Bin Laden’s plan is going great.

Provocative piece in The Nation this week:

Psychologically speaking, the 9/11 attacks represented precision targeting of a kind American leaders would only dream of in the years to follow. I have no idea how, but you clearly understood us so much better than we understood you or, for that matter, ourselves. You knew just which buttons of ours to push so that we would essentially carry out the rest of your plan for you. While you sat back and waited in Abbottabad, we followed the blueprints for your dreams and desires as if you had planned it and, in the process, made the world a significantly different (and significantly grimmer) place.


Fourteen years of the financial starvation of America’s infrastructure and still not a single mile of high-speed rail built anywhere in the country. Fourteen years in which to launch Afghan War 2.0, Iraq Wars 2.0 and 3.0, and Syria War 1.0. Fourteen years, that is, of the improbable made probable.

A depressing but important read.

Why do we follow the news?

I think I follow the news for two reasons.

1: The lofty reason people like telling themselves. “It makes me a more informed citizen” and so “I can vote smarter.” As pointed out in this great podcast episode about it from Freakonomics, Why do we really follow the news?, it doesn’t really affect my life one way or the other if I know certain facts. As journalist Mitchell Stephens said:

I think very little of the news actually today is of practical value. For one thing, we don’t live in a society that has all that many threats encroaching upon us. You know, most of us live pretty safe lives. And most of us know where to find food in the supermarket. Most of us know where to look for romance, where to live our social lives. So I think a lot of the functions that news used to perform way back when in hunter-gatherer times, in preliterate societies, it’s no longer performing regularly. Yet our itch to be aware, to know what’s going on around us, remains.

2: For the story. As economist Matthew Gentzkow touched put it:

There’s a lot of research in psychology about the importance of telling stories and building narratives for people. People like to look at their own lives as a story. They like to see kind of the arc of the challenges that they overcame and define themselves as a character in that story. And to me that makes a lot of sense of why we care so much about news, because if what I’m thinking about all the time is my own life story and my own role in it, then you know, what’s happening in the world around me is the context that that story’s happening in.

So there ya go. Give it a listen.

The Pitfalls (& Opportunities) of News Algorithms

Fantastic article {neiman journalism lab} about Google News and the issues we face when  algorithms pick our news for us. The article details the specific ways algorithms chooses what to filter:

For example, unless directly programmed to do so, the Google News algorithm won’t play favorites when picking representative articles for a cluster on a local political campaign — it’s essentially non-partisan. But one of its criteria for choosing articles is “frequency of appearance.” That may seem neutral — but if one of the candidates in that race consistently got slightly more media coverage (i.e. higher “frequency of appearance”), that criterion could make Google News’ output appear partisan.

In other words, even seemingly objective measures like the number of times an article is shared through social media doesn’t factor in potential biases like socioeconomic status and access to the internet/social media sites.

But perhaps smarter filters could learn to outsmart themselves:

For instance, at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Souneil Park and his collaborators have been experimenting with aggregation algorithms that feed into a news presentation called NewsCube, which nudges users towards consuming a greater variety of perspectives. Forget leaving things to chance with serendipity — their research is working on actively biasing your exposure to news in a beneficial way. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, in their book Nudge, call this kind of influence “libertarian paternalism” — biasing experiences to correct for cognitive deficiencies in human reasoning. Not only can algorithms bias the content that we consume — someday they might do so in a way that makes us smarter and less prone to our own shortcomings in reasoning. Perhaps an algorithm could even slowly push extremists towards the center by exposing them to increasingly moderate versions of their ideas.

More on news algorithms here, here and here.

Friday link list

1. Online Education Grows Up, And For Now, It’s Free {npr}

Earlier this year in Kazahkstan, 22-year-old computer science student Askhat Muzrabayev had a problem…

So Muzrabayev went online to Coursera and enrolled in Stanford’s Machine Learning class for free. He watched the lectures, did the quizzes, joined online discussions with students from around the world and then took the final exam. He passed, and when it was over he received a certificate that said he completed an online course at Stanford.

Muzrabayev used that certificate to apply for jobs; offers started to pour in. One of those offers was from Twitter, and he now works for the company in the Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

2. Terms of Service, Didn’t Read {on the media}

What our website [Terms of Service, Didn’t Read] does is it has a browser extension. When you install it, when you’re signing up for a website [and asked to agree to an impossibly long terms of service agreement], you see a rating from Class A, which is very good, to Class E, which is very bad. Just like restaurant reviews, we tried to see which ones are the worst ones and which ones are actually taking the effort to make good and fair terms of service.

3. Let me guess: You sleep with your iPad, don’t you? {neiman journalism lab}

A study released today by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds most news junkies who own tablets use them before 8 a.m. and in the after-work hours….

For many, more devices means more news, according to the study. Pew found 43 percent of tablet owners say they are getting more news now than they were before they got the device, and 31 percent say they’re adding new sources into their information diet.