The Age of the Selfish Meme

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The times, they are a-changin’.

The image above (via Reddit) comes from an Australian store that has started charging $5 to customers who peruse the goods but don’t buy anything, assuming they are just looking around to buy elsewhere later (possibly online), a strategy known as showrooming.

That’s a difficult problem to face if you’re a brick and mortar store: Best Buy has famously solved it by price-matching any online deal on its merchandise. This store chose a very different approach, one that is sure to alienate many potential customers. We are going through a big transition phase in how we deal with technology. Online shopping is already a taken-for-granted habit for many, but other changes are more subtle and take the stage less ceremoniously. Think of voicemail, which almost no one uses anymore. If you leave someone a voicemail and believe they will listen to it, you’re talking a dead language. But nobody tells you: you just have to know. That’s maybe why Nick Bilton of the New York Times caused a stir when he blogged about current trends in digital etiquette, saying that people who reply to an email or a text just to say “thank you” are rude.

It’s a generational clash all right, with grownups blaming the kids for being unpolite, but it’s way more than that. It’s not the first time we go through these hurdles, only the tools are different. One of «the first crises of techno-etiquette», as the Times calls it, happened just after the telephone was invented: nobody knew what to say when they picked up a call. Ahoy! and What is wanted? were popular options before we eventually settled on Hello. That was a single problem related to a single piece of technology. Think of how many of these processes we are going through today. The difference is that there’s no concerted effort, because most of these problems have not been around long enough to create a definite distinction between right and wrong. So everyone gives it a shot and hopes for the best.

In evolutionary terms, when someone smarter that you is around, you’re in trouble. Even if you’re standing on a freshly killed gazelle, there’s always a sneaky scavenger lurking somewhere. People being born today are delivered to a full-digital world, and this creates a fracture as large as we’ve ever seen. Some folks, the older generations, will fade away before this becomes more than a nuisance for them, but others who are still relatively young are at risk of suffering.

Technology is mature enough for some companies to have become dinosaurs. Think of the difference between Microsoft and Google. They were founded just 23 years apart, but if feels like a century. Yahoo, another flailing tech company, just made headlines around the world for having bought Summly, a news reading app that sums up news stories through an algorythm, for $30 million. The app was made by a 17-year old who is being hired by Yahoo. There’s no media outlet in the world that hasn’t picked up the story, because a kid who makes millions with an app has just slightly less appeal than a litter of puppies: it’s irresistible. But Summly had been around for a year, very few people used it, and Yahoo has already killed it. Yet this has become the global talk of the day and it’s given the company a fresh coat of paint, not a bad deal for $30 million, or 0,75 percent of Yahoo’s cash reserves. There’s no right or wrong in this: you can either see it as a brilliantly cynical PR move or a genuine sign that there’s hope for humanity. Either way, I’m not sure this trick can be successfully pulled off for much longer.

The following image is floating around Facebook: 536319_321387391297312_836869227_n It’s a static image that appears to be moving because it tricks your brain a little bit. The image is shared with the encouragement to “type 1 in the comments to see the magic”. Of course all the “magic” is already there, and absolutely nothing happens if you type “1” in the comments. You should know that. And yet this has racked up over 200,000 comments, with most people sheepishly complying and inflating the comment counter (an empty endeavor at that, but that’s how the Internet works). Imagine if someone told you in the street to shout out «one» very loud to “see the magic”. You’d think they’re nuts. You would certainly not comply. But in technology, the weakest of nudges will make you do things without thinking.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, saw it coming: just like genes use biological beings to propagate themselves, we are now slaves to memes as well. Most people don’t take these things seriously: they are not afraid to act like digital idiots. They still see this realm as something separate from reality, where the effort required to do stuff is minimal (one click) and so is the social cost of errors and mishaps. There’s an obvious detachment: people still use nicknames even where they’re not supposed to. There are companies that block off Facebook and other sites so that their employees do not slack off at work. In a few years (wether Facebook will still be around or not) that will be considered as outrageous as asking people to relinquish their phones before they sit at their desks.

