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The Return Of The Scarlet Letter

When I was in university, one of the books in my American Literature course was The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I enjoyed it, but until recently, I didn’t recognize the brilliance of the novel or see just how prescient Nathaniel Hawthorne was.

I’m sure that you’re familiar with The Scarlet Letter, since it’s on just about every English teacher’s reading list, but if it’s been a while since you’ve read it, allow me to refresh your memory.

Scarlet Letter Book CoverThe story takes place in Boston, in 1642. At the time, the city’s citizens were known as Puritans. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from the Church of Rome, and hence wanted to purify the Church of England by ridding it of all traces of Roman Catholicism. They demanded a very strict code of conduct, and by today’s standards they would be considered fundamentalists, or even extremists.

The book’s main character, Hester Prynne, has been charged with committing adultery. After being found guilty, her punishment is prison time, and afterwards, being required to wear a scarlet letter “A” prominently on her dress. This sentence was considered especially light, since adulterers under Puritan law are usually branded or put to death. Although it isn’t stated explicitly in the book, the “A” stands for adulteress, and wearing it in public is meant to shame Hester in front of the townspeople. Since Hester has refused to name the man involved, she must bear this shame alone.

During this course, we discussed the meaning of the letter “A”. The obvious interpretation was that it stood for adulteress, but our professor encouraged us to dig deeper and come up with additional meanings. We reasoned that it could also stand for angel, since Prynne always maintained a regal bearing, and able because Prynne demonstrated that was able to live life on her own terms, without the assistance of a man. Our professor then added his own personal interpretation: America. The letter, or at least the laws that led to its display on Hester Prynne’s dress, symbolized American culture at the time.

As I was making my way through the book, I thought that this tale was just a quaint glimpse into a long-forgotten Puritanical existence. I was glad that our modern, progressive society, now largely free of its ecclesiastical manacles, no longer behaves so sanctimoniously, and that we were now well beyond such pettiness and overt derision.

As it turns out, I spoke too soon… during the past generation, I’ve noticed a resurgence of these Puritanical practices in our society. I am now witnessing what I am going to call “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”. Much like a neighbourhood of anti-vaxxers, suddenly faced with a new outbreak of a long-vanquished disease, many people are now behaving in a manner from which I assumed we had all evolved. This unabashed schadenfreude – something I thought was beneath us as a society – is returning with a vengeance, thanks to social media.

With each passing year, it appears that we are becoming more like our judgmental 17th century predecessors. Allow me to share some of my observations:


A Sign Of The Crimes

The first “signs” of a behavioural shift began before the advent of social media. From time to time, I would read an article about a judge who meted out an unconventional punishment to a petty thief or a misbehaving teenager. In lieu of a criminal record or jail time, the guilty party would have to stand in public beside a large sign that described their transgression.

Shaming Sign 2


Before long, parents started mimicking these judges and delivering a similar punishment to their errant teenagers.

Shaming Sign 3


Shaming via E-Mail Forwarding

I then noticed that e-mail was no longer being used solely as a business and communication tool. It was now wielded as a weapon and used to ridicule others. Some infamous early examples were Claire Swire, Peter Chung, Lucy Gao and Aleksey Vayner.


Social Media As A Catalyst

The increase in the prevalence of online shaming coincided with the rise in popularity of social media. While social media has certainly altered – for better or for worse – the way we communicate, I believe that the anonymity of online communication allows us to revert to the holier-than-thou mindsets of those 17th century Puritans. We can become openly disapproving of others because no one can trace our comments back to us. Unlike the targets of our derision, our reputations won’t be damaged by our disparaging comments.

Soon, web sites dedicated solely to embarrassing others began to appear.

People Of Wal-Mart: There is a web site called People Of Wal-Mart that displays photos of Wal-Mart shoppers. Visitors are free to upload photos themselves and add them to the collection. I will admit that some of these photos are humourous – like the above photo of the suspicious loose candy, entitled Looks Legit”. However, as I’m sure you know, these are generally photos of people who are inappropriately dressed, who are behaving poorly, or who have substandard parenting skills. Essentially, these socially-challenged souls are put on display so that we can mock them. If that isn’t gratifying enough for us, there is now a rating system (1-10 stars) and a user comments section, so that visitors – under the identity cloak of online user names – can ridicule them even further.

Airline Passenger Shaming: If you behave poorly or selfishly on airplane, don’t be surprised if your photograph appears on the Passenger Shaming Facebook group or Instagram album. If your behaviour is particularly egregious, it may even be described in detail in newspaper articles.

Airline Passenger Shaming 1


Ashley Madison Web Site Hack

Ashley Madison CoverThese days, web sites get hacked all the time, but the Ashley Madison data breach in July 2015 was different. There were no ransom requests or any attempts at monetary gain. Its user data was made public because the hacker(s) objected to its line of business, and wanted to “out” all of Ashley Madison’s customers as part of a moral crusade against the company. Over 60 gigabytes of customer information were made public, including names, address, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.


The Police Are Now Participating

More recently (as of October 2015), the practice of public shaming is being adopted by a police department in West Virginia. Anyone caught soliciting a prostitute in the city of Huntington will have his photograph displayed on a billboard, visible from one of the city’s busiest streets.

