MEPs support surfer's rights

European flag flying; Budapest Parliament
Creative Commons License photo: soylentgreen23

Congratulations to Members of the European Parliament for backing an amendment which respects and strengthens the rights of internet users:

The agreement therefore builds citizens’ rights under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms into EU telecoms legislation. Binding provisions state that any actions taken by Member States which have an impact on users’ access to, or use of, electronic communications services and applications must respect their fundamental rights and freedoms, especially their right to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and their right to a judgment by an independent and impartial tribunal.

This amendment contradicts a draft French law which can ban people from the internet for downloading pirated material.

As much as I dislike piracy, I feel the French law is very dangerous and is a very disproportionate response to the problem of piracy. With so many services moving online (banking, government, communications & email, university applications and enrolment, e-learning, access to news and information), I’d argue that internet access is beginning to enter the realm where it should be considered a fundamental right of every person. A ban from the internet would fundamentally affect citizen’s ability to participate in their society. So whilst the state should be able to reserve the ability to take away that right when it is in the public interest (e.g. preventing crime, terrorism), it is very hard to argue that someone should lose their ability to participate in society for downloading pirated materials.

Let’s hope that this is accepted by EU telecoms ministers and passed into law.

It’d be interesting to see whether any countries presently have any charters for fundamental citizens rights with regards to the internet… anybody know?

Sick of Quizzes and Application Spam on your Facebook News Feed?

Inside
Creative Commons License photo: Andrew Mason

I’m sure it’s not just me who is beginning to get sick of “quiz spam” on Facebook. By this, I mean when you’re greeted with other people’s results from pointless quizzes such as “What Pokemon are you?”, “What does your name really mean?” and “What is your IQ?”.

Not only are these tests pointless, they are inaccurate. I’ve seen IQ tests where everybody I know has had a IQ above 130. I don’t believe it’s accurate for a second but application developers know that if they massage your ego then you’ll be more likely to tell your friends about the application.

These applications have absolutely blossomed over the last few months because they force you to invite dozens of friends before you can view results. Additionally, jumping onto the whole user-generated content theme, there are now Facebook applications that allow anybody to create their own quiz applications. The result is an exponential growth (but decrease in quality) of quiz applications and the associated news feed spam.

Regular reader Ryan asks how long it will be until Facebook goes the way of MySpace – the answer is probably not too long unless Facebook does something about this problem.

Users of Firefox and Greasemonkey can take issues into their own hands, however. The Facebook Purity Greasemonkey script removes all messages on your Facebook News Feeds from quizzes and other external applications. It’ll only leave behind status updates, wall posts, links, posted items, photos, notes and videos. Very, very useful.

Exams & Blogging

Tutti i colori della mia vita.
Creative Commons License photo: mao_lini

So the first batch of summer exams at university are over. One of my comprehensive summer exam questions involved calculating the CO2 footprint of a Google search. By a stroke of chance, I happened to have blogged about that exact topic just a couple of months ago and made my own calculations. So it really does seem like being a blogger can really help you out in places you really never would have expected it to.

And in another example, last November I wrote about how I used my blog statistics page as a MSN Messenger service status page. Whenever I’ve had issues accessing the MSN/Windows Live Messenger service, Microsoft’s official status page has never had any useful information. Yet on my blog, I often immediately see increases in traffic in the order of 10x-15x on certain pages. That signals to me that there is a service outage for everybody — as opposed to a network connection problem on my end. I’ve toyed with the idea of creating my own “unofficial service status page” which would be automatically generated using some statistical techniques (to determine whether there are irregular service problems) and geolocation (to determine exactly where people are finding problems connecting from i.e. whether it’s a worldwide issue). Alas, I’ve never had the time to put this together properly.

So anyway, blogging is really rewarding and it really can help you gain insights which you just wouldn’t have otherwise.

Anyhow, I’ve decided that this blog needs a bit of a change as I feel it’s identity and purpose has changed a lot over recent times. Long time readers will be used to articles about programming, economics & current affairs and science. But more recently, I feel the blog has changed pace – focusing more on how to get the best out of technology and communications technology. This was a result from the fantastic feedback on these posts.

I’ve tried to reconcile the two visions of what the blog should be about but I feel that it’s best the blog is split into two:

  • A consumer-focused technology and communications blog
  • A possibly more technical blog with random experiments, bits of science and economics and thoughts on life.

So you’ll be seeing a couple of changes – hopefully improvements – round here in the coming weeks. Thank you so much for your support with the blog and I hope you’ll enjoy the new blogs!

Facebook leads to lower grades!?!

