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Against political analogies

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It’s a common and (on its face) rhetorical move: take something that’s happening now and map it onto the past. Better yet, take something atrocious that’s happening now and show how it maps onto something atrocious in the past, ideally affecting the very people who are now supporting the atrocities. “See?” this trope says: “what you’re doing to other people is exactly what was done to you.”

That’s the basic structure of “resistance genealogy,” as seen in clashes over immigration. “Tomi Lahren’s great-great-grandfather forged citizenship papers; Mike Pence’s family benefited from “chain migration”; James Woods’ ancestors fled famine and moved to Britain as refugees,” etc.

Rebecca Onion argues, convincingly, that this doesn’t work:

The chasm between the life and experiences of a white American, even one who’s descended from desperate immigrants of decades past, and the life of this Honduran mother is the entire point of racist anti-immigration thought. Diminishment of the human qualities of entering immigrants (“unskilled” and “unmodern” immigrants coming from “shithole” countries) reinforces the distance between the two. People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19th century will change your mind.

Besides underestimating racism, it flattens out history, and assumes that if people only knew more about patterns of historical racism, they might be convinced or at least shamed into changing how they talk about it. Everything we’ve seen suggests that isn’t the case.

I’m going to take this one step further and say this is a weakness in most resorts to historical and political analogies deployed as a tool to understand or persuade people about the present.

For example, consider Donald Trump saying, regarding immigrants trying to enter the United States, “these aren’t people, these are animals.” This is a disgusting thing to say and way to think — and not just because German Nazis and Rwandan perpetrators of genocide used similar language in a different context, and regardless of whether he was using it to refer to immigrants in general or members of a specific gang. It’s bad, it’s racist, it’s shitty, and you really don’t need the added leverage of the historical analogy in order to see why. But that leverage is tempting, because it shows off how much we know, it underlines the stakes, and it converts bad into ultra-bad.

This hurts me to say, because I love history and analogies both. But there’s a limit to how much they can tell us and how well they work. And playing “gotcha!” is usually well beyond the limits of both.

Tags: Donald Trump   history   politics
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2248 days ago
It's a good point.

The United States of Guns

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Like many of you, I read the news of a single person killing at least 10 people in Santa Fe, Texas today. While this is an outrageous and horrifying event, it isn’t surprising or shocking in any way in a country where more than 33,000 people die from gun violence each year.

America is a stuck in a Groundhog Day loop of gun violence. We’ll keep waking up, stuck in the same reality of oppression, carnage, and ruined lives until we can figure out how to effect meaningful change. I’ve collected some articles here about America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns, most of which I’ve shared before. Change is possible — there are good reasons to control the ownership of guns and control has a high likelihood of success — but how will our country find the political will to make it happen?

An armed society is not a free society:

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

We’re sacrificing America’s children to “our great god Gun”:

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains — “besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily — sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Roger Ebert on the media’s coverage of mass shootings:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Jill Lepore on the United States of Guns:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.

A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths:

The only guns that Japanese citizens can legally buy and use are shotguns and air rifles, and it’s not easy to do. The process is detailed in David Kopel’s landmark study on Japanese gun control, published in the 1993 Asia Pacific Law Review, still cited as current. (Kopel, no left-wing loony, is a member of the National Rifle Association and once wrote in National Review that looser gun control laws could have stopped Adolf Hitler.)

To get a gun in Japan, first, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once per month. You also must take and pass a shooting range class. Then, head over to a hospital for a mental test and drug test (Japan is unusual in that potential gun owners must affirmatively prove their mental fitness), which you’ll file with the police. Finally, pass a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups, and you will be the proud new owner of your shotgun or air rifle. Just don’t forget to provide police with documentation on the specific location of the gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. And remember to have the police inspect the gun once per year and to re-take the class and exam every three years.

Australia’s gun laws stopped mass shootings and reduced homicides, study finds:

From 1979 to 1996, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths was rising at 2.1% per year. Since then, the average annual rate of total non-firearm suicide and homicide deaths has been declining by 1.4%, with the researchers concluding there was no evidence of murderers moving to other methods, and that the same was true for suicide.

