April 22, 2014

Witless folly...

"Social engineers." Egad. As Tim Blair once wrote, "Nothing good ever begins with the word 'social.'" This piece is a good example.

The Limits of Big Data: A Review of Social Physics by Alex Pentland | MIT Technology Review:

...Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a "data-driven society" remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan's day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice. People don't have complete freedom in choosing their peer groups. Their choices are constrained by where they live, where they come from, how much money they have, and what they look like. A statistical model of society that ignores issues of class, that takes patterns of influence as givens rather than as historical contingencies, will tend to perpetuate existing social structures and dynamics. It will encourage us to optimize the status quo rather than challenge it.

Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around. Pentland does a commendable job in describing how better data can enhance social planning. But like other would-be social engineers, he overreaches. Letting his enthusiasm get the better of him, he begins to take the metaphor of "social physics" literally, even as he acknowledges that mathematical models will always be reductive. "Because it does not try to capture internal cognitive processes," he writes at one point, "social physics is inherently probabilistic, with an irreducible kernel of uncertainty caused by avoiding the generative nature of conscious human thought." What big data can't account for is what's most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.

"Social Physics" can't tell you what The Good is. It can't tell you what is important, what it is that you should be looking for. I think it was Einstein who said, your theory controls what you can see.

...Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that "big data," many sociologists and statisticians believe, we'll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick...

No you won't. You will just see whatever you already believe. Like those academics who, from time to time, "prove" by "scientific" research that Republicans are crazy and conservatives are stupid. Or that Australian "scientist" who proved that those who deny the Climate Change Religion are more likely to believe crazy conspiracy theories.

You can see here the fundamental absurdity of liberalism, which is always, deep down, the idea that we humans can guide ourselves, by our own reason, without reference to external landmarks. Even if it worked, this kind of thinking can't tell you where you should try to go.

...What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people's behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways...

"More productive" of what? Who defines "responsible?" Wanna bet that "science" will tell us that social scientists from MIT are the ideal candidates for such power?

Posted by John Weidner at 6:35 PM

April 5, 2014

Apologies for the fathomless silence...

NOTE: Comments are off, because I'm being deluged with spam, even with the captcha. And I just don't have time or skills to deal with it. Feel free to email.

For any old friends who may still be reading, I've been MIA because the Weidners have been engaged in our biggest and most difficult operation since the annus mirabilus of 1985, when John and Charlene got married, joined a church, had a baby and bought a fixer-upper house, all in one crazy year.

No more babies this time, but we've pulled up stakes and moved to the country. After more than 40 years in the big city. We are now living in Sonora, CA. A Gold Country town in the foothills of the Sierras, about 2 1/2 hours due east of SF.

I haven't blogged all this, both because of a superstitious dread that we might jinx things, and also because it's been horribly hard work. We've been pretty much working 7 days a week for more than 6 months.

We haven't retired. Charlene's lawyering covers N Calif, so she's no more out of things here than in SF. With an Internet connection she can do most of her work from anywhere. (Internet was a big problem. We ended up having a T-1 line laid in.) And I'm farther from my old customers, but have more space to work more efficiently and that may balance out. And I may find cabinetmaking work around here too.

It's a big upheaval for our kids, but their careers and lives were not flourishing in SF, so maybe a change will be good for them.

And frankly, we've been feeling like a lot of things in liberal SF, underneath a thin veneer of "niceness," are increasingly just evil. (And, worse than evil, downright stupid!) When we started our "urban project" long ago, we we thought our neighbors were too far to the left, but we assumed they we were all sailing on parallel courses. Turns out, not so. We have diverged. (For myself, the turning point was 9/11. I had always assumed that, disgusting as lefty anti-Americanism was to me, if America were attacked in a way similar to Pearl Harbor, we would all come together in her defense. To observe leftists claiming that the 9/11 attack was a result of our sins, and seeing how they hated the displays of American flags, was a huge eye-opener for me. It was sick and crazy. Evil, pure evil. I started this blog a month later.)

I feel like God has hugely favored us. I prayed for help to escape the tangles of many frustrations in SF, and the whole thing just unfolded. Deo gratias!

Anyway, we are loving Sonora so far. Working like crazy. Were having lots of work done on the house, we are planting trees and vines so as to not miss the year's growth. I'm getting my shop put together, and spraying herbicides on Poison Oak. We have ten acres, which should keep us busy for the rest of our lives.

Here are a few pix...

Charlene and the back of our house, where the gardens and terraces are... View from back of house

My sons moving rocks with our tractor, a John Deere 4310... Rob and will moving rocks

We get this every evening. We've never lived with a view before. That's East Sonora in the distance. Sonora sunset

For a rock-lover like me, this place is mind boggling. I could take a hundred pix like this... Rocks near tractor shed

Posted by John Weidner at 10:19 PM