For Your Consideration: Clickbait Science, Social Neighborhood Watch, Hiding from Ideas, Micro-Drones

1. The Emerging Science of Clickbait
This, of course, means discovering why people, including you, click on things.

Psychologists have long categorized emotion using a three-dimensional scale known as the Valence-Arousal-Dominance model. The idea is that each emotion has a valence, whether positive or negative and a level of arousal, which is high for emotions such as anger and low for emotions like sadness.

Dominance is the level of control a person has over the emotion. At one end of this spectrum are overwhelming emotions like fear and at the other, emotions that people can choose to experience, such as feeling inspired.

Every emotion occupies a point in this Valence-Arousal-Dominance parameter space.

Guerini and Staiano’s idea is that it is not an emotion itself that determines virality but its position in this parameter space.

It turns out that two news-based websites have recently begun to collect data that throws light on exactly this problem. is a social news site that allows each user to rate the emotional value of each story using a “mood meter.” The Italian newspaper site offers a similar function.

Together, these sites have some 65,000 stories rated by emotional quality. That’s a significant database to explore the link between emotion and virality, which they measure by counting the number of comments each story generates as well as the number of votes it gets on social media sites such as Facebook and Google Plus.

Finally, they mine the data looking for patterns of emotion associated with the most viral content.

The results make for interesting reading. Guerini and Staiano argue there is a clear link between virality and particular configurations of valence, arousal and dominance. “These configurations indicate a clear connection with distinct phenomena underlying persuasive communication,” they say.

2. Tracking Wierdos via Nextdoor
The fun part about this is that while it can identify concerning trends in a neighborhood, it can also call attention to the crazies and paranoids you live next to.

Nextdoor is a location-based social network meant to connect neighbors. By signing up and giving your address, you’re placed in a “neighborhood” of users who live in your immediate vicinity. Its intended uses, according to a promotional video, are to borrow a ladder or find a babysitter. In my neighborhood, probably more than half of the Nextdoor posts are about crime.

While that information has made me and many others into evangelical users of the app, unfortunately that’s not the end of the story. As Fusion reported earlier this week, its growth is stirring up questions about how hyperlocal social networks unwittingly allow neighbors to engage in racial profiling

At Fusion, Pendarvis Harshaw writes that tensions on the app can be so high that some communities are taking steps to address it, complicating things even further. In one Oakland neighborhood, residents organized a “whites-only” meeting to address the issue of how to properly report and describe suspicious people on Nextdoor. This was after a neighbor posted in detail about the race and wardrobes of two “sketchy” men “lingering” outside her house. They turned out to be friends of another woman on Nextdoor who were invited to her home for a party. This highlights many of the complicated issues and dangerous consequences around being able to put out an emotionally charged yet misinformed warning—or even a photo—to everyone on your block, instantly.

Part of the problem is that safety, by its very nature, is subjective. A street that feels scary to you might be the street where I live and feel perfectly comfortable walking at night. We need to be able to share what makes us feel uneasy, which isn’t even always the actions of people, it could be a broken streetlight or a tipped-over trash can. But it’s difficult to actually quantify what makes a neighborhood safe.

3. Learn to argue your viewpoint or learn to hide from others…
If you presume to not be challenged with difficult ideas, which you should learn to debate if you oppose them, stay home. Some of my favorite people are the ones I can vigorously disagree and argue with and come away looking forward to our next chat. Almost always both sides learn something, even if it is only to agree to disagree.

“It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism,” Ms. Kaminer said in an email.

The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?

Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

4. The buzz of something new (Micro-Drones)
Now we have UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) soon we will have SUAV (semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (good acronym)) and eventually AUAV (autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle). This is interesting for a number of reasons. Not least of which is that you can’t jam communication on something that doesn’t need to be in contact with an operator.

This year, some predict, will be the year of the microdrone. Small, pilotless aircraft—most of them helicopters with four or more sets of rotors and a payload slung between them—are moving out of the laboratory and into practical use. They are already employed for aerial photography and surveillance, particularly in Europe. In Paris, earlier this month, drones flying around the Eiffel tower caused a security scare. And in America, on March 19th, Amazon, a retailer, was given permission to test a drone designed to deliver its goods.

These drones, though, rely on an operator on the ground. Indeed, this is often a legal requirement. But it is also a constraint. If a world of microdrones really is to come about, then the craft will need to be able to cut the surly bonds of Earth and fly unsupervised. For that, they are going to have to get a lot more intelligent.

The problem is not navigation. The Global Positioning System and Google Earth can tell a drone where it is and what large, permanent obstacles it might encounter, and it can be programmed with its course before it lifts off. The problem, rather, is the unexpected: an unwary bird; an unmapped tree; a gust of wind. Part of making drones able to fly by themselves will be to give them the senses they need to deal with such hazards.

One approach is to ask how natural drones do it. The word, after all, referred originally to a male bee, and bees and other insects rarely blunder into things or fall out of the sky. Copying their tricks makes sense. And laboratories around the world, using bees, blowflies and hawk moths as their models, are trying to do just that.

That sounds easy in principle, but collision-avoidance, especially when what is to be avoided is moving as well, requires good manoeuvring skills. This is where the flies and the moths come in. Adjusted for size, blowflies are better at manoeuvring than any fighter aircraft yet built. Hawk moths are superb at hovering. Both insects use the same method: they combine vision with an inertial guidance system.

Inertial guidance relies on measuring the position of something that, because of its inertia, resists following the object it is part of. Man-made systems use gyroscopes. Moths use their antennae. Flies use a pair of tiny organs called halteres that have evolved from the animals’ hind wings and are shaped like balls on sticks.

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” – George Bernard Shaw

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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.


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