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May 23, 2015

[2b2k] Echo chambers and the importance of like-minded thinking

I’ve found the argument against Echo Chambers to be vexing.

On the one hand, I of course agree that it’s bad for us all when we only hang out with people whose views we share, because this tends to confirm us in our beliefs and even makes those beliefs more extreme.

On the other hand, I disagree with our Western liberal assumption that a genuine conversation is one in which we encounter radically opposite viewpoints with an open heart and mind. No, when I want to understand the meaning of, say, a court ruling about gay marriage, I’m not going to go first to a site that thinks homosexuality is a damnable sin. I’m going to go to my nearest local “echo chamber.” Understanding is incremental. It fits the new into our existing context. That’s how understanding works.

I find a great deal of truth in a passage sent to me by a friend of mine. (I’ll replace that phrase with his name once I’m able to reach him to ask permission). It’s a passage by Swami Vivekananda, “from his book Raja Yoga, a modern study of the founding text of yoga (India, approx 400 CE).” My friend continues, “In it S. Vivekananda is commenting on one of the first of the yoga sutras, which outlines the path the prospective adept must walk.”

“What is meant by study in this case? No study of novels or story books, but study of those works which teach the liberation of the Soul. Then again this study does not mean controversial studies at all. The Yogi is supposed to have finished his period of controversy. He has had enough of that, and has become satisfied. He only studies to intensify his convictions. Vâda and Siddhânta — these are the two sorts of scriptural knowledge — Vada (the argumentative) and Siddhanta (the decisive). When a man is entirely ignorant he takes up the first of these, the argumentative fighting, and reasoning pro and con; and when he has finished that he takes up the Siddhanta, the decisive, arriving at a conclusion. Simply arriving at this conclusion will not do. It must be intensified. Books are infinite in number, and time is short; therefore the secret of knowledge is to take what is essential. Take that and try to live up to it.

There is an old Indian legend that if you place a cup of milk and water before a Râja-Hamsa (swan), he will take all the milk and leave the water. In that way we should take what is of value in knowledge, and leave the dross. Intellectual gymnastics are necessary at first. We must not go blindly into anything.

The Yogi has passed the argumentative state, and has come to a conclusion, which is, like the rocks, immovable. The only thing he now seeks to do is to intensify that conclusion. Do not argue, he says; if one forces arguments upon you, be silent. Do not answer any argument, but go away calmly, because arguments only disturb the mind. The only thing necessary is to train the intellect, what is the use of disturbing it for nothing? The intellect is but a weak instrument, and can give us only knowledge limited by the senses. The Yogi wants to go beyond the senses, therefore intellect is of no use to him. He is certain of this and, therefore, is silent, and does not argue. Every argument throws his mind out of balance, creates a disturbance in the Chitta (consciousness), and a disturbance is a drawback. Argumentations and searchings of the reason are only by the way. There are much higher things beyond them.

The whole of life is not for schoolboy fights and debating societies. “Surrendering the fruits of work to God” is to take to ourselves neither credit nor blame, but to give up both to the Lord and be at peace.” (Raja Yoga, ch 2, comment to verse 1)

Yup.

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May 19, 2015

John Kerry on the importance of an open-ish Internet

Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Seoul yesterday about the Internet, setting out five principles of cybersecurity.

The talk is quite enthusiastic and progressive about the Net. Sort of. For example, he says, “[t]he United States considers the promotion of an open and secure internet to be a key component of our foreign policy,” but he says this in support of his idea that it’s crucial to govern the Internet. On the third hand, the governance he has in mind is designed to keep the Net open to all people and all ideas. On the fourth hand, predictably, we don’t know how much structural freedom he’s willing to give up to stop the very Worst People on Earth: those who share content they do not own.

Overall, it’s a speech that we can be pretty proud of.

