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Twitter algorithms

July 2, 2017

These are my rules for making Twitter more useful.

My goal, on Twitter, is a combination of finding fun and interesting stuff and to expose myself to (certain) other points of view. At work we have training on bias, unconscious and otherwise, and on techniques for reducing it and countering it. One of the instructors mentioned that you can’t just wish unconscious bias away; apparently repeated exposure to normalizing examples is required, but it takes time (this is yet another disturbing/annoying way that our brains resemble neural nets for machine learning; in this light, unconscious bias is just the result of a lifelong biased training set.)

So as a rule, by default, if I see a post from an interesting woman, interesting PoC, interesting LGBTQIA person, I try to be a little more receptive to pushing the follow button. Lately I’ve decided, if it’s someone from another country I don’t necessarily hear from, that ought to count, too.

My subject bias is bikes/transit/housing, tech-especially-security, Boston area, Florida, liberal politics, science, cute animals.

But everywhere you go, especially politics and often science, you find trolls. I can’t even tell if they’re really people, and there’s a lot of them. I won’t learn anything from them, they won’t learn anything from me, it’s annoying to see someone wrong on the internet and not reply, but that’s a total waste of time. I tried blocktogether.org and that worked pretty well once I had imported a couple of lists, but then I heard mention of something called “blockchain”, not the distributed ledger algorithm, but instead a Chrome extension for bulk blocking.

So now, if I’m reading replies to an interesting tweet and I see some especially trolly comment, I visit the troll’s profile, and if it also looks especially trolly, then I select their followers. If I see that several other people I follow also follow the troll, maybe I stop there, I scan a few of the followers to see if they also look slightly troll-aligned (and remember, I’m not sure if these are real people or networks of bots) and if they are, then I click the “Run Block Chain” button and wait. For someone with more than about 10,000 followers, this will eventually error out for some reason, but it does add the ones that it scanned before the error. Twitter block chain is open source so I have a prayer of figuring the bug out if I really cared and fixing it in my copious free time but for now it works well enough and few trolls have that many followers.

Block chain will not block someone you’re already following, but inevitably you’ll pick up someone who you’d follow if you knew about them (@soledadobrien follows 338k accounts, including quite a few trolls). Sooner or later you’ll notice someone you’re following approvingly quote-tweeting someone you’ve blocked (this doesn’t happen that often, but it happens) and when that happens, I look through the block to see who it is, maybe unblock them, maybe follow them (this morning it was @deborahblum).
I’m a little nervous that I’m blocking lots of people I might otherwise follow if I knew about them, but after passing 100k blocked accounts the troll chatter is vastly reduced and that’s a real improvement.

One amusing side-effect is that this method bootstraps itself; once you accumulate a few troll-followers in your block list, you’ll find that any new troll’s followers include quite a few that you’ve already blocked, right now around 50% for me. You can use this to quickly sanity-check whether someone you think might be a troll is likely to be one; if a scan of their followers shows a lot of already-blocked accounts, perhaps the rest are worth blocking as well.

It would be lovely/interesting to do something more nuanced — for example, @deborahblum has 17 followers that I “know”, @soledadobrien has 48 followers I know, that could be a rule for not blocking someone in a followers list. It would be interesting to see how many people on my existing blocklist have more than N “discriminating” (not @soledadobrien) followers that I know, maybe review/unblock/follow some of them. (This smells like a sort of 2-sided pagerank to me.)

Someone might ask “why block, why not mute”? I don’t want to see these people, and I don’t want them to see me. There are other people who are actually harrassed on the internet by networks of trolls; I think this is one way to blunt the effectiveness of those networks.

I use the mute button when someone that I’m following goes off on some tedious unrelated tear and I just don’t want to hear about it for a while. It would be nice if muting had a built-in time limit.

It’s a little depressing to look at how many hard it is to get all the different factions of the Democratic Party excited about helping each other. I wonder a bit if this is a case of scarcity pushing people towards fighting over scraps, and I wonder how much this is a case of Russians/Republicans using the internet to sow left-wing dissent.

