Joho the Blogculture Archives - Joho the Blog

October 25, 2017

[liveblog] John Palfrey’s new book (and thoughts on rules vs. models)

John Palfrey is doing a launch event at the Berkman Klein Center for his new book, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education. John is the Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, and for many years was the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center and the head of the Harvard Law School Library. He’s also the chairman of the board of the Knight Foundation. This event is being put on by the BKC, the Law Library, and Andover. His new book is available on paper, or online as an open access book. (Of course it is. It’s John Palfrey, people!)

[Disclosure: Typical conversations about JP, when he’s not present, attempt — and fail — to articulate his multi-facted awesomeness. I’ll fail at this also, so I’ll just note that JP is directly responsible for my affiliation with the BKC and and for my co-directorship of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab…and those are just the most visible ways in which he has enabled me to flourish as best I can. ]

Also, at the end of this post I have some reflections on rules vs. models, and the implicit vs. explicit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

John begins by framing the book as an attempt to find a balance between diversity and free expression. Too often we have pitted the two against each other, especially in the past few years, he says: the left argues for diversity and the right argues for free expression. It’s important to have both, although he acknowledges that there are extremely hard cases where there is no reconciliation; in those cases we need rules and boundaries. But we are much better off when we can find common ground.

“This may sound old-fashioned in the liberal way. And that’s true,” he says. But we’re having this debate in part because young people have been advancing ideas that we should be listening to. We need to be taking a hard look.

Our institutions should be deeply devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our institutions haven’t been as supportive of these as they should be, although they’re getting better at it, e.g. getting better at acknowledging the effects of institutional racism.

The diversity argument pushes us toward the question of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are crucial in the same way that every human needs a place where everyone around them supports them and loves them, and where you can say dumb things. We all need zones of comfort, with rules implicit or explicit. It might be a room, a group, a virtual space… E.g., survivors of sexual assault need places where they know there are rules and they can express themselves without feeling at risk.

But, John adds, there should also be spaces where people are uncomfortable, where their beliefs are challenged.

Spaces of both sorts are experienced differently by different people. Privileged people like John experience spaces as safe that others experience as uncomfortable.

The examples in his book include: trigger warnings, safe spaces, the debates over campus symbols, the disinvitation of speakers, etc. These are very hard to navigate and call out for a series of rules or principles. Different schools might approach these differently. E.g.,students from the Gann Academy are here tonight, a local Jewish high school. They well might experience a space differently than students at Andover. Different schools well might need different rules.

Now John turns it over to students for comments. (This is very typical JP: A modest but brilliant intervention and then a generous deferral to the room. I had the privilege of co-teaching a course with him once, and I can attest that he is a brilliant, inspiring teacher. Sorry, but to be such a JP fanboy, but I am at least an evidence-based fanboy.) [I have not captured these student responses adequately, in some cases simply because I had trouble hearing them. They were remarkable, however. And I could not get their names with enough confidence to attempt to reproduce them here. Sorry!]

Student Responses

Student: I graduated from Andover and now I’m at Harvard. I was struck by the book’s idea that we need to get over the dichotomy between diversity and free expression. I want to address Chapter 5, about hate speech. It says each institution ought to assess its own values to come up with its principles about speech and diversity, and those principles ought to be communicated clearly and enforced consistently. But, I believe, we should in fact be debating what the baseline should be for all institutions. We don’t all have full options about what school we’re going to go to, so there ought to be a baseline we all can rely on.

JP: Great critique. Moral relativism is not a good idea. But I don’t think one size fits all. In the hardest cases, there might be sharpest limits. But I do agree there ought to be some sort of baseline around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’d like to see that be a higher baseline, and we’ve worked on this at Andover. State universities are different. E.g., if a neo-Nazi group wants to demonstrate on a state school campus and they follow the rules laid out in the Skokie case, etc., they should be allowed to demonstrate. If they came to Andover, we’d say no. As a baseline, we might want to change the regulations so that the First Amendment doesn’t apply if the experience is detrimental to the education of the students; that would be a very hard line to draw. Even if we did, we still might want to allow local variations.

Student: Brave spaces are often build from safe spaces. E.g., at Andover we used Facebook to build a safe space for women to talk, in the face of academic competitions where misogyny was too common. This led to creating brave places where open, frank discussion across differences was welcomed.

JP: Yes, giving students a sense of safety so they can be brave is an important point. And, yes, brave spaces do often grow from safe spaces.

Andover student: I was struck by why diversity is important: the cross-pollination of ideas. But from my experience, a lot of that hasn’t occurred because we’re stuck in our own groups. There’s also typically a divide between the students and the faculty. Student activitsts are treated as if they’re just going through a phase. How do we bridge that gap?

JP: How do we encourage more cross-pollination? It’s a really hard problem for educators. I’ve been struck by the difference between teaching at Harvard Law and Andover in terms of the comfort with disagreeing across political divides; it was far more comfortable at the Law School. I’ve told students if you present a paper that disagrees with my point of view and argues for it beautifully, you’ll do better than parroting ideas back to me. Second, we have to stop using demeaning language to talk about student activists. BTW, there is an interesting dynamic, as teachers today may well have been activists when they were young and think of themselves as the reformers.

