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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Looking back at my Bitcoin take

During the early part of the 2017 Bitcoin boom, a relative of mine emailed other relatives, including me, wondering whether to invest.

She wasn't religious about it or anything; she only wrote, "Maybe we should be investing a little in this". And I certainly agree, at least if you interpret "a little" to mean an amount well under 1% of one's net worth. I own a little Bitcoin, which I bought primarily to be able to experiment with.

At the same time, many of the world's scams are built of a sense of fear of missing out, and come with a pitch of "Sure, it'll probably go bust, but what if it's the next big thing? Can you really afford not to put in something?" As if imaginary billions vaporizing is worse than losing the hard currency that's actually in your pocket.

So here was my response. 30 months later, I looked it up. The BTC price at the time was about $5300; now it's about $4000, where it's been stable for the past year. In between, of course, it briefly (very briefly) went up to $20,000.

So while my advice to not invest currently appears sound, that doesn't mean a well timed series of trades couldn't have made a ton of money, or that buying at the time and holding won't eventually pan out.

Here's what I wrote on Oct 13, 2017:

I  have a lot of thoughts. Mostly, I think almost no one understands what the underlying value of these things is. If everything you can buy today turns out to have no value in 5 years, very few people would be legitimately surprised. But, that was my reason for not buying Bitcoin 6 years ago, which would have been very lucrative!

I've been arguing for years that "coins" should not be considered to have significant intrinsic value because the function of one cryptocurrency is pretty easy to replicate. In a way, that's happening now, where Bitcoin's share of the cryptocurrency market cap has fallen by 50% in the face of many new competitors. Of course, the overall value may grow faster than competitors can proliferate, but there is little reason any functional use of one currency can't be expanded to handle another. Would someone in 2050 rather have 1 million Bitcoin or $1000 USD? I would bet on the latter, because Bitcoin will just be one cryptocurrency among many, many with the same usefulness--or much more.

I could be wrong, and what will happen in the short term is anyone's guess. But if I'm the least informed player at the table, I think it's very unlikely that I'll come out ahead. Maybe that's just my cautious philosophy, which sometimes is a great asset, but might sometimes keep me from seizing an ambiguous opportunity.

It's worth noting that the industry still hasn't come up with a good, popular, secure way to even maintain an account of these "coins". I've had friends get theirs hacked and stolen, and others be unable to get the companies who provide their "wallets" to let them transfer their coins out. It's the wild West over there.

-Ben

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Monday, March 11, 2019

A mess of attention

My daughters love Youtube explainer/demo/unpackaging videos. What's worrisome is that they are absorbing Youtubers' obsession with subscribes, likes, etc. When my daughters make their own videos showing off cool stuff they can do or make, they always start "Hey guys, it's me!" and they end "Don't forget to hit the subscribe button!"

What's troubling is the way they equate high volume of attention with quality of connection. Or rather, they don't really even know that quality of connection means anything. And I find myself feeling the same.

A lot of my thinking these days is about how we can make attention more evenly distributed. As we have less time for each other, less time for the local, we make more time for the incredible.

So parents watch their latest TV obsession, which is amazing, instead of telling their kids stories. (I totally do this. Telling stories is hard!) Sports fans follow all the stars closely, and care less than their parents did about the details of their local team. The number of incredibly gorgeous people that we see every day is higher than it's ever been, and the normal person next door is less interesting -- and we don't know how to strike up a conversation anymore, anyway.

And even within individual social media accounts, there is concentration of attention to posts. My most impassioned posts are ones that Facebook quickly learns won't get a lot of likes; my most generic posts are in a sense "wealthier" with attention than the ones that would challenge my friends and make them challenge me back. Meaning is poorly rewarded, because it is poor in social currency.

What I'm longing for is an increase in the "floor" of attention -- the amount of connection to your fellow humans that we can expect when we reach out, whether it's by organizing a meeting or a club, posting our thoughts, or talking to our neighbors.

The most troubling part of this for me is that even if we partially opt out, the attention concentrators and dopamine hustlers get more and more efficient each year. It's like fighting a losing battle, and the incentives are pretty much all aligned in that direction.

We're amusing ourselves to death, and doing so at the time in history when we need to focus the most on the boring day to day, since climate change is barreling along faster and faster and is going to have huge effects in our lifetimes. How can bringing our kids into tedious political and policy debates, coordinated across multiple unwieldy countries, compare to another episode of Succession?

I don't know whether fixing the distribution of attention wealth would help fix political engagement or group thinking. But I suspect they are connected.

In my writing and technology building life, I've gone both ways. I've written this blog for more than a decade, and long ago decided to keep writing what I felt moved to without regard for the nonexistent audience.

Interestingly, there did seem to be a high floor of attention in the early days of blogging. Ezra Klein talks about this; you could write a response to a prominent blogger and, if you wrote well, you could expect a reply. Now, contrary to what we expected from the internet in its early days, platform matters more than ever.

True, anyone can build their own soapbox using social media, and plenty have, from Justin Bieber to Coleman X. Hughes. Talent, and trolling, have always mattered, and always will. But talent does not seem to surface as effectively as we expected. You must be funded or amplified by someone who wants to profit from your attention, or be willing to play the social media game by sinking untold hours into the sort of generic pablum you see from, say, Casey Neistat.

It's hard to know a way out of this mess.

