Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Legal Theory

The Boston Globe highlights the work of a standing committee in Massachussetts, convened by their Supreme Judicial Court. Is it about drug sentencing guidelines? Three Strikes laws? The death penalty?

Nope. It’s about memory. Specifically: it’s useless.

Eyewitness testimony is one of the most powerful forms of evidence in a trial. It’s also one of the most problematic; in fact, it’s “the number one cause of wrongful convictions,” says Daniel Medwed.

Medwed is a law professor at Northeastern and a member of the new Standing Committee on Eyewitness Identification, which was recently convened by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The committee is charged with devising police and court procedures that take into account the central lesson of research on eyewitness testimony: “Our memories of what we see aren’t static. They’re elastic and malleable and change over time,” Medwed says.

This is great news. The fact is that human memory is awfully fallible, and Massachusetts is researching ways to improve their use of other peoples’ memories. This is very important. But it’s not a surprise. I’ve written previously about how human memory isn’t a good foundation for our entire legal system.

The memory-related surprise this week is courtesy of Simon Oxenham at Neurobonkers, who describes a new study that found it’s not just eyewitnesses’ faulty memories you need to worry about; it’s your own traitorous brain’s as well:

It’s not often that a study comes along that makes me want to drop everything and read it from cover to cover, right there and then. It’s also not often that a paper is terminated early, out of fear of inflicting harm on participants; one memorable example is Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford prison experiment. Take note of that; we’ll come back to that later. One such paper was recently published in Psychological Science. Researchers convinced 70% of participants that they had committed a serious crime — theft, assault, or assault with a weapon, when in reality they had done no such thing. […]

The fact that the researchers were able to create false memories of serious crimes will likely make the study relevant in criminal trials involving alleged false memories. In the US, 30% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence resulted from false confessions, admissions, statements to law enforcement, or guilty pleas, according to the Innocence Project. Many of these have been blamed on the controversial Reid technique of interrogation, that remains widely used by many police forces in the U.S. and around the world.

The numbers here are staggering and sickening. Subjects were deemed to be “convinced” they’d committed a crime if they “remembered” (i.e. invented) ten specific details about the crime itself. A full 70% of folks just wholesale invented a criminal experience under the right circumstances (i.e. ones which are very similar to the circumstances in which police interrogate suspects). Mind boggling. And then that second number: 30% of the folks exonerated by DNA evidence confessed to the crime.

You’ll want to read Oxenham’s piece. And then maybe you start keeping a really good diary. You know, just in case.

Published on under A Day in the Life

For the last month or two, I’ve been using a third-party keyboard on my phone called Nintype. Until last fall, Apple didn’t allow developers to put keyboards on the App Store, so this is a reasonably new option for iOS users.

When the first keyboards hit the App Store, I tried Fleksy, which bills itself as the World’s Fastest Keyboard, as well as Swype, the most well-known keyboard replacement on Android OS – it boasts 500 million users around the world. I used Fleksy and Swype for about a week each, but went back to the built-in iOS keyboard each time after deciding that neither presented a meaningful upgrade from the iOS one.

It’s a high bar: the built-in keyboard on an iPhone is pretty great. Since basically forever, it has automatically resized the targets for keys based on what it thinks users are about to type. Example: you type the letter W, and the area where you could tap to type H gets a lot larger than G or N or B or other letters. The phone makes it easier to type H and harder to type all the other letters which would make no sense after a W. These changes are invisible to the user, but this is what it would look like if you could see what the keyboard “thinks” you’re about to type:

This makes the Apple keyboard the most accurate touchscreen keyboard I’ve ever used. I assume Fleksy and Swype both provide some similar feature to improve users’ typing, but it never felt like either keyboard was as accurate as the default iOS one. Less accurate typing means more time correcting your own words, which means less time actually typing. Typing on a phone is slow enough without having to go back every third word and fix it.

Published on under Not The Onion

Henry Farrell, writing for Aeon Magazine, on the trouble with buying black market goods on the internet:

Would-be criminals on the hidden internet repeatedly complain that they have been ripped off. In the description of one commenter on the Hidden Wiki:

“I have been scammed more than twice now by assholes who say they’re legit when I say I want to purchase stolen credit cards. I want to do tons of business but I DO NOT want to be scammed. I wish there were people who were honest crooks. If anyone could help me out that would be awesome! I just want to buy one at first so I know the seller is legit and honest.”

