke cleared and Powell stood up, he realized that Stuart hadn’t moved an inch.

A photo from the press conference shows a young Powell sporting long hair and a bushy beard. His jaw is set, but there’s also a glimmer of uncertainty in his eyes, as if he’s not totally clear on how he ended up in front of the collection of microphones. The book had been written alone and in a hurry, and Stuart published it without making any changes. (“An angry kid’s blog, circa 1970” is how one Amazon reviewer put it.) As Powell weathered a media storm, an FBI investigation, and a number of threatening letters in his mailbox (“Dear Anti-Christ,” one began), he started to have second thoughts. “There wasn’t a seminal moment, like Paul on the road to Damascus, when a blinding light came down,” he says about his change of heart. “But the publicity surrounding the book spurred me to try and think it through again, to try and justify it. And I came up short.”

Powell set out to rebuild his life: He graduated co-valedictorian from Windham College in Vermont and spent a year in Alaska, where he worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and taught emotionally disturbed children. He returned to New York, gained custody of a young son from a previous marriage, and met his current wife. By the late 1970s, he was earning a master’s degree in English and teaching at a private school in Westchester County in New York state for students with special needs, on the path that would lead to a long career in education. “All was quiet,” he remembers. The book had made a splash and, he thought, been forgotten.

4. Sci-Show on cognitive bias and belief systems (and vaccination)
Got 10 minutes? I know it’s a lot to ask. Your brain fails you in predictable ways (think it doesn’t? that’s one of the ways it fails you) This video quickly runs through a number of them. It also speaks to why you should be patient (and aware) of your own mind and everyone else’s.

“Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again.” – Graeme Wood

If you were forwarded this newsletter and enjoyed it, please subscribe here:

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Newsletter

For Your Consideration: Brains Wired for Error, Health Info Monetization, King David (Carr), and Whole Brain Emulation

1. Your Brain Is Primed To Reach False Conclusions
It goes by many names, the causality illusion, post-hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, the texas sharpshooter fallacy

Many so-called “alternative” remedies exploit the illusion of causality, Matute said, by targeting conditions that naturally have high rates of spontaneous recovery, such as headaches, back pain and colds. Quack cures remain popular in part because they bestow a sense of empowerment on people who are feeling miserable, by giving them something to do while they wait for their problem to run its course.

Even when the evidence for or against a treatment or intervention is clear, medical providers and patients may not accept it. In some cases, the causality illusion is to blame, but usually the reasons are more complex. Other cognitive biases — such as motivated reasoning (all of us want to believe that the things we do make a difference), base rate neglect (failing to pay attention to what happens in the absence of the intervention), and confirmation bias (the tendency to look for evidence that supports what you already know and to ignore the rest) — also influence how we process information. In medicine, perverse incentives can push people in the wrong direction. There’s no easy fix here.

One thing seems clear, though. Simply exposing people to more information doesn’t help. Last year, political scientist Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and his collaborators published a randomized trial of four different approaches to influencing attitudes about vaccines among parents. The study’s 1,759 participants were split into groups, and each subset was presented with information about why vaccines are important — everything from why the diseases that a measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine could prevent are worth avoiding to images of children stricken with those diseases and a heart-felt story about an infant who nearly died of a case of measles. None of these efforts made parents more likely to vaccinate their kids.

2. Calling Dr. Internet? – There is no doctor/patient confidentiality.

“Experian is a data broker well known for selling credit scores—which include information on bankruptcies,” Libert said. “Academic research by Senator Elizabeth Warren has shown that over 60 percent of bankruptcies are medical-related. Given that I found Experian tracking users on thousands of health-related web pages, it is entirely possible the company not only knows which individuals went bankrupt for medical reasons, but when they first went online to learn about their illness as well. In essence Experian can follow an individual from her first sneeze to her final unpaid hospital bill.” (Experian failed to respond when asked to comment.)

