Tuesday, 21 November 2017

News: An easy to market, safe distraction from the structural problems that can never be named

As defined, the news is not news. It is like going to a restaurant and having the waiter order for you based on his preferences, and whether he thinks you're fat.

It’s confusing because we think we're hearing about big stories that can't be ignored – like a Zimbabwe coup – so we think we're learning about what's happening. But that "news" was the result of a decision tree. Why show us Zimbabwe and not the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or, why Iraq now and not Syria now?

Most educated people worry about news bias. Is it left or right? Safe or not safe? What angle are the sponsors pushing? But those are small potatoes, Danny Q. There is no overarching bias, at all. There is no "goal" or "message" or "worldview." It's a set of right-now and what-benefits-the-channel? What will play well with the 18-25 demo? That’s what we absorb as our view of the world.

Media companies don’t compete against other media – they’re in the time business, just like everyone else. Media is actually competing against all the other activities people might choose to pursue. (This is also how you should look at money. Your decision to purchase a coffee means you won’t have $5.99 to spend anywhere else. It’s not about the things you buy that really matters, it’s the infinity of all the other things that are now impossible to buy because of that coffee.)

Here's a basic example of what I mean, picked at random. On the NZ Herald home page, the lead story is, "Students in tears over NCEA maths exam that was 'set too high.'" Is this news? Is it useful? No. You understand it is sensationalist "education needs to be more progressive" propaganda. But you that’s because you hate the Herald. If you didn't already hate the Herald, what would you have learned from this piece?

Those stories are chosen, out of the quadrillions of events much more important, not because of political or ideological bias, but because the editors and algorithms know it’s what you want. If you're watching it, it's for you.

Two things result: first, you learned something out of context that has no value. Second, you did not learn something else. And the second is infinitely more detrimental to your sanity. The mistake is to think you can go somewhere else for news. There is nowhere else. They all operate under the same immediate-benefit journalistic model.

This is inescapable. Short of being present at the event in question, the best you can do is to absorb what you see and read – there are no news sources free of this – and ask yourself the most fundamental question of media: "what does the author want to be true?"

Some might say we need more trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking, sloppy reporting and conscious or unconscious bias. And I’d probably agree.

But even with these people in the newsrooms, there are maybe two stories per day in any given paper that satisfy these criteria. The rest of news is garbage of the if-it-bleeds-it-ledes variety or pop culture junk. I don't need a sports section, I don't need a style section, I don't need to know about rapes, murders, arsons, fires, or assaults that happened overnight. I don't need a rehash of the greatest hits of the police radio.

Media places a greater value on access to officials than on investigating officials. Had they passed that test, had they really earned the status of being the Fourth Estate, we would right now be discussing how newspapers could do the heavy lifting while bloggers just offer commentary. But we aren't, and there's no going back.

It's far from certain print journalism will disappear. Theatres still exist despite cinema. Cinemas still exist despite television. Radio still exists despite CDs and television. Maybe print journalism will stabilise at a lower level, or it could move onto DRM platforms like the Kindle or subscriber-based websites where it can still make money.

News has its faults, but there seems to be an unnecessary level of doomsaying. If print journalism vanishes rather than shrinks, and if online journalism doesn't respond by upping its game, and if nobody manages to make subscriber services profitable ... then yes, we're looking at the Death of the News. But that's a lot of ifs.

What’s really threatened here? The newspapers or the news? Why do we care that an old industry is being replaced by a new one? Newspapers never made money on journalism. They made money on advertisements and classifieds. Classifieds went to Trademe years ago and advertising is disappearing as many legacy businesses are “disrupted.” People are no longer flooding to Big Box retail sales the way they did in 1987, so eventually the companies caught on and stopped shouting about it in ads. Oh well.

From the business standpoint, the writing has been on the wall for about twenty years. But that’s not the real reason people get their news from blogs or wire services rather than from the web versions of newspapers. In that time, spin has been perfected. And by spin, I’m referring to the people knowing so thoroughly about the boundaries of journalism as practised by major newspapers and TV that they can artificially manage the reporting and create a narrative.

