I’ve been invited to give a short presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum, which will be held next Thursday and Friday at NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place.
The theme of this year’s PDF is “civic tech.” And since I really don’t know what that term means, I’m looking forward to learning. For my part, I’m interpreting it to mean “how technology and data usage affects the public.” I have a lot to say about that subject, and it’s mostly skeptical.
The title of my talk, like my book, is Weapons of Math Destruction, and they did a little interview of me in advance of the conference, which you can read here.
Do you know about ravelry? If you’re a knitter or crocheter (or weaver or spinner) you probably do.
It’s kind of like a Facebook for knitters, but much less creepy, because it’s the exact kind of information you want to be sharing, and the exact kind of showcasing of others that you want to be peering at.
It’s an amazing success story. Started in 2007 by a husband and wife team, it now boasts more than 4 million users worldwide, representing 5 billion kilometers of yarn. Each person who is registered gets to create a profile consisting of their projects, complete with notes or even a blog about their trials and tribulations making it, and of course lots of fantastic pictures of their work in progress.
A user can also show off their “stash,” which is to say their backup yarn, which they can trade with others, and they can have a list of favorite projects or designs of others, and even a library list of books and patterns that they have. There’s ample opportunity to comment on how beautiful other people’s projects are – and knitters are very generous with praise – and there are forums for general discussions.
One last thing. There are group projects, where knitters do projects together, often led by a designer who “surprises” them with little pieces of the pattern at a time. It’s a fun idea called a “knit-along.”
OK, so here’s the idea. Why doesn’t someone start a ravelry for people who work out?
I’m convinced that people who work out are almost like knitters. They have little projects that they like to obsess over, they plan them extensively, they like to keep track of progress, they love talking to other worker-outers about their plans, and they like to do stuff in groups led by a master worker-outer.
I’m sure there currently are discussion forums for people who love keeping track of their miles or whatever, but I’m pretty sure nothing as extensive and as thoughtful as ravelry exists. I’m talking about a place where you create a “workout profile” and upload your fitbit data if you want, to create graphs of your cumulative miles, and your friends who are also training for that triathlon can also put their graphs up, and you can discuss workout clothes and which weighted vests are the best.
I know a little bit about this world because once I competed in a sprint triathlon and it was definitely as obsessive as my lifelong knitting hobby. Plus, now a good friend of mine works out a lot and constantly wants to talk to me about weighted vests, and I’m always thinking to myself, “there must be a community somewhere for this guy to talk about weighted vests!? Why not a ravelry for workouters?”.
Just think: instead of knit-alongs, you’d have surprise workout regiments (that sounds kind of fun!). Instead of pictures of half-done works in progress, you’d have graphs and pictures of sweaty t-shirts (that sounds kind of gross, but I still think people would dig it). And instead of completed projects where the knitted sweater is showcased on the cute kid, you’d have a little electronic badge saying, “Amy completed the New York City Triathlon!”
In terms of business model, it would be a lot like ravelry: free for users, funded by incredible ad opportunities for things that obsessive people actually really want, when they want them. Although it’s fair to say that the ads I see for silk/cashmere blend yarns that appear on ravelry are kind of predatory. But they definitely work.
Free business idea for y’all, I hope you like it.
The annual Left Forum conference is this weekend, Friday to Sunday, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, located on 59th at 10th. Formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference, the Left Forum brings together lefty scholars like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West as well as organizers and activists.
The theme for this year’s conference is “No Justice, No Peace: Confronting the Crises of Capitalism and Democracy.” There’s also an emphasis on the #BlackLivesMatter movement and understanding what happened in Ferguson, as well as stuff going on in Greece.
The occupation is over but groups with roots in Zuccotti Park are working actively in many ways. Representatives of some of these groups will discuss their current efforts and we will look for a participatory discussion of how the movement can be effective. Committed at this time: OccuEvolve – Sumumba Sobukwe, Occupy the SEC – Neil Taylor, OWS Alternative Banking – Cathy O’Neil, Debt Collective / Strike Debt — Luke Herrine Copies of the book Occupy Finance will be available free to attendees while supplies last.
Occupy Alternative Banking proposes to run one of its typical weekly Sunday meetings as a Left Forum workshop, as it did the last two years. You can learn about us at http://altbanking.net/. But in brief, we grew out of Open University sessions at the Occupy protests, and have been meeting ever since. We are open to all comers, and meet every Sunday afternoon at Columbia University to discuss current events and theory related to the dysfunction of the financial system, develop strategies, and endeavor to implement them. Our meeting-structure involves listing some topics for possible discussion, allowing attendees to add others, and then voting on two or three to discuss (in assembly-style format) during the meeting. We believe our two previous appearances at the Left Forum were very successful, both in terms of how they were received, and in their bringing some wonderful new consistent members to our weekly meetings and community. We propose to run a similar workshop this year. Other presenters will include Natasha Blakely and Thessy Mehrain, both of Occupy Alternative Banking.
