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Archive for March 26th, 2018

An interested analogue for computer-managed instruction

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From The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture, by Brian Dear:

“The theory was,” Braunfeld recalls, “a) here we are at a university, so by definition we know how to educate, and b) we know how to do what was in those days called real-time data processing. Which I guess today there isn’t even a word for that, because it’s all real-time. But the notion of real-time data processing was a big deal in those days, because computers typically had as their inputs cards or paper tape, and it came in and it did its thing and it came back out. The notion of actually getting stuff in at random times was rather rare.”

Having all come fresh from the Cornfield project, these CSL engineers immediately saw an analogy between Cornfield’s need to track the real-time comings and goings of multiple airplanes and naval vessels, identifying which was friend, which was foe, while they moved in different directions at different speeds, and the new project’s need to track the real-time interactions of multiple students each sitting at a terminal, each interacting with the computer at their own pace, each student having essentially an ongoing, private, live conversation with their digital tutor. The big breakthrough that gave Bitzer and his colleagues a surge of confidence was that they could see at an abstract level the similarities between these two very different problem spaces—air traffic control and student data. Step back far enough, and from a purely architectural point of view, naval destroyers’ radar data could be seen as data from student terminals. To the computer it was all just zeroes and ones. Students would be interacting with the system in real time, so the data would be pouring in from multiple sources in real time. No different, to the computer, from multiple aircraft radar pings being fed back to the central machine in real time. The notion of a central computer handling lots of random incoming data, processing it as fast as possible, and spewing it back out to graphical terminals? Just think of the students as aircraft and it all started making sense.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Education, Technology

Interview: Former Cambridge Analytica exec says she wants lies to stop

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In the Guardian Paul Lewis and Paul Hilder interview Brittany Kaiser:

It was the summer of 2007. Brittany Kaiser was not yet 21, but she was one of a handful of full-time workers in the small digital team for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, uploading photos of the Illinois senator to something called a Facebook page.

At the next desk was another activist who knew a bit about the social media startup. Chris Hughes, 24, had worked with his Harvard roommate Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook as a tool for students a few years earlier.

A decade later, the picture has darkened, as Hughes recently lamented when he complained about the “negative role” Facebook is playing in politics.

And Kaiser, who until two weeks ago was a senior employee at Cambridge Analytica, has worked for a company involved in two of the most negative and controversial campaigns in history.

Now she wants to make those secrets public, becoming the second former Cambridge Analytica employee to come forward in less than a week.

Her motive for doing so is likely to come under scrutiny: this has been a catastrophic week for the firm – and Kaiser was a senior executive. She claims, however, that it is because she wants to stop telling lies.

It seems remarkable that an Obama volunteer who studied human rights and voted for Bernie Sanders ended up working for a controversial data analytics company at the centre of a global story about the use of data and dirty tricks.

The company’s work on Donald Trump’s election campaign left her feeling “incredibly internally conflicted”, but she insists she was only doing her job; her political views have nothing to do with her decision to reveal secrets about Cambridge Analytica.

Asked why she has decided to speak out, Kaiser flares: “Why should we make excuses for these people? Why? I’m so tired of making excuses for old white men. Fucking hell.”

She says she believes that Silicon Valley has much to answer for. “There’s a much wider story that I think needs to be told about how people can protect themselves, and their own data.”

Her disclosures come almost a week after the Observer revealed new information on how data was acquired from more than 50 million Facebook friends without their consent.

Kaiser has less to say on the harvesting of this data in 2014 than she does on other issues, which is corroborated by emails, correspondence and other documents reviewed by the Guardian.

Her own journey – from Obama’s campaign to trying to secure business with political parties and corporate interests in Ethiopia, Lithuania, Romania, Nigeria and Zambia; and from Occupy to Trump’s presidential victory party – says much about the bizarre state of politics in the digital era.


Facebook was not all Kaiser and Hughes had in common when they met at Obama’s Chicago HQ; they had attended the same prestigious private school in Massachusetts. Now they were among fewer than a dozen Obama activists and volunteers on the “new media” team.

Hughes, though, stood apart. He was apparently still able to pull strings at Facebook, which had relocated to California. When the campaign noticed problematic things about the social media site, such as the deluge of racist and abusive material being posted on the senator’s “wall”, Hughes, it seems, could find a solution.

On that occasion, Kaiser says, the platform was changed so that campaign workers could pre-approve messages before they appeared.

Another leap forward for Obama 2008’s Facebook experiment was their response to the avalanche of “friend” requests tying up campaign resources, with volunteers having to check photos. “We didn’t want a media controversy around Barack Obama being friends with somebody that was naked with an assault rifle,” she says.

The solution was a change that meant fans could “follow” Obama’s campaign rather than request a “friend connection”.

For the next few years, Kaiser says, her career diverged from US politics: she was a marketing officer for London’s air ambulance, volunteered for human rights groups, lived in Asia and started an inward-investment company in Libya – primarily, she claims, to gain access to the country for human rights work.

