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We Can ‘Rewire’ Our Brains for Creative Thinking

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More Neuroplasticity Means More Creativity

Erik Weihenmayer, who is totally blind, belongs to an elite group of mountain climbers who have scaled the “seven summits,” the tallest peaks on all seven continents.  That includes Mount Everest in Napal and Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Weihenmayer learned to “see,” with his tongue, using a device called BrainPort. That is just one of the extraordinary stories in The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking, by Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack. 

Before he lost his vision to a rare disease at the age of 13, Weihenmayer interpreted visual data conventionally through his eyes. Using BrainPort, he learned to distinguish patterns of electrical impulses on his tongue and interpret them as representing shapes, sizes and motions of things in his environment. In effect, his brain was rewired to get visual information in a new way. The authors also cite studies showing deaf people can rewire their brains to get auditory information from sight and touch.

Rewiring isn’t just a metaphor, they explain, because our brains are actually changing throughout our lives, creating new physical connections among neurons.  That’s neuroplasticity. “Our experiences, the things we pay attention to, and our behaviors,” they write, “are constant feedback loops changing the structure of our brains.”  That means we have some control over our own neuroplasticity. Even if we’re not compelled to overcome disabilities, we can choose not to be neural couch potatoes.

The more new neural connections we build, the more neuroplasticity we have, the more creative we can be, and the more likely we are to experience breakthrough thinking of the type that solves problems and fosters innovation.  With 100 billion neurons, each with the possibility of making thousands of connections, Cabane and Pollack write, “there are more potential connections inside your brain than there are stars in the sky.”

 The authors provide examples of different kinds of breakthroughs.  Inspirations can come from dreams, and nature, among other sources. After the inventor Elias Howe dreamed he was captured by a primitive tribe wielding spears that had holes in the tip, he had a waking inspiration for the lock-stitch sewing machine, which revolutionized the clothing industry.  Velcro imitates sticky burrs, and the water-tight glue that keeps barnacles clinging to rocks has inspired surgeons to close wounds in new ways. Sometimes an odd intuitive hunch turns out to be right when it’s tried. And sometimes accumulated years of thought and study produce the kinds of major paradigm changes wrought by Einstein, Newton and Darwin.  But all breakthroughs are valuable, and often cumulative.

The authors present fascinating stories on original thinking.  They also explain tools and exercises to increase neuroplasticity, think in new ways, observe things once unnoticed, and find connections among ideas and events that had seemed unrelated.  

Here are some simple suggested plasticity exercises: Use your non-dominant hand to write, eat, and use a key. Taste and cook something you’ve never eaten before. Watch a foreign movie without subtitles and try to understand the plot from action and facial expressions.  Listen to music from an unfamiliar culture. Experiment with thoughts: What would happen if gravity stopped nightly at 10 PM? Would we sleep on the ceiling? Have nets in trees?  Float away toward a new landings when gravity resumed at dawn? Suppose everyone lived to be 130? Suppose you lived in a city where memories were currency, and you could only buy thing by sharing recollections?

There are more tools, practices, and insights about how we can learn more, try more, do more and develop the habits that promote all those sparkling new neural connections that may just outnumber the stars.   

Want to learn more? Join Judah Pollack on the March 24 PlexusCall  when he and Barrett Horne discuss Judah’s new book.


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'Works of Bricolage,' Sideshows, and Survival

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Strange Road from Innovation to Acceptance 


When Lucille Conlin Horn was born in 1920, a fragile infant weighing only two pounds, she was not expected to live. Her twin sister died. But Lucille Horn did live for nearly a century, with a career, marriage and five children.

Her survival is part of an extraordinary story of the wonderful, surprising and sometimes wrenching ways that innovations are introduced, resisted, and travel in unexpectedly circuitous routes before eventual adoption.

In the late 1870s, a French obstetrician named Stephane Tarnier visited a Paris zoo and noticed chicken hatchlings wobbling about in a box warmed by containers of hot water. He thought about the horrifying infant mortality rate at his hospital, and wondered if a warm temperature controlled enclosure might save premature human babies. Tarnier had similar box built for his tiny patients. Steven Johnson, writes about Tarnier's achievement in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. While 66 percent of low weight babies were dying in the weeks after birth, 72 percent of low weight babies in the mew warming box survived.   Johnson writes that good ideas are "works of bricolage," in which existing notions and practices are cobbled together for new purposes. He calls it the adjacent possible, an idea he adapted from theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman. After a few years, all Parisian hospitals had infant incubators.

