Blog Ipsa Loquitur

In the grim darkness of the future, in the distant year 20XX, unironic intellectualism is looked down upon. Only comedians can do the thing where they think about things and then say the things about those things that are good but also bad things. I believe they call it intellectualism.

I actually really enjoy this new age of comedians as public intellectuals. Although maybe “new” is a bit of a stretch. There was that George Carlin guy, and that Mark Twain guy, and probably like a bunch of other famous guys whose names I would know if intellectualism hadn’t been positively ruined.

This Vanity Fair interview with Aziz Ansari isn’t about his status as Socratic gadfly to the status quo, but it does touch on online dating:

We’ve become souls divided, he maintains, between the real self and the cell-phone self. And we get ourselves wrong! When Aziz was writing stand-up about online dating, he experimented with filling out the forms of dummy accounts on several dating sites. The person he truthfully described he wanted to find “was a little younger than me, small, with dark hair.” But the woman he’s been dating for the past two years and is now happily living with in Los Angeles is a little older, taller, and blonde.

Match.com’s own research algorithm confirms the surprising discovery that the partner people say they want online often doesn’t match up to the one they’re actually interested in. “Who knows who you’re eliminating?” said Aziz. His current love wouldn’t have made it through the filters he placed on his own online dating profile.

Same for me. It’s a bit baffling, but Aziz, myself, and researchers have all found this to be true. Honestly, online dating is probably the first time in history that people have had the opportunity to articulate and apply these sorts of preferences en masse, so we’re not exactly overturning centuries of conventional wisdom here. The whole concept is weird, from start to finish.

It’s just fascinating to realize you can be wrong about what you think you’re looking for in a romantic relationship. It’s the one thing almost everyone wants, and when we talk about what we want, we’re wrong. Kinda makes a guy wonder what else we could be wrong about.

When was the last time you tried a new food? When was the last time you listened to a new album by a band you don’t love? When was the last time you read some poetry, or wore that shirt you haven’t worn in forever because it doesn’t go with anything?

Here’s to something new this summer.

Published on under The Digital Age

From this essay by Federal Judge Jed Rakoff on the sociological destructiveness of mass incarceration, a brief detour into the statistics of crime prevention:

There are some who claim that they do know whether our increased rate of incarceration is the primary cause of the decline in crime. These are the sociologists, the economists, the statisticians, and others who assert that they have “scientifically” determined the answer. But their answers are all over the place.

Thus, for example, a 2002 study by the sociologist Thomas Arvanites and the economist Robert DeFina claimed that, while increased incarceration accounted for 21 percent of the large decline in property crime during the 1990s, it had no effect on the similarly large decline in violent crime. But two years later, in 2004, the economist Steven Levitt – of Freakonomics fame – claimed that incarceration accounted for no less than 32 percent of the decline in crime during that period.

Okay, so everyone agrees that crime has been declining since about the late 1980s or early 1990s. But nobody’s really sure why. There are some economists who think that mass incarceration is responsible for about 20-30% of that drop. Not a majority at all, but a signifcant amount for sure. Heck, 30% might even be a plurality, or near to it.

It’s also probably not accurate:

Levitt’s conclusions, in turn, were questioned in 2006, when the sociologist Bruce Western reexamined the data and claimed that only about 10 percent of the crime drop in the 1990s could be attributed to increased incarceration.

Wait, so the same “crime is lower” data either supports a 30% attribution or a 10% attribution to mass incarceration? That’s eyebrow-raising. What if the SATs were graded with a 20% margin of error? What if your car’s speedometer was 20% off?

But two years after that, in 2008, the criminologist Eric Baumer took still another look at the same data and found that it could support claims that increased incarceration accounted for anywhere between 10 percent and 35 percent of the decrease in crime in the 1990s.”

A group of researchers at New York University Law School also came up with numbers as low as “less than one percent” for the amount of the drop in crime which could be attributed to mass incarceration. So, you know. It might have nothing to do with putting tons of people in jail.

Here’s a helpful hint: countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which do not imprison young men nearly as much as America does, have seen roughly the same rate of decline in crime as America has. That’s not completely dispositive, but that’s pretty damning.

Published on under You've Got Time

Dan Moren wrote about the most useful aspects of using an Apple Watch while abroad in Portugal. Perhaps not surprisingly, he loved having a map on his wrist:

Makes sense, right? You’re in a foreign country, you’re going to need to find your way around a lot. But, along the same lines as my earlier concerns, pulling out an iPhone and looking around in befuddlement is a pretty easy way to get tagged as a tourist. Simply glancing at your watch, however? Far less conspicuous—even if it sometimes looks (accurately) like you’re an idiot who’s having trouble deciphering analog time.

In particular, I really like that if I load up directions on my iPhone, but don’t start navigation, it preloads them on my Watch, where I can then tap Start at my leisure.

I did find myself from time to time retreating to the Maps app on the phone, largely to get an actual map overview of where I was. Plus, using the phone also gave me the option of using Google Maps, which on occasion disagreed with Apple Maps over the locations of certain things. Not to mention Apple Maps’s terrible and egregious lack of public transit information.

I like that the thing holding back the usefulness of the maps on the magical computer on your wrist is Apple’s map data, and not the computer itself. Like, Apple can put a magical computer on your wrist. It can see your heart beat, let you dictate an email to someone across the planet, and check your Instagram feed.

But whoa, drawing a map? Of like, a city? Where people live? Dude, you’re blowing my mind!

