Joho the Blog » 2013 » February

February 23, 2013

[2b2k] Why it’s ok to get your news through people who share your beliefs

I was steeling myself a couple of days ago to say something in a talk that believe but don’t want to: We shouldn’t feel guilty about relying on sources with whom we agree to contextualize breaking news. It’s ok. It’s even rational.

For example, if the Supreme Court hands down a ruling I don’t understand, or the FCC issues a policy that sounds like goobledygook to my ears, I turn to sites whose politics I basically agree with. On the one hand, I know that that’s wrong on echo chamber grounds: I’m getting reconfirmed in beliefs that I instead should be challenging. On the other hand, if I want to understand a new finding in evolutionary biology I’m not going to go to a creationist site, and if I want to understand the implications of a change in Obamacare, I’m not going to go to a Tea Party site. [Hint: I'm a liberal.] Oh, I might go afterwards to see what Those Folks are thinking, but to understand something, I’m going to go first to people with whom I basically agree.

Unfortunately, saying that in my talk meant I’d have to acknowledge that if I can to go to, say, DailyKos for primary contextualization, then it’s fine for right-wingers go to Fox News. Then I was going to have to explain how Fox and DailyKos are not truly equivalent, since Kos acknowledges facts that are unpleasant for their beliefs, and because Kos allows lots and lots of community participation. But that’s a distraction: If it’s ok for me to go to a lefty site to contextualize my news, it’s ok for you to go to your righty site. That feels wrong to me, and not only because I think right sites are wrong.

I finally realized that I’ m using the wrong sort of sites for my example. I do feel queasy about recommending that people get news interpreted for them by going to sites that operate in the broadcast mode. Fox News is like that. So are Slate and Salon, although to a lesser extent because they allow comments and because they present themselves as opinion sites, not news sites. Kos much less so because of the prominence of blogs and community. But I have no bad feelings whatsoever about taking my questions about the news to my social networks.

Because I’m old, much of social networking occurs on mailing lists. Some of the lists are based on topic, and contain people who broadly agree, but who disagree about most of the particulars; that’s what conversations are for. For example, a couple of the lists I’m on this morning are talking about what it would mean if Tom Wheeler [someone give that man a Wikipedia page!] were appointed as Chair of the FCC as seems increasingly likely. Tom comes out of the cable TV industry, which raises suspicions on my side of the swimming pool. So there has been an active set of discussions on my mailing lists among people who know much more than I do. The opinions range from he’s likely to be relatively centrist (although veering to the wrong side, where “wrong” is generally agreed upon by the list) to he’s never once stood up for users or for increasing competition and openness. Along the way, people have pointed out the occasional good point about him, although overall the tenor is negative and depressed.

Now, do I need to hear from the cable and telecoms industry about what a wonderful choice Tom would be? Sure, at some point. I even need to have my more fundamental views challenged. At some point. But not when I’m trying to find out about who this Tom Wheeler guy is. If we take understanding as a tool used for a purpose, it becomes a wildly inefficient tool — a hammer that’s all handle — if we have to go back to first principles in order to understand anything. Understanding is an efficient tool because it’s incremental: Given that I favor a wildly open Internet and given that I favor achieving this via vigorous competition, then what should I make of a Tom Wheeler FCC chairmanship? That’s my question this morning, not whether an wildly open Internet is a good thing and not whether the best way to achieve this is by increasing competition. Those are fine questions for another morning, but if I have to ask those questions every time I hear something about the FCC, then understanding has failed at its job.

So, I don’t feel bad about consulting my social network for help understanding the news.

And now, like the fine print in an offer that’s too good to be true, here are the caveats: My social networks may not be typical. Some types of news need more fundamental challenge than others. Reliance exclusively on social networks for news may put you into an impenetrable filter bubble. I acknowledge the risks, but given the situatedness of understanding, every act of interpretation is risky.

And yet there is something right in what I’m saying. I know this because going to “opposition” sites to understand the meaning of particular FCC appointments would require me to uncertainly translate out of their own unstated assumptions, and sites that try for objectivity don’t have the nuanced conversations enabled by shared, unstated assumptions. So, there is something right in what I’m saying, as well as risk and wrongness.

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February 20, 2013

How many birds are killed by cats? How many people subscribe to the Boston Globe online?

How many birds do domestic cats in the United States kill every year? You win if your answer is within an order of magnitude in either direction. However, you don’t actually win anything.

The answer comes from the journal Nature Communications as reported here

To reveal the answer, select the black box. (This assumes you don’t have black set as your selection color.)

“We estimate that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually.”

