PredPol – Predicting crime through data mining

Not too long ago in LA, crime was going up while the number of officers was going down. The LAPD had to try something different if they wanted to make a dent in this, so they looked to an anthropologist and mathematicians from UCLA, Santa Clara University, and UC Irvine.

“PredPol,” mines vast amounts of crime data and predicts where crimes will occur. Unlike the “hot spot” system, which identifies crime-heavy areas, PredPol is updated in real time and gives predictions for the next 12 hours. Cops in LA would go to these “boxes,” sometimes as small as 500 feet square, just to make their presence known and look out for criminal activity.

According to PredPol’s Proven Results page, the system was twice as effective as trained crime analysts. In the areas in which PredPol was tested, crime dropped by 13% while other areas showed a 0.4% increase.

PredPol works because, although an individual’s behaviour is very difficult to predict, once you put people in herds the trends and averages become very apparent. If you know the factors that contribute to a certain behaviour, you can work out a probability of that behaviour occurring. The more factors you know and the more accurately you know them, the better your prediction will be.

PredPol is being rolled out further, including the UK.

It’d be interesting to see how far you can take this. If you imagine a day where PRISM style data mining is legal and totally accepted, and governments can access all data, then combine that with “quantified self” monitoring (it won’t be long before neuro imaging become cheap and portable enough to be the latest personal informatics tool), you could pretty much predict anything, couldn’t you?

6 ways that the influence of Facebook has changed our lives

I’m writing this partly for posterity — maybe in 10 years back when we’re living our entire lives in the Facebook Virtual Reality Matrix, we’ll look back and say “Remember when it was just a social networking site?” And partly out of old-fashioned curiosity. I should disclose that I’m one of the five or six people in the world that doesn’t have a Facebook account.


If you don’t use Facebook, you know about it. It has close to a billion users, about 1/7th of the human population of the planet! And if you use Facebook, you really use it:  3.2 billion likes or comments are generated, every single day while in the first quarter of 2011 over 300 million photos were uploaded each day. Each day!


A study this year tried to find out what was driving the eight hours a month that Americans spend in front of Facebook. They tested the five established categories for online activity: information seeking, interpersonal communication, self-expression, passing time and entertainment. Only information seeking wasn’t relevant to Facebook, with the biggest factors being entertainment and time passing. In other words, we use Facebook because mainly we’re bored!


Over 4 million businesses have pages on Facebook now. With a billion people to sell to and ease of content sharing, why wouldn’t they be? If you can write a good piece that people like, and people share it, they’re doing your marketing for you. Facebook itself is the second top earner of online display ads (behind the mighty Goog), although their growth forecast was cut last month by about a billion dollars.


Through shock and awe Facebook has invaded our vernacular. It can be a noun — “Are you on Facebook?” A verb “Look, a goat that sounds like a man, I’m going to Facebook that!” It even has a gerund: “Are you still Facebooking?” Other aspects of Facebook vernacular have also found their way into the dictionary, like “Unfriend.” Yes, unfriend is a word and has been since 2009.

Email is for dinosaurs now

Email is passe now? You’re kidding me. Yet it makes sense — why log in to Gmail when you can message your friends on Facebook? They probably check Facebook more often than email, giving you more chance of a reply, and you don’t have to open a new tab. I remember when people would say to me “I don’t have email,” and I’d think “Dinosaur.” Now I’m the dinosaur. Hey, don’t you get cocky, Facebooker. In 20 years you’ll be trying to double-click your quantum mind-control matrix interface and your kids will be laughing at you.

Don’t search us, we’ll search you

This is one that I find particularly interesting. People are expecting less-and-less to go and find news and content they find interesting; they expect it to come to them. And the more that sites know about you, the better they can get at delivering what you want. Facebook are not the only ones involved in this process — even search engines now deliver results to you not based on an objective search of the web, but based on your past searches and browsing history. But the nature of Facebook necessitates this. Although most people post things on Facebook that they like, not necessarily what they think their friends like, birds of a feather flock together, making it a safe bet anyway.

3D Printing – A new form of life?

Imagine your kitchen floor is dirty. Since you don’t want to clean it yourself you log in to a robot design website, tell them that you want a robot capable of cleaning your kitchen floor. They give you a quote, you pay, and then they email the design to you. You click “Print,” the design goes to your 3D printer, and out pops a fully functioning robot, yours to command.

That might sound far fetched, yet perhaps it’s not so far away. 3D printing has been around for around three decades and can now print objects in glass, metal, plastics and even bio-degradable materials. It has been used to create everything from jewelery, shoes, aeroplane components and even mechanical devices.

Peter Schmitt of MIT has already successfully printed a mechanical clock, and is working on servo mechanism which could be used to make custom-built robots. Much has been made over 3D printing’s potential to revolutionise industry, putting manufacturing more strongly in the hands of garage hobbyists (if you think piracy of digital goods is a big issue, wait until everyone can pirate 3D objects!). But imagine if manufacturing was taken out of everyone’s hands.

The Prusa Mendel RepRap 3D Printer from

Evolution. Skip this section if you know it.

