The problem of unconscious bias
To be charitable to Boris Johnson, and why not?, the horrible, horrible Moaning re-twerk in The Sunday Times of an article he wrote just two days before he declared for the Leave camp, apparently rejected for publication, advocating that Britain should remain in the EU, is a ‘so what?’ moment.
Have I ever tried to deceive you, gentle Spammers, Likers, Followers and Those No Longer Reading This, Muh Bogl, about the true intentions of the Leave tendency? That the referendum had less to do with Europe than with the political ambitions of a small but determined bunch of neo-Thatcherite crazies? Did I ever try to persuade you that Mr Johnson was an honourable man – like jolly old Brutus?
I don’t think so.
And what is his response? After consulting Donald Trump’s special explanations unit, Mr Johnson replies that he was just batting around some different ideas in his customary quasi-satirical vein before finally making up the golden glow that passes for his Classically trained mind.
I understand the Daily Telegraph was paying £29,000 a month to Mr Johnson to work through a few unpublishable ideas for them once a week. It’s enough to turn anyone’s gloriously straw-textured head.
Elsewhere in Brexitville, I’ve had two annoyingly sarcastic earworms buzzing around my elderly brain all morning: The Bachelors’ ‘Bremoaner – They’re wringing-out our song of love’; and the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Breleaver – I couldn’t leave her if I tried.’
I’m also trying to imagine what happens to the global economy if the Dumbfucks prevail, and we wake up on 9 November to a Trump presidency, with Hillary eating minge for 20 years in Sing-sing?
The minor perturbation in the Earth’s orbit caused by Brexit might look more like the proverbial North Korean nuclear test in that event.
What happens when, in the wake of a rash plebiscite, one currency, let’s call it the Pound, slides dramatically in world markets to a historic 180-year low against another currency, we’ll call it the Dollar; only for the Dollar in turn to slide dramatically to a historic, 180-year low against all the other currencies?
I’ve only got Economics A-level, guys, I don’t know. But I’ve instructed my broker to switch my entire offshore Trust out of Panama into the Azerbaijani Manat.
Best be on the safe side.
Tick where applicable
This questionnaire culture is getting out of hand.
Agree strongly… Agree a bit… Can’t agree… Total rubbish!
A company in the USA, where else, Compas has developed a secret algorithm that uses a ten-point questionnaire to decide instead of a judge, how long ya goin down for. It’s being adopted, it seems, particularly by state jurisdictions that have been subject to criticism in the past for alleged biases in sentencing.
The idea is that answers to questions like: How law-abiding/generally black are you and what further risk do you represent to America? can be used to decide the most appropriate sentences in any criminal case.
Because Compas refuses to release details of how the computer makes its decisions, based on the standard questionnaire, this approach has led to accusations of hidden bias. For instance, ‘how many people in your family have ever been arrested?’ could well bias for race, as black people are seven times more likely to be arrested in parts of the country as whites or hispanics.
And because no-one can argue with a computer, the sentences it prescribes cannot be appealed. (I seem to remember at one time Americans developed a naive enthusiasm for ‘scientifically unshakeable’ lie-detector tests, that have subsequently been utterly discredited.)
Personally, I regard all forms of standardisation of all forms of judgements in all situations, depending on responses to a set list of questions, as manifestations of the modern tendency to monumental, self-regarding stupidity.
As we lose faith in our established institutions, so a kind of mumbo-jumbo ‘expert systems’ mentality is taking over, that leads to such idiocies as the belief being hawked around the police forces of the world by ‘Dr’ Joe Sullivan of Texas, that you can identify paedophiles by the sort of clothes they wear. We are voluntarily surrendering our hegemony to robots, way in advance of their capacity to out-think us.
Would any sane society base its immigration policy on a reader poll in the Daily Mail? Could answers to a questionnaire in Cosmopolitan determine the outcome of a rape trial? Would you instantly abandon 43 years of complex treaty obligations to other countries on the basis of an in-out popular referendum (don’t answer that…)?
In a moment of wild enthusiasm – I’m addicted to filling-in forms – I signed up to a website promising me money and goodies if I was happy to answer a few questions every so often about my consumer preferences. It seemed harmless enough and, identifying as a retired person with time on my hands, a way of passing it.
It was only after ploughing my way through many pages of preliminary questions about my age, income group and awareness of different TV distribution channels that I began to realise I am no longer a member of the human race. Nine times out of ten, the algorithm was deciding that I’m not a fit person to be consulted on any matters of opinion concerning modern media, and closing me down.
Not only were the questionnaires all biased in favour of a subject I know or care little about – something that was not vouchsafed to me at the beginning – but they were biased against me on sociological criteria, without telling me which questions I had ‘got wrong’. I do have an opinion, but it was not apparently the ‘right’ opinion.
That hasn’t stopped the promoters from emailing me twenty times a day to ask with tender concern if perhaps I am not completing enough questionnaires because I fear I may not earn enough money if I do? The automatic bias here being that most people are only interested in money.