But most of the medical establishment in Europe and the U.S. resisted the idea and incubators were not allowed in most hospitals. Incubators were not common is U.S. hospitals until after World War II.

In 1888 another French physician, Pierre-Constant Budin, now considered the father of modern neonatology, began publishing results of Tarnier 's work. The medical community remained dubious. Budin and colleagues, trying to spread the life-saving methods, arranged exhibits of infant incubators in Berlin and London, and at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900, and the World's Fair in Buffalo New York in 1901.    

Martin Arthur Couney, who was born March 1, 1870 came to the U.S. in the 1890s, claimed to be a physician and a student of Budin. Neither may have been true, though he apparently did help with some of the successful early exhibits of live babies in incubators. Whatever his credentials, he is credited with saving the lives of thousands of premature babies through a side-show exhibition at Cony Island, N.Y. that opened in 1903 and continued for four decades. Couney charged people 25 cents for admission to see the babies in his exhibit, and used the money to cover the cost of the equipment and a team of skilled nurse to care for the babies. Hundreds of thousands of curious visitors came. Carnival barkers, including a young Cary Grant, urged the crowds to come look.   Parents did not have to pay.

Coney Island was famous for its side shows-it featured bizarre displays such as the limbless lady, the man three legs, the man with the face of a lion and other oddities. Showing live premature babies was controversial, and so was Couney. Many considered him more charlatan or showman than life-saver, though he did have highly credentialed friends, and was gratified to know hospitals began using incubators shortly before he died in 1950. His own daughter was premature, and survived in one of his incubators. He also had appreciation of thousands of survivors, many of whom attended his graduate reunions.   The amusement park atmosphere may have both hindered and helped mainstream medical acceptance. In the Horn obituary, the AP reported Couney had said more than 8,000 infants were placed in his incubators, and more than 7,000 survived.

Lucille Horn, who died February 10 at he age of 96, was buried next to her premature twin who could not be saved. She told her story to NPR and others. In the early 20th century, hospitals couldn't do much for tiny premature babies so they were sent home with little chance of living. Lucile Horn says her father, having been told his surviving twin baby faced death, begged Couney to accept her in his exhibit. After a six-month stay, she says, she was returned to her family and went on to live a long full life. She worked as a crossing guard and a legal secretary for her husband in addition to having five children.


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Stories Have Shapes and Basic Emotional Arcs

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Emotional Shape of Stories Emerges in Math

Andrew J. Reagan, an applied mathematician at the University of Vermont, thought about all the extraordinary new the knowledge about genes that has been generated by data from the Human Genome Project.  And that made him wonder what data could teach us about stories.

Dr. Reagan and his team analyzed more than 1,300 works of fiction in the digitized Project Gutenberg collection.  They traced the “emotional arc” of the stories by graphing the happiness and sadness of the words as they appeared in the text.  The emotion arc of a story doesn’t provide direct information about plot or characters, they explain in a recently published paper.  It reflects changes in sentiment as the story progresses.  They discovered that about 85 percent of the stories they analyzed—across different cultures and time periods—fall into one of six emotional patterns.  The team notes that Kurt Vonnegut observed years ago that stories have the shapes, and the shape of the Cinderella story was similar to the Biblical description of the origins of Christianity as well as the creation story of nearly every human society.    

The six emotional trajectories illustrated in the different story arcs are:

Rags to riches – Rise

Tragedy, or riches to rags – Fall

Man in a hole – Fall, rise

Icarus – Rise, fall

Cinderella – Rise, fall, rise

Oedipus – Fall, rise, fall

The researchers believe these arcs are the building locks of stories. They created mathematical graphs, depicting the shapes of the six patterns as exemplified in classic and popular literature based on their computational analysis. The graphs are shown in a Scientific American story by  Mark Fischetti. This story also describes a study by Poland’s Institute of Nuclear Physics showing that the lengths of sentences in books often form a fractal pattern—one in which shapes are replicated in small and large scale, similar to tree branches.   Scientific American asked the Vermont team to analyze two of the books in the fractal study, Fischetti writes, and the mathematicians found those books did have two of the common emotional arcs. Do books with the same emotional arcs have the same fractal patterns? No one knows, though further investigation might answer that. Read more about the research in Reagan’s University of Vermont Story Lab blog.   

