The system failed. It happens, even in Germany

From today’s New York Times:

BERLIN — Even in the nightmarish immediate aftermath of the plane crash in the French Alps on Tuesday, Carsten Spohr, the former pilot who runs Germany’s Lufthansa airline, was sure of one thing: the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, 27, was “100 percent” fit to fly.

Mr. Lubitz, after all, had been through the widely respected Lufthansa training system — “one of the best in the world,” Mr. Spohr said — and had met all other requirements to fly commercial aircraft.

In the decades since it emerged from the ruins of Nazism, this country — which reunited in 1990 and in recent years has dominated Europe as its economic powerhouse — has come to define itself as orderly, rule-driven and well-engineered. It is an identity that is both an antidote to its past and a blueprint for economic success. From Mercedes-Benz cars — “the best,” says a current ad campaign — to its countless tidy towns, Germany purrs excellence.

Now Mr. Lubitz — born and raised in one of those pretty towns — has upended that well-ordered world and challenged other assumptions built into German life. As Mr. Spohr noted, the co-pilot’s terrifying deed was a singular, perhaps unstoppable disaster. Yet somehow the system failed.

Sure, it did. Systems do. Even in Germany.

The fightback begins here

At last!

After Nigel Farage’s exclusion from a television programme and the assassination of Jeremy Clarkson, elections have been suspended and traditional British common sense has been classed as hate speech.

Toynbee said: “We namby-pambies, we do-gooders, we pinkos have emerged from our ivory towers and hypocritically large houses to fill the power vacuum left by the downfall of the Chipping Norton set.

“From now on, you think only what our think-pieces tell you to think.”

Resistance leaders Rod Liddle and Peter Hitchens have gone underground using a secret network of national newspapers to continue bravely saying the things they say they are not allowed to say.

Alas, only a spoof

An algorithmic approach to truth?

Apropos our research project’s recent symposium on virality, and in particular the relative speeds of online dissemination of truths and untruths, this paper from Google researchers is interesting. At the moment, Google ranks search results using a proprietary algorithm (or, more likely, set of algorithms) which perform some kind of ‘peer review’ of web pages. The essence of it seems to be that pages that are linked to extensively are ranked more highly than pages with fewer inbound links. This has obvious drawbacks in some cases, particularly when conspiracist thinking is involved. A web page or site which proposes a sensationalist interpretations for a major newsworthy event, for example, may be extensively quoted across the Internet, even though it might be full of misinformation or falsehoods.

The Google researchers have been exploring a method of evaluating web pages on the basis of factual accuracy. “A source that has few false facts is considered to be trustworthy”, they write. “The facts are automatically extracted from each source by information extraction methods commonly used to construct knowledge bases.” They propose a way to compute a “trustworthiness score” – Knowledge-Based Trust (KBT) — using fairly abstruse probabilistic modelling.

The paper reports that they tested the model on a test database and concluded that it enabled them to compute “the true trustworthiness levels of the sources”. They then ran the model on a database of 2.8B facts extracted from the web, and thereby estimated the trustworthiness of 119M webpages. They claim that “manual evaluation of a subset of the results confirms the effectiveness of the method”.

If this finding turns out to be replicable, then it’s an interesting result. The idea that ‘truth’ might be computable will keep philosophers amused an occupied for ages. The idea of a ‘fact’ is itself a contested notion in many fields, because treating something as a fact involves believing a whole set of ‘touchstone theories’. (Believing the reading on a voltmeter, for example, means believing a set of theories which link the movement of the needle on the dial to the underlying electrical phenomenon that is being measured.) And of course the Google approach would not be applicable to many of the pages on the Web, because they don’t make factual assertions or claims. It might, however, be useful in studying online sources which discuss or advocate conspiracy theories.

Even so, it won’t be without its problems. In an interesting article in Friday’s Financial Times, Robert Shrimsley points out that the Google approach is essentially using “fidelity to proved facts as a proxy for trust[worthiness]”. This works fine with single facts, he thinks, but runs into trouble with more complex networks of factual information.

