Did Facebook Betray Our Trust?

 Posted by on 3 July 2014 at 10:00 am  Business, Internet, Rights, Science
Jul 032014
 

I’ve seen lots of people upset — on Facebook, of course — about Facebook’s social science experiment with people’s newsfeeds. However, I’ve yet to find an argument that’s compelling. Consider this one from Stephen Green:

Facebook has been described as an internet-within-the-internet, and the secret to making that work is it’s an internet curated for you by people you trust. To see something on your Facebook TL, it has to come from someone with a mutually-defined relationship, or from someone you trust enough to follow. Untrustworthy acts — like when somebody tags your name on something that has nothing to do with you, in order do win unearned trust and attention — are easily reported and corrected. The fact that Facebook uses this web of relationships, clicks, and behaviors to do some seriously creepy data-mining and ad sales behind the scenes doesn’t affect the strengths of the service it provides in public.

But for this to work, Facebook must remain neutral. What you see must be what your trusted friends have curated and presented to you. There can’t be any monkeying around with the Facebook timeline, any more than AT&T or Verizon can decide which phone calls you may receive, or when you may receive them.

Facebook is now essentially corrupt, and it did it to itself. First, they performed this “experiment” of altering timelines in order to assess possible mood changes they could affect on their users. Then, after the fact, they slipped new language into their Terms of Service allowing them to do more of the same in the future.

I agree with the point about the Facebook’s late change to its terms of service. That sucks. Yet the fact remains that Facebook has monkeyed around with the timeline for years in various mysterious ways. I don’t have access to the raw feed of just what my friends post; no one does. (That’s what Twitter displays, which is both refreshing and annoying.) For many years now, Facebook’s display has been extremely selective, only showing me a portion of what my friends post, based on some hocus-pocus algorithm, partly designed to increase my “engagement.”

Then, for this study, Facebook tweaked their hocus-pocus algorithm in a slightly different way… and then published the results. What’s supposed to be so new or so horrible about that?

Or, as Tom said: “I don’t get it. We’ve known all along that Facebook were manipulating the timeline for commercial purposes. They decide to do it once FOR SCIENCE! and suddenly everyone throws a hissy fit? Color me so not caring.”

Am I wrong? If so, tell me what’s so darn horrible about what Facebook did here!

The Value of Philosophy

 Posted by on 1 July 2014 at 11:00 am  Academia, Philosophy, Science
Jul 012014
 

Bob Pasnau — University of Colorado at Boulder Philosophy Professor — writes in the NY Times on the value of philosophy: Why Not Just Weigh the Fish?

The essence of philosophy is abstract reasoning – not because the philosopher is too lazy to attempt a more hands-on approach, but because the subjects at issue do not readily submit to it. If we could simply weigh the fish, we gladly would. In recent centuries, philosophers in fact have discovered how to weigh that allegorical fish, in various fields, and on each occasion a new discipline has been born: physics in the 17th century; chemistry in the 18th; biology in the 19th and psychology in the 20th. The scientists, short on history but flush with their government grants and Nobel Prizes, cast an eye back on what remains of philosophy and skeptically ask: Why don’t you stop wasting your time and just weigh that fish?

It’s a question philosophers ask themselves all the time, and sometimes they despair. The remaining problems of philosophy today concern issues like justice, morality, free will, knowledge and the origins of the universe. In dismissing philosophy as an antiquated relic of our prescientific past, the scientist is making a very large and dubious assumption: that the abstract methods of philosophy, despite the discipline’s string of successes over recent centuries, have nothing more to contribute to our developing understanding of the world. Perhaps scientists think they already have the answers to all these philosophical questions. Maybe, but if so they certainly keep them well hidden. Or perhaps they judge these remaining questions to be simply unanswerable. Possibly they are, but it seems wildly premature to give up hope.

Bob Pasnau was my medieval philosophy professor. He was also the graduate advisor and department chair for periods during my tenure as a graduate student. He was part of what made my experience in the department so good. Go Bob!