Police Shaming 1a


Fat Shaming

In November 2015, someone from an organization called Overweight Haters Ltd. began handing out insulting cards to overweight passengers on the London subway. The cards read, in part, “It’s really not glandular, it’s your gluttony. Our organisation hates and resents fat people. We object to the enormous amount of food resources you consume while half the world starves.“.

In January 2016, after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Carrie Fisher became the target of body shaming because she no longer looked like she did in the original 1977 Star Wars movie.


What Is The New Scarlet Letter?

Scarlet Letter 1aIn my American Literature class, we suggested that Hester Prynne’s letter “A” – in addition to adulteress – might also mean angel, able and America. I think that the letter “A” is still apt when in today’s age of social media shaming. It continues to stand for adultery (as evidenced by the Ashley Madison data breach and the police billboard displaying the names of “johns”), and I would now like to propose some additional meanings:

  • Amoral: Behaviour publicized by the West Virginia police billboard, and the miscreants forced to hold signs in public describing their transgressions.
  • Airplane: An obvious one, abundantly illustrated in the Passenger Shaming Facebook group.
  • Anonymous: The anonymity of the Internet means that it is far easier for us to shame someone in cyberspace than to confront that person face-to-face.
  • Ashley: Given their motive, I’m sure that the Ashley Madison hackers would love to see every Ashley Madison customer forced to wear a large, embroidered letter “A” on their clothes, just like Hester Prynne.



The Puritans did have a harsh and antiquated form of punishment for moral crimes, but I will say this in their defense: at least Hester Prynne was limited to the scorn of her town’s inhabitants, and only of those whom she encountered in person. Today’s shaming targets are not as fortunate. Jessie Jackson is quoted as saying “The only time you should look down on a person is when you are helping them get up”, and I agree with him. Not only have we lowered ourselves to the disdainful, judgmental behaviour of the Puritans, but now thanks to the Internet, our shaming no longer has any geographical boundaries. Those who have been targeted now have to face coast-to-coast, or even global, consternation.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read The Scarlet Letter, then I urge you to re-read it. As you do, think about how you use social media and ask yourself how much our attitudes and behaviour have really evolved. Surely, we’re more enlightened and more sophisticated than the Puritans; let’s not allow these new forms of communication drag us back into the 17th century.

Own Your Actions

Every now and then, some of my well-intentioned Facebook friends will post what they believe are inspirational stories. Unfortunately, many of these are usually urban legends, and my friends didn’t notice the telltale telltale signs. A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a link to a story about the last wishes of a death row inmate, that included the following picture.

Jeremy Meeks

The text of the story was as follows:

A death row inmate awaiting execution, asked as a last wish a pencil and paper. After writing for several minutes, the convict called the prison guard and asked that this letter be handed over to his biological mother. The letter said…

“Mother, if there were more justice in this world, we would be both executed and not just me. You’re as guilty as I am for the life I led.

Remind yourself when I stole and bring home the bicycle of a boy like me? You helped me to hide the bicycle for my father did not see it. Do you remember the time I stole money from the neighbor’s wallet?

You went with me to the mall to spend it.

Do you remember when I argued with my father and he’s gone?

He just wanted to correct me because I stole the final result of the
competition and for that I had been expelled.

Mom, I was just a child, shortly after I became a troubled teenager and now I’m a pretty malformed man.

Mom, I was just a child in need of correction, and not an approval. But I forgive you!

I just want this letter to reach the greatest number of parents in the
world, so they can know what makes all people, good or bad …is education. Thank you mother for giving me life and also helping me to lose it.

Your child offender.”

I knew immediately that something was not right about this story. The accompanying photo wasn’t of a death row inmate, but of Jeremy Meeks. He gained considerable media exposure in June 2014 as the “hot convict”, after his mug shot was posted on social media. In late 2014, Meeks was sentenced to 27 months for gun possession but he was never on death row. This unrelated image alone made the story suspicious.

Secondly, death row inmates in the United States receive a last meal, but not a last wish. Thirdly, how did a note written exclusively for his mother end up being published in the media? If you were his mother and had been maligned and shamed to that extent, would you take that note to a media outlet for publication? Finally, this story also had all of the hallmarks of an apocryphal tale: the inmate was not named, and neither was the prison. The location, crime and date – all items that could be used to check the veracity of the tale – were curiously missing. Finally, Snopes verified my suspicion; this was indeed an urban legend.

Normally, this is where it would end. I would usually continue scrolling through my news feed, and wonder why so many people fall for what is to me, such obvious fakery. However, this article stood out because of the reader comments below it. The commenters were not only fooled by the story, but they also took to heart, the parenting message that they believed was contained within it. Here are some of their comments:

  • “Wow! This touched me. I am crying not because he would be executed, but because his mother failed to raise him properly. I hope she gets this letter and see what a failure she has been.”
  • “This letter will hunt the mother for the rest of her life, she use her own hand to destroy the future of her son. what a pity.”
  • “SMH! What a mother”
  • “some women dont deserv to b mother’s”
  • “She was a total failure as a mother”

On the surface, this article seems to promote a positive parenting message: teach your kids right from wrong, and practise what you preach. However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I see things from The Bob Angle. Not only is this an apocryphal tale, in my opinion it’s is also one of the least helpful messages I have ever read. There is another, more important lesson to be learned here, and one that seems to have escaped all those who commented beneath this story.

