Because it Friday: Action Movie Kid does Doctor Who

It’s been a while for both Because it’s Friday and the Action Movie Kid, but this made me smile:

Knowing the Real Story in a world of Headlines and Algorithms

I’ve been pondering the question of how we know that what we are being told is the real story. This was highlighted by a recent incident at an AFC Championship game.

At a recent game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots there was a technical problem with the systems that provide vital information to the sidelines. This system uses, as part of a marketing deal, a set of Microsoft Surface tablets.

Disclaimer: I’m British and know absolutely nothing about American Football, nor want to really, thankfully I’m not commenting on the game. I’m not even commenting on whether the Microsoft Surface is good at what it does. I’m commenting on how stories emerge and get transmitted.

The most visible part of this failure was a whole gang of people looking blankly and shaking their heads at a set of very visible bright blue Microsoft Surface devices.

All of the initial news headlines were around the failure of Microsoft’s Surface tablets:

These headlines later became a bit more nuanced:

The headlines call out the Microsoft Surface but the articles themselves state that the problem wasn’t with the Microsoft devices at all, but with the stadium network that they were connecting to. It’s worth noting tha these are all headlines from professional news organisations.

Microsoft has had to launch a full media defence of their technology in an attempt to regain the marketing momentum:

“Microsoft Surfaces have not experienced a single failure in the two years they’ve been used on NFL sidelines. In the past two years, Surfaces have supported nearly 100,000 minutes of sideline action, and in that time, not a single issue has been reported that is related to the tablet itself.”

Microsoft Devices Blog

Their attempts to change the perception that their devices failed is admirable but probably ultimately futile, we live in a world of headlines and algorithms.

The search algorithms aren’t too bothered about presenting a balanced story, they are presenting the popular story and the popular story at the moment, in the headlines, is that Microsoft Surface failed.

The natural thing to search for is surface fail, or nfl surface fail both of which start with the stories that have headlines that include the words surface and fail, it’s only lower down the list the more balanced headlines come out.

Search twitter for surface fail and it’s a bit easier to see the progression of the story because the results are presented on a timeline where later developments are reflected at the top. The algorithms aren’t having as much of an impact, but even there the top story is this one:

As I said in my disclaimer, I’m not commenting on whether the Microsoft Surface is any good, or not. What I was intrigued by was the progression of the story. The headline was one thing, the real story was another, the conclusions jumped to were incorrect and yet the overarching commentary remains with the headlines, remembering that the headlines have been cleverly constructed to appear high in the algorithms.

This challenge is nothing new, we’ve always had a story told to us by various agents. It used to be the newspapers:

You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgements about what is going on.

Harry S Truman

Now the story agents are on-line media, but we still have to remember that the story we are receiving is filtered and even manipulated. We need, therefore, to approach the on-line media with the same dose of suspicion that we approached the newspapers.

Just because all of the other fish are swimming in one direction doesn’t mean that they are swimming in the right direction.

Living with the algorithms

They are watching you

I’ve been struck recently by how much of our life is influenced, even controlled, by algorithms.

If you found his post through a search engine then you were only shown this post because an algorithm aligned my writing with your search terms. We trust these search algorithms so much that we rarely go to the second page of a set of results – our viewpoint of governed what we read and what we read is governed by the search algorithm. There’s a whole industry of people seeking to manipulate the results of the search algorithm to try to appear at the top of the list. Sometimes this is done with good intent, at other times it’s more malicious.

Facebook is fundamentally an algorithm. You don’t see every bit of content that your friends create, the Facebook algorithm decides for you. As you like things, reply to posts, unfollow people you are tuning the algorithm to your preferences. You are also tuning the corresponding advertising algorithm so that it knows what to try to sell you.

Twitter is a bit lighter on algorithms. At the top of your twitter feed are the last few tweets by people you follow in time order, but go a bit further down and you’re likely to come across a tweet that is an advert which is being shown to you because an algorithm decided you might like to see it. A bit further down and you’ll find a bar that says while you were away. The tweets that are shown below this bar have been chosen by an algorithm. Click or tap on Follow people and another algorithm will tell you who you might like to follow. The reason some malicious organisations reach out and follow lots of people is to try to manipulate this algorithm.

While you are tapping into your phone another algorithm is deciding what you’ve just typed – automatically correcting (or mangling) it for you.

Algorithms are looking through all of our email to try to decide which are SPAM or harmful.

Deep inside the computing device that you are using is another algorithm that is deciding how to manage the memory.

Algorithms aren’t limited to the on-line world though. Take any extended drive and the signalling that you’ve been presented is governed by an algorithm. Near my house there are multiple sets of traffic lights the scheduling of which is integrated together to give the best traffic flow (or at least that’s the theory).

The satnav system that you use to get you home is also using a set of algorithms to decide the best route and how to reroute you around traffic.

Flight scheduling is primarily done by algorithm; the price of the tickets is generated by another algorithm.

