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The holy mess of Brexit

March 22, 2019

Donald Trump, Jr. is quite correct that the same forces were behind both his father’s election and Brexit. Nativism. Fear. Ignorance. And Putin. But a desire for freedom? The only “freedom” Brexit brings is for the state and the powerful. Regarding personal liberty, it is disastrous. Brits no longer will be free to work and live on the other side of the channel. Nor EU citizens in Britain. The younger half especially will feel the constriction of those borders, that they never before had to suffer.

But what about all those poor folks in the hinterlands, often older, where Brexit got its strongest support? They want the Britain of yesterday. Raising those borders will not bring back that world. Nor will anything else return their former glory, burnished by the fog of memory. Not for them. Not for anyone. As Paul Krugman explains regarding Americans in much the same circumstance. They both got used by populist politicians. They both will get nothing in return.

Theresa May still is trying to use the clock to force through the negotiated exit deal. She has persuaded the EU to extend the deadline to May 22, if Parliament approves it. Without that, the EU gives the UK only until April 12th to “indicate a way forward.” Three weeks, now, instead of one. The Brexiters are happy to run out the clock. Theresa May, wrongly still hoping that its threat is the lever to force her deal through, soon enough will side with the clock.

Oh, it’s a referendum you want? Which referendum is that? Hard Brexit versus the deal? No Brexit versus the deal? Hard Brexit versus No Brexit? The rational thing would be a referendum with rank choice voting on all three. May’s deal might win that, even if it is the first choice of few, but second choice of everyone else. Alas for you, Parliament will not approve any of those. It is hamstrung also by binary votes on a multiple choice question. A right holy mess.

A mess that was predictable and predicted.

I’m not optimistic. I still predict the clock will run out. I expect quite a few articles in the months after a hard Brexit explaining yet another unforeseen political problem and economic pain from it. If you’re a young Brit and don’t have an Irish grandparent, and cannot get permanent residency in an EU nation, consider moving to Belfast. Soon enough, the border will cross you.


Yes, math!

March 21, 2019

It tickles me no end that the first woman to win the Abel Prize is a longtime faculty member at my alma mater. Alas, she joined the department quite a bit after I was done taking math courses, so our paths never crossed. Congratulations nonetheless to Professor Karen Uhlenbeck! And hook’em.


March 20, 2019

A new study finds that for one particular food, those consuming the most had a 31% greater chance of cardiovascular death than those consuming the least. I’m referring, of course, to sugar sweetened beverages. (Cite.) Which is not the least surprising, since there is past research indicating that those who consumed the most added sugar in their diets had twice the hazard ratio of those consuming the least. (Cite.)

P1003591When you read those numbers, the 18% increase now claimed from consuming two eggs daily seems perhaps something to know, but not quite as large a red flag as some people make it. The hard thing about studying diet is that people eat in patterns, not just individual foods. Those who consume a lot of added sugar have other habits associated with that. But given what we know about sugar metabolism, insulin, and diabetes, it’s pretty easy to think sugar really is the culprit in the first two studies above. Eggs are eaten both mixed into baked goods, poached or scrambled or fried for breakfast, and used as the base for frittatas and Spanish tortillas. They are a whole food containing a complex mix of nutrients. In that latest news, it’s hard to know to what extent it is the eggs themselves causing a problem, or some projection of other dietary patterns.

Of course, I am biased. I like Spanish tortillas and neighborhood chickens.

Implicit bias and AI

March 19, 2019

Neural networks share some interesting cognitive features with humans. Given a sequence of already classified scenarios, they can on their own pick up the pattern. Or seem to. Such patterns are rarely well defined. They cannot express what combination of features they are then using in that judgment. Nor is it readily available without significant analysis. Their internal state is not a set of clear rules, but more a set of filters that get applied in convoluted fashion. Which means their inferences can be biased in all sorts of ways by a training sequence that itself is biased. In ways that aren’t readily apparent, even by examining the state of the neural network.

Does that mean, for example, that an AI could have implicit racial bias, even though there was no intention of that in its design or training? Well, yes, it does. Assistant Professor Jamie Morgenstern at Georgia Tech looked at some of the vision software used to identify pedestrians:

What we found is that driving-centric object detection systems trained on publicly datasets appear to have performance that varies for skin tones. It won’t necessarily be replicated in production systems. But we do think it raises concerns that suggest it should be looked at more closely for those other systems.

(Cite.) Fortunately, software doesn’t mount itself on a high horse and declare itself to be color blind, when internal quality control or outside investigators discover that its training sets have given it implicit biases. Those can be made more robust, before it is let out the door. No one should treat this observation as a condemnation of self-driving cars, neural nets, or AI generally. It does show some kinds of quality control that need to be exercised, as we develop more complex systems some of whose components are trained rather than programmed.

The white and the right

March 18, 2019

Adam Serwer looks at the American roots of white supremacy, and its tie to our first immigration laws. Kenan Malik provides a broader history of white identity politics.

White nationalists have no problem recognizing their affinity for Trump’s GOP. As one explained what he would do a year past:

Today I decided to get involved with my county’s Republican party. The GOP is essentially the White man’s party at this point (it gets Whiter every election cycle), so it makes far more sense for us to subvert it than to create our own party…if you’re unable to do activism for various reasons, I’d like to encourage you to join your local Republican party. Present as a Trump supporter/nationalist. No need to broadcast your radical views.

DaleGribbleThat said, it seems to me the right today is united less by identity politics than it is by overlapping resentments and conspiracy theories. Some target their resentment at Muslims, some at immigrants, some at the poor, some at liberals, some at globalists, some at the educated, some at Jews. They share a rage, even if the targets of that rage only partially overlap. Reading Dan O’Sullivan’s experience, one can imagine the neighborhoods of this nation filled with young Dale Gribbles, sharing Youtube videos, and basking in the glow of just being logical. Identity politics is an easy stepping stone away.

Limbaugh has floated the notion that the New Zealand massacre was a false flag operation, as right-wing pundits did regarding the mail bombs a half year back. The point of such nonsense isn’t that it is credible, but that it further attacks the mainstream media and further feeds the paranoia.

I continue to see the new right, freed from any pretense of conservatism, as more dangerous than the conman who rode it to power. Not just from their fits of unorganized violence. They will be ripe soil for a generation to come. And the politician who rides them to power next might be the real leader who knows how to harness their rage, not just a fraud and cantankerous fan of Fox News.

Words in our time

March 14, 2019

Justin Erik Halldór Smith pens a dystopian view of the new media ecology, where nothing serious seems to matter at all.

What does matter, absurdly so, are conspiracy theories, wielded as weapons by unscrupulous politicians, ridden to wealth by pundits and talk radio hosts, hounding their victims remorselessly.

And if you think that building more border wall is about actual security, rather than a conjured political issue, you have been fooled by Roger Stone.

Threat assessment

March 13, 2019

The crowd mind of the US military has a far more sensible view of threats to the US than does the GOP base. Though the graph right (click to expand) is how many active duty military view something as a threat, rather than anyone’s rank ordering, it can be viewed roughly in that fashion. I would move immigration to the bottom, a threat only because of its effect on internal politics.

Richard Carrier takes on the bogus notion of Muslim no-go zones in Sweden. The sad thing is that surfacing facts does little to counter propaganda.