JD Ferries-Rowe. Head Geek at Brebeuf Jesuit. BYOT, Social Media, edtech. also debate, comics,and Jesuit Stuff. married w/kids.
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I’m a free speech champion. I don’t even know what that means anymore

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The president of the United States is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. He also can’t post to Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a bunch of other social networks as we discovered over the course of the past week (He still has access to the nuclear launch codes though, so that’s an interesting dynamic to chew on).

The bans last week were exceptional — but so is Trump. There may not be another president this century who pushes the line of public discourse quite like the current occupant of the White House (at least, one can only hope). If the whole Trump crisis was truly exceptional though, it could simply be ignored. Rules, even rules around free speech, have always had exceptions to handle exceptional circumstances. The president provokes a violent protest, he gets banned. A unique moment in American executive leadership, for sure. Yet, apart from the actor, it’s hardly an unusual response from the tech industry or any publisher where violent threats have been banned for decades under Supreme Court precedent.

Why then aren’t we ignoring it? I think we can all feel that something greater is underfoot. The entire information architecture of our world has changed, and that has completely upended the structure of rules around free speech that have governed America in the modern era.

Freedom of speech is deeply entwined with human progressivism, with science and rationality and positivism. The purpose of a marketplace of ideas is for arguments to be in dialogue with each other, to have their own facts and deductions checked, and for bad ideas to be washed out by better, more proven ones. Contentious at times yes, but a positive contention, one that ultimately is meant to elucidate more than provoke.

I’m a free speech “absolutist” because I believe in that human progress, and I believe that the concept of a marketplace of ideas is the best mechanism historically we have ever built as a species for exploring our world and introspecting ourselves. Yet, I also can’t witness the events that transpired last week and just pretend that our information commons is working well.

I get it — that seems contradictory. I understand the argument that I’m supporting free speech but not really supporting it. Yet, there is a reasonable pause to be taken in this moment to ask some deeper, more foundational questions, for something is wrong with the system. I’m struggling with the same context that the ACLU in its official statement is struggling with:

It’s a milquetoast response, a “we condemn but we are also concerned” sort of lukewarm mélange. It’s also a reasonable response to a rapidly changing environment around speech. In the same vein, I’m a staunch defender of the marketplace of ideas, well, a marketplace of ideas, one that unfortunately no longer exists today. Just think about everything that isn’t working:

  • There’s too much information, and it’s impossible for any reasonable human to process it all
  • Much of that flood is garbage and outright fraud, or worse, brilliant pieces of psychological propaganda designed to distract and undermine the very information system it is distributed on
  • We’ve never allowed so many people to gain access to the public square to distribute their missives, drivel and invective with such limited constraints
  • Few ideas are in dialogue anymore. Collegiality is mostly dead, as is constructivist thought. There is no marketplace anymore since the “stores” are no longer in the same public squares but in each of our own individual feeds
  • Coercive incentives from a handful of dominant, monopoly platforms drive wildly damaging communication practices, encouraging the proverbial “clickbait” over any form of careful discussion or debate
  • The vast majority of people seem to love this, given the extremely high user engagement numbers seen on tech platforms

We’ve known this event was coming for decades. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about the inability of humans to process the complexity of the modern, industrialized world, came out in 1970. Cyberpunk literature and sci-fi more generally in the 1980s and 1990s has extensively grappled with this coming onslaught. As the internet expanded rapidly, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows interrogated how the internet prevents us from thinking deeply. It was published a decade ago. Today, in your local bookstore (assuming you still have one and can actually still read texts longer than 1,000 words), you can find a whole wing analyzing the future of media and communications and what the internet is cognitively doing to us.

My absolute belief in “free speech” was predicated on some pretty clear assumptions about how free speech was supposed to work in the United States. Those assumptions, unfortunately, no longer apply.

We can no longer assume that there is a proverbial public square where citizens debate, perhaps even angrily, the issues that confront them. We can no longer assume that information dreck gets filtered by editors, or by publishers, or by readers themselves. We can no longer assume that the people who reach us with their messages are somewhat vetted, and speaking from truth or facts.

We can no longer assume that any part of the marketplace is frankly working at all.

That’s what makes this era so challenging for those of us who rely every day on the right to free speech in our work and in our lives. Without those underlying assumptions, the right to free speech isn’t the bastion of human progressivism and rationality that we expect it to be. Our information commons won’t ensure that the best and highest-quality ideas are going to rise to the top and propel our collective discussion.

I truly believe in free speech in its extensive, American sense. So do many friends who are similarly concerned for the perilous state of our marketplace of ideas. Yet, we all need to confront the reality that is before us: the system is really, truly broken and just screaming “Free Speech!” is not going to change that.

