On race, bias, identity and other grad-school bullshit

Last night, Jonathan Coulton opened for Aimee Mann on the first night of their tour in Washington, and this happened:

JC: This is a song about a giant squid who hates himself

Crowd: Whooooooooooooo!!!

I laughed. Then something hit me.

This is really, really “white.”

And suddenly I felt a little guilty.

Ridiculous, right? Just because the crowd is about 95% white (I scanned after this feeling hit me and saw one African-American woman along with a handful of Asian people) doesn’t I should feel bad about being there. Right?

I may have been a little more defensive because I had just read, along with everyone else online yesterday, the profile piece on Rachel Dolezal, who managed to pass for “black” for a while before some investigative journalists found that she was not.

A couple of lines deep in the piece struck me:

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice.

and …

Perhaps that itself was the secret to the power of the Dolezal phenomenon—the overwhelming whiteness of it all.

As I read this, I started to think the writer meant “white” as an insult. “Oh, I can’t be mad at this arrogant, condescending woman (Dolezal). She can’t help it. She’s white.”

But was I correct in thinking that way? I wasn’t so sure.

So I did a little experiment. I posted the link on Facebook and Twitter and asked people to give me their reactions before I countered with mine. I didn’t want them to be influenced by what I had to say, and I wanted to see if anyone saw the same thing I did.

The short answer: No. No one did. The bulk of the reaction: “This is brilliant.” One right-leaning Twitter respondent countered that the story was 10 minutes of her life she’d never get back. On Facebook, someone else (who is not writing from a place of white privilege) called the writer “really annoying.”

All of the feedback was good. I don’t know how that happened. That might be a first on social media.

And we had a few interesting thoughts on entitlement. Dolezal felt entitled to choose her race, and she still feels entitled to compare her experience as “black” to the experiences of actual black people.


So what we could say is that Dolezal isn’t necessarily representative of all whites. But the mentality she has is uniquely white — or, at least, unique to people who don’t experience appearance-based discrimination unless they seek it out like a tourist.

Of course, it’s tricky because racial labels are slippery. Many years ago, I read a piece from a writer traveling in Brazil who found that people who would be considered “Latin(a/o/x)” in the USA and elsewhere considered themselves “white” in Brazil. I also found myself in a conversation recently in which a fellow Person of Likely European Descent (PLED, a perfect acronym) was accused of seeing a relatively harmless issue through the lens of “white privilege,” and others piled on, saying we needed to listen to the accuser because she’s a “person of color.” She’s Asian-American, and while I don’t know too much about her, I know she went to very good Boston-area colleges for undergrad and law school. My Starbucks barmate, an African-American man who’s old enough to have seen some shit, got a good chuckle out of that.

That’s not to deny that Asian-Americans have ever had it tough. Rosa Parks isn’t part of their experience, but WWII internment and other atrocities are. They’re simply different experiences. Not all “persons of color” have the same circumstances, just as not all white people do.

“White privilege” is real — in certain contexts. A Trump child and a poor kid from a meth-addicted family in Appalachia may not have much in common other than the fact that they’ll never face discrimination based on the color of their skin. But that one thing in common is huge.

And, as the person in our discussion insisted, “white privilege” isn’t inherently evil. It just is. It’s just a blind spot. We have them when we’re driving, and it takes a lot of effort to see what’s there, and even then, we don’t get the best view. And we all have those blind spots, whether it’s from race, class or whatever.

One of the people in our Facebook discussion argued that I should try to consider that the author was writing this “to and for other black women.” I took issue with that. Then I second-guessed myself again. Here’s why:

I’m surely a little defensive this week because I’ve been shredded on a message board (and elsewhere, but the message board is pertinent here). This message board is by and for lesbians. Years ago, when I noticed it was sending me a lot of traffic and people were discussing my work (at the time, a nice even split of appreciation and criticism), a couple of people from the board reached out and asked me not to identify the board. I agreed, and I agreed I would never post to it — even though it’s anonymous and no one would know.

Over the years, that message board has gotten a bit more hostile. I know several people who no longer participate. They hate me, and they hate most women’s soccer journalists. But they also hate each other, so we shouldn’t take it personally.

It’s also become a classic “bubble” in which false narratives and fake news take root. People on that board accused me of taking money from the Washington Spirit to write a blog post that devoted most of its words to criticizing the Spirit but defended the club on two counts most important to them — the “homophobia” charges against the owner and the Ali Krieger trade. (Not the scant return on that trade, just the notion of trading her in general.) And they accused me of other unprofessional conduct as well.

