Category Archives: Politics

Surveillance Valley

Just read Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley. There was a lot more new information than I was expecting but also a lot of “guilt by association” arguments and some interpretations I found a bit sketchy. Curious if anyone else has read it and what they thought. The book has two main sections.

First: the proto-history of the internet in ARPA was tied closely to concrete surveillance usecases. We usually tell the ARPANET story as an independent research arm within ARPA, but he shows that this is something of a myth – from the very beginning the intelligence community was using it to build linked databases of domestic surveillance (eg their dossiers on Vietnam War protestors). This surveillance use was recognized by the anti-war left at the time – there were large protests at MIT and Harvard against these projects. This has largely dropped out of our collective memory.

Second, and more interesting: the recent wave of anti-surveillance feeling, and the way it has centralized around Tor and Signal. The ultimate puzzle he is trying to unravel is: “privacy activists claim that Tor and Signal break the surveillance power of governments and large internet corporations. So why do those institutions support those tools and advocate their widespread use?” Specifically, the US government is a major funder of both, through a variety of entities such as OTF and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He spends much less time discussing the large tech companies, but treats them by-and-large as collaborators with government surveillance, and makes that case pretty strongly and well.

(He also spends a lot of time in this section detailing how his previous investigations into these issues led to him being harassed online by privacy activists.)

His answer has three main components.

Answer 1: technical reasons. Tor was created as a DARPA project for spy communication – but the developers quickly realized that they would need lots of non-spy activity on Tor for the spy activity to blend into the background, which is why they opened it up and continue to fund it and advocate for it.

Answer 2: influence. The funding relationship allows the government to exert influence on these organizations, get advance notice of vulnerabilities and roadmaps, shape the direction and steer them away from things that are actively dangerous to the handlers. Somewhere in here is the possbility of backdoors, which I can’t really assess the evidence for. Part of this explanation is that by supporting a highly visible but secretly defanged privacy movement, they reduce the pressure that might otherwise cause trouble for them.

Answer 3: use of these systems as a tool to destabilize enemy regimes – the USG funds privacy training for political activists across the world, and advises them to use Tor and Signal. This is not exactly hidden – the OTF’s Wiki page cites its mission statement as wanting to “support projects that develop open and accessible technologies to circumvent censorship and surveillance, and thus promote human rights and open societies”. The extent of the activities that we’re supporting likely go deeper – we’re not above a little violent regime change – but this goal is out in the open.

There are a lot of interesting issues raised here, and the facts in this book are painstakingly documented. But ultimately I wonder if he’s seeking too consistent an explanation, in the vein of conspiracy theorists who need a simple causal pattern to explain a wide variety of events. He seems to think that “Google” and “the US government” are monolithic entities with a single volition, whose actions must be somehow consistent – this is of course not the way these institutions work, especially when it comes to the intelligence community. The story he tells (especially Answer 2) complicates and punctures the self-aggrandizing, radical-aesthetic narrative in the privacy community. But I don’t think this is as big a puzzle as he makes it out to be.

A Pattern Language

I’ve been seeing people recommend A Pattern Language (amazon, very large pdf) here and there for a few years now and finally picked it up. I’ve only begun to read it, but it is a truly remarkable work. In particular it draws a thick and complex connection between design and ethics.

(Skimming the wikipedia page of the first listed author makes me want to read much more of his work.)

This book simultaneously defines what a pattern language is, makes a case for how they should be used in design, and provides an example.

Designers of any sort (industrial designers, graphic designers software, urban planners, etc) work explicitly or implicitly based on patterns that they have learned about, developed, or identified. If I own land and want to sleep indoors, I might think about the pattern “Single Family Home” and create a design based on that pattern. And we need patterns for the whole spectrum of human existence that emerges through design, from the way our highest political entities are arranged (“Independent Regions”) through cities (“Subculture Boundaries”, “Night Life”), and so on (“Looped Local Roads”, “Compost”)

How do different patterns, though, connect to each other? There’s the concept of a Pattern Library which I’ve often seen in the tech space (example). The Library metaphor asserts that patterns should be listed and categorized. But metaphor of a Pattern Language goes much farther in exploring the rich connections between patterns, the syntax by which they can be juxtaposed, and the layers of meaning that they bring to bear when they are used together in different ways. A library can only be constructed and maintained, usually by a single entity. A library, unlike a language, does not usually develop and evolve organically.

