Science Writing is Hard

Science is sometimes really tricky, which makes writing about it even trickier. No real experiment exists apart from a huge background of assumptions, abstractions, caveats and complexities;  the writer’s job is to find a strong narrative that is understandable with little or no prior knowledge, scans well, and catches the reader’s attention.

Recent research on physiological differences between liberal and conservative voters seems like a dream come true if you’re in need of a catchy press release, like this one from the National Science Foundation. I read the actual paper, and it says that people who answer more conservatively on a questionnaire about their politics tend also to have more pronounced “fight-or-flight” reactions to disturbing or surprising stimuli, as measured by skin conductance and startle response.

The press release tells a different story, and I believe that the NSF science writer told the wrong story. I attribute this partially to the politics of publicity, but mostly to the fact that science is actually very subtle, and hard to summarize.

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Teenage Political Addiction

“Just one email,” they said. “Forward it to all your friends.” That’s how it starts, and before you know it you’re that guy in the recent Onion article who won’t shut up about politics. Then that creepy little troll who volunteers for suddenly thinks you’re dating — and no spam filter is ever going to convince him that you were never together in the first place! Hell, it might be worth telling him you’re voting for McCain, in front of all of your friends, just to get rid of him.

Nonetheless, is pretty damn funny.

(As with so many cool things, my friend Brendan brought this my attention.)

Don’t Wink At Me, Ever

This was the slogan on a protest sign as Sarah Palin arrived to a fund-rasier this morning, a reference to her sly gesture last night during the debate. Someone didn’t like it that the popular kid was still popular. Neither did the all-Obama crowd watching at the Temple club last night in San Francisco’s SOMA district. Sitting on the floor, wearing earplugs to dampen CNN’s booming voice and the louder roar of the crowd, I felt like I was cheering in all the wrong places. While everyone else was screaming blood for victory, I was admiring my enemy

Let me tell you about the Democrats’ superior economic policy. Let me offer you a history lesson about sparring Muslim sects. Let’s talk about the ideal character of a judicial nominee. No– wait. I apologize. I’m sorry. You don’t talk that way on a date. I’m a geek, an academic, a weirdo elitist intellectual. I’m attending a talk on green energy policy tonight; I sit at the front of classrooms and try to learn foreign languages, just like my man Obama. We sit at the same lonely table at the cafeteria. I bet he hides his despair at the idiots around him better than I ever did.

Biden tried to make sense. He radiated competence and experience. He talked to his peers. The voters are not his peers. They never studied law, they’ve never left the country. Palin said “soccer mom” and the Temple crowd booed. This crowd of young, educated, liberal, relatively affluenct West-Coast voters — my peers — they raged at the cheap shots. Me, I nodded in silent assent. Good move, Sarah. She’s the annoying and pretty girl who answers all the questions right in Soc. class. You know she’ll go far.

“John McCain is the man we need to leave…I mean lead,” she said, and the rest of the class erupted into hoots, throwing spitwads. Are we in this just to make ourselves feel better?

Because this was not a debate, this was sales. This was not aimed at those who take public policy seriously. This was aimed at the 25 year-old girl who works in retail all day before collapsing into her couch to watch American Idol with her boyfriend. This was for the working stiff who’s just too tired to peruse the dismal headlines at the end of the day, and goes straight to the sports section. Palin winked at the housewife whose husband works for the pharaceutical industry. I’ve been calling voters, and I know: we in San Francisco are the geeks. We’re the outcasts. What we think of the debates is irrelevant.

All it’s going to take for the Republicans to win the election is one good cheap shot on October 30th. Obama’s lead is deadly slim, when you actually read the error bars, and impossible though it may seem, something like a fifth of voters still haven’t made up their minds. This is why I don’t care to encourage Obama; I want to know my adversaries. I want to celebrate the honest talent of that girl with the perky smile who you just know is going to end up doing public relations — welcoming attractive and connected people to all the best parties — while the rest of us well-intentioned technocrats work the grey cubicles for one more generation.

