Saturday, July 5, 2008

Missing the point

Newsweek tries to be cutting-edge by suggesting the Internet is the new sweatshop.

They may be teenagers posting videos of themselves dancing like Soulja Boy, programmers messing around with Twitter's tools to create cool new applications or aspiring game developers who want to create the next big thing. But what they all have in common is a somewhat surprising willingness to work for little more than peer recognition and a long shot at 15 seconds of fame.
Because, of course, money is the only possible motivation to do anything. If you're not doing it for money, you're being a rube. The enjoyment of doing it? Of making a contribution? Oh pish tush.
Whether these 21st-century worker bees can be said to be having fun (is it really entertaining to update a Wikipedia entry?), there's no question that their moonlighting has value even if they're not being compensated.
I don't know if "entertaining" is the right word. "Sorry, gang, I won't be tagging along to the party, I'm going to stay home and update Wikipedia" sounds a little unlikely. But it can be rewarding. Making a contribution, even if "just" for peer recognition (and why is that a bad thing?), has its rewards.

It's also possible N'Gai Croal, the author of the piece, is, like most journalists, innumerate. (I don't know, one way or the other.) Consider that the entire Internet-connected population is currently about one billion. What happens if everyone connected to the internet contributes a half-hour per month of their time doing something (making vids, music mixes, game programming, artwork, Wikipedia edits, whatever) of something that ends up on the internet?

That's five hundred million hours--roughly five Wikipedias--every month.

Someone please send Newsweek a copy of Clay Shirky's article on social surplus, and why we're on the verge of another boom.
But as long as so many of you are willing to work for free, the proprietors of these virtual sweatshops will happily accept.
But again, this isn't the point. A half-hour a month, volunteered, is hardly a "sweatshop," no matter how (melo)dramatic an article headline that makes. Yes, there are some who obsessively devote every hour to contribute, just as in the pre-internet age some people obsessed over their bottle-cap collections.

Peer recognition, satisfaction from making a positive contribution, and the pleasures of creating are sufficient motivation. Scaled up, across the internet, enough small contributions add up. And again, Croal fundamentally misunderstands.

Yes, the vast majority of uploaded videos are well below professional quality. Most blogs are barely worth reading. (No comment on whether this one falls within that category.) Sturgeon's Law applies on the internet as well as it does everywhere else. But again, the simple scale of the phenomenon means that the top few percent will be very good.

Newsweek answered its own question as true. In fact, the way they phrased the question shows they don't understand the subject in the first place.

[h/t: Andrew Sullivan]

Friday, July 4, 2008

Privacy and Data Mining, and false positives

James Wimberly has an interesting post up at RBC about the possibility of large-scale data mining as an intelligence-gathering tool, its costs, and benefits. I'm less sanguine about the possibilities of any such large-scale operation than he is, but he's absolutely correct to note that we need to be having this discussion in the open, rather than relying on the "lawless-unitary-executive-knows-best" model that we've been running on so far.

The problem with any such operation is dealing with the false positives, the things the algorithm says are suspicious that turn out to be nothing. Let's say his "third-degree" assumption is roughly accurate and we're targeting about one million people nationwide for data surveillance. Further assume that there are as many as 1,000 truly dangerous terrorist organizers in the US--determined, competent, well-financed. I'm not talking about janitors with fantasies of blowing up airports, I'm talking about people who have figured out how an airport could be sabotaged, and have access to the means to carry it out, and are motivated to do so.

First of all, we note that 1,000 / 1,000,000 = 0.1% of our targets are actually dangerous. The other 999,000 are not dangerous--not motivated, incompetent, don't have the means, whatever.

Now suppose we have a screening method that can detect 95% of the bad guys and screen out 99% of the non-bad-guys. This is, of course, MUCH better than any actual method can do. But run the numbers:

We find 950 out of 1,000 terrorists (true positives), leaving 50 dangerous people at large (false negatives--people we think are harmless, who really aren't).

We also round up 999,000 * 0.01 = 9, 990 people who aren't dangerous but weren't screened out--false positives.

Meaning we round up a total of 9,990 + 950 = 10,940 people, of whom 9,900 (90.49%) aren't dangerous.

This isn't as much of a needle-in-a-haystack problem as we started with, I'll grant. But what happens when we tell investigators to go through a list of people with suspicious data traffic, but to remember most are probably completely innocent?

