Data Gotham 2013 Videos

An interesting discussion on the ethics of data collection and its intersection with privacy. A bit heady but worth a listen.

Data Science 101

In case you do not live in New York City or you did not attend Data Gotham, do not worry because nearly all the videos and talks are posted on the Data Gotham 2013 Youtube page.

Below is a panel discussion on data and privacy.

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Reason.com Details the World of Vinyl Junkies

Reason.com has a great article up today about a niche community very close to my heart: vinyl collectors. One passage in particular caught my eye:

Hynes started uploading his videos both to promote his merchandise and to spare his fragile old records from being overplayed. “I often rescue records out of garages and basements,” he says, “clean them up, make a video, put the record in a storage sleeve and only watch the video when I want to hear the song.” Thanks to YouTube, anyone else with an Internet connection can listen too. Channels such as Hynes’ let viewers hear and see music being played in its original format, and sometimes they offer access to music available nowhere else.

I actually got a chance to explore Hyne’s youtube channel dedicated to playing rare Vinyls (it can be found here) . Listening to digital videos of vinyls actually has a sort of strange appeal (sort of a combination pandora.com and antique roadshow). I found myself leaving it on as background music for at least an hour.

There is a sense in which watching a youtube video of someone playing an old record is the most post-modern way to experience music ever conceived. It reminds me of listening to a podcast Prairie Home Companion and still feeling like a radio audience in 1940s America

Listening to live or analog music (even translated several times through corrupting mediums) gives one a sense that something is happening rather than just being recalled. Probably one of the main reason people still listen to records or, for that matter, Garrison Keillor.

Blogging Orthodoxy : Gilbert’s Mania

A small book group discussing G.K. Chesterton’s magnum opus Orthodoxy is on at Northern Seattle’s Newman center. This week the group read the first two chapters: “In Defense of Everything Else”  and “The Maniac”. Though I could write any amount of words on either of these two chapters,  it was interesting to hear others’ thoughts who were reading it for the first time. Their insight was very different from my own. I never expected to be reading Orthodoxy with people more Catholic than myself; and reactions, both positive and negative, were quite different from those I’ve heard from more secular people.

“Chapter 1 : In Defense of Everything” 

In his introductory chapter Chesterton goes through what he hopes to accomplish over the course of Orthodoxy. But instead, I believe he succeeds in establishing himself as the greatest master of the humble-brag in human history. As per his usual fashion, Chesterton starts by deriding his book as a feeble and boring attempt at auto-biography ( even going so far as to call himself a fool for feeling the need to write it). By the end of the chapter, however, he claims to  have discovered the eternal font of human vitality, purpose, and truth.

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton

But beyond Chesterton’s impetuous temperament, the chapter does manage to communicate the book’s primary purpose, namely, to defend Christianity and to defend it in a very particular way.There have been many level-headed defenses of Christianity as the end point of logical deduction, but Chesterton instead wishes to motivate his faith by a desire for romance. Characteristically, Chesterton defines romance as the paradox of simultaneously feeling both at home with the world and at war with the world. It is this feeling Chesterton associates with his own return to the Catholic church, and it is this feeling that Chesterton claims is essential for a lively and engaged attitude towards existence.

The introductory chapter received a fair amount of criticism from the reading group. The concept of romance was found by many to be wanting. I know when I have discussed this book with others, more secular, the main objection to Chesterton’s romance is that it seems anti-empirical and esoteric ( How can one develop a practical understanding of the Universe with some kind of Manichean world-view that assigns values to every blade of grass ?). The majority of objections from the Newman group, however, seemed quite the opposite. Here, the main objection was that Chesterton was attempting to justify eternal truths through worldly ends. Many believed that Chesterton was building the foundation of faith on an un-rational bed of a sand that would lead to inexorably to moral relativism. Others simply felt that romance itself was a shoddy and materialist thing that could not, in itself, point to transcendent truths.

