Dr Strangebug

This post might be a little disjointed, and I confess I may not be entirely consistent yet in the way I think about this subject.

With the blossoming of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal — something I thought revealed almost nothing new outside of its fact pattern, but maybe I don’t track this stuff closely enough — many tech giants, especially those who generate user profiles to sell stuff, have had their market caps mulched with over $250B in value decomposing in the two weeks since the scandal broke. I shed no tears.

While I’m borderline happy that many of these companies are getting a haircut, my reasons might be slightly heterodox. The outrages of the scandal seemed to cascade like so:

  1. This sleazy Facebook analytics firm helped Trump win the Presidency by doing something unethical!
  2. Wait, Facebook let’s others do this, and they share 98 bits of data about me!
  3. Wait, lots of companies have data about me and are using it to profile me to sell ads and manipulate me!

None of this bothers me that much and here are my reasons.

It Helped Trump Win

This outrage I dismiss with a brief glance. All of the raging outrage and foaming of the mouth about Russian trolls, manipulative analytics firms, collusion, and more is just not believable to me. First, I find it deeply implausible that this type of social media interaction is especially effective. Just because somebody liked, read, or shared something doesn’t mean they actually did anything in the real world or had their mind changed.  Second, to believe this targeted advertising/social media is so effective is very uncharitable towards my fellow Americans. My thinking is more in line with Ann Althouse:

Can anyone explain why there is so much fear of targeted political advertising? If it’s as dangerous as they act like they think then people are so weak-minded that democracy should be broken and we might as well let the machines take over.

It seems a lot of people, especially those chaffed by Trump’s win, think that online targeting during the 2018 election cycle was hyper-effective and persuasive even with paltry ad buys and rudimentary bot accounts. I’m skeptical, but if I’m wrong, then the Russians are the best social media wizards EVAR. I think it’s more likely the outrage directed at Facebook is because Democrats are searching desperately for a scapegoat to blame for Trump’s win. They grasp at any reason except the possibility they nominated one of the worst candidates in modern political history and maybe the only person who could lose to Trump.

Facebook Has Lots of Data and Gives It to Others for Targeting

Disclosure: I deleted Facebook in October 2011. My life has been fine for the 2700+ days since then. You should delete your Facebook account immediately.

In regards to the first clause:

I’m not very sympathetic to people who are suddenly outraged with the revelation Facebook shares lots of data about them. Dupes Users freely feed vasts amount of data into Facebook and are almost certainly the primary source of most of this information. Another large chunk of the data can probably reliably deduced from the provided data. Furthermore, the list of supposed data points used for ad targeting is so pedestrian I almost laughed when I read through it. The majority of it I would bet most people would divulge in a casual conversation with any stranger. So why do people care so much this is shared out?

Facebook also works with third parties to hoover up even more data that users didn’t disclose to them directly. I would agree that this is not transparent to most Facebook users and not a good thing. But, then again, Facebook’s users are its product, and what’s so wrong with it finding out more about its products? Unless it does this illegally, I struggle to get my dander up.

In regards to the second clause:

Here I agree with the prevailing opinion. It’s not that Facebook shares this data with other companies to target users — duh! — it’s how the data is shared. In the case at hand, the problem is Facebook allowed users to unilaterally opt to have their friends‘ information shared to the third party. What a stupid, awful, exploitative policy! I’m still blown away Facebook allowed this to happen. . .except not that blown away. Yes, this policy is awful, but, c’mon, is it really that surprising? In my mind Mark Zuckerberg is arguably the least trustworthy tech titan today. I mean just watch the guy squirm when asked about privacy!

Have you deleted Facebook yet?

The Panopticon is Watching

Now the scope of the outrage has moved beyond Facebook. Okay, this is something more relevant to Facebook-free me. But I’m still not bothered by this that much.

