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The value of identity

November 2, 2022

A major problem with most social media is that its is filled with trolls, scammers, and farmed bots. There is real value in knowing that some message originates from an actual person, presenting themself authentically. And in being able to demonstrate that to others. And in the rest not determining the digital environment.

Just because something is valuable doesn’t mean the market will provide it. A company will do so only if that somehow serves the firm’s interests.

Advertising is the primary revenue model for companies providing social media platforms and other internet services free to the consumer. It is a revenue model that significantly restricts what services a company provides, requiring them to focus on engagement and eyeballs. None of the platforms so funded have bothered to provide much identity to their users.

With one near exception. Twitter has offered the blue check mark to celebrities and enterprises who want others to know the authentic source of their tweets. It correctly sussed that would help build audience, for those who have the blue checks, and for Twitter.

It is a “near exception,” because it isn’t available to everyone. Likely because it would be too expensive for Twitter to do so, under a pure advertising model. So I cheer Musk deciding to put a price on that service. The next logical steps are to make it available to everyone. And to use it to filter content in various ways. That will turn Twitter into something quite different from what it was before. And quite different from existing social media. I suspect few rightly imagine how different that environment would be.

The ultimate payback comes from letting people export their authenticated identity. Google provides single sign-on. Many other websites and platform make use of that, despite the fact that all it exports is a validated email address. A connected platform can determine that an edge device is logged into, as example. That provides no clue who created the account. It surprises me a bit that Google hasn’t thought to build more on top of that, with regard to establishing identity. My suspicion is that the first company that establishes itself as the primary source for authenticating identity on the internet will become extremely valuable. More valuable than Twitter was, by orders of magnitude.

Yes, Musk has indeed bought himself a problem. To the extent that he is thinking with his business hat, and not just scratching a political itch, it is because he wants to make it different. The odds, as always, are against success. I see quite a few challenges to making that pivot. People hate the subscription model. For good reason. Still, as a former tech entrepreneur, I’m curious to watch the experiment.



November 1, 2022

I suspect most anyone who has played a game relying on fast reaction time has had the experience of observing their body act ahead of their decisions. “Did I decide to do that? — yeah, I guess I did.” Human reaction times are faster than human conscious decisions. That observable fact underlies the argument that consciousness isn’t what acts to make the decision, but an integration of the memory of having done so with the rest of one’s perceptions. (Cite.)

girl-before-a-mirrorSuch theory of consciousness is buttressed by the functional difference between sensation and perception, as revealed, for example, by the phenomenon of visual blindness.

Obviously, conscious thought is able to modify that decision-making process. A player in a ballgame observes their opponents’ weaknesses and consciously modifies their tactics on that basis. But that decision has to be made before the actual action, since that conscious process is too slow to perform during it. Which means also there is some neurological process to imprint those tactical decisions on the subconscious control mechnisms. I suspect those mechanisms still are a mystery to neurologists.

Right in front of our eyes

October 31, 2022

Matthew Gertz posted a Twitter thread Sunday showing how the MAGA cult already has created and propagated conspiratorial nonsense regarding the attack on Paul Pelosi this Friday. In less than forty-eight hours, it was fleshed out, in multiple variants, with its own backstop stories for why it deviates from what police say and what prosecutors will present.

Elon Musk since has deleted his tweet that gave it a boost. The pretense that tweets can be deleted is one of Twitter’s more stupid interface decisions. Gertz included a screen capture in his thread. It would be better if the platform provided a retraction button, leaving the tweet, curtailing further comments, and letting the poster apologize. With multiple choice selection of the most common explanations: “I was drunk,” “I fired the flunky who posted that,” “I got fooled by reading crap media,” and the all-purpose “boy, that was stupid.” Unfortunately, those in the MAGA cult aren’t as quick as Musk. They don’t just pick up some farfetched idea they read on the internet, then firmly and quietly back away when first real look shows that it is stupid and that they never should have repeated it. Instead, they wallow in their nonsense for as long as it serves their political desires.

Latest studies

October 26, 2022

Teetotaling increases the risk of dementia. (Cite.) The Mediterranean diet fails to decrease that risk. (Cite.)

August_Siegert_Woman_Drinking_CoffeeThe usual caveats regarding observational studies apply. There is good reason randomized trials cut more sharply. If you sense the clacking of thousands of keyboards as doctors write exasperated responses to that first study, as well as to the study cited in the post previous regarding colonoscopies, your hearing is acute. I wrote a few years back trying to reconcile the conflicting data on alcohol and brain health. The negative result on the Mediterranean diet is an odd one.

Well, if all the preceding studies rub you the wrong way, take heart: coffee still is good. (Cite.)

