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.


Putting on the thinking cap and removing the blinders

To read something like this gives me joy and hope for our political process. A self-described “brain-dead liberal” confesses his change in views, embracing a less polemical view of the world (and I’d say much more realistic). It is refreshing, honest, and thought-provoking. Even though I’m sure the author and I would disagree on many things, at least we’d both agree that everything is not “magically wrong” and the government is often not the answer. I especially appreciated his last point. The people we meet in our every day lives, regardless of political persuasions, are the ones with whom we live and on who we depend. Happy election season indeed!

The Don does Economics

Here’s an interesting take on economic and legal lessons that can be drawn from The Godfather.

A choice quote:

Everyone remembers Don Corleone’s famous saying that he’s going to make “an offer you can’t refuse.” But for some reason, people forget that the Don also said that “a lawyer with his brief case can steal more than a hundred men with guns” (Godfather, pbk. edition, 52). One of the recurring themes of the novel is that people turn to the Mafia for help because of the corrupt and self-serving nature of many political and legal institutions that systematically allowed elites to plunder the politically weak. Puzo recognized, as sociologist Diego Gambetta explained more systematically, that the Sicilian Mafia flourished because it provided better “protection” against crime and violations of property and contract rights than did the official authorities, who generally protected only the politically powerful elite. To a lesser extent, a similar dynamic enabled the America Mafia to emerge in Italian immigrant communities in the early 1900s, as Puzo vividly portrayed in his chapter on the rise of Don Corleone.

Puzo also shows how Prohibition and afterwards the War on Drugs, provided opportunities for organized crime to grow and flourish. It was Prohibition that enabled the Godfather to go from being an “ordinary . . . businessman” to a “great Don in the world of criminal enterprise” (pg. 213). And, of course, the great Mob war that forms the central plot of the book is a conflict over Don Corleone’s unwillingness to help other crime families expand into the illegal drug business.

Porkbusting, Alaska style

Here’s a quick follow up to my original post on Porkbusters. Porkbusters site has a rather depressing update to busting pork in Alaska. Check out this exchange between a reporter and Don Young:

REPORTER: Isn’t there a bunch of stuff in that highway bill, at least 24 billion dollars, that could be taken out and used for the people in New Orleans and Mississippi and the places that were affected?

REP. YOUNG: No! That money is not there! That money is for transportation! That is not added pork. See, that’s why the whole media — Wall Street Journal, yourself, respectfully, you know, Sam Donaldson — don’t know what the hell you are talking about. This is grandstanding by individuals that don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll go back to that. It’s ignorance and stupidity.

You can check out a video of this here (Young’s got a neat office and a super goatee).

I’ve seen two different estimates for the cost of the Bridge to Nowhere: $315 million and $223 million. Knowing how government projects tend to run over-budget, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the higher estimate.

It’s not society’s fault, it’s faith’s fault

Ha ha:

RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

Money quote:

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

Yup, you bet.

(via Drudge)

My fire-and-forget posts often don’t work out too well for me. Kyle appropriately smacks me for not doing my homework. Eliciting my response where I link the actual study and actually put a smidgen of thought into the issue. Right now, I’m deciding between whether this study is either just another one to be thrown in the Stack of Studies or a clarion wake up call for theists in the U.S. to get their sh** in order. If you don’t want to read the comments, the bottomline is that the news article mangled the study. Surprise surprise.

Finally, here’s some food for thought. This is the opening graph of the study’s discussion:

The absence of exceptions to the negative correlation between absolute belief in a creator and acceptance of evolution, plus the lack of a significant religious revival in any developing democracy where evolution is popular, cast doubt on the thesis that societies can combine high rates of both religiosity and agreement with evolutionary science. Such an amalgamation may not be practical. By removing the need for a creator evolutionary science made belief optional. When deciding between supernatural and natural causes is a matter of opinion large numbers are likely to opt for the latter. Western nations are likely to return to the levels of popular religiosity common prior to the 1900s only in the improbable event that naturalistic evolution is scientifically overturned in favor of some form of creationist natural theology that scientifically verifies the existence of a creator. Conversely, evolution will probably not enjoy strong majority support in the U.S. until religiosity declines markedly.

This puts an interesting spin on the evolution vs. creation debate.

