Sunday, June 27, 2021

Let's Sing About the Lovely Rain!


At the moment we talk a lot about language and bias, and a lot about the climate and weather, but we rarely talk about these together. The next couple of days will be the hottest on record here in the Pacific Northwest, and it makes me wonder about this.

The overwhelming bias in the songs I know is that sunshine is good and rain is bad. Perhaps this is typical in lots of places? Or maybe I have biased sample rattling around in my head?

To check something slightly more general that my own memory, I found these two playlists on the same music site:

Songs-About-the-Sun-and-Sunshine

Songs-About-Rainy-Days

Take a look and you'll see an overwhelming correlation between sunshine and good times and between rain and bad times. Not every song - there are some songs that express some fondness for the rain, or something that happened while it was raining - but the trend is clear.

I wonder if this trend holds throughout other musical traditions? Or is it another way in which cold wet parts of the North Atlantic are dramatically overrepresented? (Side note - in the myth of Persephone and Hades, we just assume that this corresponds to northern Europe's summer vs winter myths, but some return of fertility celebrations were late autumn when it starts raining, not when it gets warmer - see e.g., Thesmophoria.)

Either way, with increasing heatwaves and droughts, we should change the way we think about this! I don't expect that singing more songs in praise of rainfall will persuade the rain gods to rain on us - but I do think that we should be more aware that too much sunshine can be devastating, and freshwater that falls from the sky is a life-giving treasure.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Surge Pricing, Artificial Intelligence, and Responsibility

On my first work trip to Jakarta 14 January 2016 for Grab, multiple terrorist bombs exploded a couple of miles from the GrabBike office where I had just arrived. People were fleeing cafes and restaurants around the attack site. My new colleagues were shaken, glad to be safe, looking to help. There was news of crowds on the streets trying to get away, confirmed by a spike in booking requests from the blocks around the explosion. My colleagues remembered the 2002 Bali bombings, and knew we should get people to spread out. And we knew that our algorithms would treat this like rush-hour demand and activate surge pricing. People needed to be evacuated, but left to its own devices, our AI would have discouraged them with a higher price.

We should make trips away from the surrounding blocks free.The whole staff (including Anthony Tan, the CEO) were clear on that goal. I don’t know how many app notifications, vehicle type configs, price settings, promo code workarounds, driver incentives, press communications people set up - but they figured it all out, leaping into a sudden disaster response situation in the space of a few minutes. And it worked.

In Texas right now, a week into a freezing natural disaster, we’re hearing of customers being charged 75 times the normal rate for electricity (average is about 12c per kWh, the peak was set at $9). At this price, the average US household would pay around $8,000 a month for electricity. Instead of just canceling this, there are various proposals for the state or federal government to provide “disaster relief” by paying such bills. Or maybe the next step is a class action lawsuit.

This is not just an absurd failure of government in its lack of planning, regulation, and incentive setting. It’s a cowardly attempt by the private sector to profit from its own ineptitude. If not by malice, then by unaccountability.

I learned more about surge algorithms at Grab, partly because pricing and discounts were closely related to my work launching GrabShare. As data scientists and engineers, we had a duty to help make pricing equitable for passengers and drivers. Topics included nonlinear surge, geographic smoothing, time-of-day buckets, price elasticity, featurization, and machine learning. None of these are silver-bullets - they are tools in a system that also includes many human-oversight safeguards. These safeguards include basics, like hard limits on surge price multiples - these vary from city to city, but to give you a sense, we’re talking about numbers like 2 and 3, not 75 or 100. We have clear rules about price stability and guarantees - if we quote a $10 ride, the passenger gets a $10 ride. If that price in the meantime becomes inequitable for the driver because traffic and demand is up and the surge is larger, then the system messed up and we need to fix it. We don’t pass the buck (or the bill) on to the passenger in the meantime.