And what about propositions that were originally regarded as ‘facts’ but were later invalidated. “In 1976, “, Shrimsley writes,

“the so-called Birmingham Six were officially guilty of bombings that killed 21 people. Fifteen years later their convictions were quashed and they were officially innocent. This took place in a pre-internet world but campaigns to overturn established truths take time and do not always start on sober, respected news sites. The trust score could make it harder for such campaigns to bubble up.”

And of course we’re still left with the question of what is established truth anyway.

Advice to students

Now here’s a fresh way to talk to your students — the way David Carr advised his students at Boston University:

I grade based on where you start and where you end. Don’t work on me for a better grade — work on your work and making the work of those around you better. Show industriousness and seriousness and produce surpassing work if you want an exceptional grade.

Personal Standards

Don’t raise your hand in class. This isn’t Montessori, I expect people to speak up when they like, but don’t speak over anyone. Respect the opinions of others.

This is an intense, once-a-week immersion on the waterfront of modern media-making. If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.

If you text or email during class, I will ignore you as you ignore me. It won’t go well.

I expect you to behave as an adult and will treat you like one. I don’t want to parent you — I want to teach you.

Excuses: Don’t make them — they won’t work. Stories are supposed to be on the page, and while a spoken-word performance might explain everything, it will excuse nothing. The assignments for each week are due by start of class without exception unless specific arrangements have made based on an exceptional circumstance.

If you truly have a personal or family emergency, your welfare comes first. But nothing short of that will have any traction with me.

The Downton Abbey of bondage

Lovely, scathing review by Anthony Lane, which contains the following choice extract:

Think of it as the “Downton Abbey” of bondage, designed neither to menace nor to offend but purely to cosset the fatigued imagination. You get dirtier talk in most action movies, and more genitalia in a TED talk on Renaissance sculpture. True, Dakota Johnson does her best, and her semi-stifled giggles suggest that, unlike James, she can see the funny side of all this nonsense. When Christian, alarmed by Ana’s maidenhood, considers “rectifying the situation,” she replies, “I’m a situation?” — a sharp rejoinder, although if I were her I’d be much more worried about the rectifying.

Great stuff! And no I haven’t read the book.

David Carr, RIP


David Carr, the New York Times Media reporter and columnist, is dead, at the age of 58. At the end of the paper’s obituary is this quote:

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” Mr. Carr wrote at the conclusion of “The Night of the Gun,” “but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

The caper ended yesterday, when he collapsed suddenly in the office.

He was one of the best, wisest and nicest journalists I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. I will miss his (croaky) voice, his integrity, his humanity. He had been to the edge of the abyss of drug dependency, and came back — to make the world a better and more intelligible place. May he rest in peace.

See him in action here:

LATER Jack Shafer wrote this on Politico:

In a business over-populated with characters, Carr projected an original persona that was one part shambling hipster, one part Tom Waits, a pinch of Jimmy Breslin, and a dollop of the Mad Hatter. A master interrogator, he used his guise the way an anglerfish uses the wriggling growth on its head to attract and then devour other fish. Interview subjects who paid attention to Carr’s jittery gestures and boho-lingo, thinking him a harmless eccentric, found afterwards that he’d picked their pockets for information.

Nobody seems to know when Carr became Carr, the enigma who spoke in an infectious code, not even Burl Gilyard, a Minnesota journalist of my acquaintance who met him in 1990 and later worked for him in 1993 at the alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader. Gilyard maintains that Carr was “always like that.” If you asked him how he was doing, he’d shoot back, “Workin’ hard, getting’ lucky.” Always ambitious and ever the ham, Carr had a way of bee-lining for the spotlight, even low-wattage ones like the one flung by this 1984 Minnesota public-access talk-show about local news—decades before becoming a New Yorker and a regular guest on Charlie Rose, BBC America, ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS NewsHour, and other TV venues. From the beginning, he gave good soundbite, tossing off ad hoc paragraphs that lesser writers would have hoarded for a print piece later. He had that sort of confidence only a few writers possess: No matter how badly he abused her, the muse would always serve him.