Published on under The Digital Age

In the midst of Ben Thompson’s analysis of Tidal and streaming music comes this discourse on the value of music labels, which I usually assume are relics of a bygone era:

Of course labels don’t just find artists who magically become popular: the record labels also help make them so with the aforementioned marketing and promotion costs. This can be everything from getting artists booked on TV, featured in iTunes, or promoted on blogs, but the biggie, even in 2015, is getting artists on the radio.

According to the Nielson 2014 Year End Music Report radio remains the number one source of music discovery: an amazing 91.3% of the U.S. population listens to the radio at least once-a-week, and 51% of those surveyed based their buying decisions off of what they heard on the radio.

This is been a friendly reminder to myself that not everyone lives in the same technological bubble that I do.

Published on under The Digital Age

Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo fired forty-nine bullets at a pair of unarmed people in a car at the end of a high-speed car chase. The two eluded more than a hundred police officers during a twenty minute car chase, which is impressive: they were both blackout drunk and under the influence of marijuana and other drugs. I previously wrote about the ridiculous way the Cleveland Police department handled this chase, and how unbelievably poorly-trained and unprofessional the officers involved seem to be.

Officer Brelo is a special kind of awful, though. He fired his gun more than anyone else. He emptied his gun’s magazine three separate times. The last time was after everyone else around him had stopped shooting; he climbed on the hood of his victims’ car and fired 15 shots through the windshield into people the police had already shot at nearly 120 times.

Most police officers who kill unarmed civilians are never charged with a crime. Brelo was charged with Voluntary Manslaughter, which is because Involuntary Manslaughter in Ohio is reserved for what we in New York call Felony Murder: the unintentional or accidental death of someone during the commission of a felony. If you and a buddy swipe some guy’s wallet, and while your victim is chasing you, he has a heart attack or gets hit by a car or dies somehow, you and your buddy are each getting charged with grand larceny and felony murder.

So the fact that Brelo was charged with anything was surprising. What happened next … eh, not so much.

Published on under Nuke Us From Orbit

Facebook’s researchers published a study last week about content diversity on Facebook’s News Feed, which is roughly ‘links to news stories written from a political ideology with which users disagree.’ For example, a diehard Republican’s News Feed with stories from Rachel Maddow, or a Democrat’s News Feed with Fox News links. The horror: reading something on the Internet that could challenge your worldview, or broaden your perspective! You could even be proven wrong.

Ha! Just kidding. When your political worldview is challenged, your original beliefs actually get stronger. Actually, it’s any belief. It’s really, really hard to change your mind.

But still: lots of folks deliberately avoid news from a political worldview with which they disagree. I certainly don’t spend a lot of time reading what those idiots on the other side of the political spectrum think. I’m too busy nodding furiously at the articles gently massaging whatever part of my brain stores all my confirmation bias endorphins.

Facebook’s study, then, was about how people don’t click on News Feed stories from their Other End of the spectrum.

Sidebar: now would be a good time to note that of the many Facebook Friends you have made, and the many Facebook Pages you have Liked, Facebook selects a subset of the updates/links/photos/etc that those Friends and Pages post to show you. You can I could have the exact same 50 Facebook Friends and see wildly different Facebook News Feeds because the News Feed algorithm thinks we’re interested in different things.

For example, if you click on cat photos and I click on dog photos, the algorithm shows you more cat photos and fewer dog photos, and shows me more dog photos and fewer cat photos. Facebook (thinks it) knows what we want, and will (attempt to) give more of it to us.

The Shocking Twist

You see where this is going: Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, carefully engineered to keep your eyeballs glued to Facebook dotcom, filters out those Other End stories and replaces them with more promising links. But only because you don’t want them there! Therefore, it’s not Facebook’s fault that people live in an ideological bubble, you see? They don’t want to see Other End stories and so Facebook doesn’t show them Other End stories. Done.

But don’t you need to have some kind of control group? Don’t you need to have some people who see all the stuff and some people who see less of the stuff, and then measure who clicks what stuff?

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does it make a lot of sense to Professor Zeynep Tufekci, who writes:

As Christian Sandvig states in this post, and Nathan Jurgenson in this important post here, and David Lazer in the introduction to the piece in Science explore deeply, the Facebook researchers are not studying some neutral phenomenon that exists outside of Facebook’s control. The algorithm is designed by Facebook, and is occasionally re-arranged, sometimes to the devastation of groups who cannot pay-to-play for that all important positioning.

Essentially, Facebook is acting like the only variable in this study is the rate at which people click on stories. But the rate at which News Feed shows you Other End stories also changes per person, per day, per click, etc. in a thousand other ways we’ll never know because the algorithm is super secret.

As noted internet scholar and friend of the blog Professor James Grimmelmann said, “the study’s independent and dependent variables are hopelessly snarled.”

Tufekci again:

I’m glad that Facebook is choosing to publish such findings, but I cannot but shake my head about how the real findings are buried, and irrelevant comparisons take up the conclusion. Overall, from all aspects, this study confirms that for this slice of politically-engaged sub-population, Facebook’s algorithm is a modest suppressor of diversity of content people see on Facebook, and that newsfeed placement is a profoundly powerful gatekeeper for click-through rates. This, not all the roundabout conversation about people’s choices, is the news.

It’s telling that these “findings” were published in an appendix instead of front and center in the paper itself. The researchers might understand that this isn’t a good thing. Ideological bubbles where people are insulated from anything resembling a challenge to their viewpoint create badly polarized institutions. Those are probably Bad For Democracy.

Published on under Fourth Estate Chronicles