Student: [hard to hear] At Andover, our classes were seminar-based, which is a luxury not all students have. Also: Wouldn’t encouraging a broader spread of ideas create schisms? How would you create a school identity?

JP: This echoes the first student speaker’s point about establishing a baseline. Not all schools can have 12 students with two teachers in a seminar, as at Andover. We need to find a dialectic. As for schisms: we have to communicate values. Institutions are challenged these days but there is a huge place for them as places that convey values. There needs to be some top down communication of those values. Students can challenge those values, and they should. This gets at the heart of the problem: Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Student: I’m a graduate of Andover and currently at Harvard. My generation has grown up with the Internet. What happens when what is supposed to be a safe space becomes a brave space for some but not all? E.g., a dorm where people speak freely thinking it’s a safe space. What happens when the default values overrides what someone else views as comfortable? What is the power of an institution to develop, monitor, and mold what people actually feel? When communities engage in groupthink, how can an institution construct space safes?

JP: I don’t have an easy answer to this. We do need to remember that these spaces are experienced differently by different people, and the rules ought to reflect this. Some of my best learning came from late night bull sessions. It’s the duty of the institution to do what it can to enable that sort of space. But we also have to recognize that people who have been marginalized react differently. The rule sets need to reflect that fact.

Student: Andover has many different forum spaces available, from hallways to rooms. We get to decide to choose when and where these conversations will occur. For a more traditional public high school where you only have 30-person classroom as a forum, how do we have the difficult conversations that students at Andover choose to have in more intimate settings?

JP: The size and rule-set of the group matters enormously. Even in a traditional HS you can still break a class into groups. The answer is: How do you hack the space?

Student: I’m a freshman at Harvard. Before the era of safe spaces, we’d call them friends: people we can talk with and have no fear that our private words will be made public, and where we will not be judged. Safe spaces may exclude people, e.g., a safe space open only to women.

JP Andover has a group for women of color. That excludes people, and for various reasons we think that’s entirely appropriate an useful.

Q&A

Q [Terry Fisher]: You refer frequently to rule sets. If we wanted to have a discussion in a forum like this, you could announce a set of rules. Or the organizer could announce values, such as: we value respect, or we want people to take the best version of what others say. Or, you could not say anything and model it in your behavior. When you and I went to school, there were no rules in classrooms. It was all done by modeling. But this also meant that gender roles were modeled. My experience of you as a wonderful teacher, JP, is that you model values so well. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of your students talk with the precision and respectfulness that you model. I am worried about relying on rule sets, and doubt their efficacy for the long term. Rather, the best hope is people modeling and conveying better values, as in the old method.

JP: Students, Terry Fischer was my teacher. May answer will be incredibly tentative: It is essential for an institution to convey its values. We do this at Andover. Our values tell us, for example, that we don’t want gender-based balance and are aware that we are in a misogynist culture, and thus need reasonable rules. But, yes, modeling is the most powerful.

Q [Dorothy Zinberg]: I’ve been at Harvard for about 70 yrs and I have seen the importance of an individual in changing an institution. For example, McGeorge Bundy thought he should bring 12 faculty to Harvard from non-traditional backgrounds, including Erik Erikson who did not have a college degree. He had been a disciple of Freud’s. He taught a course at Harvard called “The Lifecycle.” Every Harvard senior was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Erikson was giving brilliant lectures, but I told him it was from his point of view as a man, and had nothing to do with the young women. So, he told me, a grad student, to write the lectures. No traditional professor would have done that. Also: for forming groups, there’s nothing like closing the door. People need to be able to let go and try a lot of ideas.

Q: I am from the Sudan. How do you create a safe space in environments that are exclusive. [I may have gotten that wrong. Sorry.] How do you acknowledge the native American tribes whose land this institution is built on, or the slaves who did the building?

JP: We all have that obligation. [JP gives some examples of the Law School recently acknowledging the slave labor, and the money from slave holders, that helped build the school.]

Q: You used a kitchen as an example of a safe space. Great example. But kitchens are not established or protected by any authority. It’s a new idea that institutions ought to set these up. Do you think there should be safe spaces that are privately set up as well as by institutions? Should some be permitted to exclude people or not?

(JP asks a student to respond): Institutional support can be very helpful when you have a diversity of students. Can institutional safe spaces supplement private ones? I’m not sure. And I do think exclusive groups have a place. As a consensus forms, it’s important to allow the marginalized voices to connect.

Q [ head of Gann]: I’m a grad of Phillips Academy. As head of a religious school, we’re struggling with all these questions. Navigating these spaces isn’t just a political or intellectual activity. It is a work of the heart. If the institution thinks of this only as a rational activity and doesn’t tend to the hearts of our students, and is not explicit about the habits of heart we need to navigate these sensitive waters, only those with natural emotional skills will be able to flourish. We need to develop leaders who can turn hard conversations into generative ones. What would it look like to take on the work of developing social and emotional development?

JP: Ive been to Gann and am confident that’s what you’re doing. And you can see evidence of Andover’s work on it in the students who spoke tonight. Someone asked me if a student became a Nazi, would you expel him? Yes, if it were apparent in his actions, but probably not for his thoughts. Ideally, our students won’t come to have those views because of the social and emotional skills they’re learning. But people in our culture do have those views. Your question brings it back to the project of education and of democracy.

