Saturday, May 20, 2017

What if I don't want Facebook to decide what I see & which friends I hear from?

Facebook's News Feed uses algorithms to choose which stories we see and in what order, based on who posted them, who among our "friends" reacted to them, and how much they mesh with the "preferences" we signal by our own clicks. Is this what we want?

Technology columnist Farhad Manjoo's " Social Insecurity: Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?" (New York Times Magazine, 4/30/17) begins with this kicker:
Mark Zuckerberg now acknowledges the dangerous side of the social revolution he helped start. But is the most powerful tool for connection in human history capable of adapting to the world it created?
Manjoo interviewed Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook's headquarters in early January 2017 and again a month later. The article's primary concern is the effect of Facebook on national and global politics—especially its disruptive "echo chamber" distortion of public discourse on all sides during and since the November 2016 elections.
[Facebook has] become the largest and most influential entity in the news business.... It is also the most powerful mobilizing force in politics, and it is fast replacing television as the most consequential entertainment medium....
But over the course of 2016, Facebook’s gargantuan influence became its biggest liability. During the U.S. election, propagandists...used the service to turn fake stories into viral sensation....
And fake news was only part of a larger conundrum. With its huge reach, Facebook has begun to act as the great disseminator of the larger cloud of misinformation and half-truths swirling about the rest of media. It sucks up lies from cable news and Twitter, then precisely targets each lie to the partisan bubble most receptive to it. (40)
The News Feed

What most catches my attention as a retired reference librarian is Manjoo's discussion of Facebook's News Feed, the key algorithmic engine defining each user's unique experience of information access.

It's an easy guess that most FB users don't even know about this "default ON" feature—any more than they know that Google's default ON is its personalized search.
Personalization...may influence your search results...based on sites you have showed a past interest in through your browser or search history, [and] whether you are signed in or out of a Google account that houses more extensive information about yourself (including on your Google+ profile).
It's deeper than simple date, time, location. It tries to get at the heart of who you are, the kinds of sources you gravitate to, and the content that will most satisfy you as a searcher.
[Note: To turn off personalized search in Google, log into your Google account, go to Search Settings at, scroll down to Private Results, and select "Do not use private results."]
Here's how Manjoo describes the analogous personalization mechanics of News Feed:
Every time you open Facebook, [News Feed] hunts through the network, collecting every post from every connection—information that, for most Facebook users, would be too overwhelming to process themselves. Then it weighs the merits of each post before presenting you with a feed sorted in order of importance: a hyperpersonalized front page designed just for you....
For the typical user...News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. (43)
Zuckerberg's aim for Facebook is to do global news distribution run by machines, ruled by engineering rather than editing, user preference rather than public good.
The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…....

But it is precisely this ideal that conflicts with attempts to wrangle the feed in the way press critics have called for. The whole purpose of editorial guidelines and ethics is often to suppress individual instincts in favor of some larger social goal. Facebook finds it very hard to suppress anything that its users’ actions say they want.
[Note: You cannot turn New Feed's algorithms off, but you can—within some annoying limits—narrow their operations. See below for more details.]
But is News Feed "free access to information"?

Technically it is...sort of. Facebook users make the choices that feed the algorithms that drive what information the users see. Unfortunately, few of us realize that clicking on something—anything—triggers a cascading sequence of other machine-based choices. Choices defined by Facebook's aims, not our own.

In a sense Facebook's aims do match those of most contemporary users. We all want to have "news" and "information" and "opinion" and "entertainment" from people we "agree with. "If I go to a library or bookstore, I decide what I want to read, right? If I don't want to see opposing views, I don't read them. Just like I pick PBS or FOX News or whatever, based on which slant on reality I want to have reinforced by broadcasters.

So Facebook's News Feed just automates the process of making sure I see mostly the web-based stuff I want to see. That's it's whole point, right?

As a professional librarian I have to agree...unhappily. When I was still a public librarian, I always wanted to take those three-plus shelves of Ann Coulter books into the courtyard and burn them. But I didn't. It wasn't my choice what my customers read.

Given that ethic, I also have to accept Zuckerberg's business model: "Facebook finds it very hard to suppress anything that its users’ actions say they want."

Okay, but is News Feed an "information service"?

I don't think so. At least not in the library professional's sense of helping users find and evaluate authentic information. As with most other popular "news media," Facebook is basically in the entertainment business, not the business of keeping the public well informed.

Facebook is primarily an advertising agency. It gets its revenue by showing us what we want to watch, so that we keep watching...and see ads. And here's the key point: Facebook's vast market share (1.94 billion for first quarter 2017) hinges on its mastery of user data mining—and especially its sheer genius in persuading us to give it the data that tells it what we want.

