Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

Google News: Positives, Negatives, and the Rest

16 Nov

Google News is the sixth most visited news site, according to Alexa Web Traffic Rankings. Given its popularity, it deserves closer attention.

What is Google News? Google News is a news aggregation service that scours around ten thousand news sources, categorizes the articles and ranks them. What sets Google News apart is that it is not monetized. It doesn’t feature ads. Nor does it have deals with publishers. The other distinguishing part is that it is run by software engineers rather than journalists.

Criticisms

1. Copyright: Some argue that the service infringes of copyrights.

2. Lost Revenue: Some argue that the service causes news sources to lose revenue.

3. Popular is not the same as important or diverse: Google News highlights popular stories and sources. In doing so, it likely exacerbates the already large gap between popular news stories and viewpoints and the rest. The criticism doesn’t ring true. Google News merely mimics the information (news) and economic topography of the real world, which encompasses the economic underpinnings of the virtual world as in better-funded sites tend to be more popular or firms more successful in real world may have better-produced sites and hence may, in turn, attract more traffic. It does, however, bring into question whether Google can do better than merely mimic the topography of the world. There are, of course, multiple problems associated with any such venture, especially for Google, whose search algorithm is built around measuring popularity and authority of sites. The key problem is that news is not immune to being anything more than a popularity contest shepherded by rating (euphemism for financial interests) driven news media. A look at New York Times homepage, with extensive selection of lifestyle articles, gives one an idea of the depth of the problem. So if Google were to venture out and produce a list of stories that were sorted by relevance to say policy, not that any such thing can be done, there is a good chance that an average user will find the news articles irrelevant. Of course, a user-determined topical selection of stories would probably be very useful for users. While numerous social scientists have issued a caveat against adopting the latter approach arguing that it may lead to further atomization and decline in sociotropism, I believe that their appeals are disingenuous given that specialized interest in narrowly defined topics and interests in global news can flower together.

4. Transparency: Google News is not particularly transparent in the way it functions. Given the often abstruse and economically constrained processes that determine the content of newspapers, I don’t see why Google News process is any less transparent. I believe the objection primarily stems from people’s discomfort with automated processes determining the order and selection of news items. Automated processes don’t imply that they aren’t based on adaptive systems based on criteria commonly used by editors across newsrooms. More importantly, Google News works off the editorial decisions made by organizations across the board, for they include details like placement and section of the article within the news site as a pointer for the relative importance of the news article. At this point, we may also want to deal with the question of accountability, as pertaining to the veracity of news items. Given that Google News provides a variety of news sources, it automatically provides users with a way to check for inconsistencies within and between articles. In addition, Google News relies on the fact that in this day and age, some blogger will post an erratum to a “Google News source” site, of which there are over ten thousand, and that in turn may be featured within Google News.

Positives

Google News gives people the ability to mine through a gargantuan number of news sources and come up with a list of news stories on the same “topic” (or event) and the ability to search for a particular topic quickly. One can envision that both the user looking for a diversity of news sources or looking for quick information on a particular topic, could both be interested in other related information on the topic. More substantively, Google News may want to collate information from its web, video and image search, along with links to key organizations mentioned in the websites and put then right next to the link to the story. For example, BBC offers a related link to India’s country profile next to a story on India. Another way Google News can add value for its users is by leveraging the statistics it compiles of when and where news stories were published, stories published in the last 24 hrs or 48 hrs etc. I would love to see a feature called the “state of news” that shows statistical trends on news items getting coverage, patterns of coverage etc. (this endeavor would be similar to Google Trends)

Diversity of News Stories

What do we mean by diversity and what kind of diversity would users find most useful? Diversity can mean diverse locations—publishers or datelines, viewpoint—for or against an issue, depth—a quick summary or a large tome, medium—video, text, or audio, type of news—reporting versus analysis. Of course, Google can circumvent all of these concerns by setting up parallel mechanisms for all the measures it deems important. For example, a map/google news “mashup” can prove to be useful in highlighting where news is currently coming from. Going back to the topic of ensuring diversity – conceptual diversity is possibly the hardest to implement. There can be a multitude of angles for a story – not just for and against binary positions and facets can quickly become unruly, indefensible and unusable. For example if it splits news stories based on news sources (like liberal or conservative – people will argue over whether right categorizations were chosen or even about the labeling, for example, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives) or organizations cited (for example there is a good chance that an article using statistics from Heritage foundation leans in a conservative direction but that is hardly a rule). Still, I feel that these measures can prove to be helpful in at least mining for a diversity of articles on the same topic. One of the challenges of categorization is to come up with “natural” categories as in coming up with categorization that is “intuitive” for people. Given the conceptual diversity and the related abstruseness, Google may though want to preclude offering them as clickable categories to users thought it may want to use the categorization technique to display “diverse” stories. Similarly, more complex statistical measures can also prove to be useful in subcategorization, for example providing a statistical reference to the most common phrases or keywords or even Amazon like statistics on the relative hardness of reading. Google News may also just want to list the organizations cited in the news article and leave the decision of categorization to users.