[This session was so JP!]

 


 

A couple of reactions to this discussion without having yet read the book.

First, about Prof. Fisher’s comment: I think we are all likely to agree that modeling the behavior we want is the most powerful educational tool. JP and Prof. Fisher, are both superb, well, models of this.

But, as Prof. Fisher noted in his question, the dominant model of discourse for our generation silently (and sometimes explicitly) favored males, white middle class values, etc. Explicit rules weren’t as necessary because we had internalized them and had stacked the deck against those who were marginalized by them. Now that diversity has thankfully become an explicit goal, and now that the Internet has thrown us into conversations across differences, we almost always need to make those rules explicit; a conversation among people from across divides of culture, economics, power, etc. that does not explicitly acknowledge the different norms under which the participants operate is almost certainly going to either fragment or end in misunderstanding.

(Clay Shirky and I had a collegial difference of opinion about this about fifteen years ago. Clay argued for online social groups having explicit constitutions. I argued
for the importance of the “unspoken” in groups, and the damage that making norms explicit can cause.)

Second, about the need for setting a baseline: I’m curious to see what JP’s book says about this, because the evidence is that we as a culture cannot agree about what the baseline is: vociferous and often nasty arguments about this have been going on for decades. For example, what’s the baseline for inviting (or disinviting) people with highly noxious views to a private college campus? I don’t see a practical way forward for establishing a baseline answer. We can’t even get Texas schools to stop teaching Creationism.

So, having said that modeling is not enough, and having despaired at establishing a baseline, I think I am left being unhelpfully dialectical:

1. Modeling is essential but not enough.

2. We ought to be appropriately explicit about rules in order to create places where people feel safe enough to be frank and honest…

3. …But we are not going to be able to agree on a meaningful baseline for the U.S., much less internationally — “meaningful” meaning that it is specific enough that it can be applied to difficult cases.

4. But modeling may be the only way we can get to enough agreement that we can set a baseline. We can’t do it by rules because we don’t have enough unspoken agreement about what those rules should be. We can only get to that agreement by seeing our leading voices in every field engage across differences in respectful and emotionally truthful ways. So at the largest level, I find I do agree with Prof. Fisher: we need models.

5. But if our national models are to reflect the values we want as a baseline, we need to be thoughtful, reflective, and explicit about which leading voices we want to elevate as models. We tend to do this not by looking for rules but by looking for Prof. Fisher’s second alternative: values. For example, we say positively that we love John McCain’s being a “maverick” or Kamala Harris’ careful noting of the evidence for her claims, and we disdain Trump’s name-calling. Rules derive from values such as those. Values come before rules.

I just wish I had more hope about the direction we’re going in…although I do see hopeful signs in some of the model voices who are emerging, and most of all, in the younger generation’s embrace of difference.

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October 16, 2017

How to screw up a succah. In a good way.

I know you’re all wondering how I was able to build such a magnificent succah, and how I managed to combine inexpensiveness with convenience. But most of all, you’re wondering what the hell is a succah?


A succah is essentially a temporary Jew shack that you eat in during the holiday of Succos (AKA Sukkot). It has to meet certain requirements that make it somewhat sturdier than a pillow fort: It has to be temporary, covered incompletely on top, closed on at least three sides, etc. If you’re an observant Jew, as elements of my family are, you eat all your meals out there during the 8-day holiday. Some Jews even sleep in them. Far more commonly, the custom is to have guests as often as possible so that meals are extended and highly social. In some Jewish communities, succah-hopping is a thing. A good thing.


For the past 20+ yrs, I’ve been constructing it out of the same set of PVC pipes. I have a rubber mallet, which is comical enough that I should probably have bought it from Acme Hardware, which I use to bang poles into T-fittings. (For the middle uprights, they’re T-s with a third sleeve in the third dimension, which sounds way more complex than it actually is.)


This is fine except for my constant anxiety about wind overcoming the friction that holds the slippery tubes into their slippery connectors. So, every year after I’ve pounded the poles together — and, if you try to visualize the process you’ll see that pounding a tube into one sleeve unpounds it from the sleeve at the other end — I’ve drilled a hole through the sleeve and tube and inserted a weenie nail, just to add some charming shrapnel to the explosion when the wind suddenly tosses it apart like a child knocking down a house made of drinking straws.


So, I did some research and this year built a succah using a remarkable breakthrough in applied physics: threaded connectors. Here’s how.


Our succah is 10′ x 10′. Each side wall consists of two corner uprights, one upright in the middle, and four horizontal poles. The uprights have have fittings with a threaded nut. The horizontals have fittings that screw into the nuts. The fittings are glued on to the poles using PVC glue. You simply screw all the pieces together.


It’s a little more complicated than that, though, because everything is. The threaded fittings are sleeves. But because they’re all designed to connect to lengths of pipe the way you might want to connect one garden hose to another, you can’t use them to connect pipes perpendicularly. But every joint in this construction connects a horizontal to an upright, which means you need 90-degree turns.


