About William

William Li is a PhD student in computer science at MIT.

Data Story: Congress and the Financial Crisis

For this assignment, I plan to use data to illustrate how the United States Congress works and responds to societal challenges. Specifically, I want to illuminate how Congress responded to the 2008 financial crisis through text data such as bills, reports, and hearings. What was the legislative response to the crisis? Who were the key actors and players? What was the content of successful laws?

I am working with data that is accessible through .gov websites such as the Government Printing Office. There are also some academic efforts to parse bills and laws into sections that I will use. My hope is that this approach will also be useful for current congressional activities.

More generally, and beyond the scope of this assignment, I’d be interested people’s ideas about how data-driven approaches could help us understand and analyze the processes of government and democracy.



Posted in All

Explainer: The Federal Reserve, the Federal Open Market Committee, and Central Banking

Growing up, my family subscribed to the Toronto Star. I used to read the sports section exclusively. Eventually, I started to also read other sections — first Greater Toronto, then Entertainment, then the frontpage news section. Only now, when I visit home, do I occasionally starting to read the Business section. Looking back, I think that I started to embrace each section when I understood the domain; since I knew a lot about professional sports, I derived value from absorbing as much information about them.

For this assignment, I chose to try to understand the Federal Reserve, which holds a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on Wednesday. The new Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen, will hold her first post-FOMC press conference to discuss the Fed’s view of the economy and the actions that it will take.

Interestingly, the Federal Reserve runs a website called Federal Reserve Education” which was very helpful for writing this explainer.

What is the Federal Reserve? What does it do?

The Federal Reserve was created by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. It was charged by Congress to “to provide for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.” Somewhat like the process of appointing a Supreme Court Justice, the President appoints the Chair of the Federal Reserve, but the decisions of the Federal Reserve are independent — they are not ratified by neither Congress nor the President.

Learn more: In Plain English: Making Sense of the Federal Reserve

Who is “in” the Federal Reserve? How is it structured?

While it’s commonly shortened to the “Fed”, it may be helpful to think about the full name, the “Federal Reserve System.” The Federal Reserve System includes the seven-member Federal Reserve Board of Governors (chaired by Janet Yellen), twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, and the twelve-member Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)

Learn more: Structure of the Federal Reserve System

What’s happening at this Federal Open Market Committee meeting?

Observers are suggesting that the Fed will continue to taper its bond-buying program in place since the financial crisis. With interest rates near zero, this has been the Fed’s main instrument of stimulating the economy. Among other intended effects, buying government bonds reduces their yield, making other investments (corporate bonds, stocks, and other investment vehicles) more attractive. Despite possible signs of weakness in the economy, the Fed is expected to continue reducing its purchase levels.

Why does Ron Paul hate the Fed? Should we have a gold standard, Bitcoin, or some other kind of central banking system than the one that exists?

There is a lot to unpack in this question, but one fact that all sides can likely agree on is this: through the Federal Reserve System, the federal government has fairly powerful levers to affect monetary policy and, in turn, the economy as a whole. Some would argue that these powers can be abused; the current Federal Reserve System, is predicated on the argument that such powers are, on balance, useful and important for economic growth and stability.

Posted in All

“The Face Behind Bitcoin”: The Internet Responds

Similar to Hiromi, I also chose Bitcoin this week.

Last week, this Newsweek article by Leah McGrath Goodman on the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the secretive creator of Bitcoin generated massive attention. I decided to curate the Internet’s response to the article.

Along with its focus on Bitcoin’s creator, the article was notable in that it was the cover story of Newsweek, which returned to print for the first time in 14 months.

1. Newsweek Posts Article

2. Bitcoin’s Lead Developer Tweets

3. Reddit’s r/bitcoin responds


Bitcoin enthusiasts on Reddit generally express skepticism at the article and are upset that Satoshi Nakamoto was “doxed.” Some anger is directed at Goodman, the author of the Newsweek article.