The average decline in total firearm deaths accelerated significantly, from a 3% decline annually before the reforms to a 5% decline afterwards, the study found.

In the 18 years to 1996, Australia experienced 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time, with the study defining a mass shooting as having at least five victims.

From The Onion, ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens:

At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

But America is not Australia or Japan. Dan Hodges said on Twitter a few years ago:

In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.

This can’t be the last word on guns in America. We have to do better than this for our children and everyone else whose lives are torn apart by guns. But right now, we are failing them miserably, and Hodges’ words ring with the awful truth that all those lives and our diminished freedom & equality are somehow worth it to the United States as a society.

Tags: USA   guns
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2219 days ago
Collection of articles about gun violence in America. I find especially interesting the idea that gun rights effectively lower the value of freedom of speech.
Texas, USA
2248 days ago
Lexington, KY; Naples, FL

GDPR Hysteria · Jacques Mattheij


In another week the GDPR, or the General Data Protection Regulation will become enforceable and it appears that unlike any other law to date this particular one has the interesting side effect of causing mass hysteria in the otherwise rational tech sector.

This post is an attempt to calm the nerves of those that feel that the(ir) world is about to come to an end, the important first principle when it comes to dealing with any laws, including this one is Don’t Panic. I’m aiming this post squarely at the owners of SME’s that are active on the world wide web and that feel overwhelmed by this development. A bit of background about myself: I’ve been involved in the M&A scene for about a decade, do technical due diligence for a living (together with a team of 8). This practice and my feeling that the battle for privacy on the web is one worth winning which has led me to study online privacy in some detail puts me in an excellent position to see the impact of this legislation first hand as well as how companies tend to deal with it.

First some context: Every company and every project or hobby ever has to be compliant with the law. Whether or not that is possible usually depends on what you are doing, your local legislative climate and, obviously, the law. So whether or not you are doing something for profit, as a hobby or making a few bucks on the side all the way up to a company doing billions in turnover with 10’s of thousands of employees does not matter. Compliance with the law is the norm. If you are doing business abroad then this means that you may have to be compliant with the laws of another country, and the web being as connected as it is this means there is a fairly high chance that your little domain will be impacted by the laws from multiple jurisdictions. For people from relatively insignificant (in terms of power in the rest of the world) countries this is not exactly news, they are already impacted by the laws from very powerful countries and so they are probably well adapted to this. For the inhabitants of large countries that so far have been able to ignore the laws of other places this is a new situation which may require some new level of understanding.

The easiest way to gain some of this understanding is to realize that you already have to be compliant with a lot of laws in order to be able to operate anything at all, even a lemonade stand comes with the following legal implications:

  • food safety laws

  • commercial operation laws

  • municipal laws

  • administrative laws

  • employment law

  • and possibly even others

So, nothing is really simple but one more law added to the pile is also not going to be the end of the world. Because this article is not aimed at large enterprises and because I am not a lawyer (yes, that’s one of those annoying disclaimers) this article is not written in legalese, but there will be some terms from the GDPR that I will not be able to get around. These terms will be defined when they are first used, a search with your favorite, GDPR compliant search engine will usually give you more context than I can put in this article.

The first thing you have to realize in coming to terms with the GDPR is that ‘one law fits all’. The GDPR was written as a law to repair the lack of adherence to its predecessor, the DPD, the European Data Privacy Directive, which has had the unfortunate shortcoming of being a directive rather than a regulation. The effect of this - and the lack of teeth - was that it was mostly ignored by businesses. This is a recurring theme in our collective history: first there will be room to self regulate, if that does not work there will be a directive and if all that fails then finally there will be a law with penalties in case of non compliance. As the sign on the maps on billboards all over the world says ‘You are here!’. Now - in exactly 7 days - we will have a law come into effect that has some serious teeth and that you will - for a change - not be able to ignore.

So what form does the panic take? I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of it but most of it revolves around the a fairly limited number of themes that I will try to address one by one from the perspective of a small business owner in order to reduce the emotional levels to something more manageable. Getting these fallacies out the way before going into more detail about the kind of impact the GDPR does have is productive because it will allow us to concentrate in more detail on what actually matters.

