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November 27, 2015

Doping authorities

Ever since the 1988 Olympics, when the sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol - a word I remember hearing the official spokesman pronounce ultra-carefully, as though she'd never seen it before - it should have been obvious what was going to happen in sports. Thumbnail image for McNab-RingsofSand.jpgAt least some insiders, such as Olympic coach-turned-novelist Tom McNab, managed some foresight. His 1984 novel Rings of Sand imagined a commercial competitor to the Los Angeles Olympics run by a Middle East consortium. While the book's bigger target was the "shamateurism" of the era, when athletes were professional in all but name, what I remember was the influence of drugs.

The recent report from the World Anti-Doping Agency report on Russian athletics makes it absolutely clear that focusing anti-doping efforts on the athletes is useless. In the sport, time, and country the report covers, collusion existed at all levels to ensure that the country's best athletes would dope and would not get caught - and would pay for both privileges. Besides, as Mark Burnley argued at a Skeptics in the Pub meet, few athletes have sufficient education or training to understand the medical and biochemical complexities of a modern doping program. One must look at coaches, trainers, and medical staff.

Here's the report's money quote :

Although the IC report and recommendations are confined to Russia and athletics, the IC wishes to make it clear that, in its considered view, Russia is not the only country, nor athletics the only sport, facing the problem of orchestrated doping in sport.

Well, of course not. We've seen too many other exposures over too long a period - the 1970s East German program, David Walsh's and the US Anti-Doping Authority's investigations of Lance Armstrong - and in too many sports - rugby, baseball, Australian rugby league.

But what do people expect when a multi-trillion dollar global industry that ties up success with nationalism and that finances itself with government subsidies and corporate sponsorship? Whatever motivates you, what keeps you in business is winning and keeping the fans and media engaged.

Despite his belligerent, self-exculpatory tone, baseball player Jose Canseco was correct in his 2005 book, Juiced about the incentives that made the authorities look the other way while 1990s baseball players' muscles expanded like marshmallows in a microwave. There seems to be general agreement that after the 1994 baseball strike, the main attraction that lured an alienated public back into the bleachers was the race between Sammy Sosa and leading players like McGwire, Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez admitted to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Congressional investigation into Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative.

The BALCO investigation was launched by a whistleblower. Walsh-7deadlysins.jpgLance Armstrong was caught by a combination of investigative journalism and whistle-blowing competitors and teammates. OperaciĆ³n Puerto was a police investigation that began with a whistle-blowing newspaper interview with a cyclist. The message is clear: the people who matter in doping are caught by traditional investigative methods, not by the giant edifice of what we might as well call "anti-doping theater".

In the nearly 30 years since Johnson was caught, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has spread throughout society: in Hollywood, the military, the police, in high schools, and that's leaving aside things like nootropics - "smart pills" - for students. In 2007, Sandro Donati Sandro Donati estimated the number of people involved in doping worldwide at 31 million. It can't have shrunk since then.

The essential problem: no matter what they say when it happens, no one in sports can possibly want the top names caught. This is especially true in individual sports, where even "clean" athletes know their own income will suffer in the exposure of an athlete whose presence at the top of the game attracts large sponsorships and sells out stadiums. Tiger Woods' downfall was estimated to have cost golf $15 billion. Everyone relies on these top names: sports federations, both national and international, coaches, advertisers, promoters, family members who have often made substantial sacrifices, and, as Donati wrote in the report referenced above, organized crime

So: what is the purpose of anti-doping efforts? If it was to make sports look good for mass consumption, they succeeded in the short-term and failed in the medium-term. If it was to end doping...they've failed even more comprehensively. If you wanted to redesign the system to make it work, how would you create incentives?

We now know that Johnson won the dirtiest race in history - that is, only one of Johnson's top competitors had not failed a drug test. In 1984, McNab could still create a young athlete character who, accused by a watchful expert, would never do it again. Today, it's clearer that there is no one in sports in whose interests are served by eliminating doping. There are some whose interests are served by catching a few dopers, but that's not the same thing. For the former, the incentives are all wrong. If you were building anti-doping as a security system - which is what it is - you would start there.


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. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, to deter spam bots we've had to disable comments on this blog.


November 20, 2015

Just a very clever bacterium

A couple of weeks back, the thinktank Cybersalon hosted a discussion derived, in part, from the back-and-forth Bill_Thompson,_BBC,_at_Wikimania_2014_-_14876124081.jpgnet.wars had with Bill Thompson a few months back when the TV series Humans convinced him that it would be morally wrong to embed Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics into the brain of a sentient robot. Thompson, I think, was feeling for the poor robot, trapped between sentience and its programmed-in cage; but I suppose there's also an argument to be made about the effect on natural-born humans of having a fully consciousness-endowed thing it's OK to be cruel to.

In the event's expanded discussion, Martin Smith, the head of the UK's cybernetics society, noted the substantial percentage (a number I now can't find) with bacteria; the percentage rises as you move through the animal kingdom to mammals and primates - we're about 95% the same as a chimpanzee. Even a fruit fly is about 60% the same as we are. Smith felt, therefore, that we might just as well recognize that we're "just a very clever bacterium". It's a little glib, given the reality that actually each of us is home to a complex ecosystem of billions of bacteria, but OK.

