12 episodes

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.


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 Sunday: Alison Griswold on sustainable cities and the sharing economy

    Numlock Sunday: Alison Griswold on sustainable cities and the sharing economy

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week I spoke to Alison Griswold, who just restarted one of my favorite newsletters, Oversharing, which is all about companies in the sharing economy.

    Since pausing the newsletter, Griswold went to grad school with a concentration on sustainable cities, and is coming back with a renewed interest in the ways that tech companies are interacting, improving and undermining different cities. We spoke all about what’s changed, and how the sharing economy has an effect on the world.

    Griswold can be found at Oversharing.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    Thank you so much for coming on today. You have just relaunched Oversharing, one of my long favorite newsletters. Do you want to talk a little bit about you know, what drew you to the space to begin with? I know that the sharing economy has come to mean a lot of different things and that evolution has rolled with the times. What consistently fascinates you about this space?

    Well, first of all, thank you. I love having you as an Oversharing fan. It means a lot.
    I fell into the sharing economy because I had various jobs as a business reporter and through that wound up covering some startups. I like to tell people I'm not really a tech reporter, I'm a business reporter who writes about tech companies from a business perspective. Then the ones I just thought were most interesting was the sharing economy, because this was when it was the early 2010s and Uber was just starting and Airbnb was starting and it was kind of clear they were going to be really big, but they were also completely chaotic, and that was so fun.
    That’s how I got into it, but it's just a really interesting space. I think we've talked about this before, but the sharing economy is this really fascinating intersection of what happens when you have a lot of money that's put into a particular area, and then you also have a fundamental rethinking of labor practices and employment practices. Then you also have disparities of wealth inequality and income inequality because more often than not, the consumers are sort of affluent educated individuals, and then the workers are often more working-class, trying to just top off their income for the week, so you have all these factors that go into the sharing economy and collide, and I think that's really interesting.
    Yeah, I love that note that you had about how you're not a tech reporter who covers business, you're a business reporter who covers these tech companies, because again, it is so interesting that oftentimes the innovation that these companies have is not necessarily a technological one, but rather some combination of cloud services and also just labor and interacting with their labor in unconventional ways. It’s been a little bit since you went on hiatus, so what have you seen in the interim on that?
    Yeah, before I went on hiatus, I wrote a piece for Oversharing. It was something like, "What even is a tech company anymore?" Because it was that time when Casper was going public and everyone kept covering it as "Casper, this tech company," and I was just like, "They sell mattresses online. They're not a tech company. They're a mattress company that sells online. When did everything that has a website become a tech company?"
    That's funny. They’re not even technologically-enabled mattresses, they're just a delivery company.
    Yeah, so I think at some point we started to conflate tech-enabled with tech company because a lot of things, especially now, right, we live in a digital economy, everyone is on their phones, everyone has the internet, most things that do well from a business perspective are tech-enabled in that they have a website, or an online ordering option, or there's some sort of software component, but that doesn't mean the product or the core business is tech.
    I imagine that one reason for that appeal is that it's probably a lot more intriguing to a future IPO to be a tech com

    Numlock Sunday: Philip Bump on How To Read This Chart

    Numlock Sunday: Philip Bump on How To Read This Chart

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to Philip Bump of the Washington Post, who a few weeks ago launched his newsletter How To Read This Chart. I’m a longtime fan of Bump’s work at the Post; he’s a really compelling writer and an outstanding blogger and has been weaving data journalism throughout his work so organically for such a long time I wanted to have him on for a podcast version of the Sunday edition to talk about the state of the art and the newsletter.

    We spoke about how charts took over the internet, how companies have managed to use increasing interest in data to suit their own ends in pitching mediocre polls, where the distrust of polling is coming from and the simple pleasures of weird charts.

    Bump can be found at the Washington Post and on Twitter, and his newsletter How To Read This Chart can be found here.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    You have just started this newsletter called How To Read This Chart. It's probably, what, two months old at this point? It's already off to a really great start.
    I appreciate it. That was the goal. Try and have it be compelling, and get people engaged. But yeah, I think about two months, which is sort of crazy how time flies.
    In one of the early issues, you mentioned that you were looking for a combination of breeziness and topicality. Do you want to talk a little bit about what kind of motivated you to both start a newsletter in this space and also kind of what your angle is?
    I do a lot of charts for my day job at the Washington Post. And one of the things that I have found is that often I will create a graph which to me seems pretty intuitive, but requires a little more explanation than I would've expected. That is absolutely a failing on my part, right? My job should be to make presentations of data that are simply intuitive enough that I don't need to have a lot of explication, but I also think that complicated charts can be visually interesting, and provide a lot of information once you dig into them a little bit.

