Friday, June 21, 2013

Openly- as an indicator of societal tolerance

Anytime I see an article about someone being the new highest-ranking gay general/CEO/politician/sports star there is always that prefix: openly.  We only know that they're the highest-ranking openly-gay.  There may be others of even higher rank, still in the closet.

Some are hiding from others.  Some are hiding from themselves.  All are hiding.  They shouldn't have to.  Someday, I hope that we'll see headlines that don't need the qualifier of "openly" because no one will need to hide.

Maybe even better would be when such headlines don't even happen at all because no one will care if someone is gay.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Arbitrary mercy is still arbitrary justice

I think Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both did the right thing.  Maybe the execution was imperfect, but the general notion of disclosing illegal or unethical activity is good.  I think we should hold them up as models of behavior.

I also think the government should put them on trial.  I know Manning already is, but the phrasing gets awkward.  They both broke the law.  I'm open to being convinced otherwise, and perhaps I will be, but for now, I believe that the laws they broke were not unjust.  Certainly if you break an unjust law then the law should be changed and the person pardoned.

In the meantime, why the contradiction?  Because there is none.  Rule of law matters.  The idea that we create laws and enforce them, evenly and fairly, is critical to a functioning society and government.  Letting people go because we decided that they had good intentions is dangerous.  It sets a precedent that can easily go the wrong way.

Good intentions are unlimited in scope and variety, running the gamut from stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry family to killing a person because you thought they were dishonorable.  To give greater weight to good intentions than to the law is to give greater weight to chaos.  Worse, it opens the door to arbitrary punishment or lack thereof, in which one person is judged to have had good intentions and another not.  But what means would we measure them?

Enforcing the law also acts as a safety mechanism.  While I think people should defy the system if they think it is unjust, it should not be costless.  The threat of imprisonment forces would-be rule breakers to be more careful in their actions.  They gather more evidence and look for context, to ensure that what they may be imprisoned for is actually worth the punishment.

However, I would not apply this to whistle-blowers, as defined by law.  If someone is legally forbidden from reporting illegal behavior, then that law in unjust and therefore there should be no prosecution.  And of course, if someone reports illegal behavior and broke no laws in the process, they should face no penalty.  Disclosing illegal activities should be encouraged at every opportunity.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Misleading Graphics or The Context is the Content

Context matters as much as content.  After all, what does the content mean in isolation?  Frequently, nothing.  The context of a message can make it a lie just as much as inaccurate content.

I like maps.  Some maps are neutral, such as maps that show where in the US people say pop, soda, soda pop, and coke.

What about a map of hateful tweets?  Let's set aside the issues of defining hateful as well as false positives and negatives.  The map itself, even with fully accurate information, can be misleading.  How?  Population, density, and access.  A hateful tweet in an area of low population and/or low connectivity is a larger proportion of the overall population, and may therefore be considered more representative, than a single hateful tweet in an area of high population.  Frequency maps tend to look like population maps.

This can be corrected a few ways.  One would be to give a ratio, such as hateful to neutral or positive tweets.  Another would be to divide by the population of an area, so that it becomes tweets per person, though that will give lower weight to tweets in areas of lowered connectivity.

I also like graphs.  They can say so much.  They can give levels, trends, and context to what is happening.  But that Y-axis is a trouble-maker.  Maybe you're dealing with numbers in the millions, where the differences are significant, but if you have to stretch all the way down to zero, they'll get shrunk to visible insignificance.  Rescaling can help, but if the differences are small relative to the overall size, then they'll still vanish.  Starting somewhere other than zero, or using a broken axis can fix this.  Yet it creates its own problems.  Anything can appear big, or small, if you pick the right axis.  Going from $1,000,000 to $1,000,001 is surely insignificant, but if you start the axis at $999,999 then it will look huge; visually the one dollar change looks like it is double.

Even the numbers themselves can be tricky.  Keeping the million to million and one dollar scenario, what can we call that?  Maybe last year the relevant number was nine-hundred ninety-nine dollars and it had been so for decades before.  In that case, hasn't the gap between last year's number and the historical trend been doubled?  Alternatively, it's a 000.1% increase from the year before (I hope I counted my zeros correctly).  And look, over there is two million, so we're at half that!  Whatever that is.

These are not all cut and dry.  Maybe the change does matter despite the seemingly small magnitude and needs to be magnified.  Sometimes space is an issue.  Yet the question should always remain: Does the narrative exist outside of this graphic or is it created entirely from the display?