Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under The News

There’s a great big lawsuit in front of the Supreme Court next month. Actually, they’re all big. The one I’m thinking of is King v. Burwell, and it’s yet another lawsuit over the Constitutionality of Obamacare (née the Affordable Care Act). There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the law, and litigation over the hand-wringing, and then hand-wringing over the litigation. Boy, isn’t the 21st century great?

In the King lawsuit, the plaintiffs say the government is breaking its own law. Currently, states which didn’t create a web site for their residents to buy health insurance use the federal web site, (It turns out squatters got the – just another example of incompetence in federal IT practices.) The plaintiffs in King argue that the law says people in states using the federal site don’t get subsidized insurance; only people in states that have their own insurance site get discounts.

Put simply, they’re wrong and it’s kind of absurd that anyone takes this claim seriously.

Published on under Educated Guesses

Among philosophers of the mind, there seems to be no consensus about what precisely consciousness means. What does it mean for a human brain to perceive itself perceiving other things? How do we do it? What about our brain creates this phenomenon? Why does it apparently only happen to us? For decades, scientists have worked to create artificial intelligence – a machine that is aware and that thinks – and we’re not even sure what the “organic” version means. (Also, science has made just about zero progress in the last 50 years, so these philosophers have plenty of time.)

Oliver Burkeman has a great article describing what some call The Hard Problem: “why are we awake?” We talk, we listen, we run, we laugh, etc. We can program machines to do all of these things, and the machine isn’t conscious. Why do we feel something? Why does listening to someone you love call your name make you feel? Why aren’t we just squishy pink robots?

This is The Hard Problem in a nutshell, and philosophers answer it in a typically philosophical way; by dividing into schools:

Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by [David] Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat.

Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. […]

Meanwhile, in the “no but seriously come on, consciousness is a thing and it’s not just a trick your mind plays on itself – if there’s no consciousness, then who is there to play a trick upon” crowd:

To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. […] It’s like asserting that cancer doesn’t exist, then claiming you’ve cured cancer; more than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away. Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do.

When physicists first concluded that the only difference between gold and silver was the number of subatomic particles in their atoms, he writes, people could have felt cheated, complaining that their special “goldness” and “silveriness” had been explained away. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Well, that started as “the other camp,” but then Dennett gets some more shots in, because he’s Dennett and he’s good at that.

The whole article is worth a read. You can program a robot to jerk its hand away from scalding water, just like humans learn to do. We feel fear, or panic, or a rush, or something when we get that close to scalding water. Does the robot feel anything? Is that why its program works? Is that why our program works?

Consider the following, from Burkeman’s article:

…occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. In the 1970s, at what was then the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz encountered a patient, known as “DB”, with a blind spot in his left visual field, caused by brain damage. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal.

Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. But Weiskrantz insisted that he guess the answers anyway – and DB got them right almost 90% of the time. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness.

Clearly, like DB, we’re not seeing the whole picture here.

Are these emotions and feelings and the general experience of consciousness simply the way an operating system calls functions on a squishy pink robot? One of the world’s leading neuroscientists says that it’s not impossible that his iPhone has feelings. It depends what we mean by feelings, isn’t it?

This stuff is so absolutely fascinating. I wonder if we won’t have a good answer until we just build a brain ourselves and figure out what pieces we left out.

Bonus: once you’ve clicked the two links in the intro paragraph about what it is to be a human brain, and why scientists haven’t made any progress in building one, learn what happens when you short-circuit the brain with weird drugs.

Published on under It's a Man's World

Jezebel’s Anna Merlan wrote a story last week that I’m frankly tired of reading. It’s cliché, it’s filled with tropes, and most of the characters are shallow and impossibly unsympathetic. Worst of all, it’s derivative! I’ve heard this story before. Someone needs to feed this lady a new prompt, because I… yeah. Okay.

Turns out that she wrote a nonfiction piece about a problem that seems to keep happening.

The tale begins when Merlan wrote a blog post calling 4chan a bunch of trolls. To prove her wrong, they started doing what they do to women on the internet. They harassed her. A lot. She writes about her harassment in a piece that’s easy to read but hard to stomach.

She takes time out to note that what happened to her probably isn’t the worst thing that 4chan trolls have done, by briefly highlighting some celebrated incidents of this kind of behavior. For instance, Merlan notes that they:

mocked the family of a kid who’d committed suicide, sometimes calling his parents pretending to be him and taunting them: “Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?”

Oh, so it’s going to be one of those kinds of stories. Well then.

Published on under The Digital Age

President Obama was interviewed by some YouTube celebrities shortly after his State of the Union address. This was a little unusual, because he doesn’t usually appear on shows which end with the words “please share, like, and subscribe.”

These people don’t necessarily have educational shows; they aren’t journalists in any traditional sense of the word. One of them is a comedian as much as she is anything else. You can tell because one time she made a video of herself in a bathtub with cereal as a gag, and traditional media seems to have labeled her “the cereal lady.” Quaint and not reductive at all, guys.

One of the other YouTube celebrities, a guy named Hank Green, summed up his experience in a wonderful post on Medium called Holy Shit, I Interviewed the President. My favorite part is when he laughs at members of the traditional news, most of whom were laughing at the idea that the president would give an interview to kids on the internet.