Stop Blaming Others

Right up to his final hour, this fictional inmate is blaming others for his poor behaviour. In this case, he has the audacity to blame his mother for his imminent execution. Admittedly, his mother was an enabler, and implicitly condoned his thefts through her actions, but one doesn’t end up on death row for petty thievery. Death row is reserved for capital offences. This web site describes 41 capital offences. Thirty-nine of them involve death or murder and the other two are treason and espionage. In the United States, five people have been executed for treason or espionage; the most recent ones were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, in 1953. Since there are no more recent examples, this man must have murdered at least one person. While his mother may have implicitly condoned his thievery, he alone is responsible for making the leap from theft to murder, despite his claim of “You’re as guilty as I am for the life I led”.

Our Role Models Are Not Perfect

None of us is perfect, and this means that we have all been raised by imperfect parents, relatives or guardians. Many of us grew up in a single-parent home. A few of us may have been raised by people who were alcoholics, or who had other addictions. Most of them did the best they could, but ultimately it’s up to us, as we move through our formative years, to understand the difference between right and wrong and to eventually rise beyond the limitations of those raising us. We can’t expect perfect or even admirable parents. We are responsible for internalizing whatever life lessons we can from them, and then for setting our own moral code and level of behaviour.

Secondly, we were all taught by imperfect teachers. Discovering that your teacher is wrong about something is not a traumatic event. Personally, I was delighted when I knew something that one of my teachers didn’t. It made me feel more grown-up, and certainly wasn’t an excuse to mimic a teacher’s ignorance or to refuse to learn. I was proud that I had something valuable to contribute.

Thirdly, our peers were probably the least well-informed of all. Over the years, I’ve received all kinds of dubious or even dangerous advice from my peers (usually in the form of dares and double-dog dares). Fortunately, I knew when to listen to them and when to ignore their boneheaded suggestions. Growing up, we (or at least most of us) learned how to be true to ourselves and behave accordingly, regardless of what those around us were doing.

Finally, we are continually exposed to all sorts of poor behaviour and dubious role models during the thousands of hours of television and movies that we watch. Despite being exposed to boorish celebrity behaviour, televised violence and a multitude of criminal or otherwise unhealthy lifestyles (Cops, The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black, Criminal Minds etc.), the vast majority of us still manage to obey the law, remain kind to others and lead productive lives.

Own Your Mistakes

Being responsible for your behaviour and your actions is part of being an adult. Blaming others for your shortcomings is a sign of immaturity and demonstrates a decided lack of integrity. People are not stupid – they understand cause and effect, and will see right through your attempts at deflecting blame. If you make a mistake – even an egregious one – you have to own it; it’s the adult (and expected) thing to do. Blaming your parents for a less-than-ideal upbringing means that you’ve merely joined others in the world who are refusing to adapt to and rise above their own set of less-than-perfect conditions.

Learn The Right Lesson

To all of the article commenters: yes, she wasn’t close to being an ideal mother, but by focusing solely on her dismal parenting, you are absolving her son of any responsibility for his behaviour. He can’t be let off the hook – especially for a capital crime. He needs to own his actions.

The Great Gas Out – Deconstructing An Urban Legend

Fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests,

I like to think that my friends (both online and in real life) are a pretty special group of people. They are all perceptive and intelligent, but every now and then some of them do things that simply confound me. They will post urban legends on Facebook, or simply e-mail them to me. My friends should be smart enough to see right through this nonsense, but for some unfathomable reason, they don’t, and I’m quite concerned by their lack of critical thinking skills.

I am now going to deconstruct and analyze a popular urban legend, identify the errors in logic, and then explain why some people might be fooled by these stories – even when they’re smart enough to know better. By following these tips, and with continued practise, you too will be able to develop a Holmesian ability to detect these apocryphal tales.

During the late 1990s, an e-mail known as The Great Gas Out was making the rounds. Here is one of the early versions:

The Great Gas Out - original

You’ve probably received something like this several times yourselves. The e-mail author complains about the cost of filling up at the pump and claims that s/he has discovered a way to force gasoline companies to lower their prices: don’t buy any gas on a certain date. If everyone can be convinced to participate through this e-mail campaign, then the consumer will have won a victory over the major oil companies.

The main argument in this e-mail is “It has been calculated that if everyone in the United States and Canada did not purchase a drop of gasoline for one day, and all at the same time, then the oil companies would choke on their stockpiles”. Let’s examine this statement:

The message’s first phrase should make you suspicious, because it’s asking for our unquestioning acceptance of what is to follow, without offering any proof. This is a logical fallacy known as Begging The Question. There are no references or attributions, so who calculated this? Why should we believe their conclusion?

The proper word is inventory, since stockpile implies a large accumulation of material goods to be used in an emergency or when there is a shortage. The oil companies are not going to choke on their inventory. It’s simply going to sit in the storage tanks for an additional day.

