“It’s a fact”–what we can learn from Mona Lisa Vito

I have been a fan of “My Cousin Vinny” for yearsmycousin and I must admit to guilty pleasure watching it for the umpteenth time when it does its semi-annual rounds on late night TV. Reading a couple of blog posts recently, I was reminded of my favourite scene where the antagonistic Ms. Vito, acting as an expert in general automotive knowledge,  wins the day by looking at photograph and turns the whole case for the defense…

Vinny Gambini: How could you be so sure?
Mona Lisa Vito: Because there is no way that these tire marks were made by a 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. These marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: [to Lisa] This is your opinion, or is it a fact?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact!

The full scene is at the bottom of this post….

The first post was from boingboing about the use of experts in understanding the Japanese nuclear event at Fukushima. The point made by the article was that an expert in one field is not an expert in another. In particular, while an expert in risk management can provide valuable insight on a problem of this magnitude to understand what is going on, you really should ask a nuclear scientist.

It has become a pet peeve of mine that we (the media) treat people as experts without ever considering, do they have any expertise in the subject at hand. I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin, when she was thrust in the limelight by John McCain and she was supposed to have all the foreign policy answers. An expert in public speaking does not equal an expert in the constitution, foreign policy or community service.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. This is where the second blog post comes in. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian had an article titled A case of never letting the source spoil a good story where he details various examples of journalists getting it all wrong where a check of the source material would have saved a lot of erroneous ink and spreading of falsehoods. I think his conclusion is right on

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

So the moral of the story is, if the article or blog post that  you are reading has no links to primary sources – then it is just opinion not fact.

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The real 3D revolution ~ forget the movies

There has been a lot of press about 3D at the movies and it seems that every so-so movie ( anyone seen Drive Angry 3D?) has to be filmed in 3D, even if most of the public wonders why. Avatar has a lot to answer for! Although thankfully, none of the major Oscar contenders had to rely on the 3D gimmick to get their message across.

So where is the real 3D revolution. It is is in printers gyroidof all things. An excellent summary of the technology can be found in the Economist. Basically, using the the same technology used by ink-jet printers, 3D objects are printed by laying down layer upon layer until the object is complete. While now limited to certain plastics, resins and metals, this approach has the potential of manufacturing. The benefits are enormous. Using ‘additive manufacturing’ can result in material use of 10% when compared to traditional milling techniques, it is also software-defined, so changes can be made very easily and the new ‘blueprint’ sent digitally.

We are not far off from the day, when you receive a recall notice for a faulty part in your car, you will take it down to the local service station and they will manufacture the part then and there.

But I don’t think things will stop there, in much the same way that the personal computer put computing power previously reserved for large businesses in the hands of the Joan and Joe Consumer, the same will happen with custom manufacturing. Already there are companies, like “Shapeways” and “Digital Forming” that provide a design interface and the manufacturing supply chain to allow consumers to create unique bespoke items.

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Just came across this amazing talk by Anthony Atala from the TED conference. He shows a human kidney being printed. Science is wonderful.

A Scientist – by any other name

A very disturbing piece from The Register, about the broad re-definition of who can be called a scientist. It is yet another example of words being hijacked to create an aura of unjustified respectably.

The U.K. advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, have just dismissed a claim that four employees of Neal’s Yard  (Natural Remedies) Ltd green_scientists had been misrepresented as scientists. Neal’s Yard is the UK’s foremost destination for organic natural health and beauty to quote from their website. Their ruling has redefined, as far as advertising in the U.K. goes, what makes a scientist. In getting the claim dismissed, Neal’s Yard made two arguments

  1. The term scientist has a much broader meaning than it did in the past (somebody that framed and tested hypotheses) and they quoted Carnegie Melon University’s Green Science program as an example. Now Carnegie Melon’s program is focused on pollution control and sustainable chemistry which seems to be a long way to me from organic natural remedies.
  2. Even if the ASA did not buy argument #1 they stood by their employees as being qualified as scientists stating“the women were all well qualified with considerable expertise in their fields. They provided biographies for all four women, which showed that Dr. Dhushyanthan and Dr. Hili had PhDs in traditional scientific disciplines while Ms. Curtis and Ms. Vilinac had undertaken study in Homeopathy and Medical Herbalism respectively.”Now to quote from the Register:

    ”In fact, Doctor Dhushyanthan – according to the catalogue in question (pdf) – holds a PhD in “Natural Preservatives in Toiletries” and Doctor Hili holds a PhD in “Essential Oils” “

    spade with XCall me stupid, but those are not in any way shape or form, traditional scientific disciplines. These four people are not scientists. By pretending to be so, they are acting as snake-oil saleswomen rather than scientists.

