Monday, October 31, 2016

Searching e-mail headers is easy

(This is a very specific post about events deemed newsworthy at the end of October 2016, namely, the announcement that the FBI has reopened an investigation because emails found on a computer might be relevant to a previous case. For those that don't know me, I'm a software engineer who's worked at Google and Bing and written some dozens of papers about language and search, so while I don't know all the details of this particular laptop, I'm not just ranting without expertise.)
My professional opinion: the notion that the FBI may take days to figure out if some of 650K emails went through a particular server is nonsense. This is a one-line grep-the-headers command and may take as much as a few minutes on a standard laptop. Doing a more thorough preliminary analysis to see if a few individuals are mentioned by names or synonyms is a bit more work - maybe a couple of hours for a beginner programmer. More detailed topical analysis, now it's getting more fun - about a day's work for an NLP specialist using tools readily available for over a decade.
If you've read any "tech news" articles telling you that FBI agents might spend weeks looking for something vaguely AI-blabber sounding like "metadata", please realize that you're being deceived. The notion that this task takes days is utter nonsense. American readers and voters are being played and manipulated by claiming something is hard that is in fact easy.
From a language-processing point of view, the claim that James Comey had to notify Congress that they'd found a "big box of something" but it would take until after the election to have any idea of whether that big box contained anything relevant is incompetent nonsense.
If instead they're saying that out of those 650K emails, they have to read every one by hand because maybe, just maybe, someone-said-something-to-someone that could count as referring to something that was once at some grade of classification, then that's quite a different proposition. It's not a standard that is applied to any politician other than Hillary Clinton, and the notion that until you've done this you have "no idea what the box of stuff contains" is just not true.
At the very least, we should have a Director of the FBI who has beyond a mid-1980's sense of how hard it might be to search through fewer than 1 million email headers.


My this seems dated now. So as you probably know, a week or later just before the election the FBI reported that after all they didn't have anything new. Hillary Clinton went from a decisive lead in the polls to a dip in the polls, won the popular vote, but lost the presidential election. Given how close the elections were in the swing states that mattered, I suspect that history will tell the story of an election that was marred by scandal, and was decided in the end by the exact timing of when scandals were reported, real or imagined.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

27% is not a Majority, and Leaving the EU Requires an Act of Parliament

Update some years later: The UK finally did leave the European Union on Jan 31st 2020. After 2 General Elections and several bumps in the road, the decision to leave was enacted by Parliament, and the particular worry that the referendum result might encourage Britain to ignore Parliamentary Sovereignty has been put to rest.

It's now a couple of weeks since the Brexit referendum. The question on the ballot was "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" and a majority of the votes cast were for "Leave". Since democracy is the rule of the majority, and the majority voted to leave, some say that the decision to leave the EU has been made democratically, and any objections to this decision are anti-democratic sour grapes.

I disagree, and I've been asked (in this case, by my mother) to explain why I disagree. Here are the reasons why leaving the EU without an Act of Parliament would be both undemocratic in the short term and destructive to the UK's democratic constitution in the long term.

Of course, our constitution is unwritten, and so the process for changing it isn't formalised. We go by tradition, precedent, common law, and common sense.

The mandate for constitutional change is insufficient

In the referendum, 17.41 million votes were cast for "Leave" and 16.14 million were cast for "Remain". The population of the UK is 64.1 million (World Bank estimate). So about 27% of the population voted to Leave, about 25% voted to Remain. Moreover, the largest disenfranchised group (those under 18) would probably have voted strongly to Remain.

So the statement "A majority of the people voted for Brexit" is not true, not even close. If we had a formal constitution and an official process for changing it, I would wager that a popular vote of 27% to 25% would not be enough. (In the USA, for example, one of several conditions such as "ratified by three quarters of the State Legislatures" must be met.)

