Category Archives: America Is a Failed Experiment

In Which Pronouns Are Deliberate

I was thinking about how my re-implementation of a stochastic dynamical model actually predicted the stock-market instability that actually happened.

And about saying in January 2017, “I’m really not feeling that good about our ability to handle the next epidemic that comes our way.”

Now, turning out right when you’d much rather have been wrong is of course a complicated feeling. But I realized something. If you ever see a physicist getting out of his lane and opining about a subject that is not physics, you can direct them to me. I will then instruct him to bow before me, because I am his fucking god.

(Ahem)

You may already have seen the news about publishers suing the Internet Archive.

As a scientist and teacher, I will not write or peer-review for any journal from these publishers, nor will I use their books in my classroom, because their emotionally immature stunt risks the collective memory of the Internet.

Whether or not the “National Emergency Library” is ultimately a reasonable idea, there are good ways and bad ways to approach the issue, and Hachette, HarperCollins, Wiley and Penguin Random House have chosen a bad one. For two decades, scholars have been asking, “What value do publishers actually add?” Answers vary, but a bitter “not bloody much” is prominent among them. Undermining our social and technical infrastructure in a time of global crisis only gives that view more weight.

Fragmentary

on the surface, it’s hip and winking nostalgia, but on the inside, it’s a sincere, desperately passionate, gut-level urge to affirm that our childhood had value

in the ache of this impossible, inescapable present

— where — in — the — world — is —

today, we are making gourmet

the only training I’ve had for this situation was writing a science fiction novel

The Adventure of the Scandalous Cauliflower

(very John Oliver voice) Good evening. Tonight’s top story: Web scraping. That’s when someone uses an automated tool to download, typically, large amounts of information from the Web and save it on their own computer for their own purposes. Now, there are situations where this is undoubtedly for the general good, like saving climate data so that it can’t be made to vanish with an act of government whimsy. But when personal information enters the picture, the ethical considerations can change, and there can be times when “it was available to the public!” becomes little more reassuring than, “Yes, I am following you while I happen to be carrying this camera, but you were walking outside, so you have to be OK with being seen, oh, and is this your regular bus stop?”.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times ran a provocative and alarming piece you have quite possibly already seen, titled “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It” — oh, you’ve read it? Thanks for telling us, but don’t worry, Mark Zuckerberg already knows. Basically, the M.O. of Clearview AI was to scrape pictures from, as the Times says, “Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites,” and then use the resulting massive database to fuel the wet dreams of petty aspiring autocrats everywhere.

Now, as with so many of the depressing and horrifying developments of modern life, there is a level on which this feels absolutely unsurprising. Just another way in which the utopian promise of the Internet [stock art of Tron appears over shoulder] was betrayed and perverted into something irredeemably toxic by some guy out to make a quick buck. Back in 1990, when (now Sir) Tim Berners-Lee created the first ever website at CERN, the physics laboratory that now hosts the Large Hadron Collider, surely this disaster was not what he had in mind. Even today, surely we can count on scientists to rise above the venal impulses of the money-grubbers, hold themselves to the highest ethical standards in the pursuit of truth, act with discretion to the communities that their research affects and I’m just fucking with you. Scientists are people. Sometimes greedy, often fallible. And the process of correcting an error, even one due to simple carelessness, can be remarkably painful for all concerned.

I have been involved in writing an open letter in response to what I myself like to call “The Adventure of the Scandalous Cauliflower.” That open letter is available here in PDF and basic HTML. I was not the first person to call attention to this matter, nor perhaps even the loudest, but I like formatting academic documents, so the organizing somewhat fell to me by default. As typically happens in cases where an open letter gets written, everyone involved has their own opinions that may stretch beyond its margins, and I’m sure that I have my own takes (or at least choices of emphasis) that would not be co-signed by all of the letter’s signatories. This blog post is, beyond providing a pointer to the open letter, my attempt to underline that my idiosyncrasies should not be attributed to anybody else unless they have expressly indicated that they share those particular takes of mine.