  • The GDPR is going to expose me to fines of up to 20 million Euros for even the slightest transgression

No, the GDPR has the potential to escalate to those levels but in the spirit of the good natured enforcers at the various data protection agencies in Europe they will first warn you with a notice that you are not in compliance with the law, give you some period of time to become compliant and will - if you ignore them - fine you. That fine will be proportional to the transgression. You can of course ignore the fine and then ‘all bets are off’ but if you pay the fine and become compliant you can consider the matter closed. The typical EU pattern in case of repeated transgressions on the same subject is increasing fines. This can get expensive quickly and most businesses tend to adjust their processes promptly once they have been fined the first time. The reason why I am sure this is the way it will go down is this is exactly how it has been done so far, every interaction with data protection authorities has followed the exact same pattern: warn, fine, increased fines. There are no known cases - though I’m willing to be surprised on this one, but none that I can find - where an entity was presented with a huge fine without first being given a chance to comply with the law.

Note that the 20 million Euros or 4% of global turnover is the maximum fine, the specific language is ‘a fine up to €20 million or up to 4% of the annual worldwide turnover of the preceding financial year in case of an enterprise, whichever is greater’, so that’s the maximum of the fine that’s being set by the 20 million or the 4%, and this bit is there to ensure that even the likes of Facebook and Google will not simply ignore the law and pay the fine to be able to continue as they have so far. This in no way should be read as you, the small business operator will face a fine of 20 million for each and every infraction that could be found.

  • The GDPR will enable anybody to be able to sue me, even from abroad

The GDPR does not have this effect, but you may be interested to know that anybody can sue you or your business for whatever reason strikes their fancy. This is a direct consequence of doing business and has nothing to do with a particular law. What the GDPR allows private individuals to do is to contact their regulators and to complain if you decide to ignore their requests. So if John Doe wants to have his data removed from your service and you tell him to get stuffed then John has the right to alert his regulator to the fact that you are probably not in compliance. If the data protection entity of John’s country feels the case has merit they will send you the letter mentioned above. If not you might never hear from them. The data protection authorities will function as a clearing house. If you feel this is selective enforcement then you should be happy about it for a change: by providing this clearing house function the burden of regulation will be substantially lower than it would be without and it will ensure that the public will not be able to use the GDPR to harass businesses, and they will allow the insertion of a bar to be met before action is taken.

  • Fines will land without warning and will be draconian

No, fines will be proportional and will only be levied after a chance to become compliant has been given. This has been the case in all other EU law regarding privacy to date, this one will not be any different. The EU regulators see their job as ensuring compliance, not as creating a source of income.

  • The GDPR will require me to deal with complaints/paperwork in 28 different languages

The text of the GDPR is available in English, a typical regulator will send you a notice in a language that you can understand. This goes for everything in the EU that has to do with the law, from traffic fines to copyright law and everything else. If the EU is good at dealing with something it is dealing with other languages. So the paperwork - if any - that you will receive will be in a language that you can read and if you can’t there will be an English translation available. Case in point: I got a parking ticket in Paris last year where my car was on the wrong side of the road on a particular day I’d parked there on Monday, apparently on Tuesday you have to park your car on the other side of the road and me being a stupid tourist I thought I was safe because everybody else parked there too. I received my ticket in the mail a few days later, with a French text, an English text, and - most surprising - a perfectly worded Dutch text complete with instructions on how to have myself represented in court if I wished to contest the fine and instructions for paying the fine if I did not want to contest it.

  • The GDPR will require me to hire people and my entity is too small to be able to afford this

No, the GDPR will require you to assign certain roles to ensure that someone is in charge of privacy related stuff.

  • Faceless bureaucrats will use the selective enforcement of the GDPR to stuff the coffers of the EU at the expense of foreign companies

The EU tends to use fines as a means of forcing a company into compliance. Companies that are large and that have large European holdings or that use the EU to avoid paying taxes rightly worry about this particular aspect, especially if they have constructed their business around massive databases of profiles on EU citizens. If this isn’t you then you can probably ignore this aspect of EU legislation. If you’re Mark Zuckerberg however I would definitely advise not to ignore this, however the chances of Mark reading this blog post are nil.

