The usual trope from the gun lobby

It’s hard to look at the pictures of those young faces slain by bullets last week in Texas without crying. But the sadness I experience turns to anger quickly when I hear or read the comments of our political leaders and advocates for less rather than more gun control. We get the standard ‘it’s mental health’ or ‘only good guys with guns can stop this’, built on the simple deterministic model that every effect can have only one simple cause. Yes, anyone who commits mass murder is surely mentally disturbed, and yes, when someone is shooting at you, you might need to shoot back to stop them, but using that logic to make policy is itself a sign of mental deficiency, a powerful form of intentional blindness that refuses to consider the interacting forces that shape how the world really works.

But let’s for a minute play this game. If gun violence is only about ‘mental health’, why is Texas so poor in providing the necessary services? Texas is ranked 30th in the US for its mental health service provision. Clearly we could do better but when is the last time you heard Ted Cruz or his fellow party members express enthusiasm for greater health spending by the state? That would be a curiously big-government response to a public service, no? And despite the popular idea, the actual research data (where it is allowed to be used) suggests the link between mental health and gun violence is weak.

Of course, it’s easy to say after the fact that the murderer was disturbed but it can be quite difficult in advance to predict if any one individual will act. It’s not hard to say, however, that for any number of people who are disturbed, making it easy for them to gain access to automatic weapons, or any weapons, likely increases the chance of a terrible outcome. So, do we want to live in a country where, to protect our ability to buy an AR-15, we should all be observed constantly and reported upon in case we might turn out to be mass-murderers? Because to have any chance of preventing further instances of mass-murder, we surely have to engage in this level of monitoring. Is having Big Brother watching our every move the price advocates want to pay to reduce the chance of mental health-induced gun rampages? That would seem a rather strange defense of personal freedom.

I could go on — after mental health is invoked, we get the ‘good guys with guns’ theory. But there were plenty of such good guys at Uvalde that morning. No doubt now the theory will be contorted with the blame shifted to the way leadership acted or the procedures were followed in the situation. Sure, there are questions to be asked there but if we invoke procedures then we can’t also invoke the ‘good guy with a gun’ theory in its simple form. It has to become good guys with the right rules, procedures, policies and training, and equipment. All of these layers involve planning, education, funding etc., you know the type of social and organizational infrastructure that advocates tend to dismiss as complications, government interference or you know, socialism.

The neat sidestep of logic is to just say ‘arm the teachers’ as if that is what will help. So a teacher, busy providing an education to your children, should, while explaining math or grammar at the whiteboard, all the while keep an eye out for shooters and be ready, at no notice, to pull out a loaded weapon and take on a mentally-disturbed, automatic weapon firing killer. Yep, that’s a really good idea. No practical concerns there, at all. Ok, not the teacher, then let’s put armed response teams in every school, all the time. Why? So that the rest of us can have all the weapons we want. Boon to the gun industry for sure, not quite so obvious that it helps improve education to have kids spend large parts of their young lives within weaponized fortresses.

How did it get to this? Well the constant yelling that any new requirements for gaining a weapon (you know, like the requirements to drive a car, or to vote, which some of the same folks seem to have no problem legislating for) is somehow the first salvo in a war to take away all rights to bear arms has drowned out intelligent discussion. Who says it has to be so cut and dried? That any restriction, no matter how sensible, is somehow a violation of the constitution, is a narrative that serves the gun industry well, but it ill-serves the people of this nation. I noticed Ted Cruz conveniently avoid this issue while just saying any suggestion he hears from Democrats ‘would not have worked’ etc. To keep saying ‘no’ without offering an alternative, while saying ‘yes’ to large donations from the NRA is surely a reliable sign of some kind of mental health issue.

And finally, to even ask for some rethinking of the law is now apparently ‘politicizing’ the issue? Well yes, if you understand that politicizing is the act of making us aware of the ways in which governing might work then yes, let’s politicize this issue properly. Let’s not restrict the ability of government to fund research on gun violence (in what other areas of human well-being do we think less research is the best approach?) Let’s consider the costs and benefits of allowing automatic weapons being easily purchased by people not considered old enough to drink a beer and let’s try to enact the sort of provisions that most citizens of this country want, not what the special interests or industry wants. Yes, let’s politicize this issue properly so we can lessen the occurrence of the type of horror we witnessed at Uvalde. Yes, let sensible gun owners speak up without fearing they are breaking rank with the NRA or their party. Let’s have this open discussion and make better laws for all. Let’s never see faces like those school children appear on our screens again under such circumstances.

So what’s changed?

