AuthorKlint Finley

Why rote memorization is still important for learning

Engineering professor Barbara Oakley explains how she rewired her brain for math at the age of 26:

When learning math and engineering as an adult, I began by using the same strategy I’d used to learn language. I’d look at an equation, to take a very simple example, Newton’s second law of f = ma. I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant—f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration. (The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.) I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and a were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and a was small, what did that do to m? How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb. I was beginning to intuit that the sparse outlines of the equation were like a metaphorical poem, with all sorts of beautiful symbolic representations embedded within it. Although I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, the truth was that to learn math and science well, I had to slowly, day by day, build solid neural “chunked” subroutines—such as surrounding the simple equation f = ma—that I could easily call to mind from long term memory, much as I’d done with Russian.

Time after time, professors in mathematics and the sciences have told me that building well-ingrained chunks of expertise through practice and repetition was absolutely vital to their success. Understanding doesn’t build fluency; instead, fluency builds understanding. In fact, I believe that true understanding of a complex subject comes only from fluency.

Full Story: Nautilus: How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

Mutation Vectors: Troll Hunting Edition

Trollhunter

Status Update

Gearing up to run a 10k tomorrow.

Browsing

My obsession of the week is the awful world of trolling.

A good starting point is Mattathias Schwartz’s New York Times article introducing the concept and some of its major players, including Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, aka weev.

The article is also noteworthy because it revealed that Auernheimer was, by his own admission, behind a campaign to terrorize educator and game designer Kathy Sierra (previously).

Auernheimer went on to become the poster-boy for the over-prosecution of hackers both in the hacker community and tech press, and subsequently denied that he ever told Schwartz that he was behind the harassment of Sierra. This week she wrote a bit about what that felt like to watch close friends and respected journalists suddenly becoming very chummy with the person not only destroyed her career but made her fear for life, and why she doesn’t take Auernheimer’s denials seriously:

But the one thing I never expected was that after all these years, he’d suddenly deny it. Even more so, that reasonable, logical, intelligent people would actually believe this. He’d suddenly, after 6 years, claim that a world-class, international, Livingston-winner (“Pulitzer of the Young”) journalist would just somehow… come up with that. And that in six years it never occurred to weev, not once, to publicly deny it no matter how many times he was asked about it.

(Schwartz himself came into these conversations more than once over the past year to remind weev about their conversation, to confirm that yes, it happened exactly as he described in the 2008 feature. Not that it made a difference. After all, in weev vs. amazing writer with everything to lose by lying, who are you going with? Weev. They went with weev.)

(Note: she says she’s taking down her original post soon, but a copy can also be found here).

Elsewhere, ex-troll turned journalist Emmett Rensin wrote for Vox.com that trolling has changed, man. “But I want to tell you about when violent campaigns against harmless bloggers weren’t any halfway decent troll’s idea of a good time — even the then-malicious would’ve found it too easy to be fun,” he writes. “When the punches went up, not down.”

I’m not sure that’s historically accurate though, given the malicious glee trolls of yore took in, say, hacking an epilepsy forum to place seizure inducing flashing images on the site.

So what is to be done? The usual response is “don’t feed the trolls,” which makes sense if you’re just talking about the occasional blog post, but today’s troll praxis is to flood someone’s Twitter mentions and inbox with threats, call their phones, send packages to their physical address, and use that address to order pizzas, taxis and, sometimes, to “swat” them. Swatting, for those who don’t know, is where you spoof a call from a particular number — your victim — to the police or 911 saying that you’re being held prisoner in your own home. A SWAT team then shows up, and if the victim is lucky, all that happens is that they get the shit scared out of them. But as Radley Balko has documented, SWAT teams often have a habit of shooting first and asking questions later, so there’s a real danger of the victim actually being killed by the police.

But yeah, you’re just supposed to ignore all that and hope the trolls move on to another victim.

OK, so what do we really do? I wish I had an answer. Some of it probably will be technical. Better security and what not. Some of it will need to be legal — actually putting people behind bars for pulling this crap. And some of it will necessarily be social — addressing what the hell actually makes people want to do this stuff in the first place.