Beyond Non-Profit
Google News’ current “philanthropic” (people may argue otherwise viewing it as a publicity stunt) model is fundamentally flawed for it may restrict the money it needs to innovate and grow. Hence, it is important that it explores possible monetization opportunities. There are two possible ways to monetize Google News – developing a portal (like Yahoo!) and developing tools or services that it can charge for. While Google is already forging ahead with its portal model, it has yet to make appreciable progress in offering widely incorporable tools for its Google News service. There is a strong probability that news organizations would be interested in buying a product that displays “related news items” next to news articles. This is something that Technorati already for does for blogs but there is ample room for both, additional players, and for improving the quality of the content. It would be interesting to see a product that helps display Google News results along with Google image, blog, and video search results.

A Response to Sherry Turkle

16 Nov

Chaste, who has contributed earlier to the site, critiques an article by Sherry Turkle.

Her article:
http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/whitherpsychoanalysis.html

Chaste’s response –

My main issue is that it is a sloppily done article. A thorough piece generally bases itself on a careful theoretical apparatus or produces such solid evidence that most of its claims are very difficult to argue against. This author simply strings together a bunch of speculations, at least 70% of which have at least equally convincing arguments against them. I simply do not see the point of such pieces, for they are little better than a chat-like aggregation of ideas. And her efforts at an MIT-based incestuous self-aggrandizement do little for the credibility of her analysis.

Here are just a few examples to show how very thorough she is in her sloppiness. She talks about the possibility of exploring alternative personas in cyberspace, and how this represents a very different possibility of self-exploration than anything that went before. But isn’t she led to such conclusions by assuming as given that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is more analogous to “reality” than to fantasy as “virtual” would suggest? Thus, couldn’t a man in his fantasy life in decades and centuries past explore alternative personas based on the films he watched from day to day or the gossip stories he read in newspapers or heard from neighbors? Or take her example of the effect of HCI affection in the shaping of emotions. None of her examples go beyond children aged 10: a time at which they have barely outgrown belief in the tooth fairy. Unless she can give substantial evidence of emotions in adult lives, why should we distinguish HCI from the countless other things that children set store by? And when she does venture into adult HCI, her ineptness is only laughable. She talks of a man who chooses a female persona as a convenient outlet for his assertiveness. First, the man’s responses are reactive rather than exploration-oriented; second, his choice of a female persona appears to be dictated by little more than convenience. Only in an age of post-modernist sloppiness can the choice of a convenient medium be confused with meaningful self-exploration. And I do not need to tell you that avatars are not aspects or sub-personalities of Hindu gods, but are their incarnations: the latter is a discrete entity at a point in time throughout all space.

And now to a couple of things in this essay that actually sparked my interest. First, of course, is the definition of what it is to be human, and why I find it rather absurd that humans would ever accord machines a similar status. At one time, I had toyed with the idea that what gives human beings their uniqueness is an arbitrariness induced by biochemical arbitrariness in their responses to various stimuli. But frankly, all that is pointless palaver. No one has ever seriously taken any definition of humanity based on objective ideas like intelligence. All those crappy definitions of race were largely based in politics and economics, and what support they got from neutral academics was largely based on those academics being at their wits end to produce a logical rebuttal. What people perceive as most worthy about themselves is inevitably what has always driven their definition of what is human. Thus, there were very few serious Christians who ever subscribed to the racial hierarchies of 19th-century race science, precisely because they saw in non-white people the same capacity for Christian redemption that they most valued in themselves. What people regard as valuable can of course change. But let me glance at some of the odds stacked against machine creations. I will start by assuming a sophisticated persona that is not programmed with a limited set of instructions but is constantly changing itself based on selective crawling of web data. As such it would be a storehouse of information and insights on any topic including the manners of various subgroups of our times that a human could only dream of. Given current IP laws, digitally generated personas cannot be owned by the owner of the persona generator. Besides, such persona generators are unlikely to be monopolies. Hence the personas will lack that most important value in human eyes, namely, market value. They will be infinitely reproducible. It is also impossible to conceive of personas as serious stakeholders which could accrue value for themselves through participation in the market and in social spaces. Who would allow a persona a serious stake in anything when that demand for a stake could simply be disposed of with a mouse-click? It is difficult to see why personas should be much more effective than the characters in Shakespeare or in Emily Bronte. Claiming this would be succumbing to the seduction by the latest medium: no different from claims by conservatives about the effect of media violence based on an assumed confusion between reality and screen by the audience.