The way it works on that board is this:

  • Post A: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe falsified evidence.”
  • Post B: “Yeah, he’s a jerk.”
  • Post C: “Yeah, can you believe he falsified evidence?”
  • Post D: “Yeah. I bet he’s also cruel to animals. That’s just typical for someone who falsified evidence.”

The flip speculation becomes the “truth.” It’s as true on this board as it is in any obnoxious community of wingnuts who start blaming immigrants and liberals for everything in life.

All a valid concern. But was I incorrectly applying it to this piece on Dolezal? I think so. The target audience may have been “black women,” but it’s out there for all to see. There’s nothing false in it. And others who’ve read it don’t believe that it props up any unfair stereotypes of white people. An intelligent person isn’t going to read it and think all white people are like Dolezal. Anyone who does read it that way … well, that person probably brought a few issues to the table already.

And there’s value in having a community. A piece that’s written “for black women” (or for Hispanic men or Scandinavians or whatever) isn’t inherently feeding a malicious bubble. For one thing, there’s no barrier to entry. Nothing stopped me from reading that piece. If something had been factually inaccurate (and I didn’t see anything of that sort), nothing would stop me from being able to point it out.

That piece may be “for black women.” But not in any discriminatory sense. Anyone’s welcome. (Now, if a white person tried to pretend to be black … well …)

And that community brings me back to the Aimee Mann/Jonathan Coulton show. Should I feel guilty that I was in a theatre in D.C. watching a show in which we white people joke and write sad songs about how much our lives suck? I don’t think so.


It did occur to me that there’s some “white privilege” at play in the sense that most of the people in the theatre live relatively comfortable lives in which they can afford to make fun of their own lameness. It’s not exclusively white, of course, and there are surely plenty people of color who can relate to Coulton’s sad/witty take on suburban ennui and isolation:

And I don’t think people would want Coulton writing about the African-American experience, at least not with any pretense of living it first-hand. That would make him … Rachel Dolezal.

But the important thing about communities like the one at the concert or the one reading the Dolezal article isn’t who’s there. It’s who’s welcome. Singing or writing a piece that’s going to resonate mostly with people of your own skin color isn’t inherently wrong. Telling people they’re not welcome — that is wrong.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, the Internet seems to be splitting into communities that refuse to converse with each other. It might be some alt-right race-baiting site. It might be a message board that slanders people in ways that can be Googled, then tells them to quit reacting on Twitter, let alone coming onto the board to try to reason with anyone. We’ve seen the havoc that such things can wreak in politics. And I have to admit it’s been getting me down on a personal level. It’s tough to find a place where we belong. Sounds odd coming from someone with more than 1,000 Facebook friends and more than 7,000 Twitter followers (most of whom signed on years ago when I was one of USA TODAY’s first Twitter users), but that’s where we stand.

Not sure what to do about it. If I were as brilliant as Aimee Mann or Jonathan Coulton, maybe I’d write a song about it.

But the Internet’s not all bad. It allows me to write long self-examinations that prove that I engage in long self-examinations. (And if the colleague who accused me of never doing that is reading — hi!)

And Jonathan Coulton has released a lot of songs under a Creative Commons license, so you can enjoy this or several other animations of a song about a zombie trying to convince his co-worker that it’s simply not “big picture” of him to try to keep the zombies from eating his brains:


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Lent’s over. So where should I post and share?

Being a freelance writer of diverse interests is a bit like being a dog in a yard full of squirrels. Focus is always going to be a challenge too often attacked with snacks.

My social media restrictions over Lent were designed to impose a bit of discipline. I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ve learned something.

But I still have a lot of choices to consider as I try to find the sweet spot between satisfying editors, satisfying readers and satisfying myself. I have the luxury of being self-indulgent if I want, but I don’t want to be in a cocoon writing only for myself. I’d like to make people (especially, but not limited to, my friends) laugh and think.

Professionally, I’ll certainly keep writing for The Guardian, and I plan to do more youth soccer for FourFourTwo. I’m intrigued with the new sports section at OZY, and I’d like to write more for Bloody Elbow/SB Nation after the last installment of my old Inside The Ultimate Fighter book.

Speaking of books, I’m on the verge of finishing How the Hell Did I End Up Cageside?, though it’s going to be a mini-book, circa 30,000 words. I’ll likely put it up at Amazon in the next month or so.

Then there’s the stuff I write for fun — the now-monthly “What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?” series at Popdose and what I write here at Mostly Modern Media. I don’t expect any money from any of that.

That said, the line between what I do for fun and what I do for work is blurry. When I’m talking sports on Twitter, it’s fun, but it also affects my writing. And that’s one reason I can’t give up Twitter entirely, as tempting as that seems at times.