Well, we know that about 5% of Americans cheat on their taxes. And we know that IRS auditors, who spend all day dealing with tax fraud, estimate that 30% of Americans cheat on their taxes. When you deal with something out of the ordinary all day long, you can forget how out of the ordinary it is. When you deal with tax cheats all day, you tend to overestimate the prevalence of tax cheats.

Good luck getting your investigators going through the list of "data-based suspects" to remember that 90% are probably innocent or harmless, or both.

We can't just sit back and do nothing. But we should also avoid falling into the trap laid out in Yes, Minister:

We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore, we must do this.

Hilzoy gets it

Someone should send Krauthammer this post:

Saying that he will be open to advice and new information, however, is not the same as saying that his fundamental views on Iraq are open to change, absent some genuinely unpredicted and catastrophic development. It's one thing to be open to a somewhat different pace for troop withdrawal, and another thing altogether to change your mind about the wisdom of getting out of Iraq in the first place. But I honestly don't see where Obama got near saying he was open to changing his mind on that score, even before he held the second press conference, at which he explicitly denied this.
And she goes on to point out that a main reason we expect leaders to stick to their positions regardless of changing facts is that Shrub has trained us to:
Why are we so ready to believe this sort of thing?

I put it down to eight years of George W. Bush. It's obvious that Bush would have had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from Iraq... The only thing that could possibly get him out of Iraq is a timetable with the force of law, and even that might not have worked.

But most people are not like that. And that's a very good thing: the range of policies that you can adopt when you have even the most minimal trust in the person who will execute them is much larger than the range you can use when that person is Bush.... [W]e can't afford to give Bush any flexibility at all, since experience shows that he will abuse it. That's a real sacrifice.

I suspect that after seven long years of Bush, some of us are reacting to all politicians as though we couldn't trust them any more than we can trust him...[W]hen [Obama] says that he plans to refine his plans on talking to commanders on the ground, it's not obvious that that means reconsidering the entire idea of withdrawal.

This matters. Our failure to give our candidates this much space is, I think, the only reason why the claim that you will withdraw in 16 months (or whatever), no matter what, seems to anyone like a good thing for a candidate to say. ... That would just be obvious, the way it would be obvious that your surgeon ought to be able to adjust his plans once he opens you up.

There's more, as well... The whole post is really worth reading.

[h/t: Andrew Sullivan]

I take it back

Remember when I said here I agreed with Krauthammer, at least in broad outline? I take it back. His latest dribbling tries to argue that there is, or soon will be, essentially no difference in position between Obama and McCain on the Iraq question:

Two weeks ago, I predicted that by Election Day Obama will have erased all meaningful differences with McCain on withdrawal from Iraq. I underestimated Obama's cynicism. He will make the move much sooner. He will use his upcoming Iraq trip to finally acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and to formally abandon his primary season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops.

The shift has already begun. Yesterday, he said that his "original position" on withdrawal has always been that "we've got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable." And that "when I go to Iraq . . . I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."

He hasn't even gone to Iraq and the flip is almost complete. All that's left to say is that the 16-month time frame remains his goal but that he will, of course, take into account the situation on the ground and the recommendation of his generals in deciding whether the withdrawal is to occur later or even sooner.


Well, let's see: McCain has said staying in Iraq ten years, a hundred years, a thousand years, is fine. That when the troops come home "isn't important." That we have to stay until they're not fighting us any more, at which point we can stay as long as we want to. Obama has said the goal is be out in 16 months, but events on the ground may change that; progress so far is real but fragile, and an out-by-next-week rush could cause another paroxysm of American-produced chaos.

Someone needs to draw a picture with very simple diagrams, and use short, simple words, to help Mr Krauthammer understand that One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other.

Jesse Helms is dead

I am told that one should not speak ill of the dead.

Therefore, I have nothing to say.

Followup to Hitchens

A comment on the Hitchens essay as a literary work here. Also, a large discussion about Hitchens, does-it-work-or-not, and farther down in the comment thread some of the usual degeneration into namecalling that always happens on teh interwebz, here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

'Believe me, it's torture'

Christopher Hitchens, vocal supporter of the Iraq war, certainly no bleeding-heart liberal, on being waterboarded.