And now for extra credit, within an order of magnitude, how many people subscribe to the online version of the Boston Globe? Hint: It costs $3.99/week. Hint: Greater Boston’s population is about 4M. Hint: This quarter, online subscriptions rose 8%. (The answer comes from an article at BizOnline.)

28,000

By the way, I occasionally like to acknowledge that the “order of magnitude puzzle” was invented by my famous friend Paul English.

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February 19, 2013

What’s not ok even with the door closed

Sarah Parmenter has posted about just how ugly it gets for women in tech. She recounts a horrifying story about how as a speaker at a tech conference she was methodically assaulted online. I want to believe that this was a rare and random act, but apparently it happens more than we know because it’s not something generally the victims want to get yet more publicity about.

Thanks to the rise of feminism, the change in behavioral norms over the past 50 years has eliminated many of the superficial, public expressions of misogyny. Not all, of course, but in the circles that I’ve moved in, the change has been noticeable. There are many fewer casual male expressions of discomfort around women, many fewer belittling or sexually objectifying comments. That’s good, but it doesn’t tell us if private expressions have changed, and, more important, how thoroughly the disempowering assumptions and structures are being undone. (And, yes, I know that I must certainly be blind to my own pernicious assumptions.)

For example, I remember in the late 1990s going on a media call to the Boston Globe with a group of male developers with whom I worked. The reporter had some cutting questions about the utility of the software and about competitive threats. The five of us walked quietly back to our car, but as soon as the door was closed, the guys had a good time dismissing the editor’s comments because “she must be on the rag.” Also, she was attractive and several of the lads expressed a desire to relieve her of the stress that brought her to under-appreciate our offering. Needless to say, not only were the editor’s comments perceptive and accurate, had they come from a man we would have taken them as a conversational challenge to which we would have risen, rather than as dismissing them as carping by a bitchy, hormonally-prejudiced girl.

These were young techie men who I’m sure sincerely supported gender equality policies. The degree of their discomfort and, yes, loathing of women had never manifested itself before. This was not acceptable banter, any more than, say, racist comments would have been. Yet when the door was closed and it was just us guys, it might as well have been 1950. I was shocked.

I have to say that I haven’t seen that sort of behavior among men with the doors closed since then. I don’t know if that incident was anomalous, or if I happen to travel in circles that don’t tolerate that type of sexism, or at least don’t tolerate the overt display of it. Or maybe as I’ve become old, my presence drives all the boyish “fun” out of the room — you can’t really talk about girls when Dad is in the room. I’d like to think we’ve changed. But it’s so hard to know what goes on behind closed doors.

Until someone opens them, even at personal cost. So, thank you, Sarah.

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February 17, 2013

DPLA does metadata right

The Digital Public Library of America‘s policy on metadata was discussed during the recent board of directors call, and the DPLA is, in my opinion, getting it exactly and admirably right. (See Infodocket for links.) The metadata that the DPLA aggregates will be openly available and in the public domain. But just so there won’t be any doubt or confusion, the policy begins by saying that it does not believe that most metadata is subject to copyright in the first place. Then, to make sure, it adds:

To the extent that the DPLA’s own contributions to selecting and arranging such metadata may be protected by copyright, the DPLA dedicates such contributions to the public domain pursuant to a CC0 license.

And then, clearly and plainly:

Given the purposes of the policy and the copyright status of the metadata, and pursuant to the DPLA’s terms of service, the DPLA ‘s users are free to harvest, collect, modify, and/or otherwise use any metadata contained in the DPLA.

Nice!

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February 15, 2013

[2b2] Data, facts, and the comfort of decisions

Just a quick note updating my post yesterday about the musky Tesla-Times affair. [('m in an airport with just a few minutes before boarding.)

Times Man John Broder has posted his step-by-step rebuttal-explanation-apologia of Elon Musk's data-driven accusations that Broder purposefully drove a Tesla S into a full stop. Looked at purely as a drama of argument, it just gets more and more fascinating. But it is of course not merely a drama or an example; reputations of people are at stake, and reputations determine careers and livelihoods.

Broder's overall defense is that he was on the phone with Tesla support at most of the turning points, and followed instructions scrupulously. As a result, just about every dimension of this story is now in play and in question: Were the data accurate or did Broder misremember turning on cruise control? Were the initial conditions accounted for (e.g., different size wheels)? Were the calculations based on that data accurate, or are the Tesla algorithms off when the weather is cold? Does being a first-time driver count as a normal instance? Does being 100% reliant on the judgment of support technicians make a test optimal or atypical? Should Broder have relied on what the instruments in the car said or what Support told him? If a charging pump is in a service area but no one sees it, does it exist?