Every society which is alive and whole, will have its own unique and distinct pattern language; and further, that every individual in such a society will have a unique language, shared in part, but which as a totality is unique to the mind of the person who has it. In this sense, in a healthy society there will be as many pattern languages as there are people — even though these languages are shared and similar…

The language described in this book, though, is more like Esperanto than like English. It is not the dictionary of any observed pattern language, it is a call for a new language that will lead to a new and better lived existence for humanity. Languages differ in the fluency with which they can express certain concepts, and so each language comes with a value system and creating a language is an ethical acts. What kind of patterns should feel natural to express? What is clunky?

The language that has emerged in our society is a stunted, depraved language without humanity. We have a pattern for billboards, for surveillance cameras, for strip malls, for old age homes.

[W]e have written this book as a first step in the society-wide process by which people will gradually become conscious of their own pattern languages and work to improve them. We believe…that the languages which people have today are so brutal, and so fragmented, that most people no longer have any language to speak of at all — and what they do have is not based on human, or natural considerations. [emphasis added]

The language in this book contains, on the contrary, patterns like the following:

  • Magic of the City
  • Old People Everywhere
  • Children in the City
  • Holy Ground
  • Connected Play
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Garden Growing Wild
  • Communal Sleeping
  • Window Overlooking Life
  • Secret Place

These are only a few with particularly obvious ethical ramifications, but every pattern and every connection expresses an ethics, and creating such a language is a lasting way to codify your ethics.

Any such set of design principles contains within it an ethics and ethics are sometimes best expressed as design principles. In particular, I’m familiar with the conversation around dat a ethics. Usually when we talk about data ethics we are saying “here are the set of tools we’ve designed and built, and over there is our thinking about ethical ways to use them.” But those tools were also designed within a value system that is embedded not just in the design of the specific tool but the whole web of existence.

In the book’s domain (the built environment), we might think about the design of a single house. What ethics are embedded in the way a house is designed? How many people is built for, and what kinds of living arrangements? But the design of the house broadly speaking must also connect to the design of the broader society and its ethics: what materials are used, and what sorts of labor arrangements are assumed to be available? What is nearby, and what can we assume about the ways that neighborhood will change over time? What is the anticipated lifespan of this building and how might its uses change in the future?

Similarly, maybe talking sensibly about data ethics requires connecting it more deeply to the patterns we use as designers, and thinking more broadly about what those patterns are that we use and the timescales and means by which they change.

We have spent years trying to formulate this language, in the hope then when a person uses it, he will be so impressed by its power, and so joyful in its use, that he will understand again, what it means to have a living language of this kind. If we only succeed in that, it is possible that each person may once again embark on the construction and development of his own language — perhaps taking the language printed in this book, as a point of departure.

Book Review | Earthseed Series | Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

I first heard about Octavia Butler in early 2014 on Twitter, I think originally from Danilo and/or Holly. I saw allusions to something called Earthseed, to humanity’s destiny in the stars, to the idea that “God Is Change”.

Two years later, with fascism on the rise and afrofuturism enjoying a moment of popularity, I went to a Fusion-backed symposium about Butler’s work. ((I learned about this from Alexis Madrigal’s newsletter Five Intriguing things which I’ve previously pluggedAlexis, formerly at the Atlantic and now Editor in Chief at Fusion, is one of the most interesting writers I follow.))  At this event, I was delighted by the idea that all progressives, all activists, are engaged in acts of science fiction; they imagine alternate worlds that could branch off from this one in a plausible way, societies like ours except governed by different principles of the physical or psychological universe.

