Algorithms – Do They Have a Hidden Agenda?

The QuipperyWhen you ask Google or Bing or Duck Duck Go to find something for you, how does ‘it’ filter the results? How do advertisers, retailers and financial markets make  decisions on what product to offer you? How do banks decide who to offer a loan or a bank card to? How do insurance companies determine how to assess risk and set prices? How do employers and dating sites use personality tests to find matches? The answer is, they use Algorithms!

An Algorithm is a set of detailed instructions that are fed into a computer program to deliver a result, or set of results from the information that it is given.

On the internet, Algorithms determine what we see first, or most. For example, when I input the letters ‘do’  into Google search, the autocomplete algorithm suggests ‘donald trump, ‘dominos’ and ‘donald trump news’. The search engine Duck Duck Go  and Yahoo suggest ‘domino’s pizza’, ‘dorothea hurley bongiovi’ and ‘donald trump’. Bing suggests ‘domino s’, download chrome’ and ‘download google chrome’ before getting to ‘donald trump twitter’.

Why do they all choose such similar suggestions? It is because search engines look for what they believe is most relevant – which is the highest frequency of a search term and the way that pages containing that term link to other pages in the Web.

There are other factors at work too. Because Algorithms are written by people, it is not uncommon for those people to write their personal bias into the algorithms:

The dustup over Facebook’s “trending topics” list and its possible liberal bias hit such a nerve that the U.S. Senate called on the company to come up with an official explanation, and this week COO Sheryl Sandberg said the company will begin training employees to identify and control their political leanings.
– Nanette Byrnes, Why We Should Expect Algorithms to Be Biased, MIT Technology Review, June 24, 2016 –

Sometimes algorithms are simply mercenary in nature. Facebook may claim that its algorithm is personalized for your benefit, but it would be fair to say that Facebook’s algorithm is also optimized for Facebook, and thus for the advertisers.

More disturbing – it has been demonstrated that people’s emotions can be controlled by algorithms built into their social feeds. In 2012, Facebook  and data scientists from two Universities (in a study that was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) tweaked the news feed algorithms of roughly 0.04 percent of Facebook users, or 698,003 people, for one week in January. During the experiment, half of these people saw fewer positive posts than usual, while half  saw fewer negative ones. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced  more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite occurred. (In a note of contrition, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the decision to manipulate the content without the users consent might have violated some principles of academic research…)

It is one thing to know and accept that sites like Google or Facebook (both are primary news sources for people under 35) can manipulate what you see and potentially control how you feel. Are you also willing to accept that they could also be isolating you from other viewpoints, thus exacerbating your biases?

If you believe, as I do, that trending news can often be incomplete news –  will you search for better information if you see ‘Red Flags’ like the following?

– does the story  contain facts that seem to be inflated?

Example from Greenpeace USA: “The Arctic is one of the most unique places on Earth. It spans eight countries, is home to more than 13 million people… Fact check: The National Snow and Ice Data Centre, which is supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says “In total, only about 4 million people live in the Arctic worldwide.”

– is the story attempting to appeal to your emotions, or to the emotions of young people who may not be old enough to understand the inaccuracy of the story?

Example: Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, soliciting donations for the Suzuki Foundation, did a “live from the North Pole” broadcast in front of some faux Arctic scenery in 2011. “Santa’s workshop is sinking! Climate change is melting the snow and ice and the rising water is getting too close for comfort. Santa must relocate – fast – to make sure all the nice boys and girls still have a happy holiday.”

– does the headline contain exaggerated language that attempts to make you fearful?

Example: “Sir John A. Macdonald: 5 Frightening Facts About Our First Prime Minister” – Rachel Décoste, Huffpost –

– does the story swear at someone or make derogatory comments?

Example: “Soon enough, he will be alone, surrounded only by his admiring fellow racists. But he will still be governing from the Oval Office. It bears repeating. Americans got what they asked for. And it oozes.” Opinion piece on Donald Trump from Neil Macdonald, for CBC News

Who is to blame for the dismal state of journalism today? Do you think Algorithms  have played a role in forming your opinions or  have they impacted your life in other ways?