The way forward is to pivot the conversation around free speech to a broader question about how we improve the information architecture of our world. How do we ensure that creators and the people who generate ideas and analyze them can do so with the right economics? That means empowering writers and filmmakers and novelists and researchers and everyone else to be able to do quality work, over perhaps extended periods of time, without having to upload a new photo or insight every ten minutes to stay “top of mind” lest their income tumbles.

How can we align incentives at every layer of our communications to ensure that facts and “truth” will eventually win the day in the asymptote, if not always right away? How do you ensure that the power that comes with mass distribution of information is held by those who embody at least some notion of a public duty to accuracy and reasonableness?

Most importantly, how do we improve the ability of every reader and viewer to process the information they see, and through their independent actions drive the discussion toward rationality? No marketplace can survive without smart and diligent customers, and the market for information is no exception. If people demand lies, the world is going to supply it to them, and in spades as we have already seen.

Tech can’t solve this alone, but it absolutely can and is obligated to be part of the solution. Platform alternatives with the right incentives in place can completely change the way humanity understands our world and what is happening. That’s an extremely important and intellectually interesting problem that should be enticing to any ambitious engineer and founder to tackle.

I’ll always defend free speech, but I can’t defend the system in the state that we see it today. The only defense then is to work to rebuild this system, to buttress the components that are continuing to work and to repair or replace the ones that aren’t. I don’t believe the descent into rational hell has to be paved by misinformation. We all have the tools and power to make this system what it needs to be — what it should be.

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1281 days ago
one of the best takes i have read so far along the lines of the "marketplace of ideas corrupted" line of thought i have had the last few years.
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Students, Parents Figure Out School Is Using AI To Grade Exams And Immediately Game The System

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With the COVID-19 pandemic still working its way through the United States and many other countries, we've finally arrived at the episode of this apocalypse drama where school has resumed (or will be shortly) for our kids. It seems that one useful outcome of the pandemic, if we're looking for some kind of silver lining, is that it has put on full display just how inept we are as a nation in so many ways. Federal responses, personal behavior, our medical system, and our financial system are all basically getting failing grades at every turn.

Speaking of grades, schools that are now trying to suddenly pull off remote learning for kids are relying on technology to do so. Unfortunately, here too we see that we simply weren't prepared for this kind of thing. Aside from all of the other complaints you've probably heard or uttered yourselves -- internet connections are too shitty for all of this, teachers aren't properly trained for distance learning, the technology being handed out by schools mostly sucks -- we can also add to that unfortunate attempts by school districts to get AI to grade exams.

This story begins with a parent seeing her 12 year old son, Lazare Simmons, fail a virtual exam. Taking an active role, Dana Simmons went on to watch her son complete more tests and assignments using the remote learning platform the school had set students up on, Edgenuity. While watching, it became quickly apparent how the platform was performing its scoring function.

She looked at the correct answers, which Edgenuity revealed at the end. She surmised that Edgenuity’s AI was scanning for specific keywords that it expected to see in students’ answers. And she decided to game it. Now, for every short-answer question, Lazare writes two long sentences followed by a disjointed list of keywords — anything that seems relevant to the question. “The questions are things like... ‘What was the advantage of Constantinople’s location for the power of the Byzantine empire,’” Simmons says. “So you go through, okay, what are the possible keywords that are associated with this? Wealth, caravan, ship, India, China, Middle East, he just threw all of those words in.”

“I wanted to game it because I felt like it was an easy way to get a good grade,” Lazare told The Verge. He usually digs the keywords out of the article or video the question is based on.

And Lazare appears to have been right, as he now gets perfect scores on all of his tests. This is obviously both lazy teaching and lazy technology. Relying on software to grade tests that are essentially short-form essay tests, as opposed to multiple-choice Scantron style tests, make zero sense. Human grading is needed.

But the technology is quite lazy as well. How can a platform that is grading exams of this nature not build in a check against proper grammar, for instance? The fact that a student can simply toss in a bunch of disjointed words at the end of an answer, like some kind of keyword metadata, and get away with it is crazy. Especially when Edgenuity informs everyone that it's supposed to work this way.

According to the website, answers to certain questions receive 0% if they include no keywords, and 100% if they include at least one. Other questions earn a certain percentage based on the number of keywords included.

Whatever that is, it sure as hell isn't good education. And while testing practices in education are generally under scrutiny wholesale at the moment, there is little reason to issue tests at all if everyone involved is going to be this lazy about it.

And, to be clear, this is happening all over the place, with students finding more than one way to game the system.

More than 20,000 schools currently use the platform, according to the company’s website, including 20 of the country’s 25 largest school districts, and two students from different high schools to Lazare told me they found a similar way to cheat. They often copy the text of their questions and paste it into the answer field, assuming it’s likely to contain the relevant keywords. One told me they used the trick all throughout last semester and received full credit “pretty much every time.”

