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)


Internet Health Advisory

I’m the “computer guy” in my family. Which means I’m often asked about what to buy or use, if an offer online is legit or a scam, and what to do when something breaks – always the guy when something breaks. 🙂 Most of my advice is reacting to someone’s inquiry. Yet this time friends, I have an Internet health advisory to share with you all. You didn’t ask for it, it’s my opinion, but I love you and think you should consider it.

Over the last year I’ve examined how I use the Internet and am trying to to better. Social media, a never-ending stream of terrible news 1, and always more things I could be reading/doing than there is time for, have motivated me to consider how I approach my consumption and participation on the web.

First bit of advice, get off social media. Bookmark a few sites to check. Sign up for an RSS service and throw a few URLs in. Foster Kramer writes 2 in a “An open memo, to all marginally-smart people/consumers of internet “content””

“By going to websites as a deliberate reader, you’re making a conscious choice about what you want a media outlet to be—as opposed to letting an algorithm choose the thing you’re most likely to click on. Or! As opposed to encouraging a world in which everyone is suckered into reading something with a headline optimized by a social media strategist armed with nothing more than “best practices” for conning you into a click.”

Get off of the services that try to tell you what to read and find the things that you want to read.

Second, make and find smaller communities. Either by pruning your friend list (do you need to know what someone you went to high school with – who you haven’t talked to in 20 years – had for lunch?)3, following a more selective group of people (and never brands), and turning off notifications for every bloop and beep these services try to innodate you with.

This article on “tiny, weird online communities” resonated with me and I hope it encourages you as well.

“The mainstream social internet is so big; everyone is connected to everyone, over a billion on Facebook alone. The consequences of connection — fake news, radicalization, massive targeted harassment campaigns, algorithmically-generated psychological torment, inane bullshit — were not part of what we were sold. We don’t really have the option of moving our lives off of the internet, and coordinated boycotts of our monstrous platforms have been brief and mostly fruitless. But many of us found ways to renegotiate the terms of how we spent our time online. Rather than the enormous platforms that couldn’t decide if, let alone how they had contributed to the election of a deranged narcissist or the rise of the virulently racist alt-right or a pending nuclear holocaust, why not something smaller, safer, more immediately useful?”

In the XOXO Slack the excellent Andy McMillan commented on this article with, “That’s a point I reflected on quite a lot in 2017. We’re really not built to handle this kind of ongoing awareness of every way every person on the planet is suffering.

Andy’s right. It’s good to be aware of what is going on in the world. It’s good to try to push yourself to be a better, more emphatic person, but at some point too much is too much for any one person. Don’t do that to yourself.

I spent more time in Slack than Facebook or Twitter this past year. I spoke up more in the communities I’m involved in online. 4 Sure, I’ll still post a few things to social media to let folks know what my family is up to. But most of my positive interaction with folks has been through smaller, tighter-knit, communities than sprawling Mega Malls of Madness. I don’t need marketing folks spewing “How do you do fellow kids?” stuff at me on Instagram and Facebook. I’d rather join a small community and listen and talk to folks interested in the same thing.

Third, pick up a phone, invite some friends over, go outside. A few years ago a good friend would organize gatherings of friends. It was an event I always looked forward to. A few good friends together in a room for an evening playing cards, board games, and experiencing each others company. I’ve decided to not wait for an invitation (I know you’re busy Ted and I love you!) and start hosting more get-togethers myself. Just this past weekend I had about 10 good friends going back years show up and hang out. It was great. No matter how close you are to someone over the Internet, nothing can replace being in the same room together.

So friends, as we enter the year of 2018, please consider this advisory from your computer guy. I know it’s hard. I know it’s easy to fill the little moments of boredom with one more scroll. If we’re honest with ourselves, what do we have to show for it, and what could we have done with that time instead?

You want an easy start? Invite me to the next poker night. 🙂

Image via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Not in journalistic quality, which is a problem in itself, but in the context of what kind of events news is reporting on.

  2. (via Kottke)

  3. Yes, I realize I’m overusing the whole “lunch” trope. I hope you know what I mean here.

  4. Another bit of tangential advice – always punch up, never punch down when talking to others. Encourage over discourage. Life is too short for negativity.

Book Recommendation: But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

I finished a book called, “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” by Chuck Klosterman (NYT Review) over the holiday. I really enjoyed it and recommend it. Especially for anyone interested in thinking and learning about how historically poor humans are at predicting the future and remembering the past. The author is best known for his essay and writings about pop culture (a favorite essay) and the writing in this book was light, well-paced, and easy to digest.

Star Simpson – XOXO

Star Simpson builds hardware with soul, currently working on sky machines at Otherlab. The creator of the PLIBMTTBHGATY series of coding events and the TacoCopter drone delivery concept, Star’s latest project is Circuit Classics, reviving the hand-drawn circuits of Forrest M. Mims III as hardware kits.

If you’ve ever done something creative 1 you’ll know the alternating feelings of “This is crazy”, “This is terrible!”, and “This is great!”. I enjoyed Star Simpson’s talk on how that craziness is what often leads to some of the best things people have ever made.

I’ve languished in sharing more videos from XOXO, but this one is rather timely. Just the other day I learned that the circuit board designs Star talks about are now available over at Adafruit!

  1. You have, even if you don’t recognize it