5 Intriguing Things: Monday 1/27

Online reputation, the aesthetic categories of our time, Disney data, George Washington Carver's knitting, and the people who try to take firearms on planes.
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1. Online reputation systems in the so-called sharing economy don't seem to be working very well.

"Reputation systems are like the recommendation systems used by Netflix and Amazon, but instead of rating movies and books, participants rate each other, often using a familiar five-star system. But are these systems effective?

A basic requirement for effectiveness is that these systems discriminate among the users of the system, so we can identify more- and less-trustworthy individuals. Individual ratings of Netflix movies are spread relatively evenly from one star to five stars, and so provide some grounds for discrimination. But I collected a sample of over 400,000 ratings from the BlaBlacar web site and 49 out of every 50 ratings are the full five stars. In a sample of 35,000 listings on Airbnb, from cities in North America and Europe: over 91 percent of listings are rated at 4.5 stars or a perfect 5.

At the most basic level, these systems are failing to distinguish among the users of the system. The reasons are complex — a partial explanation for the uniformly high ratings is the danger of reputation-damaging retaliation and the human wish to avoid disagreeable disputes — but the failure to discriminate is clear. The failure is particularly important because a few bad experiences can have severe consequences: many of those old-style regulations were instituted in response to a few bad apples who threatened to ruin a whole industry.

Sharing economy companies talk a lot about reputation, but their actions show that their trust in decentralized, community-driven reputation is waning. Leading sharing economy companies are moving rapidly away from peer-to-peer reputation to centralized systems such as validation and background checks."

 

2. Why zany, cute, and interesting are the aesthetic categories of our time

"I was alert, as I read Our Aesthetic Categories, to any casual use of 'zany,' 'cute,' or 'interesting.' I became attuned to them, in the way one does after learning the meaning of a new word. Suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere, these judgments of trivial and conflicted feeling. This speaks, perhaps, to Ngai’s prescience, but also (it is not an entirely comfortable thought) to what may be a contemporary cultural penchant for dealing with complex emotions by funneling them through the seemingly mild vocabulary of our communal aesthetic language. Everything was cute: cat macros, anthropomorphic comets, baby carrots. Everything was interesting: bioluminescent fungi, Sheila Heti, The Clock. Ngai’s final category was somewhat more elusive until a friend described one of Yayoi Kusama’s corybantically polka-dotted surfaces as zany. If it’s true that we launder our emotions (as money is laundered) through aesthetic judgments like these, disguising our messy, unpredictable feelings in words that enter the shared discourse cleanly and unobtrusively, it’s also true that these apparently clean, unobtrusive words may be able to help us analyze the tangled sentiments they mask."

 

3. The function of data is to create the possibility of control, Disney Edition.

"The pitch that Disney is making is personalization. For each band, for example, Disney asks for the name and birthday of the person who’ll be wearing it. So if your kid is having a birthday in the park and there’s a character wandering nearby, that character can be notified to sneak up on your kid and creepily wish them a happy birthday individually.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper.

What does Disney get out of the deal? In short, it tracks everything you do, everything you buy, everything you eat, everything you ride, everywhere you go in the park. If the goal is to keep you in the park longer so you’ll spend more money, it can build AI models on itineraries, show schedules, line length, weather, etc., to figure out what influences stay length and cash expenditure. Perhaps there are a few levers they can pull to get money out of you."

 

Crochet (Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site)

4. George Washington Carver liked to knit and crochet

"He found these activities satisfying and they enabled him to produce useful items for friends. He had a great appreciation for the world around him, in particular, the materials found in nature. He dyed many of his own threads and fibers with natural dyes made from local walnut, mulberry, and ochre clay. He recycled old burlap and string bags into functional and attractive needlework. Bark fibers were woven into mats."

 

5. The TSA found 1,813 in carry-on bags last year. 81 percent were loaded. Here are some of those stories/short fiction writing prompts.

"loaded .380 pistol with eight rounds was discovered on the lower left leg of a passenger at Bradley Hartford (BDL) after the weapon alarmed the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT). loaded .45 caliber pistol with six rounds and one chambered was discovered strapped to the ankle of a Pittsburgh (PIT) passenger during a pat-down after he had opted out of AIT. .25 caliber firearm loaded with 10 rounds was discovered hidden under the lining of a carry-on bag at Cedar Rapids (CID).

A passenger at Salt Lake City (SLC) received a pat-down after an anomaly was detected during advanced imaging technology screening. During the pat-down, officers discovered a fully loaded .22 caliber firearm inside his boot.

Using imaging technology, a .380 pistol loaded with seven rounds and one chambered was discovered in the pocket of a passenger at Dallas Fort Worth (DFW).

While resolving an alarm on checked baggage, officers at Boston Logan (BOS) discovered a fully disassembled 30-30 rifle concealed within the lining of the bag and taped to the straps. Police responded and ran a check on the serial number of the rifle, revealing that it had been stolen.

In what was believed to be an attempt to avoid declaring his firearms, a passenger at Houston (IAH) wrapped two guns in newspaper and placed them in a box of detergent powder in his checked baggage. "

 

Today's 1957 Language Usage Tip:

AMERICANISMS. Americans are often unhappy or resentful when they are told that a word, expression, idiom, pronunciation, or spelling is 'chiefly US' or an Americanism. So they should be, if a violation of grammar is involved, or if the Americanism is a vulgarism resulting from ignorance or carelessness. But there are many 'Americanisms' that were once in current usage in England and survived here after becoming obsolete at home; others are good English words, current in both countries, but with different meanings or emphasis. Still others are of US coinage or were brought to us from our foreign population. To reject these words simply because they are 'chiefly US' is evidence of a sorry lack of faith in our own culture. So also with pronunciation and spelling. In this book, 'chiefly US' or 'Americanism' is a statement of fact, not a recommendation or condemnation. Occasionally what follows will give sufficient information so that the reader can decide whether it is an Americanism he wishes to preserve or one he will readily discard. 

The all-caps entries in A Dictionary of American-English Usage are miniature essays on the linguistic topic at hand.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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