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Monday, March 04, 2019

I pledge allegiance to the killbot

Item 1: The Washington Post ran a recent story titled "The Kalashnikov assault rifle changed the world. Now there’s a Kalashnikov kamikaze drone." Item 2: The US Dept of Defense has a propaganda feed where they show off their technologies with pride, including a recent post bragging about the firepower of a Hercules warcraft.

I think the dawning age of killer robots is one of the most important stories in the world.

I anticipate that the next step change will come when autonomous killer robots are equipped with recharging capabilities, and designed for indefinite deployment. Then it will start making much more sense to give them rudimentary AI to decide who to kill, when and where.

In addition, this method of violence will give us even less personal connection to those we kill. Think of the difference between pulling the trigger on several people who ends up being the wrong people (which has a PTSD rate near 100%) and deciding to conduct a drone strike on them; much less personal, much less of a sense of immediate responsibility; less PTSD, though there certainly is some.

Now think of the difference between that and writing code that someone else on your team reviews, and yet someone else deploys to a drone fleet, and then there are dozens more code deployments after you. If, over the course of years, indirect reports suggest that these drones have been killing many of the "right" people but also many of the "wrong" people. In the meantime, you've shifted to another coding job, for a finance company. Are you going to have PTSD now, retroactively? Not likely.

With less human resistance and pain, comes greater incentive to err on the side of killing.

We already don't care how many innocent people are murdered by our manually controlled drones. We literally don't even try to keep count, beyond keeping a fake count that is an obvious lie. We didn't even care when the US government murdered a teenaged US citizen. Will anyone really care when Democracy Now! reports that our extended deployment killbots are murdering thousands of innocent children?

And then when the other side murders us, Sam Harris will take it as evidence that their values are incomprehensible and alien to us and can't be negotiated with.

The Terminator and Matrix dystopias, as pessimistic as their premises seem, are actually myopic about humanity. They envision a future where humanity is united in regret for creating such powerful and destructive killing machines. What they get wrong is that humanity is going to be working hard to make the killing machines smarter, long after it's clear that they are destroying human life as we know it.

The Pentagon will be proud of them. Dianne Feinstein will be proud of them. And odds are, our kids will be proud of them.

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White pride: the most tortuous and pathological gerrymander in history

“We invented the modern world... White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.” - Columbia University student, who reportedly approached a group of students of color on campus last night for this tirade

[Tweet by Keith Boykin]

In arguments with white nationalists who are smart, usually male, and think of themselves as simple truth tellers -- Richard Spencer and Jordan Peterson roughly bracket this group, with Spencer at the overt white supremacist end, and Peterson at the cagey end -- you often hear versions of the quote above.

I think it's worth breaking down this argument, because it's so frequently made, and I gather they think the only arguments against it are mere impassioned outrage and not cogent refutation.

This argument, in its best version, goes something like: "Listen, I know all people have made contributions, but look at the last 500 years... can you really deny that Europeans/the West/white people have contributed the most to civilization?"

Richard Spencer has publicly asked a chilling version, something like: "If you erased Africa from the last thousand years of history, would you even notice?"

These arguments seem strong to many people as a result of several misconceptions -- common ones, but also deliberate ones, and certainly pernicious ones -- that act together to open what seems to be a large rhetorical window for this argument to go through.

But even in its most seemingly innocuous version -- "Listen, I just want to celebrate white people and be proud of them, like black people or Latino people want to celebrate their people" -- there is a huge set of misconceptions, and dangerous ones at that.

One misconception is that racism is just one of many things that has been a feature of white identity over the centuries. That seems reasonable on the surface, to many people steeped in our culture. In the past it seemed reasonable to me!

In this framing, you could make a checklist of aspects of white history: the scientific method, calculus, calculating gravity, modern physics, the plane, the Protestant Reformation, the US Constitution, slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, the EU.

But this completely fails to appreciate what "whiteness" is. Racism is not merely something that white people *did*. Racism is the purpose for which the identity of "white" was created in the first place. There is no whiteness without racism.

In historical places where the lines of race we're familiar with today were not being used, "whiteness" simply did not exist.

If you assembled residents of 17th century Trieste, and separated Moors, Arabs, Somalis and Berbers on one side, and Finns, Celts, Galicians, Jews, Muslim Slavs, Armenians and Persians on the other, and asked what the dividing line was, people would have been stumped.

All nationalism and ethnic pride is a bit abstract and absurd, but at least it usually has some reference to an identity whose delineation is one of common experience, common culture, common laws, or *something* shared.

I'm proud when an American wins a medal, when a Jew does something generous or brave, when someone from my hometown makes good. These are all "imagined communities", per Benedict Anderson's formulation, but at least I and they have some shared set of positive experiences. And of course we all have shared experiences with humanity, and the imagined community of all fellow humans.

But there are other identities that were constructed deliberately and specifically for exclusion, destruction and oppression. That doesn't make the members of those identity groups bad! The people included still deserve love, and many may be decent and deserving of pride and respect.

But to assert love and pride and identity for that categorization is another matter. That means putting the people themselves aside, and assigning fealty to the oppression that is the reason that identity was constructed in the first place.

I love German people, and the German people may be more or less the same people that were supposed to be the core citizens of the Third Reich, but expressing love for the people of the Third Reich is inherently an act of oppression. It can't just be appreciation for people.

