Gaydar algorithms and ethics

My latest Bloomberg View article is out. I interviewed Michal Kosinski, gaydar algorithm author, about the ethical responsibilities of data scientists:

‘Gaydar’ Shows How Creepy Algorithms Can Get

Read my other Bloomberg View columns here.

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Upcoming events (and recent podcasts)!

September 14, 2017 3 comments

The paperback edition of my book just came out last week, so I’ve been on a tear with interviews, and I’m also doing two public events in New York City in the next week. I wanted to tell you about it in case you have time to come!

  1. I’ll be at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday morning, on a panel with Tim Wu entitled Big Data & You (free event)
  2. I’ll be at an Authors @ Grand Central Tech event on Tuesday evening (this costs $20 but you get a copy of my paperback)
  3. I was on the 99% Invisible podcast with Roman Mars! The episode is called the Age of the Algorithm.
  4. I was on the Leonard Lopate Show for thirty whole minutes!
  5. I was on the Tom Barnard Show in an episode with comedian Mitch Fatel.
  6. I was on the Political Book Show podcast
  7. I was on the EdSurge podcast
  8. I was on the Future of Work podcast
  9. I was on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast
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Facebook and Google, Show Us Your Ad Data

My latest Bloomberg View column is out, in which I try to imagine an internet optimized for citizens rather than consumers:

Facebook and Google, Show Us Your Ad Data

 

For other columns, take a look here.

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The Gallons of Milk Theory of Weight Loss

September 11, 2017 20 comments

I have a new and disgusting if useful way of thinking about weight loss. You’re welcome in advance.

A couple of weeks into the starvation diet and right after my surgery, I complained to my husband that all my weight loss – something like 20 pounds or so at the time – had been taken out of my boobs. I was sad to see them go, I told him. Why couldn’t the weight loss happen elsewhere?!

He demurred. You should look at yourself as a container – most likely a bag – of liquid, he said, much like a plastic container of milk. After all, we’re almost entirely made up of liquid. So, thinking that way, and considering that a whole gallon of milk weighs 8 pounds or so, you’ve lost more than two gallons of milk, which means that your weight loss most definitely hasn’t entirely come from your boobs. Because, after all, they didn’t start out as big as gallons of milk, nor are they entirely gone.

This explanation was foolproof but left me with a queazy feeling which has since only grown.

As of my last weighing, which close readers of my blog will know happened at my doctor’s office last week and not my home, since I threw away my scale, I’ve lost 43 pounds and counting. That’s about 5 gallons of milk, friends. And it’s definitely not exclusively coming out of my sad, baggy boobs.

Indeed I have a new theory about how one loses fat, and it’s called my “sponge theory of fat loss.”

Namely, I think every fat cell in my body is losing weight at the same rate. That’s not to say, of course, that all parts of my body are losing weight at the same rate, since my fat cells accumulate in certain areas like hips, butt, and stomach (and until recently, boobs). Although it has to be said that my shoes have been seeming to grow bigger, which is mysterious. I never thought of my feet as at all fat.

Now, the reason I call it the sponge theory is that, as my voluminous thighs lose weight, they get increasingly spongey. That is, if you squeeze them, you feel like you’re maybe wringing out a sponge. This isn’t necessarily a bad sensation, but it’s definitely weird. It’s basically a loss of density just as much, or more than, a loss of volume.

But I do think the overall loss of volume is catching up in intensity. My skin is excessive for my needs, if you catch my drift. And that’s not going away.

I’ll tell you a secret. When I was young, like maybe 39 or 40, I went on a low carb diet. To be more precise: I decided to eat stuff my friend Laura ate. I modeled myself after her. She’s tiny, and eats well, and loves food, and so I thought, why not give that a try? I lived for months on healthy food like nuts, vegetables, fruit, lentils, and cheese.

It was a good life, and I lost quite a bit of weight. I never got to the point I am now, but I did get close. And you know what happened next? I saw my boobs disappearing, and my skin get excessive for my needs, and I freaked out. I ate a bagel. A single, delicious, still-warm-from-the-oven cinnamon raisin Absolute Bagel with cream cheese. It was delicious, my friends, and it broke me. Somehow I could never look back.

I now have a theory about that, too, because why not, an overactive mind. My theory is that I’d managed to develop a “skinny biome” in my stomach due to the hard work of adjusting to the Laura diet, but that it was precarious for whatever reason, and that bagel tipped my over into a fat person’s biome once again.

To clarify:

  1. I never ate any poop.
  2. I don’t regret this experiment. It taught me that real weight loss would mean a major shift in my body, including lots of extra skin that I would have to adjust to over time (and which I definitely wasn’t ready for 7 years ago).
  3. There’s good reason to think that one of the main reasons that bariatric surgery works is because it fosters a skinny biome.
  4. That means I can expect to want to eat like Laura, rather than using my limited will power to force myself to at all times.
  5. Which is good, because honestly nobody’s got that kind of willpower to be perfect all the time.
  6. Correction: some people do fight every minute of every day to stay thin, but I wouldn’t want to be one of them. Too many other things to do.