The very short version is that a group of researchers at the University of Milan hoovered up a large quantity of social-media data without informing any of the communities they were studying, violated the Terms of Service of a community in that set explicitly devoted to scholars and academics, and thanks to a truly impressive feat of analyzing without thinking, concluded that the topic of cauliflower is a serious transgression of their subjects’ social norms.

This is how the letter begins:

We are writing to raise grave concerns regarding the ethics and methodology of “Mastodon Content Warnings: Inappropriate Contents in a Microblogging Platform,” by Matteo Zignani et al. of the University of Milan. The issues with this paper are sufficiently severe that the paper’s dataset has been removed from Harvard’s Dataverse repository. This open letter will explain the background of this removal and urge further action on the part of the paper’s authors, the University of Milan, and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), who have published the paper in their conference proceedings. As we detail below, the data analysed in this paper was not collected ethically, failing to take even simple steps to anonymize the data released with the paper, and fundamental errors of methodology make its results irrelevant.

Mastodon is a decentralized, community-operated microblogging platform created in early 2016 by Eugen Rochko and is based on open protocols that allow people to communicate across different servers. Anyone who wishes to create a Mastodon server, or instance, can do so by downloading and installing the Mastodon software. Users who register accounts at an instance can then share social-media posts with other users on that instance as well as with other instances. The interconnection of different servers is known as federation.

Other things that could have ended up in the letter if I had been left to my own devices and if it weren’t already going to be fairly long:

  • history of Mastodon’s “Content Warning” feature
  • variability in CW practices and discontent caused thereby
  • more details on the underlying ActivityPub protocol and its peculiarities
  • the ongoing development of fediverse software that isn’t Mastodon
  • the paper’s generally rushed, “we need a thing for this conference” feel
  • why it’s a good thing that professional codes of conduct can be a less blunt instrument than the law
  • the ambiguities fostered when the same software can be used as a means of publication and of social interaction

In short: Lots of indefinitely deep rabbit holes, and opportunities to say “a balance must be struck between the need for X and for Y” — though now that I’ve typed that phrase, I have to wonder how much that mode of rhetoric fuels compulsive centrism. Moreover, these are topics where it would be harder to pull together a core of agreement. I mean, would 45 other fediversians sign on to anything I wrote myself on my own about all that?

One way in which I am perhaps peculiar among the signatories is that, though I started this blog post talking about web scraping, in order to be topical and all, that’s not really the background from which I approached the topic. Indeed, this incident seems significantly dis-analogous to many if not most of the times I can recall that web scraping has become a hot-button issue for one reason or another. We’re in the realm of (potential) research misconduct, of science being done badly, and how lapses in ethics cannot always be pried apart from flaws of methodology. I think that the oversimplified “responsible conduct in science” lessons that we get spoon-fed in school tend to create the impression that ethical issues are when the results of a study are reliable, but the study was conducted in an objectionable way. However, that separation is too clean. Why should a study conducted with a lack of care be taken as reliable?

So, I could instead have started this blog post by invoking my very John Oliver voice and intoning, “Our top story tonight: Ethics. Otherwise known as the reason why just because you could, that doesn’t mean you should.”

But even that doesn’t quite get at the core of the matter.

If, for example, you are doing a study of 363 different online communities, each running its own server, and you don’t have the resources to examine the Terms of Service for each of those 363 installations and see if what you’re doing is in accord with all of them, then how can you say that you have the resources to evaluate the data you gathered on them?

As strange as this may sound, I don’t actually like it when I come across as mean. Every day, I wish I could use the Internet as a device for being kind to people I’ve never met.

But if science is to be a thing we value, we must hold it to account. That can mean booting scientists from the National Academy for sexual harassment, or taking an uncomfortably hard look at what telescopes we think we “need” to build, or even a critical analysis of a scandalous cauliflower.

On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019

(a friendly warning for police violence, transphobia and philosophy of physics)

The way I see it, the two big Why? questions about quantum mechanics are, first, why do we use the particular mathematical apparatus of quantum theory, as opposed to any alternative we might imagine? And second, why do we only find it necessary to work with the full perplexities of quantum physics some of the time? These two questions are related. In order to understand how imprecise measurements might wash out quantum weirdness, we need to characterize which features of quantum theory really are fundamentally weird. And this, in turn, requires separating deep principles from convenient conventions and illuminating the true core of the physics. My own research has focused on the first question, but the second is never too far from my mind.

