Why Am I Doing This?

Artist Rendering: Convergence between machine learning recommendation and the practice of journalism. Via Mike Tavares and Min Chung

OH god… I’ve started a blog. This is bad. Even worse, it’s a data science analysis blog: It won’t even turn into a book, which becomes a podcast, which becomes a YouTube series, which gets optioned for TV, at which point I somehow lose the hosting job to Mayim Bialik.

So, why am I doing this to myself? Better yet, why am I doing this to you?

It’s a long story, that, if this works out, will be told over many years. But for now, you seem to deserve some brief explanation for this disaster.

I am a journalist. I’m fortunate enough that, despite my humble upbringing in the most incarcerated zip code in the United States, I’ve had the choice to do quite a few things.

Like so many of my colleagues, though, I have always felt Called to do the hard work of helping build a future for future humans that the humans of today would be proud of. The calling, unfortunately, is the easy part: It either haunts and then sets up shop in your every dream, day and night inclusive — or you have no idea what I’m talking about.

The hard part, though, is discovering how you in particular can best fulfill that calling and make a contribution that does justice to the unique skills that have accumulated through your experiences, the collective culture that incubated you, the aspects of yourself that you chose to develop and the ones you cast aside, and the stories you tell yourself about how your brain works, and the stories you tell others that say how you want your mind to be perceived.

I have come to learn that figuring out how to contribute to our collective is a life-long process. (much like figuring out how to read the previous paragraph)

That’s not to say journalism is the neatest expression of my calling — when I think back to my childhood, I was much more interested in cosmological physics. A few things happened, though… A strange confluence of… things that brings us to these pages.

One thing: My accountant father died just as I was reaching the age he could teach me how to use this strange Etim brain and apply it to mathematical tools.

Another thing: We were sent to a Catholic school for K-8 that, while excellent in its liberal arts and moral instruction, failed to to do much of anything for any of us when it comes to grasping mathematical concepts and application. This deficit of mine regarding mathematical tools haunted me psychologically through the remainder of my schooling, and it frustrated me to the point of utter uselessness until I began my professional career at The New York Times — Where a lifetime of sputtering efforts manifested into a seed of understanding that made practical mathematical application one of my strengths as an interactive journalist.

The other thing that happened? I became obsessed with writing as a young child. First poetry and rapping, then short fiction, then punk rock, then journalism, then indie rock, then rapping again, then playwriting, then long fiction, then opinion writing, and now, all of the above. (Plus blogging and minus the punk rock, I suppose.)

Anyways, given this set of facts, maybe you can imagine why I felt journalism best served my calling. This career I’ve enjoyed, from The Badger Herald to The New York times, then Canopy, and onto CNN skunkworks groups, has twisted and wound down roads most unexpected, as good careers tend to do. Now, I find myself with the trust of scientists who seem convinced that the methods I’m developing for the analysis of algorithmic personalization might one day help rescue the Internet (and by extension, of course, our society) from this algorithmically generated hell where we reside.

I don’t know how true all of that is, but I have felt Called again of late: To reach a new plane of understanding for the connections between interrelated actors that power the evolution of our public society: Machine learning models, individuals’ stated desires, individuals’ unstated needs, the processes of journalism, and the desires of the journalistic mind.

I didn’t come to this new phase of my career by some incredible accident or eureka moment. Instead, it was the connections I made with the people and cultures around me. Skills that I believe represent the very best of journalism. I could list a few paragraphs of names here, and yes, I am tempted to, but I think I’ll let that play out over the years as we get to know each other better in this space.

So many people have chosen to let me into their work, and not least among them are scientists who I have never met, but who I admire and run old-school blogs of their own.

I’ve often wondered how and why, in such intellectually labor-intensive fields, these folks take the time for regular blogging for years on end.

Perhaps this is my eureka moment: It’s because the process of writing for the public orders your thoughts and reaffirms your ambition.

So, maybe now I can answer the question. I have made this blog for three reasons:

  1. For myself, to become smarter and reach my higher plane of understanding
  2. To pay forward the excellent labors of people I so admire
  3. To do my little piece to keep the blogosphere alive, and the heart of public intellectual inquiry away from platforms whose mechanical need for near-infinite riches helps tear our world asunder.

In the spirit of my favorite theoretical physics blogs, you can use this space to join me on an intellectual journey toward the more perfect delivery of news. If I can manage this right, we might work together to build a space where the ML-inclined can learn about the practice of journalism, and interested journalists can learn more about the algorithms that shape our daily lives.

If you’d like to make a guest post, please reach out in the comments, on social or via email: capitoldrivegroup@gmail.com. In this space, we’ll discuss journalism, machine learning, ethics, and a little theoretical physics(you know, just for fun).

So, to conclude, at long last, I am Bassey Etim in Brooklyn, New York. I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin by way of Uyo, Nigeria. I design the outputs of machine learning based recommendation systems. Welcome to Machines on Paper!

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