Saturday, November 09, 2013

New Media & PT Barnum in the 21st Century

cc attribution, share alike,  Flickr  photog fertilegroundportland
There is a joke about politicians and lawyers you've heard before.  
"How can you tell when a [politician/lawyer] is lying?"  
"His lips are moving." 
That joke took sad form in Houston, Texas recently when anti-gay activist Dave Wilson defeated an incumbent, Bruce Austin, in a campaign for the Houston Community College Board of Trustees where Mr. Wilson actively portrayed himself as 'black', when in fact he's a white, blue collar electrician.  His opponent, a veteran member of the board, is indeed black.

While his actions were proactively deceptive, he was honest and direct about his tactics when interviewed by the local TV station. He justified inferring he was black by saying
 "[e]very time a politician talks, he’s out there deceiving voters."
There is a nice article about Wilson's campaign in Think Progress by Ian Millhiser. In it Millhiser describes tactics like populating his campaign website with images of black people and quotes from Ron Wilson, an African American former state representative, except the fine print notes that the Ron Wilson providing the quote was in fact his cousin, a white man in Illinois (several states to the north).

The use of the campaign blog site, associating Wilson with the black community and the use of quotes attribute to well respected black politicians when they were in fact simply family members who coincidently shared the same names is pathetic. It also led to Wilson's (that is the Wilson who is the white, racist and ant-gay activist) winning the election by 24 votes. 

As is always the case in such stories the situation is not nearly as black and white (pun intended) as it might appear. The Houston Community College Board has been mired in allegations of Houston CC Board to Trustee members using their influence to steer contracts to relatives, friends, or political allies.  Austin's 24 year reign on that board doesn't indict him for these allegations but it does raise questions as to his role in these tainted affairs. 

Still, the use of the campaign website, the indiscriminate copying and reuse of images of black people from other websites (there is a copyright violation waiting to be pursued in that) and the overtly deceptive use of handouts, flyers and related messaging that associated Wilson with the largely black community served by the Houston CC Board of Trustees makes it clear that he was banking on PT Barnum's aphorism. He didn't lie overtly & when asked he proclaimed the bald truth - he bet on the naiveté of the voting public, and won.

Where were the investigative journalists when they were most needed - before the election led to this calamitous outcome?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Pyne on International Education

The Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, the Minister of Education for current Coalition Government, gave his first speech today.  In it he observed
One of the Coalition’s key priorities will be restoring international education to its rightful place as one of our most valuable exports.
The earnings from fees associated with international education constitute the 5th largest source of income to the country of Australia (and before the mining boom really took off by some measures it was the 3rd largest source of income). All of which is to say that education, and specifically international eduction, commands great attention from the federal government and those in the education industry in this country.

Recently Deloitte Access Economics conducted a review and wrote a report for the Institute of Chartered Accountants producing "Positioning for Prosperity? Catching the next wave". The main conclusion from this work was summarised in this graphic. Note that the top right quadrant

is labelled "Next Waves", as in what are the five key sectors crucial to Australia’s prosperity over the next 20 years?  In that box you'll see
  • Tourism
  • Gas
  • Agribusiness
  • Wealth management
  • International education
Acknowledging these predictions Pyne continued his speech saying
We will also review government research funding to provide stability in research financing and the pursuit of research excellence, so each dollar is spent as effectively as possible.  
And we will encourage universities to strengthen and expand existing collaborative research and teaching partnerships.
We will also encourage modernisation and the development of world-class education and research capabilities and support the use of new technologies, particularly digital and information technology.
It looks like there is an opportunity to combine interest in scalable online software for learning (UQx/edX), blended learning designs for using physical infrastructure of for education more effectively, and ways of measuring these interactions with learning analytics.

--- pdl --

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Labour Day Declaration - 2013 and beyond

Like most of you I suspect, I'm engaged in too much work that has real deadlines making the task of blogging, as reflectively valuable as I know it is, something that happens far too infrequently. It's certainly no way to gain a following.  People are busy everywhere and checking a blog the last post of which was over year ago is hardly worth your while. I get that.

My Labour Day Declaration(in Australia, and specifically in Queensland the Newman government decided to relocate Labour Day to October 7th - no idea why except that they thought there wasn't a government holiday at this end of the year, so why not move one there?)  is that I'll write shorter, less thought through pieces - more expository writing I that will expose thought processes rather than reasoned and carefully crafted assessments or assertions. 

So this is an example of a short, simple post that conveys a single thought.  I plan to write more short simple posts.  In the mean time, XKCD has a lovely cartoon about blogging that is a useful coda to this declaration.

XKCD on Blogging


Friday, May 04, 2012

Replication & Open Scholarship

One of my favourite blog sites is Retraction Watch. It's a little like watching Border Security: Australia's Front Line, a show that
takes viewers behind the scenes of Australia's Customs, Immigration and Quarantine departments
 Watching folks trying to sneak past people intent on catching smuggled contraband has a morbid fascination, the driver of reality TV around the world. But when it intrudes on your professional world it starts to look a little bit different.

PubMed was featured recently in the NY Times article (Published: April 16, 2012) on the rise of academic fraud in the scientific publishing community. The 'currency' of academia sure isn't in denominations of fiscal exchange (with the minor exception of grant funding featuring ever more prominently in academic staff rankings as more meaningful metrics of contribution remain elusive). The real currency of the academy is reputation.

Reputation is established by peer-reviewed publication in journals that exert care and critical attention to the quality, process, and conclusions presented for publication to the scholarly community.  That process of carefully curated, critically reviewed sharing of research outcomes is under siege from both within and without. From within by the challenges of sustaining  quality procedures that insure the highest calibre of writing, methodology, and presentation of accurate, reproducible results. And from without by the rapidly changing means of communication, production, dissemination and sharing of the outputs from this process.

