Consummate dilettantism!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter Is Not The Future Of News

Partially crossposted here.

Isn’t anyone else a little skeptical? Can anyone point to a demonstrable instance where Twitter proved superior to CNN in breadth, timeliness, and accuracy of coverage? It takes you what, 5 seconds to go to and see what’s up? Twitter? I don’t know; there are maybe three actual Iranians who’ve posted about this (Twitter’s blocked there, no?), and probably only two of them substantially and/or in English. The resulting noise makes it impossible to find what you want without spending hours on Twitter. It’s simply not efficient.
The problem with Twitter I found was that the more people became interested the higher the noise to signal ratio, which made following something like #IranElection rather frustrating, though still interesting. So, while Twitter is a great input device, there is noise, possibly incorrect/misleading tweets, and so cross checking and all that great journalistic stuff still needs to be done…. which some news outlets (like ABC) seem to be doing better and more quickly than CNN at this point
.Add to that innumerable language barriers, the fact that in many places of interest hardly anyone uses the internet (they’re still working up to CNN, guys), and the reluctance of the average Joe to invest time in reporting original news*, and you have reason to be extremely suspicious of claims that a proprietary blogging platform each of whose posts can be no longer than 140 characters is the future of news.

Remember how it used to be that blogs were the future of media? That posts written by average people on the ground would create a web of news and content that would replace traditional news? Hasn’t happened. In fact, for a trend so supposedly irreversible, one might reasonably expect at least a partial takeover of media, especially after 5 freaking years of blogging. Sure, you have lots of great opinion and analysis, but basically no original reporting unconnected with large organizations. These ridiculous, masturbatory “citizen journalism” fantasies aren’t reality in even the United States; how can we expect otherwise for Iran?

Now, maybe Twitter-like** news services are the future. If so, the following substantial requirements must be met:

1. Everyone must have a phone with constant internet access and picture and video capabilities.
2. Everyone must be eager to post to a server somewhere when something eventful happens.
3. Everyone must be around everyone; that is, the population must be dense enough that a car crash, for example, will be noticed immediately.

Once these are realized, we can begin to talk seriously about Twitter as the future of news. But nowhere on earth do they all currently obtain. Most countries don't even have step 1 met yet, and those that do, like Japan, don't have populations that meet 2. It is unclear whether 2 and 3 will ever apply anywhere. But even if they will, I still doubt Twitter-like news services will be able to replace traditional ones. What are today's important stories? They consist mostly of political analysis, not the reporting of events. Twitter may someday be used successfully to report, say, car accidents***, but North Korean provocations? I have my doubts. At this point, it's a safe bet that such predictions as these are little more than furious circle jerking around an object of some, but not unlimited, promise.

*Wikipedia is the counter-example. But Wikinews, the more accurate comparison, has gone absolutely nowhere. It seems there is a limit to our willingness to contribute free content, and that limit is on-the-ground, original reporting.
**Twitter is just a proprietary network of servers -- it is the concept that's valuable.
***Even these, though -- original reporting of even small events is hard to come by. Old News dominates here too.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Chinese Science

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment:
But what of the world of the sciences? The answer is maddeningly incomprehensible to a Westerner. It is as if the Chinese periodically dipped into the world of science and effortlessly pulled out a few gems, then ignored them. Some of these Chinese discoveries have become the stuff of conventional wisdom -- gunpowder and paper being the most famous. But the recountings by Westerners give these discoveries the flavor of accidents, as if the Chinese stumbled onto something and then didn't know what to do with it.

Unsystematic the discoveries may have been, but there was nothing accidental about them. Rather, they represent sheer cognitive ingenuity of a remarkable order. When next you read the cliché that East Asians are intelligent but lack creative flair, consider, for example, Chinese mathematics. China had no Euclid, no body of mathematical logic that started from first premises. Nonetheless, by the middle of the 3rd century the Chinese already knew the value of π to five decimal places; by the end of the 5th century, they knew it lay between 3.1415926 and 3.1415927 (the best the West had done was four decimal places). By the middle of the 7th century, Chinese mathematicians had methods for dealing with indeterminate equations, arithmetical and geometric progressions, and the computation of otherwise immeasurable distance through a form of trigonometry. Chinese mathematicians of the Song Dynasty knew how to extract fourth roots, deal with equations containing powers up to the tenth, and had anticipated a method for obtaining approximate solutions to numerical equations that would not be developed in the West until 1819. None of these accomplishments was produced from a theoretical system, but through the creativity of individual scholars.

