Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Face-Recog is loose. Adapt to this new world (You can!)

For years - ever since The Transparent Society (1997) - I've urged awareness of how new vision technologies will expose our lives, as never before. On the very first page, I compare two cities where citizens are under equal amounts of light and observation… only in one city they are free and safe from oppression or harm, while City #2 has descended into Orwellian hell, without adding any extra surveillance. We are seeing these two cities take shape now, before our very eyes. What makes the difference?

In China, Russia and other state monoliths, light flows upward to those in power, as control then stretches its talons downward. That condition - normal in almost every society for 6000 years - could be our fate, if we make mistakes. But not yet. So far, the opposite trend is in the lead. Why?

I relentlessly urge folks to join NGOs like the ACLU and EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) - our paladins in opposing Big Brother. Alas, though, they waste fully half of their efforts in a futile belief they can safeguard freedom by blinding elites, something that has never been accomplished on any major scale across those 60 centuries. It is the other half of their efforts that actually accomplishes good things — stripping elites naked, so that we can look back at power. Answering surveillance with sousveillance.

Here’s the recent NPR podcast of "To the Point" featuring me and a brilliant, heroic and (in this one case) misguided ACLU attorney, in a debate over privacy matters and whether we should deal with a tsunami of new technologies by shouting “stop!”… or else by learning to surf.

== The counter-intuitive secret of our success ==

Now comes the latest example, in the news, from The New York Times:
“Clearview AI, devised a groundbreaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.”

Oh, there are dangers and reasons for hand-wringing: “The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

Very real dangers! But the answer is not to scream for the technological tide to stay back. This new app only does what I predicted three years ago, when well-meaning privacy mavens strove to ban governments and Facebook from using face recognition. The genie - out of the bottle - would only go elsewhere.

The answer to Eric Goldman and others should be obvious. You prevent abuses - like those he describes - by ensuring stalkers and 'rogue' abusers will get caught! Is that so hard to imagine? Or what must be done, in order to catch the mighty - of government, wealth, criminality or tech-elites - if they abuse these new and inevitable powers? Is it truly, truly so hard?

Yes. Apparently it is. After 25 years talking till I am blue in the face, I will testify, it’s very hard. Nothing seems more counter intuitive than the exact tool - reciprocal accountability - that gave us the enlightenment and every tool and joy of freedom.

== From the ridiculous to the obstinate... ==

Now selling: bizarre-looking masks that are printed to resemble the face of the wearer underneath it. “The idea is to protect users from infection, while still allowing them to unlock their iPhones using FaceID — or be recognized by Big Brother facial recognition systems in public.” Oh, but what if you swap masks?

Alas, the wave of myopic foolishness continues. This one in the New York Times also misses the point, top to bottom. Read it. Then ask what all the whining and hand-wringing accomplished? Not addressed at all:

1. The writer only knows about the flaws in Face Recognition (FR) precisely because it is being done in the open and subject to rapid critical discovery of those flaws, which - by the way - are being addressed with stunning speed, because of that transparent discovery process.

2. Of course laws against such tech are utterly futile, since they only drive the tech underground, where flaws will not be discovered and where elites can use those techs, but we can't. As Heinlein said, "Privacy laws mostly make the spy bugs smaller." Whereas we can safeguard some privacy - an essential human want - by empowering folks to catch the voyeurs and peeping toms and even elites, in the act.

3. Banning FR "systems" is like banning buggy whips, because it won't be resident in isolated "systems" at all. The rate of tech advancement means we'll all have FR in apps and these well-meaning folks will have wasted their anti-Orwell energies screaming at the wrong targets.

4. Again, in all of human history, no restrictions on elite access to any type of information has ever been successfully blocked for more than a short time. Especially by a "law."  Show me one example. These guys are worried about important things! Big Brother. Asymetires of power. And their prescriptions of obscurity and hiding are always insane.

== Well meant plans need careful followup ==

An Obama program to create and sell cheap android phones for the poor has done a lot of good. But always be alert for predators and parasites who lurk near any good deed, eager for a chance to bite and suck. Over the years, preinstalled malware has been found on a raft of these low-cost Android phones from a variety of providers and manufacturers. 

