When digital maps are wrong

If maps help us make spatial and social sense of our places and world, what happens when they are wrong?

Another factor in the paper versus digital debate is accuracy. Obviously, a good digital map is better than a bad paper map, just like a good paper map is better than a bad digital map.

Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good, but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.

For example, a 2012 survey by the crowdsourcing company Crowdflower found that Google Maps accurately located 89 percent of businesses, while Apple Maps correctly found 74 percent. This isn’t surprising, as Google invests millions in sending people around the world to map terrain for Google StreetView. Google Maps are good because the company invests time, money, and human effort in making its maps good—not because digital maps are inherently better…

In my view, it’s easier to forgive the errors in a paper map. Physical maps usually include an easily visible publication date so users can see when the map was published. (When was the last time you noticed the date-of-last-update on your car navigation system?) When you are passively following the spoken GPS directions of a navigation system, and there is, say, an unmarked exit, it confuses the GPS system and causes chaos among the people in the car. (Especially the backseat drivers.)

The general argument of this piece (and the larger book) appears to be that we should not become too reliant on digital sources of information. We tend to think that digital sources of information are inherently more correct or less prone to error. So, if the digital map is wrong, we might be very surprised.

I recently thought of this myself as we purchased a vehicle with a built-in navigation system. When going through the options in the map menus, I noticed the map had a date from several years ago. When at the dealer a few weeks back, I noticed they had a sign up explaining how to update the maps. I hope to do that soon.

On the other hand, the advantage of digital systems is that our brains can offload some of the work of navigating or understanding a place by relying on a digital map or navigation system. We make use of distributed cognition in many ways, including through the use of paper maps.

Of course, upping and maintaining the accuracy of digital maps is an ongoing task and there is much at risk. All systems have the risk of failure and perhaps the biggest issue here is that we do not assume the digital map is always right.

Americans fearful of driverless cars

Recent surveys suggest a majority of Americans don’t want to hand over their steering wheels yet:

Autonomous autos are advancing so rapidly that companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are beginning to offer robot rides to everyday consumers. But it turns out the traveling public may not be ready. A recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that more than three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car. And it’s not just Baby Boomers growing increasingly fearful of giving up the wheel to a computer, a J.D. Power study shows — it’s almost every generation.

Consumers will only become comfortable with driverless cars after they ride in them, Mary Barra, the chief executive officer of General Motors Co., said this week. The largest U.S. automaker is testing 180 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts and ultimately plans to put them in ride-hailing fleets, though it won’t say when…

Dangerous as it may be to operate cars themselves, many drivers are anxious about autonomous technology because they associate it with the fragility of electronic devices. Laptops crash and calls drop with nagging regularity. The consequence of a computerized car crash is much greater.

Americans tend to like technology: we like progress and new and exciting options. Is the fear related to safety or also connected to how Americans view driving (despite all the hours spent commuting and stuck in traffic, Americans like the freedom it offers)?

I’m guessing this fear will drop within a few years as stories of mishaps become normal (and even the occasional mishap would be safer in the long run compared to the tens of thousands of Americans killed each year in vehicles) and the technology improves. Could we also imagine a scenario where governments impose self-driving vehicles because of their improved safety?

Sociologist on the three social pillars of science

Science has its own social context and goals:

Fuller has also written a lot about science and technology studies, or STS. Flipping through his 2006 book The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies, I came upon a passage–adapted from a 1998 essay—that defends the critical stance that STS scholars often take toward science. The passage reads like a comment on my recent column:

“There appears to be nothing uniquely ‘rational,’ objective,’ or ‘truth-oriented’ about the activities that our society calls ‘scientific.’ Make no mistake: it is not that scientists are less rational than the rest of humanity; rather, they are not more rational. STS researchers generally credit ordinary people with a good deal of intelligence.

“The power of science seems to rest on three pillars. One is science’s distinctive social organization, which enables concentrated periods of both teamwork and criticism, nowadays done on a global scale with considerable material resources. Another is concerted political effort to apply the results of scientific research to all aspects of society. Finally is the control that scientists continue to exert over how their history is told. Past diversions and failures remain largely hidden, resulting in an airbrushed picture of ‘progress’ otherwise absent from human affairs.

Especially in today’s world, we could use more sociology of science. Without some questioning, science tends to get a free ride in American society as one of the key promoters or carriers of progress. Yet, science is still a social enterprise and works with its own set of assumptions.

One question: where can you have reasonable discussions about science (natural and social) and its assumptions and findings?

Singapore, other countries, looking to tackle smartphone addiction

Here is a quick overview of concerns about smartphone addiction in Singapore, East Asia, and the United States:

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem.

Singapore and Hong Kong top an Asia-Pacific region that boasts some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates, according to a 2013 report by media monitoring firm Nielsen.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-singapore-grapples-smartphone-addiction.html#jCp

Psychiatrists in Singapore are pushing for medical authorities to formally recognise addiction to the Internet and digital devices as a disorder, joining other countries around the world in addressing a growing problem…

In the United States, where there are similar concerns about the impact of smartphones on society, a 65 percent penetration rate would not even make the top five in Asia Pacific…

In terms of physical symptoms, more people are reporting “text neck” or “iNeck” pain, according to Tan Kian Hian, a consultant at the anaesthesiology department of Singapore General Hospital…

In South Korea, a government survey in 2013 estimated that nearly 20 percent of teenagers were addicted to smartphones…

A group of undergraduates from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University launched a campaign late last year encouraging the public to put their smartphones in a face-down position when they are with loved ones.

