Monthly Archives: July 2012

What the Tweet?

Newenglanbod responded to Jerry Coynes notice that Richard Dawkins has started tweeting:

“I still refuse to get a Twitter account. Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play. I also do not wish to be a ‘groupie’ who follows the sound byte pronouncements of other people and especially the often malformed thoughts of their followers.”

But then we get this from newenglandbob, on a post that was about Sam Harris on Free Will: “I prefer the egg rolls to the spring rolls. Some Vietnamese Pho(ph? bò)if they have it.” [87 characters]

And this, on a post about Elliot Sober’s views: Or potato chips. They also have Wavy to help during the wave function. [70 characters]”

Or this pithy contribution to a post about Sam Harris: “Heh heh.” [8 – not counting smiley emoticon]

To be fair, newenglandbod does contribute more interesting stuff than these examples. My point here is not that these particular comments are inane in any way (they seem off topic to the main post, but they are in context as responses to other comments), just that they seem to contradict the statement “Communicating at 140 characters per thought is a game I am not willing to play”.

Okay, if twitter is so great, what’s so great about it?

As Jerry pointed out, you can use it to broadcast your own blog posts.

Twitter is really useful for following people who tweet but don’t provide feeds to their web sites or blogs, so otherwise I wouldn’t pick up their posts so regularly, say with a news reader.

The whole point of the 140 character limit is to avoid verbose people (guilty) hogging the space. I can scan tons of tweets really quickly, and many (most if you follow the right people) use twitter to link to their posts or other interesting stuff when you want greater detail. The limit is an aid. And for those adicted to longer tweets there are other tools that will take your longer tweet and condense it for presentation on twitter: http://longertweets.com/

And, the 140 limit makes it easy to read on a smart phone, where you can choose to open up links for a more detailed read if you want to.

One of the best features is the retweet, where you simply echo to your followers the tweet of someone you follow. When someone retweets a tweet from someone they follow and that I don’t, I sometimes find new interesting threads to start following.

And retweets are one of the means by which news travels fast on the web. I think it’s hard to deny the contribution of twitter to social change. The Arab spring being a prime example. Try this activist. Take a look at the number of retweets that link to others. This is how they communicate.

And all the news agencies and radio and TV broadcasters have several twitter accounts where you can pick and choose what you’re intersted in: https://twitter.com/guardianscience

I also follow several tweets related to my work, which makes keeping track of events a lot easier.

You can still use twitter as a source without having an account. There are some tools out there, such as Meet The Tweet. Or, if you only follow one or two you only need their twitter name: https://twitter.com/Evolutionistrue.

I get it that there are millions of inane tweets out their keeping you up to date on how much navel fluff they’ve collected today, how much pain they are sufferring at the hands of an unrequited love, or how Jesus will save you. Sometimes even the people worth following can resort to uninteresting stuff. Stephen Fry is a prime example. He’s an interesting guy; love much of his TV and radio work; have picked up many interesting links from his tweets. But sometimes I’m not so interested…

There’s no escaping the fact. I’m eating a cherry.”

So, this is Margate, is it? Certainly plenty of fish and chip shops.”

… though no doubt many of his followers are.

Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. It might be popular because it works. Trying it, making your mind up based on that, and then deciding to quit, is all fair stuff. If you’re rejecting tools because of what you suppose them to be, because the notion of what they are, or who uses them, or how popularist they are, offends your rationality, then perhaps you’re not assessing it rationally yourself.


An Experiment

1) Sign up to twitter. You can always close the account after the experiment. You don’t have to write any tweets yourself. In this experiment just use it as a source.

2) Enter each of the following into the search box, hit search and click the ‘Follow’ button. These are just for starters. They are some of the more regular sources that link to articles on science, philosophy and news. Sometimes the authors will link to their own blog posts – you get your blog to automatically post on twitter, so no big deal there.

@sciam, @microphilosophy, @Neurosciencenw, @TelegraphSci, @JandMo, @Neurophilosophy, @tedtalks, @neuroblogs, @TheBrainScience, @docartemis, @edyong209, @nytimes, @Stanford, @PhysicsWorld, @newscientist, @guardianscience, @philosophybites, @NewHumanist, @BBCNews, @Evolutionistrue, @neuropsychblog, @MarcusduSautoy, @BHAhumanists, @bloggingheads, @BoraZ

I’ve left off lots of people associated with my work that won’t be of interest to you. I also follow some celebs: @seanmcarroll, @timminchin, @BadAstronomer, @neiltyson, @SamHarrisOrg, @bengoldacre. Some celebs I don’t follow (honestly): pop-stars

3) As you read your own sources, from news feeds or favourite blogs, start to click on the twotter link so that you follow them too. My list is just a starterlist for you. Develop your own interests. You’ll soon figure out who is worth following. Some people post infrequently, and maybe post interesting stuff even less frequently. They are OK to leave as followed, since they won’t fill up your stream too much.