Here’s why he thinks the Net is important:

…to begin with, America believes – as I know you do – that the internet should be open and accessible to everyone. We believe it should be interoperable, so it can connect seamlessly across international borders. We believe people are entitled to the same rights of free expression online as they possess offline. We believe countries should work together to deter and respond effectively to online threats. And we believe digital policy should seek to fulfill the technology’s potential as a vehicle for global stability and sustained economic development; as an innovative way to enhance the transparency of governments and hold governments accountable; and also as a means for social empowerment that is also the most democratic form of public expression ever invented.

At its best, the internet is an equal-opportunity platform from which the voice of a student can have as much reach as that of a billionaire; a chief executive may be able to be out-debated by an entry-level employee – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Great, although why he needed to add a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” is a bit concerning.

He then goes on to say that everyone’s human rights extend to online behavior, which is an important position, although it falls short of Hillary Clinton’s claim while Secretary of State that there is a universal “freedom to connect.”

He then in an odd way absolves the Internet from blame for the disruption it seems to cause:

The internet is, among many other things, an instrument of freedom. It’s a tool people resort to in response to the absence and failure or abuse of government…Anyone who blames the internet for the disorder or turmoil in today’s world is just not using their head to connect the dots correctly. And banning the internet in a misguided attempt to impose order will never succeed in quashing the universal desire for freedom.

This separates him from those who think that the Net actually gives people an idea of freedom, encourages them to speak their minds, or is anything except a passive medium. But that’s fine since in this section he’s explaining why dictators shouldn’t shut down the Net. So we can just keep the “inspires an ambition for political freedom” part quiet for now.

“The remedy for the speech that we do not like is more speech,” he says, always a good trope. But he follows it up with an emphasis on bottom-up conversation, which is refreshing: “It’s the credible voices of real people that must not only be enabled, but they need to be amplified.”

To make the point that the Net empowers all sectors of society, and thus it would be disastrous if it were disrupted globally, he suggests that we watch The Day the Earth Stood Still, which makes me think Secretary Kerry has not watched either version of that movie lately. Klaatu barada nikto, Mr. Kerry.

To enable international commerce, he opposes data localization standards, in the course of which he uses “google” as a verb. Time to up your campaign contributions, Bing.

Kerry pre-announces an international initiative to address the digital divide, “in combination with partner countries, development banks, engineers, and industry leaders.” Details to follow.

Kerry tries to position the NSA’s data collection as an enlightened policy:

Further, unlike many, we have taken steps to respect and safeguard the privacy of the citizens of other countries and to use the information that we do collect solely to address the very specific threat to the United States and to our allies. We don’t use security concerns as an excuse to suppress criticisms of our policies or to give a competitive advantage to an American company and any commercial interests at all.

You have our word on that. So, we’re good? Moving on.

Kerry acknowledges that the Telecomm Act of 1996 is obsolete, noting that “Barely anybody in 1996 was talking about data, and data transformation, and data management. It was all about telephony – the telephone.”

Finally, he gets to governance:

So this brings me to another issue that should concern us all, and that is governance – because even a technology founded on freedom needs rules to be able to flourish and work properly. We understand that. Unlike many models of government that are basically top-down, the internet allows all stakeholders – the private sector, civil society, academics, engineers, and governments – to all have seats at the table. And this multi-stakeholder approach is embodied in a myriad of institutions that each day address internet issues and help digital technology to be able to function.

“Stakeholders” get a “seat at the table”? It’s our goddamned table. And it’s more like a blanket on the ground than polished rare wood in a board room. Here’s an idea for you, World Leaders: How about if you take your stakes and get off our blanket?

Well, that felt good. Back to governing the Internet into the ground. And to be fair, Kerry seems aware of the dangers of top-down control, even if he doesn’t appreciate the benefits of bottom-up self-organization:

That’s why we have to be wary of those who claim that the system is broken or who advocate replacing it with a more centralized arrangement – where governments would have a monopoly on the decision-making. That’s dangerous. Now, I don’t know what you think, but I am confident that if we were to ask any large group of internet users anywhere in the world what their preferences are, the option “leave everything to the government” would be at the absolute bottom of the list.