And see also the collection of rememberances curated by Greg Marx in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Wolf Hall and the evolution of ‘civilised’ values

I’ve been watching Peter Kosminsky’s terrific adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and thinking how much its portrayal of the Tudor court, with its intrigues, back-stabbing, arse-licking and capriciousness reminds me of British newspaper offices in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s a good deal of callous savagery also, most of it discreetly off camera. This was an era, remember, when people were routinely tortured for their religious beliefs, and executed using a variety of technologies.

All part of Britain’s fabled ‘island story’, so beloved of Michael Gove. How nice, then, to see this observation in John Sutherland’s review of the third episode of the series:

This paper called the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh “a new depth of depravity”. One agrees. But, as Mantel chronicles, if you take the long view, it’s as British a depravity as roast beef. How much foundational cruelty does a proudly “liberal” civilisation such as ours require in forming itself? This is something explored in Mantel’s trilogy. “Quite a lot” would seem to be her answer.

State cruelty has different values, and different expressions of itself, over time. Michel Foucault has taught us that. Videotaped beheading is currently regarded as “vile”; in Henry VIII’s day, beheading was, on occasion, a privilege for the blue-blooded when condemned. Since the charge against him was treason, More should, by law, have suffered that most horrible of punishments – hanging, drawing and quartering. The sentence was commuted by the king. More’s noble head was lopped off in one clean stroke. He was dead before he felt the cut. “A moment’s pain,” he tells Cromwell. Aristocratic euthanasia. “Master” Bainham was less lucky.*

[James Bainham was burned alive as a heretic after being tortured by More.]

Inequality is a feature, not a bug of neoliberalism (contd.)

Even the masters of the neoliberal universe are beginning to fret about this, as Seumas Milne reports:

The billionaires and corporate oligarchs meeting in Davos this week are getting worried about inequality. It might be hard to stomach that the overlords of a system that has delivered the widest global economic gulf in human history should be handwringing about the consequences of their own actions.

But even the architects of the crisis-ridden international economic order are starting to see the dangers. It’s not just the maverick hedge-funder George Soros, who likes to describe himself as a class traitor. Paul Polman, Unilever chief executive, frets about the “capitalist threat to capitalism”. Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, fears capitalism might indeed carry Marx’s “seeds of its own destruction” and warns that something needs to be done.

The scale of the crisis has been laid out for them by the charity Oxfam. Just 80 individuals now have the same net wealth as 3.5 billion people – half the entire global population. Last year, the best-off 1% owned 48% of the world’s wealth, up from 44% five years ago. On current trends, the richest 1% will have pocketed more than the other 99% put together next year. The 0.1% have been doing even better, quadrupling their share of US income since the 1980s.

What they’re really worried about, of course, is that the hoi-polloi might finally tumble to what’s been going on. Democracy has a slow-burning fuse, but in some places, notably Greece, it’s beginning to fizz.

“Escalating inequality”, continues Milne,

has also been a crucial factor in the economic crisis of the past seven years, squeezing demand and fuelling the credit boom. We don’t just know that from the research of the French economist Thomas Piketty or the British authors of the social study The Spirit Level. After years of promoting Washington orthodoxy, even the western-dominated OECD and IMF argue that the widening income and wealth gap has been key to the slow growth of the past two neoliberal decades. The British economy would have been almost 10% larger if inequality hadn’t mushroomed. Now the richest are using austerity to help themselves to an even larger share of the cake.

But there is one area of the world where this grim cycle doesn’t appear to operate:

The big exception to the tide of inequality in recent years has been Latin America. Progressive governments across the region turned their back on a disastrous economic model, took back resources from corporate control and slashed inequality. The numbers living on less than $2 a day have fallen from 108 million to 53 million in little over a decade. China, which also rejected much of the neoliberal catechism, has seen sharply rising inequality at home but also lifted more people out of poverty than the rest of the world combined, offsetting the growing global income gap.

And the implication of all this? The economic system doesn’t have to produce inequality. It’s just one version of it that does. So we need a change in the system. And for that we need a new politics. The big question is when will it arrive? And will the current intensification of ‘security’ stop it in its tracks?