Of course, I have a lot on my mind these days, but I don’t think I’m special in that regard.

If you ask me, a “quantum system” can be any part of nature that is subject to an agent’s inquiry. A “quantum measurement” is, in principle, any action that an agent takes upon a quantum system. The road between Boston’s City Hall and the Holocaust Memorial is a quantum system. When the police use their bicycles as battering rams against queer kids and street medics, running towards the trouble is a quantum measurement. Being threatened with pepper spray, while secoondhand exposure already stings the eye and throat, one human thrown to the pavement in the intersection in front of you while another arrest happens on the sidewalk just behind you, is an outcome of that measurement. Unsurprisingly, textbooks provide little guidance on casting that event into the algebraic formalism of density matrices, and in the moment, other types of expertise are more immediately useful.

I first encountered quantum physics in a serious way during the spring of my second year at university — 2003, that would have been. I did not particularly care about the conceptual or philosophical “foundations” of it until the summer of 2010. The interval in between encompassed six semesters of quantum mechanics and subjects dependent upon it, along with my first attempts to find a research problem in the area. Once my curiosity had been provoked, it took the better part of a year to find an “interpretation” of quantum mechanics that was at all satisfying, and longer than that to make the transition from “this is how a member of that school would answer that question” to “this is what I declare myself”. Part of that transition was my discovery that I could put my own stamp on the ideas: The concepts and the history provoked new mathematical questions, which I could approach with a background that nobody else had.

The interpretation I adopted was the QBism of Chris Fuchs and Rüdiger Schack, later joined by N. David Mermin.

QBism is

an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which the ideas of agent and experience are fundamental. A “quantum measurement” is an act that an agent performs on the external world. A “quantum state” is an agent’s encoding of her own personal expectations for what she might experience as a consequence of her actions. Moreover, each measurement outcome is a personal event, an experience specific to the agent who incites it. Subjective judgments thus comprise much of the quantum machinery, but the formalism of the theory establishes the standard to which agents should strive to hold their expectations, and that standard for the relations among beliefs is as objective as any other physical theory.

That’s how we put it in the FAQ. Any physicist who is weird enough to endorse an interpretation of quantum mechanics will naturally get inquiries about it. Many of these, we get often enough that we try to compile good answers together into a nicely portable package — with the proviso that the quantum is a project, and some answers are not final because if physics were easy, we’d be done by now.

There’s a question which seems particularly suited to answering in the blog format, though: “Why don’t you believe in the Many Worlds Interpretation?”
Continue reading On Being a Quantum Physicist in Autumn 2019

It Is a Heartbreakingly Lovely Spring Day

When I was a prickly atheist teenager, I did not appreciate the Battle Hymn of the Republic. After all, it was one of the bad guys’ songs in Inherit the Wind, wasn’t it? Much later, I realized — oh, it was written by an abolitionist in 1861. She was thirsty to see the fields watered with slaveowner blood. OK then. More terrible swift sword, please.

When I was a prickly atheist teenager, I was rather confident that the people who put “evolution is just a theory” stickers in all our biology books would be Good Germans if given the chance.

Turns out? I was right.

If I had foreseen that organized atheism would descend into sexism and xenophobia, then I would give myself credit. Yes, pretty much as soon as I met a convention-ful of skeptics, I found myself ill at ease with the blithe acceptance of economic injustice, and vaguely surprised by how easily the cogs of critical thinking were disengaged once the conversation moved beyond “UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees”. I should have been more upset, and sooner.

When I was a university student, I wrote a sestina in the voice of Persephone, mourning her life, with the trick ending that she’s a goth girl and wishes she had eaten more of the pomegranate seeds so that she could groove on the underworld for a longer fraction of the year. This may be indicative of my type of indulgence then.