E10 gasoline (which is gas that contains 10% ethanol) has a storage life of 90-100 days, so there would have to be an extended boycott before profits are affected. Gasoline that doesn’t contain any ethanol can be stored for several years. A one-day boycott will have no effect on the value of their inventory. If you really want to bring an industry to its knees, then boycott a product with a shorter shelf life – don’t buy milk for two weeks!


Why The Gas Out Will Not Work

The thing that should arouse suspicion instantly is the “armchair activism” angle of the suggestion. If you want to change the world, then you have to actually do something measurable.

Who Wants Change

The reason this scheme won’t work is because we are being told to alter our buying habits (and only temporarily), but not our usage habits. To understand why this “strike” is ineffective (and may even backfire), it helps to take a broader view. Ignore your daily gas consumption, and look at your monthly consumption instead. You probably buy two or three tanks of gas per month, per car. If you wanted to fill up today and the stations were closed, then you would just fill up tomorrow. Your monthly usage would remain constant. Now imagine that all of the gas station across the country were closed on Christmas Day, forcing everyone to wait one day to fill up their tanks. The effect on the oil companies would be the exactly same as this 24-hour protest – nil.

Let’s compare this one-day boycott to breathing. During normal activities, my body’s oxygen consumption remains more or less constant. I can hold my breath for a few seconds, but it just means that my next breath will be bigger (and take in more oxygen) than the last one. Since we are not altering our gasoline usage habits, our monthly consumption will remain (more or less) the same. What we don’t buy on the day of the “gas out” (September 1st), we will simply buy the next day. The demand is not lessened, only shifted forward by one day. In fact, since we will still drive our cars on September 1st, our gas tank will contain a bit less fuel than normal, thus the September 2nd demand will be higher than usual.

Let’s assume that everyone followed this advice and didn’t buy gas on September 1st. If gas station owners received this e-mail, then they would realize that their sales on the following day will be about twice the usual daily average, and they will probably jack up their prices accordingly, to increase their profits, and perhaps even as a form of punishment for all of the armchair activists who thought that they could actually bring the oil companies to their knees by doing nothing for a day.

The Great Gas Out – The Revised Version

A couple of years later, a revised version of the gas out e-mail appeared in my Inbox. Rather than a one-day boycott, this one recommended that all consumers not buy any gas from a single gas station chain: Petro-Canada. Here it is:

Gas Out - revised

To their credit, the author did admit that the original Great Gas Out message had no effect, and that the oil companies merely laughed at those who participated. Now let’s examine their principal argument: “We need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the marketplace, not sellers. Starting June 1 of 2007, DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from the biggest Company in Canada. Petro-Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will be very quickly inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.”

> “Buyers control the marketplace”
Clearly, this person has not taken any courses in Economics. However, s/he is half right. Sellers control the supply, and buyers control the demand. In fact, in you’ve been shopping at any store, you’ll get the distinct impression that sellers are convinced that they control the marketplace. In fact, sellers will try to manipulate our buying behaviour by reminding us (in not-so-subtle ways) that they control the inventory, and the time during which certain items will be on sale.

Sale Signs

To demonstrate the ridiculousness of this argument, imagine that you’ve just entered the electronics department at Best Buy and said to the sales associate “I’m the consumer, and the buyers control the marketplace! I want that flat screen TV, but I’m not going to buy it right now. I’m just going to stand here in your store and watch you choke on your stockpiles, until you reduce the price of that television to a level that I consider reasonable!” At this point they would probably do one of two things: laugh you out of the store, or call security.

> “DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from… Petro Canada! If they are not selling any gas, they will… reduce their prices [and] other companies will have to follow suit.”
The logic of boycotting a single gas station sounds reasonable on the surface, but this is yet another example of why “a LITTLE knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Let’s simulate this scenario and see how it plays out:

Gas Station Logos

For the sake of simplicity, let’s suppose that there are four major gasoline companies in Canada; Petro-Canada, Shell, Esso and Sunoco. Let’s also assume that Canadians patronize each one equally, giving each company a 25% market share. Boycotting Petro-Canada will certainly mean less money in sales for them, but – just like in the first Great Gas Out example – since we’re not being asked to drive less, our gasoline demand will remain the same. Now our collective weekly or monthly purchasing will be divided among three gasoline companies instead of four.

Starting on the gas out day, the demand at the Esso, Shell and Sunoco stations has increased by 33%. Those gas station owners, having read the Great Gas Out e-mail and being no fools, will anticipate this increased demand and raise their prices to whatever the market will tolerate. Petro-Canada executives, being cut-throat capitalists themselves, will raise their prices too — to a level just below Esso, Shell and Sunoco.

The losers, of course, are the consumers

Why Was This E-Mail So Popular?