In other words, spin is reverse engineered journalism. If I know how reporters work, if I know they always look in particular places and ask certain kinds of questions, I can set up the conditions and environment long before so that any reporter doing their usual work only learns what I want them to learn. I don't have to feed them a story, I just feed them an artificial world they can investigate and write about.

Traditional media can't deal with this. And until it can institutionalise a way to cut through or negate spin, it won't be nearly as effective as a blogger writing: "The prime minister said X, but this other source said 'not X'."

A strong regional paper like the Waikato Times has reporters on staff covering many aspects of the community. For instance, a guy has to cover the monthly sewer committee meeting (or something like that). Often, no story will come from that meeting, but the public is able, through the reporter, to keep an eye on it to make sure a member’s brother in law doesn't get handed a sweet no-bid contract.

If the paper is gone and no one covers that monthly meeting, who knows what shenanigans local officials will get up to? Bloggers sure won’t cover the dull minutia of local government, and in reality, you’d have to be suspicious of the motives of any blogger who does step forward to do this.

My point is, it's all very well to spout off about how the corrupt dinosaurs failed us and who needs them and so on, but you're missing the big picture: journalism is a vital part of government, practiced not just in the august halls of parliament and panelled conference rooms, but in crappy little city halls and over lunch with the local tax assessor. It's not always perfect, often it's not even good, but it's crucial to the way countries run. How can a country govern itself if no one is watching the government?

But legacy journalism doesn’t necessarily need to fulfil this responsibility, and neither does blogging. There are entirely new literary forms online. Blogging is the new thing the ossified magazine folk understand because it closely follows the old paradigm in which the writer is the opinion maker and the reader is largely silent.

The real literary vanguard is threaded discussion, which is not so much random as chaotic and interactive. The discussions revolve around central themes or ideas and with each argument, the true nature of that central idea becomes clearer. These are new literary structures that have not yet been explored.

Maybe this is a generational thing. Maybe the “kids these days” will grow up to be “adults these days” and take their threaded conversations into boardrooms and the C-suite. Maybe they’ll figure out how to make it profitable, or cut the ties between media and revenue completely once and for all. Who knows?

But you’re not going to figure this out if you watch TV news. I know this because no one smart would watch TV news. If you are watching TV news, then you're not smart. I’m not saying this, TV news says this. After all, no one smart would ever ask another person, let alone the news, to explain how the news relates to them.

Marla, you liar! You big tourist, I need this! Now, get out!

The universalism behind the TPP

The “core elements” of the TPP free trade deal, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, have been broadly decided.

The first Premier of the People's Republic of China Zhou Enlai was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution, he responded: "it's too early to say." Probably this was invented by some clever journalist, but it's still a good line.

The new deal includes suspensions and tweaks, but they mean little in the long run. Keep your eye on the ball: what’s important is a stable ecosystem composed of parts fitting together hand-in-glove to deny gaps an invasive species could exploit. That’s why the CPTPP’s heart continues to beat.

No one seems suspicious that a deal so happily championed by the US is still considered fundamental to 11 non-American nations. The TPP was the creation of a US-led system of trade rules for the Pacific Rim, to capture the markets and social assumptions of the region and channel them in the required direction. This is not at all controversial.

What’s surprising is how well the overarching strategy of global connectivity has been accepted. The scheme is entirely reliant on international public policy, rather than politics – even as they recite deep belief in democracy. Everyone is reading from the same page. The question is: what is this page? What’s the goal? Where did this idea come from?

Whatever it is, it clearly accepts only one nation: the entire planet. It knows only one race: the human race. Reading these sentences, any believer will nod and smile at the unsurpassable beauty of the faith. People who believe in world government are like those who believe that if a teaspoon of cyanide will kill you, a whole bottle is just the thing to do you good.

