Saturday, November 25, 2017

Media Schmedia

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, media, social media, news, fake news, sharing

Everything has a life cycle. I can't recall what I expected when I saw All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News. It has three authors, Hal Crawford, Andrew Hunter, and Domagoj Filipovic, who were colleagues at, formerly ninemsn, an Australian online news website that is a lot like Google News might be if it were on its own.

Folks in the vaunted Northern hemisphere pay little attention to what goes on "down under", but these fellows appear to have gotten a finger on the pulse of a generation, learned what it means, and run with it. How do you measure the relative effectiveness of a new style of media? There is the obvious metric: newspapers are going broke, broadcast media are scrambling to keep from dropping off the ratings chart, newsroom staffs are shrinking, and even mediocre podcasts are apparently reaching larger audiences than large TV networks.

These guys wanted something more, and hit upon measuring Shares on FaceBook and related vehicles (I used to think the "News Feed" at FB was a bit of a joke, but I've noticed that its news content is growing). They produced a site (or method?) called Share Wars, and Mr. Filipovic developed a software system, Likeable, that scrapes social media news feeds to gather sharing statistics. It was available for public access until mid-2016, but is now in the background of the trends they report.

The book chronicles these aspects of the replacement of "push" media with "personal push" media, driven by the Share buttons we find on every web site purporting to convey newsworthy items. Publishing is now so easy and pervasive, it has of course greatly increased the production and distribution of lies and scams including "fake news" (which isn't news at all: a lie by any other name is still a lie). When one of the authors spoke of his "War of the Worlds" moment, I realized that "fake news" has been around as long as "real news".

I don't know what else to say. It is a very interesting book, but didn't resonate with me the way I'd hoped. Buggy whips are still being manufactured, but as a specialty item for history buffs and collectors of horse-drawn vehicles. The Times (of wherever) will be with us for a long time, but the introduction of Sharing has changed the landscape of all media, forever, or at least until something even more compelling arrives. Maybe Crawford, Hunter and Filipovic can help us see the next big change coming.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Lamp spectra - first try

kw: analysis, spectroscopy, lighting

In the past few years we have tried several lower-wattage "bug lights" as an alternative to the yellow 40-watt incandescent bulbs we've used before in our porch light fixture. When the one we had 4 years ago burnt out we got a 13 watt, yellow compact fluorescent spiral lamp by Sylvania. Though it was not marketed as a bug light, it worked pretty well, though some insects came to it. The next year I saw a 6 watt LED bug light, marketed as such by Feit, so we got that. It worked about equally well. Then I went looking for something that might be a little bit better, and got a 3 watt amber bug light, also by Feit. It doesn't draw insects, but it is pretty dim.

I decided to find out whether a little blue light is getting out of these lamps, so I made a crude spectroscope from a piece of diffraction grating and a short length of PVC pipe plus some odds and ends. In this photo it is on a tripod aimed at a test lamp. I aim a camera with a telephoto lens at the black aperture at the left, where the spectrum emerges.

I cut the end of the PVC for the grating at an angle so the spectrum would exit at right angles to the grating. It has the added benefit that, for visual use, looking the "back way" yields a spectrum about twice as wide. But the focal plane is strongly tilted, making it a poor choice for photography (though I tried!). The instrument has a number of shortcomings, but I think I know how to produce a better next version. For one thing, I'll use a different exit angle, so the diffraction grating doesn't reflect the camera and photographer! (see below)

I photographed the spectrum of nine lamps, the three test bug lights and several others either for spectrum reference or to see the spectral coverage of both incandescent and non-incandescent lamps. Eight of the lamps are shown here, and their spectra are tagged in the next image, followed by some explanation.

These are in the order listed in the spectra image.

The first three spectra are for reference. The 4000K (cool white) CFL shows a combination of spectral lines for mercury (Hg) and for the phosphors used to "whiten" the harsh blue-green light of raw Hg lamps. Mercury has a strong green spectral line at 546 nm, as seen in both this lamp and the 13W yellow CFL (A nearby strong green line is from a phosphor) and a strong blue-violet line at 405 nm, which excites some of the fluorescence, but a stronger near-UV line at 365 nm does most of that. The strong red-orange line at or near 615 nm is from a phosphor, as are the yellow-orange-green and green-blue-violet bands. The 40W incandescent lamp shows the smooth spectrum characteristic of a thermal source. The near-lack of yellow in this spectrum is because a camera's sensor sees colors differently from our eyes, but this is only evident when photographing spectra! The 60W "Reveal" lamp has a filter that cuts out most of the yellow and yellow-orange, making the light appear bluer and closer to daylight.