For some, technology is not yet life, it’s something that still sits on top of it, separated. But it’s not. We are constantly going through sweeping social change, but it’s less apparent when you’re standing in the middle of it. And as with every social change, some people are on the forefront of it, some are puzzled by it, and some can’t even see it fly over their heads. It’s a very interesting time, but because transitions have uncertain boundaries it will be probably forgotten by history. Just like those times when we still hadn’t figured out what to say when we answered the phone.

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The Up-Goer Five and Quantum Mechanics

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What you see above is something called The Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

It’s an online text editor that uses only the 1,000 most common words in the English language as its word database, giving you a warning every time you type anything that isn’t included in that list. The idea comes from an episode of the popular xkcd web comic in which the author tried to explain the Saturn V NASA rocket using only such words.
Thus it became the Up-Goer Five.

Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist, thought it would be neat to make a text editor based on that idea, so people could try their hand at explaining complex topics with simple words. This has led to some fine examples of wordsmanship, such as one by a linguistics graduate who explained Saturn and its moons. Here’s a quote from it, talking about the Cassini probe:

People wanted to learn about the big ringed world and the smaller worlds that go around it, so they sent a computer into space with computer eyes and a computer nose and other parts to see and smell these worlds and tell us about them.

There are many other brilliant examples that you can find on the text editor page itself or on Twitter, searching for the hashtag #upgoerfive. I gave it a shot, trying to explain the significance of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment in the realm of quantum mechanics and its various interpretations. Here it is:

When a group of men decided to come up with an idea of how very small things work, they could not all agree on the same one. So, after some time, one of them made a story about a cat to show how the idea that most others believed in could make you imagine things that were not possible.

He thought of this cat sitting in a box, close to some very small stuff that you can’t see with your eyes which has half the chance of going through a change in the next hour. If that happened, some other very bad stuff that is locked away would be set free in the box, killing the cat.

The idea he was against says that the cat would be dead and living at the same time until you opened the box to take a look inside. This showed that you could carry the state of the very small stuff that had gone through a change and force it onto the cat, a much bigger thing that you can see and touch. Only when you looked in would the cat stop being in both states and finally settle into living or dying, and exactly because you had opened the box to see.

But a cat can’t be living and dead at the same time, can it? So this story became really well known and it has been used in many other stories, even though the person who made it wanted to show that the idea most others believed in was probably not perfect. Yet not many people who hear it know that and think that he only wanted to talk about strange cats.

It’s fun. You should try it yourself.

When Space Pioneers Play It Safe

Signs of Unintelligent Life

NASA has recently announced that a new rover will be sent to Mars by 2020.
Another one?

They already have three there. Spirit and Opportunity landed first, in 2004. While Opportunity is still scuttling around, Spirit has been stuck in a sand pit for over two years now and its mission had ended. The latest to join the part is also the top of its class: Curiosity arrived last August and it’s doing great, making news headlines out of both actual merit and bad journalism. It even has its own Twitter feed.

After it started analyzing rocks and dust on Mars, the head boffin of the Curiosity team casually declared in an interview that the mission was to be «one for the history books». The fact that NASA had a press conference scheduled just days later made the rumors spread like wildfire: surely some sort of life form had been found on the red planet. The story was immediately picked up by the mainstream media. But it was just a misunderstanding: first, NASA holds regular press conferences, so this was absolutely normal. Second, the findings were “historical” simply because it had been confirmed that Curiosity was functioning properly. It was collecting samples and analyzing them on site, like the shiny chemistry lab on wheels it’s designed to be (it’ll take a long while to compile the results). That’s pretty big news by any standard, but it also highlights a matter of perception: if you had a presentation tomorrow in front of the CEO and your most important clients, that would be quite “historical” to you, not so much to the rest of the world. At NASA they have, similarly, a different way of perceiving their accomplishments than the general public, and sometimes this generates confusion.
But it definitely made Curiosity famous.

