Digital Judgement

September 30, 2011

Interesting item spotted on the BBC news site today, video clip here:

Conspiracy theories and propaganda are gaining credence in the classroom because young people are not being taught how to judge the accuracy of information on the internet, according to think tank Demos.

It’s based on the recently published report entitled ‘Truth, Lies and The Internet’ which is available here (free download).

From the report’s executive summary:

The ability to judge the merits of different pieces of information is not new; it is the basis of much of classical philosophy. However, the architecture and functionality of the internet makes the job of separating the wheat from the chaff even harder. A specific body of skills and knowledge is required to make informed judgments. We use the term ‘digital fluency’ to describe this competence; the ability to find and critically evaluate online information. It is a combination of ‘old’ critical thinking skills, such as source verification, and ‘new’ knowledge about how the digital world works, such as understanding search engines. These are the bedrock skills necessary for the individual to use the internet to search, retrieve, contextualise, analyse, visualise and synthesise information effectively.

One of their recommendations is that ‘digital judgment must become a core part of the National Curriculum and teacher training.’

The ‘veracity of information’ problem is pervasive of course but will presumably get more complicated in time so awareness and education in this area seems quite important.

See also here.


Royal Society: One Culture Festival This Weekend

September 28, 2011

If you’re in London this weekend and have some time, this might appeal:

“Join us to celebrate 350 years of the Royal Society’s library at the One Culture festival. Over the first weekend in October 2011 some of the best novelists, scientists, poets and historians will explore the crosscurrents between science and culture.”

The festival will be held at the Royal Society in central London. October 1-2 and tickets required (not a free event).

Details here.


Rethinking The Benefits Of Conversation In Business

September 26, 2011

Recently I attended a workshop on ‘Implementing Knowledge Cafes‘ run by David Gurteen. The workshop was held in the very pleasant Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) building near Embankment in London.

I’ve been to a number of David’s free knowledge cafes in London over the years and have also written about them (Arup and BT Tower). They’re always stimulating affairs as well as being excellent for networking.

My interest in the workshop was to get the underlying thinking behind the ‘cafe approach’ and to understand better the real-world applications (these aspects are only briefly covered in the free events). I’d then be in the position to try out a ‘knowledge cafe’ with my own customers eg as a fresh way of addressing a business issue where standard techniques hadn’t worked or were too limiting.

One of the original motivations for developing the cafes was that many business communications revolved (and still do) around slides and ‘talking at people’ and these can often be ineffective. So, motivated by ideas from Theodore Zeldin and others, the productive role of conversations became highlighted.

So, how can we better use conversations for business advantage?

One immediate problem is that conversations are usually not regarded as something critical in business. In fact they’re often viewed as just relaxation or a distraction and thus incidental. This is in marked contrast to our personal lives where conversation can often play a critical role, both for understanding things better as well as for motivation. So there’s an interesting and rather unnatural dichotomy here!

David then went through his set of tools, techniques and experiences to extract value from conversations in a business setting. Very illuminating!

There were a whole host of interesting points but two highly relevant and useful insights for me were:

  • It’s very helpful to differentiate between knowing more, understanding better and coming up with solutions and it may be good to focus on each separately.
  • It’s crucial to generate an environment where different viewpoints are welcomed and then explored – the best example was the day itself – but thought needs to be given to this as it won’t just happen.

I think this cafe approach and variations on it could have wide application and I’m planning some posts on this in the near future.

As a by-product of the day I started thinking about personal situations where the role of conversation had been especially and consistently productive. The best example I came up with was from my time as an academic. I spent two years as a Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. In my area of research, the main person at the Institute was Professor Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh.

In hindsight, Lochlainn was permanently running ‘knowledge cafes’ (of a sort) without my appreciating it! On many occasions, I’d turn up for morning coffee (late starts for academics…) and a conversation would start in the kitchen/coffee bar on a research idea that someone found interesting. If productive this could easily carry on for hours with other people coming in, sometimes participating, sometimes just listening and then wandering out (creating a fluid, creative environment).

The aim was to get to the heart of things and not to just dabble on the surface and all views were welcome. I’d never experienced this way of working before and it was quite a revelation (of course there were also periods when you went away and carefully thought things through by yourself).

Lochlainn had perfected this group conversational style – he produced over 200 papers with over 60 collaborators and established a worldwide reputation for his precise and clear thinking. it would be interesting to see how elements of this could be transferred to a business setting.

Picture credit: see here.


Neutrinos Pass The Speed Limit?

September 23, 2011

It’s not every day that the first item on the BBC World Service news involves high energy physics. I was idly listening last night and couldn’t quite believe my ears! They even had Einstein speaking in English on the ‘scientific approach’ in the soundbyte (although it wasn’t really that helpful).

The topic was the surprising result of an experiment at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) which suggests that particles known as neutrinos can travel faster than light.

If verified, this would violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which together with quantum theory, is one of the foundations of modern physics.

The implications would be paradigm changing. Alternatively, and far less excitingly, it may instead be a subtle error somewhere in the (extremely complex) experiment. Either way, it’s good that these ‘fundamental issues’ get wide publicity and, as a by-product, raise awareness of the astounding technical capability developed in experimental high-energy physics (see video above).

The press release from CERN, where the experiment (named OPERA) took place, is here:

The OPERA measurement is at odds with well-established laws of nature, though science frequently progresses by overthrowing the established paradigms. For this reason, many searches have been made for deviations from Einstein’s theory of relativity, so far not finding any such evidence. The strong constraints arising from these observations makes an interpretation of the OPERA measurement in terms of modification of Einstein’s theory unlikely, and give further strong reason to seek new independent measurements.

Some background on the neutrino is given in the video above as well as here. However, until the dust has settled…

Credits: video here and comic here.


Meanies Earn More?

September 14, 2011

I’m afraid this seems to be the case, in so far as you can actually prove such things – see here:

The researchers analyzed data collected over nearly 20 years from three different surveys, which sampled roughly 10,000 workers comprising a wide range of professions, salaries and ages. (The three surveys measured the notion of “agreeableness” in different ways.) They also conducted a separate study of 460 business students who were asked to act as human-resource managers for a fictional company and presented with short descriptions for candidates for a consultant position. Men who were described as highly agreeable were less likely to get the job.

I can see it now – a new commercial opportunity, workshops on how to be mean!

Picture credit here.


Visualising Weather Predictions: The Meteogram

September 11, 2011

Nice new visualisation of the weather from the Met Office, Meteogram, which I prefer to their standard method.

There’s also a nice iPad weather app that’s built on this same approach: Meteogram.

Picture credit: as above.


The Mystery Of The Tibetan Singing Bowl

September 8, 2011

The physics behind this strange-looking effect has recently been investigated, see here (maths required):

We have presented the results of an experimental investigation of the Tibetan singing bowl, its acoustics and hydrodynamics. Its acoustical properties are similar to those of a wine glass, but its relatively low vibration frequency makes it a more efficient generator of edge-induced Faraday waves and droplet generation via surface fracture.

There’s a nice popular overview here that also has an explanatory video.

I spent over 12 years doing academic research in theoretical physics and the fascination of being able to understand and explain the natural world has never left me!