City Century – By Michael Bloomberg September/October 2015 Issue

Why Municipalities Are the Key to Fighting Climate ChangeScreen Shot 2015-08-24 at Aug 24, 2015 2.28

Although history is not usually taught this way, one could argue that cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice to Baghdad and Beijing, urban ideas and innovators have left indelible marks on human life. By concentrating the brainpower of humanity in relatively small geographic areas, cities have promoted the kinds of interactions that nurture creativity and technological advances. They have been the drivers of progress throughout history, and now—as the knowledge economy takes full flight—they are poised to play a leading role in addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century.

One hundred years ago, some two out of every ten people on the planet lived in urban areas. By 1990, some four in ten did. Today, more than half of the world’s population dwells in urban areas, and by the time a child now entering primary school turns 40, nearly 70 percent will. That means that in the next few decades, about 2.5 billion more people will become metropolitan residents.

The world’s first Metropolitan Generation is coming of age, and as a result, the world will be shaped increasingly by metropolitan values: industriousness, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and, most important, liberty and diversity. That is a hopeful development for humanity, and an overpowering counterweight to the forces of repression and intolerance that arise out of religious fanaticism and that now pose a grave threat to the security of democratic nations.

As those in the Metropolitan Generation assume leadership positions, cities will become not just more culturally significant but also more politically powerful. Influence will shift gradually away from national governments and toward cities, especially in countries that suffer from bureaucratic paralysis and political gridlock.

This trend has already emerged, and it is most pronounced in the United States. Congress began reducing funding for infrastructure in the late 1960s, a mistake that, coupled with the loss of manufacturing jobs, dealt a devastating blow to cities. Nevertheless, federal divestment also produced an important benefit: cities eventually recognized that the best replacement for lost federal funding was local policy innovation.

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The Violence of Algorithms – By Taylor Owen May 2015

Why Big Data Is Only as Smart as Those Who Generate It

In December 2010, I attended a training session for an intelligence analytics software program called Palantir. Co-founded by Peter Thiel, a techno-libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire, Palantir is a slick tool kit of data visualization and analytics capabilities marketed to and widely used by the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, and other U.S. national security and policing institutions.

The training session took place in Tyson’s Corner, in Washington, D.C., at a Google-esque office space complete with scooters, a foosball table, and a kitchen stocked with energy drinks. I was taking the course to explore the potential uses of the tool for academic research.

The dashboard for the New York Police Department's 'Domain Awareness System' (DAS) is seen in New York May 29, 2013.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters The dashboard for the New York Police Department’s ‘Domain Awareness System’ (DAS) is seen in New York May 29, 2013.

We spent the day conducting a demonstration investigation. We were first given a range of data sets and, one by one, we uploaded them into Palantir. Each data set showed us a new analytic capability of the program: thousands of daily intelligence reports were disaggregated to their core pieces of information and correlated with historical data; satellite images were overlaid with socio-economic, air strike, and IED data. And in this process, the promise of Palantir was revealed: with more data comes greater clarity. For analysts who spend their days struggling to interpret vast streams of data, the Palantir demo was an easy sell.

In our final exercise, we added surveillance data detailing the planned movements of a suspected insurgent. Palantir correlated the location and time of these movements with the planned movements of a known bomb maker. And there the training ended. It was quite obvious that the next step, in “real life,” would be violent. The United States would send in a drone or Special Forces team. We in the demo, on the other hand, just went home.

This program raises many challenging questions. Much of the data used was inputted and tagged by humans, meaning that it was chock full of human bias and errors. The algorithms on which the system is built are themselves coded by humans, so they too are subjective. Perhaps most consequentially, however, although the program being demonstrated was intended to inform human decision-making, that need not be the case. Increasingly, such tools, and the algorithms that power them, are being used to automate violence.

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America will die old and broke: The systematic right-wing plot to ransack the middle-class nest egg – EDWIN LYNGAR TUESDAY, MAY 26, 2015 03:00 AM PDT

Despite what conservatives say, the safety net works—which is why the 1 percent wants to stage a hostile takeover

America will die old and broke: The systematic right-wing plot to ransack the middle-class nest egg

Through a quirk in state term limits combined with a terrible midterm election, the Nevada legislature has been taken over by amateurs and extremists. The legislature is now debating whether to dismantle the Nevada public employee pension system (PERS), a system that has gotten consistently high marks for transparency, responsibility and stewardship.

This attack on retirement benefits follows a very familiar pattern of fabricating data to destroy retirements that work and that people really like. It’s the same nonsense and lies used to destroy private pensions two decades ago, but this time it’s being done as part of a partisan wet dream of “limited government.” It’s a strategy as American as fast food and crumbling infrastructure.

This latest skirmish in the retirement wars perpetuates the biggest lie ever foisted on America—that we cannot afford retirement benefits.