So why is NASA spending $1.5 billion to send yet another rover? Probably because when times aren’t great you just stick with what works best: the space program has very little funding and there’s no room for daring endeavors. There’s a plan to bring back rock samples from Mars, like we did with the Moon, and some of the money NASA is getting has been locked for that goal, so maybe they don’t even have a choice. Also, yet another rover could help further pave the way for a manned mission there.
But I can’t help the feeling that even NASA is doing sequels now.

I’m not a huge fan of Mars. It’s a dead rock with two puny captured asteroids for moons, and it’s way past its cosmic prime. Much more interesting is Jupiter, my favorite planet: not only it rules the Solar System in size, it has literally shaped its current arrengement. When Jupiter and Saturn engaged in a gravitational tug-of-war, billions of year ago, they created a turmoil powerful enough to eject Neptune and Uranus from their orbits, switch their positions, and send them in a faraway exile from the Sun, all the while leaving poor Uranus irrevocably lopsided. Plus, we wouldn’t be here without Jupiter. Because of its huge gravitational field, it acts as a cosmic shield for stray comets and asteroids which could otherwise pose a threat to us. One famous impact happened in 1994, when comet Shoemaker-Levy ploughed into Jupiter, shattered to pieces by its massive gravity before disappearing into the gas giant to great spectacle, scarring it for months. But this happens all the time: a large asteroid flew into Jupiter just days ago, but such events are so unpredictable (there’s lots of rocks flying around) that this one was only captured by an amateur’s webcam. Let’s just be thankful that our big pal Jupiter is out there for us.

Jupiter’s array of 67 confirmed moons hosts some of the most interesting bodies of the Solar System, chiefly among them Europa, a cold planetoid about the size of our own Moon which is believed to have oceans of liquid water under a thick crust of ice. And because Europa is constantly caught between the bickering gravitational forces of its host planet and its bigger moons, it’s probably subject to enough friction to have a hot core. Which means its oceans could have developed underwater hydrothermal vents similar to those found at depth on Earth, where they are populated with interesting life forms called extremophiles because of the extreme conditions they are able to withstand. This process, called tidal heating, is the same that makes the surface of Io, another one of Jupiter’s moons, look like a big ball of rotting cheese:

Io

Io is covered with over 400 volcanoes, making it by far the most geologically active body in the Solar System, even though it’s so far away from the Sun that its average surface temperature is -170 °C. But extreme cold and even the absence of water may still not rule out the possibility of life: take Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, so big that it is larger than planet Mercury. NASA landed a probe called Huygens there, in 2005, which confirmed the presence of rivers and possibly lakes of liquid methane. Methane is an organic compound (because it contains carbon: that’s what organic means), so Titan could be a little bit like Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, when it was starting to become hospitable to life. When the Sun explodes into a red giant, in about five billion years, we’ll be long gone but Titan will get warmer and might be one of the best spots in the Solar System to develop a post-main sequence life habitat around our star.
In Titan’s neighborhood there’s also Enceladus:

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This chilly moon seems to have all the ingredients necessary to life: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, as the Cassini probe confirmed by sniffing one of its vaporous plumes during a flyby. Enceladus is also the most reflective body in the Solar System: it has an albedo of 0.99, which means it reflects 99 percent of all the sunlight it receives.

