Monthly Archives: January 2021

“Free” isn’t free: A Ronin Research Scholar examines the web and its problems

By Ronin Research Scholar Ralph Haygood 

Remember when the World Wide Web was new and shiny (albeit somewhat rickety)? It wasn’t very long ago. Like me, many Ronin Research Scholars no doubt can recall the widespread excitement about the new medium. I was in graduate school when the web took off and became part of everyday life.

Two decades later, it isn’t just names like AltaVista, GeoCities, and Netscape that have faded into history. Instead of excitement, there’s widespread concern that the web has become problematic, possibly doing more harm than good. These days, discussions of the web tend to emphasize fake news, hate speech, compulsive “doomscrolling”, and the unaccountable power of a few big companies like Google and Facebook. How did we get here, and what should we do about it?

That’s the subject of my new book “Free” isn’t free: The Original Sin of the web and what to do about it. The book explains that a major cause of many problems with the web is what it dubs the Original Sin of the web: collecting personal information about users and selling it to marketers. Web companies offer us “free” services, on the condition that we let them “data-mine” us and sell the data to people who, in turn, use it to try to sell us everything under the sun. However, “free” isn’t free; this business model has significant costs that we all pay.

So what’s the solution? Obviously, better laws could help, particularly by limiting what information web companies are allowed to collect about us and what they’re allowed to do with it. However, I argue that the key to a better web is for us users, rather than marketers, to become the customers. This isn’t a panacea, but it addresses multiple problems with the web at once, by reducing conflicts of interests between websites and users.

Although other books cover some of the same ground, I felt it was worth writing “Free” isn’t free in order to present the main issues concisely, highlight the central significance of the Original Sin, and address objections to making users the customers. As obvious as making users the customers may seem, most discussions of the web and its problems ignore or downplay this possibility. “Free” isn’t free examines several common objections to it, arguing that although some of them are warranted, none of them is decisive. For example, although there are reasonable concerns about deepening the “digital divide” between people who can afford to pay for the web and people who can’t, there are also practical strategies for avoiding this outcome, despite being supported by users.

Who am I to write such a book? The answer may interest even Ronin scholars who aren’t especially interested in the web and its problems. Like the founder of the Ronin Institute, Jon Wilkins, I’m an evolutionary geneticist, with a Ph.D., postdoctoral fellowships, and published research. However, before all that, I was a computer programmer and researcher. In fact, I found my way into evolutionary genetics through genetic algorithms, computation schemes inspired by evolutionary genetics. During my years as a grad student and postdoc, I remained attentive to developments in computation, and since leaving academia, I’ve made a living mostly by creating web applications. So I’ve been building, using, and pondering the web for quite awhile.

One reason why I decided not to become a professor was that I didn’t relish the prospect of devoting myself almost exclusively to a single topic for many years, in order to establish myself as the world’s leading authority on that topic. As competition for jobs and funding has become ever more intense, many academics have found that professional survival demands focus to the point of monomania. So an academic career seemed too cramped for my interests, which have always been broad (e.g., before I worked with computers, I studied physics and mathematics). Of course, a project such as writing “Free” isn’t free may require sharply focused attention and effort for weeks or months at a time. However, when it’s finished, I’m free to contemplate quite different things if I wish. Fortunately, as a software developer, I’m able to make a comfortable living from part-time work, leaving many hours for other pursuits. If more people were able to do likewise, I expect that many of their “other pursuits”—art, science, environmental conservation, social justice, and much more— would enrich us all.

I’m grateful for and enthusiastic about the Ronin Institute, which encourages and facilitates scholarly work by people like me who choose to spread our attention and effort more broadly than most academics are free to do.

I thank Keith Tse for inviting me to post here.

“Free” isn’t free is available as an e-book or paperback. For links to sellers, visit the website for the book.

Ralph Haygood is a population biologist, emphasizing evolutionary genetics and mathematical, computational, and statistical methods. He is also a software developer, emphasizing web applications. He has been a Ronin Research Scholar since 2012—before it was trendy! He currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can read more about him and his work on his website.

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Michelle King-Okoye

This new installment of Better Know a Ronin Scholar” continues on the theme of public health. In late October I spoke to UK-based Research Scholar Michelle King-Okoye (pronoun: she/her). Michelle’s research is primarily in the areas of health inequality, and health and illness experience, including prostate cancer research and research surrounding men’s health and minority ethnic population research. She has worked as a Researcher, Lecturer and a Registered Nurse. She also has an affiliation with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) and is the founder and leader of the Ethnicity and COVID-19 Research Consortium. She describes herself as a content wife and mother who prioritizes time spent with family.

Today I’m welcoming Dr. Michelle King-Okoye to Better Know a Ronin Scholar. Hi, Michelle. How has your 2020 been?

