Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

A critique of a review of a book by Bruce Schneier

I haven’t yet read Bruce Schneier’s new book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data and Control Your World. I plan to in the coming days, while I’m traveling with my kids for spring break.

Even so, I already feel capable of critiquing this review of his book (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg), written by Columbia Business School Professor and Investment Banker Jonathan Knee. You see, I’m writing a book myself on big data, so I feel like I understand many of the issues intimately.

The review starts out flattering, but then it hits this turn:

When it comes to his specific policy recommendations, however, Mr. Schneier becomes significantly less compelling. And the underlying philosophy that emerges — once he has dispensed with all pretense of an evenhanded presentation of the issues — seems actually subversive of the very democratic principles that he claims animates his mission.

That’s a pretty hefty charge. Let’s take a look into Knee’s evidence that Schneier wants to subvert democratic principles.


First, he complains that Schneier wants the government to stop collecting and mining massive amounts of data in its search for terrorists. Knee thinks this is dumb because it would be great to have lots of data on the “bad guys” once we catch them.

Any time someone uses the phrase “bad guys,” it makes me wince.

But putting that aside, Knee is either ignorant of or is completely ignoring what mass surveillance and data dredging actually creates: the false positives, the time and money and attention, not to mention the potential for misuse and hacking. Knee’s opinion on that is simply that we normal citizens just don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether it works, including Schneier, and in spite of Schneier knowing Snowden pretty well.

It’s just like waterboarding – Knee says – we can’t be sure it isn’t a great fucking idea.

Wait, before we move on, who is more pro-democracy, the guy who wants to stop totalitarian social control methods, or the guy who wants to leave it to the opaque authorities?

Corporate Data Collection

Here’s where Knee really gets lost in Schneier’s logic, because – get this – Schneier wants corporate collection and sale of consumer data to stop. The nerve. As Knee says:

Mr. Schneier promotes no less than a fundamental reshaping of the media and technology landscape. Companies with access to large amounts of personal data would be “automatically classified as fiduciaries” and subject to “special legal restrictions and protections.”

That these limits would render illegal most current business models — under which consumers exchange enhanced access by advertisers for free services – does not seem to bother Mr. Schneier”

I can’t help but think that Knee cannot understand any argument that would threaten the business world as he knows it. After all, he is a business professor and an investment banker. Things seem pretty well worked out when you live in such an environment.

By Knee’s logic, even if the current business model is subverting democracy – which I also argue in my book – we shouldn’t tamper with it because it’s a business model.

The way Knee paints Schneier as anti-democratic is by using the classic fallacy in big data which I wrote about here:

Although professing to be primarily preoccupied with respect of individual autonomy, the fact that Americans as a group apparently don’t feel the same way as he does about privacy appears to have little impact on the author’s radical regulatory agenda. He actually blames “the media” for the failure of his positions to attract more popular support.

Quick summary: Americans as a group do not feel this way because they do not understand what they are trading when they trade their privacy. Commercial and governmental interests, meanwhile, are all united in convincing Americans not to think too hard about it. There are very few people devoting themselves to alerting people to the dark side of big data, and Schneier is one of them. It is a patriotic act.

Also, yes Professor Knee, “the media” generally speaking writes down whatever a marketer in the big data world says is true. There are wonderful exceptions, of course.

So, here’s a question for Knee. What if you found out about a threat on the citizenry, and wanted to put a stop to it? You might write a book and explain the threat; the fact that not everyone already agrees with you wouldn’t make your book anti-democratic, would it?


The rest of the review basically boils down to, “you don’t understand the teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior like I do.”

Do you know about Godwin’s law, which says that as soon as someone invokes the Nazis in an argument about anything, they’ve lost the argument?

I feel like we need another, similar rule, which says, if you’re invoking MLK and claiming the other person is misinterpreting him while you have him nailed, then you’ve lost the argument.

Creepy big data health models

There’s an excellent Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Walker, entitled Can a Smartphone Tell if You’re Depressed?that describes a lot of creepy new big data projects going on now in healthcare, in partnership with hospitals and insurance companies.