In fact, subsidizing the development of super-cheap and reliable phones can be of tremendous strategic importance, beyond just helping the poor. Way back in 1991, before the modern cell era, I spoke at a couple of security agencies proposing a cheaper, better way to deal with brutal tyrants like Saddam Hussein. A “volks-radio” might be mass produced capable of basic peer-to-peer messaging or voice, and dropped en-masse into (say) Saddam’s Iraq. An act of war? What? Giving away free stuff is an act of war? Oh, there’d be a button that folks could use (or not) that would send messages to overhead satellites, if any Iraqi wanted to – say – tell the CIA something – say – about movements to Baathist officials. Only if they want to, of course…  Now squint and imagine the same principle applied to the new Starlink System….

In a more general sense, this is just one more way to apply the great advantage of the West… that we generally do well with increases in light flow and transparency around the world and nearly all of our deadly foes are lethally allergic to light.

Alas, I never imagined that paramount among those light-allergic enemies of the American Enlightenment Experiment would turn out to be the Republican Party.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The 'sane right' makes some tepid moves... International concerns - and historical parallels

The Lincoln Project aims to encourage a rising-up by American conservatives who are embarrassed by Putin-Trumpism and who are determined not to let their movement sink into treason and turpitude, without a fight. The most-famous founders are Gov. John Kasich and George Conway – yes, he of the bizarrely fascinating marriage to Trump factotum Kellyanne. They are exemplars of those whom I call RASRs – Residually Adult-Sane Republicans. Although punctuated by a strange and only marginally relevant anecdote about Civil War General Dan Sickles, their manifesto is worth a glance, especially in light of the same week’s editorial in Christianity Today denouncing evangelicals’ slavish devotion to Trump.

Of course these gestures matter little – nor do the imprecations of George F. Will and all the 1990s neocons against the Munich Putsch that’s taken over the U.S. right. I expect another front to open up when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan see their chance to make a play. 

 I have long opined that top Democrats should also reach out to the citizens of Utah, whose version of American Conservatism quaintly disapproves of drunkenness, lying, bribery, gambling, cheating, blackmail, treason and every other modern Fox-Republican attribute.

All of them, of course, are reaping the bitter fruit that German conservatives choked upon, in the 1930s, when the Prussian "Junkers" elites thought they could 'control' a populist fascism to suppress the left, without conseuences. In our case, cheat-gerrymandering meant that nearly all GOP politicians had more to fear from primaries than general elections, ensuring they’d be terrorized by the most radical brownshirt-types, who today threaten extinction (political and real) to any Republican with spine or a glimmer of patriotism. 

They should have seen this coming when Dennis “friend to boys” Hastert became head of their party. (Look him up, and make sure your cousins confront what he means.) 

Now? Very likely, it is too late for residually-sane "Schindler" Republicans to do anything more that beg the ghost of Barry Goldwater for help against monsters of their own creation. And pray that seeds for something better - a phoenix version of fact and science-loving, lie-hating, non-cheating and not-run-by-the-KGB conservatism can arise from these ashes. Maybe in Utah.

== Is there an International Conspiracy? ==

Of course there is, though some are imaginary, like 99% of the howls about an American cabal of scientists, teachers and journalists plus a million dedicated civil servants in the FBI, law, intel, foreign and military officer corps who saved us from Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden, but who fools now dismiss as “deep state” traitors, without one scintilla of real evidence.

As you know, I see something else with a lot more backing and proof – an arrangement among “ex” KGB agents, Saudi princes, gambling moguls, inheritance brats, monopolists and finance parasites, every one of whom benefits from destroying transparency and competitive accountability, the foundations of the Western Enlightenment.

I make much of that case in Polemical Judo. But there are other collections of evidence, more thorough than mine. 

Take for example Seth Abramson's “Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump's International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy.” It’s a followup to his earlier “Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America.” Both of which can provide plenty of ammo when you demand wagers from your redder friends and cousins.

== Eerie parallels ==

Stunningly consistent parallels between Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II, who led one of history’s great nations into utter calamity while ranting and raving all the way. 

In The New Yorker, Miranda Carter writes, Trump’s tweets were what first reminded me of the Kaiser. Wilhelm was a compulsive speechmaker who constantly strayed off script. Even his staff couldn’t stop him, though it tried, distributing copies of speeches to the German press before he’d actually given them. Unfortunately, the Austrian press printed the speeches as they were delivered, and the gaffes and insults soon circulated around Europe. 

