Vivek's blog

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Some frank thoughts as to why your Twitter feed sucks

Think about your best conversations. They were probably pretty damn special. You might have shared a moment of fury with someone as pissed off as you about an injustice. Or bonded over an amazing landscape or piece of music. Or, on your best days, co-created something brand new.

Those moments are awesome. They're also rare.

Most of our everyday interactions—even with our favorite people—are boring. We don't push ourselves, or each other, particularly hard. We don't learn all that much. It's pretty hard to convince yourself that you're engaged in a transcendent act of self-improvement when you're upside-down on the couch watching Battlestar Galactica marathons with loved ones.

Nevertheless, we enjoy each others' company, even when we're not doing anything particularly interesting. We've even invented an entire sub-language, "small talk," to keep us chattering when we have nothing important to say. This frankly inane banter (are you really all that freaking shocked by the fact that it's slightly warmer than it was last June? Why are you even devoting brain space to remembering the bloody weather last June?) is there simply because we are completely unable to hang out with anyone in silence. With exceptions.

Which is all totally fine. After all, that's how we're put together. If small talk lets us hang without gouging each other's eyes out, well, that can't be a bad thing.

Except that it has the TOTAL OPPOSITE EFFECT on social media.

Every single mindless piece of quasi-nonsense that allows us to enjoy other people's presence offline becomes a barrier to enjoying their presence online.

Take these three examples I've just pulled from my Twitter and Facebook feeds:

1. "Settling into my seat. Are they making these armrests more uncomfortable?"
Offline meaning: Hello, new airplane neighbor! Let us share in our mutual sorrow in being in this cramped, fart-filled metal tube for the next three hours. Heck, if you don't laugh, you'll cry. Am I right?

Online meaning: Look! Not only am I on a plane, but I've been on a plane before!!!

2. "I can't believe how much of that cake I just ate."
Offline meaning: I am vulnerable and self-deprecating, full of endearing human foibles. And sugar. Come, let us be nonthreatening together!

Online meaning: Not only did I eat some cake without you, but I'm bizarrely going to brag about my gluttony. Jealous yet?

3. "I'm so excited about my new shoes!"
Offline meaning: You and I have similarly stellar tastes in high fashion. Let's get rapturous about style!

Online meaning: I am so excited about my new shoes.

It gets worse. When we interact offline, we share experiences that we don't have to articulate. Because we're all there at the same time, actually doing those things.

Online, though, the context is stripped away. For some reason, we feel the need to add this context back in—despite there being absolutely no rational reason to do so.

Unconvinced? Some examples:

1. "I'm at [PLACE] with [PERSON]." 
Only your stalkers care. And possibly the IRS.

2. "I'm eating [FOOD], which looks like this: [LINK TO PICTURE OF FOOD]."
If I could eat an Instagram, the world would be a much, much better place, and Instagram would be worth the $1,000,000,000 that Facebook paid for it.

3. "Looking through some cool restaurants for tonight's dinner."
This adds absolutely no value to anyone's life. What WOULD be valuable is if you told me what restaurant you ended up choosing. Because I would NEVER EVER EVER go to that restaurant. Because when I got there you would be Instagramming the fucking amuse-bouche. (I have no idea why I chose to finally swear this far down the post. I mean, only my mother is still reading. Hi Mom! Sorry about the F-word. Let's Skype at the normal time on Sunday morning. Cool?)

The thing is, I still follow these people—not just because they're my friends (what a TERRIBLE criterion for deciding what authors to read), but because this is really, really hard shit. We are so conditioned to fill small social silences with the Styrofoam peanuts of chit-chat that it becomes nearly impossible to interact with a faceless community online without those crutches.

In fact, a lot of folks make such a valiant effort to avoid these behaviors, which they see as supremely narcissistic, that they fall off the opposite cliff: they become retweeting machines, simply passing on links and breaking news as though they were Reuters or something.

This makes me so sad. I follow people because they're people, not so I can learn the latest from Mashable. (OK, bad example. Pete Cashmore is, theoretically, a person.)

