I’m not sure if what I’m identifying here has a name or not. Apologies if it does. It is maddening, and I think it has something to do with the popularity of TED Talks. Two things came across my various feeds this week, both of them seemed to be popular pieces of web content, and both of them struck me as tremendously idiotic — perhaps even more idiotic for the fact that people were sharing them.
First, I saw this piece on Wired, which reports on some French urbanists’ study on how subway systems in several different cities on different continents have surprisingly similar mathematical form. To wit:
“The core-and-branch topology, of course, and patterns more fine-grained. Roughly half the stations in any subway will be found on its outer branches rather than the core. The distance from a city’s center to its farthest terminus station is twice the diameter of the subway system’s core. This happens again and again.”
It’s almost as if — and hold onto your seats here — the subways exist to serve urban residents where they are. Furthermore, and I know this might sound crazy, cities have a tendency to have denser populations at their centers, and less dense populations at their fringes. Wild findings! It’s like looking at elevators, then reducing them to raw data, in order to learn about how buildings work. This was shared on Twitter nearly 1000 times, cause WHOA BROH!
Next, Slate shared a strategy for winning at Battleship — timely! — developed by a data mining company in Seattle called DataGenetics. What these whiz-kids built is an algorithm that fires semi-randomly until it hits a ship, after which point it continues to attempt to hit the same ship, by firing at the squares that surround the hit. Now, to their credit, they beef up the algorithm to add more probability concerns into it, but the bulk of the article explains what basically any five-year-old knows, and certainly doesn’t need some computer programmer dickhead to explain to him in overly-complex language.
If you asked these data geeks to find out how much beer a fraternity was drinking, they’d likely collect, measure and analyze the whole house’s piss and shit. See the problem here? The impulse to make you rethink how the entire world works can lead you down potentially idiotic paths. Despite what data geeks want you to think, the real world does actually exist, and people solved complex problems long before we had computers. An Egyptian guy accurately measured the Earth’s circumference more than 2000 years ago by looking at fucking shadows — don’t forget that. We’re amazing without computers.
On rare occasions, data nerds can tap into some hidden, unexpected truth about the way the world works by looking at large sets of data, but frequently they’re in the business of telling us what we already know while dressing up their bullshit like they’re at some goddam grown-up science fair. Magicians tend to use their patter to distract you while the non-magic stuff happens.
Think I can make this into a TED Talk?