“Legacy media isn’t mocking us because we aren’t a legitimate source of information, they’re mocking us because they’re terrified. Their legitimacy came from the fact that they have access to distribution channels and that they get to be in the White House press pool because of some long-ago established procedures that assumed they would use that power in the public interest. But those things are becoming less and less important and less and less true. Distribution is free to anyone with a cell phone and the legitimacy of cable news sounds to me like an oxymoron. The median-aged CNN viewer is 60. For Fox, it’s 68.

The Fox/MSNBC idiot machine is degrading a generation’s opinion of all news media. They watch John Stewart make fun of Fox News and they think “That’s what ‘news’ is” so they just disengage. This isn’t just bad for journalism, it’s bad for America. I might venture to say that it’s terrible and dangerous and frightening for America. How does a democracy function with no credible system for informing its citizens?”

Green’s account of his experience interviewing the president is charming and worth reading. He’s a skilled entertainer, which is why he has 2.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. His most popular videos have tens of millions of views.

His articulation of the media landscape’s generational schism is absolutely fantastic, and you have to read it. I think these sorts of differences mirror our extant generational divides in politics, foods, sports, and probably literally everything else. I’m sure people in the 1930s were aghast at how radio dumbed down the news; events were read aloud instead of printed on the world’s first mass medium, movable type. Heck, Socrates hated books centuries before the printing press was invented. Hand-copied texts were too mass medium for him.

Now we’re at the mass medium that supplanted the mass medium that supplanted the printing press which supplanted the hand-copied texts. We’re at YouTube. And look at Hank Green: at 2.5 million subscribers, his is an audience larger than virtually every cable news show. That Anderson Cooper guy? That Rachel Maddow lady? Sean Hannity? Add their ratings up and you’re close to this guy’s audience. That’s bonkers.

The information age has raised the exposure for publishing in a mass medium by an order of magnitude, while simultaneously lowering the barrier to entry to nearly zero. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Published on under Not The Onion

As a nation, we’ve decided that school shootings are bad, but not bad enough to effect anything approaching gun control. In light of this, schools have to take certain drastic measures. For example, some are considering using bulletproof blankets to protect students from the guns we can’t seem to keep out of schools. And just about every school in the nation has banned toy guns, no matter how obviously fake they are.

In that spirit, nine-year old Aiden Steward should have known better before he brought to school a replica of one of the deadliest instruments known to man:

There’s something to be said about the One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Ring series: it’s powerful enough to get a nine-year-old student sent home from school. Aiden Steward brought a toy version of the magical ring to school after watching the film version of most recent Hobbit film with his parents, telling a fellow student he could make him disappear with the ring. Aiden was promptly sent home.

This is your typical silly fluff news story that doesn’t merit even clicking the headline in the tweet. Except for the quote from Aiden’s father:

“I assure you, my son lacks the magical powers necessary to threaten his friend’s existence,” Aiden’s father Jason Steward said in an email to the school. “If he did, I’m sure he’d bring him right back.” He said the principal of Kermit Elementary, Roxanne Greer, said no threats would be tolerated by the school, magical or otherwise.

Simply beautiful.

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things

In my day job, I work with open data and government transparency. Government officials aren’t always super enthusiastic about putting their data online. In 2014, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers surveyed its members to determine the three biggest barriers to open data were.

The most common answers were, in order:

  1. Agencies unwilling to open data. (53%)
  2. Poor-quality data unfit for public. (49%)
  3. No reliable funding for open data. (33%)

I can tell you a big concern for particularly meaningful information is also “could this be used to embarrass us?” Agencies don’t want to publish how long it takes them to respond to Freedom of Information Law requests, because they miss the statutory deadline often, and it might make them look bad. (You say “bad,” I say “criminally underfunded – seriously increase budgets for records access.”)

In Chicago, the answer is yes. The local paper has caught the city red-handed… plowing a street with an important Alderman’s house faster than some other streets where Aldermen(?) don’t live.

The stretch of West 51st Street is far from Chicago’s busiest road, carrying only two lanes of traffic and dead-ending before Pulaski and the CTA’s Orange Line tracks. Still, the 3900 block of 51st got lots of attention from city snow-removal crews during and after last weekend’s intense winter storm.

The plows pushed through the block as early as 6:48 a.m. on Sunday and again at 10:31 p.m. that day. They returned two times Monday and gave a fifth sweep on Tuesday morning, according to city Plow Tracker data gleaned by

You see, 51st is where you’ll find the 5,600-square-foot home of the City Council’s longest-serving and most-powerful member, Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke, and his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

Seriously, guys? Your government has one of the top municipal open data portals in the country, and you’re F5ing the snowplow tracker to keep your government honest? Really? We’ve settled all other issues of civic accountability and transparency? This is the last possible transgression against a perfectly democractic republic we have left?

Look, you don’t have to confine yourself to effusive praise for all Official State Data Sets, but this kind of inanity wastes everyone’s time. There are ways to be constructive about government open data, and ways to churn out pointless clickbait. This is just shameless.