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Andrew Witt
Works at Polyscience
Attended University of Wisconsin Madison
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Andrew Witt

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Humility

Yesterday’s post about the big bang and cosmic origins struck a few nerves.  Responses ranged from vulgar insults to dismissals of the post as “just a theory.”  But more subtle were the criticisms that declared the post lacked humility.  Scientific knowledge is never perfect, and to claim the validity of the big bang is to go too far.  When communicating to the general public scientists should never say “we know”, only that “we might know.” Scientists should show more humility.

Such criticism fails to recognize that the power of science is its humility.  In fact, the scientific process is based on the assumption that individual scientists won’t easily show humility on their own, so it is imposed upon them. There are three basic tenets of scientific research: it must be based upon verifiable data, it must be done publicly, and it must be open to criticism.

Most people view scientific evidence as repeatable experiments that can be done in the lab.  For this reason the findings of evolution or cosmology are often countered with “you weren’t there.”  But verifiable data is much broader than simply lab experiments.  It is a process of gathering data that clearly documents when, where and how the data was gathered.  If you gather observational data, the burden is on you to document its origin.  If you use data gathered by others, you must clearly cite your sources.

Once you have your observational results or theoretical work, the next step is to present it publicly.  This could be a conference, a preprint archive, a book, or submission to a research journal.  A scientific discovery is meaningless if it isn’t disseminated.  Publication provides a record of the work, so it can’t be tossed down the memory hole.  Make a significant discovery, and the record is there.  Make a foolish claim, and that’s there too.  It’s the latter possibility that strikes fear into scientists everywhere, because  publishing your work isn’t sufficient.  When you make your research public your colleagues now have a chance to pull the work apart and see if it really says what you think it says.  It gets subjected to peer review.

Peer review can be the most frustrating and most humiliating aspect of scientific research.  That’s why it’s considered the gold standard of science.  Having research published in a peer-reviewed journal means that the work has been examined by other experts in your field, and has been found clear and without obvious error.  It doesn’t mean its perfect, but it does mean the work has been held to a high standard and survived.  This is why when I write about new scientific work I focus on peer reviewed articles.  When I write about work that hasn’t been peer reviewed, I clearly say so.

Of course even after conducting your research, organizing your results, checking it with friendly colleagues, presenting it publicly and submitting it to peer review, you still aren’t done.  You’re never done, because at any time someone can critically review your work again.  If you have a great theory and your predictions don’t support new findings, we look for something better.  No matter how famous, or how many awards you may have, anyone can be toppled by new scientific discovery.

That’s the deal.  Keep pushing back against ideas.  Keep working to develop better theories.  Always, always keep in mind that your theories might just be wrong.

What survives is an understanding of the universe that it robust.  It is a confluence of evidence that supports a deep theoretical framework.  It is knowledge humbly gathered, and put forward with humility.  Through a process that recognizes human fallibility.  It is humanity’s best understanding of what is real and true about the cosmos.

This is why I present ideas like the big bang with the claim that we know.  We Know.  We know because thousands of individuals have devoted their lives to understanding the universe.  Devoted their lives to getting it right.  Relying on a process that forces us to be humble, and forces us to defend our ideas over and over.

In my posts I always strive to present our best understanding of the universe in a way that is clear and meaningful.  That’s why I try to limit moderation of the comments.  It is a kind of peer review.  I write about science to the best of my ability, and everyone is free to criticize it.  I’ve made mistakes in my posts and been called on them.  I’ve been praised and thanked for making things clear.  I’ve also been called a liar. A fool. Prideful. Deceitful. Ignorant. Arrogant.

Fair enough.  That’s the deal.

Image:  Excerpt from da Vinci's notebooks.
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Andrew Witt

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In one hour, AMC's story of a small businessman struggling under the Obama administration draws to a close. 
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PSA: Dog and Cat Petting Zones
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Andrew Witt

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Downworthy: Chrome plugin to convert hyperbolic viral mill headlines into sarcastic reality. http://buff.ly/1ga6VS9
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Web site exists for you to get drunk and yell at Congress.

Drunk Dial Congress gives you a place to enter your phone number. It will then call your phone and connect you to a random member of congress. The drunken rant is up to you, but the site gives you "talking points." 

http://drunkdialcongress.org/
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Andrew Witt

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Did Privacy Advocates Overplay Their Hand with Google Glass?

Privacy advocates are really going nuts. One, this morning, wished I would die (over on Twitter, seriously). Why? They are apoplectic about the future that Google Glass will bring.

In talking to lots of big audiences last week I have come to the conclusion that privacy advocates have overplayed their hand and when everyone else gets Google Glass next year these privacy advocates will end up looking like fools. 

Why?

They think we're going to follow them into bathrooms and record "their junk." That's why my bathroom posts got so much play in the press. Really?  You think that? If I wanted to do that I'd rather use my new Android phone, which has a much better camera and, um, can be more easily aimed without grabbing attention. The microphone on my iPhone is better, too, and video is much sharper and isn't quite as wide angle, so I can see more details if I'm trying to be pervy anyway (which I'm not).

They think I'm going to walk by them recording everything they are saying. After getting these that's laughable. First of all, the microphone isn't all that great. Second of all, I have to be right next to you, while wearing this weird contraption, looking straight at you, if I want to grab good video of you, all while the light in the Glass is on (if you are recording Glass' projector is ALWAYS on, which warns you I'm doing something). No, if I really wanted to capture you, I'd just rent a 600mm lens and a parabolic microphone (which is what NFL Football does to make those cool movies where you can listen to the quarterback). I'd just sit across the street. 