"White pride" today has no more to do with appreciating Kabardino-Balkarians or Kaliningraders or the Sami than it did in the antebellum South.

Asserting "white pride" may be squarely intended to express dominance and cruelty. Or, it might just be passing on an inheritance, casually as a conduit for what the person has absorbed. Not everyone knows history.

But the source of "white pride" is the specific, deliberate, systematic creation of an identity -- the construction of a lie -- with one purpose: to enable the legal kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, murder, abuse, deprivation, brainwashing of, and theft from, people of color.

And if that's not what this or that white person thinks they meant by something they said -- well, the originators planned for that. They built the identity of "whiteness" so that complicity with cruelty and theft would feel natural, and not remarkable.

The whole point is that unless we "white" people fight against that programming, and dismantle our assumptions that what we think of as race has essential meaning, we will be passing on and perpetuating the oppression that whiteness has always served. And even when we fight against the programming, we'll always be struggling to grow and extricate ourselves, and continuing to be complicit in oppression, because that programming runs dddddeeeeeeppppp and the incentives to buy into the big lie are still legion.

Another, completely separate misconception is thinking that ideas like "the Western mind" and "the modern world" are concepts that merely happen to overlap with whiteness. In this misconception, "Western" accomplishments seem to be a credit to people who would be called white.

To unravel this complex lie, you need to consider how the exploration and formulation of history and ideas themselves is farmed in part by the demands that racism places on how we see the world.

The contributions of people excluded by "whiteness" to the great cultural or scientific products of history are not merely ignored or downplayed, but our assumptions about what constitutes great achievements are built in service of whiteness and racism.

It's ironic that one of the most famous right wing assertions of white cultural supremacism was Saul Bellow's "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

I'm reading Anna Karenina now, and it's all about how bogus an assertion like this would be. Tolstoy is focused in many sections on demonstrating that brilliant ideas and creativity not only can come from anywhere, but do, and that it is our assumptions about gender and class, in particular, that determine which kinds of brilliant ideas get documented and celebrated.

So while the gravity-related experiments of Galileo were astonishingly brilliant and able to spread widely, we in this Western-dominated world just have no idea how many other people, on different continents and at different times, conduced their own experiments on gravity, in ways both similar and different to Galileo.

But even more importantly, we know nothing of nearly all of the other great works produced outside the West, because our systems of recognizing, spreading and reproducing great work themselves were built in the course of building Western power. Most statues in Europe and the United States glorify someone famous, in part, for killing people; few recognize brilliant teachers, transcendent builders of community, gifted doctors and healers, heroic midwives, phenomenal matchmakers or astonishingly productive experimenters with wild herbs. And we certainly don't know more than a tiny sliver of history's most brilliant epic poems, folktales, speeches, songs, sermons, and stories.

That is not to say -- not to say at all -- that the impact of those great creators isn't with us. It is with us, crucially, essentially. All of those things have been necessary to build the modern world, to create its health and spectrum of culture and depth of experience and breadth of imagination.

I'm deeply indebted to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barbara Fields for helping me begin to break down my own programming around race. Coates wrote about the Bellow quote in Between the World and Me, excerpted in his post, "Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus".

Coates writes:

And now I looked back on my need for a trophy case, on the desire to live by the standards of Saul Bellow, and I felt that this need was not an escape but fear again—fear that “they,” the alleged authors and heirs of the universe, were right.

And this fear ran so deep that we accepted their standards of civilization and humanity.

They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. But not all of us.

It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise. In fact, Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to [17th century queen] Nzinga.

And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA. My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

In conclusion (I hope!), there have been many incredible innovations in technology, culture, inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge in the world. There are many ways you could break down or categorize the patterns of who was involved and who was recognized; who provided credited and uncredited support; where potential was invested in or squandered or suppressed.

Many of these people fit our unfortunately familiar categorization of "white". But nearly all people in history who could be called "white" had nothing to do with these innovations; and many who could not be called "white" had a huge role in them.

Crediting "the modern world" to "white people" has no explanatory power; because understanding the world has nothing to do with the motivation behind that claim.

To carve a boundary around thousands or millions of people from hundreds of different cultures and times that follows only the contours of complexion is perhaps the most tortuous and pathological gerrymander in history.

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The long con of the neocons

The recent Congressional testimony by genocide abettor and perjuror Elliott Abrams has brought his case to some attention, thanks to pointed questioning by Ilhan Omar, one of the most exciting and legitimately democratic Representatives in recent memory.

Which means, of course, small-minded backlash from the centrist Washington cognoscenti, as detailed in a good thread by Intercept writer Jon Schwarz.

It's easy to take potshots at a blatantly evil agent of murder like Elliott Abrams, but much more interesting is the question of why generally decent people tolerate someone as dangerous and destructive as Abrams or, say, Henry Kissinger, who was the featured speaker of MIT's inauguration of its new college for computer science last week.

Part of the defense of Abrams is that while his worst episodes are bad, his typical episode in decades of foreign policy work has been pretty vanilla.

Which is exactly what you'd expect. Everyone's a fierce advocate for human rights etc when there's nothing on the line, and most of the time, speaking at conferences or writing position papers or cultivating our relationship with Latvia or whatever, there isn't much on the line.