Admittedly, NASA does have a long-range spacecraft currently en route to somewhere we’ve never been to. It’s called New Horizons and it will reach Pluto in 2015. Ironically, the mission was launched in 2006, before Pluto was stripped of its planet status (and yes, it was the right decision). It’s still interesting because we know so little about this faraway world. It’s so distant we can’t even get a decent picture, not even with the Hubble Space Telescope, because it’s too small an object. Here’s one of the best we have:

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As you can see it’s actually a binary system. Pluto has five moons, but the biggest, Charon, is about a third the size of Pluto itself, the largest moon compared to its primary that we know of, anywhere. This neatly illustrates a little know fact about orbits: when you think of a moon, you think of a smaller object circling around a larger, “fixed” one. Well, for starters, an orbit is not a circular path but a continuous free-fall: gravity is not a magical force that attracts things, but a curvature of space induced by mass (it is also still a force: relativity is complicated stuff). So when something travels through an orbit, it actually goes in a straight path through curved space, in a constant free-fall through a gravitational field that never results in an actual collision because of velocity. It’s the same effect that astronauts experience in space, something incorrectly called zero-gravity: if you’re orbiting on the Space Shuttle you feel weightless not because Earth’s gravity isn’t there (it’s actually still 90 percent as strong as it is on the surface), but because you’re free-falling towards it. But since the spacecraft itself is also free-falling, there’s nothing to stop your fall, hence the weightlessness. You are technically in free-fall towards the center of the Earth right now, but the floor is stopping you. Get in an elevator on a high floor and cut the cables, and you can experience weightlessness right here on Earth (or book a ride on one of these planes).

But back to Pluto and Charon. When a moon orbits a planet, the two bodies are actually both orbiting their center of gravity, a point where the masses of the two objects balance called the barycenter. Because in most planet/moon systems the planet is vastly larger, this is usually hard to spot: our Moon, for example, doesn’t orbit around the very center of the Earth, but around a point 1,062 miles below the surface of our planet, where the two masses balance. This is so close to the dead center that Earth appears to stay put, but it actually shakes a bit. Stars also do that as a result of planets orbiting around them, and this gravitational wobble is one of the ways you can infer the presence of planets around a star, something otherwise difficult to see because of the blinding light.
But with Pluto and Charon, since the moon is so large compared to its host, the center of gravity actually lies outside Pluto. So they both circle around, orbiting their barycenter:

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The two are tidally locked, which means they are always showing each other the same face (as our Moon does, hence “the dark side of the Moon”), but they’re also in a synchronous orbit, so Charon remains forever fixed in the same position in the sky for an observer on Pluto, provided they’re standing on the right side of the planet (there’s never a Charon in the sky on the other side).

So there’s a lot of cool stuff in the Solar System besides Mars. Truth be told, many such missions are very costly and delicate to arrange, and NASA is suffering its worst budget constraints ever. For example, the technical challenges associated with penetrating Europa’s ice sheets are enormous, and NASA’s famous probe Galileo, which explored the Jupiter system until 2003, was carefully commanded to crash into the giant planet at the end of its mission to avoid any chance of contaminating the moons, especially Europa itself (the spacecraft was not sterilized). Still, it doesn’t detract from the fact that yet another Mars rover is a bit boring and unimaginative.

Isn’t space exploration all about boldly going where no man (or rover) has gone before? For now, NASA seems happier in safely sending stuff where they already have.

The Darkness Around Suicide

The tragic death of the nurse who was the victim of a prank call at Kate Middleton’s hospital a few days ago highlights how little is known, or understood, about the complex issue of suicide.

After the news broke that Jacintha Saldanha had killed herself, the world was enraged. Twitter immediately turned into a violent storm of accusations and hatred, and the accounts of the culprits were quickly deleted. Many people stated that the two Australian DJs had «blood on their hands» and needed to be charged with manslaughter. They were to blame for what happened.

I am deeply sorry for the death of this woman, a married mother of two. But the pranksters cannot be blamed. While shame is a powerful motivator for suicide, a single event is almost never enough. Very few media outlets bothered to call a psychologist to comment on the events in their first round of reporting. Fox News, not a news source I normally admire, had the president of the American Psychologist Association correctly suggest that the call might have been «a final straw» that led Saldanha to take her own life.

