Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:
The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.
Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:
That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.
As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.
Go read this whole interview with John Seely Brown. It’s awesome. Here’s a few of my favorite bits.
On content versus content:
Remember that image of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down? Well, the photo was actually cropped. Those were Americans pulling the statue down, not Iraqis. But the cropped photo reinforced this notion that the Iraqis loved us. It reshaped context. Milennials are much better at understanding that context shapes content. They play with this all the time when they remix something. It’s actually an ideal property for a 21st century citizen to have.
That’s as good an explanation of what McLuhan meant by the medium is the message as I’ve read.
On creativity versus imagination:
The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.
I really like that distinction. Imagination is what drives vision, creativity is what drives execution. Both have huge amounts of value, but they’re different things.
On the dangers of a STEM-only world:
Right. That’s what we should be talking about. That’s one of the reasons I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical. Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics—and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.
Not to talk about McLuhan too much, but he also deeply believed in the value of art and artists as the visionaries for society. I think there’s obviously a lot of room here and the reality of the focus on STEM is that we have so far to go that it’s not like we’re going to wake up in a world where people only learn math and science. But I think the point is that the really interesting thoughts that come along are the ones that combine, not shockingly, the arts and sciences.
Again, just go read the whole interview. It’s great.
Mother Jones has a short piece about the effects of “negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science” (aka comment trolling):
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
Because I can’t really let anything get away without being some sort of McLuhan reference, the conclusion pretty clearly lays out the fact that the medium is shaping the message we receive:
The upshot of this research? This is not your father’s media environment any longer. In the golden oldie days of media, newspaper articles were consumed in the context of…other newspaper articles. But now, adds Scheufele, it’s like “reading the news article in the middle of the town square, with people screaming in my ear what I should believe about it.”
Apparently electrical outlets give off an inaudible hum, which isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. Except that that hum changes frequency in minute ways constantly based on the supply and demand of electricity. Scientists in the UK have discovered that the hum is unique, which means it can be used to timestamp recordings. The gist:
Recordings made close to electrical power sources pick up a hum. Comparing the unique pattern of the frequencies on an audio recording with a database that has been logging these changes for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year provides a digital watermark: a date and time stamp on the recording. Philip Harrison, from JP French Associates, another forensic audio laboratory that has been logging the hum for several years, says: “Even if [the hum] is picked up at a very low level that you cannot hear, we can extract this information.”
Science is pretty crazy sometimes.
A little Friday fun: The long answer to what would happen if everyone on the planet jumped at the same time. XKCD has a special take and chooses Rhode Island as the location:
A cell phone comes out of a pocket. Within seconds, the rest of the world’s five billion phones follow. All of them—even those compatible with the region’s towers—are displaying some version of “NO SIGNAL”. The cell networks have all collapsed under the unprecedented load.
Outside Rhode Island, abandoned machinery begins grinding to a halt.
I’ll let you read the rest.
A little bit of distraction might be good for you:
The study adds to research suggesting that small doses of distraction — including hard-to-read fonts — prompt the mind to work at a more abstract level, which is also a more creative level. (The possibility that sound energized people was considered but rejected: Participants’ heart rates did rise when they first encountered noise, but soon subsided.) The effect of noise is inverted-U-shaped, this study suggested: There’s a sweet spot between silence and din.
I wonder how much of this is about the noise versus the environment. I find that in an airport I tend to get a lot of work done. I think it just has to do with the change of scenery and the specific amount of time I’m there.
[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
Facebook did a big study on how we find information and, not entirely surprisingly, our weak ties tend to give us stuff we wouldn’t otherwise run across. Nothing really shocking there, but, as Slate notes, the scale of the study was:
The other crucial thing about this study is that it is almost unthinkably enormous. At the time of the experiment, there were 500 million active users on Facebook. Bakshy’s experiment included 253 million of them and more than 75 million shared URLs, meaning that in total, the study observed nearly 1.2 billion instances in which someone was or was not presented with a certain link. This scale is unheard of in academic sociological studies, which usually involve hundreds or, at most, thousands of people communicating in ways that are far less trackable.
Hardly shocking, but it turns out people are much better at predicting the behavior of others than themselves:
Psychologists have identified an important reason why our insight into our own psyches is so poor. Emily Balcetis and David Dunning found that when predicting our own behaviour, we fail to take the influence of the situation into account. By contrast, when predicting the behaviour of others, we correctly factor in the influence of the circumstances. This means that we’re instinctually good social psychologists but at the same time we’re poor self-psychologists.
It’s interesting to think about what puts us in social-psychologist mode and whether we can switch that on for ourselves. Obviously it’s not natural, but it’s got to be possible, right?
[Via Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
Earlier this year I remember reading this short article from MIT on some research that showed word length had more to do with information being communicated than frequency of occurrence. Ran across it again and thought it was worth sharing:
Why are some words short and others long? For decades, a prominent theory has held that words used frequently are short in order to make language efficient: It would not be economical if “the” were as long as “phenomenology,” in this view. But now a team of MIT cognitive scientists has developed an alternative notion, on the basis of new research: A word’s length reflects the amount of information it contains.
The article goes on to explain, “For English words, 9 percent of the variation in length is due to amount of information, and 1 percent stems from frequency.” Not entirely sure what to do with this yet, but seems worth knowing.
I like coffee quite a bit (I have three coffee preparation devices on my kitchen counter) and I’ve always been under the impression that freezing coffee was a bad idea. Turns out, according to this incredibly detailed experiment, it pretty hard to tell the difference if frozen for less than two months after roasting:
When the results were examined according to the three scored parameters, the overall preference, the crema, and the intensity of the taste and aroma, no statistically significant differences were noted among the coffees studied or the other variables of the study. What this means is that none of the tasters could consistently differentiate among the shots made with previously frozen or never frozen coffee. Similarly, none of the tasters could consistently tell the difference based upon whether the shots came out of the newer rotary pump driven or the older vibratory pump driven espresso machine, nor between the two grinders, one of which had brand new burrs and the other with more heavily used burrs.
In case you were worried this wasn’t taken seriously enough, here are the storage instructions:
If you are concerned about what sort of container you should use for freezing coffee, it obviously needs to be something that is relatively airtight and that can tolerate the conditions present in a freezer, and the temperature stress in going from room temperature to very cold and back again to room temperature. I generally use Mason type canning jars or recycled jars from grocery products that will close with a tight seal; I fill them up as full as possible to minimize the remaining air that is present. I have also used certain types of commercial plastic coffee bags that can be sealed and if valves are present I tape over them. If you purchase coffee that is already packaged in a sturdy valve bag you could simply tape over the valve and toss it directly into the freezer. I would however suggest that whatever container you choose, it be sized to allow you to consume all of the contents within a reasonable period, say 1 week, without having to open the bag and return some of the contents to the freezer; doing so risks condensation on the beans which could theoretically cause damage.
This all came via an excellent Lifehacker post busting food myths. Also, if you’re still reading, I’ll assume you like coffee and suggest you check out the cold-brewed iced coffee recipe I posted last year.