That's precisely why it matters so much what you do when the stakes are actually high. It's when you learn that a huge economic trade partner is collecting millions of religious minorities in concentration camps, say. It's when you learn that the right wing rebels whom you supply with weapons to destabilize a socialist ally of the Soviet Union are not just fighting against socialist troops, they're tracking down labor organizers and cutting off the heads of their entire families.

(In a very real sense, the migrant caravans that come to the US from Central Americal -- from the very countries he destabilized -- is the work of Elliott Abrams.)

Abrams' public, surface answer is pablum about human rights and the pains of establishing a democracy. But look behind the surface to the actual communications that mean something, where power is actually being wielded, and you'll find that democracy is just a side effect. It's easily discarded as a principle every single time that it comes in conflict with American military and economic control.

Abrams's real feelings about human rights are probably like Kissinger's feelings, as revealed (after painstaking pressure for decades by journalists and academics) in declassified documents. In 1973, when the US backed coup in Chile was kidnapping, torturing and murdering liberals, the US embassy wired frantically from Santiago de Chile in an effort to stop it. Not to stop the coup, mind you, just to have the military seize power from the democratically elected moderate socialist government without so much murder and torture. In reply, Kissinger scrawled back "Cut out the political science lectures".

For people like Abrams and Kissinger, kidnapping, murder and torture simply aren't part of their calculus, unless they mean they or an ally will get caught and punished for it.

Is that wrong? Are these realpolitik hawks wrong? I can't say with certainty. The few honest among them will say "Our north star was stopping the Soviets from ruling the world, and we did that by sowing chaos and murder in every democracy that didn't reject them. We can't know if it was worth it, because some of the most important actions have unknowable net consequences."

"That meant selling out Americans by letting our allies smuggle drugs to our cities to fundraise; it meant funding the rape and murder of children; it meant assassinating progressives, tearing the social fabric, leaving generations of chaos, fear, and nihilistic violence."

"But we think on the whole it was the right decision, because the Soviets had no third world empire to milk, and the USSR collapsed. We don't actually know if American imperialism is better for the world than Soviet imperialism, but it's certainly better for American wealth and power."

Even putting aside our different values and goals, I can't say if I had been in these policymakers' position, my decisions would have produced greater net justice in the world, though I do think it's likely; and I think a guiding moral principle should be to prefer to save a life concretely, even if i means risking more in the future with low certainty.

Humility in the face of the unknown is, of course, supposed to be a conservative principle, and it's telling that it's nearly impossible to find a conservative who is critical of the massively speculative social engineering project that America's aggressive imperialists carried out in Kissinger and Abrams's time.

You can pick a random progressive thinker on foreign policy, and they'll have a morally consistent philosophy that doesn't require a lifetime of lies to pursue. Not so with the neoconservatives, who lead two working lives, one essentially a long con and the other a wielding of power in its most raw and inhuman form. What we do with that fact to conclude what's right is up to each of us, but there it is.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Socialism vs. capitalism

A friend of mine is the child of Sandinistas; Castro specifically asked his mother how her baby was doing when she first met him. His father was tortured by the Brazilian right wing regime in the 70s (do I have that timeline right? Around then.)

He's been very disillusioned. He's considered a political enemy of the Ortega government in Nica, and has to keep a low profile sometimes. (It's nothing like it is in Venezuela; he just worries he might get ticketed or pushed around if he's recognized in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

But, he still considers himself a socialist.

I mean, I'm still a capitalist even though I've seen plenty of corporations turn decent people into fraudsters and poisoners of children, and reward whoever is willing to exploit human decency the most mercilessly (like most Trump businesses have).

It's heartbreaking to see the promise of socialism and capitalism both degraded by the likes of the Reagans, Kissingers, Chavezes, Castros, Trump's and Goldman Sachses.

I don't think all of these are morally equivalent. But I think it's revealing to look past our assumptions and try to see them with fresh eyes.

One really useful question, I think, is to ask what we include, and don't include, when we're measuring the morality or goodness of a person or thing. If a Chavez supporter beats someone up, or a political appointee under him puts a small business out of business to protect a politically obedient rival, do we include that in our assessment of Chavez's badness?

What about when a Goldman investment knowingly breaks the law because they know they can get away with it, and puts a rival out of business? Or buys the compliance of the EPA in letting them emit poisons?

Having worked on Wall St., I came away with the sense that Goldman is just as much a creation of regulatory capture and corrupt purchasing of favorable policy, as it is a creature of the market.

That is, much of the human energy that goes into its work is well intentioned from a market standpoint; but capitalism incentivizes the use of money to distort policy so as to twist the market's legal environment against rivals and against the limits of natural law (e.g., making it legal to steal and to kill if you do it the right way), and so decent impulses are pushed towards immorality, while surface appearances, rhetoric and stories are used to create a vital illusion of clean, decent free enterprise.

Another way of looking at this: if you had to personally beat up a union organizer in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to buy other sneakers. And if a sneaker company, or the bank or ETF that provides them capital, made you too aware of their beating up union organizers in order to buy nice sneakers, you would prefer to do business with other companies.

Whereas if there are a bunch of financial intermediaries, complex partial ownership, regulations that explicitly incentivize lying about beating people up, regulations that make it the norm to invest without regard to beating people up, and a system of well funded think tanks and podcasts that construct a stream of political memes that obscure and deflect from the beating people up, you'll buy the sneakers after all.