And what exactly is that, anyway? It’s easy to do arm-chair psycho-analysis about the erosion of white privilege, holding power over others or finding acceptance in a peer group. But is that what’s really going on? And even if so, how do you solve the problem?

In an amazing (and probably triggering for racism, anti-semitism, and general harassment) blog post Leo Traynor wrote about meeting the person who had waged a three year harassment campaign against Traynor and his wife, sending the two of them threatening emails and Tweets, as well as packages in the mail. The perpetrator turned out to be the teenage son of of one of Traynor’s friends. Asked why he did it, the kid said “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”

There’s clearly a huge social problem if a kid could ever think something like this would be just a bit of fun, but it points to a larger problem here, which is that kids have a tendency towards being assholes. Usually they grow out of it. But technology now enables kids to stalk, harass, and generally ruin the lives of strangers remotely, and semi-anonymously. In other words, the amount of damage a kid, or group of kids working together online, can do with seemingly little risk, at a remove from the consequences, is far greater than ever before. (Note: Traynor’s post mentions that the kid spent a lot of time on conspiracy sites, which suggests, at least to me, that there may have been more to the anti-semitic content of his messages than a “game thing,” so this could be more than just something he’d grow out of).

All of which is to say, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but it’s something I want to look into more deeply. I’ve found a few academic papers on trolling, and hope to find more:

The effect of de-individuation of the Internet Troller on Criminal Procedure implementation: An interview with a Hater

Trolls just want to have fun

Searching for Safety Online: Managing “Trolling” in a Feminist Forum

Watching

I have nothing new to recommend, but the inspiration for this posts title and the lead image come from the Norweigian film Trollhunter, which is pretty good.

The weirdest way to subvert paparazzi culture

The face privitisizer

This is an old link, freshly excavated from the depths of my Pocket account. Rob Walker writes about the strange way that Vanessa Stiviano , the alleged mistress of the former owner of the LA Clippers, subverts paparazzi culture:

What I’m interested in is how Stiviano is using it: Not to protect herself from the sun’s glare, but rather from the media glare. In other words, she is misusing, but I’d say rather effectively. This is a pretty good object-use hack.

And the aesthetics are, in my view, amazing: Unlike the traditional coat draped over a bowed head, or whatever, this visor allows her to do more than thwart perp-walk aesthetics. Instead she rather brazenly defies paparazzi culture. And indeed she seems to know what she’s doing, as she pairs her weird Darth Vader headgear with overtly camera-ready outfits — from semi-blingy-business attire to ostentatiously “casual” combinations of silly T shirts and cutoffs.

Full Story: Design Observer: Object in the News: The Face Privatizer

The Urban Explorers of Instagram

humzadeas looking over the city

Adrian Chen writes:

There has long been a subculture of so-called “urban explorers” who have made a game of accessing off-limits places. But Deas and the other Instagrammers distinguish themselves from these mostly older, more cerebral trespassers. “They’ll go to the top of the bridge and touch it and be like, Wow, this architecture!,” Deas says, a little dismissively. Urban explorers take photos mainly to document that they’ve been there, while for Deas the image is the whole point. The outlaw Instagrammers have more in common with graffiti artists, another subculture of underground creatives who make their work in the cracks of the urban landscape. Many Instagrammers go by enigmatic handles that would look good scrawled on the side of a subway car, like Novess, Black_soap, Heavy Minds, and 13thwitness, aka Tim McGurr, an unofficial godfather of the scene. But the outlaw Instagrammers are better-positioned to thrive in post-Giuliani, post-Facebook New York than old-school graffiti writers: transgressive enough to be cool, but innocuous enough to amass a huge following without getting hunted down by the NYPD.

Full Story: New York Magazine: The Outlaw Instagrammers of New York City

In a follow-up, New York magazine reports that Deas has been arrested.