My friends are intelligent, and I presume that yours are too, so why was this e-mail forwarded so many times? Why couldn’t people see through this nonsense as easily as you and I? Here are some reasons:

  • The message is in print. To a generation that grew up before the Internet and social media, print sources – books, newspapers and magazines – were considered authoritative. Their contents were written by professional journalists or writers, reviewed by fact-checkers and vetted by editors. While we all know that e-mail messages and social media posts can be written by anyone, there is still a lingering tendency (more prevalent among older people) to give more credence to printed messages, even if they are read on a screen instead of on paper.
  • The entire message is in capital letters. Traditionally, using capital letters makes it seem like the writer is shouting, but the additional emphasis also carries with it, an air of authority. If something is printed in capital letters, then it must be important. If the entire message is in capital letters, then it behooves you to read it. Nigerian princes who have a pressing need to transfer millions of dollars out of the country often type their e-mail missives in capital letters. They understand the psychology at work here.

Source: www.9gag.com/gag/5111643

  • It’s an excellent example of armchair activism. We can change the world without having to get up from our seats – all we have to do is forward an e-mail to ten friends. As in the grassroots campaign example, while we may not be willing to stage a sit-in or spend our days sitting in a park (since that requires a time and energy commitment), we can take five seconds to forward an e-mail and feel that we are “sticking it to The Man”.
  • It’s a grassroots campaign. We, the little people, can finally do something to topple those evil oil industry executives. Anti-establishment sentiment has been a part of North American culture since the hippie days of the late 1960s. The Occupy Movement is the latest manifestation of this social force. Everyone likes a good David & Goliath story – we always root for the underdog. In this example, we are David and are encouraged to topple the mighty oil companies, by utilizing a computer mouse as our slingshot.
  • We want it to be true. It’s such a good story, that we overlook the obvious logistical flaws. You will see this repeatedly in the media. There is a human interest story that’s so karmic or heart-warming, that everybody (including the reporter) embraces it and never bothers to do any fact-checking. Two recent examples are the high school student who played the stock market and parlayed a $1,500 investment into $72 million, and the elderly woman who killed her Knockout Game assailant.
  • It appeals to our innate hunger for power – a desire so strong that we are willing to ignore the red flags and abandon critical thinking in order to possess it. Tears For Fears expressed this sentiment succinctly in their song Everybody Wants To Rule The World. Very few of us will rule anything larger than a hot dog cart, but the specious reasoning of The Great Gas Out e-mail makes us believe that we have the power to enact global changes and bring down entire industries.
  • It quotes a likeable person. The revised version begins with “This was originally sent by a retired Coca Cola executive. It came from one of his engineer buddies who retired from Halliburton”. Everyone likes Coca-Cola, so we’ll automatically have a positive image of someone who works there. A retired executive evokes a kindly, fatherly figure – someone who would never lead us astray. This is the same tactic used in celebrity endorsements. Celebrities probably don’t know any more about the products they’re endorsing than the average consumer, but most of us are fond of celebrities and therefore are more inclined to believe whatever they tell us.
  • It quotes an industry insider. Mentioning the Coca-Cola executive’s friend from Halliburton is also a clever ploy. As you know, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton before he became the U.S. Vice President under George W. Bush. This association implies that a retired Halliburton executive would certainly be well-connected and have a rarefied knowledge of the inner workings of the oil industry. This casual reference leads us to believe that we are the unintended recipients of this privileged insider information.

In conclusion, question everything you read. Anyone can post anything they like to social media – there are no barriers to entry. Reject anything that sounds like armchair activism; no one is going to change the world unless they actually get up off their tush and do something. Finally, never abandon your critical thinking skills, even if your analysis does ruin a nice story.



Should Facebook Add A Dislike Button?

For several years now, there have been rumours that Facebook has been planning to add a Dislike button to its news feed. It still hasn’t happened, and there are numerous articles dismissing it, and I remain skeptical. However, there are still a few stories keeping this rumour alive by raising this possibility once again.

Facebook Dislike Button


Pro Arguments

● At first, I welcomed the idea because it would restore symmetry to blog posts. Why must we assume that people will like whatever we post? All opinions are important, and those who agree or disagree with our posts should be given equal treatment.

This feedback symmetry reminded me of a computer game I played on my Commodore-64 as a teenager during the 1980s. It was a driving games called Speed Racer, and there was some controversy when it was released because it was morally neutral. Just as in real life, a player could drive well or poorly. If you avoided the people who were crossing the road (and other obstacles), then you received “halo” points. You could also deliberately run over people, and receive “horn” points instead. It was entirely up to you. I thought it was a brilliant idea because it revealed so much about the character of the person playing it. If a game doesn’t guide your behaviour and allows you to be either good or bad, what choices will you make?

Speed Racer TitleSpeed Racer Road

Similarly, a Dislike button will reveal to us, the character (or lack thereof) of our Facebook friends. Are they individuals who recognize the good in others, or will they strive to elevate their online profiles by stepping on the heads of others? The results could be very illuminating.

● A Dislike button is an appropriate response to bad news. If someone posts that a family member or a beloved pet had died, then liking that post will appear cold-hearted or cruel, and it certainly won’t reflect the sentiment that you intended to convey: sympathy or empathy.


Con Arguments

● Growing up, my mom used to tell me “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”. I didn’t appreciate this advice at the time, because I felt that positive and negative comments should both be expressed freely. As an adult, I now see the wisdom of her words. This, in a sense, is what Facebook has implemented with the absence of a Dislike button.

