Facebook’s algorithms are not your friend

by Henry on February 7, 2016

Alex Tabarrok makes an argument that I don’t think is at all a good one.

BuzzFeed article predicts that Twitter will soon move from a time-ordered feed to an algorithmic feed, one that shows you tweets that it predicts you will like before it show you lesser-ranked tweets. Naturally, twitter exploded with outrage that this is the end of twitter.
My own tweet expresses my view ala Marc Andreessen style:


It is peculiar that people are more willing trust their physical lives to an algorithm than their twitter feed. … How many people complaining about algorithmic twitter don’t use junk-email filters? I want ALL my emails! … Think of the algorithm as an administrative assistant that sorts your letters, sending bills to your accountant, throwing out junk mail, and keeping personal letters for your perusal. The assistant also reads half a dozen newspapers before you wake to find the articles he thinks that you will most want to read that morning. Who wouldn’t want such an assistant? Moreover, Facebook has billions of dollars riding on the quality of its assistant algorithms and it invests commensurate resources in making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs. … By trusting the machine intelligence to filter, you can open yourself up to a much wider space of information.

Cory Doctorow prebutted that exact argument-from-self-driving-cars eleven years ago – many others have made similar arguments about non-transparent algorithms since. But the point can be developed further.

Alex’s more fundamental claim – like very many of Alex’s claims – rests on the magic of markets and consumer sovereignty. Hence all of the stuff about billions of dollars “making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs” and so on. But we know that the algorithm isn’t supposed to be attuned to our wants and needs. It’s supposed to be attuned to Facebook’s wants and needs, which are in fact rather different.

Facebook’s profit model doesn’t involve selling commercial services to its consumers, but rather selling its consumers to commercial services. This surely gives it some incentive to make its website attractive (so that people come to it) and sticky (so that they keep on using it). But it also provides it with incentives to keep its actual customers happy – the businesses who use it to advertise, gather information on consumers, and market their products using tactics of varying sneakiness. If Alex’s imaginary administrative assistant is going to do our filing for free, he’s also going to keep asking us, increasingly insistently, why we haven’t yet switched our house insurance to Geico (while surreptitiously chucking mail from rival insurance firms into the trash).

When Twitter – a company that is notoriously a service in search of a business model – tells us that “Twitter can help make connections in real-time based on dynamic interests and topics, rather than a static social/friend graph,” it probably wants to increase user growth and stickiness to keep investors happy. But it also probably wants it easier to market products, push sponsored tweets etc without it being quite so clear that they are bought and paid for. After all, that’s where its profit model lies. The extent to which social media allows you to ‘open yourself up to a wider space of information’ in some uncomplicated way depends on whether it’s in the interest of the for-profit providers of this media to open you up to the kind of information that you might have wanted ex post had you had enough time and search capacity ex ante. That, contra Alex, is at best going to be a vexed question for Twitter and its ilk.

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I blogged a few months ago about the various moves the UK’s Conservative government has put in place that seek to cement its ability to govern without effective opposition. Since then there have been various developments, including the entirely predictable loss of a million voters from the electoral rolls. Some of those names may be restored, but they will have been absent from the register at the moment used to calculate the size of constituencies with the consequence that MPs from leafy affluent places will represent populations much smaller that poor post-industrial ones. Restrictions on trade unions are steaming ahead (including “reforms” that will deprive Labour of most of its funding), and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act are still on the way.

This morning’s atrocity involves government plans to prevent charities and the voluntary sector from using any funding they’ve received from government to lobby for changes in policy or expenditure. The proposal is the result of lobbying from the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Charities won’t be completely silenced. If they have funds that are raised from private sources then they can use these for advocacy. It isn’t clear from the reports whether funding from sources like the Big Lottery or local government (what’s left of it) will be covered. The effect of these restrictions will be that there will be fewer voices advocating for the poor and dispossessed in areas like housing, mental health provision, or policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Charities who point out the effects of benefit sanctions on welfare claimants or the conditions in immigration detention centres may find that they are under a duty to demonstrate that the salary of their talking head on radio or TV didn’t come from public funds. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.

Of course ministers don’t like being told about the effects of their policies. But good government, as opposed to good politics, requires that they find out what those effects are. And that means they need independent people to tell them. And it means that the voiceless need advocates to counter the lobbying of corporate-sponsored think-tanks and lobbyists. In other areas of policy, the government is keen the vaunt the “independence” of those who advise them, frequently mentioning this as a feature of, for example, the Migration Advisory Committee, a body consisting of economists appointed by government, who answer questions set by government, according to criteria devised by government. There, “independence” has a legitimating function for policy. What the UK government doesn’t want is independent voices who give it accurate information about the effects of its policies. It wants the public conversation to be dominated by supine journalists fixated on the Westminster narrative who work for private media conglomerates. The voices it wants are those who don’t care about the people who don’t matter. When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.