Equitable pricing isn’t just applying a known set of rules, it’s a practice of thoughtful and watchful diligence. This is increasingly crucial in AI where it is everyone’s responsibility to anticipate and prevent unintended consequences. A typical example - of course we had the idea of using destination as a feature for predicting an acceptable surge price. This came up as a suggestion so many times that a hypothetical “hospital example” became a repeated reminder - we would never build a system that might “learn” that people whose destination is a hospital tend to be willing to pay higher fares. The claim that “nobody really understands how AI systems make individual decisions” would be a lie to hide behind: when we properly stop and think when adding a new feature to a machine learning algorithm, we can normally come up with hypotheses to test quite easily, including bad outcomes that must be prevented.

Those are just some of the ethical considerations within AI and machine learning and only one part of an organization responding to a crisis. During Grab’s Jakarta bombing response, the automated pricing surge algorithm was just switched off - we knew that part would do harm. For those few hours, business-as-usual was no more, and it was mainly the finance, promotion, and driver operations leaders scrambling to improvise together. The office went from confusion to celebration: high-fives as we heard the first reports of passengers getting away to safety; press reports that our rival Go-Jek had joined us in the effort; that day we were all working together and it was working. And of course, the commitment this inspired in me about Grab was incalculable.

Contrast this with what we have heard about electricity providers in Texas. The surge was allowed to skyrocket up nearly 100-fold, just when people needed power most to survive. Some may argue “that’s how market forces work”, as if that makes the outcome right rather than making the design wrong. Ambulance drivers are often in situations where people need them desperately - but “market forces” don’t make it ethical to charge injured people 100-times the going rate for an ambulance ride. There may be some who argue that an auction rather than medical risk should be used to prioritize people for a scarce vaccine. Most of us disagree.

So what we’re left with instead is the excuse of organizational helplessness. “Nobody wanted it this way, it just happened.” That’s rubbish. Someone has a password to a database and could go in and cancel those outrageous bills right now. There are heads of department who could demand such action and answer to their CEO. There are CEOs of energy companies who could have ordered on day one of the disaster “We provide an essential service that people need to survive: bills will be cancelled and payment figured out later when it’s safe”. They haven’t done this yet. Instead we’ve heard politicians say they’re trying to figure something out - even including using disaster relief money to line the pockets of these companies.

Wake up, American businesses. This isn’t about “preventing socialism” or “the sanctity of market forces”. Don’t treat your customers as hostages. That’s evil, and companies that do this will ultimately fail. Businesses are not just lowly enforcers of runaway algorithms, so don’t pretend that we are. If anyone reading this can implement proper remediation steps for any of the power companies involved: please seize this opportunity. You can be a private-sector hero today.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Christian Homophobia: Hypocrisy over the Bible and Secular Law (again!)

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that companies can't discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. Several self-professed conservative Christians have complained, typified perhaps by Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, who said "People of sincere faith who stand on God’s Word as their foundation for life should never be forced by the government to compromise their religious beliefs."

At least two objections to this should be obvious, but seem to be rarely talked about.

Firstly, if "standing on God's Word" means "following the Bible literally", then people are forced by the government to compromise their religious beliefs the whole time. As an obvious example, consider Leviticus 20:10, "And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." (KJV). In the United States, you are allowed to believe this - because one of the great benefits of religious freedom, you can't be persecuted for believing or not believing something. But you are certainly not allowed to carry out the threat - it's murder, and the claim that a particular belief led you to commit murder is no defense. The Supreme Court decision says that the same argument applies to firing someone because you discover that they're gay. It's legal to believe that they shouldn't be gay, but it's not legal to fire them.

