You Are Trapped In A Bubble

duckduckgo logo
So Google, Yahoo and Bing are sensible names?

Imagine you had a machine that gave you all the information you wanted on any subject in the world. Great, eh?

Until you find out that far from being unbiased and neutral, this information actually panders to your prejudices, confirms your political biases and reflects your own distorted world view. That machine wouldn’t be much use, would it? Worse than useless in fact, because it would be misleading you.

That machine is called a “search engine”.

All the major engines tailor their results according to what you’ve chosen in the past. So if you are more likely to click on links to Fox News, pretty soon Fox is going to dominate your news results. People with narrow views get their window on the world reduced to fit, broadminded people are lulled into thinking everyone else is too.

Alternative engine DuckDuckGo explains the problem nicely here, with jokes. Or here’s a Ted talk.

I’m not saying the search providers ever claimed to be fair and balanced. On the contrary, any sensible person knew that they had inevitable, systemic biases. Results naturally reflected the preoccupations of Internet users rather than the public at large – even now there’s still a difference. The ranking algorithm used plays a huge part, as does commercial pressure. Most deeply, they’re enormously biased just by language. There’s a lot more stuff about, say, the French contribution to space exploration written in French, while American sources inevitably predominate within English.

These biases I can allow for – but how can I allow for my own? I search for information to correct my preconceptions, not confirm them. The exact opposite of what I need is some kind of feedback loop. A monkey behind the monitor, aping my errors. Flinging back my own prejudice. I emphatically object to search providers doing this to me. Who was it that said hell is a hall of mirrors?¹

What can you do? Well one fairly obvious thing, if you don’t want Google or Bing or Yahoo spoon-feeding you personalised results, is to not tell them that it’s you. Log out of your search engine. It makes a difference; when I do I immediately find Fox news stories appear higher in the search results. Which is good – really. I don’t want a falsely benign impression of Rupert Murdoch‘s influence in this world.

They don’t want you to log out of course. They want to be able to match your search queries to the real you. This is one reason why they ply you with added services such as Google+ and Chat and YouTube and Documents and whatever else. If you log out of search, you’re out of all the social stuff too. Sneaky, huh? And as I was saying before, I will not be at all surprised if Microsoft and Facebook join forces to do the same.

So how can I use both Google search and Google+? (Which I do want to, despite all the horrible things I say about them.) Well, you can always use two browsers at once. Logged in on one for the social networking, not logged in on the other for the searching. It’s not illegal or anything. I use Firefox and Chrome in tandem most of the time.

But is it enough? Even logged out they still know your IP address, they probably have cookies. Even if they can’t identify you personally they will still tailor the results to your geographic location. Real neutrality requires stronger medicine. It’s worth investigating alternative engines that guarantee your privacy, like the DuckDuckGo I mentioned above. My preferred solution though is a search anonymizer such as Scroogle or (my favourite) StartingPage. These give you actual Google results without revealing any of your identity to Google – the best of all worlds, arguably.

Is that unfair to Google, getting their search results anonymously? I don’t think so. Search engines are there to help us find things, not to help things find us.

  1. OK it was me.

Another Google+ Bug

Nude Sea Sirens
I can't find any relevant image for this article, so here is a completely irrelevant Russian mercouple

I didn’t speak too soon anyway. The Dow just fell off. Well, had its worst plunge since the crash of 2008. Double-dip recession then? I think that’s far too complacent – why the hell should it stop at two? All we’ve seen since 2008 is an economic system trying to get up off the canvas. It’s not getting up.

But sorry, back to Google+. It’s a bit unfair of me to call it a bug, but “An Aspect Of Google+ Which Users Coming From Facebook May Find Misleading” just doesn’t cut it as a headline. Blame the sub-editors. This isn’t entirely Google’s fault, but I think they need to do something about it.

