Monday, March 18, 2024

Impersonal Politics

For years, corporate and political marketeers have been committing a predictable and painful set of offenses under the fraudulent banner of “personalization”. After uncountably many tons of direct mail heaped upon me over the years, it's time to direct a few remarks back at them. The “you” I'm addressing here are the people committing these unbearable acts, especially in political mailings, not the myriad others of us who endure them.

It's easy to throw a lot of smart tech at things and think you've done something wondrous to cultivate a relationship with mass numbers of people. You have not. There is nothing personal about mass mailings. You may be hoping AI will soon fix that. It won't. Let's just say that right up front by making that point number one in the list of points I have to make:

  1. Knowing something personal about me like email or that I gave you money or that I didn't give money recently is abuse of privacy, not personalization. You'll know when you have personal information or a personal relationship because I will have been personally involved in establishing it.

    And, no, you calling me on the phone and getting me to answer personally is not me establishing it. It's just you making unauthorized second-hand use of a phone number I almost certainly gave you (or more likely someone else that I mistakenly thought I could trust) for a very different purpose. Doing this does not make us friends. It makes me instantly unlikely to trust you and it makes me regret trusting whoever I gave the phone number to originally. That they saw selling my personal data as a revenue source makes them absolutely no friend of mine.

    Having a bot, instead of a person, call me on the phone with a rude and impersonal agenda will not improve that. Technology is not a fix for social problems, only a force multiplier.

  2. Interest is opt-in. Making it opt-out breeds strong antipathy.

    Ask yourself how you'd feel by if someone just started using the trash cans outside your house for disposing of their trash and left you a “helpful” note on the cans telling you that if you didn't like it, you were welcome to drive across town and stop by their office to ask them not to. That isn't in fact helpful, puts a large burden on the person being taken advantage of, and would not be well-received. But it's basically the same kind of thing as people are doing when they fill your mailbox with unwanted mail that you haven't asked for.

  3. People donating small bucks are not pledging undying interest. Read what your own call for donations says. It almost surely requested help “at this critical moment” not “now and forever after.”

    Notice further that I was probably offered a box saying “one-time contribution” and checked that in preference to even a “monthly” contribution. Ask yourself then whether it's really likely that if I didn't want monthly, it was because I wanted to give more money the same day, or the next day, or any time within that month.

    Now also look at the address you probably harvested with the donation. Is it out-of-state? Ask yourself whether that makes it more likely or less likely that I am serious about the “one-time” thing and whether my mailbox should have anything in it but a thank you for at least a month, if not for the entire election cycle. Seriously. I know where to find you if I need to donate more.

  4. Speaking of people who are contributing from out of state: In most cases these are not your constituents. Shouldn't you speak to them differently than the people you actually represent? If you don't realize this, you're not as much my best pal as you imagine.

    Make a template that's different for non-constituents/out-of-staters, one that reminds people who in the world you are, and one that gets used far less often—preferrably only in true emergencies. Just the process of putting yourself in this other frame of mind, of realizing these are different people with different goals, should be instructive to you.

  5. Message fatigue is a serious risk. It can't be a crisis every day without becoming just normal. No one can sustain a crisis mentality. If you're not going to be honest about what is and is not a real crisis, no one will believe you forever after. Is that in fact what you want?

    Did you never read The Boy Who Cried Wolf in school? It's supposed to be a really basic aspect of the socialization of human beings everywhere. We are asked to learn at a young age to be respectful of others' need for you to prioritize your requests and concerns so as not to overwhelm them. Do you think yourself exempt?

  6. Have you done the math? If I only gave you a one-time donation of $10, do you really think I have $3650 secretly allocated to help you and just need to be manually poked with a stick each and every day to pony up the next $10 installment for 365 days a year???

    Extra Credit: How many of your donors have $3650 in surplus cash at all for anything, much less for your one political race. (Hint: If the answer is a large number, you are not listening to ordinary voters at all.)

  7. Some people use email addresses where they can receive mail but from which they cannot initiate mail. If your unsubscribe needs me to send from the unsubscribe address and I have given you such an address, it may be that I can never unsubscribe. Do you think that, locked in that unstoppable flood of unwanted mail, I will ever think well of you again?

