The algorithm is a bad guide

Algorithms are flawed. And yet they seem to be the best technology companies have to offer. How many products claim to “learn from your behavior”? But what happens when I am the weaker part in this information exchange? There is no way I can know what gems are hidden in the database. So once again the products recommended to me are repetitive or shallow.

So it was great to stumble upon Susanna Leijonhufvud’s Liquid Streaming, a thesis on Spotify and the ways in which streaming music, selected by algorithm not only learns from our experiences, but more interestingly, acts to train us into being musical cyborgs (a la Haraway)

Starting from the human, the human subject can indeed start to act on the service by asking for some particular music. But then, as this music, this particular track, may be a part of a compilation such as an album or a playlist, the smart algorithms of the service, e.g. the machine, will start to generate suggestions of music back to the human subject. Naturally, the human subject can be in charge of the music that is presented to her by, for instance, skipping a tune, while listening on a pre-set playlist or a radio function. Still, the option in the first place is presented through a filtering that the machine has made, a filtering that is originally generated from previously streamed music or analysis of big data, e.g. other networked subject’s streamed music. Added to this description; if an input derives from the subject’s autonomous system, then the analogy of an actor-network is present on yet other layers. The actor-network of the musical cyborg work both within the subject itself, as the subject is not consistent with an identity as an entity, as well as between the subject and the smart musical cicerones.

Leijonhufvud (2018) Liquid Streaming p. 274

We often forget this feedback loop. Since we are trained by the algorithms the level of serendipity and growth is relatively low and we tend to be stuck in a seemingly narrow spiral – especially considering we are supposed to have access to an almost infinite amount of music.

As a newish Spotify user who is musically ignorant, I often find the algorithm to be laughably unhelpful since it does little to expand my horizons and as such is less of a cicerone (knowledgable guide) and more of a frustrated and frustrating gatekeeper.

It would be nice not to have the things I already know recommended to me ad infinitum, but rather show me things I have not seen or heard. Sure I may hate them but at least I may have the chance of expanding my repertoire.

Susanna Leijonhufvud (2018) Liquid Streaming: The Spotify Way To Music, Doctoral Thesis, Luleå University of Technology, (Fulltext here

Better insults needed

Sitting on the plane at Boston airport and hoping  it will take off. The delay is because it’s overcast and raining in Philadelphia. This news does not really fit well with Philly’s tough image. 

So I muttered under my breath and realized that none of my insults were things I was comfortable with. All the terms were derogatory to women, gay people, or race. 

Naturally this brought to mind the great quote from Betty White

Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.

But this doesn’t help. I needed an insult to hurl at Philly for not being tough enough to let airplanes land in the rain. And I wanted an insult that didn’t disparage women or gays or that was racist. Betty is awesome, but she wasn’t helping. 

Going back to Shakespeare there were a few tips. From Macbeth:

Go, prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, Thou lily-liver’d boy.

Lily-liver’d that kind of has a ring to it. It rolls nicely off the tongue, but the hyphenation and apostrophe is going to make it difficult when texting. 

Hamlet offered this:

Thou are pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.

It’s a variation on a theme but I guess even Shakespeare couldn’t be totally original. Same texting problem as before. 

Damn! Where can I find a better source of insults? Any recommendations? 

I’m offended by that

John Cleese on offense and political correctness. He quotes his co-author Robert Skinner “If people cannot control their own emotions then have to start trying to control other people’s behavior”

Which naturally led me to this:

Keep Calm and Just Block

It doesn’t happen often but today it happened again. I was suckered into tweeting with someone on Twitter and the endless back and forth began. I recognized it early as baiting but I tried to continue a bit further, explain my views and be polite but clear in my points. I know it’s pointless but I tried.

When I finally had had enough I informed the other that I was stopping and thanked him (?) for the discussion. Predictably he continued to bait me by “calling out” my hypocrisy. I was going to reply (I know, I know – don’t feed the trolls). But I stopped myself and I checked his profile.

