Tuesday, 21 November 2017

How an Article about Hairstyles is about Data

I don't like the Spinoff very much but they'd make for a serviceable magazine in print so I treat them as such. My big issue with them is that there is no real reason (and certainly not their specious reasons) for a website to not have a comments section. Comments sections are important for all sorts of reasons. Yet somehow they're the most loathed thing on the internet these days. I mean, damn, Redditors tell each other not to read the comments section. How did that happen? Reddit is a comments section. It's not even a good one.* But anyway, here's their article and now my response...

The first thing to note about "What does your hair say about you?" is that it's a completely clickbait title. The article has next to nothing to do with that. You can tell that something is going on because it's in their ĀTEA section. That doesn't mean "lifestyle". What that is presumably translated to is "forum," and they use the te reo because what the Spinoff files in there is a bunch of articles on or about indigenous issues. This particular article is talking about a set of traditional Maori beliefs about hair. Its real point is inform people of those notions and validate their place in society. That article is activism, no two ways about it. But I said it was about data!?

Well, yes, it's both. One's hairstyle says sweet FA about one. Here's a "spoiler" for the Punisher (the recently released Netflix series). Frank rocks for a couple of episodes a long hair thick hair combo that makes everyone call him a hipster. I'm sure some hipsters are into judge, jury and executioner, gun-borne revenge fantasies. Some probably even have military training. But Frank's hairstyle says none of that. That ain't what being a hipster is being about. Being a hipster is about criticising conformity by conforming. I don't like hipsters. Frank doesn't like hipsters. What exactly a hipster is is less clear than I am pretending. The truth is, Frank says he's hiding his identity (hey, he is wanted for three dozen murders he did actually commit). Every hairstyle on every single person is this. No exceptions.

Now, I'm not saying that hair can't tell you anything. One of the ways Sherlock Holmes is described is as a Bayesian. Basically, Holmes makes one observation. Say it's about the state of a hat band. He then has a good idea about the likelihood a given characteristic of the wearer leads to that observation. He weights that likelihood by the prior probability of the characteristic (there's a whole set of these) and divides it all by the probability of the observation. This gives the posterior probability of the characteristic. Holmes then makes another observation, say, about the price of the hat. This works in the same way... except now he uses the posterior where he used the prior last time. And he does this for everything that he sees. And the point of Holmes is that he sees a lot. This is a long sequence of Bayes' Box calculations so I'm calling the fundamental idea Bayesian. And having an observation about someone's hair and putting it together with all the other stuff could actually say something about somebody. For instance, notice that our knowing Frank was Frank is an observation.

What headlines like "What your hair says about you" normally talk about is reverse causality. Say someone sees the author of the article and notices his hair. The hair is hipsterish so what do they do? They conclude he is a hipster. Hipsters have hipster hair, he's got hipster hair, therefore he's a hipster. It's bad logic but the term is reverse causality. Or, at least, that's what I'm using. (If you know some better terminology please tell me.) People have a set of expectations which they then read in the hair. It's pretty simple and seems to suggest that "what you say someone's hair means says a lot about you"... or something, anyway.
Unfortunately, the opinions and views of the society that we live in continues to shape the way that others perceive me. Despite the cultural beliefs and ideas that I have about what my hairstyle means to me, the tikitiki that I now wear has been caught up in some hipster trend that categorises me into something that I don’t identify with. Both my Pākehā and Māori friends will take a stab at my ‘man-bun’, but people are yet to understand the tikanga that underpins it. Those moments are a great opportunity for me to teach people about how our tūpuna respected their head and hair, and who knows, maybe I will develop that super-power after all.
Te Miri Rangi is finding personal meaning in his hair. He's writing an article which validates that act. It does do that, although as I reject the meaningness of hair I was always going to agree with this bit. I'm not sold on the superpower thing but even to the extent that wasn't a joke, how is that any more ridiculous than praying, lighting candles, fasting or whatever other crazy religious crap people do? It's just a thing. They can do it but they should shut up about it... religion is exclusively personal. What made me write this is that Rangi is stumbling around on the edge of the true insight, i.e. that hairstyles lack meaning inherently and are given it externally. In this context, you are external to your own hair. If anything, I see the validating material as promulgating the false truth of meaningness. On the other hand, validating isn't meant to do that.

Well, that was fun... a blogpost mostly about a headline for an article that didn't exit. Such is the muse. Rangi provides a frame, not a reference. But also, this is the reverse-clickbait headline. My post is what the title says its about. It's just that what it's about isn't about what it is about.

*After years of trying to develop a comments section here I've given up and now pursue part of my mission statement under a username I'm not going to tell you.

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