Smith argued that while robots are getting closer to us, we're simultaneously getting closer to them, invoking examples such as pacemakers and other implanted devices that keep us alive or restore failing functions (or, of course, augment them, as demonstrated at a previous Cybersalon event), the sort of thing former head of BT research Peter Cochrane has also been saying for a decade or few. I recall, from his 2004 book, Uncommon Sense, a conversation with his wife in which he tried to get her to pinpoint the exact point at which replacement parts would make him no longer himself.

If one thing became clear to me in this discussion, it was that artificial intelligence - if we can ever agree that we've achieved it - will share less commonality with our own than a bacterium does with our genome. For one thing, as Smith said, while we have five senses, some of which AI may never share, there's no reason for AI to be limited to five - it's easy to reel off a few dozen senses we could embed in AI-bearing gadgets that we don't or have in only limited ways, such as GPS, accelerometer, thermometer, chemical testers...all sorts of things.

But more important, the range of what the AI community thinks of as "intelligence" is narrow. Satinder Gill discussed "tacit knowledge", things we know but don't know we know. How do two people walking together fall unconsciously into step with one another? How do strangers know to perform corresponding movements without discussion? How would we teach a robot to navigate these social accommodations when we don't really understand them ourselves?

A few days later, at a Royal Society event on autonomous systems, full_Kuchenbecker.jpgthe University of Pennsylvania professor Katherine Kuchenbecker outlined another large gap: robots' lack of touch. "Why don't modern robots have this?" she asked. When someone mentions "haptics" to most roboticists, they think of force sensing, but that on its own is not enough. To prove her point, she showed a video clip of a human whose thumb and forefinger had been anesthetized and was then asked to pick up and light a matchstick. The result was extraordinary clumsiness. Rather than forces, Kuchenbecker's group focuses on sensing vibrations. Humans, she said, have four different kinds of mechanical receptors in our fingertips, plus sensitivity to pain. We always know how hard our muscles are working, and these cues are an essential kind of intelligence that allows us to operate in the world.

Gill's and Kuchenbecker's comments make sense because so much of how we experience the world is determined by the bodies through which we experience it. Whether you're attractive or not, whether you are able to move lightly or not, whether your body is in physical pain or not - all of these things change the lens through which you interpret what happens to you. It's one of the reasons each of us is unique. Do Google's cars understand that the world will judge them differently if they're dented and painted purple instead of perfectly formed and black?

All of this is, I suppose, part of why I feel no particular need to learn from Humans about the ethics of how to treat synthetic, though conscious beings (there seem more urgent things to philosophize about). I'm aware that to believe that it matters what substrate intelligence is located in is not the rationality expected of a skeptic. But it has to matter that so many of the experiences that make us human will not apply to AIs, however perfectly formed they may be. Thompson argues that fiction or not, stories can still help us find ethical principles. Fair enough. But if we're not going to be in control, when those AIs are assigned to solve the problem of climate change and they figure out that the cause is too many humans and realize that the simplest solution is to kill off half of us...you'd better hope there's an off-switch you can hit before they get to you.

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. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter. We apologize, but comments have been disabled for the time being (11/2015) because comment-bots were hammering the server.

November 13, 2015

Mob rule

582px-Daniel_Defoe_is_standing_in_the_pillory_while_soldiers_have_Wellcome_V0041680.jpgThe journalist David Wolinsky contacted me a few weeks back to ask if we could talk about the history of how people have treated each other online for his oral history project. Sure. So, by way of limbering up...

In terms of individual behavior, I'm not convinced things have changed all that much. Go back to the late 1980s, and you find Sara Kiesler writing an early study of computer-mediated communication (as it was called then) and finding that something about the distancing effect of being alone with a screen and keyboard disinhibited people from saying things they'd never say face-to-face. This turned out to be true whether or not the people communicating knew each other in real life - even if they worked in the same company. Fast forward 20 years to the 2008 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, and it's a panel on online bullying and hate speech. At which the 3695592_orig.jpegUniversity of Maryland professor Danielle Citron, who went on to write the recent book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, and Ann Bartow, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, told some pretty hair-raising stories. The most notable detail I remember was that often the (usually male) people dishing out the harassment posted from their clearly identifiable work addresses - the behavior was not about being anonymous. The panel concluded that you were far more likely to be bullied online by someone you knew personally. Citron's book includes several notable examples of that.

Or try 1991, which net.wars revisited a couple of months ago, comparing two books of essays covering women's experiences in and with technology, then and now. Their experiences are depressingly similar, even if no one argues that graphical interfaces are "girlish" any more.

