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Stuff I’m reading

  1. fascinating conversation with Gerald Posner, author of God’s Bankers: a History of Money and Power at the Vaticas, with crazy and horrible details of the Vatican’s bank’s dealings with the Nazis (hat tip Aryt Alasti). Also a review of the book in the New York Times.
  2. Nerding out on an interesting blog post by Laura McClay, who describes her involvement researching flood insurance (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg). One of my favorite point about insurance comes up in this piece, namely if you price insurance too accurately, it fails in its most basic function, and gets too expensive for those at highest risk.
  3. There’s a new social network created specifically to get people more involved in politics. It’s called Brigade, and it gets users to answer a bunch of questions about their beliefs. The business model hasn’t been unveiled yet, but this is information that political campaigns would find very valuable. Also see Alex Howard’s take. Could be scary, could be useful.

Driving While Black in the Bronx

This is the story of Q, a black man living in the Bronx, who kindly allowed me to interview him about his recent experience. The audio recording of my interview with him is available below as well.

Q was stopped in the Bronx driving a new car, the fourth time that week, by two rookie officers on foot. The officers told Q to “give me your fucking license,” and Q refused to produce his license, objecting to the tone of the officer’s request. When Q asked him why he was stopped, the officer told him that it was because of his tinted back windows, in spite of there being many other cars on the same block, and even next to him, with similarly tinted windows. Q decided to start recording the interaction on his phone after one of the cops used the n-word.

After a while seven cop cars came to the scene, and eventually a more polite policeman asked Q to produce his license, which he did. They brought him in, claiming they had a warrant for him. Q knew he didn’t actually have a warrant, but when he asked, they said it was a warrant for littering. It sounded like an excuse to arrest him because Q was arguing. He recorded them saying, “We should just lock this black guy up.”

They brought him to the precinct and Q asked him for a phone call. He needed to unlock his phone to get the phone number, and when he did, the policeman took his phone and ran out of the room. Q later found out his recordings had been deleted.

After a while he was assigned a legal aid lawyer, to go before a judge. Q asked the legal aid why he was locked up. She said there was no warrant on his record and that he’d been locked up for disorderly conduct. This was the third charge he’d heard about.

He had given up his car keys, his cell phone, his money, his watch and his house keys, all in different packages. When he went back to pick up his property while his white friend waited in the car, the people inside the office claimed they couldn’t find anything except his cell phone. They told him to come back at 9pm when the arresting officer would come in. Then Q’s white friend came in, and after Q explained the situation to him in front of the people working there, they suddenly found all of his possessions. Q thinks they assumed his friend was a lawyer because he was white and well dressed.

They took the starter plug out of his car as well, and he got his cell phone back with no videos. The ordeal lasted 12 hours altogether.

“The sad thing about it,” Q said, “is that it happens every single day. If you’re wearing a suit and tie it’s different, but when you’re wearing something fitted and some jeans, you’re treated as a criminal. It’s sad that people have to go through this on a daily basis, for what?”

Here’s the raw audio file of my interview with Q:

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Putting the dick pic on the Snowden story

I’m on record complaining about how journalists dumb down stories in blind pursuit of “naming the victim” or otherwise putting a picture on the story.

But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do, especially when the story is super complicated. Case in point: the Snowden revelations story.

In the past 2 weeks I’ve seen the Academy Award winning feature length film CitizenFour, I’ve read Bruce Schneier’s recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data And Control Your World, and finally I watched John Oliver’s recent Snowden episode.

They were all great in their own way. I liked Schneier’s book, it was a quick read, and I’d recommend it to people who want to know more than Oliver’s interview shows us. He’s very very smart, incredibly well informed, and almost completely reasonable (unlike this review).

To be honest, though, when I recommend something to other people, I pick John Oliver’s approach; he cleverly puts the dick pic on the story (you have to reset it to the beginning):

Here’s the thing that I absolutely love about Oliver’s interview. He’s not absolutely smitten by Snowden, but he recognizes Snowden’s goal, and makes it absolutely clear what it means to people using the handy use case of how nude pictures get captured in the NSA dragnets. It is really brilliant.

Compared to Schneier’s book, Oliver is obviously not as informational. Schneier is a world-wide expert on security, and gives us real details on which governmental programs know what and how. But honestly, unless you’re interested in becoming a security expert, that isn’t so important. I’m a tech nerd and even for me the details were sometimes overwhelming.

Here’s what I want to concentrate on. In the last part of the book, Schneier suggests all sorts of ways that people can protect their own privacy, using all sorts of encryption tools and so on. He frames it as a form of protest, but it seems like a LOT of work to me.