Why analyze the mathematics of literature?  Dr. Reagan and his colleagues write that we are driven to find and tell stories to communicate our ideas, needs and beliefs and describe our observations of the world.

“In science, we formalize the ideas that best describe our experience with principles such as Occam'sRazor: The simplest story is the one we should trust,” the authors write. “We tend to prefer stories that fit into the molds which are familiar, and reject narratives that do not align with our experience.” Advances in computing, natural language processing and digitization of text are providing quantities of data that can be mined for new insights on the evolution of culture and communication.

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The Life Cycles of Walls

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Barriers, Real and Symbolic, Also Invite Interaction

Since ancient times, rulers have built walls to define borders, keep some people in, to keep other people out, control immigration and smuggling and provide opportunities for taxation.  Border walls are also sites of complex interaction.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall across what was then called Britania, in the 120s AD, to separate the Roman-ruled population from the rebellious Picts and Scots who lived in the northern part of Britain. Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 AD, was a stone fortification that ran about 73 miles from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. 

In a Scientific American article Krystal D’Costa tells how the life cycle of Hadrian’s Wall illustrates the way walls built as barriers function over time as monuments and places of exchange that generate experiences of identity and place. Local Britons supplied six years of labor building Hadrian’s Wall, which also featured garrisons and smaller military stations. It remained intact and functional as a boundary and means of levying taxation until the Fifth Century.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain, the wall fell into disrepair, and its polished white stones were looted for other construction. Much of the wall survives today, and is a tourist attraction. But it has served many ideological as well as physical purposes. D’Costa writes that Hadrian’s Wall was viewed as a symbolic reminder of Britain’s Roman heritage, which became important in the Eighteenth Century as the British Empire expanded. She cites the belief that linkage to the Roman wall lent authority to the British presence by suggesting the British Empire had inherited Roman imperialist rights.   Those north of the wall, however, didn’t celebrate the Roman history.  In the Scottish view, D’Costa writes, the wall was a “symbol of valor for the ancient Scots who resisted and opposed the imperial aims” of Rome. 

Even as the wall separated some people, however, it brought others together.  Roman legions recruited soldiers from distant regions, and records indicate many who joined the troops came from Germany, Spain and other places. As they settled along the wall, they married local residents, creating population of mixed culture who, D’Costo writes, were “uniquely rooted in this space.”

Construction on parts of the Great Wall of China, the most famous of the ancient physical boundaries, was sporadic from the eighth through fifth centuries BC. Work on a long barrier protection wall was revived under the Ming Dynasty in the Fourteenth Century to hold back invading Mongols. The wall also allowed taxation on merchants who traveled the Silk Road, a network of trading routes that arose in ancient times and continued for centuries fostering cultural and economic exchange. The Great Wall included troop garrisons, watch towers and military outposts and its path served as a transportation corridor. Invading Manchus breached the wall in 1644, ending the Ming Dynasty.  

Ancient cities were often surrounded by walls. The famous walls around the city of Jericho, now in the West Bank, built around the tenth century BC, may be the oldest known.  The Biblical story says the walls crumbled after Joshua’s army blew their trumpets. Other walls have failed less dramatically. The ancient  Sumerian king Shulgi built a free-standing boundary wall along the 155 miles between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to keep out Amorite invaders. But eventually, invaders just walked around the wall and the Sumerian city of Ur, in what is modern day Iraq, fell around 2000 BC. Read Krystal D’Costa’s piece on walls here.

For other thoughts, here is Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, which begins “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”


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Circadian Rhythms and Baseball

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 3, 2017

Eastward Travel Harder on the Body Clock

A trip across two or three time zones can make ordinary people feel out of sorts, and even world-class athletes can lose their competitive edge.

A team of researchers who studied more than 46,000 Major League Baseball games over the 20 years between 1992 and 2011 found that player and team performance was measurably impaired by jet lag, which was defined a having had to travel over two or more time zones to get to a game.

