Google Books turns a new leaf in culture studies December 17, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV302 , comments closed
This weeks’s Science has a short article on the first fruits of cultural research on the Google Books database. Roughly speaking, and as I understand it, Google books has constructed a monster concordance (“n-gram”) listing all the words used in books in its database (a lot!) and where and when they were used. Thus, researchers can study patterns of usage of different words and infer cultural phenomena from them.
(Image courtesy of Twice25 via Wikimedia Commons.)
A number of interesting things turn up:
The first surprise, says [Stephen] Pinker, is that books contain “a huge amount of lexical dark matter.” Even after excluding proper nouns, more than 50% of the words in the n-gram database do not appear in any published dictionary. Widely used words such as “deletable” and obscure ones like “slenthem” (a type of musical instrument) slipped below the radar of standard references.
So, we can learn a lot about the English language from this database.
In addition, trends in censorship can be inferred. Let’s assume that the more famous people are, the more they are mentioned in books. In that case, if the “fame-trace” (“fame-print”?) of an author suddenly dips and then later resurges, it may indicate that the author’s work was censored, his fame-print then being artificially lowered for a time.
A large number of artists and academics of this era are known to have been censored during the Nazi period, for being either Jewish or “degenerate,” such as the painter Pablo Picasso. Indeed, the n-gram trace of their names in the German corpus plummets during that period, while it remains steady in the English corpus.
These studies are interesting but fairly crude. However, it seems clear that a great deal about cultural history might be learned from further research. I suspect that historians of technology will be equally interested in the fame-print of interesting gadgets, for example, and many things more.
Update: Have a look at this Wired piece on the database.
Is your Kindle keeping score? You bet! December 16, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Earlier, I commented on news that Amazon’s Kindle aggregates user data, such as the book passages most highlighted by users. Of course, besides your highlighting, your Kindle is keeping detailed files on you.
A recent piece by NPR explores how much your Kindle reports on you. The Kindle contains a cell phone antenna that allows you to download books wirelessly, which is very convenient. The same technology also allows the Kindle to report back to Amazon on your reading habits. How far did you get through War and Peace? How long did it take you? At what rate did you read through different chapters? What words did you have to look up? Where did you read it? Amazon may know better than you.
The EFF has produced a side-by-side comparison of privacy policies of various on-line book providers to guess at the data they are monitoring. It is interesting to note what information is obtained but also how much is simply uncertain. How long does your e-book provider store this information, for example? None of them seem to say. Nor are they very forthcoming on the subject, the NPR piece notes.
There are some useful things that Amazon or its clients could do with such information:
“[The Kindle] is just one more string in their bow,” says author Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild. “They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender and other interests of the people who bought my books. Now you can throw on top of that the fact that a certain number of them quit reading at Page 45.”
The implication is that authors or researchers could form a better idea of what people like and how they read, and use this information to tailor a better reading experience. True, but the lack of clarity and transparency in what data is collected, how it is kept, and for what purpose remains unsettling.
Apparently, author Stephen King feels similarly:
“Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me,” King says. “But it is the way that things are.”
Bee careful? December 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
FastCompany has run a couple of articles on the use of clothianidin as a pesticide on corn in the US. The pesticide may well be highly toxic to honey bees, which are vitally important both to the honey industry and as pollinators for the corn plants themselves (and other plants too, of course).
(Image courtesy of WWalas via Wikimedia Commons.)
A leaked document (not Wikileaks though) suggests that tests supporting the EPA’s decision to allow the pesticide were poorly designed and thus inconclusive as to the safety of clothianidin in the presence of honey bees. Yet, the EPA continues to allow the use of clothianidin. Several other countries, e.g., France, have already banned the pesticide out of fear of its effects on bee populations, and bee populations in the US have declined precipitously in recent years.
One of the topics we often discuss in my class is how to proceed in the introduction of designs or design elements in the face of uncertainties of this type. Do we proceed with innovations unless and until harm is proven, or do we adopt a precautionary stance and hold off unless and until safety is assured? In a more recent entry, Ariel Schwartz at FastCompany recommends the precautionary strategy:
No one can say for sure that neonicotinoids alone are causing bees to die off–many more studies have to be done. But the EPA would do well to err on the side of caution for the beekeepers who are rapidly losing their bees. Tom Theobald, for example, saw his smallest honey crop in 35 years of beekeeping, and Hackenberg claims that he has talked to beekeepers across the country who have lost up to 90% of their output this year.
Given our reliance on bees for crop pollination, and the seriousness of colony collapse disorder generally, this argument seems compelling. However, what are the risks to the agricultural industry if clothianidin is banned? What would you do if you were in charge at the EPA?
The Fun Theory and the Speed Camera Lottery December 14, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Thanks to Nafis Karim for pointing me to the Fun theory website. The fun theory is a design precept suggesting that you can alter people’s behavior in a positive (or negative?) way by adding fun to desirable activities. Their classic illustration must be the Piano staircase: In order to get people to avoid the escalator and climb the stairs in a Swedish subway station, designers configured the steps to look and act like part of a giant piano. Piano notes came out of a speaker whenever a person set foot on a step. Thus, people would exercise their legs because they could play a tune by climbing the stairs.
The Fun Theory promoters (aka Volkswagen) held a contest that has recently been decided. The winning Fun Theory design is the Speed Camera Lottery. In this design, a speed camera takes photos of cars and records their speed as usual. However, drivers of cars that travel within the limit are entered into a lottery. People think that lotteries are fun, after all, and appear to like the idea. A test in Sweden indicated that the average speed of cars passing the test camera dropped from 32 km/h prior to the lottery to 25 km/h during the lottery. Success!