So you get yourself some plain old fittings, like the ones I used in the prior version. You attach them to the uprights. But those fittings are sleeves designed to join two pipes. The threaded fittings are also sleeves. How do you join a sleeve to a sleeve? With a pipe! So, for each join, cut a 2″ piece of pipe. Glue one end into the sleeve on the upright. Glue the other end to the threaded end of the threaded joins. Press them in so that they’re flush. Below is an example where the connector was a little too long, so the joins are not flush, purely for illustrative purposes I assure you:


Now assemble the pipes. Our uprights are 7′. The horizontals are 47″ each, which, with the additional lengths imposed by the fittings, worked out to about 10′. But if you need exactness, you should cut them to fit. Just remember to label them so they’ll go together next year. Also, wear eye protection: the pipes cut easily with a circular saw, but it creates a lot of flying plastic jaggies.


Here’s the invoice for the fittings:

invoice


You might want to get ourself a spare or two. I’m still amazed that I got away without needing one.


Note that the outer rings tighten counter-clockwise. You have to get the pieces lined up pretty well to be able to screw them together. I suggest that you assemble it from the ground up so that you won’t have to expand magic suspending pieces in mid-air.


The succah worked out well. It seemed pretty robust for a plastic structure made out of pipes not intended for that purpose. It disassembled quite easily. My only concern is how many years we’ll get out of the threaded pieces; they seem rugged but so did I once. (Actually, I didn’t.)

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September 26, 2017

[liveblog][PAIR] Rebecca Fiebrink on how machines can create new things

At the PAIR symposium, Rebecca Fiebrink of Goldsmiths University of London asks how machines can create new things.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She works with sensors. ML can allow us to build new interactions from examples of human action and computer response. E.g., recognize my closed fist and use it to play some notes. Add more gestures. This is a conventional suprvised training framework. But suppose you want to build a new gesture recognizer?

The first problem is the data set: there isn’t an obvious one to use. Also, would a 99% recognition rate be great or not so much? It depends on what was happening. IF it goes wrong, you modify the training examples.

She gives a live demo — the Wekinator — using a very low-res camera (10×10 pixels maybe) image of her face to control a drum machine. It learns to play stuff based on whether she is leaning to the left or right, and immediately learns to change if she holds up her hand. She then complicates it, starting from scratch again, training it to play based on her hand position. Very impressive.

Ten years ago Rebecca began with the thought that ML can help unlock the interactive potential of sensors. She plays an early piece by Anne Hege using Playstation golf controllers to make music:

Others make music with instruments that don’t look normal. E.g., Laetitia Sonami uses springs as instruments.

She gives other examples. E.g., a facial expression to meme system.

Beyond building new things, what are the consequences, she asks?

First, faster creation means more prototyping and wider exploration, she says.

Second, ML opens up new creative roles for humans. For example, Sonami says, playing an instrument now can be a bit wild, like riding a bull.

Third, ML lets more people be creators and use their own data.

Rebecca teaches a free MOC on Kadenze
: Machine learning for artists and musicians.

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[liveblog][PAIR] Doug Eck on creativity

At the PAIR Symposium, Doug Eck, a research scientist at Google Magenta, begins by playing a video:

Douglas Eck – Transforming Technology into Art from Future Of StoryTelling on Vimeo.

Magenta is part of Google Brain that explores creativity.
By the way:

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He talks about three ideas Magenta has come to for “building a new kind of artist.”

1. Get the right type of data. It’s important to get artists to share and work with them, he says.

Magenta has been trying to get neural networks to compose music. They’ve learned that rather than trying to model musical scores, it’s better to model performances captured as MIDI. They have tens of thousands of performances. From this they were able to build a model that tries to predict the piano roll view of the music. At any moment, should the AI stay at the same time, stacking up notes into chords, or move forward? What are the next notes? Etc. They are not yet capturing much of the “geometry” of, say, Chopin: the piano-roll-ish vision of the score. (He plays music created by ML trained on scores and one trained on performances. The score-based on is clipped. The other is far more fluid and expressive.)

He talks about training ML to draw based on human drawings. He thinks running human artists’ work through ML could point out interesting facets of them.

He points to the playfulness in the drawings created by ML from simple human drawings. ML trained on pig drawings interpreted a drawing of a truck as pig-like.

2. Interfaces that work. Guitar pedals are the perfect interface: they’re indestructible, clear, etc. We should do that for AI musical interfaces, but the sw is so complex technically. He points to the NSyth sound maker and AI duet from Google Creative Lab. (He also touts deeplearn.js.)

3. Learning from users. Can we use feedback from users to improve these systems?

He ends by pointing to the blog, datasets, discussion list, and code at g.co/magenta.

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[liveblog] Google AI Conference

I am, surprisingly, at the first PAIR (People + AI Research) conference at Google, in Cambridge. There are about 100 people here, maybe half from Google. The official topic is: “How do humans and AI work together? How can AI benefit everyone?” I’ve already had three eye-opening conversations and the conference hasn’t even begun yet. (The conference seems admirably gender-balanced in audience and speakers.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The great Martin Wattenberg (half of Wattenberg – Fernanda Viéga) kicks it off, introducing John Giannandrea, a VP at Google in charge of AI, search, and more. “We’ve been putting a lot of effort into using inclusive data sets.”

