How to be smart and clueless at the same time

Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘defence’ of Facebook’s role in the election of Trump provides a vivid demonstration of how someone can have a very high IQ and yet be completely clueless — as Zeynep Tufecki points out in a splendid NYT OpEd piece:

Mr. Zuckerberg’s preposterous defense of Facebook’s failure in the 2016 presidential campaign is a reminder of a structural asymmetry in American politics. It’s true that mainstream news outlets employ many liberals, and that this creates some systemic distortions in coverage (effects of trade policies on lower-income workers and the plight of rural America tend to be underreported, for example). But bias in the digital sphere is structurally different from that in mass media, and a lot more complicated than what programmers believe.

In a largely automated platform like Facebook, what matters most is not the political beliefs of the employees but the structures, algorithms and incentives they set up, as well as what oversight, if any, they employ to guard against deception, misinformation and illegitimate meddling. And the unfortunate truth is that by design, business model and algorithm, Facebook has made it easy for it to be weaponized to spread misinformation and fraudulent content. Sadly, this business model is also lucrative, especially during elections. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, called the 2016 election “a big deal in terms of ad spend” for the company, and it was. No wonder there has been increasing scrutiny of the platform.

One rule for big data, another for the rest of us…

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, much of the tech world was temporarily unhinged by a circus in Cupertino, where a group of ageing hipster billionaires unveiled some impressive technology while miming the argot of teenage fandom (incredible, amazing, awesome, etc) and pretending that they were changing the world. Meanwhile, over in the real world, another tech story was unfolding. Except that this is not just a tech story: it’s a morality tale about how we have come to inhabit a world in which corporate irresponsibility, incompetence and greed goes unpunished, while little people can’t get a loan because they have an incorrect blemish on their credit records, which is almost impossible to detect and correct.

This story concerns Equifax, an outfit of which I’m guessing you’ve never heard. Nor had I. It’s one of the three largest American credit agencies (the others are Experian and TransUnion). Its business – its only business – is to collect, securely store and aggregate information on more than 800 million individual consumers and nearly 90m businesses worldwide…

Read on

Oh, and there’s a UK angle on this…

Now here’s a good Freedom of Information request

CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] have lodged a Freedom of Information request with the US Treasury Department. They are seeking:

  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to travel to Lexington, Kentucky on Monday, August 21, accompanied by his wife Louise Linton.
  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane for any purpose since his appointment as Treasury Secretary.

The rationale

On August 21, 2017, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton travelled to Lexington, Kentucky, purportedly for the Secretary to present remarks along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a luncheon sponsored by the Louisville chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc. Afterward, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife “headed to Fort Know…to tour the bullion reserve at the Army post and view the eclipse.”

The requested records would shed light on the justification for Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane, rather than a commercial flight, for a trip that seems to have been planned around the solar eclipse and to enable the Secretary to secure a viewpoint in the path of the eclipse’s totality. At a time of expected deep cuts to the federal budget, the taxpayers have a significant interest in learning the extent to which Secretary Mnuchin has used government planes for travel in lieu of commercial planes, and the justification for that use.

Footnote This all stems from a spectacular own goal by Mrs Mnuchin (aka Louise Linton).

Americans’ promiscuous addiction to the untrue

From How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen.

How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God — not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables — the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

Russian hacking — what’s getting lost in the fuss about Trump

Good Editorial in the NYT.

So let’s take a moment to recall the sheer scope and audacity of the Russian efforts.

Under direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, hackers connected to Russian military intelligence broke into the email accounts of senior officials at the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. They passed tens of thousands of emails to the website WikiLeaks, which posted them throughout the last months of the campaign in an attempt to damage the Clinton campaign.

Even more disturbing, hackers sought access to voter databases in at least 39 states, and in some cases tried to alter or delete voter data. They also appear to have tried to take over the computers of more than 100 local election officials in the days before the Nov. 8 vote.

But the only part of this that appears to interest Trump is the threat it poses to the perceived legitimacy of his electoral win. He’s a narcissist, remember.

The Tory approach to Health and Safety

Well, well.

Q: Who said this five years ago?

“I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all. I don’t think there’s any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster. You’ve got to look at the quantity of rules – and we’re cutting them back; you’ve got to look at the way they’re enforced – and we are making sure that is more reasonable; we’re taking self-employed people out of whole classes of health and safety regulation. But the key about health and safety is not just the rules, the laws and regulations – it’s also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.”

