The devil doesn't wear data

July 26th, 2014

Excellent piece from Evgeny Morozov on the downside to governments' infatuation with the notion that they can 'nudge' citizens into doing the right thing (whatever that is) without any of that messy politics getting in the way:

[…] consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. "We propose 'payment by results', a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus," they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what's expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It's certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one's poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn't wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

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Yolo Buggies

May 31st, 2014

Geoff Manaugh, on the work of 19th century surveyors in California who set out to map out the borders between counties:

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state.

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Life imitates The Onion

July 24th, 2013

The word 'ironic' comes to mind:

The NSA is a "supercomputing powerhouse" with machines so powerful their speed is measured in thousands of trillions of operations per second. The agency turns its giant machine brains to the task of sifting through unimaginably large troves of data its surveillance programs capture.

But ask the NSA, as part of a freedom of information request, to do a seemingly simple search of its own employees' email? The agency says it doesn't have the technology.

"There's no central method to search an email at this time with the way our records are set up, unfortunately," NSA Freedom of Information Act officer Cindy Blacker told me last week.

The system is "a little antiquated and archaic," she added. […]

How suspiciously convenient for them.1

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. For what it's worth, I'm quite prepared to believe that they don't have all their employee email in a single spool that can easily be searched by or on behalf of their FoIA team. The question is whether that was a desired outcome or just a happy side effect of their last email migration.

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Stop opt-out 'Adult' filtering

September 5th, 2012

(I meant to post about this days ago, but because I'm an idiot I've kept putting off writing about it.)

The UK government is running a consultation on the introduction of a system of requiring Internet Service Providers to block 'Adult' content by default. This is a horrible idea for all sorts of reasons:

  1. As anyone who was ever used a network with a content filtering system in place knows, they're hopelessly unreliable. They either block far too much, or they block so selectively that they're ineffective. So, in short, they don't achieve their stated aim, and they cause all sorts of collateral damage along the way.
  2. If parents want to block their kids' internet access, there's been software available for years to let them do this. It tends not to work very well (see 1 above), or to be hard to install without the help of their tech-savvy kids – hence the request that governments force ISPs to do the job for them. None of which implies that the standards of the most censorious of parents should be applied to everyone: any such system should be offered on an opt-in basis, not as the default.
  3. Even if you completely trust the intentions of the current government and of the people who like this idea, putting a system like this in place gives a future government the tools to block whatever content they like. This is a (small) step towards our one day having the Great Firewall of the United Kingdom.

The consultation can be found here. There's a response form you can download and complete, or you could use the online response system produced by the Open Rights Group which copies your response to your MP.1

The consultation closes on 6 September 2012 (yes, tomorrow), so if you're in the UK and you care about this get thee to one of the links above and let the Department for Education know what you think.

  1. As this is a consultation by a government department individual MPs aren't involved in the process yet – their time will come if this all ends in legislation being put forward to implement whatever proposals follow this consultation exercise – but it does no harm for them to know that some of their constituents have views on this topic.

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July 8th, 2012

The world's biggest corporate fines, visualised in proportion to each company's annual income.

Really puts the Barclays LIBOR-fixing fine into perspective.

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'If you spill the beans you open up a whole can of worms.'

July 4th, 2012

In the wake of what's turned out to be an … interesting … week for the UK banking industry, a reminder from Yes, Prime Minister1 that this is by no means a 21st century phenomenon:

They've broken the rules.

What, you mean the insider trading regulations?


Oh. Well, that's one relief.

I mean of course they've broken those, but they've broken the basic, the basic rule of the City.

I didn't know there were any.

Just the one. If you're incompetent you have to be honest, and if you're crooked you have to be clever. See, if you're honest, then when you make a pig's breakfast of things the chaps rally round and help you out.

If you're crooked?

Well, if you're making good profits for them, chaps don't start asking questions; they're not stupid. Well, not that stupid.

So the ideal is a firm which is honest and clever.

Yes. Let me know if you ever come across one, won't you.

[Via Flip Chart Fairy Tales]

  1. Broadcast barely a year after the deregulation of the UK financial services industry that was known at the time as "the Big Bang."

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Real Time, for real.

June 26th, 2012

Displaying real-time road pricing information, Georgia-style.

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Freezing woman

January 30th, 2012

Reflections by danah boyd on her first visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos:

Comparing WEF to any other event is hard, but I cracked a smile when Nick Bilton remarked that WEF is a lot like Burning Man. In so many ways, he's right. A lot of people overwhelm one extreme weather location and battle non-normative conditions (Davos is crowded, covered in ice, and extremely difficult to navigate) to interact with others. In both events, there are so many different kinds of communities colliding – sometimes interacting and sometimes not. And both cost gobs of money to attend, thereby excluding all sorts of people.

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Irrational exuberance

January 23rd, 2012

It turns out that former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was laughing all the way to the (run on the) banks:

[Following the release of the minutes of the meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee's meetings for 2001-2006…]

It makes for quite a fun read if you get past all the boring economic analysis parts. In fact, if the stenographer was accurate, the Committee broke into laughter 45 times in just the January meeting! That's at least 45 jokes (some didn't get laughs – if only we knew the quality of each laughter!). I would have guessed that would be a lot relative to other meetings, right? I mean how funny would it be if the top of the housing market was also when the FOMC was telling the most jokes in their meetings?

Well, being a data nerd with nothing better to do on a Thursday night, I looked into it. To be precise, I went back for just the last six years (2001-06) and searched for how many times the stenographer's notation for laughter appeared in the released transcripts of each FOMC meeting.

Suffice it to say the data is funny…

Sadly, the minutes of meetings of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee are written in a rather dry, formal style, so there doesn't seem to be much scope for a similar analysis of economic policymakers' behaviour over here.

[Via The Morning News]

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You say 'China-style internet policy' like it's a bad thing.

December 16th, 2011

Get Your Censor On.

Why shouldn't the US government censon the internet?

[Via jwz]

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