China has banned almost 7m people from taking flights and high-speed trains over the past four years as a penalty for not repaying their debts, the country’s Supreme Court has announced.

The penalty system is part of efforts to build a nationwide “social credit” system that will eventually rate every Chinese citizen by collecting big data on financial, legal or social misdeeds. The debtors’ travel ban has been touted as an important first step for building the structural links needed to implement such a comprehensive monitoring programme.

“We have signed a memorandum . . . [with over] 44 government departments in order to limit ‘discredited’ people on multiple levels,” Meng Xiang, head of the executive department of the Supreme Court, told state media on Wednesday.

…In addition to not paying debts on time, one can also be blacklisted for lying in court, hiding one’s assets and a host of other crimes. The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it was working on adding new forms of penalties.

Here is the FT story by Yuan Yang.  Keep in mind that the country does not have a real personal bankruptcy law, nor well-developed credit institution penalties, so this is viewed as one of the few options available.

In online communities, antisocial behavior such as trolling disrupts constructive discussion. While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and antisocial minority, we demonstrate that ordinary people can engage in such behavior as well. We propose two primary trigger mechanisms: the individual’s mood, and the surrounding context of a discussion (e.g., exposure to prior trolling behavior). Through an experiment simulating an online discussion, we find that both negative mood and seeing troll posts by others significantly increases the probability of a user trolling, and together double this probability. To support and extend these results, we study how these same mechanisms play out in the wild via a data-driven, longitudinal analysis of a large online news discussion community. This analysis reveals temporal mood effects, and explores long range patterns of repeated exposure to trolling. A predictive model of trolling behavior shows that mood and discussion context together can explain trolling behavior better than an individual’s history of trolling. These results combine to suggest that ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls.

That is from Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Leskovec (pdf), via the never-trolling Kevin Lewis.

Up from Central Square towards Harvard Square is a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue that is mixed residential and commercial, with metered parking. A few weeks ago I needed to stop at the UPS store there and ship a heavy package. There were no free parking spots so I soon found myself cruising up and down along about a 100 meter stretch, waiting for one to open up. The thought occurred to me that if I had had a level 4 or 5 self driving car I could have left it to do that circling, while I dropped into the store.

Such is the root of anti-social behavior.

And more:

(1) People will jump out of their car at a Starbucks to run in and pick up their order knowingly leaving it not in a legal parking spot, perhaps blocking others, but knowing that it will take care of getting out of the way if some other car needs to move or get by. That will be fine in the case there is no such need, but in the case of need it will slow everything down just a little. And perhaps the owner will be able to set the tolerance on how uncomfortable things have to get before the car moves. Expect to see lots of annoyed people. And before long grocery store parking lots, especially in a storm, will just be a sea of cars improperly parked waiting for their owners.

(2) This is one for the two (autonomous) car family. Suppose someone is going to an event in the evening and there is not much parking nearby. And suppose autonomous cars are now always prowling neighborhoods waiting for their owners to summon them, so it takes a while for any particular car to get through the traffic to the pick up location. Then the two car family may resort to a new trick so that they don’t have to wait quite so long as others for their cars to get to the front door pick up at the conclusion of the big social event. They send one of their cars earlier in the day to find the closest parking spot that it can, and it settles in for a long wait. They use their second car to drop them at the event and send it home immediately. When the event is over their first autonomous car is right there waiting for them–the cost to the commons was a parking spot occupied all day by one of their cars.

In sum:

They are seeing the technical possibilities and not seeing the resistance that will come with autonomous agents invading human spaces, be they too rude or overly polite.

That is by Rodney Brooks, the piece has other points of interest, via Tim Harford.

How to prepare for CRISPR

by on January 30, 2017 at 1:07 am in Law, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is an MR reader request, namely:

One issue that it appears we’ll discuss more in the future is genetic experimentation – the sort heralded by CRISPR. How do you suggest we prepare for this technology? What should be reading? Discussing?

Read my book The Age of the Infovore, to better understand the importance of human diversity, and also ponder my earlier post on whether genetic engineering will lead to excess human conformity.  Then investigate what kinds of sperm and eggs are most popular and thus most expensive on the current market; that’s tall, smart people who look a bit like the parents.  That might give us an idea of what kind of genetic engineering people are trying to accomplish.  Then watch or rewatch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  If you still have spare time, dip into the New Testament again.

