P&J Column 22.3.18

Which 80’s biscuit are you? (And how do you feel about immigration?)

Prof Hector Schlenk, Senior Researcher at the Bogton Institute for Public Engagement with Science

As a scientist, people are always asking me questions, like ‘Would you say that Jeremy Corbyn’s hat been photoshopped to make it look more Russian?’, ‘Am I being paranoid?” and ‘Should I turn up the brightness on my TV’?”

But this has been a week of sadness for we scientists, in which we said goodbye to one of the greats, someone who had been at the top of his game for decades despite physical disadvantages, and who famously wrestled with complex mathematical formulae in order to achieve something few of us have ever managed: keeping money hidden from the Inland Revenue.  RIP Ken Dodd. Of course, Professor Steven Hawking is also a great loss to the scientific community, and the world, but to be fair, he never sold out a summer season in Bridlington.

But I have been distracted from these sad departures by the scandal of sleaze, psychological manipulation and data misuse surrounding Cambridge Analytica, the ‘data analytics’ firm which is, together with Facebook, accused of harvesting personal data from Facebook apps, to be used to influence the outcome of the 2016 US Election and the UK Brexit referendum,  There are many questions which come to mind regarding this, the foremost of course being ‘What on earth is ‘data analytics’ and are they hiring?’ And ‘Do all of those quizzes about 80s pop and top 100 biscuits really influence world events?’ Well, it’s all to do with the digital footprint we leave upon the world wide web as we browse.  Think of it like a muddy trail which can be stretched across the living room carpet, causing my wife to hit me about the head with her rolled up copy of TV Choice; except the mud is electronic, and the blows to the head are targeted advertisements for insurance, overpriced slippers and gentlemen’s enlargement devices (though that may be just me).

Yes, data on everything that we see, click, or hover our mouses over helps unscrupulous advertisers (or ‘ advertisers’) to build up a profile of our tastes, influencing which adverts we are assailed with when browsing. It’s not only Facebook that does this, of course; I recently took a hammer to my 4 year old grandniece’s Alexa device to prevent it sending data on her musical choices to Amazon (Little Mix, Mr Tumble, Aphex Twin).

Must we accept that the misuse of our details in this way is part and parcel of modern life? Or should we, as a TV show of my youth once put it, “turn off and go and do something less boring instead”? I tried that, but having done so was stymied by lack of access to my ‘What’s On’ App.

To combat the Cambridge Analyitcas of the world I am currently developing a ‘scrambler’ which confuses online data gatherers by leaving an utterly random trail from which it is impossible to build up a profile. The prototype replicates the web browsing of my 4 year old grandniece on my laptop. Something I was required to allow to stop her telling her mummy about what I did to her Alexa device.

Tanya Soutar, Local Lifestyle guru

The list of names given tae Scottish babies in 2017 has jist been released, and wi’ names like Einstein, Willoughby and Tuppence on the list, it lets ye ken the extraordinary lengths some parents will ging til tae mak their bairn stand oot.

A couple of my pals are up the duff of noo and were asking me how best tae pit their ain unique stamp on their offspring, so here’s Tanya’s top tips for naming yer next bundle o joy!

First of a, there’s nithin mair exotic sounding than using a place name. Mind you, ye’ve tae be careful.  One peer baby born last year was cried “Aberdeen”.  Fit an affront! The classic is tae use the place far the bairn wis conceived.  My pal Sammy-Jo did ‘at wi’ her three, Majorca, Corfu and Folkstone.  It wis meant tae be Brittany, but the ferry wis delayed.

But the best source o’ inspiration fer a unique name is the telly.  Some o the character names in things like Game o’ Thrones and Orange is the New Black are perfect.  Again, ye need tae exercise caution.  A boy I went tae school wi was obsessed wi’ Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill, which is an affa peety for his daughter, Grotbags.

See The Flying Pigs live in ‘Now That’s What I Call Methlick’ at HMT Aberdeen 26th-30th June 2018