It is a neat idea but the are reasons to doubt that it would be an effective speed restraint measure in general.
- The idea may lose its legs after a while. That is, as people discover that obeying the limit seldom produces a win in the lottery, they may decide that the rewards of speeding exceed the rewards offered by the lottery. Whether or not this happens depends, of course, on the incentive structure offered by the lottery, which is not detailed on the Fun Theory’s website.
- Along the same lines, the Speed Camera Lottery lacks some of the incidental rewards of a real lottery. In a real lottery, people sometimes develop “lucky numbers” that they determine and play again and again. The Speed Camera Lottery does not allow people to develop and play “lucky speeds”. Speeds over the limit are out, and it is hard to “play” the exact same speed repeatedly because your speed is greatly influenced by external circumstances. Also missing is the social aspect of real lotteries, e.g., buying tickets with a group of friends or colleagues. So far, driving at a given speed is a more-or-less solitary experience.
- Then there is the issue of moral capital. By this term, I mean the sense of moral rectitude that people have as an assessment of their behavior. People who think highly of the rectitude of their behavior tend to have a sense that they possess a high level of moral capital. Like having an indulgence for sins committed, the possession of moral capital may result in people who behave well in some respects feeling licensed to behave poorly in others. In the case of the Speed Lottery, getting entered into a lottery for good people may give drivers a sense of speed entitlement, leading them to speed elsewhere. In short, the Speed Camera could simply relocate speeding instead of restraining it.
None of these points mean that the Speed Camera Lottery is a bad idea. It is merely that its effectiveness for the task of speed regulation may be limited, more so than is evident at first blush. I think that the same may be said of the Fun Theory itself: It is a good tool in the designer’s toolbox but one that should be deployed with an awareness of its limitations.
Does your gear do some of your thinking for you? December 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed
A little piece from NPR highlights how social media sites like Facebook can distract people from work, thus making them less productive:
Nielsen, the media research firm, calculated that one in every 4 1/2 minutes online is spent on blogs and social networking sites.
So, Fred Stutzman, a software developer, created an application to combat all of this time wasting. It’s called Anti-Social.
Enable Anti-Social and it’s impossible to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and any other site you specify — without rebooting your computer.
Whether the app is really effective remains to be seen.
(Image courtesy of Kimkha via Wikimedia Commons.)
The Anti-Social app relates to a previous thread on human augmentation. Human beings have always been dependent on technology for survival. What is remarkable about apps like Anti-Social is the extent to which computerized gadgets are becoming integrated into our mental functioning. The point of Anti-Social, after all, is to outsource an individual’s attention-allocation mechanism to his or her gear. We rely more and more on Facebook to tell us what information is notable, and then on things such as Anti-Social to avoid becoming too engrossed in Facebook activity.
But Anti-Social seems rather crude: It shuts down Facebook access entirely. Mark Zuckerberg would probably say that it needs to get “social.” So, how about a filter app that uses inputs from your friends to figure out which updates and posts to ignore?
Anyway, the notion of cognitive prostheses with such power over your mind raises an interesting metaphysical issue: Can these prostheses actually become part of your mind? Would you say that your mind is contained entirely in your head? Or does it extend outwards, into your body or even into your gear? The view that your mind, perhaps just the unconscious part, is not limited to your noggin is known as embodied cognition or externalism. Have a look at Andy Clark’s recent piece in the New York Times on this perspective of the mind-body relation. If your mind really can extend into external stuff, especially computerized stuff, then you can radically alter the character and content of your mind by installing new apps like Anti-Social. Changing your mind has never been easier!
How cities are not sustainable December 7, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A little while ago, I posted about why cities are green. Several commentators have noted that cities seem to allow people to live more sustainably than rural settlements allow them to. To make a long story short, cities offer efficiencies of economic and social opportunity for residents that rural areas do not offer so well. People respond with a lower birth rate and overall level of consumption.
(Image courtesy of Andreas Meck via Wikimedia Commons.)
It was also pointed out that the efficiencies provided by cities do not guarantee sustainability. As the British economist William Jevons pointed out, people sometimes respond to increased efficiencies by increasing their consumption, thus undoing or even reversing the advantages offered by the efficiency. Providing cheaper and more fuel-efficient cars, like the Tata Nano, for example, may actually increase the net rate of gasoline consumption by putting many more cars on the road and increasing the number of trips made by individual drivers.
Given this result, it is almost a wonder that increased efficiency in design would ever lead to increased sustainability of consumption, as it seems to do in cities. This got me to wondering how it might be that cities might be considered less sustainable than comparable rural areas. I do not have a comprehensive list at hand, but I would speculate that cities are less sustainable in the following ways:
- Caloric intake: The number of calories consumed by the average person in developed countries has climbed steadily over the years. In Canada, for example, the average calorie intake per person per day has increased from 2358 calories (1976) to 2788 calories (2002).
- House sizes have increased, even as family sizes have decreased. The average new house floor area has gone from from 983 ft2 in 1950 to 2266 ft2 in 2000, while the amount of floor space per person has gone from 286 ft2 per capita in 1950 to 847 ft2 per capita in 2000 (all figures from the United States).
- There is also the heat island effect, on which cities tend to be hotter than neighbouring rural areas.
So, as people have been increasingly living in cities, they have also been eating more, building larger houses (which they then have to furnish and heat), and been exposed to more heat, probably increasing heat stress and consumption of air conditioning. In these respects, Jevons seems to be vindicated: As people move into cities, they consume more resources per person. If cities are indeed more sustainable than rural settlements, as appears to be the case, then the social and economic factors driving down their net consumption must be powerful indeed!