I attended the CHI conference this year. Well, sort of, since I was a virtual attendee. It ran as a hybrid event, a mix of in-person attendees at New Orleans and a dispersed group of us from around the world logging in to watch or give Zoom presentations. This is the second mixed format conference I’ve been at in the last six months and I have to say, the hybrid style just does not work for me. At ASIST 2021, which I attended in-person, I was on a panel that seemed to attract more people on remote screens than were in the room with us. So we all looked at the camera or a screen and had precious little real interaction. The physical absence of those joining us remotely made for a particularly odd experience at other sessions, it spilled over into the poster and awards events, even the lunches and breaks, all staring a sense of disconnectedness or absence.

At CHI, the remote experience was even more disturbing. Other than the session I presented in, where everyone was on Zoom, it felt very difficult to have any sense of actually being at a conference. When you’re working online all the time, such a conference is just one more disturbable event, colleagues consider you ‘available’ and the distractions of the office or classroom are hard to park. Worse, when a session ends, you have no connection with the conference community because you are not really ‘there’, you are at home, with your laptop, through which virtual chit-chat around a coffee break is unnatural or unwelcome.

Shout out to the HCI Across Borders group who made the session I spoke at valuable and informative (I made a pitch for greater respect of human experience and augmentation in design) but the rest of the conference as a whole felt like a waste of time to me (and I object to having register for it all in order to attend the one session at which I spoke). That it also became a super-spreader event for those who went to New Orleans might also tell us that we need to rethink how we view conferences from here. Online can work but it should not and cannot replicate in-person gatherings. Perhaps it’s time to rethink more radically how we share research and engage as a community. Anyone listening?

Making voting harder, one small step at a time

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Early voting opens here for the primaries and it’s always a good time to check on the information made available for the electorate. I don’t know what else to say about this sorry excuse of portal from the Texas Secretary of State but if you try to learn anything useful here you’ll be sadly uninformed.

While it claims to offer info on early voting and poll locations, you actually cannot access anything here without first putting in personal details to check your voter registration. Ok, so they don’t want anyone who is not registered to actually know where the polls are or when they are open. Dubious but perhaps there’s a reason for this. Nevertheless, submit your details and you still get no information, only a statement that “No Early Election Poll Places are found”. Then you’re left hanging here. You can return to the previous page but are automatically required to enter your info again if you want to try another link.

Intentional bad design? Stupidity? Minimal compliance with public information requirements? Welcome to democracy 2022.

Update – May 24th. I checked the site again today as local elections are happening. No improvement.

Academia and the corporate culture

I was struck listening to Rebecca Stott’s short piece on BBC Radio 4’s Point of View about the negative impact of corporate culture on academic life. When universities are treated as businesses, our work is indexed to bogus measures. Published research is now a deliverable, valued in terms of its citation impact only (it’s so much easier to count than to read). Faculty are good only if the numbers say they are. Students are customers and we continually survey them so we can tailor our products to meet demand. As Stott notes, in this new world, league tables emerge, every school and professor is ranked, and the end result is an erosion of trust. Yes, and we risk ending up with a university culture that knows the price of everything but the educational value of little. Worth a listen.

YouTube reveals we ‘dislike’ more when others do too

Noticed that YouTube has announced that they are disabling the routine ‘dislike’ feature on videos after an experiment. It turns out, if you don’t get to see the dislike count, you tend to be less likely to register your own dislike. In other words, counts tend to prompt certain responses. Their test allowed people to still rate a dislike but not to see how many others had, and consequently the number of dislike ratings dropped. Of course, we have to assume there is no interaction effect and that the videos in the test were representative of the type that often attract negative ratings, but what it suggests is that people are indeed more likely to rate if they see others have done so. This might account for some of the ‘piling’ on we see of some videos. See https://support.google.com/youtube/thread/134791097/update-to-youtube-dislike-counts?hl=en

Am reminded of my son’s early experience sharing a gaming video he proudly made. He let a few friends know and the initial low views and kind feedback soon gave way to a torrent of abuse from obviously older and mean-spirited types who slammed them. He was rather shaken by the experience and despite my encouragement, ended up taking the videos down. I remember him asking me, with all the hard-won wisdom of someone far greater than any eight year old should possess, ‘Why are people on the internet so mean?’ I still ask myself.

Big Tech PR push

I can’t be the only one noticing the TV and social media advertising from the likes of Facebook and Amazon. Both are trying to deflect the barrage of negative stories about them by pushing the human angle. Facebook wheels out workers for fake interviews, TV-style, where a seated interviewer softballs a question allowing the respondent to talk about how they have to make difficult choices every day trying the balance what information to allow and what to censor. The idea is to present the worker as an ethical professional dealing with the moral dilemma of distinguishing real from misinformation. Of course the short ad also allows for a plug that it’s not Facebook that should be making rules, it’s the job of government, pushing the convenient company line that they are not really responsible for the crap that gets through, they just wish someone else would make the rules now.