Evolution works through a combination of replication, mutation and selection. Organisms develops through instructions contained within their DNA, which they gets from their parent/s. For example, daddy tiger and mommy tiger copy some of their DNA and store it in their sex cells. After an evening of tiger love, they combine these sets of DNA to create a new set of instructions for “building” baby tiger.

But the DNA copying process isn’t perfect, and mistakes — called mutations — cause changes a given trait or characteristic — called a phenotype — of the organism to which that DNA will eventually belong. These phenotypic variations may affect the organism’s chances of surviving or reproducing.

If a mutation in daddy tiger’s DNA causes baby tiger to have sharper claws, it might get food more easily and therefore have more chance of surviving and passing this beneficial mutation on. If it results in weaker knees, the tiger might not catch any food and then die without passing on it’s DNA. This is evolution through natural selection. It is this process that eventually produced intelligent humans like yourself, able to ponder their own ancestry.

Replication, mutation, and selection. If machines can print 3D items, mechanical devices and even robots, is it possible to create “life,” or at least, objects that reproduce and whose offspring is subject to selection pressures?


Replication would require a 3D printer able to print, and construct, itself. The RepRap machine, designed by Adrian Bowyer of Bath university and seen the video above, is almost there. It knows how to print the plastic parts necessary to build itself. With the ability to build components out of different materials, it doesn’t seem infeasible that a modified RepRap could include construction as well as production capabilities. The printer contains a small hard drive, and the parent copies its own design onto its child’s hard drive. Replication achieved.


Naturally, you want your printer to build things perfectly, so designers will try to remove mutations from the process. Also, the “DNA” in this analogy is the design on the computer, which we know is highly resilient to copying errors. However, you could imagine some flaw that creates mutations in the child design, or a non-natural form of mutation where the printer theorises about future designs that would increase its child’s ability to reproduce itself, and tests these, keeping logs of previous “tests” in its hard drive.


Natural selection could work here, as the printers need access to a source of power and raw materials. For power, you could imagine each one has a solar panel, and tests theories on how to build more efficient ones. The raw materials area a harder part though.


At what point would you be able to leave the printer running, then move all humans off the planet with confidence that they would continue to thrive? Presumably, you’d need to give the printers a head start, for example, the ability to build none-replicating drone scouts to look for raw materials, and transport robots to return it to the replicating “queens,” with the queens playing a sort of real-life game of Civilization. Or perhaps the queens themselves would produce new queens that could move and source the raw materials. Perhaps the queens see scouts from other printer families as threats, and build warrior drones to fight their resource wars.

If self-replicating machines were made that were capable of finding the resources and energy they needed to continue to reproduce, at what point do you call it life?

Of course I’m just thinking out loud with all this, but I think it’s interesting and fun to consider the possibilities. Many people think of 3D printing as a door to a techno-utopian future where the means of production is held inside every household — and maybe it is. However, if we manage to build completely self-replicating machines with the capacity for mutation and a form of selection pressure, I’m just saying, they might lead to a different future.


Why debating doesn’t work (and how to fix it)

I have experienced the second TV program that made me want to throw my shoes at the TV — a broadcast of Prime Minister’s Questions.

In PMQ’s, members of the opposition get to ask the PM questions about his party’s policies and actions. Ostensibly the point of this is to reach useful conclusions and actionable steps that will improve the country. Occasionally there was an inkling of that happening. But the bulk of it was shoe-throwing-bad (if you’re wondering, the other program that made me wish for more aerodynamic footwear is Big Brother).

I watched in complete disbelief as questions on issues affecting the country were answered with ad hom attacks aimed at the asker! It seemed like the aim was to “beat” the asker, rather than respond intelligently to the question. These attacks are always followed by jeering and cheering, as though this is considered acceptable.

This philosophy — of winning the discussion rather than productively debating — you also see disgustingly often when politicians are being interviewed on TV. It’s often done with a restatement of the responder’s position on the issue, or some random hyperbole. Something like:

Q:How do you respond to the claim that your policies have increased unemployment?
A:This is a complex issue and we need to look at all our options and make the right moves going forward, to encourage growth and get the economy back on track.

Doesn’t answer the question! And yet, seems like it does.

The problem here is that free-form debating of a topic isn’t very useful. It’s too open to hacking. We are able to out-debate people even when we are wrong and they are right. We are able to change people’s minds to our way of thinking regardless of what the actual truth is. We even have scientifically researched ways of doing so — although sometimes good old-fashioned talking over the other person is all that’s needed.

This problem is only exacerbated when groups of people are mass-debating because it’s hard to come to a satisfactory conclusion without someone else butting in first.

Free-form verbal debate is highly effective in finding out who the most charistmatic, silver tongued and/or dominant person is. It’s not very effective in reaching productive conclusions.

For that, the scientific way is better. Scientist A writes a paper, and scientist B responds with their criticisms. Scientist A can then publish another addressing these, perhaps after collecting more data. And so on. Because it’s all laid out in writing, it is obvious to everyone if a question has been dodged.

