situating oneself within vector fields

Ok, this one will be a bit all over the place…

Isn’t it peculiar to think what drives people to live their lives. It’s differences, it’s vectors of change that drive us – especially as singular devotions such as religions are fading away. Most parents want that their children have it ‘better’ than they had it. More happiness, less pain, more money, less conflicts with relatives… those are all vectors into a direction, not just points. Of course there are singular drivers (called goals) as well, like a certain career, a project, a family and so on. But what is the context of those? Family, society in the context of its history… biology as a whole eventually? Since there is no absolute scripture that commands us how to live our life we can’t help but orientate ourselves within a vector field of infinitely many possible directions for change, for development, for betterment, for stability and whatever else we call the thing that is supposed to happen at a certain density along a vector.

Situating ourselves within differences seems to be a pretty universal pattern for the human experience, no? One subset of the social space in which this comes to light clearly is for instance the ‘checking each other out’ type of behaviour. You can’t really know instantly if someone is trustworthy so you are ‘filtering’ him through a social field. See how he behaves with others, how others relate to him and maybe tell you about him afterwards. The net of relative positioning needs to tighten before you have an idea of his personality.

We (have to) build compressed representations of things, people, knowledge, etc. as our inner model of it. How accurately this model maps the real thing can vary drastically, depending on the mind that builds the model. This is like data sense-making works… aggregate as much metadata as possible and then have that collapse in a set of entities and identities.

A certain degree of ‘objectifi-ability’ needs to be exhibited (by a person) to allow continuing the outside-in approach of having metadata (reactions, 3rd party opinions…) tighten the representation of identity.

What’s an ‘opinion’. It’s an output of your inner model. It’s a shortcut to be able to make decisions without knowing a full system. Very few system can be fully known. An opinion is kind of like a statistical prediction… but then there is the emotional part in it that can be bent so very easily depending on ones traumata, wishes, fears and so on.

What’s the solid ground laws are based on. Obviously a set of moral and ethical learnings from history that tell us how societies become/stay stable, economies prosper, a set of values like personal freedom are protected and so on…

The human experience: suspended in gradients without absolute ground, deploying strategies to tighten enough vectors into something solid that feels like a purpose and a meaning :)

the one rule to install in your world view

A world view of some sort is fundamental to every person. How sophisticated it might be and ones ability to express it – that’s a different story. In a very real way it’s the causal basis of a brain. It’s a physical structure. It’s a graph of vertices (neurons) and edges (synapses). It’s a particular way billions of neurons connect to each other.
What’s really uncomfortable is when this mental basis gets cracks, crumbles or falls apart entirely. In an emotionally safe environment, ideally provided by parents, kindergarten and school, children can form their world view with a lot less hassle than any changes on it cause if they happen later in life. That’s why world views beyond childhood are mostly of additive nature instead of recursively shaped when it comes to their core. Adding, some editing, some suppressing, but rarely fundamental changes. The “costs” are too high of such a deep restructuring.
From the point of system stability it makes sense if a world view is actually working to stabilize itself. The more solid a fundament the easier life decisions become. The ability to ignore dissonances here is not to be underestimated. That ability can outperform almost any other mode of brain operation apart from half-automated basic modes like survival instinct. A brain has to compare the costs of a change to the much cheaper costs of simply ignoring or bending the disturbance into the existing model. These costs can directly be derived from the fundamental (computational) operations one can perform on graphs. Navigating (reading) a graph is by far the cheapest operation, next comes adding, then deleting and finally editing as the operation with the most cycles required. Think about a simple graph and the steps required (the algorithm) for each operation and you’ll see.
Science works the opposite way. As soon as a you encounter an empirical contradiction of your model you are forced to change your model or throw it over board. No matter how attached you are to it. Notice that throwing over board doesn’t necessarily mean the theory is plain wrong, it might just mean you found a case that’s not covered by it and you are thereby invited to find a higher abstraction that encompasses all of the old model plus accounts for what contradicted the previous model. Measurements can’t lie, so all scientific measurements ever taken will always be true, it might (should) just be the case that our models to explain results evolve to more comprehensive ones.
Just imagine the following. Imagine a person that decides at some point of there life that truth is more important than how one feels about it. Just that simple insight. So so radical and so so rarely. Applied as a rule it means to enact the scientific method on ones own model of the world (again, we all have such a model). It means to adapt or change ones world view as soon as one encounters contradictions. It means to be especially careful to ones resonance or sympathy with any topic or opinion because it might just mean that ones world view is in the process if tightening in on itself… maybe just getting one step too comfortable. Imagine how unbearably exhausting this must be, practically ready at any moment to dump your core in favor of the search for the next more comprehensive iteration. The social pressure on such a person would be immense because social fields are always slow to adapt to fundamental character changes of their members, given they stay members. Yet, imagine what an immensely powerful instrument for truth-finding such a person would be. The starting point in terms of age, culture and class is arbitrary as long as that one rule is carved into “mental stone”. That being said of course a person living within a stable and rich infrastructure has to spend way less energy on worrying than a person worrying about how to avoid going to sleep hungry today. If basic needs are not covered it gets almost impossible for a brain to focus on anything else than the next step in surviving.
So if you can, by all means, do install this one rule in yourself and become a system capable of iterating it’s own operating system. It means leaving behind a lot of places of comfort, but you’ll be better off in the long run. Without the rule your world view just does what it’s architecture compels it to, become more dense and evermore resistant to fundamental change. A ship sailing onward on its self-created ocean, only possible to do so because the infrastructure is sophisticated enough to provide – independent of the quality of what’s in your brain. Of course you can find a group that supports your special kind of world view. A group of like minded validate themselves, that’s what they do. Social validation though is worth nothing compared to scientific validation. Worse, social validation can be very dangerous.

