Saturday, July 11, 2015

Breakdown of a NYT Story

There was an interesting story on Hacker News about how the NYT regularly edits live news stories over time without notifying readers of changes.

I like the idea of online articles allowing users to see diffs showing how stories evolve over time. The technology is not very complicated and it would be a huge win for transparency.

The purpose of this post however is to dissect the updated NYT article. I am doing this as an exercise since some people did not see how the newer article was biased. I have not read the NYT in a long time so I thought this might be a fun chance to see what I am missing.

The article is a supposed straight news story about Ellen Pao resigning as CEO of Reddit. Here is a link to the piece. Below I will break it down paragraph by paragraph.

BREAKDOWN:

The title: “It's Silicon Valley 2, Ellen Pao 0: Fighter of Sexism is Out at Reddit.”

Already you have lost me. This cannot be thought of as news with this title. Framing Ellen Pao's failed lawsuit and resignation as two wins for Silicon Valley in a battle against a “Fighter of Sexism,” immediately injects the story with a progressive slant. That most of the Times' readers agree with that slant is immaterial.

Ellen Pao became a hero to many when she took on the entrenched male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. But sentiment is a fickle thing. Late Friday she fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster as chief executive of the popular social media site Reddit.

The essence of this first paragraph is as follows: Hero...took on...entrenched male-dominated...but...fell victim.

From the first sentence the article is biased. Beginning a story about a controversial figure by pointing out that she is “a hero to many,” is biased, especially when that is done without pointing out the other side - the views of her critics. That her actions constituted taking on an “entrenched male-dominated culture,” is also debatable, as many people (including women) disagreed both with her lawsuit and behavior as CEO. What's more it is debatable that the “male-dominated” culture of Silicon Valley needs to be “taken on” in the first place! To progressives and feminists it may be self-evidently so, but it is not to a great many people, and should not be presented this way in the lead of a so-called news piece.

Saying that Pao “fell victim” to something explicitly paints her as a victim. When CEO's muck things up and get fired or are forced to quit, we do not generally think of them as victims. It can happen. You could argue that the Mozilla CEO stepping down because people did not like his opinion on gay marriage was unfair. Calling him a victim would still be loaded as it is here with Ellen Pao.

Ms. Pao’s abrupt downfall in the face of a torrent of sexist and racist comments, many of them on Reddit itself, is quite likely to renew charges that bullying, harassment and cruel behavior are out of control on the web — and that Silicon Valley’s well-publicized problem with gender and ethnic diversity in its work force persists.

The essence of this: Downfall...sexist...racist...bullying...harassment...cruel behavior...Silicon Valley...problem with gender and ethnic diversity.

Ellen Pao's resignation is here framed as her being shouted down by a “torrent” of misogynistic and racist comments. Lots of loaded terms here, including “torrent” and “bullying.” Ms. Pao is presented as an innocent victim. The phrase, “quite likely to renew charges that,” is a not very subtle way to add pure opinion, which would be everything that follows that phrase. The goal is to make the reader believe it is self-evident – beyond the realm of debate – that Silicon Valley is racist and misogynistic. In pushing that belief, the NYT strongly implies that Ms. Pao's loss of her role as CEO was unjust, another opinion.

The debates over diversity in technology and invective on the Internet have been simmering for a long time, but they’ve boiled over in the last year. One reason is Ms. Pao’s lawsuit against her former employer, the venerable venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

This transition emphasizes the priority of this piece; it is not a news story about Pao's resignation, but rather an opportunity for the NYT to push a particular agenda in a story disguised as news.

Her gender discrimination case, years in the making, failed to sway a jury, but did reveal a community that casually tolerated an atmosphere where machismo was prized and women often seemed to be relegated to secondary roles.

There are a few bits of weasliness here. The sentence is structured to downplay the fact that Ellen Pao's claims were deemed meritless by a jury. There are two opinions in what comes after the comma, the first being the machismo atmosphere that was supposedly revealed. The qualifier “often seemed to be” softens the burden, yet it remains debatable whether what was revealed about Pao's former employer proves that women were “relegated to secondary roles.” The second opinion is the unstated premise that a community valuing “machismo” is inherently bad.

The dispute at Reddit, which arose from the dismissal of a well-liked employee earlier this month, drew much of its intensity from Ms. Pao’s lawsuit — and her gender.

The dispute at Reddit had a number of causes, not just the dismissal of the employee. That the intensity was due to Pao's gender is presented here as fact. Lets see how / if they evidence this. (spoiler alert: they don't)

The attacks were worse on Ellen because she is a woman,” said Sam Altman, a member of the Reddit board. “And that’s just a shame against humanity.”