Secondly, we should once again confront the cherry-picking hypocrisy of Biblicist homophobia. The level of discussion here is typically poor: someone whose stance is largely anti-religious is likely to point out that the Bible also bans tattoos, the eating of shellfish, or clothing made from mixed fabrics; someone who's been taught to defend Biblical homophobia says that those other laws are obviously ceremonial; there is no meeting in the middle, no real discussion. Or someone whose stance is more liberal-religious points out that some of the words translated as anti-gay are quite ambiguous, like the debate about the word "ἀρσενοκοῖται" ("arsenokoitai") in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which could refer to pedophilia, and has only been translated as against homosexuality for less than a century. But quibbling over a word in translation never really helps (it might convince someone who won't learn any Hebrew or Greek that educated pen-pushers are out to trick them). Picking particular words to focus on, or particularly outdated verses as a compare-and-constrast, doesn't make for much of a discussion.

However, looking at the (actually very few) anti-gay verses in the Bible in their surrounding context does reveal a much clearer picture of cherry-picking. Take the Leviticus 20:10 example above - punishment for adultery. It's just 3 verses before the condemnation of "man lying with man", which is quoted much more often. And it's part of a whole list of taboos, particularly against adultery and incest, and followed in the next chapter with a ban on marrying a divorced woman. Or the passage in 1 Corinthians 6 - the very same list that condemns ἀρσενοκοῖται also condemns πόρνοι (pornos) and κλέπται (kleptos). It's pretty clear what those mean - the author condemns pornography and theft. One of those is illegal in the USA, one isn't (though it is in several other countries). Taking the Bible in context, the passages of laws and punishments in Leviticus are often arranged as more detailed working-out of the laws given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5). The clear sexual commandment is "Thou shalt not commit adultery", and the subsequent passages banning incest, homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and so on, are arranged as matters related to this. Passages against homosexuality are few, ambiguous, and always placed alongside other condemnations. Passages against adultery are frequent, repeated, used as the basis for other condemnations, and have their own dedicated place in the Ten Commandments.

So, if Mr Graham and his allies were to demonstrate that they believe adulterers should be persecuted at least as much as gay people, then they would be giving more than lip-service to their claim to follow the Bible. But they won't. They are homophobic hypocrites, preaching selective bigotry in place of equal justice, degrading the Bible by weaponizing verses and ignoring the chapters and books from which they come.

Questions Asked Later

Adding a Q&A section of things close friends and family have asked so far.

Aren't you saying that homophobic beliefs are OK?
Not OK: just not illegal. Personally I detest homophobia. But I wouldn't introduce an Inquisition or a Thought Police to make sure those beliefs can't exist.

Isn't there more context about Corinth behind Paul's letters?
Yes. There's plenty of discussion about what the contemporary practices were and whether Paul was condemning committed relationships or licentious parties.

Are you saying that homosexual relationships are as bad as adultery?
Personally I don't think that homosexual relationships are anything at all like cheating on a partner. I am saying that if someone is really following the Bible, they can't honestly condemn homosexuality without condemning adultery at least as strongly.

What about the Biblical bans on working seven days a week, lending money and charging interest, bearing false witness, and so on?
Quite right. If we made a complete list of practices banned (and punished) in the Bible with notes about how often they're mentioned and how harshly they're punished, that would be a very long essay. The reason I focused mainly on adultery in this essay is because it's the ban in the Bible that's most clearly related to homosexuality - the Bible discusses homosexuality as a footnote to adultery. If you want to investigate this area more generally, start by reading the Ten Commandments themselves and ask "Which of these would we recognize as laws today?" It is a very interesting mixture.

Why do you think that the very same Christians who denounce homosexuality give a free pass to leaders who practice serial adultery, abuse, financial fraud, and lying?
It's not about Christianity and the Bible really, that's just an excuse. (I'm sure they do believe it's about Christianity and the Bible, though you can't keep believing that if you read the Bible honestly.) It's about being angry and afraid that the world is changing, and the sort of people who for centuries were in charge (wealthy white European and American men) might not automatically be in charge in the future. This is frightening, and when things frighten us we're all predisposed to say that they're morally wrong. It's not about being in any way harmed by gay people: it's all about being frightened that they might no longer be the arbiter of who gets a free pass in spite of hurting people, and who gets persecuted in spite of hurting nobody. Never expect people to be rational when they're scared.