First, in my experience, those who are trying to build a profile of me seem to be really bad at it. Apparently I am not alone. Proof of this is how universally awful recommendations/suggestions are. My favorite example of this is Instagram (unfortunately a Facebook property. . .I did confess prior I may not be consistent) thinks I’m very interested in the NBA. I hate basketball. It is easily my least favorite pro sport, and Instagram is unrelenting in its recommendations of basketball content to me. Other recommendation engines by supposedly Top Tier Recommenders such Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter are all pathetically, outrageously bad. I would say 95% or more of all recommendations are irrelevant. These are companies spending billions and billions of dollars with thousands of geniuses toiling to make recommendations worthy of a single click. I don’t get mad that they’re trying to build a profile of me. I get mad because they are squandering so much wealth and talent and my profiles are still utter garbage! How excruciatingly embarrassing! So many resources on something so useless! I will confess YouTube’s recommendations are kinda, sorta, maybe okayish occasionally from time to time. If everybody else’s recommendations were a F+/D-, then YouTube’s would be maybe a D/D+.

Second, maybe I should cut these guys some slack. After all I’m not playing very fair since I use both an ad blocker and a tracker blocker — you should too! — for all desktop browsing. But what does that say about these big, powerful, far-gazing, unblinking Eyes of Sauron? If these multi-billion dollar behemoths can be defeated with a couple of free browser extensions, it’s hard for me to feel threatened by their info-mongering ways. Maybe it is the case that their systems are so fragile it takes only the slightest effort to befuddle their conception of who I am and what even my shallowest desires are.

Third, maybe I’m naive, but I still believe users can easily and effectively opt-out of most profiling. They can at least opt-out to a degree that either their profiles are uselessly shoddy or the algorithms can’t make sense of their profiles. Perhaps I’m inconsistent here, but I live my online life largely based on the assumption that I’m wrong about the prior two points. So, I try to follow two guidelines: (1) give out as little information as possible and (2) don’t let any one company see a whole picture. I deleted my Facebook account. I turned off most permissions for Instagram’s app. I don’t use Twitter’s official app. I’m steering more shopping away from Amazon. I don’t use Google Search on the desktop (Bing is just fine). I’m switching more mobile browsing to Firefox Focus. I reject all requests for location. I use an ad blocker. I use a tracker blocker. I use private browsing most times when I leave my normal lane of the Information Superhighway. I treat all of these guys as my frenemies.

Maybe all the above effort is in vain. Maybe Big Tech still knows me down to my bones. Maybe these ludicrous recommendations are just their way to lull me into complacency.  Maybe.

Maybe I love Big Tech.

 

Universal Basic Income and Robots

Megan McArdle discusses the recent defeat of a Swiss referendum to give every citizen a guaranteed basic income here. As usual, she’s an interesting read, but this is the part that I found most thought-provoking:

Handing out a universal benefit of any size at all will be fantastically expensive. You can make it smaller, of course, but then you don’t get any of the vaunted benefits: It doesn’t prevent the benefit cliffs, doesn’t encourage entrepreneurship, doesn’t lessen the distortions of all the in-kind benefits you’ve left in place.

I suspect this is why the advocates of a UBI have recently become so interested in the problem of robots taking our jobs. The idea is that automation will make human labor so worthless, and make humanity so fantastically wealthy, that we practically won’t notice if we siphon a considerable amount of that money into a benefit that will, effectively, allow people to be permanently unemployed without starving to death. I’m skeptical of this story for a number of reasons — starting with the fact that “the machines are about to put us all out of work” has been a staple of science fiction for a century without coming noticeably closer to science reality. This time may be different, of course; even the boy who cried wolf eventually did come across a predator.

I’m not skeptical of robots taking jobs. This will become a problem, and as much as I’m reflexively against the idea of a UBI it might be a solution, at least for a short term, as robots massively disrupt society both economically and culturally.

A Hunting Ban Saps a Village’s Livelihood

Alternate title: “Western Neo-colonialism Imposes Economic Regime that Wrecks Native Lives”

Unintended but foreseeable consequences:

Since Botswana banned trophy hunting two years ago, remote communities like Sankuyo have been at the mercy of growing numbers of wild animals that are hurting livelihoods and driving terrified villagers into their homes at dusk.