Some of the models come in the form of apps, created and managed by private, third-party companies that try to predict depression in, for example, postpartum women. They don’t disclose what they are doing to many of the women, or the extent of what they’re doing, according to the article. They own the data they’ve collected at the end of the day and, presumably, can sell it to anyone interested in whether a woman is depressed. For example, future employers. To be clear, this data is generally not covered by HIPAA.

Perhaps the creepiest example is a voice analysis model:

Nurses employed by Aetna have used voice-analysis software since 2012 to detect signs of depression during calls with customers who receive short-term disability benefits because of injury or illness. The software looks for patterns in the pace and tone of voices that can predict “whether the person is engaged with activities like physical therapy or taking the right kinds of medications,” Michael Palmer, Aetna’s chief innovation and digital officer, says.

Patients aren’t informed that their voices are being analyzed, Tammy Arnold, an Aetna spokeswoman, says. The company tells patients the calls are being “recorded for quality,” she says.

“There is concern that with more detailed notification, a member may alter his or her responses or tone (intentionally or unintentionally) in an effort to influence the tool or just in anticipation of the tool,” Ms. Arnold said in an email.

In other words, in the name of “fear of gaming the model,” we are not disclosing the creepy methods we are using. Also, considering that the targets of this model are receiving disability benefits, I’m wondering if the real goal is to catch someone off their meds and disqualify them for further benefits or something along those lines. Since they don’t know they are being modeled, they will never know.

Conclusion: we need more regulation around big data in healthcare.

Categories: data journalism, modeling, rant

Wage Gaps Don’t Magically Get Smaller Because Big Data

Today, just a rant. Sorry. I mean, I’m not a perfect person either, and of course that’s glaringly obvious, but this fluff piece from Wired, written by Pam Wikham of Raytheon, is just aggravating.

The title is Big Data, Smaller Wage Gap? and, you know, it almost gives us the impression that she has a plan to close the wage gap using big data, or alternatively an argument that the wage gap will automatically close with the advent of big data techniques. It turns out to be the former, but not really.

After complaining about the wage gap for women in general, and after we get to know how much she loves her young niece, here’s the heart of the plan (emphasis mine, on the actual plan parts of the plan):

Analytics and microtargeting aren’t just for retailers and politicians — they can help us grow the ranks of executive women and close the gender wage gap. Employers analyze who clicked on internal job postings, and we can pursue qualified women who looked but never applied. We can go beyond analyzing the salary and rank histories of women who have left our companies. We can use big data analytics to tell us what exit interviews don’t.

Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn groups provide a trove of valuable intel from ex-employees. What they write is blunt, candid and useful. All the data is there for the taking — we just have to collect it and figure out what it means. We can delve deep into whether we’re promoting the best people, whether we’re doing enough to keep our ranks diverse, whether potential female leaders are being left behind and, importantly, why.

That’s about it, after that she goes back to her niece.

Here’s the thing, I’m not saying it’s not an important topic, but that plan doesn’t seem worthy of the title of the piece. It’s super vague and fluffy and meaningless. I guess, if I had to give it meaning, it would be that she’s proposing to understand internal corporate sexism using data, rather than assuming “data is objective” and that all models will make things better. And that’s one tiny step, but it’s not much. It’s really not enough.

Here’s an idea, and it kind of uses big data, or at least small data, so we might be able to sell it. Ask people in your corporate structure what the actual characteristics are of people they promote, and how they are measured, or if they are measured, and look at the data to see if what they say is consistent with what they do, and whether those characteristics are inherently sexist. It’s a very specific plan and no fancy mathematical techniques are necessary, but we don’t have to tell anyone that.

What combats sexism is a clarification and transparent description of job requirements and a willingness to follow through. Look at blind orchestra auditions for a success story there. By contrast, my experience with the corporate world is that, when hiring or promoting, they often list a long series of unmeasurable but critical properties like “good cultural fit” and “leadership qualities” that, for whatever reason, more men are rated high on than women.

Categories: data science, rant

The re-emergence of debtors’ prisons

Yesterday at my weekly Occupy meeting we watched videos called To Prison For Poverty by Brave New Films (Part I and Part II) before discussing them. Take a look, they are well done:


It’s not the first time this issue has come up recently; the NPR investigations into court fees from last May, called Guilty and Charged, led to a bunch of reports on issues similar to this. Probably the closest is the one entitled Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons.

