Archive for the ‘social construction’ Category

The hockey stick controversy

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

No, it’s not about the NHL lockout. It’s about a February article in the journal, Geophysical Research Letters, that questions what has become the traditional graph of the rise in global temperature: the hockey stick. The hockey stick refers to the shape of the temperature line, which is approximately unchanging (straight) from 1000 to 1900AD and then spikes from 1990 to 2000. The spike is particularly severe in the 1990s. The hockey stick came from a computer model created by a team led by Michael Mann and appeared in 1998 in a Nature article authored by Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes.

(this image is from the IPCC 3rd assessment report, chapter 2 and describes “Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999, adapted from Mann et al. (1999). Smoother version of NH series (black), linear trend from AD 1000 to 1850 (purple-dashed) and two standard error limits (grey shaded) are shown.”)

To calculate modern temperature, the authors used instrument readings. To calculate historical temperatures, Mann et al. could not use instruments: there were no thermometers in 1200AD. Instead they relied on data from tree rings, ice cores, corals, as well as historical accounts of temperature.

According to a report in the BBC, it was the assumptions in how this “proxy” data was modelled that posed the problem. The authors Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick in Geophysical Research Letters asserted that the statistical treatment of the tree ring data favoured a hockey stick shape for the temperature curve. The strong bias essentially “flipped the entire analysis”.

(For a detailed explanation of the technique and the controversy, see this post.)

BTW, the controversy has a Canadian connection. Stephen McIntyre is from a company called Northwest Exploration in Toronto and Ross McKitrick hails from the Department of Economics, University of Guelph.

In a subsequent post, I’ll go over the recent political controversy surrounding this computer modelling conflict. For the moment, it shows how model results can hinge on a single data set, whether primary or secondary (“proxy”), and on a single assumption. This isn’t to say that assumptions are bad–they are a necessary component of any model. In this instance the statistical technique chosen is well-respected (couldn’t interpret remote sensing data without it) and extensively backed-up by the literature. And it demonstrates that conflict is a healthy part of scientific advancement. The challenge is whether the scientists in the community are entrenched in a position or open to questioning the assumptions.

Updated post with graph directly from the IPCC report.


Monday, May 23rd, 2005

The luddite undertone you can hear in environmentalism’s True Blue voice may be the song of the siren. “Superhitechecology” takes the best of science and manipulates the laws of nature to, well, save ourselves from ourselves.

So it’s good news, more often than not, when engineering and the like take a day off to pitch in. Here, allow me to introduce GE’s ecoimagination, which not only sounds spiffy, but is in lowercase for utmost appeal.

Much like issues of climate change, these endeavors are framed in neat business plans, with long-term profit stability/ job security underlined several times. Say hello, Market-Driven-Performance, to If-You-Can’t-Beat-’em-Join-’em. For an excellent review of what Superhitechecology GE holds in store, without an audio introduction (did you see the GE site?), read Joel Makower’s article.

Touch nature, virtually

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

Via slashdot

Wired News reports that researchers have developed a computer system to allow physical interaction over the Internet. The system enables touching and feeling [tele-haptic sensing] of animals or other humans in real time, but it’s first being tried out on chickens. Researchers call it the “first human-poultry interaction system”, although they don’t explain why the chickens (actually roosters).

The Touchy Internet was built by researchers at the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore (NUS) (with teams in other places such as Austria). Click on it. These guys have the coolest research website I’ve ever seen. Check out their video section, especially the ones on Human Pacman.

The immediate use, which comes to mind, is porn. After all, porn represents the number one use of the Internet. The Wired article mentions the possibility for rescue workers to remotely communicate with dogs as they search in dangerous or remote places. I wonder if this technology could be used as a component of nature interpretation, either in a virtual interpretive center or as a way for disabled people to interact with nature. Or it could be used to advance protection of distance habitats. For example, if we could touch them, would it help us better empathize with baby seals in northern Canada and therefore more vigourously protest the seal hunt? If we could pet dolphins, would we engage in protecting sea mammals from fishing? We could think of any number of environments that might benefit from tele-haptics.

The future of science fiction

Sunday, May 1st, 2005

There have always been debates in science fiction about the legacy of Star Wars. At the same time, it interested more people in SF, the movies have set back our thinking of how SF looks at the world. In the Stars Wars universe, SF is space opera, that is opera in spacesuits and rocket ships. SF has moved on since then.

Like science itself, science fiction has evolved since the days of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the end of World War II, the genre has shifted its focus from space and time travel to more complex speculations on how the future, whatever its shape, will affect the individual.