It's not that you think the beating people up never happens, but it seems distant, it seems like the exception not the rule, you seldom hear human level detail on it, and your relationship to it is circuitous and impersonal. It's certainly not something you think you, or Goldman Sachs, or Ronal Reagan need to answer for.

All of that is by design; it's the way the beating people up, which is very profitable, stays profitable.

There's also a lot of truth to the stories about capitalism being freeing, and a lot of truth about socialism being a constraint on freedom! That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion, by letting the world's most powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if GS is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly their fault, right? If they could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their third world activism, they totally would, right? And who's to say that their being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

Similarly, having spoken with people loyal to the Ortega regime, I think there is a tremendous amount of work that happens in autocratic socialist countries to construct fiercely held illusions about the ultimate morality of the system. They might hear about an opponent of the regime being arrested and imprisoned; but they won't hear that without a slew of obscuring and disorienting "complications", like kompromat, sex scandals, allegations of espionage, tax dodging, etc.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren are taught that capitalistic imperialism is the reason for just about every societal ill, and that the leadership of veterans of the socialist revolution is brave, difficult, heroic, vital for the nation. Having a distinct enemy feels clarifying, and helps dispel people's doubts and grumbling about the regime; much like George W. Bush, unquestionably an incompetent and thieving tool, rose to an 80% approval rating after the Sept. 11 2001 attacks.

And, of course, it helps that the US really did fund and equip death squads in Nicaragua, did support the right wing dictator in the 70's, did lie even to the American public, and break federal law, in funding the Contras. They really did help violently overthrow the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and help the right wing there murder tens of thousands, including murdering people in Washington, D.C. They really did look the other way when the right wing militias they helped arm in El Salvador and Haiti raped, murdered, and pillaged, including even raping and murdering nuns.

That truth matters in and of itself; and, it also helps sell the illusion of socialism's righteousness, by letting a powerful and lawless mafia in the door with a veneer of morality, or at least moral neutrality.

And even if Ortega is part of this broken system, the whole thing is hardly his fault, right? If he could wave a magic wand and control all that money with no one being oppressed or imprisoned for their activism, he totally would, right? And who's to say that his being there, rather than someone else, doesn't make things better than they otherwise might be?

One last thought: if you're like me, you think that climate change, pollution and an arms race of autonomous military AI bots are existential threats to humanity; it's not hard to imagine scenarios where any of those three catastrophically destroy human life in the next 500 years. The morality of those forces dwarfs most other moral questions.

If indeed those threaten humanity, how much power does Ortega or Nicolás Maduro have to stop them? How much power does Goldman Sachs?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez analogous to Donald Trump?

I've been seeing Trump/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comparisons, but beyond their both having social media acumen and appealing mostly to the non-centrists in their parties, I don't see the similarities.

I think we're only beginning to see the different ways that the new media landscape allows for popular figures to emerge, brand themselves, and communicate with the public. The way they each engage on twitter is very different: Trump almost never directly engages other users and doesn't participate in memes or show awareness of online culture. AOC is spectacular at that...

https://twitter.com/AOC/status/1083579511889973250

https://twitter.com/aoc/status/1066140344427925504

Obviously part of my defense of her is that I agree with her politics (for the most part... i always think progressives are maddening in their inability to grasp the way regulations and red tape can restrict freedom). And she's certainly a partisan and a sharp critic of elites, not a centrist like Clinton or Obama.

But I think a real liberal version of Trump is more like Michael Avenetti. Trump just completely lied about his actual positions and intentions to get elected and get laws passed (planned parenthood, health care, the impact of his tax cut, preexisting conditions, lgbtq rights, etc.). AOC seems to be actually telling the truth about what she want to do.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The most respectful way to treat a dead autocrat

It's important to be respectful when someone with opposing political views, who stood for those views, dies -- even though their views were opposed to mine.

And that's precisely why I think it's important to sharply criticize George H. W. Bush in death.

That's because it's not his political views that are the issue. The issue is his craven flouting of political and constitutional responsibility, and his damage to our democracy, in helping felons, president Reagan, and probably himself get away with illegally dealing arms to two brutal regimes, and destroying massive amounts of evidence in a clear obstruction of justice.

There is no plank in the GOP platform supporting the sort of conspiracy and pardons that Bush engaged in. There are no Hoover Institute papers supporting it. It's not a conservative opinion.

Just as thieves don't support thievery in general, and murderers don't want there to actually be more murder in the world, Bush himself wasn't of the opinion that actions like his are good. He didn't do them because he valued actions like these; he did them because he could, and because they enhanced his power directly and indirectly at a cost to society that he did not care to consider.

It was his autocratic and anti-democratic actions, not his opinions, that he deserves criticism for.

Anyone can chuckle their way through communicating with other powerful people (and chuckle their way into incessant sexual assault). It's when their powerful friends abuse the public trust, or a popular wave of hate offers easy political points at the expense of the powerless, that we see their true colors. It's when they go from being an upstart truth-teller who decries "voodoo economics" to the person in charge that we see if they keep telling the truth, or shut up and let the worst liars among their team carry the torch.

There are plenty of Republicans whose political views I disagree with, who I have mourned or will mourn -- Sandra Day O'Connor, Bill Weld, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole. They were decent people who stood for their values, even if those values were partially attributable to blindness to the realities of class, race, and other forms of oppression. That is, they were party to oppression, but at least they did not seek social destruction for their own ends; social destruction was just a side effect of their biases and misconceptions.