This isn't about what they ask us to tell them. Every click, every search, is a data point, allowing the machines to index, compile and analyze our choices, and to redirect us to stuff we imagine we want to see...with ads attached that match closely the analysis of our unique, every-changing data sets.

By the way, all those intriguing "personality profile" quizzes on Facebook? Whenever we do any of these, we are giving Facebook and their advertisers—and who knows who else—a vast store of deep, intimate psychological profiling data about ourselves. Even better for precisely targeting machine choices of both stories and ads.

A change of heart at Facebook?

Manjoo shares a concern over the way algorithm-driven filtering can create blind spots in public discourse.
Scholars and critics have been warning of the solipsistic impressibility of algorithmic news at least since 2001, when the constitutional-law professor Cass R. Sunstein warned, in his book, of the urgent risks posed to democracy “by any situation in which thousands or perhaps millions or even tens of millions of people are mainly listening to louder echoes of their own voices....
In 2011, the digital activist and entrepreneur Eli Pariser, looking at similar issues, gave this phenomenon a memorable name in the title of his own book: The Filter Bubble. (41)
Zuckerberg's own level of concern has shifted since the 2016 American elections. Manjoo tells of
the manifesto Zuckerberg wrote was in 2012, as part of Facebook’s application to sell its stock to the public. It explained Facebook’s philosophy...and sketched an unorthodox path for the soon-to-be-public company. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company.... It was built to accomplish a social mission: to make the world more open and connected.
What’s striking about that 2012 its certainty that a more “open and connected” world is by definition a better one. “When I started Facebook, the idea of connecting the world was not controversial.... The default assumption was that the world was incrementally just moving in that direction. So I thought we can connect some people and do our part in helping move in that direction.” But now, he said, whether it was wise to connect the world was “actually a real question.” (42)
In February, Facebook staff gave Manjoo a draft of the 2017 manifesto, Building Global Community. The new manifesto, Manjoo writes, 
is remarkable for the way it concedes that the company’s chief goal—wiring the globe—is controversial. “There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone..., and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.”
[Zuckerberg] also confesses misgivings about Facebook’s role in the news. “Giving everyone a voice has historically been a very positive force for public discourse because it increases the diversity of ideas shared..... But the past year has also shown it may fragment our shared sense of reality.” (42)
Meanwhile, can I control my own News Feed?

What Facebook can and will do about these concerns, especially given its "prime directive" of avoiding human editing of user choices, is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, here are some steps you can take to manage how your personal News Feed works, taken from Control What You See in News Feed (as of 5/20/2017).

  1. On your Facebook home page, click the white triangle to open this menu
  2. Select New Feed Preferences
  3.  Use the options provided to manage how your personal News Feed sorts and displays information.
Keep paying attention. Add your human brain to what machine algorithms do.

Mike Shell


Of course, one way to counterbalance the "filter bubble" effect in your own New Feed is to "like" and "follow" commentators and news sources with whom you usually disagree.

Image & Author Notes

Image: "Mark Zuckerberg." Credit: Spencer Lowell for The New York Times. Illustration by Mike McQuade.

Image: "Is This Story Relevant to You? How We Evaluate," from Facebook's introduction to its News Feed.

Image: "Which FORMER PRESIDENT Would You Have Been?" screenshot of Facebook "click bait" quiz from

Image: "News Feed Preferences" made up of screenshots compiled on 5/20/17. See Control What You See in News Feed for more options.

Technology columnist Farhad Manjoo is working on a book about what he calls the Frightful Five: Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft (see "Tech’s Frightful Five: They’ve Got Us," NYT,  5/11/2017).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 29, 2016

The subtitle for this blog is not a joke.  Phyllis Diller I'm one whose temperament is most suited to solitary intellectual and creative pursuits, or to interesting conversation and recreation with a few close friends.

I started The Surly Librarian in 2008 as a cynic's challenge to myself: Can I turn my private grouchiness into essays for library professionals, but essays that might actually be encouraging?

Take a look at "Customer Service for curmudgeons" for one of my early attempts.
     Attitude adjustment

September 29,2016, is my last day of work with Jacksonville Public Library.

Since I admire all my library colleagues across the profession as resilient, brilliant people who "have each others' backs" despite any yanking around they have to survive, it seems like I should revisit some of this blog for their sake.

Some of these posts are dated...discouraging "news reportage" about budget cuts...but more are meant as genuine cheer leading for library folk...though, granted, out of left field (see Daikon Radishes) .