I should not finish this post without talking about myself, not doing it would be weird and dishonest after all of the above. I had a fundamental change of world view initiated in 2011, stable in the next iteration by 2012 and still noticing the ongoing reconfiguration. Very recently I was told something that I have to work to integrate if I want to follow THE rule. So a big chunk of my current model is now labelled as ‘ready for remodeling or phasing out’ and I am expecting this process to happen over the coming years. To be more specific is not in the scope of this post. It helps to write the above observations and thoughts as a way of pep talking myself :) I am not the imaginary person described above, yet I am striving to be it.
Notice that the thoughts expressed in this post are my own, though I would most likely not have them without the influence of Randall Lee Reetz.

providing infrastructure vs. using it

The other day I learned that here in the library at the Uni in Pilsen you can book really nice glass rooms for yourself or for student groups. Additionally you can get a projector and also a laptop should you need one, all free of charge. That’s quite cool and I found myself wanting to use it without knowing what to use it for! :) Which is a reaction I am sure I am not the only one having from time to time? It made me think about these two distinctly different (opposite?) modes of mental operations: providing, securing or enhancing infrastructure vs. just using it to create or do something.
Setting up the structure of a shared Dropbox folder really well, getting a membership card for something, paying an annual subscription… these kind of things I really enjoy sometimes and find myself in an almost obsessive mode of improving infrastructure for myself or others.

Ok, it’s actually ridiculously spoiled to call these things infrastructure as this term is usually used for bigger systems and networks like the water and energy supply network of a country, the roads, the railways, the health system, the educational system and so on. Of course the infrastructure I am referring to above is 100% depending on this big-I Infrastructure.

Let’s look at some synonyms. How about space, canvas or container for infrastructure? Creation or content is what happens within it and which is using and depending on it? And of course there is a blurry boundary between the two. In many cases creations turn into something to build on, that makes them an infrastructure again and so on.

An overly sophisticated infrastructure can certainly intimidate the creation that is supposed to happen with/in it. In a sense of: who am I to create something with all these amazing tools in these amazing spaces that I am provided with. On the other hand, obstacles in bad structures can turn into slingshots for things to crystallize.

What you see often is that companies offer structures and spaces where ‘anything’ is allowed to happen. But actually the space is by means of its very architecture bent towards certain hidden or outspoken goals of the providers. Or think of the interplay of space and creation in competitions companies might offer – often they are so carefully orchestrated by the marketing department that you just get the impression it doesn’t matter at all what kind of content is being created because by the frames it was pre-determined already very heavily and the following celebration with photo and quote of the winner is absolutely interchangeable and served only the purpose of publicity.