[ if you’d like to talk to real voters yourself, please join me in phone banking this Sunday. ]


But you saw it, right? Our man won the debates. Come on, it was totally obvious that the other guy simply does not understand what needs to be done. He’s such an imbecile, I just don’t understand anyone could believe such nonsense. As opposed to us– that man will take us into the future, I tell you. And, look, all the papers support us. The people want us. Just ask anyone you know.

Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust them. Not even worth listening to that crap.


Really. I read their web page once, and, man, it just enrages me. How could anyone think that way? Such people defy the plainest common sense. It’s not even worth listening to them. Here, read this book. It clearly shows that we’re right.

But how do you know?

Well. Isn’t it obvious? The arguments actually make sense, that’s the great thing about it. I mean, how many people have you met who didn’t agree? Yeah, okay, so there are some weirdos. Heh. That’s definitely true. Yeah, of course, research it if you want. Just remember that those reports are biased by their ideology. My god, who have you been listening to?

Talk to them?

Okay, but… you just can’t convince a person like that. It’s a waste of time with such people. Really. it’s been studied.

Do you ever wonder how they got that way?

What on earth do you mean?

Iranian Bloggers Fail to Live up to Stereotypes

Map of the Iranian Blogosphere

A new study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society opens with the following narrative:

Iran, a country rich in history, culture, and education, supports a large online community, including perhaps the fourth largest ‘blogosphere’ in the world (or the second, third or seventh). Because the Iranian press is under the control of religious conservatives who sit above elected officials in Iran’s peculiar hybrid political system, and because that conservative control is used to silence dissent, Iranians who think differently go online to express their views. Here, the inherent freedom of the Internet (anonymity, decentralized control, etc.) allows the true minds of Iran’s youth, journalists, and intellectuals to be known publicly. In their blogs and online chats we see their rejection of the regime, its brutal paternalistic control, its enforcement of archaic sexual mores, its corruption and incompetence, and of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself. The government, worried, has cracked down. Bloggers have been sent to jail, websites are being blocked, and user bandwidth is constricted, but the Internet continues to be one of the best hopes for homegrown democratic change in autocratic Iran. If you read Iranian blogs, it is clear that many Iranians want drastic social and political change.

The authors of the paper then do the homework to ask if this story is true. And it is true– but so is a story about social and religious conservatives using the internet, or a story about the many sites devoted to Persian poetry and literature. Part of the confusion here is that we have, in the West, our own story about what it means to be liberal, freedom-loving, democratic, as contrasted with closed, repressive, backwards. Our ideas about the social and political struggles of Iranians do not map neatly to reality.

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Campaigning for Myself

If I was an anarchist skate punk I’d tell you that the whole system is so fucked it doesn’t matter who gets in. Or I could be a Berkeley vegetarian and see loving animals as the road to peace – as in actual world peace. Or I’d say that repealing the drug war will save us, or green energy, preschool programs, fair trade, mothers against drunk driving, online privacy, and a crosswalk on 4th street. To which my response is, screw all that. I’ve seen too much for causes. You permaculture freaks can bite me.

I’ve seen the world and I’ve lost religion. I know that no single victory will save us. Also: no one ever does anything for completely selfless reasons, and it’s a mistake to think that they should. This is the only standard I think I can actually live up to, and it’s more honest anyway: saving the world is just too easy a way to feel good about yourself, to feel different and special, or to forget the girl who dumped you.

Nonetheless, I spent four hours yesterday afternoon calling voters for Barack Obama. I did not expect to feel good about it. I do not even really expect that it will make a difference. But it seems a bloodless sort of way to support the world I want to live in. Also – and this is the real reason – I was damn curious. About myself, mostly.

I’ve seen better and worse governments, and while they all seem sort of fucked, some are far more fucked than others. In the United States, no one is getting shot for their politics, and that’s not nothing. Not every country is like this. That is civilization, my friend. That and clean water. So it’s easy for me to believe that the system isn’t completely screwed. My toilet flushes. Seems like a minor thing, until you don’t have it and people start dying of cholera. True story.

I don’t need people to believe. I don’t believe myself. I just want a president who at least talks about sustainable energy and universal health care. I don’t give a shit that the guy’s charismatic, other than the fact that it’s an asset in his game. I just want to live in a certain world, and I think that Obama will bring us closer to it. Fun fact: while Obama’s domestic support is around 50%, something like 80% of world citizens want him to be president. Curious, isn’t it?