I take a couple of themes very seriously:
  • First, the quality of human interactions between library professionals and their clients is far more important than collections or technology
  • Second, the primary mandate of public libraries is to ensure free access to essential information, together with instruction on how to use it effectively, to those who cannot otherwise get or afford it (see Poor Richard Redux: A Manifesto).
These selected rants—and the whole blog, for that matter—are meant to get at the heart of genuine librarianship, which I believe requires authenticity, integrity and compassion.

And a sardonic sense of humor....


Friday, July 17, 2015

Library Hotline: Los Angeles Public Library Asks, “What’s Your Queery?”

Quoted in full from Library Hotline, Volume 44, No. 28, July 20, 2015

The Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) wants to know, “What’s your queery?” That phrase is the tagline for the library system’s LGBTservices, established a year and a half ago and the subject of a presentation at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2015 annual conference in San Francisco.

The confluence of the Supreme Court decision in theObergefell v. Hodges case and the annual Gay Pride parade during the conference proved the perfect backdrop for the presentation, in which two LAPL librarians described how they improved LGBT services through grassroots efforts.

“Two of us [are] steering the ship, but we have a wide group of contributors. We try to find the talent,” said Xochitl Oliva, archivist and cochair of the LGBT Services Committee at LAPL, of herself and LGBT services cochair David Hagopian. They  are two of the five librarians who established LGBT services at the library in January 2014 to ensure quality patron services throughout the 72-branch system.

The group’s impetus started from LAPL’s Leading from Any Position initiative, which holds workshops designed to promote grassroots innovation. The LGBT services were founded alongside other affinity groups including multilingual services, veterans’ services, and homeless services.

“We created this LGBT Heritage Month resource packet with adult programs, young adult programs, children’s programs, [and] book lists, and we created this webpage for the self-service patron,” Olivia said. Those resources including blog posts, podcasts, book lists, and even databases of interest.

As a part of the Heritage Month resource project, two children’s librarians created rainbow family story times that could be implemented at any location. Activities included a family mobile-making craft program for all ages and another hands-on opportunity to make Pride buttons.

The library’s LGBT book lists are also notable for their level of specificity, separating out YA books on lesbian and transgender themes from those with gay male characters. Rudy Ruiz, LAPL adult librarian and LGBT services member, also organized an LGBT-themed film program. A filmmaker and former cataloger at the University of Southern California (USC) Cinematic Arts archive, Ruiz knew about USC’s student films whose copyright was held by the university.

Since the program launched, “Our [staff] numbers have really grown,” said Oliva. “Last year we had 70 participating in our outreach.... This year, we had 86.”

“We are trying to create a structure that anyone could look at and re-create,” she added. “We’re going for replicability.”

Image: Rudy Ruiz (l.) and Xochitl Oliva share their work and tagline, “What’s your queery?”

Monday, May 25, 2015

Browsing Collection

Since January I've adopted what for me is a new approach to finding new books by authors I don't already know. I browse the New Books section.
In the process I have marveled at the arcane masterly of book cover designers.Somehow my eye is consistently drawn to the sort of books I want to read.
Here is a list of books which "leapt off the shelves at me" over the past five months.

The supernatural enhancements : a novel, by Edgar Cantero

This was a surprising hybrid. It initially presents itself as a ghost story, yet it develops into a sort of steam punk/science fiction mystery.

As Booklist writes, the story is told "through diary entries, transcripts of audio and video recordings, letters, and other media," which means Cantero must lead the reader to piece the twisty plot together through glimpses from different sources.This novel might intrigue Arthur Conan Doyle, were he transported into the 21st century.

Gutenberg's apprentice : a novel, by Alix Christie

I love a well-researched, engagingly written historical novel, especially one which goes behind the sanitized mythology of famous figures to share what the historical record reveals about their real, contradictory complexities.

The author's website writes: "Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corrupt, feud-plagued Mainz to meet...Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, [who] has devised a revolutionary—and to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press."

Delia's Shadow, by Jaime Lee Moyer

Light, entertaining mix of "cozy murder mystery" and ghost story.  Follows the formula of the first genre, but with interesting twists.

From the author's website: “Spirits seek vengeance while the young try to build a future in a fog-shrouded San Francisco shaken by more than the great earthquake. This bravura mix of ghost story and historical mystery will chill and grip its readers from first page to last.”—Chaz Brenchley , author of House of Doors and House of Bells

The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin

A highly thoughtful and unusual approach to science fiction storytelling as a platform for critiquing modern Chinese history and human nature in genera.

