Data retention: an unworkable law devised in bad faith

Girl with a dead canary. Source: wikipediaYou should probably know, dear readers, that a journalist information warrant to secure data retention for this website does not exist and is not currently being applied for.

This statement may now render me liable to two years in an Australian prison.

Sorry to any regular readers who don’t like partisan rants. Leave the page now. Normal service will resume shortly. Maybe.

I’m cross because both main parties in the Australian Senate agreed to pass a very flawed bill on data retention. Here is just one of the many ridiculous and offensive clauses taken from the third reading of the bill, which was voted into law quite comfortably by people who should know better about technology and who have little regard for human rights. I am happy to  break this law flagrantly and will continue to do so until it is repealed. The statement at the start of this post might be breaking Section 182A of the new Act in two different ways. I encourage all Australians who care about privacy, government overreach or poor legislation to put the statement on their websites and emails, then turn themselves in to the police. Don’t worry if you don’t have a computer – to attract a two year jail sentence you can just speak the phrase into your phone.

182A  Disclosure/use offences: journalist information warrants

(1)  A person commits an offence if:

(a)  the person discloses or uses information; and

(b)  the information is about any of the following:

(i)  whether a journalist information warrant (other than such a warrant that relates only to section 178A) has been, or is being, requested or applied for;

(ii)  the making of such a warrant;

(iii)  the existence or non‑existence of such a warrant;

(iv)  the revocation of such a warrant.

Penalty:  Imprisonment for 2 years.

You can read more, and take part in the campaign to #stopdataretention.

Watch the deceptively softly-spoken Senator Scott Ludlam’s critique of the bill.

the Australian Government still can’t tell us how much it will cost; most importantly, they can’t tell us how they would protect the data which is now going to be something of a honey pot for people with malicious intent – and most importantly, they can’t tell us how trapping and storing the private information and the records of 23 million innocent people will make us safer or reduce the incidence of crime.

Finally, thank you to the 16 senators who voted against.

 

 

 

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A two-bit theory of social reality

English: Publicity photo from the game show Tw...
Image via Wikipedia

It is not obvious whether the world is analogue or binary, continuous or discrete. It’s a live question and the subject of a recent essay contest set up by the Foundational Questions Institute.

That said it seems clear that much or our social lives revolves around the assumption that the world is indeed binary. Male or female, black or white, left or right – simple binary oppositions structure our social relationships through and through. Moreover, we live in an era when developments in technology make it abundantly clear that the bifurcation of the universe into one and zero brings great leaps forward. Why do we do this to ourselves? What possible benefit can it confer?

One answer might be that it makes things simpler, thus allowing us to make faster decisions.

The reason Twenty Questions pretty much works as a parlour game is that twenty yes/no answers are all it takes to distinguish between 1,048,576 (220) discrete subjects. This seems to be roughly the high end of a practical taxonomy for personal use. By way of comparison, note that if one was to play the game using English Wikipedia articles it would need to be renamed Twenty-Two Questions to cover the 3,673,861 articles in existence in mid-2011 (222 = 4,194,304).

The promise of information theory, on some accounts, is that we can sort everything in binary terms. In John Wheeler’s well-known formulation, ‘it from bit’:

“It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” (John Archibald Wheeler 1990: 5)

In physics perhaps (more generally, in the ‘ontological basement’, as Paul Davies puts it). But as any one who has ever heard of racism or sexism will recognise, splitting the social world into opposed pairs often makes us get things very, very wrong. Our fondness for quick and dirty social heuristics has a habit of misleading us. Simpler does not by any means equate to more correct. Reality is more complex than a game of Twenty Questions and it takes more than yes/no answers to parse the social.

So it is not surprising that when faced with various kinds of binary sorting mechanism we experience a sense of disappointment. What may have seemed like a good idea – to simplify by means of bifurcation – turns out to produce less than useful information. The left/right dichotomy in politics turns out to be forced and to obscure almost as much as it reveals. Similarly it turns out that gender is a poor indicator of ability to own property or many of the other issues it has historically been used to indicate. And as for skin colour, this seems to produce far more noise than signal…. It is as though the usefulness of binary sorting has got the better of us and instead of recognising its limits we have tried to sort everything in binary terms. The reward is conservation of energy. The cost is accuracy.

