Friday 1 July, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face
The marble image of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

  • Wordsworth, The Prelude.

(Wordsworth was an undergraduate in St John’s College, Cambridge, which is next door to Trinity, in whose chapel the statue of Newton stands.)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Wagner | Parsifal | Karfreitagszauber (Act 3, Good Friday Music) | Rudolf Kempe


Hypnotically beautiful, even on a normal Friday.

Long Read of the Day

Our Constitution is “actually trash” — but the Supreme Court can be fixed

One of the great mysteries about the US — at least to outsiders — is its astonishing Koranic obsession with ‘originalist’ interpretations of its Constitution, a document which was drafted by slave-owners who enshrined their business model (including a definition of black people as three-fifths human) in the document’s prose.

All of which makes this transcript of a Salon interview with Elie Mystal, the author of a bracing critique of the sacred text, a salutary read.

Here’s a sample:

 You were recently on “The View” talking about your book and created some controversy. The first line in “Let Me Retort” is “Our constitution is not good,” followed up a few paragraphs later with “Our constitution is actually trash.” You’re obviously trying to challenge people. Tell people what your goal is there.

There are two things going on there. One, the veneration that this country has for the Constitution is simply weird. It’s crazy. It’s not what other countries do for their written documents. We act like this thing was etched in stone by the finger of God, when actually it was hotly contested and debated, scrawled out over a couple of weeks in the summer in Philadelphia in 1787, with a bunch of rich, white politicians making deals with each other, right? These politicians were white slavers, white colonizers and white abolitionists — who were nonetheless willing to make deals with slavers and colonists. No person of color was allowed into the convention. Their thoughts were not included. No women were allowed to have a voice or a vote in the drafting of the Constitution. And quite frankly, not even poor white people were allowed to have a voice or a thought in what the Constitution was.

Do read on.

Facial recognition technology is as toxic as plutonium, so why isn’t it outlawed?

Answer: partly because of the inertia of governments, partly because of the resistance of tech companies (with one notable exception) and partly because our laws about biometric surveillance are woefully inadequate.

The first sign that things might be about to change for the better comes from a wide-ranging investigation by a prominent British lawyer that was commissioned by the Ada Lovelace Institute. It’s come up with ten recommendations, of which these are the most important (IMO):

  • There is an urgent need for a new, technologically neutral, statutory framework. Legislation should set out the process that must be followed, and considerations that must be taken into account, by public and private bodies before biometric technology can be deployed against members of the public.
  • The scope of the legislation should extend to the use of biometrics for unique identification of individuals, and for classification. Simply because the use of biometric data does not result in unique identification does not remove the rights-intrusive capacity of biometric systems, and the legal framework needs to provide appropriate safeguards in this area.
  • A legally binding code of practice governing the use of LFR (Live Facial Recognition) should be published as soon as possible. We consider that a specific code of practice for police use of LFR is necessary, but a code of practice that regulates other uses of LFR, including use by private entities and public-private data sharing in the deployment of facial recognition products, is also required urgently.
  • The use of LFR in public should be suspended until the framework envisaged by earlier Recommendations is in place.
  • The regulation and oversight of biometrics should be consolidated, clarified and properly resourced. The overlapping and fragmented nature of oversight at present impedes good governance. We have significant concerns about the proposed incorporation of the role of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner into the existing duties of the ICO. We believe that the prominence and importance of biometrics means that it requires either a specific independent role, and/or a specialist Commissioner or Deputy Commissioner within the ICO.

This is a great piece of work. Congrats to the Lovelace Institute for funding and supporting it.

Here we go again

The leak some weeks ago of the US Supreme Court’s intention to reverse Roe v. Wade triggered the expected spike in online disinformation, conspiracy theories, trolling and worse. So we can expect the next spike to be even more intense. And we can also resignedly look forward to the inability or unwillingness of social media companies to take effective remedial action, even though it was pretty clear what was coming down the line.

There is now, though, an interesting added complication. As the Bloomberg ‘Fully Charged’ newsletter put it, the SCOTUS decision

also signals some complex decision-making for the world’s largest tech platforms as the US becomes divided into states where abortion is legal, and states where it is illegal. Companies have historically adjusted their policies to fit geographically-specific legal requirements, and thirteen states have so-called trigger laws that would automatically ban abortions—including, in some of them, laws that would punish citizens for assisting pregnant people in obtaining one. Would the companies’ operations in those states geo-block information that would allow users to access accurate information supporting an abortion decision? These are open questions that we will have to see play out over the next few weeks or months.

We will indeed. It also nicely highlights the way in which what was hitherto a single polity is now fragmenting. And it’s no longer a split on a North-South axis. An American friend I spoke to the other day was speculating that if the US does indeed fragment, it will be into four fragments: the New England group; the old Confederacy; Northern Texas plus California, Oregon and Washington State; and the flyover states in the middle of the country. A bit like the Balkans on steroids.

My commonplace booklet

As readers of this blog will know, Dave Winer is one of my heroes. He’s a gifted software developer with a string of great products and services (including outliners, RSS and podcasting) to his credit. And his blog, which has been been running continuously for 27 years, 8 months, 22 days, 22 hours, 6 minutes and 30 seconds when I last checked, is one of the wonders of the online world.

In recent weeks he’s been reading Elie Mystal’s book (see today’s Long Read above) and thinking about its implications. The other day he recorded a podcast about these in his inimitable, laid-back, unpretentious but compelling style. It’s 28 minutes long but it won’t feel like that.

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