The other point that interested me pertains to the possible psycho-pharmacological uses of such personas. I think she is trying to make the point seem more important than it is by using some trendy term like “psycho-pharmacological.” The fact that she talks about them primarily in relation to children and the elderly points out the less glamorous spin on it, namely, that they are more effective toys at killing time and keeping unproductive people occupied at low cost. She could have pointed out (which she does not) that intelligent personas could be used as effective and cheap socializing tools both for children and for entrants into a new culture. But doubtless, that sounds less sexy.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.

Comments Please! The Future Of Blog Comments

11 Nov

Often times the comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point, continue endlessly, and are generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best, and a substantial distraction at worst. Here, I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that, firstly, the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and, secondly, that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap.

One way to “fix” this problem is by having a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote for, or against, the comment. This occasionally leads to rating “spam”. The BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article, and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic, or informational blurb, of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that adds a hyperlink to relevant portions of the story in comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments. These are often posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will encourage users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user, leading to him/her adding a longer, more pointless comment or just giving up. On average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider developing algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article – to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, this follow-up piece will be able to solicit more comments, and the process would repeat again, helping to take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated!

Making Comments More Useful

10 Nov

Often times comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point; continue endlessly and generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best and a substantial distraction at worst. Here below I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems so to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that firstly the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and secondly that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap. One way to “fix” this problem is by using a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote ( Phillip Winn) for or against the comment leading occasionally to rating “spam”. BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic or informational blurb of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that hyperlinks relevant portions of the story to comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments, often times posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will prod users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user leading to him/her adding a longer more pointless comment or just giving up but on an average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider coding in algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article- to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, then this follow up piece will be able to solicit more comments and the process repeated again helping take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated.

Advice on Studying in the US: Why, Why Not, and How

8 Nov

The number of foreign students studying in the US increased for the first time in four years buoyed by a 32% increase in the number of Indians joining graduate programs. Graduate education in the US has become increasingly popular for Indians meanwhile undergraduate population of Indian students in the US is still far behind (about a sixth of the graduate population) and for good reason. Here below I try to come up with a guide to issues that an incoming undergraduate applicant may want to think about before coming to the US.

Why not?

Finances: Undergraduate education in the US is extremely expensive, especially at top-tier private schools, and given the income disparity (in dollar terms) between India and US. In addition, the chances that an international student will get hired right away after graduation with a top-notch salary are slim given visa issues. A prospective undergraduate applicant may also want to factor in the pressure that s/he is likely to come under (or feel) if his/her parents are taking a large loan to finance their education. There is also a good chance that the undergraduate will probably have to work 20 hours per week (or more illegally) to supplement his or her income, which in turn will cut into the study time.

Age and associated factors: Add to the above the fact the relative immaturity and youth that make it harder to adjust to a completely new culture. It is not merely adjusting to a new culture but adapting to it to such a degree, and with enough rapidity, so as not distract you from studies for a significant time.

Why?

Going to a liberal arts college in the US allows one a lot of choices in sampling different courses. This kind of choice is relatively absent in colleges in Asia or even Europe. Then there are top-tier facilities, labs, faculty etc. which may make the expense seem worthwhile. In addition, doing an undergraduate degree will almost certainly improve your chances of doing graduate school here.

If you have considered the above arguments and still want to apply for getting an undergraduate degree in the US, then here is the drill –

Decided? Then Prepare

The preparation should ideally start at least about a year and a half before you want to join the school. An international student needs to give TOEFL (Test for English as a foreign language), SAT and generally SAT 2s in at least one or more subjects – especially if you are applying to top universities. English, of course, would be the main challenge. Given that SAT now has a writing section; it is of paramount importance that students develop good writing skills. You may want to engage a tutor to understand “expository” writing techniques. A preparation program can be really helpful especially because you will get to meet people who are in the same boat. Preparation center staff can also provide you helpful pointers on admission essays etc.