So I stepped into the system and made those calls, because I wonder just how far within the status quo it’s worth working. And I wonder how I’ll feel about participating in utterly mainstream politics, the CNN circus. I called voters in Nevada and tried to convince them to vote for Barack Obama, and I did it mostly because I wanted to see how I felt about myself at the end of the day.

This made me somewhat reckless on the phone. And that made me real, because I could say whatever the hell I wanted. I’m still working out what that is.

Intelligent News Agents, With Real New

You cannot read all of the news, every day. There is simply too much information for even a dedicated and specialized observer to consume it all, so someone or something has to make choices. Traditionally, we rely on some other person to tell us what to see: the editor of a newspaper decides what goes on the front page, the reviewer tells us what movies are worth it. Recently, we have been able to distribute this mediation process across wider communities: sites like Digg, StumbleUpon, or Slashdot all represent the collective opinions of thousands of people.

The next step is intelligent news agents. Google (search, news, reader, etc.) can already be configured to deliver to us only that information we think we might want to see. It’s not hard to imagine much more sophisticated agents that would scour the internet for items of interest.

In today’s context, it’s easy to see how such agents could actually be implemented. Sophisitacted customer preference engines are already capable of telling us what products we might like to consume — the best example is Amazon’s recommendation engine. It’s not a big leap to imagine using the same sort of algorithms to model the kinds of blog articles, web pages, youtube videos, etc. that we might enjoy consuming, and then deliver these things to us.

There is a serious problem with this. You’re going to get exactly what you ask for, and only that.

True, we all do this already. We read books and consume media which more or less confirm our existing opinions. This effect is visible as clustering in what we consume, as in this example of Amazon sales data for political books in 2008.

Social network graph of Amazon sales of political books, 2008

This image is from a beautiful analysis by Basically, people buy either the red books or the blue books, but usually not both. The same sorts of patterns hold for movies, blogs, newspapers, ideologies, religions, and human beliefs of all kinds. This is a problem; but at least you can usually see the other color of books when you walk into Borders. If we end up relying on trainable agents for all of our information, we risk completely blacking out anything that disagrees with what we already believe.

I propose a simple solution. Automatic network analyses like the one above — of books, or articles, or web pages — could easily pinpoint the information sources that would expose me to the maximum novelty in the minimum time. If my goal is to gain a deep understanding of the entire scope of human discourse, rather than just the parts of it I already agree with, then it would be very simple to program my agent to bring to me exactly those things that would most rapidly give me insight into those regions of information space which are most vital and least known to me. I imagine some metric like “highest degree node most distant from the nodes I’ve already visited” would would work handily.

You can infer a lot about somewhat from the information they currently consume. If my agent noticed that I was a liberal, it could make me understand the conservative world-view, and vice-versa. If my agent detected that I was ignorant of certain crucial aspects of Chinese culture and politics, it could reccomend a primer article. Or it might deduce that I needed to understand just slightly more physics to participate meaningfully in the climate change debate, or decide (based on my movie viewing habits) that it was high time I review the influential films of Orson Welles. Of course, I might in turn decide that I actually, truly, don’t care about film at all; but the very act of excluding specific subjects or categories of thought would force us, consciously, to admit to the boundaries of our mental worlds.

We could program our information gathering systems to challenge us, concisely and effectively, if we so want. Intelligent agents could be mere sycophants, or they could be teachers.

What Foxmarks Knows about Everyone

I recently installed Foxmarks, a Firefox extension that automatically synchronizes your web bookmarks across all the computers you might use. Refreshingly, the developers got it right: the plug-in is idiot-simple and works flawlessly.

This is accomplished through a central server, which means a lot of bandwidth, hardware, reliability costs, etc. In short, it’s not a completely cheap service to provide. As there is no advertising either in the plug-in or on the site (yet?) I began to wonder how they planned to pay for all this. I found my answer on their About Us page:

We are hard at work analyzing over 300 million bookmarks managed by our systems to help users discover sites that are useful to them. By combining algorithmic search with community knowledge-sharing and the wisdom of crowds, our goal is to connect users with relevant content.