Why do you care so much about the Bible and homosexuality?
I'm a Christian, and I care passionately about the religion that motivated the spread of literacy on several continents, the founding of schools and universities, the abolition of slavery, parts of the Civil Rights movement. The history of Christianity isn't all good, but it certainly has good parts. I don't want to see its future potential ruined for generations by outdated bigots using it to defend their own personal bigotry.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Courage and Cowardice before Angry Crowds

In May 2020, Donald Trump, President of the USA, used riot police to remove protestors, clergy, and laity from the way to St John's Episcopalian Church in Washington DC, so that he felt safe enough to leave the Whitehouse without having to meet any of them.

During the Peasants' Revolt in 1382, King Richard II, then 14 years old, met crowds of rebels in person at least three times. Though some of the most violent leaders were executed, the King personally diffused some of the angriest crowds, and acknowledged and met the demand to abolish serfdom. (For all of us who've ever left a bad employer by applying for and getting a better job, we owe thanks in part to the eventual success of the Peasants' Revolt.)

In 1897, Sarah Alexander saved Gandhi from a white lynch mob in Durban, keeping them at bay with her umbrella, until her husband (who happened to be the chief of police) responded to her summons and came to join the rescue. Were it not for Ms Alexander’s bravery, the modern history of India would be entirely different.

Nell Gwyn, famous actress and mistress to King Charles II, was once beset by a mob in Oxford. Thinking they were mistaking her carriage with that of an aristocratic French rival, she put her head out of the coach and called "Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” Of course, I’d expect to be sorely castigated for using such insults today - but golly, she had wits and she had guts!

These stories inspire us. They show us heights of courage and leadership in the face of an angry crowd.

By contrast, a leader who cannot even bear to listen to an angry crowd is a coward. A leader who needs armed bully-boys to clear the way before they dare to venture out is literally a fascist - the “fasces” was the bundle of rods with an axe blade that was carried by the lictors, a magistrate’s bodyguard in Ancient Rome. Don’t take the etymology too literally, I’m not saying that the USA is now by definition a fascist dictatorship. By the same token, “democracy” doesn’t literally mean “mob rule” anymore, and someone can be “ostracized” without writing anything on a broken piece of pottery. But definitions aside, President Trump’s acts of bullying deserve our scorn and disgust, especially when so easily contrasted with historic acts of bravery and leadership that so naturally inspire our humble praise and respect. We can tell what a coward looks like, because we know what a hero looks like.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Wildfires or Cats - What's the Bigger Threat?

In the past couple of weeks I've seen figures saying that 1 billion animals have been killed by fires in Australia ... and figures that say that every year, "free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually" (Nature Communications, 2013) in the USA alone.

So every year, cats in the USA might be responsible for more than ten times as many animal deaths than this year's devastating fires in Australia.

Personally I quite like cats. I wish they wouldn't take birds, but at least in our neighborhood, we have a much bigger problem with rabbits - so for the sake of tulips, crocuses, grape hyacinths, and many other plants, I think the cats might be helpful. (Sorry, bunny lovers, I don't mean to horrify you.) But who knows, maybe even keeping the rabbit population under control is a job best left to native predators. However we see it on a neighborhood level, introducing a predatory species that kills billions and has few if any predators of its own doesn't turn out well for ecosystems.

If we really want to save wildlife, many of us are right behind initiatives to curb greenhouse gases, plant trees, restore habitats, and if it's done carefully and well we are willing to pay for this with taxation.

But if we wanted to save ten times as many wild animals, do any of us have the heart to tackle the cat problem? If not, the easily-repeated finger-pointing "Science tells us how to solve the problem but you just refuse to, that's irrational and immoral!" comes right back at us.

Frequently Asked Questions and Discussion Points 

There have been a few responses to this post, which I'll try to gather here. (Feel free to post comments and corrections, especially if you think any of the points below are not presented fairly.)

