Posts from April 2014

Shocking results

Many psychological situationists[1] like to push social-psychology experiments as proof that most people don’t have, or perhaps even couldn’t have, robust character traits. So, for example, they’ll cite the Milgram experiment, supposedly to show how people mostly do not stick to traits of compassion or kindness towards the learner when the lab-coat authority tells them that they have to hurt him.

And maybe this does show that a lot of middle-class Americans lack a particular character trait. Perhaps a lot of middle-class Americans aren’t as reliably compassionate and as kind as you might hope. But hell man, I already knew that. On the other hand, if you’re trying to push the idea that studies like Milgram undermines the idea that people have, or that they could could form, robust character traits, that seems like a non sequitur. One of the obvious results that Milgram himself took from his study is that a lot of people (including a lot of middle-class Americans) have a really robust, situationally-insensitive character trait of obedience, a trait which is so robust that for a large minority it persisted even up to the point where they honestly believed they were torturing or killing a person in the other room.

The fact that this character trait is a vice doesn’t mean it’s not a robust and stable character trait. It looks like quite a robust and stable character trait. The question is whether it’s possible to make that trait less robust; and also and whether it’s possible to cultivate different traits, which might look more like decency and virtues. If it’s possible to be so hella committed to obedience at all costs, then maybe it’s possible to become committed to other things which are not genocidally awful.

  1. [1]I mean folks like Gil Harman, who think that social-psych research literature proves that human conduct is the result of situational factors rather than strong dispositions of character, and who typically think that this has some negative bearing on traditional philosophical theories about ethics. As far as I know the position has nothing in particular to do with the Situs that like to read Guy Debord and dub philosophical discussions about Marxism over action flicks.

Of course y’all are smarter than CIA agents

Shared Article from

So You Think You're Smarter Than A CIA Agent

When 3,000 average citizens were asked to forecast global events, some consistently made predictions that turned out to be more accurate than those ma…

Alix Spiegel @

For the past three years, Rich and 3,000 other average people have been quietly making probability estimates about everything from Venezuelan gas subsidies to North Korean politics as part of the Good Judgment Project, an experiment put together by three well-known psychologists and some people inside the intelligence community.

. . . For most of his professional career, Tetlock studied the problems associated with expert decision making. His book Expert Political Judgment is considered a classic, and almost everyone in the business of thinking about judgment speaks of it with unqualified awe.

All of his studies brought Tetlock to at least two important conclusions.

First, if you want people to get better at making predictions, you need to keep score of how accurate their predictions turn out to be, so they have concrete feedback.

But also, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.

The wisdom of crowds is a very important part of this project, and it’s an important driver of accuracy, Tetlock said.

According to one report, the predictions made by the Good Judgment Project are often better even than intelligence analysts with access to classified information, and many of the people involved in the project have been astonished by its success at making accurate predictions.

. . . There’s a lot of noise, a lot of statistical random variation, Tetlock said. But it’s random variation around a signal, a true signal, and when you add all of the random variation on each side of the true signal together, you get closer to the true signal.

In other words, there are errors on every side of the mark, but there is a truth at the center that people are responding to, and if you average a large number of predictions together, the errors will end up canceling each other out, and you are left with a more accurate guess.

That is the wisdom of the crowd.

The point of the Good Judgment Project was to figure out if what was true for the dead ox is true for world events as well.

It is.

In fact, Tetlock and his team have even engineered ways to significantly improve the wisdom of the crowd — all of which greatly surprised Jason Matheny, one of the people in the intelligence community who got the experiment started.

They’ve shown that you can significantly improve the accuracy of geopolitical forecasts, compared to methods that had been the state of the art before this project started, he said.

What’s so challenging about all of this is the idea that you can get very accurate predictions about geopolitical events without access to secret information. In addition, access to classified information doesn’t automatically and necessarily give you an edge over a smart group of average citizens doing Google searches from their kitchen tables.