'Red Spiral'
Creative Commons License photo: ishrona

In what must be one of the most ridiculously alarmist and inaccurate articles I’ve read in a while, career website Milkround is claiming that Facebook users could risk having lower grades as a result of their usage of the social networking site. Unfortunately, it looks like another instance of a journalist falling for the “correlation implies causation” fallacy.

According to Milkround:

Researchers at Ohio State University found students who enjoy communicating via cyberspace spend less time studying and risk getting a whole grade lower than their peers as a result despite more than three quarters of Facebook users claiming their interaction with friends on the site didn’t interfere with their work.

The study claims Facebook users averaged one to five hours a week studying, while non-users studied 11 to 15 hours per week.

By implication of the article and study, a typical student would do 4 times more work if they didn’t have Facebook and on average would achieve one grade higher.

College Football
Creative Commons License photo: rdesai

Here’s an explanation which is much more likely: More extroverted people who go to more parties and get involved in more societies are much more likely to use Facebook. The people who constantly work 24/7 are the people who are more likely to refuse to get a Facebook account or will have little use for a Facebook account. The likelihood of a student having a Facebook account depends on his participation in college life and how hard working he is.

Of course, students do use Facebook as a procrastination tool – I won’t argue with that. But correlations prove nothing. As a more rigiourous technique to test this hypothesis, we’d need to compare student’s results before they signed up to Facebook and results after signing up to Facebook (assuming a constant level of how hard-working or social the students are). Alternatively, you’d need a control group of people who are social and roughly as hard-working as the Facebook group but don’t use Facebook (good luck finding one).

Being Facebook friends with your boss could be worth an extra $6,500 per year

James, I think your cover's blown!
Creative Commons License photo: laverrue

BBC News’ dot.life blog reports on a study by IBM and MIT entitled the “Value of Social Network”. The study looked at the networks of 7,000 volunteers over three years and tried to give a financial value to these relationships.

Researchers found that having strong connections to managers (yes, sucking up to the boss) can boost the bottom line. On average, it adds up to $548 (£365) in extra revenue a month.

This conclusion is based on data and mathematical formulas that analysed e-mail traffic, address books and buddy lists of 2,600 IBM consultants over the course of a year.

So it would seem that there is a connection between being Facebook “friends” with your boss and your income.

Of course, correlation certainly doesn’t imply causation. Whilst networking is certainly great for your career, equally those in better paid jobs could be more dispensed to spend time networking and to have access to more networks. Something to ponder anyway.

BBC trial live mobile TV; when do you need a TV license?

Television
Creative Commons License photo: videocrab

The Telegraph reports today that the BBC has just launched a trial of live mobile TV via WiFi.

The BBC shows are being simulcast on phones at the same time as they are broadcast on traditional scheduled television.

The service, dubbed Live TV, is still in the second stage of testing, but is available to some users already. It will enable viewers to watch channels such as BBC One, BBC Four, CBeebies and BBC News over a Wi-Fi connection using a compatible mobile phone. Radio shows can also be streamed live to handsets, the BBC confirmed.

To watch live TV on your mobile, visit www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/live/tv in your phone’s browser. Live radio can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/mobile/live/radio

The BBC have reminded people they need a full colour TV license to watch TV on their mobile. But I think we need a lot more clarity in what the law says about the situations when a TV license is needed. You need a TV license to watch live TV (whether you use a TV or laptop to receive it) as it is being broadcasted. However, the TV licensing website says:

Your TV Licence for your main home won’t cover you in your second home except in the following limited circumstances:
a) you only use TV receiving equipment that is powered by its internal batteries;

I am not a lawyer… but mobile phones do happen to be powered by internal batteries. So if you only use a mobile phone to receive television at a second address, do you really need a TV license? Or is the actual wireless router (which is connected to the mains) the device which acts as the “receiver”?

TopCashback: Cashback discounts on online shopping

Here’s another credit-crunch busting, money saving tip for all of you online shoppers…

europa_passage1
Creative Commons License photo: elbfoto

I’ve been using TopCashback* for my online shopping lately and I think it’s an absolutely fantastic site. Essentially they give you discounts on shopping that you do online. The discount is paid as cashback straight into your bank account or PayPal.

The cashback discounts include 6% off Dell computers, up to 6% on purchases from Play.com, £40 on a new broadband contract, etc.

How to use TopCashback

Instead of going straight to the retailer website, you’ll need to go to the TopCashback website first. Make sure you’ve got a TopCashback account and then click on the link to the retailer from there. With some luck, your purchase is tracked and your cashback gets paid to your TopCashback account.

How does it work?

Online retailers often pay commission to websites which refer customers to them. This is how many websites make a profit. The most notable websites which make their profits through commission are price comparison websites such as MoneySupermarket. TopCashback is different in that it pays the entire commission right back to you: the customer.