  • The EU is over-reaching here, as a foreigner I should be free to just comply with my local laws and ignore the rest

As soon as you do business abroad you will have to comply with the laws of those countries. That’s maybe not what you were hoping for but this has always been the case. For physical products there are all kinds of entities that ensure compliance with the laws of other countries including rules for manufacturing, transportation, storage, ingredients - all the way back to the source - and so on depending on the context and nature of your business. For online businesses this has never been any different for instance you have to comply with copyright law, laws on online gambling, the DMCA and lots of other laws that are essentially local in nature (though copyright laws were harmonized long ago to make this easier).

  • Processing all these end-user requests will be a huge burden

Then automate it. If you could automate the collection of the data in the first place then you definitely can automate the rest of the life cycle. There is no technical hurdle companies won’t jump through if it gets them juicy bits of data but as soon as the data needs to be removed we’re suddenly back in the stone age and some artisan with a chisel and hammer will have to jump into action to delete the records and this will take decades for even a small website. Such arguments are not made in good faith and in general make the person making them look pretty silly after all nobody ever complained about collecting data, in fact there are whole armies of programmers working hard to scrape data from public websites which is a lot more work than properly dealing with the life cycle of that data after it has been collected. So yes, it is a burden, no, the burden isn’t huge unless you expressly make it so but that’s your problem.

  • This law was sprung on us, there is absolutely no way I’m going to be prepared a week from now

The law has been in effect for over two years at this point, and the DPD, the European Data Protection Directive has been in effect for over two decades. So no, this law was not sprung on anybody, though it is very well possible that you only became aware of it a few weeks or months (or days?) ago. If that’s the case do not panic, you too will most likely be fine.

  • It is impossible to be compliant with this law

Well, this website is fully compliant with the law, so at least in this particular case it seems to work. Why? Because I don’t store any information about you. That’s a conscious choice on my part which I made long before the GDPR was even talked about in public. But if your situation is more complex then you too can be compliant, or at least - and this is key - you could try to be compliant. For instance, one oft heard argument is that no webserver (or even any internet service) is going be able to be compliant because all web servers log IP addresses, and IP addresses are PII. But that argument does not hold water. There are several reasons for that, the major ones being: webservers only log IP addresses if you configure them to do so. Almost all webservers have a formatting option that determines what exactly is logged and you could configure your webserver to not log the whole address but just the network portion. You also have the option to log the address and to disclose that you do so in your privacy policy, but then you will have to allow for the removal of that data on request, which you may find burdensome (or not, that depends on the volume of such requests). Finally, you may have a legitimate reason to log the IP address, provided you delete it after you are done with whatever use you collected it for in the first place. There is enough room in the GDPR to hold on to the address for 30 days with a possible extension of another 60 days after which an automated reply to the user can tell them their IP address was purged and you’d be in compliance. That’s one of the reasons why I think the GDPR is a surprisingly good law, most of the times when legislation is written that impacts technology the end result is absolutely unworkable, in this case most scenarios seem to work well for all parties involved.

  • Becoming compliant with this law will cause my business to go under

I’m terribly sorry to hear that. But consider this: this law was written with the express purpose to rein in some of the worst violations of the privacy of EU citizens during their online activities. If becoming compliant with the law will cause your business to go under that is more or less the same as saying that your business is built on gross privacy violations. So if that’s your business model then good riddance to you and your company. However if that is not your business model then most likely you will be just fine.

  • It’s not fair, I have no representation in the EU because I’m not from there, why should my company comply?

Because you wish to do business in the EU. For what it’s worth, there are plenty of laws that project across the borders of countries and harmonization of laws between countries means that people are not always aware of the fact that this is happening. The DMCA is a nice example. Besides that, privacy is a fairly hot topic and there is hope in privacy advocacy circles that the EU is lighting the way here and that other countries will likely follow its example.