At minimum, people ought to accept that each others’ problems are worthy. Is there really any question that blacks get a raw deal in this country? Or that people who are openly gay or trans are discriminated against? Or that women don’t get promotions and pay commensurate with their skills, productivity, etc? Or that unions are necessary in order to give workers an equal footing in negotiations over pay, hours, benefits, and worker safety? Or that many forms of pollution lead to statistically early death? Lack of an adequate social safety net is clearly a problem, and clearly one that can be solved, because countries that are less wealthy do a better job than we do — notably, they deliver life expectancy and lower infant mortality for less money per capita. They can afford it, so can we. Climate change? It’s happening. Slowly, but steadily, and it’s going to continue for decades-to-centuries after we finally decide to take it seriously; the only question is how fast it’s changing when enough of us finally get alarmed enough to really act. Education? College is stupidly, fantastically expensive, and to the extent this is Baumol’s Cost Disease, we should just subsidize it (other poorer countries manage to do this) and to the extent that it isn’t we should drive prices down by properly supporting public universities. Etc. These are all problems, and the Republican Party is on the wrong side of all of these issues. We shouldn’t pick just one, we should not be put off because we think labor is important but we’re a little nervous about the gays, or focus only on racism to the exclusion of college costs — there’s nothing wrong with wanting it all, we can have it all, and all of us deserve to have these problems addressed. There’s no mutual incompatibility between any of these issues.

And be a little more skeptical, say, when someone on Fox News tries to tell you that anyone who’s LGBTQ is a threat to the womean and children. We’ve done plenty to make life unpleasant for people who aren’t “normal”; if someone’s out of the closet and you notice them, they must feel very strongly about it, and must have been truly miserable in the closet. This has nothing to do with your children, and everything with them wanting to live happier lives. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to con you into being mean to other people for no reason at all; ignore them, they’re evil.

Or, similarly, that someone might trot out some bogus statistics to try to make white people nervous about “black crime”. Some of these stats are flat lies, in other cases the data has been tortured into confessing things that aren’t true. In practice, most people are non-violent, most people are law-abiding (well, except for traffic laws, which everyone breaks very often, and traffic violence is actually a big deal). Don’t take the bait, anyone trying to convince you that blacks are a Big Crime Risk is just plain evil, ignore them, change the channel, turn off the radio. They’re trying to turn you into a racist and create dissent on the left.

There are bullshit artists trying to sow doubt about health care, too. One dishonest clown keeps trying to claim that Medicaid is worse than no health care at all, because people on Medicaid (as a population) are sicker than people who aren’t, never mind that if you’re poor and sick you’re much more motivated to sign up for Medicaid than if you’re merely poor, in which case that might seem like more of a hassle than it’s worth. This is what passes for serious statistical analysis on the right; these guys are sad, lying clowns, don’t let their obvious bullshit make you doubt the worth of providing health care.

And so on. There’s probably better examples but I’m a cis het white guy 1%er descended (father’s side) from a family with strong ties to Dartmouth, clearly I’m a traitor to my gender, race, ancestors, etc, it’s a wonder I get any of this right. The main theme is to not let one left-wing cause be split from another, and anytime you catch someone trying to do that, think about why. I honestly wonder how many of the alleged “hard-core Bernie-bros” that get noticed on the internet now are actually left wing or even American; disinformation is a real thing, and sowing dissent is a standard tactic. I supported Bernie, I sent him money, I like (or liked) his politics. But when he didn’t win the nomination, we’re done, support the nominee, got to stay focused on outcomes. I have several friends who did the same. Ask yourself *why* someone on the left would now be interested in prolonging the primary contest after we lost the general election. It makes no sense; the Republicans are uniformly terrible for everything Bernie Sanders has supported over the years, the Democrats are uniformly better, and we tried plenty hard in the primaries and Bernie didn’t make the cut. If we don’t unite, all of us, we lose ground.

Been meaning to write something, always too distracted to “do a good job”, as if getting nothing written was a good job. So….

Just now read a Copenhagenize article on bikes and trains saying something I had believed, but had no data to support. They have data. They also point out by example yet another way we do bikes wrong here in the US. Read the rest of this entry »

Charitable plans

November 12, 2016

SPLC, NAACP, CAIR and/or ICNA, Planned Parenthood, Lambda Legal, Trans Lifeline.

and ACLU, EFF, National Popular Vote.

Any other suggestions? I think I’m a little light on defending rights of immigrants.

Oops — As JF points out in email, ADL.

