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dataclysm

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When we are online, every like, every follow, every click is recorded and analyzed by the corporations, large and small, that rule the internet. They use these terabytes of data to market their products, to predict how new products will sell, and more. Exactly what other uses they make of the data, most of us don’t think much about,  but the corporations own it and we give them permission to collect and use it when we agree to their terms of service.

The fact that most of us don’t think about someone watching our online behavior is a central assumption in Christian Rudder’s book, Dataclysm, made explicit by the subtitle Who We are (When We Think No One’s Looking). Using that premise, Rudder analyzes the clicks, messaging behavior, and survey results from the online dating site OkCupid, as well as few others. He has access to this data because he is a founder of the site and knows other people in the field. He leverages this privileged information into a book length speculation about what the data means.

Some of Rudder’s observations are well-considered and interesting. Some are less profound. At times I think Rudder jumps to erroneous conclusions and I’d wager a significant amount of money that any thoughtful reader of the book will agree with Rudder sometimes and disagree at others, depending on the specific context. Probably most readers will be occasionally offended by the book. But despite the fact that his ideas are often not fully supported by the data, they are also not fully contradicted by the data. So, even when you disagree with his conclusions, you have to admit he could be right. We just don’t know.

Overall, that makes for a provocative book that opens the imagination for the kinds of knowledge we could gain with careful analysis of the vast quantities of data we, as a global internet society, are collecting.

But beyond agreeing or disagreeing with Rudder, I have a more fundamental issue with Rudder’s approach to the data. He writes,”As far as I know, I’ve made no motivated decision that has bent the outcome of my work.” With this sentence he claims that he uses no theory to reach his conclusions, as if, somehow, he just lets the data talk and listens carefully, transcribing the data’s proclamations accurately.

I don’t think Rudder is naive, but I can only take him at his word. As any scientist or thinker knows, it is impossible to be theoryless. So, to claim explicitly to be theoryless means either he doesn’t know what theory or theories are guiding his decisions or he refuses to tell us. Either way, it is a deep flaw in the book that the reader doesn’t know the theoretical approach taken by the author.

Read the book for some interesting applications of descriptive statistics (and, typographically, for some great use of the color red!). But read with a skeptical mind.

 

beautiful souls

In the prologue to Beautiful Souls (2012), journalist and author, Eyal Press, asks why some people — faced with a law, a culture, a group of people, a boss, or other significant pressure to do something they believe is wrong — say no. He writes, “It is never easy to say no, particularly in extreme situations, but it is always possible, and so it is necessary to try to understand how and why women and men sometimes make what is difficult but possible real.” This led me to think that Press would answer this question; and to some extent he does, but I found the answer unsatisfying.

In thoroughly-researched and compellingly-told stories Press describes people who risked their lives and livelihoods for something in which they believe. One is a Swiss policeman breaking the law by allowing Jewish refugees into his country in 1938. Another, a Serb in 1991 identifying Croats as Serbs to save their lives. There’s a member of the Israeli special forces publicly refusing to serve in the occupied West Bank and a securities trader blowing the whistle on her company’s Ponzi scheme. And many more.

All of these can be seen as heroes, but part of Press’s point is that they don’t see themselves as heroes; instead, they are people who did what they thought was right at the time. Most agonized about it for days, weeks, or months. All of them paid steep prices for their acts. They were fired from their jobs, branded traitors, and lost friends. For some in their societies, the retaliation is revenge. But even people who think they did the right thing by refusing or whistleblowing feel uncomfortable around them because they show everyone else to be moral cowards. They are pariahs.

Trying to find a common cause for their courage is difficult, but they do share a seemingly naïve belief in the myths their society tells about itself. They have bitten off the stories of the moral structure of their society so thoroughly that they can’t believe they’re not true. And when they are first presented with evidence that the fantasy taught by their grade schools and governments and corporations is false, they ignore it and act as though the evidence is a strange exception rather than the rule that more cynical parties claim. They believe in and care about their societies so much that they are willing to risk everything to protect them. As Press points out, conformists (despite being framed as caring more about their group than themselves) usually benefit individually by not sticking out. Nonconformists (individualists, the story often goes, who don’t care as much about the group) are the ones who actually give greater benefit to their society as a whole by pointing out problems and ways to fix them. And they pay for it.

Nevertheless, to a person, even though they now have what I would call more realistic pictures of their societies, they say they would do it again. Press’s ultimate answer for why is a relatively old saw: they wanted to look themselves in the mirror every morning without shame. For me, looking for something more powerful in a world that I often find dishearteningly unethical and amoral, that wasn’t enough. I was hoping for something that, as a mentor of young people, I could teach and that would make a difference. I suppose my own naiveté shows in that hope.

what it is like to go to war

Maybe it’s guy thing, but for as long as I’ve been old enough to think about it I’ve wondered how I would react to fighting in a war. The chaos and horror of the thing overwhelms – but is it, like many fears, worse in my mind than in reality? Or, is real combat even worse than I could imagine?

If I’m lucky, I will never know for sure. My sense from reading Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like to Go to War is that for soldiers war is both less fearsome and more horrible than one imagines. From Marlantes, I learned that there are many moments of mundane ordinariness. There are also moments of abject fear. There are moments of just doing what you have to do for your fellow fighters and yourself. And for some there are moments of enjoying the power of death.

Throughout it all, according to Marlantes, the soldier has no illusion that he or she is safe from death. “Some random projectile can kill you no matter how good a soldier you are. . . . In a combat situation you wake up from sleep instantly aware that this could be the last time you awake, simultaneously grateful you’re alive and scared shitless because you are still in the same situation.”

