Author: Doug Belshaw (page 2 of 20)

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." (Ernest Hemingway)

Why do some things go viral?

I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?

Memes aren’t things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They’re kind of parasitic on the human mind:

Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.

Dawkins doesn’t like the use of the word ‘meme’ to refer to what we see on the internet:

According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.

So… why should we care?

While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”

It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.

Source: Nautilus

Humans responsible for the Black Death

I taught History for years, and when I was teaching the Black Death, I inculcated the received wisdom that it was rats that were responsible for the spread of disease.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.

There are three candidates for the spread of the Black Death: rats, air, and lice/fleas:

[Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo] and his colleagues… simulated disease outbreaks in [nine European] cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:

  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes

In seven out of the nine cities studied, the “human parasite model” was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.

It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.

“The conclusion was very clear,” said Prof Stenseth. “The lice model fits best.”

Apologies to all those I taught the incorrect cause! I hope it hasn’t affected you too much in later life…

Source: BBC News

The world’s most nutritious foods

The older I get, the more important (and the more immediately apparent) the health benefits from eating and exercising well.

This article reports on scientists studying 1,000 different foods for their health benefits:

Scientists studied more than 1,000 foods, assigning each a nutritional score. The higher the score, the more likely each food would meet, but not exceed your daily nutritional needs, when eaten in combination with others.

The top ones?

  1. Almonds
  2. Cherimoya
  3. Ocean perch
  4. Flatfish
  5. Chia seeds
  6. Pumpkin seeds
  7. Swiss chard
  8. Pork fat
  9. Beet greens
  10. Snapper

Ever since reading of the value of almonds to non-meat eaters in The 4-Hour Body, I’ve taken a big bag of them on every trip. I also have some in a jar on my desk at home. As for the others on the list, some (pork fat!) are out of the question, and some (cherimoya) I’ve never come across.

Time for some more experimentation…

Source: BBC Future

Audio Adversarial speech-to-text

I don’t usually go in for detailed technical papers on stuff that’s not directly relevant to what I’m working on, but I made an exception for this. Here’s the abstract:

We construct targeted audio adversarial examples on automatic speech recognition. Given any audio waveform, we can produce another that is over 99.9% similar, but transcribes as any phrase we choose (at a rate of up to 50 characters per second). We apply our white-box iterative optimization-based attack to Mozilla’s implementation DeepSpeech end-to-end, and show it has a 100% success rate. The feasibility of this attack introduce a new domain to study adversarial examples.

In other words, the researchers managed to fool a neural network devoted to speech recognition into transcribing a phrase different to that which was uttered.

So how does it work?

By starting with an arbitrary waveform instead of speech (such as music), we can embed speech into audio that should not be recognized as speech; and by choosing silence as the target, we can hide audio from a speech-to-text system

The authors state that merely changing words so that something different occurs is a standard adverserial attack. But a targeted adverserial attack is different:

Not only are we able to construct adversarial examples converting a person saying one phrase to that of them saying a different phrase, we are also able to begin with arbitrary non-speech audio sample and make that recognize as any target phrase.

This kind of stuff is possible due to open source projects, in particular Mozilla Common Voice. Great stuff.
 

Source: Arxiv

Sounds and smells can help reinforce learning while you sleep

Apparently, the idea of learning while you sleep is actually bollocks, at least the way we have come to believe it works:

It wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers discovered the touted effects of hypnopaedia were actually not due to sleep at all. Instead these contraptions were actually awakening people. The debunkers could tell by using a relatively established technique called electroencephalography (EEG), which records the brain’s electrical signals through electrodes placed on the scalp. Using EEG on their participants, researchers could tell that the sleep-learners were actually awake (something we still do in research today), and this all but ended research into sleep as a cognitive tool. 50 years later, we now know it is possible to alter memory during sleep, just in a different way than previously expected.

However, and fascinatingly, sounds (not words) and smells can reinforce learning:

In 2007, the neuroscientist Björn Rasch at Lübeck University and colleagues reported that smells, which were associated with previously learned material, could be used to cue the sleeping brain. The study authors had taught participants the locations of objects on a grid, just like in the game Concentration, and exposed them to the odour of roses as they did so. Next, participants slept in the lab, and the experimenters waited until the deepest stage of sleep (slow-wave sleep) to once again expose them to the odour. Then when they were awake, the participants were significantly better at remembering where the objects were located. This worked only if they had been exposed to the rose odour during learning, and had smelled it during slow-wave sleep. If they were exposed to the odour only while awake or during REM sleep, the cue didn’t work.

