Tag Archives: rumors

“To Be Verified”: Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.

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Web-Based Presentations

Waiting for Google’s presentation app, I tried some of the other suggestions contained here:
Google prepping presentation product | Webware : Cool web apps for everyone

I had already prepared my presentation in “the application that should remain nameless but has a name rhyming in ‘Showerpoint’,” so I didn’t want to rebuild it from scratch.

Thumstacks looked perfect for my needs (I specifically do clean, simple presentations for my classes). Unfortunately, I couldn’t see a way to import content directly (maybe it’s there but I didn’t have a lot of time) and, in Firefox, I couldn’t paste content from my presentation. Too bad. It would have been most excellent, I think.

Then tried Zoho Show. It imported my PPT presentation just fine (though the dialog box was confusing) and it’s exactly the kind of “web-based Show-her-point” thingie I was looking for. Except for one thing. Switching from one slide to the next was just way too slow for my needs. Maybe there’s something I did wrong but it would take several seconds to show the next slide and my students were getting anxious. So I switched back to “Flowerpoint” during the break.

Spresent looks like a neat way to prepare Flash presentations, but that’s really my thing.

ThinkFree is probably the obvious choice and I’ll try it next time.

Why use a Web app for presentations? Well, there’s the possibility of collaborating, of course. But there’s also the issue of bringing the presentation from one computer to the next. Using the classroom presentation computer, you have to get the presentation on the computer (Zoolander flashback: “The files are in the computer?”). It’d be with a USB thumbdrive but, for some reason, the computer in my classroom doesn’t have a readily accessible USB slot (and I don’t have a thumbdrive but my media player works as one).

Besides, it’s easier for me to keep a file in a central place and keep adding material to it.

To me, the killer app is the outliner. A web-based outliner that could do presentations would be a wonderful tool, for me. It would fit sooooo well with my workflow, I would swoon.

So… Erm… Is there such a thing already? Pleeeeez?


Apple Video Conference Phone???

I’m probably reading way too much into this. So I’m just speculating on rumours. But the implications could be huge. Apple’s main site currently has a teaser “The First 30 Years Were Just the Beginning,” in preparation for MacWorld San Francisco. What if the big announcement on Tuesday was more than a mere iPod-based phone. What if this were about a true camera phone, one which could be used for video-enabled chat?Two ideas from PiperJaffray’s Gene Munster, republished by Apple rumour site AppleInsider:AppleInsider | Apple seen launching new iPod, iTV and iPhone at Macworld

6. iSight camera, 4GB or 8GB storage on the iPhone (7 out of 10). Recent rumors point to an initial release of two iPhone models: a 4GB version for $249 and an 8GB model for $449. Both models are rumored to feature two separate batteries in the handset, one for the phone and one for the music player. Also, Apple has successfully branded the iSight cameras on the MacBook and MacBook Pro portables and it is likely that they will eventually extend the brand to the iPhone line. With music, photos, and video from iTunes, the iPhone will be a media-rich device and an iSight camera would add to the eco-system of media/communications on the device.

10. iPhone to feature ‘iChat Mobile’ video and instant messaging (2 out of 10). Again, we believe that the iPhone will be a media-centric communications device and messaging features would work nicely with such an ecosystem. While it is unlikely that the first iPhone will feature video conferencing, this is certainly a feature the company could add to future models, including a possible smartphone model.

The second part is, according to Munster, very unlikely. But how cool would it be?Quite cool indeed. Revolutionary, almost. Just think about the impact picture phones, coupled with Flickr and YouTube, has had on the world in the recent past. The move toward citizen journalism, user-created content, the YouYear…And the technology is largely there. Apart from ubiquitous WiFi to make it practical, of course, but that’s almost a detail for the world in which Apple visionaries tend to live. As for battery life and other technical issues, it shouldn’t be so much of a matter if the rumoured specs for the phone (with two batteries) are to be believed.What is more likely to prevent Apple from coming out with such a device is the fact that Apple has strong ties with “content companies,” especially in movies and music. Surely, these people would have a hard time getting past the idea that these are mostly meant to be bootlegging tools (as if bootlegging was the main intention of most people, at this point). So, even if Apple does come out with a mobile iChat AV on Tuesday, it surely will be somehow crippled so that people can’t use it during shows by commercially established artists (independent artists and “up and coming” artists already know the value of fan recordings and would find ways to promote them). In the end, even artists might benefit as people would use the devices to do cool video mashups (using Apple’s iMovie and other iLife apps, of course) but, in the meantime, Apple will still play it cozy for “content companies” and media conglomerates.Ah, well…