Writing careful, thoughtful prose, Marlantes tries “come to terms with [his] own experience of combat.” He does not like war, but he admires the “noble warrior” and argues that, “As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them.” Whether you believe him or not, there is no doubt that when soldiers go to war, they come back changed. If you want to understand a little about that change and how we could help them come back from it, this book is for you.

a bushel’s worth: an ecobiography

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Personal, political, social, artistic, practical – it’s all in farming. And since farming is at the center of A Bushel’s Worth (2013), those adjectives also describe the book. But it’s also the love story of its author, Kayann Short, with the land of her grandparents’ farms and with her own farm – Stonebridge Farm – and the man with whom she works it. By turns poetic and discursive, the book is one part family history, one part land use policy discussion, two parts community supported farm operating manual, and three parts history of Stonebridge farm. To call it memoir seems shallow and unworthy of what Short has created.

But then, I don’t generally enjoy memoirs. To put all my cards on the table, I probably would not have read the book except that I have known Short for 25 years. And I love Stonebridge Farm as much as much or more than I love any other place.

So, for me, A Bushel’s Worth is familiar and friendly, evoking days of working together; of getting up at six to weed and water for a couple hours before breakfast; of heading back out to stake tomato plants or harvest garlic till lunch; of tackling a project – mending a roof or digging a water tank into the ground or building a new goat pen – in the afternoon; of smack-talking card games after dinner. The writing captures Stonebridge life so powerfully that it brought tears to my eyes for the first 20 or 30 pages, till I was able to manage the emotional impact.

Statements like, “Now John and I are the ones who watch the sunsets and seasons pass so that those we love have a farm to come home to” speak directly to me. I count myself lucky to love and be loved by the people at Stonebridge. And when Short writes, “I’ll walk out with you” to gather spinach for dinner or flowers for the table, I see Kayann and John walking side by side as the light gets lower and the heat of the day eases off.

Other passages are less emotionally loaded, but still beautiful: “In winter, we think in black and white, shadows and light, the contrasts stark against a graying sky as fresh snow hoods the upper sides of the tree limbs, white flocking on dark branches.” And the sections on Short’s connections to her family history – though less compelling for me – provide, like all historical context, deeper understanding and bigger significance for our present understanding.

One of the important and persistent themes of A Bushel’s Worth is that when one works in community with people and the earth, the earth gives back aplenty. Similarly, this book has given me a new appreciation of history and biography as a gift to those who have contributed to a community – thanks, Kayann.

the signal and the noise

Nate Silver has made a name for himself in recent years, largely as the founder of Five Thirty Eight, a blog that uses statistics to discuss and predict the outcome of elections and other political issues. His book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, is an extended discussion in context of the ideas behind his methods. Whether exploring the statistics of gambling, sports, the recent housing bubble, the stock market, weather reports, hurricanes, disease, or anything else, Silver’s thoroughly researched writing is almost always approachable and compelling, more narrative than demonstration of technique.

But I think the real point of the book is to suggest that Bayesian probability is an important, perhaps the best, way to understand the world. The main Bayesian idea is to start with some assumption of how likely an event is and then, as new information is acquired, modify the chance of the event as often as necessary, coming closer and closer to the truth. This explicitly probabilistic view of the world expects you to make predictions and to test them against what happens. If you refuse to do this, you are either dishonest, don’t recognize the biases you bring to the way you see the world, don’t believe in your own assessment of the likelihood of an event, can’t or won’t see the world probabilistically, or some combination of these. One proof of Silver’s methods is that he correctly predicted the outcome for every state in the nation in the last two presidential elections.

Lest you think Silver is bombastic or trying to force an ideology on the reader, let me assure you: on the contrary, the writing is almost humble in its willingness to question itself and tries hard to present the evidence and let you decide what seems right to you — an especially good example of this is the chapter on global warming, in which Silver, who appears to believe that global warming exists and is a problem, acknowledges the strength of the skeptical arguments and responds to them respectfully.

As a math teacher, I appreciated the wealth of examples and the deep conversation about probability, statistics, assumptions, models, uncertainty, and heuristics. Any reader would enjoy the book for its careful and clear handling of complex topics.

the art of immersion

The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories (by Frank Rose) is an interesting journalistic look at media and its interaction with humans. Whether in the context of video games, movies, education, or advertising, the book is all about blending the virtual and the real to create immersive experiences. In all cases, the goal is to establish reward systems that motivate us – or manipulate us, depending on your perspective.

As a teacher, the book was thought-provoking and stimulating. The classroom is a reward system and I’m learning to use online tools to improve the immersive educational experience. It made me think more about all the different kinds of rewards to which people respond — affirmation; recognition; artificially created game points; status – not just grades, and how I can use them to help students learn and grow.

freakonomics and super freakonomics

The subtitle of Freakonomics, “a rogue econnomist explores the hidden side of everything,” reveals the ambitious of authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The subtitle of the sequel, Super Freakonomics, “global cooling, patriotic prostitues, and why suicide bombers should buy life insurance,” gives a further sense of the breadth of their desire to study, understand, and explain. With dogged persistence, they dig up data and use the tools of economics to analyze it, looking for the the curious, the unexpected, and, at times, the controversial. Frequently they put the lie to ideas that are common in our culture — they find, for example, that car seats for children over 2 years old are not more effective at preventing serious injury than the regular seat belts in our cars. Levitt, an award winning professor of economics, is especially adept at finding proxy variables to study questions that aren’t easily answered directly.

You’ll enjoy the books for their statistical analysis and their cheeky tone.

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