Monday, July 11, 2016

Election selection

Conservative elements in America have recently protested that Facebook may have a liberal bias. The social media company has defended itself and said that Facebook's functioning is not influenced by the political choices of its management or employees. While this is probably true, with Facebook being equally accessible to all people irrespective of their political leanings, I argue that social media, by virtue of it being on a (currently) free internet, is a liberal tool; irrespective of what its management may say and do to keep looking independent. 

Social media has revolutionized social interaction in two general ways:

1. Interaction is between crafted representative avatars rather than real people. Our airbrushed, free-thinking, like-awarding, social commentator avatar interacts with other cartoons of the same make in a sandbox world of finite means. Our perceptions based on these interactions, however, are in the real world. This gives us a heavily cognitively biased set of conclusions to react to and our real world reactions sometimes are the opposite of what we choose to evoke in the sandbox. 

2. Your interaction is your presence. Social media is not a place for introverts. You cannot smile warmly and hope that it counts as a social action on the internet. You share anything between a supportive +1,  to a high-definition live video of your life to mark your presence. That has not been the human way for a good chunk of us; how I dress up is not a social interaction (though some rapists differ) but uploading a photo of myself on Facebook is. Social media, therefore, does a poor job in mimicking and substituting for real social interaction leaving a lot of us dissatisfied or depressed. 

This is not to say that social media is bad. It acts as a good compliment to true social interaction rather than a replacement, and that is what we ought to take it as. The human condition cannot evolve to keep up with the freedom and framework of social media, making this a social experiment that nobody really understands well enough to predict an outcome. For a lot of us, it is jarring for sure. 

Back to politics, conservative thinking places its faith on a traditional lifestyle of choice (or conditioning) and strives to not move away from it. At times, this is a logical choice - you have faith and comfort in a tried and tested method that has worked for generations before you and has stood strong against the test of time. What it is not good against though, is changed evolutionary pressure, and different circumstances may demand a more case-defined approach than a formulaic one. 

The conservative approach relies on the recirculation of traditionalist ideas rather than the free sharing of ideas in an unweighted manner. The liberal school of thought however chooses to engage such ideas aligning it perfectly with the rules of social media on a free internet. So Facebook is not liberal because of the views of its makers. It is not liberal because it is populated by more liberals than conservatives (hypothetically). It is liberal because it attempts to be unweighted on a free-access internet. And that cannot be fixed; unless you violate net neutrality...

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The thathuva padam

In a time when opinions are rained through free and porous internet mouth pieces, some still choose to collate their opinions and present them as fictional, but exemplary motion pictures. This remains a smart strategy because of how powerful motion pictures still are and how they have a longer lasting impact than the average mouthpiece. I personally enjoy deconstructing a good issue/message driven movie, even if I may disagree wholly with its content; just good food for semi-productive parts of the brain. However, for consideration at the present time, are some basic rules to be a quality moral-instilling motion picture that deserves at least grudging respect. If they do not fit these rules, they haven't met the bar.

1. They must satisfy the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Not because these rules are inspired by the Bechdel-Wallace test (which they are) but because if you are not going to trouble yourself with content that appeals to roughly one half of your target audience, potentially alienating them, then your message needs more work.

2. There is no prize for being good.

So the person that chose to be kind to the beggar on the street does not get rewarded with a sexy girlfriend halfway through the movie. That is not the world we live in.

3. Target stereotype may not have unrelated flaws.

Your movie probably involves some straw characters that you will tear apart and burn to fuel the smoke of your fiery message. Do not make him boring and whiny (and ugly) just because he also decided to extol the virtues of some form of badness. Bonus positive points for your movie though, if target stereotype has other potentially redeeming (but unrelated) virtues. That makes things fun.

An optional (essential) fourth - Your concept must have some validity outside your straw universe.

Otherwise your discussion is a mountain of an expense for a molehill of an issue. We have social media for that.


Note to Alison Bechdel: Alien may have passed this test but the underlying message has been elusive.

Friday, April 08, 2016

On Sci-Hub

If you are not a first world researcher you definitely know what it is. For the rest of us, Sci-Hub is a free (as in beer) repository of scientific articles; articles that would normally cost you upwards of approximately $30 (USD) each, or a slightly less-cost (but still expensive) annual membership with the publisher. Sci-Hub achieves this by accessing these articles with voluntarily (though discreetly) provided proxy accounts that subscribe to these journals and publishers. Once accessed, these articles are available to download from Sci-Hub for all visitors. So naturally it is illegal, because piracy. Thievery is bad. Shame.
More details add wrinkles and grey shades to the picture. The publishers opposing Sci-Hub's activities are registered non-profit organizations but do not function so selflessly. They do not pay for the research in their publications. They do not pay the scientists who critically review and edit these articles for their time and effort. They separately charge submitting authors for printing costs. The also have revenue from ads. So in being a record for scientific data, publishers do not add any real value to the product. However, the system of science has anointed them the gatekeepers and power-brokers of achievement and progress. We have come to unofficially define science as something that is peer-reviewed and published in an established scientific journal. 'X papers in journals with an impact factor of at least Y' is a requisite for most any research position and this dogma gives a lot of power to the middleman publisher (who, I repeat, adds little or no scientific value). Over time, it has created an artificial brand of which the publisher is an under-deserving owner. It is not to say that there is not a sound logic in the concept of scientific publishing and valuation, merely that this brand-based system is extremely vulnerable to greed and outdated in in the internet age. 
The central issue with the publisher's monopoly on science is the cost. The publisher owns the window and so, both the producers of scientific information and the consumers have to pay him to access the window. The system has also created an unspoken rule that if you create your own window, it is not as good as the publisher's branded window. The tax-payer who funds the whole machine is unable to access this information that he paid for, unless he pays for it again, which he should not have to. $30 is not a nominal cost, even in the first world, especially considering that the seller pockets all of it and does not pay the producer or even the quality-control crew. If I need to access a conservative average of 60 articles for a report that I am writing, the cost becomes big. Any reasonable research requires access to hundreds of articles and if I belong to a country or system where funds are at a premium, this barrier becomes unbreakable. Local scientific progress is therefore held back because of the cost of brand value. And that is not good. It is this environment that creates and nurtures Robin-hood elements like Sci-Hub. The poor are definitely very happy about it. Sci-Hub has, in short time, revolutionized scientific access in places like India and is of major value to Indian academia. 
It could be argued that the poor are just lazy folk that want handouts. The thing is, most of the people accessing scientific data do not intend to sit on it, they will use for science. They are not begging for things they do not deserve, they pay for the research, as tax payers and sometimes as the people that created the data. The publishing company profits big from the whole system. This is not wrong if these profits were directed back to science in some way, by paying for new research. It is, when publishers behave like unbridled, greed fueled, selfish corporations (like you Elsevier). As long as the system of excessively rewarding a publisher who gives back little exists, rebel endeavors like Sci-Hub will keep getting created and celebrated underground. 
Am I promoting piracy? No, merely the need for reform in scientific publishing. The onus is on the scientific community to take science back from extreme capitalism. The cost of scientific access should equate to the running cost of publication and no more. There should be less focus on brand value on more on scientific value. The scientific community must actively boycott profit-oriented publishers and use and promote open-access methods. The law must weigh on the wrongs of monopolistic practices by publishers as much as it weighs on Sci-Hub's methods. When a community that prides itself on its intellect and ethical quality is exploited, that, is a shame.