No one is directly to blame. You could say that the hospital director should have know better than to put a vulnerable person in charge of the phone when he had the world’s most famous patient under his care. And you can question the taste, the timeliness and the motives of the pranksters, but those observations should stay the same regardless of what happened as a result. Prince Charles himself had a laugh about it, before tragedy struck of course, by saying «How do you know I’m not a radio station?».
If you listen to the call, the intentions of the hoaxers are pretty clear: «We thought a hundred people before us would have tried it, we just thought it was such a silly idea, and the accents were terrible», they explain in a video interview, «Not for a second we thought we would actually get to speak to anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on». The joke was stupid to start with, but it spiraled out of control.

Suicides only make the news under certain conditions, chiefly when they follow a murder, or when they are linked to fame. Not necessarily a celebrity: in 2010, Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, who builds tech gadgets for Apple and other leading brands, made magazine covers after a slew of suicides. There were 14 registered self-inflicted deaths among Foxconn’s 930,000 employees that year. Sadly, those were actually pretty good numbers compared to China’s national rate of over 22 suicides out of every 100,000 people each year (Foxconn only suffered 1,5). That didn’t stop the company from responding to the public outcry by installing nets in its dorms to discourage workers from jumping out of windows. Bad publicity kills good business.

What this shows is that not only suicide is questionably treated by the media, but that we are extremely unfamiliar with the numbers surrounding it. China has, admittedly, one of the world’s highest suicide rates: a staggering 287,000 people kill themselves each year, out of a population of 1,3 billion. That’s about 786 people a day, a figure that’s hard to swallow. You’d think that has mostly to do with China. But it doesn’t.

The United States have one of the highest rates of homicides among developed countries: in 2009, there were 16,500 deaths by murder. And how many deaths by suicide? Over 36,000. More than twice as many people kill themselves each year in the US than are killed by others. In the same year, 2009, suicide has surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death by injury. And more American soldiers routinely die by taking their own lives than are killed in combat. In India, another country with elevated rates, suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people (15-29 years of age) after transportation accidents, with around 187,000 fatalities in 2010 alone.

The puzzling numbers are not the end of the story. One commonly held belief is that suicide rates peak around holidays, especially in the winter. But that’s hardly the case: people commit suicide far more frequently during springtime. Why? There are many theories, but increased social interaction may be a leading factor: it’s just when you hope that things might get better, like the weather outside, that you get depressed the most if they actually don’t. Also, it’s easier to feel socially disconnected when everybody else is out having fun. The intricate inner workings of suicidal tendencies are also based upon cultural or racial differences: African-americans are half as likely to kill themselves and six times more likely to be murdered. But some of those homicides may be suicides in disguise: psychologists say this is due to the fact that white and black people externalize their frustrations about life differently, because of cultural heritage. There’s a type of murder called “victim-precipitated homicide”, which happens when someone engages in violent or reckless behavior that gets them killed. An estimated 30 percent of urban homicides may belong to this variant, which is not recognized as a form of suicide.
A similar thing happens after news break that a celebrity has committed suicide:
not only you get a spike in actual suicides out of emulation, but the number of fatal car accidents involving a single person also spikes. Many of those are people killing themselves.

In the end, nearly all suicides go unnoticed and undiscussed, because this is a taboo topic across all cultures. But there’s another reason why so few are reported in newspapers: even common people committing suicide, for example subway jumpers, inspire emulators. Especially individuals demographically similar to the person who died, and who lived in the same geographical area. It’s called the Werther Effect, after Goethe’s novel. The result is that media outlets in many countries self-regulate against reporting suicides to deter copycats.

Suicide is not a rare thing, it’s a common thing. It can hardly be caused by a single event, however devastating: it’s a cumulative problem often linked to mental illness. There’s not nearly enough awareness around it, compared to other similarly life-threatening issues. All the time and effort that have been spent over the last few days chastising two hapless idiots who didn’t know what they were doing, could have been better spent exploring the real problem. Awareness can save lives. Ruining those of two additional people accomplishes nothing.

The Perils of Gift Giving

The gifting season is upon us.