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6 Nations!

by Chris Bertram on February 5, 2016

Another year, and the Six Nations has rolled around again, a competition between the also-rans and second-bests in world rugby. Thoughts? Predictions? For me, being an England supporter will be harder than ever. England have decided that the solution to their endemic problems is to appoint Eddie Jones. Well, I suppose he did somehow get Japan to beat South Africa. Jones promptly picked the odious eye-gouger and biter Dylan Hartley as captain. Though I’m tempted to insist on the Scottish and Irish bits of my family tree at this point, I fear it is too late and I will simply have to live with the shame.

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The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are two of the purest examples I’ve ever read of “a novel of ideas”. Being novels of ideas means that scenes that would be gut wrenching or stomach-churning in other books are instead only jumping off points for the real work –complex, constant thought, and the moral consideration that comes with it. I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the way scenes of rape and violence are woven into the thoughtfulness of the book. [click to continue…]

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DJ Earworm 2015

by Belle Waring on February 5, 2016

The Plain People of Crooked Timber: Belle. What is your deal even. You said you would post trivial idle thoughts alla time and instead you just ghost. And you haven’t even posted your annoying end-of-the-year mix of all the sucky songs from the previous year!

Well, gentle readers, I…I don’t have a great excuse because surely if I can play Candy Crush and lie awake at night looking at Pinterest for three solid hours I could post something. But I feel as if I should post something intelligent if I haven’t said anything in so long! I get similar email guilt; the feeling of shame at not having checked my email recently enough becomes a crippling barrier which prevents me from checking my email in a vicious cycle of anxiety. This is because contrived anxiety is actually more manageable than motivated anxiety. Our life is kind of sucking right now? One thing that’s awesome is that my mom, who got diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain over a year ago, is not merely alive and in charge of her faculties, but felt well enough to fly the 24 hours to Singapore and stay for a month. We went to Ubud in Bali also, to this villa that was just the schwaa. (The following is not, though it appears to be, the least helpful, most out of touch with reality advice because it is useful to our Antipodean readers/contributors who, it appears, must perforce go to Bali with some frequency because the entire population of Australia appears to be there at all times. Villa Bali is the best. It’s only economical if there are several of you, like four minimum, but then you have your own kitchen, can go to the grocery store and don’t need to pay for any restaurants so it can easily be cheaper than a mid-range hotel and is 50x more fun.) OTOH, Stage IV lung cancer sucks! It’s normally the stage when they tell you, “you’re about to die, bro.”


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On Tuesday night, Alexandra Schwartz, a critic at The New Yorkerposted a piece criticizing the young supporters of Bernie Sanders. Ordinarily, I’d be mildly irritated by an article titled “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” In this instance, I’m grateful. It clarifies the dividing line between Sanders’s supporters in the electorate and the liberal journalists who can’t abide them.

First, some context. Exit polls from Iowa, according to Vox, show that “Sanders absolutely dominated young adult voters, in a way that even Barack Obama couldn’t in 2008.” Eighty-four percent of voters under 30, and 58% of voters between 30 and 44, cast their ballots for Sanders. More generally, as countless articles have noted, younger voters are shifting left, embracing ancient taboos like socialism and other heresies.

Schwartz finds this all puzzling:

Bernie would not be pressing Hillary without the support of the youth of America, a fact that I—a voter north of twenty-five, south of thirty—have pondered over the past few weeks with increasing perplexity.

Why are young people, she asks, ”rallying behind the candidate who has far and away the most shambolic presentation of anyone on either side of this crazy race?”

A second’s Google search turns up an answer: [click to continue…]

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Original Sin

by Maria on February 3, 2016

The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.

He goes to his sister, Athene, who explains the idea of consent. What Apollo terms ‘equal significance’ – of the volition of gods and mortals, and implicitly of men and women – is so novel and strange to him, that he decides to become mortal to try to understand. He joins Athene’s Just City as one of its founding children.

Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic becomes a real-life experiment on the conditions needed to live an excellent life. Hundreds of children are dropped on an island out of time and raised as the philosophers who will perfect the Just City when they grow up. Meanwhile, they are educated and subtly manipulated by a group of committed Platonists plucked from throughout human history. [click to continue…]

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EU to criminalize those who rescue drowning refugees?

by Chris Bertram on February 3, 2016

There is disturbing news via Statewatch that the EU is drawing up plans to criminalize the many independent volunteers who have been working in Greece to assist refugees making their way from Turkish to Greek territory. The plans involve a deliberate conflation of “people smuggling” and “trafficking” and a requirement that all volunteers be registered and placed under the control and direction of state organizations at designated hotspots. Those who stay outside of these structures and go to the beaches where people are actually arriving and assist them by, for example, towing their boats, will be prosecuted. In fact, this is already happening in the case of some Spanish lifeguards on the Greek island of Lesvos. There is a petition, which I’ve signed, though internet petitions are not a particularly effective means of resistance.