The next three spectra are for the bug lights. The 13W yellow CFL has the same spectrum as the white CFL from green through red, but with extra yellow and orange, and the green-blue-violet phosphor is left out. Also, a filter removes the blue and violet lines of Hg. The two LED's have nearly identical spectra. The blue-violet light from the fluorescence-exciting blue LED is filtered out, leaving only light from the broad band phosphors. The 3W lamp has a little more red-orange than the 6W lamp, and this is visible when they are lit side-by-side; the 3W lamp's color is amber. In the photo of the lamps above, the filter is inside the 3W lamp's envelope, which is white. For these three spectra, the brownish features seen below the green band are reflections of either me or the camera off the diffraction grating film.

The 8.5W LED is the kind of "warm white" bulb we have begun to use around the house. It has a spectrum very similar to incandescent; it just has a dip in the mid-blue range, and a bright band in the blue-violet range, which is from the fluorescence-exciting LED. The UV CFL is a "black light", very similar to old black light fluorescent tubes used at parties, but in spiral form. Most of the visible light is filtered out. The green and violet lines at 546 and 405 nm are a little visible anyway, and the camera is barely able to record the 365 nm line that does all the work of making fluorescent things glow. I am puzzled by the line in between, at about 385 nm. I don't know what it could be from. However, I know that these lamps use a phosphor that responds to a strong Hg line at 254 nm and converts it to longer-wave UV, to get more "black light". Perhaps it is the source of the 385 nm line and other faint features in that space, but I think it mainly adds more 365 nm light.

Finally, the 40W fluorescent tube is of the kind that has been in use for nearly my whole life (7 decades), now mostly supplanted by CFL's and LED's. The two lines of Hg in blue-violet and green come through, but broad-band phosphors fill out the light making these pretty good for most uses. They actually have better color rendering values than CFL's, at the cost of using nearly twice the power: a 40W "tube" and a 23W CFL both emit about 1,600 lumens, but strongly colored items may look a little odd with the CFL.

As crude as it is, this simple spectroscope helped me understand these lamps better. I think the reason that some insects still come to the three non-incandescent bug lights is that they can see the green light. I don't have an incandescent bug light, but I suspect it to have less green light than the CFL or the LED's. This has been an instructive exercise.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Libraries - Don't even try to live without 'em!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, libraries, librarians

In 2014 Kyle Cassidy was invited to a librarians' conference, where he photographed and interviewed a number of the attendees. A project was born. He went to more conferences and eventually obtained portraits and quotes from more than 300 librarians. This is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information couples the photos and quotes with ten essays about specific libraries by Mr. Cassidy and a baker's dozen remembrances by authors and others who share how their lives were made or molded by libraries.

Spoiler (I suppose): Librarians look like everybody else. It is how they think that makes them different. Random quotes:
"Without librarians and instructors teaching students how to do research, many students never learn that there is a better way to do and learn things." —Lindsay Davis, University of California, Merced
"I want to nurture curiosity, feed knowledge, lay a foundation for information." —Katie Lewis, Drexel University
"Everything comes down to information. Librarians know how to use it, find it, and share it with the world, and they're ready to help everyone else do the same." —Topher Lawton, Old Dominion University.
"In the morning, I'm a rock star to a room full of preschoolers; midday, I'm a social worker assisting a recently unemployed patron in finding resources; in the afternoon, I'm an educator leading kids through an after-school science workshop. Librarians serve so many purposes and wear so many hats, but all of them change lives." —Sara Coney, San Diego County Library
My favorite quote about libraries is by Jorge Luis Borges: "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." In case, dear reader, you haven't run across an earlier mention of this: the Polymath at Large blog would not exist without libraries. To date I have written 2,075 posts. 55% of them are book reviews. Other than the ongoing series of presenting The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, I own no more than a dozen of the books I have reviewed. The rest were borrowed from one of a handful of local libraries.

When I was 19 years old, having just moved from Ohio to California, I went to the nearest library and began checking out books. At that time of my life I needed escape and I needed it badly. The library had all the science fiction books in one section, a large shelf section seven feet high. I took the first five books at the upper left and checked them out. A few days later I returned them and checked out the next five. For the next year or more I continued this until I had read the entire section of about 500 sci-fi novels and short story collections. Thereafter I slowed down and branched out. When the library began to mix fantasy in with sci-fi, and then horror (Lovecraft was popular at the time), I backed off the fiction and began reading mostly nonfiction, primarily in science (Dewey Decimal numbers 500-599).