Then read about extensive Chinese efforts in this area.  Consider also how slow advances have been in genomics, and how difficult manipulability will be for most issues.  Then study Moore’s Law and Big Data.  Then read about how unlikely regulation will be able to stop advances in this area (the biggest intellectual gap in this set of instructions).  Then read or reread Aldous Huxley and any Greek tragedy centering around the idea of hubris.

Mix together, stir, shake, and sit down and cry.

Got an advance copy. Between my non-manual-labor job, Netflix’s excellent recommendations (The OA is so good), and virtue-signaling to my in-group on Twitter, I guess I just wasn’t feeling it.

Besides, if I did read The Complacent Class, I’d have to write a review. The review would introduce readers to a bunch of new and challenging ideas about how Americans are losing the desire to embrace rapid change, and then I would explore some of the unexpected ways our complacency hurts us as a country, possibly challenging the author, or adding to his thesis with my own insights. Oh, people say they want new and challenging ideas, but they don’t. They’re happy with their current ideas, and why should I make anyone unhappy? No one ever considers whether the boat wants to be rocked.

Or is that Cowen’s game? To point out that our lack of urgency and general NIMBY-ism have led to less migration, more segregation, more inequality, dulled creativity, increased conformity, and faded activism, all of which portends a coming unavoidable chaos? What’s he after? Is Cowen trying to jolt us out of our zombie states so we can live in the sci-fi future of no diseases and flying cars and robot monkey butlers we all dreamed about when we were kids? I don’t know, man. Maybe. Anything’s possible, right? I literally didn’t read the book.


Here is the link.  The terms from the previous promotion still hold, you don’t even have to read it.

Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow have a new paper (pdf) on this topic.  I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but here is the bottom line:

… we find: (i) social media was an important but not dominant source of news in the run-up to the election, with 14 percent of Americans calling social media their “most important” source of election news; (ii) of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared eight million times; (iii) the average American saw and remembered 0.92 pro-Trump fake news stories and 0.23 pro-Clinton fake news stories, with just over half of those who recalled seeing fake news stories believing them; (iv) for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.


It’s long been known that the Chinese government hires people to support the government with fabricated posts on social media. In China these people are known as the “50c party”, so called because the posters were rumored to be paid 50 cents (5 jiao or about $.08) to write the posts. The precise nature and extent of the 50c party has heretofore been unknown. But in an amazing new paper, Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret Roberts (KPR) uncover a lot of new information using statistical sleuthing and some unusual and controversial real world sleuthing.

KPR’s data-lever is an archive of leaked emails from the Propaganda Office of Zhanggong. The archive included many 50c posters who were sending links and screenshots of their posts to the central office as evidence of their good work. Using these posts, KPR are able to trace the posters though many social media accounts and discover who the posters are and what they are posting about. Both pieces of information reveal surprises.

First, the posters are government workers paid on salary not, as the 50c phrase suggests, piece-rate workers. Second, and more importantly, it has long been assumed that propaganda posts would support the government with praise or criticize critics of the government. Not so. In fact, propaganda posts actively steer away from controversial issues. Instead, the effort appears to be to distract (especially to distract the people from organizing collective action; thus distraction campaigns peak around times and places where collective action like marches and protests might become focal). KPR write:

Distraction is a clever and useful strategy in information control in that an argument in almost any human discussion is rarely an effective way to put an end to an opposing argument. Letting an argument die, or changing the subject, usually works much better than picking an argument and getting someone’s back up…

Debate is about appealing to an individual’s reason; debate is thus implicitly individualistic, respectful of rights and epistemically egalitarian. (As I argued earlier, respect for the truth is tied to individualism because any person may have truth and reason on their side.) Authoritarians don’t care about these things and so they lie and distract with impunity and without shame. In this case, the distraction is done subtly.