  8. Mailed out surveys, whether by email or physical mail, are a dead concept.

    With 98% likelihood, if I fill out a survey, it will be ignored and all you'll care about is the money you ask for on the last page.

    You, political marketeers, have killed surveys for any useful purpose ever because only those planning to donate will fill them out, so you have no representative sample.

    If you tout survey results as meaningful, you are misleading people either stupidly or willfully.

  9. We recipients of excess political email are a tragedy of the commons, completely worn out by overuse. You are hurting not just yourself, but the hopes of others.

This is probably not a complete list. But these issues matter a lot.

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This post is a slightly modified version of a rant I wrote Thursday (March 14, 2024) on Mastodon. I have, as they say, revised and extended my remarks. But it started from there.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Should Fix Climate

On Mastodon, Bookchin Bot, a bot that posts book quotes, circulated this quote:

 “The term ought is the stuff out of which ethics is usually made—with the difference that in my view the ‘ought’ is not a formal or arbitrary regulative credo but the product of reasoning, of an unfolding rational process elicited or derived eductively from the potentialities of humanity to develop, however falteringly, mature, self-conscious, free, and ecological communities.”
  —From Urbanization to Cities

I found this philisophical discussion of “ought” interesting. I learned philosophy from various people, some of whom seemed to grok its importance, and others who lamented its impotence, openly fretting it might have practical value only at cocktail parties.

As a computer professional who's pondered ethics a lot, I've come to see philosophy as what makes the difference between right and wrong answers or actions in tasks involving complex judgment. It can be subtle and elusive, but is nonetheless necessary.

I was Project Editor for the Common Lisp programming language, in effect holding the quill pen for reducing a number of technical decisions about the meaning and effect of the language that were voted by a committee in modular proposals but needed to be expressed in a coherent way. Nerd politics. They decided truth, and I had a free hand in presenting that truth in a palatable way, time and budget permitting. Programming languages are complicated, and implemented by multiple vendors. Some effects must happen, or must not. Others were more optional, and yet not unimportant, so we struggled as a group with the meaning we would assign to “should”.

Computer programs, you see, run slower, or cost more to run, if they are constantly cross-checking data. In real world terms, we might say it's more expensive to have programs that have a police force, or auditors, or other activities that look for things out of place that might cause problems. But without these cross-checks, bad data can slip in and get used without notice, leading to degraded effects, injustices, or catastrophes.

Briefly, a compiler is itself a program that reads a description of something you'd like to do and “compiles” it, making a runnable program, an app, let's say, that does what the description says.


A colleague criticized my use of “should” in early drafts of the language specification, the rules for how a compiler does its job. What is not an imperative has no meaning in such a document, I was told. It's like having a traffic law that says “you should stop for a red light”. You might as well say “but it's OK not to”, so don't say it all. And yet, I thought, people intend something by “should”. What do they intend that is stronger?

As designers of this language, we decided we'd let you say as you compile something that you do or don't want a safe program. In a “safe” world, things run a bit slower or more expensively, but avoid some bad things. Not all bad things. That's not possible. But enough that it's worth discussing whether the expense is a good one. Our kind of “safe” didn't mean safety from everything, but from some specific known problems that we could check for and avoid.

And then we decided “should” was a term that spans two possible worlds. In a “safe” world, it means “must”. That is, if you're wanting to avoid a list of stupid and easily avoidable things, all uses of “should” need to be interpreted as “must” when creating safe applications, whereas in an unsafe world the “should” things can be ignored as optional.

And so it comes down to what kind of world you want to live in.

Climate change, for example, presents us with problems where certain known, stupid, avoidable acts will put humanity at risk. We should not do these things if we want better certainty of survival, of having a habitable planet in which our kids can live happily or perhaps at all. Extinction is threatened if we don't do these things.

But they are expensive, these actions. They take effort and resource to implement. We can do more things more cheaply without them, by being unsafe, until we are blind-sided by the effects of errors we are letting creep in, letting degrade our world, letting set us up for catastrophe.

So we face a choice of whether to live knowingly at risk of catastrophe, or do the costly investment that would allow us to live safely.