This article and video should be required reading for everyone.

Why is this blogger surprised?

Andrew Sullivan is amazed at the thunderous silence from right-wing blogs on the news that the Bush regime knowingly copied torture techniques from the Chinese Communists:

It's an astonishing story - especially for any anti-Communist conservative who fought the good fight during the Cold War. But they won't mention it. I guess when a Republican administration copies communists, conservative writers need to copy Stalinists.
Hmmm... Would Stalinists ignore it, or denounce it? I'm not sure about the historical precedent here... But really, a lack of reaction shouldn't be surprising. The evidence is pretty solid, so it can't be spun away.

But the right has so committed itself to the idea that The Leader Can Do No Wrong (as long as he's a Republican) that they can't admit any mistake or weakness on the Leader's part. And admitting that they may have been mistaken about that leader? Even worse, because that would be "flip-flopping." Because, of course, the strength of your convictions is shown in how firmly you hold on to them, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Or something.

It's disappointing. And depressing. But not surprising.

Obvious headline of the day


Really, I don't know what else to say.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

David Brody Embarasses Himself. Again.

Shorter version: Obama can't really be Christian! He supports teh gayz!

what he said, too!

Markos nails it, as well.

Ultimately, he's currently saying that he doesn't need people like me to win this thing, and he's right. He doesn't. If they've got polling or whatnot that says that this is his best path to victory, so much the better. I want him to win big. But when the Obama campaign makes those calculations, they have to realize that they're going to necessarily lose some intensity of support. It's not all upside. And for me, that is reflected in a lack of interest in making that contribution.

That's it. No need to freak out. It is what it is. Others will happily pick up the slack. We're headed toward a massive Democratic wave, and what I decide to do with my money means next to nothing, no matter how much hyperventilating may happen on this site's comments and diaries about it all.

And if for some crazy hard-to-see reason my money actually is important to the Obama campaign, then they can adjust their behavior to get it.

Yeah, what he said!

Greenwald has a must-read post on Obama's shifting positions and why they're unnecessary and counterproductive. Yes, winning is important. But how you win is also important.

More theistic special pleading

There's an interview up at Salon that starts off well enough, from a seemingly-intelligent person, that veers off into mush about halfway through.

The interviewee, Karl Giberson, has a new book out called "Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution." I should note as an aside that evolution isn't really something that requires belief in the same way that religious dogma does... but given the current culture-wars climate, that's often the way it's spun. Giberson, by the way, is a professor of physics... at a Nazarene college. So that probably explains a lot about where he's coming from.

The promising beginning:

Why does Darwin need to be saved?

He has been vilified in American evangelical culture and even more broadly than that. Yet his important contribution to science reaches into theology and religion....

Why do misconceptions about Darwin persist?

Because in the latter part of the 20th century, evolution became identified with negative social agendas, and some very effective polemicists like Henry Morris and Ken Ham convinced people that evolution was responsible for the breakdown of the family and drug abuse and all manners of evil... In their eyes, Darwinism destroyed belief in God the creator.

Darwinism became associated with repugnant beliefs like Nazism and eugenics. But...evolution doesn't make judgments, it merely describes.

Right. There's an important distinction between a theory that tells us the way the world is and a theory that tells us the way it ought to be.... Conservatives don't want homosexuality to be perceived as something natural because that would force them to reevaluate the way we treat it from a moral perspective....

Aren't some people threatened by evolution because they can't reconcile biblical literalism, or "young-earth" creationism, with the fact that the earth is not 10,000 years old but billions?

Yes, but young-earth theory is an interpretation of Genesis that requires that you bring a certain set of suspect assumptions to the text. The early chapters of Genesis do not read like history.... They have a different sort of character to them. People who read Hebrew and understand the ancient Near Eastern worldview, and the cosmology that informed it, have given us ample reasons why you would not read Genesis that way, even if you weren't worried about reconciling it with a billion-year-old planet.

Yet Americans do.... You write that the strength of creationism in the U.S. "has more to do with American culture than biology or Christian theology." What is it about our culture that has led to creationism's popularity?

In short, intellectual laziness. We're not prepared to do the hard work to make our culture more sophisticated....

Many Christians insist the Bible is the literal word of God.