Kerry now enunciates his five principles.

  1. First, no country should conduct or knowingly support online activity that intentionally damages or impedes the use of another country’s critical infrastructure.

  2. Second, no country should seek either to prevent emergency teams from responding to a cybersecurity incident, or allow its own teams to cause harm.

  3. Third, no country should conduct or support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets, or other confidential business information for commercial gain.

  4. Fourth, every country should mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from its soil, and they should do so in a transparent, accountable and cooperative way.

  5. And fifth, every country should do what it can to help states that are victimized by a cyberattack.

Two particular points:

First, #2 establishes Internet repair teams as the medical support people in the modern battleground: you don’t fire on them.

Second, #3 gets my goat. Earlier in the talk, Sect’y Kerry said: “We understand that freedom of expression is not a license to incite imminent violence. It’s not a license to commit fraud. It’s not a license to indulge in libel, or sexually exploit children.” But the one crime that gets called out in his five principles is violating copyright or patent laws. And it’s not even aimed at other governments doing so, for it explicitly limits the prohibition to acts committed “for commercial gain.” Why the hell is protecting “IP” more important than preventing cross-border libel, doxxing or other privacy violations, organizing human trafficking, or censorship?

Oh, right. Disney. Hollywood. A completely corrupt electoral process. Got it.

Now, it’s easy to be snarky and dismissive about this speech — or any speech — by a Secretary of State about the Internet, but just consider how bad it could have been. Imagine a speech by a Secretary of State in an administration that sees the Internet primarily as a threat to security, to morals, to business as usual. There’s actually a lot to like in this talk, given its assumptions that the Net needs governments to govern it and that it’s ok to spy on everyone so long as we don’t do Bad Things with that information that we gather.

So, before you vote Republican, re-read Hillary Clinton’s two speeches [2010 2011] on Internet freedom.

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May 17, 2015

CNN’s side of the conversation

Bernie Sanders gave as good an interview as he could this morning on CNN, trying to stick to the issues as Brianna Keilar repeatedly goaded him to attack Hillary Clinton, or to comment on the horse race. She asked only two questions about policy matters, and they were as non-incisive as questions could be. Twice Sanders said that he would not personlly attack Clinton, and turned the question back to Keilar, asking if the news media would focus on the serious issues facing the American 99.9%.

Just listen to CNN’s side of the conversation, taken from the transcript:

  • You’ve acknowledged that you don’t have the cash, that you don’t have the campaign infrastructure that Hillary Clinton, say, has and certainly as you enter the race, she is the one that you have your sights set on. What’s your path to victory?

  • Hillary Clinton talks a lot about income inequality, how you differentiate yourself on this from her?

  • Your candidacy was assessed by “U.S. News and World Report” like this. It said, “Like Obama in 2008, Sanders can serve to help define Clinton and make her a stronger candidate. Unlike Obama, Sanders can keep Clinton on her game without getting her tossed out of it.” You look at that assessment. Are you a spoiler here? Are you aiming to be a shaper of the debate? Or do you think that you really have a pathway to victory?

  • I just wonder is this going to be a civil debate with Hillary Clinton? Even if you’re talking about issues and not personality or the fact that she’s establishment, you have to go after a leading candidate with a hard edge. Are you prepared to do that?

  • Trade a big issue –

  • in the Senate and now we’re looking towards the House, where Republicans, oddly enough, may not have the votes along with Democrats for this initiative of President Obama’s, something you oppose. You have come out and said this is a terrible idea. Hillary Clinton has not. She is on the fence. Should she take a position?

  • I want to ask you about George Stephanopoulos, the host of This Week, who has been in the news. You appeared on his show on May 3rd and on that program he asked you about your concerns over the money raised by The Clinton Foundation. You have said that The Clinton Foundation fundraising is a fair issue to discuss. He had donated $25,000 over three years or $75,000 in total, $25,000 each year. He didn’t disclose those donations. And to viewers, to superiors at ABC. He didn’t tell you either, even though you discussed it.