4. Goodman interviewed by IBTimes


5. Man Denies He’s Bitcoin Founder


6. The “Real” Satoshi Nakamoto Responds

In a Bitcoin forum where the Bitcoin founder has been active in the past, the following is posted: “I am not Dorian Nakamoto”

Link to Forum

7. NewsGenius Annotation of Newsweek Article Created

NewsGenius Annotation

The annotation argues that the evidence in the article in support of Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity is “extraordinarily thin.” Interestingly, the main annotators are Balaji Srinivasan and Marc Andreessen, two general partners of the well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Posted in All

Fact-checking the Fords: “The Yahoos”

Rob Ford was elected in 2010 as the Mayor of Toronto. Over the past year, he has been the center of controversy related to drug use and possible criminal activity. In the media frenzy of the past few months, Rob Ford’s staunchest defender has been his brother, Doug, who is currently a member of Toronto City Council.

Mayor Ford and Councillor Ford recently launched “Ford Nation”, a YouTube channel. Prior to the YouTube channel, the Fords previously hosted “The City with Mayor Rob Ford,” a popular radio call-in show on AM radio, and the short-lived “Ford Nation” television show on the Sun News Network.

I decided to fact-check one of the Fords’ YouTube videos focused on the views of Mayor Ford’s likely election opponents (“the yahoos”) in municipal elections later this year.

At first, I wanted to make a transcript of the video and score every sentence in the video for accuracy. Only then, in my view, can one overcome Matt Hemingway’s accusation of selection bias in media fact-checking. After some consideration, though, I wasn’t convinced that such an analysis would be interesting — it seems that fact-checking is most useful for controversial or attention-grabbing statements. With this in mind, I used my best judgment to select several assertions made by the Fords. (As a future exercise, it could be fun to measure attention or controversy automatically through signals like Twitter activity.)

The subject of the video is public transit in Toronto. The Fords support building new subway lines, while many of their opponents favor light-rail transit (LRTs). Along with differences in cost, construction time, and coverage, the subway-versus-light-rail debate often stirs emotions in Toronto — Mayor Ford’s base in the suburbs supports new subways, while progressives in the downtown core generally support more affordable options. A reasonable (albeit somewhat LRT-favoring) primer on Toronto subways versus LRTs can be found here.

As an additional exercise, I decided to apply a binary true/false criteria for this assignment: A statement is true if and only if all of its clauses are true, and false otherwise. The selection and judgment of degrees of truth, in my view, is also a human and potentially error-prone process.

Doug Ford (DF) (0:35): “Anywhere in the world, you go to any major city… and what you get is rapid underground transit from point A to point B.”

Assessment: True

At 2.8 million residents, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fourth-largest in North America. Wikipedia lists two other, smaller Canadian cities (Vancouver and Montreal) and thirteen other North American cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Juan, and Washington, D.C.) that have subways [Wikipedia]. While all of these cities have a mixture of subway and non-subway transit lines, it appears that Doug Ford’s statement, strictly speaking, is true.

Rob Ford (RF) (1:22): The Mayor makes a few statements about the transit views of other likely mayoral candidates.

“First… we have a former budget chief… who doesn’t want subways.”

Assessment: True

RF is referring to David Soknacki, a former city councillor. According to Soknacki’s campaign website, “Although he’s a lifelong Scarborough resident, David is the ONLY major mayoral candidate with the political courage to promise to cancel the Bloor-Danforth subway extension in Scarborough, and replace it with modern, cost-effective LRT plan that was already partly designed – and fully funded.” [David Soknacki Campaign Site]


“We have the head of the TTC who says, ‘I want LRTs,’ and then she flip-flopped to subways.”

Assessment: True

City Councillor Karen Stintz, who chairs the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has declared her candidacy for mayor. The Toronto Star notes, “In 2012, Stintz outmanoeuvred Ford and won new fans on the left when she persuaded council to return to Miller’s plan for above-ground light rail lines on Finch Ave., Sheppard Ave., Eglinton Ave. and in the Scarborough RT corridor. In 2013, she joined with Ford, and lost many of those new fans, in making a successful push for a subway in the Scarborough RT corridor, and a tax hike to pay for it, rather than cheaper light rail.” [Toronto Star]


“There’s other candidates, [e.g.] people leading the civic action group, we want to have user fees… revenue tools… LRTs.”

