Saturday, October 14, 2017

Wisdom of the Crowd? I Think Not

Have you seen the new CBS drama “Wisdom of the Crowd”? Well, here’s the official series synopsis from the network: it’s “a drama about a visionary tech innovator who creates a cutting-edge crowdsourcing app to solve his daughter's murder, and revolutionize crime solving in the process. Inspired by the notion that a million minds are better than one, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jeffrey Tanner, develops ‘Sophe,’ an online platform for publicly shared information he's certain will find his daughter's killer.”

Yeah, I know about the notion, but in case you don't, here’s the tale: In episode one, Tanner (Jeremy Piven) relates how, in 1906, a statistician asked every member of the crowd at a county fair how much a certain ox weighed, and – although no guess was correct – the “average” was within one percent of the ox’s actual weight. True story…

Of course, CBS’s version has nothing to do with guessing the weight of an ox or making any other sort of random stab at a factoid. Instead, it’s about how a social media application can be used as for ad hoc surveillance, enlisting the citizenry to do what the cops can’t (or, according to the scripts, won’t). Unfortunately, some creative type decided that calling the series “Wisdom of the Crowd” would pull in more eyeballs than “Crowdsourcing” or “Amateur NSA Surveillance.” Go figure.
When you come right down to it, however, the very notion that social media could be used in a setting like the ox-weight question is fallacious. The phenomenon works best in situations when 1) there’s an objective answer to the question, 2) the crowd is statistically diverse, and 3) all of the guesses are made anonymously and in secret. Point (3) is at the center of the fallacy inherent in this show’s plot: even if the “Sophe” (the name's clearly a nod to the Greek word sophos [σοφός], or wisdom) users were asked an objective question – e.g., “How tall is the suspect?” – anyone who’s spent any time on social media knows that the popularity of certain members will skew the “average" of all the answers. Ditto with strangers listening to everyone else's answers: you'll unconsciously (probably) try to curry favor with strong or attractive individuals by mirroring their guesses.

So no, a social media platform can’t be used to tap the alleged wisdom of a crowd, not without a lot more screening that appears to have gone into Sophe. And while we’re at it, the ox weight question? It wasn’t the “average” that was so accurate, it was the geometric mean… but I don’t expect most scriptwriters to know the difference.     
copyright © 2016-2017 scmrak

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Why Social Networks are More Antisocial than Not

empty grocery shelves
Ever notice how some people just cannot stand it if you disagree with them? In olden days, it seems that – when people had to talk to each other face to face – if people disagreed, they’d talk it out. Maybe one would point out something the other had missed; gently correct a mistake, offer an alternative explanation. That no longer happens, at least on-line and especially if the two parties will never meet face to face. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if this is a result of the blue-ribbon for everyone generation and the Lake Woebegone effect… here: check out this exchange.

Set-up: the website is (a “social network" for people living near each other); the topic is a new store from the Meijer superstore chain that had opened nearby. Here’s the conversation:

Joe) Well, we gave it a try (not just once, about five times)... but it's still a Meijer with all the irritants we've come to expect: many empty spaces on the shelves, lots of items stocked in the wrong location, and not enough checkers for the number of customers: 11:00 AM on Friday, and only two checkstands open?
     Jane) My experience with things in life has been if you're looking for the negative you'll find it every time, Perhaps a different view would help…
Joe) [My] experience in the retail industry… is that if you have products to buy you will earn your profit. If you leave an empty space on the shelf, you lose the sale. I don't understand why Meijer can't seem to figure this out.
Judy) To each their own.  As with anything you can't please everyone.
Jill) You just cannot please everyone. There are always going to be those people that are not happy period. Just enjoy life and be thankful you had the money to go to buy what you need.
Jim) You are a sad sap. Open your own grocery and I will tear it up on how 'bad' it is. Take a nap and eat a cookie

I see what you’re doing there, folks: Joe has a complaint. Jane, Judy, Jill, and Jim disagree. All four seem to find it necessary to paint Joe as a whiner and negative, the three women are passively aggressive in attempting to bring Joe down by calling his opinion inferior to theirs. In this way, they seem to feel they can elevate their own standing. Jim goes so far as to call Joe names and make an overtly insulting comment.

     In a world where everyone valued the opinions of others there might be a discussion of the stocking pattern at the store. Perhaps someone would point out that stores often have empty shelves early in the week because there are no deliveries over the weekend. Perhaps someone would commiserate and say, “I haven’t seen that yet, but it would drive me nuts!” But no – instead, the anonymous correspondents think that, by tearing someone else down, they make themselves superior.

They’re wrong, by the way…

copyright © 2017 scmrak

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Big Yellow Bus Maniacs

line of school buses
I lived in the country as a kid, many long years ago, and until I was about sixteen I rode a big yellow school bus to school almost every day. A local farmer -- Suzy Hedges' dad -- drove that bus for most of those ten-plus years. I doubt that my Mom or Dad drove me to school on more than a couple of occasions in all those years, so the idea of driving your kids to school every day is completely foreign to me.

I first noticed this in Texas, where schools are designed with gigantic, switchbacking driveways so that parents' cars don't block the streets as school starts and ends. It doesn't always work, but that's not the point. Why, I wondered, don't these kids ride the buses that ply the streets like great yellow elephants?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Peter Heck is Intellectually Lazy

Is the Indy Star paying for Peter Heck’s column? Because if they are, they got ripped off by the installment in his weekly encyclical published on May 5. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Heck was in the bottom of a tequila bottle when he sent that one in. If you missed it (which you should), you can read it here (I linked to the Google cache version so you don’t put ad money in the moron’s coffers). Heck’s bio says he teaches high school history… I certainly hope he has higher standards for the research his students do than he apparently does for his column.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Life in the Bubble

I have a sister who, to be honest, is nothing like me -- especially when it comes to politics. She and my brother-in-law, one of the sweetest guys on the face of the earth if truth be told, live entirely in an evangelical Christian right-wing bubble. They don't watch television, don't go to movies, sent their kids to a Christian school, and listen to no radio except the local Christian station and AM talk radio. When we're together, we just don't talk politics -- it's non-productive.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Honesty: It’s Still the Best Policy

By now you’ve probably heard of – heck, you’ve probably been badgered to join. If you’re already familiar with the “neighborhood social media” site, feel free to skip to the next paragraph; if not, read on for background. It’s a website for those who are geographically neighbors instead of “friends.” You can connect with people in your housing addition, school district, little town, etc. – share information about what’s going on, announce garage sales, complain about potholes, and the like. There is, of course, a “social” component, which is why we’re here right now.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Hate Celebrities? Then Why'd You Vote for Trump?

It's a given that the dittoheads, errr natives of FoxNation, errr, residents of TrumpNation... hate celebrities (except, of course, Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Charlton Heston, Fred Thompson...). The reason's obvious: many outspoken celebrities have views to the left of Attila the Hun. I don't know why, but I've always assumed it was because they worked like dogs in restaurants and bars while trying to get their careers off the ground -- in other words, they used tough, long-hour blue-collar jobs to finance their dreams. That's apparently beyond the pale for people who just use blue-collar jobs to afford a new JetSki or Harley. But we digress...