Quintin agrees this poses a real threat. “I would say that’s totally possible.” He suggests that it’s plausible that the medical data these brokers vacuum up could eventually be factored into your credit score—and even used to determine how much you pay for health care. “Look, this is all speculative, right? But if I’m a bank and you’re applying for a loan, there’s no reason I would not want that information.” And the data brokers could provide it. “There’s this advertising demographic of you, and now you’re getting healthcare data in there, too. How much are we going to charge you for healthcare, if you’ve been searching for ‘cancer’ and a bunch of illnesses? Health care services could raise your rates.”

“Another nightmare scenario is applying for jobs,” Quintin continued. “A company might get a demographic profile from one of these data brokers and use that information to decide whether or not to hire you.”

But the chief problem is simply that just about all of the above, under current laws, is legal.

3. King David – In Memory of David Carr
I did not know of David Carr or his contributions and influence until he died last week. I’m sure I’d read something by him and not known it. I am, however, happy to be able to go back and read his thoughts and all  the thoughts of the people he helped become writers and journalists.

What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.

This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, “I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off.” No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.

And then I wasn’t.

David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing “The Case for Reparations.” That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.

4. If software looks like a brain and acts like a brain—will we treat it like one?

Kenneth Hayworth, a neuroscientist and president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, also sees no reason why a digital brain should be somehow less than a real one. And to those who would argue that these digital uploads of a person’s mind are merely copies, Hayworth suggests considering what type of thing a person is to start. “We have discovered through cognitive science and neuroscience that we are like a program; we are like a data file on a computer in the sense that the information that makes us unique is the only thing that is truly us.”

(It should be noted that Hayworth isn’t too worried yet about the legal and moral status of conscious simulations. “This will not happen tomorrow,” he says. “I would hope that in 50 to 100 years that we would have gotten our act together such that [emulations] would have full rights.”)

A notable voice of dissent on the prospect of WBEs is Duke Neuroscience Professor Miguel Nicolelis. Nicolelis has made headlines for his lab’s work with brain-machine interfaces and primate neuroprosthetics. In 2013, he was quoted in MIT’s Technology Review as saying, “Downloads will never happen… There are a lot of people selling the idea that you can mimic the brain with a computer… You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

When asked for a comment today, Nicolelis simply responded, “I stand by my previous comments: simulating the work of a human brain in a digital machine is impossible.”

Again, many feel that thought experiments like Hanson’s and Sanders’ are worthless. Why waste time on potential future problems when there are so many current ones? But it makes sense, perhaps, to step back and try to predict the future so that we have a better chance of navigating when it arrives. The day may come when we create software that has the capacity to suffer. And when this happens, we need to pay attention. We need to care.

After all, as Sandberg writes, “When the future arrives we may know far more, but we will have less ability to change it.”


The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by ones and zeros— little bits of data. It’s all electrons. There’s a war out there, a world war. It’s not about who has the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information— what we see and hear, how we work, what we think. It’s all about information. – Cosmo [Sneakers]


powered by TinyLetter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Newsletter, Random

For Your Consideration: Death to Kids Menus, Changing the World, Farm Hackers, and Rubber Hands

1. Death to the Chicken Finger

The 1980s and ’90s saw the advent of countless convenience and snack foods, from fruit and chicken nuggets pressed into “fun” shapes to sugar-laden yogurts and foods kids could assemble themselves. Grocery stores increasingly sold meals that resembled fast food. As Moss chronicles in Salt Sugar Fat, these products, many of them portable and/or frozen, helped transform the North American diet. Their flavour profiles, packaging, and advertising and marketing programs were often designed to appeal specifically to children with a sophistication that made the 1960s breakfast cereal explosion look limited and quaint.

And why wouldn’t a child, given the choice, select from typical kids’ menu items? “The sensation of biting into a toasted cheese sandwich or pizza,” Moss observes, “especially when it’s hot and gooey, and with all the aromas … is actually quite powerful from a psychobiology and sensation standpoint.”