John says that every vertical will affected by this. “It’s important to get the humanistic side of this right.” He says there are 1,300 languages spoken world wide, so if you want to reach everyone with tech, machine learning can help. Likewise with health care, e.g. diagnosing retinal problems caused by diabetes. Likewise with social media.

PAIR intends to use engineering and analysis to augment expert intelligence, i.e., professionals in their jobs, creative people, etc. And “how do we remain inclusive? How do we make sure this tech is available to everyone and isn’t used just by an elite?”

He’s going to talk about interpretability, controllability, and accessibility.

Interpretability. Google has replaced all of its language translation software with neural network-based AI. He shows an example of Hemingway translated into Japanese and then back into English. It’s excellent but still partially wrong. A visualization tool shows a cluster of three strings in three languages, showing that the system has clustered them together because they are translations of the same sentence. [I hope I’m getting this right.] Another example: a photo of integrated gradients hows that the system has identified a photo as a fire boat because of the streams of water coming from it. “We’re just getting started on this.” “We need to invest in tools to understand the models.”

Controllability. These systems learn from labeled data provided by humans. “We’ve been putting a lot of effort into using inclusive data sets.” He shows a tool that lets you visuallly inspect the data to see the facets present in them. He shows another example of identifying differences to build more robust models. “We had people worldwide draw sketches. E.g., draw a sketch of a chair.” In different cultures people draw different stick-figures of a chair. [See Eleanor Rosch on prototypes.] And you can build constraints into models, e.g., male and female. [I didn’t get this.]

Accessibility. Internal research from Youtube built a model for recommending videos. Initially it just looked at how many users watched it. You get better results if you look not just at the clicks but the lifetime usage by users. [Again, I didn’t get that accurately.]

Google open-sourced Tensor Flow, Google’s AI tool. “People have been using it from everything to to sort cucumbers, or to track the husbandry of cows.”People have been using it from everything to to sort cucumbers, or to track the husbandry of cows. Google would never have thought of this applications.

AutoML: learning to learn. Can we figure out how to enable ML to learn automatically. In one case, it looks at models to see if it can create more efficient ones. Google’s AIY lets DIY-ers build AI in a cardboard box, using Raspberry Pi. John also points to an Android app that composes music. Also, Google has worked with Geena Davis to create sw that can identify male and female characters in movies and track how long each speaks. It discovered that movies that have a strong female lead or co-lead do better financially.

He ends by emphasizing Google’s commitment to open sourcing its tools and research.

 


 

Fernanda and Martin talk about the importance of visualization. (If you are not familiar with their work, you are leading deprived lives.) When F&M got interested in ML, they talked with engineers. ““ML is very different. Maybe not as different as software is from hardware. But maybe. ”ML is very different. Maybe not as different as software is from hardware. But maybe. We’re just finding out.”

M&F also talked with artists at Google. He shows photos of imaginary people by Mike Tyka created by ML.

This tells us that AI is also about optimizing subjective factors. ML for everyone: Engineers, experts, lay users.

Fernanda says ML spreads across all of Google, and even across Alphabet. What does PAIR do? It publishes. It’s interdisciplinary. It does education. E.g., TensorFlow Playground: a visualization of a simple neural net used as an intro to ML. They opened sourced it, and the Net has taken it up. Also, a journal called Distill.pub aimed at explaining ML and visualization.

She “shamelessly” plugs deeplearn.js, tools for bringing AI to the browser. “Can we turn ML development into a fluid experience, available to everyone?”
What experiences might this unleash, she asks.

They are giving out faculty grants. And expanding the Brain residency for people interested in HCI and design…even in Cambridge (!).

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September 19, 2017

[bkc] Hate speech on Facebook

I’m at a Very Special Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Tuesday luncheon featuring Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management in conversation with Jonathan Zittrain. Monika is in charge of what types of content can be shared on FB, how advertisers and developer interact with the site, and FB’s response to terrorist content. [NOTE: I am typing quickly, getting things wrong, missing nuance, filtering through my own interests and biases, omitting what I can’t hear or parse, and not using a spelpchecker. TL;DR: Please do not assume that this is a reliable account.]

Monika: We have more than 2B users…

JZ: Including bots?

MB: Nope, verified. Billions of messages are posted every day.

[JZ posts some bullet points about MB’s career, which is awesome.]

JZ: Audience, would you want to see photos of abused dogs taken down. Assume they’re put up without context. [It sounds to me like more do not want it taken down.]

MB: The Guardian covered this. [Maybe here?] The useful part was it highlighted how much goes into the process of deciding these things. E.g., what counts as mutilation of an animal? The Guardian published what it said were FB’s standards, not all of which were.

MB: For user generated content there’s a set of standards that’s made public. When a comment is reported to FB, it goes to a FB content reviewer.

JZ: What does it take to be one of those? What does it pay?

MB: It’s not an existing field. Some have content-area expertise, e.g., terrorism. It’s not a minimum wage sort of job. It’s a difficult, serious job. People go through extensive training, and continuing training. Each reviewer is audited. They take quizzes from time to time. Our policies change constantly. We have something like a mini legislative session every two weeks to discuss proposed policy changes, considering internal suggestions, including international input, and external expert input as well, e.g., ACLU.