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Gods Behaving Badly

by Henry on February 2, 2016

WARNING – COPIOUS SPOILERS ABOUT BOTH BOOKS

It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading. [click to continue…]

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On this day, the first of February, in 1934, the New York Times carried Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of a new gold value for the US dollar. Previously it had been worth 25 8/10 ounces of gold 9/10 fine; now it would be worth 15 5/21 ounces of gold 9/10 fine—or, as it is more commonly said, the dollar had been valued at $20.67 to an ounce of pure gold and now it would be $35 to an ounce of pure gold. But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.

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Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly

by Sumana Harihareswara on February 1, 2016

In this post I’ll discuss some ways in which Walton’s Thessaly series is transformative and some ways in which it’s feminist, and some thoughts on how those choices reinforce each other.

To start with, clearly, Thessaly is transformative in that it concentrates on reusing and commenting on a text someone else made. As Walton says:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler.

I’m currently obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical which, like Thessaly, takes old text — often taught in history or philosophy or political science classes — and infuses it with emotion and suspense. But, where Hamilton only has a few songs focusing on the process of group decision-making and problems that crop up in the implementation, Walton pays consistent attention to those details. This approach also shows up in Walton’s “Relentlessly Mundane”, which you can read as a Narnia fanfic with the serial numbers very rubbed off, or as a general commentary on YA portal fantasies. Paying attention to the concrete details within utopias and after quests, Walton un-deletes the deleted scenes from other stories. [click to continue…]

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Liberal, Conservative, Pangloss, Plotinus, Galton

by John Holbo on February 1, 2016

(This isn’t part of our Walton seminar, though it’s got Plotinus in it.)

What is liberalism? What is conservatism? If you are interested in getting answers to these questions, you (probably) want the answers to do two things for you: [click to continue…]

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Sunday Photoblogging: Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2016

Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

Finally upgrading computer and software means that I have the memory and speed (at last) to go through my photo archives and rework things. Here’s a shot from San Francisco in 2009.

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Terry Wogan is dead.

by Harry on January 31, 2016

Gruaniad here.

Here’s what I said when he retired in 2009:


His was the first music show I was aware of on the radio, because once in a while our neighbour, Charles Lossock, would drive me to school listening to Radio 2. (Lossock was a “carpet salesman” who seemed to make regular trips behind the Iron Curtain, and was, I think, the first passionate anti-anti-semite I was aware of. A spy, I always figured when I was older). Later, I would pass Wogan’s house on the way to and from school, and every couple of weeks we’d meet, me on my bike, he in his Rolls that didn’t really fit the one-lane road, and I would be pushed into the hedge. It never bothered me. I never thought he suited TV, myself – Blankety Blank was, of course, great, but I always thought Wogan was not very good (though reading the wiki entry makes me wonder if I watched it enough)—talented as he is, it was impossible to find the dull-witted celebrities he interviewed half as interesting or amusing as he was (one of the most uncomfortable bits of TV I’ve ever seen was watching Wogan try to interview a monosyllabic (though wonderful!) James Bolam, who just had nothing at all to say, and nothing Wogan could do would get him to open up). During our stay in the UK early this decade I wrote most of a whole book while listening to Wogan on the X90 to London. And since he’s been available on listen again (I’m not about to wake up at 1 am to listen to him being streamed), I’ve listened twice a week or so, delighting in his flights of fancy. I suspect him of voting Tory his whole life; and surely the TOGs who correspond with him must be almost entirely Tories and UKIPers. Still, he’s brought me a lot of fun. My daughter, last night, became the only person in the history of the world to utter the following: “I hope that Terry Wogan’s retirement isn’t like Brett Favre’s retirement. Dad, we were made to watch Brett Favre’s retirement on TV at school. And it wasn’t even real. Oh, well, I suppose that means it would be good if Terry Wogan’s retirement is like Brett Favre’s”

Well, we’ll all miss him. But I, myself, wouldn’t have missed him for the world.

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We Philhellenists

by Neville Morley on January 29, 2016

Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels offer both a celebration and a critique of philhellenism, the love of ancient Greek culture, by staging it and letting the consequences play out. From the beginning, we are presented with the attractions and seductions of the classical tradition. The classical is idealised self-consciously by the generation of Masters, who are plucked out of their lives in later centuries because of their declared allegiance to the wisdom of the Greeks – contrasted with the values of their own times, whether the extremes of religious intolerance or the oppression of women. The return to the classical represents for them liberation, the rule of wisdom and reason, and the exciting possibility of realising an ideal world that had seemed beyond reach in the face of the unyielding structures of medieval belief, the chaotic violence of Renaissance Italy, or strait-laced Victorian values. They are all highly educated people who have found in ancient Greece everything lacking from their own times, and so have yearned for it all their lives. [click to continue…]

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