Saturday, May 27, 2017

Belated Secret Science Club Lecture Recap: Everybody Lies, but Your Browser Knows the Truth

On Thursday night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring economist and data scientist Dr Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School lecturer, former Google data analist, and author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz opened his lecture by noting that, over the past eighty years, if researchers wanted to judge people's beliefs, they would conduct an opinion survey. The problem with that is that people lie to surveys. In a survey concerning sex and condom use, the participants lied about frequency of sex and use of prophylactics: extrapolating from survey data, the women's answers would indicate that 1.1 billion condoms would be used per year. According to the male respondents, 1.6 billion condoms would be used per year. Actual sales figures indicated that about six-hundred million condoms were actually sold the year the study was conducted. If frequency of sex had been extrapolated from the study and correlated with condom sales, there would have been far more pregnancies expected that year.

People lie to surveys, they also 'mess with' surveys for various reasons- in one recent survey, when asked the question 'What color is a red ball?', six percent of respondents answered 'green' and six percent answered 'undecided'. Screwing with surveys is a particular problem when teens are the participants. In a survey formulated to determine if adopted teens were more likely to drink than those who lived with their biological parents, more than half of the respondents who claimed to be adopted had not been. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that it's fun to mess with surveys.

Internet searches are a different matter- Dr Stephens-Davidowitz likened Google searches to 'digital truth serum'. People are comfortable telling their browsers things that they don't tell other people. According to Google trends, searches for porn were more common than searches for weather reports among twenty percent of men and four percent of women. Search engines give users incentives to tell the truth... if one wants the results one wants, one must use the proper search terms to find them.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that Google searches revealed a lot of secret racism that was missed by polls. A map of racist Google searches correlates uncomfortably with a map of support for Donald Trump's candidacy. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that the true divide when it comes to frequency of racist searches targeting African-Americans is not North vs South, but East vs West, with a higher percentage of easterners using racist search terms. It is pretty safe to say that racism is the number one factor in the ascendancy of Trump.

In another recent survey concerning sexuality, the highest percentage of men claiming that they are gay was in Rhode Island, with 4.8% of respondents answering in the affirmative. The state with the lowest percentage of affirmative responses was Mississippi, with 2.7%. In contrast, the percentage of Google users searching for gay porn was 5.3% in RI and 4.8% in MS. The numbers are similar everywhere. Among women, the search term 'Is my husband gay?' occurs ten times more frequently than 'Is my husband cheating?' and eight times more frequently than 'Is my husband depressed?' This query is most common down South.

Another survey indicated that there is a self-induced abortion crisis. With more and more states restricting legal abortions, desperate girls and women are using the search term 'How do I perform an abortion myself?' This search term exploded around 2011, just as the crackdown occurred.

In India, the top way to complete the search term 'My husband wants me to' is 'breastfeed him'.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, if Google just confirmed analysts suspicions, it wouldn't be so revolutionary, but the unexpected results of trend analysis revealed secrets that the researchers didn't suspect. He wryly noted that this was a BIG WIN for science. In the case of the Indian Google search terms, none of the experts knew that about the breastfeeding fetish.

If Google is 'digital truth serum', Dr Stephens-Davidowitz said, Facebook is a 'digital brag to friends about how good one's life is'. People are even more dishonest on Facebook than they are on surveys. While the National Enquirer sells more copies than The Atlantic, on Facebook the latter publication gets mentioned with forty-five times the frequency of the former. The top terms women use to describe their husbands on Facebook are: 'best', 'best friend', 'amazing', 'greatest', and 'so cute'. On Google, the top terms women use in searches regarding their husbands are: 'gay', 'jerk', 'amazing', 'annoying', and 'mean'. Dr Stephens-Davidowitz gave us a good piece of advice- knowing the truth is better than not knowing, don't compare your Google searches to others' Facebook posts.

Learning of our biases can also be helpful. Parents are twice as likely to use search terms such as 'gifted' and 'genius' when describing their sons, while they are more likely to use the queries 'is my daughter overweight?' or 'is my daughter ugly?' than to ask that of their sons. While it is difficult to ask racist internet searchers not to be racist, it isn't that difficult to tell parents not to be biased.

In the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino mass shooting, the top Google search was 'kill Muslims'. There was an explosion of anti-Muslim rage, with other popular terms being 'I hate Muslims', 'Muslims are evil', and 'Muslims terrorism'. As searches using such terms rise, hate crimes rise. In the aftermath of the shooting, President Obama delivered a speech from the Oval Office in which he implored Americans:

“Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.”