These days, even though I am retired, I am sufficiently busy that I seldom finish more than one book weekly. Looking back at recent blog posts (more than 70% are book reviews for the past four years), I find that I average about five books monthly.

I don't use the library only to check out books, though that is behind 90% of my visits. I have attended lectures and programs; I took a guitar to their Poetry Night several years ago and sang one of my songs, which led to a special program featuring my music; the genealogy club meets there and I have attended from time to time.

During the last ten years of my career at Dupont, I was a kind of librarian. I transferred from IT to IS (info science) and I was put in charge of upgrading the software used to index and retrieve technical documents in the Electronic Document Library (EDL). For the final couple of years, we had an upper manager who thought "Google can do anything," and cut way back on the indexing staff. Indexing is the highly specialized craft of determining the major themes of an article or report, and devising an appropriate set of key terms to attach to it in a Metadata portion of its electronic version. Professional indexers (I became one) also determine when a new key term is needed in the controlled vocabulary we were using. Human indexing is still the gold standard, and no "search engine" can yet extract the right set of key terms from any document substantial enough to warrant storing in an electronic library.

When Dupont was "only" a chemical company, the term "rust" was unequivocal. It referred to an oxidation process that corroded metals, particularly iron and some similar metallic elements. But someone who was creating the earliest controlled vocabulary for Dupont was wise enough to realize that "rust" could have wider meaning, and thus an entry in the list is:
rust USE corrosion
Also, two companion entries can be found:
corrosion USE FOR oxidative decay
corrosion USE FOR rust
Sure enough, if you look up "oxidative decay" you will find:
oxidative decay USE corrosion
Wouldn't you know it: Several decades ago Dupont began producing crop protection chemicals, and some of its anti-fungal chemicals were aimed at dealing with various fungi called "rust" such as "wheat rust". Thus, some newer terms referring to fungi were added to the controlled vocabulary.

That is one illustration of a phenomenon that is common in human languages. Words have multiple usages, and their context may be clear to us but not so to software. Even now, no Google search, not even using the Advanced Search page (if you can find it), is able to robustly distinguish articles about rusting of metals from agricultural rusts.

A growing problem today goes by the misleading moniker Fake News (If it is Fake, it isn't News; it's just a Lie). Things on the Internet were bad enough when the main issue with material was ignorance on the part of the writers, the "creators of content". I think nearly any random adult knows that advertising is biased. Gather all the ads you can on toothpaste, for example, and it seems that there are at least five brands that are "recommended" by more than half of all dentists. No toothpaste ad will mention that the surveys used to gather such recommendations consisted of questions of this form:

Which of the following brands of dentifrice would you recommend (Check all that apply)?
 Beaver Brite
There may be 10 or 20 on the list. So, of course, if you're selling DentiGood and 64% of dentists happened to check it, along with five or eight others, you can claim, "2/3 of dentists recommend DentiGood!", thinking that nobody will mind if you round 64% up to 2/3. Of course, you would never, ever mention that 3/4 or more of those same dentists also "recommend" Sani-Kleen!

But what do we do when a larger and larger proportion of the "news" is truly a pack of lies? When I was young it was clear that the news media were biased to the left. Now the majority of them are left-leaning with actual malice. So what can we do? I suggest: Ask a librarian how to do your own research, how to track down the source of a story. That will take more than just looking it up on (staffed by a very busy couple who are really, really good at research).

One of the most helpful humanities courses I ever took, with a title I no longer remember, taught us how to determine the bias in any publication. We read a very wide variety of journals, from Commonweal and The Wall Street Journal to National Review and The New York Times. We were to find diverse articles about the same recent event and compare them. It was the best course in critical thinking I've encountered.

I'll avoid digging further into the fake news conundrum. We need librarians' expertise and tool set to learn how to know what we know and how to know if what we know is worth knowing. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

A dreadfully posh mystery

kw: book reviews, mysteries, aristocrats

Strangely enough, this book was next to a "Sneaky Pie Brown" mystery that I reached for rather absent-mindedly, but I didn't notice I'd mis-aimed until I got to checkout. I decided to consider it an adventure and see what was in store.

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen shares only its take-off title with any Ian Fleming novel. The mandatory secret agent character is decidedly secondary to Lady Georgina Bannoch, who has all the adventures, solves mysteries, and generally just avoids becoming another victim. Other titles by the author typically take off from sundry titles and tropes (e.g., Her Royal Spyness, The Twelve Clues of Christmas).