This is too slow for politics, but maybe there’s a middle ground…

Who Dares Wins

Future of British politics? (Note the isolation booth)

Who Dares Wins is a game show in which opposing contestants sit in sound-proofed booths, betting on which one of them can list the most items from a particular category, for example, films starring Johnny Depp, or number 1 singles. As soon as I saw this, I knew it was essential to politics.

I propose that this studio be repurposed for interviewing politicians, CEOs of companies that have done something naughty, and perhaps built into the House of Commons itself (neon lights, dramatic music and all).

Here’s how it would work.

The interviewer sits in one booth, the politician in the other. In the middle is be a large screen to display the arguments and responses thus far. A number of online tools have been created to visually represent debates in this way, so we already know how to do that.

The interviewer asks their first question, and it appears on the screen. During this time, the microphone in the politician’s booth is switched off. The booth is sound-proof, so no one can hear them no matter how loudly they shout.

Next, the politician gets his chance to respond. The interviewer’s booth is switched off and the politician’s turns on. They get their chance to reply, and their responses appear on the screen. Then the response is analysed by an impartial adjudicator, to ensure that it does in fact answer the question, and isn’t some clever ducking and weaving.

If the answer is suitable, it goes up on the board, and the interviewer gets to challenge these responses. The process continues in this way.

If the answer isn’t suitable, it will be quite obvious to all. The interviewer or adjudicator could then challenge the response, and if it cannot be defended, that answer would be stricken from the board and they could be invited to answer again.

Personal attacks and logical fallacies from either side would also be stricken off the board, and perhaps a small punishment applied, such as a smacked bottom or a gunging.


No longer would people be able to dodge questions without appearing to do so.

No longer would people be able to win arguments through verbal jiu jitsu.

No longer would people be able to win arguments by having the loudest voice.

Potentially hilarious.



Political debate is broken, people. To fix it we need sound-proofed booths and neon lights. Particularly, neon lights.

Resilience applied to food

I saw a TED talk that made me think about resilience, and how it’s such a broad and useful concept to have in your mental repertoire. You can apply it to anything and it will give you useful, practical ideas. This example is access to food, but I think the general formula can apply to anything.

For a culture that praises individuality and “making it on your own,” we’re pretty dependent on other people and external systems. That’s not necessarily bad, but for some people it sets off an internal alarm bell – what if these external systems were to fail?

That idea is not implausible. It happened to every society that went before us and many more that once existed concurrently to ours.


In psychology there’s an excellent concept called resilience. Some people are more negatively affected by trauma than others. These people are more resilient. Trauma and difficulties bounce off the highly resilient like bullets bounce off Robocop. Less resilient – more fragile — people are not so lucky. It takes a weaker blow to psychologically knock them down, and they have a harder time getting back on the horse afterwards. [1]

Many factors determine who is psychologically resilient and who isn’t, and I can write about that if you want. But for the moment let’s expand the idea outside of psychology and into one of the basic survival needs – food. How resilient is our access to food?

Getting Food

At the moment you work for money, then buy food with that money. This relies on:

  • Having a job/money
  • There being affordable food in the shop

Without either of these two things, you can’t get food.


How resilient is your income? How secure is your job? What’s the economic outlook? Do you have savings? Is your currency’s value going to hold?


Shops rely on transport, which relies on fuel, which relies on the price and availability of oil. If oil prices go up, so do food prices. If your country is a net food importer, its system is fragile to the same extent as the countries from which it imports.

Assessing Food Resilience

Lots of other things could affect your access to money and your local supermarket’s access to food for it to sell. Look into them. For each one, ask yourself, “What would happen to my access to food if this happened?” For example, if oil prices went up, if you lost your job, if the government cut back unemployment benefits, etc.

Knocks to the System

Resilient systems can absorb trauma and keep going. Fragile systems crumble. Anti-fragile systems [1] get stronger through trauma.

Now that you’ve researched and thought about it, is your “access to food” system resilient? What about in five years, or ten years?

If you consider your system resilient, let me know why – Do you have a garden? Will the market provide? Are you Ray Mears?

Increasing Resilience

If you can maintain your access to food in the event of the factors you identified earlier, your system is resilient. What might this look like?

  • Growing food
  • Urban homesteading
  • Having chickens
  • Stored rations/preserving food
  • Foraging skills
  • Wasting less

And so on. These are resilient to wider, global problems and hence are more resilient. But each one of these are fragile to different factors. If everyone in your town learned to forage, the skill would be useless if everyone quickly stripped the land. So you might have to go through this process several times, thinking out contingencies.

I like the general process though and I think it’s worth going through these steps for a number of key areas (food, water, transport, energy, health, mental health, community, entertainment… etc).

Here’s the visual aid:

[1] Naseem Taleb has argued that these two concepts – resilience and fragility — are not opposites. The opposite of fragility, he argues, is anti-fragility – a quality whereby variance actually strengthens its possessor, as opposed to its possessor being simply immune to the negative effects of variability. A related concept in psychology is post-traumatic growth, which is a positive psychological-style approach to reaction to trauma; and a valid viewpoint I think – if you only study post-traumatic stress, that’s all you’ll find.