Flint residents don’t need water bottles, they need democracy

I’ve been unimpressed with the recent coverage of the Flint water crisis. The overall message is that there’s been a “run of bad luck” but that certain generous people and corporations are coming to the rescue. If you believe the reports, we should be grateful for all the water bottles being flown in from Nestle and Walmart, and we should rest assured that water filters are being handed out and installed, even though they are inadequate.

In many of the articles on Flint, the switch from Detroit to the Flint River is mentioned, as is the concept of water as a human right, but not much more is explained. Specifically, there are two important questions left unanswered. First, how did this happen? And second, where else is it going to happen?

When you think about how Flint residents got into this situation, it’s critical to remember it was directly caused by a suspension in democracy. It was an emergency manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that made the switch to the Flint River as a water source. I’ve talked a bit about which municipalities get their democratic powers taken away; turns out that process often involves poor people of color. The entire point of emergency management is to remove accountability from the actors who put people’s lives in danger under the guise of saving money. Rick Snyder is, unbelievably, still in office.

Speaking of money, what’s the larger story here? It’s that, as a country, we can’t seem to pony up the resources to keep up our infrastructure, especially when it comes to water. A 2012 report by USA Today found that water prices had doubled in a quarter of the cities surveyed since 2000. This is because federal funding for water and waste systems have been reduced by 80% since 1977. And that would make sense if our water infrastructure were robust, but it’s not. In fact it’s in crisis, and we’d need $1 trillion to update it. The result is widespread crappy water, expensive water, and privatized water system disasters. We just let it rot at the local level, in other words, and deal with it – or not – in the most expensive ways, when it’s already an urgent situation.

Guess where the pipes are the oldest and most decrepit? You guessed it, where poor people live. When we ignore infrastructure we are inviting yet another punitive tax on the poor, and as it happens, a life-long debilitating level of lead poisoning.

So, let’s answer the second question: where else is this going to happen? The answer is pretty much everywhere unless we get our priorities straight. And I’m not talking about water bottles.

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Raising kids the right way

Hey there’s finally been a New York Times column that agrees with me about how to raise kids, so I’m totally going to blog about it.

Seriously, I know that I’m 100% biased, as is anyone who tells you how to raise your kids, but I think Adam Grant has hit upon the perfect explanation of how I think about things in his recent column, How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.

The dumbed down version goes like this: yes, we all know it take a huge amount of practice to get good at the violin. But that doesn’t mean you should force your kids to practice all the time so they’ll become musicians. That’s confusing causation with correlation, the most common of all parental crimes. Instead, ask your kids to be ethical and trust them to find their passion.

The idea is if you give them a strong education in ethics, and then set them free within that framework, they might just decide they love the violin. If they do, then as long as you support their passion, they might just practice all the time and become musicians.

I’ve written a bunch about this exact issue over the years, because although I played the piano as a child, I don’t encourage my kids to play instruments. Because they aren’t begging for it like I did.

To be fair, this isn’t because I’m nervously trying to construct creative kids and want the conditions to be perfect. Mostly it’s common sense. Said plainly, why would I pay for expensive lessons that they don’t want? Why would I set myself up to remind them to practice when they could care less? It sounds like torture for everyone involved, and I honestly don’t understand parents who do it.

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, a hotbed of striving upperly-mobile parenthood, and I was absolutely surrounded by kids – especially second-generation Asian kids – who were being forced to display precocity in all kinds of ways. These kids were miserable, and they hated their violins and cellos. Not all the time, and not in every way, but let me say it like this: very few of them still play music. (Whereas I do, and by the way my bluegrass band has a gig, stay tuned.)

I know, it’s not a lot of evidence, but I still think I’m right, because it’s parenting and people are totally irrational when it comes to this kind of thing, so bear with me, and read the references in Adam Grant’s piece as well, maybe they’re scientific-y.

Of course, it all depends on the definition of creative, which is of course not obvious and I could easily imagine the result changing depending on how you do it. Not to mention that “creativity” isn’t the only thing you’d want from your children. In fact, it’s not my personal goal for my kids to be creative. If I had to choose, I’d say I want my kids to be generous and ethical.

Here’s a bit more background on this very question. a Harvard Education School report called THE CHILDREN WE MEAN TO RAISE: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values that found the following:

About 80% of the youth in our survey report that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. A similar percentage of youth perceive teachers as prioritizing students’ achievements over their caring. Youth were also 3 times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” Our conversations with and observations of parents also suggest that the power and frequency of parents’ daily messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.

When I read this report I performed an exceptionally biased poll in my own household and made sure my kids knew what’s up. And they all do, most probably because I am not forcing them to practice the piano.

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At CPDP, thinking about privacy

Brussels is a pretty nice place for a hellhole (according to Trump). I got here early yesterday and walked around; obviously I bought a bunch (technically an asston) of chocolate and took pictures of impudent statues.

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I know this sounds entirely unhistorical and arrogant, but I can’t help thinking that Brussels was created out of some indulgent American fantasy of Europe that confused Paris and Amsterdam and added a bunch of chocolate stores, beer, and waffles. Oh, and gold leaf.