A fascinating topic to watch moving forward with two separate pieces:

1. All technological innovations invite praise and criticism but, of course, it takes some time to observe and think through the long-term effects. In today’s world, we tend to be on the acceptance side of new technology, viewing it as helpful progress that we would be silly to not use to our advantage.

2. This opens up new areas for conversations about addiction. What exactly constitutes smartphone addiction? What happens if large chunks of society are addicted to smartphones? How should it be treated?

My quick guess is that this won’t lead to many fruitful conversations about technology – we’re quite gung-ho at this point – but there will likely be a variety of approaches to smartphone addiction that could vary quite a bit by country and in effectiveness.

Beyond technological advances: “50 Social Innovations that Changed the World”

After reading The Atlantic‘s recent list of the 50 greatest inventions, one reader sends in a list of the most important social innovations. Here is the top 10 – in chronological order:

50 Social innovations that changed the world more or less in chronological order.  Rank order in top 10 shown in [ ]

1. Irrigation that
2. created a structured bureaucracy, land measurement and administration in Egypt and Mesopotamia
3. mathematics [3]
4. creation of nations as workable structures
5. empires based  on bureaucracy and military discipline
6. writing, instructions could be sent over distance – Incas used knots [1]
7. written rules and laws – the lawyers and courts as independent
8. alphabet [11]
9. agriculture and and animal husbandry skills that could be recorder and spread
10. history as peoples myths and lessons…

One could argue that these social skills made other technologies possible. It provided a social infrastructure. Imagine trying to large social groups without bureaucracy. While it often gets a bad name today, you couldn’t have the Roman army or city-states or the modern welfare state without bureaucracy.

I’m a little surprised that language isn’t included here – writing makes it but perhaps language predates the beginning of this list. It is also intriguing that economics and political science make the end of the list – perhaps this betrays the opinions of the author but few other academic disciplines make the list.

Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

“Sociological experiment” with children using mobile devices

An Australian psychologist suggests we don’t quite know what will happen with lots of young children now using tablets and other electronics:

Research indicates that almost half of all toddlers up to two years old have played with a mobile device. It also reveals that 15 per cent of that group can also operate a home entertainment system. That rises to 31 per cent of three- to five-year-olds and a third of six- to eight-year-olds.

The study of 750 adults across Australia who have an internet connection included questions about how children interact with technology and was conducted by media intelligence firm Magna Global.

Most frequently used were iPads (27 per cent for three- to five-year-olds and 43 per cent for six- to eight-year-olds) followed by Wi-Fi-enabled laptops (21 per cent for three- to five-year-olds and 38 per cent for six- to eight-years-olds)…

Jordy Kaufman, a child psychologist and founder of the Swinburne BabyLab, has studied how children interact with devices. ”Given the massive uptake of mobile device use by young kids, we can be said to be engaged in a grand sociological experiment where no one knows what the results will be,” he said.

But he cautions that just because we do not know the outcome, that does not mean the use of devices is negative. There are opportunities for learning from iPads that did not exist before, Dr Kaufman said.

I suppose there are three possible reactions to the situation. Go all in and see the use of mobile electronics as simply part of the progress of the modern world. Americans tend to like progress and new opportunities and these devices certainly fulfill these two requirements. This full usage may occur even with evidence that they don’t contribute much to learning. The opposite reaction is to not allow children access to such devices. To some degree, this is helped by the fact that such devices are not yet completely ubiquitous. But, some may want to wait and see how children respond to mobile devices. And, there is some middle ground where children could use new electronics in moderation alongside more “traditional” activities.

It sounds like we need some sort of randomized experiment to help figure this out. But, we are getting close to a time where it would be really difficult to pull this off.

Argument: many Chicago suburbs have boring mottos

The Daily Herald suggests a number of Chicago suburbs have dull mottos that don’t say much about the communities:

Town mottos are like nicknames in that the best ones, such as “City of Big Shoulders” for Chicago, are bestowed by others and not self-proclaimed, such as “Urbus en Horto” (“City in a Garden”) for Chicago. At least there is a story behind Des Plaines’ destiny. Most suburbs adopt bland, easily forgotten mottos that tout development or vague hopes for the future, such as Schaumburg’s “Progress Through Thoughtful Planning,” Bloomingdale’s “Growth With Pride,” or Bolingbrook’s “A Place to Grow.”

Wauconda’s “Water. Spirit. Wonder.” is unique but might sound a little cold compared to neighboring Island Lake, which is “A Community of Friendly People” who settled there instead of in Huntley, “The Friendly Village with Country Charm.”

