Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Confirmation-Bias-Based Community

On this week's On the Media, Brooke Gladstone interviews Farhad Manjoo, author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. They discuss how humans filter out undesirable facts. And they talk about how our new media culture reinforces this tendency.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You use examples from... decades ago to illustrate selective exposure and selective interpretation, but you contend in your book that these are really manifestations of the current media world of blogs and talk radio and email.

FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah. And in this world, there is the front door, the big newspapers and big network news outlets. The side doors are the blogs, talk radio, cable news, which actually draws a very small audience.

These side doors allow us to kind of amplify these factors of selective exposure and selective interpretation, and they make these factors kind of more important today than they were in the past, because in the past, you couldn't really seek out media that comported with your beliefs because, well, there weren't that many media choices...

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you show how false facts on both the right and the left make their way through partisan echo chambers, but you do suggest that conservatives have a different relationship with their media.

FARHAD MANJOO: Right. People have studied how conservative blogs, for instance, link to each other and how liberal blogs link to each other, and they found that the people on the right generally have a tighter network and are more likely to indulge in only those sources.

And this has been a longstanding pattern where psychologists have noticed that people on the right are more efficient at filtering out things that kind of don't really support their views.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: We all know it's really easy to manipulate audio, video, and especially with Photoshop and digital images. But it was interesting – you said that the biggest effect of the Photoshopification of our society is not that it's easier to fool people but that now they have even more reason not to believe the evidence of their eyes and ears if they don't want to.

FARHAD MANJOO: If you live in a world where everything is possibly fake, where every photo you see could have been Photoshopped, it gives you license to dismiss that photo. This is true not only of photos but of basically all kind of documentary evidence that comes at us these days. We can always assume that there's been some digital foul play there and that it's possibly not a truth.

Grid Hype

When CERN's Large Hadron Collider goes online, a high-bandwidth computer network will crunch the numbers. This new network is called the Grid. To do this, CERN has linked itself with research institutions around the world.

This is a genuine technical achievement. But there is currently some misleading hype. Here are some of the spectacular headlines: The Internet's over.. here comes the Grid, Interweb made obsolete and It’s The End Of The Internet As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

Some of these stories erroneously claim that CERN invented the Internet. (Readers should take that as a red flag. The US Department of Defense came up with the Internet. CERN invented the World-Wide Web. The web is just part of the Internet.) But there are more significant problems with the hype:

First off, the Internet is not going to be obsolete. At best, we can hope for improvements in the Internet. As a journalist myself, I know the next-big-thing story may sound irresistible. But the Internet will continue to grow and modify. It's a little too big and entrenched for outright replacement.

Second, CERN's Grid is built to handle CERN's data. Yes, it's very high bandwidth. But it's not going to replace consumer connectivity right now. Just consider the last mile problem. It's one thing to lay 1,000 miles of fiber between CERN and a university. It's another thing to lay tens of millions of 100 meter fibers to homes. If the Grid can alleviate bottlenecks in traffic, great. But let's not pretend the whole system will be overhauled just yet.

Third, some of the stories talk about downloading movies in seconds and transmitting holograms. Movie distributors might have a problem with instantly downloadable movies. Also, your current monitor probably doesn't support holographic displays. While the Grid's bandwidth may be able to handle all this data, the hype completely ignores the economic and proprietary interests involved.

Still, what CERN is doing is still quite impressive. According to Scientific American:

The nearly 100 million channels of data streaming from each of the two largest detectors would fill 100,000 CDs every second, enough to produce a stack to the moon in six months. So instead of attempting to record it all, the experiments will have what are called trigger and data-acquisition systems, which act like vast spam filters, immediately discarding almost all the information and sending the data from only the most promising-looking 100 events each second to the LHC’s central computing system at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics and the collider’s home, for archiving and later analysis.

A “farm” of a few thousand computers at CERN will turn the filtered raw data into more compact data sets organized for physicists to comb through. Their analyses will take place on a so-called grid network comprising tens of thousands of PCs at institutes around the world, all connected to a hub of a dozen major centers on three continents that are in turn linked to CERN by dedicated optical cables.