As Mr Zhou would say, it’s too early to say if CPTPP will work. What’s far more interesting for historical purposes is to notice that people with this universalist ideal and power exist across the world, in very different countries. Listen to the words in the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor:

“Today it's oil, right? In 10 or 15 years, food, plutonium. And maybe even sooner. And what do you think the people are going to want us to do then? Ask them when they're running out. Ask them when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who've never known hunger start going hungry. 
“You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask them. They'll just want us to get it for them.”

And so the CPTPP breathes on today. Some hate the idea of faceless civil servants working to secure the future without recognition or praise. But if responsibility is power, then wouldn’t it be best for responsible people to pull the strings? Love or hate it, this is happening.

Friday, 17 November 2017

15,000 climate scientists can't be wrong, can they?

On November 13, a grand total of 15,000 scientists from around the world signed a “warning to humanity” letter that climate change is far worse than expected.

"Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out," the letter warns. "We must recognise, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home."

Are 15,000 scientists correct? Well, it depends on the question. A scientist can be anyone who follows a certain process to produce reliable information – the scientific method. While it’s not perfect it’s been pretty good so far at removing errors, and this seems to be a scientific conclusion.

No, not the ice!!!
But a scientist might also be someone awarded credentials by an institution, entitling him to a prestigious position. Calling that person a "scientist" is like calling him a "duke." The word "duke" was originally defined as a leader of fighting men. There are still dukes around today – and there are still warlords – but the dukes are not warlords and the warlords are not dukes.

Same goes for scientists.

The problem isn’t the people, it’s the institutions. If you compare (a) the pre-WWII Western scientific establishment with (b) the post-WWII Western scientific establishment and (c) the Soviet scientific establishment, I think it’s fairly obvious that (b) looks suspiciously more like (c) than (a).

Both are centrally planned and funded by a few agencies in an extremely small number of governments, which means it is pretty easy to create official pseudoscience. And if you're going up against the Machine, you need to be right all the time, not just most of the time.

The way I see it – give me some room here – climate change is essentially just palaeoclimatology and climate modelling. Since neither palaeoclimatology nor climate modelling have anything remotely like Popperian falsifiability, we can safely say they are "science" rather than science.

Paleoclimatology is rife with massaged and invented numbers, and even if performed honestly cannot distinguish causation from correlation. Whereas climate modelling tries to outline a chaotic system that could not be accurately modelled with ten or twenty more orders of magnitude of computer power. It also asserts that hindcasting can validate its models.

This means our political system nurtures pseudoscience and makes major financial decisions based on it. But this has been happening for a while.

The man who started ClimateAudit, Stephen McIntyre, has a background in hard-rock mineral exploration, which is one of the shadiest industries in the world. As a mining consultant, not only does he know statistics, he made his living investigating bad numbers and the fudging of data.

So one day out of pure curiosity he decided to look at the use of statistics in palaeoclimatology.
Palaeoclimatology estimates temperature trends from before scientists were running around with thermometers. It measures "temperature proxies" that naturally record temperature effects – things like tree rings, for example. As you can probably imagine, before the rise of global warming, this was a rather obscure discipline, but today you can make a lot of money in this field.

Penn State's Michael Mann takes a break from drawing hockey sticks
Mr McIntyre analysed the famous "hockey stick" curve associated with several notable paleoclimatologists, notably Michael Mann. If you have ever seen a headline saying "20XX is the warmest year in XXX years," that’s the "hockey stick." Dr Mann is a star.

But Mr McIntyre found a pattern of bad statistics that came close to simply being deceit. Dr Mann had chosen nonstandard statistical procedures which amplified a single sample, from a set of trees (bristlecone pines) well-known to respond directly to CO2 rather than temperature, into a pattern that looked like it covered the entire world. Moreover, Dr Mann's website had a directory called "CENSORED" in which the same calculation was repeated without the bristlecones, showing no hockey stick at all.

Sure, scientific misconduct happens. Just because a physicist, like Jan Hendrik Schön, pulls some stunt, doesn't mean Einstein was wrong. But Schön was rapidly drummed out of his profession. Dr Mann, however, is still employed and respected (although he’s not on the list with the 15,000 others…). And this despite two external reports, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel, and an independent report prepared by Edward Wegman, one of the US's leading statisticians, confirming all of Mr McIntyre's results.