This might be a good example of Poe’s Law – if it’s trollsmanship, it’s good. If it’s not, it’s amazing. Here’s another great quote about Ross Ulbricht, the man who was just convicted of various federal crimes related to running the Silk Road:

Ulbricht built the Silk Road marketplace from nothing, pursuing both a political dream and his own self-interest. However, in making a market he found himself building a micro-state, with increasing levels of bureaucracy and rule‑enforcement and, eventually, the threat of violence against the most dangerous rule‑breakers. Trying to build Galt’s Gulch, he ended up reconstructing Hobbes’s Leviathan; he became the very thing he was trying to escape.

Farrell’s article is called The Reluctant King of the Hidden Internet, and it’s fantastic.

Published on under It's a Man's World

Brianna Wu makes video games for a living. She’s been chased from her home by death threats, because she’s a woman on the internet. She writes in Bustle:

Software increasingly defines the world around us. It’s rewriting everything about human interaction — I spend a lot more time on my iPhone than I do at my local civic center. Facebook, Apple, Tinder, Snapchat, and Google create our social realities — how we make friends, how we get jobs, and how mankind interacts. And the truth is, women don’t truly have a seat at the table. 

This has disastrous consequences for women that use these systems built by men for men. I must use Twitter, as it’s a crucial networking tool for a software engineer, yet I must also suffer constant harassment. Women’s needs are not heard, our truth is never spoken. These systems are the next frontier of human evolution, and they’re increasingly dangerous for us.

Wu’s right. There are not enough women designing the digital systems that we all use. It’s important that women have a say in these processes because men don’t suffer the same abuse online that women do. Nobody harasses men on Twitter, so the men that make Twitter don’t make it harder for trolls to harass people (read: women) on Twitter.

If men chase women out of computer science, then by the time they graduate and go off to build things like Twitter, the only people to hire are men who chase women away. What kind of system do you think they’ll build?

Hint: it’s right here.

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things

Andrew Potter, editor of the Ottawa Citizen, taught me a new word today. Neoprimitivism was apparently a Russian art movement in the early 20th century – I know this because the human species has advanced to the point where machines memorize hopelessly arcane trivia for us – but Potter uses neoprimitivism to mean something different. He writes about a different movement, full of magical-thinking people suspicious of science, who eschew vaccines and decry GMO foods:

The moral imperative driving this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.

There are two major problems with this. The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.

Potter starts with the new William Gibson, The Peripheral, makes a left turn onto historical anthropology and the psychology of “the authentic” (see above), and pivots to modern cases of neoprimitivism all very adroitly. This is a wonderfully written editorial, all in all. Plus, it enhances that feeling of smug superiority I feel when I walk by a Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, this reminds me of the state of humanity in the unbearably grim future of Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop war game set in the 41st millenium. There, the human species has colonized millions of planets across the galaxy, with spaceships the size of the island of Manhattan and legions of Space Marines in robotic power armor.

This sounds almost utopian, but people in the Warhammer universe coexist with unfathomably advanced machines that they know nothing about. The technology is so advanced and so robust that it’s outlived the people who designed it, the people who maintained it, and the people who understood how it works.

The concept of humans-as-space-barbarians was also fleshed out nicely in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and probably served to some extent as inspiration for Warhammer. In fact, since there aren’t even any spacefaring orcs in Foundation, humankind is the most primitive society by default. But still. No orcs?

Who’d want to live in that kind of future?

Published on under It's a Man's World

Lea Coligado is a computer science student at Stanford University. She’s a woman, and she’s “floored” by the sexism in computer science. She’s the author of a piece in Fortune:

When I first came to Stanford in the fall of 2012, Computer Science was the last thing on my mind. I hail from a long line of doctors so naturally I was pre­med from the womb. On top of that, I had two years of high school experience being the only girl in an AP Computer Science course of 20 dudes—I had no intention of prolonging that experience. I started Stanford as an intended Biology major, enrolling in Stanford’s introductory Computer Science course CS106A only through peer pressure.

I loved CS106A so much I ended up taking a CS course every quarter my freshman year, and I declared my major in the fall of 2013. As I progressed further in my track, taking upper-level courses, I watched the number of girls in my CS classes slowly dwindle to the point that I could count 20 girls in a 100-­person class on a good day (and two of them would just turn out to be men with long hair). And I began noticing all the inklings of sexism, something I’d previously thought of as media folklore.

Having spent the latter half of 2014 watching in horror as online mobs hounded women in gaming (for having committed the unspeakable sin of being women), I’m surprised that Coligado is surprised. Men on the internet are awful to women on the internet; why wouldn’t they be marginally less awful in person? But on the other hand, it has to be a good sign that someone can make it to their second year in college before encountering sexism.

That being said, some of stuff she’s experienced is pretty astounding. My favorite is the “well, then I should have applied” guy. Maybe computer science isn’t much more full of sexism than other fields; maybe these guys are just socially tone-deaf. (Nah.)