This is someone's opinion presented as fact. The style is intentional – pulling it out in its own paragraph.

More than 213,000 people signed a petition demanding Ms. Pao’s resignation. After her departure was announced, Reddit users celebrated in an over-the-top fashion. “Rejoice internet brethren,” wrote one. “The great evil has been slain.”

The first sentence evidences Ms. Pao's unpopularity. That she was unpopular because of her gender is not evidenced. The second sentence and following quote appear to just be color, but they actually serve to paint Pao's opponents as illegitimate, “over-the-top” even.

Ms. Pao wrote in a Reddit post on Friday that in her eight months as chief executive, “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.” She added that “the good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.”

This is more color. Arguably it does not add much to the story, but again the point is to paint Pao as sympathetic – a victim of evil bigots, not an incompetent company leader.

It was definitely a hard week,” Ms. Pao said in an interview, characterizing her exit as a mutual agreement with the board after having differing views about the company’s future. She began working at Reddit two years ago. Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, drawing more than 160 million regular monthly visitors.

Nine paragraphs in and now finally we have something approaching the facts of the story. Pao herself describes her exit as being about her having “differing views about the company's future.” This contradicts the strong implication in the earlier paragraphs that Pao was ousted by the racist misogynist hoard of Silicon Valley. Remember paragraph 1? “She fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster.” Well, did she or didn't she?

Mitch Kapor, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that Reddit users were predominantly male and 18 to 29 years old.

This is setup. It is not relevant to any of the facts established in this piece. Aside from a lot of innuendo and implication, there is no concrete evidence that the user base's majority sex in some way affected Pao.

In my view, her job was made more difficult because as a woman, she was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem,” said Mr. Kapor, now a partner at Kapor Capital.

More opinion presented as fact. How did this precipitate her resignation given Pao's own characterization of why she left? It is true that some members of Reddit posted vial, racist, and sexist things against Ms. Pao. What percentage of Reddit did this? What percentage support such rhetoric? Specifically how did they make her job “more difficult?” Finally, why is a minority of hateful bigots deemed representative of all of Reddit? A percentage of black protesters that marched for Eric Garner in NYC held up vial, racist signs, and committed crimes against police and civilians. Are they representative of the entire body of protesters, or for that matter, all black people?

Mr. Kapor's statement is an unsupported generalization that no serious journalist would use. It appears here to push the New York Times' chosen narrative.

Ms. Pao’s departure from Reddit was prompted after the online message board’s tight-knit community broke into upheaval when news broke that Victoria Taylor, a prominent and well-liked Reddit employee, had been suddenly dismissed from the company this month with no public explanation. In protest, Reddit users shut down hundreds of sections of the message board.

This is mostly factual. The problem with this is that it is twelve paragraphs deep. People who have not read this far will never learn that one of the main causes of the backlash against Pao was how a well-liked employee was fired. The community protest and shut downs were in direct response to this action. The structure of this story makes it seem like the root source of Pao's opposition was misogynist internet haters.

Ms. Pao apologized to the site’s members for the episode earlier this week. Reddit’s management made errors, “not just on July 2, but also over the past several years,” she said in a post on one of the site’s forums on Monday. “The mods” — moderators — “and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of Reddit.”

Same issue as the previous paragraph.

The ouster was another setback for Ms. Pao, who rejected a seven-figure settlement offer from Kleiner last fall to end her claims that she had been discriminated against at the venture firm because she was a woman.

Nothing really wrong here, though you could nitpick with the term “setback,” as it is another example of a deliberately sympathetic tone. Reasonable people could argue that Pao is not deserving of sympathy. Even if the vast majority of people think so it is wrong for a news story to show it.

In the wake of the trial, Kleiner said Ms. Pao owed the firm nearly $1 million in court fees but offered to waive the bill if there was no appeal. Ms. Pao countered that the sum was excessive. Judge Harold Kahn agreed and reduced Kleiner’s costs to $276,000. He noted in his ruling that “Ms. Pao has significant economic resources.”

No big issue here.

In interviews, Ms. Pao has declined to detail what her next move is, but an appeal in the Kleiner case is quietly moving forward. The court reporter has been ordered to prepare transcripts, which is the next stage of the process. Ms. Pao does not need to give her basis for appeal for many months.

No issue here.