Slate recently published a piece entitled You Can’t Handle the (Algorithmic) Truth, written by Adam Elkus, a Ph.D. student in computational social science at George Mason University (hat tip Chris Wiggins).
In it, Elkus criticizes those who criticize unaccountable algorithms. He suggests that algorithms are simply the natural placeholders of bureaucracy, and we should aim our hatred at bureaucracy instead of algorithms. In his conclusion he goes further in defending the machines:
If computers implementing some larger social value, preference, or structure we take for granted offends us, perhaps we should do something about the value, preference, or structure that motivates the algorithm. After all, algorithms can be reprogrammed. It is much harder—but not impossible—to recode social systems and institutions than computers. Perhaps the humans who refuse to act for what they believe in while raising fear about computers are the real ones responsible for the decline of our agency, choice, and control—not the machines. They just can’t handle the (algorithmic) truth.
I’ve read this paragraph a few times and it’s still baffling to me. I think he’s suggesting that people complaining about the use of unaccountable algorithms are causing a problem by “refusing to act.” And since I count myself as one of the people in question, I’m having difficulty understanding what it is exactly that I’m refusing to do.
I’ve never met anyone in this field who imagines that algorithms sprung up out of the computers themselves, ready to act in an unaccountable way. No: it is well understood that algorithms were designed, implemented, and deployed by human beings. The unaccountability of algorithms is moreover a feature, not a bug, for such people, and is often entirely deliberate – the algos represent new ways of punishing and rewarding people without having to do it in person and without taking responsibility.
For example, think about the Value-Added Model for teachers, which I have written about extensively, or evidence-based sentencing and paroling. In the first case, the algorithms conveniently, if randomly, assesses teachers with an “objective” tool that the teachers do not understand and cannot question, in the ironic name of teacher accountability. In the case of evidence-based sentencing, the judges can use and then point to the models without fear of being held personally responsible for decisions.
Now, here’s where I’ll agree with Elkus. We can’t pretend that it’s the “algorithm’s fault.” it is most definitely the fault of the people who decide to trust the algorithm and act automatically on the basis of the algorithm’s output .
Where I disagree with Elkus is the idea that there’s nothing new here. Algorithms have given bureaucrats a new set of tools for their arsenals, ones that are naturally intimidating, opaque, and which carry a false sense of objectivity. We should absolutely question their use and, to be sure, the underlying goals and assumptions of the people in power who deploy them.
1. So, if we found that the Google search algorithm were racist, it would not be the algorithm’s fault. It would instead be the fault of Google employees to continue to deploy its flawed algorithm. I would add that, given the various ways that Google algorithms can go wrong, and their widespread use and impact, it is the responsibility of Google to monitor its algorithms for such flaws.
Take a look at this article (hat tip Felix Salmon), which has me absolutely raging this morning, about new legislation in Kansas that prevents poor people on welfare from taking out more than $25 per day using their state-issued debit cards.
To be clear, you have to round up to the nearest $20 if you want to take out money from an ATM, so that’s really the limit.
And to be clear, there’s a $1 fee to take out money, and then typically an extra $2.50 fee if you don’t have a bank account, which many of the affected people do not.
So altogether, they’re giving $3.50 for every $20 of their welfare benefits, which I’d characterize as a bank tax of 17.5%. Because poor people don’t need that money, never mind the convenience of paying their actual bills.
For fuck’s sake, Kansas.
Yesterday and today I’m in Camden, New Jersey, working on a data task force for the Camden County Police Department. Yesterday we learned about how they currently run their systems and today we are hopefully going to address how they will do so in the future.
I got to see President Obama when he came here yesterday and talked about the Camden Police as a role model for the nation. The New York Times covered his visit as well and wasn’t so sure, given its record of accusations of excessive force by the police.
The way they collect those records and, to some extent, the way they respond to complaints are part of what I’m helping them think about, so I’ll know more soon, and I will be sure to write about it.
The Chief of Police, Scott Thomson, certainly says the right things. You can get to know him a bit through this interview, but I was struck yesterday by his emphasis on morality and community trust over the culture of an occupying force. Even so, Camden is a tough place, and not everything suddenly gets better even with a police force doing their best.
Another way of saying that is that, if we take the problems with the police away from a troubled city, you expose a whole pile of other problems.
I’m excited as always to see my buddy Jordan Ellenberg, who’s in town accepting a Guggenheim Fellowship.
You might have thought that Guggenheims were awarded to starving artists, and you would be mostly right, but they also give them out to a couple of math people each year as well.
Since Jordan has kids and I have kids, we got to talking about how fantastic our kids are, which led Jordan to show me this adorable video involving him and his son C.J.:
- If you look carefully, you will also see my buddy Rebecca Goldin with one of her (many) adorable kids in the video,
- My favorite part (and Jordan’s) is where he puts his head inside a Fibonacci sequence, even though that makes no sense,
- My sons would never be this math positive. They enjoy talking about how much they hate school in general and math in particular.
- I’m kind of proud of how I’m raising them to be “independent thinkers,” though, which is what I call that.