“There is only one person who is master in this empire and I am not going to tolerate any other,” Wilhelm liked to say, even though Germany had a democratic assembly and political parties. (“I’m the only one that matters,” Trump has said.) The Kaiser reserved particular abuse for political parties that voted against his policies. “I regard every Social Democrat as an enemy of the Fatherland,” he said, and he denounced the German Socialist party as a “gang of traitors.” The Kaiser’s entourage compiled press cuttings for him, mostly about himself, which he read as obsessively as Trump watches television. A critical story would send him into paroxysms of fury.

“More sinisterly, Wilhelm’s patronage of the aggressive, nationalistic right left him surrounded by ministers who held a collective conviction that a European war was inevitable and even desirable. ”

At the opposite end of intelligence, but illustrating the very same calamitous human tendency and flaw… In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria offers another of his lengthy and mostly-wise missives, this one urging the U.S. to exercise more thoughtful patience with China. There’s much to ponder. Recommended. 

Yet, despite that, I find some desperately important matters missing. Foremost: the reasons why PRC leaders chose to repress the life-liberalizations we expected to see accompany economic advancement. That leadership clade is very smart — for example, they deem an MBA to be nothing more than frosting on the engineering degree that actually trains you for useful things, a lesson that Boeing managers and all of Wall Street long ago forgot. 

Still, the Beijing Politburo fellows are also trapped by some classic imperatives of human nature.

Across 6000 years, nearly all leader castes prioritized their own position atop a pyramid of command and authority, then hired priesthoods to justify that arrangement. Step back and you see that Xi & co. are following an ancient pattern that did humanity no good across those sixty+ centuries. I describe and analyze these rationalizations here, including why they claim only a central command communist bureaucracy can ever control malignant AI!  

== Superpower comparisons ==

An important article in The New York Times makes clear that it’s been a very good decade for China and especially the ruling caste. In part by dint of their own efforts … but also because of the comparative plummet of their chief rival the U.S. 

Incomeswealth and life expectancy in the United States have stagnated for much of the population, contributing to an angry national mood and exacerbating political divisions. The result is a semi-dysfunctional government that is eroding many of the country’s largest advantages over China. The United States is skimping on the investments like education, science and infrastructure that helped make it the world’s great power. It is also forfeiting the soft power that has been a core part of American pre-eminence.”

That soft power resides not only in our system of alliances – which was due to augment under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but has instead been systematically demolished by Republican rule – but also by destruction the biggest American advantage across the last 75 years… the appearance of the high moral ground.

The author also points out how relentless promises to invest in U.S. infrastructure have all been hot air, even though it is the one thing we could do that would benefit us in all ways, from present to future, from the jobless to well-off, and certainly transform our cities.

One more reason the US military officer corps is not following the Fox-Putin Party down a rabbit hole of treason? “China, Russia and Iran to hold joint naval drills.” 

Of course there’s also… everything else. Every blessed thing, from the Fox-led war on science and every fact-using profession to skyrocketing deficits to gerrymandering and other cheats, to Putin and his fellow “ex” communists giggling over how easy it was to suborn the U.S. right, by changing a few symbols. To the cowardly refusal of nearly all current republicans to actually put money-stakes down on wagers. But worst of all? The inability of stupid democrats to leverage on any of this. I wrote Polemical Judo in vain hope that some general on the “union” side in this phase of civil war might actually try some new tactics. But we seem stuck in 1862, waiting for our Grant.

== More danger signs ==

See an important article and associated maps in the New York Times showing where today's military recruits come from. "More and more, new recruits come from the same small number of counties and are the children of old recruits. ... The men and women who sign up overwhelmingly come from counties in the South and a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases like Colorado Springs, which sits next to Fort Carson and several Air Force installations, and where the tradition of military service is deeply ingrained."

== Alternatives to consider ==

Help Amy McGrath defeat Mitch McConnell and his backers-blackmailers in the KGB. And astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona. And in South Carolina a  new poll shows Democrat Jaime Harrison ONLY DOWN 2% against Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Satirical music video riffs - can they get through where facts fail?