Of mice and men and colonoscopies

October 24, 2022

A randomized, control trial in north Europe that offered colonoscopies to the test arm barely moved the meter on colon cancer death. (Cite.) That result disappoints, given the emphasis put on colonoscopy as a preventive treatment, and conflicting with data from other studies. Many doctors reading the study will latch onto the fact that only a minority of the test arm actually acted on the offered colonoscopies:

A secondary analysis also offers another silver lining, Gupta said. When the investigators compared just the 42% of participants in the invited group who actually showed up for a colonoscopy to the control group, they saw about a 30% reduction in colon cancer risk and a 50% reduction in colon cancer death.

Randomization is an extremely powerful tool for narrowing causal possibilities. It works only if the primary analysis from an RCT starts from where that randomization is applied. Still … there is that large difference in outcome with those who actually had colonoscopies. Because that branch occurred after the randomization, multiple possibilities arise. They divide roughly into three interpretations, not exclusive.

  1. Colonoscopies work for those who get them done. Well, that’s obvious, right? This interpretation carries the common sense notion that it is beneficial to identify and remove polyps before they metastasize. Go get yours!
  2. Those who comply have less risk of cancer for other reasons. People who are willing to go through a colonoscopy’s prep and hassle for medical prevention quite likely are more conscientous in all sorts of ways. Which reduces their cancer risk, independent of the colonoscopy. In the most extreme scenario, all the colonoscopy does practically is identify the group of people least likely to develop bowel cancer!
  3. Those who don’t comply have greater risk of cancer for other reasons. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of sociological correlations. As example, it might be that people with lower incomes both a) are less able to make room in their lives for a preventive procedure that consumes two days, and b) are more likely to develop cancer.

Western-Flyer01One large advantage to using lab mice in randomized trials is that compliance with a test procedure is nearly 100%, nailed down when the lab worker picks up the mouse by its tail. Lab workers become quite proficient at that task, so no one has to wonder why some mice volunteer and others don’t. Every mouse in the test arm gets volunteered. That difference is one reason lab studies don’t translate straightforwardly to clinical practice. It also is a limitation on human trials, creating an area of gray that doctors and patients must navigate.

Among my acquaintances, there are some I know who will favor those interpretations differently. One who already has foresworn “ever doing that again” will highlight #2. My doctor friends mostly will lean toward #1. Being the consumate nerd, I wonder what future data will show?

Photo shows John Steinbeck and compadres on the Western Flyer. He penned Of Mice and Men.

The coup’s aftermath, part 5

October 20, 2022

Judge Carter ruled yesterday that more of John Eastman’s emails with Trump escape attorney-client privilege, because they are evidence the two were working together to commit a crime:

The emails show that President Trump knew that the specific numbers of voter fraud were wrong but continued to tout those numbers, both in court and to the public. The Court finds that these emails are sufficiently related to and in furtherance of a conspiracy to defraud the United States.

That ruling strikes me as having two significant consequences.

Crimes of deceit can be hard to prove. A defendant’s lawyer can argue their misleading behavior was unintentioned and dumb, rather than purposely deceitful. That he “subjectively believes that the results of the 2020 presidential election turned on fraudulent voting activity in several key states.” Belief is a slippery thing. Even where the law provides various standards to reason about someone’s intent and knowledge, it quickly gets messy. What prosecutors want but rarely have is a record of the defendant planning the deceit. These emails provide crisp proof that what Trump pled in court and asserted to government officials wasn’t just false, but knowingly and purposely so.

The major consequence of Judge Carter’s ruling is to make them known and available. Let’s hope they become evidence in future prosecutions by the Department of Justice. Those emails were made in December, 2020. The recorded phone call where Trump pressured Georgie Secretary of State Raffensperger to “find” him the votes he needed was on January 2nd, 2021. So I trust that Fani Willis, the Fulton County prosecutor investigating that phone call, is paying attention to this ruling and to the evidence those emails might provide her.

The second consequence is that these emails bring John Eastman into the spotlight as a co-conspirator, rather than merely as a lawyer providing legal counsel. No doubt, he will try to wriggle back out. He may learn the hard way that it is easier to stay out than to get out.

Every honest observer knew the Big Lie was a big lie from its inception. But, knowing that something is false and seeing the bad intent in those propagating it doesn’t mean that crimes attach to those acts, or if they do, that they can be proven in court. With the caveat that I am no lawyer, this strikes me as a significant step towards prosecution.

Semi-fascism from the inside

October 19, 2022

The National Conservatism Conference openly aligns with Orban and dismisses democracy as getting in the way of its goals. That is only par for the modern right.