Lady Georgie is a poor relation to the royal family, cousin to Queen Mary (mother of Elizabeth). Thus, although she has hardly any family money to go on, she gets pulled into aristocratic intrigues. In this volume, in the spring of 1935 she goes to Italy to care for an ailing friend, but also spends a few days at a house party in a large villa, one attended by the crown prince (her cousin David, who abdicated as Edward VIII) and his intended, Wallis Simpson, and a number of Italian and German grandees. She has a special reason for being at the house party, sent by the Queen to spy on the prince and Mrs. Simpson. Pre-WWII intrigue forms the backdrop.

Initially I found the aristocratic milieu rather tiring, but warmed to it in time. It is a fun sort of lingo to imitate, as fans of Jane Austen well know. I was also a bit taken aback by the characterization of the prince and his intended. If Mrs. Simpson was the spoiled harridan portrayed in the book, one wonders what the prince could possibly have seen in her, though he is portrayed as utterly devoted to her, albeit anxiously. I don't have sufficient knowledge to judge how accurate this may be.

The plot is a classically structured closed-door mystery, solved at the last moment and pretty much by accident by Lady Georgie. A bit of idle fun to read, a break from my usual diet of nonfiction.

"Rhys" is the Welsh version of "Reese" (as in Witherspoon); Ms Bowen is of the British Isles and knowledgeable enough about aristocratic habits of nearly a century ago to pull this off.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Relating for communicating

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, communication, improvisation

An actor who is any good must become an expert at relating with an audience. This usually means inducing people to care about the character. The best actors may not win all the Oscars, but they are the ones people care about the most. This is distinct from the odd quality of being a "celebrity".

If people watching a play or movie empathize with the character, does that mean that the actor portraying that character also has a lot of empathy? Sometimes, maybe most of the time. Of course, some actors are totally faking empathy, having learned to induce sympathetic feelings in a cynical way, even a psychopathic way (psychopaths are frequently very charming, but it is surface only).

Alan Alda had learned to act what he feels, and became the host of Scientific American Frontiers and several other series because of his unparalleled ability to genuinely relate to the people in the episodes and to the audiences. In his book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, Alda relates that it was not always so. Even after a successful career in improv, stage, and screen acting, when he first interviewed a scientist, he made at least five blunders that he never would have made had he made the connection between how an actor projects a character to an audience, and how an interviewer relates to the subject of the interview and to the audience who will watch it. (At 23 words, the book's title is one of the longest on record, and it has my personal "Bravo!" for projecting clarity in a title that long!) The book describes many of the tools, borrowed primarily from improvisational theater, and the "games" used by improv coaches, that Alda and his colleagues at his Center for Communicating Science (now at Stony Brook University) use to improve the communications skills of those least likely to have developed any: working scientists.

I was in drama club in high school, and acted in a repertory company my first two years of college, but I never learned improv. I was strictly a "by the script" actor. But as I read I gradually learned how to relate to the stories Alda tells, and the principles they embody.

For most of us, breakdown of communication has one source: FEAR. I once took a "Business Writing" class my company sponsored, and the pre-assignment was to "improve" a badly-written business letter. I turned in two versions. One was a re-write based on principles of business writing that I knew already. The second was much shorter: brief, to the point, and totally forthright; to it I attached a note, "Here is how we would write if we didn't fear one another."

The games Alda describes and the other methods he uses for breaking down barriers between any two people who want to communicate to one another, all drive out fears in one way or another. For example, one of the first "games", Mirroring, gradually shows the participants that they are not so different. The better the "follower" gets at following the actions of the "leader", even learning to anticipate and thus mirror without delay, the more both learn how similar they are. An advanced version, "leaderless mirroring", drives the point even deeper.

I am such a purist, I had a harder time than most will, to "get" what the author is sharing. Finally, though, the message on one significant point became clear to me: most "lecturing" is answering questions that have not been asked, just as most "help" is presented so as to help the helper (or how the helper imagines needing to be helped); rather, effective communication requires knowing, or learning, enough about the opposite party, so that we elicit the right questions, spoken or not, and then the other is ready to receive the "answers". This solidified a realization I had about the "Golden Rule", which grew into several steps of increasing value:

  • The SILVER rule (attributed to Confucius and others): "Do not do to another anything that you don't want done to you."
  • The GOLDEN rule (from the sayings of Jesus in the Bible): "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them."
  • The PLATINUM rule: "Do unto others as they wish to have done to them."
  • The DIAMOND rule: "Ask first".

Alda writes much about empathy and Theory of Mind, which allow us to, in part, "read" others' minds. If we know how to listen, though, nothing beats a well-crafted question.

Though I feel quite dull of senses, in an emotional sense at least, I got much from this book, so I think practically anyone can gain much.