  • If you take her at her word, Elizabeth Warren’s not getting into this race; Are you looking to gain that pocket of support to Hillary Clinton’s left?

  • Overall, I don’t hear a lot of forcefulness from you; a lot of people who observe politics say this is a contact sport. You have to have sharp elbows. Even if it’s not going fully negative in character assassination

  • But are you prepared to sharply point out where your Democratic opponents have not, in your opinion?

  • Senator Bernie Sanders, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.

I wish I had confidence that if CNN were to hear their side of the conversation, they’d be even a little bit ashamed of how they’re failing in their essential job.

But no. CNN’s post about the interview led with the most negative thing they could find in the interview: “Bernie Sanders casts Hillary Clinton as newcomer to income fight.”

Senator Sanders, you have your answer.


Seriously, Reddit would do a much better job interview Sanders.

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May 15, 2015

John Lennon: dreamer awake

I asked my mobile this morning to shuffle up Instant Karma – Save Dafur, a two-volume set of John Lennon covers. Great album. Big mistake.

It played these tracks in this heart-breaking order:

  1. Imagine [lyrics]
  2. God (I don’t believe) [lyrics]
  3. Beautiful Boy [lyrics]
  4. Grow old with me [lyrics]

I think I write about John Lennon every spring as I start to run and listen to music again. I’m pretty sure I say the same things every time.

So I’m not going to say anything about this mix except that it shows why inconsistency is the truth.

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May 14, 2015

The Matrix glitches and puts Bruce Schneier next to the head of the NSA

Bruce is one of the most visible, articulate, and smartest voices on behalf of preserving our privacy. (His new book, Data and Goliath, is both very readable and very well documented.) At an event at West Point, he met Admiral Mike Rogers, Director of the NSA. Bruce did an extensive liveblog of the Rogers’ keynote.

There was no visible explosion, forcing physicists to rethink their understanding of matter and anti-matter.

 


Tim Hwang started a little memefest by suggesting that that photo was announcing a new movie. Contributions by the likes of Tim, Nathan Mathias, Sam Klein, and Ryan Budish include:

  • Security Chasers : The Chastening

  • US Confidential: What you don’t know you don’t know can kill you

  • Selma and Louise: Deep Cover

  • Tango and Hooch: The Spookening

  • Open and Shut: The Legend Begins

  • Phreaky Friday

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May 7, 2015

Facebook, filtering, polarization, and a flawed study?

Facebook researchers have published an article in Science, certainly one of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It concludes (roughly) that Facebook’s filtering out of news from sources whose politics you disagree with does not cause as much polarization as some have thought.

Unfortunately, a set of researchers clustered around the Berkman Center think that the study’s methodology is deeply flawed, and that its conclusions badly misstate the actual findings. Here are three responses well worth reading:

Also see Eli Pariser‘s response.

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May 4, 2015

A civic-minded man

I was walking on the street in front of Wheelock College today when I saw an elderly man, nicely dressed, stopping as he walked along to pick up the plastic bags stuck in the shrubbery. “Thank you,” I said as I passed by him.

It was Mike Dukakis, whom you might remember from such projects as being the former governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Democratic Presidential candidate who ran against George Bush the Senior.

He chatted me up: My name, what I do, etc. I complimented him on setting such an example. When I beat him to a ruptured styrofoam coffee cup, he offered to throw it out for me, but I instead relieved him of some of the trash he was carrying because Mike Dukakis. He continued on his way.

Talk about being civic-minded! What a decent, humble man.

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May 3, 2015

NPR frees up 800,000 stories

NPR has announced that it’s making 800,000 pieces of audio embeddable anywhere you want, including on this blog:

When you browse their site you’ll find an “embed” button to the right of a story’s “Play” button. Click ‘n’ paste. (And at the bottom of the widget that you embed you’ll see a tiny, gray copyright notice.)