Legal Lefties in the Ivory Tower

Point ofLaw.com has an interesting post about the overwhelming number of liberals on the faculty of the top law schools in the US. Quoting from a NYT article:

The study, to be published this fall in The Georgetown Law Journal, analyzes 11 years of records reflecting federal campaign contributions by professors at the top 21 law schools as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Almost a third of these law professors contribute to campaigns, but of them, the study finds, 81 percent who contributed $200 or more gave wholly or mostly to Democrats; 15 percent gave wholly or mostly to Republicans.

The percentages of professors contributing to Democrats were even more lopsided at some of the most prestigious schools: 91 percent at Harvard, 92 at Yale, 94 at Stanford. At the University of Virginia, on the other hand, contributions were about evenly divided between the parties.

I can’t say this surprises me. I suppose I’m a little impressed by the numbers though. I would have guessed the percentage of Democratic contributions would have been around 70-80%. The article points out, this favoritism towards Democrats is inbred into the institution of law school:

“Academics tend to be more to the left side of the continuum,” said David E. Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern’s law school, where the contribution rate to Democrats was 71 percent. “It’s a little worse in law school. In other disciplines, there are more objective standards for quality of work. Law schools are sort of organized in a club structure, where current members of the club pick future members of the club.”

It’s a shame the world of legal education runs this way. It’s also a shame when candidates for a law professorship or tenure have to hide their opinions or identities so as to not cut their own throats. One of the writers at The Volokh Conspiracy has adopted a nom de plume precisely for this reason. Jim Lindgren, who also writes for Volokh, weighs in on the study as well and offers an interesting thought experiment:

The Times article raises the question whether it matters if there is political diversity on law faculties.

I have two answers–one substantive, one speculative. First, in my studies with the General Social Survey, political ideology is the strongest predictor of views across a range of hundreds of issues that I’ve looked at–stronger than race, gender, education, class, occupation, age, region, marital status, etc. Those who say that labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” are meaningless today are frankly uninformed. Most survey researchers know that these labels are quite salient.

Second, a professor at the Harvard Law School told me that in 1988 he asked every member of the Harvard Law School faculty with even a hint of conservative or Republican leanings whether they favored or had voted for Bush in 1988. Only one had (1 out of 60-80 faculty); all others favored Dukakis. He also said that in about 2 or 3 dozen entry-level faculty hires from the mid-1970s through about 3 or 4 years ago (when they hired an entry-level conservative), the Harvard Law School had not hired a single Republican.

Now consider this thought experiment: [Imagine that in 1988 all but one of the Harvard Law faculty had favored Bush1 over Dukakis. And] Imagine that over the same period of a quarter century [mid 1970s through early 2000s], the Harvard Law School had hired at the entry-level only those who leaned Republican. Imagine how different the Harvard Law School would be, how different legal education would be, how different the government (and public policy) would be, populated with lawyers trained by an overwhelmingly Republican Harvard faculty. Somehow I think it would be a different world.

It’s not clear to me how much difference there would be. It seems there would be a vast difference in the American legal world just because those who train the next generation would have a different view of the law, which, persumably, would be passed down to their pupils. However, on the other hand I think there may not have been much. It seemed to me that most students who went to law school already had well-formed political beliefs and were commited to them. The chance of a law professor changing a student’s beliefs seems pretty slim to me. But maybe this is because I’m a right-winger. I think it’s safe to say that any right-of-center individual going into law school knows he or she is walking into a political lion’s den and is steeled against the opposition. Republicans are a rare breed there — though not so much at Willamette thanks to the large Mormon population! — and a breed not always welcomed. Personally, I kept my mouth shut about political issues, and never once revealed my political orientation, praying none of my classmates found my blog. I did this for a variety of reasons, one of which is I am a wuss.

One final thought brought out by the PointofLaw post is this: even if the liberalness of law professors doesn’t have that much influence on the students, they may have significant influence on the public’s perception of the law.

While law school is, for most, a rigorous but expensive trade school, law faculties form opinions in young lawyers and also hold claim to speak to the public on what the academy thinks.

A GC of a public company who criticizes the Ernst v. Merck verdict, for example, is presumed to represent the views of “big corporations” when a newspaper reporter calls, but a law professor who teaches torts is presumed to speak commonly-accepted truths that are free from personal bias.

The public’s inability to see the flaw in this thinking is, to an extent, a shortcoming in the public’s understanding of the law and legal education. I don’t know how many times non-lawyer friends and relatives have referred to a public case only to ask “can they really do that?”. They look amazed when I explain that “anybody can sue anyone else for anything — the only question is how much the parties are willing to pay in legal fees to see it through.”