We “should” act in ways that will fix Climate.

But we only “must” if we want to sleep at night knowing we have done the things that make us and our children safe.

If we're OK with mounting pain and likely catastrophe one day , perhaps even soon, then we can ignore the “should”. The cost is that we have elected an “unsafe” world that could quickly end because we'd rather spend less money as we risk such collapse than avoid foreseeable, fixable problems that might soon kill us all.

That's how I hear “should”. I hope you find it useful. You really should.

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This post is a mirror of a post I wrote yesterday (March 11, 2024) on Mastodon.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Technology's Ethical Two-Step

1. Now. Delay incorporation of ethics. Let’s not muddy the waters in a way that holds back Progress.

2. Later. Deny incorporation of ethics. It’s too late. People have come to rely on things as they were built. It would be Disruptive to change now.

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I've said things vaguely like this for a long time, but I packaged it up crisply like this in a post on Mastodon, for which this is a mirror.

Original Keywords were described as: “Ethics, Tech, Technology, Society. Presently very relevant to, but not exclusive to: AI, ML, LLM, GPT, ChatGPT.”

Friday, July 14, 2023

Lying to Ourselves

My friend David Levitt posted this hypothesis on Facebook:

Humans are so mentally lazy and emotionally
dishonest about what they know, soon AI will
be much better leaders.

I responded as follows. Approximately. By which I mean I've done some light editing. (Does that mean I lied when I say this is how I responded?)

I think the notion of honesty here is a red herring. There are a lot of human behaviors that do actually serve a purpose and if you're looking for intellectual honesty, it's as much missing in how we conventionally summarize our society as in how we administer it or ourselves.

Of course we lie sometimes.

  • We lie because not all answers are possible to obtain.
    What is an approximation to pi but a lie?
  • We lie because it comforts children who are scared.
  • We lie because it's more likely to cause success when you tell people your company is going to succeed than if you say "well, maybe" in your pitch to rally excitement.
  • We lie because it saves face for people who tried very hard or never had a realistic chance of affecting things to tell them they are blameless.
  • We lie because some things are multiple-choice and don't have the right choice.
  • We lie because it protects people from danger.
  • We lie because some things happen so fast that abstractions like "now" are impossible to hold precise.
  • We lie because we are imprecise computationally and could not compute a correct truth.
  • We lie because not all correct truth is worth the price of finding out.
  • We lie because papering over uninteresting differences is the foundation of abstraction, which has allowed us to reason above mere detail.
  • We lie because—art.

So when we talk of machines being more intellectually honest, we'd better be ready for what happens when all this nuance that society has built up for so long gets run over.

Yes, people lie for bad reasons. Yes, that's bad and important not to do.

But it is naive in the extreme to say that all lies are those bad ones, or that of course computers will do a better job, most especially computers running programs like ChatGPT that have no model whatsoever of what they're doing and that are simply paraphrasing things they've heard, adding structural flourishes and dropping attribution at Olympic rates in order to hide those facts.

Any one of those acts which have bootstrapped ChatGPT, by the way, could be called a lie.

Author‘s Notes:

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Laziness is also misunderstood and maligned, but that is topic for another day. For now, I refer the ambitious reader to an old Garfield cartoon that I used to have physically taped to my door at my office, back when offices were physical things one went to.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Capitalism's Dominion

I've seen a lot of news reports explaining why even though the Dominion law suit was settled out of court, we in the public should still see this as a victory.

I just want to say this is bunk.

The problem here is one of reductionism, by which I mean taking a hard problem that's hard to think about and reducing it to some other proxy problem that appears to represent the original problem so that the problem is easier to think about. This is a common and sometimes defensible practice, but one must always double-check when solutions start to arise in the proxy space that the original problem is being solved.

Just as an example, we hear proposals to address carbon in the atmosphere by taxation. This is because people think that taxation will create economic pressure to spend in ways that will fix the problem. But if you look at how the rich do their taxes, they mostly do not in fact spend in ways taxation is trying to make them. Rather, they invest in accountants who find loopholes, or they invest in regulatory capture to create loopholes. And then they smugly claim they did their part on the original problem, when they didn't.

