Best Things of 2018

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Not (best (things of 2018)) but ((best things) of 2018), because recommendations get more interesting if they are rate-limited and less interesting if a recency constraint is imposed.

Best interactive web essay

By internet creators Vi Hart and Nicky Case; Parable of the polygons. Cute little triangles and squares get segregated in ways none of them ever intended against their best wishes.

Best portrait article

Portraying one of the most important trans people of the past few years, Vice Broadly’s piece on Caitlyn Jenner was a nice read.

Best economist’s story

On why setting maximum prices is bad. They Clapped by Michael Munger. Very salient, go read it.

Best academic talk

I see a lot of talks from computer science researchers, and CS people are surprisingly good at giving captivating talks. But, quoting Virginia Woolf,

[..] one must read [any book] as if it were the last volume in a fairly long series, continuing all those other books that I have been glancing at. For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, or page 52 in Penguin’s Vintage Mini “Liberty”

And so a talk must be considered in its social context. Based on this principle, the clear winner for this category is this keynote speech by James Mickens of Harvard University at USENIX Security 2018: Why Do Keynote Speakers Keep Suggesting That Improving Security Is Possible? Mickens is a captivating orator, the talk is funny and informative and gives a critical view on an important issue of the present day.

Best internet rabbit-hole

An old one for nostalgia. How to spot photo manipulation. Body By Victoria. Do click the links to follow-up posts, and the rest of the website is worth checking out as well.

Best description of psychologists

This text fragment reflects every interaction I’ve had with psychologists anywhere, both my gatekeepers and psychologists I visited for other reasons.

My anorexic patients sometimes complain of being forced into this mold. They’ll try to go to therapy for their inability to eat a reasonable amount of food, and their therapist will want to spend the whole time talking about their body image issues. When they complain they don’t really have body image issues, they’ll get accused of repressing it. Eventually they’ll just say “Yeah, whatever, I secretly wanted to be a ballerina” in order to make the therapist shut up and get to the part where maybe treatment happens.

Scott Alexander, Del Giudice On The Self-Starvation Cycle

Best video essay

This is not really a contest, Contrapoints’ The Aesthetic is the most beautiful piece of film I’ve seen in years. It is an honest expression of feelings and internal dialogue and conflict that trans women experience. It touches on so many uncomfortable issues without having any single clear message. Contrapoints raises the video essay to form of art. There is so much going on so many levels and I can just keep on watching the thing over and over again. Highly recommended watching for both trans and cis people.

The creator got quite some social media backlash on the video. There is exactly one reaction video that I felt was worth watching. Nobody Wins: ContraPoints, The Aesthetic, and Negative Representation by let’s talk about stuff. [This text essay is also pretty good. How Contrapoints Misunderstands Gender.]

Best book

My choice of best book for 2018 is Aphro-ism by Aph Ko and Syl Ko. It is a blog-turned-book, with a number of brilliant essays on, among others, veganism and social justice. I cannot overstate how much I like this book. I learned a lot from reading this book, and not just about the book’s subject matter.

The writings of the Ko sisters are very far from every thought I’ve ever had. This fact is reflected in how much I learned from the book, as well as in how difficult it was to understand it. I’ve re-listened this book 5 times by now. The first time, I understood literally nothing. Each time after that I understood a bit more, and I feel I understand most parts now. Not yet at the level of being to explain the ideas, but at the level of seeing good use value in them.

On the value of anecdotes

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What is better, if everyone is wrong about the same 2% of facts, or if everyone is wrong about a different 4% of facts? Depending on how you answer this question, you should act in very different ways. I’ll take vegan advocacy as an example, but the question can be applies more generally.

If you’re in the first group, you would prefer a scientific data-driven approach. You would experiment with many different approaches to advocacy, analyse the data to find the single best way of doing outreach, and make everyone in vegan activism aware that this is the best way to do it.

If you prefer the 2% case, a local algorithm is the way to go. Think about what drove you to become vegan, and continue this strategy. If you were shocked into becoming vegan by a cube of truth, you should be participating in cubes of truth. If you became vegan after your friendly vegan neighbour exemplified that veganism is a pretty normal lifestyle and they allowed you to pick their brain about why they became vegan themselves, then you should become the friendly vegan acquaintance of the people you know yourself.

One interesting question if you enact the local algorithm, is how to weigh anecdotes. The local algorithm described above only considers your data; one alternative algorithm is to use the approach that was effective on the majority of your direct friends that became vegan before you. Another algorithm looks at all your the friends of your friends, or everyone within distance 3 in the friendship-graph. If everyone is connected by everyone by a friendship-path of length 6, then the distance 6 algorithm is exactly the data-driven approach from the second paragraph.