MB: About animal abuse: we consider context. Is it a protest against animal cruelty? After a natural disaster, you’ll see awful images. It gets very complicated. E.g., someone posts a photo of a bleeding body in Syria with no caption, or just “Wow.” What do we do?

JZ: This is worlds away from what lawyers learn about the First Amendment.

MB: Yes, we’re a private company so the Amendment doesn’t apply. Behind our rules is the idea that “You don’t have to agree with the content, but you should feel safe”FB should be a place where people feel safe connecting and expressing themselves. You don’t have to agree with the content, but you should feel safe.

JZ: Hate speech was defined as an attack against a protected category…

MB: We don’t allow hate speech, but no two people define it the same way. For us, it’s hate speech if you are attacking a person or a group of people based upon a protected characteristic — race, gender, gender identification, etc. —. Sounds easy in concept, but applying it is hard. Our rule is if I say something about a protected category and it’s an attack, we’d consider it hate speech and remove it.

JZ: The Guardian said that in training there’s a quiz. Q: Who do we protect: Women drivers, black children, or white men? A: White men.

MB: Not our policy any more. Our policy was that if there’s another characteristic beside the protected category, it’s not hate speech. So, attacking black children was ok but not white men, because of the inclusion of “children.” But we’ve changed that. Now we would consider attacks on women drivers and black children as hate speech. But when you introduce other characteristics such as profession, it’s harder. We’re evaluating and testing policies now. We try marking content and doing a blind test to see how it affects outcomes. [I don’t understand that. Sorry.]

JZ: Should the internal policy be made public?

MB: I’d be in favor of it. Making the training decks transparent would also be useful. It’s easier if you make clear where the line is.

JZ: Do protected categories shift?

MB: Yes, generally. I’ve been at FB for 5.5 yrs, in this are for 4 yrs. Overall, we’ve gotten more restrictive. Sometimes something becomes a topic of news and we want to make sure people can discuss it.

JZ: Didi Delgado’s post “all white people are racist” was deleted. But it would have been deleted if had said that all black people are racist, right?

MB: Yes. “If it’s a protected characteristic, we’ll protect it”If it’s a protected characteristic, we’ll protect it. [Ah, if only life were that symmetrical.]

JZL How about calls to violence, e.g., “Someone shoot Trump/Hillary”? If you think it should be taken down. [Sounds like most would let it stand.]

JZ: How about “Kick a person with red hair.” [most let it stand]

JZ: “How about: To snap a bitch’s neck, make sure to apply all your pressure to the middle of her throat.” [most let it stand][fuck, that’s hard to see up on the screen.]

JZ: “Let’s beat up the fat kids.” [most let it stand]

JZ: “#stab and become the fear of the Zionist” [most take it down]

MB: We don’t allow credible calls for violence.

JZ: Suppose I, a non-public figure, posted “Post one more insult and I’ll kill you.”

MB: We’d take that down. We also look at the degree of violence. Beating up and kicking might not rise to the standard. Snapping someone’s neck would be taken down, although if it were purely instructions on how to do something, we’d leave it up. “Zionist” is often associated with hate speech, and stabbing is serious, so we’d take them down. We leave room for aspirational statements wishing some bad thing would happen. “Someone should shoot them all” we’d count as a call to violence. We also look for specifity, as in “Let’s kill JZ. He leaves work at 3.” We also look at the vulnerability of people; if it’s a dangerous situation,
we’ll tend to treat all such things as calls to violence, [These are tough questions, but I’m not aligned with FB’s decisions on this.]

JZ: How long does someone spend reviewing this stuff?

MB: Some is easy. Nudity is nudity, although we let breast cancer photos through. But a beheading video is prohibited no matter what the context. Profiles can be very hard to evaluate. E.g., is this person a terrorist?

JZ: Given the importance of FB, does it seem right that these decisions reside with FB as a commercial entity. Or is there some other source that would actually be a relief?

MB: “We’re not making these decisions in a silo”We’re not making these decisions in a silo. We reach out for opinions outside of the company. We have Safety Advisory Board, a Global Safety Network [got that wrong, I think], etc.

JZ: These decisions are global? If I insult the Thai King…

MB: That doesn’t violate our global community standard. We have a group of academics around the world, and people on our team, who are counter-terrorism experts. It’s very much a conversation with the community.

JZ: FB requires real names, which can be a form of self-doxxing. Is the Real Name policy going to evolve?

MB: It’s evolved a little about what counts as their real name, i.e., the name people call you as opposed to what’s on your drivers license. Using your real name has always been a cornerstone of FB. A quinessential element of FB.

JZ: You don’t force disambiguation among all the Robert Smiths…

MB: When you communicate with people you know, you know you know them. “We don’t want people to be communicating with people who are not who you think they are”We don’t want people to be communicating with people who are not who you think they are. When you share something on FB, it’s not public or private. You can choose which groups you want to share it with, so you know who will see it. That’s part of the real name policy as well.

