Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Mathematical values

As with so many things, writing about Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O'Neill feels a different, less hopeful, project since the November election.

O'Neill is a math scientist, a former financial markets quant, who took her unease to Occupy Wall Street. In this book she explicates what she calls the "the dark side of Big Data." What she calls "WMD" are the algorithms that have so much impact, whether we know it or not, on how we live. Separate chapters delve into how US News generated simple and rather stupid scores that higher education institutions game for prestige and cash, how courts use unscientific predictions of possible recidivism rates to decide criminal sentences, how companies sort job applicants mathematically and then monitor the work they do once they are hired, how credit and insurance decisions are governed by algorithmic ratings, and how politicians use data to influence voters. Over the last fifteen years, the sophistication of all these systems has increased so much as to almost exclude any human judgement in their day-to-day operations. Your life and mine is hedged in by mathematical models from which there is little, if any, appeal.

And yet, this is not a Luddite book, a tract denouncing the systems that give us so much we want and perhaps need, as well as dehumanizing and controlling us. She knows that going backward is impossible. Given the choice between Facebook and no internet, streaming entertainment and network television, Amazon's universe of consumer choices and the department store at the mall, we know what human beings will choose. She insists that, with WMDs,

... the heart of the problem is almost always the objective. Change that objective from leeching off people to helping them, and a WMD is disarmed -- and can even become a force for good.

O'Neill is terribly clear why, structurally as well as because of bad intentions, it is hard to embed humane objectives within algorithms.

... human beings learn and adapt, we change, and so do our processes. Automated systems, by contrast, stay stuck in time until engineers dive in to change them. If a Big Data college application model had established itself in the early 1960s, we still wouldn't have many women going to college. ...

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that's something only human can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes that will mean putting fairness ahead of profit. ...

What does she think can be done? She harks back to state and federal regulation from the early 20th century forward that, partially, guaranteed health and safety of goods and services, despite costing corporations some of their bottom line. (We know the corporations often responded by offshoring their worse goods and practices, but that's the next phase.) She calls on math scientists to develop their own ethical code for their creations. And, ultimately, she looks to law to inject values into applied mathematics -- and insists this could happen. Algorithms should be subject to human auditing of their ethical implications. She reports hopeful initiatives.

Movements toward auditing algorithms are already afoot. At Princeton, for example, researchers have launched the Web Transparency and Accountability Project. ... Academic support for these initiatives is crucial. ... If you consider mathematical models as the engines of the digital economy -- and in many ways they are -- these auditors are opening the hood and showing us how they work.

... Finally, models that have a significant impact on our lives ... should be open and available to the public. Ideally we could navigate them at the level of an app on our phones. ... The technology already exists. It's only the will we're lacking.

Unhappily, that will seems likely to stay lacking under the GOPer/Trump regime. These folks are more likely to love them some data that enables them to identify, track and hurt those they consider their enemies or just beneath their concern.

But I'm still with O'Neill on the basic thrust of this book. We don't win more justice by going backwards. We have to figure out how to control our tools as we go forward.

O'Neill blogs are MathBabe, and even a mathematical illiterate like myself can almost take it in.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Resistance forces coalescing

We are not going to stand by and let this country move backwards ... we are facing fascism right now. We have to affirm our common citizenship and, more important, our common humanity. ... We will stand together -- for all of us.

Unstoppable Together.

People who have worked in the splintered world of progressive non-profits will recognize that the united front proclaimed here is an extraordinary accomplishment. Yup, the GOPer/Trump ascendancy has concentrated the minds and wills of organizations too often all too accustomed to compete for money, attention and energy. Under threat, this unity has a chance of holding. And nothing short of a broad, unselfish, unified coalition is likely to do the democracy-affirming majority much good.

Yes, we'll eventually need the Democratic Party to represent this coalition within the political arena. But the Dems will do that, if this assemblage keeps pushing together. If the people lead, our leaders will follow. And, very likely, our leaders in many aspects of resistance to cruelty and barbarism in the next few years are somewhere among these organizations.