From the initial archive, KPR are able to create a statistical picture of 50c posters. In one of the most remarkable parts of the paper they use this picture to identify many other plausible 50c posters not in the original archive. Then KPR test their identification with a kind of academic catfish–essentially they trick the 50c posters into self-identifying. It’s at this point that KPR’s paper begins to read more like the description of a CIA op than a standard academic paper.

We began by creating a large number of pseudonymous social media accounts. This required many research assistants and volunteers, having a presence on the ground in China at many locations across the country, among many other logistically challenging complications. We conducted the survey via “direct messaging” on Sina Weibo, which enables private communication from one account to another. With IRB permission, we do not identify ourselves as researchers and instead pose, like our respondents, as ordinary citizens.

Using their own fake accounts, KPR directly message people they think are 50c posters with a message along the lines of:

I saw your comment, it’s really inspiring, I want to ask, do you have any public opinion guidance management, or online commenting experience?

The question is phrased in a positive way and it uses the official term “public opinion guidance” rather than the 50c term which has a negative connotation. Amazingly, 59% of the people KPR identify as 50c posters answer yes, essentially outing themselves.

KPRNow, one might wonder whether such a question has evidentiary value but KPR do a clever validation exercise. First, they ask the same question to people from the original leaked archive, people whom KPR know are actual 50c posters. Second, they ask the same question of people who are very unlikely to be 50c posters. The result is that 57% of the known 50c posters answer the question, yes. Almost exactly the same percentage (59%) as in the predicted 50c sample. At the same time, only 19% of the posters known not to be 50c answer yes (that doesn’t mean that 19% are 50c but rather that 19% is a measure of the noise created by asking the question in a subtle way). What’s important is that the large 40 point difference gives good statistical grounds for validating the predicted 50c sample.

Using this kind of analysis and careful, documented, extrapolation, KPR:

…find a massive government effort, where every year the 50c party writes approximately 448 million social media posts nationwide. About 52.7% of these posts appear on government sites. The remaining 212 million posts are inserted into the stream of approximately 80 billion total posts on commercial social media sites, all in real time. If these estimates are correct, a large proportion of government web site comments, and about one of every 178 social media posts on commercial sites, are fabricated by the government. The posts are not randomly distributed but, as we show in Figure 2, are highly focused and directed, all with specific intent and content.

As if this weren’t enough, an early version of KPR’s paper leaked and when the Chinese government responded, KPR became part of the story that they had meant to observe. The government’s response is now in turn used in this paper to verify some of KPR’s arguments. Very meta.

It took courage to write this paper. I do not think any of the authors will be traveling to China any time soon.

Washington Post: The cyberattack struck Los Angeles Valley College late last month, disrupting email, voice mail and computer systems at the public community college in Southern California. Then, school officials found a ransom note.

The missive advised the college that its electronic files had been encrypted and that the files could only be unlocked with a “private key.” The attackers would supply the key after receiving payment in the valuable digital currency known as bitcoin, which can be used anonymously without a centralized bank.

“You have just 7 days to send us the BitCoin after 7 days we will remove your private keys and it’s impossible to recover your files,” the attackers warned, according to a copy of the note obtained by The Washington Post.

Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to pay the ransom.

The college paid $28,000 and the files were restored.

ArsTechnica: According to the FBI, ransomware payouts in the United States jumped from $25 million in all of 2015 to over $209 million in just the first quarter of 2016.

Clearly, this is just the beginning.

It works like this. Your 15-minute voice recording is analysed digitally — tone of voice, choice of words, sentence structure — to determine personality traits such as openness to change, enthusiasm, empathy. In a fraction of a second, a software program sums up your character. Charts and diagrams reveal how friendly, status-driven or well organised you are — compared to the recruiter’s ideal profile.

“There is no person in the world who would be able to analyse so many aspects of personality, skills and speech in just 15 minutes,” says Mario Reis, co-founder of Precire Technologies in Aachen, Germany. Their speech analysis tools are used by human resources giant Randstad, transport firm Fraport and vehicle insurance service provider Control€xpert, Reis says.

How about attaching a file analysis to your Tinder profile, or refusing to contact those who do not?  Here is the BBC story, via Michelle Dawson.

