Boing Boing 

Inherent biases warp Big Data


The theory of Big Data is that the numbers have an objective property that makes their revealed truth especially valuable; but as Kate Crawford points out, Big Data has inherent, lurking bias, because the datasets are the creation of fallible, biased humans. For example, the data-points on how people reacted to Hurricane Sandy mostly emanate from Manhattan, because that's where the highest concentration of people wealthy enough to own tweeting, data-emanating smartphones are. But more severely affected locations -- Breezy Point, Coney Island and Rockaway -- produced almost no data because they had fewer smartphones per capita, and the ones they had didn't work because their power and cellular networks failed first.

I wrote about this in 2012, when Google switched strategies for describing the way it arrived at its search-ranking. Prior to that, the company had described its ranking process as a mathematical one and told people who didn't like how they got ranked that the problem was their own, because the numbers didn't lie. After governments took this argument to heart and started ordering Google to change its search results -- on the grounds that there's no free speech question if you're just ordering post-processing on the outcome of an equation -- Google started commissioning law review articles explaining that the algorithms that determined search-rank were the outcome of an expressive, human, editorial process that deserved free speech protection.

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Network neutrality for self-driving cars


David Weinberger's Would a Google car sacrifice you for the sake of the many? explores many philosophical conundra regarding self-driving cars, including the possibility that the rich and powerful might literally buy their way into the fast-lane. This is the premise of my 2005 story "Human Readable," which appears in my collection With a Little Help (there's also a spectacular audio edition, read by Spider Robinson).

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Help raise $5M in 30 days to send anti-corruption politicians to America with Mayday.US PAC

More than 90% of Americans believe that the US government is unduly influenced by money, and the Mayday.US super PAC is raising $5M to fund the election campaigns of politicians who'll pledge to dismantle super PACs and enact other campaign finance reforms. They raised more than $1M in 30 days last month, and this month, the goal is $5M. It's the brainchild of Lawrence Lessig, who's going to prototype the project by running five electoral campaigns in 2014, and use the lessons of those projects to win enough anti-corruption seats in 2016 to effect real change.

Again, I'm not able to contribute to Mayday.US, because I'm a Canadian and Briton. But I ask my American friends to put in $10, and promise that I'll put CAD1000 into any comparable Canadian effort and/or £1000 into a comparable UK effort. We all win when countries embrace evidence-based policy guided by doing what's best for its citizens, rather than lining the pockets of corrupting multinationals.

Mayday.US (Thanks, Brian!)

Red states are most dependent on federal money


Wallethub compared the direct and indirect federal subsidy to all 50 states and DC by comparing federal taxes remitted; federal funding as a fraction of state revenue; and number of federal jobs per capita and produced a ranked list of the states with the greatest federal dependency. Unsurprisingly, the top ten are overwhelmingly Republican dominated "red" states with low state taxes and low average per-capita incomes thanks to harsh labor laws -- these states necessarily depend on federal money to make up the shortfall from their own politically expedient tax-holidays, and lack the robust middle-class who pay the largest percentage of their income in tax.

The top ten in order of dependency are Mississippi, New Mexico, Alabama, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, Tennessee, South Dakota and Arizona. The five states most independent of federal subsidy are (in order): Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The article is good and full of interesting footnotes -- for example, Delaware's seeming independence is largely illusory, an artifact of its stock franchise tax drawn from out-of-state companies.

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American juvenile incarceration: destroying a generation to feed the prison system


Wil Wheaton writes, "Today's Fresh Air (MP3) is just heartbreaking. It's an interview about the juvenile 'justice' system in America with Nell Bernstein, author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison, and how prison is just destroying young lives in the name of giving prison workers jobs. No. Seriously. It's infuriating, and it dovetails perfectly with your review of Matt Taibbi's new book."

Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison

'Burning Down The House' Makes The Case Against Juvenile Incarceration (Thanks, Wil!)

Riis's "How the Other Half Lives": photos of NYC slumlife in the Gilded Age

The full text and images of Jacob Riis's 1890 classic How The Other Half Lives is online (previously), featuring striking photos of the dire state of NYC poverty during the "gilded age," when wealth disparity hit levels that are eerily reminiscent of the modern age. Reading this is probably good prep for our coming future (above, "Police Station lodgers in Elizabeth Street Station").

