Monday, September 18, 2017

Fake news isn't new

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays, science, sociology

A headline or tweet is too small to elaborate anything useful. When Dr. Feynman received a Nobel Prize in Physics a generation ago, a reporter asked him, "Can you briefly tell me what you did?" He replied, "If I could tell that to you in one minute, it wouldn't be worth a Nobel Prize."

If everyone had to learn the basics of the sciences to graduate from high school, as it was in the past, and learn the kind of critical thinking required to "do science", maybe the American populace would be harder for quacks, charlatans, and a dishonest Media machine to manipulate. And, just maybe, the purported "national leaders" we call Senators and Representatives wouldn't make so many utterly boneheaded decisions whenever there is a scientific fact involved. The "critical thinking" taught in this generation's high schools would be laughed out of Plato's Academy.

Into the fray wades Joe Schwarcz, a Chemist who writes best-selling books, one after another, that frequently discuss how most Americans and most purveyors of the news get science wrong nearly all the time. His latest is Monkeys, Myths and Molecules: Separating Fact From Fiction, and the Science of Everyday Life.

There is no useful way to summarize 65 essays as diverse as I find between these covers. I'll just touch a point here and there:
  • "A Tale of Two Cantaloupes" in the section "Swallow the Science" discusses first an outbreak of Listeria in 2011, carried by feces-contaminated cantaloupes, that eventually killed 35 people. Cantaloupes sit on the soil at they ripen, making them particularly prone to harboring infectious bacteria if "natural" (manure-based) fertilizers are used. The second cantaloupe saved lives: during the research to turn penicillin from a laboratory curiosity into an industrial scale medicine, in 1941 a particular strain of Penicillium that makes cantaloupes rot was found to produce the antibiotic with a concentration ten times that of other strains of the mold. The principle developed here is that context matters.
  • "Capturing Carbon Dioxide" in the section "Chemistry Here and There" looks beyond the technologies of snagging the gas from smokestacks and such "emitters". The technology is well known. Its costs are inescapable, about 20% of total energy production. Than what do you do with millions of tons of this gas? The author discusses numerous things that we can do with CO2, such as making soda pop, using it to feed algae for biofuel production, and making chemical intermediates. But these don't add up to enough "uses" for the stuff to use up the supply. We burn a lot of fuel! Pumping it into the ground has its own problems. Besides the difficult matter of ensuring it won't just leak back out, the recent rash of earthquakes in places where "fracking" for oil is being carried out show that shoving anything into the earth in large quantities can have wide-spread and possibly devastating effects. Y'gotta think things through.
  • Several of the essays discuss the trouble folks sometimes cause by taking the results of tests done on mice and extrapolating them to humans. "Of Mice and Men" in the section "Stretching the Truth" is an example. A study had shown that intense sessions of treadmill running made changes to muscular and molecular structures, that were not found by longer sessions of less intense activity…at least for mice. Mice are convenient. You can work them half to death for a week or so, and then kill them and dissect their muscles to figure out what might have changed. Can't do that with people. As it happens, there appears to be a threshold in this effect, and it is probably so high that very few people ever work out with sufficient intensity. This essay takes a side trip into the possible effects of chocolate on Alzheimer's disease. This was also based on mouse work. But it was even more indirect: nobody fed cocoa to mice or to people. They dosed mouse nerve cells with various cocoa extracts. I guess there was enough of an effect that exciting headlines and review blurbs could be written. But nothing is yet known about whether the chemicals so tested will cross the blood-brain barrier when you EAT chocolate, rather than injecting it directly into the brain. Oh, well. The point here is, you need to determine what was actually found out, before concluding it is anything useful in the real world.
Dr. Shwarcz has wide-ranging interests, and his essays cover topics from acupressure to vitamin deficiencies (and how they were discerned). I hope many folks read this book, and at the very least learn a little more caution about news headlines that tout "discoveries" that soon drop out of sight.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A must-read if you care about your internet presence

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, internet, privacy, security, self help

The subtitle of the book should catch your attention: "Are you naked online?". Are you? If so, what might you do about it? Ted Claypoole and Theresa Payton drew on broad experience in the online security arena, including Ms Payton's service in the White House, to write Protecting Your Internet Security: Are You Naked Online?. Start by reading this book.

Privacy as we once knew it is a thing of the past. The security of everything online is similarly threatened. It doesn't have to be. I took certain pieces of the authors' advice, and before noting the results, I should perhaps explain something that may be a little uncommon about me.

I decided from the time I started this weblog that I would go to certain lengths to divorce its identity from my own. There are a few clues here and there in my posts, so a persistent and diligent person could track me down. I tend to trust in "security by obscurity", as compared to more technical means. So these results might indicate how successful I have been.

