Blog Ipsa Loquitur

After the 2016 election, one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was trying to grapple with the extent to which I lived in a news bubble. It was pretty clear that I didn’t understand the world that a lot of other people lived in. A big part of other peoples’ bubble seemed to be Facebook. While I check Facebook maybe three times a year, everyone I know checks it virtually daily. Immediately after the election, there was no shortage of accounts of how Facebook turned itself into a faulty news powerhouse, and I took some notes on my favorites mostly to order my own thoughts.

Well, just about a year into the Trump presidency, Facebook is getting itself out of the news business. Charlie Warzel for Buzzfeed:

In many ways, Facebook’s planned changes to News Feed are a retreat from the online public square the company helped create. They’re a tacit admission that the company’s great news experiment — which made it one of the most successful publishers in the world — failed. And now Facebook wants to go back to an idealized safe space, free of hyperpartisan pages, misinformation, and fake news. But when you’re home to nearly 2 billion humans, no change is ever simple; Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.

So Facebook is adjusting the algorithm to show fewer posts from Pages in favor of more posts from People. I suppose that’s a start, but what happens when People share propaganda from Pages?

Warzel continues:

While it may cut down incidental exposure to misinformation, the changes could, in some cases, only harden filter bubbles with a steady stream of content from people with similar ideologies. Meanwhile, a retrenchment from News Feed into more walled-off Groups and communities could exacerbate exposure to misinformation. As one platform executive told BuzzFeed News, “the people who end up being chemtrailers or anti-vaxxers do so because of friend and community groups.”

According to one of Facebook’s executives, even if conspiracy theorists and agitprop outfits like “End The Fed” and the “George W Bush Did 9/11 Herald-Gazette” aren’t going to get quite as much bang for their advertising buck anymore, you’ll go back to getting your misinformation from your friends. What a horrible, horrible platform.

Also, none of this addresses the clickbait ads. While Facebook is far from the only offender here, they’re the biggest and it’s especially ironic that even their mea culpas are accompanied by bullshit:

“We take misinformation seriously,” Facebook’s CEO posted Saturday. Right next to two very obvious pieces of misinformation… Note the lying advertisers to the right of his status update? (No, Hugh Hefner [wasn’t] dead, and no, Tiger Woods hasn’t left the PGA forever.) Those ads don’t even lead to news stories. The first one leads to a site selling cures for erectile dysfunction, and the second leads to a site selling testosterone booster. But there’s something even worse about these two advertisers. Both of their web sites are designed to look like actual news sites.

Facebook is not up to the task, whether it’s Pages, the overall News Feed, or even its own ads. I can’t help but recall what Rick Webb wrote last year to Facebook about their business:

In short, you’ve set foot into being a player in the news media, with zero interest in actually helping the news media, or in the social responsibilities that come with it. Now sure. You share ad revenue. But only popular stories garner ad revenue. You’ve aggravated the fundamental problem with internet news: only the most sensationalist stories generate the revenue. Whether the income came from subscriptions or ad revenue, in the old days, revenue to a paper was revenue to a paper. […] You could have helped fix this on the internet, but you didn’t. You made it worse.

What bothers me is not necessarily that Facebook failed, it’s that they so carelessly entered, destroyed, and departed the publisher market. They built something they can’t control to replace something they don’t understand, and they’re blowing it up once the market has adapted to accommodate it for better or worse.

Published on under Exeunt, Pursued by a Bear

Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker, reviews Kate Cole-Adams’s new book “Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness,” which—in addition to having a remarkably poetic subtitle—explores a variety of stories and studies on the weird stuff that happens when people go under general anesthesia:

In her attempts to understand what going under anesthesia really entails, Cole-Adams encounters what Kate Leslie, an Australian anesthesiologist, calls “spooky little studies”—odd, suggestive, and often unreplicable experiments. In one such study, from 1993, Ian Russell, a British anesthesiologist, ties a tourniquet around the forearms of thirty-two women undergoing major gynecological surgery. He administers his anesthetic cocktail—the hypnotic drug midazolam, along with a painkiller and a muscle relaxant—then, by tightening the tourniquet, prevents the muscle relaxant from entering each woman’s hands and wrist.

During surgery, a recorded message plays through headphones in which Russell addresses each patient by name. “If you can hear me, I would like you to open and close the fingers of your right hand,” he says. If the woman moves her hand, Russell lifts one of the earpieces and asks her to squeeze his fingers; if she squeezes, he asks her to do it again if she is in pain.

Of the thirty-two patients Russell tested, twenty-three squeezed to suggest they could hear, and twenty squeezed again to say they were in pain. Although Russell was supposed to test sixty patients, he was so unnerved by these results that he ended the trial early. It’s possible, he suggests, that the women were​ conscious and suffering on the operating table. If that’s the case, then general anesthesia might be better described as “general amnesia.” (Afterward, none of the women recalled hearing Russell’s voice or squeezing his hand.)