So I have to sort through a lot of priorities, not the least of which is “stuff I can do with my kids.” You might think it’s a distraction to tinker with keyboards, drums and GarageBand, but it’s a fun way to spending creative time with a son who is quickly surpassing me in every musical skill except reading music, which he rarely needs to do because he picks up melodies so quickly by ear and practice.

I won’t go through every single thing I’m considering. That seems a little self-indulgent, and I’m trying to get away from that. But I have a couple of questions:

  • Does anyone still use Flipboard? I hope so, because I’ve started using that as my medium for sharing global (mostly Olympic) sports news, and I’ve found I can toss a feed from it on SportsMyriad.
  • Am I right in thinking Medium is essentially a new-wave Huffington Post without the strident political overtones and anti-vaccine nonsense? I’m thinking of using that the way I used to use HuffPo — writing medium-length pieces that promote what I’m doing.
  • Does anyone have a Twitter-client alternative to Tweetdeck or Hootsuite?
  • If I decide to open up a library for public viewing on Diigo, will anyone know what that means?
  • SurveyMonkey or Google Forms?
  • What’s the best way to do voiceovers on PowerPoint slideshows and turn the end result into an animated YouTube video?
  • Is anyone doing good data journalism independently — say, on a one-person blog?
  • Why the hell does Snapchat still exist now that Facebook and Instagram are also offering temporary “stories” so you can put stupid artwork over inappropriate photos and not have a potential employer dig it up a couple of years later?

Those are my questions for now. I’ll check back after I eat, get my teeth drilled, write two stories due to run Tuesday, and do the PTA newsletter. (Geez, for someone with no actual job, I have a lot to do.)



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Lent’s over. So what do I say now?

No Twitter. No political-ish discussions, more or less. That was what I intended to do during Lent, which I observe as much for the secular self-improvement aspects as the religious meaning.

By the letter of the law, I cheated. On Twitter, I went from “automated posts only” to “well, I need to share this piece of mine again” to checking the occasional trending topic. Then I spent two full days back in the thick of things because the women’s soccer team finally reached a collective bargaining agreement. (Trust me — that’s a big deal. Read my story.)

On Facebook, I did pretty well to avoid political discussion, but I couldn’t give myself a 100% rating. Don’t even ask about my vow to get to the gym twice a week for workouts and once for yoga. (In my defense, the gym canceled our yoga classes.)

But by the spirit of the law, Lent was a success for me. I was able to step back and put things in perspective. We often speak of “Lenten meditation,” and I think I did that.

I spent far less time arguing. Someone tried to bait me into a pointless soccer argument on Twitter, and I went on Twitter just long enough to decline.

And I broke the habit of trying to express every single thought I have.

When I go back on Twitter today, I can set a higher bar for my interactions. I hope I’ve permanently overcome the withdrawal pangs.

So what did I gain from my meditation? A few personal/professional thoughts and a few political/philosophical. (Including: Why isn’t “philopolitical” a word but “sociopolitical” is?)

They’re somewhat intertwined. In the current philopolitical climate, I’ve thought a good bit about what I can do to make things better, persoprofessionally.

One clever thought was to start a new blog with a simple, catchy name: The Bullshit Blog. We are at peak bullshit these days — on Ash Wednesday, the headline on my Guardian briefing e-newsletter was “Trump offers upbeat themes, inaccuracies in Congress speech” — and calling it out directly seems like a good way to combat it.

And there’s certainly a place for that. These days, it’s late-night TV. I’m not sure I could really add anything by dwelling in the negative when I’m not as funny as Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. Frankly, they’re struggling to make it palatable, so what chance would I have? (The leaders at this moment are probably the weeklies — Samantha Bee and John Oliver.)

Fact-checking sites also have their place. They can remind us that Trump warned Obama not to intervene in Syria, only to accuse him of being weak on Syria as he prepped a missile salvo to do what Trump said he … geez, I can’t even get through these sentences.

But I’ve thought beyond the daily bullshit. Certainly, long-term trends are at play. Trump is simply the next level up from decades of denying climate change or leading us into Iraq to destroy the chemical weapons Saddam was about to unleash. “Have you forgotten,” indeed.

Perhaps there’s a value to seeing it coming. Did we all know, deep down, that someone would eventually justify Trump’s wiretapping accusations by finding some instance of someone in law enforcement investigating someone in Trump’s campaign over ties to Russia? (In some respects, wouldn’t it be a bigger scandal if law enforcement was not keeping a close eye on Trump’s confidantes?)