A Day Without Criticism

● From time to time, one of my friends will share a poster encouraging everyone to go an entire day (or longer) without criticizing others. This is a good habit to develop, and the absence of a Dislike button makes it easier to accomplish this.

● The current arrangement makes it easy to praise but more difficult to criticize. If you like someone’s post, then it takes just a second to click on the Like button. If you don’t like or agree with a post, then you can still register your disapproval, but only via a comment. You have to compose your thoughts and type them out. This takes time and effort, which may discourage people who are merely reacting to something. Only those who feel strongly about an issue will take the time to write a reply.

● A Dislike button generates feedback that it devoid of context and justification. As mentioned above, if you want to criticize a post, then you should at least explain, in detail, exactly what bothers you about it, by (ideally) crafting a reasoned, structured and logical argument. Otherwise, having a Dislike button is the social equivalent of walking up to people and yelling “You suck!” and then walking away. They will have no idea why you are so incensed, and you will have lost an opportunity to explain exactly what their perceived shortcoming is.

● You may be doing more harm than you realize. The first thirty seconds of a recent PBS documentary called Generation Like  illustrates how important it is for today’s young people to be liked by their friends, and that their self-esteem is often determined by how much positive feedback they receive from their social media posts. The absence of positive feedback is viewed by them as a negative thing, rather than something neutral. In fact, receiving fewer Likes than they expected is also viewed negatively, even though it is still positive feedback. This, to me, illustrates the fragility of the teenage ego and their longing for appreciation and acceptance. Imagine how hurt and sorrowful these young people would feel if their Facebook posts started receiving an abundance of Dislikes?

● A Dislike button will promote a binary view of issues, rather than encouraging a lively debate or a nuanced argument. People will generally travel the path of least resistance, and when faced with a Like and Dislike button, I predict that the majority will choose one or the other, rather than reply with a thoughtful opinion in the comments box. There could be a middle ground to an issue or perhaps another illuminating angle that would be stifled by the Like and Dislike buttons.

● Finally, I predict that a Dislike button will lead to an increase in online bullying and harassment. Nefarious and mean-spirited individuals could navigate to a person’s Facebook profile and systematically Dislike every single post.

Facebook Notification IconThis harassment could also be amplified quite easily, under Facebook’s current feedback system. As you know, after you click on Like, the text changes immediately to Unlike. I’ve never had a reason to click on it, but it’s a useful feature if you ever change your mind or if you clicked on Like by mistake. Now, imagine that a bully has clicked on the Dislike hyperlink under someone’s post. A notification is generated automatically, and that person will see a red numeral 1 in the status bar. Clicking on it will indicate that someone dislikes his or her message. The bully can then un-dislike the comment, and a few seconds later, click on the Dislike icon again, which will presumably send another notification to the poster. This can go on continually, and repeatedly for each post. For those who have that much hated in their soul and who also have the time and energy to do this, their repeated disliking and un-disliking will generate a non-stop barrage of negative notifications. I’m already cringing at the thought.

Until we mature into more benevolent creatures who (to quote Henry Higgins, who was paraphrasing Shakespeare) possess “the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein”, I think that the current Facebook feedback configuration is the best one: make it easy to praise others and difficult to disparage them.

Protein Folding – An Alternative To Armchair Activism

One thing that we all have in common is a fervent desire to help build a better world for ourselves and our children, one that’s free of war, pollution and major diseases. In the case of diseases, if we possess the necessary education and talent, then we can become scientists or medical researchers and contribute directly to finding cures. If we don’t, then we can still do something useful by making a financial contribution to any number of charities. Even if we don’t have the right skill set or any disposable income, we can still make a difference by becoming a blood donor or by registering for an organ donation programme.

A generation ago, charity was often a private matter, or was limited to sponsoring a Run for the Cure or other similar events. While social media has been remarkable in raising the public’s awareness of various causes – for example, the pink ribbon campaign, Movember and the ice bucket challenge – not everything it’s spawned has been useful.

Social media is largely responsible for a new phenomenon known as armchair activism, or slacktivism – a token “feel good” gesture (usually related to a particular charity or cause) that requires minimal effort (such as clicking a mouse or forwarding an e-mail), and has so practical or substantive value.

  • Women used to post a somewhat cheeky status on their Facebook wall, identifying the colour of the underwear they were wearing. This was supposed to the public’s awareness of breast cancer, but in practical, measurable terms, it did absolutely nothing.
  • More recently, people have been posting comic book characters to their Facebook wall in order to raise awareness of childhood cancer, and then assigning a different character to each friend to “likes” their post. I’m sure that some of them might even be giving themselves a pat on the back, believing that they’ve actually accomplished something.
  • Every now and then. I’ll see Facebook posts similar to the following (below). While those who post them may be well-intentioned, and share our collective desire for a better planet, it is still a colossal waste of time, effort and bandwidth.

Share This Ribbon To Fight Cancer


Protein Folding

I’d like to share with you, an entirely new way of giving. No financial contribution is required, but unlike armchair activism, this activity actually accomplishes something. With a surprisingly small amount of effort, you can make a tangible contribution to medical science by helping researchers find cures for diseases more quickly.

