Category: Politics

Why I stopped using Facebook

A few of you noticed that I disappeared from Facebook, and asked me if everything is fine with me. Let me start by reassuring that everything is fine with my loved ones and me, both in Norway and Italy. That said, the reason why I deleted my Facebook account is that I cannot stand the disinformation and divisiveness on my feed anymore.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a new wave of conspiracy theories: from 5G antennas transmitting the virus via radio waves, to Bill Gates having engineered Covid-19, to the evergreen new world order orchestrating all of this. The echoes of the Brexit referendum and the last U.S. presidential elections are not hard to spot. It is the pitting of “skepticism” against “experts,” and of “people” against “elite.”

While conspiracy theories have long existed, Facebook and other social media have accelerated their circulation. Moderating content after it is shared thousands of times is insufficient. Curating knowledge before it is shared is just as crucial to contain disinformation. But the tech giant is failing at it spectacularly.

In 2016, Cambridge Analytica illicitly harvested data to produce the political profile of millions of Facebook users and target them with fear-mongering ads based on lies. As Facebook’s design fosters echo chambers—where outside views are discredited—these ads were remarkably effective.

As Carole Cadwalladr put it: Maybe you think, “Well, it was just a few ads. And people are smarter than that, right?” To which I would say, “Good luck with that.” The Brexit referendum and the last U.S. presidential election have already demonstrated that liberal democracy is broken.

I was naïve enough to hope that the Covid-19 pandemic would restore some trust in reliable, fact-based sources of information. I could not be more wrong.

A growing number of people experience a sense of lack of control in their lives (e.g., long-term unemployment), and share conspiracy theories to gain a compensatory illusion of control. Detecting patterns where there are, in fact, none at least leaves this possibility open.

Unfortunately, in a post-truth society that is based more on collective- than individual identities, conspiracy theories spread like wildfire because they serve as weapons in a tribal war.

Facebook has known about this for a while. “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content to gain user attention and increase time on the platform.” Nevertheless, Facebook shut down the efforts to make the site less divisive.

Four years after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and six months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, very little has changed. Despite multinational companies now pulling ads from Facebook over inaction on hate speech, the tech giant is still doing too little to prevent disinformation and divisiveness. And what many people do not seem to understand is that this is bigger than any of us.

The president of the most powerful country in the world is an anti-intellectual who suggests curing Covid-19 with disinfectant injections and brags about his “tremendous job” in handling the pandemic, despite the U.S. topping all charts about infections and deaths. The silly movie Idiocracy from 2006 does not seem so unrealistic anymore. Before you realize it, another representative of the Dunning–Kruger effect could be in charge of your country.

Now, if this doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.

Stopping using Facebook will not help fighting disinformation and divisiveness. Quite the contrary. But at least I will avoid everyday frustrations and invest my time more wisely.

Feel free to contact me on iMessage and Signal.

Stay safe and have a great summer!

Alessandro

Double standards in Norwegian environmental culture?

Norway: Environmental hero or hypocrite?” was the question the Financial Times asked a year ago. As a resident in Norway for the last decade and with a background of research and innovation, I have long been concerned with the same question.

Norway has implemented a number of measures for a green shift. For example, power generation is mainly based on renewable sources, and the number of electric cars per capita is the largest in the world. Nevertheless, the waste volume in Norway increased by 7% while recycling decreased 1% from 2013 to 2014.

I was a research scientist at SINTEF between November 2012 and February this year. During these years, I have been concerned that there are no trash cans for sorting food waste, plastic, bottles, glass and metal, while there are plastic cups in each kitchen at the SINTEF offices in Oslo.

I believe that an organisation researching technology to fight global warming should “eat its own dog food”. A year ago, I suggested that the SINTEF administration in Oslo should reduce waste volume and increase recycling. Despite multiple reminders, they have never returned to me.

SINTEF is probably not the only organisation that does not sort its waste, but if not even a research organisation takes responsibility for the environment, then Norway has a problem with environmental culture.