Much of the public seems to think that the law is a static, well-defined set of rules to be navigatived by lawyers who know what those rules are. Most lawyers, however, know better that the law is fluid and dynamic, capable of suprising reversals, and more susceptible to guesswork than to definitive answers. Legal rules — some in harmony and some in conflict — represent potential points of leverage in disputes between parties, rather than fixed points of universal understanding.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the stupidest things about law school. A school that rolls its eyes in amusement at “Truth” and teaches its students how to bend rules into leveraging tools is a joke.

Willamette starts classes again this week. I won’t be there, and I’m damn glad.

Juxtaposition: What is America?

I meant to get this one posted sometime last week, but, well, it didn’t happen. Better late than never! About a week ago, after reading some Wodehouse, I flipped through the latest Seattle Weekly, and read this book review of Divided by God by Noah Feldman. The beginning of the review sold me on the book, which I intend to read sometime soon, but the end of the review, where the critic responds to the book, was almost appalling. I’ll quote it in full:

Feldman’s plan would be perfect—except for the fact that the Bush Evangetaliban is all about coercion and money. Its goal, as Esther Kaplan documents in With God on Their Side, “is not to engage your opponents in the public square, but to kneecap them, or send them into exile.” The imams of the right won’t stop with symbolic victories. They want gays in re-education concentration camps, teenagers in madrasas preaching Values Evangelism and Intelligent Design, All Things Considered (it could be renamed One Thing Considered) replaced by religious hate radio. They aren’t kidding, and they are winning. Feldman’s mistake is to think that Values Evangelicals value anything but brute power.

I have a different compromise to propose. Why try to be united? Americans, red and blue, have no common national vision and never will again. Feldman’s own insightful quickie history proves our belief groups have fissioned steadily for centuries. Instead, on “values” issues, permit each municipality to declare itself red or blue, on the model of dry and booze-permitting towns. If all Florida rots into an ignorant, befouled backwater run by corrupt judges and Bush oil theocrats and overrun with pregnant teenagers who remain coke-addicted drunks until discovering Jesus at 40, like George, let them have their place for that. Red America, send us your gays, your morning-after-pill doctors, your science teachers yearning to breathe free! This country’s big enough for both of us—as long as we stay divided. Meanwhile, one suspects only the blue half of America will read Feldman’s book. The red half will probably burn it.

The reviewer’s frenzied disgust for the other half of the population is palpable. His take on the American right is so far out there I think it’s a safe bet he has never really met a member of the religious right and takes his cues from moonbat left. A couple of days later I got an email from the guys who run Spirit of America containing an email forward that offered a highly informative juxtaposition with teh above passage about the identity of America. The forward claims to be written by an Australian dentist and ends like this:

An American is English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek.

An American may also be Canadian, Mexican, African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Australian, Iranian, Asian, or Arab, or Pakistani, or Afghan.

An American may also be a Cherokee, Osage, Blackfoot, Navaho, Apache, Seminole or one of the many other tribes known as native Americans.

An American is Christian, or he could be Jewish, or Buddhist, or Muslim.

In fact, there are more Muslims in America than in Afghanistan. The only difference is that in America they are free to worship as each of them chooses.

An American is also free to believe in no religion. For that he will answer only to God, not to the government, or to armed thugs claiming to speak for the government and for God.

An American lives in the most prosperous land in the history of the world.

The root of that prosperity can be found in the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes the God given right of each person to the pursuit of happiness.

An American is generous. Americans have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need.

When the Soviet army overran Afghanistan 20 years ago, Americans came with arms and supplies to enable the people to win back their country!

As of the morning of September 11, Americans had given more than any other nation to the poor in Afghanistan.

Americans welcome the best, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best athletes. But they also welcome the least!

The national symbol of America, The Statue of Liberty, welcomes your tired and your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores, the homeless, tempest tossed. These in fact are the people who built America.

Some of them were working in the Twin Towers the morning of September 11, 2001, earning a better life for their families. I’ve been told that the World Trade Center victims were from at least 30 other countries, cultures, and first languages, including those that aided and abetted the terrorists.

So you can try to kill an American if you must.

Hitler did.

So did General Tojo, and Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung, and every bloodthirsty tyrant in the history of the world.

But, in doing so you would just be killing yourself. Because Americans are not a particular people from a particular place. They are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, is an American.

I know which view I like better.