That shift has only accelerated in recent years, as biotech and genetic engineering have moved to center stage in science and captured writers’ imaginations, and as the lines between science fiction and other genres begin to blur. “We’re starting to look inward, rather than outward,” Mr. Morgan said. “There are exciting and scary things going to be happening in our bodies.”

Nature-deficit disorder

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

This ought to interest Jennifer: According to today’s NY Times, kids have become so attached to their computer games that they’ve got an associative disorder, a disconnect from the environment.

The author Richard Louv calls the problem “nature-deficit disorder.” He came up with the term, he said, to describe an environmental ennui flowing from children’s fixation on artificial entertainment rather than natural wonders. Those who are obsessed with computer games or are driven from sport to sport, he maintains, miss the restorative effects that come with the nimbler bodies, broader minds and sharper senses that are developed during random running-around at the relative edges of civilization.

Mr. Louv is the author of the upcoming book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder from Algonquin Books.

This quote from the book sums it up: “ I like to play indoors better ’ cause that’ s where all the electrical outlets are, ” reports a Grade Four student.

Gated online communities

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Fascinating story in the Washington Post called Which Side of the Velvet Rope Are You on? that an increasing number of websites are pushing their exclusivity. Basically, the un-hip aren’t allowed to participate in the virtual community.

Hmm. The polo set finally comes to online social networking.

Computers and emotions (again)

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

I’ve been pondering this for a while. In an age where computers are being used more and more for communication, is it actually possible for a human to convey to another human their emotions, feelings, sentiments, underlying meanings, etc. In person to person communication there are so many signals to help us interepret what the other person is saying: body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc… when we use computers there are only the words (unless you get into webcams) that are available. For instance, can you tell how i am feeling write now as i write this? What if I were crying? If i was actually writing, with a pen and paper, you might be able to see evidence of tear drops. Not on a computer though…

Are you real if you can’t be googled?

Thursday, April 7th, 2005

from Juan Cole’s blog on the google smear.

The Google search has become so popular that prospective couples planning a date will google one another. Mark Levine, a historian at the University of California Irvine, tells the story of how a radio talk show host called him a liar because he referred to an incident that the host could not find on google. That is, if it isn’t in google, it didn’t happen. (Levine was able to retrieve the incident from Lexis Nexis, a restricted database).

It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far rightwing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news. Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes). Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information.

I’m interested in this post not for its political content, although Horowitz has gained considerable notoriety in the US for his Academic Bill of Rights, which protects “non-partisan”, that is conservative speech on campus. See here and here and here. Rather, this post suggests that we are coming to be defined by the online documentation of our lives. In other words, you’re not real (i.e., you don’t exist) if you cannot be googled. However, because there’s no way to easily check the accuracy of Google entries, Cole points out that you could still be “fake” even if you’re found online. We can easily say that our lives are a social construction, made up of our experiences as well as others’ perceptions of us. Googling adds a virtual layer.

Hmm. If you’re only real because of what is reported about you online, then some guerilla tactics are possible. Perhaps we could encourage children from a very early age to start sprinkling the web with news about themselves ;-).

Meeting People Online vs. In Person

Tuesday, March 15th, 2005

Continuing from our discussion today, I think part of the reason why we are losing our stronger ties is because of a few things. For one thing, there seems to be so many diverse groups out there, that people lose their direction. Being a part of many online groups, you’ll make ties, but won’t have enough time to keep up with all of them, so you may not get to really learn about each individual person. Another thing is that we take the easy way out, by writing online, and forget how to maintain our social skills in real life, because we aren’t practicing them as much. We’re taking the easy way out, by writing, and taking the extra time to think about what we are saying. Then when we get into social situations, perhaps there are long pauses, because we aren’t used to talking on the spot. It becomes a real problem. Then we become lazy at intiating conversations, and such. Then it’s difficult for someone to get to know you and for you to get to know someone, if you don’t talk as much. Or we become impatient, and are rude when we cut someone off (in person) to talk to our friends via text messaging. I don’t do this, but always I feel like my pressence doesn’t mean anything to them, when my friends do this. But maybe it’s the feeling of security they get, knowing that they are tied to people across borders. But it’s like this is how we distance ourselves from people, because we don’t appreciate the long pauses that often give us time to reflect on another’s words and ideas.


Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

Why do we always feel like we need more technology? Because of the ads and to reinforce our sense of worth? People who buy and buy will never be happy because there will always be something else they want. It seems we think that sometimes we can solve an environmental problem by creating new efficient technologies (and sometimes we can). But often times this new technology brings about another problem that ends up harming the environment again. Consider hydrogen fueled cars, to decrease carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere; however, producing the hydrogen also requires energy, and may release carbon dioxide in the process. So what do we do? Sometimes the solution is to take away current technologies on the market right now. For instance (if you could consider just for this example utensils as a form of technology), my roomates and I were having some problems regarding dishes…They were complaining that utensils weren’t being dried and put away, (which they weren’t because everyone was being lazy). We had about 15 forks and knives, which seemed more than adequate for 4 people; that is, if everyone did their own dishes after they ate, there would be no instant where we didn’t have a clean fork in the drawer. But this was not the case. I decided to take the Taoist approach to solving this problem. (By the way, for those who don’t know much about Taoist philosophy, neither do I, but there is this notion that instead of valuing something, they value the nothing. In one sense, the nothingness or emptiness within an object, makes the object useful. For instance, clay is not useful unless you can form a deep cavern, a hole, in it and make a pot to hold things with. BUt without that hole, of nothingness, it would not be useful). So as a result of this useless complaining, I took away 7 or 8 knives and forks and hid them in a drawer. No one seemed to notice that we had less utensils. And no one complained about it again. That’s what I’m talking about – value something more when you have less of it – I think in some ways people would be happier.

Paris Hilton’s cell phone

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

I am a not so closet fan of pop culture. One thing that’s driving me crazy is this confusion over the hacking of Paris Hilton’s cell phone. Am I mistaken or was it actually her online database (on T-mobile?) that was hacked, a website that happens to be connected to her cell phone (SideKick)? Either reporters are incurious and are too lazy to understand how the technology works. OR, and this is more likely, it’s more sensational to report on a potentially new vulnerability, the hacking of cellphones that so many people now own. It’s like people worrying that computers, which aren’t connected to the Internet, will get hacked.

Or maybe this story has received so much coverage just because we’re supposed to feel sorry for the celebrities?

Mincipal Wifi’s

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

From the NYTimes reporting on Philadephia’s attempt at a municipality–wide wireless Internet network:

“City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let students and low-income residents get on the net.”

Municipal wireless is at the same time a fascinating experiment in technology diffusion, a scary story of surveillance, an interesting battle between the public and private sectors over who should build the infrastructure and finally, an example of overlaying virtual public space over physical public space at 1:1 scale. As much as I love wireless, I’m not certain it’s a good idea to have my nose buried in a laptop instead of occasionally experiencing the world around me (at minimum, I’d likely bump into the lamposts). But then again, is it any different from the continual connection to the virtual afforded by cellphones and Blackberries?

Wi-fi Networking News has a good round up on munipical inititiatives to create wireless communities.

Reflecting on Java

Thursday, February 17th, 2005

J-S’s proposal to research the social and environmental impacts of the Java architecture prompted me to see if there was anything on the social construction of Java, which led me to this. Enjoy.

The Sokal Affair

Tuesday, February 15th, 2005

An interesting thing I discovered while trying to gain some more background on relativism, was various accounts of the Sokal affair. The Sokal affair was something of a big deal in the Postmoderist world, wherein Alan Sokal, a physics professor at NYU, wrote a deliberately nonsensical paper in his own words, “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, and submitted it to Social Text, a postmodern journal published by Duke.

The same day his article was published, he revealed in the journal Lingua Franca that in fact his article was meant as a parody. Of course, scandal ensued, with the story being picked up by many newspapers around the world, and various angry articles written about it.

In defense of Social Text, they are not a peer reviewed journal for the reason that they wished to promote more original research, and thus provide less of a guarantee about the accuracy of its articles. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that if someone like Chomsky were to write an incomprehensible treatise on nothing, many journals would be tempted to publish it simply on the weight of his name alone.

There are many sources of knowledge about the hoax, Sokal’s Website and Wikipedia provide a good overview.

Of course, I’m sure many of us have toyed with the idea of doing something similar, in both arts and sciences: whether to insert jargon in order to bewilder whoever happens to be marking it, that they will hopefully be fooled into believing the work is credible, or that they will be too baffled (and too proud to admit it) to comment on it. In high school, I played with this a little bit, where I would use two very uncommon words (correctly) in essays in close proximity, followed by a completely made up word that sounded ok. On one occaison, the first two words were underlined, however the third wasn’t, leading me to believe my teacher looked up the first two in the dictionary, and then seeing that they checked out, gave me the benefit of the doubt. Of course, Sokal took this a step further, by openly rubbing it in the faces of those who had bought his self described parody.