The hunting ban has also meant a precipitous drop in income. Over the years, villagers had used money from trophy hunters, mostly Americans, to install toilets and water pipes, build houses for the poorest, and give scholarships to the young and pensions to the old.

I loved this quote:

Ms. Kapata said. “In Africa, a human being is more important than an animal. I don’t know about the Western world,”

I find hunting just for a trophy distasteful, but it seems to me there’s probably a middle road between an outright ban and unfettered hunting.

Trump being Trump

Trump gets interviewed on a potential run for president in 2016:

You’re getting better numbers in some polls than several candida—

I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me. I’m the most successful person ever to run. Ross Perot isn’t successful like me. Romney — I have a Gucci store that’s worth more than Romney.

and

Specifically, what would you do to address the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria?

I have an absolute way of defeating ISIS, and it would be decisive and quick and it would be very beautiful. Very surgical.

Military on the ground? Drone strikes?

If I tell you right now, everyone else is going to say: “Wow, what a great idea.” You’re going to have 10 candidates going to use it and they’re going to forget where it came from. Which is me.

Do you have advisers on issues like this?

With very successful people, we sort of have our own ideas. A lot of people hire consultants. Well, if the consultant’s so smart, why aren’t they rich?

Very entertaining.

Speedy justice for Zimmerman

Almost exactly three years after the event and a year and a half after being acquitted of both 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, the DoJ decides not to prosecute George Zimmerman for a hate crime. Imagine having that cloud hanging over you for three years just because somebody suspects you might harbor Unapproved Opinions.

From the official DoJ release:

“Although the department has determined that this matter cannot be prosecuted federally, it is important to remember that this incident resulted in the tragic loss of a teenager’s life,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division.  “Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases.”

Europe disarmed

A lot can change in 70 years. Two former members of the Axis would struggle to muster a well prepared or sizable fighting force.

Germany’s formerly world-defying military machine is all busted:

The lack of equipment does not come as a surprise to close observers of the German army. Last year, the parliamentary defense committee was informed that out of 89 German fighter jets, only 38 were ready for use. The list of damaged items also included helicopters, as well as a variety of weapons.

. . .

According to the confidential report that was leaked on Tuesday, the German NATO task force would face serious problems if it had to intervene abroad. More than 40 percent of the task force’s soldiers would have to do without P8 pistols, and more than 30 percent lacked general-purpose machine guns, known as MG3. Operating at night would be particularly difficult for Germany’s armed task force, given a lack of 76 percent of necessary night viewers.

Italy has Isis making noise south of it but only has a few troops:

Last weekend in Italy, as the threat of ISIS in Libya hit home with a new video addressed to “the nation signed with the blood of the cross” and the warning, “we are south of Rome,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi shuttered the Italian embassy in Tripoli and raised his fist with the threat of impending military action. Never mind that Italy has only 5,000 troops available that are even close to deployable, according to the defense ministry. Or that the military budget was cut by 40 percent two years ago, which has kept the acquisition of 90 F-35 fighter jets hanging in the balance and left the country combat-challenged to lead any mission—especially one against an enemy like the Islamic State.

Note Italy’s PM later said they would rely on UN security forces if action needed to be taken.

With Russia aggressively taking over Ukraine and ISIS on the loose in northern Africa and the Middle East, I hope these countries start getting serious.

Vaccinations

When the libertarians say you should get a vaccine as part of the social contract it carries more weight:

But vaccination for communicable diseases is part of a social contract that maintains civil society with a general ethic that no one has the right to harm someone without serious provocation. The fact that someone else may avoid vaccination gives no license to avoidably infect that person, however foolhardy he or she might be.

Taking away our Liberties

“Sadly, we have been conditioned to believe that the job of the government is to keep us safe, but in reality the job of the government is to protect our liberties. Once the government decides that its role is to keep us safe, whether economically or physically, they can only do so by taking away our liberties.” – Ron Paul