Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Maciej Cegłowski is one of the best writers about the internet you can read. In April 2017, he gave a talk titled Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance that you should watch or read in its entirety. At base, the talk is about Surveillance Capitalism, which is the economic basis of the Internet. As Cegłowski puts it, “every interaction with a computing device leaves a data trail, and whole industries exist to consume this data.”

Here’s his bit about the advertising industry:

Ads are served indirectly, based on real-time auctions conducted when the page is served by a maze of intermediaries. This highly automated market is a magnet for fraud, so much of the complexity of modern ad technology consists of additional (and invasive) tracking.

Curiously, despite years of improvements in the technology, and the amount of user data available to the ad networks, online advertising isn’t targeted all that well. You can convince yourself of this by turning off your ad blocker for a week. In a recent example, Chase stopped serving ads to 95% of its websites and saw no measurable difference in ‘engagement’ metrics.

Many advertisers are simply not equipped to use the full panoply of surveillance options. More importantly, adversaries have become very good at gaming real-time ad marketplaces, which introduces noise into the system. An uncharitable but accurate description of online advertising in 2017 is “robots serving ads to robots”. A considerable fraction (only Google and Facebook have the numbers) of the money sloshing around goes to scammers.

So robots bid against one another for the right to show ads on pages, and other robots visit pages with ads to drive up the value of the pages with ads on them in the first place. Of all of humanity’s creations, this quasi-ecosystem has to be one of the most baffling.

As an aside, even the biggest and ostensibly best surveillance companies still haven’t gotten the hang of this stuff. Facebook recently showed me that three of my friends had recently visited New York City, and encouraged me to visit New York City as well. Somehow, Facebook’s system failed to account for the fact that all three of those friends—not to mention myself—live in New York City.

That’s not to say that this demonstrates Facebook is somehow lousy at surveillance. This is just a funny outlier in the midst of surveillance so scary-good that it’s hard to say with certainty that Facebook isn’t listening to the conversations you have in front of your phone. Heck, IBM’s Watson answered a Jeopardy question in the “U.S. Cities” category with “Toronto” en route to crushing its human competitors. The more capable these systems get, the funnier the outliers.

But Also

The outliers serve a second purpose, according to Cegłowski. This is one of his best arguments:

The relative ineffectiveness of targeted advertising creates pressure to collect more data. Ad networks are not just evaluated by their current ad revenue, but by expectations about what new ad formats will make possible in the future, in a dynamic I’ve called “investor storytime”. The more poorly current ads perform, the more room there is to tell convincing stories about future advertising technology, which of course will require new forms of surveillance.

This trick of constantly selling the next version of the ad economy works because new ad formats really do have better engagement. Advertising is like a disease: it takes people time to develop immunity and resistance. Even the first banner ad had a 70% click through rate.

So long as advertising is the economic engine of the internet, the march toward ever more invasive surveillance technologies and ever creepier ads is inexorable. ​Toward that end, Cegłowski shares some meditations on what might make the ads of the future creepy in a way that’s hard to really wrap your head around. Advertising will be powered by artificial intelligences, but AIs are inherently alien, mostly because we don’t understand enough about brains to be able to reinvent them.

In the past, we assumed that when machines reached near-human performance in tasks like image recognition, it would be thanks to fundamental breakthroughs into the nature of cognition. We would be able to lift the lid on the human mind and see all the little gears turning.

What’s happened instead is odd. We found a way to get terrific results by combining fairly simple math with enormous data sets. But this discovery did not advance our understanding. The mathematical techniques used in machine learning don’t have a complex, intelligible internal structure we can reason about. Like our brains, they are a wild, interconnected tangle.

The result is that the algorithms that decide what we see (ads and contents) are smarter than us in some ways, and dangerously unfit to decide how to filter the word for us in other ways. The future’s going to be weird!

Published on under Gazing Into the Abyss

One of my favorite series on the Lawyers, Guns & Money blog is Abigail Nussbaum’s Political History of the Future, in which she analyzes the politics of science fiction settings. This bit from her essay on Iain M. Banks’s The Culture series is a wonderful introduction to something like Star Trek’s Federation, but simultaneously weirder and more realistic:

The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as “Minds”) who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale.

What’s more, the Culture’s covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.

​Nussbaum’s personal blog has a decade-long series of reviews of the individual books in The Culture series, if you’re already familiar with the setting.

Either way, don’t skip the link to the list of names which The Culture’s Minds give their spaceships. Whether or not superintelligent AIs are going to destroy humanity, I hope they have the decency to be as irreverent as the Minds are.

Published on under Unfortunate Conflict Of Evidence

Rachel Louise Snyder in the New Yorker last month, writing about The Trial of Noor Salman and Its Shocking Disregard for Survivors of Domestic Violence left me pretty rattled. If you’re unaware, Salman is the widow of the guy who murdered forty-nine people at the Pulse Nightclub in Miami in 2016. When Salman was initially arrested and questioned on suspicion of being an accomplice, her husband—who domestically abused her—was alive. But over the course of her twelve-hour interrogation, the F.B.I. let her know he’d been shot dead by the police.

Salman entered the F.B.I. office believing herself the wife of an abuser, and learned that she was a widow. Suddenly, she no longer lived under the authoritarian rule of a man who watched grisly beheading videos on his phone while at work. Salman’s defense attorneys used very little of her history of abuse in their arguments, because the larger point for them was to convince jurors that she did not know of his plans before the attack unfolded. But from my viewpoint her victimhood was both entirely pertinent and shockingly disregarded by both the F.B.I. investigators and, later, by the federal prosecutors who chose to put her on trial.