Long story short, in the past 7 years I’ve tried to come to terms with what major weight loss would do to my skin. I haven’t, yet. By night I have nightmares that yards and yards of my own excess skin smother me in my sleep. By day I feel guilty for the implicit ageism of my fears. I want to be someone who loves every inch of herself, even the extra skin.

This is what I want to say to people who congratulate me for losing a ton of weight, starting now and ending never: Please don’t equate thin with beautiful. I liked my body so much more when I was fat, when I looked like an enormous buddha, full and round. I didn’t do this to look better, I did it to be healthier, to bike in the summer and to avoid diabetes. I’m hoping to eventually find a way to love my body in spite of how it looks, but it’s a monumental challenge.

Statistically speaking I’m expected to lose quite a few more gallons of milk before stabilizing. I’m scared. I’ve decided to give it a few years of adjustment before turning to surgical means of dealing with excess skin, which would be expensive, dangerous, and a blow to my identity as someone who can adjust to things and rise above issues of vanity.

Wish me luck.

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We’re Losing the War on Opioids

My newest Bloomberg View column just came out:

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Learning to eat again

So, I’m learning to eat again. Like a newborn child perhaps, but worse, since I have all sorts of memories of how much I can eat and what I like to eat that are misleading. A Bayesian prior that I can’t easily shake.

Pescatarian

For example, once I was cleared to eat ground meat, I made myself a pot of beef chili, which is something I’ve always loved to eat. I knew I could only eat a bit of it at a time, but I figured that was fine, since I’d share it with other people. But the truth is, I couldn’t eat it at all. I tried one tiny bowl of it and it felt like a million tons in my stomach.

That’s been the way it is for me, with pretty much all meat, including chicken. I can’t seem to eat meat and feel good afterwards.

By contrast, I can eat fish. To be more precise, sashimi. I’ve really enjoyed salmon sashimi. And tofu. I’ve been pretty much addicted to tofu. Anything Thai, and the lighter the sauce the better.

Traveling

Traveling while learning to eat sucks. I went away with my kids for a few days to West Springfield, MA. Talk about a food desert. The best restaurant we went to was Bertucci’s, followed by IHOP, followed by Friendly’s. Not an exaggeration. And since I’m not eating pasta or doughy bread, Bertucci’s was tough. And since I don’t want to eat sweet things, IHOP was basically impossible. And since I don’t digest fried things, Friendly’s was awful.

Out of desperation, I google searched “good healthy food near me” and it came up with two results: Dunkin Donuts and a martini bar.

Basically I lived off of the cheese I brought with me for the trip. I now kind of understand why rich people pay so much to vacation in fancy places with healthy food. I would have paid good money for avocado toast.

As a side note, I’ve never been more aware of how most of America eats. The food available in places like this is unhealthy, addictive, and omnipresent. Not to mention very, very cheap. Which is to say, there is a systemic problem we will have to face sooner or later when it comes to health.

Throwing the Rulebook Out the Window

I think I mentioned before that the instructions I’ve received from the surgeon’s office – specifically, from the nutritionist – have been hard to follow, in part because they’re extra strict to make allowances for the fact that they assume practically everyone cheats. That’s not a theory, I asked. And since I’m actually trying to be compliant, that makes it kind of ridiculous.

For example, the instructions tell you to eat meat with mayonnaise so that it will go down easier. But they also tell you not to ever eat something with more than 25% fat in a meal. That’s hard to do, so the conclusion is to mix up your meat with diet mayonnaise to force it down.

I mean, yuck. Who wants to force down chunks of chicken or beef with diet mayonnaise? I’d rather never eat meat in the first place.

More generally, though, I once again think the entire causal relationship has been misunderstood.

It’s easy enough to do as a nutritionist: if you notice that people who eat high fat foods don’t lose as much weight as people who eat lean foods, it’s natural to tell everyone to eat lean foods. But that doesn’t mean such advice will be heeded or will work.

My perspective is that I’ve thrown the dice on this surgery, and it has changed my hormones, and my stomach biome, and my tastes will change, and I might end up being one of those people who both desire and consume lean foods. And if I’m lucky, and I end up wanting to eat lean foods, this surgery will have been a success. But I cannot make it a success with sheer force of will.

You see, I also like my cheese, and sometimes my entire “meal” (still the size of a snack) consists of eating cheese, and I’m sure it’s more than 25% fat, but I’m not planning to replace it with diet cheese. Instead, I’m happy to report, other meals all I want is fruit, or salad, and they’ll have to balance stuff out.

Long story short, I’m ending up relatively noncompliant, after all. The only things I’m being super careful about are my vitamin patches and my protein intake, which seem important.

I don’t know how this will all end up, but I do know that I value delicious and satisfying food, and I’d rather be listening to my body and eating good food than ignoring my body and eating plastic.

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Look Who’s Fighting Our Algorithmic Overlords

I wrote a new Bloomberg View column about some of the tools to fight bad algorithms:

Look Who’s Fighting Our Algorithmic Overlords

Take a look at my older Bloomberg View columns here.

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