 

My latest Forbes piece is a change of pace from the usual health policy discussion. Instead, I decided to have a bit of fun and write about, “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact“.

Some of the 8+ technologies (or story elements) of Star Trek that I discuss include:

1) Warp Drive

2) Universal Translator

3) Handheld Computers

4) Medical Tricorder

5) Energy Weapons

6) Androids

7) Teleportation

8) Intelligent Aliens

9) Other Technologies

Although some Star Trek technologies are still clearly in the realm of science fiction (e.g., the warp drive), others like the medical tricorder are coming close to reality.  And some design elements (like the flip-style communicators of Star Trek: TOS) have already come and gone as consumer products in the real world.

For more details, read the full text of “8 Star Trek Technologies Moving From Science Fiction To Science Fact“.

I had a lot of fun working on this latest Forbes piece.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

(And I’d like to thank Ari Armstrong for his blog post on Microsoft and Skype Translator that inspired this article.)

The Truth about Science Projects

 Posted by on 17 March 2014 at 2:00 pm  Education, Funny, Science
Mar 172014
 

Heh.

The Natural World Through Christian Eyes

 Posted by on 20 August 2013 at 10:00 am  Christianity, Religion, Science
Aug 202013
 

I just finished listening to the classic allegorical novel of protestantism, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It was truly atrocious, even aside from the Christianity. I cannot imagine Christians finding any value in it… and yet it is a classic.

The worst — and hence, the best — bit was the following passage on the proper Christian interpretations of natural phenomena:

It was told you before, that Prudence bid the boys, that if at any time they would, they should ask her some questions that might be profitable and she would say something to them.

Then Matthew, who had been sick, asked her, why for the most part physic should be bitter to our palates.

Prudence: To show how unwelcome the word of God and the effects thereof are to a carnal heart.

Matthew: Why does physic, if it does good, purge, and cause to vomit?

Prudence: To show that the word, when it works effectually, cleanseth the heart and mind. For look, what the one doth to the body, the other doth to the soul.

Matthew: What should we learn by seeing the flame of our fire go upwards, and by seeing the beams and sweet influences of the sun strike downwards?

Prudence: By the going up of the fire, we are taught to ascend to heaven by fervent and hot desires. And by the sun sending his heat, beams, and sweet influences downwards, we are taught the Saviour of the world, though high, reaches down with his grace and love to us below.

Matthew: Whence have the clouds their water?

Prudence: Out of the sea.

Matthew: What may we learn from that?

Prudence: That ministers should fetch their doctrine from God.

Matthew: Why do they empty themselves upon the earth?

Prudence: To show that ministers should give out what they know of God to the world.

Matthew: Why is the rainbow caused by the sun?

Prudence: To show that the covenant of God’s grace is confirmed to us in Christ.

Matthew: Why do the springs come from the sea to us through the earth?

Prudence: To show that the grace of God comes to us through the body of Christ.

Matthew: Why do some of the springs rise out of the tops of high hills?

Prudence: To show that the Spirit of grace shall spring up in some that are great and mighty, as well as in many that are poor and low.

Matthew: Why doth the fire fasten upon the candle-wick?

Prudence: To show that unless grace doth kindle upon the heart, there will be no true light of life in us.

Matthew: Why are the wick, and tallow and all, spent to maintain the light of the candle?

Prudence: To show that body and soul, and all, should be at the service of, and spend themselves to maintain in good condition that grace of God that is in us.

Matthew: Why doth the pelican pierce her own breast with her bill?

Prudence: To nourish her young ones with her blood, and thereby to show that Christ the blessed so loved his young, (his people,) as to save them from death by his blood.

Matthew: What may one learn by hearing the cock to crow?

Prudence: Learn to remember Peter’s sin, and Peter’s repentance. The cock’s crowing shows also, that day is coming on: let, then, the crowing of the cock put thee in mind of that last and terrible day of judgment.

What can anyone say to that?!? Except perhaps… LORDY!

Craziest Chemical Reaction

 Posted by on 20 May 2013 at 2:00 pm  Cool, Science
May 202013
 

Heat turns powder into creepy alien creature. No, really.