MB: We have our community standards. Sometimes we get requests from countries to remove violations of their law, e.g., insults to the King of Thailand. If we get such a request, if it doesn’t violate the standards, we look if the request is actually about real law in that country. Then we ask if it is political speech; if it is, to the extent possible, we’ll push back on those requests. E.g., Germans have a little more subjectivity in their hate speech laws. They may notify us about something that violates those laws, and if it does not violate our global standards, we’ll remove it in Germany only. (It’s done by IP addresses, the language you’re using, etc.) When we do that, we include it in our 6 month reports. If it’s removed, you see a notice that the content is restricted in your jurisdiction.

Q&A

Q: Have you spoken to users about people from different cultures and backgrounds reviewing their content?

A: It’s a legitimate question. E.g., when it comes to nudity, even a room of people as homogenous as this one will disagree. So, “our rules are written to be very objective”our rules are written to be very objective. And we’re increasingly using tech to make these decisions. E.g., it’s easy to automate the finding of links to porn or spam, and much harder for evaluating speech.

Q: What drives change in these policies and algorithms?

A: It’s constantly happening. And public conversation is helpful. And our reviewers raise issues.

Q: a) When there are very contentious political issues, how do you prevent bias? b) Are there checks on FB promoting some agenda?

A: a) We don’t have a rule saying that people from one or another country can review contentious posts. But we review the reviewers’ decisions every week. b) The transparency report we put out every six months is one such check. If we don’t listen to feedback, we tend to see news stories calling us out on it.

[Monika now quickly addresses some of the questions from the open question tool.]

Q: Would you send reports to Lumen? MB: We don’t currently record why decisions were made.

Q: How to prevent removal policies from being weaponized but trolls or censorious regimes? MB: We treat all reports the same — there’s an argument that we shouldn’t — but we don’t continuously re-review posts.

JZ: For all of the major platforms struggling with these issues, is it your instinct that it’s just a matter of incrementally getting this right, bringing in more people, continue to use AI, etc. OR do you think sometimes that this is just nuts; there’s got to be a better way.

There’s a tension between letting anyone see what they want, or have global standards. People say US hates hate speech and the Germans not so much, but there’s actually a spectrum in each. The catch is that there’s content that you’re going to be ok seeing but we think is not ok to be shared.

[Monika was refreshingly direct, and these are, I believe, literally impossible problems. But I came away thinking that FB’s position has a lot to do with covering their butt at the expense of protecting the vulnerable. E.g., they treat all protected classes equally, even though some of us — er, me — are in top o’ the heap, privileged classes. The result is that FB applies a rule equally to all, which can bring inequitable results. That’s easier and safer, but it’s not like I have a solution to these intractable problems.]

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September 3, 2017

Free e-book from Los Angeles Review of Books

I’m proud that my essay about online knowledge has been included in a free e-book collecting essays about the effect of the digital revolution, published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.

It’s actually the first essay in the book, which obviously is not arranged in order of preference, but probably means at least the editors didn’t hate it.

 


The next day: Thanks to a tweet by Siva Vaidhyanathan, I and a lot of people on Twitter have realized that all but one of the authors in this volume are male. I’d simply said yes to the editors’ request to re-publish my article. It didn’t occur to me to ask to see the rest of the roster even though this is an issue I care about deeply. LARB seems to feature diverse writers overall, but apparently not so much in tech.

On the positive, this has produced a crowd-sourced list of non-male writers and thinkers about tech with a rapidity that is evidence of the pain and importance of this issue.

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August 7, 2017

Cymbeline: Shakespeare’s worst play (Or: Lordy, I hope there’s a tape)

The hosts of the BardCast podcast consider Cymbeline to probably be Shakespeare’s worst play. Not enough happens in the first two acts, the plot is kuh-razy, it’s a mishmash of styles and cultures, and it over-explains itself time and time again. That podcast is far from alone in thinking that it’s the Bard’s worst, although, as BardCast says, even the Bard’s worst is better than just about anything. Nevertheless, when was the last time you saw a performance of Cymbeline? Yeah, me neither.

We saw it yesterday afternoon, in its final performance at Shakespeare & Co in Lenox, Mass. It was fantastic: hilarious, satisfactorily coherent (which is praiseworthy because the plot is indeed crazy), and at times moving.

It was directed by the founder of the company, Tina Packer, and showed her usual commitment to modernizing Shakespeare by finding every emotional tone and every laugh in the original script. The actors enunciate clearly, but since we modern folk don’t understand many of the words and misunderstand more than that, the actors use body language, cues, and incredibly well worked out staging to make their meaning clear. We used to take our young children to Shakespeare & Co. shows, and they loved them.

I’m open to being convinced by a Shakespeare scholar that the Shakespeare & Co.’s Cymbeline was a travesty that had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s intentions, even though the players said all the words he wrote and honored the words’ magnificence. I’m willing to acknowledge that, for example, when Imogen and King Cymbeline offer each other words of condolence about the death of the wicked, wicked queen, Shakespeare didn’t think they’d wait a beat and then burst out laughing. But when Posthumus comes before the King at the end, bemoaning the death of his beloved Imogen, I would not be surprised if Shakespeare were to nod in appreciation as in this production the audience bursts into loud laughter because Imogen, still in disguise as a boy, is scrambling towards Posthumus, gesticulating ever more wildly that she is in fact she for whom he mourns. Did Shakespeare intend that? Probably not. Does it work? One hundred percent.

