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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.?]


April 2, 2012

Times cuts down on free access

Why? Does the Times have research that shows that when someone is denied access to her eleventh NYT article, she’s going to cave in and buy a subscription for $195/year? Because my informal market research — I sat myself in an airless room, asked myself some questions, and rewarded myself with m&m’s — indicates that I will just get more annoyed at the NYTimes, and regret its insistence on losing its place in our culture.

PS: No, I don’t know how to save the newspaper industry.


March 17, 2011

New York Times uses Canada as beta for US

The email from the NYTimes about its new digital subscription service notes: “Today, we are rolling out digital subscriptions to our readers in Canada, which will enable us to fine-tune the customer experience before our global launch.” [Also here]. Really? The entire nation of Canada is just a beta tester for the US and the rest of the world?

How do you find out what version number is Canada up to, anyway? Click on the maple leaf?


July 23, 2009

Accountable bloggers and journalists

[Note 1.5 hrs after posting this: Ethan Zuckerman has just put up a superb post on this topic. I suggest you read that instead of this.]

Jillian York of the Berkman Center explains the current confusion about the NY Times’ rather casual suggestion (in a blog post) , based on an accusation in a tweet from Omid Habibinia, that Hossein Derakhshan (aka Hoder) has been an agent for the Iranian government, basically ratting out pro-democracy bloggers. The NY Times has now gone meta on the accusation, saying it only reported it because it’s a sign of the discord and distrust, etc., etc. But it’s still a dangerous charge to propagate. Jillian wants to know why we’re blaming the NY Times blogger and not Habibinia.

I’ve got enough blame in my backpack for both. But I do think that since the NY Times trades on its credibility, it has a greater responsibility. When the NY Times reports a rumor, it not only amplifies the rumor, it inevitably adds credibility to it. That’s just the way it is, and, it’s also how the NY Times wants it.

(I wish I could track down the article I read today about the difficult the human brain has in unlearning bad info even after it’s been shown to be bad. The article talked about the increase in the belief that Iraq had WMDs after it was shown that it did not.)

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July 6, 2009

News, process, webs and networks

Terry Heaton has yet another excellent entry in his continuing series on the media r/evolution. This one is on the news as a process — never done, never entirely right.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about the news as a network. I’ve been finding that the network view of institutions is helpful because it lets you think about the ways in which the odd properties of The Network, and especially the Web, may be getting applied to those institutions — how those properties fit and don’t fit, and what that means for how those institutions can and should interact with the Net. In fact, at the moment I’m thinking about that as the organizing principle of a talk I’m giving at the Open Gov Innovations conference in a couple of weeks.

Terry’s process view of the news is helpful because it reminds us that a news story is messily spread over time, with many hands touching, and thus contradicts the ol’ writing-boom-published timeline of yore. Nah, the news is always in process. Dave Winer’s river of news is another useful metaphor, capturing the flow of news that we care about.

Metaphors are not exclusionary, so I also like the network idea. The river of news as it flows past us is part of a continuing process, which has shape and some persistence because it is a network. And I think the news is a network pretty much fractally: A hyperlinked news story is embedded in a network of links. Stories are slices through complex webs of ideas, with connections through the river of time and the semantic space of causality and influence. A collection of stories (what we used to call a “newspaper” or a “nightly news show”) is a web of related pieces — related by chronology but also by cross-commentary and references. Reporters rely on networks of people. Readers read within networks of people and ideas. The events themselves that the news “covers” are so deeply enmeshed in networks of history and culture that the very notion of a “story” is now suspect.

There are at least three problems with networks of news. 1. Networks can be lazy; they are so sprawling and full of goodies that there’s some type of focused work they may not get around to. 2. Networks lower the barriers to social gravity, so that we can be irresistibly attracted to people who are like us. (Ok, so opposite magnetic poles attract, and thus my metaphor has failed. Damn!) 3. We know how to turn hard objects into money, whereas it’s way harder to figure out how to make networks of news economically sustainable.

But the networking of news feels to many of us like the news assuming a more natural, authentic shape, freed from the rectangle of paper into which it has been force fitted for so long.

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January 22, 2008

The NYTimesoverse

The New York Times has proclaimed Twitter a phenomenon in a piece redolent with all the smug, self-referential authority it can muster. Journalists are using it! One twittered something that made it into the NY Times! Twitter therefore matters!

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