While the speech was well-received by pundits, minute-by-minute the anti-Muslim searches skyrocketed. The media consensus was 'Nice job, Obama', while the search engines revealed rage and backlash. Later on, in the speech, President Obama noted:

“Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”

By engaging people's curiosity, the internet rage-fest calmed a bit. In a speech to a Baltimore mosque congregation, President Obama doubled down on his appeal to people's curiosity about Muslim-Americans:

Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.

Rage and violence are important issues, but insane people were usually not studied... when people make crazy Google searches, what enrages them? Conversely, what calms them down? With search engine analytics, studying an angry mob is now a science, so a more effective approach to addressing violence can be formulated.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz then opened up the floor to a lengthy Q&A session. Some bastard in the audience raised the specter of Rule 34 and, while the Good Doctor (shockingly, to me) wasn't familiar with the term, he assured us that it exists. In answer to one query, he made sure to note that data is neither good nor evil- the users choose to use them for good or ill... investigators use data to solve crimes, scammers use data to fleece consumers. Using data, corporations can target small sets of the population with advertisements. In answer to a question about people's ability to stop being honest on Google, he noted that, right after Edward Snowden's leak, embarrassing searches (including searches for 'Nickelback') slowed down. Regarding elections, Google searches are getting better, but it is still hard to predict elections. Politics being a sensitive area, searches tend to be bad- models must be based on data, not on people's responses to direct questions. Data gives us a deeper and richer view of people than the surface view that surveys provide.

In answer to a question about how individuals can use information to combat corporate dominance, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz did note that consumers can use internet searches to seek out lower priced goods, but that Big Data overall makes corporations more powerful. Google knows truths about you before your family does.

In 2004, Google users tended to be students or intellectuals, so searches about science were more popular by percentage of searchers. Now, the internet has a much broader user base. There has always been unseemly behavior, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz described it as 'a dark element of anonymous people doing horrible things'. Early on, internet searches concerning suicide often elicited deplorables urging 'do it', while later interventions in the search algorithms altered results to refer users to suicide prevention hotlines. Searches regarding 'child abuse' are more ambiguous, as older kids often do post-abuse searches, which can result in interventions by officials. When asked about a breakdown of internet users by age, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that this can't be done, referring to Peter Steiner's famous 1993 New Yorker Cartoon: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

When asked about the strangest American habit that he's learned about, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that people google Google. He indicated that using Google Trends is a powerful way to put public data to use.

Another questioner asked him how to spot fake news, and Stephens-Davidowitz noted that conspiracy theories have been popular long before the Sandy Hook Massacre.

In answer to another question, Dr Stephens-Davidowitz noted that, while internet searches tend to correlate with offline activity, there can be holes in the dataset that don't play out- while searches for 'God' tend to correlate to the Bible Belt, the top result for Google searches for the word (at 2%) were related to the God of War video game franchise.

In order to mess up the data, one would have to be subtle- yahoos using Yahoo are at a disadvantage because searching for oppositional reasons merely indicates interest. There are pitfalls- one can cherry pick data, use of one strident word can have a disproportionate effect.

Dr Stephens-Davidowitz ended by addressing the ethical issues of data analytics, and whether companies such as Google should intervene when troublesome searches are made... does Google know when someone's doing something bad? He noted that a lot of people have horrible thoughts, but don't follow through on them. On the question of whether suicidal ideation correlates with suicide rates, he indicated that, while he was aware of 3.5 million searches about suicide, only four-thousand of the individuals followed through with killing themselves. While he encountered some disturbing revelations, such as the extent and effects of racism, he also encountered hopeful revelations- people's searches can verify some of the suspicions but allay other ones. For instance, while people are insecure about their own shortcomings, they are usually more forgiving of those of their partners.

The lecture was thought-provoking and entertaining- as someone who probably spends too much time on the internet, it was a nice overview of what really goes on in this crazy Series of Tubes. Here's a short media appearance by Dr Stephens-Davidowitz on the topic of 'Internet Truth Serum':

For more substantive media, here's a broad selection of appearances by the good doctor.

Friday, May 26, 2017

International Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day

Ordinarily, I would have written up last night's Secret Science Club lecture, but like a mooncalf, I left my libram of notes at home when I departed for work with much celerity. Today being the anniversary of Jack Vance's transition to realms Empyrean, I hereby declare this sidereal day to be this annum's Talk Like a Jack Vance Character Day.

