quotes ranting

You are not interesting

[W]here privacy is afforded, it is afforded by the grace of inefficiency

Kerry Howley in Drone Wars: Call Me a Traitor [], published by New York Magazine

This article is about the horrors of America’s drone wars, committing murder from afar of terrorists and civilians, of American war crimes maybe, I’m going to avoid commenting on that topic for now. I’m going to ignore the context of the quote and talk about the substance of it in relation to privacy in a more general sense, mostly in the first world where military and spy drones are not surveilling us but may other things are.

The quote struck me because, even for people far from the drone battlefield, our privacy is often also granted through inefficiency. But also through inconvenience, obscurity and cost.

So much data is collected about us, videos, location data, images to be mined for facial recognition, etc., etc., etc. It’s collected by spy agencies —as in this story— but also by a plethora of private companies, big tech, law enforcement and beyond. “Privacy” for most people is because there is too much data to process or the algorithms that process it are fully automated and no human actually looks unless there is an issue, or the algorithm is not interested in your sex life or your gambling habit except in so far as they can be used to sell you something.

The government, and your angry partner, might be interested in such things, and they might hire people to follow you —physically, or digitally— but for the most part even if google or amazon had the data to know you are hiding your sexual orientation, philandering or to expose what happens in Vegas, they don’t care. That apathy on the part of the data collectors is what keeps many things private today.

The computers know all, but it’s not worth people looking at the data on you most of the time, and the algorithms are looking for specific things. Sure, deep neural networks may accidentally find a correlation between something you don’t want exposed to the public and what a company is trying to sell but they don’t broadcast the correlation, only output the recommendation. (there is actually a problem in machine learning around Interpretability and Explainability —which is basically “can you explain why a decision or recommendation was made by the system”, it’s an active area of research but most complex Machine Learning or Neural Networks systems can produce results that their creators have a hard time explaining, they can’t dissect the logic, the system is a magic black box.)

I used to joke that I gave up on the NSA reading my emails because I realized that my life is just not interesting enough for anyone to look and if, on occasion, something is flagged by an algorithm and an analyst does actually look they will realize I am not a person of interest very quickly. (My life is boring, I pity my FBI agent). As an aside, I briefly worked for “the customer” [] and there was, in the early 2000’s already at least a few programs being built to automate the processing of the data that was hoovered up by the TLAs it was some advanced shit for the time but prehistoric by the standards of what is publicly available today from big tech.

I a big actual problem, given that at least where big tech is concerned we actively give them all this information, is that this data never dies… it goes into the digital archives and is there forever so if someone, for appropriate or nefarious reasons, decides to dig it up it’s there. There needs to be an expiry date for all this data collected. Like GDPR gives you a right to be forgotten. Telco companies I work with are required to keep billing data for seven years, usually available instantly for a year or two and then archived (takes longer to retrieve but often must be available in 24 hours for legal requests) for another five or six (depends of jurisdiction…) but after that they typically dump it to save on storage space. Maybe their should be a law that all the raw data collected by companies or government on people should be archived after a year or two and deleted (and dropped from any algorithm’s calculations) after a few more years. It’s no good to Google to know what I was interested in eight or nine years ago, really, to sell me things well should not take more than the most recent year or two’s data. I guess it’s more requiring that things be automatically forgotten then real privacy, but…

I remember reading about a guy one time who was shocked in an interview when the prospective employer asked him about his messy divorce. He was shocked because the divorce took place a few years before and on the other side of the country, he moved cross country after the divorce and he never spoke about it to anyone in his new home. But the prospective employer had googled him and found the divorce information in the local newspaper’s now online archive and the court documents which were also online. The thing about this is that the way the law works in the US is the court documents were always public, but prior to mass posting of such things online the only way to get them was to march down to the court house… which a local reporter might do for a messy divorce or the government might hire someone to do if there ware processing a security clearance, but you would never expect a random potential employer a thousand or more miles away to have been to the court house or have the local papers. That’s why you move, to start over. So in the pre-Internet days a lot of privacy was through inconvenience, our laws and, if you are older then the Internet, our expectations have not kept pace. A lot of what we get upset about is something that is not new in concept, but what was hard is now easy with the rise of technology.

I guess, in the end, all of this is to say, the laws need to be updated to match what people actually expect or what. The EU has made a start, California has tried something but the US as a whole and most places are , as usual, legislative way behind the technology and businesses. Time to catch up.

