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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.

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The Numlock Podcast Walter Hickey

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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.

numlock.substack.com

    Numlock Sunday: Joshua Darr on the great Palm Springs opinion page experiment

    Numlock Sunday: Joshua Darr on the great Palm Springs opinion page experiment

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to Joshua Darr, professor of political communication at Louisiana State University and an author of the new book Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization. Here's what I wrote about it:

    The Desert Sun, a local newspaper serving Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, launched a fascinating project on their opinion page in June 2019 by dropping national politics from the opinion section and asking readers to contribute opinions about local issues. A new study comparing that paper to a similar paper, the Ventura County Star, which did not drop national politics, found reverberations across the community. While dropping national politics didn’t stop polarization in the community, it did slow it. Further, in the month before the experiment less than a half of the op-eds and letters to the editor were about California issues, but in July that rose to 95 percent. Readers also really enjoyed it: online readership of op-eds doubled that July.

    The book is about a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime natural experiment that has broad reverberations across the news industry and the world of American politics. Darr has spent his career exploring the impact that what we read in local news has on how we vote. In the summer of 2019, he and his colleagues heard about a fascinating experiment going on at The Desert Sun, and sprung into action to find out what happens when a local newspaper ignores national opinions. It’s a very cool story that gets to the heart of what local news offers, and also why it’s in danger.

    Darr can be found on Twitter and the book, Home Style Opinion: How Local Newspapers Can Slow Polarization, can be found wherever books are sold.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    You wrote a really fun book all about how opinion journalism reflects the communities that it’s happening in. Do you want to get into what the experiment that you tracked with The Desert Sun was?In June of 2019, my co-author Johanna Dunaway — I wrote this with her and Matt Hitt of Colorado State, she's at Texas A&M — got a Google alert that somebody mentioned our names. It turned out that it was the executive editor of The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, who was referencing a previous paper we'd written about when a local newspaper closes, polarization in that area goes up. We theorized that it was because people were reading more national news. She said, "Well, we have national stuff on our opinion page. So, why don't we just drop that?" So, they decided to drop all their national opinion content for a month. We were able to track that, and write this book, about not only how the content of that page changed and how local issues filled the void, but also how it changed the attitudes of people in that area. It was a really cool process.Let's actually just take a step back a little bit and talk about what you research. You mentioned an earlier study that you had done, focusing on what happens after local news dies out. Can you tell me a little bit about your research?I'm interested in local news, and what role that plays in people's political awareness and political opinions, particularly, because it's in such dire straits right now. It can't be overstated, the decline in local news that was already happening and then was accelerated by the COVID pandemic. That paper looked at areas where local newspapers closed and split-ticket voting, whether you were likely to vote for a Democrat at one level and a Republican at another. We found that in areas where a local newspaper closed, there were significantly less split-ticket voting, about 1.9 percent less. People were just voting straight party, up and down. That was, we thought, interesting. We weren't sure actually where to go next with the research agenda, but this experiment just sort

    • 23 min
    Numlock Sunday: Karen Hao on Facebook's AI crisis

    Numlock Sunday: Karen Hao on Facebook's AI crisis

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. This week, another podcast edition!

    This week, I spoke to MIT Technology Review editor Karen Hao, who frequently appears in Numlock and wrote the bombshell story “How Facebook Got Addicted to Spreading Misinformation.”

    The story was a fascinating look inside one of the most important companies on the planet and their struggles around the use of algorithms on their social network. Facebook uses algorithms for far more than just placing advertisements, but has come under scrutiny for the ways that misinformation and extremism have been amplified by the code that makes their website work.

    Karen’s story goes inside Facebook’s attempts to address that, and how their focus on rooting out algorithmic bias may ignore other, more important problems related to the algorithms that print them money.