    The ASA has lost its way and instead of calling a not-a-spade, a not-a-spade, they have fallen prey to taking the arguments of Neal’s Yard at face value to the detriment of real scientists everywhere.

The digital divide starts early

George Bernard Shaw is watching youGeorge Bernard Shaw once said “Youth is wasted on the young”. I used to think he was spot on but now thanks to a fascinating piece of research from AVG, I am not so sure. AVG examined the take-up of technology of very young children ages 2 to 5. While their sample was worldwide, it did only focus on developed countries (U.S., Canada, the EU5 (U.K., France, Italy, Germany, Spain), Japan, Australia and New Zealand) who you would expect to be more tech savvy. They asked mothers of the 2-5 year olds to document their children’s technology and life skills.

Amongst the results they found:

  1. More small children can play a computer game than ride a bike.
  2. There is no tech gender divide between young boys and girls. As many boys (58 percent) as girls (59 percent) can play a computer game or make a mobile phone call (28 percent boys, 29 percent girls).
  3. The EU countries lead the US in terms of technology savvy for the 2-5 set.

While some of these results may be due to primarily copying (seeing your parents make a phone call) rather than learning (riding a bike for the first time is not intuitive), the research does show how much technology is influencing our lives and how it is trickling down to our young ones.

The power of the internet (and the technology that drives it) continues to amaze me. Maybe I should not have been so surprised that the Egyptian revolution came out of nowhere and was enabled by the internet.

As an aside, I found it fascinating that the Egyptian government closed down their ISPs (and hence the Internet) before they curtailed and restricted  the reporting of traditional media. Times they are a-changing.

It is all in the name

I just love stories like this.

In a wonderful case of mistaken identity a young American woman, Ashley Kerekes, while minding her own business, has become 450px-Ashes_Urna darling of the cricket world. Known affectionately by her family and friends as Ashes, she chose the Twitter handle of theashes . Now as anyone who has ever been exposed to cricket knows, The Ashes also refers to  the international series of Test matches, played between Australia and England dating back to 1882 and is probably one of the most celebrated international rivalries in any sport.

It seems that quite a few Twitterers (people who tweet) made the assumption that someone with the handle of theashes must be associated with the game of cricket. The good thing though is what started out as an annoyance turned out to have a silver lining for Ashley as she was whisked off to Australia to see the final test.[BBC article]. If you have the time, listen to the wonderfully British BBC announcer interview Ashley, it is delightful.

Supporting the Cause

[In the interest of full disclosure, my son works for Creative Commons]

While WikiLeaks and the reaction to it has been getting all the publicity, it is opportune to also remember other groups that make the ‘open internet’ a reality, such as Creative Commons (CC).  While there are many many definitions for the ‘open internet’. To me, it means ”facilitating the sharing of ideas and content while allowing for the protection of the original authors and other contributors”. Creative Commons supplies the tools to make this possible, whether it is allowing anyone anywhere to freely build on and translate MIT course materials, run a course at the Peer 2 Peer University on anything from Web Development 101 to Digital Journalism, or contribute to the incredible sum of knowledge that is Wikipedia. DSC_0649_edited-2

I, like many others, extensively use CC licensed works (including this blog) and the reverse is also true, the accompanying photograph is appearing in an Israeli online text  book written in both Arabic and Hebrew, which I think is kind of cool. This type of sharing is made so much easier through the efforts of Creative Commons.

So the questions I am asking you to consider are: How do openness, creativity, and innovation impact your every day life? How much more interconnected is your world now that music is remixed, videos are shared online, and educational materials can be downloaded before they’re bound in paper?

Creative Commons provides the tools necessary to make sharing, adapting to new paradigms, and the expansion of creativity possible. Help them make the world bigger and better by supporting their 2010  fund drive. [link]

What I really want for Christmas

When my son was growing up, he loved building things withLego Taj Mahal Legos, a habit I also acquired (when I was allowed to help). A couple of years ago, I finished my first big Lego project the “Taj Mahal” – all 5900 plus pieces (took me 6 weeks), it was so much fun and I will never take it apart.

Then today, I came across the following Lego masterpiece (with thanks to the Register). This may well be the best thing by an Apple engineer this year (sorry iPhone 4 and iPad)  This is truly impressive, and as the person in the video states. “Pretty impressive for a bunch of plastic blocks”. I would love to see this as a kit.

For more information on the Antikythera Mechanism go here.