And then there's the next level. We humans live with this sort of uncertainty — multi-certainty? — all the time. It's mainly what we talk about when given a chance. For most of us, it's idle chatter — you get to rail against the NY Times, I get to write about data and knowledge, and Tesla car owners get to pronounce in high dudgeon. Fun for all. But John Broder's boss is going to have to decide how to respond. It's quite likely that that decision is going to reflect the murky epistemology of the situation. Evidence will be weighed and announced to be probabilistic. Policy guidelines will be consulted. Ultimately the decision is likely to be pegged to a single point of policy, phrased as something like, "In order to maintain the NYT's reputation against even unlikely accusations, we have decided to ..." or "Because our reviewer followed every instruction given him by Tesla..." Or some such; I'm not trying to predict the actual decision, but only that it will prioritize one principle from among dozens of possibilities.

Thus, as is usually the case, the decision will force a false sense of closure. It will pick one principle, and over time, the decision will push an even grosser simplification, for people will remember which way the bit flipped — fired, suspended, backed fully, whatever — but not the principle, not the doubt, not the unredeemable uncertainty. This case will become yet one more example of something simple &mdash masking the fathomless complexity revealed even by a single review of a car.

That complexity is now permanently captured in the web of blue underlined text. We can always revisit it. But, we won't, because the matter was decided, and decisions betray complexity.

[Damn. Wish I had time to re-read this before posting! Forgive typos, thinkos, etc.?]

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February 14, 2013

[2b2k] The public ombudsman (or Facts don’t work the way we want)

I don’t care about expensive electric sports cars, but I’m fascinated by the dustup between Elon Musk and the New York Times.

On Sunday, the Times ran an article by John Broder on driving the Tesla S, an all-electric car made by Musk’s company, Tesla. The article was titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” which captured the point quite concisely.

Musk on Wednesday in a post on the Tesla site contested Broder’s account, and revealed that every car Tesla lends to a reviewer has its telemetry recorders set to 11. Thus, Musk had the data that proved that Broder was driving in a way that could have no conceivable purpose except to make the Tesla S perform below spec: Broder drove faster than he claimed, drove circles in a parking lot for a while, and didn’t recharge the car to full capacity.

Boom! Broder was caught red-handed, and it was data that brung him down. The only two questions left were why did Broder set out to tank the Tesla, and would it take hours or days for him to be fired?

Except…

Rebecca Greenfield at Atlantic Wire took a close look at the data — at least at the charts and maps that express the data — and evaluated how well they support each of Musk’s claims. Overall, not so much. The car’s logs do seem to contradict Broder’s claim to have used cruise control. But the mystery of why Broder drove in circles in a parking lot seems to have a reasonable explanation: he was trying to find exactly where the charging station was in the service center.

But we’re not done. Commenters on the Atlantic piece have both taken it to task and provided some explanatory hypotheses. Greenfield has interpolated some of the more helpful ones, as well as updating her piece with testimony from the tow-truck driver, and more.

But we’re still not done. Margaret Sullivan [twitter:sulliview] , the NYT “public editor” — a new take on what in the 1960s we started calling “ombudspeople” (although actually in the ’60s we called them “ombudsmen”) — has jumped into the fray with a blog post that I admire. She’s acting like a responsible adult by witholding judgment, and she’s acting like a responsible webby adult by talking to us even before all the results are in, acknowledging what she doesn’t know. She’s also been using social media to discuss the topic, and even to try to get Musk to return her calls.

Now, this whole affair is both typical and remarkable:

It’s a confusing mix of assertions and hypotheses, many of which are dependent on what one would like the narrative to be. You’re up for some Big Newspaper Schadenfreude? Then John Broder was out to do dirt to Tesla for some reason your own narrative can supply. You want to believe that old dinosaurs like the NYT are behind the curve in grasping the power of ubiquitous data? Yup, you can do that narrative, too. You think Elon Musk is a thin-skinned capitalist who’s willing to destroy a man’s reputation in order to protect the Tesla brand? Yup. Or substitute “idealist” or “world-saving environmentally-aware genius,” and, yup, you can have that narrative too.

Not all of these narratives are equally supported by the data, of course — assuming you trust the data, which you may not if your narrative is strong enough. Data signals but never captures intention: Was Broder driving around the parking lot to run down the battery or to find a charging station? Nevertheless, the data do tell us how many miles Broder drove (apparently just about the amount that he said) and do nail down (except under the most bizarre conspiracy theories) the actual route. Responsible adults like you and me are going to accept the data and try to form the story that “makes the most sense” around them, a story that likely is going to avoid attributing evil motives to John Broder and evil conspiratorial actions by the NYT.