Wow… this was supposed to be short post for a nice quote. So let me stop here.

quotes ranting

Social media is a toilet stall door

I have a new piece of advice to live by, and to add to my list of sage advice, that I will dispense to my kids and (when drunk) to my friends:

Treat posts on social media the way you would treat messages scrawled on a bathroom stall.

This sums up the shithole of information that is the internet, and in particular the current manifestation of it we call “social media”. Maybe one of those “for a good time call <insert your best friend/enemy/ex’s number here>” messages in a truck-stop bathroom is actually from the person whole number is given and they actually are looking for a good time… but a large dose of skepticism will keep you free from venereal diseases, staring on a milk carton or at least the embarrassment of actually talking to someone on the other end of the line about where you got their number.

I’m paraphrasing this for Richard Geib’s post “The “Delta Variant” of COVID-19 in the United States and the Ghost of Charles Darwin” [] where he is talking about people not choosing to get vaccinated due to reading things on Facebook:

You read it on social media and automatically believed it? Much of what one reads on social media is like the scrawls on bathroom stalls — caveat emptor. Do you live in a cave and not know this?

Richard Geib

I’m sure a lot of people out there will object that they didn’t automatically believe it, that they did their research… but let me explain the issue with social media research… No, there is too much. Let me sum up:

Remember, he was trying to get off the drugs…

We can add this to the list of sage advice:

quotes ranting

Studying the math

Anything that is not replenished by nature as fast as we’re using it cannot be part of a successful future.

Prof. Tom Murphy, in Ultimate Success from his Do the Math [] blog

That’s the sad truth, we are depleting things faster than the earth can replenish them. And whether you acknowledge humans as the primary driver of climate change or not, you should understand that humanity is using things faster then they can be replenished and that’s going to be a problem at some point. If you use the sugar or milk faster then you can get to the shop to replace it you have to do without… how do you do without energy when we run out of coal and oil and gas?

I’ve been reading UCSD Professor Tom Murphy’s Do The Math [] blog since close to the beginning, back in 2011 I think (at least that’s when I quoted him the first time []). It dropped off the radar for a while, no posts for a couple of years but in the past few weeks it’s come back. And for a good reason, Prof. Murphy has turned the central premise of the blog into a proper textbook, that you can read online or download for free at eScholarship [] or purchase an actual physical copy at Lulu [].

The blog is an amazing way to get into some of the hard science behind the debt we, humanity, have and continue to build up to fund our planet destroying growth. But let me let the blog speak for itself:

[Do the Math] takes an astrophysicist’s-eye view of societal issues relating to energy production, climate change, and economic growth. The approach is often playfully quantitative, with the aim of arriving at a fresh perspective on our world. Posts stress estimation over exactness, because in many cases a reasonably complete picture can be developed without lots of decimal places. Estimations of this type can be used to bring clarity to complex issues, or to evaluate the potential of proposed energy solutions. Hopefully, readers will gain the courage and techniques to start making valuable estimations of their own. The blog begins with a two-part assessment of the implications of continued growth, then settles down to tackle a variety of cute questions relating to energy storage, biofuels, home energy, transport, climate change, etc.

Prof. Tom Murphy, in About this Blog from his Do the Math [] blog

I ordered the book from Lulu and it just arrived the other day. Now to find the willpower to read an honest to goodness textbook for the first time in years. I think more people should have a decent understanding of the basic mathematics and scientific concepts behind these issues, so it’s time to put my money where my mouth is (actually I need to put my time where my mouth is and read…) Most normal people are not going to read the full textbook, but I encourage you to go and read some or all of the blog. Start here with the Guide to Posts [], you can read by subject, focus on Growth and Sustainability or Alternative Energy or the very important why change is Easier Said than Done.

Whatever order you want to read the blog or the textbook in, please do it. More people should understand the basics of the trap we built for ourselves and what we need to be do to get out of it.

quotes ranting

Know your history, but don’t be a slave to it

History isn’t some static set of facts. … We are connected to history today.

Nick Sheedy, quoted in She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew, [] from The Washington Post

This is from an interesting article in the Washington Post about the rediscovery of one families matriarch, Henrietta Woods, and her legal battle for reparations from the people who kidnapped her and sold her back into slavery. Spoiler: she won. It reminded me of one of the plot lines in Lovecraft Country [] about the family matriarch who kept a record book of the debt she was owed by her former slave masters, with interest. I wonder if the author was familiar with this story.