Sower and Talents, published in 1993 and 1998 respectively, look more prescient by the day. Butler saw the future with great clarity and with a sense of resignation to the hate, destruction and degradation our world would suffer. In the Parable series, environmental catastrophe and economic inequality have created a desperate underclass driven to violence and drugs, whose life is of no value to a police force interested in protecting the property of the rich. In this fertile ground a white supremacist Christian paramilitary organization flourishes with the winking support of Presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarrett, whose ascendance tears apart the vanishing middle class between liberal values and a frantic need to protect their families and communities from the predations of those even a little less fortunate. Kashmir Hill has already written about the uncanny similarity of this campaign to Trump’s. By the late 80s our future was not murky  to a thinker of Butler’s diagnostic precision.

The series follows Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl who shows us the imagination and empathy and ambition that we will need to survive this bleak world. As a teenager in a middle-class enclave in southern California, Olamina begins to develop a practice called Earthseed, rooted in strong communities, individual self-sufficiency and an embrace of the universe’s ever-changing nature. Earthseed demands resilience and adaptability, with a sort of scientific and moral pragmatism, and points humanity towards the stars for its own survival. As she develops her philosophy it is eventually collected into The Book of the Living, which is “excerpted” heavily in the two books.

In these two books we don’t see anyone leave Earth — we are not given the pleasure of Butler articulating what it would be like for a whole society to live by these principles. We see small communities struggle to adopt these practices. We see them try to integrate new members who are grateful for food and shelter and company but skeptical of any indoctrination. We see major setbacks and minor accomplishments.

When we are defeated by Moloch our devastation is global and absolute and permanent. Our victories are usually are messy and local and temporary, a momentary respite from an ancient foe that is only getting stronger. If we are to survive, we must connect our small patches of humanity into a resilient and adaptable network. Our power is weak and our time is short, but our destiny is in the stars.


Police Carelessness Wakes Local Citizen

Tuesday morning I was woken up at 5AM by a police siren. As I lay awake, I started thinking. I couldn’t be the only one woken up. Should police cars use their sirens at night? It seems like a classic example of diffuse costs and easy-to-see benefits. But is it worth it? Let’s make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation.

The cost of running a siren at night can be modeled by the following equation (I love Fermi problems!):
LengthDriven * (2 * SirenDistance) * Density * PctWoken *
DailyIncome * ProductivityLoss


  • we start with the LengthDriven with the siren on
  • multiply by twice the SirenDistance, how far away on each side of the police car a person can hear the siren, to get the geographic area affected
  • multiply by the Density to get the number of people potentially affected
  • multiply by the PctWoken to get the number of people who were woken up
  • multiply by the average DailyIncome to see how much economic value those people create each day
  • multiply by the ProductivityLoss (as a percent) that they experience when groggy to see how much economic value was lost by the siren

This model makes some assumptions. It assumes the police car drives in a straight line, that the density is uniform, that the PctWoken is constant within the SirenDistance and zero outside of it, that everyone works (so ignoring children), that everyone works a day shift, that the ProductivityLoss is independent of DailyIncome, etc. But it seems like a reasonable first step.

Let’s plug in some values:

LengthDriven = 0.25 miles

SirenDistance = 400 feet \approx 0.08 miles

Density = 18,187 people/square mile in SF (from Wikipedia)

PctWoken = 5% of people. I made this up out of nowhere.

DailyIncome = $45000 yearly per-capita income in SF / 200 work days per year = $225 per day

ProductivityLoss = 25%, I made this up too

This gives us an economic cost of $1023 every time a police officer flips a siren on at night.

Even if this only happens once per night in SF, it creates a cost of $375,000 over the course of the year — equivalent to the salary of about 4 police officers, or about 1% of the SFPD’s budget. Use of sirens also appears to be dangerous. I wonder what the benefits are — how much additional public safety is provided for this cost?

I reached out to the SFPD asking if they have any guidelines about siren use — stay tuned.