Another high school student, who used Edgenuity a few years ago, said he would sometimes try submitting batches of words related to the questions “only when I was completely clueless.” The method worked “more often than not.”

I think it's fair to say that Edgenuity probably doesn't get a passing grade for its platform, now widely used thanks to COVID-19.

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1409 days ago
This is not what we teach our #digcit kids to think of as AI, nor our teachers to call #edtech
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Trump says he may 'get involved' in case of Navy captain removed from duty

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President Donald Trump said Monday that he may "get involved" in the case of Navy captain removed from the command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

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1561 days ago
Oooooohhhhh I'm gonna dance a little sidestep...
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On Census, Facebook And Instagram To Ban Disinformation And False Ads

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in October. Under pressure from lawmakers and civil rights groups, the company has updated its policies to address census interference.

Under pressure to prepare for 2020 census interference, Facebook says content misrepresenting who can participate and the data the government collects will be banned from its social media platforms.

(Image credit: Andrew Harnik/AP)

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1670 days ago
good article for reflection in #digcit and #newsliteracy about attempts to handle false information across platforms
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Why are so few Nobel Prizes awarded to women?

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The 2019 Science Nobel award winners are out. Where are the women?

The Highlight by Vox logo

Humor, political cartoons, and graphic journalism from The Highlight, Vox’s home for features and longform journalism.

The Nobel organization has not responded publicly to this study, and did not reply to requests for comment.


Lunnemann, P., Jensen, M.H. & Jauffred, L. Gender bias in Nobel prizes. Palgrave Commun 5, 46 (2019).

Guterman, Lila. “Statistically speaking, 2019 Nobel Prize lineup of 11 men and one woman was bound to happen.” Science Magazine, October 2019.

Nobel Prize lists

Matthew R. Francis is a physicist and science writer. He has written over 300 articles and comics about science for more than 30 publications, including The Nib, Popular Science, Slate, The Daily Beast, and Ars Technica.

Maki Naro is an award-winning cartoonist, illustrator, and science communicator. He is the author of seven self-published comic books spanning topics from historical comedies to the importance of vaccination.

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1679 days ago
an interesting read and a good way to address the complex issue of a systemic bias and the many different ways it can manifest.
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Logic: a Primer

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Published on November 15, 2019 4:04 PM UTC

There are many definitions of logic but we can affirm, without loss of generality, that logic is the study of what is rational and of the inference methods that can be used to achieve a truth.
Logic represents the foundations of philosophical and mathematical thought, we could even go so far as to say that logic is what the totality of human thought is based on. Nowadays, however, logic seems to be nowhere to be found in everyday life: if there is a disease of thought that inflicts the modern world, it is undoubtedly a terrible lack of the former. By this I do not mean that we find ourselves in the most irrational slice of history (Middle Ages, anyone?) and personally I do not believe that human history unfolds "asymptotically", that is from a lesser perfection to greater economic, political, of-thought perfection, towards the final self-realization as Hegel and Marx believed.
I just want to say that we inhabitants of this space-time region we call the 21st century have been pardoned with the possibility of obtaining any information we need with times and costs approaching 0 and the fact that we are still so illogical in spite of everything makes us embarrassing and unworthy. If the tone of the speech makes me seem extremely embittered it is because I really am. Think for example of all the controversies that have arisen in recent years regarding vaccines: they make children autistic, they give rise to other diseases in adulthood etc.
To disprove these statements, an internet connection, a minimum cognitive capacity and a semblance of critical thinking are enough. You just need to discriminate between fake sources and reliable sources. A quick glance at global statistics is sufficient to verify that:

1) Vaccines have saved millions of lives since they were invented.

2) There is no stochastic correlation between autism (or other diseases) and vaccines.

In fact a rapid self-training on the subject should be sufficient to convince anyone that vaccines have been one of humanity's greatest achievements. And this is just one of the millions of indicators on the lack of inductive and deductive capacities of which we suffer.

Let now concentrate on the basic aspects of the logical doctrine. Logic is the study of reasoning and it takes place in a well-defined and consistent formal system.
The basic rules of the formal system are called axioms, ie fundamental prepositions which cannot be proved but which are so intuitive that their truth is accepted a priori. Based on these "atoms", (almost) all theorems can be derived.
Now we will proceed to create our very simple formal system of which we will explore the logical attributes.

Let's call our system S, we define the Axioms of S.

Let P, Q, Z be Propositions of S, then:

1) P=P (identity) - in English: Every thing is equal to itself.

2) P=Q Q=P (symmetry) - in English: if proposition1 = proposition2 then proposition2 = proposition1 .

3) P=Q and Q=Z P=Z (transitivity) - in english: if proposition1 = proposition2 and proposition2 = proposition3 then proposition1 = proposition3.

4) ¬¬A=A - in English: saying "not not something" is equal to saying "something".

