“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  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Logo_of_the_World_Health_Organization.jpg

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

Summary:
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 seminars@ronininstitute.org. 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)? 
46

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)? 
1235

A Year in Review for the Ronin Institute community: 2020

It’s safe to say that this is a year that will not easily be forgotten. Let me count the ways: COVID-19 (!!), waking up to the reality of racism, political exhaustion by the one who shall not be named, and about a decade of economic breakdown all happening in one year. But there is a shining light here! The Ronin Institute. 🙂 

This is a summary of what WE have collectively accomplished  this year. 

At the end of 2019, we established a new governance structure for the Ronin Institute. It was based on lots of community input, and marked the start of a whole new era for our Institute. In one of our working documents used to plan our new Governance structure, we described our status at the time as: 

[The Ronin Institute] governance model consists of Jon doing most of the bureaucratic work of running the institute in conjunction with a few other Research Scholars helping out from time to time on specific tasks… (Sept 2019)

That is pretty much how it used to work: Jon Wilkins did almost 99% of everything at Ronin. 

It’s certainly not like that anymore. Arika Virapongse is now around to share the weight by helping to structure and be responsive to the community. Importantly, there are 6 Working Groups (WGs: Governance, Communications, Infrastructure, Events, Membership, and Research) with committed leadership and members, an Advisory Board composed of WG leads, activity leads within the working groups, and a good number of volunteers for one-off activities (e.g., seminar hosts, planning special events). 

We have 18 interest groups, ranging from Math-Physics to Book Admirers to Open Science, and each one of these has a lead. In addition to these folks, we have had 17 Research Scholar seminar speakers, and innumerable Scholars who have participated in events and on our weekly #watercooler on Slack and Coffee Chats on Remo. There are also many Ronin Research Scholars who use the Ronin Institute as an affiliation on their papers and presentations, and apply for grants to be administered by the Institute. We are proud to say that we welcome and are grateful for the contributions of everyone in our community–in any way that feels most right for them. 

Here are other wins for us this year: 

Our institutional values of  Truth and Empathy have proven themselves to be the bedrock of every decision that we make at the Ronin Institute. We also continue to develop the principles that help to guide how we function as an institute and community and who we are. Here are the ones that we’ve figured out so far, and we look forward to sharing others with you in the coming year: 

We are a thriving community of about 375 Research Scholars representing 47 countries, and we continue to grow. We pretty evenly represent the life sciences (31%), math & computational sciences (30%), and social sciences (26%), while we have a little more catching up to do in arts & humanities (13%).  

We are a far-flung communicative bunch thanks to Slack. Just take a look at our trend line for 2020!

Our first Code of Conduct was developed through thoughtful community input over several months and rounds of feedback from the whole Ronin Institute community via the Membership WG.

The action the Membership WG has taken towards inclusion, equity, and care in the Code of Conduct and in member on-boarding and development has made me happiest. Foremost in our minds has been the idea that all who need and want to join the Ronin Institute are welcomed into the community and have an environment in which to thrive.John Paulas, Membership WG lead

We’ve developed so many events this year to help our community interact and share, including unconferences, speed networking, and public seminars. We’ve also stood up some regular community spaces for interacting, like our #watercooler chat on Slack and Coffee Chat on Remo that both meet every Tuesday (via the Events WG). 

We have laid the groundwork for more scholars to participate in the Ronin Institute through communication opportunities, from contributing to the newsletter and the blog, Community Journalism, and welcoming our first Community Journalist this year. We also have exciting plans for our landing page, updating it with videos of scholars, so we can let the world know who we are, what we do, and why Ronin!  Emily Monosson, Communication WG lead

Our institutional communications have been busy this year producing 5 newsletters, weekly Updates since March 2020, blog posts almost every month, developing guidelines for Ronin Institute communications, and a coordinated effort at leveraging our social media (via the Communication WG).  

As a virtual institute, we’ve been staying on top of our infrastructure by continuing to fine-tune our use of tools. Importantly, we’ve created better processes for solving tech issues, updating our website, trying new tools, and planning our next improvements (via the Infrastructure WG).

We’re happy that we’ve managed to keep the Ronin website, our conferencing tools (Zoom), and communication platforms (Slack) operational through COVID-19. We’re also having fun experimenting with new virtual platforms like Remo, Gather, Omniscope, and Discord. We’re making more baby steps towards distributing tasks across more Research Scholars — we would love to get more folks involved, so please reach out. — Alex Lancaster & Vesta Korniakova, Infrastructure WG leads

We continue to make progress on our Research support for Research Scholars. We’re developing structures to help support peer-to-peer review of proposals, and next year we hope to have our Research Ethics Guidelines hammered out (via the Research WG).

We’ve been collaboratively working hard on development of an Institutional Research Board (IRB) that will help many of our members overcome at least one obstacle in their research. — Michelle Susberry Hill, Research WG lead

Most importantly, Ronin Institute Research Scholars have had numerous publications, speaking events, interviews, spotlights, and more. Scholars have published more than 40 peer reviewed publications this year, and those are just the ones that we know about (via all of you!)

So that is it for 2020. Despite the challenges in the world as we have known it, it has been pretty exciting times for the Ronin Institute. We’ve really hit our stride. Next year, we hope to have lots more to show for all our hard work in laying the foundation for the Institute to grow in all the right ways. Our goal is to reinvent academia so that is equitable, accessible, and inclusive. I’d say that we are well on our way! 

Scientiam Consecemus!
 
– Arika Virapongse, Research Scholar & Community Director of the Ronin Institute

Ronin Institute Principle: Pay it Forward

This series of blog posts introduces some of the guiding principles that we use at the Ronin Institute to help the community be its best.