Pretty awesome. There are some things still to research:

Outstanding questions that we have yet to address include: does this work for foreign-language learning (ie, grammar learning), or just learning foreign vocabulary? Could it be used to help maintain memory performance in an ageing population? Does reactivating some memories mean that others are wiped away even more quickly?

Worth trying!

Source: Aeon

Every easy thing is hard again

Although he isn’t aware, it was Frank Chimero who came up with the name Thought Shrapnel in a throwaway comment he made on his blog a while back. I immediately registered the domain name.

In this article, a write-up of a talk he’s been giving recently, Chimero talks about getting back into web design after a few years away founding a company.

This past summer, I gave a lecture at a web conference and afterward got into a fascinating conversation with a young digital design student. It was fun to compare where we were in our careers. I had fifteen years of experience designing for web clients, she had one year, and yet some how, we were in the same situation: we enjoyed the work, but were utterly confused and overwhelmed by the rapidly increasing complexity of it all. What the hell happened? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

Look at the image at the top of this post, one that Chimero uses in his talk. He explains:

There are similar examples of the cycle in other parts of how websites get designed and made. Nothing stays settled, so of course a person with one year of experience and one with fifteen years of experience can both be confused. Things are so often only understood by those who are well-positioned in the middle of the current wave of thought. If you’re before the sweet spot in the wave, your inexperience means you know nothing. If you are after, you will know lots of things that aren’t applicable to that particular way of doing things. I don’t bring this up to imply that the young are dumb or that the inexperienced are inept—of course they’re not. But remember: if you stick around in the industry long enough, you’ll get to feel all three situations.

The current way of working, he suggests, may be powerful, but it’s overly-complex for most of his work

It was easy to back away from most of this new stuff when I realized I have alternate ways of managing complexity. Instead of changing my tools or workflow, I change my design. It’s like designing a house so it’s easy to build, instead of setting up cranes typically used for skyscrapers.

Chimero makes an important point about the ‘legibility’ of web projects, a word I’ve also been using recently about my own work. I want to make it as understandable as possible:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

He includes a great video showing a real life race between a tortoise and a hare. He points out that the tortoise wins because the hare becomes distracted:

He finishes with some powerful words:

As someone who has decades of experience on the web, I hate to compare myself to the tortoise, but hey, if it fits, it fits. Let’s be more like that tortoise: diligent, direct, and purposeful. The web needs pockets of slowness and thoughtfulness as its reach and power continues to increase. What we depend upon must be properly built and intelligently formed. We need to create space for complexity’s important sibling: nuance. Spaces without nuance tend to gravitate towards stupidity. And as an American, I can tell you, there are no limits to the amount of damage that can be inflicted by that dangerous cocktail of fast-moving-stupid.

Source: Frank Chimero

Issue #291: Necessary koalafications 🐨

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Why good parents have naughty children

This made me smile, then it made me think. Our children are offspring of a current teacher and a former teacher. What difference does our structure and rules make to their happiness?

This article from the ongoing Book of Life compares and contrasts two families. The first is what would generally be regarded as a ‘good’ family, where the children are well-behaved and interactions pleasant. However:

In Family One the so-called good child has inside them a whole range of emotions that they keep out of sight not because they want to but because they don’t feel they have the option to be tolerated as they really are. They feel they can’t let their parents see if they are angry or fed up or bored because it seems as if the parents have no inner resources to cope with their reality; they must repress their bodily, coarser, more volatile selves. Any criticism of a grown up is (they imagine) so wounding and devastating that it can’t be uttered.

The second family is the opposite, but:

In Family Two the so-called bad child knows that things are robust. They feel they can tell their mother she’s a useless idiot because they know in their hearts that she loves them and that they love her and that a bout of irritated rudeness won’t destroy that. They know their father won’t fall apart or take revenge for being mocked. The environment is warm and strong enough to absorb the child’s aggression, anger, dirtiness or disappointment.

As a parent, I’m torn between, on the one hand wanting my children to be a bit rebellious. But, on the other hand, it’s just really inconvenient when they are…

We should learn to see naughty children, a few chaotic scenes and occasional raised voices as belonging to health rather than delinquency – and conversely learn to fear small people who cause no trouble whatsoever. And, if we have occasional moments of happiness and well-being, we should feel especially grateful that there was almost certainly someone out there in the distant past who opted to look through the eyes of love at some deeply unreasonable and patently unpleasant behaviour from us.

Source: The Book of Life

"If you’re not lost, you’re not much of an explorer." (John Perry Barlow)