Among these groups -- and others too -- there will be plenty for all of us to do. Pick the effort that moves your heart (or the aspect that answers your immediate crisis) and get busy.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Rallying for Obamacare

A couple of thousand people rallied in Civic Center Plaza yesterday in opposition to the GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare.

Led by House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, this was a politician heavy crowd. It seemed as if Pelosi had drawn in most all the Northern California Democratic Congresspeople, as well local San Francisco regulars. Note one interesting attendee: way over at the far right of this picture, that's Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison who is seeking backing for election as the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison has been endorsed by Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, as well as the AFL-CIO and some mass-based Democratic advocacy groups. He is in a contest with Tom Perez, outgoing Labor Secretary in the Obama administration, who is broadly considered the candidate of Clinton/Obama regulars. Hard to know what Ellison was doing on Pelosi's stage in San Francisco yesterday. (For what it is worth, which ain't much, I think either Ellison or Perez would bring an organizing focus to the Dems as much as local organizations can be cajoled into that difficult work. They are both smart guys who understand that people want feel more connection to a political party if they are to trust it is representing them.)

Aside from the pooh-bahs, the speakers were individuals telling stories of what having access to health insurance has meant for lives and families. It is completely obvious that the Republicans now in power don't give a damn about who they hurt. They just want tax breaks for their fat cats. Killing Obamacare will deliver a windfall to their sponsors. The losers in repeal can just go die.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


In Masha Gessen's widely distributed article on Rules for Survival in the illiberal, managed democracy into which our election has delivered us, one item is this: Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.

The authorities (a bishop and a dean) at the Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral are demonstrating the truth of that admonition. Not only will their imposing edifice be used for its traditional interfaith prayer service the day after the inauguration, but they are sending their choir to sing at the ceremonies on Friday.

They have no excuse for sending the choir. Trump will undoubtedly treat the inauguration as a coronation; by sending the singers, they are blessing a man who promises only bigotry, cruelty, and misogyny. Whatever happened to their baptismal promise to "respect the dignity of every human being"? Sure, Trump is apparently human, but he spews bile before breakfast.

There might be some excuse for offering the interfaith service. After all, the building was designed for such civic exercises and probably depends on the prestige of them for its costly upkeep. But apparently the event will

... not include a central preacher or a customary sermon...

Would the Trumpkins only schedule this if promised either one of his sycophantic preachers like Franklin Graham, who was probably too far a stretch for the Bishop of Washington, or no preacher so there was no danger that he'd be challenged in any way? I would not be surprised.

As I wrote on the Episcopal Diocese of Washington Facebook page, I guess church authorities don't mind that, in fifty years or so, if any of us are around (which seems more and more questionable), the Episcopal Church will be generating another round of headlines like this from 2008:
Anyone interested in the Episcopal Church's historic equivocation on matters of slavery and race might want to look at this paper in Louie Crew's archives. This time around, I guess the word is -- so sorry, we abetted the coming of a foul fascist regime ...

By the way, I have no quarrel with the Episcopal Presiding Bishop's call for Episcopalians to pray for the civil authorities. I've found it healthy to pray for my enemies. I don't know if it does anything for them, but it seems to be good for me ... for my equilibrium. I can pray that God heal the Donald's obviously broken soul, as much as I can pray for such healing for mine.

Meanwhile I'll couple that prayer with offering up this from the Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations ...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday scenes: bronze figures from Chinatown

Walking San Francisco took me down the main commercial street of Chinatown the other day. The purveyors of tourist merchandise undoubtedly know what visitors will buy.

Apparently at least one set of tastes runs to metallic (bronze?) statuary of surpassing ugliness.

Somehow I don't think he's catching anything. Might he live comfortably by a small carp pond?

It's hard to think of any setting this fellow would suit -- perhaps Donald Trump's foyer?

This watchdog might give an intruder pause ...

... while this frog might have encourage jumping out of one's skin.