And I am indeed cataloging bullshit. Instead of sharing every little thing right away, I’m building up a library. At some point, I might unleash it.

But let’s go beyond that. Let’s go beyond partisan philopolitics.

Left-wing bullshit also exists. I’m not going to argue that they’re equivalent. But if you ever watched Whale Wars — or Crossfire, for that matter — you know the supposed good guys can be doing a bit better.

There’s actually a common theme to bullshit of all parties. It’s intellectual laziness. The person who believes climate-change denialism out of convenience has much in common with the person who shuts down a complex discussion by accusing others of seeing it through “white privilege.”

George Will, of all people, tried to make this point in an April column. Will, like Andrew Sullivan a few weeks prior, drew upon the Middlebury incident, in which a protest over controversial author Charles Murray absurdly turned into shouting down his forum and assaulting — yes, assaulting — the professor who doesn’t even agree with Murray. The headline on Will’s piece didn’t really fit because it wasn’t just about “alternative facts.” It’s about that intellectual laziness. It’s about finding some way to “win” an argument without actually thinking about it.

Coincidentally, I saw a couple of things along those lines:

First, the time-worn “blame the other party” argument …

Second, a story on the U.S. women’s soccer team’s collective bargaining agreement cast last year’s debate over the labor issue as “a smattering of sports fans who (wrongly) believe women are inferior athletes and thus don’t deserve equal pay to the men” and … everyone else. Not accurate. The facts: A lot of people, including me, raised questions about the misleading rhetoric the U.S. women used last year. When they abandoned that nonsense — not caving in but literally becoming reasonable — they got a good deal.

(It wasn’t just journalism anti-bullshit OCD that made me and others question their negotiating stance. We had legitimate questions about the existing labor agreement, which was far more cruel to players outside the selected 25 or so in the national team pool than it was to those in it, and whether the players were arguing to help that second or third tier of players as well. We had reason to believe they were not. And it’s bizarre that our concerns put us on the opposite “side” of the issue from people who proclaimed themselves proud “equal pay” allies but wouldn’t know Tori Huster from Tori Amos.)

And finally, a Guardian piece asked if U.S. sports media has become a “leftwing propaganda tool.” The piece argued that ESPN’s critics protest too much.

I’d suggest this: Why should we accept that the values in question here, mostly tolerance, are “leftwing”?

The common thread in these three bits of ugliness: Labeling.

And while I was kicking this around in my head, I saw an ad for an AXS TV interview with Roger Waters, who offered up this wonderful comment: “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘fussy left-wing socialist Bolshevik.’ It’s very easy to make labels and attach them to people in order to lessen the impact of their voice.”

It’s the simplest argument tactic. I’d say it’s getting more popular these days, but I can’t prove that. In the 1950s, you could shut anyone up by calling them a Communist. Today, it’s “liberal.” (Or “Faux News viewer” or something like that. The left really doesn’t do insults as well as the right. That’s why left-wing talk radio never caught on.)

And yes, it’s bullshit, in a way. But it’s something else as well. It’s the lack of interest in understanding.

Which leads to the next point …

Empathy is essential. But in the broader sense of public conversation, what we really need is understanding.

Yes, we should all practice empathy and try to walk in each other’s shoes. But that only covers us on the person-to-person level. It diminishes hatred, and there’s nothing wrong with that (with apologies to political strategists whose job is to get us all frothing and face-punching). We need, though, to talk in broader terms.


And that means listening criticallyYes, I empathize with the man in one of the many “let’s all try to empathize with Trump voters” piece who is fretting about the possibility of losing a manufacturing job that currently pays him six figures. Imagine what kind of house that money buys in Iowa. But I also think he should take some of that money to take classes in something else.

And there should be no empathy for a lack of empathy, which is what much of the country has now toward government workers. Tell people that government workers typically have given up higher-paying private-sector jobs to get up at 5 a.m. and commute to work, and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. People have this image of “Washington” as a bunch of fatcats sitting around eating fancy meals. They don’t realize that the fatcats are the lobbyists, the lawyers and the contractors. Not the government workers. So if you cut “government” and increase defense spending, what’s going to happen? Right! You’ll have a lot more contractors eating foie gras with your tax money!

So we need a balance: empathy + critical thinking = understanding. Everyone has a right to be heard. Not everyone has a right to be right.

The next question, maybe more difficult: How do we make our conversations productive?

A lot of people are giving up. “Don’t feed the trolls” becomes “you can’t change anyone’s mind.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. If we don’t change anyone’s mind politically, we’ll have bad results. If I allow people to lie about my writing, it affects my book sales.

