Dangerous Data

I once worked on the data management team for a large healthcare provider. There is an incredible amount of power and possibility in using data to empower and enact dramatic changes – especially in large traditionally slow-moving organizations. That said, there is an inherent risk for our own individual and group biases to seep into the algorithm and output from such systems.

In this episode of TED Radio hour, “Can We Trust The Numbers?” computer and data scientists share some of the overlooked aspects of where data science can fail our good intentions.

“It’s more than you think. It’s about power because they get to decide what experiment. It’s about power because they get to math-splain. It’s also about power because they get to decide what success looks like.”

Bonus points for Kathy O’Neil coining the phrase, “Math-splain”.  😀

(via Jackie)


Who started the (dumpster) fire?

I’ve been thinking about how the divide in ideologies of conservatism and liberalism has grown in the last few years.1 It’s a concerning trend and doesn’t help to come to any compromise or shared understanding. Too many opportunities for talking past one another.

Today I happened across two interesting visualization and related articles.

The first is from Lena Groeger (via Flowingdata.com) that shows the political polarization in the American public from 1994 to 2015.


The interesting point to me is that since about 1999 till 2012 the Democratic median did not move; it stayed pretty consistently halfway between “mostly liberal” and “mixed”. The Republican median however, started to drift more toward the right (pun intended); “consistently conservative” starting in 2004.

While just one set of data – via Pew surveys – it indicates that the Republican mindset began its journey toward an extreme earlier than that of the Democratic ideologies.

Then there’s this study from the Columbia Journalism Review which indicates that the widening of the gap between median political ideologies was not done in equal measure by both sides – in short, it wasn’t access to technology (the Internet and social media) that lead to the widening gap.


Looking at the report it’s clear that both sides weren’t operating equally (with access to the same tools) in spreading biased and outright inaccurate information. It was the more conservative right-wing mindset that was OK with creating public discourse with, well, bullshit. At the center? Bretbart and company.

Our analysis challenges a simple narrative that the internet as a technology is what fragments public discourse and polarizes opinions, by allowing us to inhabit filter bubbles or just read “the daily me.” If technology were the most important driver towards a “post-truth” world, we would expect to see symmetric patterns on the left and the right. Instead, different internal political dynamics in the right and the left led to different patterns in the reception and use of the technology by each wing. While Facebook and Twitter certainly enabled right-wing media to circumvent the gatekeeping power of traditional media, the pattern was not symmetric.

Well, that’s rather unfortunate.

I’ve heard from many folks on both sides of the gulf of ideologies that we should listen to the other side, open our minds, be considerate, etc. I agree with that – as an ideal. In reality, that’s really hard to do when one side appears to have a foundation laid in sand – by which I mean false accusations, bullshit, conjecture, and lies.

But ugh, this is all at the macro to global level. We’re looking at “the whole thing”. That’s not congruent with folks who say “Not why I voted for Trump”.

That’s frustrating. At the individual level – I get it.

Pretty awesome person danah boyd, an advocate and researcher who talks often on youth culture and the internet shared a really interesting essay on ‘Failing to See, Fueling Hatred“. While not directly tied to conservative thinking or the “alt-right” media landscape I think it captures many of the frustrations more right-leaning folks are feeling and how the allure of the conservative media landscape makes for stronger rationalization in support of the current administration.

Without understanding the complex interplay of things, it’s hard not to feel resentful about certain things that we do see. But at the same time, it’s not possible to hold onto the complexity. I can appreciate why individuals are indignant when they feel as though they pay taxes for that money to be given away to foreigners through foreign aid and immigration programs. These people feel like they’re struggling, feel like they’re working hard, feel like they’re facing injustice. Still, it makes sense to me that people’s sense of prosperity is only as good as their feeling that they’re getting ahead. And when you’ve been earning $40/hour doing union work only to lose that job and feel like the only other option is a $25/hr job, the feeling is bad, no matter that this is more than most people make. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley engineers feel as though they’re struggling and it’s not because they’re comparing themselves to everyone in the world. It’s because the standard of living keeps dropping in front of them. It’s all relative.

This is all to say, there’s no clear path forward. This divide makes relationships difficult when identifying oneself with political ideologies. Especially when ideologies are dirtied with intellectual distrust.