But the data are not going to settle the hash. In fact, we already have the relevant numbers (er, probably) and yet we’re still arguing. Musk produced the numbers thinking that they’d bring us to accept his account. Greenfield went through those numbers and gave us a different account. The commenters on Greenfield’s post are arguing yet more, sometimes casting new light on what the data mean. We’re not even close to done with this, because it turns out that facts mean less than we’d thought and do a far worse job of settling matters than we’d hoped.

That’s depressing. As always, I am not saying there are no facts, nor that they don’t matter. I’m just reporting empirically that facts don’t settle arguments the way we were told they would. Yet there is something profoundly wonderful and even hopeful about this case that is so typical and so remarkable.

Margaret Sulllivan’s job is difficult in the best of circumstances. But before the Web, it must have been so much more terrifying. She would have been the single point of inquiry as the Times tried to assess a situation in which it has deep, strong vested interests. She would have interviewed Broder and Musk. She would have tried to find someone at the NYT or externally to go over the data Musk supplied. She would have pronounced as fairly as she could. But it would have all been on her. That’s bad not just for the person who occupies that position, it’s a bad way to get at the truth. But it was the best we could do. In fact, most of the purpose of the public editor/ombudsperson position before the Web was simply to reassure us that the Times does not think it’s above reproach.

Now every day we can see just how inadequate any single investigator is for any issue that involves human intentions, especially when money and reputations are at stake. We know this for sure because we can see what an inquiry looks like when it’s done in public and at scale. Of course lots of people who don’t even know that they’re grinding axes say all sorts of mean and stupid things on the Web. But there are also conversations that bring to bear specialized expertise and unusual perspectives, that let us turn the matter over in our hands, hold it up to the light, shake it to hear the peculiar rattle it makes, roll it on the floor to gauge its wobble, sniff at it, and run it through sophisticated equipment perhaps used for other purposes. We do this in public — I applaud Sullivan’s call for Musk to open source the data — and in response to one another.

Our old idea was that the thoroughness of an investigation would lead us to a conclusion. Sadly, it often does not. We are likely to disagree about what went on in Broder’s review, and how well the Tesla S actually performed. But we are smarter in our differences than we ever could be when truth was a lonelier affair. The intelligence isn’t in a single conclusion that we all come to — if only — but in the linked network of views from everywhere.

There is a frustrating beauty in the way that knowledge scales.

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February 12, 2013

Is snow an emergency? CNN post

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about why we treat snowstorms as emergencies.

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[2b2k] Margaret Sullivan on Objectivity

Magaret Sullivan [twitter:Sulliview] is the public editor of the New York Times. She’s giving a lunchtime talk at the Harvard Shorenstein Center [twitter:ShorensteinCtr] . Her topic is: how is social media is changing journalism? She says she’s open to any other topic during the Q&A as well.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Margaret says she’s going to talk about Tom Kent, the standards editor for the Association Press, and Jay Rosen [twitter:jayrosen_nyu] . She begins by saying she respects them both. [Disclosure: Jay is a friend] She cites Tom [which I'm only getting roughly]: At heart, objective journalism sets out to establish the facts, state the range of opinions, and take a first cut at which arguments are the most rigorous. Journalists should show their commitment to balance by keeping their opinions to themselves. Tom wrote a memo to his staff (leaked to Romenesca
) about expressing personal opinions on social networks. [Margaret wrote an excellent column about this a month ago.]

Jay Rosen, she says, thinks that objectivity is an outdated concept. Journalists should tell their readers where they’re coming from so you can judge their output based on that. “The grounds for trust are slowly shifting. The view from nowhere is getting harder to trust, and ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ is become more trustworthy.” [approx] Objectivity is a cop out, says Jay.

Margaret says that these are the two poles, although both are very reasonable people.

Now she’s going to look at two real situations. The NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Jody Rudoren is relatively new. It is one of the most difficult positions. Within a few weeks she had sent some “twitter messages” (NYT won’t allow the word “tweets,” she says, although when I tweeted this, some people disagreed; Alex Jones and Margaret bantered about this, so she was pretty clear about the policy.). She was criticized for who she praised in the tweets, e.g., Peter Beinart. She also linked without comment to a pro-Hezbollah newspaper. The NYT had an editor “work with her” on her social media; that is, she no longer had free access to those media. Margaret notes that many believe “this is against the entire ethos of social media. If you’re going to be on social media, you don’t want a NYT editor sitting next to you.”