Hanover Park opts for “One Village — One Future.” It doesn’t say much, but no one can argue with the math. No one should quibble about Elgin’s “The City in the Suburbs.” But Naperville’s “Great Service — All the Time,” also a favorite motto of pizzerias, might fuel discussions. One Wikipedia entry falsely touts Libertyville’s motto as the impressive “Fortitudine Vincimus,” Latin for “By Endurance We Conquer,” which basically means “We Will Win By Hanging Around Until Everybody Else Quits.” But Libertyville never used that motto and currently sports only the phrase “Spirit of Independence” on its red-white-and-blue logo…

Lombard, “The Lilac Village,” still boasts a motto that brings to mind something pretty and fragrant. Roselle hosts a rose parade and includes roses in its village seal, but it uses the motto “Tradition Meets Tomorrow,” which is pretty similar to the “Where Tradition and Vision Meet” motto of Batavia. (Given Batavia’s link to the high-energy physics of Fermilab, it might consider the motto “Village of Density.”)

These mottos sound like classic talk from city boosters: they tend to contain grand visions about the future without getting into too many specifics or highlight a small part of the community’s character. I think they are primarily about trying to impress businesses, trying to attract them to relocate in a place that is thriving and will continue to thrive.

Unfortunately, when all the mottos sound similar, they all don’t mean a whole lot. How does a business really differentiate between communities based on their mottos? The biggest issue for a suburb might be having a motto that is significantly different. This might lead people to ask why that community is so out of line.

Critics of suburbs might see these mottos as more evidence of the homogeneity or blandness of suburbs. Many communities seem to be striving after the same things. Yet, we know that suburbs are actually quite different, whether that is due to different functions (like comparing a bedroom suburb and an edge city) or different histories (date of founding, specific historical circumstances) or a unique set of self-perception (like suburbs that view themselves as extra friendly or full of volunteers). So perhaps more suburbs should work to differentiate themselves in their mottos, move away from bland American notions of progress, and more explicitly highlight their more unique features.

When scientific papers are redacted, how does it impede the progress of science?

An article about a recent controversial paper published in Nature includes a summary of how many scientific papers were redacted or the result of fraud since 1975:

In the meantime, the paper has been cited 11 times by other published papers building on the findings.

It may be impossible for anyone from outside to know the extent of the problems in the Nature paper. But the incident comes amid a phenomenon that some call a “retraction epidemic.”

Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.

The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.

“You have a lot of people who want to do the right thing, but they get in a position where their job is on the line or their funding will get cut, and they need to get a paper published,” said Ferric C. Fang, one of the authors of the analysis and a medical professor at the University of Washington. “Then they have this tempting thought: If only the data points would line up .?.?.?”

Fang said retractions may be rising because it is simply easier to cheat in an era of digital images, which can be easily manipulated. But he said the increase is caused at least in part by the growing competition for publication and for NIH grant money.

There are two consequences of this commonly discussed in the media. One is the price for taxpayers who fund some of the big money scientific and medical research through federal grants. Second is the credibility of science itself.

But, I think there is a third issue that is perhaps even more important. What does this say about what we actually know about the world? In other worlds, how many subsequent papers are built on the fraudulent or redacted work? Science often works in a chain or pyramid; later work builds on earlier findings, particularly ones published in more prestigious journals. So when a paper is questioned, like the piece in Nature, it isn’t just about the nature of that one paper. It is also about the 11 papers that have already cited it.

So what does this mean for what we actually know? How much does a redacted piece set back science? Or, do researchers hardly even notice? I suspect many of these redacted papers don’t slow down things too much but there is always the potential that a redacted paper could pull the rug out of important findings.

h/t Instapundit

Cardinal George on secularization: it is harder for people to have faith today

Chicago Cardinal Francis George makes a secularization argument by suggesting it is more difficult for people today to have faith:

Cardinal George acknowledged the pope is concerned about faith, and added that all the cardinals are concerned as well. This will be utmost in their minds when they deliberate in Rome…

“The larger question: Is there now such a sea change in Western culture that people can’t believe; that they aren’t open to belief?” he asked. “That therefore you have to be your own god in a way. ‘You have to do just what you want to do in the way that you want to do it. You have to follow your own dream.’

“Well, it’s important to follow God’s dream.

“So we could say maybe (some) people have lost the gift of faith because we’ve created a society where people can’t believe. It’s impossible — well, not impossible, never impossible, but very difficult — to believe because it goes against the grain to say, ‘I surrender my life.’ Maybe it’s why marriage is in such difficulty because when you’re married that’s what you do. You surrender your life to a woman or a man, a husband, a wife. Well, faith means you surrender your life to God.”

George is suggesting social conditions, “we’ve created a society,” make it more difficult to have faith. He doesn’t suggest exactly why this is. Sociologists and others have made arguments over the years for why this has happened: new technologies, demonstrable progress as well as believing in its capabilities, new ways of thinking (from the Enlightenment on) that favor reason and science, the development of the welfare state that takes care of basic human needs, two world wars, and more.

It would be interesting to hear how the Catholic cardinals discuss this topic as they pick a new pope. On one hand, there are over 1 billion Catholics in the world. On the other hand, Catholics and other Christians have been challenged for decades on the relevance of faith and what position it should play in civil society.