Evolutionary theory suggests that the small-distance algorithms are effective, for the best outreach strategy will eventually out-compete all others. But for the distance 0 or 1 cases, you’re basically working on anecdotal evidence. I’m not sure anymore what the correct value is to place on anecdotes.

Invisible people

295 wordsSome people are invisible. Not really to eyes and such, but invisible in studies and statistics, we know nothing about them. They’re the dark matter of humans, but please don’t call them dark humans.

Suppose there was a gene, let’s call it gene X, that predisposes you never to participate in any study as a subject. It makes you decline all requests to record your data for research purposes and refuse to ever vote for anything.

Carriers of gene X might be at increased risk for cancer. They might be invulnerable to hemlock. They might all individually have an IQ of exactly 120.2. Maybe they never forget where they left their keys, or grow an extra belly button during their third puberty. Possibly they’re all called Alex and stop aging when 50 years old, only to suddenly die on the day they turn 90 years old. Hell, they might be 20% of the world population, favour the Libertarian Party and think Estonia should have won the last Eurovision song contest. We’d never know because nobody can study them.

On the other hand: suppose there is some subpopulation that always participates in studies, and forms a big fraction of participants in nearly any study. It makes sense to want to be a part of this subpopulation, because that way every study ever will be more descriptive of you. Luckily, you can become part of this group simply by committing to participate in every study you are asked for from now on. Except that reading this post might have caused you to make that commitment while you would never have done so yourself. You can now only become part of a new subpopulation, the one that commits to being studied after reading a participation bias-based suggestion to do so.

Tumblr RSS under GDRP

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When the GDRP became effective, Tumblr decided to break its RSS feeds for all EU residents. When you try to fetch https://username.tumblr.com/rss, they’ll serve their GDRP wall instead of your requested file. You can only grab the feed if you possess the correct cookies.

Anyway, here is a hacky fix for your RSS feeds. I’m assuming you possess an http server yourself. I use a Raspberry Pi with lighttpd and selfoss. I’m assuming your user on the server is called beth, you want to follow the user called username on Tumblr and your document root is /home/beth/public.

Create the folder /home/beth/public/rss. Create the file /home/beth/.bin/fetchfeeds.sh with the following contents. Duplicate the last line once for every user you want to follow, and adjust all three occurences of username to fit.

#!/bin/bash

curl --header 'Host: username.tumblr.com' --header 'User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Ubuntu Chromium/71.0.3578.80 Chrome/71.0.3578.80 Safari/537.36' --header 'Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,image/webp,image/apng,/;q=0.8' --header 'Accept-Language: nl,en-GB;q=0.9,en;q=0.8' --header 'Cookie: rxx=1jo2mpfhsia.1c2ecvc5&v=1; pfg=1bc46aba34ffeb83e2ef0859447d282cf8a8a2a9f95200a2a705f3afebfe9bef%23%7B%22eu_resident%22%3A1%2C%22gdpr_is_acceptable_age%22%3A1%2C%22gdpr_consent_core%22%3A1%2C%22gdpr_consent_first_party_ads%22%3A1%2C%22gdpr_consent_third_party_ads%22%3A1%2C%22gdpr_consent_search_history%22%3A1%2C%22exp%22%3A1576795974%2C%22vc%22%3A%22%22%7D%237343812268; tmgioct=5c1acbc67c0f570418402840' --header 'Connection: keep-alive' 'https://username.tumblr.com/rss' -o '/home/beth/public/rss/username-tumblr.rss' -L

[The curl command was produced using the CurlWget browser extension.]

Don’t forget to fix the permissions: chmod +x ~/.bin/fetchfeeds.sh. Now put this in your cron table by using the command crontab -e: 0 * * * * ~/.bin/fetchfeeds.sh. This will execute the bash file in the first minute of every hour.

Lastly, put http://localhost/rss/username-tumblr.rss in your RSS reader.

Does blockchain make any sense?

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Context: Butarin on non-financial applications of blockchain, 15 tweets. I’ll assume you have read it.

I am deeply convinced that blockchains have no use cases. Trust is provided in the real world by the option to sue people. Trust in most blockchains is misplaced because miner pools are too big and the group of dictators of any coin is small, not accountable and wrongly incentivised. Timestamping data works just as well without using a distributed blockchain. Immutability is provided by standard crypto. The oracle problem is a real fuckin’ serious problem that is only ever resolved through the force of law.

Every function of distributed blockchains can be provided by combining digital signatures, cryptographic commitment schemes, public key cryptography, hashing all data and either periodic or on-demand polling.