I find these objections worthwhile. A desire for romance is a poor justification for faith, since any single thing is a poor justification for faith. A spiritual belief must be greater than the sum of any one explanation or, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be a true spiritual belief. For this reason, reading a work of philosophy, theology, or apologia always has a sense of pantomime to it. We are going through the motions of trying to communicate in a medium that everyone acknowledges is insufficient to the task at hand. Nonetheless, I think Chesterton is purposefully challenging readers of all persuasions. If a romantic justification of a world view is wrong, could there be something wrong in a merely rational justification of a world view? Chesterton is only too happy to explore this topic in his next chapter.

“Chapter 2 : The Maniac”

I think everyone who has ever read Orthodoxy balks at Chesterton’s second chapter: “The Maniac”. Here, with the utmost bravado (is their a Catholic equivalent of Chutzpah? ), Chesterton launches a frontal assault on the very concept of rationalism and individual self-worth. One can hardly fault Gilbert for mincing words. In the first 10 pages of his book he identifies self-confidence as madness, and rationalism as the root of all insanity. The two great idols of our age smashed in an instant. Why even read further?

Admittedly, in this chapter Chesterton is trying to justify a theological approach by substituting insanity ( a universally acknowledged evil) for sin. Nevertheless, one could hardly come up with a more provocative presentation  than “The Maniac”. Are all people “who believe in themselves” only a step or two away from believing they are Napoleon ? Are mathematicians on the highway to insanity? Chesterton goes through one blood-boiling assertion after another. In fact, if you read through this chapter without feeling the need to strangle the author, I think you too might be on the way to an insane asylum yourself (or failing that, perhaps Sainthood).

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Kurt Godel

Needless to say, the group had many objections to the chapter, this time none too different from the standard secular complaints. Although many neo-atheists claim religionists are anti-rational, Catholics have traditionally associated their belief with a Cartesian knowledge of rational/natural law. Many modern Catholics even see rationalism as the primary portal to understanding the divine. I could sense there were many Thomists in the group who were having none of Chesterton’s anti-rationalist sophistry. We will have to see in later installments whether Chesterton can dig himself out of his rhetorical hole; but for the time being,  I’m happy that Chesterton has unsettled everyone’s very modernist assumptions. Gilbert may be guilty of sophistry, but he is never boring.

But reactions aside, is it true that mere logic and rationalism lead to insanity? Ignoring the obvious reductio ad absurdum, I think there is at least some truth to Chesterton’s claim. I can’t help but remember  my favorite insane mathematician, Kurt Godel, who’s Incompleteness Theorem (ironically enough) ended the ambitions of rationalists like Bertrand Russell to establish a complete logical basis for all truth. It is in fact true that, before Godel, many mathematicians who tried to stretch the boundaries of logic did go mad; therefore, I can’t help but credit Chesterton for being prophetic. As Godel showed in mathematics,  an all-encompassing explanation of truth will in fact lead to untruth (if it is complete, it cannot be consistent). So perhaps a fanatical pursuit of an all-encompassing explanation of life does lead to insanity.

This leads me back to my earlier statement that our most fundamental beliefs must transcend their own explanations. People may come to the truth through many different means and I think acknowledging that fact is an important part of being a sane person in the modern world. We must forgive people like Gilbert Keith Chesterton who use bizarre and byzantine ways of justifying their religious world views, because, in all truth,  the justifications for our own world views are probably just as bizarre objectively. Explanations and justifications are always unworthy of the truth they describe; and If “The Maniac” can help us realize that paradox, I think Chesterton has accomplished his task.

Open-Source Software as a Distributist Community

black and white tux

Tux the symbol of Linux

On a 1GB thumb-drive hanging from a chord around my hat rack lies the remnants of an obsession that thoroughly occupied my mind in the years between 2001 and 2004: the cult of open-source software. Though I left the world of Linux almost a decade ago and hardly looked back since, the recent indignities and intrusions orchestrated by private companies trusted with personal data has me looking back towards the idealistic world of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman with all the nostalgia of a Charles Foster Kane looking into his shattered snow globe.