Make Small Mistakes: A Mood Is Not A Personality

Alex Tabarrok has a new paper out showing that easy availability of guns increases the number of suicides. (Read the comments section on that post, it’s full of good tidbits like the fact that there are more suicides farther from the equator.) This is an econometric study, but there is a psychological angle:

Our econometric results are consistent with the literature on suicide which finds that suicide is often a rash and impulsive decision–most people who try but fail to commit suicide do not recommit at a later date–as a result, small increases in the cost of suicide can dissuade people long enough so that they never do commit suicide.

In other words, while we think of some people as “suicidal” this is just the fundamental attribution error rearing its ugly head. Another example:

  • That other person didn’t signal before changing lanes because they’re a bad driver.
  • I didn’t signal before changing lanes because I forgot, I’m tired, my kids are yelling in the backseat, etc.

People’s behavior is determined by the situation, their feelings are transient or generated on the spot. Very little of their behavior can be pinned to permanent characteristics or explicit intentions. But our first inclination is the opposite. If this  idea tickles your fancy — if you’d like to learn a lot more about how the situation can affect your behavior — read The Person and the Situation, even though it didn’t make my list of top 5 behavioral economics books and even though Malcolm Gladwell wrote the Introduction. You should also browse this deck of cards showing how the physical design of the environment can affect your actions.

There are also fascinating implications for the study of crime. Gary Becker revolutionized the field by pointing out that crime isn’t done by “criminals” — it’s done by ordinary humans who face different costs and benefits than the rest of us. Of course, this isn’t the final word. Most crimes are crimes of passion; between a fifth and a third of prisoners were drinking at the time of their offense. To prevent crime, we don’t need to make 25 year sentences longer, we need to somehow get around all that System 1 decision-making. And an important new paper shows that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is staggeringly effective:

The intervention … included … in-school programming designed to reduce common judgment and decision-making problems related to automatic behavior and biased beliefs, or what psychologists call cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Program participation reduced violent-crime arrests during the program year by … 44 percent … the benefit-cost ratio may be as high as 30:1 from reductions in criminal activity alone.

The paper also finds improved schooling outcomes. Reducing the importance of your automatic decision-making can have huge benefits. The alternate strategy — what Tabarrok’s paper on suicide suggests — is that you should also lower the size of the mistake that your System 1 self can make. Your impulsive self can really screw you over if you’re not careful: make sure he doesn’t have a gun.

The Three Levels Of Frustration

There are three ways to react to frustration and there’s a strict hierarchy of these responses. As you move from Level 1 to Level 3, you have to put in more effort but you get more return. The exact tradeoff between effort and return depends a lot on the exact situation, but overall Level 3 is always harder and more rewarding than Level 2, and so on. You’ve probably had each of these responses at different times, and I think some people are more prone to one than the next.

Level 1 : It’s the system’s fault that this is frustrating, I’m not going to do it.

This website is so poorly designed, I’m not going to sign up.

It’s so hard to have my voice heard in the political process, I’m not going to vote.

My company’s infrastructure makes project management really hard, I don’t know what to do.

I would say this categorizes about 90% of global frustration. Something is hard or thought-intensive? Don’t do it. And there’s a deeper level to your thinking: “Everyone else must have also gotten discouraged, but they’d fix it if that was a problem. So this can’t actually be that important, right?”

Level 2: I’m frustrated, and it’s the system’s fault, but I can solve the problem if I work harder.

This is probably the attitude of most externally-successful people. Yes, the system makes it difficult to do this. But difficult isn’t impossible, and in fact difficult is usually easier than it looks. So I’m just going to do it.

Level 3: I’m frustrated, it’s the system’s fault and I can solve the problem if I work harder. But, if I work even harder than that, I can fix the system and make everyone else’s life easier.

The most obvious example is a political revolutionary. But this is also what great coders do — solve the general problem they’re facing and publish the solution as a program. Or the best people in your organization, who create infrastructure to solve their problems, instead of pushing through for themselves.