Too often in recent years, media has gotten to the place where we have serious societal problems for which they have on-hand experts they can call in when something happens. When something happens for the first time, sometimes it's good to call in an expert to hear how they think about it. But finding a way to understand technical detail is not always a substitute for good journalism. If one becomes too practiced at calling up an expert on speed dial, one stops asking the question "What really happened?" and "What does the public need to know?"

Because here's the thing: What the Dominion settlement really exposes is the stranglehold capitalism exerts on society by insisting on reducing civil disputes to money. While clearly Dominion suffered enumerable economic harm, just as clearly the real damage was non-monetary, to our democracy, our society, and civilization. And none of the news outlets are saying that. They're so focused on how we have experts in law that they aren't focused on the question of whether our system of law is serving us at all in this case. It simply is not. It may serve Dominion. They may take home quite a payday. But that is not why this was a big story. And the big media places have lost this point.

We as a society have no standing to sue. We hoped in vain this would proxy for us, yielding results as non-monetary as the damage. Of course that was fantasy. But it explains the crushing sadness many of us feel. Pundits too practiced with procedural expertise keep missing this.

We as a public are sad, but this sadness is not a failure to understand process, so stop trying to tell us what a historic win this is. The public understands acutely that even a historic win is not helping them. This was not a success for society no matter what career policy wonks say. Ordinary folk know.

What we as a society need is a recognition that there is both process due and none to be had. We need to be allowed to express our pain. That pain needs to be acknowledged. If you want to call in experts, call in grief counsellors or experts in how to change government because from where we sit, the problem is that only the rich can change government, and that's why we are in collective pain.

Not only will it be busines as usual for Fox, but they will write off a big piece of their payment as a tax deduction (meaning the public will pay for some of this), and the rest will be passed along as costs to subscribers (which means viewers will pay more). Some will tell us that increased costs to viewers will hurt Fox and that this will ultimately do well. But meanwhile they will go on lying and issuing propaganda in exactly the way they did, and the real, non-monetary damages will continue to mount without recourse.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Strange Poetry and ChatGPT

I should say as context that I had been having a conversation on Mastodon in which I got the idea to write a poem that was somehow both a haiku and a limerick. I wrote the following myself. (The ChatGPT part comes later.) I've numbered the lines to make it more intelligible:

   0   There once was a would-be haiku
   1   Wedged late in a lim'rick venue
   2   Ending a hero
   3   Numbered from zero
   4   Its lines went three, four and two

If it helps in understanding it, I went on to say in the other forum, the haiku to be extracted and rearranged is this one:

  Numbered from zero
   Its lines went three, four and two
    Ending a hero

But while I'm proud I was able to come up with anything that was both limerick and haiku, I have to admit it's a more boring haiku than I'd aspired to. So I later wondered if ChatGPT could help me do better. That's what led to the following odd exchange a few days ago, in which it's clear that ChatGPT can do amazing things in some ways, yet be hampered with sometimes the simplest of things in others.

I came to wonder through this if it even knows what a syllable is. Perhaps it has just seen so many haikus that it doesn't need to count, and when asked to write something similar to, but not the same as, a 5-7-5 haiku, it doesn't know what the goal is at all?

See what you think...

write a haiku about the beauty of a snowy day

Snowflakes dance down
Peaceful white blanket unfolds
Winter's pure delight

write a limerick in which the last three lines, if rearranged, would be syntactically valid as a haiku and in which the first two lines introduce that haiku.

In the park, a snowflake lands
A symbol of winter's grace
Peaceful, it descends
Covering earth's face with white
Nature's beauty in sight.

that isn't quite right. in a limerick, the first, second, and fifth line are long. so to embed a haiku in a limerick, the embedded haiku will have to use the form 5-5-7.

Note that the apology here is part of the limerick! Is that it being clever or just revealing it doesn't know the difference between the task and related meta-conversation?

Oh, my apologies, I see
Let me write it now correctly
A snowflake takes its flight
Brings peace to the winter night
In a dance of grace, so free.

Write a fresh 5-5-7 haiku, in other words with the long line being last.

Beneath a winter sky
Snowflakes gently fall like dreams
Peaceful and serene.