Jet lag is a physiological condition in which the body's circadian rhythms are altered. Circadian rhythms, the body's internal clock, are the 24 hour cycles of physiological, biochemical and behavioral processes that drive a wide range of functions in humans and other living organisms. In their recent paper published by, scientists at Northwester University explained that when people fly across two or three time zones their internal 24-hour clock becomes misaligned with the natural environment and its cycle of light and dark. Teams that has crossed one time zone, and had to adjust to a time difference of only one hour, were not considered jet lagged.

Dr. Ravi Allada, the Edward C. Stuntz Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Northwestern University, said in a university news release that the negative effects of jetlag are detectable and significant. Dr. Allada, an expert in circadian rhythms and the lead author of the study, said both offense and defense, in both home and away games, were impacted, and often in surprising ways.   For example:

  •  The impact of jet lag impairment was stronger for those traveling east than for those traveling west. The authors say that findings supports the hypothesis that the impairments were caused more by failure of the circadian clock to synchronize to the environment light-dark cycles than to the general effects of travel.   
  • The offense of jet lagged home teams was more impacted than the offense of jet lagged away teams. Surprisingly, jet lag from eastward travel had a more negative impact on home teams returning from a road trip than it did on away teams.
  • Negative impact on offense was related to running, and measured by fewer stolen bases, fewer doubles and tipples, and hitting into more double plays.  
  • Both home and away teams, when jet lagged, gave up more home runs. Jet lagged pitchers, especially when they had traveled east, gave up more hone runs.

Dr. Allada says if he were a team manager, he'd send his first starting pitcher to a distant game site a day or two ahead so his body clock could adjust to the local environment. Dr. Allada says the 2016 National League Championship Series offers a possible example of the impact of jet lag on player performance. In Game 2, LA Dodgers ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw shut out the Chicago Cubs, giving up only two hits. In Game 6, when the teams returned to Chicago from LA, the Cubs scored five runs, two of them home runs, off Kershaw. "While it is speculation," Dr. Allada said, "our research would suggest that jet lag was a contributing factor in Kershaw's performance."

The disruption of circadian rhythms has also been found to impact workers in other fields.

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Philosophy Makes Kids Better in Math and Reading

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 26, 2017

With expanded and connected ideas, academics improve

Is it ever OK to lie? If you had a different name would you be a different person? Would you eat an animal if it could talk?

More than 3,000 nine and 10 year-old children in 48 schools across England examined such questions in weekly 40 minute philosophy classes.  The kids weren’t asked to examine the likes of Kant and Kierkegaard. They sat in circles and experienced stories, poems and film clips that prompted discussions on such concepts as truth, justice, friendship and knowledge.  Teachers were specially trained to act as moderators.

The program,  Philosophy for Children, was developed by The Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), a nonprofit that promotes philosophy I schools, colleges and communities.  The goal for grade school students was to help children reason, formulate and ask good questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop cogent arguments.  It hadn’t been directed toward raising math and literacy scores. But when the nonprofit Educational Endowment Foundation (EEG) evaluated the results of one year of the program, they discovered the youngsters who participated increased their math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching.  

Youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds achieved the most significant score increases, and researchers think the program, which costs about $23 per child, could provide an effective way to narrow the academic gap between poor and wealthy children.  A story by Sarah Cassidy in The Independent describes the program and quotes Stephen Gorard, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, the study’s lead researcher: “Our results suggest that these philosophy sessions can have a positive impact on pupils’ math, reading and perhaps their writing skills,” he said. “But crucially, they seem to work especially well for the children who are most disadvantaged. This is very encouraging as we, along with the EEF, are committed to helping tackle educational disadvantage.”

According to a story in The Guardian by Education Editor Richard Adams, teachers and students who took the classes report that classroom behavior and relationships on all levels improved, and that youngsters learned better listening and conversational skills and developed more perusal confidence.  Professor Gorard told Adams researchers aren’t sure why the philosophical discussions improved academic scores in unrelated fields, but suggested that open ended discussions may increase student engagement and enjoyment while improving the capacity to raise questions. He says more research is needed.

Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, told Jenny Anderson of Quartz that the classes gave youngsters new ways if thinking and expressing themselves. “They have been thinking with more logic and more connected ideas,” he said.  Researchers who followed up on results of an earlier philosophy program said beneficial results lasted for two years, with the youngsters who had the classes continuing to outperform those who hadn’t. The EEF tested the effectiveness of the intervention using a randomized control trial, much the way drugs are tested. 