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The more your job helps people, the less you're paid (and vice-versa)


In this spectacular, long interview with Salon, David "Debt" Graeber builds on his bullshit jobs hypothesis and points out the horror of modern American work: if your job does some good, you are paid less; jobs that actively hurt people are paid more; and no one seems to want a world where no one has to work anymore. But have no fear: it ends on a high note: a proposed "revolt of the caring classes."

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Picketty vs politics: where does the rate of profit come from?


Suresh Naidu analyzes Thomas Piketty's groundbreaking economics book Capital in the 21st Century (previously), disagreeing with one of Piketty's core assumptions: that the rate of profit is a given, not the product of things like trade union law, global treaties, and other political decisions. This is wonkier than last night's post about Piketty, but a lot more interesting, in my view.

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Brandalists replace 365 outdoor ads in 10 UK cities with hand-printed works of art

Last week, in a coordinated attack by guerrilla artists across the UK, 365 outdoor ads were replaced by hand-printed works of art. It was a project of Brandalism, and they hit 10 cities, using hi-viz vests and steely nerves as camouflage while they did their work.

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Design as parameterization: brute-forcing the manufacturing/ design problem-space

Here's something exciting: Autodesk's new computer-aided design software lets the designer specify the parameters of a solid (its volume, dimensions, physical strength, even the tools to be used in its manufacture and the amount of waste permissible in the process) and the software iterates through millions of potential designs that fit. The designer's job becomes tweaking the parameters and choosing from among the brute-forced problem-space of her object, rather than designing it from scratch.

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U of Saskatchewan fires tenured dean for speaking out against cuts

A reader writes, "Robert Buckingham, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan since 2009, was fired last Wednesday for critical comments about the university's restructuring plans. When he showed up for work Wednesday morning, two campus security guards escorted him off campus. The university not only fired him as dean, but also stripped Buckingham of his tenured faculty position. The termination letter signed by Provost and VP Academic Brett Fairbairn said that by speaking out against the school's restructuring plans, Buckingham had 'demonstrated egregious conduct and insubordination' and was in breach of contract."

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State GOPs: no benefits unless you shut up and obey your boss


Writing in the NYT, Corey Robin highlights the frightening trend in state GOP labor laws to deny unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for breaking the "behavioral norms" demanded by employers, from dating workers from rival companies to posting unhappy work-related remarks to the Internet. Conservative douchebag Ben Stein loves these rules, and wants high schools to help instill them by vigorously punishing "talking back" -- if you're subordinate, you need to learn not to be insubordinate.

For more background, see the Economic Policy Institute's 2013 report, The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012.

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Fast food workers around the world to strike on May 15


Fast-food workers in 33 countries are planning a walkout on May 15, demanding better pay and better working conditions. The action, coordinated by Fast Food Forward, will target McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and KFC. McDonald's -- which settled a $1B class-action suit over wage-theft from its American workforce in March -- has issued a shareholder warning about the possibility of having to pay a living wage to its workers. Women, especially single mothers, are disproportionately likely to work in sub-living-wage jobs in the fast food industry.

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App lets you auction your San Francisco parking spot

A new mobile app called Monkeyparking allows people in San Francisco with good parking spots to auction them off when they're ready to leave, permitting circling rich people to engage in excitingly dangerous class warfare by bidding on spaces with their phones while they drive. The app's creators defend it as providing an "incentive" to leave your space for others to use.

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Straczynski: "The New Aristocracy"

Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has posted a brilliant, inflammatory set of "rules of the new aristocracy: "We are the New Aristocracy because we were born into it. We got our money the old fashioned, Medieval way: our parents gave it to us. We were born into the wealth that we stole from you and your family over the last fifty years."

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Political TV advertising in the USA: scofflaw broadcasters hide the dark money of political influence

Nicko from the Sunlight Foundation writes, "Today, Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center, represented by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, filed complaints at the Federal Communications Commission against 11 broadcasters in nine markets for failing to comply with the agency's political ad disclosure rules. Broadcasters are required by law to keep information about political ads they air in their stations' public files. Sunlight and CLC found and documented several violations of these rules, and examples are included in the complaints."

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Canada in decline

The Harper regime has dealt blow after blow to the values Canada holds dear: environmental responsibility, humanitarianism, fairness, transparency, and pluralism. But when you see it all laid out in one devastating indictment, it's still jarring. The fact that this indictment appears in a sober-sided journal like The Lancet only makes the barbs sink deeper. O, Canada.

Having leisure time is now a marker for poverty, not riches


In Post-Industrious Society: Why Work Time will not Disappear for our Grandchildren, researchers from Oxford's Centre for Time Use Research argue that there has been a radical shift in the relationship between leisure, work and income. Where once leisure time was a mark of affluence, now it is a marker for poverty. The richer you are, the more likely you are to work long hours; while the poorer you are, the fewer hours you are likely to work every week.

The researchers theorise multiple causes for this. Poor people are more likely to be underemployed and unable to get the work-hours they want (and need) to support themselves. Rich people are likely to work in jobs that disproportionately advance and reward workers who put in overtime, so a 10% increase in hours worked generates more than 10% in expected career-gains.

They also claim that rich workers are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, but I'm skeptical of this -- I think that relative to unskilled workers doing at-will 0-hours temp work whose every move is constrained and scripted by their employers, this is probably true, but I don't think that the white-collar world is producing a lot of people who think that their work is meaningful and rewarding.

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UK Tory MP who helped kill Legal Aid is wiped out by defending himself against sexual assault claim

Alan sez, "At least he's got the sense to own up and say he's sorry. Nigel Evans used to be in Parliament. While there he helped cut legal aid. As a result, people who are charged by the government but found innocent can't recover costs. Mr Evans is now looking at a (UKP) 130,000 legal bill (plus VAT) after defending successfully against an allegation of sexual assault. Of course, were he in the US he'd be in the same or worse shape."

He's been wiped out, and has pledged to try to undo the damage he's done to Legal Aid if he gets reelected. Meanwhile, the real victims of this are poor crime victims, especially women in abusive relationships, who are grappling with a system where only rich people get lawyers.

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Study: American policy exclusively reflects desires of the rich; citizens' groups largely irrelevant

In Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens [PDF], a paper forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin Page, the authors analyze 1,779 over the past 20+ years and conclude that policy makers respond exclusively to the needs of people in the 90th wealth percentile to the exclusion of pretty much every one else. Mass-scale intervention from citizens' groups barely registers, while the desires of the richest ten percent of America dictate practically the entire national policy landscape.

In a summary in the Washington Post, Larry Bartels writes,

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HOWTO buy your way out of a California speeding ticket

Pricenomics revisits the perennial scandal of the 11-99 Foundation, which benefits California Highway Patrol officers and their families in times of crisis. Major donors to the foundation receive a license-plate frame that, drivers believe, acts as a license to speed on California highways. The plates were withdrawn in 2006 after a CHP commissioner's investigation seemed to validate the idea that CHP officers would let off drivers with the frames. The frames are back now, thanks to a funding crisis from 11-99, and some posters on cop-message boards say that the frames themselves aren't enough to get you out of a ticket -- because many of them are counterfeits -- but if you have a member's card, too, well, that's another story, wink, nudge.

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Australian civil servants ordered to fink on colleagues who criticize gov't online

Australia's far-right crybaby government is so terrified of civil servants criticizing its policies that it has ordered government employees to snitch on any colleagues who breathe an unhappy word about the politicians of the day online, even if the criticism is anonymous, because it is "unprofessional." Civil servants are also banned from editing Wikipedia in ways that make politicians and their policies look bad.

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Private equity, an infection that is eating the world


In an amazing and terrifying essay called How to get beyond the parasite economy, Eric Garland describes how private equity infects industry after industry, sucking all productive capacity out of it through complex and fraudulent financial engineering, and abandoning the drained husk as it moves onto its next meal. Garland uses the case of Guitar Center as his example of this process in action, describing how Bain Capital bought and gutted Guitar Center, turning it into a financially complex, debt-riddled zombie that exists to float high-risk junk bonds to fill out the portfolios of the hyper-rich, without any connection to the real world of guitars, amplifiers and musicians.

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UK Tories call for a national of slaves

Charlie Stross is on fire in this essay on the true meaning of the UK Exchequer George Osborne's promise to produce a Britain with 100% employment: he is proposing nothing less than a nation of slaves.

David "Debt" Graeber evicted, implicates NYPD intelligence, claims revenge-harassment for OWS participation

David Graeber, author of Debt: the First 5000 Years, was evicted from the home that his family had lived in for 52 years yesterday. He says that the NYPD intelligence department played a role in establishing a "technicality" on which his family could be evicted, despite not having missed a single payment in 52 years. He blames the eviction on retaliation against high-profile Occupy Wall Street activists, whom he says have been targeted in a wide-ranging series of administrative attacks: "evictions, visa problems, tax audits..."

