Category: Current Events

Another Long Time Fugitive Arrested

Yesterday, Luis Armando Peña Soltren was arrested after forty years on run for hijacking a plane to Cuba.

Soltren “will finally face the American justice system that he has been evading for more than four decades,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

I understand that Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch are already circulating a petition around Hollywood demanding Mr Soltren’s release.

Caster Semenya, Alan Turing and "ID Management" products

caster-semenya-cover-girl.jpgSouth African runner Caster Semenya won the womens 800-meter, and the attention raised questions about her gender. Most of us tend to think of gender as pretty simple. You’re male or you’re female, and that’s all there is to it. The issue is black and white, if you’ll excuse the irony.

There are reports that:

Two Australian newspapers reported Friday that gender tests show the world champion athlete has no ovaries or uterus and internal testes that produce large amounts of testosterone. … Semenya is hardly alone. Estimates vary, but about 1 percent of people are born with abnormal sex organs, experts say. These people may have the physical characteristics of both genders or a chromosomal disorder or simply ambiguous features. (“When someone is raised female and the genes say XY,” AP)

For more on the medical end of this, see for example the “Consensus statement on management of intersex disorders” in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The athletics associations rules don’t cover all of these situations well. The real world is far messier and more complex than most people have cause to address. There are a great many apparently simple things that are really complicated as you dig in.

What the sports associations and news media are doing to Semenya is reprehensible. (There are over 10,000 stories listed on Google News, versus 13,000 for Derek Jeter, who just broke a Yankees record.) She didn’t come into running knowing that she had no ovaries. Having to deal with the identity issues that her testing brings up under the harsh light of the entire world (including me) is simply unfair.

It’s unfair in almost the same way as the British government’s treatment of Alan Turing, the mathematician who Time named one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century for his fundamental work on computers and cryptanalysis. Turing was also a convicted homosexual who committed suicide because of his “treatment” with estrogen, which caused him to become impotent and to develop breasts.

This week, Gordon Brown issued an apology entitled “Treatment of Alan Turing was ‘appalling’:”

While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

Sports officialdom and state governments are different. Sports are voluntary associations, although athletes have little influence on the choices of international sports functionaries. Either way, watching the chaotic world crash onto the inflexible bureaucracies is tremendously frustrating to me.

As more and more of the world is processed by Turing Machines, assumptions that seem obvious to the programmer are exposed harshly at the edges. A friend with a Juris Doctorate recently applied for a job online. The form had a field “year you graduated from high school” that had to be filled out before she went on. Trouble is, she never did quite finish high school. She had the really relevant qualification-a J.D. from a good school. But she had an emotionally wrenching choice of lying on the form or not applying for the job. She eventually chose to lie, and sent a note to the HR people saying she’d done so and explaining why. I doubt the fellow who wrote that code ever heard about it.

I have a challenge to anyone involved in creating an online identity management system: How well does your system handle Semenya?

The typical answer is either that “that’s configurable, although we don’t know if anyone’s done exactly that” or “she’s an edge case, and we deal with the 95% case really well.” If you have a better answer, I’d really like to know about it. And as a product guy, those are likely the decisions I’d make to ship.

I’ll close by echoing Brown’s words: We’re sorry, you deserve so much better.

The Arrest of Gates

A couple of good articles are John McWhorter’s “Gates is Right–and We’re Not Post-Racial Until He’s Wrong,” and Lowry Heussler’s “Nightmare on Ware Street.” The full police report is at “Gates police report.”

I think PHB’s comment on Michael Froomkin’s post is quite interesting:

You are all missing a rather significant fact, this is the Cambridge Police force, an organization that has a most peculiar relationship to the community it polices.

Houses in Cambridge cost a fortune, so it is not a city where cops live. So the city is a rich, liberal town policed by a conservative working class police force commuting in from other towns. You do not have to be black to have the Cambridge police act boorishly.

I am trying to avoid talking about the subject with my Cambridge friends as they all want to give their own litany of complaints.

When my apartment in Cambridge was burgled in 1999, the responding officer didn’t even want to get out of his car. When he finally did, he didn’t want to bother to physically examine anything, the one item that I pointed out had a grimy fingerprint was shattered and returned in pieces, and his report failed to document either that the front door was ripped from its hinges, or that a stack of currency from four countries had gone missing.