If she eventually succeeds in convincing a three-judge panel that the trial was unfair, Kleiner (and Silicon Valley, symbolically) would be on trial again. Ms. Pao’s lawyers did not return calls for comment on Friday. A lawyer for Kleiner declined to comment.

The parenthetical here is opinion. Silicon Valley is not symbolically on trial to many people, as Pao's former firm is not necessarily representative of the entire industry.

At Reddit, Ms. Pao will be replaced by Steve Huffman, the chief technology officer at Hipmunk, a travel search site. Adam Goldstein, chief executive of Hipmunk, said that Mr. Huffman would continue to oversee product and engineering at the site on a part-time basis. Mr. Huffman will also remain on Hipmunk’s board.

A series of factual statements. Refreshing.

Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit in a two-bedroom apartment in a Boston suburb a decade ago. Users go to the site to discuss a wide range of topics, including current events and viral memes and gifs. The company, based in San Francisco, has 70 to 80 employees and relies largely upon its thousands of dedicated power users to govern the site.

Useful detail and context. No issues.

Reddit is a private company, a majority of which is owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast. Last October, Reddit raised $50 million in venture capital from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Mr. Altman and the rapper Snoop Dogg.

Same as above.

Ms. Pao said she would remain as an adviser to Reddit’s board for the remainder of the year. As for her immediate future, she said, “I plan to get a lot of sleep.”

Cute ending. Subtly sympathetic to Pao again in that it paints her as being exhausted, which plays on the reader's sympathies. I doubt Donald Sterling was described similarly when he was banned for life from the NBA and lost ownership of his team for saying some un-PC things in private while being recorded without his knowledge.

Overall Analysis:

In the Times' own analysis of the story public editor Margaret Sullivan brought up the idea of "value-added coverage." This refers to the injection of analysis (opinion) into what would normally be a straight news story under the theory that the readership does not want just a rundown of facts since they could get that anywhere. The real "value" of the Times is the eloquence and intelligence of their writers, thus it behooves them to add their own spin and color to news stories.

I find this idea to be dubious at best. I doubt most progressives would excuse The Wall Street Journal or Fox News of covering news the same way. Readers are not often aware of this practice, thus they are reading opinion pieces that they think are straight news stories. This is dangerous. What's worse is that this Reddit story doesn't even really offer analysis or evidence to support its agenda; rather it just takes the social justice angle from the word go and treats it as the official story. Thus the "value-add" is really just emotional validation for a readership already sympathetic to that point of view. This is dangerous practice for anything calling itself a news outlet.

I stopped reading the New York Times years ago and this whole story adds confidence to that decision. While they have some good editorial writers, their straight news coverage is awful. The fact that they are still so highly regarded speaks to just how awful mainstream media coverage has gotten.

Here you have a supposed news story where the title and the first six paragraphs are so obviously biased that an attentive middle schooler could pick it out easily. In this supposed news story about a community backlash against Pao there is no mention of the censorious policies were instituted at Reddit that in large part led to that very backlash. It is a significant lie of omission, done again to characterize Pao as a noble failed crusader for the grand cause of social justice.

What amazes me is that highly educated adults read these kind of articles every day and see no issue. It's classic confirmation bias. It's the same reason republicans think the talking heads on Fox News are “fair and balanced.” When your beliefs became deeply ingrained into your identity you can start to construe them as facts beyond questioning, at which point you will be unable to see the problem with news stories parroting those beliefs as self-evident axioms.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hating Facebook

I hate Facebook.

Not “dislike,” or “prefer not to use.”

I hate it.

It isn't the typical things that people complain about either. No, I don't like some of Faceboook's data policies and business practices. No, I'm not crazy about their UI. No, I am not a fan of how they sometimes work with their API partners. As an introvert, I am really not attracted to the basic concept of 'social networking', as it always just seemed like a lot of humble-bragging and attention-seeking. Nevertheless I understand the problem it solves for a lot of people and I understand why some people swear by it.

To explain why I hate Facebook, let me relate a couple of recent incidents.

The first incident concerned my ten-year high school reunion. It was in 2013 in the Summer. I was living in NJ at the time, not more than an hour and fifteen minute drive from where I had gone to school on Long Island. I figured I would get a call or email weeks before the event. My parents still lived in the community near the school, and I had retained old email addresses from that time. What’s more I was on LinkedIn, easily searchable if you put in my first and last name. I figured it was no big deal that I did not have a Facebook account.

I never got an invite.

Never heard anything about it in fact until it was too late and an old friend asked me why I hadn’t gone months later. I learned from her that she had received her invite to the reunion on Facebook. “Everything was organized through Facebook,” she told me. Anyone who did not have a Facebook account was not contacted.

