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Stargazing with Joan Collins and Jamelia, in the year that science became cool

Ben Miller's had a busy year.

14 January
Great performance of The Ladykillers at the Gielgud Theatre in London tonight. Dinner afterwards with David Crane, writer of Friends, his partner and co-writer, Jeffrey Klarik, and Jimmy Mulville at the impeccable Bocca di Lupo on Archer Street. The guys are all working together on one of my favourite shows, Episodes. After a few anecdotes about Matt LeBlanc, we get down to the real business – the suggestion that detection channels at the Large Hadron Collider are showing a “three-sigma” Higgs. While it’s not the five-sigma everyone in narrative comedy is hoping for, it’s a start.

15 April
To the glory that is the Royal Opera House for the Oliviers, where The Ladykillers has been nominated for a staggering five awards. Collected a lot of data for my theory that actors’ legs are shorter than those of normal people. Can it be that long-torsoed actors appear larger in close-up, improving their billing and chances of viable offspring? Then a rumour rips across the acres of taffeta and patent leather like a bow wave. Brian Cox is in the house. A girl in high heels loses her footing and does the box splits on the marble floor. No, wait; not that Brian Cox. Brian Cox the actor. Michael Ball helps the girl up. Everyone relaxes. Phew.

13 May
Barbecue on the beach in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, to celebrate the start of filming on Death in Paradise. Wonderful to hear that Stephanie Beacham, Ken Cranham and Lucy Davis – who I thought was brilliant in The Office–will soon be joining us. This is going to be a long shoot and there is some sadness that we will be missing not only the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics but also the docking of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station. Danny John-Jules goes so far as to suggest that we are witnessing the dawn of a new era in human space travel. And he should know – he plays Cat in Red Dwarf.

5 June
Intense emotional scenes on Death in Paradise today. We are shooting an episode in which my co-star Sara Martins’s character witnesses the murder of a close friend, played by one of my favourite singers, Jamelia. Just when Sara and I feel we have given everything there is to give, we hear a shriek from the green room. Everyone downs tools and rushes in, fearful that some hapless extra has been bitten by one of the island’s venomous giant centipedes. No need to worry; Jamelia has simply managed to image the transit of Venus using an improvised pinhole camera. “We won’t see that again for another 250 years,” says Sara, wistfully. “Actually, if you live in eastern China you’ll see one in December 2117,” says Jamelia.

19 July
Jetted in from Guadeloupe for the launch of my popular science book, It’s Not Rocket Science. This morning, I hooked Eamonn Holmes up to a van de Graaff generator on breakfast television; this evening, I gave a talk at the Royal Institution, right where they do the Christmas Lectures. In the spirit of which I attempted the “elephant’s toothpaste” experiment with hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodide and liquid soap. The iodide, I explain, reacts with the peroxide, producing oxygen, and the oxygen then creates impossible amounts of foam when it mixes with the liquid soap.

My unconfined joy is marred only by the celebrity no-shows. Cox, Ben Goldacre, Jim Al- Khalili – no one rocks up. John Sessions commiserates with me in the bar. “Those A-listers, they’re busy guys,” he says wisely. “Three-dimensional chess is nothing next to Cox’s iCal.” I try to smile. “By the way,” he says, “you got that elephant’s toothpaste thing wrong. There’s no reaction to speak of between the iodide and the peroxide. The iodide forms an intermediate complex that catalyses the decomposition of the peroxide. Decomposition of peroxide is a process that goes on all the time, just usually not at a measurable rate.”

31 August
It’s hurricane season in Guadeloupe and we’ve been rained off for days. Rocket Science is selling unfeasibly well but I still feel like I have my nose pressed up against the glass, watching my scientific heroes laughing and joking and sharing their impossible wisdom with one another. Then it comes: an invitation to Guildford Book Festival to be interviewed by none other than Jim Al-Khalili. Is this the chink in the armour, the Masonic handshake that will finally see me conjoined with empirical priesthood?

15 October
A message from Jim’s office: is it OK if he doesn’t read my book before our interview? He’s got a lot on his plate and is going to have to dash off straight after.

30 November
A long day of filming on the feature film Molly Moon. While we are waiting for the shot to be set up, Sadie Frost and Joan Collins strike up a conversation about the rumoured methane traces on Mars and whether or not Nasa will go public before the data is accepted by a peerreviewed journal. Talk then turns to the pos - sibility that Mars may harbour bacterial life and the European Space Agency’s forthcoming Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) and its planned mission to Europa, launching in 2022. “Methane is one thing,” Joan says, “but microbial life in some sort of hydrothermal vent? That would really get my attention.” I have a whole chapter on space travel, the Drake equation and the possibility of extraterrestrial life but I say nothing.

7 December
To Matthew Freud’s Christmas party in the Cotswolds. Marquee names rub shoulders with newspaper proprietors and cabinet ministers. It’s as if Leveson never happened. No, it’s as if Leveson was just a Fifty Shades of Grey-type prelude to an orgy of make-up sex. Then suddenly I spot him, like a stag on a hilltop: Goldacre. I sidle up. “I loved Bad Pharma.” He takes me in with wet, pitiful eyes. “I’m a lookalike, mate.” He hands me a business card. “I’m doing 40 minutes just to get things warmed up.” He drains his flute of pink champagne and hands me the empty glass. “Right, that’s your lot. Elton’s thing kicks off at ten and he’s a sucker for evidence-based medicine.”

Ben Miller is the author of “It’s Not Rocket Science” (Sphere, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.