    What I wanted to do was create something, create a tool, in which I encouraged people to be more open to more complicated presentations of data. To offer up interesting, visually striking data visualizations that I could then walk through, and say, "Here's how this works. Here's why this is actually a smart way to present this, even if at first it may be somewhat intimidating." Over the long term, with the goal of having people just generally feel more comfortable with looking at data visualization, understanding how to pick out their own stories from it, and understanding how it can convey a lot of information in the way that words can't.
    Yeah. I've enjoyed the approach and vibe of it a lot. I think that there are places on the internet that look at and evaluate and talk about charts a lot, and I think a lot of them will sometimes overengineer it. They'll be like, "Oh, look at this chart." And there are a lot of colors, there are shapes, there's a lot of stuff going on.

    I think that what I've really enjoyed about yours is that you very much look at this as a process where there aren't really right answers. That there are just choices that are made. Do you want to kind of expand on how you view the process of creating a chart?
    One of the things that I do too for my job is I do a lot of charts, right? So that means that I'm not sitting down and workshopping, A/B testing, different versions of charts. I'm like, okay, I'm doing a story on something that just broke. I need to make a chart. I did one that I included in the newsletter, which I thought was pretty good, which showed the evolution of votes for Supreme Court justices since the end of the Civil War, essentially. And so you start off, and I had different representations. I took all nine currently sitting seats and I sort of had little lines that wound their way through them with little nodes for where a new justice was added.

    And so at t

    • 23 min
    Numlock Sunday: Surya Mattu and Aaron Sankin on the perils of crime prediction algorithms

    Numlock Sunday: Surya Mattu and Aaron Sankin on the perils of crime prediction algorithms

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to another Numlock Sunday podcast edition!

    This week, I spoke to Surya Mattu and Aaron Sankin, who wrote Crime Prediction Software Promised to Be Free of Biases. New Data Shows It Perpetuates Them for The Markup. Here's what I wrote about it:

    An analysis of 5.9 million crime predictions from a company called PredPol — predictions that informed policing in multiple cities across the country, affecting something like one out of every 33 Americans from 2018 to 2021 — found that the recommendations appear to be lousy with racial bias, persistently recommending increased patrols in neighborhoods with higher percentages of Black and Latino residents, with some neighborhoods seeing multiple crime predictions per day. Even when crime predictions targeted a majority-White neighborhood in the Northridge area of Los Angeles, it clustered those forecasts on the Latino blocks. The most-targeted neighborhoods were 28 percent more Black, 16 percent more Latino, and 17 percent less White than the overall jurisdiction. The efficacy of these programs is suspect, as there’s no vetting if the predictions actually bear out, or any report when a crime prediction software leads to charges. Critics allege the software is little more than “bias by proxy,” offering a justification to over-police certain areas with a vague algorithmic justification.

    This is an incredibly well-reported story, and shines a light on how software that attempts to predict crime can unintentionally come bundled with a bunch of racial biases.

    We talked about how exactly they managed to report this out and how The Markup is able to use data to bring accountability to new technology that hasn’t been adequately vetted.

    Mattu and Sankin can each be found on Twitter, there’s a bunch of data for this story they’ve uploaded to GitHub if you’re interested in getting hands on with it, you can read more about how they pulled this off here, and the story is over at The Markup.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    You two wrote a really fantastic story over at The Markup, you're both data reporters over there so you were really in the weeds on this one. It's all about crime prediction software, and some of the issues inherent therein. Can y'all tell me a little bit about crime prediction in general? Are police offices really using software to try to predict crimes before they happen?
    Aaron Sankin: Our story was looking at a particular piece of crime prediction software called PredPol. And the way that PredPol works is that it ingests crime report data, which is information that comes from if someone calls an 911 saying, "My car was broken into." Or if a police officer is driving around and they see someone in the act of breaking into a car and arrest them. So all of that crime report data then gets fed into an algorithm that is inside of this system that was devised by PredPol. And from there, it points on a map the locations where and when they think that crime of this particular type is most likely to happen.
    And then from there, the idea is that you can direct an officer while on patrol to go to that area, and either by their sheer presence will dissuade criminals from offending in that area, or they will catch them in the act. And that is effectively how this system that we looked at works. There are other predictive policing systems that are more person-based, looking at who might either commit a crime or become a victim of a crime. But the things that we were looking at are very tightly focused on this kind of location-based type of prediction.

    Y'all obtained just a wild set of data, something like 5.9 million crime predictions. What was it like to work with that? And what format did they come in? Like, how'd you even embark on this?
    Surya Mattu: We had 5.9 million predictions that we used for this analysis. But actually the data that our colleague on the story, Dhruv Mehrotra, found on the internet was more than that.