The fact that you or your company do not have representation in the EU does not mean you get to ignore the law, if you could then that would mean an automatic disadvantage for others that do play by the rules. You ignore the law at your peril.

  • I don’t want to end up being arrested for GDPR violations when I go on a holiday in Europe (yes, I really saw that one)

This is so far fetched it is comical. The EU does not operate that way, and besides, why would you wilfully break the law and continue to do so after you have been made aware of this? I’ve yet to hear about a single individual that was lifted from their bed in a French bed and breakfast during their well deserved holiday, but maybe you’ll be the first. If it happens let me know and I’ll come visit you in jail, I might even throw some bucks towards your defense fund. (Apologies for the flippant tone in this section but it really irks me, the only case like this that I’m aware of was the USA arresting one David Carruthers of <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>.)

  • My business can not be compliant with this draconian and burdensome law

In that case please shut down or do not serve EU customers. But be aware that (1) you are leaving a nice opening for a competitor and (2) you are probably doing something you should not be doing in the first place, in which I would say the law is working as intended.

  • The law is so complicated, there is no way I could ever make sense of it

As laws come I was actually surprised by how easy it is to read it. It’s not particularly large, it uses mostly clear language and it usually (but critically, not always and this is a justified complaint) defines its terms. The biggest area where the lack of definition is annoying (but understandable) is when it comes to determining at what size company you need to take certain measures. I understand the complainers and I understand the lawmakers positions and this probably could have been handled in a more robust manner. But there are good reasons for doing it this way, as I hope to illustrate later.

  • I can’t afford the risks associated with this law so I am shutting down/I will lock Europeans out

Ok. Bye. But make sure you really understand those risks and please understand as well that it may not be possible for you to lock Europeans out reliably enough to not have any exposure under the law and realize that there are lots of other laws that you are also exposed to that could cause you to be wiped out. This law is really no different than any others in that respect. The price of using the web as a world stage is that you effectively are interacting with the legal domains of every country that you do business with.

  • I should be able to engage in a contract with my users that lets them opt out from this law so I can ignore it

For once the lawmakers saw what was coming and they actually repaired this before it became an issue. I suspect that the ‘cookie law’ debacle made them realise that companies have absolutely no scruples when it comes to things like this and will happily blackmail their users into consenting to something that they’d rather not consent to just to be able to participate in what is more and more unavoidable: online interaction.

  • For large companies the burden is manageable, for small companies it is too high

From what I’ve seen in my practice over the last couple of years the burden is roughly proportional to three things:

    - the amount of data you hold

    - the number of employees in your company

    - the kind of data you hold

In effect the burden of a large company holding vast amounts of sensitive data will likely be very large. The burden on a small company holding small amounts of non-sensitive data will be very low or even none.

  • Nobody knows what the GDPR really means

The text is readily available, it is true that there are no meaningful certification programmes as yet but in time these will be available. In some ways this is a pity because it would be nice to be able to say ‘We’re compliant because we have a stamp of approval from such and such a certification authority’ but at the same time the lack of certification requirements actually goes a long way towards reducing the burden on small companies.

Anyway, you get the gist by now. Each of these misconceptions is like dry tinder in the hands of those that wish to have a good old GDPR bonfire inciting others to panic as well and in general does not really contribute to the discussion. As a rule the statements are either made by well meaning people who have not really done their homework or they are done by people whose businesses depend on being able to violate other people’s privacy and they are hoping that by stoking this fire they will be able to turn the sentiment against the GDPR, to play politics. And as we all know we are in a fact-free environment when it comes to politics nowadays so anything goes. With that out of the way let’s look at some of the actual impact of the GDPR, at what level your exposure most likely is and how - according to me - the future will play out.

… to be continued, hopefully on Monday …

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All problems are not solved


There's an impression among some people that "deep learning" has brought computer algorithms to the point where there's nothing left to do but to work out the details of further applications. This reminds me of what has been described as Ludwig Wittgenstein's belief in the early 1920s that the development of formal logic and the "picture theory" of meaning in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus reduced the elucidation (or dissolution) of all philosophical questions to a sort of clerical procedure.