I’d also like to fund organizations doing voter registration work, especially in swing states, especially in states where Republicans narrowly control legislatures and/or executive. We need to reduce the amount of gerrymandering in this country, we need representation in the House of Representatives that more nearly reflects the popular sentiment, and we need to ensure that we are well safe from crazy constitutional amendments (a constitutionally mandated balanced budget would be a macroeconomic disaster; recessions would turn into depressions).

I realize I am setting myself up for a deluge of please-help-our-worthy-cause solicitians, both electronic and paper. We get those already, plan is to set up a spreadsheet, and just give once a year, every year.

I was just in Mountain View for most of a week on business, biking to and from work and to work dinners in the evening. The roads are much smoother than here near Boston, the weather was warmer, it did rain once, but wimpily, and it’s flat as a board in Silicon Valley. Biking there ought to be great.

Links go to short YouTube videos illustrating claims/points

However, they blow it. If you need to cover any particular distance, it’s easy to find yourself with no choice but a four-lane road with a door zone bike lane that waxes and wanes with the whim of whoever laid out the road, and parking is prioritized enough that you often find yourself squeezed towards traffic.

One shared use path is designed with the apparent assumption that bicycles are OMFG deadly dangerous to pedestrians, so it’s considered appropriate to encourage lower speeds by installing barriers that make high speeds deadly, and that also makes larger bikes (bakfiets, trailers) difficult to pass through, and that guarantee conflicts whenever people are traveling in opposite directions or if there’s a pedestrian and a bike traveling in the same direction. Imagine, for cars, that a crosswalk was made safe not just by installing a narrowing bumpout in each lane, but by narrowing the road to a single lane for both directions.

Note that this is on a straight path where everything is completely visible, so all that’s really needed in most cases is a “slow for pedestrians” sign. Not all people will go as slow as they should, but not all people will negotiate those gates without injury or conflict, either. Later on, a blind intersection with plenty of cross traffic on the Google Campus goes completely unremarked, and several curves past that are gratuitously blind, either because of untrimmed vegetation, or because bicycles were routed between two chain link fences, and for no particular reason one side (the one that matters) is intentionally made opaque by slatting installed in the fence so that it’s impossible to see oncoming bicycle or pedestrian traffic on the fence-narrowed path.

Incomprehensibly, an underpass with over 7 feet of clearance (I reached a hand up to measure as I passed under, so that’s an estimate – apparently they couldn’t be tasked with actual measurement, but I ride quite tall and cleared easily) was declared to be dangerously low, and thus we’re told to walk our bikes there, as if.

Actual road crossings are designed with zero thought to the convenience of cyclists. At one there’s a gate to force a U-turn to enter it, then a beg button that imposes an interminable wait despite large gaps in motor traffic (I didn’t wait). A cyclist obeying traffic laws to the letter could not ride back that same way – the returning lane slips onto San Antonio, and returning on the sidewalk instead one is greeted with a WRONG WAY sign specific to bicycles (and the sidewalk is clearly intended for bicycles, else the sign would read “no bike riding”). It’s not much wonder that I just wing it.

At another crossing on the Permanente Creek trail, cyclists are vaguely directed to enter traffic and then make a u-turn at the light, as if that is preferable to looking for a gap (which we’d need to look for anyway, to enter traffic to make that u-turn) and just crossing on foot. There’s a sidewalk, but it’s twisty and too narrow for two-way traffic. Crossing on foot is necessary because there’s a big-ass curb in the middle of the road. The same can be seen on parts of Middlefield, where children crossing to/from school have worn goat paths in the median strip, far from any crosswalk. (Video is not great; there were kids, they were waiting to cross, and the median is cut by little footpaths.)

At a larger level, multilane Alma/Central and the RR tracks make a nasty barrier to traveling (peninsula-compass) east-west in Mountain View. Crossings are not well signed, Google Maps doesn’t seem to know about them, the entry is tight, the mirrors at the bottom make it clear the bicycles are known/expected to be there, but the ramps are quite narrow, guaranteeing conflict if there’s 2-way traffic or pedestrians.

This is all doubly annoying because it could be so nice. Remember, flat topography and a mild climate. If there were good, comfortable, safe routes that led anywhere interesting, lots of people could and almost certainly would use them. But right now, Mountain View is failing both in the small (annoying and insulting inattention to details of intersections and safety) and in the large (arteries are for cars – wide, fast, and with varying-width door-zone bike lanes, sometimes very fast).