It will be interesting to see how the current discussions about reparations [] go in the US. This article seems to be making an argument, without blatantly stating it, that the long term success and attitude of Henrietta Woods descendants owes something to the reparations she won, not only the cash but to the fact of the reparations.

For myself, I’m not sure where I stand. I’m not outright opposed to reparations, I can see an argument that the descendants of enslaved peoples still suffer from the effects of slavery. I would like to see more debate and understand what sort of format reparations would take. How will it work? Direct payments (the Forbes article reference a poll sighting only 20% of American support direct payments)? Or targeted programs? The Forbes article also says most serious models … have been focused on reparative community-based programs. It’s a hard question. I know there are proposals out there, have been for a long time, but until there is a proper public debate it’s hard to tell what we are actually talking about. And given the mixed success of programs designed to address racial inequality, like Affirmative Action, how will a more focuses program succeed?

On the other hand, I can see how holding the entire current generation of America accountable for the sins of the fathers, through payments using tax money, will be… controversial, to say the least. Even an official apology, without reparations, would be fuel on the fire for way too many people. People who have been more and more vocal about their racism in the past few years. I hope that the more visible and vocal racism in the US over the past decade or so has been the result of a changing of attitudes in the majority of Americans, becoming less racist and less accepting of racism, pressuring an increasingly small minority of racists into a corner and causing them to lash out… but I’m not sure I have that much faith in America, or the world, these days.

As for sins of the my own fathers, as far as I know there is no history of slave owning in my family. Everyone in my mothers known family tree immigrated to the Midwest in the second half of the 1800’s well after the Missouri Compromise, so slave owning was never a real possibility. So nothing there. On my dad’s side there is nothing in the known tree, but there is a person, so far unlinked, with the last name Beggerly in an Alabama “Slave Census” in 1855 [] who owned 5 people… there is another record from Tennessee in the 1846 census [] listing two Beggerly’s, also unlinked, one of which is taxed for two slaves… my fathers family tree is much less well known than my mothers, they lived in various places around the South in the 1800’s and the name is not very common, so it’s very possible there is a link to one or both of these slave owners. So I can’t confirm my family is innocent. And of course that is only talking about Pre-Civil War slavery, not considering Jim Crow.

Reading the article triggered a vague memory about public apologies for slavery. I did some searching and it seems the House of Representatives did pass a bill apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow [] in 2008. I was not living in the US but I don’t recall much of a public backlash at that time (though maybe it galvanised the hate that lead to Nazis in my hometown [] and the rise (or at least, much more visible,) white supremacy movement that is trying to normalise its views once again, and having an uncomfortable about of apparent success. The apology came with conditions that it could not be used as a basis for reparations.

So we have no official apology and the legacy of slavery lives on… not that an apology would change it, people are as racist as ever. Would paying reparations move us forward? Who knows, but let’s have some proper debate. We have been failing to live up to our founding creed, that all men are created equal for our entire history, it’s time to take another step towards it.

While looking for news articles on the 2008 House apology I can across an opinion piece in the New York Times from 2015 [], saying Obama should apologise officially (it didn’t go over well, it’s a touchy subject and apologies and reparations have a lot of symbolism). Anyway, about halfway down is this line:

[Obama] could also elevate the current discussion on race, which swirled earlier this week around the serial liar Rachel Dolezal, and the race-baiting billionaire vanity blimp of Donald Trump.

Timothy Egan, in Apologize for Slavery [], published by The New York Times. Emphasis mine.

In hindsight, yea, that was a bit of foreshadowing, dark foreshadowing.


Social Doomsday

The social web is doing exactly what is was built for. Facebook does not exist to seek truth and report it, or to improve civil health, or to hold powerful people to account, or to represent the interest of its users, though these phenomena may be occasional by-products of its existence.

Adrienne LaFrance, in Facebook is a Doomsday Machine” [], published in The Atlantic

The article as a whole goes a bit overboard into hysteria, to me, at least that’s what I thought when I was reading it. Then again, it was published in December, before the final death throws of the Trump administration. The social media driven buildup to January 6th and the knee jerk overreaction by the tech industry to their own role in the violence kind of prove the authors point…

quotes ranting

Hetero (or Homo) Lifemates

In Pocket’s Best of 2020 [] list I came across this article on The People Who Prioritize Friendship over Marriage []. Interesting article, you should read it.

