The People Behind the Algorithm

You know those “you bought this, so you might like this” recommendations on Amazon? Turns out, a real live human helps ensure the recommendations you see aren’t too out of whack.

They log in to the Amazon Mechanical Turk site and are presented with two products. If one doesn’t belong with the other, they say so. For every match they identify, they make a few pennies. There’s still an algorithm, but it’s receiving crucial help from an army of low-paid workers.

NPR’s Planet Money team thought of a clever way to interview some Turks. Check it out here.

Friday Link List: Really Short Edition

1. What’s a Penny Worth? {npr’s planet money}

The Planet Money team never ceases to amaze my with its ability to take topics that seem among the most mundane imaginable, and turn them into really interesting pieces of journalism.

Enter Episode 539:

We have three stories on the penny. First, we go on an expedition through the streets of Manhattan to find something, anything, we can buy for one cent. Next, we talk to a guy who’s betting on the government killing the penny. And finally, we visit a place where people dream of how pennies could change everything: the internet.

 

2. How Businesses Are Rating YOU {new tech city}

Host Manoush Zomorodi investigates how she got slapped with a bad Uber rating she wasn’t even supposed to know about. But that’s just the beginning. Just as the Fair Credit Report Act regulated the use of personal information in private businesses in 1970, privacy advocates and now the White House are calling for laws that regulate opaque consumer scoring that’s extracted from petabytes of data.

One of my favorite parts was from Bob Gellman, author of The Scoring of America {link to the whole book for free, I think?):

Everybody’s scoring everybody all the time, according to all kinds of characteristics. Do we all have to live according to a certain model in order to be treated properly in this economy?

(This episode is the second part of the episode I covered previously.)

Bitcoin’s Philly Roots

Hardly the most interesting part of this story about the man behind Bitcoin {Newsweek}, but the one with a surprising link to my home town/states:

[Bitcoin inventor] Nakamoto has six children. The first, a son from his first marriage in the 1980’s, is Eric Nakamoto, an animation and 3-D graphics designer in Philadelphia. His next five children were with his second wife, Grace Mitchell, 56, who lives in Audubon, N.J., and says she met Nakamoto at a Unitarian church mixer in Cherry Hill, N.J., in the mid-1980s. She recalls he came to the East Coast after leaving Hughes Aircraft, now part of Raytheon, in his 20s and next worked for Radio Corporation of America in Camden, N.J., as a systems engineer.

Via fellow-Philadelphian John Gruber.

For a solid Bitcoin primer, check out this Planet Money story.

 

Planet Money Makes a T-shirt

NPR Planet Money T-Shirt

NPR’s Planet Money is tracing the manufacturing process of a t-shirt from the very beginning.

It all started with a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $half million.

They met garment workers, sea captains, customs officials and cotton farmers along the way.

Check out video from their journey, listen to the podcast and watch Alex Blumberg (whose voice This American Life listeners will recognize) on Colbert.

Beyond the merits of the story itself, this is a great case study for story-telling across media, and the power of a story to sell a product. I’m not particularly keen on the design, but the more I follow their journey, the more I want it.

Disability Insurance for All

Welfare v. Unemployment Chart

Crazy report from This American Life and Planet Money about the rapid rise of disability insurance claims, and how it’s come to replace the federal welfare program in many ways.

A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn’t cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability. So states can save money by shifting people from welfare to disability. And the Public Consulting Group (PCG) is glad to help.

PCG is a private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability. “What we’re offering is to work to identify those folks who have the highest likelihood of meeting disability criteria,” Pat Coakley, who runs PCG’s Social Security Advocacy Management team, told me.

The company has an office in eastern Washington state that’s basically a call center, full of headsetted women in cubicles who make calls all day long to potentially disabled Americans, trying to help them discover and document their disabilities…

This issue seems more complicated than the episode implies, but it is certainly something we should be looking into.

Listen to the teaser, the full episode, read the whole interactive piece Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America, and check out this rebuttal from Media Matters.