Abi Sutherland has a great post on this on Making Light:

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Rich, admitted child rapist granted probation because he "would not not fare well" in prison [trigger warning]

Robert H. Richards IV, a wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune, has been spared prison after being convicted of raping his three year old daughter. Delaware Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden sentenced the admitted serial child-rapist to probation on the ground that he "would not fare well" in prison. The case echoes the affluenza scandal in which a judge spared a rich child a prison sentence after he had killed four people on the grounds that he was so rich that he couldn't distinguish right from wrong.

As the long, excellent article in the News Journal notes, it's nice to hear judges focusing on the rehabilitative dimension of the justice system, but it's enraging and offensive to see that this kind of mercy is disproportionately dispensed to the wealthiest members of society, especially as America sinks further into its decades-old scandal of mass-incarceration, becoming one of history's most prolific imprisoners of poor people and people of color.

The prosecutor bears some responsibility here too, having agreed to a plea bargain for a lesser charge without a mandatory minimum sentence -- the kind of prosecutorial discretion that we'd have loved to have seen in the Aaron Swartz case and many other cases involving people who are not trust-fund multi-millionaires.

Richards is a healthy, imposing man in early middle age. Many others who would "not fare well" in prison, including trans* people and people with disabilities are routinely sentenced to long, brutal incarceration. It would be nice to see the American judicial system extend this mercy to them. In particular Judge Jurden has a reputation as a "tough sentencing judge" (except when confronted with child-rapists from one of America's largest family fortunes).

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Worker co-ops: business without bosses


Worker-owned co-ops are a mainstay of crappy economies, and are thriving around the world. Worker-owned co-ops have better productivity than regular businesses, pay higher wages, and offer better benefits packages. As Shaila Dewan points out in the NYT, they're also easier to accomplish than hikes in the minimum wage or fairer tax-codes. On the other hand, this may be an argument against them, since they may diffuse energy that could make a bigger impact on ordinary workers' lives if it were devoted to systemic fixes.

Still, the worker-owned co-op movement is doing very well, and some co-ops are even using their profits to kickstart other co-ops around the world -- helping fund the worker buyout of a profitable Chicago window-factory that was suddenly closed by its investors because it wasn't profitable enough. The workers took in money from the Latinamerican Working World fund, bought the factory's equipment, and moved it themselves into a new facility. Now they're their own bosses, running a worker-owned window company called New Era Windows.

It's unimaginable heresy in today's world to suggest that doing things is as important as owning things, and that this entitles the people who do stuff to a say in the disposition of the businesses they make possible. But there was a time, not so long ago, when this was a mainstream idea.

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Firefox OS and the unserved billions of the developing world

Last month, I wrote about the announcement of the $25 Firefox OS smartphone, aimed at developing world users who have never owned a smartphone and can't afford a high-end mobile device. An editorial by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry describes how such a device could find an audience of billions, and spur a new ecosystem of developing world developers who make software that's geared not just to the Firefox OS platform, but also to the unique needs of people in the developing world.

The vision of Firefox OS is a contrast to the Zuckerberg plan to supply "Internet" to poor people in the form of an ad-subsidized, all-surveilling walled garden. As Susan Crawford says, "That's not the Internet -- that’s being fodder for someone else's ad-targeting business. That's entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination -- a crucial limitation on human life."

Asking whether the Internet is good or bad for freedom misses the point. It's clear that network technologies have the power to track and control their users, and the power to free and enrich them. The right question to ask is: "How do we get an Internet that does more for freedom?"

Firefox OS sounds like part of the answer.

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Photos from the Rothschilds' 1972 surrealist ball


Hang the Bankers has a set of photos from 1972 surrealist ball hosted by Marie-Hélène de Rothschild at the Château de Ferrières, with Salvador Dali in attendance. Hang the Bankers cites this as evidence of "the underlying ideology and the mind state of the occult elite," which sounds like hogwash to me. I mean, I'm all for reflexively condemning the hyper-rich, but if you're a weird shadowy billionaire aristo, better you should be spending your unimaginable riches on cool dress-up parties than tacky mega-yachts or sabotaging health care bills.

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Archbishop of Newark builds himself a palace while the church shuts down schools for lack of funding

The Catholic Archdiocese of Newark is shutting down its schools due to lack of funding, but it still has a fortune it can use to build a small palace for its archbishop John J Myers, who is soon to retire after a career whose highlights include dismissing victims of sexual abuse and shielding abusing priests. Also, he insists on being addressed as "Your Grace." He's a made-in-America version of Germany's disgraced "Luxury Bishop."