Headlines Versus Reality


Or, ‘Primary Sources Versus Editorial Projection’

Among the most perverse problems with our media landscape today is the way stories are filtered down.One network gets a scoop and everyone else rushes in to put their own spin on it when all along you’re best served by sticking to the original source.

Barack Obama’s first long-form interview as a public citizen came out today via the BBC. From the 40 minute audio―which is publicly available―every news network is left to give their own analysis and frame the conversation with their own headline. When, all along, it’d be best for any interested citizen to listen to the exchange for to decide what about the conversation is most relevant to their life.

So please, if you’re interested, take the time to give the interview a listen in-full.

Edit 12/29:

The same can be said about Trump’s recent interview with the New York Times. A scoop that launches a thousand editorials.

Reflections on O.J.: Made In America

I felt like I had some profound thoughts while watching this movie but it must’ve just been the wine. Everything I wanted to say has already been said elsewhere on the internet.

First of all, it was interesting to see O.J. Simpson’s heroic rise in the sports world because being a child of the 90s I only ever knew him a disgraced public figure. First of all, this movie shows that his story is inseparable from Los Angeles in the second half of the 20th century.

The footage from the 60s through the 90s feels dated, as if everything has changed even though our society still wrestles with the same intractable problems. Race relations, police misconduct, wealth inequality, you name it.:

“What I want people to think about is that there’s more to think about,” [director] Edelman said during an interview in New York this week. “This isn’t a story that started in June 1994 and ended in the fall of 1995. It started in the 1960s and even before that. And it continues today.”

The Los Angeles Times

In the courtroom for the ‘trial of the century’, the disturbing rationale his defense team seemed to take is ‘given the climate and history of race relations between African Americans and the LAPD, does it matter if he killed his wife?’:

“Yet it is the subject of race, and how Simpson both experienced and refracted it, that is the documentary’s central narrative. Not the question of innocence — Edelman presents the evidence in a way that makes pretty clear he’s concluded Simpson committed the murders — but the significance of exoneration. “Made in America” offers the provocative implication that although the bulk of evidence points to Simpson’s guilt, the tide of black history and injustice may argue for his acquittal.”

But my sympathy lies with this amateur reviewer, who summarized the overall arc the narrative takes in the most pessimistic terms imaginable:

“The tragedy was not O.J’s, or even Nicole & Ron’s – it was the tragedy of a society slowly disintegrating – fault-lines growing between Blacks and Whites, Haves and Have-Nots, Celebrity Gods & Lawyer-Monsters and the rest of America – most of us just powerless onlookers while the Gods & Monsters play their power games with our lives. After an exhausting 8 hours, all I could feel was a deep sadness for what America has become.”

NYT Reviewer, Mari

As awful as it sounds it does kind of feel like that.


Can Big Data Highlight Our Unconscious Values?



Reflections on Chapters 4 and 5 of Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity–What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves (‘You Gotta Be The Glue’ and ‘There’s No Success Like Failure’)

4.) A lot of big data analysis seems to me to be justifying the obvious. Teasing apart a massive set of information to capture and visualize the things we already know to be true. This might be the first step towards quantifying folk wisdom and making social science more scientific.

Of course, there are counter-intuitive surprises to be found in the process of discovery but this chapter doesn’t deal with any.

In this chapter, the author explores the point that couples who have more mutual friends are more likely to stay together. He shows how robust his relationship with his wife is by showing all the Facebook friends as a group of dot-and-line visualizations. All of their friends who are friends with each other are connected to each other by lines and so their unique friend groups are easily identifiable.

“Research using a variety of sources (e-mail, IM, telephone) has shown that the more mutual friends two people share, the stronger their relationship. More connections imply more time together, more common interests, and more stability.” He also examines what a couple whose social life isn’t so ’embedded’ would look like. Couples who aren’t each other’s most embedded node on their social network are 50% more likely to break up.

For me, the most interesting part of this chapter is the brief primer on the origins of network analysis. In 1735, the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler simplified the seven bridges of Königsberg down to a visual abstraction of lines and dots to prove that you couldn’t possibly cross all seven by walking across each one only one time. Since then, “Euler’s concept of nodes and edges, which at first unraveled nothing more than a day’s walk, has since helped us understand disease and its vectors, trucks and their routes, genes and their bindings, and of course, people and their relationships. And in just the last few decades, network theory’s application to these last have exploded–because the networks themselves have exploded.”Firefox_Screenshot_2017-12-08T00-06-11.352Z


5.) We are often led to believe something is more important that it is. Oftentimes, the choices available to us influence our decisions without our even being aware. This chapter explores that bias and what data shows is truly important to us as consumers, citizens, and in our relationships.