Sorry, PHB was trying to avoid that. I suspect that both the race and class cards played into this. There’s a strong echo of that in Crowley’s statements reported widely:

“I know what I did was right,” Crowley said in an interview with Boston-based WEEI Sportsradio Network. “I don’t have anything to apologize for.”

There’s one other element of this, which is that the police are separated from communities by a foolish and unwinnable war on drugs. Our last three Presidents have smoked pot, the last two snorted coke. But as long as the police are charged with impossible duties, they will be separated from whatever community may exist.

Please keep the comments civil and respectful of Gates, the officer and one another.

July 20, 1969

The Apollo program took place at just about the right time for me. I was six (or, as I would quickly have pointed out at the time, six *and a half*) when the first lunar landing occurred, and barely ten when Apollo 17 splashed down. This was old enough to be fascinated by the technology and the sheer coolness (I would not have known the words “audacity” or “chutzpah”), and too young to question the wisdom of the project given the pressing alternative terrestrial uses for the funds. It’s funny that what my brain decided to remember, and what society made iconic or controversial do not really coincide. I distinctly remember the Apollo 8 launch, but nothing of the reading from the book of Genesis. I watched the Apollo 11 launch, but I don’t specifically recall Armstrong’s first steps. In all cases, I was glued to the TV for the launch and splashdown. Oddly, these more than the flight to (or activities on) the moon brought to mind the vast scale of the project. Launches always included references to tracking stations in Australia — a vast distance away for the 6-8 year-old mind. Splashdowns involved a whole aircraft carrier! This truly was big stuff.
Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz held my interest, but the shuttle never did. Viking, with actual color pictures of Mars, got things back on track, but it was clear that no human would set foot on Mars for some time. The sense of purpose just was not there the way it was for Apollo, and it hasn’t been since. It’s hard to know whether the undertone of loss I feel when thinking about Apollo is an effect of time — I am no longer the wide-eyed boy — or of a recognition of what might have been, but was not, due to the disintegration of the consensus that allowed Apollo to succeed.

Thoughts on Iran

Our love affair with the Iranian Tweetolution has worn off. The thugs declared their election valid, told their armed representatives to

Sorry, next tweet: go impose some law or order or something, and it was done.

Well, as it often turns out, there was more to it than fits in 140 characters, and the real story is far more complicated. There’s a good write up from StratFor, “The Real Struggle in Iran and Implications for U.S. Dialogue:”

This is because the real struggle in Iran has not yet been settled, nor was it ever about the liberalization of the regime. Rather, it has been about the role of the clergy — particularly the old-guard clergy — in Iranian life, and the future of particular personalities among this clergy.

[…]

The key to understanding the situation in Iran is realizing that the past weeks have seen not an uprising against the regime, but a struggle within the regime. Ahmadinejad is not part of the establishment, but rather has been struggling against it, accusing it of having betrayed the principles of the Islamic Revolution. The post-election unrest in Iran therefore was not a matter of a repressive regime suppressing liberals (as in Prague in 1989), but a struggle between two Islamist factions that are each committed to the regime, but opposed to each other.

Iran Links

My Wolfram Alpha Demo

I got the opportunity a couple days ago to get a demo of Wolfram Alpha from Stephen Wolfram himself. It’s an impressive thing, and I can sympathize a bit with them on the overblown publicity. Wolfram said that they didn’t expect the press reaction, which I both empathize with and cast a raised eyebrow at.

There’s no difference, as you know, between an arbitrarily advanced technology and a rigged demo. And of course anyone whose spent a lot of time trying to create something grand is going to give you the good demo. It’s hard to know what the difference is between a rigged demo and a good one.

The major problem right now with Alpha is the overblown publicity. The last time I remember such gaga effusiveness it was over the Segway before we knew it was a scooter.

Alpha has had to suffer through not only its creator’s overblown assessments, but reviews from neophiles whose minds are so open that their occipital lobes face forward.

My short assessment is that it is the anti-Wikipedia and makes a huge splat on the fine line between clever and stupid, extending equally far in both directions. What they’ve done is create something very much like the computerized idiot savant. As much as that might sound like criticism, it isn’t. Alpha is very, very, very cool. Jaw-droppingly cool. And it is also incredibly cringe-worthily dumb. Let me give some examples.

Stephen gave us a lot of things that it can compute and the way it can infer answers. You can type “gdp france / germany” and it will give you plots of that. A query like “who was the president of brazil in 1930” will get you the right answer and a smear of the surrounding Presidents of Brazil as well.