If this functionality can expand to benefit Internet users at large, beautiful! But please be skeptical of the "end of the Internet" stories. As we all know, the Internet is going to end when we are struck by a giant asteroid without warning.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Diamonds in Quantum Computing

Quantum particles have the bizarre capacity to contain a variety of different states at once. This is called superposition. A quantum particle may be in a superposition of states but it will break down into one of those states once it is observed. In fact, it will break down if the particle interacts too much with the external environment.

This delicate property makes the quantum world appealing to computer scientists. By exploiting superposition, many different mathematical values may be explored simultaneously. That would make computers thousands of times faster and solve mathematical problems that are too complex for classical machines. But the difficulty of keeping those quantum bits in causal isolation is a huge technical challenge. Often, it has required cooling materials close to absolute zero.

Diamond is now showing promise as a material that can perform quantum computing functions at room temperature. "The beauty of diamond is that it brings all of this physics to a desktop," says David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Science News posts an article about how diamonds -- or more precisely, flaws in diamonds -- are showing promise. In a natural diamond lattice, flaws are inevitable. The most common impurity is a nitrogen atom. Another kind of flaw is a vacancy in the lattice where a carbon would otherwise sit.

When a diamond crystal contains a nitrogen and a vacancy next to each other, something strange happens. Electrons from the nitrogen will orbit the vacancy as though an atom is there.

This virtual molecule, called a nitrogen-vacancy (NV) center, possesses spin, the quantum form of magnetism.

Spins are like microscopic bar magnets and can encode and store information by pointing in different directions. A single unit of information, called a bit, can be, say, a 1 if the spin points up or a 0 if it points down.

...Researchers have so far managed to store and manipulate only a handful of qubits [quantum bits] in superbly well-controlled systems, such as single ions suspended in an electromagnetic trap or superconducting materials cooled to very low temperatures. In a paper to be published in Science, Awschalom and his collaborators describe how they achieved a similar level of control over NV centers in diamond.

The October 2007 issue of Scientific American had an excellent article on this research [subscription]:
Diamond has a track record of extremes, including ultrahardness, higher thermal conductivity than any other solid material and transparency to ultraviolet light. In addition, diamond has recently become much more attractive for solid-state electronics, with the development of techniques to grow high-purity, single-crystal synthetic diamonds and insert suitable impurities into them (doping). Pure diamond is an electrical insulator, but doped, it can become a semiconductor with exceptional properties. It could be used for detecting ultraviolet light, ultraviolet light-emitting diodes and optics, and high-power microwave electronics. But the application that has many researchers excited is quantum spintronics, which could lead to a practical quantum computer—capable of feats believed impossible for regular computers—and ultra­secure communication.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Competing Theory of Menopause

Scientific American posts an article about why menopause may have been favored by natural selection. The prevailing argument, called the "grandmother hypothesis," states that non-reproductive women enhance their inclusive fitness by caring for existing children and grandchildren.

A new study says there is a problem with the inclusive fitness argument for menopause:

"The problem is that these grandmother benefits aren't big enough to ever favor stopping breeding between the ages of 40 and 50," says Michael Cant, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter in England and co-author of a new study on the genesis of menopause published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. "When you look at data from hunter-gatherers and other natural fertility populations, the sums just don't add up." Grandmothers do benefit their descendants, he says, but the genetic payoff is small compared with those of producing another child.
Cant and Rufus Johnstone offer a new hypothesis based on reproductive competition between generations. Their model is based on the idea that reproductive-age women migrate to new communities with less similar genetic make-ups:
The rapid senescence of the human female reproductive system coincides with the age at which, in natural fertility populations, women are expected to encounter reproductive competition from breeding females of the next generation. Several lines of evidence suggest that in ancestral hominids, this younger generation typically comprised immigrant females. In these circumstances, relatedness asymmetries within families are predicted to give younger females a decisive advantage in reproductive conflict with older females. A model incorporating both the costs of reproductive competition and the benefits of grandmothering can account for the timing of reproductive cessation in humans and so offers an improved understanding of the evolution of menopause.
The Scientific American article continues:
The mother of the grandmother hypothesis, anthropologist Kirsten Hawkes of the University of Utah, says Cant and Johnstone are right to focus on intergenerational conflict. Elephants have babies in their 60s, and some whales give birth in their 80s. "It's clearly something selection can adjust," she says. "So explaining why it hasn't in us has to be part of the story." But she disputes their claim that female-bias dispersal is, in fact, the universal human/ape residence pattern, pointing out that half of the young female chimps at anthropologist Jane Goodall's Gombe Stream Research Center remain with their mothers, and that recent studies show that hunter-gatherers often live with the wife's family as well.