On my very first date with my now-partner, I explained how terrified I was of general anesthesia because I’d heard a handful of stories not unlike this. It’s only right to make sure she knew what kind of neurotic ride she was boarding fairly early on.

While I won’t be able to bring myself to read Cole-Adams’s book, this review definitely piques one’s curiosity; just how much do—and don’t— we understand about anesthesia? As one of the doctors interviewed by Cole-Adams explains: we don’t really understand consciousness, so how can we possibly understand what turns it off? If we don’t know how the sun rises, what makes us think we can make it set? ​

Published on under The Nope Nope Nope Files

From the Washington Post’s Ellen McCarthy, a slice of life piece on one librarian’s life under a growing cloud of student debt. Just your typical story about a young parent with a home and a car and a job and the crushing psychological weight of knowing you’ll make loan payments until you die:

Three years ago, when she finished her master’s degree, Sarah’s student loans totaled $60,000. She has paid steadily ever since and now owes $69,000 — more than twice the annual income she earns working as a children’s librarian.

“I keep paying,” the 31-year-old says. “But it’s like pouring into a bucket with no bottom.” […]

The glimmer of hope Sarah clings to is her enrollment in a public service student loan forgiveness program that would clear her remaining debt if she puts in seven more years of work with the government and continues to make payments on time. But she’s heard horror stories of borrowers being disqualified from the program — which is available to people who work for the government or certain nonprofits after they have paid their loans on time for 10 years — because of a paperwork error. And she’s terrified the program will be quietly eliminated. (President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal did suggest cutting it for new borrowers but would still forgive debts of people currently enrolled.)

​Same, Sarah. Same.

Published on under Amen, Sister

Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s latest in the Washington Post is on How robo-call moguls outwitted the government and completely wrecked the Do Not Call list. The title is actually a bit misleading, because there’s not so much outwitting the government as flouting the law and hoping the government doesn’t have enough resources to enforce the law. It’s been a good bet so far:

Since the robo-call ban went into effect in 2009, the FTC has brought just 33 cases against robo-callers. In those cases, defendants have been ordered to pay nearly $300 million in relief to victims, and nearly $30 million in civil penalties to the government. But even then, the FTC can’t force perpetrators to pay the fine if they argue they’re broke. Which robo-callers often seem to be. So the FTC has only collected on a fraction of those sums: $18 million in relief and less than $1 million in penalties.

Shell companies have insulated these folks from nearly 94% of the fines and damages they owe for breaking the law. Imagine if bank robbers could skirt the law like that.

In van Zuylen-Wood’s retelling, the government draws the ire of the public for failing to stop robo-calling spam.

At the root of this public relations problem is a likely misapprehension about how the Do Not Call Registry works. When you add your number to the list, nothing actually happens. No legal muscle or technological wizardry suddenly prevents a solicitor from calling you. All the list does is provide you with vague recourse in the event you are called, by allowing you to complain that someone has called you. So, you can report the violation by calling a toll-free number or filling out a form on the Do Not Call website. Then, if the number you were called from shows up in enough complaints, the FTC will leap into action and prosecute the offending dialer.

Except, it almost certainly won’t. In the age of live telemarketing, the mere threat of prosecution or penalty was enough to deter companies with shareholders and reputations to protect. In the robo-calling epoch, dialers couldn’t care less. One, nobody knows who they are or where they’re calling from, because they all spoof their numbers. Two, more of them are doing it every year, since it’s cheap and easy to blast out automated calls from anywhere in the world. All this makes it nearly impossible to identify robo-callers, let alone penalize them. At a hearing on robo-calls in October, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was getting so many of them, she’d disconnected her home phone. “The list,” she said, “doesn’t work.”

​The article also covers a series of variously effective technological band-aids for the underlying problem. Spoilers: none of them work, and we have to rely on the phone companies to fundamentally change how telephony works. Don’t hold your breath, only your calls.

Published on under I, Robot on the other line

Paul Campos at Lawyers, Gun & Money suns up a series of recent developments in the law school crisis and the reform movement addressing it. He starts with the news that Valparaiso University Law School is shutting down:

What happened to the institution itself is pretty clear: when law school applications started collapsing a few years ago, Valparaiso radically slashed its entrance requirements in order to maintain class size. Between 2010 and 2013, the median LSAT score went from 150 to 143. ETA: That’s going from the 44th to the 20th percentile on the test, and more concretely, from a level that correlates with a fairly modest risk of failing the bar to one that correlates with a massive risk of doing so, if the student hasn’t failed out of law school first.

To [dean Andrea] Lyon’s and the central administration’s credit, they did raise admission standards at least back toward the general direction of where they were before the admissions crisis, but this led predictably to a cratering of the school’s class size. The first year class went from 211 in 2011 to 103 last year, and then fell to just 28 students this fall.

Valparaiso joins Whittier, Charlotte, Indiana Tech, and Hamline on the list of ABA approved law schools that have given up the ghost in the past two years.