Are you saying that wildfires aren't a problem?
Of course not. For Australia particularly, I recommend donating to https://www.rspca.org.au/

Feral cats are the biggest problem, not pet cats
In terms of numbers, the Nature Comm. article agrees: "The predation estimate for un-owned cats was higher primarily due to predation rates by this group averaging three times greater than rates for owned cats." This argues that controlling the feral cat population is more important than convincing cat owners to keep pets indoors.

Cats have always been part of the natural ecosystem
That's true on most continents, though not Australia and many islands. But the scale of the problem is unnatural. If one-third of human households kept foxes as pets, and every year some proportion or these foxes returned to the wild and bred, then the sheer numbers would cause a similar problem for other species. Similarly, fires have always been part of the natural ecosystem, but the ways human activity interacts with the environment can make them more devastating. Fires are natural, but still devastating, and if anything it makes it even more crucial that humans follow responsible policies that take this into account.

Deforestation and pesticide use on a mass scale are far greater killers of native wildlife than free roaming cats
Again, from the Nature Comm. article"Our estimate of bird mortality far exceeds any previously estimated US figure for cats 13,14,16, as well as estimates for any other direct source of anthropogenic mortality, including collisions with windows, buildings, communication towers, vehicles and pesticide poisoning 13,15,16,17,18,19,20,21." 

So there's a big list of citations to the contrary. It includes a range of studies going from 1979 to 2012, and it's not easy to compare "apples to apples", so I dare say that it's possible and valuable to do further studies. But with the information I have at present, I don't have a good alternative to accepting that cats kill more than pesticides.

Are there other articles that corroborate this research?
http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art3/
https://doi.org/10.1093/jel/eqz035

Omnivores have to kill to survive ... I find the Australian fires more disturbing because lives were lost en masse for nothing.
Yes, absolutely the recent fire events are disturbing beyond belief. And it's notoriously hard to feel an empathic connection with long ongoing events, compared with immediate catastrophes. There is a core emotional difference here - it's easy to want to reduce fires, or diseases, we have little or no emotional sympathy with bacteria, let alone fires. It's hard to frame a policy for controlling cats without feeling that it's grossly inhumane to blame them for being themselves, whereas we don't feel that we're "blaming" fires or bacteria for anything - we don't feel that they're advanced enough evolutionarily speaking to be "blamed" at all. 

Cats should not be demonized, this leads to cruelty
Absolutely. There should be no place at all for feeling revulsion towards cats themselves. It is really bad that anger against cats can lead to inhumane or cruel treatment.

What's a "humane" way to control feral cat populations?
Surely introducing poison to the food-chain is a terrible idea?
It usually is. See https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive-species/feral-animals-australia/feral-cats? for ways poisons in Australia at least have been carefully designed not to harm native wildlife (based on genetic resistance or even different chewing behaviour).

Cats have a right to live just as much as other animals
Cat's don't have a right to be introduced in unnaturally large numbers into new ecosystems and wipe out entire species.

It's wrong to kill cats
Yes, and it's a choice between the lesser of various evils. So it's a kind of trolley problem. But it's a particular case where we humans made the trolley, we are guiding the trolley, and we can see that if we do nothing we're preferring the uncontrolled spread of cats (of which there are already many) over entire species (which are irreplaceable). It's wrong to kill cats, but it's even worse to introduce them, let them kill entire species, and then say that doing anything more about it than neutering some of the cats would be immoral.

Why do we treat dogs differently?
We've been culling / euthanizing / removing stray dogs all over the world for years, because packs of stray dogs are much more of a menace to humans, and because they're a menace to humans, we regard population control as a necessary evil. Of course, it's not that simple, there is a huge variety in ways dogs have been treated, sometimes tolerated, removed, there are similar no-kill policies in some places that people advocate for cats. For a survey of dog population management and its relationship with rabies, see this article. It finds that indiscriminate culling is counterproductive (as well as undesirable), but acknowledges that for unowned dogs, euthanasia is the only way currently available to reduce overcrowding in shelters. Just neutering and releasing stray dogs back into wild or urban environments is hardly ever advocated by anyone - to the extent that this suggestion would be considered ludicrous. It is however very much what we sometimes advocate for cats. The difference between our policies for dogs and cats is based on their size relative to humans - a poor way to make decisions for the host of other species.