The problem is I think that Level 3 is much harder than Level 2, or at least takes more time. And of course there are many different levels of “Level 3 Solutions”. Imagine that you think people are at your office don’t feel adequately appreciated by their coworkers. You could do nothing — Level 1. You could go out of your way to verbally appreciate people — Level 2. You could start an email thread for people to recognize their colleague’s hard work — Level 3. You could institute a weekly meeting for verbal recognition of successes — Level 3+. You could start a company that attempts to solve this problem in workplaces everywhere — Level 3+++. Different levels of “general solution” may be appropriate depending on what the problem is, your own skill, and your free time.

If you run an organization you want to empower people to do Level 3 as often as possible, and make it easy for them to do so. As an individual, this framework can be helpful so you can decide for yourself which level is appropriate every time you’re frustrated.

What are some examples you’ve seen of each of these levels?

(Thanks to Matt Darling for a helpful comment and the relevant XKCD.)

I Might Have Been Wrong: On Experimentation

In my previous post I railed against a political fundraising technique I saw in the wild (on Twitter). I was upset because the experimental literature suggested that the technique they used was a waste of money, and I went on to lament the campaign’s lack of interest in science.

But it’s possible they were a step ahead of me. After all, a true science-driven campaign would be doing their own experimenting because of external validity concerns in the paper I mentioned. So maybe I was just in one of several treatment groups. If that’s the case I hope they’re tracking “disdainful blog posts” as an outcome variable of interest.

Why (Behavioral) Science Matters

Almost a month ago Bill de Blasio, Democratic nominee for NYC mayor, tweeted something that made me angry. If I were to donate to his primary campaign, he (or a 19 year old unpaid intern) proclaimed, my contribution would be matched 6 to 1. So now we know that de Blasio — unlike Barack Obama — is not running his campaign according to the latest research findings.

Bad economics from a mayoral hopeful.

Bad economics from a mayoral hopeful.

Political fundraising has long been an inexact science, so in the mid 2000s, two economists partnered up with a US non-profit and ran an experiment about what works best when a charity is raising money. Specifically, they looked at the effect of matching funds. Are people actually more likely to donate if their donations are matched? Their findings were surprising.

It turns out that offering a 1:1 match made people more likely to donate and raised the total amount of money that the charity raised. But higher matches — which essentially give donors more bang for their charitable buck — have no additional effect. 6 to 1 sounds high, but the evidence demonstrates that a one-to-one match would have worked just as well and so five sixths (83%) of that donor money is being wasted on a match when it could just go to general operating expenses.

That’s right, folks: a political candidate brazenly ignored a six-year-old paper from the American Economic Review. Pitchforks and torches would not be an over-reaction.

No, the real reason this matters is as a signal. Every organization on the planet, whether a political campaign, a business, or a government agency, at some level needs to influence people’s behavior. Traditionally this has been done based on intuition but now we can use state-of-the-art scientific knowledge about behavior. Hire a chief behavioralist, or just someone whose life was changed by Thinking Fast and Slow. It would have taken a day, tops, for someone to review the literature on the science of fundraising, but no — instead the campaign was guided by hoary rules of thumb that have never been exposed to the scientific method (tagline: “the known universe’s best tool for knowledge accumulation”).

Of course research matters elsewhere as well. From seawalls to transit expansion to services for the indigent, every policy decision that de Blasio will have to make as mayor can be research-informed — and good decisions are those that use prior knowledge intelligently. If de Blasio doesn’t see science as important for his campaign, if he can’t see how it would help him win election to office, what are the odds that he will use it to make better policy? Pick your political candidates based on how much they strive to use the best possible information to make their decisions —  vote for fans of scientific research.

Shitty Journalism and Shittier Warmongering

It’s rare that I find a news article equal parts infuriating and confusing. I want to deeply examine this article from today’s New York Times. Ideally, I wish I could sit down with the author of the piece, the key players quoted, the key players not quoted, eminent historians, etc, and really dig into it. But you, loyal readers, will have to suffice.

In some of the most aggressive language used yet by the administration, Mr. Kerry accused the Syrian government of the “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians” and of cynical efforts to cover up its responsibility for a “cowardly crime.”