Lizzy Lewis, development manager of SAPERE, described some of the moral, scientific and practical questions that prompt children to explore their own thinking. These include: Can computers think? Is there anything we cannot know? Is it possible to think of nothing? What would you do if you had a ring of invisibility?

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A Plexus Workshop Where Playing Made Music

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, January 9, 2017

A Midwife to Music Inspires New Songs

Did your grade school chorus director tell you to just mouth the words and not sing? Were you told to hold that clarinet in the right position during the concert, just don’t play? 

Jon Gailmor knows how to heal those childhood wounds and restore the joy of musical participation.  In rapid succession, Jon can be funny, thoughtful, trenchant, gentle and provocative as he encourages groups of people to create lyrics, rhythm and melody in bursts of collaborative enthusiasm.  He’s a highly accomplished musician himself, great with guitar and voice.  And he can use those talents to bring forth musical gifts from people who are surprised to discover they have them. “Part of it is spontaneity,” he said, describing the process. “It captures the heart, and where you are. Here’s how I characterize my skill: I’m part catalyst and part midwife. I can be an audience for you, and I’m objective.”

At a recent Plexus Institute workshop in Washington DC, hosted by Lisa Kimball, an entrepreneur, organizational development consultant in healthcare, education and businesses, and former Plexus Institute president, a small group of adults decided their first song would be about complexity and the environment.  It was a universally engaging topic that allowed ample opportunity for modification and change of direction.

Jon struck a D chord that accommodates a range of voices. “I’m a back beat guy,” he said, illustrating a steady downbeat 1 to 3 rhythm, commonly used in classical and military music. Those present called out a profusion of ideas and built on the ideas of their neighbors. Land, seas and starlight met toxic fumes and human folly.  Jon encouraged alliteration, metaphor, free wheeling discussion and advised finding “mouth friendly” words.  The verses are the beads and chorus is the thread that connects them, he explained as he drafted proposed lyrics on a white board. 

“We’re destroying the planet, trash in the sea,” the first verse began, combining several thoughts of contributors.  The conversation probed why we do these things, and how we enable heedlessness.  Are we willing to lighten our footprints? If we don’t want government intervention and regulation, and we want personal responsibility and control, the whole issue of climate change becomes ideologically fraught, observed Bruce Waltuck, who spent much of his career designing business process improvements in federal agencies.  

Lynne Feingold, who has worked in the arts and studied music and improvisation, suggested lyrics representing survival needs of living creatures, endangered by pollution and environmental degradation.  Ann-Marie Regan, an organizational development specialist who works in a highly complex health care institution, offered subtle refinements that smoothed the flow of lyrics.  The chorus, a group-creation, was optimistic. 

“We got this/together/ solutions are learned each day

Green power around us/ sun, wind water/ lead the way.

Another more lighthearted song celebrated the diversity and unexpected juxtapositions of life in Washington, DC, where an Afghan can driver is likely to be a poet and you might run into Peruvian holy men contemplating fate. The words were deliberately whimsical, and message cheerful.

  “Everyone’s welcome/ the rainbow lives here,” the chorus announced, “DC’s our home, where love conquers fear.”

When the songs were finished, Jon made CDs of the group singing them, and those present reflected on the experience.  “We jumped right into the process, and something good happened in the way we interacted and listened to each other,” observed Marc Narkus-Kramer, an executive with a background in music and engineering.  “We all worked together elaborating on each others’ ideas, and no one had too much ego involved.  This is the kind of thing that could be used in business. It could be used to create mission statements, or to get un-stuck. I’ve done some of these things in corporations, and it’s liberating.”

“It is kind of a liberating structure,” Lisa commented.  “The structures of the music and the lyrics are strengthened in the process, and some extraneous things are eliminated.” 

“We didn’t need specific criteria, but we did need to make words and music fit,” said Rich Bataglia, a musician who has taught improv to children, adults and individuals of all ages who have disabilities.   “Improv has some simple rules and complex theory.  And you don’t have to be a poet or a musician. People who can’t sing can be very helpful in crafting a melody.”

Learn more about Jon Gailmor here.