Of course.

There is a lesson here: knowledge of something about about someone is fundamentally different than knowledge of something about everyone. As with Google, Amazon, or really any very large database of information over millions of users, there are extremely valuable patterns that only occur between people. The idea is as old as filing, but the web takes this to a whole new level, especially if you can convince huge numbers of people to voluntarily give up their information.

So far, I haven’t said anything new. What I am suggesting is a shift in thinking. Rather than being concerned primarily about our individual privacy rights when we fill out a form full of personal details, perhaps we should be pondering what powers we are handing over by letting a private entity see these large-scale intra-individual patterns — patterns that they can choose to hide from everyone else’s view, naturally.

I am beginning to wonder very seriously about the growing disparity between public and private data-mining capability. Is this an acceptable concentration of power? What effects does this have on a society?

My Invisible Visa

Little known fact about the developing world #23: your friends can’t visit you. Citizens of the developed world generally know that immigration is restricted, that a random African (for example) can’t just move to a rich country and call it home. What most people don’t know is that, for the most part, the world’s billions cannot even come and visit.

The United States of America has of course become secretive and paranoid after 9/11, so I’ve used my home country of Canada as an illustrative example. A government web page lists those countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada. This is not to live or work in Canada, but merely to visit. I’ve summarized the results on a map. People from the blue places need a visa for entry.

Countries for which a visa is required to visit Canada

As you can see, most of the people in the world can’t simply show up at the airport for a visit.

Naturally, there is a procedure for obtaining a Canadian tourist visa. One goes to the nearest Canadian Embassy, typically in your capital city, for a visa application and interview. This is not a mere formality. As this Canadian government web page notes,

All applicants wishing to visit Canada must satisfy an officer that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for the stay, that they will not contravene the conditions of admission (for example, that they will not study or work without prior authorization), and that they do not belong in a category of persons inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In reaching a decision, an officer considers several factors, which may include:

  • the applicant’s travel and identity documents;
  • the reason for travel to Canada and the applicant’s contacts there;
  • the applicant’s financial means for the trip;
  • the applicant’s ties to his or her country of residence, including immigration status, employment and family ties;
  • whether the applicant would be likely to leave Canada at the end of the authorized stay.

This means you wait in line with a hundred other brown undesirables. This means you borrow money from your friends, family, or loan-shark moneylenders for that single-day bank statement that shows you much richer than you actually are. This means you make up reasons, swap stories and superstitions, and hope. Not all that many visas are issued per year, and maybe, just maybe, you can get away from your poor country, where everyone is starving / where the war is on / where you can’t possibly make a living. In Canada, you can become one of those people who works a good job and remits money each month to support your family back home. Sure, you won’t have a work permit, sure, you’re supposed to go back home in two weeks, but that can be sorted out later. The first step is just getting there, isn’t it? So please, Ganesh. I implore you, Allah– let me say the right thing to the stony-faced guardian of the borders when my turn comes. Let me be one of that fraction of a percent whose visas are granted.

The walls and telephone poles near every first-world embassy are papered with ads for shady immigration services.

But me, white first-worlder, I don’t have this problem. As a Canadian citizen, I can go to any of the blue countries whenever the whim takes me. I need visas too, of course, but that’s a sure thing, a birthright. I can walk into just about any embassy in the world, fill out a form, pay a fee, and arrange a trip to where ever I want to go. My developing world friends cannot; Baba and Shai and Mohammed can never come to visit me. Most of the world’s people are effectively trapped in their country of birth.

Gore Sets Grand Goal of Growing Up

Gore wants to put a man on the moon in ten years, or something even harder, and he wants to do it without the help of the military, the oil companies, or the long shadow of the USSR. This is a grand goal with no grand moments, no televised spectacles. In a speech yesterday he said,

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

This is going to be hard. Not because of the massive amounts of new technology and infrastructure required — though that will be hard too — but because preventing catastrophic climate change is not sexy. There will be no crowning achievement. There will not be any small steps for a man, only a completely invisible giant leap for mankind. We are not in a race against an evil superpower with bigger rockets. Sustainable electricity makes terrible television.

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