Will Big Data Kill Creativity?

Analytics has turned its attention toward ebook readers. Companies can now track the way you read; it may have implications for the way authors write. From the NY Times:

The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all…

At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end…

He contrasted two romance novels. One had few Amazon reviews and little promotion, but Scribd’s data showed 6 out of 10 readers were finishing it — above average for the genre. Another romance had hundreds of reviews on Amazon, but only about 4 out of 10 readers bothered to finish it. They began closing the book, the data showed, when the writer plunged deeper into fantasy. Maybe this was not a good idea.

Some writers, of course, might not be receptive to hearing this.

“If you aren’t careful, you could narrow your creativity. You won’t take risks,” said Ms. Loftis, the young adult novelist. “But the bigger risk is not giving the reader what she wants. I’ll take all the data I can get.”

All atoms are the same, life is an illusion, and God is real

A commentary from Scientific American argues life does not exist:

“Why is defining life so frustratingly difficult? Why have scientists and philosophers failed for centuries to find a specific physical property or set of properties that clearly separates the living from the inanimate? Because such a property does not exist. Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”

When I posted this on my Facebook page a few Christian friends objected. I am quite non-religious myself, but I feel there is still a strong philosophical argument that can be made for accepting the paragraph above and maintaining one’s faith in God:

I find this explanation wholly consistent with the existence of God. If both God and people exist he evidently made us out of something. Simply because he chose the same something to make both humans and, say, chairs does not imply there is not a hidden spiritual division between the two groups of atoms. Presumably God did not design a world where faith can only be accessed through a sophisticated understanding of modern science; otherwise He has condemned the unscientific mind without due consideration. Rather, faith in God’s existence should be apparent simply from the beauty of our visible world, the spiritual ties we feel toward one another, and the subtle yet distinct direction from God in our lives (which is especially evident after introduction to the teachings of Jesus Christ). That is, faith must be immune to the vicissitudes of scientific thought. Faith must be flexible enough to accept scientific discoveries in the physical and natural sciences, but rigid enough to maintain value in its own right. Some might say that science is the champion of imagination, but that faith is the ruler of the heart.

A Defense Against Mood Affiliation

Start with the proposition that outrage/support/passion should be proportional to knowledge. In other words, I should not be angry about something I know little about. Proceed through the following questions to assess how angry/supportive you should be (mainly relevant to issues of public policy):

1. Can I answer the next logical question to my statement? For example, if I am passionate that rich people do not pay enough in taxes can I answer the next obvious question, “How much do rich people pay in taxes?”


2. If I answered “yes” to #1 can I extend my knowledge one  step further and answer, “What do poor people pay in taxes? What do people in general pay?”


3. Take another step. Do I know the working definition of key terms? For instance, what does “effective marginal tax rate” mean or “proven oil reserves” or even “income”?


4. …and one more step, “Have I ever in my life read a single academic article/working paper/or think tank report about the issue?


5a. Now take a big leap toward knowledge about the subject more generally. What portion of the issue do I know (divide what I know by what is known)?

5b. Do I know enough to accurately estimate the denominator of 4a? 

If I believe FDR was the greatest American President presumably I should know a significant amount about the other 43 presidents. But knowing the number of US presidents is easy. Figuring how the evidence in support of different views on, say, income inequality or the minimum wage is more difficult. It’s hard for a layperson to even scope the amount of knowledge in existence. 4b is the step many otherwise well-educated people will fail. 


6a. What evidence would need to be presented for me to change my mind?

6b. Does that evidence already exist?

6c. Am I  sure (think again about step 4b)?


7a. Are there smart, knowledgeable people who disagree with me?

7b. What is their argument, how would I respond to it, and how would they respond to my response?


Select an issue at random. I would argue that with probability near 1 it cannot pass through the preceding sieve and remain unscathed even if conducted by an expert in the field. Most issues are extremely complicated. Most intellectuals will argue that “reasonable people can disagree.” Yet many less informed citizens would argue “anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot.” Next time you find yourself wanting to scream that at the top of your lungs try to answer the questions above. Maybe you’ll realize you’re not as sure as you think.


Things I do and don’t hear

In the category of “signs of mood affiliation” here is a short list of things I do an don’t hear:

1. Do hear: “Who funded that study showing GMOs weren’t that bad?”

Don’t hear: “Who funded that study showing climate change is a serious problem to future human health?”

2. Do hear: “Are you aware of the methodological and measurement problems of GDP?”

Don’t hear: “Are you aware of the methodological and measurement problems of the inequality data?”

3. Do hear: “That scathing op-ed in the New York Times by the ex-Wall Street executive really hit the nail on the head.”

Don’t hear: “That scathing op-ed in the New York Times by the ex-Wall Street executive was an ‘n’ of 1.”

Do hear: “That interview with the Iraqi teenager who supported America’s invasion was an ‘n’ of 1. Surely, there are many other contrary opinions among Iraqis.”

4. Do hear: “You can’t trust the Coors executive’s argument about alcohol consumption. He works for a brewing company, he’s totally biased!”

Don’t hear: “You can’t trust the MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving) spokesperson’s word about alcohol consumption, her son was killed by a drunk driver, she’s totally biased!”

5. Do hear: “We need to learn from and honor the traditional practices of the Tanzanian farmer.”

Don’t hear: “We need to learn from and honor the scientific techniques of the modern American farmer.”

Excuses I Have Received for Date Cancellations:

-My car broke down and I’m stuck at work

-I forgot I have to take my niece to the fair

-I’ve met someone and I want to see where it goes

-I double booked myself, I have to go to a table gaming birthday party

-I had to take my dog to the emergency vet and now I have to keep an eye on him

-I’m at my friend’s BBQ

-YOU never confirmed so I made other plans

-My tummy hurts (very popular)

-It won’t be sunny

-I’m a boring person and I don’t know what to do

-I can’t make it (no explanation)

The worst part about these excuses is that they often come when I message to confirm. As in: “Hey we’re still on for Odd Fellows at 8 right?” “I can’t, my tummy hurts.” Um…feel free to tell me that BEFORE I message you to confirm. What if I would’ve just shown up?!?! Younger women (I’m 33) tend to give more excuses, but this is not universal.