The troubling reality is publication fraudulent research reports is on the rise. That could be for a number of reasons - greater care in the review process catching things that before might have slipped through; increasing sloppiness in that process allowing things that shouldn't pass into 'print' (used loosely for distribution in various media formats); increasing pressure on researches to get "their data" published in the pursuit of increasingly scarce research dollars; and increasing numbers of researchers who are unethical (whether consciously aware of it or not) or just plain deceitful.

The latest chapter in this concerns the failure to replicate published findings.  One of the hypotheses is that the incentives to publish predispose researchers to take liberties that influence how they report what they did. The result of this is attempts to follow published methodologies result in different outcomes. Why? Because what really happened wasn't quite what was written up in the published paper.  That adds a five reason why retractions have gone up, and another category for the list of fraudulent practices.

The Reducibility Project is setting out to test this prospect in papers published in the psychological sciences.  The goal of the project is to
...estimate the reproducibility of a sample of studies from the scientific literature. The project is a large-scale, open collaboration involving dozens of scientists from around the world. The investigation is currently sampling from the 2008 issues of three prominent psychology journals - Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Psychological Science, and Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
There are many reasons to follow this project. We assume that things making it through the peer review process by qualified reviewers reflect careful efforts to reveal how things in nature work. If the outcomes of this publishing process don't reliably accomplish this we're in a heap of trouble.  Not only is the primary set of metrics for career reward and advancement now suspect, but our understanding of the world around us must be, as well. And the system has a built in bias that may contribute significantly toward this concern - unwillingness to publish failures to reject the null hypothesis.

Granted not every experiment can be replicated. Large longitudinal clinical trials for one. They're too expensive, take too much time, and are conducted under conditions that just can't be reproduced exactly even if you had time and money. But many others can and aren't. Journals don't like them. They prefer the shiny new factoid or the innovative discovery.  Journals are run by people, too.

But the vast number of experiments do result in failures to reject the null hypotheses. And we're blind to them. That means not only are we doomed repeat the past  - how do we know it IS the past if we don't share this information? - but we're unable to see exactly the context for experiments that do produce rejected null hypotheses.

The early indications aren't very promising. Another project in the psychological sciences has been working at the replication of experiments for a year now. PsychFileDrawer has tried to replicate 9 studies and succeeded at three.  Not a promising start.

-- pdl --

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tools for Open Scholarship - Practicing to be a eResearcher

Today I gave a talk at Research Week on our campus (the University of Queensland) on the kinds of tools one uses as a practicing academic to manage the open, social, process that my colleague Tim Kastelle sums up nicely with "aggregate, filter, and connect."

I borrowed liberally, and attributed clearly, from a talk by Ismael Peña-López that he kindly shared on Prezi earlier.  His, like mine, is CC licensed so build on it please.  You can get it from the Prezi or watch it below. His is focused more on the social sciences, where my examples tend to be drawn from the natural science community. But the arc of the talk after my intro on the current NMC Horizon Report findings (about 1/3 to 1/2 of it) is drawn from his inspiration.  The folks at  the Open University of Catalonia are really good. I have the pleasure of being on the NMC board with one of their members and if Eva would just send me her thesis proposal then I'd be overjoyed .

His talk is really very nice and can be found at

It's part of a seminar he gave, the details for which are here


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shadow Illusion

This is too cool to pass up. Our visual systems are not as good as we might like when it comes to interpreting the data that are really in the external world. The Shadow Illusion is a great example of this, and in its structure tells us something about how the visual system organises data and processes information.

The visual system uses a number of queues to help it decipher and attribute meaning to what it sees. One of them is relative brightness - comparison of adjacent spots normally helps determine if one is brighter than the other. However, in this case, a shadow cast on a light square compared to a dark square also in the shadow erroneously leads the brain to conclude that the lighter square is actually white - when it's not.

Prof. Adelson, at MIT discovered this illusion back in 1995. Thanks to the Open Culture site for resurfacing this fascinating play on perception and for Stephen Landry for posting it on Facebook to bring it to a wider audience. For a more detailed explanation go to Prof. Adelson's explanation on his website.

Here's an example of demonstrating the illusion's reality -


Friday, January 07, 2011

Crowdsourcing Venture Captial - Kickstarter & Minimal Design's TickTok/LunaTick Project

Kickstarter - VC for the crowds - Follow Up

I've been a supporter of the crowd sourcing venture capital model of Kickstarter for some time (see my last post on this blog site, for example). It's a wonderful way to contribute to projects that you think are valuable and see them come to fruition. One of the projects I've been an 'investor' in is the TikTok+LunaTIk Multi-Touch Watch Kit by Chicago-based MINIMAL design, led by among others Scott Wilson.

One of the things that's illuminating in this process is seeing how the idea is translated into a product. For engineering designers this is their bread and butter. It's what they do. But for the rest of us, we may have some insight into the concept development or the design planning, but seeing the actual steps that go from design drawings to a sturdy, reliable functioning product often happens out of sight, if it happens as it should at all.

Kickstarter and in particular Scott Wilson has done a marvelous job keeping us 'investors' up to date on the fabrication of the TickTok and LunaTik watch bands designed to provide a wristband for the new iPod Nano, allowing you to wear it as a watch. There have been several of these put out since the Nano was released. But this one is really sweet and the design is clever.

As part of the production process there is testing that must take place to insure that the end product had the durability to withstand the wearing environment into which it will be put. How do they do that? Here's a short video that describes part of the testing process and pays attention to making the assembly simple and easy enough that it hopefully will reduce assembly worker fatigue and therefore improve assembly quality.

Very simple but critical step towards taking an inventive idea and making it into a useful innovative product. Nice job Scott.

-- pdl -- video