I’ve found that minds are changed not in a single argument, but by patient persuasion in which how you live can be just as important as how you argue. In high school, I was a creationist who surely had a few negative stereotypes of “others” — gay people, Muslims, Northerners, etc. What changed my mind wasn’t a single argument. It was meeting people and listening to them.

So to pull this all back to what I learned from Lent: What am I going to say now?

I don’t think I can set hard rules. I can’t say I’m not going to “talk politics” because everything is political to an extent.

But I’ll try some guidelines, and they certainly apply to sports and philopolitics equally:

  1. No more conversations with out-and-out trolls. Some people don’t want discussion. They want to compensate for some poor decision or bad luck in their own lives by making others miserable. But notice I say “no more conversations.” I reserve the right to make a quick tweet to explain why I’m not talking to someone, or perhaps an quick aside for someone who’s copied into the conversation.
  2. Before sharing something, ask myself if there’s a larger point I can make. I’ve built up some bookmarking tools. Maybe I can save a few stories on a particular topic and build upon that?
  3. Make it funny. I think satire is one of the best tools we have against bullshit. Simply screaming back at someone never does the trick.

So that means I’m going to be more selective. It’s not just a question of picking my battles. It’s a question of efficiency. How can I make the best points to the widest audience to provide something thoughtful and/or entertaining? (Sometimes, I even get paid for that. I should work on it some more.)

Going 40 days with some hard limits forced me to get out of a rut. I don’t need to share every single thing I read. I don’t need to get caught up in endless Twitter battles.

But did I miss it? Oh yes. Tonight, I watched a great UFC card … and I didn’t talk about it. That’s not fun. Sports are supposed to be social.

So I’m glad I did this. But I’m glad to be back. Unleash the hounds …


Posted in job, journalism, personal, philosophy, politics | Leave a comment

Real-life high school lesson in why journalism works

The other lesson here: When reporters find someone’s credentials are not what they seem, maybe it’s a good idea to listen.

Source: These high school journalists investigated a new principal’s credentials. Days later, she resigned. – The Washington Post

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Andrew Sullivan rips left-wing speech disruption

And it’s hard not to say he has a point:

Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy. It happened more than a week ago, but I cannot get it out of my consciousness. A group of conservative students at Middlebury College in Vermont invited the highly controversial author Charles Murray to speak on campus about his latest book, Coming Apart. His talk was shut down by organized chanting in its original venue, and disrupted when it was shifted to a nearby room and livestreamed. When Murray and his faculty interlocutor, Allison Stanger, then left to go to their car, they were surrounded by a mob, which tried to stop them leaving the campus. Someone in the melee grabbed Stanger by the hair and twisted her neck so badly she had to go to the emergency room (she is still suffering from a concussion). After they escaped, their dinner at a local restaurant was crashed by the same mob, and they had to go out of town to eat.

Murray may never live down the controversy over his book, The Bell Curve, which included a few stats showing IQ differences between racial groups. And maybe he shouldn’t. Sullivan actually helped bring The Bell Curve to a wider audience at The New Republic, but he agrees that protests against Murray are “completely legitimate.” From what I recall reading TNR at the time, I thought Murray’s work was typical of social scientists who are so enamored of their statistical tools that they have no clue how to put them in context. Or they’re simply trying to make a few friends among the small but well-funded band of obnoxious right-wingnut academics.

But what Sullivan sees here is someone who has been labeled all sort of things he is not, particularly “anti-gay.” And Sullivan sees a stark raving mob (like the one in the Rush song Witch Hunt, which I recently posited as a warning against today’s anti-immigrant mobs but can also apply to this situation) that simply won’t let people speak.

And it gets worse. Faculty member Allison Stanger was assaulted and taken to the emergency room. She’s not exactly an ignorant hate-monger herself. She was a Democratic delegate in 1984. She has spent a good part of her academic life researching Eastern Europe, and she worked during the Obama administration as a consultant to the State Department.

Her crime? Participating in the forum with Murray.

I’ll let her say the rest:

I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen and they were stranded outside the doors.

I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters.

Congratulations, Middlebury students and faculty. Now, whenever we point to the braying, fact-challenged mobs at Trump rallies (and yes, Sullivan spends the rest of his column summing up the week in Trump’s assault on reason and facts), they’ll be able to point to incidents like this, in which an intelligent, progressive woman was physically attacked for daring to listen.

Source: Liberal Democracy Is Suffering From a Concussion

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Getting started in data science: One journalist’s journey

Let me first say up front what you will not get in this blog post: A step-by-step guide to using whatever data tool you want. Using spreadsheets is beyond the scope of a blog post. Using R (and, I’d guess, using Python) is beyond the scope of the classes I’ve taken that purport to teach me how to use R.