    • 30 min
    Numlock Sunday: Alex Abad-Santos on how superhero actors really get into gear

    Numlock Sunday: Alex Abad-Santos on how superhero actors really get into gear

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to the brilliant Alex Abad-Santos who wrote “The Open Secret of Looking Like A Superhero” for Vox. Here's what I wrote about it:

    Actors are increasingly turning to anabolic steroids in order to attain the figures necessary for movies today. While it’s not legal in the United States to use steroids or performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription, in the movie business it’s not considered cheating the same way it is in sports and obviously isn’t tested for. It’s part of a larger trend, too: testosterone prescribed to American men tripled from 2001 to 2011, and while it decreased from 2013 to 2016 following renewed warnings from the FDA about risks, it’s impossible to study the underground market and HGH is one of the most common drugs to go missing between manufacture and shipping. The long-term health effects of steroids are still little understood, but they’re not looking good: One recent long-term study of steroid-using weightlifters found that of 86 steroid users, three had a heart attack before 45, compared to none of the 54 comparison lifters.

    Alex is one of my favorite culture writers, and he wrote a really incisive story about the impacts that PED use in Hollywood and social media has on viewers. His story peels back the façade set up by the industry and speaks the truth all about how pervasive steroids and hormone usage is in the entertainment business

    We also talked about the pressures pushing actors towards this, from the demise of the mid-budget movie to the dominance of comic book movies, which bring hyper-masculine superheros from the page to the screen. Also, we talked about his favorite topic, the X-Men.

    Alex can be found at Vox, on Twitter and on Instagram.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    Alex, thank you so much for coming on.
    Oh my God. Thank you for having me. And oh my gosh, this is the first time that we're seeing each other IRL.
    I know. It's weird. Again, I've been a fan of your work for a really long time, so it's great to finally get a chance to hang out.
    Yeah. I am a fan of yours too. I remember when you were at, was it FiveThirtyEight?
    That's the number, yeah.
    FiveThirtyEight. I'm always really bad with the number, with remembering which one it is, but I remember being like, "Oh my gosh, this makes my job so much easier when I can link a study on something about comic books." Yeah, it's just very weird that we only are hanging out now.
    Yeah. I'm going to chalk it up to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, but—
    Yes. Blame the pandemic, please.
    We'll do that. You wrote a really, really fascinating story that talked about a topic that I think everybody kind of alludes to, but I hadn't really seen actual reporting behind and hard data behind. You talked about steroids, and HGH, and testosterone use among movie stars. What got you interested in the story?
    I think one of the first things that got me interested was, I was looking on my Instagram explore page and I was showing my friend at dinner and I was like, "Why am I having chicken nuggets? This guy looks like this." He was huge, his muscles were crazy, his abs were nuts. And then after that, my friend was just like, "Yo, he's on steroids."
    And I was like, "Oh." And they were just like, "You know, how everyone in Hollywood is."
    I'm like, "Oh, is everyone in Hollywood?"
    And he was just basically like, "Yes." I don't want to get sued, but there's a lot of people out there, if you're in an action movie or if you're with your shirt off, that might not be getting those results naturally. Just no matter how much you're at the weight room, no matter what you're eating, you're never going to look like that. And that was it. I was like, "Maybe I should write a story about this."
    I liked the story a lot, because particularly there was a part where you talked about, there may have been a time in history where you may have aspired to have the body o

    • 34 min
    Numlock Sunday: Sarah Frier on what's eating Instagram

    Numlock Sunday: Sarah Frier on what's eating Instagram

    By Walt Hickey

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to Sarah Frier, the author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram. The past two weeks has revealed a great deal of information about how Instagram and Facebook operate thanks for the most part to a trove of documents published by The Wall Street Journal.

    Sarah’s covered the inner workings of Instagram and its tenuous relationship with Facebook for a long time, and with her book now coming out in paperback this week I wanted to talk to her about what we’ve just learned, how Facebook got more powerful in the pandemic, what we’ve always known about Facebook, and how deep into this company’s culture this goes.

    Sarah can be found at Bloomberg where she runs the big tech team, she’s on Twitter and the book No Filter is available wherever books are sold.

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    Sarah you are the author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, that this week is coming out in paperback. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
    No Filter is the first book to give the behind-the-scenes story of how Instagram came to be so powerful, have so much of a hold over our culture, over our economy, over our sense of self. I think that the paperback comes out at a time that the app has just become even more relevant. You would think that an app that was about measuring us socially and sharing our experiences would maybe dwindle during a deadly pandemic that forces us to stay inside, but in fact, when we remained at home, we scrolled more, and we shared more. Some of the in-person stuff we were doing became on Instagram and some of the small businesses that were trying to figure out how to sell stuff with their doors closed shifted to Instagram.
    It’s just become an even more relevant story today. I know I'm biased, but with the book, what I try to do is I didn't want to just tell the corporate story. I wanted to tell the story of how those internal decisions affected us on the outside, changed our culture, changed our world. And hopefully people who read it will feel that way.
    I really enjoyed the cultural parts. I enjoyed the rise of influencer culture and how kind of cultivated that all was. To your point, that has only gotten more significant in the past year.
    There's been a couple of recent revelations about Facebook and Instagram in particular that echo some of the stuff that you wrote about. Do you want to talk a little bit about what the past two or three weeks have been for Facebook and Instagram?