Friday, February 15, 2019

Massacres and Martial Law

Spurred by the thought of the "St Valentine's Day Massacre" in 1929, when seven Chicago gang members were shot - when such events are from a different time or place, we don't call them "mass shootings", we call them "massacres". Opponents of stricter gun safety laws are saying that it's either pointless or undesirable to use gun safety legislation to prevent massacres.
In other countries, when executives in power get so frustrated with the civilian legislation process that they order military funding and personnel to be used for domestic law and order enforcements, we don't call it "using emergency powers", we call it "declaring martial law". That's how we would describe President Trump's actions today if he were the president of another country, unless it was at war or in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.
If your quick reaction to that description is "Calling this martial law is ridiculous, you're blowing this out of proportion!", please ask yourself where that reaction is coming from. If we really believed that immigration at the US / Mexican border is an emergency threat to basic law and order, a threat to our immediate safety, we would sadly acknowledge that declaring martial law is a necessary evil. Nobody seems to actually believe this - certainly, nobody has said "The situation is so urgent, President Trump is right to declare martial law". In other words, using "martial law" is out of proportion - but it's not the name, it's the decision itself.
I suspect a lot of people's discomfort with the term martial law is because, while it's easy to feel that the President is wrong, it's very hard for many Americans to feel that Democrats might be right. That's a nasty emotional dissonance, and it makes us want to ignore what's being done on our behalf. That's one of the ways that democratic rights are lost.
If you have Republican representatives with any influence here, please tell them that you think the military should not be used to circumvent the civilian legislative process for raising government revenue in this way. Such a belief, after all, is what the American Revolution was based upon. And please ask your friends and family to consider these issues.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The College Captain


In the midst of many stories of youthful drunkenness and its bad consequences of sexual assault, I’d like to share a story from the early 1990s. We were in college, undergraduates at Durham, and I remember a small crowd milling around in a bright stairwell after the bar had closed. Most people were somewhat drunk, and some were very drunk, which was normal.

My memory is incomplete - I remember the exact place, but not the date. I couldn’t tell you how many people were there. But I do remember the two main characters in the story, even though I only remember one of their names. He was a true college sports captain - good looking and very popular. The girl was blonde, and I think I remember she was wearing a charming red cocktail dress, from which I’d guess that this was after a formal dinner or college event somewhere. The sports captain had been flirting with her earlier, I think - at least, we’d been teasing him at times about what his chances were with her this evening.

By this point in the evening she was blind drunk. Really really intoxicated - shaky, slurring words, flopping around while trying to stand up. As they kept talking on the landing at the top of the stairs, she was flopping more and more in his direction. This went on for a while, and soon he was practically holding her up. They could easily have left and spent the night together - that kind of thing was relatively common.

What happened next was different, and surprised us. What I think I remember is the sports captain getting the attention of one of the girl’s friends, who came over. After a brief conversation, a few of the girls left together, taking their staggering friend along with them. The sports captain moseyed down the stairs to join the rest of the crowd.

The teasing started over again. Much of the conversation I’ll just guess at and reconstruct. “What happened there?” “Well, it was time for her to go to bed.” “But you’ve been chatting her up all night, and we thought you were in!”, “Oh mate, you just blew it!”. Typical banter.

His response took us by surprise.

“Come on, boys, you could only see the whites of her eyes. There’s no honour for anyone in that!”

That’s the moment that stuck with me. This was already someone I looked up to, and I remember thinking yes, that’s what setting an example looks like, I’m lucky to be his friend.