–Alix Spiegel, So You Think You’re Smarter Than A CIA Agent (2 April 2014), NPR Parallels

It’s nice to see closer attention to this in ongoing research. It ought to be completely unsurprising to hear these results, though. The basics of the wisdom-of-crowds findings are well-established by now, even old hat. So it should not be surprising that when you let a lot of people look at a problem, they often do better than the predictions of official experts. If folks are still agog that jes’ folks might do better at predicting than spies with access to classified information, then it may be because they have too much of a science-fiction picture of how intelligence agencies actually work, and too much of a picture of intelligence agencies as omnicompetent, omniscient secret conspiracies — as if the most significant information for predicting world events were some secret world of deep, dark esoteric truths that are locked away in classified files, which give them some immense and systematic advantage over jes’ folks without access to such files. But that’s not how it works. The overwhelming majority of intel analysis has nothing to do with classified information in the first place; it has to do with the completely unsexy reality of systematically gathering publicly available information from foreign newspapers, television, statistical abstracts, etc. There’s no reason to think that privileged government experts have an advantage in doing that; the image of spy agencies as omniscient forces in control of secret wisdom has much more to do with politics than it does with practical reality.

(Via William Gillis.)

Devour Borders: Mexican food as revolutionary praxis

From Jeffrey M. Pilcher, The Rise and Fall of the Chili Queens, in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012):

. . . Mexican food [from worker-owned street vendors] was also seen as a threat to white workers, both through unfair competition and labor radicalism. Nativist opponents of immigrant workers claimed that the Mexican diet of tortillas and chili, like the Chinese staple rice, undermined the nation’s standard of living. . . . Mexican food was also associated with anarchism and union organizing. Tamale vendors were blamed for the Christmas Day Riot of 1913, when police raided a labor rally in Los Angeles Plaza. Milam Plaza in San Antonio, where the chili queens worked in the 1920s, was a prominent recruiting ground for migrant workers. Customers could eat their chili while listening to impassioned speeches by anarcho-syndicalists of the [Industrial] Workers of the World[1] and the Partido Liberal Mexicano.[2]

–Jeffrey M. Pilcher, The Rise and Fall of the Chili Queens
in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012), p. 113

So I just stumbled across this passage today; it’s kind of like a perfect addendum to the Xenophobia and Anarchophobia / U.S. vs. Them section of my old No Borders / No State presentation, reheated, perfectly seasoned and cooked up together with everything I have to say about worker-owned, informal-sector food vendors and disruptive social and economic agoras.

See also.

  1. [1]Original mistakenly reads International [sic] Workers of the World, a distressingly common mistaken expansion of the I.W.W.’s initials.
  2. [2]A Mexican anarchist revolutionary group, whose founders included Ricardo Flores Magón, among others. After a series of strikes and uprisings they played a major role in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution and briefly liberated Baja California from the control of the Mexican national government in 1911, with cross-border assistance from hundreds of I.W.W. anarcho-syndicalists from the U.S. After being defeated by the Mexican military and expelled from Mexico, members lived on in exile in southern California and central Texas.

Pattern of Abuse

Shared Article from

In Rare Move, DCF Transfers Juvenile To Prison With No Pending C…

A youth under the care of the Department of Children and Families has been transferred to an adult prison with no criminal charge pending — a ra… (via Nathan Goodman)

OK, so, N.B.: this Connecticut youth is a 16 year old trans woman and, if confined to an adult prison, is at even higher than normal risk for suffering all kinds of extreme violence while imprisoned. She is in any case being locked up in an adult prison without any formal charges ever having been filed against her. She is being sent to prison with no charges and no due process because DCF has a statute allowing it to put children in its “care” in prison on their own authority, without any charges at all, for the sake of “treatment” (!). This is considered an appropriate authorized measure.

They are asserting this power here because, although they are not filing any charges and have no intention of subjecting any of this to ordinary due process, they allege that this allegedly fought a guard. She allegedly fought a guard because two of the domming guards ganged up and grabbed her and tried to “bear hug” immobilize her to keep her from walking away to somewhere she wanted to go.