Cooper’s Hawk near Calgary, Alberta

It has been a busy summer in the mixed Aspen/Willow/Spruce forest of our acreage community north of Calgary, Alberta. In our section of the forest alone, the Great Horned Owl, Magpie, and Crow have all nested and produced young. The ‘new bird in town’, though was the Cooper’s Hawk. I encountered this one when I was walking along the edge of a grove of Aspen on July 23rd.

It flew from tree to tree in a large circle, scolding me as it flew. Another bird was chirping at the hawk (which is what had attracted me to that corner of our property in the first place.)

The female adult Cooper’s Hawk is about the size of a crow. Males can be much smaller – about the size of the birds that a Cooper’s Hawk preys on…

On July 31, I saw the Cooper’s Hawk fledgling.

What a mixture of disheveled youth and fierce raptor! Bits of fluffy down still poke out from under serious feathers – the beak and talons are the tools of a soon to be deadly predator.

On August 11th, a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk landed on the fence at the back of the property. A few hours later, I found a juvenile in the Aspen woods. I’m assuming this is the same bird as the fledgling in the previous photos.

Note the yellow eyes and the brown ‘drips’ or tear-drops on the white chest and abdomen.

The Feather Files
Name: Cooper’s Hawk
Species: Accipiter cooperii
Native to and Migration: The Cooper’s hawk is a short to medium-distance migrant. They summer and breed in southern Canada, and throughout most of the United States. They winter in the southern US, with some birds migrating as far south as Mexico and Honduras.
Date Seen: July to August, 2017
Location: A half hour (in car riding time) north east of Calgary, Alberta.

Notes: Cooper’s Hawks capture prey from cover or while flying quickly through dense vegetation. Adult birds have short, broad wings and long tails for navigating through these woodlands and thickets. They eat mainly medium sized birds, but also hunt chipmunks, hares, mice, squirrels, and bats.

Their hunting style is dangerous – studies found that many of these hawks had healed fractures in the bones of the chest.

Muskrat – Reshaping the Banks of Their Watery World

Alberta water

One evening I watched some Muskrats ‘working like beavers’ at a friends farm. The muskrat is a largish rodent that looks like a stocky rat. It seems harmless enough, but has the ability to reshape the banks of any body of water it decides to call home. In this photo, you can see a cut in the bank where one of its underground dens has perhaps collapsed. If they dug bank burrows under the windmill on the other side of the dugout, it might eventually cause a big problem!

Alberta Water
Muskrats primarily eat a wide variety of plants. This pair were transporting sweet clover – doesn’t it almost looked like a bridal bouquet!?

I really was disappointed when I downloaded my muskrat photos and looked at them on my computer. The early evening light wasn’t optimal for capturing detail with a zoom lens. I fancied the photos up with a few filters – all in all, I’d say they are good examples of Second Best Shots

This week’s WordPress Photo Challenge is Elemental.

Ghost – A Satisfying Day at the ‘Gamma Dogs’ House

We recently became ‘Grandparents’ to a puppy, though the term ‘puppy’ seems odd for a dog that never was very small and is growing really quickly. Our daughter and her husband are taking their puppy, Ghost, to puppy classes and are making good progress in establishing themselves as the ‘Alpha Dogs’! This training is quickly forgotten, however, in the excitement of a day here at our rural Red House. We joke that I am so far down in the dog’s ‘hierarchy of obedience’ alphabet that I am the ‘Gamma Dog’.


“so many smells. i wonder if any of them are dog approved food.  ‘alpha dog lady’ didn’t like the dead gopher. i found here last week.”

“sniffing, running, digging, rolling.  i need. a bowl of water!”

“and I’m done. someone carry me to the car.”

This week’s WordPress.com Photo Challenge is Satisfaction.

Are you a dog owner? Or – do you just enjoy a dog when it visits, then get to send it home with the owners?