By the time of the Song, Chinese astronomy could call on a thousand years of observations of sunspots. The armillary had been fully developed for 900 years in China, as had planetaria. Centuries before the Song, the Chinese had identified the precession of the equinox and knew that the year is not exactly 365.25 days. During the Song itself, Chinese astronomers correctly demonstrated the causes of solar and lunar eclipses. But again there was no theory, no Ptolemaic characterization of the universe. The Chinese simply discovered certain things. Shen Gua, writing in 1086, outlined the principles of erosion, uplift, and sedimentation that are the foundation of earth science, principles that would not be developed in the West for centuries, but his book, Dream Pool Essays, sits alone, an anomaly.

Chinese medicine, unlike Chinese science, was backed by abundant theory, but that theory is so alien to the Western understanding of physiology and pharmacology that Western scientists even today are only beginning to understand the degree to which Chinese medicine is coordinate with modern science. It worked, however, for a wide range of ailments. If you were going to be ill in the 12th century and were given a choice of living in Europe or China, there is no question about the right decision. Western medicine in the 12th century had forgotten most of what had been known by the Greeks and Romans. Chinese physicians of the 12th century could alleviate pain more effectively than Westerners had ever been able to do -- acupuncture is a Chinese medical technique that Western physicians have learned to take seriously -- and could treat their patients effectively for a wide variety of serious diseases.
It is curious indeed how even today the Chinese (and East Asians more generally) are so successful at copying Western technologies and sciences (perhaps more than Westerners themselves) but not at, in the words of LSE professor Satoshi Kanazawa, making "original contributions to basic science". From "No, It Ain’t Gonna Be Like That":
[Asians] certainly cannot think outside the box. Miller is correct to point out that East Asians have slightly higher mean IQs than Europeans (Lynn and Vanhanen, 2002). However, East Asians have not been able to make creative use of their intelligence. While they are very good at absorbing existing knowledge via rote memory (hence their high standardized test scores in math and science) or adapt or modify existing technology (hence their engineering achievements), they have not been able to make original contributions to basic science.
On the other hand, according to Geoffrey Miller, Asians are just as creative as Americans and Europeans:
Nobel prizes aside, is it really true that there is an Asian ‘creativity problem’? Charles Murray (2003) did a massive cross-cultural review of human creative accomplishments. He found high agreement among historians that there were at least the following numbers of truly significant figures in each domain of Asian creativity: Chinese art (N=111), Japanese art (N=81), Chinese literature (N=83), Indian literature (N=43), Japanese literature (N=85), Chinese philosophy (N=39), and Indian philosophy (N=45). Although these numbers are smaller than he found for Western art, literature, and philosophy, he admits his figures were biased by easier access to English-language histories and biographies of Western figures.

Murray’s (2003) comparison of creative navigational feats is especially instructive. Italian captain Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World in 1492 with 90 men on 3 ships (the largest about 85 feet long) in a 7-month voyage. Chinese captain Zheng He ‘discovered’ Java, Sumatra, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and east Africa in 1433-1435 with 27,750 men on 317 ships (the largest about 444 feet long) in a two-year voyage. Ever since Joseph Needham’s pioneering 7-volume work Science and Civilization in China (1954-2004), Western historians are gradually realizing that almost everything Europe did, China did earlier, on a larger scale, with better technology. Throughout the middle ages, many of China’s and India’s innovations trickled down to Europe through the Indian Ocean trade routes and the Silk Road. China’s recent tendencies towards conformism and anti-intellectualism – explicit goals of Mao’s 1968 Cultural Revolution – must not be mistaken for a pervasive national lack of creativity.

Asia’s alleged ‘creativity problem’ can also be assessed from a psychometric perspective. Creativity seems to depend on the cognitive trait of general intelligence (IQ) interacting with the personality trait of ‘openness to experience,’ according to my reading of the creativity literature (e.g. King, Walker, and Broyles, 1996; Simonton, 1999, 2003) and my own research (Haselton and Miller, 2006; Kaufman, Kozbelt, Bromley, and Miller, in press; Shaner, Miller, and Mintz, 2004; Tal, Miller, and Swegel, 2006). This creative interplay between intelligence and openness seems true in both Western populations (Carson, Peterson, and Higgins, 2005; Dollinger, Urban, and James, 2004) and Asian populations (Chan and Chan, 1999; Zhang and Huang, 2001).

