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The crisis in American journalism benefits no one →

Salena Zito writes in the Washington Examiner about the lack of trust between America's most venerable news organizations and readers with traditional values. I found myself agreeing with everything she said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Washington and New York City newsrooms began to be dominated by people who had the same backgrounds; for the most part they went to the same Ivy League journalism schools, where they made the right contacts and connections to get their jobs.

Yes, elite networks are a thing not just in law schools, as "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance so aptly described of his experiences in law school. They also exist in Ivy League or elite journalism schools.

And the journalists who came from working-class roots found it in their best interest to adopt the conventional, left-of-center views that were filling the halls of newsrooms.

In short, after a while you adopt the culture you exist in either out of survival or acceptance or a little of both. Or you really just wanted to shed your working-class roots for a variety of reasons: shame, aspiration, ascension, etc.

That does not make them bad people – aspiration is the heart of the American Dream — but it did begin the decline of connection between elite journalism institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the rest of the country.

So when fewer and fewer reporters shared the same values and habits of many of their consumers, inferences in their stories about people of faith and their struggles squaring gay marriage or abortion with their belief systems were picked up by the readers.

Pro-tip, don't think people can't pick up an inference, even the most subtle, in the written word. It is as evident as a news anchor rolling his eyes at someone on his panel he doesn't agree with.

The result was a populist explosion against all things big: big companies, big banks, big institutions and big media. The movement went undetected by the D.C. and New York centralized press not because they are bad people, not because they had an ax to grind against the center of the country. They just didn't know them. They did not know anyone like them, or if they did it reminded them of all the things they despised about their upbringing, and they wanted to correct those impulses.

And so they missed it. They were a little shocked by the support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and they were really shocked by the support candidate Donald J. Trump received in the primaries

And they were really, really shocked by his win.

The problem journalists face right now is that they have never really acknowledged his win appropriately, at least not in the eyes of the people who voted for him.

Since the day he won, the inference that his win was illegitimate has been everywhere. It set the tone in the relationship between the voters and the press that has only soured since November of last year.

The Awfulness of Numeric Rating Systems

Caroline O'Donovan wrote at Buzz Feed about why the existing rating systems are awful.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you're going to lose your job. They'll deactivate you."

But ratings are nonetheless a stressor for some drivers. Julian, who drives for both Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, said maintaining a good rating can be difficult because customers don’t really understand them. "They think that 3 is okay, and a 4 is like a B, and 5 is exceptional," he told BuzzFeed News. "Well, if you got a 4 every time, you’d be terminated. You have to maintain a 4.7, so anything less than a 5 is not okay.”

​> …

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company's five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us."

​> …

Wendy and her son Brian, visiting San Francisco from Indiana and using Uber for their first time, were surprised to hear that most drivers consider four stars to be a bad rating. “I would have thought 5 is excellent, and 4 is good,” Wendy said. That revelation was equally shocking to Elnaz, a longtime Uber user visiting San Francisco from LA. “Four stars sucks," she said, incredulous. "Really?"

“Customers don't understand the impact ratings have on couriers at all,” said a former Postmates community manager, who requested anonymity while discussing her previous employer. “A customer might rate a delivery three stars, assuming that three stars is fine. Several three-star ratings could bring a courier’s rating down significantly, especially if they’re new. It could even get the courier fired.”

​The biggest problem is that no two people have the same definition of what each of the ratings means.

Lyft says that five stars means “awesome,” four means “Ok, could be better,” and three means “below average.” But for Uber, five stars is “excellent,” four is “good,” and three is “OK.”

To that point, Goodreads has the following rating system:

  • ★: Did not like it
  • ★★: it was ok
  • ★★★: liked it
  • ★★★★: really liked it
  • ★★★★★: it was amazing

But few people actually use that scale to rate their books. In fact, many people start or end their Goodreads reviews with a discussion of their own personal rating system. I'm guilty of this myself.

It's even worse than that. People give ratings differently from how they actually use ratings. When it comes to giving ratings, people are nuanced critics. Take hotel stays. We'll knock off a star for a room that's a little dingy or a shower that doesn't have the right water pressure. We'll give it back for friendly staff and a hot breakfast. The result is a 3.7 rating that we think accurately represents our "mostly good with a few minor downsides" experience at the hotel.

Given our own nuanced ratings, how many of us even bother to read star ratings with a similarly nuanced eye? We only want to stay at five star establishments. We'll consider a four star hotel, but anything lower than that makes us inherently suspicious. We know how we rate businesses and we know that an average rating of 5 should be impossible to achieve, if everyone rates like we ourselves do. But we read ratings with a highly critical eye anyway and hotels are reduced to begging for high ratings because anything less is the kiss of death.