The campaign and result could probably not be repeated

We're used to election campaigns involving contested claims and exaggeration, but this one was extreme. This has been pointed out many times already, so I'll be brief. There's no £350 million a week coming back, immigration is not being curtailed, for those who wish to curtail immigration the path is entirely unclear, but the House of Commons has voted by 245 to 2 to guarantee that EU citizens living in the UK will have the right to remain. Given the obvious public unravelling of the Leave campaign's promises and its leadership, and some already clear economic damage, it is very unlikely that the referendum result could be repeated.

The referendum is not a mandate for a particular policy

In the weeks since the referendum, the UK's position is less clear than ever. It's clear that a deal with the rest of the EU to maintain free movement of goods but not of people is very unlikely, and that there are a baffling array of options in between staying in the EU and abandoning free trade between Britain and Europe altogether. The Leave vote is not a vote for anything except "not being in the EU". It did not set forth a particular option for relations with the rest of Europe, and almost every member of Parliament was elected on a manifesto that advised staying in the EU. The British people may have voted about something that's not wanted, but have not voted about what is wanted.

The only legitimate way forward involves Parliament

There isn't much precedent for using referenda in Britain, but what precedent there is says that referenda can be used in conjunction with Parliament, not instead of it. In the process whereby the UK joined the EEC in the 1970's (the only real precedent), the referendum result was much stronger (67% majority), but it was never used instead of passing laws in Parliament.

So far the only legal alternative to Parliament I've read about is the idea of using Royal Prerogative to pass laws relating to leaving the EU, apparently suggested by government lawyers. You don't need to be a constitutional lawyer to know that in theory the Crown can pass and rescind whatever laws it likes, but a monarch who does this in practice risks losing a Civil War, getting their head chopped off, and bringing down the monarchy. Of course I don't mean this as a threat, I certainly don't want it to happen! But the Queen is probably more aware of her role than anyone else alive, and the idea that she may make an exception from her well-known avoidance of politics and abolish an Act of Parliament without consulting Parliament, on an issue so controversial that England and Wales might go one way and Scotland and Northern Ireland another - well, even if that's legal it's still preposterous. If the government or the monarchy wants to nullify laws passed by Parliament, they have a perfectly legal and practical way of doing it - by asking Parliament.

This does leave the option that the Government might try to invoke Article 50 (giving notice of an intent to withdraw from the EU) without Parliament's consent, presuming that Parliament will cooperate later in repealing the 1972 European Communities act and many other pieces of legislation. But presuming that Parliament will comply with all this is a very risky alternative compared with asking first!

What if Parliament doesn't cooperate?

Let's briefly consider the reasons for not consulting Parliament.

  •  Parliament might vote against triggering Brexit by invoking Article 50.
    • It might. The alternative, "Don't ask Parliament because they might disagree", sounds utterly illegal and contrary to  Parliamentary Sovereignty, which is the very first principle of British politics.
  • Parliament might vote in favour of triggering Brexit, but that's against the manifesto promises of most MPs.
    • MPs are representatives, not delegates. If they choose to vote differently from their manifesto promises, that is legal and has many precedents.
  • The Government needs to negotiate with other EU countries before it can bring a bill before Parliament.
    • Nonsense. There is nothing stopping the Government from bringing forward a bill that asks for permission to negotiate.
  • It might lead to enough controversy to bring down the Government in a vote of no confidence, triggering a general election.
    • If the Government can't pass its most important legislation through Parliament, that's exactly what a general election is for. General elections are a costly, uncertain, and time-consuming process - but given that the whole Brexit process is already all of these things and more, the notion of doing something unconstitutional instead of holding a general election is crazy.
Can these arguments be dismissed as motivated reasoning? Something like "You wanted Remain to win anyway, of course you'll throw obstacles in the way of a Leave victory". Well, I do want the UK to remain part of the EU, but in this case that's not the point. The point is that overriding Parliamentary Sovereignty using an unlikely alliance between a 27% referendum vote and Royal Prerogative would set a terrible precedent. If the Government passes proper legislation to leave the EU, I'll be disappointed, I admit that. But if the bill is honest, properly worded, sensibly debated, and passed by Parliament, I'll be the first to accept its legality.