What you will get is one person’s take on how to dip your toes into an ocean. I hope you’ll be able to get some advice on how to go from the occasional spreadsheet user to Data Journalism Deity and perhaps get some idea of where to go next. If this is the first thing you read about data science or data journalism, fine — I’m assuming no prior knowledge.

First: Reconsider what you mean by “education.” Seriously.

Remember back in college when you knew a bunch of annoying dudes who had figured they just needed to make a lot of great contacts in school, and the classes themselves were secondary? While you busted your butt studying and working, they were shaking hands and drinking beer?

I’m not going to say they were right. But they were on the right track. Here’s why:

Working with data is less about learning how to do it and more about learning where to ask.

Don’t believe me? Ask Vik Paruchuri, who made the liberal arts-to-data leap himself and has this to say about it:


Check out his whole video. It’s 32 minutes, but you can skip the first couple of minutes because he took it from a Google Hangout and spent the first bit of it waiting around. (Expert on data science but doesn’t edit video in YouTube? Knowledge is specialized.)

He devoted a year or so to learning data science. But he also just jumped in. He started doing projects (because you learn by doing in this field) and going to meetups, all before he knew much code.

On the other hand, here’s how *I* did it:

I signed up at Coursera, an online-learning hub, for a nine-course series offered by Johns Hopkins University. I figured I would plow through the courses and get a spiffy certificate at the end, proving to myself and everyone else that I know my way around R (the en-vogue data programming language today) and everything else in the world of data.

Around the 13:30 mark of Paruchuri’s video, he says MOOCs (like Coursera’s content) are not the best way to learn. But by the time I watched his video, I had already gone past the “no refund” part of the Hopkins specialization. Oops.

That’s not to say I’ve wasted my time and money. Check that: I do think I’ve wasted quite a bit of time trying to pass quizzes that I really didn’t need to pass.

In retrospect, I wish I knew there are two ways to approach the Hopkins specialization:

  1. Make this your life, as if you were a full-time student, particularly if you don’t have a ton of prior programming experience or stats background. (The Pascal I learned in college and the JavaScript I learned 20 years ago weren’t enough. In stats, I’m comfortable talking about medians, means and even standard deviations, but I have little idea what a “linear regression” even means.) You’ll finish up with a certificate that might get you employed somewhere.
  2. Browse. Learn what you want. Attempt a few quizzes, but feel free to bail.

The seductive part of data science is that it seems so accessible. It seems like everyone’s doing it, from political bloggers breaking down government data to 14-year-old fantasy football wizards. But in reality, they’re just doing a small part of data science. When you start digging around and finding powerful data applications, you’ll find they’ve been developed by people with “PhD” in their LinkedIn profiles, not “BA in philosophy and music.”

Consider a music analogy. As Radiohead sang, anyone can play guitar. It might be a high school kid figuring out Rush songs (like me, many years ago) or your friend’s dad who suddenly whips out an old acoustic and plays Classical Gas. But how many people do you know who can sight-read just about anything on piano? Or teach band in an elementary school, helping kids learn every woodwind and brass instrument?

You don’t go to Berklee for four years to learn how to play Purple Haze or even to write your own guitar riffs. So why would you work your way through everything in the Hopkins data specialization to learn a few tools to use in journalism?

The funny thing here: The quizzes in the Hopkins sequence helped teach me that lesson and the importance of knowing where to look for the answers. Those quizzes — at least, once you get past the simple multiple-choice stuff in the intro class — are programming assignments. And the classes don’t teach you how to do them.

Kind of a weird way to approach teaching, isn’t it? And very frustrating if you, like me, don’t know what you’re getting into.

To pass the quizzes, you have to look around the Web for help. You may quickly find that the regulars at StackOverflow, an impressive online forum for sharing programming tips, are getting sick of answering questions from people who are stuck on the Hopkins programming assignments. But you can often find a couple of things that help.

The course itself has an online forum that substitutes for the interaction you’d have the teacher if you were taking this class in person. But they can only give you general tips, not answers. You click an honor-code pledge with every submission, just like we did at Athens Academy. (All together now: “I have neither given nor received any aid on this work, nor have I observed any infraction of our Honor System.” One kid made a rubber stamp with all those words to speed along his test-taking.)

The forum is manned by mentors who have survived the class already. And the general message is to get used to “hacking.” Get out on StackOverflow and other sites, then figure it out. Because that’s what you’ll be doing in the real world.