The early reporting from Newtown was “pretty bad” across the entire media, she says. In the first few hours, a shooter was named — Ryan Lanza — and a Facebook photo of him was shown. But it was the wrong Ryan Lanza. And then it turned out it was that other Ryan Lanza’s brother. The NYT in its early Web reporting said “according to early Web reports” the shooter was Ryan Lanza. Lots of other wrong information was floated, and got into early Web reports (although generally not into the N YT). “Social media was a double edged sword because it perpetuated these inaccuracies and then worked to correct them.” It often happens that way, she says.

So, where’s the right place to be on the spectrum between Tom and Jay? “It’s no longer possible to be completely faceless. Journalists are on social media. They’re honing their personal brands. Their newspapers are there…They’re trying to use the Web to get their message out, and in that process they’re exposing who they are. Is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing for us to know what a political reporter’s politics are? I don’t think that question is easily answerable now. I come down a little closer to where Tom Kent is. I think that it makes a lot of sense for hard news reporters … for the White House reporter, I think it makes a lot of sense to keep their politics under wraps. I don’t see how it helps for people to be prejudging and distrusting them because ‘You’re in the tank for so-and-so.’” Phil Corbett, the standards editor for the NYT, rejects the idea there is no impartial journalism. He rejects that it’s a pretense or charade.

Margaret says, “The one thing I’m very sure of is that this business of impartiality and balance should no longer mean” going down the middle in a he-said-she-said. That’s false equivalence. “That’s changing and should change.” There are facts that we fully believe are true. Evolution and Creationism are not equivalents.

Q&A

Q: Alex Jones: It used to be that the NYT wouldn’t let you cite an anonymous negative comment, along the lines of “This or that person sucks.”

A: Everyone agrees doing so is bad, but I still see it from time to time.

Q: Alex Jones: The NYT policy used to be that you must avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. E.g., a reporter’s son was in the Israeli Army. Should that reporter be forbidden from covering Israel?

A: WhenEthan Bronner went to cover Israel, his son wasn’t in the military. But then his son decided to go join up. “It certainly wasn’t ideal.” Should Ethan have been yanked out the moment his son joined? I’m not sure, Margaret says. It’s certainly problematic. I don’t know the answer.

Q: Objectivity doesn’t always draw a clear line. How do you engage with people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to yours?

A: Some issues are extremely difficult and you’re probably not going to come to a meeting of the minds on it. Be respectful. Accept that you’re not going to make much headway.

Q: Wouldn’t transparency fragment the sources? People will only listen to sources that agree.

A: Yes, this further fractures a fractured environment. It’s useful to have some news sources that set out to be in neither camp. The DC bureau chief of the NYT knows a lot about economics. For him to tell us about his views on that is helpful, but it doesn’t help to know who he voted for.

Q: Martin Nisenholz] The NYT audience is smart but it hasn’t lit up the NYT web site. Do you think the NYT should be a place where people can freely offer their opinions/reviews even if they’re biased? E.g., at Yelp you don’t know if the reviewer is the owner, a competitor… How do you feel about this central notion of user ID and the intersection with commentary?

A: I disagree that readers haven’t lit up the web site. The commentary beneath stories is amazing…

Q: I meant in reviews, not hard news…

A: A real ID policy improves the tenor.

Q: How about the snarkiness of twitter?

A: The best way to be mocked on Twitter is to be earnest. It’s a place to be snarky. It’s regrettable. Reporters should be very careful before they hit the “tweet” button. The tone is a problem.

Q: If you want to build a community — and we reporters are constantly pushed to do that — you have to engage your readers. How can you do that without disclosing your stands? We all have opinions, and we share them with a circle we feel safe in. But sometimes those leak. I’d hope that my paper would protect me.

A: I find Twitter to be invaluable. Incredible news source. Great way to get your message out. The best thing for me is not people’s sarcastic comments. It’s the link to a story. It’s “Hey, did you see this?” To me that’s the most useful part. Even though I describe it as snarky, I’ve also found it to be a very supportive place. When you take a stand, as I did on Sunday about the press not holding things back for national security reasons, you can get a lot of support there. You just have to be careful. Use it for th best possible reasons: to disseminate info, rather than to comment sarcastically.

Q: Between Kent and Rosen, I don’t think there is some higher power of morality that decides this. It depends on where you sit and what you own. If you own NYT, you have billions of dollars in good will you’ve built up. Your audience comes to you with a certain expectation. There’s an inherent bias in what they cover, but also expectations about an effort toward objectivity. Social media is a distribution channel, not a place to bear your soul. A foreign correspondent for Time made a late-night blog post. (“I’d put a breathalyzer on keyboards,” he says.) A seasoned reporter said offhandedly that maybe the victim of some tragedy deserved it. This got distributed via social media as Time Mag’s position. Reporters’ tweets should be edited first. The institution has every right to have a policy that constrains what reporters say on social media. But now there are legal cases. Social media has become an inalienable right. In the old days, the WSJ fired a reporter for handing out political leaflets in a subway station. If you’re Jay Rosen and your business is to throw bombs at the institutional media, and to say everything you do is wrong [!], then that’s ok. But if you own a newspaper, you have to stand up for objectivity.