But George H. W. Bush stood against his own values, when it convenienced himself and the class of connected kleptocrats, military profiteers and autocrats he associated with.

We can hope his soul finds peace, but there's no respect in pretending he wasn't an empathic force for the destruction of our democracy.

None of this ignores the good in Bush. There's no reason why pointing out the good in a leader is incompatible with denouncing the bad. And it's a mistake to associate everything done by a leader's tribe with the leader themselves. You go to war with the army you have, as a notoriously craven associate of Bush's once said.

But there is a sliding scale of actions which one end are primarily attributable a leader themselves, and at the other primarily attributable to the tribe. So while you go to war with the army you have, what you decide at that point is your responsibility.

Suggesting that we punt on addressing the legacy of the dead is a very poor way to take them seriously. Bush was a big deal! He could take it!

We all contain multitudes. But ignoring the extent of the evil in Bush's actions does deep injustice to the good in him. A silence on his bad aspects due to a misunderstanding of what "respect" means is not a silence that honors the good in him in the slightest; instead it cheapens it. The good in Bush doesn't need our charity. It deserves to be appreciated in the full context of the man, not because we're tiptoeing around what we really think.

It's worth saying how destructive he was now, because honor, dignity and respect matter. Silence seems similar to those values only to the cowardly.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Contra Ben Thompson on Facebook and The Weekly Standard

Last year, Facebook announced a partnership with The Weekly Standard to perform fact checking. Many progressives cried foul, and this week, they censored ThinkProgress's Ian Millhiser's article headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.”

The objection, as Millhiser explains, was that Kavanaugh didn't say specific words that unequivocally, syntactically, make clear that he would kill Roe v. Wade. Instead, he said something which, if you listen to his statements about law and Supreme Court decisions, only logically means he would reverse Roe v. Wade.

Casey Newton in The Interface was critical of Millhiser's take, as Thompson explains:

As Newton goes on to note, Millhiser could have used a word like “indicate” or “hints” instead of “said”, but that, of course, is less inflammatory and would surely mean fewer clicks. Ultimately, Newton concludes:

> If an article is basically factually correct, but has a headline that is basically factually wrong, fact-checkers ought to take action — or what else are they for? Some people think the “false label” ought to be reserved only for moonbat headlines about the Pope being a lizard person, but it’s hard for me to see how that meaningfully improves our news ecosystem.

Oh, and by the way, read again the headline of the piece I started with: does the author think it is actually true that Facebook’s idea of fact-checking is censoring ThinkProgress because a conservative site told them to? Or is the thirst for clicks worth choosing hyperbole over truth, and the outrage less about the pursuit of objective truth and more about the insistence that the powers that be enforce one’s own political goals?

I find Thompson's points cogent, but I disagree.

I think there has to be a distinction between unfounded stories and interpretive analysis grounded in fact. Facebook and the Weekly Standard could make the same case against a headline like "Donald Trump Jr. Released Clear Evidence of Collusion Yesterday" or "Trump's Comments Supporting White Supremacists are Dangerous for America".

And though Stratechery is much more free from overheated headlines than nearly any newspaper or news website I've read, he uses hyperbole frequently himself. In fact, I'd say it's a huge part of his appeal. When he says (I'm making this up) "Evan Spiegel is telegraphing to the world that he's out of ideas" or whatever, the whole point is that he's not literally doing that, but when you understand things as well as Thompson is about to help you do, you can see how Spiegel or whoever is *effectively* doing that.

Yes, there is grey area; I'd agree with analysis that, say, refused to allow misleading hyperbole like "The KKK has been given a office in the West Wing". But this ThinkProgress analysis is nowhere near that line, and I think The Weekly Standard--a particularly hyperbolic and thinly edited publication that I've unfortunately made myself read quite a bit--can't be trusted to police it.

More broadly, I just don't buy the complaint that it's hard to make good calls about what is and isn't obscenely defrauding its readers, and I wish that Thompsons imagination didn't shrink from the task of solving that problem.

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Why electronic voting is dangerous

This is prompted by a great XKCD on the subject: https://xkcd.com/2030/

The thing is, no matter how sure you are that the software is sound, 1) incredibly often there are more vulnerabilities you never imagined, and 2) how do you know it's really "the" software that's being run? No matter how well it's audited, there's always another possible layer on top acting as a man in the middle. (See Star Trek TNG's "Ship in a Bottle" for a great illustration of this.)

The bottom line is, it'll always be much harder to hack a ton of individual people and mechanical machines than a bunch of computers.

The only good solution I've heard to this is to provide everyone with a voting receipt that connects their vote to an anonimized unique ID number, then let them separately check their vote against the official voting results database any time after the polls close. That wouldn't stop hacking at all, but it would make it much harder to go undetected.

A (to my mind, overconfident) counterpoint to the comic is at https://www.google.com/amp/s/securityboulevard.com/2018/08/that-xkcd-on-voting-machine-software-is-wrong/amp/

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"I wasn't mad at anybody"

Most of the US veterans in my family tree fought for the south in the Civil War. That's a hard legacy to know how to understand and relate to.