The hoax also serves to highlight the disconnect in academia which exists in many places between the arts and sciences. I can’t say I’ve ever really discussed social construction, relativism, or postmodern thought in university prior to this class (although I’ve only taken three arts classes) and I don’t imagine I’m alone. Likewise, I don’t imagine too many arts students have taken a lot of physics or mathematics courses. I suppose it’s a product of having undergraduate education becoming so focused, I feel like it’s not uncommon for people in the same field to be completely unaware of each others specializations.

No more phones in your dormitory

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

The Washington Post has an article on universities debating whether to ‘pull the plug’ on landlines (i.e., traditional phones) in their dormitories. Apparently so many students have cell phones that they rarely use the landlines. Historically, universities have used surcharges on the phone calls to finance the landlines (and more, because the article says that the phone service used to be a “cash cow”). Now they’re sinking lots of money into a service that the students seldom use.

To cover students, such as international students, who do not own cellphones the universities are thinking of loaning them cellphones. But wait. It doesn’t stop there.

[Washington, DC’s] American University already feels unplugged. The campus is wireless, so students can type e-mails and study on laptops from couches, the steps of the library and benches outside. Snatches of one-sided conversations drift by as students walk to class talking on their cells. Next fall, the university will provide business school students the latest BlackBerry devices.

Another interesting tidbit from the article is how youth have socially reconstructed the purpose of the phone call. Explains one such student:

“It used to be you’d call someone because you had a reason to call,” said Ian Johnson, 28, a graduate student at American. “Now you call because you’re bored waiting for the bus to come. . . . It’s almost a noise pollution.”

So here we have the connection to the environment. Cellphones are the new noise pollution.

For other environmental reasons, this may not be a good university policy. See Expert spells it out: health fears mean young should not use mobile phones.

What will it take?

Thursday, February 3rd, 2005

Ok… well here we go, my first chance to steer away from the technological aspects of this course… although I don’t know how any blog can not be related to technology, due merely to the fact that a blog requires a fairly advanced combination of technology. This post relates to the intersection of nature and society.

So in searching for a blog to review I found a list of blogs related to the December ’05 tsunami, a natural (or was it?) disaster, occurring in South East Asia. I came across one blog that was a honey-mooning couples account of the seismological activity and resultant environmental and cultural effects. If you have the time to skim through this blog please pay special attention to the recurring theme: what happened to the couple’s luggage.

The point I want to make here, is that planet Earth just experienced one of the largest natural disasters in recent history, yet many of the human inhabitants of the Earth can not get past the idea that the tsunami may affect their cultural lives. The honey-mooning couple was worried about their luggage, locals are worried about rebuilding their homes, caring individuals are thinking about and helping the many orphaned children, but who is thinking about the state of the Earth?

With global climate change upon us, scientists are predicting that natural disasters will only happen more frequently and more intensely, drastically altering the Earth as we know it. What is the sake of culture if there is no place to host it?

What people all around the world need to start realizing is that these “natural disasters” may not be so natural at all… that is if you consider humans to be removed from nature. Human induced climate change is a real possibility – it may be that our own species is taking enjoyment (i.e. driving around their fancy cars, consuming factory made goods) from creating conditions that may prove only to deteriorate the cultural world as we know it. Hundreds, even thousands, of communities were demolished as a result of December’s tsunami – why wasn’t it yours or mine? What will it take for people to realize that we are our own demise?

No amount of warning signals (eg. Tsunami) or awareness attempts (eg. “The Day After Tomorrow”) seem to be working: I still see countless cars everyday carrying only one person and there is no shortage of goods requiring huge factory emissions for production. Societal stubbornness wins out again.

Wake up people!