It was – unsurprisingly – yet another anonymous account. Active but unnamed. Nothing in the user name or the profile gave any clue about a real identity.

I am all for anonymity and psuedonymity online. And given the right circumstances I would have not minded a discussion. But when I attempt to politely withdraw and my interlocutor is both anonymous, persistent, and baiting. I get the impression its a troll. So I have created a rule for myself. If I am arguing with an anonymous person on Twitter and they will not let me leave the argument – then it is OK to block them.

While it is perfectly OK to be anonymous online. It is also OK for me not to invest my time and energy in someone who is anonymous and disrespectful of my time and opinions. We do not have to agree, but we do have to be respectful. In particular respect is important if you are attempting anonymity.

So far I have only blocked three accounts on Twitter based on these principles. And still it makes me feel like I am doing something wrong by preventing the free flow of discussion. But there is a time when arguing with anonymous accounts must stop. It’s just not fruitful.

Posner on Privacy: A privileged old white wealthy man’s view

Judge Richard Posner’s (quoted by PC World) during a conference privacy and cybercrime has said some very sad things about privacy. First off he says “I think privacy is actually overvalued,”

he developed this with

“Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct,” Posner added. “Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

This is a very narrow minded and underdeveloped view of privacy. It reflects the Judge’s privileged social, economic and political position.

Privacy – like other social protection – is supposed to protect the weak. In the same way that Free Speech is not necessary to protect those who politely parrot the status quo and consumer protection is not there to protect the corporation against the consumer. Privacy is there to protect those who are in a weaker position, or those who risk physical, social, political, or economic harm.

Even though homosexuality is no longer illegal in most countries, it does, in some cases, still carries social stigma, and even physical harm (see gay bashing). Therefore, someone who faces threats of physical harm and social discrimination may want to keep their sexuality private in certain situations. Posner cannot mean that they are then concealing disreputable parts of their conduct.

This kind of argument would apply to most persecuted minorities in history. Would anyone argue that hiding a Jewish identity in countries occupied by Nazi’s in WWII is “trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct”?

The ability to ignore weakness stems from the privilege of not being weak. Not seeing the injustice that is around is comes from the perspective of those who are not subjected to the harmful effects of lack of privilege. As a white, over-educated, economically sound, male in Western society Posner has no need of these protections. They do not protect him or his. However, it is short-sighted at best to therefore argue that privacy is overvalued.

Society needs to protect its minorities. But by shifting the blame onto them, and attempting to blame the victim Posner is acting as an instrument of social repression. Privacy is not about hiding, it is about being able to create a fair society where all can participate as equals.

This isn’t a sharing economy

Technollama has written a piece critiquing the sharing economy The sharing economy is anything but where he points out that sharing isn’t really what is happening in most cases. We are trading goods for cash and a middleman is taking a cut. Also the great profitability often comes from the dismantling of protections which have been put into place in order to protect either the consumer, the industry or wider social interests.

He closes his post with

A true decentralised model would connect users and providers without an intermediary, probably by the existence of nodes and connectors, much in the way in which truly decentralised services operate. Couchsurfing is closer to the ideal sharing economy, where people offer a space for free., while BeWelcome is a true Airbnb alternative that is peer-to-peer and open, without nodes and using open source software. I find all of these services much more interesting than the headlines, because their disruption is not a libertarian ruse to bypass regulation, but it is a true sign of decentralisation and openness.

This isn’t a pipe

Aside from ignoring regulations (often put in place to ensure a common good) many of these services are circumventing sales taxes, income taxes and licensing laws. Some are creating unfair advantages and harming legitimate businesses which pay taxes and employ people. So we should be more careful when praising this new thing and also more vigilant in observing the true costs to individuals, organizations and society.

The costs of other people “sharing” will be carried by us all, it will make the middlemen wealthy and probably not really be all that great for those who “work” in this industry.