The second and far more serious incident occurred this year. It concerns a friend from high school whom I had been out of touch with for a long time. Lets call him ‘Chris’.

I don’t spend a lot of time with my friends. I have frequently gone a year or more without seeing people I consider close personal friends. What makes me consider them friends, however, is that in spite of these large gaps of time, when we get together it always feels like nothing has changed. We have the same mutual respect and affection that we have carried since childhood.

This context is important as it explains why I did not think it was odd that I had not spoken with Chris in a long time. I assumed everything was OK until I got a disturbing text message from a mutual friend.

Chris had committed suicide.

More disturbing was that the suicide had occurred months in the past. The funeral had already been held. Chris' mother only used Facebook to contact people. She must have assumed that all of his friends were on Facebook and could see her posts. She made no effort to get in touch with me or other friends of Chris.

I don't blame her, of course. She lost her son. Lord knows what she is going through. Still, I had lost a friend and had missed the chance to say a final goodbye. He had always been a bit odd but never really depressed, at least not for any length of time. I will never know what he was going through.

My friend Chris did not have a Facebook account, but his mother did, and who knows? Perhaps I would have seen a warning sign that would have let me know that Chris needed help had I been following her on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. Everyone tells you "it's not your fault," but it doesn't stop the pain. With respect to my high school reunion, it never occurred to me that not being available on social media disqualified me from attending.

So here is what I hate:

I hate that, if I somehow don’t want to consign my personal data, beliefs, preferences, relationships, work history, daily plans, and private messages to a massive advertising corporation, I have to risk missing out on seminal life events. Not being on Facebook is sort of like not having a cellphone. Sure, me and a small number of weirdos can opt out, but we are increasingly disadvantaged by it. The disadvantage comes from the larger society relying more and more on such technologies. If even a small subset of your friends make heavy use of social media, you ARE missing out, and sometimes you can miss out on important life or death stuff.

Of course I don't blame Facebook for my friend's death, much as I would love to blame someone. I just hate that not having Facebook makes me feel like a bad friend. I hate that the Facebook / social media paradigm of socialization won. I feel that my only real choices are to either A. Get with the program and embrace the dominant protocols of society or B. Become further alienated.

I know which path seems more attractive.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Mad Max Fury Road







REVIEW (contains spoilers)

“My world is fire and blood.”

So says Max, eponymous hero of Fury Road, and its an apt description for the next two hours. The fourth installment of George Miller’s genre-defining post-apocalyptic series is essentially one long action-packed chase scene with more than enough fire, blood, and explosions to keep action movie fans glued to their seats. It is a visually stunning film that teases some interesting ideas without really aiming for genuine depth. The action alone is worth the price of admission, but anyone hoping for universe building or character development will be disappointed. Fury Road is indeed full of sound and fury, but unfortunately it signifies nothing.

What Worked

To use Cher’s term from the movie Clueless, Mad Max movies are always “total Monets.” They look better from a distance. The concept, aesthetic, and visuals are always better than the details of the story and the actual things the characters do. The same is true of Fury Road. The trailer is better than the film. When it comes out on DVD, I'll probably just fast-forward all of the talky parts, but I will still have a ball.

The action is simply amazing, especially given the preference for practical effects and real props. Every fight scene, gunshot, and car collision felt legitimately dangerous, a sharp contrast from today’s bloodless CGI comic book battles. Don’t expect Max to be making wisecracks while somersaulting across a room filled with lava and evil robots; when someone pulls a gun or a knife in Fury Road, expect someone to get hurt.

Even with the more genuine sense of danger, Fury Road never stops being fun. Director George Miller is in full swagger with his colorful world and occasionally zany concepts. Among the latter, I adored the flame-throwing guitar and the drums that rode along side the Immortan Joe's war boys. For some it may have been over the top, but it was an iconic moment destined to be remembered, parodied, and copied. “Memorable” is a high compliment for any element in a film, and Fury Road is full of visuals that meet the criteria. Be it the captive women being milked for Joe's army, the towering gardens of the Citadel, or a massive lightning and tornado-filled dust storm – the movie is a smorgasbord for the eyes.

I absolutely loved Joe's army. They had a curious nobility about them. The white paint, the talk of Valhalla, the kamekaze tactics – all of it just made me respect the hell out of them. In this desolate world where life is short and cheap, Joe’s society had manage to reclaim some form of honor. It helps that the vehicle, weapon, and costume design is cool as hell.