Look at this very post. The infrastructure is wordpress, my blog, my history with this blog, my mental outlet of writing here now and then… eventually all that is enabling me to write her. The content is this (little ordered) stream of thoughts poured into the format of a post. After publishing it becomes an actual ‘post’, somewhat objectified, some entity on its own to relate to… so part of the infrastructure of ‘previous posts’ that i’ll be building on with the next one, somehow.

the neuronal activity of your audience

Imagine a classroom where students are hooked up to a system tracking their neuronal activity. This system is able to accurately detect the specific moments when a student looses the connection to what the lecturer is teaching – in a sense of no longer being able to follow because of a lack of understanding, mental overload or any other reason. These moments of disconnection are visible either only for the lecturer or also for all on a dashboard. However, strictly anonymized. It should not be possible to know or even to guess who or which group of people just lost connection. I have no idea if this would technically and especially algorithmically be possible (yet). So as a “backup-scenario” let’s think of a more active setup where students have to press some sort of tiny hidden button to anonymously signalize when they don’t get something.
The point is to have a mechanism where moments of disconnections can surface without any social patterns (too shy and showing off would be too extremes of such patterns) overlaying.
I would imagine this could be extremely annoying for a lecturer because all the time people drop off (and might or might not get back on track without asking questions). But as challenging it might be, the task would be to stop immediately and explain again, explain differently, use other analogies, give examples etc. as long as it takes to keep on going forward with all green lights. Of course confident strategies on the side of the lecturer might emerge where a few red lights are accepted in the belief that they would naturally be collected back onto the boat a little later in the flow of the lecture…
A stoic continuous inquiry into the best approach to explain something would be the resulting attitude I would hope this stimulates in lecturers once they are over the part of being annoyed about constant interruption though red lights. Also I would think very careful attention will have to be given to thematic bridges, jumps or shortcuts of any sorts. It becomes obvious when things that made complete unquestioned sense in the lecturers mind don’t resonate with the students….
I don’t necessarily post this scenario as a criticism of lecturers, rather as a potential tool to help any kind of educator, communicator, or indeed anyone who intends to explain something to someone else, to become more sensitive to the neuronal activity within their audience :)

Erasmus Mundus Joint Programmes

Usually I don’t “advertise” on my blog – but I think the “Erasmus Mundus Joint Programmes” deserve more attention than they seem to get, especially among you people who are thinking about a next step after their Bachelor. I just recently learned that this exists and I find it really worth looking into and know about. Each of the Masters and PhDs is a collaboration between universities, so every semester one gets to study in a different country. I definitely want to do one of the Masters… at this point I am between “Computational Logic” and “Data Mining and Knowledge Management”.

Since the sites from the European Commission (see here the list of Masters and here the list of PhDs) don’t show the countries next to the programme and don’t let you filter beyond category, I coded a little site to fix this shortcoming. I hope it will be useful for some people:

different ways of not caring about data privacy

Yet another big data post after yet another big data lecture I went to…
It wasn’t the first time that I heard someone (it wasn’t the lecturer) mentioning ‘our teenagers’ (= grew up with smartphones) and ‘Americans in general’ versus everything older than teenagers in Germany/Europe (= the data-protective ones) when attempting to contrast different attitudes towards privacy and data collection. Only this time I found myself bored by this particular demographic category-merger to a degree that I started wondering about it. Note that in the following I intentionally won’t position myself or give judgement in any direction.

As always with talk about contrasting categories this is bumpy stereotype-landscape with various traps and a high likelihood to be unfair to the margin-folks. Nevertheless, those irritations of the data-protective ones regarding the lack of privacy-sensitivity of the other party can certainly be widely experienced. Both from this side of the ocean to the other, as well as from the upper side of the generational spectrum to the lower one – and of course the same irritations exist into the other directions respectively.

Let’s look at those feelings one might get being faced with potentially violated privacy through massive data collection from various governmental and corporate entities; loss of control, someone else knows more about me than myself, my secrets are exposed, I could be blackmailed with secrets others shouldn’t know, I am just a data-point in the masses and they’ll squeeze me for the marketing-juice to manipulate me in wanting something, anger about the dream of global interconnectedness turning into a profit-machine, they’ll steal from our companies and therefore we’ll lose the leading edge… something like that?