Accordingly, we shall indulge in rococo rodomontades of considerable loquacity and castigate oafs and varlets, blackguards and mooncalves. Let us woo demimondaines in the gloaming in verdant plaisances, plying them with choice viands and the chansons of Old Earth. Of greatest importance, let us avoid the snares and guiles of the deodands and hormaguants, venefices and jinxmen:

In the next diurnal round, I shall endeavor to scribe the sagacities of the scientists, but until then, I shall engage my tongue in the verbosities of Vance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Lovely Lepidoptera

Yesterday, with a burning need to stop listening to the news, I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to visit the Butterfly Conservatory, which will be closing this coming Monday. The exhibit has a few display panels describing the evolution and biology of butterflies- of the almost 250,000 Lepidopteran species, 7% are considered butterflies, the other 93% are moths. The Lepidoptera have colorful scales on their wings and staw-like proboscises (those which have mouthparts in their adult forms- some, like the giant Atlas moths, imperial moths, and luna moths lack mouthparts, and do not feed- existing only to mate, and to enthrall primates).

The closest relatives to the Lepidoptera are the Trichoptera, the caddisflies, which are characterized by aquatic larvae which build protective 'cases', typically bound together with silk. The Lepidoptera, being mainly nectar-feeders, co-evolved with the flowering plants- the exhibit had an image of a fossil Prodryas persophone dating back to the Eocene epoch.

The life cycles of butterflies should be well known to any observers of nature- the transitions from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (encased in a chrysalis or coccoon) to adult (imago) are well-documented, as any wag will tell you.

Of course, the centerpiece of the exhibit is a chamber kept at a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.67 Celsius) and chock full of Lepidopterans, with some particularly gorgeous Morpho butterflies seeming to dominate.

The real show stealers, as Thunder would be able to tell you, were the Atlas moths which, while somewhat sombre in hue, have a wingspan wider than that of a typical sparrow:

It was fun to see how different people react to the insects- one little girl was displaying some trepidation, while another loquacious girl not only reveled in the butterflies, but talked about them with any adult within earshot. As for myself, I love the things- I had one land on my hand, and was torn between reaching for my camera and not moving in order to prolong the contact. I also had the feeling of tiny legs crawling across the back of my neck, but all was good in the world because it was a butterfly and not some bitey or stingy thing.

After about a half-hour in the butterfly chamber, I realized that I was sweaty and needed a nice, cold drink. I exited out the 'airlock' style double doors, after a cursory inspection for stowaways, and proceeded to the less colorful, but no less magical, precincts of the museum.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


I have to say that I am not an Ariana Grande fan- I am a cynical man in his forties who really doesn't dig her brand of pop music. That is precisely why I am so horrified at the suicide bombing which killed twenty-two of her fans. The attack specifically targeted young people, particularly girls. The survivors of the attack, including Ms Grande herself, will carry a bit of survivors' guilt and a great deal of anxiety... something that I wouldn't wish on anyone, especially an adolescent.

There's a certain surreal quality to this particular tragedy, the role of social media in disseminating information about the fallen. The goofy selfies and whimsical photomanipulations culled from the kodds' various apps are jarring when contrasted with the stark crime scene images.

Around noon, I just had to get away from the media coverage- I headed down to the American Museum of Natural History to immerse myself in the butterfly exhibit. At first, it felt a bit unreal, standing in a warm chamber full of friendly people while enchanting, bejeweled creatures flitted around us... but then I realized that THIS was reality- the ideologies and theologies which lead a fanatic to murder children are unreal, not the marvels of nature. Then realization hit again, the beauties of the natural world are imperiled by human foolishness, just like the beautiful lives of children who just want to enjoy a night of music and joy. Solace achieved, solace abandoned...

I'm not an Ariana Grande fan, but I have friends whose children are, and that is precisely why the Manchester madness has me so angry.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the Spring a Not-So-Young Man's Fancy Lightly Turns to Thoughts of Eating Something Poisonous

Last year, after posting about pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), I finally tried the stuff out, even though the stuff is poisonous. Thrice-boiled pokeweed (with the water changed after each boil), known formally as poke sallet, is a staple of rural southern foodways.

Today, after locking up at work, I picked a mess of poke, which will be boiled tomorrow:

I also picked a bagfull of nettles, which pack a whallop of a sting, but have no toxins... though the mature, flower-bearing plants accumulate phytoliths, which can irritate one's urinary tract. I tend to parboil the nettles to kill the 'sting', though drying them has the same effect.