Of course, the authors recommend that we all fire up a browser window in Private (or Incognito or Stealth or whatever) mode, and search our name. In my case, for historical reasons, there are six variants of my name, and two variants of this blog's name. But the search was not nearly as arduous as I expected. From the longest to the shortest ways to look up my name, always putting the entire thing on quotes (but none of those ways using a first initial rather than a first name):
  • 4 text hits, 3 of them reporting my first marriage in various newspapers.
  • 1 text hit.
  • Though Google initially said 279, there were 17 actual hits, and 12 were about me. There was also one picture of an ancestor of mine in an Image search, but none of me. More briefly for the rest...
  • 164 at first, then 19 of 21 text hits.
  • 1,330 at first, then 31 of 35 text hits, plus 3 of about 170 images are actually me.
  • 2 of 532 text hits are actually about me.
And for the blog names:
  • "polymath07": 3,930 at first, but only 33 if you look at returns pages. Hundreds of pictures in the Image search, most from this blog, in which I frequently post pictures.
  • "polymath at large": 7,590 at first, but only 26 actual hits. Many, many pix, nearly all from this blog.
All in all, the pages Google finds about me are nearly all positive, and of course the blog post returns are as I wish. I'd call that success.

Now, from an open browser page, I went to the Open Data Partnership "choices" page, which immediately ran a status check. It returned a long list of entities that either are or are not modifying ad choices based on my browsing behavior. Those who are, that I recognized, include Adobe Marketing Cloud, Amazon, Experian, Google and Microsoft. Some that are not doing so include LinkedIn and Ziff Davis (publisher of many magazines including PC Magazine, to which I once subscribed). One may easily opt out of all of their chicanery, but I have learned instead to do most searches for "stuff" in Private mode.

Private mode isn't perfect, so if you want to avoid, or at least confuse, advertisers and their tracking gimmicks, page 78 has a list of nine suggestions such as the Blur feature by Abine. You can also analyze your own online profile—the real one, not any of the ones you created yourself—using Spokeo, for example.

Why should all this be necessary? If you are old like me, it doesn't matter as much, but think of a teenager whose entire online presence is rife with teen attitude, complaints about parental restrictions, kidding and teasing (and worse) of "friends" and others, and the general sort of things you'd expect from kids who don't yet realize they are mortal. Fast-forward five years, when they are applying to a college, or ten years, when they are applying for a job. Colleges and prospective employers track down all the social media you've been using, and they are better at it than you think. Just changing your name on FaceBook or Twitter isn't enough. If your likeness appears anywhere, a single well-composed image of your face can turn up a lot through Image Search in Google, at the very least.

Or maybe you are a 35-year-old trying to build a business who has attracted the ire of a competitor. Will the competitor create an account somewhere in your name and use it to publish inflammatory and defamatory material that would drive away customers who stumble across it and think it is you? An entire industry of Reputation Management has arisen to address just such scenarios. Even if your competitor didn't do you dirt, maybe your teenage self did already, and unpleasant traces remain of someone you once were, but no longer are. The internet has a longer memory than a jilted spouse! To many folks, what you were then, perhaps you still are, under that polished veneer.

This naturally leads to a section on guiding your children through their early years as a digital native. It will be hard work to keep them from shooting their future self in the foot, but it is necessary.

Another notion occurred to me: Phase your life, and use a different online avatar and screen name for each phase. Upon entering Middle School, a preteen might post a sign-off in a soon-to-be-unused FaceBook account, saying "Goodbye, I'll go silent now. Catch everyone later, and elsewhere." Then she can use a new version of her name to start a new account, and gradually import old friends, but only after they have undergone a similar transition. Hard as it may seem, it is best to discard "friends" who don't see the value in this approach. The end of High School is a good time for a similar changeover. Other phases come to mind. Think it through.

Also, such a time is a good one to go through the abandoned account and delete posts that will cause trouble to the "new you". Of course, the Internet Archive will still have them in its "wayback machine", but you cannot cleanse everything. That's why it is best to keep your most private thoughts out of the ether entirely. When you are musing darkly, the Cloud is not your friend! The Google Docs app isn't totally secure; nothing online is.

A lot of this is like getting a better lock for the front door of your house and a better security system. It doesn't guarantee the house won't be robbed, but it makes you a harder target, so most thieves will pick someone less diligent to burgle. And that's the best advice for anyone concerned about their online privacy and security. Take a little forethought to be a harder-than-average target. It is worthwhile, and these authors are good guides to doing just that.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Toothbrush support Life Hack

kw: life hacks, toothbrush support, travel

Here is a little item I haven't seen in any of the "life hack" viral videos:

When staying in a hotel, we never see a toothbrush stand. We had been using those flimsy plastic cups to hold the toothbrushes off the sink surface, but they tip easily. Then we hit upon an easy solution: half fill the cup with water. Now the cups are stable.

By the way, we also keep the plastic bags the little soaps come in. (They are behind the left cup). If we like the soap (some brands are too sticky to wash off) we let it dry a little and put it back in the bag to bring home. If we don't like the soap I get out a small bar I carry in the suitcase. The hotel throws the soap away if you don't take it.

I'll often try out the shampoo they provide and if it is good I'll take that also. They are small enough to carry in carry-on luggage for plane flights.

We had a holiday weekend but the spiders didn't

kw: blogging, blogs, spider scanning

I didn't log in for several days because of the Labor Day weekend. Here is what the Stats look like for the past week:

I wonder what the Russians are so curious about this time? Not that it matters much…