For those not familiar. free and open-source software (of which GNU, Linux, and BSD fall under) is a category of computer applications whose distribution and release are completely open to the public without charge or legal requirements. For a moment in the late 90s and early 2000s the world of open-source software (under the banner of Linux) exploded and seemed on the verge of pushing back against the uniformity of Microsoft and other corporate software giants. At this time, enthusiasts (especially those found in my computer-science oriented clique) looked at the open-source world not only as an alternative to Microsoft, but as an idealistic crusade against the constrained nature of closed-source programming. According to the open-source movement,  software development should be returned to the people, users should be the ultimate owners of their devices and software, and anyone should be able to take existing code and modify it for their own ends.

Despite the open-source movement’s more lefty overtone, even my, uber-libertarian adolescent self was drawn to the idealist nature of the movement due the romantic notion that one could, and should, own one’s own software. At this point, the internet was still young, and large software companies were just starting to realize the utility of covertly inserting themselves in between the user and the machines used to connect people with the outside world. To me this seemed like the ultimate violation of the producer/customer relationship. I had paid for my computer ( and even the operating system), so why was Microsoft constantly telling me what I could and couldn’t do with it. It was just like G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that the most fundamental property right is that of a workman to own his own tools. In those days, I believed that I was a craftsman and I didn’t want Microsoft telling how I could hold my hammer.

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Crusaders for an open-source community

I think it was this emotion (more than the commonly repeated anti-corporatism) that gave the open-source movement its appeal. By being a user of Linux, one was accepting a dual role, first as a community member and then later as a craftsman or protector. In fact, my experience with the open-source world was very much like the semi-feudal communities described by Chesterton and Belloc. The open-source community had its knights who helped neophytes navigate the task of installing and maintaining software, its craftsmen who forged new open source projects, and its priests who advocated for continued use of open-source software and legally challenged abusive IP laws. The community even had an explicit moral code. Creators were expected to leave their work open (even if they were earning profits from the initial sale of the software) so that future generations could use their ideas to enhance the open source community generally. Conversely users were expected to employ the open source alternative when one existed. At the core of this moral community, just as in Distributism, there was a concept of property. People owned their software, and therefore owned the means by which they expressed themselves digitally. Their role and obligations in the open-source community stemmed from this central premise.

I suppose I don’t need to elaborate on why open-source software was ultimately unsuccessful at taking the computer world by storm. In a word, corporate software was able to fix its problems faster than open-source software was able to address its own. In the early 2000s  Microsoft was largely able to fix its stability issues and cutback on the intrusiveness of it’s software interface (goodbye Clippy). Moreover, new and fast moving innovations in hardware became the order of the day; while the same time, large software suites became essential to functioning in most academic or corporate environments. This spelled doom for the expansion of the open-source community that could never properly address compatibility issues with corporate hardware and software that refused to acknowledge its existence.

I remember finally making the decision to leave the open-source community for Windows after the 30th time I was unable to share my open-source office documents with collaborators who were using the much more popular Microsoft Office suite. The idealism and moral community of the open-source world just wasn’t worth the additional hours spent trying to figure out how to cope with either the Linux/Windows  compatibility issues or the absence of the more popular pieces of modern software. The point of a computer is to save time, at the end of the day, if software is costing you time, it’s really hard to justify its continued use. So, after almost 4 years of trying to incorporate Linux into my life, i de-installed the software, saved the remaining distribution image to an unused thumb drive, and never looked back.

Still, I am not sure that I didn’t sacrifice my ideals for convenience. I continue to believe very firmly that people have the right to own their own software tools and personal data; and (as should be all too obvious from recent events) the continued use of closed software seriously calls digital privacy and person data-ownership into question.  By abandoning open-source software, have I fundamentally conceded that the ideals of data-ownership aren’t worth the loss of convenience? My conundrum was expressed perfectly in an xkcd comic published several years back:

True words.

If people can’t make minor sacrifices of convenience for their ideals, then they really have no right to complain when those ideals are lost to the world. But before we let the open-source purists have their well-earned trip to “I-told-you-so” land, I think a few caveats need to be mentioned.

