Thus Pandas!

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

October 2, 2015

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series is my favorite mystery series to date. I love the way she draws her characters as human, frail, and compromised without falling into cynicism or misanthropy.

I’m not so sure about the tiny Quebecois village of Three Pines though. I might think the place was built on a hellmouth or something because such terrible things keep happening there, but that can’t be it. What’s really going on is that terrible things keep happening to the residents of Three Pines no matter where they are. So I’m thinking it must be a village of the damned — which probably explains why they’ve only got dial-up internet.

Finding rocks in the sky

September 27, 2015

Scott Manley redid his famous asteroid discovery video in ultra-high resolution. This is a great visualization of just how many pieces of rock are floating around in our neighborhood — and these are only the ones we know about.

Wonder why there are short periods of time when there’s a sudden burst of discoveries, followed by a long period of no or few discoveries? It’s because of the lunar cycle. A full moon makes it a lot harder to see tiny dim specks of light moving around the sky, so most of the discoveries come during new moons.

What can be done about hate speech and social media?

September 13, 2015

You don’t have to go far to find stories about the problem of hate speech on social media. The latest one I saw comes from a KFOR TV report about a truly vile fat-shaming page on Facebook. Despite people reporting this page, Facebook hasn’t removed it. According to the KFOR TV report, the only response has been an automated reply:

We reviewed the Page you reported for containing hate speech or symbols and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.

Yeah. Not helping there, Facebook. The report goes on to quote Facebook user Heidi Davis who says, “the only way we will be able to get rid of hate mongering is to get Facebook to define their policies further.”

I’m not sure that will help very much unless it’s also coupled with making sure all pages and posts reported for hate speech are evaluated by a human. I wonder if that’s even possible considering the volume of content created daily on Facebook.

On the other hand, that volume might mean Facebook is able to develop machine learning algorithms which are able to reliably identify hate speech and images. I’m sure Fb already does that to an extent, but beyond a certain point it’s questionable how reliable an algorithm can be.

After all, how do you distinguish from an image intended as hate speech, and a fun vacation pic of a group of women at the beach? Moreover, how do you distinguish someone merely talking about hate speech from someone being hateful? What are your decision criteria?

There’s the bigger question here too of whether massive, centralized, social networking sites are inherently a bad thing precisely because there can be no effective community moderation without either steamrolling individual expression, or the place turning into a different sort of MOOC — Massive Online Open Cage-fight.

To be clear, for the most part I think Facebook is self-moderating as most users engage with a relatively small, personally selected, group of people which enforce their own community norms. For example, if I posted something hateful, I’m sure I’d get called on it very fast, and I would definitely run the risk of being ostracized (i.e. unfriended) if I persisted in my bad behavior. And when bad behavior is the norm for a group of friends, that’s OK too as it’s usually contained to that group of friends.

It seems to me that the bigger risk among one’s personal online social network is bullying. Hate speech only really becomes a problem when it’s given the bigger megaphone of public-facing Pages and Groups. Sadly, that’s when it’s hardest to police too.

So to answer the question asked in the title of this post… Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a technological solution, because ultimately this is a human problem. At the same time it’s nigh impossible to set social norms on a platform whose users are as numerous and diverse as Facebook. In the end the solution has got to be with each and every one of us.

Image credit: Duane Bryers. Detail of “Hilda” pin-up calendar image.

How to restore disabled “Full Screen” button on embedded Youtube videos 

September 9, 2015

I don’t know if it’s a change in the way Youtube is serving up oembeds these days, or if this is a new fad, but I’m finding the “full screen” button on many embedded Youtube videos is disabled of late. It’s really annoying. Thankfully I found a tiny Greasemonkey script which automagically adds the allowfullscreen  attribute to iframes embedded from Youtube, and sensibly tweaks a couple of other things too. This works well in Firefox, and I believe it should work in Chrome, but you may find in Safari that you need to modify the script to add webkitallowfullscreen as well. I don’t have any MacOS or iOS devices to test with, and Safari isn’t available for Windows or Linux anymore because Apple’s walled garden.