Unlike the US government, which conducts discriminating murder of medical professionals and funerals. And unlike the US government, which always immediately and honestly owns up to any wrong-doing (more info).

Administration officials said that although President Obama had not made a final decision on military action, he was likely to order a limited military operation — cruise missiles launched from American destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea at military targets in Syria, for example — and not a sustained air campaign intended to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, or to fundamentally alter the nature of the conflict on the ground.

I don’t understand this at all. What is the purpose of military intervention if not to “alter the nature of the conflict”? What is the goal of this? How will launching a few missiles achieve that goal? I’m reminded of the “politician’s syllogism”:

  • Premise: We need to do something.
  • Premise: This is something.
  • Conclusion: We need to do this.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned but when the Secretary of State lays out a plan for launching missiles to kill people, I like to hear a rationale for why it’s the right way to solve the problem.

In the coming days, officials said, the nation’s intelligence agencies will disclose information to bolster their case that chemical weapons were used by Mr. Assad’s forces. The information could include so-called signals intelligence — intercepted radio or telephone calls between Syrian military commanders.

Announcing that “evidence is forthcoming” is one of the most bullshit PR war-mongering techniques in the playbook, but it works. It provides instant support for the case, but if the evidence turns out to be weak or nonexistent, you don’t just undo the effect of promising evidence. If the evidence is weak, no one will care; if the evidence is never released, no one will notice.

In a move that reflected its differences with the Kremlin over a possible American-led military operation against Syria, the Obama administration has decided to postpone a coming meeting with the Russians on the crisis.

This, I don’t understand at all. What is the harm in meeting with the Russians? Are we scared they are going to to talk us out of it?

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Mr. Kerry said.

Three points here. First, the US government not exactly famous recently for openness and transparency. Second, how does/would the US react to the UN investigating war crimes during our wars? Third, I don’t even need any of that evidence to show how ridiculous this is as a “serious allegation”.

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, cut short a vacation to deal with Syria, and the foreign ministers of Britain and Turkey suggested that bypassing the United Nations Security Council was an option.

The UN is convenient for us sometimes, but the amount of cynicism here is staggering.


Anyway, I could keep going but the title of this post says it all. I’ve ended this exercise with more questions than ever, and now I’m discouraged instead of angry. Is that progress?

Dear friends/readers, please point out egregious lapses in logic, factual inaccuracies, etc in the comments.

(EDIT: Your prize for reading all the way to the end, similar points made better.)

How Large Institutions Screw You Over

Have you ever caught your bank making a mistake? Maybe they levied a fee in error, or maybe they penalized you twice for the same overdraft, or so on. I had this happen once–my account was “automatically” switched from a student no-fee no-minimum account, and so I immediately started racking up penalties for failing to meet the minimum account requirements. When I complained, I was treated nicely, the mistake was fixed, and I got various perks.

Now, have you ever not caught your bank when they made a mistake? We all have limited time and limited attention so it would be easy to miss small occasional mistakes.

This could be due to malice. After all, there must be a profit-maximizing point when you think about balancing the cost of dealing with complaints compared to the benefits of collecting unearned fees. Banks could be setting out to look for this point or simply stumbling upon it by accident–since supervisors get mad when the level of mistakes is sub-optimal from a profiteering perspective.

But either way, the bank is earning money because it is cheaper for them to catch mistakes than it is for you. They can have one full-time person looking for mistakes in hundreds or thousands of similar accounts; in other words, large institutions have economies of scale of attention.

"bank error in your favor"


Two possible solutions to this:

  1. Regulation: penalties for bank errors could be set much higher by statute, so that the equilibrium number of mistakes is set to maximize overall welfare and not just the bank’s profit.
  2. Automation: It’s plausible that the cost to consumers of finding mistakes will drop dramatically using services like If This Then That.

What are some other examples of large institutions bullying you around through mere attention?

(Inspired by a conversation with @JoshHenryKatz)