Fundamentally, I don’t think the open-source community was ever honest about their products. The open-source leaders constantly claimed their software was more convenient and more powerful than the corporate alternatives and suggested that the only reason people continued to use Apple and Microsoft was path-dependence. All of these claims were (and still are) manifestly false to anyone who has ever used both Linux and Windows. Open source applications are much slower, plagued by old bugs rarely seen in their corporate counterparts, and are at least three years behind mainstream software in terms of their user interface. That’s not to say that there are not also open source innovations, but the claim of superiority on the part of the open-source world is laughable

To be honest, the open source community should have admitted their deficiencies and re-emphasized the moral and community case for their product. The desire to assert privacy and ownership over digital data was, in my opinion, the only reason why anyone ever wanted to use open source software in the first place. Emphasizing this reason over others would have allowed the community to come clean about the sacrifices users would need to make in order to use their product.

So, would this have worked? Perhaps, Perhaps not. In order to ask for sacrifices, a community must have a moral claim people consider paramount, or otherwise, be so tightly-knit as to motivate a sacrifice even when a moral-imperative is not clear. I don’t think modern people consider data-ownership to be a paramount value, and I know  the open-source community isn’t tightly-knit enough to lead the public to a new moral truth. People may be willing to arbitrarily fast or forego certain foods because their fellow religious congregants believe God commands it. But asking people to use slow and unsharable software so that developers on the other side of the country feel free from Microsoft? That’s a stretch.

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Discipline of conviction

I have often imagined that the true destiny of open-source software is to become essential to an existing moral community much the same way literacy became essential to Medieval monastic communities when society writ-large saw the value of preserving books as not worth the cost. People may not be willing to forego the easy options when they are alone; but when everyone in a church, synagogue, rotary club, or private school begins using open-source software not only does the cost-of-entry go down, the moral benefit of proclaiming yourself in favor of the principle becomes realizable.

Still, this suggestion is a shot in the dark. As much as I like to imagine monks in a scriptorium typing out lines of Linux Kernel or Orthodox Jews being required to use only GNU products, I am not expecting older and more established moral and cultural communities to make open-data a core concept in their ministry anytime soon. So until then, I suppose I’ll be listening to the open-source purists play the saddest open-source song on the world’s tiniest open-source violin. Who knows, perhaps they might find it in their hearts to let an apostate play a lick or two.

Fall Reading List 2013 : Datamining and Distributism

It looks like my local Catholic community has set its reading list for Fall 2013 and sure enough it’s non-other than Chesterton’s masterpiece: Orthodoxy. I have read this book at least three times and it continues to surprise me on each re-reading. Getting the chance to hear others opinions on it will be a singular treat.

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orthodoxy

This dovetails nicely with my academic reading list emphasizing data-mining (this quarter will be Machine Learning a Probablistics Perspective). Considering the not entirely coincidental overlap with the subject matter of this blog, I will most likely be writing about both texts and subjects over the course of the next few months (though likely more observations about Orthodoxy since I have no desire to fill this blog with extended discourses on mathematical methods)

I am particularly looking forward to blogging about the group reaction to Orthodoxy. Considering my strong opinions about Chesterton’s work it will be a great opportunity to see if neophytes have similar reactions. Who knows, perhaps the Data Distributist might serve as an online forum so that others, not in Seattle , can participate in our discussion.

South Park pushes back against the paranoid

It looks like South Park finally weighed in on the NSA scandal during last Wednesdays show. True to form, Parker and Stone take the cool-headed approach to government spying and point to the central overlooked fact about human-based surveillance : it is completely intractable.

Cartman

Even though I spent last week’s post arguing against complacency to surveillance in an age where computers are rapidly taking over for humans,  I think Parker and Stone’s point is well taken. It is worth remembering that, in contemporary times at least, surveillance is still a human driven activity and we shouldn’t expect to see vast data-mining systems wrapping their coils around our personal lives.  Paranoids conspiracy theories are enemy of concerned citizens and the last thing we need is another Dylan Averary or Alex Jones intruding on a serious effort to understand the bounds of privacy in the modern era.

Still, given recent events, one might  wonder if the broken watch that is the conspiracy community isn’t also right twice a day……