Wrap-up from DC Hack and Tell #4

I’ve been putting together these wrap-ups from Hack and Tell in DC for a while now. They go out to the meetup list and they’re archived on github, but I like them so much I thought I’d put them here too. Working through the back-catalog:

DC Hack and Tell

Round 4: The Christmas Invasion

Time to wrap up the Christmas Invasion and put a bow on it… Here are all the good things we saw, in non-random order!

  • Aaron talked about lots of graphs made from NYC test scores.
  • Rick showed a really neat Medicare visualization that he made, which started as a National Day of Civic Hacking project. (Cool!)
  • Julian demoed the next big programming language, MyCoolLang aka Lebowski, rich with Python and LLVM goodness.
  • Chris fought the good fight against lighswitches, automating his home via his lightbulbs’ port 80 (duh).
  • In addition to inventing languages, Julian also improves existing ones – he showed how he became a Python core dev and improved performance (timing).
  • “So your friendly neighborhood bikeshare station is out of bikes again. What are the odds?” CHRIS WILL SHOW YOU THE ODDS.
  • And Joseph showed some of the magic of saltvagrant, and of course salty vagrant.

Happy solstice, everybody! See you on January 13, 2014!

Wrap-up from DC Hack and Tell #3

I’ve been putting together these wrap-ups from Hack and Tell in DC for a while now. They go out to the meetup list and they’re archived on github, but I like them so much I thought I’d put them here too. Working through the back-catalog:

DC Hack and Tell

Round 3: Hack… to the Future!

And now, a wrap-up… in random order!

  • Mike showed the excellent audioverb for all your language in situ needs – and it even has a youtube explanation too!
  • Aaron talked about rjstat, his R package for reading and writing the JSON-stat data format.
  • Fearless leader Jonathan shared a classic Hack and Tell hack for decoding cryptograms using simple language models and SIMULATED ANNEALING! (I know, right?) It’s called cryptosolver. We miss you, Jonathan!
  • Bayan showed how to simulate fantasy football drafts/seasons in R to test theories and impress your friends! With a Prezi!
  • Tom presented not just the JS live-coding mistakes.io but also super fun interactive statistics and simple-statistics!
  • Aaron also showed this Guess the Letter thing. Oh my gosh there’s a blog post.

And there will be even more good stuff coming soon… to the future!

Unnatural Causes

Unnatural Causes is “a seven-part documentary series exploring racial & socioeconomic inequalities in health” from 2008. In a horrible irony, the episodes are not available to the public. The cheapest way to see it is to pay $24.95 to FORA.tv for streaming. There doesn’t seem to be an option for buying the DVD from the main site unless you are an organization. I believe this is a mistake. The apparent goals of the producers would be better served by making the complete materials publicly available at no cost. You can watch some clips on their YouTube channel, which is good, but why not release everything, together with information on actions to take or links to further information? I don’t even remember where I heard about the series, and it wasn’t particularly easy to track down viewing options. The audience would be so much bigger if energy was devoted to spreading the videos rather than locking them up.

As I have now been lucky enough to see the complete series, here is a brief summary of the episodes:

1. “In sickness and in wealth”: The Whitehall Study is introduced. The Whitehall Study, which is frequently referenced throughout the series, found that health is associated with wealth, not just in a binary poor-vs.rich way, but in gradations all along the levels of wealth. The importance of a sense of control and a corresponding stress of social subordination are pointed to as people at varying levels of health and wealth are introduced in an American city. Also apparently there was some experiment that gave everybody colds by putting virus right into their noses – is that seriously an experimental technique that people use?

2. “When the bough breaks”: The stress of institutional and persistent racism is identified as a determinant of health. The example of low birth weights for babies born to black mothers is given. Also I noticed that the series is dedicated to the memory of Judy Crichton.