One man in my family tree back then was, as I recall being told, a doctor. He never enlisted in the Confederate army, which was something of a source of public shame. I don't know his full reasons, but when asked why he hadn't fought (or served as a field doctor), he apparently would answer, "Well, I wasn't mad at anybody."

This was met with scoffs, scorn, and eyerolls. Of course, an even better reason would be to recognize that the cause was white supremacy. But when deeply limited people are called to war, the world would be a better place if more people would refuse, who at least don't actively believe in the war cause.

"I'm not mad at anybody" is a perfectly good reason not to wage war, and I wish it would were felt, and cited, more often.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why airplanes stay in the sky: an epistemological window

Growing up, I was told by several science teachers that airplanes obtained lift via the "equal transit-time" phenomenon (from Wikipedia's "Airplane" entry):
...the "equal transit-time"... states that the parcels of air which are divided by an airfoil must rejoin again; because of the greater curvature (and hence longer path) of the upper surface of an aerofoil, the air going over the top must go faster in order to "catch up" with the air flowing around the bottom. Therefore, because of its higher speed the pressure of the air above the airfoil must be lower.
Turns out this is basically false. See these pictures for evidence that air does not need to rejoin at the same place at all, though of course that doesn't mean that no air acceleration occurs at all.

As Wikipedia points out in its article on lift:
Such an explanation would predict that an aircraft could not fly inverted, which is demonstrably not the case. When an aircraft is flying inverted, the air moving over the bottom (in the aircraft reference frame) surface of the airfoil is moving faster. The explanation also fails to account for airfoils which are fully symmetrical yet still develop significant lift.
It is unclear why this explanation has gained such currency, except by repetition by authors of populist (rather than rigorously scientific) books, and perhaps the fact that the explanation is easiest to grasp intuitively without mathematics.

For my money, the best explanation is from "See How it Flies", an online book about airplane physics. Here's the crucial part, which gets into circulation and vortexes (OK, "vortices") as not just byproducts of airplane lift, but an indispensable aspect of it. I highly recommend following the author's suggestion to explore how a curveball (or a tennis ball hit with backspin) uses circulation to move laterally through the air; you can demonstrate this using any ordinary business card:

Drop the card from shoulder height, with its long axis horizontal. As you release it, give it a little bit of backspin around the long axis. It will fly surprisingly well...
Jef Raskin, who started the Macintosh project within Apple, has a great page about what makes airplanes fly, which gets into curveball aerodynamics, upside-down flight, and the wing Albert Einstein designed for the Luftwaffe in WWI.
...the most common explanation of lift seen in elementary texts and popular articles today... is based on the Bernoulli effect, which correctly correlates the increased speed with which air moves over a surface and the lowered air pressure measured at that surface.

In fact, most airplane wings do have considerably more curvature on the top than the bottom, lending credence to this explanation. But, even as a child, I found that it presented me with a puzzle: how can a plane fly inverted (upside down). When I pressed my 6th grade science teacher on this question, he just got mad, denied that planes could fly inverted and tried to continue his lecture. I was very frustrated and argued until he said, "Shut up, Raskin!" I will relate what happened next later in this essay. A few years later I carried out a calculation according to a naive interpretation of the common explanation of how a wing works. Using data from a model airplane I found that the calculated lift was only 2% of that needed to fly the model.

Jef, you had me at pissing off your 6th grade science teacher!

So, why does the equal transit-time myth persist, to the detriment of the much simpler explanation of angle of attack? I think part of the explanation must be that it makes a good story; another part is that a full understanding of all the dynamics at play is quite out of reach of the typical grade school science teacher, at least in the know-nothing United States. Incidentally, the question of airplane lift makes for a good shibboleth for distinguishing between those who think through scientific questions from first principles, and those who just go by What they assume to be conventional wisdom. I'm not claiming I understood this before I encountered the dispute recently, but as soon as someone pointed out the problem of an airplane flying upside down, I realized my understanding was at least incomplete.

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Toyota acceleration: harbinger of the future

Yesterday a Toyota Prius accelerated wildly on a highway before police managed to coach the driver into stopping. What was their solution? To slow down by using the emergency brake and regular brake, and then put the car into neutral.

I'm more disturbed that the driver didn't think to put the current into neutral then I am by the acceleration problem itself. How many drivers of automatic cars don't really know what the neutral gear does? I don't recall reading whether any Toyotas with manual transmissions have had acceleration problems, but I can't imagine many such drivers calling 911 from their accelerating car instead of engaging the clutch and shifting out of fifth.

As our cars, in our lives, become run increasingly by software and digital logic, we are losing the ability to cope when things break down. Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, complained publicly earlier this year -- before the Toyota recall -- that his Prius was prone to accelerating out of control. Woz comes from a different technological era; he built much of the first Apple computers by hand while driving a VW that he could repair himself. What does it mean that even Woz is so distanced from the workings of his vehicle that he doesn't understand why it does what it does, and has no reasonable possibility of ever understanding?

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Collecting organizational knowledge: a hybrid approach

Stack Overflow recently announced Stack Overflow for Teams. I'm hopeful that it will be what you wish your company wiki (that nobody uses) was.

I'm a big believer in starting with tools that people actually use, and it just makes so much more sense for a project manager to post a question on Stack Overflow than to conventionally ask the team, "Can someone write up how the new AWS deployment works?" Somehow, answering the query through Stack Overflow's interface and conventions makes it seem so much easier to me as an engineer; maybe it's that the format puts direct information ahead of fancy or comprehensive documentation?