The examples begin in web design and end up in dating, with an examination of a well-worn quote from Steve Jobs: “But by far the biggest cause of frustration is that people don’t understand what they actually need. As Steve Jobs said, ‘People don’t know what they want until you show them.’ What he didn’t say is that showing them, especially in tech, means playing a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey with several million people shouting advice.” OKCupid has tried hundreds of iterations of presenting information to its users, each version highlighting both different

Most closely referenced here are two different datasets from OKCupid that suggest physical attractiveness isn’t very important when out on a first date with a stranger. The thing is, looks are heavily selected for because that’s about all the users have to go off of online. Other things people tend to say are very important don’t match user behavior. For example, caring about politics seems to actually be more predictive for a two strangers getting along than matching party affiliations.

As one of the architects of OKCupid’s choice architecture, this makes the author pause to reflect that, “Dating sites are designed to give people the tools and the information to get whatever they want out of being single–casual sex, a few fun dates, a partner, a marriage…anything. Stuff like height, political views, photos, essays, all of it is right there, easily sortable, easily searchable. It’s there to help people make judgments and fulfill their desires, and as fascinating as those judgments and desires may be to pic apart, there’s a side of it that I think does love a disservice. People make choices from the information we provide because we can, not because they necessarily should.”

Why Are Religion And Science Forever At Odds?



Reflections on Chapter 5 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: ‘The Odd Couple’

This chapter explores the complex relationship between science and religion. The author offers his own definition of religion and distinguishes it from spiritual pursuits: “Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” It differs from ‘spirituality’ because religions are strict and clear-cut. They proscribe goals and rules for groups to adhere to. Spiritual endeavors, on the other hand, are individualistic quests that seek answers to the questions that feel most pertinent to an individual: “Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good?”

Science is unable to answer these open-ended questions. It’s an institution designed to weigh-in on matters-of-fact. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. Science tells us that humans cannot survive without oxygen. However, is it okay to execute criminals by asphyxiation? Science doesn’t know how to answer such a question. Only religions provide us with the necessary guidance.”

Conflict is inevitable when either of these domains step into the other’s sphere of influence. Religions are prone to make ethical decisions based on factual claims that aren’t scientifically valid. At the same time, overzealous scientists tend to make moral assertions that sound insane when juxtaposed against religious doctrine. “Science has no ability to refute or corroborate the ethical judgments religions make. But scientists do have a lot to say about religious factual statements.” This is the heart of their conflict.

So what benefit do these two conflicting institutions provide to society? “Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.”

I’ve heard people talk in apocalyptic terms about the ‘post-truth era‘ and perhaps that’s not what we’re living through so much as a period of profound moral confusion. Our technological abilities dazzle and leave our ethical reasoning behind:

“Every practical project scientists undertake also relies on religious insights. Take, for instance, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. When the Chinese government decided in 1992 to build the dam, physicists could calculate what pressures the dam would have to withstand, economists could forecast how much money it would probably cost, while electrical engineers could predict how much electricity it would produce. However the government needed to take additional factors into account. Building the dam flooded more than 200 square miles containing many villages and towns, thousands of archaeological sites, and unique landscapes and habitats. More than 1 million people were displaced and hundreds of species were endangered. It seems that the dam directly caused the extinction of the Chinese river dolphin. No matter what you personally think about the Three Gorges Dam, it is clear that its construction was an ethical rather than a purely scientific issue. No physics experiment, no economic model and no mathematical equation can determine whether generating thousands of megawatts and making billions of yuan is more valuable than saving an ancient pagoda or the Chinese river dolphin. Consequently China cannot function on the basis of scientific theories alone. It requires some religion or ideology, too.”

The intractable question of our time may very well be how can a mass of individuals make the tough decisions in a way that people can feel okay about. What should drive the undertakings our society undertakes? Greed? Christianity? The scientific method? Do we swing wildly between all extremes in a desperate attempt to please everyone?

Everyone has their own answer to that question and therein lies the conflict.

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