A lot of people coming to Google+ have prior experience of social networking on Facebook. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “all of them, basically”. So there is a natural tendency to think of someone adding you to their circles as analogous to a friend request. If you have reason to think they’re kosher, you’ll probably add them back. But what if you don’t immediately recognise the name? Speaking for myself it could still easily be someone whose name I’ve forgotten, someone I know by an online name, a friend of a friend. So what I do is see what friends they have in common with me; that almost always makes the relationship obvious.

When someone adds you on Google+ you can see the “People in common” they have with you. If there are a lot, your automatic assumption might be that you should know this person. But unlike FB where relationships are agreed by both parties, being in a circle in G+ is of course only one-way, much like being followed on Twitter. So when someone has a lot of “People in common” with you, all it could mean is that they first added one person you know, and then added all their friends.

It happened yesterday among my peer group – people started asking each other “Does anyone actually know X?” We eventually figured out that X was a fake friend. (Oh and Google? He had a perfectly realistic name and profile.) I would guess people are doing this exactly so that they might be mistaken for friends and added – whereupon they can find out more about you, spam you perhaps, misrepresent themselves even. It’s a new type of insidious social network penetration – we could call it “encircling”.

How can Google make this less likely to succeed? I think “People in common” is a misleading label – indeed, a misleading categorisation. It’s really only “People X has in circles who are in your circles”. There should also be a category “People in your circles who have X in circles.” If the latter group is far smaller than the former, you’ll know immediately that something is up.

Some Mild Economic Hassle Ahead

Third world market / mercado tercermundista
Sign of the Times - Image by Andreuchis via Flickr

Some may say I’ve been ignoring the global economic crisis, but the way I see it, if you’re at a funeral you don’t say “Jesus, it’s a dead guy in a freaking box!”

Let’s try to be positive. There has been a little good news in the last week. Some sort of half-assed budget deal was cut in the US, saving its economy from plunging to Third World status. Yet. The Euro still exists, even if it seems about as stable now as an upended pyramid. Full of nitroglycerine. On fire.

But otherwise, the outlook is not so good. The Americans cannot borrow and spend to get out of recession because the balance of power is held by political morons. In the eurozone, we apply band-aid after band-aid to a haemorrhage. Sooner or later we will need to face up to the facts: We either have one single economy with one single fiscal policy, or we can’t have a single currency. That’s not a decision we know how to even begin contemplating taking, and the longer we put it off, the more countries are going to be flung like screaming toddlers from the runaway merry-go-round.

And in a sure sign of economic brick-crapping terror, the gold price is skyrocketing again. Two weeks ago I pointed out that the world’s gold stocks were now worth eight trillion dollars. It’s estimated that in three months they’ll be worth over a trillion more. Funny how market chaos seems to be good for people who happen to own a lot of gold. But that’s probably just one of those coincidences.

We shouldn’t panic or despair yet though. There’s still China. China, that engine of the global economy, driving back collapse. Even when all of us in the West are too broke to buy each other’s stuff, we can always afford theirs. Guess what’s happening in China? Their buoyant, vibrant, export-fuelled high growth economy has led to – no go on, guess – has led to… Have you got it? Yep, that’s right. A housing bubble. China has a housing bubble.

But don’t worry, it’s bound to find a soft landing. Don’t they all? Ha ha ha. Oh God we’re so doomed.

Another Presidential Assassination

Banner of the Irish Blueshirts.
You mention Fine Gael and far-right militants in the same article, and the automatic image search comes out with the Blueshirt flag. Stop editorialising, image search.

Could Norris have won? No, not now. He was the fun candidate. I am not saying he wasn’t a perfectly serious candidate as well, but he more than anyone else stood for liberation from tiresome, hopeless, party-controlled politics, and if he was going to be elected it would have been on a wave of joyful voting against the establishment. The sheer fact that his ex-partner had committed rape was inevitably going to take the wind out of that.

I wish he had been allowed to continue though. I’d like to have voted for him, if only to say that what he did wrong was forgiveable.

