Readers Write: Big Data can't predict the future; Racism of today is more insidious

Letters to the Editor for the September 9, 2013 weekly print issue: 

In trying to understand the effect of the information revolution on society, it is essential to remember the inextricable linkage between data collection and analysis.

It's hard to think that today's racism is "far more insidious" than continual, unprosecuted lynchings, but it is certainly more hidden, subtle, and coded.

From big data to understanding

The "Age of algorithms" cover story in the Aug. 12 issue offered fascinating anecdotes that illustrate the vast new world of large-scale data collection. What it misses, however, is the key distinction between data and information. Data usually comes in arrays of numbers that measure a huge variety of physical quantities. Information uses data to produce a refined, distilled product that one can understand and put to use. So the revolution that is popularly called "Big Data" has two key parts.

The first is the advent of massive computer storage capabilities. This allows the retention of vast strings of numbers. Just as important is the development of extremely sophisticated software that can analyze, process, and interpret the vast mountains of numbers. Without the second development, just collecting the numbers would be close to useless.

Not understanding this second development – the capacity to analyze data – results in questions phrased like this: "How can power companies harness the power of data to predict which trees will fall on power lines during a storm?" Most scientists would cringe at this description. The data analysis process produces patterns, trends, probabilities – not an explicit prediction of the future. At a more fundamental level, such a prediction is not just hard, it is impossible.

In trying to understand the effect of the information revolution on society, it is essential to remember the inextricable linkage between data collection and analysis.

Dr. Allan Hauer

Corrales, New Mexico

Racism, then and now

Thank you for the Aug. 19 & 26 cover story, "They have a dream, too," on the miles to go still in the civil rights struggle. It's hard to think that today's racism is "far more insidious" than continual, unprosecuted lynchings, but it is certainly more hidden, subtle, and coded. It seems likely that many politicians who push a "stand your ground" law, a mandatory sentencing law, or a voter suppression law know who the target of such laws is and what color his or her "base" is.

Kathe Geist

Brookline, Mass.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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