So every time Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution posts a link to Buterin’s Twitter feed, my confidence in other people’s assertions dies a little bit more.

I’ll take the tweets linked up top in order.

2-5. I think he means “Cryptography allows you to encrypt data, prove data was signed by someone, etc etc… blockchains OTOH allow you to prove that a piece of data was *not* published [according to protocol]”, because the original is obviously false (my daily newspaper published things but is not on any blockchain). The adapted statement is also false, because SSL is based on the very notion that certificates can be rejected and that you can check that a certificate hasn’t been rejected.

6. Not just SSL, GNuPG does this very same thing as well.

7-8.  Blockchains aren’t credibly neutral, every miner on a blockchain has money in it, skewing their incentives in certain directions. Trust only goes as far as you can pay. Cryptographic hashes and signatures can make every database trusted if you can sue its proprietor.

9-11. This might be true, but it is pretty much impossible that performance will ever reach the one of standard crypto, and Buterin conveniently manages to forget the additional cost in programmer-hours. Technological cost is human cost, of the kind which is in most limited supply.

12. This tweet illuminates a lot. Buterin lives in countries without proper online banking and moreover hates privacy of any kind.

13-14. What does this even mean. Anything can and will get hacked. Your hard drive will stop working one day, and your backup won’t work.

15. Smaller stakes \implies smaller mining rewards \implies less miners \implies easier to attack. Also applications breaking incurs a huge social cost; some people are still distrustful of others from when Google Reader (RIP) was cancelled.

I know a lot of computer scientists at my institute, including people who do research into applications of blockchains. Nobody I know believes blockchains are useful apart from black markets, tax evasion, as a novel pyramid scheme, or as a hype for getting grant money.

I get why Cowen falls for Buterin’s sweet talk, he is an economist with no knowledge of cryptography. I don’t get why not more people who know anything about cryptography are speaking out about the insanity of blockchain. My best guess is that everyone who knows stuff about it is using it to either make money themselves, pretending to be enthusiastic to further the pyramid scheme, or profiling themselves as “blockchain expert” and charging high consultancy fees.

Section of doubt

I hope I’m completely wrong and I just misunderstood every statement every blockchain fanatic has ever made. My constant rejection of all their statements does make me question myself, because it seems strange that so many people can be so consistently wrong about a thing. I’d love to show epistemic humility here, but I don’t consider it to be justified.

The life expectancy of trans women is not 35 years

898 wordsEvery once in a while I read an article or comment like this:

The average lifespan of trans women in the US is 35 years. Source

This number is wrong in so many ways, but many people seem to fall for it. The most viral variant consists of screencaps of this tumblr post.

User fuckallies on tumblr: 'On average, you have a 1 in 18,989 chance of being murdered A trans person has a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered The average life span of a cis person is about 75-90 The average life expectancy of a trans person is 23-30 years old 75% of people killed in anti LGBT hate crimes are poc Think about this the next time you go crying over “cisphobia” and “reverse racism”'

Every murder is a tragedy, and it is particularly sad when someone gets murdered just for being trans. That is all the more reason to get our numbers right: exaggeration doesn’t help the cause. The lifespan statistic above is absurd. There is no way that they can be true, and it is telling of our maths and science education that people believe them.

Let’s do a basic sanity check on the 23-30 years figure. If 50% of trans folks would reach the age of 60, the other half would have to be dead by age 10. But measuring “age of death of trans people” is really tricky, because a person will only enter the trans population after transition: if they die before that, nobody knows they’re trans. So realistically, all trans people that die are at least 16 years old.  If the trans people who get murdered do so at the earliest possible age (16), how many trans people can maximally reach the age of 75? Well, we solve for the fraction x:75x + (1-x)*16=35.

Does one in 3 trans people get killed over their lives? Of course not. The only place the 23-30 year figure could realistically come from is if the number described life expectancy conditional on getting killed or some other low-probability conditional.

Media reporting

Most journalists aren’t good with numbers. This effects their propensity to cite the low life expectancy for trans folks. The Guardian:

a 2014 report concluded that the average life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is between 30 and 35.

NPR:

“Transgender people have an average life expectancy of about 30 to 32 years,” Balestra says.

Huffington Post:

The statistic said the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35.

The difference is striking. “transgender people”, “trans women in the US”, “trans women in the Americas”, “trans women of colour”. They’re all misreporting the same in number in different messed up ways.

The first popular English medium to cover the number, and the source that most chains of web pages end up on, is Washington Blade, which reports one realistic number and also the unrealistic one.