A few comments:

  • Ferguson is now famous for having a basically white police force patrolling a basically black populace. But it also has this fines-and-fees-and-jails problem: fines and fees associated to mostly traffic violations accounted for 21% of the city’s budget in 2013. And there were more arrest warrants than people in Ferguson last year, mostly for non-violent offenses.
  • But the debtors’ prison problem isn’t just a racial issue. The people profiled in the above video were white, which could have been a documentarian’s decision, but in any case is a fact: the poverty-to-prison system is screwing all poor people, not just minorities. This is in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in the landmark 1983 case, Bearden v. Georgia.
  • This sense that “everyone is screwed” creates solidarity among poor whites and poor blacks, and especially young people. The Ferguson protests have been multi-racial, for example. And if you’ve read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, you’ll recognize a historical pattern whereby political change happens when poor whites and poor blacks start working together.
  • One interesting and scary question to emerge from the above stories is, how did so many fees and fines get attached to low-level misdemeanors in the first place? It seems like privatized probation and prison companies have a lot to do with it.
  • In some cases, they are putting people in jail for days and weeks, which costs the government hundreds of dollars, in order to capture a small fee. That makes no sense.
  • In other cases, the fees accumulate so fast that the poor person who committed the misdemeanor ends up being responsible for an outrageous amount of money, far surpassing the scale of the original misdeed, and all because they are poor. That also makes no sense.
  • It’s not just for prisons either; all sorts of functions that we consider governmental functions have been privatized, like health and human services: child welfare services, homeless services, half-way houses, and more.
  • In the worst cases, the original intent of the agency (“putting people on probation so they don’t have to be in jail”) has been perverted into an entirely different beast (“putting them in jail because they can’t pay their daily $35 probation fees”). The question we’d like to investigate further is, how did that happen and why?
Categories: #OWS, news, rant

What the fucking shit, Barbie?

I’m back from Haiti! It was amazing and awesome, and please stand by for more about that, with cultural observations and possibly a slide show if you’re all well behaved.

Today, thanks to my math camp buddy Lenore Cowen, I am going to share with you an amazing blog post by Pamela Ribon. Her post is called Barbie Fucks It Up Again and it describes a Barbie book entitled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer

The other book is called "I Can Be an Actress"

The other book is called “I Can Be an Actress”

Just to give you an idea of the plot, Barbie’s sister finds Barbie engaged on a project on her computer, and after asking her about it, Barbie responds:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

To which blogger Pamela Ribon comments:
What the fucking shit, Barbie?
Update: Please check out the amazing Amazon reviews of this book (hat tip Chris Wiggins).

Alt Banking in Huffington Post #OWS

November 11, 2014 1 comment

Great news! The Alt Banking group had a piece published today in the Huffington Post entitled With Economic Justice For All, about our hopes for the next Attorney General.

For the sake of the essay, we coined the term “marble columns” to mean the opposite of “broken windows.” Instead of getting arrested for nothing, you never get arrested, as long as you work at a company with marble columns. For more, take a look at the whole piece!

Also, my good friend and bandmate Tom Adams (our band, the Tomtown Ramblers, is named after him) will be covering for me on mathbabe for the next few days while I’m away in Haiti. Please make him feel welcome!

Nerd catcalling

This is a guest post by Becky Jaffe.

It has come to my attention that I am a nerd. I take this on good authority from my students, my friends, and, as of this morning, strangers in a coffee shop. I was called a nerd three times today before 10:30 am, while I was standing in line for coffee – which is to say, before I was caffeinated, and therefore utterly defenseless. I asked my accusers for suggestions on how to be less nerdy. Here was their helpful advice:


Guy in coffee shop: “Wear makeup and high heels.”

Another helpful interlocutor: “Use smaller words.”

My student, later in the day: “Care less about ideas.”

A friend: “Think less like NPR and more like C-SPAN.”

What I wish someone had said: “Is that a dictionary in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”


What I learned today is that if I want to avoid being called a nerd, I should be more like Barbie. And I don’t mean the Professor Barbie version, which – get this – does not exist. When I googled “Professor Barbie,” I got “Fashion Professor Barbie.”


So many lessons in gender conformity for one day! This nerd is taking notes.

Categories: Becky Jaffe, guest post, rant

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