Compare that to my favorite part of the Oliver interview, when Oliver asks Snowden (starting at minute 30:28 in the above interview) if we should “just stop taking dick pics.” Snowden’s answer is no: changing what we normally do because of surveillance is a loss of liberty, even if it’s dumb.

I agree, which is why I’m not going to stop blabbing my mouth off everywhere (I don’t actually send naked pictures of myself to people, I think that’s a generational thing).

One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway. Just think about that. It is more meaningful for people worried about large scale discrimination, like me, than it is for people worried about case-by-case pinpointed governmental acts of power and suppression.

Or, put it this way: when we are up in arms about the government having our dick pics, we forget that so do our phones, and so does Facebook, or Snapchat, not to mention all the backups on the cloud somewhere.

Fingers crossed – book coming out next May

As it turns out, it takes a while to write a book, and then another few months to publish it.

I’m very excited today to tentatively announce that my book, which is tentatively entitled Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, will be published in May 2016, in time to appear on summer reading lists and well before the election.

Fuck yeah! I’m so excited.

p.s. Fight for 15 is happening now.

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.

NSA

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?

MLK

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.

Guest post: Be more careful with the vagina stats in teaching

This is a guest post by Courtney Gibbons, an assistant professor of mathematics at Hamilton College. You can see her teaching evaluations on ratemyprofessor.com. She would like you to note that she’s been tagged as “hilarious.” Twice.

Lately, my social media has been blowing up with stories about gender bias in higher ed, especially course evaluations.   As a 30-something, female math professor, I’m personally invested in this kind of issue.  So I’m gratified when I read about well-designed studies that highlight the “vagina tax” in teaching (I didn’t coin this phrase, but I wish I had).

These kinds of studies bring the conversation about bias to the table in a way that academics can understand. We can geek out on experimental design, the fact that the research is peer-reviewed and therefore passes some basic legitimacy tests.

Indeed, the conversation finally moves out of the realm of folklore, where we have “known” for some time that students expect women to be nurturing in addition to managing the class, while men just need to keep class on track.

Let me reiterate: as a young woman in academia, I want deans and chairs and presidents to take these observed phenomena seriously when evaluating their professors. I want to talk to my colleagues and my students about these issues. Eventually, I’d like to “fix” them, or at least game them to my advantage. (Just kidding.  I’d rather fix them.)

However, let me speak as a mathematician for a minute here: bad interpretations of data don’t advance the cause. There’s beautiful link-bait out there that justifies its conclusions on the flimsy “hey, look at this chart” understanding of big data. Benjamin M. Schmidt created a really beautiful tool to visualize data he scraped from the website ratemyprofessor.com through a process that he sketches on his blog. The best criticisms and caveats come from Schmidt himself.

What I want to examine is the response to the tool, both in the media and among my colleagues.  USAToday, HuffPo, and other sites have linked to it, citing it as yet more evidence to support the folklore: students see men as “geniuses” and women as “bossy.” It looks like they found some screenshots (or took a few) and decided to interpret them as provocatively as possible. After playing with the tool for a few minutes, which wasn’t even hard enough to qualify as sleuthing, I came to a very different conclusion.

If you look at the ratings for “genius”  and then break them down further to look at positive and negative reviews separately, it occurs predominantly in negative reviews. I found a few specific reviews, and they read, “you have to be a genius to pass” or along those lines.

[Don’t take my word for it — search google for:

rate my professors “you have to be a genius”‘

and you’ll see how students use the word “genius” in reviews of professors. The first page of hits is pretty much all men.]

Here’s the breakdown for “genius”:

genius-neg

So yes, the data shows that students are using the word “genius” in more evaluations of men than women. But there’s not a lot to conclude from this; we can’t tell from the data if the student is praising the professor or damning him. All we can see that it’s a word that occurs in negative reviews more often than positive ones. From the data, we don’t even know if it refers to the professor or not.  

 

Similar results occur with “brilliant”:

brilliant-neg

Now check out “bossy” and negative reviews:

bossy-neg

Okay, wow, look at how far to the right those orange dots are… and now look at the x-axis.  We’re talking about fewer than 5 uses per million words of text.  Not exactly significant compared to some of the other searches you can do.

 

I thought that the phrase “terrible teacher” was more illuminating, because it’s more likely in reference to the subject of the review, and we’ve got some meaningful occurrences:

And yes, there is a gender imbalance, but it's not as great as I had feared. I'm more worried about the disciplinary break down, actually. Check out math -- we have the worst teachers, but we spread it out across genders, with men ranking 187 uses of "terrible teacher" per million words; women score 192. Compare to psychology, where profs receive a score of 110.  Ouch.