What if the cost is too high? A recent example is a paper claiming to provide insights into differences between national cultures on the basis of a distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ cultures. This is a fairly well-rehearsed but contentious pair of categories that derives from anthropology.

The problem is that the ranking of nations on this basis doesn’t appear to shed much light on the national characteristics in question. Again, what is claimed to be signal looks suspiciously like noise.

I remain to be convinced but in the meantime I want to propose an interim alternative.

Instead of simplifying by means of one bit of information (tight/loose, black/white, male/female, left/right) we should do so by means of at least two bits of information.

It seems to me that a binary choice, between yes and no or between 1 and 0 always implies a set of Boolean operands just waiting to be used. Yes or no always begs the question: Yes and no?

One way of depicting this expanded set of choices is to frame each binary single bit choice as a two bit choice:

YES                 Yes and not No                      Yes and No

NOT YES       Not Yes and not No              No and not Yes

                          NOT NO                                           NO

This is not to suggest that reality actually is made up of two bits, or any other number of bits for that matter, information theorists notwithstanding. Rather, my claim is that if, in seeking to understand the social world, there is indeed a sweet spot somewhere between energy conservation and accuracy, then a two bit heuristic process is closer to that sweet spot than our current dominant but misleading fondness for single bit, yes/no thinking.

It from two bits.

References:

Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study

Michele J. Gelfand, Jana L. Raver, Lisa Nishii, Lisa M. Leslie, Janetta Lun, Beng Chong Lim, Lili Duan, Assaf Almaliach, Soon Ang, Jakobina Arnadottir, Zeynep Aycan, Klaus Boehnke, Pawel Boski, Rosa Cabecinhas, Darius Chan, Jagdeep Chhokar, Alessia D’Amato, Montse Ferrer, Iris C. Fischlmayr, Ronald Fischer, Marta Fülöp, James Georgas, Emiko S. Kashima, Yoshishima Kashima, Kibum Kim, Alain Lempereur, Patricia Marquez, Rozhan Othman, Bert Overlaet, Penny Panagiotopoulou, Karl Peltzer, Lorena R. Perez-Florizno, Larisa Ponomarenko, Anu Realo, Vidar Schei, Manfred Schmitt, Peter B. Smith, Nazar Soomro, Erna Szabo, Nalinee Taveesin, Midori Toyama, Evert Van de Vliert, Naharika Vohra, Colleen Ward, and Susumu Yamaguchi

Science 27 May 2011: 332 (6033), 1100-1104. [DOI:10.1126/science.1197754]

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell makes a useful distinction between strong ties activism and weak ties activism. The former was always possible, the latter only really viable with the coming of the social web. Activists with strong ties have real, face to face friends. Online activism has to make do with the weak ties of friends on Facebook. Gladwell disparages weak ties activism as, effectively, activism for people who can’t be bothered to actually do it. He claims that rumours of the Twitter revolution in places like Iran have been greatly exaggerated.

I’d agree about the exaggeration. One cause of this which he doesn’t mention is the incentive journalists and editors have to add current buzzwords to well-established reporting tropes. Thus for example ‘crack addicts stole my iPad’ breathes new life into an otherwise dying formula. In the case of civil unrest in far-flung nations there is a great temptation to add the words Facebook or Twitter to the headline.I’d also agree that weak ties are, well, weak. There’s a danger of them being expected to accomplish more than they can reasonably be expected to.

Much of what passes as media comment on internet activism is little more than star-struck boosterism. But I think Gladwell is a little too negative about the potential for the social web to ‘change the world’. There are two areas in particular where worthwhile things seem to be happening.

First, in the area of activism, organisations like GetUp in Australia and Moveon in the US have had a fairly large impact on the political landscape. Certainly GetUp has filled a gap that would otherwise not have been filled in engaging dynamically with political issues and making it possible for groups of people to do things they never could have done prior to Web 2.0. For instance it is now common for GetUp to run political TV ads in prime time, flash-funded by its members all chipping in small amounts of cash to create a big effect. These microdonors don’t need to be best buddies with one another. They don’t need strong ties. They just need to be able to leverage the aggregated power their web-enabled weak ties give them. Weak ties do some political things very well. Interestingly these weak ties can also lead to the strengthening of strong ties. There is a deliberate strategy of encouraging local face to face meet ups, and it was claimed that before the last federal election 1 in 30 residents of Canberra, the national capital, was a GetUp member.