Frustratingly, the questioner has not thought to ask if I am not completing questionnaires because the fucking algorithms won’t let me? That’s simply an answer you can’t give.
Many of us will be familiar with the banking sector’s ‘security questions’ nightmare, a Catch-22 of simply cretinous proportions, where you cannot be told which question you got wrong because you got one of the questions wrong. (I should know the date of my own birthday, but apparently the computer knew different.)
Another point of extreme annoyance with online questionnaires, that you choose to complete out of the goodness of your heart, is the compulsory follow-up question you can’t answer, because you have previously given the answer ‘None’. This generally arises when you have wasted the previous ten minutes answering inane questions about social media to the best of your ability.
Then, of course, there are those ‘please review our performance so we can improve our service’ questionnaires that appear to have been compiled by the client browbeating the PR agency into biassing the questions so that it’s impossible for the customer to breathe a word of criticism.
And the ones with the dropdown menus that don’t give you a ‘don’t know’ or ‘other’ option; the ones with a menu of places that doesn’t list the place where you actually are… that haven’t heard your administrative county changed its name thirty years ago…. The one that spat out my address as ‘gibberish’ because it’s got Welsh words in it (‘We’re sorry if you feel you were discriminated against…’).
There’s also the problem of self-incrimination, a form of bias that comes from a hidden desire – inculcated in schools from an early age – to please the question-setter. I scored very highly in the online Baron-Cohen: ‘Where are you on the autism spectrum?’ test, principally because I felt a profound obligation to identify as autistic in sympathy with other, rather odd, people like myself.
Often the questions appear so tendentious that the intention behind them is clear; although you may find they’ve done that deliberately to fool you. The exercise then becomes a game, not exactly what you want when your answers could get you thirty years in Leavenworth.
Humans construct algorithms, so the obvious question to Compas is, for how many decades or centuries does your programmer think people should be vengefully caged-up in a brutal correctional facility for stealing food when they’re starving, or for hacking the Pentagon for fun from their bedroom in North London?
Was your question-setter just batting around some different ideas in his customary quasi-satirical vein?
Let’s just admit it
“The death of a baby boy mauled by a family dog is “unlikely” to be treated as a criminal investigation, police said. Archie Darby, aged four months, died after being attacked in Colchester, Essex, on Thursday afternoon. The owner of the dog – the children’s aunt – has been named as a serving police officer … 31-year-old PC Clare Ferdinand.” – BBC News
As a dog owner, the thought of my gentle and lovely Hunzi mauling a baby to death and maiming his brother for life is not one I can readily contemplate. But it’s not a risk I would ever take, to leave a baby alone with a dog in the room – any dog.
Hunzi is a Border collie. He was given to me by a farmer who couldn’t persuade him to herd sheep. Bless. The farmer would otherwise have had him killed, but I have never regretted saying okay, why not? The dog in the report is – or perhaps by now was – a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. I like Staffies a lot, but the clue’s in the name. They were bred for baiting bulls for sport. Bulls are very large and dangerous 1800-lb animals armed with hoofs and horns and general meanness.
Staffies are not on the banned Dangerous Dogs list but their cousins, the pitbulls, are. I’m not one who believes certain breeds are more likely to attack a human than others, it depends on their training – but also on their breed temperament and their physical capacity to inflict devastating injury. The ‘2nd Amendment’ NRA argument, that it’s people who kill, not guns, should not be allowed to cloud the fact that every year in Britain, dog attacks are on the increase as dogs bred for fighting have become more popular – both as status symbols and as weapons of defence.
And as ‘family pets’….
Many people trust their dogs to care for their children, possibly influenced by Nana, the nursemaid golden retriever of Peter Pan fame, I don’t know. According to the expat website UKandSpain, “Each year, approximately 28,000 facial dog bites are reported in the UK, with just over 19,000 of them requiring serious plastic surgery.”
And each year too, a number of people – I can’t find out exactly how many but it’s probably about a dozen – go to jail for keeping a dangerous dog after it has killed a child, or even a vulnerable adult.
So there’s another, wider issue lurking here, isn’t there.
“There were 718 cases brought against dog owners or handlers in magistrate courts from June to December last year, compared with 444 during the previous six months (up by 62% over the previous year). Over the same period, the number of successful prosecutions increased by 71 per cent, with lawyers securing 553 convictions compared with 325.” – Mail Online, June 2015
In other words, if your dog attacks someone, resulting in death or serious injury, you’re almost certain to face prosecution. I wonder, how many of those 718 dog owners coincidentally weren’t serving police officers?
And that’s my point.
The more newspapers like the Daily Mail like to talk-up the terrifying increase in danger on our streets (not borne out by any statistics) from immigrants, Muslims, terrorists, schizophrenics, feral clowns and other people who would have been safely locked up if Social Workers were only doing their job, the more they have to try to persuade us concomitantly to acknowledge the special role in society played by the security forces; whose casualties are infinitesimal compared with those of ordinary citizens.
Perhaps that’s what makes them a special case.