And yeah, I know, “reasons”. Y’all ought to look at yourselves, a 10-lane highway jammed up every morning, even with thousands of employees delivered by buses instead of single-occupancy vehicles. I rode a bike to dinner after work and beat the people driving. Here’s two free clues as to why Mountain View ought to install a ton of really nice bicycle infrastructure. #1, no matter what you do about traffic, more cars will always arrive to fill the voids that you create, and with high tech salaries I’m not sure even congestion charges would do the job. #2, if you install really nice bicycle infrastructure, if you need to get around your own town, you won’t care about that traffic, and because the land is so flat and the climate so mild, that’ll be true all year. You might want to knock out a few parking spaces and replace them with bike corrals to make this really be true, but I managed to find bicycle parking a lot closer to the restaurant than anyone driving there.

I both drive cars and ride bikes, and for years I didn’t think much about how much driving a car impairs all your senses, as well as your ability to communicate. To hear how other people talk about traffic and safety, I think I’m not the only person to miss this.

Where this usually comes up is in discussions of rolling stops, and stop-then-go at red lights. The claim from cyclists (and this claim is absolutely true, which is why I’m writing this) is that they generally can see and hear better than people in cars, and thus are in a better position to judge if it is safe to go or not. This is one of the several justifications for the Idaho Stop Law.

So, vision. Someone riding a bike is as tall as they are standing up, if not taller. To stop, most people must hop off the saddle because they sit too high to reach the ground with their feet. Modern sedans tend to be about 4-and-a-half-feet tall (I just measured a Civic and a Camry), so whoever is sitting in them is shorter than that. On a bicycle, seated, your head is about 3 feet back from the front edge of the bicycle, but it’s easy to lean forward to within about a foot of the front. In a car, leaning forward gets you to the windshield, which is five feet back from the front of the car. Add to that whatever fog or dirt happens to be on the windshield and the windows, plus the various pillars and mirrors and fuzzy dice, and I hope it’s clear that the cyclist has a far better view of what’s around.

Next, hearing. Luxury cars are actually marketed for their ability to make you deaf to the world. That ought to be enough right there, but I’ve actually mentioned this to a degreed+prestigious colleague whose snap reaction was “no, I can hear okay in a car”. No, really, you can’t. Even without luxury soundproofing, cars have noisy engines, ventilation fans, tire noise, often a stereo, and quite often their windows are up. All these things act to block exterior sound. On a bicycle, the default is that you hear everything. There’s wind noise when you’re moving, but stopped at an intersection there’s nothing between you and the world and the bike is silent.

And you might like to think that maybe hearing doesn’t matter–after all, we let people who are deaf drive and ride bikes–but it certainly does. When I approach intersections, I can hear cross traffic coming before I can see it; that’s redundant safety information, which is a good thing. I can hear cars approaching from behind, and tell if they’re slowing or swinging out into traffic to pass, and I can judge the size of the car or truck as well (big trucks without sideguards are very dangerous). For pedestrian safety being able to hear matters, because I can carry on a conversation with the people around me. “I see you”, “go ahead, it’s a crosswalk, I’m stopping”, and of course “oops, sorry”. I can communicate with other cyclists, “there’s a blind woman walking ahead of you” (in the dark). All the sound signals that we’re supposed to legally make when approaching pedestrians are useless when approaching cars because drivers are effectively deaf. All the communication that’s easy with people around us is impossible with people in cars.

People on bikes also see more because of their ability to always position themselves near an intersection before stopping. That means we always get to see the light cycles and light timings, and even if we haven’t learned them all yet ourselves, we can see how other cyclists react to them. We don’t need to catch sight of landmarks as we drive through the intersection, because we always have plenty of time to look around at the front. Once you know the usual timing for a light (easily derived from countdown pedestrian timers on the street and cross street – which you can see because you are stopped at the intersection) you can also judge from quite a distance the appropriate speed to make the next light, which allows you to moderate your speed to only what is adequate to catch the green. Lower speeds make for easier pedalling, and are also safer.

I had meant to make a much longer rant about “windshield vision”, but I think this is good enough for a start. You might ask yourself, if you could drive and fool yourself into thinking that you weren’t half-blind and mostly-deaf, and not realize what you were missing stuck back in a line of traffic, if you might not be self-fooled about some other things. If your reaction to the facts stated here is that they’re the crazy opinions of one of “those cyclists” – don’t forget, I am a licensed driver, I drive often enough, I own a car, and this is true of most adults riding bicycles (knowing this stuff makes driving a lot less fun. Don’t expect any auto advertising to mention this ever).