O'Donovan recounts an anecdote that I find telling.​

John Gruber, publisher of Daring Fireball, is among those who believe that five-star rating systems don’t produce particularly useful data, and that generally speaking, binary systems are better. “There’s no universal agreement as to what the different stars mean,” Gruber told BuzzFeed News. “But everybody knows what thumbs-up, thumbs-down means.”

A few years ago, during a trip to Orlando, Gruber had an experience that made him realize how this confusion over what the stars mean can impact individuals in ways customers don’t realize. After taking a ride in an Uber that had an overpoweringly strong smell of air freshener, Gruber gave the driver a four-star rating. The next day, he got a call from an Uber employee asking him to explain what the driver had done wrong.

“I was like, Holy shit!” Gruber said. “The guy was nice, I wish I hadn’t done this.”

When I read this, everything suddenly clarified. Exact, specific, nuanced ratings aren't useful to consumers. I only care about one thing: would you stay here again or would you avoid it? When I'm thinking back on my own stays, maybe the water pressure was too low, but if the overall experience was good then I'll book another room at the same hotel on my next trip. The crucial question really just boils down to: would I stay here again and would you recommend it to me. Everything else is just details.

Jason Snell came to the same conclusion, writing One for the thumbs.

Say you’re Netflix, which has allowed its users to apply five-star ratings to movies since its inception. Netflix offered user ratings because it’s always been focused on improving its own recommendation engine, so that it can look at your tastes and suggest other movies you might like—and use your ratings to feed the recommendation engine of viewers who share your tastes, too.

At some point, Netflix must have looked at its data and realized that their five-star rating system wasn’t really improving its recommendations. It was just adding noise. Does knowing that one user gave a movie four stars while another one gave it five stars really provide more information? The answer is clearly no, because Netflix eliminated star ratings and now only seeks a thumbs up or a thumbs down, just like YouTube did in 2009. In the end, you can obsess over whether a movie deserves three or four of your precious personal stars, but Netflix doesn’t care. It just wants to know if you liked the movie or not, because that’s all that really matters.

Take it from Gene Siskel, via that same Roger Ebert piece:

Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up—yes. Thumbs down—no.”

Or as John Gruber succinctly put it, star ratings are garbage—“thumbs-up/thumbs-down is the way to go—everyone agrees what those mean.”

I think a numeric rating system only makes sense for purely personal use. For instance, in family meal planning. My family uses a 4-star system for rating meals. After trying each recipe, we ask our daughters to rate it using this four point scale.

  • ★ Never make this again.
  • ★★ I didn't care for it but I'll eat it without a tantrum if you do make it again.
  • ★★★ Make this a part of our standard list of meals.
  • ★★★★ Make this every week.

It helps that it's a simple system. But the main reason is it works is that everyone in the family knows the definition and uses it in a consistent way. When my wife plans the meals, we include some recipes rated 3 or 4. The 2-star recipes may get used sparingly, if one family member happens to love them, since the rest are willing to tolerate them. The 1-star recipes are kept around purely as a reminder of what not to make. It works, but it's a system that would break down entirely if we tried to share our recipe database with another family.

I would be happy to see numeric rating systems disappear entirely from public websites and apps. Let's stick to a simple recommended / not recommended binary choice for everything that we're not personally curating for our own personal use.

This entry was tagged. Review News

Thumbs Up to a Justice Gorsuch

Tonight, President Trump nominated Judge Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. I'll give credit where credit is due: I didn't think President Trump would nominate someone that I liked, but he surprised me. From what I've read, I'll like Justice Gorsuch quite a bit.

I'm basing my opinion on SCOTUSblog's potential nominee profile. First of all, Judge Gorsuch is definitely qualified.

Neil Gorsuch was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit by President George W. Bush on May 10, 2006, and confirmed shortly thereafter. Both his pre-judicial resumé and his body of work as a judge make him a natural fit for an appointment to the Supreme Court by a Republican president. He is relatively young (turning 50 this year), and his background is filled with sterling legal and academic credentials. He was a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford, graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for prominent conservative judges (Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as well as Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court), and was a high-ranking official in the Bush Justice Department before his judicial appointment.

And he has the potential to live up to Justice Scalia's legacy. Given that Justice Scalia was my second favorite Supreme Court Justice, this is no small thing.

He is celebrated as a keen legal thinker and a particularly incisive legal writer, with a flair that matches — or at least evokes — that of the justice whose seat he would be nominated to fill. In fact, one study has identified him as the most natural successor to Justice Antonin Scalia on the Trump shortlist, both in terms of his judicial style and his substantive approach.