I find this tortoise's face sort of sweet, but really, we haven't room for a 400 pound turtle.


We all do what we can, working together as much as possible. Katy Perry produced this video along with Aya Tanimura.

Resist much and protect much.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Police attitudes and beliefs

Those polling nerds at Pew Research have issued survey results from questions put to 8000 cops, mostly from large urban departments, last summer.

Many of the findings are unsurprising, if discouraging, to those of us hoping to stop police shootings of blacks and other people of color. Eighty-three percent of officers feel that their job is not well understood by the public, a belief that walls them off from the rest of us. Most white officers (92%) think enough has been done to ensure blacks have equal rights; black officers (29%) disagree. The white population outside law enforcement is more of a mixed bag; "only" 57% think that racial equality has arrived. The black public (12%) overwhelming says "no way."

Some of the other findings Pew reports are less intuitively obvious. Here are some that struck me.
  • Protesters aren't the only ones who believe police departments too often keep bad cops on the job. "... most officers are satisfied with their department as a place to work and remain strongly committed to making their agency successful. Still, about half (53%) question whether their department’s disciplinary procedures are fair, and seven-in-ten (72%) say that poorly performing officers are not held accountable."
  • "While two-thirds of all police officers say the deaths of blacks at the hands of police are isolated incidents, only about four-in-ten members of the public (39%) share this view while the majority (60%) believes these encounters point to a broader problem between police and blacks." That 60% is higher than I expected; let's keep getting out the stories!
  • "... while a majority of Americans (64%) favor a ban on assault-style weapons, a similar share of police officers (67%) say they would oppose such a ban." Have these officers no fear that someone will use these weapons against them? After all they feel misunderstood and under-appreciated.
  • There seem to be significant differences between the attitudes and possibly the actions of male and female officers. "A majority of black officers (57%) say [highly publicized fatal encounters between police and blacks] encounters are evidence of a broader problem between police and blacks, a view held by only about a quarter of all white (27%) and Hispanic (26%) officers. Black female officers in particular are more likely to say these incidents signal a more far-reaching concern. Among all sworn officers, 63% of black women say this, compared with 54% of black men. ...

    "Most officers say that outside of required training, they have not discharged their service firearm while on duty; 27% say they have done this. Male officers are about three times as likely as female officers to say they have fired their weapon while on duty – 30% of men vs. 11% of women. ..."
  • Hardly any cops think well of those of us protesting against excessive use of force by the police, but there are differences among them. "Among black officers, 69% say the protests were sincere efforts to force police accountability – more than double the proportion of whites (27%) who share this view. Female officers, older police and department administrators also are more likely than male officers, younger police and rank-and-file officers to believe protesters genuinely seek police accountability."
  • A significantly large proportion of cops seem to shrink from operating as agents of federal immigration authorities. "Officers are divided over whether local police should take an active role (52%) in identifying undocumented immigrants rather than leaving this task mainly to federal authorities (46%)."

Friday cat blogging

He's climbing the doors again. Often he gets up there and then appears to wonder how he is supposed to get down. I guess it's good exercise.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Still pertinent

This blast from the past was on target when it was made by a volunteer videographer some years back (can you guess when?) and it is still apt now.

Last night Senate Republicans took a step toward taking access to healthcare away from 20-30 million children and adults. Their Obamacare repeal process has a long ways to go; Congresscritters are beginning to understand that constituents might not be so happy about losing doctors and bankruptcy protection; and the great orange conman doesn't want trashing his phony pretense of sticking up for the little (white) guy to be the first accomplishment of his regime. So it ain't over til it is over and, just maybe, some of these kids or their younger siblings might still be able to go to a doctor if the dice role just right. But nobody should count on it.