Yes, there are fears. When I went through the Passport check in SFO the agent said "are you recording me?" I let him try them on, showed him how to tell if someone WAS recording him, and he felt a lot better. These things just don't freak people out AFTER getting their hands on them the way the privacy advocates have freaked out BEFORE getting their hands on them.

Watch the debate Andrew Keen and I had below at the Next Web last week. The audience simply is not buying Andrew's arguments. 

Now, I will admit, they are a bit strange. Yesterday when I met a fellow Glass wearer ( https://plus.google.com/111091089527727420853/posts/dxKE1H2GV6f ) I joked around that we were members of the "borg." There's something to that. They make the wearer look like a cyborg that has given themselves up to the Internet. 

But the "fashion cost" or "giving up your humanity" arguments are NOT a privacy argument. They must be separated out into their own debate. 

Privacy is something else. 

There are already laws to protect your privacy against Google Glass anyway. For instance, in California, it's illegal for me to record your voice without your consent. 

Also, it's illegal for me to take pictures or record videos in bathrooms or ANYWHERE you have an expectation of privacy. For instance, if someone used Glass to spy on you in your home. If they are standing on a public street, though, you probably are fair game. But, like I said, if I really wanted to spy on you Google Glass simply wouldn't be a good tool. It stands out too much right now and the video simply isn't the best quality. A high-end Smartphone would be a lot better way to stalk you. 

So, to wrap this up? Is there a new privacy concern? After wearing these for two weeks I simply think there isn't. The privacy advocates HAVE overplayed their hand and as more and more of you get Glass you'll see just how. Their fears of the future have led them down a bad path.

They should have focused their efforts on companies who are tracking you as you move around the Web. Companies like http://www.acxiom.com/ who don't make it easy to find data collected on you and make it next to impossible to correct that data or have it removed from their databases.

If I were a privacy advocate I would have used Glass to focus people's attention on the companies that really are "creepy" and who are using marketing techniques that are questionable. That's where our attention should be. 

Focusing on Glass just is the wrong place to focus on. You all have overplayed your hand and you'll realize in about a year just how silly you all are looking right now.

One other way to look at it? If you are really seeking to ban Glass, then you must ban all Smartphones with cameras. That just won't fly with mass market audiences in the post-Boston bombing era (you did notice that we caught those two evil people BECAUSE we had lots of photos and videos of the area, right?) In fact, the FBI has new technology to quickly go through millions of photos and video, read about that here: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/israel-hi-tech-firm-helped-capture-boston-bomber-terrorists/2013/04/29/

Is this anti privacy? No. The bombers worked in plain sight on a public street. There's a lot of reasons why cameras are allowed there (and our population simply isn't going to turn around and ban cameras). 

After all, if you look at this image of the Pope in 2005 vs. 2013 you'll see just how far our society has changed: http://singularityhub.com/2013/03/14/beforeafter-comparison-of-pope-announcement-shows-incredible-proliferation-of-mobile-in-just-8-years/

That's why privacy advocates have overplayed their hands. Our society is already used to having cameras EVERYWHERE and we like it. 

By the way, before you argue that Glass lets me capture images that a Smartphone can't, please do some critical thinking.

1. Is Glass always on? No.
2. Can Glass stream video to public? No (or, at least, not yet).
3. Can I walk up to you recording on my smartphone without you knowing? Yes.
4. Can I walk up to you recording on my Google Glass without you knowing? No. (the projector is on).
5. Can I put a smartphone on the table and record to Soundcloud without you knowing? Yes.
6. Can I record audio on Glass without you knowing? No.
7. Can I attach high-powered microphones to my Glass? No. 
8. Can I attach high-powered microphones to my Smartphone? Yes.
9. Can I zoom the video in on Glass to read what you are reading on, say, the subway? No.
10. Can I zoom the video in on a Smartphone to read what you are reading? Yes. Or, I could even do better and get a small pocket camera that has optical zoom. You'd never notice me shooting you from across the aisle with one of those.
11. Could I walk into a restroom, look at your private parts, while wearing Glass? No way. You'd be furious.
12. Could I walk into a restroom with my smartphone in my hand and be recording you? Yes, you'd never notice.
13. If I wanted to catch you in some other "private" moment, could I do it with Glass? Maybe, but you'd be very freaked out. This "private" moment of me getting drunk was captured by someone at a party, and the photos were sent to Techcrunch: http://techcrunch.com/2009/07/14/my-god-scoble-did-you-think-we-wouldnt-see-these/ No Glass required. Where were the privacy advocates back then? 

So, do you agree or disagree with me that privacy advocates have overplayed their hands? Keep in mind, we'll revisit this again in 18 months from now when you all will have Google Glass. Choose your words carefully so you look as intelligent in 18 months as you think you look today.
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Have him in circles
94 people
Linda Saari's profile photo
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karen witt's profile photo
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  • Polyscience
    2013 - present
  • Thermal Care
    Engineer, 2013
  • Grainger Global Sourcing
  • Applied Web Systems (div of Thermal Care)
  • TRESU Royse
  • Wisconsin Center for Applied Microelectronics
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