These opaque foreign adventures appear to have caught the eye of the SCL Group, a British psy-ops company, and its ambitious chief executive, Alexander Nix. Kaiser said she first met Nix at a sushi restaurant with some Mongolian clients. He drilled her as a spy might a source, apparently telling her: “Let me get you drunk and steal your secrets.”

That was 2012, the year Obama was re-elected, this time on a much more sophisticated campaign whose backbone was “big data” and Facebook friend networks, using techniques that foreshadowed much of what was to come.

Kaiser recalls Nix getting excited when she told him she’d worked for Obama.

Kaiser worked for SCL until Cambridge Analytica was formally incorporated.

Nix, she says, saw the gap in the market. The Republicans were losing the data race; that was where the opportunities were.

The kind of personality questionnaires conducted by the Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan on Facebook were particularly important, she adds, as they allowed the company’s data scientists to build models connecting data to behavioral traits and build “a very in-depth picture on those individuals”.

Kogan paid about 270,000 people to take his personality test. But, Kaiser says, Cambridge Analytica did many similar quizzes – not always on Facebook – and had personality data for more than 2 million Americans.

“The bigger a data set that you have, the more polls, the more surveys that you have that people undertake, the more accurate your models are going to be,” she says. “That’s just a fact of data science.”

Around mid-2015, Kaiser says, the company knew Facebook was changing its API rules to restrict the data that could be harvested through questionnaires like Kogan’s.

This appears to have prompted a last-minute grab for data. In one internal email seen by the Guardian, employees are asked to identify which issues on a list of 500 Facebook “like” items would be most “useful for political modeling or commercial sales”.

It is unclear from the email where the data was coming from, but the list is curiously revealing. Cambridge Analytica didn’t want to know who “liked” Eminem, Family Guy, YouTube, The Walking Dead or Mountain Dew. It was, however, interested in Facebook users who “liked” Mitt Romney, Walt Disney World, the US Marine Corps and Coca-Cola.


Nigeria was one of Kaiser’s first assignments. Three days ago, in one of a series of extraordinary scoops, the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr revealed details about this project, aimed at securing the re-election of the then president, Goodluck Jonathan. He was unaware of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement.

Cadwalladr revealed details of a murky operation by suspected Israeli hackers to discredit Johnson’s rival, Muhammadu Buhari, by finding “kompromat” on the Nigerian politician. Asked about this, Kaiser confirms she knew the Israeli contractors.

“They were working for the same client that we were working for.” Who was that? “Oil billionaires,” she replies.

Kaiser’s story of how the Israelis got their information, however, was worse than computer hacking.

“They went to Nigeria, became friends with the people in Buhari’s campaign, and started sitting in meetings in the campaign headquarters,” she says. “They got information by being in there, however you do that. Making friends with people, sitting in high-level meetings, working on their computers.”

This, she claims, was being done independently of Cambridge Analytica.

Earlier this week there was another scoop, based on undercover footage from C4 News which captured Nix boasting about using “honey traps”, fake news campaigns and operations with ex-spies to swing election campaigns around the world.

Kaiser claims she had never heard him make such claims before. “Alexander is known to oversell everything to close the deal.”

By 2015, Nix and Kaiser were pitching to increase their market share in the most lucrative market of all: the US presidential campaign. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 6:26 pm

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth.

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Jonah Lehrer writes in the New Yorker:

In the late nineteen-forties, Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., decided to write a book in which he shared his creative secrets. At the time, B.B.D.O. was widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. Born in 1888, Osborn had spent much of his career in Buffalo, where he started out working in newspapers, and his life at B.B.D.O. began when he teamed up with another young adman he’d met volunteering for the United War Work Campaign. By the forties, he was one of the industry’s grand old men, ready to pass on the lessons he’d learned. His book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best-seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output. Such a mental boost would spur career success—“To get your foot in the door, your imagination can be an open-sesame”—and also make the reader a much happier person. “The more you rub your creative lamp, the more alive you feel,” he wrote.

“Your Creative Power” was filled with tricks and strategies, such as always carrying a notebook, to be ready when inspiration struck. But Osborn’s most celebrated idea was the one discussed in Chapter 33, “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a “brainstorm,” which means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” For Osborn, brainstorming was central to B.B.D.O.’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.

The book outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The most important of these, Osborn said—the thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity—was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” he wrote. “Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.” Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.

Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became an influential business guru, writing such best-sellers as “Wake Up Your Mind” and “The Gold Mine Between Your Ears.” Brainstorming provided companies with an easy way to structure their group interactions, and it became the most widely used creativity technique in the world. It is still popular in advertising offices and design firms, classrooms and boardrooms. “Your Creative Power” has even inspired academic institutes, such as the International Center for Studies in Creativity, at Buffalo State College, near where Osborn lived. And it has given rise to detailed pedagogical doctrines, such as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which is frequently employed by business consultants. When people want to extract the best ideas from a group, they still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism and encouraging the most “freewheeling” associations. At the design firm ideo, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is “practically a religion,” according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.”