Ok, but instead of focusing on the different ways of ‘caring’ (being sensitive about privacy) I’d like to look at the different kinds of not caring instead, which I think are of very different nature even so they may appear the same.

From the few times I have been in the US plus ‘remote-impressions’ I assume not to be totally off by assessing that the freedom of the individual is pronounced to a degree that it looks something like this in many (most definitely not in all) minds: “F**k this, my lifestyle comes first and devil-may-care. I do have this personality, this views and preferences and I don’t mind anyone knowing that. And if you make fun of me I either sue you or have a good laugh with you, but I will not change anything I like or believe in no matter what happens – I’d rather slam you with my personality all day long!”. To put it ‘positively”; the core of the character of such individuals is ‘extremely solid’. Additionally there must be a strong sense of ‘our government has to protect us’, which is made sure to be reaffirmed from various angles by multipliers. I can only imagine the intense shock waves that 9/11 must have sent through society, allowing for any and all measurements to be taken to ensure this from never happening again. From this perspective (‘super-solid devil-may-care personalities’ plus ‘anything to protect our country’) it makes sense that someone under those influences won’t be bothered much, if at all, by being absorbed into a gigantic data-sphere at any given opportunity, no?

Europeans (yeah, categories…) on the other hand can of course also have ‘extremely solid’ personalities, but the sense of being rooted in history is understandably much stronger, which might just contribute to some humbleness – and the cultural codes are mostly suggesting some amount of reservation when it comes to conveying what you are all about.

So… but what’s with the teenagers? My impression is, that the influence of a parent-generation that has finally gotten rid of war-traumata, of omnipresent freedom of choice, of video games etc. has bred personalities (among many lost, hurt and broken ones of course) that ‘don’t take themselves so seriously’. Now, that term is easily said… but it actually has a lot of weight! Patchwork, curricula vitae, cultural inheritance and influence are all getting increasingly colourful – if you don’t like what you are, then you’ll change it. You can shape the story of your (1st world country -) life as easy as you can navigate through a video game (exaggerated). It’s ok to use dating sites to find a match, it’s just too many people to “go through manually”, the quantification and shaping of my profile is an easy exercise. At this point I can’t help but mentioning 9gag (and sites like spleen24) – an aggregator for memes and funny pictures – it might have deserved its own post but it fits nicely in here. While it would be easy to put this aside as a waste of time I find it very interesting to observe the hidden shaping and amplification of attitudes by means of funny pictures. I’d say the community there is a mirror of a set of ethics and morals that you’d consider modern and leading edge in many ways – that includes also making fun of this very set in irritating and offending ways if you are not used to it. And of course there is lots of BS on it that doesn’t fit at all under the noble subtext that I just granted it. Nevertheless I’d claim that there is actually a lot of conveying going on of modern values. The dirty giggles you have from some nasty post about something you would only talk about when being extremely drunk, those are at the same time legitimizing the unspoken a little bit more and show you that others have similar awkward quirks. When you turn your smartphone to your buddy to share the giggle you allowed that unspoken to be listed as ‘things we giggled together about and may refer to from now on’ in your relationship book. So without labelling (or knowing?) it that way I am tempted to see sites like 9gag as a self-educational (“standardization of morals”?) tool for the (mostly young) masses ‘on the Internet’ (besides being addictive time dumps). Anyway, all of this to say that I think when teenagers express their lack of concern about privacy-issues it is because they are not as afraid of being exposed to secret forces and manipulated as are the generations above them. Personalized advertisement? That’s great, helps me navigating in the ocean of choices. Targeted ads? Ok cool, let’s see if this is convincing enough to get me to buy that stuff – otherwise I’ll just unlike that page. Data farms storing s**t about me that I don’t even know myself? Ok whatever, that’s their waste of storage, not my problem. Data aggregators compiling a sophisticated psychological profile of me? Neat, can I see that? Maybe it helps me design my next elegant turn in my handcrafted resume… ok, I’ll better stop before the burlesque takes over.