When I was a university student, I began a novel. Like any youngster who has just discovered layering and allusion — anagrams with doctorates — I went full in, under the spell of Pale Fire and Appel’s Annotated Lolita and elective courses on hypertext fiction. I am sure the result would in many places embarrass me now, though at least I am still fond of this sample. I doubt I had the stylistic control to make all of my attempts at subversion be more than recapitulations. In retrospect, one character seems, within the strictures of a “romance” subplot, to be discovering their own asexuality. A better writer would have done more with that. And the motives of my off-screen villains now feel a bit too armchair, too intellectualized, when simple misogynist fury would suffice.

Also, I underplayed climate change, treating it as a diegetic justification for a mild surrealism, a reason for the world to be reshaped — under a spell, again, this time of Borges’ “Death and the Compass”.

You see, I finished that novel in 2008, when plenty was wrong with the world, but matters were sufficiently good for sufficiently many that it felt we could make things right, if we only worked hard.

When I was younger, I found that “Holy Writ” was habitually obscure, frequently cruel and almost always in need of an editor. Now, as we are poised to inherit the heated wind, I would add that the best reason to know the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac is to appreciate the twist ending that Wilfred Owen gave it:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Grim

Maybe I need an “I told you so” category for this blog. Quoting the kicker from The Atlantic‘s portrayal of the State Department:

“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”

The American Physical Society Finally Speaks

The APS, my professional organization, has made some dunderheaded moves of late, but this is more encouraging. An email from the APS president and CEO, broadcast today to the membership at large, begins thusly:

We share the concerns expressed by many APS members about recent U.S. government actions that will harm the open environment that is essential for a successful global scientific enterprise. The recent executive order regarding immigration, and in particular, its implementation, would reduce participation of international scientists and students in U.S. research, industry, education, and conference activities, and sends a chilling message to scientists internationally.

The American Chemical Society had already spoken up:
Continue reading The American Physical Society Finally Speaks

Shorter Pinker

Wasn’t I just kvetching about Steven Pinker? Not that long ago, even? Well, some gifts just won’t stop giving. He’s at it again, this time complaining about the “anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric” of the March for Science. It might have been obvious to some of us ten years or more ago that basic respect for empirical data had become a partisan issue, but not everybody has caught up quite yet.

An academic type like me has a hard time responding to accusations of “identity politics” or “political correctness,” not because the accusations have any intellectual merit, but because the real message isn’t the words on the page. People like me, we see a thing wrapped up in the form of a scholarly argument, and we try to respond with footnotes and appendices. But the clauses and locutions are just dances around the real issue, the fundamental point that was expressed most clearly by the Twitter account @ProBirdRights:

I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?

Science Is Now the Enemy

No, let’s be a little more forceful than that. The news warrants that much, and it just keeps coming. For the party now in power, the people who keep rat shit out of your food and stop rivers from catching on fire are now the enemy.

I’m really not feeling that good about our ability to handle the next epidemic that comes our way.

And on a personal note, I’m a queer scientist who has published on biological evolution and the need for financial regulation. So, you can sod off with your cheery hot takes about America becoming Great Again through space exploration, or whatever the Quisling line is this week. Stuff your white dick back in your pants and sit your ass down while the adults work, m’kay?

As Of Today

The United States of America is a failed experiment.

We went out in the way a bad joke would have predicted. We lost against our own racism and sexism, our endemic illnesses whose symptoms were intensified by corrupt law enforcement and institutionally rotten mass media. Undone at the final hour by a bizarre codicil in a slaveowners’ constitution. Undone, pushed over the edge—but the edge was too close all along. When it really mattered, we proved ourselves incompetent: not able to handle our civil responsibilities, indeed, in a sense, not ready for adulthood. In the name of national glory, we have voted ourselves a government of the worst. And now a generation will grow up ignorant, poor and sick, if they get the chance to grow up at all. Many of the things we will lose will be things we can never regain, from international respect to endangered species to the lives of our loved ones.

Many good people will keep up the good fight and stir up, as John Lewis says, the good trouble.

The abyss has opened before us.

Whether the future we make for ourselves will have anything to commend it now depends upon our ability to stare into that abyss and make it blink.