Circus 2.0

September 28, 2008

My commenters are obsessing over the woes of STFC as usual, but I can’t quite get in the swing of it.   Instead, I am enjoying two weeks of astro-geekery. First up was the .Astronomy Conference in Cardiff; then a workshop in Cambridge to work out how to take forward the VO agenda in the UK ; and this coming week, the twice yearly VOTECH meeting.

Various folk have already blogged about .Astronomy  – Stuart Lowe, Chris Lintott, Sarah Askew, and the Master of Ceremonies, Robert Simpson (aka Orbiting Frog)  keeping the twitter going. It was a very virtual meeting, with a distributed audience following the meeting on Ustream, and intercontinental video  talks by Phil PlaitPamela Gay, Alberto Conti and others.  Apparently Alberto invented Google in a bar one evening, or something like that. Highlight for me was learning about the WETI Institute. Their big idea is that there is no point searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Just wait for it. They have a screensaver you can download. There is no need to be connected to the Internet, because the aliens will find a way to contact you anyway.  Check out the WETI web page. Its a hoot.

Of course everybody under thirty was dead keen on all the Web 2ish things – blogs, twittering, YouTube, Facebook, adding your own stuff to Google Sky and so on. Unlike the old fashioned plain brown Web, Web 2.0 is famously democratic and participatory. Its the people’s Web ! You don’t just read stuff, you change it ! Call me an old cynic, but I’m not so sure. All this stuff relies on an infrastructure provided by a handful of massive corporations. They set the parameters. They can switch it off any time they like. They can change the rules so you can only write about approved subjects. They can do a deal with the FBI. You won’t even know. The illusion of participation is really just a Circus. Every time you update your status on FaceBook thats another five minutes you have avoided thinking about who has the power and why.

But lets not get depressed. Next week Wakeham reports, and we will have such fun.

Bad Manners

August 7, 2008

My apologies for the absence of posts in recent days. I have been a bit swamped, not so much with work as with domestic stuff – finding a house, buying a car, passing my California driving test, getting phone and internet arranged, and about a million other things, including arranging medical insurance, and then getting vaccinations for my kids so they can go to school here. Of course, you can’t just sign up, you have to choose from about sixteen different confusing options. Do you want an HMO or a PPO ? Is it better to pick a plan with a large deductible and small co-pay, or the other way round ? Do you want that on rye, wheat, or sourdough ? Extra cheese ? I DON”T CARE JUST GIVE ME A SANDWICH !!! Brits find this aspect of US culture very stressful. Give me the Nanny State any day.

I found a website that had customer reviews of the local medical facilities. But as usual, these were close to useless because they were bi-modal. Half of them gave four or five stars and said “these people were so much better than my last hospital ! I am so glad I changed ! They were professional and courteous.”. The other half gave no stars or one star and said “Do NOT use this hospital ! They are rude and overpriced !”. Of course, there is an obvious selection effect here. If you feel the correct statement is “well, they were pretty much run of the mill” then you don’t go to the bother of typing up your comments. But its more than that. Somehow the sight of those empty boxes waiting for your thoughts brings on the red mist. Its even worse than email. On the web people are just so aggressive.

The great unwashed were certainly kinda rude about the whole Pluto thing, as I noted in this post from July last year. And many of you will recall that there was a rather sticky episode on this blog when some posts went rather beyond rude and I had to issue a disclaimer.

It seems that neuroscientists too get rude on the web. Today I got my free copy of Nature, having published in it last week. (And of course my half price subscription offer .. but I don’t think I will take that up.. sorry Phil). A short printed article referred to this discussion by the Nature neuroscience blog editor Noah Gray, following an outburst of mudslinging. The worry is that web based technologies for science won’t work if they become dominated by exclusive, agressive types. The article suggests that anonymity of comments is a bad idea, and that the intolerance of online communities will put off others contributing, and will discourage online scientific collaboration.

This blog has not been about fostering scientific collaboration, but about comment on science politics. (That isn’t how it started, but its how it ended up.) Its pretty clear that the anonymous comments are much more aggressive than the non-anonymous ones. Is this good or is this bad ?

Over to you.