Bonus sensory deprivation video, in case you still don’t believe me: watch the second driver in this video roll right over a bicycle and a bicyclist’s foot, and not be able to believe she did it. Said bicyclist has right of way, in clear daylight, riding straight on a straight road, wearing a dayglo-yellow jacket, with a front flashing light. The second driver did not see, did not hear the crash, did not hear the crunch of the bike as she drove over it, did not hear the guy she was running over yelling at her.

It occurred to me a few days after posting this that “people on bikes behave unpredictably” is consistent with “people on bikes make decisions based on information I don’t have”. Probably not the only explanation, but worth thinking about before jumping to pejorative conclusions.

I’m a little reluctant to post this because it’s got a bit of a gloating feel to it (“look at my massive calves and thighs!”) but people should understand that if they don’t have the opportunity to bike to work, they’re missing out and they’re being cheated. That means they have to know the sort of thing that they’re missing.

This doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but it’s clear that most people are suspicious of doing things because it’s supposed to be good for the planet. Instead, I’d like to suggest reasons for biking to work because it might be good for you. I’ll try to be concrete.

I am 55. I weigh between 220 and 225lbs, and I’m 6 feet tall. That makes me officially quite overweight. I hate dieting and so I don’t really do much more than try to keep sweets out of reach. Beer is a regular part of my diet, and food is free at my new job. I weighed more before I started biking to work 9 years ago, but in the last year I started biking even more.

My commute to work, since March, is 6.1 miles by the fast, direct, and less-fun route, and I reliably do that in 30 minutes on a bike without running red lights. At rush hour biking is faster than driving. If I am in a hurry I can do it in 26 minutes, though I may end up sweaty (all I need to go faster is to breathe more; the legs just go as fast as oxygen debt allows). Traffic jams are not a problem; I ride through the gaps and go almost as fast. Parking is not usually a problem (we do almost fill the bike cage at work, but less so now that the weather is cooler, and there is other parking). If I instead take the less-annoying route, biking takes about as long as driving, but not longer. Oh yeah, my bike weighs about 65lbs.

Since March, I have gained over a centimeter in circumference in my thighs, a centimeter in my calves, and I’m regularly pulling my belt a notch tighter. Even before the new commute when I was biking somewhat less per week, I still had enough wind and stamina to shovel snow like a machine; I expect it’s rather better now because the new commute includes more sprints that punch my heart rate up a bit.

So. Would you like a faster commute to work, no parking hassles (and it’s FREE), a little weight loss, a slightly smaller waist, more muscles, and enough wind to shovel snow without fear of heart attack? If your commute is like mine, perhaps you should ride a bike. If your commute is about as long as mine but too unpleasant for you to tolerate, have you considered pestering your local government for some combination of better enforcement of traffic rules (if it’s speeding cars that make it unpleasant) or a reasonably sized lane in which to ride your bike (or perish the thought, a segregated path or lane)? Failure to provide you an adequate place to commute by bicycle is depriving you of a faster commute and measurable improvements in your health and fitness.

And do understand, if you want this and your roads don’t allow it, you should be angry. If I had to give up biking to work I’d be very unhappy. Statistics say this would increase my annual risk of death by about 30%. Do you think it is reasonable to live with that kind of extra risk? Do you have any idea how much larger that risk is than all the risks that usually get people all wound up and excited? That’s not an acceptable status quo.

One warning; if you’re out of shape, your first commutes will not be as fast or as fun. It’ll take about a month and a half to get over that, and then there will be gradual improvement for a few years — not necessarily faster, but one day you may find yourself regarding hills as merely annoying, instead of as an obstacle to go around. Eventually you’ll learn to run up an oxygen debt charging up hills and then rest on the downhill, because that is fastest, and because one day, you can.

Anyone who takes this seriously, if you’re looking for a bike, you could do a lot worse than a 3-speed with fenders, chain guard, dynamo hub, and fat tires. The fatter the tires, the better; you’ll be more comfortable, at less risk from potholes and road cracks, and you’ll spend less time pumping up your tires because they’ll hold their air longer. If you’re gung-ho, get a cargo bike, either an EdgeRunner , Yuba, Big Dummy, or a Gr8, or maybe a Kr8 or one of the several other USproduced cargo bikes.