The algorithms that pollsters used to predict the last General Election result in the UK were forecasting a completely different result to the real outcome. Recent studies how highlighted where the algorithms need to be enhanced if they are going to get it right in the future.

The playlist used by most radio stations is based on an algorithm. The songs are then compressed and transmitted over the air using another algorithm.

Weather forecasters use massively complicated algorithms so that we can know that it’s going to rain again tomorrow.

The engine management system in your car has a whole set of algorithms which you can often manipulate to give you better economy or better performance.

If you go to the bank and ask for a loan, their answer to that question will be based on the output from an algorithm. The cost of your insurance policy is defined by an algorithm.

Look on Wikipedia at the list of algorithms and be amazed by its length.

Imagine what would happen if some of these algorithms started misbehaving or had to be turned off.

A number of people have experienced the impact of a misconfigured algorithm in their satnav and ended up in a river or down a dirt track. What would happen, though, if it was more significant than that? What would happen if all the algorithms went on strike? In the wrong hand the search algorithm could be made to manipulate the viewpoint of whole populations. Imagine being able to completely surprise a political viewpoint counter to your own?

Facebook used its algorithms in an experiment on people’s emotions. They were rightly criticised for this, but how do we know this kind of thing isn’t happening every day? For organisations like Facebook and Google the algorithm is the most closely guarded of all corporate assets because it is so valuable. I’m not wanting to scaremonger, I’m just pondering whether we have the right levels of controls in place for us to be confident that we aren’t being manipulated.

My Tools: Wunderlist

Managing my tasks my way with a bit of help from technology

Benjamin Franklin once said:

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

There’s another things that’s quite certain and that’s lists and in particular to-do lists.

The lists always exist, it’s our choice how we manage them. There are many-many choices for methods of managing to-do lists and a correspondingly long list of applications that support the methods. My personal choice of application for the management of to-do lists is Wunderlist.

I’ve used Wunderlist for a while now and initially chose it because I liked the user interface on my iPhone. Some people are very particular about their to-do lists and adhere to them strictly throughout each day, I’m not very particular. There are two reason for a to-do list as far as I am concerned:

  • To remind me of things I’m likely to forget.
  • To get things out of my head so that I can think about other things.

This means that my to-do list regime is not highly structured.

I have a number of lists and items are placed on those lists as I remember them. The lists are structured around various areas of my life:

  • Work
  • Family and Home
  • Blogging

The items within each list are then prioritised in a very simple structure with the important ones being starred and the time critical ones having a due date defined. The ones with a due date assigned normally also have a reminder defined depending upon how long I need to get the item completed.

Wunderlist allows me to live within this structure and prioritisation regime very easily and that’s why I like it.

As well as the list views Wunderlist gives a number of useful views:

  • Starred – which shows all the starred items separated by the list titles.
  • Today – which shows all the items with a due-date of today (or earlier)

My primary usage of Wunderlist is still on my iPhone because that tends to be the device that I’m using when I’m thinking about my activities. I also use the Chrome application. I sometimes use the Chrome extension to quickly add a web page to a to-do, but that doesn’t happy very often.

I only use Wunderlist as my personal to-do list manager, so there are a number of features that I don’t use. I’ve never used shared to-do and hence never used chat or had anyone put a task in my inbox. I don’t normally add files to tasks, rarely use sub-tasks within an item, nor changed the background so never had a need to upgrade to Pro. I haven’t used folders either because that’s a layer of complexity in the structure that I don’t need.

The biggest challenge, I find, with to-do lists is not managing the list it’s doing what’s on them. This isn’t an application issue, this is a Graham issue and I don’t see any application ever being able to do that for me.

(Off now to click the task in my blogging list titled My Tools: Wunderlist)

Why didn’t you know that?

How am I to know what you know?

I’ve had a few conversations recently along the lines of:

Someone else: “How do we do…”

Me: “Well that’s obvious…”

Someone else: “How did you know that?”

Me: “Doesn’t everyone know that?”

Someone else: “No, why didn’t you tell me?”

Me: I would have done if I’d known that you didn’t know…”

This is normally followed by a bit of embarrassment on both sides. I’m embarrassed because I made a false assumption about someone and made them feel dumb. They’re embarrassed because they aren’t sure whether they should have known and feel a bit dim. British people aren’t very comfortable with embarrassment.

This has always struck me as one of life’s great mysteries. How am I supposed to know what you know, and what you don’t know?

We spend hours and hours in meetings making sure that everyone is at the same level of understand. We endlessly recap which, by definition, is a waste of time for someone in the meeting and often for many people in the meeting.

If we assume that everyone knows we end up with a situation near the end of the meeting where it turns out that someone didn’t understand, but didn’t speak up to say they didn’t understand.

Knowing what the other person knows is essential to good communication, but how do we do achieve that?

I have no answers, as far as I am concerned it is a great mystery.