This brings us to the second way the social web can reasonably claim to be  changing the world. This is the use of weak ties to connect otherwise disconnected people to make practical differences collectively. Micro-credit organisations such as Kiva are linking lenders and borrowers in mutually beneficial ways and thus empowering the otherwise disempowered. The Ushahidi mapping platform is being used to monitor elections in Egypt, Brazil and Venezuela.  In these ways the social web helps committed people to do their activist work more effectively. Erik Hersman, the organisation’s operations director, says:

I don’t see too many governments being displaced or replaced by online cooperation alone. Trust, reputation and resources are just a few of the hurdles to overcome before that happens. Instead, I think we’re seeing the continuation of the refinement of mass movements, brought about by the inefficiencies in the system, which catch on faster and are enabled better online and then move offline for impact.

My own guess is that these new kinds of social movement and the new kinds of public association – enabled by internet and mobile phone technology –  are going to become ever more important. If this is so, the current views of Malcolm Gladwell may come to look an awful lot like the second stage of the time-honoured  method of assimilating ideas whose time has come. To paraphrase the trade unionist Nicholas Klein:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. Continue reading

The a href= test

at the if:book blog, of the Centre for the Future of the Book,  Dan Visel has been reading Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques and noting his link between the invention of writing and improved social control.

Dan’s ‘wish that someone would present a cogent argument against reading’ rang a bell and I remembered Douglas Rushkoff’s argument that ‘text leads to a society of hearers read to by priests’; that by the time the masses have acquired the ability to read, the priests have already become writers, controlling what the masses read. The latest iteration is that anyone can publish (online), an ability until very recently reserved for elites. But now the publishing masses meekly accept the tools they are given to publish with. Every time a literacy skill becomes ubiquitous, the elite moves one step ahead once more. If the latest elite is the coders, it’s incumbent upon all of us, says Rushkoff, to learn a little coding – to program or be programmed. I read at the header to the little box I typed in to leave a comment: ‘you may use HTML tags for style’. This is often seen in comments pages on blogs. It raises the question of the way permission is embedded into the process, almost inconspicuously, mechanically. Who gives or witholds this kind of permission? It also raises a question about how many people can actually use HTML tags, or do any other kind of simple coding. Let’s call it the a href= test.

Putting an End to Endianism: the feud you probably never noticed but take part in every day

“This is an attempt to stop a war. I hope it is not too late and that somehow, magically perhaps, peace will prevail again.” (Cohen 1980)

Let’s begin this tale of the conflict you’ve probably never heard about with a quotation from Gulliver’s Travels:

It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’

For Jonathan Swift, the wars of religion and generations-long rivalries between Britain and France were precisely as arbitrary as a decision about which end of a boiled egg to crack. Since it really doesn’t matter, everyone should do as they see fit, and ‘break their eggs at the convenient end’. The question remained: which end would that be?

For modern day computer engineers considering which byte order to set their hardware and software to, the decision is still fairly arbitrary, but it matters at least a little which end is adopted. Rather like driving on the left or right, no one really cares which is which as long as everyone agrees on a convention, but also like driving on the left or the right, no one is prepared to shift their preference, and when pressed will provide justifications for the status quo. Unlike driving on the left or right, however, those justifications do have some reasoning behind them. It actually is possible to come up with a list of why a particular byte order is useful for particular purposes, and therefore to prefer one order or the other on somewhat rational grounds.

Danny Cohen’s article, the one that announced the war in the first place, lent its central metaphor of big endians and little endians to the concept of byte order:

“Endianness describes how multi-byte data is represented by a computer system and is dictated by the CPU architecture of the system. Unfortunately not all computer systems are designed with the same Endian-architecture. The difference in Endian-architecture is an issue when software or data is shared between computer systems. An analysis of the computer system and its interfaces will determine the requirements of the Endian implementation of the software. ” (Intel white paper, quoted in Blanc and Maaraoui 2005:2)

For instance, Intel x86 architecture is little-ended (see LaPlante and Mazor 2006 for a history), while Motorola architecture is mostly big-ended. ARM architecture and some others, meanwhile, have switchable endedness, which tends to be set one way or the other by default. The distinction between Intel chips used in most IBM compatible PCs and Motorola chips used in most Apple computers meant that the byte order issue was, to say the least, overshadowed by intense marketing competition and rivalry during the 1980s and into the 1990s. Behind the embryonic “I’m a Mac – I’m a PC” rivalry lay another much less glossy rivalry, between big-endian and little-endian architecture.