Title inspiration (more)

  1. Follow me on Twitter if you want more of that. If you want less, uh, sorry. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

We Can Define the Future We Want

AKA Why Tomorrowland is an underrated film.

Since the election season started last year I’ve been in a constant state of low-idle anxiety and depression punctuated by spikes of “What is the world coming to?” and “Everything is going to be OK!”. Keeping up felt stressful and zoning out felt irresponsible. I was thinking things would have subsided after the general election, but hey what do you know. It hasn’t. ಠ_ಠ

So, this is one of those pithy blog posts where we take a step back and over-analyze a medium – in this case science fiction film – as a signpost of, “WE WERE WARNED”.

Science fiction has always been rich with possible futures for humanity. Some plausible, others far into the realm of the bizarre. One thing all science fiction attempts to do is provide a mirror on humanity and our choices and present possible futures. Most fictional universes, like our own reality, contain the potential for good, but are blocked or marred by some form of evil or wrongness.

So, what does science fiction have to do with our current state? Well, for one if we had all watched Tomorrowland we’d all be more informed and prepared for this crap. 1 Presented as a science fiction film, it provides a dark potential future.

Recently, Lizzie O’Leary from Marketplace interviewed Robert Capps, the Senior Editor at Wired to discuss their recent Sci-fi issue.

Lizzie O’Leary: Many of the visions in here are pretty dark. Why do you think that happened?

Capps: I think there’s a couple of reasons. We started doing this issue a good eight months ago and we actually were approaching writers six months ago. But I think that going back six months we had a very bitter election. We had a mass shooting at a nightclub in Florida. Really, it’s not so much dark, or even pessimism, but uncertainty. There is some warnings of, we should think about how we want to go forward and what we want our society and our planet to look like.

Again, this is what science fiction does best. Presenting us with possible futures – ones with uncertainty, and making us reflect upon the reality we face. That’s where Tomorrowland comes in.

Set in an alternate reality where the brightest minds attempt to make a Utopia for all mankind, things go to pot. The cynical “maybe a good guy at the beginning, but really a bad guy” Nix, played by Hugh Laurie, reveals that an invention has been influencing the thoughts of civilization for the last 50 years – feeding negative thoughts and ideas about the end of the world into the minds of everyone on Earth.

Nix, has a great monologue toward the end of the film,

“Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to… the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because, what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. But, how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. So, you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it for one reason, because *that* future does not ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! That’s not the monitor’s fault. That’s yours.”

Emphasis mine.

Good science fiction should inspire us. We can use its shiny surface to reflect the future we want.

We have to fight against uncertainty, to not give in. Consuming the 24 hour news cycle, social media, and so much angst everywhere we turn is not healthy for us as individuals. It does not make the uncertain more certain. Action does. I’m encouraged and embolden by the people marching, protesting, calling representatives, donating, and talking about these issues. I hope it continues.

One more bit of appropriate dialog, from again a film I think is undervalued. This time between the protagonist and her father.

Casey Newton: There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?
Eddie Newton: Come on, Casey.
Casey: Okay, fine. Don’t answer.
Eddie: Whichever one you feed.


  1. Tomorrowland is not the only or best representation of science fiction warning us of potential follies, but one of the more recent and straightforward examples. While flawed, it is a favorite film of mine. My biggest criticism is that the film supposes that the best people abandon Earth to make a utopia with plans to invite everyone later. That would never work, as many people would feel shunned for not being included in the creation of said utopia. In my opinion, the filmmakers should have framed the creation of Tomorrowland as less of a, “Hey let the smart people figure this out. We’ll call you when it’s ready.”, and more of an inclusive “Everyone can pitch in with their unique skills” sort of message. But I digress.

Neil Cicierega – XOXO

One of the most prolific creators of weird and wonderful internet, Neil Cicierega is an artist, comedian, filmmaker, musician, and game developer. His many, many projects include Potter Puppet Pals, Lemon Demon, and his stunning Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence mashup albums.

If you’re a person of about my age you’ve undoubtedly witnessed one of Neil’s many creations. In the early days of the web, before social media, files were shared with what felt like more anonymity. Folks created multiple personas and tracing back the original was difficult. 1 I fondly recall discovering Neil’s Hyakugojyuuichi, a bizarre Flash animation juxtaposition, that even decades later is still enchanting – in a strange Niel Cicierega way. 🙂

  1. Not that any of this is not true in 2017, but it is far easier now.