This ongoing question of how to collect an organization's knowledge is endlessly fascinating to me. I think most organizations should employ a librarian specifically to do this, by interviewing people verbally (it so much easier to answer verbal questions than written ones), following discussions, and creating an internal newsletter. (Compass, the tech-boosted real estate brokerage, has a full-time internal journalist who does this.)

Discussing S.O.F.T. with friends, we were wondering how close this sort of information collection is to being able to be done implicitly, and on the fly, rather than explicitly and deliberately, in advance of the time that knowledge is requested.

For instance, Slack famously claims in their promotional interviews and writeups that explicit documentation should be a thing of the past, because Slack can use search to source relevant comments and explanations. In practice, I think it's widely agreed that this doesn't work well.

One friend wondered if machine learning was close to being able to collect documentation, either just in time or by preemptively collecting it into reports. I think there's too much complex context to do that well using a pure machine learning approach, at least for the near future.

But what I do think is possible, if not now than at least very soon, is a hybrid approach where machine learning augments deliberate human work, by sourcing suggestions that prompt humans to pick up the ball and run with it. An AI-curated list of likely useful links and excerpts wouldn't replace human editing and summarization, because it wouldn't try to; it would just make that process shorter, most of the time.

For instance, take a slightly different domain--AI-assisted scheduling, which is far behind where glitzy startups like x.ai would like you to believe. While I don't think machine learning is good enough yet to handle scheduling communications by itself, I do think it would be reasonable to train a model to look at your email history and calendars for events that appear to be calls or in-person meetings, and to make a Gmail widget that suggests times accordingly, but also lets you just pick them explicitly. That approach would make the system's worst errors inconsequential, while letting it save you time in the typical case. It's the sort of thing that I think people might actually use, without feeling like they are struggling against the machine.

Getting more ambitious, what about a librarian service that has plugins for Slack, Gmail, Asana, etc., and steadily brings notable items to your attention? First and foremost, it could make it very easy to flag snippets of conversation or changes of product requirements as having long-term informational value. Second, it could respond to your choices by helping you navigate among possible related items, by shifting the thresholds for showing items as you accept and reject suggestions. Someone in a project management role who doesn't have a deep technical background might still be able to produce helpful collections of info, even if they require someone with deeper technical knowledge to apply context and tie the information together.

Then, when, say, someone on a Slack conversation asks if we are still using X, that could get flagged by the system and reasonably turn into a note on the document that details the active stack for that project. There would still be false positives and false negatives, but the incidence of both would be reduced by bringing in humans in the middle.

At least for the immediate future, this sort of thing is much more about sophisticated human UX design then it is about advanced ML; and I suspect that will be true in many domains for a long time.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

AI is far behind where corporate visionaries tell you it is

An internal Google video about machine learning from 2016 recently leaked. It's a compelling watch.

There's nothing in this video's theory that I disagree with, but I think it overstates how good recommendation analysis is currently.

The University of Minnesota runs an experimental movie recommendation site, Movielens, which represents a decent approximation of state of the art. I've been using it for years. It's better than just using imdb, which is biased towards what immature internet users like. And, it's still nearly useless. I often find the movies it recommends unwatchable. If I highly rate a slow movie like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it immediately thinks I like anything unwatchably boring like I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

At the other extreme, I think it's clear that someone who deeply understands art and culture and has wide-ranging appreciation for various tastes would be able to interview another person about their tastes and recommend movies or books or whatever that they would like. So, like, if you had my wife rate all the movies she's ever seen, and then she watches several new ones that I watch separately, I think I could outperform any existing recommendation algorithm on mean squared error. (it might pick up on subtle systematic trends like "she tends to rate horror 1.3 stars less than their average" that I don't have the bandwidth to grok, but I think I would do a much better job avoiding gross misjudgments of cultural context. I know she'll like Girls' Trip way better than Pitch Perfect, partially because I'm able to bring in tons of other contextual information about how the movie's qualities jibe with or conflict with her interest that the recommender will only have indirect access to.)

So let's agree that this sort of "ambient, ongoing, intrepid recommendation" logic exists somewhere between the capability of machine learning today (let's call that t=0), and the capability of an artificial superintelligence ("ASI") with all the capabilities of a brilliant human plus fast execution and the ability to process jobs in parallel (let's call that t=1).

The question is, what is the value of t necessary to make the sort of vision in "The Selfish Ledger" practically helpful?

I think the popular consensus is something like t=0.2 . But I suspect it's more like t=0.7 .

I do appreciate the concept of a profile which has proved itself so valuable that you prefer to add to it rather than go without a profile (or start over). But the machine learning aspects of this seem wildly overblown. Google has astonishing capabilities to perform machine learning using my information now. How is it being used to help me? By recognizing spam, certainly, but I don't think my own spam categorizations make much of a difference. By recognizing the people and things in my photos and making it easier to search for them--cool, but hardly life-changing, and still very primitive. By recognizing my speech on my android phone when I'm transcribing--but it seems that there is very little learning my specific voice, or (I suspect) tracking my corrections after the fact; there's no capability to specifically train it on my voice, for one thing.

The quality of the user experience across Google products has everything to do with product design and engineering to support that design, and next to nothing to do with machine learning.

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