A: David Cameron, sometime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Source

And here’s what Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London, said about this cavalier view:

“Those who mock health and safety, regulations and red tape need to take a hard look at the consequences of cutting these and ask themselves whether Grenfell Tower is a price worth paying. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.”

Who’s missing from the tech industry? Er, women

This morning’s Observer column:

In front of me as I write this is a photograph. It’s an interior shot of one of the buildings on Facebook’s campus in California. It looks as big as an aircraft hangar, except that it has steel pillars at regular intervals. The pillars are labelled to enable people to find their desks. It’s all open-plan: nobody in this building – not even the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg – has a private office. And as far as the eye can see are desks with large-screen iMacs and Aeron desk chairs.

The people working at these desks are the folks who write, curate, design and maintain the algorithms that determine what appears in your Facebook newsfeed. I’ve been looking at the picture until my eyes begin to pixelate. What I’ve been trying to determine is how many women there are. I can see only three. So I ask a colleague who has better eyesight. She finds another two. And that’s it: as far as the eye can see, there are only five women in this picture.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where most of the digital technology that currently dominates our lives is created…

Read on

And while we’re on the subject…

Recode has recently obtained a copy of an email that Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, sent to all his staff before a staff outing in Miami in 2013.

The subject line read: “URGENT, URGENT – READ THIS NOW OR ELSE!!!!!,” he also noted at the top: “You better read this or I’ll kick your ass.”

Here’s the gist (from Recode):

Among the dos that Kalanick advised: “Have a great fucking time. This is a celebration! We’ve all earned it.” He also noted that “Miami’s transportation sucks ass,” the first shot in what became a battle to have Uber serve that city.

That was the tame part of the email, which Kalanick actually sent again the next year when there were 1,800 employees at Uber.

The don’ts advice was much more specific, giving information about everything from vomiting (a $200 “puke charge”) to drug use to throwing beer kegs off buildings to, well, proper fornication between employees (and sometimes, apparently, more than one).

Wrote Kalanick: “Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

FML, in internet slang, means “Fuck my life.” Welcome to Silicon Valley startup culture.

Enough said? If you were a woman, would you want to work in this frat-house culture?

How things change (and how corporate valuations are crazy)

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Amazon’s IPO. It’s market cap stands today at $459.5 billion. Walmart, meanwhile stands at $229.5 billion. So Amazon is apparently twice as valuable as Walmart.

And yet according to Recode

Walmart has well more than three times Amazon’s annual revenue, and five times its net income. But Jeff Bezos and Amazon have sold a vision of revenue growth over huge net income figures — and Wall Street has largely bought in.

Also: Amazon employs 341,500 people. Walmart provides jobs for 2.3 million.

Go figure.

Voodoo economics 2.0

Well, well. Here we go again. From the Boston Globe:

WASHINGTON — A white cloth napkin, now displayed in the National Museum of American History, helped change the course of modern economics. On it, the economist Arthur Laffer in 1974 sketched a curve meant to illustrate his theory that cutting taxes would spur enough economic growth to generate new tax revenue.

More than 40 years after those scribblings, President Donald Trump is reviving the so-called Laffer curve as he is set to announce the broad outlines of a tax overhaul on Wednesday. What the first President George Bush once called “voodoo economics” is back, as Trump’s advisers argue that deep cuts in corporate taxes will ultimately pay for themselves with an explosion of new business and job creation.

Wikipedia says:

The Laffer curve postulates that no tax revenue will be raised at the extreme tax rates of 0% and 100% and that there must be at least one rate which maximizes government taxation revenue. The Laffer curve is typically represented as a graph which starts at 0% tax with zero revenue, rises to a maximum rate of revenue at an intermediate rate of taxation, and then falls again to zero revenue at a 100% tax rate. The shape of the curve is uncertain and disputed.1

One implication of the Laffer curve is that increasing tax rates beyond a certain point will be counter-productive for raising further tax revenue…

As the Globe observes:

what the president has called a tax reform plan is looking more like a tax cut plan, showering taxpayers with rate reductions without offsetting the full cost by closing loopholes or raising taxes elsewhere. In the short run, such a plan would add many billions of dollars to the national deficit. Trump contends that it will be worth it in the long run.

“The tax plan will pay for itself with economic growth,” Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary and main architect of the plan, told reporters this week.)

Questions: does any serious economist believe this? And isn’t it interesting that the proposed tax cuts will — coincidentally — benefit the Trump family and its subsidiaries?