Amazon meanwhile, fresh from reports of managers playing fast and loose with workers lives, are all over Linked In and local channels telling us how great their pay and benefits are. Apparently you should all be happy to work for $15 an hour, or $31k a year full-time. Round here that basically doubles the appallingly low minimum wage that business-controlled legislators have maintained but it would make for a rather challenging economic situation for most people. What they don’t tell you is that your rights as a worker are very limited. Delivery drivers are essentially sub-contracted via external service providers who have been shown recently to hire-and-fire on a whim, even telling one driver threatened by a local tornado that if they failed to make the delivery that was scheduled, they would effectively be terminated. Doesn’t that just make you all warm and fuzzy to contemplate? Thank you big business.

Yep, big tech will run our world but don’t fear, they will be pushing pro-climate policies while washing their hands of responsibilities that we should demand of them. All the while, expect Facebook to keep mining your data, repressing unpopular research results, and fobbing it all off on the lack of leadership from government (who they will be lobbying all the while). Amazon will continue to take over everything sellable by promising fast delivery and cheaper prices (enabled by scale and cheap labor) while sending their owner on joyrides into space. All played out against a backdrop of advertising and image cleansing on our sweatshop-made screens. Big business 21st century style…oh Karl Marx, did you ever imagine?

Chuck Watson – thank you

I am deeply saddened tonight to learn of the death of a mentor, friend, and co-author, Charles ‘Chuck’ Watson of Indiana University who died in September. Chuck was a diamond of a man, smart as a whip, funny, and a straight talker on the most difficult of subjects. His death makes the world a lesser place because he always practiced what he preached — do good work and make the world better.

I met Chuck 30 years ago, almost to the day. I had completed my PhD in Loughborough and was contemplating a post-doc at IU in a specially formed Institute for the Study of Human Capabilities that he directed. As luck would have it, he was on sabbatical at Cambridge that semester and drove up to interview me. In all honesty, the interview really consisted of several gin and tonics in the railway hotel across from my office while we chatted about various topics before he uttered a number, out of the blue. This, it turned out, was the salary I would receive and I was to think about it and let him know.

Of course, I took the offer (after a little bargaining) and found myself a couple of months later in a freezing Bloomington, living in a pint-sized apartment near the football stadium, trying to navigate life in the US. I planned to come for an academic year, but I ended up becoming a citizen. I worked with Chuck, among others, on a series of projects related to individual differences which resulted in a well-cited paper we published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Chuck would visit my office regularly to discuss ideas, and we would explore widely, but I also learned that while he enjoyed the topics and the ideas we exchanged, he also was quite keen that I keep a supply of Marlboro cigarettes which he could smoke during our conversations and the inevitable strolls that led us to the Runcible Spoon if it was morning, or better yet, Nick’s Bar if it was a little later.

Time passes and sometimes connections are not maintained as we would wish until it is too late. Tonight I mourn Chuck, but I think of the good times, the humor, and the moments that make a life. Chuck lived his fully, and I will honor his memory by doing the best I can to follow his advice: work hard at what you love and make the world a better place. To Chuck, thank you.

Collecting as a human activity

I was invited to participate in documentary film maker James Tate’s short piece on the desire evoked by mechanical watches among some people. You can view the results here

I might be arguing in my spare time….

Entering July, the deadest time of the summer when typical faculty are not actually on payroll and many are trying to get some downtime, I wake up to an email informing me I have compulsory training to complete on the prevention of cybercrime. Fine, another run through a set of packaged ‘lessons’ with associated tests that most of us view with minor annoyance. That’s the world we live in but what’s majorly annoying is I am told I have to complete these within 4 weeks if I am to remain ‘in compliance’ with my job. Are there other positions where we mandate employees to complete training on their own time?

Project 2021 a complete smockery? Wham bam, thank you Dan

You might remember that UT invested millions of $$ and made very brave claims about the power of new technologies to teach larger classes more effectively. Project 2021 was going to be the example all higher ed followed and finally educational technology was going to harness the power of the web to improve access, deliver tailored instruction, and save everyone lots of money in the process. Criticisms at the time were dismissed (I know because I found myself shouted down by the university administration and project team when I raised any!) Well I did cover that part before but was reminded of it all again when I read Dan Robinson’s thoughtful analysis of the data presented early on as justification for this approach. I won’t spoil it for you — you can read it here yourself.