Yes, that's widespread and again it's because of a certain lack of sophistication from a literary point of view. Many people translate "the word of God" into the "words of God." They don't recognize that when you talk theologically about the Bible being the word of God, you mean that it contains an important message.... But it's a distortion to say the Bible contains the words of God as if God had dictated these things....We can't just pull all of this into the 20th century as if it was just recently written down by God for our benefit.

So far, we're discussing religion as a historical phenomenon. And I'd tend to agree with much of what he says. When you take the King James version as the ultimate correct version, believing that God dictated it to a secretary and ignore issues of translation (the oldest versions of the gospels, the versions in Aramaic and Hebrew, describe Mary as "a young woman," not necessarily a virgin, to take just one example), then you get all sorts of screwy interpretations. People understood the world much differently 3000 years ago than we do today; the scriptures aren't written as literal history, they weren't intended to be an objective record of facts, etc.

Notice that he's bringing the tools of modern scholarship to bear on problems of authorship, translation, intention of the authors, etc.

He also has little time for creationists or so-called "Intelligent Design:"
I don't think the intelligent design movement does anything useful. Its poster children for God's intervention are things like the clotting of blood or the propeller on the back of a bacterium. These aren't interesting features of the world, and the fact that they seem complicated and hard to explain through evolution doesn't suggest for one second that we ought to invoke the supernatural finger of God.
And actually, they're not as hard to explain as some think. The Dover trial demonstrated that.

Unfortunately, having laid down the law and said we don't need to invoke God to explain things, he then starts laying the groundwork to do precisely that:
I think there's a reckless extrapolation from what we know about evolution to an all-encompassing materialism. Evolution has so much of its data missing in history that to look at the whole thing and say we know for sure that despite all the stuff we can't find, and have never seen, has purely naturalistic causes -- and we know this with such certainty that we insist the knowledgeable buy into this idea -- goes way too far.
Pay attention, now. The ID crowd makes a mistake in invoking God to explain complicated things because it's completely unnecessary. BUT, because we don't know soooo much stuff, we CAN'T say it's all materialist. There MUST be a magic sky-fairy behind it all somewhere!

Is that what he's really saying? After all, he goes on to say, we can't use the gaps to argue God (even though he just did):
But I think the difference is that we need to know more than we know to make certain claims. And I would claim that what we know historically about the closing of these gaps suggests that we are always going to be able to close them. That we have gaps now in our understanding of how the blood clotting mechanism arose doesn't puzzle me at all. I just say, OK, there's more work to do.
So... we don't need to invoke God. But we do. Isn't that a contradiction? Why, yes. Yes, it is.

But you reject the idea that God tinkers and has his hand in day-to-day processes, so how do nature and God interact?

That's the tough question. You should rewind the tape and erase the question because I don't really have a good answer....
He tries at one, though. You see, we're different:
We don't know how we interact with the world. Somehow you got it into your head that you were going to call and talk to me about this book. Some kind of vague intention, purposeful agenda emerged in your mind, and it got translated into a whole set of actions, and now we're talking on the phone. We don't understand that.
[sigh] Yes, we're back to the ghost in the machine argument. He then goes completely off the rails:
Consciousness is a very deep mystery. All of our models say consciousness shouldn't be possible, that it should just be atoms and molecules in your brain randomly doing things. Nothing that we've developed for a model of how human intentionality works makes sense of our own experience of the world.
Actually, the models we have say more than that. Are there parts of it we don't understand? Yes. But before, we said we were sure the gaps would be filled in. There's work to be done. But now, suddenly, nope, it doesn't make sense, it can't make sense, we know now that we can never ever figure it out without invoking invisible sky-men.

How do we know there isn't some similar mechanism by which God interacts with the world, that God can be understood as a spirit, that God is more like consciousness than a material object?
This would get a failing mark in a freshman-year intro-to-philosophy course. "How do we know it isn't there?" is MUCH different from saying "there it is." But he doesn't see that, apparently. He's posed a rhetorical question, noted the absence of a soundbite answer, and declares himself the winner of the debate; said debate only existing in his own mind in the first place. He's the one postulating the existence of God; he has the burden of proof. Saying "You can't prove there isn't one" is no proof at all.
So I'd say to Dawkins, until you explain to me how human beings interact with the world, don't tell me that God couldn't interact with the world in the same way we do.
This is incomprehensible. He obviously means something by "interact with the world" that goes beyond things like eating, sleeping, thinking, observing, enjoying, having families, etc. What, precisely, does he mean? He never says. I wonder if even he knows. Or maybe he does mean just that... Again, falling back on consciousness as some magic property that can't be explained materialistically, because, well, it just can't, because he said so.