Stanford University is working with medical researchers across the United States and has developed a global distributed-computing project called Folding@Home. This is a large-scale computational biology initiative that simulates protein folding on a computer.

Proteins are surprisingly versatile and can perform a lot of different roles within our bodies: they can regulate cells, act as enzymes, or function as antibodies. However, before they can do any of these things, proteins must first fold into the proper three-dimensional structure. This is usually done automatically, and the specific shape will depend on its particular sequence of amino acids. Sometimes, proteins can fold in undesired ways, and this misfolding can be a cause of a number of serious diseases. Simulating protein folding on a computer can help researchers understand under what conditions a protein misfolds and (ideally) what can be done to prevent this from happening.

The computing power required to simulate protein folding is prodigious, and is far, far beyond what is available to any university. Stanford University is assisting in this effort with their Folding@Home initiative. They are breaking down the work into millions of bite-size pieces, called work units, and inviting anyone who owns a computer to join the project. Those who sign up will use their computer to process some of these work units, and in return, act a catalyst in this massive protein folding initiative. This video explains, in a simplified way, Stanford’s Folding@Home distributed computing project.

If your interest is piqued and you’d now like to learn more about proteins, the protein folding process, molecular dynamics or the Folding@Home project itself, then visit Stanford’s The Science page.


How To Participate

Go to Stanford’s Folding@Home web page, read the project overview, watch the video again if you like, and then click on the download button. After installing the folding program, it will download a work unit from Stanford, and your computer will begin processing it as a background task. A work unit will take between four hours and two days to process, depending on the size of the unit and the speed of your computer’s CPU. When the processing is complete, the results will be sent to Stanford automatically, a new work unit will be downloaded, and that first work unit will be credited to your account.

If you like, you can choose to use your computer’s processing power to help find a cure for a specific disease – Alzheimer’s, Cancer, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s – or you can simply select “Any Disease” from the configuration menu. As the work unit is being processed, you can enable the animated screen saver and view the protein that your computer is currently working on. Here is a sample image:

Protein Viewer image

As you can see, there is a world map behind the protein. Each white pixel on the map represents a computer that is processing a work unit at this moment. As of this writing, there are 164,101 active CPUs in this project.

Stanford’s Folding@Home project is completely voluntary. You won’t get paid for your participation, but you will experience that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with the knowledge that you will soon make a difference in the lives of those suffering from cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. I’ve been a participant for a number of months now, and so far I’ve completed 350 work units:

If any of you would like to start a friendly competition, and post regular progress updates, just let me know. Although I do have a bit of a head start, my desktop computer is six years old, and its processor (by today’s standards) is not particularly powerful. Anyone with a fairly new computer should be able to catch up to me, and those of you who have a high-end gaming PC (with a decent video card) should breeze past me in almost no time! You can also run the protein folding program on multiple computers and have them each registered to the same account, in order to accumulate work unit credits even faster! If you’d like to keep tabs on my progress, my account name is BobYewchuk.

Join me, and let’s make a tangible and measurable contribution to medical research together. Believe me, this will be immensely more gratifying than any form of armchair activism!


Progress Updates:

Certificate - 1000 WU

Certificate - 1500 WU

Certificate - 2000 WU

Certificate - 3000 WU

Certificate - 4000 WU

Certificate - 5000 WU


The Lost Art of Crowd Navigation

Back in the late 1980s, when I first entered the workforce, I took the GO-Train into Toronto’s Union Station each day, and then walked through the underground PATH system to get to my office building. Although it was crowded during the morning and afternoon rush hours, with thousands of business people scurrying in a multitude of different directions, navigating those crowds was a breeze. Today, the volume of pedestrian traffic is similar, but the crowd navigation has become increasingly frustrating.

Grand Central Crowds-1000

So what exactly has changed during the past two decades? The short answer is: the ubiquitousness of mobile devices. Their arrival has had a detrimental effect on the way that we interact with each other, and these changes have descended upon us in three major, discombobulating waves.

I first started noticing disruptions in the pedestrian traffic flow during the late 1990s, when cell phones started becoming popular. Unfortunately, this was a causation rather than a correlation. Speaking on a cell phone while walking along a sidewalk may seem effortless, but it’s still a divided attention task, and not everyone can multitask effectively. If you’ve ever been walking behind someone who suddenly stops dead when their cell phone rings, you know that not everyone is capable of doing more than one task at a time.

Walking through a crowd is much more demanding, but deceptively so. Cell phone users (from what I’ve observed) seemed to be a little slow on the uptake, and didn’t take in as much of their surroundings. Crowd navigation is actually a very demanding and complex activity which uses up most of our brain’s processing ability; we just don’t realize this because it seems so intuitive. You may think that you’re merely taking a more or less direct route from A to B, but your actual path is a meandering journey. It’s a less pronounced variation of the proverbial “random walk” – characterized by subtle, but constant course changes every few seconds in response to numerous temporary obstacles. As we traverse a crowded train station, we don’t merely plot a straight line to our destination – we mentally map out a circuitous route corresponding to the gaps in the crowd. It’s a dynamic path that must be modified every second. Your complete attention is required as you continuously scan the crowd and calculate the projected paths of several people at once, try to anticipate where their bodies will (and won’t) be during the next five seconds, and then make your navigational adjustments.