Schools: It is foolhardy to limit your choices to Harvard or MIT or two other top universities that you may have heard of in India. There are a lot of top-tier universities in the US including Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, Yale, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Georgetown etc. It is imperative that you apply to at least 8 -10 universities. There may also be an argument for applying to mid-ranked private schools like Boston University or NYU for typically they have the dollars to fund top international students. One type of university you don’t want to apply to is – large state universities that never fund international students at undergraduate level and typically won’t do much for your career prospects.

Funding: A lot of top universities engage in what is called “need-blind admission”. Chances are that once you are admitted into Harvard or Yale and don’t have the money to pay for their tuition, they will pony up the rest. On the other hand, chances are that your family will still need to contribute a good 10-15 grand a year. It is also a mistake to imagine that all the “aid” from universities will be in the form of grants, a majority of the aid is in the form of subsidized loans.

Application: The art of getting into a US university is self-aggrandizement and careful positioning. It is expected that your application will include records of volunteer activity, membership to various clubs and other “leadership” experience. The other important thing in application is how you place yourself academically – here’s what I mean – say, if you are great in Chemistry – give a SAT II exam for Chemistry and get a 750 plus score on it and then write how much you want to get a Chemistry degree in your “Statement of Purpose”. Given the way universities in US work, one can change fields on the first day of the school so you can still do engineering or English literature.

Remaking Blog Powered Webzines

5 Nov

“Eight percent of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs,” according to a study (pdf) conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The astounding number of people who maintain blogs, nearly all of whom have joined the bandwagon in the past couple of years, has been driven by the fact that blogs have finally delivered the promise of Internet – they have given an average user the ability to self-publish. Of course, the self-publishing revolution has not been limited to blogs but extends to places like myspace.com, flickr.com, and youtube.com- that have lowered the bar to “publish” content to the world.

From blogs to better content

The popularity of blogs has led to the creation of enormous amount of content. This, in turn, has spawned a home industry devoted to finding ways to sift through the content that has led to the evolution of things like tagging, “digging”, RSS, blog aggregators, and edited multiple contributor driven sites like huffingtonpost.com and blogcritics.org. Among all the above innovations, it is the last innovation I am particularly excited about for it has the capability of creating robust well written independent online magazines. For these sites to be able to compete with the ‘establishment magazines’ like Newsweek, they need to rethink their business and creative plan. Most importantly, they need to focus on the following issues –

  1. Redesign and repackage. For sites like blogcritics.org to move to the next level, they need to pay more attention to web design and packaging of their stories. To accomplish this, they may want to assign “producers” for the home page and beyond. “Producers” would be in charge of creating a layout for the home page, choosing the news stories and the multimedia elements displayed there. By assigning more resources on design and slotting multimedia elements, the sites can add to the user experience.

    There are twin problems with implementing this feature – labor and coming up with graphics. Blogcritics.org portrays itself as a destination for top writers and hence fails to attract talent in other areas critical to developing an online news business including web and multimedia design and development.

    Blogcritics.org and other sites similar to it should try to reach out to other segments of professionals (like graphic designers, photo editors) needed to produce a quality magazine. They may also want to invest programming resources in creating templates to display photo galleries and other multimedia features. In addition, these sites may want to tap into the user base of sites like Flickr and Youtube so as to expand the magazine to newer vistas like news delivered via audio or video.