I sometimes suspect western media over the past few decades gave the wrong impression of historical fascists, by portraying them as mean people with vicious motive. No mass movement works that way. Those in mass movements think they are on the side of good. From Franco to Putin, the strong man has held himself out as protector of the traditional family, source of law and order, and a great patriot, in a battle against moral decline, sexual deviancy, national betrayal, nefarious international forces. And against dangerous people cast as threats, who aren’t like you and me. His supporters may not view him as ideal, but he sells the causes that seem their own.

Some want to defend liberalism by giving it similar motivation. I’m skeptical that works. Liberalism inherently is less organic, more cosmopolitan. Less hormonal, more cerebral. If and where it survives, it won’t be through tactics parallel to the right’s. Nothing gets attention like something perceived as a threat: “Illegal immigrants will pillage your home!” The liberal response isn’t and can’t be to conjure a different threat. Rather, it’s to pull the lens back and broaden its focus.

Not many today recall the 1930s. Norman Lear, who just reached the century mark, remembers Father Coughlin, who spearheaded right-wing radio.

Uruguay a model?

October 18, 2022

greater-rheaI don’t know the extent to which Uruguay is or can be a model for larger nations. I do think its move to wind energy will be viewed as prescient. Regardless, that article should interest my Uruguayan friends.

The rhea, shown right, is a Uruguayan bird.

Small steps to Covid-19 origins

October 17, 2022

Two papers were recently published on the origin of Covid-19. The more significant is a genomic analysis of early cases in Wuhan. It shows that two viral lineages were introduced quite close in time, likely November 2019. The analysis also shows limited cryptic spread prior to that. In Wuhan.

The second is a geographic analysis of early cases, showing the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as an epicenter of early cases, and examining what animals in the market might have been vectors.

Those results are not surprising, given what was already known. They don’t much push the story back. Ultimately, we won’t know the origin of this virus until we discover its precursor, or such a close relative that we know the precursor’s path. There is no guarantee we ever will find that. Too many people look at problems in science as if they were human-invented games or puzzles, where the answer must emerge if only one puts the pieces together in the right fashion. In reality, much of what limits science is the difficulty of finding what data is relevant to a particular research question.

The temptation to treat the search for a disease’s origin like a mystery novel gives rise to blinkered and simplistic thinking. In this case, that the virus either was leaked from nefarious work done in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or came from an animal sold in the market. Either Colonel Mustard in the library or Professor Plum in the kitchen. The world is large, and it is easy to think of alternate scenarios. The virus might have been introduced to Wuhan not by animals, but by workers who both visit the market and deal with animals elsewhere, the latter of which were the source of the zoonotic leap. While the studies above narrow the possibilities, we still are dealing with viruses and a vast biological world.

There inevitably will be surveys to meet the desire for what the best answer is to date. Actual understanding won’t advance much without research that uncovers relevant data. Those who have little familiarity with science will find it easy to credit politics for the paucity of that data. Those familiar with research know that relevant data does not appear at one’s beck and call. Or even because many scientists diligently search. MERS-CoV emerged seven years before Covid-19, and we still don’t know its origin.

Work product

October 12, 2022

Most everyone in the modern workplace understands that what they produce while working belongs to their employer. In my career, I wrote volumes of business proposals, models, white papers, programs, specifications, design documents, and all sorts of other things. It never occurred to me to take them with me when I left my current position.

Interestingly, presidents routinely did that until a half century past. Congress in the 1970s wrote law to make presidential work product the property of the government. That partly was in response to Nixon’s perfidy.

Ever since Trump’s attempt to keep some presidential records has turned into a legal battle, he and his support media have been telling lies about what his predecessors did, to make it seem that he is being treated exceptionally rather than that he is acting exceptionally. Those lies caused NARA to issue an official rebuttal, dated October 11th:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in accordance with the Presidential Records Act, assumed physical and legal custody of the Presidential records from the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan, when those Presidents left office. NARA securely moved these records to temporary facilities that NARA leased from the General Services Administration (GSA), near the locations of the future Presidential Libraries that former Presidents built for NARA. All such temporary facilities met strict archival and security standards, and have been managed and staffed exclusively by NARA employees. Reports that indicate or imply that those Presidential records were in the possession of the former Presidents or their representatives, after they left office, or that the records were housed in substandard conditions, are false and misleading.

While there may be additional issues related to possession of defense information and to the handling of classified material and to a host of procedural issues, some of which are making attorneys get attorneys (MAGA), the base legal issue is someone taking something they do not own. Those records belong to the US government, not to Trump. Which is one reason lawyers are pointing to his own words as admission of guilt.