I’ve blogged before about the inequitable difference in treatment between the minuscule number of cases where police officers have died while trying to apprehend car criminals, resulting in a murder charge; and the much larger number where car criminals (and innocent passers-by) have died while being pursued by police and no charges have resulted.
There is currently a campaign in the tabloid press to have the law changed relating to serving members of the armed forces, so that they cannot under any circumstances be investigated for possible breaches of the Geneva Conventions and international laws against war crimes, to which Britain is a longtime signatory. It has been reported, possibly accurately, that Theresa May is considering the idea seriously.
“An SAS hero is facing murder charges after the Ministry of Defence launched an investigation into his ‘mercy killing’ of Iraqi soldiers 13 years ago. Sergeant Colin McLachlan, who starred in the Channel 4 series Who Dares Wins, could be jailed…”
This front-page lead story in the Mail on Sunday (16 October) was headlined: ‘Despicable betrayal of an SAS hero’. It reveals a curious attitude to the potential commission of war crimes, and a bundle of fairly awful prejudices growing out of the popular resurgence of British exceptionalism.
Sgt McLachlan had recently admitted in a book to the ‘mercy killing’ of wounded enemy combatants, but without reading the details the newspaper story makes a number of completely unwarranted assumptions, principally that he ‘faces murder charges’ when he has not been charged at all; while refusing to consider that what he himself claims he did is, in law both international and British military, a criminal offence; and it is the statutory duty of the MoD to investigate.
It’s an appalling piece of journalism; in fact, not journalism at all, but a travesty: egregious propaganda. A TV show, a book… Sgt McLachlan seems to want to make the most of that ‘hero’ tag. He may indeed have performed heroically, we shall never know as SAS operations are official secrets and anything written in popular books by ex-SAS men is therefore thinly disguised fiction, that has to be cleared by the war office.
Lock ’em up!
A Storyville documentary aired on BBC 4 TV last night featured a lengthy interview with Moazzem Begg, one of four British Guantanamo detainees released without charge in 2012.
Begg is an elusive character. Apparently just an ordinary citizen, yet wherever there’s trouble anywhere in the world involving Muslim insurgents he keeps popping up in the role of concerned ‘witness’, and finds himself being arrested – or sometimes kidnapped in the middle of the night and rendered to places you, I and the editor of the Mail on Sunday would probably rather not go.
Yet there’s no evidence whatever of his involvement with Islamic terrorism, which he insists he does not support. He has only ever once been charged in a court of law (with helping to supply a generator to a Syrian medical charity – maximum sentence 15 years), and was acquitted only after spending seven months in Belmarsh, our own special detention centre for top-security terror suspects – many of whom under the Blair regime were detained indefinitely without trial. He is not in any sense a ‘radical preacher’, that demon of popular headlines; nor any sort of agitator, as far as we can see. An intelligent man, he avoids hate speech; indeed, he seems to harbour no ill-will. It’s hard to say what he is, other than a voice of conscience.
Regardless of what motivates him – and he appears sincere in his claim to want to persuade fellow Muslims to rise above the violence – when it comes to the hysterical, near insane behaviour of US and British forces towards Muslim detainees snatched off the streets seemingly at random, institutionalised bullying to the nth degree, his testimony is shocking in the extreme; and entirely believable.
Begg’s refusal to act as an MI5 informer also ensures that his family life has been dogged by police and anonymised security agents, one of whom – ‘Andrew’ – crops up everywhere he goes like a waking nightmare, even in the illicit interrogation rooms of the CIA.
Perhaps it’s time we just give up the rule of law altogether, and admit that ‘there’s one law for them, another for the rest of us’.
There’s a war on, you know! (Several, actually. Nothing to do with me.)
Two consecutive headlines on the BBC News website today:
‘Why the battle for breakfast is hotting up’
‘Battle to retake Mosul from IS begins’
The first battle, as you would expect, is higher up the Views list, concerned as it is with our trendy cafes replacing egg-and-sausage with foreign granola, as opposed to worrying about the actual slaughter of women, children and doctors on what promises to be a grand scale.
It’s nice to know we British, who helped to create the fuck-up in Iraq, have got our priorities straight.
Food and its preparation seems to have become the number one obsession of the British middle class; almost akin to a new religion, the food cult dominates the colour sections of the weekend media. Millions are glued to TV shows celebrating culinary mastery and excess.
Salutary to think, therefore, of the fourfold increase in reported cases of malnutrition and associated medical conditions, the existence of ‘breakfast clubs’ for hungry schoolkids, the over one million people reliant on food banks, owing to the actions of one man, Mr Iain Duncan Smith.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the last coalition government, in order to maintain a low tax environment for the wealthy Smith imposed a brutal regime of benefit sanctions on claimants failing to abide by petty bureaucratic regulations designed to trip them up.
Mr Smith in my view should be detained, taken to The Hague forthwith and charged with a crime against humanity.
And if his gaolers forget to feed the little tortoise-headed bastard, so be it.