Several recent articles, in different ways, call into question this modern view that Deep Learning (i.e. complex networks of linear algebra with interspersed point nonlinearities, whose millions or billions of parameters are automatically learned from digital examples) is a philosopher's stone whose application solves all algorithmic problems. Two among many others: Gary Marcus, "Deep Learning: A Critical Appraisal", 1/2/2018; Michael Jordan, "Artificial Intelligence — The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet", Medium 4/19/2018.

And two upcoming talks describe some of the remaining problems in speech and language technology.

This afternoon here at Penn, Michael Picheny's title is "Speech Recognition: What's Left?", at 1:30 in Levine 307:

Recent speech recognition advances on the SWITCHBOARD corpus suggest that because of recent advances in Deep Learning, we now achieve Word Error Rates comparable to human listeners. Does this mean the speech recognition problem is solved and the community can move on to a different set of problems? In this talk, we examine speech recognition issues that still plague the community and compare and contrast them to what is known about human perception. We specifically highlight issues in accented speech, noisy/reverberant speech, speaking style, rapid adaptation to new domains, and multilingual speech recognition. We try to demonstrate that compared to human perception, there is still much room for improvement, so significant work in speech recognition research is still required from the community.

For one simple example of an area where further R&D is needed, see our earlier discussion of the First DIHARD Speech Diarization Challenge, where on some input categories the winning system performed quite badly indeed, with frame-wise error rates in the 50% range even when the speech-segment regions were specified:

(See here for a description of the 10 eval-set data sources.)

And on Wednesday, Richard Sproat will be talking in room 7102 at the CUNY Graduate Center on the topic "Neural models of text normalization for speech applications":

Speech applications such as text-to-speech (TTS) or automatic speech recognition (ASR), must not only know how to read ordinary words, but must also know how to read numbers, abbreviations, measure expressions, times, dates, and a whole range of other constructions that one frequently finds in written texts. The problem of dealing with such material is called text normalization. The traditional approach to this problem, and the one currently used in Google’s deployed TTS and ASR systems, involves large hand-constructed grammars, which are costly to develop and tricky to maintain. It would be nice if one could simply train a system from text paired with its verbalization. I will present our work on applying neural sequence-to-sequence RNN models to the problem of text normalization. Given sufficient training data, such models can achieve very high accuracy, but also tend to produce the occasional error — reading “kB” as “hectare”, misreading a long number such as “3,281” — that would be problematic in a real application. The most powerful method we have found to correct such errors is to use finite-state over-generating covering grammars at decoding time to guide the RNN away from “silly” readings: Such covering grammars can be learned from a very small amount of annotated data. The resulting system is thus a hybrid system, rather than a purely neural one, a purely neural approach being apparently impossible at present.

This reminds me of something that happened in the mid-1980s, during one of the earlier waves of pseudo-neural over-enthusiasm. I was then at Bell Labs, and had presented at some conference or another a paper on our approach to translating text into instructions for the synthesizer. What we used then was a hybrid of a hand-coded text normalization system, a large pronouncing dictionary, dictionary extensions via analogical processes like inflection and rhyming, and hand-coded grapheme-to-phoneme transduction (though no neural nets at that time). Richard Sproat might well have been a co-author. Afterwards, someone came up to me and asked why we were bothering with all that hand-coding, since neural nets could learn better solutions to all such problems with no human intervention, citing Terry Sejnowski's work on learning g2p rules using an early NN architecture (Sejnowski & Rosenberg, "NETtalk: a parallel network that learns to read aloud", JHU EECS Technical Report 1986).

I say that they "asked me", but "berated me" was more like it. My interlocutor's level of fervent conviction was like someone arguing about scientology, socialism, salvation, or grammatical theories  — it had been mathematically proved, after all, that a non-linear perceptron with one hidden layer could asymptotically learn any finite computable function, more or less, so to solve a problem in any other way was clearly a sort of moral failure. Against this level of conviction, it was no help at all to point out that NETtalk's performance was actually not very good.