Private pensions have indeed been systematically destroyed in recent decades, and replaced by “defined contribution” 401k plans. The conventional wisdom is that pensions are “too expensive,” but this is the heart of the lie. A great many private pensions were once over-funded, but a change in law allowed companies to “invest” the “excess” funding in other parts of their business. Once businessmen could legally raid the pension fund, the idea of private pensions was over. Many books have been written about the great pension theft. I recommend, for one, reading “Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers.“ Spoiler alert: you will feel rage.

I’m no bystander in all this, because I’m a member of the Nevada pension system through my day job.  Even when I considered myself a Republican, I supported the pension system, just as my conservative friends and colleagues still do. But a lot has changed in a few years. Public pensions used to have bipartisan support, but the dysfunction and extremism that has turned Washington D.C .into a shit-show has spread to states like mine.

The attacks on benefits are always underhanded and dishonest, an effort to keep critics quiet, and this latest attempt is no exception, because it only targets future members of the pension system. It’s the same tactic used in the constant assault on Social Security — just take it from people who don’t have it yet. My favorite visual is the conservative who collects Social Security month after month (after month after month) then votes for politicians who will destroy those very modest benefits for his children — all while reciting the false narrative of “not saddling” those same children with debt.

You can follow Edwin Lyngar on twitter @Edwin_Lyngar

Yelp, Reviewed – By Will Oremus MAY 11 2015 2:06 PM

The online-ratings site is for sale. How does it rate to its suitors?

Who should buy Yelp? Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Jim Young/Reuter

Who should buy Yelp?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Jim Young/Reuter


Yelp is looking for someone to buy it, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, which say the company is working with investment banks to explore the possibility of a sale. The online customer-reviews site, which went public in 2012, has disappointed investors lately by growing more slowly than they hoped. Still, it won’t come cheap: Word is it would cost upward of $3.5 billion to acquire.

Like the fancy new restaurant down the block, Yelp has a line of potential buyers snaking out the door. But is it worth the price?

I may not be a mergers-and-acquisitions professional, but if Yelp has taught us one thing, it’s the value of breezy armchair criticism from amateurs who may or may not know what they’re talking about. In that spirit, I’ve taken the liberty of rating the value of a Yelp acquisition on a scale of 1 to 5 for each potential suitor, using more-or-less arbitrary criteria of my own devising. Feel free to offer your own ratings in the comments. If we average them out, no doubt we’ll arrive at a fair and accurate number for each company. That number, of course, will be 3.5.

Google—4 Stars: “Tried it once and had a bad experience. But the menu is right up my alley—maybe I’ll give it another shot.”

This is a perfect match—on paper. Google wants to own mobile search and the advertising that comes with it. Yelp is one of a relatively small number of apps that large numbers of people routinely use to search for things on their phones. Google is also known to covet Yelp’s vast trove of customer reviews, which can be used to improve both search results and ad targeting.

There are, however, two big obstacles to a potential union between Google and Yelp. The first one: They hate each other. Google tried to buy Yelp for a reported $500 million in 2009, and the two companies have been feuding since the deal fell through. Google snapped up Zagat as a sort of consolation prize, while also allegedly pushing its own reviews in search results at the expense of Yelp’s. In response, Yelp threw itself into antitrust lawsuits against Google in both the United States and Europe. The second big problem is related: Given the history between the two companies, a Google acquisition of Yelp might well raise fresh antitrust concerns.


Yesterday in the journal  Science, members of the Facebook data science team released a provocative study about adult Facebook users in the US “who volunteer their ideological affiliation in their profile.” The study “quantified the extent to which individuals encounter comparatively more or less diverse” hard news “while interacting via Facebook’s algorithmically ranked News Feed.”*


WIRED Opinion


The research found that the user’s click rate on hard news is affected by the positioning of the content on the page by the filtering algorithm. The same link placed at the top of the feed is about 10-15 percent more likely to get a click than a link at position #40 (figure S5).

The Facebook news feed curation algorithm, “based on many factors,” removes hard news from diverse sources that you are less likely to agree with but it does not remove the hard news that you are likely to agree with (S7). They call news from a source you are less likely to agree with “cross-cutting.”* The study then found that the algorithm filters out 1 in 20 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified conservative sees (or 5 percent) and 1 in 13 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified liberal sees (8 percent).

Finally, the research then showed that “individuals’ choices about what to consume” further limits their “exposure to cross-cutting content.” Conservatives will click on only 17 percent of cross-cutting hard news, while liberals will click 7 percent.

My interpretation in three sentences:

  • We would expect that people who are given the choice of what news they want to read will select sources they tend to agree with–more choice leads to more selectivity and polarization in news sources.
  • Increasing political polarization is normatively a bad thing.
  • Selectivity and polarization are happening on Facebook, and the news feed curation algorithm acts to modestly accelerate selectivity and polarization.

I think this should not be hugely surprising. For example, what else would a good filter algorithm be doing other than filtering for what it thinks you will like?

But what’s really provocative about this research is the unusual framing. This may go down in history as the “it’s not our fault” study.

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