With perhaps one notable area of disagreement, Judge Gorsuch’s prominent decisions bear the comparison out. For one thing, the great compliment that Gorsuch’s legal writing is in a class with Scalia’s is deserved: Gorsuch’s opinions are exceptionally clear and routinely entertaining; he is an unusual pleasure to read, and it is always plain exactly what he thinks and why. Like Scalia, Gorsuch also seems to have a set of judicial/ideological commitments apart from his personal policy preferences that drive his decision-making. He is an ardent textualist (like Scalia); he believes criminal laws should be clear and interpreted in favor of defendants even if that hurts government prosecutions (like Scalia); he is skeptical of efforts to purge religious expression from public spaces (like Scalia); he is highly dubious of legislative history (like Scalia); and he is less than enamored of the dormant commerce clause (like Scalia).

​It's especially refreshing to see that Judge Gorsuch shares Justice Scalia's disdain for vague and overly broad criminal statutes. A Justice should be skeptical of the government's position and should demand that criminal law be unambiguous and clearly defined. My biggest complaint with Judge Merrick Garland was that his record showed too much deference to the government. I'll be very happy indeed if a Justice Gorsuch is Scalia's heir on criminal law.

The Reporters Who Cried "Trump" →

Glenn Reynolds:

SO THIS ISN’T EXACTLY A CLIMBDOWN, but I’m rethinking my position that a good argument for having Trump as President is that if he gets out of line, the press and the Deep State will go after him and bring him under control.

There are two reasons for that. First, the press and the Deep State are already going after him, before he’s even had a chance to get out of line. And second, I mean, holy crap, could they be any sorrier at doing so? I mean, “Peegate?” Really? What the hell?

This is good news for Trump, sort of, but overall it’s really bad news, since it means that both journalism and the intelligence community are both more politicized, and less competent, than even I thought. Sweet Jesus, these people are terrible.

I agree. If the media hyper reacts to President Trump every single week of the next 4 years, we're going to stop talking about "the boy who cried wolf" and starting talking about "the reporter who cried Trump". And guarantee Trump's reelection. Trump was already elected once by a perception that the media takes sides. They shouldn't be trying to confirm that perception with every story they write.

This entry was tagged. Donald Trump News

GOP Congress Has a Detailed Agenda →

Dave Weigel, writing at the Washington Post.

For six years, since they took back the House of Representatives, Republicans have added to a pile of legislation that moldered outside the White House. In their thwarted agenda, financial regulations were to be unspooled. Business taxes were to be slashed. Planned Parenthood would be stripped of federal funds. The ­Affordable Care Act was teed up for repeal — dozens of times.

When the 115th Congress begins this week, with Republicans firmly in charge of the House and Senate, much of that legislation will form the basis of the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s. And rather than a Democratic president standing in the way, a soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump seems ready to sign much of it into law.

The dynamic reflects just how ready Congress is to push through a conservative makeover of government, and how little Trump’s unpredictable, attention-grabbing style matters to the Republican game plan.

That plan was long in the making.

Almost the entire agenda has already been vetted, promoted and worked over by Republicans and think tanks that look at the White House less for leadership and more for signing ceremonies.

In 2012, Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist described the ideal president as “a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen” and “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” In 2015, when Senate Republicans used procedural maneuvers to undermine a potential Democratic filibuster and vote to repeal the health-care law, it did not matter that President Obama’s White House stopped them: As the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action put it, the process was “a trial run for 2017, when we will hopefully have a President willing to sign a full repeal bill.”

“What I told our committees a year ago was: Assume you get the White House and Congress,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNBC in a post-election interview last month. “Come 2018, what do you want to have accomplished?” Negotiations with the incoming Trump administration, he said, were mostly “on timeline, on an execution strategy.”

​That's funny. I've been hearing for the last 6 years that the Republican Congress just liked thwarting President Obama and didn't know how to govern or have any plans of its own. I wonder if that's an example of the fake news that I've suddenly been hearing so much about.

This entry was tagged. Government News

The world isn’t getting worse — our information is getting better

Ray Kurzweil explained how it is that the headlines can be continually worse even if the world is getting better: our information is getting better.

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

We know more than we've ever known before about what's going on around the world. Things aren't getting worse every day, we're just better informed about how things really are. Tragedies are no longer local news, they're now national news. Instead of rarely getting bad news about our local area, we now get daily bad news from everywhere. Even if there's less bad happening overall, there's still enough of it for one depressing headline a day. The upshot is that everything's getting better and everyone's convinced that everything's getting worse.

How the Daily Fantasy Sports Industry Turns Fans Into Suckers

Jay Caspian Kang, in the New York Times Magazine, wrote a good overview of what daily fantasy sports are and how they're currently rigged against casual players.

