Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Electorate Clapping on the One and Three

Jamelle Bouie on The War for a White Electorate in Slate:

Even if you blocked all immigration to the United States and removed millions of naturalized citizens, existing trends make demographic change inevitable. At some point in the not-distant future, a majority of Americans will be of black, Hispanic, and Asian origin. But there’s a difference between a nation’s population and its electorate—its share of people who can exercise the full rights and privileges of citizenship. Republicans realize this, and are trying—at every level of government—to reverse-engineer a white electorate large enough to secure their own power, and along with it, the existing hierarchy of class and race.

Donald Trump is a major part of this story. But as with all things Trump, it would be wrong to treat this project as unique to him and his administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House adviser Stephen Miller, as well as former advisers Stephen Bannon and Michael Anton, are unusually driven in their commitment to a racial vision of the American state: Sessions once praised the nativist 1924 Immigration Act, and Anton, writing under a pseudonym, once warned that the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners” would mean a “less traditionally American” electorate. But they are also largely in line with a broader Republican politics that’s become reliant on the revanchist anger of a white minority. Supercharged in reaction to Barack Obama, that motivated minority of the electorate delivered a House majority in 2010, a Senate majority in 2014, and brought unified GOP control to state governments across the country.”

Read this one together with Matt Yglesias’s piece for Vox on normcore politics. Even if Trump resigned today, there are plenty of other people in the Republican Party who’d carry on this work.

Published on under Algorithm and Blues

Research scientist Janelle Shane writes a blog called AI Weirdness, examining how artificial intelligence isn’t always so intelligent. Here’s a post on what happens When algorithms surprise us:

Something as apparently benign as a list-sorting algorithm could also solve problems in rather innocently sinister ways.

Well, it’s not unsorted: For example, there was an algorithm that was supposed to sort a list of numbers. Instead, it learned to delete the list, so that it was no longer technically unsorted.

Solving the Kobayashi Maru test: Another algorithm was supposed to minimize the difference between its own answers and the correct answers. It found where the answers were stored and deleted them, so it would get a perfect score.

How to win at tic-tac-toe: In another beautiful example, in 1997 some programmers built algorithms that could play tic-tac-toe remotely against each other on an infinitely large board. One programmer, rather than designing their algorithm’s strategy, let it evolve its own approach. Surprisingly, the algorithm suddenly began winning all its games. It turned out that the algorithm’s strategy was to place its move very, very far away, so that when its opponent’s computer tried to simulate the new greatly-expanded board, the huge gameboard would cause it to run out of memory and crash, forfeiting the game.

To paraphrase friend of the blog James Grimmelmann, I’m not worried about humanity being killed off by a super intelligent AI, I’m worried about us being killed off by a dumb AI that just has a lot of resources at its disposal.

Published on under but please feed the hulks

Film Crit Hulk wrote an article for The Verge called “Don’t feed the trolls, and other hideous lies,” and it’s excellent from start to finish. Here are a couple of my favorite bits:

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now so large that they are considered “unmoderatable” communities. We like to pretend this was a pure facet of their size, but it is inescapably a part of their ethos. They are platforms forged in the fires of troll culture, founded and operated by techno-libertarians who didn’t understand why they had to care about any of this. They set out with no intention to moderate at all. Zuckerberg just wanted to rate hot girls, after all. But in 2018, the staggering effects of non-moderation are just starting to hit them, and they have little idea how to address or even intellectually engage with the idea. […]

It all harkens back to Cliff Pervocracy’s analogy of the “missing stair,” where everyone works around the obvious dangers of a situation because they are so used to “dealing with it” by outright ignoring it. If someone speaks up about the danger, they are dismissed. Why complain when you can “just hop over” the missing stair? But on a systemic level, it all adds up to something so much more than a mere missing stair. For many people on the internet — especially women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community — it is an entire broken staircase, full of loose nails, jutting floorboards, and impossible leaps. And there are so many others who don’t notice it because they either get to use the elevator or are already on the top floor.

​That second paragraph is a really nice and succinct explanation of why I’ve always had pretty good success ignoring the trolls: because I’ve had a pretty comprehensive set of privileges going for me. Most of that didn’t really dawn on me until sometime around the worst of Gamergate. Guys like me were making fun of Nerds Angry About Girls In Video Games, but we never seemed to catch a lot of flak, especially not compared to what women saying the same thing caught.

It definitely strikes me as weird that big tech platforms just abandoned the idea of moderating their platform at all. I guess that says more about the kinds of people who can afford to start a company in their dorm room than it says about the users, but at least the users can get some better advice than “don’t feed the trolls.”

Published on under Tales of The Mueller, Vol. XI

Today, Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s team of attorneys filed an indictment against twelve Russian nationals in a US District Court. This is the Special Counsel’s third indictment with Russian defendants; because Russia does not extradite its nationals to the US, it’s vanishingly unlikely any of these folks will see the inside of a jail cell or even a courtroom.

You’ll remember that in February 2018, the Special Counsel indicted three Russian companies and thirteen Russian nationals for “violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes.” Today’s indictment is different because these defendants weren’t stirring up Twitter drama and committing a little light wire fraud. The July 2018 defendants are all members of Russian military intelligence services with the GRU. The indictment provides their names, ranks, workplace locations, and a couple of fun surprises.