5) P¬ P = True - in English: The statement "one thing or its opposite" is always true (tautology).
This axiom is the basis of the famouse joke: "I asked a logician if he wanted his coffee with or without sugar and he answered "Yes".

6) P¬ P = False - in english: The statement "one thing and its opposite" is always false (contradiction).

These are generally the axioms of first-order logic.
In the above rules we have listed the logical connectives (or, and, not) but not the quantifiers, of which no logic of the first order can do without.
Simply put, quantifiers serve to expand the properties of propositions beyond themselves, to all propositions that share the same characteristics:

Existential quantifier () - in English: "There exist".

Universal quantifier () - in English: "For All".

Now let's try to derive some theorems of our system S starting from the axioms and the quantifiers enunciated:

(P,Q,Z)  ((PQZ)¬(PQZ))) This means that for every
propositions triad either their conjunction by "or" connective is true or the negation of their conjunction is true, this derive from the fifth Axiom (in fact it is nothing but a restatement of that axiom and applies to any grouping of propositions, not only for triads).

ABC  ((AB)(BC)(CA)) which means that there exists three propositions such that the above formula is always true, that is when A and B and C are true.

¬(¬AB)A=A This is a theorem whose utility is found in the simplification that it gives us, mapping a furmula with 4 connectives and two variables to a single variable of the formula itself.

A(AB)=A Another simplification.
It is easy to see that the two identities above hold up, just take a look at the following truth table:

0 0 | 0
0 1 | 0
1 0 | 1
1 1 | 1 

Where 0 means false and 1 means true. This Boolean truth table reflects the behavior of the above formulas and it can be seen
that the output is always equal to the value of the 'A' variable.

At this point the basic mechanics of logical reasoning should be clear to everyone.
Note that, in logic, we are interested in proving truths and not falsehoods: falsehoods are trivial, truths are not.
What has always fascinated me about logic is its deductive power and its ability to produce tautologies. If you try, as an experiment, to ask a child "Is A equal to A ?" or if "A and not A" is true or false, a meaningful sample will answer correctly, this is because there is something innate behind these reasonings.
Moreover, it is almost magical that, starting from very simple rules, we can get to prove the Poincarè conjecture or Fagin's theorem or Ads/CFT Correspondence or billions of others mathematical milestones (mathematics emerge from logic).
The greatest value that mathematics/logic has for me (and here I could sound a little fundamentalist or Platonic) is to allow us to study eternal truths of priceless beauty.
Think for example of the Pythagorean theorem, it was true before the birth of the Universe, before Pythagoras himself formally proved it, it is true today and will be true even after the thermal death of the universe.
Religion tells us that God created the world in seven days, that God is love, that God is eternal, that God is truth and truth will set us free but never gives us any proof of anything. Logic and mathematics, on the other hand, show us substantial truths that , once proved, they cannot be refuted. To be honest, mathematics is a process of discovery, when a theorem is proved it takes a truth value for us (human beings) but in fact it has always been and always will be true. Religion in comparison is ash. Excuse me for the small and emphatic philosophical digression, we can go back to examining concrete problems and the ways in which logic could eradicate them. In my country, Italy, you can't breathe good air lately. The revival of old and dangerous ideologies
The revival of old and dangerous ideologies has been raging for some time now and this has led to the appearance on the scene of politicians with dubious ethical orientations and even more dubious management skills. The point is that if logic seems innate in man, his inclination to irrationality is innate too, the latter being much more dangerous and contagious than the first. One person, one thought, one irrational event inevitably attracts others like a magnet and, before realizing it, one finds oneself in a stinking social and cultural climate.
I'm thinking that maybe I should have warned you that this post would have political content, but now it's too late. I stress out, however, that these contents are indispensable to the achievement of my point.
I maintain that the blame for the rise of these dubious individuals, who would probably be treated as psychiatric patients in a healthy society, is not to be attributed to them but to the millions of supporters who, acting in an illogical manner, let themselves be misled by their empty words.
Let me give you an example: The propaganda of these presumed politicians is mainly based on racial and gender hatred and more stringent nationalism.
In one of the many public events, an internet channel has interviewed some of the supporters of these ideologies, let me report an answer in particular:

"I am in favor of the death penalty but against abortion because you cannot decide for the lives of others."

Doesn't this sentence cause you some rational annoyance? Doesn't it cause you a cognitive short-circuit? Remeber our fifth Axioms? The above proposition is the is the English equivalent of P¬ P
and if you hare receptive readers you will remember that this axiom represents a contradiction, that is a thing that is always false, no matter what the proposition under consideration is.

Let me conclude by saying that I passionately believe in the power of logic as the sole deterrent against our self-destruction but, in order to emerge victorious, we must teach ourselves how to reason logically again and, above all, we must not be tempted by the simplest and most primitive pleasures of irrationality.

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1704 days ago
What a good read for introductory logic and it importance.
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