Technologies of Unrest

Anybody who's paying attention will note that these are unsettled times, from the Arab spring, to youth demonstrations in Spain, Israel, and now Occupy Wallstreet. Via Kevin Kelly who cites the New York Times:

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

Now, youth protests movements and this kind of radically egalitarian anti-capitalism aren't exactly new. These themes can be traced back through the 60s counter-culture, early 20th century Anarchists like Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, the French Revolution, a bunch of 16th century Christian heresies that were bloodily crushed and on and on.

What's interesting is that the protesters are turning to explicitly technological metaphors for how their movement operates. These are the first generation of digital natives, and they don't much like how the "real world" works. But instead of retreating to their bedrooms and laptops, they're colonizing physical reality with internet interactions.

((Not that the internet is necessarily good: maybe it's turning us into selfish assholes.))


The Origin and Properties of Flicker-Induced Geometric Phosphenes

A Model for the Origin and Properties of Flicker-Induced Geometric Phosphenes (PDF).

Many people see geometric patterns when looking at flickering lights. The patterns depend on the frequency, color, and intensity of the flickering. People report seeing similar shapes, which care common in visual hallucinations and are called “form constants”. Flicker hallucinations are best induced using a Ganzfeld (German for “entire field”), a totally immersive and uniform visual stimulation. This effect is capitalized on by the numerous sound-and-light machines sold for entertainment purposes.*

How do flickering lights cause geometric visual hallucinations ?

Basically, flickering lights confuse the eye and the brain, causing them to misinterpret what they’re seeing. One hypothesis is that the flickering interacts with natural ongoing oscillations in visual cortex, exciting a specific frequency of brain waves. This increases the activity in visual cortex. Activity can increase enough to overload the circuitry the brain uses for interpreting what it sees, causing you to see things that aren’t really there. Our model of visual hallucinations suggests that flickering lights can cause visual cortex to behave like a ‘reaction diffusion system’, which is a type of system that spontaneously forms patterns. The most famous examples of biological reacti
on-diffusion systems are the patterns in animal fur, like leopard spots and zebra stripes. For more information, including the mathematical details of the model, head over and check out the paper.

Much thanks to coauthor Matt Stoffregen and advisor Bard Ermentrout for making this possible, as well as the CNBC undergraduate training program.

*( I know of no scientific evidence suggesting that it is possible to alter the frequencies of neural oscillations with flickering lights, as most such devices claim. Instead, you might increase the amplitude of intrinsic oscillations in resonance with a flickering stimulus, to the point where geometric visual hallucinations can occur. )


Republicans: Better for Science than Democrats?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson circa 2009, republicans politicize science more, but also provide more funding overall. Democrats allocate less funding, but lack fundamentalist biases in how they allocate funding.

Which is worse: less funding overall, or overt irrational bias pulling funding from a few key fields? We'd have to look into the details, but if Neil deGrasse Tyson is to be believed, we might want a more subtle treatment of the politics of science. I, personally, am infuriated more by the Republican's political bias in funding more than I am by cuts, since funding biases feel like an attempt to manipulate the truth to me. However, is this a rational, or an emotional, reaction? Do historic trends in science funding still apply to what the republican party has become over the last few years?


The Lanier Effect

You're probably familiar with Jaron Lanier. VR pioneer, musician, author of You Are Not a Gadget and far too many articles to mention. He's also the inspiration for the Prevail Scenario in Radical Evolution, and the Prevail Project in general. And more recently, he has an hour long interview over at edge.org.

The interview and transcript is far too complex to be summarized here, but Jaron attempts to get at this very basic question: if the internet was supposed to connect people, get them access to information and the levers of power, and make the world better, why do people feel less secure and less wealthy today? It's because we're giving up our data, our decisions, and our integrity in the name of efficiency and internet fame, without asking if those are durable goods.

What you have now is a system in which the Internet user becomes the product that is being sold to others, and what the product is, is the ability to be manipulated. It's an anti-liberty system, and I know that the rhetoric around it is very contrary to that. "Oh, no, there are useful ads, and it's increasing your choice space", and all that, but if you look at the kinds of ads that make the most money, they are tawdry, and if you look at what's happening to wealth distribution, the middle is going away, and just empirically, these ideals haven't delivered in actuality. I think the darker interpretation is the one that has more empirical evidence behind it at this point...

And so when all you can expect is free stuff, you don't respect it, it doesn't offer you enough to give you a social contract. What you can seek on the Internet is you can seek some fine things, you can seek friendship and connection, you can seek reputation and all these things that are always talked about, you just can't seek cash. And it tends to create a lot of vandalism and mob-like behavior. That's what happens in the real world when people feel hopeless, and don't feel that they're getting enough from society. It happens online.

What does Jaron see as the way out? Well, you'll have to read the article to find out.


Soon : Goggles kits for VIA Pittsburgh

WeAlone has teamed up with members of ReplayMyPlay to produce a simplified soldering kit version of the trip visor, complete with professionally fabricated circuit boards and laser etched artwork. This kit is tentatively scheduled for distribution at the Assemble hackerspace in Pittsburgh, in association with the VIA-Pgh electronic arts festival, Saturday October 8, and at the Pittsburgh Mini-MakerFaire later in October. The kit design and part sourcing are nearly complete, stay tuned for more details.


Actually, it Does Matter What Politicians Believe About Science

Kevin Williams at the National Review had a rather controversial article where he posited that it didn't really matter what Rick Perry thinks about evolution, rather science is just another front in the culture war.

"The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview."

Of course, this article prompted a backlash from the usual suspects in the reality-base community, (David Roberts has a good overview), but it got me thinking. Why should we care about what politicians think about science? Scientific controversies (even totally artificial ones such as creationism and climate change denial) are outside the scope of what most people, including politicians need to know. They don't know anything, so why should their opinions matter?

It matters because having an opinion on something you know very little about is almost a perfect job description for a politician. From my time as Senate Intern #16, I saw that 60-70 major issues of national importance crossed the Senator's desk every week. There's no way for any human being to express and educated, sensible, let alone correct opinion on these issues, which is why in the real world politicians rely on staffers and outside advisers. Probably the most valuable, and most underrated skill for a politician to have, is knowing which experts to trust, and when to trust them.

So what do the opinions of the GOP candidates reveal about their ability to evaluate experts?

Michele Bachmann: "I think all these issues have to be settled on the base of real science, not manufactured science."

Mitt Romney: "Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah, I don't know that, but I think that it is. I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans ... What I'm not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don't know the answer to."

Rick Perry: "I hear your mom was asking about evolution. That's a theory that is out there, and it's got some gaps in it ... In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

Now, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that A) anthopogenic climate change is happening and B) evolution explains the development of life on Earth, and C) both of these theories are supported by an overwhelming mass of evidence. Now, as an STS scholar, I am more aware of most of the flaws in the institution of science, in the ways that scientific paradigms define what problems are proper, in the ways that knowledge is socially constructed, and the hazards of making judgments at the limits of understanding. But for all its flaws, science works (bitches!) As a means of producing reliable, testable knowledge about the universe, it is unparalleled. For the Republican party to believe that all scientists and all scientific advice, is part of evil conspiracy, and that the truth is somewhere out there despite a complete lack of credible thought or expertise to the contrary, shows that they can't even manage this very simple part of what called the Principle-Agent problem.

It's not about the culture war. It's not about my experts vs your experts. It's that the majority of the GOP candidates (sorry Jon Huntsman) are literally so bad at distinguishing good advice from bad advice, that they might very well hand what remains of the Treasury over to some Albanian pyramid scheme.

Mr Williams, why is it that competency fails the GOP litmus test days?