Weapons of War don’t Protect & Serve

The police exist to ensure that society works – anyone who has been subjected to American films and television is aware that their motto is “to protect and serve”. In order to protect and serve in all kinds of situations the police require a great deal of equipment. Most of this equipment is, as you would expect, uniforms, cars, communications etc. But recently in the US some of this equipment has been growing increasingly militarized.

As American armies go to war they need to be supplied with equipment to meet their needs. This is the need of combat soldiers fighting an enemy in a hostile environment. This is really a no-brainer and should be easy to understand whether the wars are supported or not.

In order to supply the army their is an increase in weapons production and purchasing. The problems begin when the army has a surplus of equipment it needs to dispose of. In the US, one method of disposal seems to be supplying the police with this surplus or excess material. On paper this may seem like a good idea. However, there is a problem. The equipment is not designed for those who “protect and serve” and therefore there is a challenge when the technology of violence is brought home and supplied to those who protect and serve.

The ACLU published “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing.” in June.  Its central point: “the United States today has become excessively militarized, mainly through federal programs that create incentives for state and local police to use unnecessarily aggressive weapons and tactics designed for the battlefield.”

This technology, and the training it requires, goes against the goal to protect and serve the public and is replaced by an ethos of aggressiveness. The report states:

Our analysis shows that the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a “warrior” mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies…

Once the police forces have invested in the equipment and the training it is almost inevitable that these will deployed. Even in situations where it is not merited. This is not a case of the police being violent individuals but rather the case of them being drilled in the use of the wrong technology. They have been focused on the use of technologies of violence and death and any attempt to curb civil unrest with these mechanisms is naturally seen as repression.

When dealing with football (soccer) hooligans the European police have learned through experience that excessive shows of militarized police treating the fans as thugs would have the inevitable effect of turning the crowd towards aggressive reactions. What the police have learned is to talk to the crowd (not at the crowd), to build up links and liaison, to break down the us/them barriers. This has drastically reduced the level of violence.

By showing up in military gear the police are inherently threatening. They are treating citizens as enemies and pointing weapons of war at them. This does not calm the crowd. In the best case scenario this will repress the crowd, but it will not reflect the way in which a democratic discourse should occur and it will also brand the police as symbol of violent repression.


Potato Salad & the will to live

I like Kickstarter. I rarely support campaigns but I like the whole concept of being able to put forward an idea and getting it financed. The wonderfully joyful success stories make me happy. Then there is Potato Salad.

Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against Zack Danger Brown who launched his Kickstarter campaign for a potato salad.

The campaign has a picture of a bowl of potato salad and the text

I’m making potato salad.

Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet.


Stretch Goals:

$35 – I will make 4x as much Potato Salad. I know $40 isn’t 4x $10, but you guys have earned it.

$75 – Pizza Party!

$100 – I will try two different Potato Salad recipes.

It’s just weird. It should be ignored. But instead its just growing. To date the project has 3,694 Backers and 24 days still to go. They have as of now raised $39,831 (noon 8 July).

Seriously!? WTF. People are prepared to donate money to a joke about potato salad? Just imagine what that amount could be used for? Maybe save the lives of people by providing clean drinking water? Buying food for homeless people in a large western city?

Sometimes I despair…


The Unmanly Reader

There is something compelling about lists. That’s why they are often used as clickbait and some of them are amusing. But there is something about book lists. The 10, 50, 100 books you should read always makes me wonder why the list is there. Is it to make those who have read them feel better? Or is it designed to make those who haven’t read feel inferior? Or maybe they are designed to rank our cultural capital? If you read 80 out of 100 on the list you have a solid B. Its good but you must try harder. Oh, dear only a C- well then…

This usually doesn’t bother me but then I came across the list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read with the tag line: ” An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published. How many have you read?”

What does it mean? How many must I have read to be considered a man?