Many of you have seen the latest, politically pungent, satirical, music video. Dismiss it as propaganda if you like. But first put money on whether any of the accusations are false, or things to be shrugged off.

Not just one of the best song parodies I've ever seen, but brilliant political commentary.

And yes, I have written a few myself.  For example, if only I had found talented folks like these to implement a satire-chant making fun of our tendency to nominate from "royal families." (All but two US presidential elections since 1980 had either a Bush or a Clinton (or both) on the tickets. Might my video - if it got made - have helped us dodge the 2016 debacle? I guess we'll never know.

I do have others though! In the lead-up to impeachment, I offered the following script, skewering the one common element of every GOP whine and writhe. From Strzock and Steele to subpoenas and tax returns to Deutsche Bank and refusal to call witnesses ... it always, always comes down to "The American voters should not see or know any facts! Don't look!"

== In the Danger Zone ==

To the tune and beat of “Into the Danger Zone” in the flick TOP GUN.

Putin pushed corruption - twisted our elections - Don’t look!
All our Intel people - say it really happened - Deep State!

Tax returns he promised - ‘audit’ never happened - Don’t look!
Golf trips cost us plenty - never mind the tally - Tastes great!

  Don’t look, don’t hear the censored zone…
  * We all live in the censored zone! 

Every Foxite defense - boils down to one cry - Don’t look!
Mafia connections - Russian money laundry - Eyes closed!

Steele file bias! - Disloyal Jim Comey! - so Don’t look!
We don’t want no answers - Block all testimony - MINDS closed!

    Any excuse - don’t investigate!
    * Same excuse made for Watergate!

Every Clinton crevice - probed up to the elbow - Let’s look!
Always came up empty - that means they were clever - Probe deep!

When the light shines on you - suddenly you fear it - Don’t look!
Nothing here to look at - looking is forbidden - Go sleep!

  Don’t look, don’t hear the censored zone…

  * We all live in the censored zone!

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Threats to democracy: oligarchy, feudalism, dictatorship

Fascinating and important to consider, since it is probably one of the reasons why the world aristocracy is pulling its all-out putsch right now… “Trillions will be inherited over the coming decades, further widening the wealth gap,” reports the Los Angeles Times.  The beneficiaries aren’t all that young themselves. From 1989 to 2016, U.S. households inherited more than $8.5 trillion. Over that time, the average age of recipients rose by a decade to 51. More than a quarter of bequests now go to adults 61 or older.

Fascinating and more evidence that stupidity is inherited. Because the rich should be the first to advocate FDR methods to prevent revolution, which the smartest aristos of the 1930s, like Joe Kennedy, all knew to be in their own interest. Instead, today's oligarchs appear to be doing everything in their power to bring tumbrels rolling. (And imagining that their hideaways in Patagonia, Siberia, New Zealand and under the sea will somehow provide safety from that inevitable rage.)

Matt Stoller explains how the fight against the recurring human curse of feudal oligarchy was fought in the 1930s, just in time for America to lead in resolving the crises of the 40s & 50s. (See “The Man in The High Castle” for where we were headed, without Greatest Generation heroes like FDR.) This seriously good video is highly informative and shows that other generations solved their own oligarchic putsches. We can solve ours.

I've seen one of the latest alt-right bullshittisms going around. They know they lose every wager based on facts and they now know everyone sapient can see climate disasters rising all around, directly caused by their cult. So one meme is "it was never gonna last, anyway!" Either fundie revelationism or else good old playground cynicism. "Soon all that will be left is jellyfish, so what matters?"

As you might guess I have an unusual answer. Do you know the Fermi Paradox? The question of why we see none of the great works out there among the stars, that we hope our own descendants may build?

Among my top five Fermi Paradox theories is one that I've seen no one else mention... feudalism as an attractor state that extinguishes curiosity and exploration and inventiveness, even if a sapient species survives. The fact that rule by inheritance-lord bullies and theocrats took hold in 99% of human societies says a lot. And while most historic versions of feudalism may be specifically human, the darwinistic reproductive advantage of lords/kings/priests grabbing harems is seen all across the animal kingdom. Hence its driving force likely transcends species, genus and planetary system.