In a 5-5-7 haiku, the second and third lines are exchanged.

Gently falling snowflakes
Beneath a peaceful winter sky
Serene dreams descend.

No. It should say "Gently falling snowflakes. / Serene dreams descend / Beneath a peaceful winter sky." so that 5-5-7 describe the number of syllables in each line, 5 for line 1, 5 for line 2, and 7 for line 3.

Gently falling snowflakes,
Serene dreams descend,
Beneath a peaceful winter sky.

Yes, now modify the poem so the first and second lines rhyme.

Snowflakes fall, so gentle and light,
Peaceful dreams take flight in the night.
Beneath winter skies so serene,
Nature's beauty, a lovely scene.

But it should still be a 5-5-7 haiku.

Falling snowflakes, so pure,
Peaceful dreams that softly tour,
Beneath winter sky serene.

In a 5-5-7 haiku, there are 5 syllables for line 1, 5 syllables for line 2, and 7 syllables for line 3.

Snowflakes dance, so light and slow
Peaceful dreams, a winter's glow
Beneath the sky, so serene and bright.

That is a 7-7-9 haiku you wrote. Tighten it up into a 5-5-7 haiku by using fewer syllables.

Snowflakes twirl, light and slow
Dreams of peace, a winter's show
Beneath the sky, serene and bright.

Author's Notes:

Thanks to Madeleine Begun Kane for writing a haiku about haikus and limericks and putting it on Mastodon, which inspired me to write my own original poem and to have the enclosed conversation.

It's fascinating out chance events like that influence our lives. My whole career has been littered with chance events that were as important as anything planned. (Programming language enthusists might enjoy my paper Common Lisp: The Untold Story, a record of an invited talk I gave at the 50th Anniversary of Lisp conference, where I recount a number of those. No, not in poetry form. Poetry, and especially a haiku, is a kind of apology or penance that I do to balance the fact that some of my other writings are quite long.)

There is some additional discussion of this blog post and ChatGPT in general where I mentioned it on Mastodon.

You can try ChatGPT here if you want.

All of the "haiku" in here is really senryu.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Prosecuting Political Fraud

There are lots of things democracy can't survive, not all of them enumerated as illegal. Some used to be protected by just shame. But Donald Trump has shown evil politicians everywhere that shame can be shrugged off, and this has emboldened a new crop of worse evil.

That George Santos could lie freely and still be elected is a direct consequence of the shift Trump created. It cannot be allowed to stand, to be normal.

Democracy requires more than just voting. It requires information. If you have a right to vote, but you don't have a right to know what's true, then you won't be voting in ways that react to the past and plan for the future. You'll just be playing Russian roulette.

So what's to be done? Do we have a law against politicians lying? No, not exactly. But these guys are selling their services to us. And let's just say it. It's not pretty, but it's true. Politics is a business. People profit from it. I wish it were not so, but let's at least apply the laws that apply to commerce.

George Santos profited by selling the public something that wasn't what it seemed. It'd be nice if we had a law against politicians lying to us to get into office, but let's just charge him with commercial fraud.

And let's not hear that this is a radical proposal. I'm tired of hearing radical thrown in to dampen common sense action. What's radical is that he did what he did. The response I'm proposing is “merely proportionate.”

I see prosecutors delaying where I think no delay should be needed. I guess they want to make sure they've gotten all their ducks in a row, but taking more than just a few minutes to do that sends the message that this is somehow more complicated than it is, that there are hidden factors that might excuse him. There are no such factors.

It is simply bad when someone lies to get into office. (The Supreme Court would tell us this if more than one of them had not lied to get appointed. Alas.)

Santos sold voters snake oil to get a job he didn't merit. If left to stand, it makes a mockery of democratic process. We must address this and soon before it becomes the norm.

Every bit of delay suggests there is some other rational point of view, in which he should be allowed to lie to get into office, in which we should have no recourse if someone successfully tricks us into letting them into office on false pretenses.

We must not accept that. It must not be the case that someone can lie to get into office. It must not be the case that if someone is found to have lied to get in, we no longer have recourse.

This is not complicated. He cheated. There is law that makes sense to apply.
Prosecute him. Now.

Author‘s Notes:

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