Communication in Science

I watched this great TEDxRotterdam talk today the guy who gave it wrote an article on a case of homosexual necrophilia activities of a duck. He happened to observe it in action. He basically happened to be in the right place at the right time and is trained as a biologist. For that article he won the ig noble prize, for science that makes you laugh then think. These types of awards are great methods for scientists to communicate with the general public. It shows that scientists can really have a sense of humor.

Another great example of this was a panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting, a James Randi event, which had two really well known scientists, Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson as well as two less well known scientists (to the general population) Pamela Gay and Lawrence Krauss. (Link to the video it’s an hour long) In the panel they discuss the future of space. At some points it gets rather heated between de Grasse Tyson and Krauss, but it’s great to see serious scientists with a sense of humor discuss something they are passionate about. All of them make some seriously excellent points. They discuss how we’re at a turning point in the space program and  how the shift to commercial space flight will change the space industry. The point they are the most serious about however is saving the James Web Space Telescope. For those of you unaware, this is the replacement for Hubble, as I mentioned in my NASA blog. As a side note we need to save this.

The point they were making though, is that there needs to be an adjustment in how NASA works and how scientists interact with the larger population. If scientists aren’t able to articulate why a specific study needs to be done, for it’s own sake, then in some ways they don’t deserve to do it. The added benefit is that most of these endeavors do have additional positive externalities in the form of spin-off firms. Which is pretty awesome.

However, the important thing to take away here is that there needs to be an improve method for scientists to communicate complex ideas to the general public in a way that gets people reading about it. Independent bloggers like me certainly help, but there needs to be a larger push by general scientists. I’d love to have my advisers here at TU/e blog. They study extremely interesting topics and I’d really enjoy getting to read them. There are some “rock” star science bloggers like PZ Meyers but he also discusses a lot of controversial topics that a great deal of people don’t like. He’s an atheist and is extremely vocal about it. Another blogger is Ben Goldacre who studies bad science and attempts to debunk it (his TED Talk).

I think that Google Scholar will do great things for opening up access to materials written by scientists. I for one try to take advantage of it. I use it to search for documents if I can’t find them on the university system and surprisingly I have a really high hit rate. Copyright restrictions limit it.

So how can you help? I suggest sharing articles you find interesting. I try to do it as much as I can. I love when I find a really interesting article posted on facebook or twitter.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: Computing

In my last two blogs, Government and Business, I’ve discussed some of the impacts on our society of ubiquitous high speed wireless internet. In this post I’ll look at the future of the computing industry. I think that this industry will go one of two ways, or perhaps both at the same time. The first route is obvious and is already happening, the second route will probably begin as a backlash to the first route.

The obvious route is cloud computing. As I’ve said we’re already going down this route. The best example of the speed of this transformation is the Amazon Kindle Fire (all three different links). Basically, we will be using less powerful, but still growing in abilities, equipment and pushing the more processor intensive applications out onto a server in the cloud. This will most likely be owned by some private organization. Amazon’s Fire is a great example of this because it provides the ability to browse websites at a much faster rate than what’s allowed under current network speeds. Even with high speed internet this may continue because it’ll fit the website to your screen and make it even faster than over the high speed network.

However, many people are skeptical of cloud computing. There is a sense of a loss of ownership. You become locked in to a specific firm to provide the required services. End User license agreements change frequently and your true ownership of the data and information you place on their servers can change unexpectedly and in ways that aren’t in the favor of the users. Additionally, it’s been acknowledged by both Google and Microsoft that all data in their cloud servers are subject to the US Patriot Act. This raises privacy concerns for the EU and firms using cloud services.

I think that these concerns will drive another type of cloud computing. I think it’ll be something like a personal cloud. It will be similar to working with both a desktop and a laptop at the same time and remoting into the desktop from the laptop, but it will be done seamlessly and transparently. The ownership of the data will be clearly yours and the power will effectively take a phone or low power table and turn it into a fully powered desktop computer. This way the cloud won’t be out there and will be easily controlled by the end user. You don’t have to worry about the Patriot Act or a company going under, changing rates and other issues like that.

Both of these changes will create disruptive changes within the computing industry. The Kindle Fire is on the cutting edge of this. I fully expect Amazon to create additional applications that will run on the Amazon cloud system. There’s no reason not to expect this. It will shift how apps are developed. It will also change who is in the game of creating computers. Dell, for example, will continue to have a major hold over both servers and personal computers, however as we move away from laptops to tablets and phones over time Dell is going to fail in this market. They have been unsuccessful at every attempt to enter these markets. There will be a shift in the players in the market.

These systems will only work with ubiquitous internet connection. They will become more effective as the network speed and capacity increases. Users will become more willing to use the systems as the reliability of the systems increase.