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New Year's Resolutions and Interacting Networks

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, January 9, 2017

Weight: A 'Setting of Complex Interlocking Systems'

This is the season when millions of us resolve to lose weight.  Statistically speaking, weight loss is the most common New Year’s resolution, surpassing vows to do good deeds, spend time with family and find a better job.  Researchers say it’s also the resolution most commonly broken.   

The Harvard Medical School newsletter Healthbeat  stresses we need both diet and exercise, and it urges us to keep math in mind.  One pound of body fat stores some 3,500 calories, the letter says, and walking or jogging uses only about 100 calories a mile. It’s discouraging to think you’d have to walk an extra 35 miles lose one pound. But if you eat 250 fewer calories and walk for 30 minutes every day, you could lose about a pound in a week.  

All sorts of apps are available to measure food intake and calorie burn. Scientific Reports Nature identifies a new tool—artificial intelligence.   The popular app Noom is one of the biggest to turn to AI, and it is described in a Fast Company story by Michael Grothaus. An analysis of the results of 35,921 users from 2012 to 2014 found 77.9% of participants reported a decrease in body weight and nearly 80% said they kept the weight off for more than nine months. The app uses AI to analyze a user’s food intake and exercise data and suggest personalized diets, fitness regimes, and individualized tips on nutrition and health. But Noom President Artem Petakov told Fast Company that mathematical calculations have to be paired with motivation, and that comes with a human coach. (Personalized coaching programs start at about $45 a month.)

Forget will power, Petakov advises, it’s about behavior change, and he asserts behavior change can be learned, just like math or a foreign language. You can learn what triggered bad eating habits, he says, and learn to replace bad habits with better behaviors. Of course an empathetic and knowledgeable coach helps. 

But don’t think it will be easy. A story by Gina Kolata in the New York Times Science of Fat series stresses that it’s simplistic to think there are only a few key places to intervene in the tangled web of controls that set a person’s weight. Researchers studying obese people who had bariatric surgery found there are multiple interacting mechanisms influencing weight, many of which are still not well understood. Dr. Lee Kaplan, an obesity researcher at Massachusetts General, told The Times that bariatric surgery, which only changes the digestive tract, immediately alters more than 5,000 of the 22,000 genes in the human body.  After surgery, he said, there are also changes in hormones, neurons, the white blood cells in the immune system, and in the gut microbiome, the thousands of strains of bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Weight and its management need to be viewed as an “entire setting of complex interlocking system” where a whole network of activity responds to environment as well as genes, Dr. Kaplan says. He explains that means there are whole classes of signals coming from the gut and going to the brain and that they interact to control hunger, satiety, how quickly calories are burned, and how much fat is stored on the body. To make the science of weight and obesity even harder to penetrate, these systems can vary significantly from one individual to another.    

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The Unseen Arbiters in Our Lives

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

Value Judgements Live in the Numbers

Algorithms are among the most profound invisible influences in our lives. They help us find our driving destinations, the new music and fashions we like, what we want to read or view.  They are also increasingly used in fundamental decisions about where we live, the schools we attend, the jobs we get, and what happens should we run afoul of the law. 

An algorithm is a procedure or set of instructions to solve a problem or make a data-based predictions.  Many algorithms are secret because the companies that develop them consider them proprietary. 

Increasing evidence shows many algorithms incorporate the biases of the people who write them, and some are unintentionally discriminatory.   A New York Times story by Claire Cain Miller reports, for example, that ad-targeting algorithms have shown ads for high paying jobs to men but not women, and ads for high interest loans are shown to people in low-income neighborhoods but not in upscale areas. 

While racial discrimination in housing is illegal, a Vox story by Alvin Chang illustrates how decisions on criteria for affordable housing, and the design of algorithms used in formation and ads about housing availability, can inhibit a neighborhood’s racial integration and help keep poor neighborhoods poor.  

Cynthia Dwork, a Microsoft Research computer scientist, a leading thinker on algorithm design and analysis, told the Times computer science education must stress that algorithms embody value judgments and therefore bias in the way the systems operate.   “The goal of my work is to put fairness on a firm mathematical foundation, but even I have just begun to  scratch the surface,” she said. “This entails finding a mathematically rigorous definition of fairness and developing computational methods—algorithms—that guarantee fairness.”