A couple of random poorly connected thoughts on this:

  1. I’ve pontificated before on this blog about an idea that is related to this. In this post on The Separation of Marriage and Civil Union [] (five years before the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodge [], legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the US). I noted that Marriage is a religious idea and in a secular state, like America with the constitutional separation of church and state, it would be better to leave marriage to religions and out of state matters. To do this you need to remove any distinctions, advantages and disadvantages of being married from law. Replace the religious idea of marriage with a secular idea of a civil union (or some other phrase if that is too loaded) such that any legal or commercial issues which are today based on marriage would be instead based on civil union. Whats more a civil union, is not a romantic thing and need not be between romantic partners, so it could be between friends as described in The Atlantic’s article. The article comes close to the same idea:

[Elizabeth Brake, a philosophy professor at Rice University whose research focuses on marriage, love, and sex], takes issue not just with cultural norms that elevate romantic relationships above platonic ones, but also with the special status that governments confer on romantic relationships. Whereas access to marriage currently hinges on (assumed) sexual activity, Brake argues that caregiving, which she says is “absolutely crucial to our survival,” is a more sensible basis for legal recognition. She proposes that states limit the rights of marriage to only the benefits that support caregiving, such as special immigration eligibility and hospital visitation rights. Because sexual attraction is irrelevant to Brake’s marriage model, friends would be eligible.

Rhaina Cohen in The People Who Prioritize Friendship Over Marriage [], published in The Atlantic.
  1. I’ve always heard that the most successful, long term, marriages are those that begin or become close friendships. So breaking the idea of life-long legal entanglement from the idea of romantic love and opening it to friendship seems like a good idea.
  2. Despite #1 and #2… I can’t even begin to imagine the changes to day-to-day society that would need to happen for this to be normal. Imagine you are ‘married’ to someone, living with them, I assume, but at the same time have a legal civil union with a lifelong friend. If you die the friend is the main beneficiary (unless your Will say otherwise). You could jointly file takes with someone you are not living with? And who might be living with someone else also? What rights and duties are their with respect to kids from any marriages the two people in a civil union have? And you don’t need to get married to have kids —you don’t need to be married today but it’s still the norm, if there are no legal benefits to being married then maybe people will stop doing it unless they are highly religious. There are so many little things, the traditional idea of what a marriage is is so ingrained, even with the opening of marriage to same-sex couples…
  3. Urban Dictionary has a few definitions of Hetero Life Mate [], including one that says A best friend who is so close, that were they not to match your sexual orientation, you would be married to them. Other sexual orientations may use “homo lifemate” or equivalent. Pointing out that if there can be hetero lifemates there must also be homo lifemates. So maybe we need a better, less bigoted term. Another definition for Hetero Life Mate on Urban Dictionary notes that it’s basically a synonym for “Platonic Soulmate” [].
  4. And finally, Kevin Smith had this shit figured out in the View Askewniverse [] at least by 1999 in Dogma and maybe way back in 1994 in Clerks:

Oh, I’m Jay, and this is my hetero-lifemate Silent Bob.

Jay, in Dogma [].

Maybe Platonic Soulmate is a better term than Hetero Lifemate, given the issue of bigotry that goes with the use of hetero and homo… but as a lifelong fan of Kevin Smiths movies I’m sticking with Hetero Lifemate. And I confess I wrote this whole post just so I could quote Jay.

quotes ranting

They think they know

Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.

James Burke, in Connections [] episode 1 “The Trigger Effect”

James Burke said that in 1979, a year after I was born, in his TV show Connections. As a kid watching reruns of Connections I doubt I understood what he meant. That as society advances people come to use and depend more and more on technology that requires specialized knowledge to understand. We are surrounded by technology that our lives depend on, but few of us understand very much of it at all. Think about all the technology you use every day do you understand it? Even the basics; electricity? The turbines that generate it and the grid that delivers it to you can charge your phone, or laptop, to read this? Forget about the phone or laptop themselves with literally hundreds of components that are each a technical marvel —touch screens, accelerometers, radios for bluetooth, cellular and wifi, and the processor, even the battery. And don’t forget the tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code that make all those physical bits work together so you can look at cat memes on the internet. What about the technology required to grow food on far off farms to feed more than half of the world that lives in cities today? The trains, planes and automobiles that deliver it in an edible state? The list goes on. How many of us could really survive an apocalypse?