Assessment: False

RF is referring in this statement to John Tory, a past mayoral candidate and provincial politician who heads the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.

It is true that John Tory supports new taxes to build transit: The Toronto Star notes, “Tory, 59, is a vocal advocate of the need for new taxes to pay for transit expansion. Ford imposed a new property tax to pay for the planned subway extension to the Scarborough RT, but he criticized Tory last week for holding “tax, tax, tax” views.” [Toronto Star]

Tory, however, is not opposed to all forms of subways: he supports a downtown subway relief line, as noted in his introductory campaign video. [John Tory Campaign Site]. Therefore, Rob Ford’s statement is false.

DF (2:22) discusses public-private partnerships as a source of transit funding:

“You go out there, you get private sector funding, folks… you go out for the public-private partnerships, they refuse to do that. When you build a subway station, you make sure there is density on top of the subway station.”

Assessment: False

I did not find explicit evidence of the three aforementioned mayoral candidates being opposed to public-private partnerships (P3) to fund public transit. Soknacki is on record in support of P3s this year, [Globe and Mail]; Tory has support them in the past [Globe and Mail]. It appears that Stintz is most strongly in favor of pursuing funding from the provincial and federal levels of government for transit funding [National Post], but stating that all three candidates oppose P3s is false.


“So what that does, you get the pension funds, that we have two, here, the Teacher’s Pension Fund, and OMERS, and guess what, folks? They’re developing and putting their money in London and New York! Because the councilors in Toronto, a lot of them don’t believe in getting the private sector to build subways.”

Assessment: Unknown

I did not find specific evidence of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System  (OMERS) or the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, two of the largest pension funds in the province, investing in the London and New York transit systems.

Rob Ford: “‘Revenue tools…’ means gas tax. Our friend at Civic Action wants to tax people. The first thing that he did when he got in at Queen’s Park was give a 35% pay increase to all MPPs.”

Assessment: False

As leader of the Official Opposition in the Ontario Legislature, John Tory did indeed vote in favor of a pay increase for Members of Provincial Parliament. However, the increase was 25%, not 35% [National Post] The vote also occurred in December 2006; Tory won a by-election and entered the Ontario Legislature in March 2005 [Ottawa Citizen].



Open Doors Night at Sidney Pacific

William’s Four-Hour Challenge

Saturday, February 15, 11:57pm


Sidney Pacific (S-P) Graduate Residence, a graduate dorm at MIT with 700 graduate students, hosted Open Doors Night on Saturday, February 15 from 8pm to 11pm. During Open Doors Night, several residents host small parties in their apartments and residents go around from room to room, meeting new people and enjoying snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and desserts.

I decided to make Open Doors Night my four-hour challenge and tell the story in the style of “Humans of New York“, a blog that features photos and quotes from New Yorkers in their daily lives. Here are the 15 hosts, what they served, and what they said.


Katie (and Georgia)
“It’s a family tradition!”



chocolate and plain croissants, teriyaki pork, lamb
“Why do you enjoy cooking?”
“It’s like the PhD grind, but you can eat it immediately!”



Atul and Pawan
aloo paratha, laddu
“It’s an opportunity to expose people to Indian food and Indian traditions.”



Stephanie and Jen
pinwheels (cheddar & bacon, spinach & mushrooms), sushi (spam & pineapple, crab meat & cucumber, salmon & cucumber), salted caramel turtle cookies
“This is my fifth time hosting Open Doors Night!”
“We thought we were going to be lazy but ended up doing a lot!”



canapés, hummus, tabbouleh salad, tomato bites
“I got this book [on Lebanese cuisine] for Christmas.”


fresh fruit, croissants, coconut sweets, pizza, tea
“What’s been the most interesting thing that’s happened this evening?”
“I like the conversations. We talked about computational biology.”


Isaac (and Fabián)
brownies, homemade whipped cream, empanadas


Julie (and Neel)
brownies, cupcakes, chocolate-covered pretzels, raisinettes
“This is awesome! You open your door and people come and say hi!”