In seeking a resolution to these fairly arcane distinctions in computer architecture, Danny Cohen identified a number of alternatives, which, as it turns out and though he probably didn’t know it, relate quite well to the four cultural biases or worldviews identified by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in her Grid-Group Cultural Theory . The first was continued ‘holy war’. This is what Lilliput was pursuing against Blefuscu and, according to Cohen an appropriate metaphor for the standoff between big-enders and little-enders in computer communications architecture. It seemed likely to continue because:

“Each camp tries to convert the other. Like all the religious wars of the past, logic is not the decisive tool. Power is. This holy war is not the first one, and probably will not be the last one either. The “Be reasonable, do it my way” approach does not work. Neither does the Esperanto approach of “let’s all switch to yet a new language”.”

An alternative was to somehow supply a big man like Gulliver to come and sort out the problem from on high. Here we see the strong Grid – strong Group approach of the Hierarchical cultural bias:

“We would like to see some Gulliver standing up between the two islands, forcing a unified communication regime on all of us.”

Yet another alternative offered by Cohen was to trust to chance and abide by the dictates of fate:

“How about tossing a coin ???”

This is a nod to the strong Grid – weak Group cultural bias of Fatalism.

Lettle Endian / Big EndianCohen, like Swift before him, was not terribly optimistic that conflicts over arbitrary decisions would be resolved amicably. He forecast:

“Our communication world may split according to the language used. A certain book (which is NOT mentioned in the references list) has an interesting story about a similar phenomenon, the Tower of Babel. Little-Endians are Little-Endians and Big-Endians are Big-Endians and never the twain shall meet.”

Cohen was writing in 1980. Computer engineers have now had thirty years to resolve the war of the byte order. So how have they fared?

What happened next? How did things pan out? Which end of the egg triumphed?

Continue reading

That was the Y2K that wasn’t

 

‘No planes fell from the sky, but a lot happened to keep them from doing so’.

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/y2k/notebook.html

 

This is a common view of the Y2K bug among software engineers and IT professionals in Anglo-American societies. For them it may be true that their hard work saved civilization from digitally-challenged-date Armageddon, but everywhere else in the world, they did next to nothing and yet, conspicuously, planes still didn’t fall from the sky.

So what was going on?

The story of Y2K bug is a marvellous example of how our subjective conceptions don’t just shape our view of reality, they shape objective reality itself.

Was the Y2K bug a serious threat or not? You’d think there’d be a straight and clear answer to this question, but it seems impossible to find one. The distinction between subjective and objective truth appears to dissolve before our eyes and if it can do so in relation to a super-expensive, high-stakes, world-wide emergency like Y2K, where else can it similarly dissolve?

The outcome of the Y2K bug has been used as a vindication of the ‘precautionary principle’ but also as a critique of that principle and an argument in favour of the ‘fix on failure’ principle. Most of the positive reporting has focussed on the positive ‘unintended consequences’, the ‘surprising legacy’ of Y2K preparation (especially the structural development of the IT industry) rather than demonstrating that a disaster actually was averted.

Economist John Quiggin has been the single most cogent thinker on Y2K, especially since his measured scepticism predates the benefit of hindsight. Two of the points he makes are especially worth reflecting on: blame-allocation schemes generally produce bad policy; some form of institutionally-sanctioned scepticism is indispensable.

Below is a list of resources, placed in order of increasing depth of coverage/insight.

 

Newsweek’s list of most overblown fears

Article from Slate Magazine

US Senate Committee final report

Public Radio miniseries – the surprising legacy of Y2K

Phillimore, J and Davison, A (2002) A precautionary tale: Y2K and the politics of foresight. Futures, 34 (2). pp. 147-157.

John Quiggin paper

More Quiggin

 

For a fourcultures take on this kind of thing, see The Dam Bursts.