What was the consequence of all this in the official press? Funny you should ask.

The NAS panel, which included many of Dr Mann's colleagues, came up with a nice dodge. They admitted the results were useless but claimed that since other studies – many using the same flawed methodologies – reported the same outcome, the entire idea was vindicated. You may have heard the phrase "fake, but accurate." That’s not how science works.

Back before WWII, a pool of scientists, tiny by today's standards, would have their own little pet theory to defend and progress was made when you exploded someone else's pet theory. Today, pet theories are held not by little cliques of scientists, but by giant conglomerates of funding mafias and NGOs. The explosion of theories has become all but impossible.

Well, I guess if you start the graph from there...
There is no future in climate science for a sceptic. Those who are still around are dinosaurs, full professors and professors emeritus. Any grad student or assistant professor would have to be crazy to attack these people. They’d never get a grant again. Why on earth would anyone hitch their horse to this wagon when there are rivers of enviro-cash to be had? At least in the US, the cash is green too.

I think Mr McIntyre proves that in the Western social system, it is possible to corrupt an entire field of science, or at least an entire department (such as palaeoclimatology) can exhibit systemic bias. If you want to refute this proposition, you'd have to explain why past corruptions of science, such as Lysenkoism, the late acceptance of Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory, "German physics" and so on, have occurred.

Perhaps everything is different now. Perhaps humans have simply become good and sweet, and it really is significant that 15,000 scientists signed a piece of paper. Personally, I don't see a lot of goodness and sweetness in science. I see a lot of politics and a lot of power structures. Science and the distribution of information – what one might call "education" – plays a role in the West comparable to the influence of the military in Wilhelmine Germany.

Suppose you were evil and you wanted to destroy the world in the subtlest possible way? Would you rather be a general, a reporter at the New York Times or a professor at Harvard? Which of these three is not like the other?

Mr McIntyre's work has shown quite conclusively that, at least in the field of palaeoclimatology, the scientific method is no longer operating, at least not in the form Darwin and Newton would recognise. But Stalin might.

If climate modellers want to change my mind, they would have to build a new climate model in a clean-room process, which (a) correctly simulates Earth's climate in the past and (b) was not made to do so after a very extensive process of tuning and the introduction of unconscious bias. To be more specific, the largest source of uncertainty in climate models is their handling of water.

So what is my prediction of the weather in 2057? I have no idea, I am not a climatologist.

But if this all proves to be a con job, it will take us a long, long time to recover from this idea of "official science." I'm not sure what that phrase means. Maybe the West is moving away from truth derived from science. Who knows?

People still assign tremendous credibility to science because they think it’s a structure of knowledge maintained by a large set of independent actors, each of whom is rewarded for truth and punished for error. But it’s pretty clear post-WWII science is something different, a true novelty in Western history. It might retain traditions from the liberal age, but it looks like they are rapidly eroding.

If the government pays your salary, you are a government official. And in a democracy, the idea that any aspect of government can be above politics is laughable. I am not sure that trying to insulate science from politics is the best way to preserve or restore the scientific tradition. It might actually have the opposite effect. But science, fortunately, is not a democracy so it will survive. The question is whether it will survive in the West.

Are 15,000 scientists correct? Who knows? We have no possible way of knowing. But everyone seems perfectly happy to create a planetary government to attack global warming. I get a bad feeling about that. Central planning killed a lot more humans in the 20th century than bad weather.

I think I’ll take my chances with the bad weather.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The short con is part of the long con

The growing consensus on how to counter social disruption is to rely on Google and Facebook to act as political censor. Once these companies do it in the US, most of the rest of the world will start to rely on them to calm political discussion as well.

Last week, Facebook issued a plea for its users to send in nude photos of themselves so it can train its artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The social network hopes to pre-empt the use of “revenge porn,” in which pictures sent in confidence are publicly released on the internet to embarrass. Store the photos, train the AI, stop the posting of questionable images. Simple, really.