It also has lovely deductions it makes. It geolocates your IP address and so if you ask it something involving “cups” it will infer from your location whether that should be American cups or English cups and give you a quick little link to change the preference on that. Very, very, clever.

It will also use your location to make other nice deductions. Stephen asked it a question about the population of Springfield, and since he is in Massachusetts, it inferred that Springfield, and there’s a little pop-up with a long list of other Springfields, as well. It’s very, very clever.

That list, however, got me the first glimpse of the stupid. I scanned the list of Springfields and realized something. Nowhere in that list appeared the Springfield of The Simpsons. Yeah, it’s fictional, and yeah that’s in many ways a relief, but dammit, it’s supposed to be a computational engine that can compute any fact that can be computed. While that Springfield is fictional, its population is a fact.

The group of us getting the demo got tired of Stephen’s enthusiastic typing in this query and that query. Many of them are very cool but boring. Comparing stock prices, market caps, changes in portfolio whatevers is something that a zillion financial web sites can do. We wanted more. We wanted our queries.

My query, which I didn’t ask because I thought it would be disruptive, is this: Which weighs more, a pound of gold or a pound of feathers? When I get to drive, that will be the first thing I ask.

The answer, in case you don’t know this famous question is a pound of feathers. Amusingly, Google gets it on the first link. Wolfram emphasizes that Alpha computes and is smart as opposed to Google just dumbly searching and collating.

I also didn’t really need to ask because one of the other people asked Alpha to plot swine flu in the the US, and it came up with — nil. It knows nothing about swine flu. Stephen helpfully suggested, “I can show you colon cancer instead” and did.

And there it is, the line between clever and stupid, and being on both sides of it. Alpha can’t tell you about swine flu because the data it works on is “curated,” meaning they have experts vet it. I approve. I’m a Wikipedia-sneerer, and I like an anti-mob system. However, having experts curate the data means that there’s nothing about the Springfield that pops to most people’s minds (because it’s pop culture) nor anything about swine flu. We asked Stephen about sources, and specifically about Wikipedia. He said that they use Wikipedia for some sorts of folk knowledge, like knowing that The Big Apple is a synonym for New York City but not for many things other than that.

Alpha is not a Google-killer. It is not ever going to compute anything that can be computed. It’s a humorless idiot savant that has an impressive database (presently some ten terabytes, according to the Wolfram folks), and its Mathematica-on-steroids engine gives a lot of wows.

On the other hand, as one of the people in my demo pointed out, there’s not anything beyond a spew of facts. Another of our queries was “17/hr” and Alpha told us what that is in terms of weekly, monthly, yearly salary. It did not tell us the sort of jobs that pay 17 per hour, which would be useful not only to people who need a job, but to socioeconomic researchers. It could tell us that, and very well might rather soon. But it doesn’t.

Alpha is an impressive tool that I can hardly wait to use (supposedly it goes on line perhaps this week). It’s something that will be a useful tool for many people and fills a much-needed niche. We need an anti-Wikipedia that has only curated facts. We need a computational engine that uses deductions and heuristics.

But we also need web resources that know about a fictional Springfield, and resources that can show you maps of the swine flu.

We also need tech reviewers who have critical faculties. Alpha is not a Google-killer. It’s also not likely as useful as Google. The gushing, open-brained reviews do us and Alpha a disservice by uncritically watching the rigged demo and refusing to ask about its limits. Alpha may straddle the line between clever and stupid, but the present reviewers all stand proudly on stupid.

Brad DeLong on the bailout

Brad DeLong has a FAQ up about Geithner’s plan to purchase toxic assets on the theory that the market has undervalued them, and will in time price them properly. Among the items:

Q: What if markets never recover, the assets are not fundamentally undervalued, and even when held to maturity the government doesn’t make back its money?
A: Then we have worse things to worry about than government losses on TARP-program money–for we are then in a world in which the only things that have value are bottled water, sewing needles, and ammunition.

This response reminded me of a conversation I had over a beer with a banking regulator back in August 2006 or thereabouts. He reported on a IM conversation he had had with a colleague whose expertise lay in the area which subsequently imploded. After jokingly asking “Time to buy gold, huh?”, there was a pregnant pause. Then came the response: “Buy ammunition”.
I ordered another beer.

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