While we wait for the authorities to force businesses to tackle the problem, tonnes of recyclable trash are thrown away as mixed waste every day. Is it not time to quit the double standards and actually start implementing a comprehensive green shift? The alternative is to get a reputation that is hard to get rid of: being an environmental hypocrite.

The original version of this article was published in Norwegian in Aftenposten on June 2017.

We can put an end to imperial units

“In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie1 of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount of hydrogen weighing the same amount has exactly one mole of atoms in it. Whereas in the American system, the answer to ‘How much energy does it take to boil a room-temperature gallon of water?’ is ‘Go fuck yourself,’ because you can’t directly relate any of those quantities.” Wild Thing by Josh Bazell.

I have not read Wild Thing, and I do not have any idea about who Josh Bazell is, but I love this quote. It brilliantly summarises how superior the International System of Units (i.e., the modern form of the metric system) is to the system of imperial units, as shown in the following illustration:

Visual comparison of metric and imperial units

Yet, nowadays…

The USA is the only industrialised country in the world that still uses a system of units developed from English units (i.e., the United States customary system), as well as the only industrialised country in the world that has not adopted the International System of Units2(see Metrication in the USA).

Canada and the UK have adopted the International System of Units, but their metrication process is far from being complete (see Metrication in the UK and Canada).

Despite the fact only a minority of countries have not adopted the International System of Units, the majority of countries are still contaminated by the system of imperial units. Think about it… Even in continental Europe, where the metric system comes from and where the imperial units are nowhere in the education curriculum, screens are measured in inches, aircrafts’ altitude is measured in feet, watercrafts’ speed in measured in knots, etc.

The problem is that, to anybody who grew up with the International System of Units, an advertisement of a 55” TV screen tells very little about the actual size; a captain announcing that the plane is cruising at 30,000 feet tells very little about the actual altitude; a speedometer showing that the boat is cruising at 20 knots tells very little about the actual speed.

This is ridiculous and has got to stop. Governments of all countries adopting the International System of Units have to enforce that this system is used in absolutely every application and that any trace of imperial units is consigned to history.

If you are a man or woman of science, or if you simply have common sense, please share this post on every social network, and tag your tweets and instagrams with the tag #banimperialunits.

Here are some examples of tweets that you can send to your politicians.

Inch is not an official unit in Norway. Why are screens measured in inches and not centimetres? #banimperialunits

Foot is not an official unit in Italy. Why does the aviation industry use feet and not metres? #banimperialunits

Knot is not an official unit in Spain. Why does the ship industry use feet and not metres? #banimperialunits

Together, we can put an end to imperial units.

Footnotes

  1. One may argue that calorie is not a unit of the metric system. In the International System of Units, which is an evolution of the metre-kilogram-second (MKS) system of units, which in turn is a variant of the metric system, both mechanical and thermal energies are measured in Joule. However, in the centimetre-gram-second (CGS) system of units, which is another variant of the metric system, the thermal energy is measured in Calories. Therefore, I would still consider Calorie as one of the units of the metric system, although not of the International System of Units. Besides, I do not think Josh Bazell aimed at being scientifically rigorous, so I would excuse him for not clarifying which variant of the metric system he refers to.
  2. The two other countries that do not adopt the International System of Units are Myanmar and Liberia, while the four other countries that adopt Fahrenheit for everyday applications are Bahamas, Belize, the Cayman Islands, and Palau.

We can put an end to month-day-year dates

What is today’s date? If you answered this question with May 25, 2024 (read May the twenty-fifth, two thousand and twenty-four), you should go on reading.

The day-month-year date format (e.g., 25 May 2024) is officially adopted by the vast majority of the world’s countries.

The year-month-day date format (e.g., 2024-05-25) is officially adopted by China, Japan, Korea, and Iran, and is also the date format of the ISO 8601 standard.