In my opinion these changes will fundamentally change the way that we look at computers. The way we interact with computers and how we feel about the usage of computers. Today they are everywhere, but in the next few years I expect them to become more prevalent as we are able to offload high power demanding applications off of our phones and onto powerful servers.

In my next blog I’ll discuss some overall societal changes.

Frivolous Science? Pfft

Today I saw this post on Reddit. Long story short this guy was asking the r/askscience subreddit why we do research like the CERN experiments, as it has no practical use. There are several reasons. I’ve mentioned some of these on here before, but they can always be mentioned again. First, research that we conduct now that is interesting only to a small subset of people may be applied for other things later. Second,  furthering our understanding of the world isn’t frivolous. Third, in many cases basic research must be completed at universities because industry will not pay for it.

Some examples, bird migration research that told us a lot about birds historically probably wasn’t very interesting to much of the scientific community. However, it’s become more important of late. One of my friends commented to me about how in Europe during the Avian flu, migration patterns became extremely important for predicting where the next could be. There are further uses, those migration patterns are being used to determine where to place wind mills, because we don’t want to put a wind farm in the middle of a bird migration path. The slaughter would be horrifying. Finally, changes in migration patterns may represent a shift in local climates. If birds take longer to migrate south, it indicates that the weather isn’t changing as fast as it used to. Over time this data could indicate a trend and we should look for further evidence of climate change.

In 2009 there was a rash of articles that questioned the importance of scientific research in some cases. This isn’t really new, even at that point there’d been the infamous McCain bear comments. Even scientists make fun of some of the more obscure types of research with the Ig Noble Awards (One award was given to a research that only cracked the knuckles on one hand to test for arthritis differences (there wasn’t any)). Despite this, some of this research is interesting and could be useful in the future. Take the recent finding that fish are angry in boring fish tanks. This research is pretty much useless unless you’re a fish fan. However, it also shows us that we clearly don’t understand animals as well as we think we do. Even popular stories about the memory span of gold fish was shown to be wrong by the MythBusters. These examples indicate that many people don’t understand the importance of research and that even scientists don’t. However, even seemingly pointless research can illuminate our understanding of the world. People love to know nearly pointless facts. This also ties back to the my first point above, we never know when something seemingly useless can suddenly have an importance beyond the scope of the original study. It may save lives. That finding about fishes could help build better large scale aquariums where it is safer to interact with dangerous fish, like killer whales and sharks.

My final point is that some basic research will not be conducted by industry players. There’s no guarantee on any return on some scientific investigation. However, it can be incredibly important for the advancement of industry. Quantum computing could be the next big thing for computing, however it’s being researched by a combination of industry and universities. Most of the money and risk is on the university side though. Our understanding of particle physics helps us understand how quantum computing can help. Eventually we may be able to use this neutrino finding, if it pans out, in communication systems. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t be able to use the spin of a neutrino to transmit information.

Seemingly frivolous research is an important part of the scientific process. Enjoy it.

On Being the Product

Today I’ve read and reposted a few articles (another) about users being the final product for several companies. These of course are facebook, twitter, google (in various forms including plus), yelp and the list goes on. Personally, I think that the claims that we are only the product is a bit of simplification. There is no doubt that we are the product, however, it’s also a matter of to whom are we the product? For instance, my blog, which I post on facebook, twitter and Google Plus allows others to be consumers of my content. The people who are my friends, followers or in my circles are able to consume my content. We are not merely products to companies, but we are products for other people as well.

We consume what are friends put out there. We have habits an manners in which we’d like to be able to consume that information. However, we’re running into a bidirectional problem. We’re losing control over what information we’re sharing and we’re losing control over how we consume this information. In Tom Anderson’s (of myspace fame) post about the changes in facebook, he mentions something called seamless sharing, where you have to do nothing and it’s instantly shared. This, to me, raises all sorts of privacy concerns. In this TED talk the speaker addresses the problem of filtering algorithms in google and facebook.

I think it’s very obvious that Facebook still realizes that we’re consumers of the information. For without our work as the product, posting links, pictures and statuses, there’d be no facebook. However, without us as consumers reading various different posts and clicking related links there’d also be no facebook. The product we are to non-fellow consumers comes down to our network, what the people in our network are interested in and whatever information that is automatically shared with facebook through our web browser.

We need to be aware that this trend is going to continue. We as users and consumers need to fight to get control over our data and the right to control what we share when we share it. This gets back to my points in my earlier blog posts about pseudonyms and truly being anonymous on the web. If you are interested in knowing at least some of the information that you’ve shared on facebook over the years in some countries you are able to download a copy of your facebook history. I haven’t done so yet, but I plan on it. If it is not available in your country, try to get the rights to your data.

While facebook is using you as a product, you still should have the right to demand the information they have on you and are selling to 3rd parties. Being the product isn’t fun, however, it’s nothing new. We’ve been the product for years and have never really complained. The difference now, is that the information about your personally has never been better and is only going to get better the more you give them. For free.