  2. Most read stories/ emailed stories list and relevant stories– Provide features on the site that make the reader stay longer on the site including providing a list of most read or emailed stories. Another feature that can prove to be useful is providing a list of other relevant stories from history and even link to general information sites like Wikipedia. This adds value to the user experience by providing them access to more in-depth information on the topic.
  3. Comments – Comments are integral to sites like blogcritics.org but they have not been implemented well. Comments sections tend to be overrun by repeated entries, pointless entries, grammatical and spelling errors, spamming and running far too long. To solve this, they should create a comment rating mechanism, and think about assigning a writer to incorporate all the relevant points from comments and put it in a post. A Gmail like innovation that breaks up comments into discussions on a topic can also come in handy.
  4. Most successful webzines have been ones that have focused on a particular sector or a product like webzines devoted to Apple computers. The market for news, ideas, and reviews is much more challenging and the recent move by Gannet to use blog content will make it much harder to retain quality content producers. Hence, one must start investigating revenue sharing mechanisms for writers and producers and tie their earnings to the number of hits their articles get.
  5. Start deliberating about an ethics policy for reviewing items including guidelines on conflict of interest, usage of copyrighted content, plagiarism etc. and publish those guidelines and set up appropriate redressal mechanisms for settling the disputes.
  6. Create technical solutions for hosting other media including audio, images, and video.
  7. Come up with a clear privacy and copyright policy for writers, users who comment, and content buyers. In a related point, as the organization grows, it will become important to keep content producers and other affiliates informed of any deals the publishers negotiate.
  8. Allow a transparent and simple way for writers/editors to issue corrections to published articles.

Playing with Numbers: Coming up with Objective Ratings of a Subjective Reality

1 Nov

Statistics are only meaningful to the extent that people can identify the phenomenon being measured, come up with a sensible measurement scales to measure primary or secondary observable phenomena and then interpret the results and display them in a lucid fashion. Often times that’s too much to ask and our world is now crumbling under the load of heaps of pointless incomprehensible statistics.

Increasingly, we are trying to understand the world around us via numbers. To this end, a host of research centers and organizations now annually release rankings on issues ranging from corruption to democracy to freedom of press. These rankings are then featured on prime real estate across media and used in homilies, laudatory notes and everything in-between; to buttress indefensible claims; and to bring a sense of “objectivity” to a media-saturated with rants of crazed morons.

“Lost in translation” are subtleties of data, methods of data collection and of analysis, and the caveats. What remains, often times, are savaged numbers that peddle whatever theory that you want them to hawk.

Understanding with numbers

The field of social science has been revolutionized in the recent decades with “positivist” approaches using statistics dominating the field. The rise in importance of “numbers” in research is not incidental for numbers provide powerful new ways, particularly statistics, to analyze concepts. Today numbers are used to understand everything from democracy to emotions. But how do we go about measuring things and assigning number to thing which we haven’t yet even been able to define, much less explain?

Let me narrow my focus to creation, interpretation and usage of rankings to substantiate the problems with using statistics.

More Specifically, Rankings

Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters without Borders and henceforth called RSF) came out with its annual “Worldwide Press Freedom Rankings”. The latest rankings place USA at 53, along with Botswana and Tonga, India at 105 while Jamaica and Liberia are ranked 26 and 83 respectively. The top-ranked South Asian country in the rankings is Bhutan at 98. Intuitively, the rankings don’t make any sense and a little digging into RSF’s methodology for compiling these rankings explains why.

Media’s fascination with rankings

The rankings received wide attention and made it to the front pages of countless newspapers. There is a reason why rankings are the choice nourishment of media starved of any “real information”. Numbers capture, or so is thought, a piece of “objective” information about the “reality”. Their usage is buoyed by the fact that rankings are seductively simple and easy to interpret. Everyone seems to intuitively know the difference between first and second. All that needs to be done is present the fluff, the requisite shock and horror and the article is written.

On to the problems with rankings or the “rank smell”

How can you measure objectively when you need a subjective criterion to come up with a scale?

This is something I raise earlier when I talk about how we can understand concepts like democracy or say emotions using numbers. Researchers do it by assigning number or related phenomenon – in the case of emotions it may be checking the heart rate or doing a brain scan or counting the number of times you use certain words, while in the case of democracy it can be how frequently the elites change, or how many people vote in the elections. But still numerous problems remain especially when we try to order these relatively hazily defined concepts. Say for example the elite turnover in US Congress has of late been fairly close to 2% and that doesn’t seem fairly democratic to me and how does it compare with somewhere like India, where elite turnover may be higher but where members of one family have held key positions in India politics since inception.

Relativity
To rank something means to determine the relative position of something. Rankings NEVER tell one about absolute position of something unless of course they are an incidental result of a score on a shared scale. For instance – RSF’s ranking of USA at 53 in the worldwide press freedom rankings doesn’t tell one whether USA’s press enjoys freedom over say a particular bare threshold below which a functioning press can’t be legitimately said to exist. A lot of people have misinterpreted India’s slide from 80, in 2002, to 105. They believe that it is a slide in absolute terms but the rankings only tell us of a slide in relative terms. There may be an argument to made that India is doing better than it is doing in 2002 in absolute terms but not in relative terms to say other countries. In other words, the press freedom in India may have improved since 2002 but as compared to other countries, India’s press is less free today.

