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January 12, 2006

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Perusing the Last.fm rankings of artists and songs a friend has, it suddenly occurs to me that his list must be manipulated. If not, then perhaps I am more eclectic than I'd like to be - but I'm not and I know it. But what I really want to illumninate here is how much experience is actually not directly useful in describing what people are all about.

As a little background, let's start with the brilliant premise of Last.fm. You stick this little bug into your iTunes mp3 player and every time you play a song, the bug goes and tells Last.fm. As a member of Last.fm, it cobbles together a homepage for you and creates charts of what you've been listening to. Clear? If not, just check out mine.

Now if you were a data miner for the Department of Homeland Security, it's a damned good bet that you could say that my favorite group was De La Soul, right? Actually, no. It just so happens that I like Bobby McFerrin about 3 times as much. However, I have unchecked all of my Bobby McFerrin (and all of my Prince) records specifically because I want to listen to other things. As it turns out, I own more Prince music and more Bobby McFerrin than any other of my ripped CDs. Furthermore, I have lost about half of my collection of MP3s due to a disk crash that happened about year ago. So determining what I like even with this perfect transcription of my listening is constrained by what I actually own, and then what of that I actually play.

Continuing on, Sixoseven is my own band. I like my own music but not nearly as much as Bill Laswell. I also love Miles Davis, but I'd much rather listen to Paul Schwartz. I have lots of Public Enemy but I'd question that I play it more than Beethoven even the objective facts are there for all to see. So we basically have the problem of frequency of playing music as an accurate indicator of preference in music. It's certainly a reasonable correlation but there's so much more objective information (ignoring the subjective for a moment) that is not captured accurately by this entirely voluntary submission of data about my listening habits.

I think of this in consideration of various investigations and interpretations of Alito's background, as well as (obviously) my objections to the notion that data mining for national security is a good idea. Even with perfect and objective data of a persons actions, you have no real way of understanding that person's intentions or the context within which they are acting.

While I'm bleating about this, I would like to add a personal bit of frustration that I had yesterday. I've been to London once or twice. The first time, I went via a little town in Surrey called Chertsey. I only know it's Surrey because yesterday I happened upon a railway map and a series of Wikipedia entries. Now over the course of the trips I took to London by rail, I recall several of the station stops. One was Woking, another Staines. I saw them both on the railway map, which is not in front of me at the moment, but I never found Chertsey. I downloaded a new version of Google Maps and it couldn't find Chertsey either. I kept sleuthing and found to my surprise that the Thames River runs West to East, and I had thought it went North to South. The more I looked across the train map and Wikipedia, the more frustrated I got. I have memories of Chertsey, I know I was there, I know it exists and I know there are plenty of people who have been there. Even though I learned a lot more about the geography of Southeast England, including the County of Runnymede where Chertsey is located, I was unable to find the obective location of the place, given the time I spent. On the other hand, Stratford Upon Avon was a cinch to find.

I have come to the conclusion that people are not what they do, but what they say they want to do, and what they remember about what they have already done. It's the only thing that's consistent about them, in spite of any objective data that might be applicable to them. Even from the perspective of the fact that the body's cells are not constant thoughout one's life. You are not the physical you, but the process of staying you, and the only process that is consistent is one's sense of self - again based on the desires that people have and fulfill about themselves.

Posted by mbowen at January 12, 2006 12:12 PM

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