So to summarize; even so the different kinds of not caring about data privacy may appear the same, I suggest they are of almost opposite nature. Let us now let go of ‘Americans’ and ‘teenagers’ and generalize; on the one side you have very rigid devil-may-care personalities that don’t mind being tracked because they think it wouldn’t change anything anyway regarding their lifestyle that is carved into stone. And on the other side you have very flexible personalities that are not afraid to have their secrets exposed or to take touchpoints with data-synthesis-results as stimulus/provocation to outgrow that old (data) model of themselves…

analytically informed automated actions… but WHAT?

Recently I attended a lecture by Yvonne Hofstetter where she talks about three stages of data fusion (= what can be “done” with big data); the aggregation and storage (1), the analysis (2) and finally the automated action informed by the analysis (3). Without going any further in her view of things I’d like to use this trisection going forward.

It seems rather obvious from the public debate that “we” have hardly the slightest idea of what’s going on behind the curtains of gigantic data centers when ridiculously sophisticated algorithms take the data of millions or billions of users between their teeth and crunch them to bits and pieces (some nice drama in that sentence). We only know that stage 1 is indeed happening on grand scale and we safely assume that stage 2 is going on… but what kind of analysis and what kind of “stage 3 actions” are being done, could be done or will be done? So damn clueless we are. Ok, there is “personalized advertisement”; Gmail delights you with ads matching words in a thread and Amazon shows you stuff you might be interested in (or stuff you JUST bought and therefore want to buy again right away?? wtf!) through its myriads of shopwindows (= ad-spots on other sites). We see tag clouds (word frequency analysis) of hashtagged twitter-conversations, topic-mood mappings of the latter as a result of scanning tweets for emotions and we hear about impressive (or irritating) successes of predicting pregnancy or sickness based on online traces before that person notices it themselves.

But WHAT ELSE for Christ’s sake? Given the endless stream of investments and power (electrical and political, hah) flowing into that sector, those can only be the low hanging fruits, no?
I don’t pretend to know anything substantial on this matter myself at this point. That’s why I think it would be a great idea to find out together (what a motivating, inclusive and positive way to put it, isn’t it). In previous posts I mentioned the notion “show me what you can do with my data” as a (educational) strategy to raise awareness among citizens. Now I’d like to put some meat on this notion.

So – how about a forum/wiki/stackoverflow-thingy that gathers scenarios and possibilities around “stage 3 analytically informed actions” in a robust, scientific and fact-checked way (meaning no blossoming of conspiracy-theories for the emotionally hurt among us). Anyone could post questions and scenarios, but they are likely to bubble up in the charts only when they get the stamp of being “expert”-approved (that status could be gained through a trust earning mechanism like on stackoverflow) for technical correctness.
And THEN I’d suggest to actually execute one/some of them in a controlled fashion! Maybe just once, maybe a yearly voting that concludes with the execution of a scenario. Maybe with data that was collected semi-legal or fully legal through participants that signed up for it in a “donate (parts of) your personal data for the cause” kind of way.

For instance I might agree to have my social activity and my geo-information being tracked a month prior to “showdown”. That showdown could the be a scenario for instance where sudden little deviations from a daily route are suggested to thousands of users at once with the purpose of bringing as many potential new couples (the matching of which was determined by personality and social analysis) together by having them mysteriously meet at locations where they were automatically being directed towards.
Ok, that is a rather romantic, respectively big-brother-fanning idea and not nearly accounting for the potential of stage 3 automation. But as I said I am short of stage3-imagination myself… and well, this might be a fun start of the annual data automation tournament :)

I think if broadcasted and executed well it (not necessarily the strange example above) could have a big impact in terms of enriching the so called “public debate” on the matter of “big data” – people would finally have realistic fuel for their imagination instead of being pushed around by everything between idealized pro-marketing and hysteric contra-paranoia.

I would prefer seeing such mass-educational/explorative measures being taken by governmental organizations. Either by a national organization like the “German Office for Information Security, BSI”, the “National Cyberdefence Centre, NCAZ” or by an EU organizations like the “European Cybercrime Centre, EC3″ (I doubt the US would currently have the credibility to host such activities). But if not government, than grassroots; Anonymous, the Chaos Computer Club…?

Tabs i currently have open on that topic: