Saturday, 9 June 2018

Cuttings: May 2018

Are you ready? Here is all the data Facebook and Google have on you - article by Dylan Curran in The Guardian. "(1) Google knows where you’ve been. Google stores your location (if you have location tracking turned on) every time you turn on your phone. ... (2) Google knows everything you’ve ever searched – and deleted. Google stores search history across all your devices. That can mean that, even if you delete your search history and phone history on one device, it may still have data saved from other devices.... (3) Google has an advertisement profile of you. Google creates an advertisement profile based on your information, including your location, gender, age, hobbies, career, interests, relationship status, possible weight (need to lose 10lb in one day?) and income.... (4) Google knows all the apps you use. Google stores information on every app and extension you use. They know how often you use them, where you use them, and who you use them to interact with. That means they know who you talk to on Facebook, what countries are you speaking with, what time you go to sleep.... (5) Google has all of your YouTube history. Google stores all of your YouTube history, so they probably know whether you’re going to be a parent soon, if you’re a conservative, if you’re a progressive, if you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, if you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, if you’re anorexic … (6) The data Google has on you can fill millions of Word documents. Google offers an option to download all of the data it stores about you. I’ve requested to download it and the file is 5.5GB big, which is roughly 3m Word documents."

Living with a literary genius - cartoon by Tom Gauld in The Guardian. "I know you want to be a difficult genius, darling... I just wonder if you could focus less on difficult and more on genius?"

Why replacing politicians with experts is a reckless idea - article by David Runcimann in The Guardian. "In his 2016 book Against Democracy, [Jason] Brennan insists that many political questions are simply too complex for most voters to comprehend. Worse, the voters are ignorant about how little they know: they lack the ability to judge complexity because they are so attached to simplistic solutions that feel right to them. ... Brennan thinks we now have 100-plus years of evidence that Mill was wrong. Voting is bad for us. It doesn’t make people better informed. If anything, it makes them stupider, because it dignifies their prejudices and ignorance in the name of democracy.... And yet there are still good reasons to be cautious about ditching [democracy]. Epistocracy [as distinct from Technocracy, which is quite compatible with democracy] remains the reckless idea. There are two dangers in particular. The first is that we set the bar too high in politics by insisting on looking for the best thing to do. Sometimes it is more important to avoid the worst. ...The other fundamental problem with 21st-century epistocracy [is that] we won’t be the ones telling [Brennan's putative voter-preference-interpreting AI] what to do. It will be the technicians who have built the system. They are the experts we rely on to rescue us from feedback loops. For this reason, it is hard to see how 21st-century epistocracy can avoid collapsing back into technocracy. When things go wrong, the knowers will be powerless to correct for them. Only the engineers who built the machines have that capacity, which means that it will be the engineers who have the power."

News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier - article by Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian, from his book The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions. "Most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be. ... News misleads... News is irrelevant. ... News has no explanatory power.... News is toxic to your body.... News increases cognitive errors.... News inhibits thinking.... News works like a drug.... News wastes time.... News makes us passive.... News inhibits creativity." See also critique.

The Quakers are right. We don't need God - article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. "Quakers ... are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their 'guidance to meetings'. The reason, said one of them, is because the term 'makes some Quakers feel uncomfortable'. Atheists, according to a Birmingham University academic, comprise a rising 14% of professed Quakers, while a full 43% felt “unable to profess a belief in God”. They come to meetings for fellowship, rather than for higher guidance... The sublimity of Dolobran meeting house and the exhilaration of Ely cathedral offer more than an emotional A&E unit. They offer places so uplifting that anyone can find it in themselves to sit, think, clear their heads and order their thoughts. There is no need for gods or religion to rest and be refreshed. To that, Quakerism has added the experience of standing up and expressing doubts, fears and joys amid a company of “friends”, who respond only with their private silence. The therapy is that of shared experience. Clear God from the room, and the Quakers are indeed on to something."

Thinking outside the box: the sad demise of radical TV - article by Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. "What happened to TV with ... radical political and cultural messages? Arguably it died in 2003 when the BBC took Omnibus behind the shed and put a bullet through its brain; or in 1995 when it decided that The Late Show was not subversive TV but an expendable luxury product for the wannabe intelligentsia; or when Channel 4 mutated from Britain’s most self-consciously radical TV channel into one that made Embarrassing Bodies and Making Bradford British. We used to have The Late Show with Sarah Dunant; now we have The Late Late Show with James Corden. You can’t tell me that isn’t symptomatic of television’s decline.... A clutch of radical programmes drawn from BBC and Channel 4 archives [iis having] an afternoon screening under the title Theory on TV ... as part of a season of archival trawls called Radical Broadcasts.... What all [these] shows have in common is that they are unthinkable on today’s telly. Pitch any one of them to a commissioning editor in 2018 and you’d get shown the door. Cultural studies professors talk about Marx? Are you kidding? Edward Said expatiates on the western hubris of Kipling and Conrad? 'Expatiates'? Christ, no! This meeting is over!'"

The new silent era: how films turned the volume down - article by Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian. "A Quiet Place is a smart, scary little shocker that uses restraint in the area of sound to enhance its visual horrors. ... The movie is set in a world terrorised by blind carnivorous monsters with acute hearing. The only way to avoid their gnashing jaws and lunging talons is to keep shtum. Communication between the main characters – a family of five hiding in an underground shelter – is conducted chiefly through sign language, lending a small advantage to the eldest child, Regan, who happens, like the actor playing her (Millicent Simmonds), to be deaf. It’s as if the whole world has come round to Regan’s way of hearing things, or rather not hearing them. The scenario is the inverse of that in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, also starring Simmonds, this time as the deaf runaway Rose. She appears in those sections of the film set in 1927, which are shot, as The Artist was, in the style of a silent movie.... Leaving the cinema one afternoon, Rose notices that the building is closing temporarily to allow newfangled sound equipment to be fitted. The era of the talkie has arrived, putting her cruelly out of sync with the movies she adores.... Quiet cinema is best appreciated with an audience. That is one of its sweetest qualities: the use of quiet intensifies the visual experience, but also makes you aware of your fellow cinemagoers as co-conspirators in the film’s pleasures."

Weaponising Paperwork - article by William Davies in the London Review of Books, referenced in John Naughton's Memex 1.1 blog. "The Windrush generation’s immigration status should never have been in question, and the cause of their predicament is recent: the 2014 Immigration Act, which contained the flagship policies of the then home secretary, Theresa May. Foremost among them was the plan to create a ‘hostile environment’, with the aim of making it harder for illegal immigrants to work and live in the UK. By forcing landlords, employers, banks and NHS services to run immigration status checks, the policy pushed the mentality of border control into everyday social and economic life. The 2016 Immigration Act extended it further, introducing tougher penalties for employers and landlords who fail to play their part in maintaining the ‘hostile environment’, and adding to the list of privileges that can be taken away from those who cannot prove their right to live and work in the UK. ... There is nothing accidental about the grotesque events that have befallen the Windrush generation. We need to ask how public policy and administration became so warped as to enact them. Not only has the politics become delusional, nowhere more so than in the case of Cameron’s pledge: our entire way of understanding and talking about migration has gone awry. When home secretaries speak of ‘illegal immigrants’, they mostly mean people who entered the country legally. When they speak of ‘borders’, they often mean hospitals, homes, workplaces and register offices. As the experience of the 20th century warned, when language stops working, all manner of things are possible."

Experiment 20: the women who defied a controversial experiment – film by Kathryn Millard, distributed through The Guardian online. "Experiment 20 dramatises the stories of three women who took part in the psychologist Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiments in 1962, and insisted on being heard. More than 800 people were recruited for what they were told was a study about learning and memory. The scenario they took part in urged them to inflict electric shocks on another person." “I wanted to bring the women participants from 1962 to life for audiences now. Scientists often record human interactions as numbers and data. But the arts are good at exploring the complexity and messiness of human behaviour,” Millard says.

The Gender Recognition Act is controversial: can a path to common ground be found? - article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. "Woman’s Place formed last autumn out of a conversation ... between a group of friends – trade unionists, academics, lawyers and others – worried that they had nowhere to debate freely. They wanted to discuss the potential implications for women and girls of sharing single-sex spaces – from domestic violence refuges and female prisons to swimming pool changing rooms and Brownie packs – with male-bodied people, and to explore what they see as the risk of predatory non-trans men finding a way to abuse such access to reach vulnerable women. They wanted to discuss bodies and biology without being told that mentioning vaginas excludes women who don’t have them. ... Clara Barker, a trans scientist at the University of Oxford, ... considered going to the meeting after an invite.... But she was afraid of encountering in real life the abuse she experiences online, where jeers about how trans women are really men jostle with threats to bash 'terfs' (trans exclusionary radical feminists, a derogatory term for women questioning trans rights). While the trans movement has its dark side, also hovering on the outer fringes of the gender-critical camp are a handful of men with far-right associations, attracted by a perceived fight against political correctness.... Yet beyond the shouting, the beginning of a more nuanced debate is discernible; one involving trans women who crave equality but not at vulnerable women’s expense, feminists with divided loyalties, and people wanting more than toxic Facebook slanging matches."

Don’t let bitcoin greed blind you to the potential of blockchain technology - article by John Naughton in The Guardian. "Implicit in the blockchain concept is an endearing strain of technocratic utopianism, a hope that technology can overcome some aspects of human frailty and corruption. The key to that lies in ... the idea that a blockchain can record 'not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value' in a ledger that cannot be falsified. This is a really big idea, because well-governed societies depend on keeping certain kinds of documentation – birth and death certificates, title deeds, wills and so on – in ledgers that are both public and secure. In industrialised societies we have achieved this by having trustworthy institutions (registrars, solicitors, local authorities, etc), which have legal responsibilities and democratic oversight. But other societies are not so fortunate. In developing or authoritarian countries, for example, registries of land titles are critically vulnerable to tampering by corrupt officials. Using a blockchain to hold such titles could provide a way of ensuring that credible records endure, which is why countries such as the Republic of Georgia are beginning to do it."

How Britain Really Works by Stig Abell: the facts about a muddle of a country - review by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. "Stig Abell’s aim was to come up with a modern, adult version of those children’s encyclopedias a pre-Google generation grew up dipping in and out of, a sort of Schott’s Miscellany of Britain. But while there’s an endearingly old-fashioned air to the idea of a book containing actual facts, rather than grand provocative theories about Britishness, it takes on an interestingly new light in an era of fake news. The combination of people who don’t know what they don’t know – and so may be dangerously overconfident about their ability to tell truth from fiction in the context of the type of political mendacity seen during the referendum campaign – along with a torrent of highly plausible, maliciously misleading information on social media, has not been a happy one. This book pulls off the difficult trick of being a potted primer to deeper issues behind the news – from economics and politics via health policy to how the media works – without being patronising or assuming too much knowledge."

Why are we living in an age of anger? is it because of the 50-year rage cycle? - article by Zoe Williams in The Guardian. "There is a discipline known as cliodynamics, developed at the start of the century by the scientist Peter Turchin, which plots historical events by a series of mathematical measures. ... These measures yield a map of history in which you can see spikes of rage roughly every 50 years: 1870, 1920, 1970 .... Cycles of violence are not always unproductive – they take in civil rights, union and suffragette movements. Indeed, all social movements of consequence start with unrest, whether in the form of strike action, protest or riot. ... We are in an age where the trigger event can be something as trivial as a cranky git who does not like nudity. Thanks to Facebook, 15,000 people can get a righteous thrill of expressed rage. ... Social media has given us a way to transmute [our] anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. ... Neus Herrero, a researcher at the University of Valencia, 'stimulated' anger in 30 men (with 'first-person' remarks) and ... discovered an oddity in 'motivational direction' – usually, positive emotions make you want to get closer to the source, while negative ones make you want to withdraw. Anger has a 'motivation of closeness'.... Like any stimulant, it has addictive properties: you become habituated to it and start to rove around looking for things to make you angry. ... The important consequences are not for your own health, but rather for that of society as a whole. Unprocessed anger pollutes the social sphere. Every outburst legitimises the next."

Smart knows that’s not English: how adland took a mallet to the language - article by Christopher Beanland in The Guardian. "Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as 'Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid'. Then came Zoopla with its 'Smart knows' campaign. ...Today’s language-mangling ad campaigns run the greasy gamut from the somewhat confusing 'Live your unexpected Luxembourg' to the head-scratching 'Start your impossible'. 'In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it "Language DJing" or "Langling",' jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. 'In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to "Think more good".'

Our new working class needs help with new struggles - article by Kenan Malik in The Guardian. "What is it to be working class? The conventional image is of the industrial worker, usually male and white. But, as Claire Ainsley, executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows in her book The New Working Class, such traditional workers make up less than a third of the actual working class. Four out of 10 workers are in the service industry, while 30% form the 'precariat' – lacking job security and benefits, often shifting from one short-term position to another. It’s a working class more precarious, less organised and comprising more women, migrants and minorities. ... What defines the new working class is its fragmented character and lack of organisational power. Few, Ainsley observes, identify themselves as 'working class'. So we need to think not just about policies that might appeal, but the organisations and struggles that might create political and social coherence. Cleaners striking for better conditions. Tenants battling to retain public housing. Unions, such as the IWGB, representing workers in precarious jobs."

Detoxifying social media would be easier than you might think - article by William Perrin in The Guardian. "The UK has struggled to find a way to regulate away the poisonous byproducts of social media. There’s much talk of treating platforms as publishers, but there’s been little follow-through as to how this would work to prevent harm.... There are important clues from our past on how to effectively regulate the tech giants. ... Back in the 1950s, the law to protect people from physical harm on other people’s property was a confusing mess... . The brilliant former Nuremberg prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe... legislated to create a 'duty of care' on people or companies that control land or property to make it as safe as reasonably possible for people on or in it. In the 1970s, a similar tool was used to reform the byzantine and ineffective health and safety rules that had been built on a century of specific laws introduced in response to specific accidents and tragedies.... Statutory duties of care work because they define a general problem to be solved, without getting caught up in the specifics of how it happened. This cuts through the complexity of case law to focus on either harm or safety."

Research every teacher should know: the value of student evaluation - article by Bradley Busch in The Guardian. "Does the student evaluation of a teacher bear any relation to that teacher’s effectiveness? Are student ratings of teachers more of a popularity contest than anything else? ... The authors of [a 2017 publication in Studies in Educational Evaluation] stated that, 'despite more than 75 years of sustained effort, there is presently no evidence supporting the widespread belief that students learn more from professors who receive higher student evaluation ratings'.... Other research has explored why students rate some teachers as more effective than others. Two main factors might be at play here. The first is students’ prior interest in the subject. ... The second factor influencing student evaluation is confirmation bias... The authors of this review concluded that universities and colleges may need to give minimal or no weight to student evaluation ratings. This is not to say that students’ opinions about teachers are not important, but that they shouldn’t be important criteria for measuring teachers’ effectiveness."

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber: the myth of capitalist efficiency - review by Eliane Glaser in The Guardian. "I had a bullshit job once. It involved answering the phone for an important man, except the phone didn’t ring for hours on end, so I spent the time guiltily converting my PhD into a book. I’ve also had several jobs that were not bullshit but were steadily bullshitised: interesting jobs in the media and academia that were increasingly taken up with filling out compliance forms and time allocation surveys. I’ve also had a few shit jobs, but that’s something different. Toilets need to be cleaned. But to have a bullshit job is to know that if it were to disappear tomorrow it would make no difference to the world: in fact, it might make the world a better place. When I read David Graeber’s essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine in 2013, I felt somehow vindicated.... The essay went viral, receiving more than 1m hits, and was translated into a dozen languages.... As is the way in the world of reactive non-fiction publishing, a book followed. ... In an age that supremely prizes capitalist efficiency, the proliferation of pointless jobs is a puzzle. Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need? Since bullshit jobs make no economic sense, Graeber argues, their function must be political. A population kept busy with make-work is less likely to revolt."