“Sure,” you may say, “but what am I paying for?” You’re really paying for the lectures, a nifty set of online tutorials, and a basic intro to some of the tools you need, like RStudio (a bit like Notepad with a whole lot of tools to help with your code) and Github (a sharing site). And if you have hours upon hours — other students have reported spending months on quizzes with an estimated time of “30 minutes” or so — you may be able to plow your way through and get the specialization.

At some point — and I’m writing this so you’ll do it before you take the course rather than partway into it like I did — you have to stop and ask what you really want to accomplish. Even if you want a full-time data job, there are so many different ones. Data scientist? Data engineer? Data journalist?


You’re probably better off playing around with online data tools first, and then signing up for a course. That’s true whether you’re just looking to supplement your knowledge and skillset (like me) or going become a Full-Time Data Science Person (like Paruchuri).

One example: Paruchuri says 90 percent of the work is data “cleaning” (if you’ve ever seen a spreadsheet in which some entries say “Miscellaneous” and some say “Misc,” you get the idea). You could use R for that. It’s powerful. Or you could use a former Google tool called OpenRefine. Knowing a bit of programming logic may help with that, but it’s not as intense as learning complex operations in R.

So now that I’ve spent four months learning what I can, I’ve managed to define my goals.

First, what do I want to do? 

  1. Find an efficient way to do Olympic medal projections. I’ve used spreadsheets to track past results and use a few formulas to do them in the past, but it’s safe to say I spent far too much time gathering and processing data.
  2. Learn enough to try other projects on my own, perhaps a survey of North American curling clubs, for example.
  3. Learn enough to tell a potential part-time or full-time employer that I might not be a full-fledged data scientist, but I know the tools and have a good sense of what’s feasible.

Now bear in mind everything else I want to do in the next 2-3 years:

  1. Continue writing epic soccer pieces and other content for The Guardian.
  2. Finish retooling parts of my unpublished MMA book into a series of posts at Bloody Elbow.
  3. Finish retooling the other parts of that book into a small self-published book.
  4. Write another book on youth soccer.
  5. Write a bit more for FourFourTwo and OZY.
  6. Maybe find a steady outlet for Olympic-sports content (which could include a lot of data work).
  7. Maybe start working for a nonprofit (maybe even with data).
  8. Maybe even start the definitive book (or multimedia project) on creativity.

I’m not including high priorities like “be a good parent” or even low but unavoidable priorities like “mow the danged lawn.”

So from a data perspective, here’s what I should be able to do:

  1. Understand what I’m looking at when I check Kaggle, which turns data-science sharing into fun things like a March Madness contest.
  2. Navigate github.
  3. Use OpenRefine and any other good web tools I can find.
  4. Scrape data from reputable sources.
  5. Present the output in some coherent and engaging form.

I’ll pick my way through the rest of the Hopkins courses. I’ve also enrolled in a cost-friendly course at Udemy, which I started taking so I could figure out enough to pass the R programming course at Hopkins. (I passed two. The rest? You may consider me an auditor.)

And then I’ll just explore, like I did when I was figuring out Rush songs on my guitar. (Hmmm … can I process songs in R?)

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Forty days to contemplate how to talk without anger or bull—-

I’m giving up Twitter for Lent. You’ll still see automated notices every time I post something at Duresport (on @duresport feed) or here (on @duretalk — and anything I post here will be about music or how The Blacklist fell off a cliff), but that’s it. Please don’t think I’m ignoring people … though, technically, I suppose I am. I’m also not going to talk about anything “political” on Facebook or elsewhere, and I’m going to use an expansive definition of “political” rather than my usual cop-out “Oh, it’s not political, it’s about journalism or philosophy or science or what not.”

It’s not just that Lent is supposed to be about self-denial. It’s also about reflection. And I do plan to spend some time contemplating how we represent ourselves in our words.

So before I go, here’s a bit of me indulging in a Mardi Gras of the mind and dumping everything off my chest. No … wait … I mean … here’s how I got to this point and what I’ll be contemplating.

And you’ll see that I really am contemplating. I haven’t made up my mind on things in advance of spending 40 days in contemplation of just how brilliantly correct I am.

A few weeks ago, I saw a rare Kate McKinnon sketch I did not like. My overriding opinion of SNL these days is that it’s terrific, and I think McKinnon is making a strong case to be considered one of the best cast members of all time.

This one, I found annoying:

I didn’t like it because I thought it plays to a stereotype of East Coast elitism. SNL’s best humor translates broadly. Wayne’s World could be anywhere. We all know a Church Lady. We’ve all had a Lazy Sunday, even if we prefer Twizzlers and Dr. Pepper to Red Vines and Mr. Pibb. This struck me as something for Broadway geeks only.

Then I second-guessed myself.

Why should SNL not do a Broadway sendup from time to time? Just because we all need to cater to the alleged whims of Middle America? Isn’t that just another twist on political correctness?

I thought of that again today when I read the story on Trump ordering an expensive steak — well-done, with ketchup. The Washington Post‘s snooty food critic had a bit of fun with it, and someone at Eater went into full-bore psychoanalysis:

A person who won’t eat his steak any doneness but well is a person who won’t entertain the notion that there could be a better way; a person who blankets the whole thing in ketchup (a condiment that adds back much of the moisture, sweetness, and flavor that the overcooking removed in the first place) is always going to fix his problems by making them worse. A person who refuses to try something better is a person who will never make things good.

As with the Conway sketch on SNL, I’m of two minds on this. As a picky eater myself (I’m not a fan of raw or stewed tomatoes, I’m generally averse to mushrooms, and I find raw sushi and all types of shellfish to be the rough equivalent to eating a softened hockey puck — and, ironically, I don’t like ketchup), I think these folks should lay off a bit.

That said … if you saw some dude on TV touting the superiority of his steaks, and then you saw him prepare and eat them like they’re McDonald’s hamburgers, you’d be inclined to laugh a bit, wouldn’t you?

Well …

So do we give him a free pass just because he managed to win an election?

From an ethical point of view, I don’t think so. But politically? How politically correct do we have to be about this guy and his followers? Do we need to tone down our sense of humor just to avoid triggering a backlash against Trumpist snowflakes? (Yes, I chose “trigger” and “snowflake” quite deliberately because those accusations reek of hypocrisy.)

I’ve obviously been thinking about this sort of thing a lot. Actually, I’ve spent several years wrestling with the idea of how much I should engage people. In some cases, I mean those people I respect and with whom I simply disagree. In other cases, I mean those who think global warming is a conspiracy of Chinese communists and Northeast academics. Or those who gripe about government spending when their states and their outdated economic engines are the primary beneficiaries. Or those who shut down a conversation by accusing others of “white privilege.”

Because I’ve spent too much time over the years dealing with this sort of crap …

(Yes, that’s the guy who regularly accuses me of being paid by MLS to argue against promotion and relegation. Which, among other problems with his argument, I do the opposite of.)

(Apologies if you’re a fan of David Sirota’s journalism. A lot of it looks pretty good. But he clearly has a blind spot when it comes to pot. Which is funny, because I’ve heard people touting pot as a cure-all for glaucoma.)

In fairness, I’ve also had a lot of positive interaction on Twitter. Probably a 5-1 or even 10-1 ratio in my favor, if you don’t include the Alex Morgan incident …

Yes, 972 “likes.” And 344 retweets. Read more about how that went — the occasional death threat, but also a lot of words of support — in this search if you’re so inclined.

And no, it’s not just Twitter. Way back before Twitter, a soccer fan had a web feature called “Turd of the Week,” which I won at least once, along with the insinuation that I was doing sexual favors for whoever I failed to sufficiently criticize.

And none of this even remotely compares to what female journalists, especially in sports, have to deal with on a daily basis.

Clearly, there are some dark alleys that simply aren’t worth exploring.

But we can’t afford to disengage entirely. We have to find the people who offer constructive feedback and interesting ideas, as difficult as it may be at times.

And we — as journalists and as citizens — have a responsibility to call out bullshit. We can’t just leave it to John Oliver, even if he does it remarkably well:

With that in mind, I’d invite people from all political walks of life to ask themselves this:

How much of the world’s bullshit is my responsibility?

If you watched nothing else in this post, please watch this (and pardon the vulgarity). It sums up how I feel not specifically about guns but about a lot of political discourse today:

By avoiding Twitter and political discussions for the next 40 days, I hope to cut down the amount of bullshit I encounter. I also hope to reduce my contributions — my “bullshit footprint,” if you will. Or my “anger footprint,” or my “‘I’m just trying to find the right words to make you come to terms with how wrong you are’ footprint.”

The conversations are important. Well, some of them. I don’t need to hear from Alex Morgan fangirls and fanboys ever again. There are other conversations we need to have. We need to elevate facts and the search for truth, and that takes patience.

But we should spend more time thinking before we speak. I’m going to take it to an extreme.

Forty days.

You’ll still see me on Facebook and in The Guardian and in Bloody Elbow and maybe Mostly Modern Media. But I’ll be sticking to sports, music, parenting humor and griping about yard work.

Then on Easter, all hell might break loose. But I pray it’ll have some thought behind it.




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