As part of its project “Machine Bias” examining algorithms, ProPublica looked at how the U.S. criminal justice system is increasingly using algorithms in predicting a defendant’s risk of future criminality.  An article by Julia Angwin reports that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled recently that judges could use the computer generated risk scores to determine whether a defendant received jail or probation,  but that the scores could not be “determinative.” The court also said pre-sentencing reports must warn judges about the limits of the algorithm’s accuracy.  Wisconsin has been using the risk scores for four years, but has not independently tested them for accuracy or bias.

ProPublica obtained more than 7,000 risk scores assigned to individual defendants by the company that makes the tool used in Wisconsin.  After comparing actual recidivism to the company’s predicted recidivism, Pro Publica found the scores were wrong 40 percent of the time, and that black defendants were falsely labeled future criminals at almost twice the rate of white defendants. Because the company’s proprietary risk-score formula did not have to be publicly disclosed, ProPublica was not able to examine the data or the calculations used in interpreting it.  

Angwin writes that the Court’s directive to warn judges that risk scores over-predict recidivism among black defendants is a good first step in accountability.  “Yet as we rapidly enter the era of automated decision making,” she wrote, “we should demand more than warning labels.” 

The credit score is the only algorithm that consumers have a legal right to examine, challenge and demand that erroneous data be deleted or corrected. Those rights are spelled out in the Fair Credit Reporting Act signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.  Advocates for fairness in decision-making software say that today we need the right to examine and challenge data used to make algorithmic decisions about us. 

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Profits, Long Tails and Truth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, December 31, 2016

The tantalizing opportunities for inexpensive internet marketing is creating a moral quandary for ad agencies and the brands they represent: Are they carelessly bankrolling the toxic websites that promote fake news, wild conspiracy theories and irresponsible rumor? 

A New York Times story by Sapna  Maheshwari explains much online advertising takes advantage of  the long tail of the internet.  The long tail is the name for statistical distributions found in power laws, Pareto distributions,  and exemplified in population clusters,  the occurrence of rare illnesses, and income inequality among other things.  The work of mathematician Benoit Mendelbrot has led him to be called “the father of long tails.”  Chris Anderson popularized the commercial application of term in 2004 Wired Magazine article, and elaborated on it in his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.  A long tail strategy in sales would mean selling small numbers of items from a seemingly infinite inventory to large numbers of people could produce more profit than selling blockbuster items to fewer people.

“The long tail is to advertising what the subprime was to mortgages,” said John Marchese, president of advertising products for the Fox Networks Group, told the Times. . “No one knows what’s in it, but it helps people believe there is a mysterious tonnage of impressions that are really low cost.” “Impressions” is an advertising industry term that generally means an ad has been displayed and can be viewed.

Prominent well-established online sites usually deal directly with their advertisers.  For a fraction of the cost a complex system of agencies and third party networks can place ads on thousands of smaller little-known sites, such blogs and niche sites that draw small but attractive audiences such as parents or trucking enthusiasts.  The system is automated, and as Marchese explains, it is set up to reward clicks and impressions. That reward, according to Marc Goldberg, chief executive of Trust Metrics, an ad safety vendor, has fueled the introduction of low quality sites in the advertising ecosystem.  Technology that can protect brands from appearing on sites that feature violence and pornography has been less effective in weeding out site for irresponsible fake news.

In addition to deliberately fabricated partisan news, teenagers and young adults in the U.S. and abroad this year discovered they could make easy money creating fake news sites and making up rabidly partisan stories intended to be spread Facebook and circulated through Google. Google and Facebook have both announced plans to target false information.

VOX reported researchers found several pernicious fake stories, which even after being discredited, got vastly more shares and reached more people than stories from respected traditional news sources. Further, Vox reported that earlier this year investigations conducted by BuzzFeed found that nearly 40 percent of the content published by far right Facebook pages and 19 percent of the content published by extreme left-leaning Facebook pages was false or misleading.  BuzzFeed even found that in one own in Macedonia, a ring of teens was making money by publishing thousands of fake right-wing news stories across hundreds of fake news websites. Anytime a story went viral, they’d make money on the ads that accompanied it.

Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as the 2016 word of the year. And the “post” in this hyphenated term doesn’t just mean “after.” The Oxford announcement explains "post" now has an expanded meaning signifying that it “belongs to a time when the specified concept (truth) has become unimportant or irrelevant.”


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