RFIDs replacing Barcodes

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Barcodes have been used for more than 30 years to identify products, we can pretty much find them on all packaging. But it seems like the retail industry is running out of barcodes number (it’s only 12 or 14-bit) and that the barcode is not good enough anymore. A newer technology that will most likely replace barcodes is currently emerging, RFID (Radio frequency identification). A RFID is basically a simple microchip that has a number and act as radio antena so it can be remotely scanned. It has considerable advantages over the conventional barcode including that every single product can be assigned a unique number (instead of usually a number per type of product), and tags can be scanned remotely in bulk, instead of product by product. RFIDs are already widely used in applications such as security cards, anti-thief system in music stores, etc… But now the retail industry seems to want to replace all barcodes by RFIDs. Wal-Mart is already requiring its top 100 suppliers to place RFID tags on product cases and pallets by January 2005, beginning in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
This new practice raises a couple of important issues on privacy and environment. A lot of people seems to be concerned with the privacy issue see PCWorld article and RFID Privacy Blog, because all RFID can be remotely tracked.
Some organization seems to start being interested in how to extract these microchip to continue to be able to recycle the packaging materials. OFFE
However from my google search I have not found any study about the environmental impact of producing all these silicon microchips that could replace all barcodes (that’s a lot of microchips).
Interestingly some other people believe that it could improve recycling management as well. see Industrial Ecology and the Digital Revolution

Multiple Personalities

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Communication through bulletin boards, netmeetings, email and other internet mediums is becoming the norm. how often do you send a quick email rather than call a friend to see what the plans are for the weekend? or have a net meeting rather than an in-person meeting. Putting aside the significant cost advantages as well as distance and schedually bridges that internet communication provides, there are some interesting ideas on why people sometimes prefer communicating via the net rather than person to person.

There was a study done at the University of Alberta in 2000 titled: Exploring Social Communication in Computer Conferencing. In the study, there is discussion on the idea that some people, namely students, who feel uncomfortable participating in traditional classroom social interaction activities will show a completely different personality during internet communication. I have experienced it myself during various netmeetings, people who are normally shy and passive sometimes lead the online discussion, offer numerous opinions and question the remarks of other discussants.

What is it that causes this shift in personality? Is the computer screen less intimidating than human faces? or is it the forums themselves, which can be “manipulated to create open, supportive and cooperative environment[s]”, as the U of A study suggests? And why have classrooms gone from being open, supportive and cooperative environments to areas of intimidation, peer pressure and passive behaviour? are computers and the internet taking us away from the need to interact socially in person, or is the degradation of human behaviour (intimidation, peer pressure, impatience, power trips, etc) driving us to seek new mediums for communication?

There question that baffles me the most is: which personality is real? The personality that is shown when a person is in physical presence of other humans or the person’s online personality? It appalls me to think that there may come a day where our lives are so dependent on the internet that our personalties are defined completely by our online behaviour.

Does anyone have any thoughts? just think about it, I can already see personality differences, online and in the classroom, amongst our classmates.

Humanizing machines

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005

I guess this relates to the discussion last class regarding the Turing test, and artificial intelligence. I have no doubt that eventually, the machine would be able to tell which is the woman and which is the man, based on deductive logic and process of elimination…but I don’t think machines or robots will ever have ethics. They will never be able to think whether they do something is good or bad, just or unjust. In the book by Hannah Arendt “On Violence”, she takes out the term violence on its own, separate from power, authority, force, and strength, and believes that violence requires implements, such as tools and also, violence has the ability to overwhelm the outcome, so that undesireable results occur. Violence does not make one powerful, but rather violence is an expression of power. Violence requires power, and in order to perpetrate violence, one needs a group. But computers overcome tihs, by allowing one person to perpetrate a large amount of violence on their own. “No government exclusively based on the means of violence has ever existed. Even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power basis – the secret police and its net of informers. Only the development of robot soldiers, which, as previously mentioned, would eliminate the human factor completely and, conceivably, permit one man with a push button to destroy whomever he pleased, could change this fundamental ascendancy of power over violence” (Arendt 50). Technology may be more of a liability than an asset, in some cases…what are your thoughts on this? Has anyone seen iRobot?

Escaping the Real World

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

My first question is: What is the real world?
Second question: Why do people head to the country on the weekend or move to the suburbs or spend a week alone in the middle of the wilderness – all to “escape the real word”?

Personally, I think that computer technology plays a major role in constructing our idea of the “real world”. When people escape the real world they are, in many instances, going somewhere where they can communicate directly with other people – not through computers, be in an environment that is much more healthy and stimulating than staring at a computer for the majority of the day and somewhere with a much slower pace of life. When it comes to determing a pace of life – think about how much time it takes for an email response to come back as opposed to lettermail response! I would be interested to know if people “escaped” as often in the times before the computer boom!?

I did a quick google of “escaping the real world” and what I found was that not everyone “escapes” by going into nature; some people indulge in an extra piece of cake, or disappear into piece of music or spend time with family, but NO ONE (at least in the top google responses, lol) goes to their computer to escape the real world.

Although, I was just thinking: what about computer games, are they an “escape”? Liam, was it you that plays computer games? Do you have any insight on this?