    Oh, my goodness. They've had to reckon with some truths here from the Wall Street Journal. They had an incredible leak of documents. They called them the Facebook Files, and they just were probably very painful if you're a Facebook employee because these are the stories that they've tried to tamp down on. When Congressmen and women have asked Facebook, "Is Instagram harmful for teens?" Their response is always, "Oh, the research is mixed." Well, this shows definitively in their own internal research that, yes, they know that it's harmful for teen body image for girls and boys.
    The Journal had several parts of the investigation, some of them have to do with Facebook Inc. One really uncovered how the company does not have appropriate staff in countries where it's in languages where it just simply doesn't have people to moderate that content. This is a product used by more than 3 billion people around the world, and when you consider that fact, it's more than half of the world's internet connected population.
    These products have just enormous impact and they're all controlled by a single person who doesn't want us to think anything badly about them. And so, they consistently obfuscate the truth. They make sure that there's nothing out there that could be negative for Facebook or Instagram. And in doing so, are totally disingenuous because of course there's stuff that is real awful that is happening on their platforms.

    • 26 min
    Numlock Sunday: Ben Casselman on what exactly we do with all our time

    Numlock Sunday: Ben Casselman on what exactly we do with all our time

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

    This week, I spoke to Ben Casselman of the New York Times who wrote “The Pandemic Changed How We Spent Our Time” and “More phone calls, less shopping: how the pandemic changed American lives, down to the minute” with Ella Koeze. Here's what I wrote about it:

    The American Time Use Survey for 2020 dropped, and needless to say it turns out people may have altered their behavior somewhat. Parents with kids in school spent an additional 1.6 hours per day providing secondary child care, while layoffs meant the average time spent working was down 17 minutes per day. The biggest winners of time were telephone calls (up 61.5 percent), lawn and garden care (30.8 percent), and relaxing and leisure (up 17.6 percent); the biggest losers were travel related to work (down 33.1 percent), shopping (21.8 percent), and socializing and communicating (16.1 percent). Somewhat distressingly, the average amount of time spent grooming fell 10.7 percent, from 41 minutes to 36 minutes. The survey didn’t break out the specific amount of time Americans spent saying, “You’re muted, Kevin, your mic is off,” but Numlock’s own preliminary estimates are forecasting a 200 percent increase.

    Ben’s a favorite guest on the Sunday editions. We were colleagues at FiveThirtyEight and he’s one of the smartest people covering business and economics out there. This week, we talked all about his coverage of the latest data from the American Time Use Survey, a wild annual data collection carried out by the Department of Labor that shows how Americans spend their days. This latest edition includes the pandemic year’s data, so it’s an intriguing look at how people spent their time in 2020.

    Ben can be found at The New York Times and on Twitter at @BenCasselman

    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    You wrote a bunch of really cool stories dissecting the latest from a very interesting American Time Use Survey. Can you tell us a little bit about what this survey is and what makes this year's particularly interesting?
    The time use survey is this crazy thing, it's kind of a goldmine for us data nerds. It's done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics every year. And they literally ask people, thousands of people to track one day of their daily life in extreme detail. Like, I woke up at this time, and I brush my teeth and wash my hair from 7:15 to 7:18, and then I eat breakfast until 7:23, or whatever. It's categorized in all sorts of different ways. It's a nationally representative survey, so you can break it down by sex, and race, and age, and all of these things. Normally we use it to understand the long, slow shifts in the economy, and in society, and in American life, right?
    We're spending more time on our screens than we used to, commutes have gotten longer, all of these sorts of things that we track over years and decades. And then of course, as with so many things, this year was an unusual one. The Time Use Survey actually stopped collecting data for a couple of months in the heart of the pandemic. You can kind of imagine why they maybe weren't so focused on that. But starting in May, they picked it back up again, and so we get this amazing picture of how life looked in the pandemic and the longer-running months of the pandemic and how that compares to normal. It's this amazing breakdown of all of the ways in which the pandemic disrupted our lives.

    Yeah. You had two really good stories with your colleague and my former colleague Ella Koeze basically going into how different events and hobbies and things may have surged or whatnot. You wrote among some of the biggest increases were telephone calls, lawn and garden care, relaxing and leisure. What else kind of took a hit and what else really surged in the pandemic year?
    Look, some of the things are pretty obvious, right? We spent a lot less time commuting last year. We spent a lot more time taking care of kids last year, although that one's a l

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