The scale of things

To rank something, one has to use a common scale. Generally a scale, especially one measuring a complex concept like democracy, would be a composite scale of a variety of variables. One now needs to think of a couple of things. How does one weight the variables in the scale between time periods and between countries? For example how do you account for higher usage rates of media in one country (and possibly associated higher level of censorship) to say a country with low media usage and possibly lower total censorship? One may also argue that the media penetration is lower by deliberate action (as in limitation for foreign content owners to broadcast) or other factors (poverty). One must also tackle the problem of assigning “weight” to each facet.

Methodology

RSF ranking are based on a non-representative survey of pre-chosen experts. Hence it is more of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than a scientific survey. Statistics gets its power of generalizability from the concept of randomization. RSF methodology is more akin to conducting a poll of television pundits on who will win the elections and I am fairly sure that the results would be more often wrong than right.

Secondly, questionnaire includes questions about topics like Internet censorship. No explicit mechanism has been detailed where we know that these scores are weighted based on say Internet penetration in each country. If no cases of Internet censorship was reported in Ghana, and it consequently gets a higher ranking as compared to a country Y whose press is freer but did report one case of Internet censorship – it implies the system is flawed. Let me give you another example. India has the largest number of newspapers in the world and there is a good chance that the total number of journalists harassed may well exceed that of Eritrea. It doesn’t automatically flow that Eritrean press is freer. One may need to account for not only the number of journalists (for more journalists per capita may mean a freer press) but also crime against journalists per capita. In the same vein we may need to account for countries which in general have a high crime rate and where journalists by pure chance, rather than say a government witch hunt, may have a higher chance of dying.

One also need to account for the fact that statistics on these crimes are hard to come by especially in poor countries with barebones media and there is a good chance that they are under-reported there.

On the positive side
Rankings do give one some estimate about the relative freedom of a country. Proximity to Saudi Arabia in the ranking does give us an idea about the relative media freedom.

A lot of the criticism lobbed against India’s low placement in the RSF rankings has been prompted by people’s perception of India as a functioning democracy with a relatively free press. What goes unmentioned are episodes like Tehelka and the one faced by Rajdeep Sardesai of recently. India’s press, especially in small towns, is constantly under pressure from the local politicians who monitor aggressively.

What can RSF do?
I would like to see a more detailed report on each country especially marking areas where India is lagging behind. Release more data. Aside from protecting sources, there should be no concerns regarding release of more data. Release it to the world so policymakers and citizens can better understand where improvements need be made.

Release a composite score index that is comparable across time rather than countries. There are far too many problems comparing countries. Controlling for major variables like economic growth etc., we can get a fairly good estimate of how things changed in the course of a set of years.

Conclusion

Whenever we do use numbers to understand concepts, we sacrifice something in what we understand or our conceptual understanding. Some numbers like demographics are relatively non-debatable. Even there debates have arisen in defining who are say Caucasians etc? More debatable are how numbers are used in say the realm of content analysis. What does it mean when a person says a particular word in a sentence? Does it mean that somebody who uses the word “evil” twice in describing Bush hates him twice as much as the person who only uses it once? The understanding and “counting” of words has largely been limited to simple linear additions. We haven’t yet tried understanding strength of words as an equation of countless variables or more importantly learned how to work with that much data so we use shortcuts in our understanding.

Numbers can give one a sense of false objectivity. The ways numbers are trimmed and chopped to support a particular point of view leave them meaningless, yet powerful.

The problems that I describe above are twin fold – errors in coming up with rankings and errors in reporting the rankings. In all, we need to be careful about the numbers we see and use. It doesn’t mean that we need to distrust all the statistics that we see and burrow our nose but we can do well by being careful and honest.

Closing Thought

According to UNECA, Ethiopia “counted 75 000 computers in 2001 and 367 000 television sets in 2000. Only 2.8 % of the total number of households in the country had access to television and approximately 18.4 % of people had a radio station in 1999 and 2000.” These numbers do inform. They talk about poverty. For the West, obsessed with issues of liberty and running from its own increasingly authoritarian regimes, press freedom is “the” issue. In the hustle, they miss some of the more important numbers coming from other countries that tell different stories.