Regardless of the processed food industry’s role, putting children on their own restricted, bland diet would never have been possible had parents not gone along with the shift. Observe what happens when you try to challenge other people’s children by feeding them something unfamiliar. It’s often the parents themselves who will push back, giving up before a battle has even begun (“She won’t eat that”). A less challenging food like grilled cheese and fries offers a path of least resistance, guaranteed to succeed — if success is narrowly defined as getting the kid to actually eat it.

2. On the Desire to Change The World

A book is of course an ideal place to lay down an ambition, sort out one’s thoughts and gather a constituency. But that’s about it. A book on its own cannot bring about real change because the world as it currently stands isn’t held together simply by ideas: it is made up of laws, practices, institutions, financial arrangements, businesses and governments. In other words, its muscles are made up of institutions and therefore, the only way to bring about real change is to act through competing institutions. Revolutions in consciousness cannot be made lasting and effective until legions of people start to work together in concert for a common aim and, rather than relying on the intermittent pronouncements of mountain-top prophets, begin the unglamorous and deeply boring task of wrestling with issues of law, money, long-term mass communication, advocacy and administration.

In the Republic, Plato confessed to a profound and melancholy understanding (gathered from bitter experience) of the limits of intellectuals, when he remarked that the world would never be set right until, in his words, ‘philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers’. By which he meant that thinkers should stop imagining that ideas can change reality and recognise that only institutions, ‘kingship’ in this context, have any chance of working a proper influence on the world.

The problem with the world today isn’t that we lack good ideas. We have great, sound, beautiful, enlightened ideas to last us a hundred generations. Enough new books! We don’t have to work stuff out. We have to make what we already know very well more effective out there. The urgent question is how to ally the very many good ideas which currently slumber in the recesses of intellectual life with proper organisational tools that actually stand a chance of giving them real impact in the world.

3. New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers

Dave is a DIY kind of guy. But Dave would like to do more than just change his tractor’s oil. He’d like to be able to modify the engine timing. He’d like to harvest the information that his tractor collects to learn more about how his crops grow. He’d like to troubleshoot error codes. Most of all, he’d like to be able to repair his equipment himself—because it’s what he’s been doing all his life.

In the tech industry, we tend to talk about the exploding Maker Movement as if tinkering is something new. In fact, it’s as old as dirt: farmers have been making, building, rebuilding, hacking, and tinkering with their equipment since chickens were feral. I’ve seen farmers do with rusty harvesters and old welders what modern Makers do with Raspberry Pis and breadboards. There’s even a crowdsourced magazine, Farm Show, that’s catalogued thousands of clever farming inventions over the past three decades.

Of course, the world is changing, and that’s especially true in the world of agriculture. Most problems can’t be solved with duct tape and baling wire anymore. Regulations are stricter, agribusiness is more consolidated, resources are more scarce, and equipment is infinitely more complicated and proprietary. Small family farmers like Dave face challenges that even the most industrious Maker would find hard to “hack.”

What used to be done by hand is now managed at scale by giant machine. And that equipment is expensive—equivalent to the price of a small house (Dave’s mid-ranged tractor is worth over $100,000). New, elaborate computer systems afford the kind of precision and predictability that farmers 20 years ago couldn’t have even imagined. But they’ve also introduced new problems.

4. Avatars, rubber hands, virtual reality, and racism

Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.

The evidence suggests it isn’t that easy. The desire alone doesn’t seem to remove prejudice from your thoughts and actions. In experiments where subjects were asked to identify an image within two seconds and to mark it as either a gun or a tool, subjects were much more likely to mistake tools for guns if they first saw a black face before making the call. If shown a white face beforehand, those same people made the mistake in reverse, mislabeling guns as tools. In another line of research, scientists found that people trying to make fair and unbiased decisions in the justice system are just as susceptible. Those researchers wrote that in court cases “involving a white victim, the more stereotypically black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.”

