Wednesday 13 January, 2021

Our Research Centre has an interesting Zoom Webinar tomorrow (Thursday 14th):

Ron Deibert and David Runciman on Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society

It’s free and open to all who are interested. Time: 17:00-18:30

To register, click here.

Quote of the Day

“The most interesting things are always happening behind one”

  • Iris Murdoch

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joe Brown | Here Comes The Sun (Live)


Nice rendition of a lovely Beatles number.

Long Read of the Day

 Where Journalism Fails

Wonderful essay by Doc Searls on why and how journalism was suckered by Trump. It’s the most insightful piece on this puzzle that I’ve come across. Doc spotted Trump’s significance before he was elected in 2016. This piece was published in 2019 and I missed it. Ouch!

America’s middle-class yobs

Interesting piece in The Atlantic by Adam Serwar on The business owners, real-estate brokers and service members who rioted acted not out of economic desperation, but out of their belief in their inviolable right to rule.

The mob that breached the Capitol last week at President Donald Trump’s exhortation, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, was full of what you might call “respectable people.” They left dozens of Capitol Police officers injured, screamed “Hang Mike Pence!,” threatened to murder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and set up a gallows outside the building. Some were extremists using the crowd as cover, but as federal authorities issue indictments, a striking number of those they name appear to be regular Americans.

And there’s nothing surprising about that. Although any crowd that size is bound to include people who are struggling financially, no one should be shocked to see the middle classes so well represented among the mob.

The notion that political violence simply emerges out of economic desperation, rather than ideology, is comforting. But it’s false. Throughout American history, political violence has often been guided, initiated, and perpetrated by respectable people from educated middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The belief that only impoverished people engage in political violence—particularly right-wing political violence—is a misconception often cultivated by the very elites who benefit from that violence.

The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and beat a police officer to death last week were not desperate. They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.

Well, well. Remember the “Brooks Brothers mob” rustled up by the Republicans in 2000 to stop the count in Florida and enable the Supreme Court to hand the presidency to George W. Bush — as The Inquirer usefully  reminds us?

M@any of the 74 million citizens who voted for the guy who then incited an attempted coup do fit the stereotype of struggling or laid-off blue-collar worker in a rusted-out rural community. But those folks aren’t the ones who can take a Wednesday off and fly hundreds of miles, let alone plunk down hundreds of dollars, to get to the nation’s hub. While the Capitol mob was bulked up with other Trumpists — including an alarming number of off-duty police officers, as well as some neo-Nazi or KKK types who’ve been around forever — it was the 401(k) crowd that formed the front line of America’s first real putsch.

If that surprises you, then you weren’t really paying attention. For the last four years, political scientists have been trying to wrap their brains around Trump’s shocking 2016 victory in the Electoral College while trying to tell us that the 45th president’s true base is a lot of things — but it’s not poor. In fact, polling guru Nate Silver noted during 2016′s primaries that the average Trump voter had a median household income of $72,000, which was both higher than the national average and also higher than the numbers that year for supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Footnote: One of the few entertaining outcomes of the pandemic was that Brooks Brothers went bust. Wonder where Preppies now go for their suits.

Why we should worry about facial-recognition technology

Michal Kosinski’s latest paper has just been published by Nature. He used to work in Cambridge, and with David Stillwell did the pathbreaking research on what kinds of intimate personal information could be gleaned from a collection of an individual’s Facebook ‘Likes’. (This was the psychometric work that was eventually appropriated and figured in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.) Michal is now at Stanford, and this astonishing piece of research suggests that facial-recognition technology is even more of a threat to privacy than most of us had supposed.

Here’s the Abstract:

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ. A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

One of the pieces of research we’re doing in the new Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy in Cambridge is on the vetting processes that could be used to authorise public procurement of this kind of technology. This paper gives an idea of why this work is important. (If you have any doubts on that score, then a visit to mainland China might be instructive.)

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Husband on leash breached Quebec’s Covid curfew. BBC News story, via Dave Pell. Link
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park gorillas test positive for COVID-19. Link
  • Oriol Ferrer Mesià’s retro computer terminals. It’s amazing what you can do with a 3D printer and a Raspberry Pi. Link

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