I initially intended to write an article about the bro culture that had sprouted up around D.F.S., which, from a distance, reminded me of the sweaty, sardonic camaraderie you typically see at high-stakes poker events. At the time, the crusade against D.F.S. felt a few degrees too hot — DraftKings and FanDuel struck me as obviously gambling sites, but the game itself felt sort of like homework. You research players. You build a spreadsheet. You project data and enter a team. You watch the team either fulfill or fall short of your projections. The next day, you start over again. The ruinous thrill of other forms of gambling — sports betting, blackjack, poker — just wasn’t there.

Instead, I came across a different sort of problem: a rapacious ecosystem in which high-volume gamblers, often aided by computer scripts and optimization software that allow players to submit hundreds or even thousands of lineups at a time, repeatedly take advantage of new players, who, after watching an ad, deposit some money on DraftKings and FanDuel and start betting.

​The biggest problem is that expert players relentlessly hunt for, and take advantage of, inexperienced players.

Bumhunting” is a word that comes from the poker world. It means seeking out an inexperienced player and mercilessly exploiting him for all he’s worth. Bumhunters are pariahs because they turn what can be a cerebral, competitive game into its most cynical iteration, and, in the process, discourage that new player from ever coming back. But poker has built-in safeguards against rampant bumhunting — new players tend to play at lower limits, which make it harder for bumhunters to take in huge profits. The bumhunter’s dream is to play thousands of games of poker a day against a never-ending line of fresh, inexperienced newbies. He falls short of that lofty goal because he has to actually bet, raise or fold his hands – he can play multiple tables at once, but he cannot fully automate his bumhunting.

In the game lobbies of DraftKings and FanDuel, however, sharks are free to flood the marketplace with thousands of entries every day, luring inexperienced, bad players into games in which they are at a sizable disadvantage. The imbalanced winnings in D.F.S. have been an open secret since this past September, when Bloomberg Businessweek published an exposé on the habits of high-volume players. The numbers are damning. According to DraftKings data obtained by the New York State attorney general’s office, between 2013 and 2014, 89.3 percent of players had a negative return on investment. A recent McKinsey study showed that in the first half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, 91 percent of the prize money was won by a mere 1.3 percent of the players.

​It's nearly impossible to avoid being matched against someone who vastly exceeds your own skill level.

For the 17 weeks I played D.F.S., whether at a $5 entry fee or for $100, I routinely was matched up against top players. But unless I examined win rates and researched the strengths and weaknesses of my opponents, I would never have known that I was being repeatedly bumhunted by high-volume players.

On Dec. 16, for example, I entered three $20 N.B.A. head-to-head contests on DraftKings. My opponents were gunz4hire, Dinkpiece and Nadia4Fashion. Gunz4hire was then ranked 47th on the Rotogrinders players ranking and is generally considered one of the better players in the world. Dinkpiece, who was 20th on that same list, is the alias for Drew Dinkmeyer, a former stock trader whose winnings in D.F.S. have been so well publicized that he has his own Wall Street Journal stipple drawing.

On Christmas, the biggest day in the N.B.A.’s regular season, I entered 17 head-to-head contests on DraftKings for prices between $1 and $20. Once again, I was matched up against Dinkpiece and gunz4hire, along with a handful of other professionals.

The next day, I entered three more $20 N.B.A. contests. I was able to avoid Dinkpiece and gunz4hire, but found myself in a $20 head-to-head against Birdwings, the 2nd-ranked player in the Rotogrinders rankings.

In three days, I played three of the best D.F.S. players in the world.

​Kang ends with a hope for the future. I was glad to see that he didn't call for a large, regulatory framework or an entire shutdown of the daily fantasy sports industry. Instead, he points out that simple transparency could eliminate much of the problem.

There is, in theory, a version of D.F.S. that could work. All that’s required is a transparent marketplace in which a player can reasonably expect to enter a head-to-head or 50-50 or even one of the big-money tournaments without going up against hundreds of lineups generated by professional gamblers who have been lying in wait for him.

This entry was tagged. News Regulation

"Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?" in TIME

TIME's running a feature-length article on their website about how archaeologists are informing our understanding of the Bible. I note that they quote Israel Finkelstein, the book of whom is one of my primary resources for my commentary on the Book of Joshua.

I wish the reporter had added a little more detail to this sentence:

In 1986, archaeologists found the earliest known text of the Bible, dated to about 600 B.C. It suggests that at least part of the Old Testament was written soon after some of the events it describes.

What text, Dude? Which part? Inquiring minds want to know and now will have to look it up themselves - and they're lazy, so they hate doing that!

But the piece is a pretty good summary of the history and current state of Biblical archaeology, at least as I understand the subject. Check 'er out.

This entry was tagged. Bible News