3. “Becoming American”: It is noted that Latino immigrants to America are initially healthier than other Americans, and tight families are given as a potential explanation. Also the Pennsylvania town that hosts the examples has some community center, and a youth center, which seem nice. Then it’s brought to light that immigrant health is much worse after five years, and also there’s some mention of mental illness.

4. “Bad sugar”: A community of Native Americans is the example of the episode, relevant because of very high levels of diabetes. The stress of being displaced by US forces, not dealt fairly with and essentially forced to eat a radically different and inferior diet, as well as the attendant problems of poverty, all contribute.

5. “Place matters”: Biggest takeaway was learning about the original redlining, which gave good home loans almost exclusively to white people from around 1934 to 1962. Grrr. The episode then talks about how bad neighborhoods are stressful; violence, mold, asthma, all suck. Everything is health policy. There’s also a pointing to the failure of private developers to provide what is really needed for people.

6. “Collateral damage”: This episode centers on the Marshall Islands, where US military involvement no longer sends showers of nuclear fall-out, but a base still dominates the economy to ill effect. Overcrowding on the adjacent island, which is essentially a slum compared to the island of the US base, leads to tuberculosis and other ailments. The people of the Marshall Islands can leave their homes and move the US (Arkansas is a popular destination, it seems) but health problems can continue there.

7. “Not just a paycheck”: Electrolux is a Swedish company that moved one factory from Michigan to Mexico and another from Sweden to Hungary. In Michigan this ruined a lot of lives, while in Sweden it was a comparatively small problem. Americans are less well protected by their government and their unions than the Swedes are by theirs, and the Americans have worse health outcomes. The American setting also illustrates increasing inequality as a family laid off from the factory lives on an old family farm that is increasingly surrounded by huge second homes of the rich.

This post was made possible through the generous support of the B. R. Schumacher Foundation.

Here Comes Everybody

Harlan mentioned this book so I read it.


It came out back in 2008 and was a lot more timely then, I imagine.

There are lots of interesting tidbits in here. It’s largely anecdote-based, and it uses the word “suasiontwice. Here are some quotes:

… large social systems cannot be understood as a simple aggregation of the behaviors of some nonexistent “average” user.

… it’s easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd, but it’s harder to find them.

… trying something is often cheaper than making a formal decision about whether to try it.

… the question “Do the people who like it take care of each other?” turns out to be a better predictor of success than “What’s the business model?”

Shirky also brings up the Bill Joy quote, “No matter who you are, most of the smart people work for someone else.” This made me wonder whether Google agrees, these days.

I like reciprocal altruism a lot: “With reciprocal altruism, favors are exchanged without formal bookkeeping …” (emphasis mine). This is my preferred way of doing things. The problem seems to be the number of people and anonymity online, and so there are systems with formal bookkeeping like eBay’s buyer/seller rating system, or points on StackOverflow. Is this the direction that everything is moving in? If we end up with zero privacy/anonymity online, will that solve the problem of freeloaders and other bad behavior?

Things I hadn’t previously heard of: asmallworld (gross), Dodgeball (people are still doing this stuff). Also Richard Gabriel‘s Worse Is Better talk (increasingly it seems LISP people have all the ideas).

Maybe the most interesting bit from the book was this forward-looking claim:

So here’s a hypothesis about the near future, based on little more than a hunch and some tantalizing examples: we’re about to experience a revolution in collective action, and the driver of that revolution will be new legal structures that will support productive collective action.

I don’t know if that has happened, or if it is happening. Shirky pointed out that intellectual property was the main collective product at the time of his writing – things like Linux and Wikipedia, where licenses like the GPL protect the product. The only things I think of that are beyond software and writing are products that get kickstarted, for example, and I don’t know if that counts. Restricting to financial structures seems unfortunate. But crowd-funding and anonymous currencies like BitCoin might be the closest thing to steps in this direction, as far as I can see. Meetup was in the book, and doesn’t have any special legal structures for organizations as far as I know. What else am I missing?