How Can I Move the World a Little Bit Further Down the Road to Serfdom Today?

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I wonder if that's the first thought of Benedict Macon-Cooney ("Deputy Executive Director, Technology and Public Policy" at the "Tony Blair Institute for Global Change") when he wakes every morning. Here's his recent effort toward that end in WIRED: AI Is Now Essential National Infrastructure. Benedict's bottom line:

For governments to fully deliver on the promise of AI, however, they will need to invest. Soon, a comprehensive digital infrastructure—which includes national computing power, a distributed cloud, and an interoperable set of applications and machine-readable legislation—will be as important to a country as roads, rail, and public water supply. In 2023, more and more countries will accelerate the building of such nationwide digital architectures, allowing them to deliver more AI-powered responsive services that cater to the individual and help the population at large. In 2023, bold governments will be making this move—and they will be examples to follow for the rest of the world.

Investment, all carefully planned! By "bold" governments! It's a bright shiny future, brought to you via the magic of AI! Under the control of the people who brought you…

Well, see the next item.

  • At the Free Press, David Zweig describes How Twitter Rigged the Covid Debate.

    I had always thought a primary job of the press was to be skeptical of power—especially the power of the government. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, I and so many others found that the legacy media had shown itself to largely operate as a messaging platform for our public health institutions. Those institutions operated in near total lockstep, in part by purging internal dissidents and discrediting outside experts.

    Twitter became an essential alternative. It was a place where those with public health expertise and perspectives at odds with official policy could air their views—and where curious citizens could find such information. This often included other countries’ responses to Covid that differed dramatically from our own.

    But it quickly became clear that Twitter also seemed to promote content that reinforced the establishment narrative, and to suppress views and even scientific evidence that ran to the contrary.


    The United States government pressured Twitter to elevate certain content and suppress other content about Covid-19 and the pandemic. Internal emails that I viewed at Twitter showed that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s content according to their wishes.

    Zweig has the documentation for that extraordinary claim. Check it out.

  • Kevin D. Williamson has a very moving newsletter this week: Being Human.

    You get a lot of advice when you have a baby—more advice than you probably are in the market for, in fact—and it’s usually the same stuff over and over again, the sort of thing people say because they feel that they are supposed to say something but don’t have anything to say, so it is the familiar litany: Diapers! Sleep deprivation! Start saving for college! Etc.

    As they say: The worst vice is advice.

    What they don’t tell you about is how long that first night is going to be—not because you’re tired, but because you are terrified. Newborn babies are tiny and fragile and entirely helpless, of course, but they also are mysterious. Some babies thrive from the beginning, some have inexplicable troubles—and nobody really knows why. Terrible things happen with babies sometimes. When I was in college, one of my undergraduate friends was diagnosed with lung cancer, and the first thing people wanted to know was whether she smoked, which she didn’t, or if her parents smoked, which they didn’t—people wanted to know what she had done to deserve lung cancer. When children are sick or injured or unhappy, mothers and fathers (but mostly mothers) get the same thing: What did you do wrong? They get it from their friends and families, and they get it from themselves.

    It's really good. Worth your subscription money.

Last Modified 2024-01-15 5:23 AM EDT

The It Girl

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Did I pick up this book at the library because I thought it was about a young female worker in Information Technology? A likely story, but no. Instead, it was on the WSJ list of the best mysteries of 2022. Getting an early start on that reading project.

The main character is Hannah, a young woman who had the unfortunate experience of discovering the body of April, her Oxford suite-mate, "sprawled across the hearth rug in front of the fire." Hannah gives testimony that sends a creepy employee of the college to prison for April's murder.

But this seriously upends Hannah's life, dividing it in twain. The book's chapters are labeled "Before" and "After"; we alternate between discovering what led up to April's murder, and seeing the events a decade later.

In the "Before" sections, Hannah comes into Oxford as a relatively shy and insecure student, continually nonplussed by the "It Girl" April, who's vivacious, gregarious, and clever. But—it turns out—she's also rich, spoiled, manipulative, devious, promiscuous,… Hannah and April acquire a semi-dysfunctional posse of friends and lovers, they deal wiith Oxford's stressful academic rigor, and … gee, you begin to see a lot of possible motives for people wanting to murder April.

In the "After" section, Hannah is married to Will, April's long-ago boyfriend (hm). She's working in a small Edinburgh bookshop, kind of an unexpected outcome, given her once-promising academic career. She is seriously pregnant. And the prison death of that creepy employee—he's always maintained his innocence—brings on guilt feelings. Could Hannah have been mistaken? Hannah sets out (defying Will's firm opposition, hm) to connect with her old friends, and makes important discoveries about the events back in Oxford.

