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This week on my podcast, I read my November 2020 Locus column, Past Performance is Not Indicative of Future Results, a critical piece on machine learning and artificial intelligence that takes aim at the fallacy that improvements to statistical inference will someday produce a conscious, cognitive software construct. It’s a followup to my July 2020 column, Full Employment, which critiques the fear/aspiration of automation-driven unemployment.


The problems of theory-free statistical inference go far beyond hallucinat­ing faces in the snow. Anyone who’s ever taken a basic stats course knows that “correlation isn’t causation.” For example, maybe the reason cops find more crime in Black neighborhoods because they harass Black people more with pretextual stops and searches that give them the basis to unfairly charge them, a process that leads to many unjust guilty pleas because the system is rigged to railroad people into pleading guilty rather than fighting charges.

Understanding that relationship requires “thick description” – an anthro­pologist’s term for paying close attention to the qualitative experience of the subjects of a data-set. Clifford Geertz’s classic essay of the same name talks about the time he witnessed one of his subjects wink at the other, and he wasn’t able to determine whether it was flirtation, aggression, a tic, or dust in the eye. The only way to find out was to go and talk to both people and uncover the qualitative, internal, uncomputable parts of the experience.

Quantitative disciplines are notorious for incinerating the qualitative ele­ments on the basis that they can’t be subjected to mathematical analysis. What’s left behind is a quantitative residue of dubious value… but at least you can do math with it. It’s the statistical equivalent to looking for your keys under a streetlight because it’s too dark where you dropped them.

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This week on my podcast, the third and final part of “Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability,” a major new EFF paper by my colleague Bennett Cyphers and me.

It’s a paper that tries to resolve the tension between demanding that tech platforms gather, retain and mine less of our data, and the demand that platforms allow alternatives (nonprofits, co-ops, tinkerers, startups) to connect with their services.

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This week on my podcast, Part Two of “Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability,” a major new EFF paper by my colleague Bennett Cyphers and me.

It’s a paper that tries to resolve the tension between demanding that tech platforms gather, retain and mine less of our data, and the demand that platforms allow alternatives (nonprofits, co-ops, tinkerers, startups) to connect with their services.

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/ / News, Podcast

This week on my podcast, Part One of “Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability,” a major new EFF paper by my colleague Bennett Cyphers and me.

It’s a paper that tries to resolve the tension between demanding that tech platforms gather, retain and mine less of our data, and the demand that platforms allow alternatives (nonprofits, co-ops, tinkerers, startups) to connect with their services.

MP3

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Here’s part thirty-one, the conclusion of my new reading of my novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (you can follow all the installments, as well as the reading I did in 2008/9, here).

This is easily the weirdest novel I ever wrote. Gene Wolfe (RIP) gave me an amazing quote for it: “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a glorious book, but there are hundreds of those. It is more. It is a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read.”

Here’s how my publisher described it when it came out:


Alan is a middle-aged entrepeneur who moves to a bohemian neighborhood of Toronto. Living next door is a young woman who reveals to him that she has wings—which grow back after each attempt to cut them off.

Alan understands. He himself has a secret or two. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine, and among his brothers are sets of Russian nesting dolls.

Now two of the three dolls are on his doorstep, starving, because their innermost member has vanished. It appears that Davey, another brother who Alan and his siblings killed years ago, may have returned, bent on revenge.

Under the circumstances it seems only reasonable for Alan to join a scheme to blanket Toronto with free wireless Internet, spearheaded by a brilliant technopunk who builds miracles from scavenged parts. But Alan’s past won’t leave him alone—and Davey isn’t the only one gunning for him and his friends.

Whipsawing between the preposterous, the amazing, and the deeply felt, Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is unlike any novel you have ever read.

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/ / News, Podcast

Here’s part twenty-nine of my new reading of my novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (you can follow all the installments, as well as the reading I did in 2008/9, here).

This is easily the weirdest novel I ever wrote. Gene Wolfe (RIP) gave me an amazing quote for it: “Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a glorious book, but there are hundreds of those. It is more. It is a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read.”

Here’s how my publisher described it when it came out:


Alan is a middle-aged entrepeneur who moves to a bohemian neighborhood of Toronto. Living next door is a young woman who reveals to him that she has wings—which grow back after each attempt to cut them off.

Alan understands. He himself has a secret or two. His father is a mountain, his mother is a washing machine, and among his brothers are sets of Russian nesting dolls.

Now two of the three dolls are on his doorstep, starving, because their innermost member has vanished. It appears that Davey, another brother who Alan and his siblings killed years ago, may have returned, bent on revenge.

Under the circumstances it seems only reasonable for Alan to join a scheme to blanket Toronto with free wireless Internet, spearheaded by a brilliant technopunk who builds miracles from scavenged parts. But Alan’s past won’t leave him alone—and Davey isn’t the only one gunning for him and his friends.

Whipsawing between the preposterous, the amazing, and the deeply felt, Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is unlike any novel you have ever read.

MP3