Like several things that require you to interact with others, gift giving is an apparently simple, benign activity that can quickly turn into a can of worms. The main problem is that the giver and the recipient have different perspectives and they often follow different incentives, which sometimes end up clashing.

As a giver, for example, you tend to think that more is better: two presents are a more generous offering than one. But there’s a twist. Imagine you’re buying a $300 sweater for a friend. At the counter, you add in a $25 gift card, so that he can get himself a necktie or a few socks. Which one is the best gift, just the sweater or the sweater and gift card combo? In this case, one is better than two, because as a recipient you tend to average out the value of all the gifts you receive from someone: the small gift is thus lowering the perceived value of the big gift, and you are better off with just the sweater.
You should refrain from the temptation of adding candy, gift cards or novelty items to your main present, whatever its value.

We have a peculiar way of evaluating items in a group. Take this example from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Suppose there are two sets of dinnerware that you can buy:

Set A has 24 pieces.
Set B has 40 pieces. It has all the pieces from Set A plus an additional 16 pieces, but 9 of these are broken. 

Which set is worth more? Obviously Set B, since it has everything from Set A plus an additional 7 intact pieces. And indeed, in the study this refers to, participants valued Set B more ($32) than Set A ($30), when presented with both options.
But in single evaluation, when sets were presented by themselves, results were reversed: Set A was valued far better ($33) than the larger Set B ($23). Why? Because the average value per dish in Set B is much lower due to the broken dishes, which nobody wants to pay for. Calculating the average makes the set with less pieces worth more, and taking out items from the larger set improves its value. Economic theory dictates the exact opposite: «adding a positively valued item to a set can only increase its value».
But not so in behavioral economics.

So yeah, less is more and all that. Surely, you might say, reducing the act of gift giving to just a matter of value is simplistic, not to mention heartless. But there’s a little economist inside our heads who strongly disagrees: that is why some people only give out kitschy, sarcastic gifts that have no intrinsic value beyond the chuckle they produce once the wrapping is torn off. It’s an efficient way of avoiding the problem of a sincere gift, and it works well with acquaintances or your sister, but it’s not an ideal option for everyone else in between.

In purely economical terms, the best gift is cash. I recommend that if you happen to have a friend who’s an economist, because then the gift will double its function and also get you a chuckle. A classic study called The Deadweight Loss of Christmas explains why: in a survey, it was found that «holiday gift-giving destroys between 10 percent and a third of the value of gifts». In other words, if you give your friend a $100 shirt, his perceived value of it, or how much he’d be willing to pay for it, will be 70 to 90 dollars. That’s the deadweight loss, which would be avoided to the benefit of everyone involved by just handing out cold, hard cash. The world would be a gloomy place, but it would save around $10 billion that go lost each year in the very transaction of gift giving.

When buying stuff, you also have to deal with another problem: choice. The average supermarket carries about 40,000 items, twice as many as just a decade ago. You can only marvel at the number of different types of jeans you can find in a Gap store now compared to just twenty years ago. More choice is good, right? Psychologist Barry Schwarz has a different opinion, as he explains in his book The Paradox of Choice.
In a memorable study conducted at a gourmet food store, jams were offered for tasting. On one day, 24 flavors were available; on another day, just 6. Surprisingly, 30 percent of buyers who tasted from the small selection made a purchase, compared to just 3 percent of those who tasted from the wider array. Apparently, more choice creates «decision paralysis» and a lower level of satisfaction, because it leaves room for greater regret: you have an increased chance of making the wrong decision as the number of options escalates.

(While not everyone agrees with this theory, companies seem to have picked up on it: when Procter & Gamble reduced the number of variations of its Head and Shoulders shampoo from 26 to 15, sales increased by 10 percent. And when the Golden Cat Corporation eliminated the 10 worst selling types of its kitty litters, sales rose by 12 percent and profits more than doubled due to reduced distribution costs).