The overall aesthetic is sumptuous. I marveled at the lush scenery – the cerulean skies and orange sands. I loved the way everything from the costumes to the cars all looked dirty, old, and used. The world of Fury Road feels simultaneously ancient and broken, yet somehow rich and fantastical. Should this indeed be the launch of a new franchise, more than anything else I hope they preserve the aesthetic.

What Didn’t

There are two big issues I have with Fury Road and one small one. Combined they take what could have been a great film, and make it merely a decent one. The small issue is the cumulative effect of all of the little plot holes and unexplainable things that these sorts of big-budget action flicks always have. I will not list all of them here, but suffice to say if you are an attentive, thinking viewer, there are many moments that will make you go “huh?” I know I know, turn my brain off and just have fun. Sure I can do that. But it is a strike against the film. I don’t give movies credit for making an enemy of my own intelligence.

The first big issue is the fact that the movie does not really feel like the story of Max. The previous movies were all about Max’s choices in morally complex situations. Fury Road is really about Furiosa’s redemption and Max’s efforts to help her achieve it. He isn’t a sidekick, but he doesn’t really star. In the previous movies Max was the protagonist. In Fury Road at best he is a protagonist. What’s more, neither protagonist is especially well-developed. They’re just ‘the good guys’, saving the day and kicking butt in an R-rated movie that feels very PG-13.

Here’s why it feels PG-13: (Spoiler Alert!) The good guys all live, the bad guy dies. The bad guy’s motives and plans are never explained so we can’t sympathize with him. The city is saved and apparently there is infinite water available to give everyone for free. Max and Furiosa go off happily ever after neither seemingly changed in anyway from their experience. To be fair, the previous Mad Max movies suffer from many of the same issues, however in all of them Max makes more hard choices and frequently suffers great loss. Ironically in all three earlier movies it is his attempts to avoid conflict and violence that lead to him losing the things he cares for most. In Fury Road, Max is just another victim swept up in the tide, and it isn’t until the final act that he actually exerts influence on the story.

Why does he exert influence at that time? The implied answer is that he wants to stop some annoying hallucinations he keeps having of his dead kid. Yet the movie never really explores Max’s past, so this does not mean much. In fact the movie does not bother to really explore much of anything, and this is my second big issue. I had so many questions about the world, the people, the places, the stuff, because it was all so interesting to look at and examine. Yet the movie never stops to explain anything, never offers an interesting thought or cultural commentary, never digs into an important element of the post-apocalyptic world. As fun as it can be to fill in the blanks, it is also a missed opportunity, as the movie has a very empty feel. You could cut almost all of the dialogue and have basically the same experience.

It’s a shame that the film feels so shallow given that there were rumors before release that the movie was filled with feminist social commentary. This is not the case, though the film doesn’t paint men in a particularly flattering light. This isn’t really new for the franchise, but it stands out more in a story where ‘safety’ is literally defined as a place where there are no men. If you are a female character in Fury Road, you are either a (likely gorgeous) damsel in distress, or a badass warrior who gets to kill tons of evil men. Does that make it feminist? I couldn’t say. An argument could be made, but it is out of scope for this review. However given all of the interesting ideas the movie teased, I wish the writers had attempted to push something.

Verdict

Ultimately, Fury Road is worth seeing. Like Furious 7, there are enough insane visuals to keep you amused. It’s just unfortunate that the film isn’t much smarter than Vin Diesel’s biennial stunt show, nor are its protagonists much deeper. It and they really should have been.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Debate

Ask yourself this question before you enter a serious debate with someone: is the person I am speaking to interested in their own mind, or in mine? The former might be worth talking to while the latter is not.

When you can tell that someone's priority is their own understanding, you can infer that they are likely more open-minded and serious about the topic. This is someone who may be willing to be proven wrong, and more likely will argue in good faith. By contrast, people who prioritize your opinions are motivated by a desire to win support for an agenda they are unwilling to question. It is the sign of a manipulator - an opponent who will likely engage in mendacity, logical fallacies, and whatever other tactics they deem necessary to get you to believe as they do.

Wise, confident people don't need the world to agree with them. They focus on their own values and ideas, and seek to align them with reality. The insecure person instead seeks to convert others to their ideological gang.

This isn't to say that you should never try to change others opinions. It is useful and sometimes necessary to be persuasive. If you are an activist, you necessarily have to think about the opinions of others in society. Still, it is important to never sacrifice your own intellectual integrity and to not waste your time. Use reason and honesty when you debate. Be willing to be wrong. Do not engage with those who argue in bad faith.