(Thanks Skry)

Tulpamancy is a thing now

Tulpamancy

Nathan Thompson writes:

Tibetan mystics have long practiced a method to create sentient beings from the power of concentrated thought. Explorer Alexandra David-Neel was the first Westerner to discover the practice. “Besides having had few opportunities of seeing [tulpas], my habitual incredulity led me to make experiments for myself,” she wrote in her 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. “My efforts were attended with some success.”

Tulpas remained the preserve of occultists until 2009, when the subject appeared on the discussion boards of 4chan. A few anonymous members started to experiment with creating tulpas. Things snowballed in 2012 when adult fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – known as “bronies” to anyone who’s been near a computer for the past three years – caught on. They created a new forum on Reddit and crafted tulpas based on their favourite characters from the show.

Full Story: Vice:

(Thanks Cat Vincent)

See also:

An Unlikely Prophet Former DC Comics editor Alvin Schwartz’s book on Superman as a tulpa.

My thoughts on “hypersigils” as a cybernetic phenomena

The Rise of Dark Gaming (A Dark Room, The Long Dark)

The Long Dark

Ever since Warren Ellis posted about the “extinction aesthetic” I’ve been seeing it everywhere. For example, the new game The Long Dark. From Wired‘s review:

As in Eric Kripke’s Revolution, The Long Dark imagines a world in which a “geomagnetic event” turns out the lights forever, ending humanity’s reign and repositioning nature for a comeback tour. But instead of the collapse happening while you’re traipsing through a balmy, subtropical clime replete with fruit trees, fishable waters and swinging hammocks, you’re somewhere in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle. And winter isn’t coming, it’s a bone-cracking fact.

The game wraps a biometric data cube around that nihilistic narrative, monitoring, in real-time, things like thirst, hunger, body temperature, fatigue, calories consumed, injuries (sprains, broken bones) and illness. It’s also keeping tabs on environmental metrics like ambient air temperature (inside or out) relative to variables like wind and weather, the time of day, and whether you’re in shadow or sunlight. If you find better clothes, you stay a little warmer. If you find water-purification tablets, you can render polluted water potable. If you find wood, matches and a sheaf of newspapers, you can build a fire.

That sounds an awful lot like a graphical version of A Dark Room, the strange game that Ellis called the “Extinction Aesthetic equiv of Minecraft.”

From the New Yorker‘s profile of the game:

The game’s ever-expanding scope and regular demands for micro-managing resources create an enthralling parallax effect that can keep devoted players dosed, for hours, on the pleasurable sense of immersion that the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.” The longer you play, the more complicated the game’s gathering and building tools become, with each incremental addition widening the game’s scope, while introducing unsettling hints about what it all could mean. Why do you sometimes find cloth caught in your traps? And why does the game suddenly start calling the few workers who’ve come to help you slaves?

Is this the beginning of a trend? Are there other examples I don’t know about?

Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

Mojo Jojo meditating

Science fiction writer Tim Maughan reports on the real science of making animals smarter:

In 2011, a research team led by Sam Deadwyler of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, used five rhesus monkeys to study the factors that lead people with diseases like Alzheimer’s to lose control of their thought processes. The researchers trained the monkeys in an intelligence task that involved learning and identifying images and symbols. They were then given doses of cocaine in order to dull their intelligence and made to repeat the test, with predictably less impressive results.

What happened in the next stage of the research was remarkable. The same monkeys were fitted with neural prosthetics – brain implants designed to monitor and correct the functions of the neurons disabled by the cocaine. These implants successfully restored normal brain function to the monkeys when they were drugged – but crucially, if they were activated before the monkeys had been drugged, they improved the primates’ performance beyond their original test results. The aim of the experiments was to see whether neural prosthetics could theoretically be used to restore decision-making in humans who have suffered trauma or diseases such as Alzheimer’s – but as far as these specific tests were concerned at least, the brain prosthetics appeared to make the monkeys smarter.

Full Story: BBC: Should we engineer animals to be smart like humans?

While the obvious answer to that question is “hell no,” Tim points out that the medical research research motivations may make smarter animals an inevitability. He dives deeper into the ethical questions in the article.