A: I don’t disagree, although I think Jay is a thoughtful person.

Q: I blog on the HuffPo. But at Harvard, blogging is not considered professional. It’s thought of as tossed off…

A: A blog is just a delivery system. It’s not inherently good or bad, slapdash or well-researched. It’s a way to get your message out.

A: [Alex Jones] Actually there’s a fair number of people who blog at Harvard. The Berkman Center, places like that. [Thank you, Alex :)]

Q: How do you think about the evolution of your job as public editor? Are you thinking about how you interact with the readers and the rhythm of how you publish?

A: When I was brought in 5 months ago, they wanted to take it to the new media world. I was very interested in that. The original idea was to get rid of the print column all together. But I wanted to do both. I’ve been doing both. It’s turned into a conversation with readers.

Q: People are deeply convinced of wrong ideas. Goebbels’ diaries show an upside down world in which Churchill is a gangster. How do you know what counts as fact?

A: Some things are just wrong. Paul Ryan was wrong about criticizing Obama for allowing a particular GM plant to close. The plant closed before Obama took office. That’s a correctable. When it’s more complex, we have to hear both sides out.


Then I got to ask the last question, which I asked so clumsily that it practically forced Margaret to respond, “Then you’re locking yourself into a single point of view, and that’s a bad way to become educated.” Ack.

I was trying to ask the same question as the prior one, but to get past the sorts of facts that Margaret noted. I think it’d be helpful to talk about the accuracy of facts (about which there are their own questions, of course) and focus the discussion of objectivity at least one level up the hermeneutic stack. I tried to say that I don’t feel bad about turning to partisan social networks when I need an explanation of the meaning of an event. For my primary understanding I’m going to turn to people with whom I share first principles, just as I’m not going to look to a Creationism site to understand some new paper about evolution. But I put this so poorly that I drew the Echo Chamber rebuke.

What it really comes down to, for me, is the theory of understanding and knowledge that underlies the pursuit of objectivity. Objectivity imagines a world in which we understand things by considering all sides from a fresh, open start. But in fact understanding is far more incremental, far more situated, and far more pragmatic than that. We understand from a point of view and a set of commitments. This isn’t a flaw in understanding. It is what enables understanding.

Nor does this free us from the responsibility to think through our opinions, to sympathetically understand opposing views, and to be open to the possibility that we are wrong. It’s just to say that understanding has a job to do. In most cases, it does that job by absorbing the new into our existing context. There is a time and place for revolution in our understanding. But that’s not the job we need to do as we try to make sense of the world pressing in on us. Reason can’t function in the world the way objectivity would like it to.


I’m glad the NY Times is taking these questions seriously,and Margaret is impressive (and not just because she takes Jay Rosen very seriously). I’m a little surprised that we’re still talking about objectivity, however. I thought that the discussion had usefully broken the concept up into questions of accuracy, balance, and fairness — with “balance” coming into question because of the cowardly he-said-she-said dodges that have become all too common, and that Margaret decries. I’m not sure what the concept of objectivity itself adds to this mix except a set of difficult assumptions.

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February 9, 2013

Why we were better prepared

The Boy Scouts are right: Be straight prepared. I’m looking out the window at what’s less like a blanket of snow and more like 5 stacked futons of snow. As quaint as a herniated disc.

Yet New England seems to be suffering the minimum amount of damage conceivable. What did we get right, especially compared with the freeze-in-your-car 1978 blizzard?

1. Weather forecasting has gotten much better. We were not taken by surprise.

2. We had appropriate plans in place. I heard, for example, that some local hospitals had arranged a pick-up service for medical personnel who otherwise couldn’t have gotten in to work. And a big hug and cup of warm cocoa to everyone working out in the cold to keep us safe. The nine most comforting words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

3. Our leaders are newly motivated not only by wisdom but also by fear. The price of being unprepared has gone up. I’m not saying our expectations are reasonable. We Americans generally don’t have a theory to explain why bad random things happen. ff afflicted by a natural disaster, we call a lawyer to sue the weather, the asteroid, someone. Still, it keeps our leaders on their toes.

4. It’s just snow. A lot of snow. You shovel it. You put on cleats once the sidewalks are walkable. For once in your life you don’t drive like a dick. It gets gray, black, and it melts. It’s just frozen water. got spring on our side. So, suck it, snow!