    Karen can be found on Twitter, @_Karenhao at MIT Technology Review, and at her newsletter, The Algorithm, that goes out every week on Fridays.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    You wrote this really outstanding story quite recently called, “How Facebook Got Addicted to Spreading Misinformation.” It's a really cool profile of a team within Facebook that works on AI problems, and extensively was working towards an AI solution. But as you get into the piece, it's really complicated. We talk a lot about algorithms. Do you want to go into what algorithms are in the context of Facebook?What a question start with! In the public conversation when people say that Facebook uses AI, I think most people are thinking, oh, they use AI to target users with ads. And that is 100 percent true, but Facebook is also running thousands of AI algorithms concurrently, not just the ones that they use to target you with ads. They also have facial recognition algorithms that are recognizing your friends in your photos. They also have language translation algorithms, the ones when someone posts something in different language there's that little option to say, translate into English, or whatever language you speak. They also have Newsfeed ranking algorithms which are ordering what you see in Newsfeed. And other recommendation algorithms that are telling you, hey, you might like this page, or you might want to join this group. So, there's just a lot of algorithms that are being used on Facebook's platform in a variety of different ways. But essentially, every single thing that you do on Facebook is somehow supported in part by algorithms.You wrote they have thousands of models running concurrently, but the thing that you also highlighted, and one reason that this team was thrown together, was that almost none of them have been vetted for bias.Most of them have not been vetted for bias. In terms of what algorithmic bias is, it's this field of study that has recognized that when algorithms learn from historical data they will often perpetuate the inequities that are present in that historical data. Facebook is currently under a lawsuit from the Housing and Urban Development agency where HUD alleges that Facebook's ad targeting algorithms are showing different people different housing opportunities based on their race, which is illegal. White people more often see houses for sale, whereas minority users more often see houses for rent. And it's because the algorithms are learning from this historical data. Facebook has a team called Responsible AI, but there's also a field of research that's called responsible AI that's all about understanding how do algorithms impact society, and how can we redesign them from the beginning to make sure that they don't have harmful unintended consequences?And so this team, when they spun up, they were like "none of these algorithms have been audited for bias and that is an unintended consequence that can happen that can legitimately harm people, so we

    • 25 min
    Numlock Sunday: Abraham Riesman on True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

    Numlock Sunday: Abraham Riesman on True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to Abraham Riesman, the author of the electric new book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, out last week. It’s another podcast Sunday edition. Let me know what you think of these.

    I have been waiting for this book for ages, I’m a huge fan of Abe’s and the topic could not be more prescient. We talk about the actual role Lee played in making the characters, how Stan Lee was ahead of his time when it came to making a living as a proto-influencer, and the undercovered, complex and unsavory period from the 1970s through his death. It’s a complicated portrait of a complicated guy, and is deeply reported at every stage.

    True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee can be found wherever books are sold, and Riesman can be found on his website and on Twitter.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    The book is out, you've been working on this for quite a while at this point. It was delayed back in September. It's all about one of these people who have become a very central figure in modern American pop culture, Stan Lee. What got you interested in him as an individual?Oh, geez, what got me interested in him? I guess you have to go a long ways back for the beginnings of it in that I grew up reading comics and being interested in Marvel. I think I first became aware of Stan Lee when I was very young, watching the now mostly forgotten Marvel Action Hour cartoon show. He used to introduce the animated segments there. And basically he remained this figure in the background of my life, in the way that he's been in the background of the lives of countless people who have engaged with Marvel superhero products. And long story short in 2015, I started writing a profile of Stan for my then place of employment, New York Magazine, and it came out in 2016. Then in 2018, when Stan passed away, an editor at Penguin Random House who had read the 2016 profile approached me about writing a full biography, and that's where it began.He's interesting because he had a fairly seminal role at a company that has become incredibly central to American pop culture, but he himself has appeared in a lot of these entities. How did you get at the question of who is Stan Lee in terms of both the public and private and the individual person?Well, it's a big question, isn't it? I tried to base it on as much evidentiary stuff as I could, as opposed to surmise and opinion. So, I did more than 150 interviews. I went through thousands and thousands of pages of his personal and professional documents, which were mostly ones that I got from the University of Wyoming, their American Heritage Center, which is where Stan's papers and other archival materials are stored — long story about why it's in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. But, yeah, in addition to reading through documents, I also watched a bunch of home movies. There was this Holy Grail moment of the last day I was at the archives — I only had five days there — I found this box among the almost 200 boxes of materials there that was just a bunch of unlabeled home movies.I started popping them in the little VCR they had at the reading room, and was just blown away by the fact that right under my nose there had been all this stuff that the Lee family either advertently or inadvertently had left behind for posterity. So, you take that, you take the documentation, you take the interviews, you take the comics, you just throw everything in a blender and try to sort it out in your brain and then put it on paper. There's no magic recipe to it. You just have to engage with the source material and then see if you can craft something from it.It's fascinating because this is an individual around whom a couple of major corporations have attempted to construct a mythology.A lot of your reporting, whether it was in that fea