If it appears that you are on a collision course with someone, it can be easily avoided by telegraphing your intentions through subtle gestures: looking or turning your head in your intended direction, turning your entire body slightly, or angling your briefcase so that it is parallel with your intended path. As long as everyone processes the visual cues and reacts quickly, everything goes smoothly. However, if you’re on a collision course with a cell phone user, you can’t always be sure that they are processing you visual cues because their brains are so engaged in their conversation that they aren’t really “seeing” you.

Cell Phone HeadsetThe second wave of technological disruption began with the introduction of a new cell phone accessory: earpieces – both wired and wireless. Up until this time, cell phone users were always easy to spot in a crowd because they were holding their phone up to their ear – a visual cue that they were not as attentive as their neighbours. Once cell phone earpieces became popular, this visual cue was gone, making it more difficult to determine (at least from a distance) who was paying attention to their surroundings, and who wasn’t.

The third, and arguably the most intense, wave of obliviousness descended upon us when texting supplanted voice calling. This was a significant social change because an increasing number of the downtown office commuters were no longer aware of their immediate environment. Their heads were down, fixed on their tiny screens, and they were oblivious to everything and everyone. Again, it’s easy to spot the texters, even from a distance: they have a moderate-to-slow walking speed with no speed variations. They walk in a straight line from A to B. They seem to have no peripheral vision and appear to be unaware of the existence of others. As a result, they are unable to sense when they may be on a collision course with others.


Our Technological Curse

I appreciate and enjoy modern technology as much as anyone else, but it can often be a double-edged sword. While social media and mobile devices eliminate geographical boundaries and make us feel more connected to our friends and family, this enhanced feeling of connectedness comes at a price. Mobile devices have shifted our attention to our smartphones, and away from our both our immediate environment and the people who inhabit it. Many of us no longer hold our heads up and enjoy our neighbourhood as we take a leisurely walk down the street. Instead, we face the ground and stare at our phone screens.

Zombie Apocalypse

People may joke about the coming zombie apocalypse as they compare it to our incessant use of mobile devices, but that observation is not too far from the truth. Walk down any busy urban street and you’ll see a plethora of people who are engrossed in their own little world, paying absolutely no attention to what’s happening around them. The disappearance of our crowd navigating skills is one symptom of a much larger problem. Despite the promises of a hyper-connected existence through social media, we are becoming increasingly insular in our daily lives. Our communication is constant, but it’s now virtual rather than face-to-face.

Texting Ban

The town of Fort Lee, New Jersey took extreme measures recently, and banned texting while walking. Violators will face an $85 fine. It’s a shame that some towns have to legislate a sense of awareness, but this to me is a sign that our fixation with mobile devices (at the expense of actual human interaction) is something that needs to be addressed. One generation ago, before smartphones and texting, individuals functioned as part of a greater whole, much like a beehive or an ant colony. We had our own goals, but we were also cognizant of our surroundings and acutely aware of each other. The growing and unrestrained use of smartphones may one day convert our cohesive communities into little more than collections of individuals who merely happen to live in close proximity to each other.

I have nothing against the judicious use of mobile devices, but we must exercise restraint. In my opinion, the company of flesh and blood humans will always trump avatars or words on a screen. One web advice columnist advises that it’s never acceptable to check your mobile device while on a date, for similar reasons.

In my blog post Slaves To The Machine, I wrote about one of the supreme ironies of the 20th century: we built machines to serve us, but ultimately ended up serving them. Today, we are not only serving our creations, we are regularly ignoring our fellow human beings in order to do so.

Always remember what’s important: people, not pixels.


Introducing: Yewchuk’s Law (a variation of Godwin’s Law)

If you spend a lot of time on message boards, then you probably know about Godwin’s Law. According to American lawyer and author Mike Godwin, as an online discussion grows longer, there is an increasing probability that someone will make a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler. This applies to any online discussion, regardless of the topic.

Over the years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time reading message boards and comments sections of news articles, and I’ve noticed a similar behavioural quirk, one that I am now going to christen Yewchuk’s Law: “As the number of comments below an online news story (published by an American news web site) increases, the probability that someone will criticize either the current American President, a former American President, Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives, approaches 1.0“. This applies to all news stories, regardless of topic. Given enough time and enough contributors, the reader comments of any news story will eventually become politicized and polarized.

So far, I’ve noticed this only on American news web sites, but I’m sure that it won’t be long before it happens in Canada and in other countries.

Here are some recent examples that illustrate my declaration. I’m using comments from the CNN web site displayed on an iPad, because it shows both the article title and the comments side by side. However, this behaviour is observable on a variety of news web sites. In these examples I’ve deliberately chosen non-political stories. If you have trouble reading the text, then click on the image to display a full-size version.

YL Bieber

YL Cruise

YL WV Water

YL Light Bulb

YL Icebreaker

YL Florida Population

YL Lottery Ticket

YL Flu

YL Cows


YL Satellite

YL Train Derailment

YL 2013

YL Colorado Shooter