Not long thereafter, I moderated a 1986 ACL "Forum on Connectionism" (which is what pseudo-neural computation used to be called), and I think that my "Moderator Statement" (pdf here) has actually stood up pretty well over the intervening 32 years.



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2247 days ago
2248 days ago
Washington, DC
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★ The End of Third-Party Twitter Clients?

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“Apps of a Feather” — a joint statement from the developers of several top third-party Twitter clients:

After August 16th, 2018, “streaming services” at Twitter will be removed. This means two things for third-party apps:

  1. Push notifications will no longer arrive
  2. Timelines won’t refresh automatically

If you use an app like Talon, Tweetbot, Tweetings, or Twitterrific, there is no way for its developer to fix these issues.

We are incredibly eager to update our apps. However, despite many requests for clarification and guidance, Twitter has not provided a way for us to recreate the lost functionality. We’ve been waiting for more than a year and have had one reprieve.

This antipathy to third-party clients is especially confounding considering that Twitter recently dropped support for their own native Mac client. As far as I’m aware, once this comes to pass next month, there will be no way to receive notifications of Twitter DMs on a Mac. None. (Twitter’s website doesn’t even support Safari’s desktop notification feature.) That’s just wacky.

Twitter management obviously wants to steer people to their first-party mobile app and desktop website. I get that. But they already have that: the overwhelming number of Twitter users use exactly those products to access the service. What Twitter management seems to be missing is that many of its most influential users — including yours truly, yes — have been on the platform a long time and have a high tendency to be among those who not just use, but depend upon third-party clients.

To me this is like finding out you’re now required to access email entirely through a web browser. Sure, lots of people already do it that way and either prefer it or think it’s eh, just fine, who cares — but a lot of others hate it and find it completely disruptive to longstanding workflows.

Twitter isn’t explicitly saying that they’re shutting down third-party clients, but I don’t know that it’s feasible for them to exist if they don’t have access to these APIs. It’s like breaking up with someone by being a jerk to them rather than telling them you’re breaking up.

I urge Twitter to reconsider this decision. Third-party clients account for a relatively small part of the Twitter ecosystem, but it’s an important one. Twitter may not care about a native Mac client, but the users of these apps, and the developers who make them, certainly do.

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2247 days ago
I've been drifting away from Twitter for months and this probably finishes things off.
2246 days ago
That's what I've been thinking as well: if they're determined to kill the platform, who am I to stop them?
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★ Users and Customers

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Fascinating, wide-ranging podcast interview (with an excellent transcript) between Vox’s Ezra Klein and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

Klein: One of the things that has been coming up a lot in the conversation is whether the business model of monetizing user attention is what is letting in a lot of these problems. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, gave an interview the other day and he was asked what he would do if he was in your shoes. He said, “I wouldn’t be in this situation,” and argued that Apple sells products to users, it doesn’t sell users to advertisers, and so it’s a sounder business model that doesn’t open itself to these problems.

Do you think part of the problem here is the business model where attention ends up dominating above all else, and so anything that can engage has powerful value within the ecosystem?

Zuckerberg: You know, I find that argument, that if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people. […]

But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less.” And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.

I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people. To the contrary, I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.

There is certainly something to Zuckerberg’s argument here, but the speciousness of the way he formulates it is that a company working hard to charge you more money is undeniably incentivized to care more about you, if you can afford their product or service. I think it’s undeniable that Apple cares more about the hundreds of millions of people who buy its products than Facebook cares about any of its billions of users.

The more apt Tim Cook quote that applies here is this long-standing internet adage: “When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” Amazon is undeniably focused on low prices. But Facebook doesn’t charge low prices — they charge high prices. To their customers: advertisers. And a cursory look at their financials indicates they’ve been working hard to raise those prices.

The linguistic trick Zuckerberg pulls here is that nowhere in the entire interview does he mention the words user or customer. He only says you (in the plural sense) and people. That’s a dodge, because unlike Apple — and Amazon — Facebook’s users are not its customers — and most of the controversies they are dealing with today all stem from the fact that they favored their customers (advertisers willing to pay ever-higher sums for ever-more-invasively-targeted ads) at the expense of their users.

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2294 days ago
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