And so, after the trauma of an unanticipated narrow election defeat, we get back to the ordinary stuff of politics: Republicans working hard to guarantee their medical, fossil fuel, and corporate sugar daddies get all the goodies; the rest of us trying to keep the enfeebled Democratic Party caucus from making any compromises that would give legitimacy to the rightwing wrecking crew.
Focusing on this is not to say that the immediate threat of engulfing Trumpian fascism has receded. It hasn't. But the new regime means that we have to fight back on at least three fronts, all of which matter and any of which may yet create the friction in the system which might help a democratic (small "d") comeback.
  • Ordinary GOPer viciousness. They will repeal or sabotage anything that requires taxes on their sponsors. Period. They will work to erode the rights of all who aren't straight, white men. That's what they do. And they'll make sure they have judges who defend the same perverted values.
  • Kleptocracy. Trump intends to use his position to enrich himself and probably throw a few bones around to control his sycophants. Republicans could stop him, but they are too scared or on the take themselves.
  • Trump's bullying authoritarianism. Sure, he'd like to emulate Putin's unconstrained power. He makes that quite clear. This is where we should expect our own Reichstag fire -- an unanticipated happening that the autocrat uses to overthrow previous constraints on his power. Can he scare us into letting him? We've been a bit of a fraidy cat nation since 9/11. Are we still? Time will tell. Courage and love are the best remedies.

Waters rising

San Francisco Bay came ashore briefly yesterday along the Embarcadero breakwall. This wasn't yet a consequence of rising sea levels due to climate warming/arctic ice melting. It was an instance of a king tide, a super high tide that comes along twice a year in particular alignments of the sun and moon in relation to earth. Nobody who reads tide tables was surprised.

But that doesn't mean that having the Bay come ashore shouldn't worry us. Most of the year, high tides peak at about five feet, four inches; king tides reach seven feet. With rising sea levels, this contained and infrequent rise will become the new norm.

“What we have today is mild coastal flooding that will become the new normal by as early as mid-century,” said [Marina] Psaros, [of the King Tides Project.]

... Some scientists predict that between 2060 and 2070, we may experience tides at the same magnitude as king tides on a monthly basis, due to sea-level rise caused by climate change. ... Even though scientists and planners are able to forecast and prepare for king tides, the tides’ severity can be exacerbated by other naturally occurring episodes, such as flooding, El Niño, and storms. Dramatic increases in water levels have the potential to cause damage to infrastructure, property, and the coastline.

Meanwhile, executives of the Port of San Francisco are raising alarm about the integrity of the seawall that bounds the bay. Much of the city's perimeter depends on this wall to keep a century of building on landfill from flooding. So far it does the job, but they fear it won't survive next time we have an earthquake. And that goes double as the waters rise.

If we want to preserve downtown, this monster construction project will have to be funded somehow. Oh yeah -- and we have a generally hostile, climate change denying adminstration in Washington.

H/t Hoodline for alerting me to this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tuesday was a surreal day in the USA, in two parts

The Prez was at his best in his farewell address, reprising his aspirational vision of this mixed bag of a country and polity.

... Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. ...

... Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear. ... If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened. So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ...

... It falls to each of us to be ... "anxious, jealous" guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen. ...If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you missed the speech, it's worth an hour of your time.
Meanwhile unconfirmed opposition research dribbled into view which makes this cartoon seem more than metaphorical.
Quite apart from the possibility that the PEOTUS was filmed by the Russians in compromising sexual bullying, a new Quinnipiac University poll finds him with record low approval numbers for a new chief exec. And those numbers have only declined since November.

American voters give President-elect Trump a negative 37 - 51 percent favorability rating, compared to a divided 44 - 46 percent favorability rating November 22. ...

Donald Trump will take the nation in the right direction, 45 percent of American voters say, while 49 percent say he will take the nation in the wrong direction. ...

A total of 44 percent of voters are "very confident" or "somewhat confident" that Trump will make things better for them and their family, while 53 percent are "not very confident" or "not confident at all."

American voters disapprove 40 - 30 percent of the individuals Trump has nominated for his cabinet, with 28 percent who say they haven't heard enough about them.

Trump's election makes them feel "less safe," 45 percent of voters say, while 27 percent say they feel "more safe" and 27 percent say they feel "just as safe."