The seeds of bigotry and xenophobia were planted in your brain long ago, and though you can consciously desire to be unbiased when it comes to race, religion, age, politics, and all the other social phenomena that glom people together – those things have already molded the synaptic landscape in your head. Undoing that in an effort to reduce prejudice will take time. The good news is that neuroscientists are, right now, working on how that undoing might be accomplished at the individual level.


“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
― Ernest Hemingway

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.



powered by TinyLetter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Newsletter, Random

For Your Consideration: Creative Block, Testosterone Fix, No Unvaccinated Enrollment, and Info-Doughnuts

1. It’s That Creative Block Again

When we say “I can’t come up with anything,” the truth is that’s not really accurate. What we mean to say is, “I can’t come up with anything good.” And that’s the problem right there. Because we’re designers who want to do amazing work, and because we perceive ourselves as professionals, we’re already busy filtering our own ideas and deciding they’re bad in advance.

That’s how we get stuck.

If, on the other hand, we would say to ourselves: “let’s do something crappy,” our lives would be that much easier. Anyone can do a shit job. Want a bad logo? Give me two minutes. Want a bad name for your brand? 20 seconds will suffice.

When we do crappy work, two great things happen:

  1. We already have something to build on. Worst case scenario – we can’t find anything good – at least we can bring something bad to the table, which is a thousand times better than bringing nothing.
  2. Once we pencil down the idea, we can start analyzing why it’s no good. As soon as we explain to ourselves and even make notes of why the current idea is bad, we can pick one problem at a time and try and solve it. That, in turn, will bring up a slightly less awful idea, which we can then analyze too, and so on until we get a good one.

It’s only a stupid myth that all these geniuses we keep reading about came up with their brilliant ideas on their first try. The truth is they came up with them after a handful of crappy ideas – we just didn’t get to see those.

2. Why Testosterone Is The Drug Of The Future

The emerging popularity of testosterone has opened up whole new business models for entrepreneurial doctors. Chains of shops that provide the hormone have exploded all over the United States, especially across the South. How many millions more men might be willing to try testosterone if it was easy to acquire, and a clinic happened to implant itself in an adjacent office building or a local strip mall, next to an abandoned video store and the Starbucks?

We don’t need to look ahead at human genetic engineering, brain implants, or crazy designer drugs to see the real future of our relationship with our bodies. The rise of testosterone use isn’t a drill for future body hacking—it is body hacking playing out right now across the American heartland, with a substance that was first synthesized in 1935. And in the coming years, the battles over T’s use are going to be repeated for future drugs that give people—anyone with money, at least—the power to transform the body beyond its innate abilities and configurations.

The crux of the medical ethics issue is this: are people taking testosterone to cure a disease, or are they taking it to transcend the limitations normally imposed on an aging human body?

These are not merely abstract, philosophical questions. What’s at stake is not only the ethical future of the medical community, but the boundaries of a human life.

3. How Schools Are Dealing With Anti-Vaccine Parents
What’s interesting to me is that a lack of comprehension about basic science has become passable as legitimate skepticism. Just because you don’t understand how something works does not exempt you or your loved ones from its consequences.

By revising its admissions policy and refusing to accept new students whose parents opt them out for personal beliefs, The Children’s House illustrates how schools are becoming ground zero for the anti-vaccine dispute. It also serves as an example of how educators—not state legislators or health officials—may be the ones who ultimately resolve the public controversy over immunization requirements.

“When enough people are vaccinated, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread, sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom the vaccination has not produced immunity.”

Vaccines only work if enough people in a community are vaccinated—what Vollbrecht referred to as herd immunity. As Biss writes in her book, vaccines are a kind of immunity banking, something an individual may need at a future point in their life: “When enough people are vaccinated, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread, sparing both the unvaccinated and those in whom the vaccination has not produced immunity.” Researchers have found that, for vaccines to work, 92 percent or more of a population must be immunized against the disease. For highly contagious viruses, it takes 95 percent to protect the entire community.