Except it’s not. The easy analysis is the cyber-security angle. The Russia-based cyber-security company Kaspersky was recently dumped as a contractor by the US government after allegations Russian intelligence was using the software as a portal to steal sensitive information on computers running the anti-virus, including US government machines.

This proves the old maxim: intelligence doesn’t care about who you are, intelligence only cares about your access. In that sense, Facebook is setting up the largest pool of personal data ever created by human systems. And yet even non-technical people who know nothing about cyber-weapons think this isn’t a smart idea. Everything gets hacked eventually.

Pushing down the analysis levels, consider that Facebook right now has 2 billion monthly users – or 70% of the 2.8 billion internet users living outside China and Russia. At present growth rates, the social network could boast 3.5 billion monthly users by 2025, or half the global population outside China and Russia.

That’s large enough to create a real-time census to “see” nearly everyone on the planet, even if they don’t have a Facebook account. It can track all people using triangulation and smartphone GPS data. Advertisers will love it. But the real question is whether “government” is a verb or a noun. Because if it’s the former, then Facebook’s censorship just got a whole lot more interesting.

The next layer strikes at the quiet default assumptions everyone seems to be aware of, but no one wants to talk about. Sure, it’s natural to feel bad about women being exploited online, but if sexually valuable women have been harassed since the time of universal mud huts and no has done anything substantial to stop it, why is this happening now? Why is Facebook shouldering this “social responsibility” in 2017?

Facebook knows women make up the majority of its users. Women do most of the clicking and get most of the clicks, especially if they're posting nudes. To Facebook, a 20-year-old, single mother, working multiple jobs with access to at least one smartphone is the ideal consumer and consumable. It's not about stopping online misogyny, it's about consumerism. The only encouragement is to “unplug” on the weekends, which means the default is plugged. Do you see?

Social networks are trying to be our friends because their business models rely on people failing to notice the reality staring at them from that glowing rectangular lie: if the service is free, then you are the product. Each “plugged” individual adds to the big data banks with every login attempt. Clickity-clack. Swipity-swipe. Doing our job on the cotton-fields of the 21st century without complaint.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ends with self-actualisation. Poor people (poor in wealth, not in time) love their smartphones. So while they fall off the first two tiers, social networking, like an opioid, provides costless and illusory self-actualisation, along with the trappings of power, freedom and community. In the paraphrased words of Marshall McLuhan, "there is no sweeter praise than the gaze of a tyrant, especially if it's in HD."

Maslow's hierarchy of needs
The gimmick of social networks isn’t the bright display of gorgeous photos, poignant posts and viral videos. It’s the neat little white line of possibility at the bottom of the screen. The not-yet-loaded. Down there, anything is possible. Everything is real. Facebook is not selling a product but its own authority to control the feeling of lack. Hence the most important result: nothing changes.

Human failure starts with self-deception, telling yourself lies to feel better. Eventually, we don't know or care what is real or what isn't. So while Facebook pretends to defend its users, Mark Zuckerberg champions the idea of a universal basic income. Productivity isn’t down, he says, humans are being extremely productive – they’re just not being paid for generating his data.

People intuitively understand that what they do online is valuable and they know the next step is to be paid for it. Big data instead pays us in “protection” from revenge porn, fake news and hate speech, while offering us the sustenance of illusory self-actualisation. Is this enough to keep the slaves from revolting? We’ll see. Even well-educated people will swallow untruth without too many questions if it’s plausible and reinforces their beliefs.

Ultimately, Facebook is committing Boromir’s mistake: power should not be wielded, it must be destroyed. Mass censorship of social networking is a bad idea. Invariably, this power will fall into the hands of people with which the creators vehemently disagree. Mr Zuckerberg has chosen to forget that online privacy and anonymity are the most important dynamics of this new digital space. If those pillars are removed, the online becomes just like the real – with nothing new under the sun.