More by Tim:

#burgerpunk

Zero Hours

Not on a Social Network? You’ve Still Got a Privacy Problem

Bob McMillan writes:

We already know that if you use an online social network, you give up a serious slice of your privacy thanks to the omnivorous way companies like Google and Facebook gather your personal data. But new academic research offers a glimpse of what these companies may be learning about people who don’t use their massive web services. And it’s a bit scary.

Because they couldn’t get their hands on data from the likes of Facebook or LinkedIn, the researchers studied publicly available data archived from an older social network, Friendster. They found that if Friendster had used certain state-of-the-art prediction algorithms, it could have divined sensitive information about non-members, including their sexual orientation. “At the time, it was possible for Friendster to predict the sexual orientation of people who did not have an account on Friendster,” says David Garcia, a postdoctoral researcher with Switzerland’s ETH Zurich university, who co-authored the study.

Full Story: Wired: Not on a Social Network? You’ve Still Got a Privacy Problem

This can be done through what are called “shadow profiles.” For example, if five of your friends invite you to join a new site called NeoSocial Company by punching your email address into a form on the site, the company could create a social graph based simply on your email address and who invited you, even if you don’t sign up for the service. They could even start to make some inferences about you based on what they know about your friends. Many sites also encourage you to upload your address book when you sign-up, so that i can help you connect with people you know who may already be using the service, or even to alert you if they sign-up later. If you do this, you could be helping these companies build shadow profiles of your contacts.

As Bob notes, an audit by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner confirmed that Facebook doesn’t keep shadow profiles. But the technical capability is always there, and we have no real idea what sites that haven’t been audited are doing. What’s more, law enforcement can build social network graphs based on seized address books and cell phones, or even metadata demanded from telephone companies.

So even if you don’t have a cell phone, if a friend called your landline, then traveled to your house, then to another location, and then back to your house, someone with access to that information could make an educated guess that you went with that friend to that particular location.

That may sound paranoise, but don’t forget that the reason the Northwest Four were arrested probably to gather information on their contacts, not to prosecute them specifically.

Is the cult of positivity leading tech professionals to kill themselves?

Three years ago Zappos founder Tony Hsieh launched a ambitious project to transform downtown Las Vegas into a tech startup hub. It hasn’t exactly as planned. Nellie Bowles reports on a series of suicides by people involved in the project, and how the cult of positivity in the tech community may have contributed:

Hsieh seemed to work hard to keep each suicide quiet. Entrepreneurs told me there were few community resources made available, no large-scale gatherings, no cathartic outpouring, and that they felt confused about what was happening and why it was never addressed. Many in the Downtown Project, including a crisis counselor who worked with the parents of one entrepreneur, pointed to Hsieh’s philosophy — his obsession with happiness, and with imposing it upon the community — as one of the problems.

“Suicides happen anywhere. Look at the stats,” Hsieh said, sounding agitated, when I asked him about it one evening on folding chairs in the Learning Village, where speakers regularly come to lead sessions. “It’s harder for people who are really good students in school. Then they move in to this, where there is no instruction manual, and you have to be MacGyver on your own.”

My question appeared to make him uncomfortable. He scooted two seats away.

Full Story: Re/code: The Downtown Project Suicides: Can the Pursuit of Happiness Kill You?

The rest of the series looks interesting for anyone interested in cities and/or startups. (Wired did a big feature as well.)

See also:

Tech Has a Depression Problem

I’ve linked to stuff about the downsides of positive thinking often. Here are some highlights:

The benefits of pessemism

The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking

Smile or Die: Bright Sided as a 10 Minute Marker Board Cartoon

MK-ULTRA: The TV Series

mk-ultra

Deadline reports:

The CIA’s controversial mind-control program is getting a miniseries treatment at ABC. The network has put in development MKUltra, a historical mini from writer Karen Stillman and ABC Studios’ boutique division ABC Signature.

Full Story: Deadline: ABC Developing ‘MKUltra’ CIA Miniseries

Oh, and Twin Peaks is coming back, apparently.

(both via Warren Ellis)

See also:

My earlier write-up on MK-ULTRA

Did MK-ULTRA Kill “The James Bond Of Money”?

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