Deferring to the data gods

Once upon a time, when we had a problem that was convoluted and unsettling to deal with, we’d figure out some way to medicalize it, sending it off to the doctor-god.

We’re doing that with Artificial “Intelligence” now. Welfare, homelessness, child protection, all have been cast as data-crunching problems.

The doctors are relieved. Hoi polloi are amused until AI gores their ox — as when Google photo recognition algorithms identified people of African ancestry as gorillas. Or when mom got kicked off Medicaid (Mitch Daniels’ folly — gosh, was it that long ago? 2006?!).

Google fixed its problem by eliminating gorilla as an option. I think they should have sent it off to somebody else’s AI farm.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Personal cybersecurity

You report on digital privacy, health and education technology. What are your most important tools for doing your job?

We’re living in a surveillance economy where sites and apps can track and categorize our every online move. In that ecosystem, encrypted communication services have become some of my most important reporting tools.

For people who would rather not reach me through my corporate Gmail account at The Times, I use ProtonMail, an encrypted email service. I also use Signal, an encrypted text messaging and calling service. And I do some online research through Tor, a browser that masks your online address so sites can’t track your physical location. I also use DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store your search history.

(Natasha Singer, New York Times, product hyperlinks added.)

Check, check, check, check. But I don’t know which acquaintances use ProtonMail and Signal, which limits usefulness.

She also uses Disconnect. (Strokes chin thoughtfully.)

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Cold comfort

I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to find this reassuring:

The American electorate may not tolerate draconian (by U.S. standards) restrictions on guns, but it will tolerate a fair amount of surveillance. License-plate readers track our travels. Cellphone towers can triangulate our location. Face recognition is increasingly deployed in conjunction with security and traffic cameras; in China, police officers have it built into their spectacles. Not to mention the stupendous amounts of personal data we willingly hand over to businesses.

Now take all the red flags raised by Nikolas Cruz : He posted on social media pictures of himself with weapons and small animals he had apparently tortured. His fascination and exhibitionism with guns was broadcast to one and all. Teachers were warned to take action if he was seen approaching the school with a backpack; he later was expelled.

He was widely regarded as a menace. His mother, neighbors and school officials had repeatedly sought police intervention. He posted a YouTube comment under his own name in which he declared a desire to become a “professional school shooter,” one of two warnings passed on to the FBI.

Big data may not be better than psychologists at predicting who will commit a mass shooting a year or two from now, but it can help us know who might be planning one next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.

Especially since the young already conduct their social existence mostly online. Information technology is taking over our lives. It will not be uninvented. In another few years, unless you cut yourself off from the network (which will arouse its own suspicions), you will be findable in seconds. A police drone overhead will be able to focus its cameras on you or the vehicle or building in which you are to be found. Indeed, London cops caused a furor by innocently posting on Twitter the visage of a TV comedian snapped by an overhead camera looking down on the masses in Leicester Square. If it can’t already, soon this technology will be able to sound an alarm if a specific person on a list approaches a school or other sensitive site.

(Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. – paywall)

In fairness, though, this is likely to be more efficacious than the nostrums of the gun control lobby or the anodyne “thoughts and prayers” promised by Congressmen.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Signs of the times

James Howard Kunstler probably coined the term “techno-narcissism.” He definitely uses it more than anyone I know. A related term is “techno-triumphalism.” I believe he uses that, too. He definitely does not think that technology is immanentizing the eschaton.

He may be understating it:

The second, Bitcoin, combines mania with techno-triumphalism. Almost nobody understands Bitcoing or Blockchain, but people are speculating in Bitcoin. One wise wag said “I know exactly what a Bitcoin is worth: one tulip bulb.” My theory that gold has no intrinsic worth (you can’t eat it, live in it or burn it for heat) commensurate with its totemistic value is similar.

Another bad signs: Mermaid academies, Abduction-for-hire services, and Designer cookie dough.

But if people couldn’t see doom in Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton for President, they’re unlikely to see it in any of these.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Lossy compression

I just (when I wrote; not when this was released) finished reading two blogs and a New Atlantis article, all three related. They individually and collectively hit me so powerfully that I have scheduled a reminder to come back to them after they’ve had a chance to marinate a bit.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the blogs, that of Swarthmore’s Timothy Burke, in a delayed reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy that liberal political dispositions “are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events”:

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do …

Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

I am not quoting that to mock those of liberal political disposition, or Timothy Burke, or Swarthmore. In fact, I pretty much share that “Trump is sacrilege” feeling. I appreciate how well Burke elaborated it.

Nor do I quote that to convince my readers that “Trump is sacrilege.” The other two things I read, both by Alan Jacobs, are on what I think it a more enduring concern, at least to me at this juncture of my life. That concern involves at least three key terms, by my parsing:

  • Information density.
  • Mythical core.
  • Lossy compression.

Stay tuned. I suspect there will be more coming on this concern, but it needs to ferment/marinate first.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the time, I’ve given the links. The mashup of the three strikes me as challenging but not really unfamiliar or beyond the reach of an intelligent reader. But then, I may have a pretty unusual reading history that prepared me for this challenge.

Here’s what Alan Jacobs said about it:

And Wesley Hill:

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Sunday, 12/3/17


Folks, I think we need to start coming to terms with the idea that the rapture happened and only David Bowie and Prince made the cut.

— Andrew Thaler (@DrAndrewThaler) December 2, 2017


I am pleased to report that the new Firefox browser is terrific.

That’s all, folks.

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I would a thousand times rather have dinner with secular liberals of a certain temperament than with a group of religious conservatives who agreed with me about most things, but who have no sense of humor or irony.

(Rod Dreher)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.