Ramesh and Szymon
stuffed mushrooms, peppermint brownie balls
“The stuffed mushrooms are gone! There was sundried tomato and herb and bacon, spinach, and feta… and they both turned out really well.”


nachos, cookies
“I’m very thankful for MIT residential life for doing some of the living for grad students. (laughs) That’s not grammatically correct!”


Holly (and George)
appetizers from the freezer (bacon-wrapped tater tots and more)
“What is your favorite recipe to make and why?”
“I like new recipes. I’ve made a new recipe every day for the past year.”


Various snacks (nachos, chicken wings)
“I wanted to make what people were familiar with, in large quantities!”


sweet potato bread, almond hot chocolate
“I got into baking because I have more free time this year.”


“I decided to make lemon raspberry and strawberry shortcakes because they seemed like late-spring/early-summer foods, which seemed like a good idea in a blizzard!”


Steve and Frank
brownies, tea
“You’re the last apartment in my article! How do you want to be quoted?”
“We have too much tea.” “Live long and prosper.” “Tea, Earl Gray, hot.”

William’s Media Diary


This was an interesting and challenging assignment. Defining what to include as media consumption, figuring out how to measure it, and summarizing the mass of data in a reasonable form were some of the design decisions I had to make. I decided to provide qualitative observations on my offline and mobile access and then try to “deep dive” into my web history to gain further insights into what I consume.


Offline Media


  1. Print: I don’t currently subscribe to any newspapers or magazines. I picked up and skimmed the MIT student newspaper (the Tech) and the newsletter of the graduate dorm I live in (Sidney Pacific). The elevators of Sidney Pacific have a wide array of posters that I inevitably see every day. A common characteristic of the print media I consume is that they are simply there.

Elevator posters on February 8.

  1. Television: I watched the Olympic opening ceremonies on Friday, February 7 for two to three hours. I also turned on the television at a few points this week, out of habit. Usually, I channel surf or leave the television on as background noise. Possibly because of the way that television is architected — it’s really easy to press the channel-up or channel-down button — I probably get a wider variety and range of perspectives than I do when I’m on the Internet. For example, this week, I’ve watched at least of a few minutes of PBS, the three major American networks, the Discovery Channel, Fox News, and C-SPAN.


  1. Radio/Music: I didn’t listen to the radio this week. I usually listen to NPR if I drive, but I didn’t drive this week. I used Songza (a website like Pandora that gives personalized music recommendations) to listen to music on my phone and computer.



A substantial amount of my media consumption is on my phone. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a good tool to automatically track my mobile usage or automatically take screenshots; in hindsight, capturing my browsing history might have worked to some extent, but it wouldn’t have been able to capture all of my usage through various apps. It’s my hope that my deep dive into my desktop Internet usage will capture some of these patterns.


A key exception is Facebook. A few weeks ago, to reduce distractions on my computer, I decided to logout of Facebook from my computer and access it only on my phone. I think that it has been a successful experiment — I’ve only logged in to Facebook on a couple of occasions. On my phone, I accessed Facebook on a daily basis and generally click on a few links on my news feed.




As a first step, I used RescueTime to measure my computer activity. As illustrated below, it provided an indication of when I’m on the computer and the types of activities I do. It seems like a lot of my most productive hours are in the early evenings and early hours of the morning.

Usage by hour of day

Usage by category


RescueTime also provided a breakdown of my news and entertainment consumption:

News consumption

Entertainment consumption



  1. I’m pretty surprised by how much I read Canadian media — I usually go to these URLs as a distraction.

  2. In contrast, I “stumble upon” other kinds of physical offline media more often.

  3. It’s interesting to think about how to think about and capture offline interactions and media consumption. The ways that I can think of, such as written or audio journaling or taking photos regularly, seem fairly disruptive and invasive.

  4. It takes time and effort to trace one’s own media consumption. Notably, large Internet companies — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and others — have substantial infrastructure and resources capturing every click and action of their users. It is interesting to think about what insights can be gleaned from that data, along with the limitations of what they can infer about human behavior and preferences.