Things that jumped out at me

The Russians spearphished dozens of Clinton campaign staffers starting in March 2016 and continuing through July 2016. (¶21) The story of how John Podesta’s emails were hacked has been fairly widely reported for a while now. But what hasn’t been widely reported, and what’s the first big bombshell in this indictment, is that on the night of July 27, 2016, the Russians attempted for the first time to spearfish email accounts at Clinton’s personal email provider. (¶22) Up until July 27, the Russians were hacking into DCCC and DNC work email accounts. But July 27 was the day of Candidate Trump’s ”Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you find those 30,000 emails” press conference. You should be losing your mind over this.

Katy Tur, NBC’s reporter embedded with the Trump campaign at that press conference, remembered that line today:

Trump and his campaign tried to claim he was kidding. He was not. At that same press conference, minutes later, I asked if it gave him “pause” to ask a foreign government to hack into the emails of any American citizen. He said no and then accused me of trying to “save” Clinton.

Joking or not (hint: he wasn’t), Trump made a request to Russian military intelligence officers, who did their best to fulfill that request hours later. That’s absolutely flabbergasting, and it’s going to get worse before we’re done here.

Published on under You're a wizard, Andy

The New Yorker’s mandatory long read on the new president of New York City Transit: Can Andy Byford Save the Subways? leaves me feeling more hopeful about the future of the subway than I have in a long time. There are too many fascinating tidbits to choose from, but this bit about a press conference at a railyard really works for me on a couple of levels:

Byford caught a 4 train at Bowling Green and then switched to the Coney Island-bound D. It was a swift, on-time ride on relatively clean trains. Byford, who often points out that most subway trips are successful and therefore forgettable, stood in a half-empty car and considered his position. “I need the Governor’s confidence that I will turn things around,” he said. “I sense the crest of my honeymoon period. It’s a gut feeling—a bit like political antennae. If I ignore it, I always regret it.”

[New York State’s Governor Andrew] Cuomo arrived, with his aides, in black S.U.V.s. Trackside, he greeted Byford warmly. The Governor, wearing pale chinos and a dark windbreaker, watched a worker demonstrate the magnetic wand, then squatted and ran the instrument under a rail flange himself. With news cameras recording the action, he came up, triumphantly, with a wandful of metal filings.

Published on under I'm more into post-synthwave now anyway

Vox’s Matt Yglesias has a new piece on the limits of normcore politics. It’s a warning to liberals that Donald Trump isn’t necessarily a disease that America needs to resist at all costs, but he might be a symptom of an underlying issue. In Yglesias’s view, “normcore” politics incorrectly assumes Trump is some wild aberration that popped up more or less out of nowhere, and we need to get back to “normal.” But he makes a pretty persuasive argument that “normal” wasn’t that great anyway:

The failings of normcore politics start with a somewhat blinkered and romantic view of American history which, as Ezra Klein recently argued in his review of much of the democratic crisis literature, is actually quite ugly. The country was founded on the brutal genocide and dispossession of its native population, relied on chattel slavery as a cornerstone of its economic development, fought a deadly civil war, had the outcome of that war challenged by a largely successful campaign of terrorist violence, and by the 1940s was locking up the Japanese-American population in internment camps.

That second sentence is one of the most succinct appraisals of America’s biggest moral failings since before our inception. It’s not strictly relevant to Yglesias’s argument, I just found that bit an impressive bit of wordsmithing.

Here’s the really persuasive thrust of his argument, though:

Consider, for example, the hardball saga of the “Blue Slip Rule”:

  • Up through 1994 or so there was a tradition in the United States Senate that a judicial nomination could not be brought to the floor unless the nominee received at least one “blue slip” — i.e., favorable recommendation — from a home-state senator.
  • Then in 1995, Republicans won control of the Senate and changed the principle to require two blue slips to advance a judicial nominee, which made it easier to block Bill Clinton’s appointees.
  • In 2001, George W. Bush became president, so they changed the rule back to one blue slip. Jim Jeffords’s defection then gave Democrats control of the Senate, so they moved back to two blue slips to make it easier to block his judges.
  • The two slip rule, critically, remained in effect as long as Democrats controlled the Senate even once Barack Obama took over as president — with Democrats choosing to uphold a senatorial courtesy over partisan advantage.
  • Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2015 and, of course, not only kept the two slip rule in place but basically stopped confirming judges altogether — up to and including holding a Supreme Court seat vacant.
  • When Trump took office, he filled the Supreme Court vacancy with Neil Gorsuch and the GOP swiftly went back to a one blue slip standard, until this May when they broke the seal on confirming judges who had zero blue slips.
  • These shenanigans have profoundly shaped the federal judiciary over the past quarter-century, a period of time during which the courts also handed an election to Bush, dismantled much of federal campaign finance legislation and the Voting Rights Act, and acted to make it virtually impossible to successfully prosecute political corruption cases and a wide array of other white collar crimes to boot.

It’s not just the judiciary.

Democrats aren’t entirely innocent in the ratcheting up of tensions that provide the backdrop for eroding norms. But it’s pretty clear that there’s been a systematic problem with “normal” for decades, and even if Trump were impeached tomorrow, we wouldn’t suddenly exist in a Golden Age of democracy. There might never have been one.