Cheap parking in London!

Well now, isn’t this special: if you’re a religious leader on official business, you can get free parking permits in North London.

Mike Freer, leader of the council, said: “The importance of religion to many Barnet residents cannot be underestimated and the council has acknowledged this with a policy that will assist spiritual leaders when engaging with people in times of illness or crisis.”

It may be important to some people, but since it doesn’t actually do anything for them, this logic seems backward to me — clergy should be paying extra for the privilege of peddling superstition, as a kind of idiot tax.

Where is science blogging going? I don’t know.

Blake Stacey, who is a good guy to have by your side in a firefight, has a wonderfully complicated post on this thing called science blogging. He’s mostly stating the obvious: it’s anarchic, it’s very hard to pull out, say, introductory material on a specific topic in science, there are problems of accountability, we don’t produce anything as coherently useful as a basic textbook, etc. Well, yeah. This is a general problem with solutions that bubble up from the ground rather than being defined from above — they do something very, very well, but it usually isn’t the something that a planner would design, and they often won’t easily do something else that you think they ought to do. Blake is entirely aware of this, obviously.

Nobody is acting as the central regulator of online science writing, though some would like to try. The interactions and evolutions we see are the result of the incentives at work, playing themselves out. If we want to change the way science blogging happens, or if we want our loose community to start generating something new, central decrees are no good: we have to make our desiderata the natural products of volunteer enthusiasm. Furthermore, science blogs are not a central authority for anybody else, so if we want to change their behavior, we have to find ways to put new “motivator units” in place.

He’s pointing to a real problem, and we’re aware that establishing a central authority is not going to solve anything, and I’d say it would even ruin everything. Incentives have to come from somewhere. My answer is…don’t worry, be happy, the solution will come from somewhere where you least expect it.

As an example, blogs themselves. I kept a web page for a long time, since the early 1990s, when all we did is write static html. When blogs started to emerge, I didn’t quite see the point. I could see exactly what they were: they were nothing but web-based front ends for personal databases. That’s all they are still. I couldn’t quite see the point — the data being stored was rather idiosyncratic, and personally, I couldn’t imagine myself writing enough stuff that it would warrant database tools to manage it. But then something odd happened: it turned out to be very useful to be able to compose something, and have it stored away in a manner that made it easy to access again. And then populating the database with useful stuff started to become an end in itself, the new motivator unit, and as the database grew, it became more useful, and that in turn made it more compelling to put more stuff in it, and so on.

Feed forward loops are powerful forces, people.

Then the other big force was Google. Google is the one significant tool we have for poking around in other people’s personal databases. That’s another powerful motivator, that we find ourselves able to plumb other people’s words and experiences fairly easily, and what do you know, other people are interesting, so we want to look more, and we want other people to find us interesting, so we stuff more and more goodies into our own databases. Feed forward, feed forward, feed forward.

However, and this is the limitation that Blake bemoans, the motivator is too general: all we’ve got is a criterion based on how many people find a particular database entry interesting, which is terribly vague. We want to know how many people find an entry informative, and even more, what kind of people (novices, experts, whatever) find the entry useful, and in what way. Google is terrible at this. I’ll be the first to admit that Pharyngula entries rank high in the Google indexes not because they are necessarily the best at explaining overall, but because they tap into subjects and attitudes that are popular. If popularity were synonymous with accurate or useful or expert, then America would have been created 6,000 years ago by a magical giant with a long white beard, and everyone in the world would be a porn star.

So right now we are waiting for the next piece of the toolbox to fall into place, adding new metrics that will feed forward into new capabilities. We can’t design them — design is a terrible paradigm for adding unexpected newness and potential (which any evolutionary biologist would tell you). What will happen is a surprising and unpredictable side-effect of something else on the web. It could be something like social networking software adding a new criterion, like whuffie, that focuses people’s energies on productive contributions — only it won’t be the social networking software as it is now, and it won’t be whuffie, and it will have multiple effects, some of which may not be desirable. We will be surprised. It will take time for it to take over and become useful. In the early stages, almost all of us will be scratching our heads and wondering why anyone would find that interesting (cf. Twitter), and many of the solutions that are promising early on will fail. We are waiting for something new to evolve, and the best way to promote that is to encourage diversity and look at everything sideways, not by pushing for a specific solution. You don’t get emergent properties by forcing a result, or they wouldn’t be emergent properties.

The only answer is to keep playing. Don’t worry about it. Expect and embrace serendipity.

SNL circa 1975

Did anyone else catch Saturday Night Live last night? NBC rebroadcast the very first episode with host George Carlin, and I had to watch. Saturday Night Live came out in 1975, when I first went off to college at Depauw University, and it was a major event — every Saturday night, we’d mob the TV lounge in the basement of Bishop Roberts Hall to see that show (this was in the days when no one had a TV in their room; we didn’t even have our own telephone, but shared one on each floor. I tell kids this nowadays and they don’t believe me).

The old show has acquired a nice rosy patina in my mind because it was such a fun communal event…but man, seeing it again, I realize that it really, really sucked. The skits were lame and not very funny, and sad to say, even Carlin was a bit feeble, despite his dark-haired youth, and seemed to have left his edge at home. It’s true — 90% of everything is garbage, even the happy irreverence of my first year away from home.

Radio reminder

Today is the day of the GLBT Pride Parade in the Twin Cities, so naturally today’s Atheists Talk radio is all about the fight against discrimination and for equal rights for all. Tune in at 9am!

If you’re godless, there’s nothing to prevent you from supporting civil rights for everyone without regard for their sexual orientation. That doesn’t seem to be the case if you’re Catholic, however.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has told a liberal Roman Catholic church in Minneapolis that it can’t hold its annual gay pride prayer service because the event goes against the teachings of the church.

St. Joan of Arc Church has held the prayer service for several years in conjunction with the annual Twin Cities Pride Celebration. The archdiocese, however, suggested that the church hold a “peace” service with no mention of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “That descriptor (LGBT) was not possible on church property. We suggested they shift it, change the nature of it a little bit, and they did,” archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said. “The reason is quite simply because it was a LGBT pride prayer service, and that is really inimical to the teachings of the Catholic church.”

Gays are “inimical” to the Catholic church, and even naming lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender is “not possible”. Perhaps the LGBT community should instead admit that rapprochement with the Catholic church is not possible, because their teachings are not compatible with human decency.

World-wide weirdness

Lest Phelps and the Texas Supreme Court leave the unfortunate impression that the US is the sole repository of lunacy in the world, Ben Goldacre’s latest column is about linking mobile phone signals to suicides — there’s a bit of hysteria in one of the British newspapers about it. I like his approach; he called the source of the frightening information, a Dr Roger Coghill, to get the data that led to his conclusion.

I contacted Dr Coghill, since his work is now a matter of great public concern, and it is vital his evidence can be properly assessed. He was unable to give me the data. No paper has been published. He himself would not describe the work as a “study”. There are no statistics presented on it, and I cannot see the raw figures. In fact Dr Coghill tells me he has lost the figures. Despite its potentially massive public health importance, Dr Coghill is sadly unable to make his material assessable.

Makes you go “Hmmmm,” doesn’t it? Too bad it didn’t make the reporting journalist ask a few pointed questions before putting it in screaming headlines. It’s also too bad they didn’t check his website, which is nothing but a catalog of quackery. Don’t buy anything!