If that wasn’t enough, be aware that simply buying groceries can mean relinquishing your most personal secrets. Large retail stores are ravenous for information about your shopping habits, and they can use the data they gather from fidelity programs to predict your future needs. Charles Duhigg narrates in his book The Power of Habit of an incident that happened at a Target store in Minnesota, when a man walked in protesting the fact that his daughter, still in high school, was getting coupons in the mail for baby cribs and clothes: «Are you encouraging teenage pregnancy?», he complained. When he received an apology call from customer service a few days later, he had to apologize himself:
«I had a talk with my daughter. It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August». If you think that’s too much, let it be known that credit card companies can predict a divorce just by analyzing spending patterns.

But back to presents: there’s one final piece of advice that I can give you. If you want to extract the maximum amount of happiness from your purchases, wether it’s something you buy for yourself or someone else, buy experiences instead of things. The excitement of a brand new object soon fades, while a new experience (a weekend somewhere, a yoga lesson, a concert) gives you a memory than can be revisited and stays with you forever.

The 11 Most Annoying Things on Facebook

There are a number of things on Facebook that just rub me the wrong way. Here’s a list.

1. The Plea to stop unwanted requests.
Let me tell you how this works: those requests are automatic. When you play a game, it will generally try to spam your entire friends list so that it can propagate itself. There’s a simple way around this: go to your privacy settings and block the offending app. To think that someone will read your plea, make a note of it, and specifically opt you out the next time actually makes you sound more stupid than the very person you’ve been getting unsolicited requests from. But it does make you look like you are above these silly games, because hey, you’re on Facebook for the important, serious stuff. And it’ll also get you likes from other clueless recipients.

2. The Redundant Link
When you post a YouTube video, you first insert the URL in the box, and then Facebook creates a preview of that. That’s when you should remove the original YouTube link you just pasted, and either add your comment or leave it blank. I see so-called social media experts routinely making this mistake. This applies to any link type. It just looks ugly.

3. The Autolike
That’s just not allowed.

4. Vaguebooking
Urban Dictionary defines this as «An intentionally vague Facebook status update, that prompts friends to ask what’s going on, or is possibly a cry for help». You shouldn’t do it.

5. The Countdown

This is a variation on vaguebooking. It’s a very cheesy way of fishing for attention.

6. Addressing people who just gave you a like
This is the Facebook equivalent of calling someone back after they texted you. It’s intrusive. Plus it makes you look really dumb once the second like comes in, because then no one will know who the hell you’re talking to. And it slashes the chances of that person giving you a like in the future, fearing you’ll take the opportunity to start an unwanted conversation again.

7. Putting up fake cool places as your hometown

Judging by Facebook, New York City has a population of approximately 60 million.

8. Your newborn as a profile pic

There’s just no stopping people from forcing down your throat the fact that they can reproduce. Yet it’s probably less creepy than creating a whole new profile for the infant altogether.

9. The Reflex Selfie

This was cool for about 5 seconds the first time someone ever did it. Now it’s incredibly lame: if you’re a photographer, that’s a pretty desperate way of advertising that. If you’re not, then it’s probably a self-involved way of showing you’re artistic. What it really shows is that you own a reflex camera and you want to hide your face.

10. The shared profile
That’s so annoying even Facebook doesn’t like it. So they have launched a new ‘couples’ page, presumably to mitigate the problem. I don’t really know what that is, but you can look it up here.

11. The Feminist Support Group

Here’s how this works: some perfectly normal, average looking woman (possibly past her prime age-wise) posts a vaguely sexy looking picture of herself, often a selfie. At which point a good portion of her female friends feel obliged to comment on how gorgeous she looks. Often by using typically masculine remarks. The unwritten rule is that you should then do the same as the occasion arises. It’s a cheap way of distributing some hollow, feel-good compliments. You can tell when this dynamic is in effect because not a single guy either likes or comments.

Do you have any Facebook pet peeves?