Here is what I wrote in 2007, when Prospect magazine asked me to name the most underrated cultural development of the year:

The iPhone. The world really did change…We now have handheld personal computers and personal entertainment centres, yet they are no larger than a thin pack of cards. And no, I’m not a techie, a gadget freak or an Apple lover. The device itself is beautiful as well.

And here was my “overrated” answer:

Overrated: Hollywood movies. US ticket sales recovered this year, but to what end? This was a year for microculture, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The bigger visual productions of the year won’t much stand the test of time. On the bright side, television drama continues to rise in quality.

I am pleased to have bought an iPhone on the first day, I felt at the time it was like seeing the premiere of a Mozart opera.  Many people laughed at me for suggesting such an analogy, and they chided me for my infatuation with such a toy.  I recall Alex walking into my office, asking me what I thought, and I told him the product really did deliver what it promised and that it would change the world.

The funny thing is, I hardly use my iPhone anymore, much preferring the larger iPad.  I haven’t even bothered to order one of the larger iPhones, as for me it isn’t large enough and I marvel that others can use it as much as they do.  In other words, now that I have experience using the product my forecast, if I were to make one historically “blind,” but with that accumulated personal experience in pocket, would be far less accurate than what I said at the time.

A Candle That Gives Off The Scent Of Freshly Unboxed Apple Products

It is 100% soy wax, in case you are wondering.

The pointer is from Ted Gioia.

…as pricing systems become ever more autonomous, aspiring monopolists like Mr Topkins eventually will not even need to speak to their competitors to fix prices. Computers will do the colluding for them, either by using the same algorithm or learning from their interactions with other machines — all without leaving behind trails of incriminating emails or voicemails.

“Finding ways to prevent collusion between self-learning algorithms might be one of the biggest challenges that competition law enforcers have ever faced,” said a recent paper by the OECD, the Paris-based club of mostly rich nations.

These digital tools automatically calculate prices based on instantaneous assessments of supply and demand and a seller’s own instructions, such as specific profit or price targets.

…It [the OECD] added: “Particularly in the case of artificial intelligence, there is no legal basis to attribute liability to a computer engineer for having programmed a machine that eventually ‘self-learned’ to co-ordinate prices with other machines.”

That is from David J. Lynch at the FT.  Will this prove more or less stable than traditional, human-based collusion?  Here are comments from Henry.  Can the bots send buyers “we are breaking the collusion now” alerts?  Will monitoring third party bots perform that function?  Or will collusion reign supreme?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the last bit:

I don’t mean to say that technological stagnation is a good thing. But sometimes the biggest advances lead to more tragedy than comfort, especially in the short run, before we learn how to adjust to their challenges. To paraphrase Peter Thiel, they promised us flying cars, and what we got was a bunch of stoned characters, and more than 140 of them. Beware the end of the productivity slowdown.

Do read the whole thing.

Two employees at the East Lake County Library created a fictional patron called Chuck Finley — entering fake driver’s license and address details into the library system — and then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library’s patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.

Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended for his role in the episode; he said that he was trying to game the algorithm because he knew that these books would come back into vogue and that his library would have to spend extra money re-purchasing them later. He said that other libraries were doing the same thing.

Data falsification will be one of the biggest stories of the next five years.  That is from BoingBoing, via Ted Gioia.

China WeChat fact of the day

by on January 6, 2017 at 3:00 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

WeChat’s ability to create a bustling payments economy echoes the general success of its parent company. In September, Tencent became China’s largest company by value, surpassing state-owned China Mobile, when it reported its third-quarter revenue: $6 billion, up 52% year over year. How much of that can be attributed to Wallet and WePay was not specified: WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, makes money largely from online gaming, advertising, and selling sticker packs. But Tencent—which began with the instant messaging app QQ and is now pursuing artificial intelligence and electric cars alongside investments in a range of companies, including China’s dominant ride-sharing operation, Didi Chuxing—did cite WePay as a major reason for its “other” businesses’ growth, which increased $726 million in the third quarter, or 348% over the same period last year. According to estimates by HSBC, based on current tech company valuations, WeChat could already be worth more than $80 billion, about half of Tencent’s market capitalization.

That is from Eveline Chao at Fast Company, and for the pointer I thank Dan Wang.  The article offers other points of interest.