I have finally figured out what benefit exTwitter gets from its new owner’s decision to strip out the headlines from linked third-party news articles: you cannot easily tell the difference between legitimate links and ads. Both have big unidentified pictures, and if you forget to look for the little “Ad” label at the top right or check the poster’s identity to make sure it’s someone you actually follow, it’s easy to inadvertently lessen the financial losses accruing to said owner by – oh, the shame and horror – clicking on that ad. This is especially true because the site has taken to injecting these ads with increasing frequency into the carefully curated feed that until recently didn’t have this confusion. Reader, beware.
In all the discussion of deepfakes and AI-generated bullshit texts, did anyone bring up the possibility of datafakes? Nature highlights a study in which researchers created a fake database to provide evidence for concluding that one of two surgical procedures is better than the other. This is nasty stuff. The rising numbers of retracted papers already showed serious problems with peer review (which are not new, but are getting worse). To name just a couple: reviewers are unpaid and often overworked, and what they look for are scientific advances, not fraud.
In the UK, Ben Goldacre has spearheaded initiatives to improve on the quality of published research. A crucial part of this is ensuring people state in advance the hypothesis they’re testing, and publish the results of all trials, not just the ones that produce the researcher’s (or funder’s) preferred result.
Science is the best process we have for establishing an edifice of reliable knowledge. We desperately need it to work. As the dust settles on the week of madness at OpenAI, whose board was supposed to care more about safety than about its own existence, we need to get over being distracted by the dramas and the fears of far-off fantasy technology and focus on the fact that the people running the biggest computing projects by and large are not paying attention to the real and imminent problems their technology is bringing.
Callum Cant reports at the Guardian that Deliveroo has won a UK Supreme Court ruling that its drivers are self-employed and accordingly do not have the right to bargain collectively for higher pay or better working conditions. Deliveroo apparently won this ruling because of a technicality – its insertion of a clause that allows drivers to send a substitute in their place, an option that is rarely used.
Cant notes the health and safety risks to the drivers themselves, but what about the rest of of us? A driver in his tenth hour of a seven-day-a-week grind doesn’t just put themselves at risk; they’re a risk to everyone they encounter on the roads. The way these things are going, if safety becomes a problem, instead of raising wages to allow drivers a more reasonable schedule and some rest, the likelihood is that these companies will turn to surveillance technology, as Amazon has.
In the US, this is what’s happened to truck drivers, and, as Karen Levy documents in her book, Data Driven, it’s counterproductive. Installing electronic logging devices into truckers’ cabs has led older, more experienced, and, above all, *safer* drivers to leave the profession, to be replaced with younger, less-experienced, and cheaper drivers with a higher appetite for risk. As Levy writes, improved safety won’t come from surveiling exhausted drivers; what’s needed is structural change to create better working conditions.
The UK’s covid inquiry has been livestreaming its hearings on government decision making for the last few weeks, and pretty horrifying they are, too. That’s true even if you don’t include former deputy medical officer Johnathan Van-Tam’s account of the threats of violence aimed at him and his family. They needed police protection for nine months and were advised to move out of their house – but didn’t want to leave their cat. Will anyone take the job of protecting public health if this is the price?
Former special adviser Dominic Cummings (from whom no one expected politeness) said everyone called Boris Johnson a trolley, because, like a shopping trolley with the inevitable wheel pointing in the wrong direction, he was so inconsistent.
The government chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance had kept a contemporaneous diary, which provided his unvarnished thoughts at the time, some of which were read out. Among them: Boris Johnson was obsessed with older people accepting their fate, unable to grasp the concept of doubling times or comprehend the graphs on the dashboard, and intermittently uncertain if “the whole thing” was a mirage.
Our leader envy in April 2020 seems correctly placed. To be fair, though: Whitty and Vallance, citing their interactions with their counterparts in other countries, both said that most countries had similar problems. And for the same reason: the leaders of democratic countries are generally not well-versed in science. As the Economist’s health policy editor, Natasha Loder warned in early 2022, elect better leaders. Ask, she said, before you vote, “Are these serious people?” Words to keep in mind as we head toward the elections of 2024.
Illustrations: The medium Mina Crandon and the “materialized spirit hand” she produced during seances.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon