Algorithm Tuning: Zeros and Ones Plus Human Judgment

October 23, 2020

This is the Korg OT-120 Orchestral Tuner. You can buy it on Amazon for $53. It is a chromatic tuner with an eight octave detection range that supports band and orchestra instruments. Physics tune pianos, organs, and other instruments. Science!


This is the traditional piano tuner’s kit.


You will need ears, judgment, and patience. Richard Feynman wrote a letter to a piano tuner. The interesting point in Dr. Feynman’s note was information about the non-zero stiffness of piano strings affects tuning. The implication? A piano tuner may have to factor in the harmonics of the human ear.

The Korg does hertz; the piano tuner does squishy human, wetware, and subjective things.

I thought about the boundary between algorithms and judgment in terms of piano tuning as I read “Facebook Manipulated the News You See to Appease Republicans, Insiders Say”, published by Mother Jones, an information service not happy with the notes generated by the Facebook really big organ. The main idea is that human judgment adjusted zeros, ones, and numerical recipes to obtain desirable results.

The write up reports:

In late 2017, Zuckerberg told his engineers and data scientists to design algorithmic “ranking changes” that would dial down the temperature.

Piano tuners fool around to deliver the “sound” judged “right” for the venue, the score, and the musician. Facebook seems to be grabbing the old-fashioned tuner’s kit, not the nifty zeros and ones gizmos.

The article adds:

The code was tweaked, and executives were given a new presentation showing less impact on these conservative sites and more harm to progressive-leaning publishers

What happened?

We learn:

for more than two years, the news diets of Facebook audiences have been spiked with hyper conservative content—content that would have reached far fewer people had the company not deliberately tweaked the dials to keep it coming, even as it throttled independent journalism. For the former employee, the episode was emblematic of the false equivalencies and anti-democratic impulses that have characterized Facebook’s actions in the age of Trump, and it became “one of the many reasons I left Facebook.”

The specific impact on Mother Jones was, according to the article:

Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37 percent between the six months prior to the change and the six months after.

Human judgment about tool use reveal that information issues once sorted slowly by numerous gatekeepers can be done more efficiently. The ones and zeros, however, resolve to what a human decides. With a big information lever like Facebook, the effort for change may be slight, but the impact significant. The problem is not ones and zeros; the problem is human judgment, intent, and understanding of context. Get it wrong and people’s teeth are set on edge. Unpleasant. Some maestros throw tantrums and seek another tuner.

Stephen E Arnold, October 23, 2020


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