TopCashback makes money through adverts on their website.

See Money Saving Expert for more info.

An example…

I was recently looking to sign up for O2 Broadband. As an O2 customer, I can get 8mbps broadband for £7.34 per month (£88 per year). That’s already a fantastic deal but on top of that TopCashback is offering £40 cashback on O2 Broadband registrations. After cashback, 8mbps broadband costs just £48 for the 12 months – equivalent to just £4 per month. That’s ridiculously cheap.

What are the alternatives?

Probably the most well known “cashback” site is run by loyalty card Nectar. Nectar’s e-Stores gives an absolutely abysmal amount of cashback through (maybe ~1%) .

There are a couple of others such as Quidco and Cashback Kings. Check to see whether you get charged a fee for using the service and if you get 100% cashback.

Get Cashback

* I earn a referral on registrations using this link. Non-affiliate version: http://www.topcashback.co.uk.

Getting an informed, balanced political debate about science

What can be done to ensure an informed and balanced public and political debate of Science and Technology?

We're at the tipping point for climate change (bonus: face in the clouds)
Creative Commons License photo: kevindooley

The Oxford English Dictionary describes science as “…the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”1 But science is much more than that: most scientists enter the profession, and most scientific research is funded, because they believe science can greatly improve society. Usually, these goals of learning more about the world and improving society are coupled. However, new and cutting-edge research has been raising ever-increasing concerns about whether the research is benefitting or destroying society.

Scientists occasionally argue that their work should be judged on a purely scientific basis without consideration for the ethics and consequences of the research; but this neglects science’s responsibility to the community at large. As issues that affect all of us, it is important that a public debate is held about these topics and that scientists properly engage in it.

I believe there are three main barriers to a reasoned public debate.

Emotional responses blinding a scientific debate

In recent years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of scientific controversies involving ethical issues of “playing God”. These include stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified “Frankenstein” foods. For many people, the initial emotional response is that of disgust2 – something dubbed the “yuk response”. In order to have the more productive debate about the science, consequences and ethics behind the work, we must get past this initial emotional response.

Surgeons at work
Creative Commons License photo: salimfadhley

In one study, psychologist Philip Tetlock asked people to comment on the proposal to set up regulated markets to trade organs3. For most people, the response was that of moral outrage at treating sacred body parts as secular commodities to be traded. However, when the debate was reframed to neutralise the moral outrage (e.g. by exploring how organ trading would lead to a greater number of scarce organs being available to save more sacred lives), 40% of people toned down their opposition. Neutralising the moral outrage encouraged people to critically analyse the arguments in the debate and come to a more reasoned decision.

On many scientific issues, the “yuk response” is preventing a reasoned scientific debate from happening in the first place. As scientists, we should not ignore our moral guidance, but we must not allow the debate to be blinded by it.

Ensuring the media covers the debate accurately

The media plays an important role in informing society about issues which may affect them7. However, two factors lead to poor and inaccurate coverage of scientific issues:

1.       To maximise readership, the press likes to present scientific issues as a series of horror stories. We’re told that cloning will lead to designer armies of obedient soldiers and that nanotechnology-robots will turn the entire world into a blob of “grey goo”45. These poignant scenarios lead people to make their mind up before considering the scientific uncertainties, risks and benefits to the detriment of a good debate.

2.       To provide “balanced” coverage, journalists will try to cover both sides of the story. In a political or social dispute, such as whether the UK should join the Euro, it is reasonable that both sides should be treated equally and receive equal press coverage. However, it is inappropriate to treat the arguments of both sides in a “scientific-fact” controversy as equal. For example, the weight of evidence in favour of climate change is much greater than that against. Attempts by journalists to be “balanced” and present both sides equally give an inaccurate impression that there is still a great deal of scientific controversy about climate change6.

The Louvre
Creative Commons License photo: L.Brumm Photography

Scientists should be aware of the importance of the media in shaping debate and public opinions and that communicating the science can be as important as the science itself.

Engaging the people: Capturing the popular imagination

Because of cultural differences8 between science and art (e.g. science being concerned with truth; art about opinions), scientists tend to avoid the arts. However, given debate is all about opinions, scientists should not be afraid to utilise the arts to catalyse debate about issues of scientific importance.

For example, Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code” inspired a large amount of “real world” interest, television documentaries9 and archaeological research about the Holy Grail in Christian theology. In the same way, the arts can provoke discussion about important scientific issues10.

The arts will, of course, never replace the rigour of peer-reviewed papers and the scientific process; but as a complement can outline the major issues to the public in an interesting and engaging way without undermining the practice of science itself.