These two embellishments are emblematic of the problem with the play. In that final scene, it is revealed to the King in a single speech that the Queen he has loved for decades in fact always hated him, tried to poison him, and was a horrible, horrible person. There’s little or nothing in the play that explains how the King could not have had an inkling of this, and he seems to get over the sudden revelation of his mate’s iniquity in a heartbeat so that the scene can get on with its endless explication. The laugh he shares with his daughter gets a huge laugh from the audience, but only because the words of sorrow Shakespeare gives the King and Imogen seem undeserved for a Queen so resolutely evil; the addition of the laugh solves a problem with the script. Likewise, Imogen’s scramble toward Posthumus, waving her arms in a “Hey, I’m right here!” gesture, turns Posthumus’ mournful declaration of his devastation at the death of Imogen into comic over-statement.

To be clear, most of the interpretations seem to bring Shakespeare’s intentions to life, even if unexpected ways. For example, Jason Aspry’s Cloten was far different from the thuggish and thoroughly villainous character we expected. Asprey played him hilariously as a preening coward. This had me concerned because I knew that he is killed mid-play in a fight with the older of two young princes who have been brought up in a cave. (It’s a weird plot.) How can the prince kill such an enjoyable buffoon without making us feel like someone casually shot Capt. Jack Sparrow halfway through the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? But the staging and the acting is so well done that, amazingly, the biggest laugh of the show came when the prince enters the stage holding Cloten’s severed head. (Don’t judge me. You would have laughed, too.)

So, this may well be Shakespeare’s worst play. If so, it got a performance that found everything good in it, and then some.

 


 

I do want to at least mention the brilliance and commitment of the actors. Some we have been seeing every summer for decades, and others are new or newer to us. But this is an amazing group. Among the cast members who were new to us, Ella Loudon was amazing as the older prince. I feel bad singling anyone out, but, there, I did it.

 


 

Finally, Shakespeare & Co. doesn’t post videos of performances of their plays after they’ve run. It makes me heartsick that they do not. I’ve asked them about this in past, and apparently the problem is with the actors’ union. I was brought up in a pro-union household and continue to be favorably inclined toward them, but I wish there were a way to work this out. It’d be good for the world to be able to see these exceptional performances and come to love Shakespeare.
It would of course also be good for Shakespeare & Co.

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July 20, 2017

I didn’t like the new Planet of the Apes movie. [No spoilers.]

War for Planet of the Apes has 95% positive ratings at Rotten Tomatoes. Many of the cited reviews are effusive. For example, Charles Taylor at Newsweek calls it “a consistently intelligent, morally thoughtful and often beautiful picture.”

I’d rephrase that a bit. I think it was a dumb, predictable, boring movie with a couple of nice landscape shots. We went to see it on one of our few movie nights out because we’d enjoyed the first two in this series.

If WARPA weren’t about apes but was instead about the actual human ism‘s it intends to get us to see from the Other’s perspective — racism, colonialism, militarism — we’d view it as embarrassingly trite and shallow. Casting apes as the victims doesn’t make it any less so.

It doesn’t help that while the facial animations are incredible, the ape bodies look like pretty good animations of people wearing ape suits. Plus, I have to say that these apes’ lack of genitalia or assholes diminishes the vividness of the premise of the movie: the apes we’ve treated as an inferior species are deserving of respect and dignity. Instead, we get damn, dirty hairy aliens.

But most of all, there isn’t a cliche the movie doesn’t miss. If you’re sitting in your seat thinking that the next obvious thing to happen is X, then X will happen. Guaranteed. The only surprises are the plot holes, of which there are many.

The music is bad in itself and is used as a cudgel. They might as well have skipped the music and just put in subtitles like “Feel sorrow here.”

Full marks to Andy Serkis and the motion capture crew. As others have suggested, he deserves his Special Achievement Oscar already. Well, he deserved it for Lord of the Rings, but his work in this movie is absolutely its highlight. Steve Zahn also has a good turn as the comic relief. But poor Woody Harrelson is stuck with ridiculous lines and a clumsy narrative attempt to give his character some depth. His best moment is when he shaves his head in one of the movie’s embarrassing flags that it thinks it’s on a par with films like Apocalypse Now.

Also, this movie is no fun. It’s grim. It’s boring. It’s unfair to the humans.

That last point is not a political complaint because lord knows we deserve all the monkey feces thrown at us. It’s instead a complaint about the shallowness of the movie-making.

Overall, I’d give a 95% chance of disappointing you.

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July 18, 2017

America's default philosophy

John McCumber — a grad school colleague with whom I have alas not kept up — has posted at Aeon an insightful historical argument that America’s default philosophy came about because of a need to justify censoring American communist professorss (resulting in a naive scientism) and a need to have a positive alternative to Marxism (resulting in the adoption of rational choice theory).

That compressed summary does not do justice to the article’s grounding in the political events of the 1950s nor to how well-written and readable it is.

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