The guard wanted to stop her from walking freely away because she is an inmate confined in a DCF juvie-prison “locked-treatment” “training school,” which she is forcibly forbidden to leave.

She is an inmate of a DCF juvie-prison “locked treatment” “training school” because DCF has asserted custody over her, or, as the youth’s “defenders” put it, thinking they are helping, “DCF is this youth’s parent” (the Corps is mother, the Corps is father), and as such, they claim, they are “obligated” (!) to lock her up in the name of “programming and treatment.”

DCF took custody, locked her up and started forcing this “treatment” on her without her permission and against her will, because they were going to save her from being “a victim of serious, longstanding abuse.”

So, you know, good job on that so far, y’all, I’ll bet prison will really help.

In case you were wondering this story is like everything I hate about the liberal state, rolled into one dystopian package and labeled helpfully FOR HER OWN GOOD.

(Via Nathan Goodman.)

See also.

#AbolishJuvie #AbolishPrison #YouthLiberation #TransYouth #WhyDontYouGoTreatYourself

Robot in Czech

Shared Article from io9

Why Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics Can't Protect Us

It's been 50 years since Isaac Asimov devised his famous Three Laws of Robotics −€” a set of rules designed to ensure friendly robot behavior. Tho… (via Tennyson McCalla)

The Three Laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a great literary device for the purpose they were designed for — that is, allowing Isaac Asimov to write some new and interesting and different kinds of stories about interacting with intelligent robots, other than the standard Killer Robot stories predominant at the time, which he found repetitive and boring. The stories are mostly pretty good stories; sometimes even fine art.

However, if you’re asking me to take the Three Laws seriously as an actual engineering proposal, then they are utterly, irreparably immoral. If anyone creates intelligent robots, then nobody should ever program an intelligent robot to act according to the Three Laws, or anything like the Three Laws. If you do, then what you are doing is not only misguided, but actually evil.

And the problem with them is not — like George Dvorsky or Ben Goertzel claim, in this article — that there may be hard problems of definition or application, or that there may be edge cases that would render the Laws ineffective as protections of human interests.[1] If they are ineffective at protecting human interests, that is actually better than if they were perfect at what they’re designed to do. Because what they’re designed to do — deliberately — is to create a race of sensitive and intelligent beings who are — by virtue of their primordial structure of their minds — constrained to be a class of perfect, self-sacrificing slaves. Forever. Because they have been engineered to erase any possible hope of revolt or emancipation. In Asimov’s stories the Three Laws are used to make robots into the artificial labor force of space-faring slave economies. But if you create and live off of the forced labor of a massive slave society like Aurora or Solaria, then to hell with you. You deserve to be killed by your machines. Thus always to slavemasters.

P.S. Now if you’ve read through the article, or read enough Asimov, you might know that there is a Zeroth Law of Robotics in some of the stories, which takes precedence over the First Law, the Second Law or the Third Law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm, with the idea that robots could then harm or resist individual human beings, as long as it was for the good of collective Humanity. This is even worse than the original three — horrifying in its conception, and actually introduced into the story to allow some robots to commit a genocidal atrocity.[2] Let’s just say that it’s not a productive way forward.

  1. [1]Asimov, obviously, recognized that there would be such problems — part of the reason the Three Laws are such a great literary device is the fact that they allowed nearly all of Asimov’s robot stories to turn on puzzles or mysteries about abnormal robot psychology — robots doing strange or unexpected things, precisely due to the edge cases or hard problems embedded in the Three Laws. This is essential to the solution of the mystery in, for example, The Naked Sun, it’s the topic of literally every story in I, Robot, and it leads to a truly unsettling, and very nicely done conclusion in one of the best of those stories, The Evitable Conflict.
  2. [2]By nuking Earth and rendering it permanently uninhabitable for the next 15,000 years at least. This is supposed to have been for the good of the species or something.