    • 24 min
    Numlock Sunday: Alex Davies on the birth of the autonomous car

    Numlock Sunday: Alex Davies on the birth of the autonomous car

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.

    This week, I spoke to Alex Davies, the author of the brand new book Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car. It’s just out as of last week and is an enthralling read about the events that led us to the present-day state of the art of autonomous vehicles.

    I’ve been looking forward to this book since it was announced, and it doesn’t disappoint: from the iconic if shambolic 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge to the legal battles that threatened to tear the industry apart, the creation of this tech could change the world. It’s a great story.

    For the first time, I recorded one of these to be podcast-quality so you can actually listen to the interview up top. Let me know if you enjoy that, and maybe I’ll do more of them!

    The book is Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car and can be found wherever books are sold, and Alex is on Twitter at @adavies47.

    This interview has been condensed and edited. Unless otherwise indicated, images are from DARPA. Podcast theme by J.T. Fales.

    Alex, you are the author of the brand new book, Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car. You cover all about transportation, you cover all about vehicles and you've also covered a lot about the technology that goes into them. There's been a lot of talk about driverless cars recently, you were talking about how this is a really long journey. How far back have we been working on driverless cars?I think the people first started talking about the driverless car right around the time people came up with the car itself. The car was a great invention for all sorts of reasons but one thing people noticed very quickly was that when you got rid of the horse, you got rid of the sentient being that would stop you from driving off a cliff or into a wall if you, the human driver, stopped paying attention. You see these stories from the ‘20s and ‘30s of people coming up with ways of remote-controlling cars using radio waves. And in the ‘50s, you start seeing programs from General Motors and RCA working on embedding electric strips into the road, which obviously didn't work for various reasons, that would help guide a car along the highway. You see examples from the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs in New York where GM is talking about, "oh, cars that will drive themselves and you'll have these things like air traffic controllers saying, okay, your car is clear to go into self-driving mode," or back then they would have used the word autonomous.

    Ford Pavilion, 1939 World’s Fair, via Library of CongressSo, the idea itself is really old but technologically, I think you've got to date this work from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. That's when you first start seeing the technology that undergirds the way we think about building self-driving cars today, which is not by following any kind of radio path, nothing built into the infrastructure and the system, but the basic idea of giving the car the tools it needs to drive itself the way a human operates a car.

    You've got three basic buckets: one is you have to recreate a human’s senses, so that's where you see things like cameras, radars, LiDAR sensors, giving the car the ability to see the world around it. You have to replace what a human's arms and legs do or hands and feet, really, and those are just kind of servo motors built into the car that give the car the ability to turn the steering wheel or pump the gas and brakes. And, actually, in today's cars, that's all done purely over software, it's not even really mechanical in there anymore. And then the last, the really tricky thing is how do you replace the human's brain? The step between the senses and actually carrying out the dec

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