Have Confidence in Algorithms

On Christmas Eve Eric Meyer wrote about Facebook’s Year in Review in a post titled Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty. Eric’s daughter died on her sixth birthday this year, and when Facebook suggested he share his Year in Review it featured photo of his daughter and the caption “It’s been a great year.” When he tried to dismiss the prompt the Facebook app crashed.

This is a huge oversight Facebook’s part. Some percentage of their over one billion users experience tragedy every year and shared a relevant photo on Facebook. By choosing the photo that generated the most responses as each user’s cover story it is highly likely that photos from tragic moments appear as the Year in Review prompt. Reading the comments on Eric’s post and on the mainstream media stories about his experience show that there are plenty of people who had a similar experience.

Other comments and responses show a lack of confidence that Facebook, and computer science in general, can do better. Comments say things like “the algorithmic approach… is almost certain to kick us at the end of a bad year” or a comment on the follow-up post: “the year in review algorithm brings things to the fore without understanding. Only humans can do that and the negative aspects only exist in the edge cases.” This is wrong. Facebook can do, and should have done, better, as can any algorithm-based system. In this case eliminating posts with a comment containing the text “for your loss” would have removed many, probably most, of the painful posts from the year in review. Surely Facebook is capable of doing sentiment analysis on each user’s year of posts then making a choice to prompt that user to create a Year in Review or not. If they want to really help maybe they can do something to help or console people who had a terrible year. After the media exposure this year I am sure that Facebook will make changes and avoid this problem next year, they may have fixed it already.

We can do better. When designing any system that will interact with people we can consider those in pain and try, at a minimum, to avoid deepening it. It’s not something that we have done well so far, but Eric is trying to change that, and so should we all.

Blog Launch: Fascinating Names

Today I’m announcing the launch of a new blog: Fascinating Names. A while ago I was reading about a street with a strange name and thought that a blog that had some of the stories behind that kind of name would be a pretty interesting read, so a couple of weeks ago I snapped up fascinatingnames.com, bought the Neutica+ WordPress theme, and got to work. I’ll be posting a new name over there every day or two, so check it out, subscribe, follow @fascinames on twitter, and enjoy.

Downloading Firefox 3

Today is Download Day and there has been a lot of griping about the servers going down.  Well, it looks like the servers are back up again.  I hadn’t tried earlier, (well, I tried at 10 AM EDT, since I’d read that FF3 was going to be available at 10 AM, but apparently the article I read forgot to mention the timezone.  10 AM = 1 PM).

I have now downloaded Firefox 3 with no problems at all and am writing this post using it.  I had played around with some of the release candidates but hadn’t been using them full-time because of plugin compatibility, (I’m looking at you Firebug).

Speaking of Firebug, it didn’t upgrade automatically when I installed FF3 as it should have, and when I went to getfirebug.com I got no response.  After a quick Google search I discovered that getfirebug.com has been down for a bit, (ownership is being transferred to Mozilla so this never happens again).  However, you can download Firebug 1.2 from Mozilla, (this is the FF3-compatible version).

So I am now running FF3, (and keeping a copy of FF2 around for testing). If you want FF3, get it here.

Regulation Needed in the Carbon Credit Industry

When I wrote recently about the carbon credit industry I tried to make the distinction between good bad carbon credits. Today wired.com has a story about an Australian company that is planning on dumping urea into the ocean. This urea, (which is very high in nitrogen), is supposed to feed algae & plankton in the area, which in turn will use carbon dioxide from the air. When this algae & plankton dies, so the theory goes, it will sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the carbon with it.

A plan like this screams for regulation. Does dumping nitrogen into the ocean really sound like a good idea? We’ve been told for years not to use soap or fertilizers with too much nitrogen in it because it unbalances the ecosystem of the bodies of water where the runoff ends up.

Not only does this plan pollute in ways that we’ve been trying to avoid for years, but it is also next to impossible to measure how much carbon will be sequestered, (if any), by this project.

That’s about all I have to say, read the article yourself and form your own opinions.

Pop!Tech Carbon Offset Initiative: Excellent Example

On Monday I wrote about Carbon Credits and was fairly negative about the way the industry is currently set up. Well, I just read an article on Wired.com that gives me hope.

Pop!Tech and Ebay have teamed up to create the Pop!Tech Carbon Initiative. They started selling carbon credits today and will continue to do so through the end of the year. The thing that sets the Pop!Tech Carbon Initiative apart from other carbon offset vendors is that you can actually choose the project that your offset will contribute to. There are three projects. You pick one and buy the offset and your money goes to that project.

Personally, I would like to see the projects certified as Gold Standard, or something similar, (they’re not at the moment), however since I can choose which project my credits support I can support the project that I believe is best, (for example one of the projects involves reforestation — I would likely choose another project).

Finally, this quote from the Pop!Tech Carbon Offset Initiative website that really drives home the concept of additionality in carbon offset projects:

It is essential that the activity you are supporting would not otherwise have happened. So if someone is installing a solar hot water system on their roof, for instance, which will reduce the amount of gas they burn to heat water, and you offer to pay for half of it, that is not a valid carbon offset.