Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

The Intellectual Collapse of the Center

Jonathan Chait, for New York Magazine, pointing out the irony in David Brooks’s lamentation of the failure of the political center:

If Obama offered a deal to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody was willing to raise taxes through tax reform while reducing entitlements. If Obama favored education reform, an infrastructure bank, and more high-skill immigration, Brooks would write a sad column about how nobody favored those things. When Obama supported market-oriented health-care reform, Brooks opposed it as an extravagant government takeover. Then later he wrote a sad column about how “we’d have had a very different debate if we knew the law was going to be a discrete government effort to subsidize health care for more poor people” rather than “an extravagant government grab to take over the nation’s health-care system.”

The effect of all this commentary was not to empower the moderate ideas Brooks favored, but to disempower them. Brooks was emblematic of the way the entire bipartisan centrist industry conducted itself throughout the Obama years. It was neither possible for Obama to co-opt the center, nor for Republicans to abandon it, because official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand. The well-documented reality that the parties were undergoing asymmetric polarization was one they refused to accept, because their jobs was to be bipartisan, and it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon not understanding it.

That bit about the “midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand” really resonated with me. Brooks is far from the only political commentator who has inadvertently found himself dragged rightward by Congressional Republicans’ steadfast opposition to even the most centrist of President Obama’s policies and proposals. However, the lack of awareness Brooks shows here is not promising.

Published in David Brooks Is Probably a Nice Guy on

The Gamergate Model of Press Relations

A quick piece by Jay Rosen on The Gamergate model of press relations:

Recently Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed’s news operation, wrote: “The big story of 2014 was Gamergate, the misogynistic movement championed by Breitbart and covered primarily by new media. That turned out to be a better predictor of the presidential election than any rubber chicken dinner in Iowa (or poll by a once-reputable pollster).”

Ben is right. The Gamergate model in press relations posits that high-risk tactics should not be ruled out of consideration. It says that rejection and ridicule by the mainstream media can be a massive plus, because events like these activate — and motivate — your most committed supporters: your trolls. The Gamergate model proposes that transgressing the norms of American democracy is not some crippling defect, as previously believed, but a distinct advantage because the excitement around the transgression recruits new players to the fight, and guarantees the spread of your content.

Rosen coined the phrase “View From Nowhere” to describe the ontological agnosticism of the press. He has also argued that asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. If Rosen is correct here, political campaigns are never going to be the same.

Published in We Really Screwed This Up, America on

The Little Engine That Might

Chris Lee in Ars Technica on NASA’s EM-drive, the rocket engine that either runs on heretofore undiscovered physics, or experimental errors. Spoilers: it’s probably the latter.

Then there’s the error analysis: the authors estimate many measurement uncertainties so that each thrust measurement has an uncertainty of about ten percent. That sounds brilliant, right? Except the authors ignore the main uncertainties. In one experiment at 60 Watts of microwave power, the authors measure thrust of 128 microNewtons, while all three data points for 80 Watts of microwave power have thrusts of less than 120 microNewtons. Indeed, the thrust at 60 Watts for all data overlaps pretty much perfectly for all data taken at 80 Watts. They can only claim a slope by turning the power down to 40 Watts, where they do consistently measure less thrust.

In other words, you apparently can’t get more than 120 microNewtons of thrust out of this machine. Why? The paper doesn’t speculate on that question at all. The more important point is that the individual uncertainties in their instrumentation don’t account for the variation in the thrust that they measure, which is a very strong hint that there is an uncontrolled experimental parameter playing havoc with their measurements.

Lee does a great job of pointing out how breathtakingly exciting this new EM-drive paper would be, if it were weird in the “good lord, we have discovered an entirely new physics” way, instead of weird in the “we have conspicuously omitted all the details which would satisfy skeptics” way. Not that anyone is accusing the EM-drive folks of deliberately misleading the public, but this paper seems to raise more questions about the measurement of the results than it does about the physics at play.

Postscript: Ethan Siegel in Forbes describes exactly what it would mean for physics if this is validated.

Published in Reality Distortion Fields, Non-Jobsian on

Any Idiot Can Do It

Why the Trump Machine Is Built to Last Beyond the Election:

Parscale was given a small budget to expand Trump’s base and decided to spend it all on Facebook. He developed rudimentary models, matching voters to their Facebook profiles and relying on that network’s “Lookalike Audiences” to expand his pool of targets. He ultimately placed $2 million in ads across several states, all from his laptop at home, then used the social network’s built-in “brand-lift” survey tool to gauge the effectiveness of his videos, which featured infographic-style explainers about his policy proposals or Trump speaking to the camera. “I always wonder why people in politics act like this stuff is so mystical,” Parscale says. “It’s the same shit we use in commercial, just has fancier names.”

​A lot of people have walked into a new situation and said to themselves “oh, this seems simple enough!” at first. I would wager that most of them were humbled sooner rather than later.

Published in Don't Screw This Up, America on

To Err is Human, Unfortunately

Tim Harford, in the Guardian on how computers are setting us up for disaster:

We fail to see that a computer that is a hundred times more accurate than a human, and a million times faster, will make 10,000 times as many mistakes […]

As someone terrified of flying, the Air France crash from 2009 has morbidly fascinated me for half a decade. The Airbus plane was smart enough to stop the pilots from crashing it in some ways, but not others. When the autopilot shut off, the pilots were unprepared to take control of the plane; one of them made a fairly basic mistake, and stalled the plane into the Atlantic Ocean.

Harford points out that we might have this backwards.

An alternative solution is to reverse the role of computer and human. Rather than letting the computer fly the plane with the human poised to take over when the computer cannot cope, perhaps it would be better to have the human fly the plane with the computer monitoring the situation, ready to intervene. Computers, after all, are tireless, patient and do not need practice. Why, then, do we ask people to monitor machines and not the other way round?

When humans are asked to babysit computers, for example, in the operation of drones, the computers themselves should be programmed to serve up occasional brief diversions. Even better might be an automated system that demanded more input, more often, from the human – even when that input is not strictly needed. If you occasionally need human skill at short notice to navigate a hugely messy situation, it may make sense to artificially create smaller messes, just to keep people on their toes.

​See also my favorite law firm, Robot Robot & Hwang.

Published in Computer-Based Disasters, Lesser-Known on

One Who Sows Discord

Andy Greenberg, writing for Wired, on Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits:

Google has built a half-trillion-dollar business out of divining what people want based on a few words they type into a search field. In the process, it’s stumbled on a powerful tool for getting inside the minds of some of the least understood and most dangerous people on the Internet: potential ISIS recruits. Now one subsidiary of Google is trying not just to understand those would-be jihadis’ intentions, but to change them.

Jigsaw, the Google-owned tech incubator and think tank—until recently known as Google Ideas—has been working over the past year to develop a new program it hopes can use a combination of Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to target aspiring ISIS recruits and ultimately dissuade them from joining the group’s cult of apocalyptic violence. The program, which Jigsaw calls the Redirect Method and plans to launch in a new phase this month, places advertising alongside results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for.

On the one hand, interfering with the recruitment of Daesh—and we really ought to call them Daesh—is objectively A Good Thing. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder what will happen when Google and I disagree. More specifically, I wonder whether I’ll notice Google trying to change my mind.

Published in The Man Won't Let You Read This on