Stuff that people actually want to read, look at, listen to, and watch is supremely unselfish. It results from an act of true giving. That's not easy, and it's almost as rare as those perfect moments with your friends.

So I'm going to try to be as unselfish as possible when I post. I'm going to try to make sure that either I'm saying something insightful that might trigger creative thoughts or responses and, perhaps, a conversation; or I'm at the very least being entertaining. Or trying.

After all, I suck at this as much as you do.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Fallacy of Cause & Effect, Part 2

As we learn more and more about what causes actions, we face a paradox: we find ourselves less and less able to deal with the consequences of those actions.

Why? Because we try not to punish people for actions they had no control over.

This seems like a good thing. If you're holding a knife and I fall into you, injuring myself, you're not charged with assault. Well and good.

But what if you're holding a knife while sleepwalking, and you injure me with the knife. Is that your fault? The courts are divided on this one - especially in situations where you might have a motive to injure me - but there is certainly precedent for acquittal based on sleepwalking. The New Scientist claims that advances in medicine might hold the answer for sleepwalking and other "unconscious" crimes.

OK, so if you're not awake and aware, you might not be responsible for your actions. But what if you were fully conscious, but you weren't in a fit mental state? You could be experiencing a psychotic episode, in which you were completely unable to distinguish right from wrong. But you don't even need this criterion.

Some defendants have successfully argued that they were unable to control their actions owing to irresistible impulses (a form of temporary insanity). When subjected to an irresistible impulse, the argument goes, the person who committed a criminal act should avoid conviction because they were unable to control their actions. Crimes of vengeance (eg an enraged spouse attacking their unfaithful partner) sometimes see an "irresistible impulse" defense.

On occasion, a number of factors come together to exculpate an individual. Such was the case of the infamous "Twinkie defense," wherein the lawyers of Dan White - who shot and killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk - argued that White suffered from depression, the symptoms of which may have been exacerbated by consumption of junk food. White was acquitted (and later committed suicide).

These instances point to an underlying principle: as we more profoundly understand the proximate causes of a physical action (such as a chemical imbalance in someone's mind), we are less able to ascribe "intent" (of which free will is a necessary component).

In short, we can provide simple biological, chemical, or physical explanations for these actions. So we can't say they were the product of a "free" mind. And, therefore, we can't punish them.

Pretty soon, this is going to become problematic - because we are going to be explaining a LOT more behavior via medicine. We've already identified certain genotypes congruent with increased aggression. People can't choose their genes. (No one is saying that behavior is determined by genes alone; they are, however, an important component in causing action.)

What if we could explain literally every transgression by identifying underlying biology and chemistry that caused those transgressions? We'll never get to the point where we can predict individual action, but if we can retroactively identify the proximate causes behind action, how can we apportion punishment?

Science has gotten us into this problem. Can it help us out of it? Maybe. Perhaps we can use research to evaluate the effects of punishment itself. If we view punishment as retribution for crime ("balancing the scales of justice"), then the more we take "intent" out of the equation, the more we have to reëvaluate our justification for punishment.

However, if punishment is primarily a way to forestall undesirable behavior (through a deterring effect) or to change behavior (by preventing recidivism), then science can help - a lot. Because in this world, we'd have clear goals for punishment: reducing incidence of a particular behavior in a population, and reducing recurrence of behavior in an individual. Well-designed experiments could test the effects of given punishments (or rehabilitation techniques).

Policy could be grounded in the effectiveness of meeting these goals, rather than in political platitudes ("Tough on crime!" or "Zero tolerance!" or "Keep us safe!"). Theoretically, our society could be safer, more dignified, and more efficient. And we wouldn't have to fret over the chemical state of an individual's mind at a given point in time.

Or we could keep doing it the hard way.

(Thanks to Joel Kraut on Flickr for the Twinkie image. This post has only a bit to do with my earlier post, The Fallacy of Cause & Effect, Part 1.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Fallacy of Cause & Effect, Part 1

Many folks measure short-term success by assessing outcomes. That is, they look at actions, look at results, and then judge the worth of those actions based on the results. This sounds reasonable, but it can be woefully misguided. Here's why.

Say you play chess like I do - badly.