The commission indicates 80 percent of trans murder victims in the Americas during the 15-month period were 35 years old or younger. Its report further concludes the average life expectancy of trans people in the Western Hemisphere is between 30-35 years.

Washington Blade cites a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States (press release, report). The report mentions this

According to the data collected in the Registry of Violence, eighty percent of trans persons killed were 35 years of age or younger.

The data (xlsx, Spanish) contains 770 reports of violence against LGBT people from a lot of countries in the Americas, all incidents happened in the 15 months between January 1st 2013 and March 31st 2014. Not all countries are in the dataset and no skin colours of the victims are listed, but are. Some victims are deadnamed, others appropriately named. Searching the names online, there are indeed a lot of trans women of colour among the listed US victims.

The data contain 282 murders on trans people, of which 212 have an age of death attached. The average age of death among those 212 is 28.7. Among 14 murder cases in the US, all trans women, the average age was 29.8. Filtering the America-wide data for listed ages of murder of 35 and under, we find 168 cases, and 168 out of 212 is 80%. This is the source of the 80% vs 35 years claim, but keep in mind that this is as a fraction of cases that have ages attached to them.

Where does the life expectancy of 30-35 years come from? The IACHR report just says this:

In terms of the age of the victims, the IACHR notes that while it seems gay men of all ages are targeted, in the case of trans women, it is mostly younger trans women who are victims of violence. In this regard, the IACHR has received information that the life expectancy of trans women in the Americas is between 30 and 35 years of age.

No source is listed. I’m calling bullshit. There is no way that getting murdered reduces life expectancy by at most 5 years.

Section of doubt

The 1 in 12 murder rate up top is interesting because it cannot be refuted in a conservative street-fighting calculation.  The US has 325 million citizens and a life expectancy of 79 years, so every year roughly 4.1 million US citizens die. If 1 in 40000 people is trans, then you’d expect 100 US trans people to die each year. 2018’s TDOR has 23 murder cases from the US listed, so we’d estimate that trans people have a 1 in 4 probability of death by murder.

I don’t trust the 1:40000 statistic within an order of magnitude, but it is an often cited one. So while I don’t take the 1:4 number to be remotely close to the truth, it is understandable if people believe the 1 in 12 figure.

Optimal diffusion rate in social media

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In some social media it is too easy to share content. That makes them breeding ground for fake news and encourage a culture of shallow or vile discussion. For other media, it might be too hard to share content, like traditional print and online publishing. Those need recommendation or search engines, or at least book clubs and advertising.

Is there an optimal rate of knowledge diffusion? Is it different from the optimal rate of publishing new content? Imagine Twitter, except you’re only allowed one tweet every 10 minutes, one retweet every 30 minutes, and one reply every 5 minutes.

It is frustrating how all media suck. I hope humans will develop something, anything, less shitty during my lifetime.

TIL about referer spam

359 wordsThis is cute. Suppose you are a spammer and you want to target website owners, how do you do this? Submitting spam comments is one possibility; either your spam is posted, in which case you win, or you get stuck in the spam filter, and the site admin will at some point scroll past it when checking if any proper comments were misflagged, and you’ll sort of win anyway. Here is a better strategy: access their website while spoofing your referer.

What is a referer, you ask? Let’s say you are browsing bethzero.com/2018/12/01/referer-spam, and you click a link to example.org. Your browser will, in its HTTP request to example.org, mention that you got referred to their page from bethzero.com/2018/12/01/referer-spam. This is so that website owners can know where their visitors come from. Super neat, how can we use this for spamming?

The trick is to send requests with fake referer attributes.[fn]This is the correct spelling. Except in some cases, such as rel=”noreferrer”.[/fn] Request the page https://bethzero.com, put https://bestblogideas.com as the referer. When the proprietor of bethzero.com looks at her visitor statistics, she will see that bestblogideas.com linked to her, and probably visit it herself to see what they write about her. This is where you sell her access to your cheap special $300 blogging video course.

Another fun way to use this is probably for doxxing. Create a special page tracking.com/<unique-code> and use that as referer. If you make sure that no other entry points to that page exist, then every visitor will be the Beth you’re targetting. For bonus points, you put Facebook’s tracking code on the page so that you’ll forever be able to target advertisements directly to Beth.

Beth might try to outsmart you and satisfy her interests in her referrers by pointing her browser at tracking.com without the unique code. In that case, you can try buying a number of domain names for a kind of adaptive group testing procedure. If you have a million dollars you can probably do this on bigger scales, finding the IP address of a good fraction of pseudonymous website owners. Looking at my own stats, I think this is really happening.