Conclusions

As science affects the whole of society, scientists have a moral obligation to inform, involve and engage the public in a debate about science. This should be achieved by focusing the debate on the important issues, ensuring they are portrayed accurately and inspiring discussion about them.

References

1.       Concise Oxford English Dictionary: Science
Online edition. Available from: http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/science?view=uk. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

2.       New Scientist: Immoral advances: Is science out of control?
Jones, D. New Scientist, issue 2690, pp. 22-33. Available from: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126905.100-immoral-advances-is-science-out-of-control.html?full=true

3.       Trends in Cognitive Sciences: Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions
Tetlock, Philip E. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7 issue 7, pp. 320-324. Available from:
http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/tetlock/Vita/Philip%20Tetlock/Phil%20Tetlock/2001-2003/2003%20Thinking%20the%20unthinkable….pdf

4.       The Guardian: Brave new world or miniature menace? Why Charles fears grey goo nightmare
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 29 April 2003. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2003/apr/29/nanotechnology.science

5.       Institute of Physics Press Release: ‘Grey goo’ misconceptions could harm poor in developing world
Institute of Physics Press Release, 27 January 2004. Available from: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-01/iop-gm012704.php

6.       The Independent: Reporters feel the heat over climate change
Ward, B. The Independent, 10 March 2008. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/reporters-feel-the-heat-over-climate-change-793586.html

7.       Public Opinion Quarterly: The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion
McCombs, M. Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 36, pp. 176-187. Available from: http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/extra/McCombs.pdf

8.       The University Blog: Science vs. Art
Blog. 14 March 2008. Available from: http://theuniversityblog.co.uk/2008/03/14/science-vs-art/. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

9.       Priory-of-sion.com: Da Vinci Code Documentaries
Website. Available from: http://priory-of-sion.com/dvc/documentaries.html. (Retrieved 1 March 2009)

10.   The Guardian: ‘Space flight can be as luminous as any novel’
Radford, Tim. The Guardian, 11 April 2008. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/apr/11/highereducation.comment

Notes

This essay was originally prepared for an essay writing competition at my college. I have decided to share it here as I feel it could be of interest to regular readers. Comments and thoughts very welcome.

Google Street View: What purpose?

So Google Street View launched here in the UK a few days ago. It’s been controversial: all kinds of odd things have been found (see gallery at The Telegraph, and this rather hilarious sequence of a Street View driver being chased by the police for a traffic offense).

Privacy campaigners have been campaigning to get Street View shut down. That raises the interesting question: what useful purpose does Street View actually serve? How has Street View actually helped you? How has Street View benefitted you in your own every day life?

We all know about the privacy implications of Street View but I think I’ve yet to hear the benefits and the utilities. I hope that’s a discussion we’ll be able to have: without that discussion we can never really weigh up whether Street View is good for society.

I’ll start the list:

  • I wanted to send a letter the other day. The envelope was larger than A4 so I went to three local postboxes: none of them had a large enough slot to allow me to actually put the letter inside. I returned home and then using Street View was able to locate nearby postboxes and actually see whether they would be big enough to accept my letter. I was successful in completing this task with Street View so it probably saved me a lot of time visiting lots of postboxes and trying to find one large enough.

Sky launching 3D television in the UK

Gunug Rinjani Summit
Creative Commons License photo: NeilsPhotography

According to a Digital Spy report, we could be seeing 3D television in our homes by the end of the year.

Digital television (satellite) broadcaster BSkyB plans to provide the 3D service through its existing Sky HD playout and set top box system. The broadcaster trialed this out first last December and has filmed several sporting events in HD.

Of course, 3D television relies on delivering a slightly different image to each eye. There are several different technologies to do this:

  • Red-Blue Glasses. The oldest and most infamous form of 3D. Normally, all TV pictures are made up of a combination of red, green and blue. In this system, the red channel is used to deliver a picture to your left eye and the blue channel to your right eye. You need to place a red filter over your left eye to eliminate the blue channel and vice versa. It’s great because it works with any screen, but it looks strange and it’s uncomfortable.
  • Polarised Light. The TV set emits light which is orthogonally polarised, depending on which eye it is intended for. For example, vertically polarised light for the left eye and horizontally polarised light for the right eye. By using polarisation filters, each eye only sees the image intended for it. This gives a much nicer image than using red-blue glasses but obviously requires technology in the TV to create polarised light.
  • Sharp’s 3D Display. I was lucky enough to see a demonstration of this a few years ago and to play Quake in 3D. It’s pretty cool. I won’t go into the full details of how it works: but only one person can use the display at once and they have to be sat in the exact right position for the system to work at all.

Sky have, rather sensible, opted for the polarised light system for 3D television.

Perhaps this is the killer application that HD needs.