Natives by Akala: the hip-hop artist on race and class in the ruins of empire - review by David Olusoga in The Guardian. "What was it like to grow up poor, mixed race and politicised in the Britain of the 1980s and 90s? Why is the structural racism that so evidently determines the life chances of so many non‑white people virtually invisible to some of their fellow citizens? Why do the majority of people in Britain today remain convinced that the empire was a force for good in the world, despite the growing weight of evidence to the contrary? And how does a bookish youth with dreams of becoming a scientist turn, in just a few years, into a knife-carrying teenager? These, and multiple others, are the questions at the centre of Natives, the first book by the hip-hop artist and performer Akala.... Akala carefully picks apart two pervasive and inter-connected myths; the delusion that we live in a meritocracy and the fantasy that the exceptional achievements of some black people are proof that the obstacles of poverty and race can be overcome by all. He takes his escape from poverty not as proof of personal exceptionalism but of the vagaries and chaotic injustice of race, class and privilege. There is no blindness to the fact that a different fall of the dice might have led to a radically different outcome."

Forget Trump: populism is the cure, not the disease - article by Thomas Frank in The Guardian. "Why are the traditional parties of the left in the western world being defeated in so many places by outrageous blowhards of the right? The answer most often given is that rightwing politicians have discovered and embraced a diabolical form of super-politics known as 'populism'. ... [For example,] Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs Democracy, ... [uses 'populism' to mean] the species of nasty rightwing politics associated with Trump and various European bad guys such as the leaders of Hungary and Poland. He uses the word as a kind of synonym for racist tyranny, and in his account populist politicians are villainous in ways that go beyond the profession’s conventions.... [However,] historians typically trace the populist rhetorical tradition in America back to the time of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. A radical leftwing political party that called itself 'Populist' swept much of the country in the 1890s, and protest movements described as populist have come and gone. Populism’s evil rightwing doppelganger is usually dated to 1968, when George Wallace and Richard Nixon figured out how to turn the language of working-class majoritarianism against liberalism. Rightwing populists have been building movements and winning elections in the US ever since.... Today Trump is president, and the connection between his rise and the Democrats’ renunciation of their historical identity should be obvious. He squats in their old place in the political ecosystem, pretending to care about ordinary Americans and preposterously claiming to be our instrument for getting even with the rich and the strong. The right name for Trump’s politics is 'demagoguery' or 'pseudo-populism'.... Populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism. It is a tradition of rhetorical protest that extends from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt to Bernie Sanders and on to the guy who just cooked your hamburger or filled your gas tank . It is powerful stuff. But protest isn’t the property of any particular party. Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up."

Breaking the silence: are we getting better at talking about death? - article by Edmund de Waal in The Guardian. "Having spent the last nine months reading books submitted for the Wellcome book prize, celebrating writing on medicine, health and 'what it is to be human', it has become clear to me that we are living through an extraordinary moment where we are much possessed by death. Death is the most private and personal of our acts, our own solitariness is total at the moment of departure. But the ways in which we talk about death, the registers of our expressions of grief or our silences about the process of dying are part of a complex public space."

China is taking digital control of its people to chilling lengths - article by John Naughton in The Observer. "In the old days, western snobbery led to the complacent view that the Chinese could not originate, only copy. One hears this less now, as visitors to China return goggle-eyed at the extent to which its people have integrated digital technology into daily life. One colleague of mine recently returned exasperated because he had been expected to pay for everything there with his phone. Since he possesses only an ancient Nokia handset, he was unable to comply and had been reduced to mendicant status, having to ask his Chinese hosts to pay for everything.... More significantly, the country’s technocratic rulers are adapting the ubiquitous 'reputation rating' system by which online platforms try to get feedback on vendor and customer reliability. The government is beginning to roll out its social credit system, which is designed to 'raise the awareness of integrity and the level of trustworthiness in Chinese society;. It will focus on four aspects of behaviour: 'honesty in government affairs', 'commercial integrity', 'societal integrity' and 'judicial credibility'."

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