And yes, there is a gender imbalance, but it’s not as great as I had feared. I’m more worried about the disciplinary break down, actually. Check out math — we have the worst teachers, but we spread it out across genders, with men ranking 187 uses of “terrible teacher” per million words; women score 192. Compare to psychology, where profs receive a score of 110.  Ouch.

 

Who’s doing this reporting, and why aren’t we reading these reports more critically?  Journalists, get your shit together and report data responsibly.  Academics, be a little more skeptical of stories that simply post screenshots of a chart coupled with inciting prose from conclusions drawn, badly, from hastily scanned data.

Is this tool useless? No. Is it fun to futz around with? Yes.

Is it being reported and understood well? Resounding no!

I think even our students would agree with me: that’s just f*cked up.

Video cameras won’t solve the #EricGarner situation, but they will help

As many thoughtful people have pointed out already, Eric Garner’s case proves that video evidence is not a magic bullet to combat and punish undue police brutality. The Grand Jury deemed such evidence insufficient for an indictment, even if the average person watching the video cannot understand that point of view.

Even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss video cameras on police as entirely a bad idea. We shouldn’t assume no progress could be made simply because there’s an example which lets us down. I am no data evangelist, but neither am I someone who dismisses data. It can be powerful and we should use its power when we can.

And before I try to make the general case for video cameras on cops, let me make one other point. The Eric Garner video has already made progress in one arena, namely public opinion. Without the video, we wouldn’t be seeing nationwide marches protesting the outrageous police conduct.

A few of my data nerd thoughts:

  1. If cops were required to wear cameras, we’d have more data. We should think of that as building evidence, with the potential to use it to sway grand juries, criminal juries, judges, or public opinion.
  2. One thing I said time after time to my students this summer at the data journalism program I directed is the following: a number by itself is usually meaningless. What we need is to compare that number to a baseline. The baseline could be the average number for a population, or the median, or some range of 5th to 95th percentiles, or how it’s changed over time, or whatnot. But in order to gauge any baseline you need data.
  3. So in the case of police videotapes, we’d need to see how cops usually handle a situation, or how cops from other precincts handle similar situations, or the extremes of procedures in such situations, or how police have changed their procedures over time. And if we think the entire approach is heavy handed, we can also compare the data to the police manual, or to other countries, or what have you. More data is better for understanding aggregate approaches, and aggregate understanding makes it easier to fit a given situation into context.
  4. Finally, the cameras might also change their behavior when they are policing, knowing they are being taped. That’s believable but we shouldn’t depend on it.
  5. And also, we have to be super careful about how we use video evidence, and make sure it isn’t incredibly biased due to careful and unfair selectivity by the police. So, some cops are getting in trouble for turning off their cameras at critical moments, or not turning them on ever.

Let’s take a step back and think about how large-scale data collection and mining works, for example in online advertising. A marketer collects a bunch of data. And knowing a lot about one person doesn’t necessarily help them, but if they know a lot about most people, it statistically speaking does help them sell stuff. A given person might not be in the mood to buy, or might be broke, but if you dangle desirable good in front of a whole slew of people, you make sales. It’s a statistical play which, generally speaking, works.

In this case, we are the marketer, and the police are the customers. We want a lot of information about how they do their job so when the time comes we have some sense of “normal police behavior” and something to compare a given incident to or a given cop to. We want to see how they do or don’t try to negotiate peace, and with whom. We want to see the many examples of good and great policing as well as the few examples of terrible, escalating policing.

Taking another step back, if the above analogy seems weird, there’s a reason for that. In general data is being collected on the powerless, on the consumers, on the citizens, or the job applicants, and we should be pushing for more and better data to be collected instead on the powerful, on the police, on the corporations, and on the politicians. There’s a reason there is a burgeoning privacy industry for rich and powerful people.

For example, we want to know how many people have been killed by the police, but even a statistic that important is incredibly hard to come by (see this and this for more on that issue). However, it’s never been easier for the police to collect data on us and act on suspicions of troublemakers, however that is defined.

Another example – possibly the most extreme example of all – comes this very week from the reports on the CIA and torture. That is data and evidence we should have gotten much earlier, and as the New York Times demands, we should be able to watch videos of waterboarding and decide for ourselves whether it constitutes torture.

So yes, let’s have video cameras on every cop. It is not a panacea, and we should not expect it to solve our problems over night. In fact video evidence, by itself, will not solve any problem. We should think it as a mere evidence collecting device, and use it in the public discussion of how the most powerful among us treat the least powerful. But more evidence is better.

Finally, there’s the very real question of who will have access to the video footage, and whether the public will be allowed to see it at all. It’s a tough question, which will take a while to sort out (FOIL requests!), but until then, everyone should know that it is perfectly legal to videotape police in every place in this country. So go ahead and make a video with your camera when you suspect weird behavior.