"[Spans] multiple decades and characters, but…zooms in on Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, two scientists in the very near future. Wenjie is an astrophysicist...daughter of a physicist who was executed during the Cultural Revolution for daring to teach the "reactionary" idea of general relativity. Miao is a nanotech engineer, and he's been swept up in a virtual-reality, online video game called Three Body that's so deeply metaphysical, it's begun to resemble a cult….  

"By the time the book hits its peak, it's unveiled a conspiracy that spans solar systems — one that not only threatens to alter the human race, but the very building blocks of physics that we've evolved to understand."—Jason Heller, NPR Books

The Bend of the World, Jacob Bacharach

Who knew Pittsburgh was so weird? UFOs, a secret society with the world domination ambitions of the Illuminati, and a slacker 20-something antihero who somehow grows up despite himself.Funny, self-deprecating humor with a surprising depth of maturity for a first novel.

"Set in Pittsburgh, the book is a rollicking, occasionally mad blend of dark workplace comedy and crooked love triangle(s), improbably suspended in a web of conspiracies and conspiracy theories involving, variously, UFO sightings over Mount Washington, time travel, a corporate takeover, Bigfoot, secret chambers beneath the Point, Nazi ancestors and plenty of drugs. The narrator is Peter Morrison, age 29, with a fateful 30th birthday party looming."—by Bill Driscoll, Pittsburgh City

Us conductors : in which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know, by Sean Michaels

I had known of Lev Sergeyevich Termen as the early 20th century inventor of the theremin, an ethereal musical instrument played without touch, changing pitch and volume by moving one's hands within an electromagnetic field.

There is so much more to Termen's story in this fictionalized autobiography. Lenin sends Lev to the United States as an industrial spy, something he does with clumsy desperation.  The story is supposedly written later by Lev while in captivity under Beria, Stalin's chief of secret police.

"[Lev] delights in creating new inventions and discussing theory with foreign scientists, but leaves the subterfuge up to his handler. Leon’s chief joy, other than science, is an American violinist named Clara Reisenberg. Their love affair is intense, buoyed by Harlem dance halls and the ethereal song of the theremin."—from The Masters Review: A Platform for Emerging Writers

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
(author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go)

A fable of a misty, empty post-Arthurian 6th century England in which everyone suffers a supernatural memory loss. An elderly Briton peasant couple set out to find a grown son they vaguely remember having left them as a youth under troubling circumstances. On the way they meet Saxon villagers and warriors, fiercely ascetic monks, Aurthur's sole surviving knight, and the curses and mysteries of this superstitious world.

Ishiguro lets his readers struggle together with his characters as they reconstruct the past and seek to escape the dooms it may hide.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

A funny, emotionally honest, semi-autobiographical YA tale of a teenage Spokane Indian's effort to escape the alcoholism and poverty of "the rez" by transferring to the whites-only high school 22 miles away.

"For 15 years now, Sherman Alexie has explored the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds. He’s done it through various characters and genres, but The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be his best work yet. Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home.—Bruce Barcott, The New York Times: Sunday Book Review

Heraclix and Pomp : A Novel of the Fabricated and the Fe, by Forrest Aguirre

Another supernatural tale, this time from 18th century Europe. A necromancer who has brought a golem to life attempts to sacrifice an immortal fairy in a ritual pact with Beelzebub. The two escape and wander from Vienna to Prague to Istanbul to Hell.

Heraclix seeks to rediscover the people from whose body parts he has been reanimated. Pomp seeks to understand the mortality she has now tasted.

I am only a few chapters into this novel, yet it has my full attention.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

Another master has crossed over.

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael Bright Crow

Here is a post I first published about Terry Pratchett on May 17, 2012.

Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Back in September 2011, Walhydra was reading Mort, the fourth volume of Terry Pratchett's brilliant Discworld Series. (She thinks it's the fourth...time is weird on Discworld. She's already read The Color of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Equal Rites.)

Walhydra likes pretty much everything about the Discworld books, but her favorite character so far is—surprise, surprise—Death. Or should we say DEATH, since he always speaks in upper case, without quotation marks? He always appears as a hooded, animated skeleton with glowing eyes.

What Walhydra admires most about Death is his attitude

As far as Death is concerned, death is not some sort of evil consequence or punishment for mortals. It's just his job. All mortals die, and Death's job is to help them finish the business.

It's the mortals who, clinging to their lives, label death as "evil," as "punishment." Poor Death struggles with the unfair blame...though he always rises above it.

The title character in Mort is a young mortal whom Death takes on as an apprentice.

"Er," [Mort] began. "I don't have to die to get the job, do I?"


"And...the bones...?"