By either measure, both Grand Traverse County and The Children’s House appeared to have dangerously high exemption rates. At the school in particular, the risk of losing herd immunity was disconcerting because it enrolls babies as young as 3 months old—infants who still aren’t fully vaccinated and rely on the rest of the school to shield them from outbreaks that can be life threatening for young children. In fact, earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that a months-old baby who was too young for vaccinations contracted measles at daycare, forcing the subsequent quarantine of 14 infants enrolled at the same center, which is located on Santa Monica High School’s campus.

4. Facebook again, Trying to make the News Feed less useless.

The problem for Facebook is that user metrics have become a feedback loop for useless diversions. Though Facebook has gotten very good at the gold standard of stories — delivering important news about marriage, childbirth and exotic vacations of close friends — people’s news feeds (well, mine) have been overpopulated with listicles (50 Most Bizarre Prom Pictures!), animal videos (I Put A Go-Pro On My Dog And Left the House!), and political red-or-blue meat (Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin).

You could call this the Dozen Doughnuts problem. Many people conscious of their weight know it’s not a good idea to eat a doughnut every day, and if given a choice would not prefer that someone come into the workplace every morning with twelve Krispy Kremes. But if a misguidedly generous worker did just that, the temptation to pluck one of those jelly-filled delights might overrule discretion. It’s not that you want the doughnut—you aren’t clamoring for one, and you won’t miss that sugar bomb if it’s not in front of your face. But once that delicacy is in front of you…oh, what the hell!

For lots of us, the Facebook News Feed is a never ending delivery of info-doughnuts — empty calories of celebrity misdeeds, snuggling animals of different species, and quizzes that guess where you’re from (what, you don’t know? But we take the tests!). And when we do click on them, we send a strong signal to Facebook’s algorithms that we want to see those things. We clicked, didn’t we? And, as Facebook’s engineers and managers constantly explain, the company is nonjudgmental about what’s in anyone’s News Feed — as long as it makes the user happy.

“By denying scientific principals, one may maintain any paradox” – Galileo Galilei

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.



powered by TinyLetter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Newsletter

For Your Consideration : Weaponizing Facebook, Unnoticed Lives, Networks and [power] Laws, and Experimenting on Gamers

1. British army creates team of Facebook warriors | The Guardian

The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.

The 77th Brigade, to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, in Berkshire, will be about 1,500-strong and formed of units drawn from across the army. It will formally come into being in April.

The brigade will be responsible for what is described as non-lethal warfare. Both the Israeli and US army already engage heavily in psychological operations.

Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative.

The 77th will include regulars and reservists and recruitment will begin in the spring. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought.

An army spokesman said: “77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”

2. Everyone Has A Story | Published at 46: ‘I’d blown the one dream I’d always had – of being a writer’ | The Guardian

This type of story collecting was the original idea behind the name “People In Passing” which became my blog name.

I was sleeping in my car, with just a dog for company, wondering what happened. I ended up driving a taxi. Giving lifts to the lovers, the lonely and the lager louts in late-night Liverpool. I’d fallen apart but working those long nights started putting me back together. In my mirror I saw thousands of different pairs of eyes staring back at me. And then one night, I realised that each of those pairs, every single one of them, had a story to tell.

All I had to do was ask. So I did. One night there was drunken vicar who said: “I don’t think I’ve ever believed in God, and the hours are a killer…” Another night it was the two pot dealers: “There’s no money in weed since everyone started dealing, and carrying the new stuff makes your tracksuit stink.”

“Me ma has to boil mine.”

“Makes them shrink, lad; costs us a fortune.”