If revenge porn is the wholesale leaking of sexual secrets, then its effect on traditional sexuality – good and bad – may serve as an analogy worth pondering here. What happens to geopolitics when the default assumption of activity is the voluntary, unpaid delivery of personal information to corporate entities with full power over how, when and for what this data will be used?

It turns out all media is state-run media, especially when it’s not.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

On shootings and bombings in the West’s twilight

Which matters more: the series of shootings in the US or the dozen bombings in Sweden over the past 20 days?

It’s trick question because no one’s heard about Sweden’s bombs. Perpetrators haven’t been named in those attacks, so to the media, they didn’t happen. But the US shooters are getting saturated news coverage. What gives? If I said the first rule of media is when it mentions a person’s middle name then that person is guilty, would any of this be easier to understand?

The shootings and bombings are connected. If you haven't noticed, things are falling apart. More importantly, a growing number of people want them to fall apart. The desire to tear down the rotten (defined by what each person deems rotten) system is an epidemic. This is a strange transition period between too many young, aimless people and too few. All of these generations are unfamiliar with physical violence, and it shows.

After any violent act, most will say, “we don’t really know what’s going on in that person’s mind.” But this is a lie. It’s the same thing every time: “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.” If the bombers in Sweden turn out to be Muslim, then at least they have a reason, but what excuses do American shooters use? Carl Jung said people don’t have ideas, ideas have people. That’s worth pondering for about 20 years because the shooters didn’t think about it while the Islamists are thinking about it all the time.

Humans went to war over Nazism and Communism last century, so as narcissism emerges from its pill-box to become a full-fledged ideology, whatever happens next won’t be good. Luckily, in America, there is no “next.” A country without a fictive kinship only has the self to turn to. Without an animating myth connecting people, there is no existing. Just a bland pop monoculture of permanent “now.”

And yet the bombers in Sweden, the truck driver in New York, the backpack in Parsons Green, the throat-slicer in Marseilles, the warriors in the Levant and all the future Islamic death-bringers can see “next.” An old phrase comes to mind: How do you train a longbowman? You start with his grandfather. The problem is, it doesn’t matter if the Islamists are training longbowmen. What matters is the lack of any archery ranges in the West at all.

What’s important about animating myths is not that they are myths, but that they animate. Without purpose – without responsibility – there is no meaning. Maybe creating one’s own purpose, as advertising tells us to do, can supply what people need here. But what do you know about purpose? What can any person on their own discover about responsibility? Pepsi tells us to “Live for Now,” and who among us is strong enough to contest with billions in advertising dollars?

German philosophers generally get a bad political reputation. They go down deeper, stay down longer and come up dirtier than any other tradition. And yet Friedrich Nietzsche warned about narcissism in The Gay Science in 1882 when he wrote:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
The point is not to encourage despair. The point is to inspire a life built by making choices to benefit the person in front of you – not yourself. But it goes further than that. Every choice should also benefit your family, the other person’s family, then the town, then the nation and finally the world itself – across time. If the demon banishes you to eternal recurrence, then it must be the best life for all who exist, not just you. Nietzsche is screaming that it truly matters what you do right now.

In the story of Narcissus and Echo, people think Narcissus was so infatuated with himself that he couldn’t love anyone else. He stared into the pool and wasted away. However, that’s not what the myth says. Narcissus never loved anyone and then he fell in love with himself. Do you see? Falling in love with himself was Narcissus’ punishment.

The cure for the bombings and shootings is not gun-control or more bollards on footpaths. The cure is to realise that other people actually matter. That you are not the hero of the movie, while everyone else is just supporting cast. The cure is to understand that people exist independently of you. The time has come to stop “being everything you can be” and to be the one thing you should be. When you stare into the pool for too long, everything else around you wastes away as well.

Your only job while on this miserable planet is to train longbowmen. Twenty-five years is coming no matter what you do. You can’t stop it. The ancients knew that responsibility is proportionate to meaning, and if those shooters were ever told that by their parents – if their parents weren’t staring into the pool themselves – perhaps all those the longbowmen being trained right now by Islamists wouldn’t be so worrying.

But it is, even if the media won’t cover it.