Data harvesting, Facebook, and the “10 year challenge”.

Image of an eye on PC screen

To be fair, I haven’t seen much concern expressed on the theme of this tweet,

but with over 5 000 retweets (at time of writing), it certainly seems like some people are convinced, and possibly concerned. I’m however not inclined to think that the “10 year challenge” is a sinister ploy by Facebook to harvest this freely-volunteered data, in order to improve its facial recognition technology.

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The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

The post title refers to Russell Blackford’s most recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. Blackford is an annoyingly prolific writer, who has published numerous works of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as having edited at least 5 volumes of essays that I’m aware of.

By way of disclosure, I also regard him as a friend, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for my and Caleb Lack’s 2016 book, Critical Reasoning, Science and Pseudoscience. Despite these connections, this note on the book is unsolicited, and entirely sincere.

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Computational propaganda, clickbait, and personal responsibility

A DPRK propaganda poster

The proliferation of misinformation on social media – or even just partisan or sensationalistic treatments of politics, science and human relations – could reasonably be considered a threat to democracy itself.

When you add computation propaganda to the mix, where bots are deployed to manipulate public opinion, filter-bubbles form even more readily, and you can now find a closed and self-reinforcing community to reinforce just about any view you can imagine.

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The “Journal of Controversial Ideas”

Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva plan to launch the “Journal of Controversial Ideas” sometime in 2019. The journal will allow for (but not insist on) articles to be published under a pseudonym, ostensibly in response to a prevailing culture of self-censorship and fear of expressing opinions on contentious topics.

McMahan and Singer are both philosophy professors, well-known for engaging with complex topics in an accessible manner, and in Singer’s case, also no stranger to controversy. According to a headline in the Guardian from 2009, he might in fact be “The most dangerous man in the world” (he isn’t).

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Judge Learned Hand and liberalism

“Judge Learned Hand” reads like a Zen koan or something, but he was in fact an American judge, who has been “quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge“. Yes, that is (most of) his real name – the full version is Billings Learned Hand.

His Wikipedia page (linked above) makes for fascinating reading, but if you leave this post wanting to know more about his thinking, I’d encourage you to read Jerome Frank’s 1957 article titled Some reflections on Judge Learned Hand (pdf).

The aspect of his thinking that I want to briefly discuss here is about what liberalism meant to him, and what it means to me. In 1944, Hand gave a speech titled “The Spirit of Liberty” to a gathering of around 1.5 million people in Central Park, NY, many of them newly-naturalised citizens.

You can – and indeed should – read the full speech. The portion of it I want to address goes as follows:

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The Civil Union Amendment Bill

A month or so ago, I wrote about Deirdre Carter’s Private Member’s Bill that seeks to remove Section 6 from the Civil Union Act. Section 6 allows government officials to opt-out of officiating gay marriages on grounds of “conscience”.

The call for public comment on this Bill has now gone out, and you have until 4pm on October 23 to send your comments to Mr Eddy Mathonsi [email]. We can be sure that the likes of Errol Naidoo and other homophobes will be writing in to object, so please consider indicating your support for this Bill.

What follows is some text that you are free to copy-and-paste, or amend as you see fit, in order to make your submissions as painless as possible. The text is a variation on the blog post linked above, so if you read that, none of the content will be new to you.

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On Helen Zille and identity politics “destroying freedom”.

Today’s Daily Maverick includes an opinion piece by the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, who asserts that identity politics is “destroying freedom”.

The short version of this response to some of her claims might read something like “sure, identity politics might compromise freedom in some of its extreme manifestations, but never as reliably as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination do”.

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Beware Ransomware

Over the past week, I’ve been receiving emails from yahoo.jp email addresses offering me the choice between paying money into a Bitcoin address, or having my (alleged!) dirty secrets exposed to colleagues, friends and family.

One guy asked for $4000, another $5000. The highest figure quoted has been $6000, and one fellow asked for a Bitcoin, so who knows how much value he was expecting this hour, given that the coin could be worth just about anything next time you check.

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Steve Bannon and no-platforming

Steve Bannon was invited to speak at the New Yorker Festival, then promptly disinvited after Kathryn Schulz (author of Being Wrong, which I can recommend as an accessible, yet very thoughtful, account of some basic errors in inductive reasoning), Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, Ally Fogg and others indicated that they were opposed to his presence there, and (in some cases) that they would not appear at the festival if he did.

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COPE and the Civil Union Act

DHA offices where same-sex couples can be married

In addition to her Private Members Bill on Advance Directives, which I wrote about earlier this month, Deirdre Carter of COPE has also been pushing for changes to the Civil Union Act, and I’m pleased to report that the Parliamentary committee meeting (15/08) seems to have gone well, with all present agreeing that Section 6 of the Act needs to be reconsidered.

Section 6, for those not familiar with the Act, is the clause that allows for Department of Home Affairs (DHA) officials to opt-out of officiating same-sex marriages. It reads:

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