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

And yet Osborn was right about one thing: like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process. “Many of us can work much better creatively when teamed up,” he wrote, noting that the trend was particularly apparent in science labs. “In the new B. F. Goodrich Research Center”—Goodrich was an important B.B.D.O. client—“250 workers . . . are hard on the hunt for ideas every hour, every day,” he noted. “They are divided into 12 specialized groups—one for each major phase of chemistry, one for each major phase of physics, and so on.” Osborn was quick to see that science had ceased to be solitary.

Ben Jones, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, at Northwestern University, has quantified this trend. By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents from the past fifty years, he has shown that levels of teamwork have increased in more than ninety-five per cent of scientific subfields; the size of the average team has increased by about twenty per cent each decade. The most frequently cited studies in a field used to be the product of a lone genius, like Einstein or Darwin. Today, regardless of whether researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics, science papers by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to so-called “home-run papers”—publications with at least a hundred citations. These were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.

Jones’s explanation is that scientific advances have led to a situation where all the remaining problems are incredibly hard. Researchers are forced to become increasingly specialized, because there’s only so much information one mind can handle. And they have to collaborate, because the most interesting mysteries lie at the intersections of disciplines. “A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers could build an airplane all by themselves,” Jones says. “Now Boeing needs hundreds of engineers just to design and produce the engines.” The larger lesson is that the increasing complexity of human knowledge, coupled with the escalating difficulty of those remaining questions, means that people must either work together or fail alone. But if brainstorming is useless, the question still remains: What’s the best template for group creativity?

In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.

The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

Another of her experiments has demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. The experiment focussed on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 3:38 pm

Posted in Business, Science

Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking

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Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos write in the Harvard Business Review:

“Put your phone away” has become a commonplace phrase that is just as often dismissed. Despite wanting to be in the moment, we often do everything within our power to the contrary. We take out our phones to take pictures in the middle of festive family meals, and send text messages or update our social media profiles in the middle of a date or while watching a movie. At the same time, we are often interrupted passively by notifications of emails or phone calls. Clearly, interacting with our smartphones affects our experiences. But can our smartphones affect us even when we aren’t interacting with them — when they are simply nearby?

In recent research, we investigated whether merely having one’s own smartphone nearby could influence cognitive abilities. In two lab experiments, nearly 800 people completed tasks designed to measure their cognitive capacity. In one task, participants simultaneously completed math problems and memorized random letters. This tests how well they can keep track of task-relevant information while engaging in a complex cognitive task. In the second task, participants saw a set of images that formed an incomplete pattern, and chose the image that best completed the pattern. This task measures “fluid intelligence,” or people’s ability to reason and solve novel problems. Performance on both of these tasks is affected by individuals’ available mental resources.

Our intervention was simple: before completing these tasks, we asked participants to either place their phones in front of them (face-down on their desks), keep them in their pockets or bags, or leave them in another room. Importantly, all phones had sound alerts and vibration turned off, so the participants couldn’t be interrupted by notifications.

The results were striking: individuals who completed these tasks while their phones were in another room performed the best, followed by those who left their phones in their pockets. In last place were those whose phones were on their desks. We saw similar results when participants’ phones were turned off: people performed worst when their phones were nearby, and best when they were away in a separate room. Thus, merely having their smartphones out on the desk led to a small but statistically significant impairment of individuals’ cognitive capacity — on par with effects of lacking sleep.

This cognitive capacity is critical for helping us learn, reason, and develop creative ideas. In this way, even a small effect on cognitive capacity can have a big impact, considering the billions of smartphone owners who have their devices present at countless moments of their lives. This means that in these moments, the mere presence of our smartphones can adversely affect our ability to think and problem-solve — even when we aren’t using them. Even when we aren’t looking at them. Even when they are face-down. And even when they are powered off altogether.

Why are smart phones so distracting, even when they’re not buzzing or chirping at us? The costs of smartphones are inextricably linked to their benefits. The immense value smartphones provide, as personal hubs connecting us to each other and to virtually all of the world’s collective knowledge, necessarily positions them as important and relevant to myriad aspects of our everyday lives. Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry.

Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.

Are you affected? Most likely. Consider  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 1:47 pm

Omega’s Mixed Midget, Nancy Boy, Fine aluminum slant, and Alpa 378

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The little Omega boar-and-badger brush is a very nice little guy. I soak the brush because of the boar content. This morning it did a fine job with my travel-size Nancy Boy signature shaving cream, and the Fine slant really worked well: I have learned how light the pressure must be with this razor.

A splash of Alpa 378 finished the job and started the week on a very pleasant note.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 8:04 am

Posted in Shaving

Epic browser maximizes privacy

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Take a look at I just downloaded the OS X version (a Windows version is also available). The user forum is worth looking at: the browser’s been out a while so they’ve worked through at least the initial startup bugs. The one I downloaded is Version 63.0.3239.108 (Official Build) (64-bit).

One drawback: no extensions or add-ons that I’ve found (AdBlock Plus, LastPass, HTTPSeverywhere, et al.)

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2018 at 8:01 am

Posted in Daily life

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