There were the sad stories, like the lady who caught a taxi to the cashpoint at five to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Just so she wouldn’t be alone when the world linked arms and started singing “Auld Lang Syne”. We sat and watched some fireworks together, and I remember how surprised I was that her hands were so warm when she wished me “Happy New Year, son” before she went off to have a miserable one of her own.

There was the old man who asked me to wait while he visited his wife: “I’ll only be five minutes, I just want to check she is OK.” We were in the cemetery.

In the small hours there was a lot of time to think about the people I met. All these stories, all these people living unnoticed lives. A thousand tales sliding across my back seat, never to be told. So I started filling notebooks, pen portraits with poor grammar of the people who passed me by.

3. Network Science Is Changing Our Understanding Of The Law | MIT Technology Review

To study the nature of the resulting network, Koniaris and co have extracted all the documents from the European Community’s legal database dating back to 1951. This amounts to 250,000 documents embedded in a network of over a million edges.

The team studied each subsection of the network and found that all were small world networks in themselves. In practice, this indicates that nodes are most commonly linked to their neighbors creating clusters but that these are also linked on much larger scales. That’s how it becomes possible to move from one part of the network to another in a small number of steps. This also leads to a power law structure in which a few laws are highly influential.

Network theorists know that these kinds of networks have specific properties. One of them is that they are robust and still tend to function when nodes and edges are removed. That is important in a legal network because laws sometimes become invalidated or changed and an interesting question is whether the legal network will still function as a result.

Koniaris and co test this by removing nodes and edges from the network at random and see how well connected it remains. In general, they say the networks are highly resilient.

But there is also a caveat. In small world networks, a small number of nodes are highly connected and therefore hugely important. Removing these can cause significant problems. When nodes are removed at random, it is highly unlikely that any of these will be affected. But when they are, problems can ensue. Knowing which laws are highly connected is therefore important.

4. Inside the Largest Virtual Psychology Lab in the World | Backchannel – Medium

League of Legends is often called the world’s most popular video game—it draws enough online spectators during championship events to rival the millions who watch the World Series and NBA Finals. But it’s also a virtual lab capable of running experiments with thousands or even millions of human players, collecting data around the clock from time zones scattered across North America, Asia and Europe. Such a “big data” approach to studying human behavior could lead to new psychological insights that would be impossible to achieve in the confines of a university lab.

Riot takes great pains to point out how its experiments benefit the entire League of Legends community. The game company is likely reaping the rewards of this publicity campaign; experimentation in a similar vein by Facebook in 2014 showed that public opinion can quickly turn sour when people feel emotionally manipulated for corporate interests. Facebook’s failure to explain its motives up front allowed users to draw their own conclusions and imagine the worst.

Riot Games and Facebook are not alone in toying with user behavior. Many companies routinely do A/B testing to see how people respond to slightly different presentations of material on a Web site, tweaking text or images, for example, to get visitors to stick around longer or spend more money. Riot’s experiments are also in its self-interest—to keep players from quitting and to attract new customers who might otherwise be scared away by the toxic reputation of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, says Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who studies video games. “In terms of using big data, I doubt Riot is the only game company using player tracking and so forth,” Madigansays. “But I think they are unique in how they’re taking an experimental approach that is more scientific.”

Riot’s relative transparency about its aims puts it ahead of the pack, as most companies don’t publicize how they tinker with the online experiences of millions of customers. As a result, Riot’s experiments also offer a rare glimpse into the ways that companies nudge our behavior online, every minute of every day.

Riot is not alone in collecting data about human behavior on such a massive scale. Tech companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook also commonly test thousands or millions of customers’ reactions to changes in the popular online services each company provides.

“If those processes could at least be opened to academic researchers — or at least to observation — research in human behavior would advance very rapidly and change the character of how research could be done,” says Brian Nosek, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. “You could imagine with this sort of iterative process that science would just come out, boom, boom, boom.”


“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” - Norman Vincent Peale

I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.


powered by TinyLetter

Leave a Comment

Filed under Newsletter