Hi, Alex, thank you so much for having me. 2020 has been challenging so far with all the events that COVID-19 has brought especially to individuals and families affected by this dreaded disease.  Nevertheless, in the midst of the pandemic I am pleased to contribute to research in this area and policy-making to support families affected by COVID-19 and address existing disparities.  I’m really looking forward to this interview to share about this.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of interesting work at the intersection of public health and now COVID. What has been your journey to your area of scholarship?

Firstly, I’m a nurse. I’ve been in nursing for some time. I am originally from the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad and Tobago. I’ve worked as a nurse in various specialties: ICU, oncology, cancer care, open heart surgery, pediatrics, as well as working in accident and emergency, and the operating theater. I stayed in nursing for about six years or so. And then I worked as a lecturer, after completing studies at the University of the West Indies in collaboration with McMaster University in Canada. I pursued teaching in evidence-based practice, critical appraisal and oncology assessment. After that I migrated to the UK for my post grad training and a PhD in Health Sciences. So it has been quite a journey.  

My main focus then, and now, is in health inequality, including ethnicity, culture, and health and illness experiences. 

…it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – seeing there is a human being that we are caring for. … I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity.

Traditional academia can be limiting by encouraging people to follow a very narrow path: school, a bachelor’s degree, PhD without any breaks. In contrast, you didn’t take a direct path to research–you worked as a registered nurse for about six years.  How do you think that experience of being a nurse influenced or shaped how you approach your scholarship?

That’s a very interesting question. I wanted to be a registered nurse because I enjoy caring for people. I know that being compassionate – especially at a time when someone is unwell—is very important for them to feel as if you’re caring for them as well as having an understanding of the disease and illness experience. So being from that background has allowed me to see health and illness from a personal experience. I’ve cared for people, I’ve experienced death (while working as a nurse) and I’ve experienced firsthand people suffering from different diseases.

So it goes beyond the physiological elements of the disease and treatment – but seeing there is a human being that we are caring for.  I have worked and cared for people of all different ethnicities, all different races. And that is also critical, because you might be caring for someone who comes from a different culture, family, traditions, beliefs and practices.  For doctors, healthcare practitioners, and all those involved in healthcare, it is so important to see patients in a holistic way. That has shaped my entire view of how I see people.  I don’t see someone separate from the disease or separate from the person who’s experiencing it. I see them in a holistic way: how the disease affects them, their family, their relationships, culture and their ethnicity. 

File released under the Creative Commons license

If you look at the World Health Organisation definition of health, health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. It takes everything into consideration. Sometimes we forget that. [As a nurse] seeing people being ill, and seeing them recover, and get well that has really shaped how I see people, how I care and how I teach. Now as a researcher – I’ve seen it from all different perspectives. That has truly been a blessing.

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michelle King-Okoye

Ronin Public Seminar: Open Science, Culture Change, and You

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Bruce Caron, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date:  Jan 29, 2021
Time: 1:00-2:00 PM  US Eastern Time / 18:00-19:00 UTC (in your local time)
Add to your calendar
Hosted by: John Paulas, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

For open science to transform the academy, technology is not sufficient. Culture changes in hundreds (thousands) of academy organizations will need to be contemplated, discussed, argued, and implemented. But how do you, as a working scientist, become an open science culture change agent? Where do you start? What do you need to know? You already know that culture can work against your interests, and against the interests of scientific work (perverse incentives, etc.). How can you make culture work to nourish the new, transparent, open, generous, abundant, and kind outcomes that are the promise of open science.? Take a look at the Open Science Handbook.  It’s a reference work you can use to become an open science change agent in your department, laboratory, college, learned society, or research agency. The next step is to work together to build “play books” that capture the actual culture change experiments from organizations around the globe.  I’m looking for culture change agents who want to create collective intelligence around the work of culture change for open science!

Fun fact from Bruce: 
My database for this book has 3500 items with 24 million words.

Questions about the seminar? Contact See the list of past seminars, as well as some recordings on the Ronin Institute YouTube.

Ronin Institute in Numbers

At our Ronin Institute Holiday Party in December 2020, we had a trivia game asking attendees to guess the quantity of some of our accomplishments for 2020. Here are the questions and answers.

How many Kitsune Newsletters did the Ronin Institute Communication Working Group publish this year? 
5 (in 2019: 0)

How many new Research Scholars joined the Ronin Institute in 2020? 
111 (in 2019: 76)

How many Interest Groups do we have? 
19 (in 2019: a few existed but they weren’t called Interest Groups)

How many blog posts did we publish? 
15 (in 2019: 2) 

How many weekly Updates were sent to the Ronin Research Scholar community? 
37 (in 2019: 11)

How many Working Groups do we have at the Ronin Institute? 
6 (in 2019: 0)

How many peer-reviewed articles did Research Scholars publish in 2020 (according to our Kitsune Newsletter)? 

How many Ronin Institute seminars (both internal and public) did we have? 
8 internal & 5 public   (in 2019: 5 internal & no public seminars)

How many followers do we have on Twitter (as of Dec 14th, 2020)?