Do You Have to be Mad to be a Scientist?

Great Scott!

“Doc” Brown, from Back to the Future, is peculiar among fictional scientists, because he’s not a villain. A survey of about about 1,000 horror films released between 1930 and 1980 reveals that in about a third of the movies, the bad guy is a mad scientist. And while scientific research produces about 40 percent of the threats, scientists are heroes in just one every ten films. But even though Doc is an outlier in intent, he still looks the part: his appearance is modeled after the most famous scientist of all time.

That’s wonderful, right? The greatest genius of them all showing you his quirky side. Nearly everyone will be able to tell you that this is Albert Einstein: good luck having people recognize any other scientist from a photograph. That’s because Einstein is obviously very famous, but also because this photograph conforms beautifully to the stereotype of the mad scientist. This other picture of him is not quite as popular:

But this is the guy you want! He’s the one who came up with the theory of Special Relativity and discovered the photoelectric effect, for which he got a Nobel Prize: both accomplishments came in 1905, when Einstein was 26 years old, working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland. Take a look at good old Charles Darwin, here:

He’s 65 in this iconic photograph, looking like an old sage. Which is probably what you expect him to look like, because we’re somehow primed to associate science with long, white beards. When he boarded the HMS Beagle and started a voyage that would take him around the world and inspire the theory of evolution, he looked more like this:

He was just 22. And he had already become a celebrity in scientific circles by 1836, at the age of 25. So much for the old man that looks like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings.

James Maxwell, probably the greatest physicist of all time after Newton and Einstein (who kept a photograph of him in his study), wrote an essay about the nature of Saturn’s rings in 1859, aged 28, which remained our best understanding of the problem until the Voyager flybys in the 1980s. He produced his seminal contributions to electromagnetism before he turned 30. Edison and Tesla laid the foundations for their War of Currents in their early 30s. And beloved physicist Richard Feynman developed his Feynman Diagrams, which he would use to formulate the theories that won him a Nobel Prize, in his late 20s.

You get the gist of it. Great science comes from young people. But we’re stuck with this ridiculous stereotype of a hoary old man with goggles and smoking flasks. The scientific community is well aware of the problem. Nobel laureate Harry Kroto goes as far as calling the iconic old Einstein “an imposter”, in a brilliant presentation during which he raises this very point. A group of researchers even published a paper, called Breaking down the stereotypes of science by recruiting young scientists, to suggest that the stereotype should be fought by engaging kids in science at an early age.
They write, «If you ask the average ten year old in America what a scientist looks like, they almost always describe an older man with crazy white hair and a lab coat. Students are often repeatedly confronted with stereotypes of science and scientists via television, cartoon, and comic book characters as well as uninformed adults or peers».

Up until 1905, over 60 percent of Nobel laureates had completed their prize-winning work before turning 40, and about 20 percent did it before 30. But by 2000, things had changed: less than 20 percent of winners in physics were rewarded for research concluded before they were 40, and in chemistry the percentage dropped to nearly zero. There are of course many factors at work here, including the fact that it now takes longer to complete your academic training compared to a century ago. But it doesn’t help that the young are forced to perceive science as something that must be in the hands of the old (and crazy).

In 2005, an Australian physician named Barry Marshall won the Nobel Prize for medicine: he discovered that ulcers, forever thought to be the work of stress, food, and acid, were actually caused by bacteria, so they could easily be cured with antibiotics. But when he first proposed the idea in 1982, at the age of 31, he was a young doctor from Perth (not the scientific center of the world by any means) trying to overturn a long-standing principle of medical doctrine: he was ridiculed and no scientific journal accepted to publish his study. So he had to ingest the bacteria himself to prove that he was right.

Stereotypes are very sticky, and this one seems to work particularly well. Einstein used to say, «A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so». While this may be debatable today, it is essential to engage young people earlier on and get rid of this mad scientist crap. Even at the cost of no longer being allowed to say: «Great Scott!».