The ones you may want to stop following are those that tweet very often – like 10+ times a day, but mostly consisting of useless 140 char opinion. Yes, these are the ones that most critics of twitter are objecting too, along with the millions of teens tweeting on the attractiveness of their current idols. Don’t follow them and you won’t see them.

4) Try this for a month. Open twitter every day or so and scroll down and scan down. I just scanned 20 hours of tweets I follow in about three minutes, and I follow 197 people. Of course if I follow a link and read the article I take mroe time. But, hey, what are you doing reading this anyway? If you’ve posted a criticism of twitter on some blog of online news article then you do actually find some stuff on the net worth reading. Now you are using twitter as one more tool to follow your interests, efficiently.

Extension to Experiment

I find some days there are too many interesting things to read up on, but some I really don’t want to lose track of. I don’t find twitter’s favourites tool useful. Instead I use Evernote, plus Evernote clipper, an extension to Google Chrome (and other browsers) which allows me to quickly save an interesting web page url to an Evernote note. I must have hundreds of such quickly saved links that I’ll never get round to reading. But in there are some gems that I vaguely remember seeing but can’t trace again by a google search. After a quick search of my Evernote account I’ve been able to get back to the article, often months later.

If you don’t like Evernote, try Deliscious, or one of the many other means of keeping track of links. These tools, and twitter, ensure that if I must waste much of my time on the internet, at least I’m wasting it on interesting stuff.

Psychology – The Hard Science

An LA Times article reports on Psychologist Timothy D. Wilson’s complaint that psychologists are badly done to by members of the ‘hard’ sciences.

Ironically it’s psychology that’s the ‘hard’ science, in the sense of most difficult do, because of the complexity of the subjects.

Physicists have been in a tizz for a century just because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are particles or not, or because particles can’t make their minds up whether they are coming or going at the same time as making their minds up about the speed at which they are coming or going.

Psychology subjects not only don’t know what they really are, or whether they are coming or going, they’ll also lie to you about it, and often do not know they’re lying to you. I’d like to see a physicist deal with that degree of contrariness and uncertainty.

Because of this and other difficulties expressed in the above article and the original it does raise another problem that compounds matters: it’s easy for cooks and crooks to make up false and misleading crap and to hide behind the smoke screen thrown up by the genuine difficulties the discipline faces.

An example being Robert Lanza. You’d be better listening to Mario Lanza than this cook.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.

The Giant’s Balls-up

I have seen reports that the National Trust is lending support to Young Earth Creationist (YEC) views on the formation of the Giants Causeway (GC). Here, for example.

(h/t JC)

I have to say that I’m very disappointed in the way the audio transcript is unclear about the NT’s position and does give the impression that it lends credibility to the YEC view. And the NT response to media enquires is no better:

“We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that some people hold views today which are different from mainstream science.”

That is not the case, based on the transcript. It would be a legitimate point to say that explicitly, that is, to say that YEC have used the GC and other geological formations to support their views, but that this conflicts directly with the science. But that is not what the transcript expresses:

Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant’s Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

There is no such debate, only unsupported claims by YEC. They may think there is a debate, but the science demonstrates there is nothing to debate. And it would be a misrepresentation of science to liken these YEC claims to the legitimate debate within science about the precise age and cause of the formation.

How does it compare, for example, with the NT’s treatment of other myths? In how many audio visual presentations are local myths presented as serious matters of debate, rather than just myth? Is there serious debate on the matter of the Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) building the causeway to walk to Scotland to fight his Scottish counterpart Benandonner? Both this and the YEC claims are on equal footing – i.e. myths.

The NT does indeed appear give the Fionn some weight, here: Giant’s Causeway; but in this case the it is presented tongue in cheek so clearly, as are many fabulous Irish myths, that there is no misunderstanding – and, no religious fundamentalism striving to make political points, something I’d have thought Ireland had seen enough of.

I’d be interested to know what will be done about this at the site. I think the NT has a duty to represent the history of its properties in the most accurate manner. Where ancient myth has played a significant role in a location’s history then it is right and proper to describe such a myth. Where a religious or political debate has used a location, then it is reasonable that this fact should be included in a presentation.

But there is a distinction between the fact of the religous or political debate, and the fact of the matter supposedly being debated. In this case, one fact is that YEC have used the causeway in the promotion of their claims. A quite different fact is the age and cause of the rock formation. The NT should not allow religous or political pressure groups to influence NT presentations as it is a very dangerous precedent. There’s already abundant bollocks believed in Ireland as it is. The NT doesn’t need to add to it.