Death leads Mort to the great twin city of Ankh-Morpork, where they stop for a meal at the Curry Garden. The place is crowded, "but only with the cream of society—at least, with those people who are found foating on the top and who, therefore, it's wisest to call the cream." (19)

Mort is puzzled by the fact that, besides himself, no one seems to see Death.

"Is it magic?" said Mort.


"Yes," said Mort slowly. "I...I've watched people. They look at you but they don't see you, I think. You do something to their minds."

Death shook his head.


He blew a smoke ring at the sky, and added, STRANGE BUT TRUE.
Pretty much sums it up.

And so it is.

Blessèd be.

Here is a beautiful portrait of Terry Pratchett and Death, done by Flynn-the-Cat and posted on DeviantArt and RedBubble.

Death & the Discworld, by Flynn-the-Cat

Flynn's own commentary on the portrait:

A portrait of Terry Pratchett, his Death and his Discworld.

He's the creator of the Discworld, that little planet being carried away into space by the turtle Great A'Tuin, with the sun setting on it.

Death, the walking skeleton with an awful lot of character appears in all his books (however briefly) and spends a lot of time trying to figure people out. he's here because a) it's about dying (mental, age, possible-suicide), b) he's kinda a reflection of people (he is shaped by their expectations, so he's in mirror image to Pterry, c) he's one of Pterry's greater legacies, and d)... well, if anyone outlives the Discworld, it'll be Death.

The lilacs were worn in memory of a revolution in Night Watch and are now the symbol of Wear the Lilac Day on May 25th - Discworld Day, and now dedicated to Alzheimer's Awareness.

Because—oh yes, Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer's Disease. And I started painting this while listening to his documentary on assisted dying: Terry Pratchett: Choosing To Die
Here's a link to a new Terry Pratchett interview on the Late, Late Show, and a link to an NPR interview in August 2011.

Terry's own website is here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

Leonard Nimoy sat down with the Wexler Oral History Project last year, his impressive Yiddish skills on full display. In this video, Nimoy describes the origin of his famous Star Trek hand greeting: the Jewish priestly blessing, or duchening.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"Miami-Dade Raises Taxes To Pay for Libraries"

A year ago this week, the Library HOTLINE led off with this headline: Miami Dade PL To Close Nearly Half its Branches. Over next few months, the rollercoaster ride came to a somewhat safer conclusion:
The news is better this year, though like many of us publicly funded library folk, Miami-Dade citizens and library staff won't heard the final word until September.

July 28, 2014, Volume 43, No. 30

The following is quoted directly from this week's Library HOTLINE

Miami-Dade Raises Taxes To Pay for Libraries
The continuing struggle to fund library service in Miami, FL, and surrounding Dade County took a happy turn for librarians and advocates. On Tuesday, July 16, Miami–Dade County commissioners voted to increase the property tax slightly, increasing the funding available to the Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS).

The hike would leave libraries with a budget of approximately $52 million for the coming year. That figure is short of the $64 million that advocates were aiming for but represents a major step up from the $30 million earmarked earlier this year in a budget proposed by Miami mayor Carlos Gimenez. It also denotes an increase of $8 million over this year’s library budget. The hike will prevent as many as 90 layoffs that would otherwise have been required by Gimenez’s initial budget.

It remains to be seen whether the mayor will veto the higher property tax for libraries, which the county commissioners approved by an 8–5 margin. The mayor, who was aiming to keep tax rates in the county flat this year by slashing budgets and getting public employee unions to pay more of their own health-care costs, had until July 25 to make his decision. He told reporters following the vote, “I’m going to have to consider my actions.”

John Quick, president of the Friends of Miami-Dade Public Libraries, told Hotline, “We are both happy and disappointed. I think it’s a win because we were able to add $22 million to the budget, but we’re disappointed because we think $64 million is what is needed.” Quick and others who sat on a task force appointed by the mayor had recommended the $64 million figure, which would have let the library restore branch hours that have been shortened over the last four years, as well as reinstate programming that has taken a hit as MDPLS budgets have dwindled since the recession began.

The support of community leaders is all the more crucial because the library’s internal leadership is in transition: Raymond Santiago, MDPLS director and Library Journal’s 2003 Librarian of the Year, is retiring effective August 1.

Advocates and library employees also pointed out that the ink is not yet dry on the higher property tax rate. The commission’s vote set the ceiling for the tax rate for libraries, but a final vote to set rates is due later this fall. “This is the first step in a long budget process,” Sylvia Mora-Oña, assistant director of public services at MDPLS, told Hotline. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but until September 25, anything can happen.”
Hang in there, everyone!