As the old maxim goes, the dose makes the poison, and even such commonly eaten plants as the ubiquitous red kidney bean and spinach contain toxins. The best way to deal with these toxins is to eat a variety of plants, which is pretty much what I get when I forage- I throw the miscellaneous greens together into a food processor and puree them into a green slurry, the composition of which varies as the foraging season progresses. Now, pokeweed will join the nettles and dock and garlic mustard and lambs' quarters and dandelion greens in the mix.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

I Demand a Set of Chaps and a Top Secret Security Clearance

From the great fount of derangement that is Texas asshole Alex Jones, comes the ass-ertion the CIA is a cabal of gay leather daddies because he sees a lot of guys with shaved heads in the 'deep' (heh heh) security state. Well, if a shaved head means that a guy is a leather daddy, I guess I'd better get a damn set of leather chaps and a top security clearance if that's the case. Also, Jones sees a 'gay conspiracy' everywhere.. it's a recurring fantasy of his to the extent that I suspect he's got a clear working knowledge of the GOP public bathroom toe-tapping code. Jones also knows very well what the queers are doing to the soil.

Getting back to the whole CIA bald leather daddy situation, I suspect that Mike Pompeo is just a figurehead, and that the de facto director is Rob Halford:

Hey, he even admits to being hip to the security state...

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Interminable Workday

I always joke that my job is pretty cushy, except when it's not. Today was firmly in the 'not' category. I left the job this morning after 4AM, and after running a couple of errands, got home after dawn. I ran into my next-door neighbor as he was walking his yellow lab, and we chatted for a bit about our respective jobs (he works at a medical center which has been taken over by a larger healthcare organization, so his job security is uncertain), and I turned in for the morning. I finally hit the mattress after 7AM.

At one minute to nine, my phone rang... one of my co-workers had left her work-keys at home, and had to have the site open for the first wave of visitors at 10AM. I hastily threw on some clothes and drove to the site. I never check my phone while I am driving- I am 100% against texting while driving, or reading while driving, or putting on makeup while driving, or doing anything but driving while driving, with allowances for a change of radio stations (my newish car has radio presets and volume control buttons on the steering wheel). At 9:25, my friend had texted me to tell me that one of our gift shop managers had arrived, and she has a set of keys for the site. As luck would have it, I never read this message, and when I arrived, I learned that the shop manager's key didn't work on the particular lock for the Visitors' Center. I seem to have one of the few master keys which actually works on every lock in the organization. If I had read the text message and turned around to return home, I would have received another text message a half-hour later, telling me to come back, and the place wouldn't have been ready for our ten o'clock tour.

When I got home at half-past ten, I ran into my next-door neighbor walking his lab for the second time of the day, and he did a double take... "You're not asleep?" My job is cushy, except when it's not, but when my people need help, I step up. Support your people, that's the most important thing to do in this life.

I had to be at my principle workplace again by 5PM. We had a low-key fundraising event today, and I actually wanted to attend for a bit, but the traffic was so horrendous that I had to take a roundabout route to bypass a couple of snarl-ups and arrived a mere five minutes before my start time. When I arrived, everything was lovely- we had some very nice visitors, some wonderful entertainers that have performed for our fundraiser for many years, and a cadre of my great co-workers. I like being on the job, and the curveballs that I occasionally get thrown (unexpected emergency phone calls, for instance, or four-day campouts without heat or electricity after a hurricane) are the dues that I pay for a generally easy-going job.

Just about the time I ordinarily lock up our visitors' center/gift shop, I received a frantic cry for assistance- one of my co-workers slipped on a floor tile in our basement and banged her chin on the ground. A couple of additional co-workers had arrived at her side before I did, and I told one of the young guys to run to the manager's office for a first aid kit. An alcohol wipe, a gauze pad, and a 2X4 adhesive strip, and she was patched up, but we had to ask her if she wanted us to get her to an emergency room. In a depressingly, uniquely American twist, she told us that she didn't want to go to the ER because she really couldn't afford the copay... A couple of us explained to her that, because her injury had occurred on the job, it would be covered by Workers' Compensation insurance. By this time, the manager had arrived, and I told him that I had to attend to the locking-up duties, leaving him to fill out the incident report.

My co-worker who fell is a fellow Yonkers resident. The manager, who is just about as solid a guy as you could ever meet, drove her home after we made arrangements for me to pick her the following day and bring her back so she could retrieve her car. I told her that I'd be working until 1AM, and that if she had any need to get to a medical center, she shouldn't hesitate to call me until about 2AM.

I was finally able to get a bit of a breather after 8PM, when I could settle into my comfortable routine. This day, which should have been a tad more busy than a normal Saturday, was characterized by bad luck, so it just d-r-a-g-g-e-d on. Of course, we'll all be laughing about it at the staff picnic in a couple of months, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't beat right now.