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February 5, 2013

[berkman] Diana Kimball: Coding as a Liberal Art

Diana Kimball [twitter:dianakimball] is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk on coding as a liberal art. She’s a Berkman Fellow and at the Harvard Business School. (Here are some of her posts on this topic.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She says that she’s loved computers since she was a kid. But when she went to Harvard as an undergrad she decided to study history, in part because there’s a natural specialization that happens in college: the students who come in as coders are fantastic at coding, whereas Diana had greater strengths as a writer of prose. She found HTML and programming intimidating. But in her third year, she got interested in coding and Internet culture. She was one of the founders of ROFLcon [yay!]. She got hired by Microsoft after college, as a technical product manager with the Powerpoint team in Silicon Valley. “This was culture shock in the best possible way.”

When she graduated in 2009, she and some friends started found the SnarkMarket blog that considers what the new liberal arts might be (inspired by Kottke). She wrote an essay that’s a proposal for coding and decoding. She reads it. (It’s short.) An excerpt:

Coding and Decoding is about all modes of communication, and all are in its view. But it is built with particular attention to the future, and what that future will be like. Technological experts can seem like magicians, conjuring effects wordlessly. By approaching that magic as a collection of component parts instead of an indivisible miracle, we can learn to see through these sleights of typing hands. In seeing through, we will learn to perform them ourselves; and think, as magicians, about the worlds we will build.

Language, now, is about more than communication. It is the architecture behind much of what we experience. Understanding that architecture will allow us to experience more.

Her boyfriend taught her how to code. They spent a lot of time on it. “He picked up on something I’d said and took it seriously.” After two years at Microsoft, she was enthusiastic, but still a beginner. It wasn’t until she started at Harvard Business School that coding really took off for her. The entrepreneurial atmosphere encouraged her to just do it. Plus, she was more of a geek than most of the other students. “This was great for my identity, and for my confidence.” She also found it a social refuge. “It takes a lot of time to get over the hump.” She refers to Ellen Ullman’s “Close to the Machine” that talks about the utility of being arrogant enough to obsess over a project, cycling back to humility.

She decided to code up her own site for a project for school, even though the team had been given the money to hire devs for the task. Last fall she took the famous CS50 course [Harry Lewis, who created the course in about 1981, is sitting next to me.] CS50 teaches C, targeted at people who are either taking only that one class, or are going to take many more. For her final project, she did a project that used multiple APIs that she was very proud of. She’s also proud of her Ruby projects folder. Each project is something she was trying to teach herself. She’s more proud of the list than the finished products.

“Learning to code means reclaiming patience and persistence and making them your stubborn own.” [nice]

Ideally, everyone should be exposed to programming, starting at 5 yrs old, or even earlier, Diana says. Seymore Papert’s “Mind-Storms” has greatly influenced her thinking about how coding fits into education and citizenship. At a university, it ought to be taken as a liberal art. She quotes Wikipedia’s definition. And if “grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core of the liberal arts,” then that’s sound like coding. [Hmm.] What the law was to the liberal arts, programming ought to be, i.e., that which you try if you don’t know what else to do with your liberal arts degree.

Why isn’t it seen that way? When computer scientists teach you, they teach they way they learned: at school. But many of the best programmers are self-taught. CS50 does give a variety of assignments, but it’d be better if students solved their own problems much earlier.

But the number one problem is the academic attitude, she says. Students get fixated on the grade, even when it doesn’t matter. Coding is critical for children because debugging is part of it, as Papert says. But grades are based on the endpoints. Coding is much more like life: You’re never done, you can always make it better.

Diana has a proposal. Suppose coding classes were taught like creative writing workshops. Take it whenever you’re ready. Taught by hackers, esepcially autodidacts. It’d vary in substance — algorithms, apis, etc. — and you’d get to choose. You’d get to see something on screen that you’d never seen before And you’d be evaluated on ingenuity and persistence, rather than only on how well your code runs.

She says what her syllabus would look like:

“Coding should be taught in the same breath as expository writing… Everyone deserves to be exposed to it.” She’s not sure if it should be required.

She quotes Papert: “…the most powerful idea of all is the idea of powerful ideas.” There’s no better example of this, she says, than open source software. And David Foster Wallace’s commencement address: “Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think…If you cannot exercise this sort of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” Diana says that’s her. She was wrapped up in writing from an early age. She has a running internal commentary. [Join the club!] Coding swaps in a different monologue, one in which she’s inventing thing. That’s the greatest gift: her internal monologue is much more useful and interesting. “If you wanted to be a novelist in 1900, you’d want to be a programmer today.” The experience of creating something that people use is so motivating.