The complexity of the world has increased in what feels like an exponential rate over the 40-plus years since Connections was made. Each of us has been reduced from a cog in vast machine to a single tooth on a very small cog in a massive world spanning machine. When I was a kids cars were complex machines but I could learn enough about how they worked, as mechanical things, to understand them. I was far from a gear head but I could even do basic maintenance and little repair. I could change the oil or clean the spark plugs because I could understand what was going on under the hood and apply that knowledge with my hands. Today, the principles haven’t changed (as long as we are talking about internal combustion engines, ignoring hybrid and electric cars for now…) but cars are computers and they require specialized equipment to even diagnose many problems. My car throws an error if you replace the battery without the manufacturer provided software to tell the car what you did. As the world gets more and more advanced we all see less and less of the overall machine and it can be overwhelming. More and more we are surrounded by black boxes we don’t understand. It reminds me of another quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke, in Profiles of the Future

Everything around us is magic today, the technology behind you seeing these words on your mobile phone requires armies of people to design, build and manage. You can’t even name or imagine all the people and tasks along the way much less how it works, unless it’s your job to design it or build it or manage it, or to study it. And that would make you what we call an expert. But these days people don’t seem to believe they need to listen to experts about the things they don’t know.

Even the most venerated experts, the canonical example of an expert: doctors, aren’t safe from the disrespect for expertise today. There are many issues with the practice of medicine [] but when I’m sick I still want an expert to take a look, to diagnose and to treat me. I want someone who trained for years to understand how the human body works, continues to keep up with advances and is certified to apply that knowledge. The human body is magic to me, because I don’t have the knowledge. How is it that people can think a random talking head on the Internet knows better than almost all the trained doctors and medical researchers in the world? People are drinking bleach! Or worse making their autistic kids drink Clorox like Kool Aid in Jonestown.

Do you remember, before the Internet, that it was thought that the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yea… It wasn’t that.

Anonymous meme

I can’t find a source to cite for that, I’ve seen different versions of the theme on the internet many times over the past few years, it seems appropriate. But we did know, or some people knew, that the idea, in the early days of the Internet, that access to information would make everyone smarter, was bullshit. We were warned:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Newsweek (21 January 1980) (more about it on Open Culture [])

This thread of anti-intellectualism is the direct parent of the disrespect, and hostility, towards “experts” on display today. And there does seem to be something fundamental about it as it affects people on both sides of the political spectrum, liberal anti-vaxxers and conservative anti-maskers alike, rich hollywood stars and struggling middle class workers, and don’t get me started on flat-earthers. Ignorance, individualism and the internet are a potent brew.

I don’t know where to go from here, I don’t know how it can be fixed but I suspect it will take many experts…


Elected politicians, in short

Forgetting the good in the search for the power to affect it.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Essay on the Istari, published in Unfinished Tales


Parenting-Work Life Balance

I’m super worried, by the way, about the generation of workers who have kids under the age of 10 during the pandemic. Because in the short term, co-workers can be like, “Oh, so cute, your kids are on the Zoom call!” and then try to make accommodations for that. But in the long term, those workers are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids. Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now? I really worry about that.

Melissa Mazmanian, interviewed by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic for What America Asks of Working Parents Is Impossible []

I wonder if that will be the same visible impact on things like lifetime earnings and job advancement as graduating college during a recession?

I remember reading long ago that people who graduated in the middle of the dotcom bust were affected long term because they could not get jobs for a long time or had to take jobs with a lower salary (compared to what they would have expected a few years before or a few years after) and that dragged them down, as a group, year after year. They were something like three years behind for salary and position at any age versus the people who graduated a few years before or after them.


Class War in America

For all the talk of market efficiency, the “information economy” has created a vast category of professionals who do nothing but copy and paste McKinsey info­graphics into presentations for no social or even narrowly commercial purpose.

Julius Krein, in The Real Class War article in American Affairs Journal

I know people like that.

A friend shared this some time ago. It’s an interesting, if long, article on where the classes and allegiances of Americans are and how they got to where they are. There is some emphasis on the rise of bullshit jobs and how they have somehow granted authority to loudmouths.

Best line:

Many of these people presumably possess some narrow technical ability, though if so, it is less and less evident. But they conspicuously lack any self-awareness, much less insight into issues of broader human concern, … The case of Donald Trump speaks for itself.

Julius Krein, in The Real Class War article in American Affairs Journal

Emphasis mine.