You gleefully take an opponent's rook only to realize - too late! - that you've left your queen exposed. Your adversary takes your queen and proceeds to wipe the board with you.

Anyone observing this game would be correct in dismissing your chess skills. You've lost because you made a stupid mistake.

But let's change the game. Let's say that you're playing poker instead. Imagine that you've been dealt a pair of Aces. (You're playing Texas Hold 'Em, by the way.) The person to your left goes all in. Everyone else folds, and you gleefully call. He flips up a King and a Queen - not a bad hand, but pathetic compared with your pocket rockets.

Then up comes the flop: King, Ten, Five. Then another King on the turn. Then a Queen on the river. Your Aces have been comprehensively trounced by his full house, and you are out of the game.

That guy goes on to win the tournament. Commentators praise his 'gutsy' play and his 'uncanny' instincts. He's a millionaire, and you're out on the street.

So what did you do wrong? Absolutely nothing. You played perfectly - and you outplayed your opponent. But he lucked out, and you got screwed.

Evaluating each person's play based on outcome would obviously be silly. The fact that he won and you lost doesn't mean that he did the right thing and you did the wrong thing. The opposite is true.

But in the 'real world,' we see this mistake made all the time. A budding executive 'takes a risk' and is catapulted to stardom or consigned to the garbage heap based on the outcome. The reward or penalty is handed out regardless of the circumstances. Was the risk justified? Did the executive gamble 100% of a company's fortune based on a 45% chance of success? Was there an alternative strategy that promised a better expected return but was ignored owing to its unsexiness - or (even worse) its having failed last time through chance? (The equivalent being folding a new pair of Aces because they were beaten in the previous hand.)

Life is far more like poker than chess. Our actions do not create unambiguous consequences; they merely provide us with small impulses in a sea of random chance. Any robust frame for judgement must take into account the circumstances that inform and determine the result of our choices.

Measuring success, in the short term, based on outcomes alone may penalize the person who 'took a chance' on the pair of Aces. And that is a losing strategy in the long run.

(Thanks to Flickr user robad0b for the image. And I've finally written a tangentially related follow-up post: The Fallacy of Cause & Effect, Part 2.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is quality dead?

I freely admit it: I have a vested interest in quality.

I work for a company that prides itself on offering what appears to be a commodity - travel information - but that commands premium prices because of the painstaking expertise and layers of checking involved.

But quality ain't what it used to be. Now I'm not one to moan about those-darned-upstart-bloggers-taking-my-newpapers-away-why-don't-they-get-off-my-lawn? or demand that we go back to lovingly crafted horse-and-buggies in place of those mass-produced nightmares that clog our roads these days.

However, there's part of me that sees the market constantly rewarding quantity over quality. CDs replaced records, and my hard-core musician friends tried to convince me that there was no way digital music could be as true as analog. I couldn't tell the difference - but I can with mp3s. The vast majority of music being listened to these days is so compressed that much of the nuance is lost. That's why you get bands like the Arcade Fire, who think that dynamics are something to do with engineering.

It's happening in content. It's passé to talk about "user-generated content" versus "expert content"; the fabric of the web is what it is. But now we're seeing companies like Demand Media using volume to overwhelm search engines, build tremendous traffic and get rich off low-quality page views.

Yes, this is affecting me directly. When I have a fathering-related question, I turn to Google. These days, the first several links are from aggregation sites that put together Q&As from people who are far from experts. I need to dig deeply to find opinions by people whom I trust.

You know what I'm talking about: places like Yahoo! Answers, which make me weep for humanity. It's like reading pages and pages of YouTube comments. It saps your will to live.

So I miss that authoritative stamp that used to come with publication. This probably makes me old and cantankerous. I'll admit to being both if someone can provide me with reassurance. Where can this prematurely grumpy old man go for his daily dose of quality?

(Image courtesy John Pozadzides, Flickr Creative Commons)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fact is opinion. Isn't it?

My partner, Janet, enjoys telling me that in a postmodern framework, there is no objective truth.

If that's the case, then we are truly living in a postmodern world, at least politically. Never before has reality been so divergent depending on one's political point of view.