Q&A

Q: Would you be willing to webcast yourself programming and let people join in? I do this all the time when at hackathons. I think, OMG, there must be 10,000 kids in India who want to be here. And so here they are. “Hackers at Berkeley” does this really well.

A: That’s awesome. I want more people to have more access to that experience of sharing.

Q: Are you familiar with RailsBridge — non-computer scientists who are teaching themselves how to code via weekend workshops.

A: RailsBridge is extraordinary. It’s great to see this happening outside of the university context.

A: [me] Great talk, and I’m a humanities major who spends most of his hobby time programming. But aren’t you recommending the thing that you happen to love? And programming as opposed to traditional logic is an arbitrary set of rules…

Q: Yes, but it would be really useful if more people loved it. We could frame it in a way that is exciting for humanities majors. I’m proposing an idea rather than making an airtight argument. “You’re basically right but I don’t really care” (she says laughing :).

Q: I like your idea of teaching it like a writers workshop so that it doesn’t turn into just another course. But I’m not sure that colleges are the best at doing that.

A: not everyone loves programming.

Q: [harry lewis] I take responsibility for eliminating the Harvard requirement for a programming course. Also, take a look at code.org. Third, the academic world treats computer science the way it does because of our disciplinary specialization. That label — computer science — came about in the context of fields like political science, and arose when computers were used not for posting web sites but for putting people on the Moon where a bug could kill someone. The fact that CompSci exists in academic departments will make it very difficult for your vision of computing to exist, just as creative writing is often an uneasy fit into English curricula.

A: That’s very fair. I know it’d be hard. RIT has separate depts for CompSci and coding.

Q: There’s an emergent exploration of coding in Arts schools, with a much more nimble, plug and play approach, very similar to the one you describe. My question: What do the liberal arts have to offer coding? Much of coding is quite new, e.g., open source. These could be understood within a historical context. Maybe these need to be nurtured, explored, broken. Does seeing coding as a liberal art have something to offer sw development?

A: ITP is maybe the best example of artists working with coders. Liberal Arts can teach programmers so much!

Q: Can we celebrate failure? That’d be a crucial part of any coding workshop.

A: Yes! Maybe “find the most interesting bug” and reward introspection about where you’ve gone wrong. But it’s hard in a class like CS50 where you’re evaluating results.

Q: This is known as egoless programming. It’s 40 years old, from Weinberger [no relation].

Q: You’re making a deeper point, which is not just about coding. The important thing is not the knowledge you get, but the way you get there. Being self-reflective about you came about how you learn. You can do this with code but with anything.

A: You’re so right. Introspection about the meta-level of learning is not naturally part of a course. But Ruby is an introspective language: you can ask any object what it is, and it will tell you. This is a great mirror for trying to know yourself better.

Q: What would you pick to teach?

A: I love Ruby. It would be a good choice because there’s a supportive community so students can learn on their own afterwards, and it’s an introspective language. And the lack of ornament in Ruby (no curly braces and little punctuation) makes it much more like English. The logic is much more visible. (My preference is Sinatra, not Rails.)

Q: What sort of time commitment the average person would have to put in to have a basic grasp of a programming language? Adults vs. children learning it?

A: I’d love to see research on this. [Audience: Rottmeyers, CMU (?)] A friend of mine reported he spent 20 hours. The learning curve is very halting at first. It’s hard to teach yourself. It helps to have a supportive in-person environment. CS50 is a 10-20 hour commitment/week and who has that sort of time except for fulltime students? To teach yourself, start out a few hours a time.

Q: How about where the MOOCs are going? Can you do a massively online course in compSci that would capture some of what you’re talking about?

A: The field is so focused on efficiency that MOOCs seem like an obvious idea. I think that a small workshop is the right way to start. CS50 requires so much fear of failure and resilience that it wouldn’t have been a good way for me to start. At CS50, you can’t let others read your code.

Q: We shouldn’t put together Computer Science and programming. Programming is just a layer of expression on top of computer science. You don’t need compSci to become a programmer. And the Net is the new computer; we’re gluing together services from across the Net. That will change how people think about programming because eveyrone will be able to do it. The first language everyone should learn is ifttt.com

Q: I’m a NY Times journalist. I love languages. And I love the analogy you draw. I’m 30. Do you think coding is really essential? Would it open my eyes as a journalist?

A: It’s never too late. If you keep asking the question, you should probably do it. You don’t have to be good at it to get a lot out of it. It’s so cool that your children are learning multiple languages including coding. Learn alongside them.

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