Thank you, NPR.

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April 30, 2015

A UN museum?

I got to spend yesterday with an awesome group of about twenty people at the United Nations, brainstorming what a UN museum might look like. This was under the auspices of the UN Live project which (I believe) last week was endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some of the people at the meeting
Some of us

Although it was a free-ranging discussion from many points of view, there seemed to be general implicit agreement about a few points. (What the UN Live group does with this discussion is up to them, of course.)

Security Council
Where we did not meet

First, there was no apparent interest in constructing a museum that takes telling the UN’s story as its focus. Rather, the discussion was entirely about ways in which the values of the UN could be furthered by enabling people to connect with one another around the world.

Second, No one even considered the possibility that it might be only a physical museum. Physical elements were part of many of the ideas, but primarily to enable online services.

Here are some of the ideas that I particularly liked, starting (how rude!) with mine.

I stole it directly from a Knight Foundation proposal by my friend Nate Hill at Chattanooga Public Library. He proposed setting up 4K displays in a few libraries that have gigabit connections, to enable local residents to interact with one another. At the meeting yesterday I suggested (crediting Nate, but probably too fast for anyone to hear me, so I’m clear, right?) that the Museum be distributed via “magic mirrors” – Net-connected video monitors – that connect citizens globally. These would go into libraries and other safe spaces where there can be facilitators. (We’re all local people, so we need help talking globally.) Where possible, there might be two screens so that people can see themselves and the group they’re talking with. (For some reason, I like the idea of the monitors being circular. More like portals.)

These magic mirrors would be a platform for activities to be invented. For example:

  • Kids could play together. Virtual Jenga? Keep a virtual ball afloat? (Assume Kinect-like sensors.) Collaborative virtual jigsaw puzzle of a photo of one of their home towns? Or maybe each group is working collaboratively on one puzzle, but each team’s pieces are part of the image of the other’s team’s home. A simple mirror imitation game where each kid mimics the other’s movements? It’s a platform, so it’d be open to far better ideas than these.

  • Kids could create together. Collaborative drawing? Collaborative crazy machines a la Rube Goldberg?

  • Real-time, video AMAs: “We’re Iranian parents. AUA [ask us anything] at 10am EDT.”

  • Listings for other activities, including those proposed below.

Someone suggested that the UN create pop-up museums by bringing in a shipping container stocked with media tools. (Technically, a plop-down museum, it seems to me.) The local community would be invited to tell its story, perhaps in 100 images (borrowing the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”), or perhaps by providing a StoryCorps-style recording booth. Or send the kids out with video cameras. (There might have to be someone who could help with the media.) The community would be able to tell its story to the world. The world could react and interact. (These containers could contain magic mirrors.)

Another idea: Facilitate local people coming together virtually to share solutions to common problems, building on the multiple and admirable efforts to do this already.

Another idea: One group pointed out that museums typically face backwards in time. So suppose the UN museum instead constructed itself in real time as significant events occurred. E.g., as an earthquake disaster unrolls, the UN Museum would track it live, presenting its consequences intimately to the world, recording it for posterity, and facilitating relief efforts.

There was general agreement, I believe, that all of the UN Museum’s content should be openly available through APIs.

There were many, many more ideas, many of which I find exciting. I don’t know if any of the ideas discussed are going to make it past the cool-way-to-spend-an-afternoon phase, but I am thrilled by the general prospect of a UN Museum that takes as its mission not just the curation of artifacts that tell a story but advancing the UN’s mission by connecting people globally around common concerns, shared interests, and a desire to help and delight one another.

Now go ahead and be cynical and snarky.

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April 26, 2015

My losing bingo card

At our daughter’s baby shower — which was awesome — we played Baby Shower Bingo. You fill in a bingo card with items, and if during the opening of the gifts any of those items have been given, you mark it on your card. First with five in a row wins (In this case they won a Toblerone bar.)

Here’s my losing card:

baby shower bingo card

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