So, what happens if such a society lasts millennia? The lie that "lords are superior" would become true by simple breeding and you'll wind up with castes, as in Brave New World, or in bees and ants. And when that happens - when we become specialists like ants - that's it for curiosity or outward endeavor.

Some of you know the Heinlein quote about specialization. As we'll see below, he was a man of the American enlightenment, and would have despised the putsch.

== The alternative? ==

Indeed, it may be especially human and rare that we found an alternative to stupid-ass, predictable and self-destructive feudalism. An alternative that - in the rare few times and places it's been tried - proved so vastly more creative and productive of every human good that we are using a few of the benefits right now, to converse across space and time... and AI minds may already be reading this, pondering which system got around to engendering them. (Hint: it wasn't the 99% of nations and centuries when and where feudalism reigned.)

If it's true that we stumbled into a rare, viable alternative, it means far more than our own miserable species and planet may be at stake. We may be the Milky Way's one chance to go out and save others from the Trap, bringing light.

And now the capper. I have watched these guys since they were a small band of cranks orbiting D&D and SCA. Among them are the top "incel" misogynist ravers (involuntarily celibate? Try acting like a mensch!) and neo-monarchists who no longer pretend that the "right" stands for for competition, or enterprise, or markets, certainly not democracy, equality, accountability or rights. They are unabashed admirers of Putin and the New Czars, and when shown that it's all just a bunch of "ex" commies and commissars-turned mafia bosses, they just grin and shrug.

Not long ago I cited Robert Heinlein’s incredibly prescient passages predicting that the US right would (alas) ally itself with religious fundamentalism who together: “–promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negroism, and a good large dose of anti-‘furriners’ in general and anti-intellectuals here at home…

What one of you pointed out was that in Heinlein’s prescriptive utopia novel… the generously good-natured, socialist-libertarian Beyond This Horizon… the villains and would-be tyrants turn out to be male loser-types jibbering about white power and putting women back in their place. Reading those passages, you realize Heinlein was also predicting today’s pathetic-though-dangerously-insane incels.

They jack off to fantasies of being "top dogs" when they are, at all levels, kibble. Still, they might prove to be a lethal fifth-column, helping pull us all down with them and making humanity... typical.

== Reclaim Adam Smith! as a weapon against oligarchy! ==

It seemed at least a decade that I felt alone, demanding that liberals rediscover Adam Smith as the founder of their movement and a core leader in the Revolution against privileged aristocracy, the toxic poison that ruined 99% of nations, across 6000 years. (The enemy fought by the American Founders and the real Tea Party.) Gradually, folks have rediscovered how graciously balanced and ‘liberal’ Smith was, and how dedicated to equality, which is the true engine of flat-fair-creative competition.

Of late, this cause has been taken up by the best critical economics site, “Evonomics” featuring cogent rediscoveries of a radical notion… that creative markets must maximize the number of skilled, confident, knowing competitors! You start by raising up all children. But above all we must also prevent cheating from the top. In Evonomics, Lindsey McGoey makes this point recently, as she put it:

“The establishment of perfect justice, of perfect liberty, and of perfect equality,” Adam Smith writes in Wealth of Nations, “is the very simple secret which most effectively secures the highest degree of prosperity to all the three classes.”

She goes on: “But with 1% of the world’s population now owning half its wealth, that belief is being forcefully called into question. There are growing calls to abolish billionaires and their privileges, including preferential tax treatment, handouts to corporations, and grossly inflated executive salaries that are often subsidized by taxpayers. If he was alive today, what would Adam Smith make of Jeff Bezos’s lobbying for ever-more government subsidies, or about government bailouts in the Great Recession that saved America’s rich while millions lost their homes, or about one top mogul's admission that “Monopolists lie to protect themselves”? I think Smith would say: I told you so.

“Smith was scathingly critical of the wealthy’s disproportionate power over government policymaking. He complained about the tendency of the rich to shirk tax obligations, unfairly passing tax burdens on to poor workers. He heaped scorn on government bailouts of the East India Company. He thought dirty money in politics was akin to bribery, and that it undermined the duty to govern impartiality. He wasn’t alone.”

And yes, I speak of all this... about shoes and ships and Adam Smith, and oligarchs and memes.... In a book that perhaps someone, someday, might review. Or better yet, actually use one of the 100+ ideas.