Campos provides more context about the Crisis On Infinite Law Schools in his piece, but that last bit up there really gobsmacked me. Twenty eight students! I do wonder how many of those folks withdraw before graduating with six figures of debt. After all, that’s a big investment to make for a degree other (read: hiring) lawyers are going to turn up their noses at. That’s a situation which won’t get much better when the school formally ceases to exist, too.

And look, I say this as someone who borrowed six figures to get a J.D. from a bottom 100 law school to try to make something of his life. I’m tremendously lucky (read: privileged) to have carved out a niche doing something I love somewhere I believe in, but these twenty-eight kids are in for a rough ride.

Which brings me to Jia Tolentino’s newest article in the New Yorker, titled Where Millennials Come From. I know, we’ve all read more than our share of thinkpiece-meditations on millennials, but Tolentino’s is one of the best I’ve read on the subject. During a summation of two ontological alternatives to millennials’ philosophies, she lands on this:

The type of millennial that much of the media flocks to—white, rich, thoughtlessly entitled—is largely unrepresentative of what is, in fact, a diverse and often downwardly mobile group. (Millennials are the first generation to have just a fifty-fifty chance of being financially better off than their parents.) Many millennials grew up poor, went to crummy schools, and have been shuttled toward for-profit colleges and minimum-wage jobs, if not the prison system. (For-profit colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income students, account for roughly a tenth of undergraduates, and more than a third of student-loan defaults.) Average student debt has doubled just within this generation, surging from around eighteen thousand dollars at graduation for the class of 2003 to thirty-seven thousand for the class of 2016. (Under the tax plan recently passed by House Republicans, the situation worsens for student borrowers and their families: that bill eliminates the deduction on student-loan interest and voids the income-tax exemption for tuition benefits.)

A young college graduate, having faithfully followed the American path of hard work and achievement, might now find herself in a position akin to a homeowner with negative equity: in possession of an asset that is worth much less than what she owes. In these conditions, the concept of self-interest starts to splinter. For young people, I suspect, the idea of specialness looks like a reward but mostly functions as punishment, bestowing on us the idea that there is no good way of existing other than constantly generating returns.

If you’ve read a thousand of these millennial things before, read this last one and keep it in the back of your mind as my generation enters public office. I’ll leave you with Tolentino’s kicker, but you should get the whole story.

It seems more likely that a young person who opened “The Communist Manifesto” tomorrow would underline the part about personal worth being reduced to exchange value and go off to join the Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown fivefold in the last year. One of its members, a Marine Corps veteran named Lee Carter, was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November. He was born in 1987. “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, fourteen years ago. These days, the kids find it easy enough to imagine both.

Published on under More Like Crisis On Infinite Loans, Eh?

The Guardian just published an excerpt of Extracted from World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer titled Facebook’s war on free will. This bit, about the ubiquity of algorithms and the harms which this necessarily implies, really resonated with me:

Still, even as an algorithm mindlessly implements its procedures – and even as it learns to see new patterns in the data – it reflects the minds of its creators, the motives of its trainers. Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to make recommendations about books and films. (One-third of purchases on Amazon come from these recommendations.) These algorithms seek to understand our tastes, and the tastes of like-minded consumers of culture.

Yet the algorithms make fundamentally different recommendations. Amazon steers you to the sorts of books that you’ve seen before. Netflix directs users to the unfamiliar. There’s a business reason for this difference. Blockbuster movies cost Netflix more to stream. Greater profit arrives when you decide to watch more obscure fare. Computer scientists have an aphorism that describes how algorithms relentlessly hunt for patterns: they talk about torturing the data until it confesses. Yet this metaphor contains unexamined implications. Data, like victims of torture, tells its interrogator what it wants to hear.

These algorithms aren’t fundamental laws of nature, like the rate at which stars exhaust their fuel, or the time it’ll take the Moon to fall out of the sky and rejoin the Earth. People build these algorithms with a purpose, and it’s good to be mindful of that.

Tangentially, here’s an absolutely wonderfully researched bit of debunking by Maciej Cegłowski. He writes about a series of news article that went viral recently, the premise of which is roughly ‘so many people are buying bomb-making components on Amazon, the Amazon algorithm now recommends users purchase bomb-making materials in conjunction with one another.’

In a word, no:

When I contacted the author of one of these pieces to express my concerns, they explained that the piece had been written on short deadline that morning, and they were already working on an unrelated article. The author cited coverage in other mainstream outlets (including the New York Times) as justification for republishing and not correcting the assertions made in the original Channel 4 report.

The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

Got that? Facebook is an attempt to undermine your Free Will as a Service, Facebook also undermines journalism as a service, and here’s one for the road: Facebook appears to have accidentally undermined American democracy as a service.

On the one hand, I will not shed a tear for Facebook when some upstart service takes its place. On the other, it’s hard to imagine Facebook’s replacement will be any more benign.

Published on under War on all the other illusions too