So, Asians may have higher intelligence, but do they have lower openness? McCrae (2001) reviewed cross-cultural research on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, based on a sample of 23,031 people from 26 cultures. Average openness scores were calculated for each culture, controlling for sample age and sex, with the American sample as the reference group with mean 50 and standard deviation 10 (McCrae, 2001, p. 835, Table 3). To make the figures more comparable to IQ scores, I re-normed these figures (right column of Table 1 below) to yield a U.S. openness mean of 100 and SD of 15.
These are interesting arguments, and I'm not especially swayed in either direction. I will say, though, that Miller does not answer Kanazawa's most pressing question:
Japan, for example, has been a major geopolitical and economic power for most of the 20th century (Small and Singer, 1982). Yet it has produced only 12 Nobel laureates, the same number as Austria, which has one-sixteenth of Japan's population.
Japan is an extraordinarily impressive country in many, many ways, but Miller's few paragraphs in response that make an analogy to German science on the cusp of the 20th century get it wrong for a couple of reasons. First, Germany's scientific research achievements, despite U.S. dominance, still handily outstrip Japan's year after year, and per capita, even the United States'. Second, Japan in the 20th century was in a far better (more technologically and scientifically advanced) state than the U.S. in the 19th, and so to suggest that Japan's scientific achievements are as yet forthcoming strains credulity.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mobile Twitter Stalking

There was a woman in front of me at the airport. She was typing on her phone. I peered over to get a better look, and saw that she was typing a Tweet. Immediately, I whipped out my own phone and searched for what she had entered, and I was delighted to find her account -- I learned her name and life history (well, day history) in literally 10 seconds.

To think. That's pretty fly, wouldn't you say? The wonders of technology thus revealed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Blame The Ninjas

Atomic Nerds:
So your loved one just accidentally died in an autoerotic asphyxiation mishap. It’s gotten out to the press and public, and that’s just adding stress to the already bad situation. What on earth could you do to help resolve this terrible situation?

Blame ninjas.

Just days after David Carradine was found dead with a cord around his neck and nuts, the family lawyer, Mark Geragos, made a statement on CNN’s Larry King Live:
David was very interested in investigating and disclosing secret societies. … What that means is connected to martial arts and his interest in martial arts,” he continued. “And so there is a suspicion that if there was some foul play, that that may be the first area where they should look.
The amount of sheer brass-balled brass-ballery it takes to say with a straight face on Larry King Live that ninjas killed him and made it look like he died jerking off is utterly breathtaking. I mean, I’ve pulled what I consider to be one or two fairly brazen examples of “Oh god, I hope this works”, but never have I gone on national news and blamed a secret society for the consequences of a risky fetish behavior.

Frankly, I stand in awe.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Terrorist Attacks Since 9/11

Rush Limbaugh:
We have not had a single attack on our soil since 9/11, 2001.
Thomas Friedman:
[W]hy have there been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11?
As far as I can tell, there has been one certifiable, international terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. It is not known whether the 2001 anthrax incident constitutes international or domestic terrorism, but it certainly was terrorism. Honorable mention goes to the 2006 Seattle Jewish Federation shooting, which, although classified as a "hate crime," is not especially different from the second shooting in the motivation of the shooter, only in that he was an American. Since 9/11, however, there have been numerous plots, and of course, many terrorist attacks around the world, quite a few of them serious.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I never thought anything would wean me off Google, but I thought wrong; Microsoft's Bing is really a surprisingly good search engine. It's unobtrusive, useful, lighting-quick, and most importantly, gets me what I want. Previewing videos is awesome, as is the image search. Oh, and Wikipedia integration is equally fantastic; it's possibly my favorite feature. Heretofore no search engine has been as good as Google's, but we now have a true contender.

May the best engine win.

P.S. xRank is cool too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Dream, Part II

I above her, she below me, dangling atop a bed of mystical height. We tangled in cosmic embrace, twirling endlessly in our several ecstasies, spinning furiously in our singular ascent. Mad though we were, her smile was divine, and such uncertainty as there was -- oh that striking face! oh unhappy fate!

It was kinda hot, though.

That's Fucking Retarded

From an article about Disney's new black princess:
After viewing some photographs of merchandise tied to the movie, which is still unfinished, Black Voices, a Web site on AOL dedicated to African-American culture, faulted the prince’s relatively light skin color. Prince Naveen hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor; Disney says that he is not white.

“Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. “His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.”
This is astonishingly stupid. In fact, it's one of the dumbest things I've ever read on the internet, and that's saying a lot. Only a person whose mind is so entrenchedly addled with the result of years of politically correct brainwashing and Marxist victimization theory could possibly make such a dumb, illogical statement. Let me get this straight: Somehow, not having a black prince is racist, even though Disney already has a black princess. Somehow, having a Latino prince marry a black princess is racist. So somehow, Ms. Helm, you're not only a sexist*, for you think that women are inferior to men, but also a racist, for you hold that blacks can only marry blacks**.

Killing myself in 3, 2, 1...

*According to you, it is more of a racist crime not to have a black prince than not to have a black princess, because Disney is racist despite the fact that they have a black princess.
**If the prince were black, wouldn't you deem it just as racist? "Blah blah blah, blacks can breed with Latinos just as well as with blacks, blah blah blah."