The first minute and twenty seconds is just a person scooping out the powder into a line, which is rather boring, so you might wish to skip that. You want to watch from the moment that heat is added.

Apr 172013
 

Tonight, I’ll interview Eric Barnhill about Cognition, Movement, and Music. The topic is a bit obscure, but I’ve always been fascinated to hear Eric talk about his work. For me, this interview an excellent opportunity to have yet another interesting conversation… and you get to listen in!

Eric began his career as a Julliard-trained concert pianist, but now he’s a graduate student in medical physics in Scotland. Yes, that’s a bit of a strange path. Oddly, it’s been a path with a mostly steady trajectory, as you can see from his recent write-up for his alma matter. Here’s a bit:

During my time at Juilliard, I was introduced to an obscure field called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which was developed by the Swiss composer and music theorist Emile Jaques-Dalcroze at the turn of the 20th century. In Dalcroze, movement is combined with vocal work and improvisation to create an alternative approach to teaching music. However, musical subjects are intermediate goals, used to develop attention, focus, coordination and physical performance via movement.

In Dalcroze I saw a methodology of unexplored potential that brought all my varied interests together. However, Dalcroze as a profession, to the extent that it exists at all, mostly consists of young children’s music and movement classes. To many colleagues, I had abandoned interpreting Schubert sonatas for sitting on a floor with 3-year-olds rolling balls around.

Early in my Dalcroze career I was reverse-commuting to a children’s music school in the suburbs (a rite of passage for many a Juilliard grad, in one form or another), where I frequently taught Dalcroze and piano to special-needs and learning-disabled children. I took them on as students because I had a blast teaching them.

However, I began to notice something interesting: The struggles they had executing musical patterns in movement seemed deeply connected to their core special-needs deficits. Similarly, to the extent that these students’ ability to execute rhythmic tasks improved, their core deficits seemed to temporarily recede. If I found a way to help a low-functioning girl keep a beat, she would then become just as present as anyone else. If I could tune up a boy’s ability to track measure, suddenly he would sit up and listen to an entire sentence. Stepping and skipping the rhythms of a nursery rhyme with these children would result in an afterglow of clear and expressive speech from them where none previously existed. This observation was the most exciting one I ever made. It has been the cornerstone on which I have built everything I have done professionally since.

You can read the rest here. Also, Eric gave a talk at TEDxBermuda — Empowering Through Rhythm — that’s an excellent teaser for tonight’s interview:

Fascinating, no? I hope that you join us for the interview!

 

What a charming interview with the creator of one of my favorite Facebook pages, I Fucking Love Science!

I love her broad interest in all things science-y — and I can very much relate to that, except that my interests center on normative domains, particularly philosophy, psychology, and literature.

Specialists are hugely valuable: the major work wouldn’t get done without them. But to spread the good work of those specialists beyond their scholarly bubbles requires advocates and champions. Those are the enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who translate awesome ideas into laymen’s terms, to show regular folks just how nifty and useful and exciting and beneficial those ideas are.

That’s what I aim to do with Philosophy in Action… and it’s lovely (and useful) for me to see I Fucking Love Science as such a great exemplar in another domain.

How to Lower Your IQ: The Physics of Homeopathy

 Posted by on 17 January 2013 at 10:00 am  Medicine, Science
Jan 172013
 

This is super-dense inanity: Crazy Homeopathy Lady Charlene Werner Explains Physics:

My favorite bit is when she concludes from a whole slew of completely ridiculous pseudo-physics that disease is when we “transform our energy state into something different.” The bit about us hearing strings vibrate was pretty awesome too though.

As it happens, I answered a question on whether pharmacies should sell homeopathic “medicine” in the 5 June 2011 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you missed that episode, you can listen to or download the audio podcast:

Geek Not Like This: Electrostatic Discharge

 Posted by on 7 January 2013 at 2:00 pm  Funny, Science, Technology
Jan 072013
 

I nearly cried from laughing too hard when watching this video of … er… how not to handle electrostatic discharge.

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