Law-enforcement officials are not always familiar with the control that abusers have over their victims. They frequently encounter the following scenario: responders are called to a scene of domestic violence in a home. When they arrive, often to their dismay and annoyance, the victim begins to scream at them to go away, to tell them they aren’t wanted, even to holler obscenities at them. This happens even when a victim’s physical injuries—black eyes, bloody wounds—are obvious. Police often interpret this behavior as evidence that the victim is mentally or emotionally unstable. But this behavior is a message not to law enforcement, but to the abuser. It says, “I know you will be here when they are gone. I am loyal even in the face of your violence.” It says, “Please don’t kill me when they are gone.”

This left a crater in my heart. Ignorance is bliss, y’all.

Published on under A smoking, dusty crater

Kathryn Tolbert in the Washington Post: He searched for his Japanese birth mother. He found her — and the restaurant she had named after him.

It began with a heart attack in the Pentagon parking lot in pre-dawn darkness. Air Force Col. Bruce Hollywood was on his way to work and found himself on the ground, thinking: “This is where it ends.” It took that heart attack in 2005 for Hollywood to set out to find his birth mother, something his adoptive mother, who had passed away, had repeatedly encouraged him to do. Before that, he said, he never felt something was missing. His adoption was not something he had reflected on much.

I’m not giving anything away here, because the headline spoils the ending, but this part toward the end is unbearably cute.

On that first visit, she didn’t want to let him out of her sight. When he went for a run, he came back and found her frantic with worry. The next morning, he snuck downstairs at 5 a.m. to go running, only to find her waiting, dressed in a track suit. Okay, he thought, I’ll go for a walk. She said, no, you run. And she rode a bicycle behind him. That became their morning ritual during the visit.

I mean, come on. ​

Published on under I’m not crying you’re crying

The New Yorker’s Ben Taub has an amazing story in the New Yorker about a former CIA counterterrorism expert who joined his hometown police force. The spy turned cop’s name is Patrick Skinner, and he provides the story’s first and best pull quote: “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah. Just look what happened in Fallujah.”

The story bounces back and forth from Skinner’s career in the CIA to his time patrolling the beat in Savannah, Georgia. I appreciate his take on the mismanagement of the War on Terror, but it’s Skinner’s views on the responsibility of police officers that really gets me. Here’s a bit toward the end, immediately after Officer Skinner uses his patrol car to drive a homeless woman to a Waffle House and buys her a hot meal:

Back in the car, Skinner explained that part of his motivation in helping Norma Jeane was to prevent an emergency call, three hours later, of a homeless woman freezing to death. “Think of all the shit that went wrong in this country for Norma Jeane to be sitting in the car with us,” he said. Although schizophrenia affects a little more than one per cent of Americans, it’s a factor in a high percentage of police calls. A few hours earlier, Skinner had checked on a schizophrenic man who calls the police multiple times each night, reporting paranoid hallucinations; the department can never ignore a call, because he is the legal owner of a .357 Magnum revolver, and officers told me that he once tried to execute an intruder in his front yard. At times, Skinner feels as if the role of a police officer were to pick up the pieces of “something that has broken in every single possible way.”

“A huge amount of what police actually do is support and service and problem-solving,” [one of the nation’s leading criminologists] David M. Kennedy told me. “And part of what’s so inside out is that most of that activity is not recognized.” Police officers are increasingly filling the gaps of a broken state. “They do it essentially on their own, usually without adequate training and preparation, often without the skills they need, and overwhelmingly without the resources and institutional connections that it would take to do those things well.”

Twenty-seven hours after we left Norma Jeane at the Waffle House, another cop radioed in an E.M.S. call. A fifty-nine-year-old homeless woman, dressed in a Santa hat and a leopard-print jacket, was freezing to death.

Read the rest of ​The Spy Who Came Home.

Published on under Winning Hearts and Minds, But For Real

Nick Kapur in Deadspin rounds up The Stories Behind China’s Best NBA Nicknames:

At their best, Chinese nicknames always seem to combine both affection and shade, producing monikers that both fans and haters can get behind. Thus Charles Barkley is called a fat pig, but he’s a flying fat pig (飞猪)—high praise, since the character for “flying” normally is reserved for players who take their game above the rim. It’s also a pun, since the character for “flying” sounds similar to the Chinese word for “fat.” Similarly, Joel Embiid is “the Great” (大帝), but there’s a hint of sarcasm that maybe his greatness is self-appointed and not yet earned. Manu Ginobili is “The Demon Blade” (妖刀), which sounds (and is) awesome, but of course in Chinese martial arts fiction, blades possessed by demons, while powerful and devastating to opponents, often have the propensity turn back against their owners at crucial moments.

The whole list is fantastic, but I’m particularly fond of the fondness for the Mamba nicknames. Famous basketball man Kobe Bryant nicknamed himself “Black Mamba” after the snakes that he claims “strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession.” These mambas are… not that:

Eric Gordon is called “Round Face Gordon” (圆脸登) because his face is seemingly a perfect circle. A similar nickname is “Pi Mamba” (π曼巴), suggesting his face is such a perfect circle it can be used to accurately calculate the value of pi.

Ryan Anderson is the “Standing Around Mamba” (站曼巴), because people feel he just stands around behind the three-point line, waiting for a catch-and-shoot pass.

I could definitely be a Standing Around Mamba, minus the whole “catch the pass” part, or the “shoot the ball” part.

Published on under They call me king dork mamba