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It’s a great city; possibly it’s replaced Amsterdam as the place I’d like to live if I moved away from New York (which will never happen). It’s pedestrian dominated, there are plenty of sex shops, and the recycling bins are covered with graffiti. In other words, it’s got the right values and it’s not overly sanitized. Trump’s got it wrong once again.

I’m here for an annual conference called CPDP, which stands for Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection. This morning I attended a super interesting panel on privacy and the world’s poor. In that panel I learned about an algorithm being used to sort unemployed people in Poland. As is typical of many of the algorithms I’m interested, it’s both entirely opaque and high impact; the open information laws also don’t apply for inscrutable reasons.

Later today I’ll be on a panel in which we’ll discuss software tools that investigate privacy and data protection in the real world. Besides me, the people on the panel are working within the context of European privacy and protection laws, which are both very different and much more protective than we have in the states (although the UK is an exception). I will surely learn a lot, both about how people think about data and privacy over here and what the obstacles are to enforcing the strong laws.

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The continued surveillance of poor black kids

There’s a new data-driven app out there called Kinvolved, featured this morning in the New York Times, and it’s exactly my worst fear. It tracks Harlem school children’s whereabouts, sending text messages to parents when they are tardy or absent from school.

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When you look at the user agreement, it seems to say that the data is relatively safe and presumably not available for resale to marketers, but they also say they are allowed to change the agreement at any time.

Here’s my specific fear: what about when they go out of business? I’m thinking the data might be valuable at that point, and their investors might want some money back. And there’s a market, too: data brokers would love to get their grubby little hands on such data to add a layer to their profiles of poor black and brown kids.

This is a situation where FERPA, which is the federal child privacy law, is clearly not strong enough. Right now FERPA allows Kinvolved to be designated as “school officials” who have a “legitimate interest” in using and accessing any education records. And once they have that data, I don’t think there are real constraints to its use.

I’m not singling out Kinvolved for bad intentions; for all I know they mean well and they might even help some kids and families. But I don’t think the data the app is generating is being adequately protected, and it is yet again data concerning the nation’s most vulnerable population.

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Race and the race to the top

Bloomberg has a pretty amazing article today with two fantastic graphs. Here’s the article, but the graphs pretty much say it all.millionaire-school

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Todd Schneider’s “medium data”

Last night I had the pleasure of going to a Meetup given by Todd Schneider, who wrote this informative and fun blogpost about analyzing taxi and Uber data.

You should read his post; among other things it will tell you how long it takes to get to the airport from any NYC neighborhood by the time of day (on weekdays). This corroborates my fear of the dreader post-3pm flight.

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His Meetup was also cool, and in particular he posted a bunch of his code on github, and explained what he’d done as well.

For example, the raw data was more than half the size of his personal computer’s storage, so he used an external hard drive to hold the raw data and convert it to a SQL database on his personal computer for later use (he used PostgreSQL).

Also, in order to load various types of data into R, (which he uses instead of python but I forgive him because he’s so smart about it), he reduced the granularity of the geocoded events, and worked with them via the database as weights on square blocks of NYC (I think about 10 meters by 10 meters) before turning them into graphics. So if he wanted to map “taxicab pickups”, he first split the goegraphic area into little boxes, then counted how many pickups were in each box, then graphed that result instead. It reduced the number of rows of data by a factor larger than 10.

Todd calls this “medium data” because, after some amount of work, you can do it on a personal computer. I dig it.

Todd also gave a bunch of advice for people to follow if they want to do neat data analysis that gets lots of attention (his taxicab/ Uber post got a million hits from Reddit I believe). It was really useful and good advice, the most important of which was, if you’re not interested in this topic, nobody else will be either.

One interesting piece of analysis Todd showed us, which I can’t seem to find on his blog, was a picture of overall rides in taxis and Ubers, which seemed to indicate that Uber is taking over market share from taxis. That’s not so surprising, but it actually seemed to imply that the overall number of rides hasn’t changed much; it’s been a zero-sum game.

The reason this is interesting is that de Blasio’s contention has been that Uber is increasing traffic. But the above seems to imply that Uber doesn’t increase traffic (if “the number of rides” is a good proxy for traffic); rather, it’s taking business away from medallion cabs. Not a final analysis by any stretch but intriguing.

Finally, Todd more recently analyzed Citibike rides, take a look!

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I don’t want more women at Davos

There was a New York Times article yesterday entitled A Push for Gender Equality at the Davos World Economic Forum, and Beyond. It was about how only 18% of the attendees of the yearly dick-measuring contest called the World Economic Forum – or Davos for the initiated – are women, and how they are planning to force companies to bring more women to improve this embarrassing attendance statistic.

One thing the article didn’t consider is the question of whether it’s actually a good thing that women aren’t at Davos. I think it is; I’m proud that women have better things to do than spend their time in high-security luxury to disingenuously discuss the world’s poor.

Davos is a force of inequality. It brings together dealmakers in finance and technology, and also the TED-talkish Big Idea promoters and “thought leaders,” and it encourages them to mingle and make deals. And while they might discuss the world’s big problems – like increasing inequality itself – I’m pretty sure they try much harder to help themselves than to solve those problems. In any case, I have little faith in their proposed solutions, especially after talking to Bill Easterly on Slate Money last week.

Let’s just cancel Davos altogether, shall we? That will do the world more good than getting more women to attend.

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