Eventually, there's a pulse pounding finish.

I'm inordinately proud to say I figured out the true villain long before Hannah does. That never happens.

It's well-written, although I could have done without the many, many descriptions of Hannah's inner mental turmoil. But I wonder how this chapter-opening sentence escaped an editor's eye:

In the restaurant, Hannah looks at her phone again, gnawing at a breadstick.
To adapt an old Ghostbusters quote: generally you don't see that kind of behavior from a small electronic device.

Last Modified 2024-01-15 5:23 AM EDT


Why the Rational Believe the Irrational

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Michael Shermer seems like a totally nice guy. And yet there's something about his writing—it's not you, Michael, it's me—that seems to set my teeth on edge, and my brain to go into nit-picking mode.

This book, about conspiracies and the ardent believers of same, isn't bad at all; it's full of interesting facts, fun stories, good advice, and fact-based debunkings of wacky conspiracy theories (9/11, JFK). It falls significantly off in offering Shermer's effort at a Grand Unified Theory of conspiracy theorizing. But:

Nit One: Shermer's definition of "conspiracy" on page 23:

A conspiracy is two or more people, or a group, plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or harm others immorally or illegally.

A decent editor would have pointed out the redundancy in "two or more people, or a group". And the conspiracy is not the "group"; it's their plan. And does immorality or illegality really need to be involved? Conceivably, the conspirators could be hatching a scheme that they perceive to be in others' best interests! (Example: JournoList, the private forum where left-leaning journalists collaborated on the best talking points to advance their preferred political narratives. Nothing illegal or (even) immoral about that, and they probably all felt, in their heart of hearts, they were on the side of the angels.)

When I have serious issues with the very definition of a book's main topic…

Nit Two: On page 38, where Shermer is running through the history of conspiracy theories, one example provided is: "… and Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted writers perceived to be Communists in the 1950s."

Now, I could be wrong about this, but I've read a bit about McCarthy and that era, and I don't recall McCarthy himself blacklisting anyone, let alone "writers". The famous "Hollywood Ten" blacklist happened in 1947 (a bit shy of "the 1950s") imposed by film studio execs, based on the refusal of the Ten to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Which of course McCarthy wasn't on.

McCarthy did a lot of bad stuff, including probably bogus claims that he had a list of known Commies in government.

(And (sure enough) there were.)

Nit Three: Shermer's "case study in conspiracism" (Chapter 5) is the Sovereign Citizen Movement. No doubt there's some Venn-diagram overlap between the sovereign citizens and actual conspiracy theorists. But sovereign citizenism as such is more accurately described as simply a wacky legal theory; conspiracism isn't necessarily involved.

Nit Four: Page 109: The Magnificent Seven is described as a movie where "a 'posse' of gunslinging citizens are [sic] recruited to hunt down a Mexican outlaw." Well, not exactly. The Seven were hired to defend a Mexican village against a marauding gang of bandits. Defense, not offense. How hard is this to get right?

Well, enough nits. Good stuff, besides what's previously mentioned: Shermer has a number of tips on how best to talk to conspiracists; he's had a lot of practice there. He reports on a Qualtrics poll he did measuring the level of belief in many theories of varying nuttiness. Amusingly, the poll included a couple theories that were entirely made up. Still, a significant number of respondents said they found those theories credible.

I think this either shows (a) how gullible some people are; or (b) how hard it is to conduct a poll when a lot of your respondents will either respond randomly or capriciously. (Like me: sometimes when faced with a long list of items to rate on a 0-10 scale, I just use consecutive π digits: 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, 9, 2, 6, 5, …)

And one of the highest levels of belief was in the "theory": "Covid-19 was developed in a Chinese lab, and Chinese officials have covered it up."

Dude, I rate that one "more likely than not".

To Shermer's credit, he admits the relative non-wackiness of that theory later on. I'm not sure of the timing of the poll versus the timing of revelations about sloppiness at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, gain-of-function research, and the actions of those "Chinese officials" (and ours) earnestly stonewalling investigations. 2023-01-01 UPDATE: I should have caught this before, and it's slightly bigger than a nit. Shermer cites the "Milgram experiments" as holy writ (pp 112-3). Via Jerry Coyne's blog, the efforts to reproduce Milgram's results are (at best) mixed.

Shermer bills himself as kind of a Professional Skeptic; he should have showed that in this case.

Last Modified 2024-01-15 5:23 AM EDT