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Monthly Archives: November 2008

A kettle from Dublin

The rust inside this kettle shows an emergent pattern that is typical of the self-organising dynamics of reaction-diffusion systems.

One example of self-organising dynamics is in the topographic map of ocular dominance columns in the visual cortex. These intricate maps display a fascinating combination and interplay of regularity and irregularity. Such patterns have been modelled by computational neuroscientists using the Kohonen algorithm and variants

Thanks for the picture Cat!

Email: the technology and psychology of continuous partial attention

I gave a talk on Wednesday at UFI in Sheffield entitled “Email: the technology and psychology of continuous partial attention”, which was a brief little intro to some of my thoughts about the psychology of email use (the phrase ‘continuous partial attention’ I owe to Linda Stone, whose thoughts on the matter are far more considered than mine). Here is the abstract from my talk:

What did you interrupt to read this? Chances are you were in the middle of something, or maybe several things, which you put on hold to find out what I’m going to talk about. I’m a research psychologist with an interest in technology, learning and communication. In my talk I’ll tell you why email has such a compulsive hold on people’s attention, how to spot true email addiction, why technology which helps you know less actually makes you smarter, and how there’s both good and bad in the multitasking habit. Now – what were you doing again?

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear

Taking Liberties is an excellent documentary about the erosion of fundamental human rights under the Blair government. In the film, a surveillance systems sales person brings out the classic “If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear”. Now one of the many things wrong with this idea is that it focuses on the person about which things are known and obfuscates the entities that are doing the knowing. “nothing to hide” assumes that you are hiding your knowledge from a single, legitimate, authority, but the truth of the matter is that with privacy you will want to hide different things from different people. The problem with the “If you’ve got nothing to hide” argument is that it makes an assumption of guilt unless you can prove yourself innocent (by having nothing to hide), while simultaneously removing from the individual the ability to decide what defines guilt and innocence. It assumes a legitimate authority while simultaneously being part of dynamic that diminishes accountability, and thus legitimacy. There’s another form of this argument “If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to fear”, which again sounds fair enough from the perspective of an authority, but if remember the history of crimes done by those in authority we need to see it from the perspective of the individual “If they do nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear!”. Why give government powers on the presumption that we can, and always, will be able to trust them not to abuse them? The recent history of these so called anti-terror laws shows that once powers these powers are given they will be used for quite different purposes from those which were invoked to justify their introduction.

Previously here: An open letter to Omar Deghayes, Why I want a charter for terrorists and criminals

Useful: no2id, Liberty

Quote #232


If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago

42 writers

www.42writers.com is “a powerful collection of essays, poems, and stories by 42 contemporary writers, including Ian Rankin, Philip Pullman and Ali Smith.”


We are relieved that the House of Lords have struck down the proposal to hold people without charge for 42 days, but the Home Secretary has made it clear that the Government may try to bring back this dangerous and unnecessary measure. Including new and published works, 42 Writers is a moving and thought-provoking anthology, and its themes of voicelessness, captivity and persecution will resonate with readers even after the political storm has passed