Global Sunblock Using Sulfur

Last week's podcast of CBC's Quirks and Quarks discusses the radical idea of blocking the sun's rays to mitigate climate change. Bob McDonald interviews Dr. David Keith, the Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary. Keith is not necessarily recommending the idea but he does believe we should put it on the research agenda. One option -- a pretty shocking one -- is to release sulfur into the upper atmosphere. From volcanic activity in the past, we already know this would have an immediate cooling effect on the climate.

Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen^ also recommends looking into such research [PDF]. But he warns:

I must stress here that the albedo enhancement scheme should only be deployed when there are proven net advantages and in particular when rapid climate warming is developing, paradoxically, in part due to improvements in worldwide air quality. Importantly, its possibility should not be used to justify inadequate climate policies, but merely to create a possibility to combat potentially drastic climate heating.
Keith says in the podcast that many climate scientists are reluctant to discuss this because it would only treat the symptoms of climate change and not the cause. At the same time, he found policy-makers who were all too eager to deploy such a program.

In this panel discussion on geoengineering, Harvard geochemist Dan Schrag^ points out:
If we're going to use the Earth as an experiment -- which we're already doing by adding greenhouse gases -- if we're going to do an experiment by testing injection of reflective material, say, sulfur, into the stratosphere, we don't have a control. And so if something happens, it's almost impossible, given the complexity of the system, to attribute it either to the CO2 or the sulfur.
Sulfur injection into the upper atmosphere, says Keith, is within the power of poorer nations and even within the power of the richest individuals. And like the current trend in climate change, there would be winners and losers. Since we are already altering the atmosphere, is this something we should consider? And if so, who would be responsible? Who should be allowed to fiddle with the global thermostat?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools' Day

The calendar conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian (in the 1500's) is the origin of April Fools' Day, right? Well, according to the master debunkers at Snopes.com, that's not entirely clear. What is more clear is that pranks have existed throughout human history and across cultures. Today's Science section of the New York Times discusses the social utility of practical jokes:

Jonathan Wynn, a cultural sociologist at Smith College, said pranks served to maintain social boundaries in groups as various as police departments and sororities. “And you gain status by being picked on in some ways,” he said. “It can be a kind of flattery, if you’re being brought in.”

One of the most highly respected pranks was the 1957 BBC Broadcast about the Swiss spaghetti harvest:

On the Media this week profiled Alan Abel. He's made a career of creating fake news events and is the subject of the new documentary, Abel Raises Cain.

The Yes Men take pranks to activism, impersonating such groups as the WTO, Exxon and Halliburton. Before they were known as The Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno participated in the Barbie Liberation Organization. The BLO is the group that switched the voice boxes of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls.

In science and math, we have Alabama Changing Pi to the Biblical Value of 3. This is a personal favorite which seems to resurface every few years.

The Museum of Hoaxes site lovingly enumerates the Top 100 April Fools' Hoaxes Of All Time.

In 1987, philosopher Daniel Dennett, Dr. Richard Paul Astley, and biologists Richard Dawkins and William Hamilton discussed the evolutionary adaptiveness of humor and pranks on the WYNS show, Perspectives. Video here.