The Crown can be asked to dissolve Parliament, but not to ignore it. The people have the right to replace Parliament, but not to ignore it. These are the cornerstones of Britain's rather ad hoc but surprisingly robust democracy. It's not perfect by any means, but over the centuries it's done pretty well, particularly at avoiding the worst forms of oppression. Let's not give up our most cherished principles because of a narrow vote on a single day.

What should you do?

If you agree with this conclusion, please feel free to share and promote this article. But much more importantly for those living in the UK, write to your local MP. If you're below voting age, or a foreign national not allowed to vote in the referendum, they are still your local MP and you should write to them. This is not just for Remain supporters - if you're a Leave supporter, please write to your MP and say that Parliament should immediately put its authority behind the referendum result. This is one of those times in our history when Britain urgently needs Parliamentary leadership.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Britain Should Remain in the European Union

If I was voting with just my head tomorrow, I would vote Remain.

It should be enough that the UK pound and financial markets have taken a battering on just the fear of leaving. It should be enough that so many major economic leaders and institutions advise us to stay. That in spite of the popular myth to the contrary, actual data shows that immigrants are net contributors to the benefits system, not net takers. That millions of British retirees in other European countries are likely to be victims of Brexit, as well as younger working-age people in Britain. That stories about freeloading European countries taking Britain's money and Britain getting nothing in return are so easily debunked. That surveys demonstrate that "average British beliefs" about how much of our tax money flows to and from the EU are utterly misinformed. That I and my children can live and work in so many places from Ireland to Greece, and that's not something we would risk lightly.

But the referendum has clearly not been about voting with our heads. We're voting with our hearts as well. Would I vote differently?

The Remain campaign has looked lacklustre. It doesn't get people whipped up or nearly so passionate. As a parent I understand that: it's hard to make "Don't risk hurting yourself just to prove your independence" an inspiring message. If you show a picture of what hurting yourself might look like, you're scaremongering. If you don't, you're just being a wimp. But if I can explain that to a child about jumping down the stairs in a pillowcase, it shouldn't be so hard to explain it to grownups voting about their political and economic future. Perhaps my heart isn't immediately excited about staying in the EU. But is excitement really the point?

By contrast, the Leave campaign has looked ugly. Pictures of how wicked foreigners are. How we're being either overrun by underling dark-skinned swarthy types, or overlording light-skinned calculating types. About how everything is "us" versus "them". About how all the "them" must be kept away from "us". Not facts, not data, not research, not all the boring nerdy stuff that should go into actual policymaking. Just appealing to the idea that I should belong to a tribe, and feel threatened by every other tribe. The Leave campaign, and nearly all the material I've seen shared and circulated to promote it, does stir my emotions. It makes me ashamed that anyone would think that this is what being British should mean.

If I was voting with just my heart tomorrow, I would vote Remain. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Weakness of the Arguments Against Hillary Clinton

I've been staying mute on politics but I'm going to make an exception.

Wave after wave of anti-Hillary mouthing is gradually making me gently but firmly pro-Hillary. Just reading random news and other people's feeds over the past week I've heard all of the following arguments:

"She won't be able to win in all-important swing states."
Like Ohio and Florida?

"It's wrong that all those superdelegates are going to vote for her."
She's currently nearly 40% ahead in the regular delegate count.

"I have lots of friends who say they won't vote for her. Like really really won't vote for her ever ever."
That's not how national elections are decided.

"She sounds shrill."
The person behind the microphone should have a deeper voice - but it's not about sexism?

"She must be dishonest, look at all those investigations into her."
When investigation after investigation leads to no indictment, that sounds like an ever-more-desperate smear campaign.

So I guess in my own way I too am done with politics-as-usual and angry at the establishment. There isn't any other person in the United States who's been more targeted by the establishment over and over again than Hilary Clinton. The more successful she is, the more specious the arguments against her become.

At this rate, I'm probably going to vote for her.