This week’s curiosity box answers the following questions

1 – How do social media platforms know what I would like?
2 – What happens in our brains during online meetings?
3 – Why is British weather confusing?

1 – How do social media platforms know what I would like?

The rate of advancement in social media tech is astounding. Regardless of national lockdowns, it has helped the world stay connected and has facilitated global knowledge transfer. One could argue the bane of its existence, but, for this curiosity box, I am more interested in the logic behind how it works.

A simplified explanation of how social media platforms work

The posts, including the ads, you see on your timeline, appear based on relevance. It is a piece of computer code that determines which posts are relevant to you. The world of computing science refers to the piece of code as algorithms. The standard algorithms that all social media platforms use in a combination are recommender systems, link prediction models, and collaborative filtering. 

Click here to read how Netflix uses recommender systems to give you movie suggestions. 

The underlying science is simple maths, but the intricacies with which it works makes these algorithms highly sophisticated and complex. Determining what posts will be relevant to you begins with the algorithm creating your profile of likes and dislikes. Similarly, it creates profiles of everyone who has a social media account and starts combining everything into a network. 

In a network, there are two elements: node and edges. Node denotes you/an item/etc. And edges denote the links between you and other items. Edges are strong or weak based on how much you like or dislike that item. 

The next big question the algorithm would try solving is “Would Arun like item A?” If the answer is yes, the algorithm will determine how to introduce Arun to item A.

The algorithm then carries out the next set of steps known as collaborative filtering. It starts by finding a group of people who have similar likes and dislikes as me. It then calculates if this group of people like item A. If yes, then the algorithm assumes that I would like it to and then publishes a post about item A on my timeline. If I interact with the post (like, comment, share), the assumption is made true, and the algorithm now learns that Arun likes item A and starts regularly posting things related to item A. This is how my timeline is now filled with cute cat and dog videos.

Also, scientists knew that humans’ likes and dislikes can change. So they resorted to another method for the algorithm to determine if Arun would like item A. The item-item collaborative filtering method evaluates the likelihood of my interest in an item based on similar items’ ratings. And follows the same process as above by first testing out how I react to the post. This is how my profile ends up with cute pet videos. Here pet includes hamsters, pigs, otters, and tortoises. 


2 – What happens in our brains during online meetings?

Even though smartphones are similar by nature, apps have allowed us to customise and make the device work for our needs. Apps have helped us manage work between multiple connected devices like your phone and laptop. They also have helped us adapt to new work culture. 

I find myself in more meetings and showing increased productivity. MS Teams recently recorded that on an average of 2.7 billion minutes is spent by people on MS Teams meetings. Following the tremendous growth, Microsoft conducted research on how our brain functions during online meetings and released this interesting report.

First things first, we need to understand what brain waves are

Our brains are filled with neurons that send electric pulses to transmit signals from one region to the other. These signals that are transmitted between brain regions are periodic. Therefore, researchers have been able to capture these transmissions, i.e. oscillating electrical impulses, using EEGs. 

There are five types of waves in our brains: Delta, theta, beta, alpha, and gamma

  • Delta signals have the highest amplitude and occur during deep sleep. 
  • Theta wave has a higher frequency than Delta and occurs during our daydreaming state. It also happens when we go into an “auto-pilot” mode and do not need to actively apply our brain. e.g. when we drive on an empty highway, shower, etc. This is the state when we come up with ingenious ideas.
  • Alpha waves occur when we are awake but relaxed. Situations like mediation, basking in the sun or long walks in gardens.
  • Beta waves occur when we are awake, thinking, and continuously engaged. A person in active conversation would be in beta.
  • Gamma waves occur when we intensely focused on something that requires our maximum concentration. Try mentally solving 43 x 28 to release some gamma waves. 

Microsoft attached some EEGs to people in online meetings to see how our brain waves change. Notice how gamma waves, drop close to the 30-minute mark. 

In conclusion, this research advocates organisations to shift down the gear a bit and allow employees to recharge and refresh their thought process frequently. 


3 – Why is British weather confusing?


I found it amusing when I discovered that everyone in the UK loves to talk about the weather. It removes the block people have when they try to strike a conversation with a stranger.

At any given hour during the day, 1/3rd of the country speaks about the weather. And 94% of the people would have spoken in the last 6 hours. There is a cultural connotation to why Britishers bring up the topic of weather. Despite the weather being widely spoken about, it continues to remain eerie that even satellites leave confounded.

Snow, ice, and chilly winds everywhere have been the condition for these past couple of months. However, this is not the characteristic feature of the early months of every year. This year, the UK recorded its coldest February in 25 years. Last year, the UK registered its wettest February in many years, and the year before, Feb was the hottest. 

You can predict that you can’t predict the weather in the UK.

It all has to do with UK’s position on Earth. The predominant impact on the weather comes because of the influence of the wind and the ocean’s influence from the west. This vast ocean current brings warm water up to the UK from the equator. Along with that, the wind helps carry the moisture on to the mainland. This causes it to rain as frequently as 1 in 3 days.

The four corners have England – this is the weather. 

  • North West – Cool summers, mild winters, heavy rain all year
  • North East – Cool summers, cold winters, steady rain all year
  • South East – Warm summers, mild winters, light rain all year, especially summer
  • South West – Warm summers, mild winters, heavy rain all year, especially winter
Source: BBC

Also, the UK’s position is at the intersection of 4 major air masses, including the one from the West. As mentioned above, the winds from the west bring water-laden clouds. The polar air mass from the north bring icy cold winds. Tropical air from the south brings heat. The continental air from the East brings dryness. These four air masses fight it out right above the UK.

On top of these 4, there is an all empowering jet stream that blows from the south or north allowing us to have sunny or rainy days respectively.

Confused? I don’t think so – you are only experiencing British weather. 

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