The month-day-year date format (e.g., May 25, 2024) is officially adopted by the USA only (although contamination of this format can be found in a few other countries). Like most standards adopted in the USA, the month-day-year date format is bizarre at best, as shown in the following illustration:

Visual comparison of date formats

Yet, nowadays…

The month-day-year format is used by a large number of people speaking English as a foreign language, who adopt Americanisms like these without thinking them through. Unfortunately, this is the case even in Europe, despite the fact that every European country–including the UK–officially adopts the day-month-year format.

Long story short: if you live outside the USA but use the month-day-year format when writing or speaking in English, you are doing it wrong. You do not suddenly use miles, pounds, and Fahrenheit when writing or speaking in English, right? Then please, in the interest of logic, do not use the month-day-year date format either. 🙂 Keep using the day-month-year or year-month-day date formats, like you learned in school. If you want to avoid any misunderstanding, just use the variants d MMMM yyyy or d MMM yyyy of the day-month-year date format (e.g., 25 May 2024 or 25 May 2024), which are the most readable ones.

So, once again, what is today’s date? It is 25 May 2024 (read the twenty-fifth of May two thousand and twenty-four).

How to blow 1.6 million EUR

The University of Smallville needs to build a new student centre. The centre will offer services to students such as programme enrollment and exam registration and will provide a new auditorium, library, swimming pool, gym, etc.

On the 14th of September 2006, the University Board decides to initiate a project called MegaCentre for the new student centre, to which it allocates half a million EUR. The University has, among others, a Department of Architecture, a Department of Engineering and a Department of Facility Management. One might expect that the University Board would assign the management of MegaCentre to one of these Departments. On the contrary, however, the University Board assigns the management of MegaCentre to the Student Affairs Centre. The Student Affairs Centre forms a working group composed of a project leader, a project co-leader, a technical leader and two co-workers. Again, one might expect that someone from the Department of Architecture, Engineering or Facility Management would cover one of these roles. On the contrary, however, all members of the working group, except for the technical leader, belong to the Student Affairs Centre. The project leader and co-leader do not have specialist educations in architecture or engineering. The technical leader of the working group has an education in engineering but does not belong to the University. The working group spends more than one year and half a million EUR planning MegaCentre.

On the 13th of September 2007, the working group presents the plans for MegaCentre to the University Board. According to these plans, the construction of the building will be assigned to the external construction company Nonchalant, which guarantees the use of state-of-the-art construction techniques. Moreover, once the building comes into service, the maintenance will be assigned to the Department of Facility Management. The University Board accepts the plans and allocates an additional 0.9 million EUR to the project. Nonchalant spends more than one year on construction of the building, on completion of which it presents a bill of 1.1 million EUR.

On the 4th of February 2009, the building is inaugurated with due ceremony, after which it enters into service. Unfortunately, faults in the building’s design immediately become evident, with problems such as poor insulation, a leaky roof, an unreliable alarm system and poor handicap access, to name but a few. Both employees and students soon become frustrated. Again, one might expect that the working group of MegaCentre would demand Nonchalant to honour its contractual agreement, repair all faults and pay any necessary fines for damage caused. On the contrary, however, the working group simply allows the Department of Facility Management to deal with the faults as they see fit. The Department of Facility Management hires construction workers and assigns them to the repairs and alterations. The construction workers do what they can, but after one year many design issues remain unresolved. The head of the Department of Facility Management, who has an education in engineering, decides to perform a thorough evaluation of the building. On doing so, he discovers that the building is constructed with obsolete rather than state-of-the-art techniques, and that these would not guarantee minimal safety in the event of a natural disaster. Finally, he concludes that it will be necessary to reconstruct the building from scratch using appropriate techniques.

On the 29th of April 2010, the head of the Department of Facility Management presents the evaluation to the University Board. At this point, the University Board finally acknowledges that severe action must be taken and sues Nonchalant for damages, excludes the Student Affairs Centre from the project, hands the management of MegaCentre to the Department of Facility Management and fires the employees responsible for public money wasted hitherto.

Do you find this story unbelievable? Well, now replace the name Smallville with Bergen, MegaCentre with EksternWeb and Nonchalant with Bouvet, and reread it here.