Voters support 72 - 22 percent, including 52 - 42 percent among Republicans, a review of Trump's finances to identify possible conflicts of interest.

It's not like he's sailing to office on a wave of popular enthusiasm.

This creates room for resistance. As Republicans in Congress try to use his elevation as an opportunity to enact their long time agenda of bonanzas for the One Percent at the expense of everyone else, they need to be reminded his tweets may not be enough to save them from furious constituents. He just doesn't have enough juice to cover for them. Let's keep calling ...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Facebook rant

I'm feeling a little rant about Facebook. Why should I have to look at bullshit like what I've posted next to this?

Both these ads are obvious fakes. Both gents are alive and more or less kicking. But somebody pays Mark Zuckerberg to show them to me in the vain hope that I'll click on them.

And this crap is inescapable. I have no control over what turns up next to my feed -- and no control over what turns up in my feed. Twenty percent or so of that seems to consist of planted garbage from institutions that some friend incautiously "liked" at some point. I mean, I don't hate the National Geographic or Amnesty International, but if want to relate to them I can visit their digital premises. In no sense have I asked for them just because someone I know "liked" them once.

I didn't like AOL back in the day -- that ancient (1983-2009) connectivity service tried to give us a diminished internet selected to meet AOL's commercial needs. AOL mailed half the population floppy disks in the hope we'd sign on. Many did, for awhile, till they discovered they didn't need it to venture online. AOL merged with/purchased Time-Warner as the temporarily more valuable partner in 2000. But most of us wanted an unfiltered web and that old AOL died of disuse.

But the unconstrained potential of the web apparently was too much for us. These days most all of us have allowed ourselves to be corralled in Zuckerberg's stable. I'd never look at Facebook except that too many of my friends and acquaintances who want to comment on my blog seem to live there. I try to be polite and friendly. I show courteous interest in others. I respond if contacted. But dammit, the space is a commercial playpen! I'd be quite happy if I never had to look at it again.

Anyone want to tell me what is good about Facebook?

Monday, January 09, 2017

Local Democracy

Hundreds of San Francisco Democrats lined up in the rain yesterday to vote for delegates from our local Assembly district to the state party convention. These elections take place every two years, selecting seven women and seven men.

There's nothing new about these contests being contested. In a place where all elected officials are Democrats, politics simply switches from being constructed as struggle of Democrats against Republicans/conservatives to a contest between Democratic Party "moderates" and "progressives."

In San Francisco, the former refers to tech money moguls and real estate developers with their numerous associated hangers-on including our present mayor. This set has money to burn and consequently can gather a crowd. Progressives include lefties, Berniecrats, many rank and file union members, organized tenants, and the remnants of the social movements of the last 40 years. When the latter motley crew is organized, they usually have the numbers. The progressives lose when most people aren't paying attention.

This year, Reform Democrats were paying attention. They did a terrific job of turning out a progressive crowd. The voting line stretched round the block.

Once inside the union hall where the voting was happening, the line snaked around chairs and tables. We shambled from station to station quite cheerfully. For old timers among us, this was a chance to encounter friends and acquaintances from campaigns past (as well as to avoid a few political opponents).

Finally we received our ballots, marked and deposited them in carefully guarded, marked, cardboard boxes.

Does this activity matter? In some ways, not much. The California Democratic Party is deeply anchored in generally progressive constituencies; whoever grabs the leadership and hence ends up writing resolutions and endorsing (or not) candidates and measures will at least make noises in a "progressive" direction. We don't have to worry about that.

But it is good to get the most committed people possible in official roles -- people who feel some accountability to a mass progressive base. I'm grateful for people who take up that cause; they make the electoral front a better arena. I don't think elections are the only front for progressive agitation -- far from it. But this is not something to be ignored either. It is certainly worth an odd, wet hour.
UPDATE: In the 17th Assembly District, the progressive "reform" slate won 8/14 delegates.
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