If indeed he did something wrong. From reading the actual letters (PDF) he sent to Israel, I don’t think he represented himself as speaking on behalf of the Irish people or government, or even his constituents. The only part that seems to have been on official Senate paper was the brief and rather bland character reference. The long, detailed plea for leniency appears to have originally been a separate document sent in a personal capacity.

The question of whether he should have pleaded for leniency at all in such a case remains, and I think that was a mistake for a person in his position. But I wouldn’t want to vote for someone who never did a stupid thing for love.

So now, bizarrely, it’s Gay Mitchell’s turn. He’s the candidate of Fine Gael, the party leading the newly-elected government, and so very arguably the favourite since Norris’s departure. Mitchell too made an appeal to a foreign judiciary, in 2003 when he was FG’s spokesman on foreign affairs. His though was for a man due to be executed for the murder of a doctor and his bodyguard, outside an abortion clinic in Florida.

Mitchell says that it was in the context of a consistent campaign against the death penalty. All I will say is, it had better be.

Walking On The Moon

A better picture of karst than I got today, by ladydog22

It was my birthday today, and I thought I’d spend it doing something positive and renewing. So, a walk in my favourite landscape: The Burren.

This is one area of Ireland that is made of stone instead of grass. It’s karst, also called limestone pavement (but why would you, when you could say “karst”?), a terrain where soluble stone has been washed away leaving great slabs and gaps. Or clints and grykes, to give them their rude-sounding technical names. It’s weirdly lunar.

Burren Sky
Burren Sky

We walked up Turlough Hill. It’s not a big mountain, but it’s beautifully layered, almost an Aztec pyramid. This is the kind of hill walking I like, because rather than a constant, merciless slope it consists of short but tough hands-on climbs interspersed with almost level ‘rests’. Nevertheless I struggled, the girlfriend bounding contemptuously ahead. I’m still way out of shape, despite the exemplary life I lead these days. But hey, I never expected I’d even live this long, so I’m way ahead on that score.

Burren Sea
Burren Sea

It was on the way down that I shone. It really felt like all that potential energy I’d stored going uphill was coming out. Or maybe the Burren just renews me. It was basically a matter of jumping from rock to rock, and I love that stuff.

If there was one drawback, it wasn’t a great day for photography. I did get better shots though later in the afternoon when we drove to Doolin, where karst meets sea.

Chips With Everything

Irish Politican, Sen. Fidelma Healy Eames, sta...
She's Full Of Bright Ideas!

Speaking of Senators having bad ideas, Fidelma Healy Eames (FG) tweeted this yesterday:

Playstn Xbox danger 2 health as 20 yo dies.Makers shd install auto shutdown chip af’r 2hr play w/ 12hr break on all game.http://t.co/kR0ebnu

The link goes to the Daily Mail – but don’t worry, I’ve read it so you don’t have to. This noted UK journal of objective health information explains how a twenty-year old died from deep vein thrombosis because he played on his Xbox for twenty hours a day sometimes. Well they don’t actually say because, they say he played Xbox and he died of DVT, but the inference is there to be drawn.

Therefore she wants all Xbox-PlayStations to have a chip that will turn them off for twelve hours after two hours of play. (Strikes me that a games console already has all the necessary hardware for a timed shut-down, but politicians do like “chips”.) Even the Daily Mail didn’t go that far, merely reporting the father’s call for parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing. That is actually good advice. Our failed TD Senator however believes in discipline through technology.

Of course games consoles are only the beginning. If DVT is caused by sitting too long, then anything that causes you to sit too long should logically have a Healy Eames chips in it. Two hours of TV a night should be enough for anyone. Two hours on your work computer, then a twelve hour break. Sounds good to me. And of course there will be Healy Eames cars that will only run for two hours at a time, then drive along beside you while you take a healthy walk.

But of course one might sit for twenty hours doing crossword puzzles. Healy Eames will eventually have to put a chip in the real culprit – your chair. Well less a chip, more a sort of giant spring mechanism.

Can’t you still cheat, by sitting on a box instead of your proper government-approved childsafe anti-sitting chair? For a while maybe. Until she finds out how to put a chip in your arse.