Take the United States as a case study. Unending strife between Republicans and Democrats is nothing new, but the field of disagreement has moved to the arena of fact rather than opinion or philosophy.

In general, Democrats believe that there is scientific evidence of global climate change caused by humans. Republicans, looking at the same numbers, dispute this conclusion. Similarly (to stereotype crudely), Democrats believe that there is evidence that humans evolved from an apelike ancestor. Again, Republicans dispute this. This occurs despite the fact that a liberal or conservative view of government has, theoretically, nothing to do with conclusions about biology or climatology.

What's more, political belief systems increasingly appear to control people's perception of history. Many conservatives believe that a link was proven between Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11. Many liberals believe that vote recounts demonstrate that Al Gore defeated George W Bush in Florida during the 2000 election.

Although this trend may be disturbing, it shouldn't be surprising. From a young age, I quickly learned that point of view colors reality to a frightening degree. If you're a sports fan, think about how what team you support alters your view of events. What's clearly out of bounds to one team's supporter definitely clipped the line to the other team's supporter. An obvious rule violation to one is well within the spirit of the game to one's counterpart.

So next time you are 100% clear on the facts, and your opponent seems to be ignoring them in favor of other facts you've completely discounted, pause a second. You might just get at some form of objective truth.

How modernist of me.

(Image courtesy chibart, Flickr Creative Commons)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Washington Post secretly think Michael Moore is a moron?

Um - can someone explain this to me?

Here's a screenshot from today's Washington Post:

You see the headline I've circled - where "Tuesday with Weingarten" appears, but Weingarten is struck out and replaced with "Moron"? Well, that goes to this article - a Q&A with Michael Moore.

Is this an innocent mistake, or has some careless subeditor secretly revealed his or her hatred for the muckracking lefty? Or am I altogether mistaken?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A counterintuitively productive hospital stay

I learned a profound lesson in prioritization today.

My most excellent wife, Janet, went into labor last night. Seven hours and three calls to the midwife later, we swung into action. We made sure all the bags were packed, the dishes done and the cat well fed. It was time.

Except it wasn't. Despite the assurances of the first midwife - 'Well, you're in labor; I don't think we're sending you home today' - it turned out to be a false alarm. After nine hours in two different hospital rooms, we finally came home. (Janet's in the bath as I write this.)

But here's the thing. As Janet experienced that first contraction, I remember thinking, 'We're not ready. I'm not ready.'

There was an emotional aspect to this. A man can prepare intellectually forever, but can he truly be ready for fatherhood before the fact? However, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the pile of tax forms on my desk, the dirty laundry on the floor next to my side of the bed, the musical instruments and assorted hardware strewn about the (putative) nursery, the leftovers in the fridge that I had neglected to put in the freezer. And a thousand other things. When the call came, I knew - just knew - that I didn't have my life in order adequately.

But somewhere along the line, that changed. As we bundled into the car, I mentally reviewed the things I needed to have in order for when we came home with a baby. Will Janet be comfortable? Will we have enough to eat and drink? Will we have a safe, cosy spot for the baby? Do we have all the ingredients for a secure, loving household?

Instantly, the list cleared in my mind. I knew, with absolute clarity, what the key things were that I needed to address. I did those (it took all of five minutes) and pushed everything else off the list. By the time we hit the hospital, I was completely certain that we were ready to welcome a child into the world.

What a revelation. If I go back to work tomorrow (a 50-50 proposition right now), I'll be on fire. Of the 1100 things on my list, maybe 10 are important for me to achieve my professional goals, as well as those of my workplace. The rest shouldn't even be on a backlog: it all needs to be cast aside.

Take a look at your personal backlog. Ask yourself how much of it is on there because it's socially important (eg your friends will look down on you if you don't even aspire to doing it) or because you feel as though it's something you just 'ought' to do. Cut out what's unimportant to your goals - cut it out altogether. It feels great.

Then ask yourself why you haven't done the rest.

So there you have it. At least I got something out of our day at the hospital. I can only imagine what lessons I'll learn when the baby actually arrives.

It'll be excellent.