Sunday, September 26, 2021

God's Love for You is Unique. God's Law is Not. Don't Demand Miracles.

Several times in the Bible, God intervenes to save people. From manna in the desert (Exodus 16) to Paul's shipwreck survival on Malta (Acts 27), these stories are told and retold, sometimes assuming that the main teaching is that God's chosen ones lead a charmed, shatterproof life. This approach to faith has led several Christians to argue that we should shun masks and vaccines, because God will save us.

This has led to death in several cases, some with high-profile public figures, many more unknown to us. Many people who've assumed they are immune to Covid have died. But even if God hasn't protected thousands of other people, God will still protect me, so I shouldn't try to protect myself - isn't that what the Bible says?

Time and time again, God's care for us is not a supernatural intervention, but a command to follow. God doesn't build the ark: Noah obeys and builds the ark (Genesis 6). God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their homes and embark on a long journey (Genesis 12). God reveals the meaning of Pharaoh's dream to Joseph, and amazingly, Pharaoh listens to this foreign prisoner, and the people comply with his instructions to build granaries and collect food (Genesis 41). Yes, God sends plagues upon Egypt to support Moses' demands for Israelite freedom, but not while Moses stays on the sidelines expecting miracles: instead, God's first intervention is to demand that the reluctant Moses take action (Exodus 3), and gives Moses further orders throughout. Consider the manna story itself: most of Exodus 16 is about the instructions that come with the manna, about how much to gather when, how long to keep it, and pitfalls of noncompliance. The Exodus story continues straight to Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, and the beginning of the Law.

Expressing our faith by following instructions rather than demanding miracles is particularly explicit in Biblical passages about disease. In the story of Naaman's healing with Elisha (2 Kings 5): Naaman, an Aramean general, travels far to see the great prophet of Israel, and is indignant when, instead of calling on divine intervention, Elisha tells him to bathe seven times. But it works, and Naaman is led to a deeper understanding and commitment as a result.

Rules for how to behave in the face of disease are given at length in Leviticus 13-15, including quarantine periods and sanitation rules for clothes and houses after infections. It's worth dwelling on these chapters, because this is the place in the Bible that talks most about disease in terms of public health legislation for all times, rather than narrating a particular event. If infected, you must appear before a priest for examination. Chapter 13 lists several symptoms for the priest to check, and timelines for when to check again to see if the infection has cleared. The word "leprosy" or "leprous disease" is often used in English translations for historic reasons, but the symptoms described, the possible timelines for recovery, and the detection of disease in clothes and buildings indicate that the Law isn't talking about leprosy in the modern sense, and may have referred to a variety of skin infections. If you test positive, the rules are strict:

"Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp." (Leviticus 13:45-46).

So healthcare status is not private information, freedom of movement is curtailed when preventing the spread of disease, and the Law can dictate when to wear a face covering. We don't know precisely what disease motivated these regulations, but we do know that there was serious illness, and that individuals did not have an "inalienable right" to go anywhere wearing anything: personal freedom in time of sickness was subordinate to the Law that protected the community.

We are left with a very clear picture of where the ancient Law stands with regard to public healthcare mandates. They were in place. God's commandment was to follow the Law, not demand personal exceptions.

This leaves the tempting claim that this was for them: it doesn't apply to us. One may argue that ancient Israelites may be forced to cover the lower part of their face, but not modern Americans. Irrespective of whether we support this argument, I hope we can at least all agree that it is a nationalist, not a religious objection.

So perhaps we can argue that even if public health mandates are part of the Law, that is the Old Testament and doesn't apply to Christians. (It is easy to find parts of the Law that we never follow nowadays, for example, instructions on animal sacrifice.) So maybe Jesus says we should trust God's direct intervention rather than instructions on health precautions?

One of the times Jesus heals a leper, the next thing Jesus tells the patient is to "go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering prescribed by Moses" (Matthew 8:4). Jesus himself reinforces the community rules discussed above.

In the Gospels, Jesus does encourage us to trust in God's care. "Consider the lilies" (Matthew 6:28, Luke 12:27), "Take nothing with you for the journey" (Luke 9:3). But not with the promise of supernatural miracles: with instructions to find people along the way who will help ("Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave" Matthew 10:11). Practical preparation is sometimes mandated. The whole parable of the bridesmaids is about this: they should all make sure that their lamps are well stocked with oil for a wedding, and those who don't bother are left in the cold (Matthew 25). They don't get miracle oil instead. Yes, Jesus commands us to free ourselves of worldly concerns: but following "Consider the lilies", the instruction given is not "Take any risk and don't let anyone else tell you what to do" - it is "Sell your possessions and give alms" (Luke 12:33). The notion that faith in Jesus saves us from earthly troubles is dispelled by Jesus himself: "Then they will hand you over to suffer and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations because of my name" (Matthew 24:9). If we reckon this suffering is intended metaphorically but not physically, the persecution of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles dispels that. Belief in Jesus doesn't shield us from physical harm: Jesus' own physical sacrifice was not to guarantee our physical invincibility, but to share something much deeper.

When St Paul says that the gifts of the spirit include miraculous powers, this is with the understanding that the Spirit distributes these gifts "according to his choosing" (1 Corinthians 12:10-11). This is clearly not advice to count on miracles and ignore practical instructions. Foolhardy decisions that demand a miracle to save us are born of hubris, not faith. Jesus addresses this point exactly in the Temptation in the Wilderness (Luke 4) - when tempted to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple because God will save him, Jesus answers "It is written, You must not put the Lord your God to the test" (referring to Deuteronomy 6:16). When a voice says "Take whatever risk you like, God will save you!", remember that Jesus rejected this advice as devilish not divine (Luke 4:11).

There is another related argument made against face masks and vaccines: God made us in his image, therefore our bodies are perfect, and any attempt to interfere with them must be wrong. From a New Age perspective, this is defensible (albeit irresponsible). From a Biblical perspective, it's simply wrong. If human bodies are perfect and shouldn't be tampered with, then God's chosen ones from Abraham (Genesis 17) to Jesus (Luke 2) were wrong to be circumcised. Obviously the Bible does not teach this.

In the Bible, faith isn't demonstrated by refusing to act and by demanding miracles instead, but by following God's commands, often delivered by other people. Biblical law and modern secular law both agree that where we go and what we wear can be regulated, for the safety of the community. And in the Bible, that sometimes includes face coverings.

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:



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.