Is The Norris Campaign Finished?

Senator Norris, Here Seen Fondling Some Of My Cartoon Characters
Senator Norris, Here Seen Fondling Some Of My Cartoon Characters

In the early 80’s the Hot Press, Ireland’s leading magazine of politics and rock music, had this to say on the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality:

“Irish people have nothing against Gays. They like him. They think he’s funny.”1

This neatly encapsulated the suppression of Gay culture at that time in Ireland. Senator David Norris was almost the only man in public life – certainly the only one in politics2 – openly declaring his homosexuality and campaigning for his rights. It was greatly due to his perseverance and intelligence – perhaps also, his charm and wit – that homosexual acts were eventually decriminalised.

Things have come a long way since. Up until yesterday, Senator Norris was probably the frontrunner in the race to become Ireland’s next President. Yet now it looks as if his campaign may be over.

It was revealed that in 1997, Norris’s former partner Ezra Yizhak Nawi3, an Israeli human rights activist known for his support of Palestinians, was convicted in Israel of sex with another male below the age of consent. That might not have reflected so badly on the Senator, few after all would hold someone responsible for the crimes of an ex, but he had chosen to write an appeal to the Israeli court (PDF) on behalf of Nawi for clemency.

Compounding the problem, he wrote the appeal on Senate headed paper. This is damaging because it is  reminiscent of other scandals where members of the Oireachtas (parliament) have attempted to interfere in due process on behalf of friends or constituents. It makes him seem exactly what people believed he was not – just another politician. However this may really be more a problem of perception. While a politician making representations to a court or judge in Ireland would rightly be seen as an attempt to exert improper influence, an approach to a foreign court – where no improper influence is possible – is an entirely different matter.

Some have called it an ‘error of judgement’ to speak out on behalf of a convicted paedophile, but that seems to imply that he should have known better because he might want to run for President one day. It was an immensely difficult judgement call; his only other real option was not to try to help a friend and former partner. It may have been the less wise choice, but it was the most selfless one.

And it too is perhaps mainly a problem of perception. It appeared in the context of an earlier attempt to derail his campaign, by opponents who recirculated an interview4 he’d given in 2002, in which he seemed to argue against a hard-and-fast age of consent. He claimed the remarks were taken out of context, and people seemed to generally accept that, but his decision to support someone convicted of statutory rape brings his views back into question. Is it true that he doesn’t see too much wrong with sex between consenting males even if one of them is underage according to local law? Some would see that as a reasoned moral outlook.

I think though that most would reject it as simplistic, and argue instead that there needs to be a ruthlessly strict lower limit on the acceptable age for sexual activity. While it may be unfair on those who reach maturity early – or indeed, on those who reach it late – it seems greatly preferable to the the opportunities for exploitation that ambiguity could allow.

But we don’t know if that is – or was – Senator Norris’s actual belief. Poor or biased reporting may have misrepresented his opinions, he may even have been the victim of homophobia. No doubt what he really believes will come out in the course of the electoral campaign, and some quite profound issues around sex and consent may be debated.

That is, if they are allowed. Unfortunately Ireland’s constitution sets some preconditions on running for the Presidency. To be a candidate, one must have the support either of twenty members of the Oireachtas, or four city or county councils. With this shadow over his reputation it seems unlikely now that he will receive them.

And frankly, it looks like these leaks were timed to have exactly that effect.

  1. This probably isn’t verbatim, I’m quoting from memory.
  2.  So how does a Gay Rights activist get to be a Senator in a generally conservative country? It is a product of the strange way Ireland’s Senate is elected. Without going into great detail here, Senator Norris represents a university – Trinity College Dublin.
  3.  The Wikipedia page linked does not – at time of writing – mention the statutory rape conviction. This appears to be due to partisan editing – pro-Palestinian that is, rather than pro-Norris. See the discussion page. 
  4. Full text of interview available as images: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3.