We build long-term sustainability into the Ronin Institute by planning our activities and their maintenance so that they can be done as easily as possible by us, and with the least amount of everything (bureaucracy, infrastructure, work, outside expertise etc). We try to keep things simple, while focusing our energy on creating the right structures that people can work within on their own. With this strategy, community volunteers can easily step into discrete roles, and channel their good will to help out in small ways–without the burden of trying to figure out how to do it.

Our Pay it Forward principle is based on creating a chain reaction of good will. After “seeding” a new initiative (e.g., helping support a community member’s activity), we hope that the member(s) who benefits will consider paying it forward to the next Ronin Research Scholar who could also benefit. Here are some examples of how this works: 

  • A Scholar has given a seminar at Ronin => In the future, they volunteer as a seminar host
  • A Scholar has had a great experience at one of our events => They help plan a future event
  • A Scholar got some useful feedback on their research proposal => In the future, they give feedback on someone else’s proposal
  • A Scholar has been featured in a Ronin Institute blog post or in our Newsletter => In the future, they contribute some writing or social media posts in Ronin Institute spaces to help highlight other Scholars

In this way, heavy loads become a lot lighter and we all benefit, while also building and strengthening our community along the way. 

Ronin Public Seminar: Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: What is Linguistic Simplicity?

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: Keith Tse, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: Nov 6, 2020 at 12:00 PM US Eastern Time / 16:00 UTC (local time)(add to your calendar)
Hosted by: Varsha Dani, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Abstract. Modern linguistic theory goes one step further than standard scientific conventions of formal simplicity (‘Occam’s Razor’) in denoting the simplest formalisations for language structures not only for theory-internal reasons but also for empirical reasons (Martin and Uriagereka (2000)), since it has been established human infants acquire their first language at such an exceptionally high rate that, in accordance with Plato’s Problem, there may be an innate component in the human mind which is species-specific and genetically designed for human language. This is Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG), and formal metrics of ‘simplicity’ are a hot topic in contemporary syntactic debates as numerous definitions have been proposed throughout the development of Chomskyan models of language whose latest version known as the Minimalist Program (MP) (Chomsky (1995)) provides a backdrop to language variation and change. While assumptions such as Plato’s Problem and formal simplicity are widely agreed upon, consensus with regards to technical details remains elusive, since Chomsky (2004) radically revises his earliest definitions of formal simplicity (Chomsky (1995, 2000, 2001)) which has given rise to lively debates in modern syntactic theory. This presentation critically examines the history and evolution of modern syntactic theory from a Chomskyan perspective and compares the various principles of ‘simplicity’ proposed which drives us to the conclusion that extraneous elements in language may indeed be eliminated in favour of the simplest structures.

Ronin Public Seminar: Messaging Matters: A Checklist to Enhance Buy-in for Your Ideas

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: Thomas J. Buckholtz, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: October 23 at 2:00 PM ET/ 6:00 PM GMT (local time)(add event to your calendar)
Hosted by: Vesselin Gueorguiev, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary: Gain a checklist and perspective to use when marketing your endeavors to would-be clientele, colleagues, funders, or other entities. Consider using the checklist for many other activities throughout your life. I developed this and some other checklists, based on perspective from a diverse career. (I have worked with large and small enterprises in aerospace, agricultural research, biotech, business services, computing, defense, education, energy utilities, government, healthcare, high technology, innovation, insurance, Internet, law enforcement, politics, research and development, telecommunications, and venture capital. One role included leading a 2,000-person business unit.) The checklists are broadly applicable, semi-rigorous, and hopefully not overly prescriptive.

Here’s a preview into the seminar:

If you’d like to get ahead of the curve, you can take a look at the recorded presentation (below) ahead of time and be ready with your questions & discussion points at the seminar.

Ronin Institute Working Groups vs Interest Groups: What’s the Difference?

Working Groups (WG) focus on key elements of the Ronin Institute. They are an important part of the Governance structure for our Institute, because they offer one way (but not the only way!) for Ronin Research Scholars to participate in the running of the Institute (part of our “Everybody drives a truck” philosophy). Each WG has a lead, who also participates in the Ronin Institute Advisory Board. WGs meet once a month, and are open to all Ronin Institute Research Scholars. 

Our WGs and the current leads: 

Interest Groups (IG) are self-organized groups of Scholars that focus on specific topics. Their goal is to stimulate discussion and enhance collaboration. The general idea behind IGs is to convene Scholars in organized groups–much like departments in a conventional university, but much more fluid and community-based. Sub-groups within IGs could also form around specific projects and goals (e.g., leading a seminar or writing a paper). In particular, we welcome IGs that address cross-disciplinary topics (e.g., storms, sustainability). Currently, our IGs have a presence on our Slack workspace through specific channels (using the prefix “IG-” in the channel name), and are only open to Ronin Institute Research Scholars. Some IGs also meet weekly on Remo, which is a platform that allows participants to easily move around to different discussions. 

These are our current IGs, their scope, and the contact/lead: 

[Illustration by Karolin Schnoor]

Ronin Public Seminar: COVID19 and Cutting Edge Technologies You Can Deploy from Home Yourself!

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: Vesselin Gueorguiev

Date/time: September 25 at 1:00 pm US ET/ 5:00 PM GMT (local time)(add to your calendar)

Summary: Have you considered using a Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools to understand COVID19? How about a chatbot that can answer some of your friends’ questions about COVID19? Do you think that applications for a Quantum Computer are too far in the future? You can access and play with all these cutting edge technology tools today! In this talk, freely available resources will be used to demonstrate the utilization of all these cutting edge technologies to understand and inform the public about COVID19. The speaker will demo a Slack and Facebook integrated ChatBot that can answer questions about COVID19, a focused NLP and NLU COVID19 based search collection, and finally a quantum computer GDP-sick people optimization for informed reopening decisions.