Now, God doesn't have to step in to make consciousness occur, but something that we don't understand at all is occurring. I don't think it's supernatural. I think that someday we may understand this. There's something going on that when the neuronal networks reach a certain level of complexity, something appears that maybe is brand-new and that is consciousness. But that's just a guess about how we'll eventually be talking about that phenomenon.
No, I guess that's not it. Consciousness can be a natural phenomenon after all. So what are we left with?

You criticize the creationists for questioning the gaps in the fossil record and call it a "fool's errand" because over time, scientists usually find evidence that fills these gaps in. But aren't you engaging in the same sort of intellectual maneuver, by saying that because there are some aspects of nature and evolution that we don't understand, therefore God exists?

Right. That's an extremely fair criticism.... You're absolutely right.
I think we will never have some sort of model that says, "OK, here's how God gets his agenda across in the natural order. Here's how the will of God gets realized in nature -- we won't ever have that. But we might have insights into possibilities about how we could think about that. These insights will be rich enough that they will accommodate religious experience and some of the things that have long been a part of religion. we won't have a model that directly includes God. But we may have insights into possibilities about how we might have models that include God. And those insights about possibilities will include God.

Okay, then. God as a hypothetical counterfactual. Maybe I'm in agreement after all.

But you can see why people like Dawkins and Dennett say that science seems to be functioning perfectly well on its own and we don't need to fall back on an explanation of God?

Yes, absolutely. And that has never been the way that people come to God.
Okay, so now we're back to non-counterfactual. God is now being accepted axiomatically. On what basis? None that's presented... though jumping back up a little, we find this:
But I believe in God, I believe God is personal and that God exists and cares about the created order. I think it's a very reasonable belief that God interacts with creation and that experiences people have of interacting with God are profound and deeply meaningful.
Well, you believe it. Because....? Oh, right. When we're talking about magic sky-fairies, no proof is needed, simply saying "I believe it and I think it's reasonable" is all that's necessary. Actually stating those reasons isn't.
People are far more likely to have certain experiences that overwhelm them and don't seem like conclusions of rational arguments, but seem like a kind of momentary contact with something genuinely transcendent. You say there's something more to the world than the atoms and molecules. Out of that experience comes a religious commitment. And that has characterized human experience forever.
And, once again, the feelings of the heart trump any sort of evidence or experience. People do experience altered states of consciousness, and sometimes feel the subjective experience of merging with something much larger than themselves; they often interpret this experience in religious terms. BUT. Those states are associated with certain specific electrical states in the limbic system of the brain. The subjective FEELING of being Touched By An Angel doesn't mean there's anything actually there. We're back to special pleading (all the rules of logic and evidence should be held in abeyance when we're talking about my beliefs) and the fallacy of crowds (lots of people have these experiences, so they must be right, even though many many more people DON'T have those experiences or anything coming close to them).

I used to think Dawkins went too far, that he was intemperate and exaggerating. But I'm beginning to think he got it right. Religion really does poison everything it touches. If I were to say I believed the moon was made of green cheese, I may be asked why I believe that. In response to that question, I would be expected to produce facts and reasons why.

But if we're talking about religious belief, saying "I believe it" is supposed to settle the question. Reasons can be incoherent, facts can be cherry-picked and inconvenient facts ignored. Because, well, religion is just different, and that's all there is to it.


Monday, June 30, 2008

"Manners," Microsoft style

Microsoft has filed a patent on something euphemistically called "digital manners," which will restrict the behavior of mobile devices in areas where it's being deployed. No more annoying cell phone calls in the middle of a movie! No more worries about some creep with a camera phone at the gym locker room! What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, it also means your cell phone will politely refuse to take a picture at a concert. Or during a police raid. Or your iPod will politely refuse to transfer music to or from any computer other than yours.

But we're not supposed to notice that. Does anyone really think end users will be able to set "manners" policies? Or that it won't be implemented for the convenience of the media companies?