Even pack behavior has not, in some ways, changed all that much. Pick your favorite mob of today and compare and contrast with the early 1990s. Some examples. In 1992, the alt.tasteless newsgroup invaded rec.pets.cats - that is, frequent posters in one Usenet newsgroup deliberately disrupted the perfectly harmless conversations of another on a lark (this was before anyone said "for the lolz"). In 1993's A Rape in Cyberspace, one player on Lambda MOO took over other players' characters and forced them to act and speak in ways their owners felt were defamatory. No wonder Stephanie Brail called harassment "the price of admission" in 1991.

Two big things are different now: scale and speed. Venues like Lambda MOO and Usenet, as important to their participants as they were at the time, were (and are) niche communities. Wikipedia's figures, sourced from Altopia.com, indicate that Usenet traffic is still growing today, but it seems likely that's due to the use of binary newsgroups for file transfers; none of the admittedly small numbers of newsgroups I still read have anything like the number or variety of posters they did 20 years ago. Even at its peak Usenet never had anything like Facebook's billion-plus users or Twitter's 307 million. More than that, Usenet was an asynchronous medium: no matter how fast and furiously you pounded the keyboard, your message still took time to propagate - sometimes, even hours! - and so did your response. While you waited, there was nothing to do but twitch. Twitter's pervasive megaphone has the accelerants of SMS, mobile phones, and instant delivery.

The result is a different level of consequence. While it's true that in 1994, when the Church of Scientology tried to smother alt.religion.scientology to keep its most secret documents offline, the result was real police raids on real people's homes, getting to that stage took months and required legal action, court orders, and warrants. Today's social media mobs can end someone's employment in a few hours. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sees Twitter as the most powerful microphone in the world ; does that also mean the most powerful bully pulpit in the world? Because so much on Twitter is public, it feeds and feeds back upon major media outlets, for both bad and good.

The hardest argument to make to anyone caught up in what used to be known as "flame wars" is to take time to think. Under pressure of tweets and "mentions", even smart, sensible people become insistent that a response must be made *right now*, instantly, urgently, fearing they may lose control of "the story". The reality is that if you think there is that much urgency you have *already* lost control of the story, not least because you've lost control of yourself.

I had a weird habit of reading etiquette books as a child: all those books of rules about who has to stand up when someone enters a room and how long you could take to send a thank-you note. I've spent most of my life since ignoring them all. But one that has always stuck in my mind was the advice that after writing an angry (postal!) letter you should set it aside for three days before rereading it to see if you still thought it was a good idea to send it. It's still good advice, but try getting anyone to take it.


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. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


November 6, 2015

Extending the itemized phone bill

"Try to think of the new powers as just an extended itemized phone bill," Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs this week in introducing the Investigatory Powers bill (PDF). Excellently sketching the scene in the Commons as the bill was unveiled, the Guardian's John Crace noted, "When Theresa May tells you to relax, the natural reflex is to do the exact opposite." Quite. Especially when the act she's introducing makes it entirely legal for GCHQ to hack any device they like.

I can see why May likes the analogy. 640px-Theresa_May_-_Home_Secretary_and_minister_for_women_and_equality.jpgIt sounds harmless and familiar, obviously unobjectionable. Other Yes, Minister language on display: "bulk", which means mass surveillance, and, my favorite, "equipment interference", which means hacking computers. The newly arrived "internet connection records" is not so easily translated, but seems to be the bit May had in mind with the "extended telephone bill" comparison.

At UCL, George Danezis has helpfully deconstructed the proposed law into its component "juicy bits". The ultra-short version seems to be that the UK government's response to Edward Snowden's revelations is to legalize everything that Snowden revealed the security services were already doing. This may explain Theresa May's reported characterization of the IP act as both granting and not granting new powers.

Additional helpful analyses include Andrew Cormack's study of the bill's encryption provisions, Chris Pounder's review of the history of bulk data collection; Paul Bernal's discussion of "internet connection records"; and the UK Human Rights blog's spotlight on oversight, authorization, and warrants . Simplifying the legal framework, strengthening oversight, and providing greater transparency were key recommendations that emerged from this spring's three reviews of Britain's communications surveillance laws.

Taken together, the picture is one in which very little of our online lives is off-limits. As Bernal says, the phone bill comparison is misleading: it utterly downplays the level of intrusion the bill appears to authorize. Less critically, David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, is pleased that the bill opens up Britain's surveillance laws for Parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Yes, although making sure Parliamentarians understand the technology involved will be a challenge.

We'll take three things here: the future and the phone bill metaphor; the separation of metadata (which I imagine is what is meant by "internet connection records") and content or meaning; and the notion that it isn't interception until a human accesses the data. The last of these was discussed here in July 2013; little has changed except that machine learning and data analytics have progressed significantly since then, and the risks of automated decision-making (as Bernal also explains) have only grown since then.

The origins of the separation of content and metadata are outlined in a forthcoming paper, "It's Too Complicated: The Technological Implications of IP-based Communications on the Content/Non-Content Distinction and the Third Part Doctrine" by Susan Landau, Steve Bellovin, Matt Blaze, and Stephanie K. Pell. In the US at least, it goes back to postal mail; the laws surrounding wiretapping were derived from rules that granted privacy protection to the contents of packages but not to the publicly visible address on the wrapping. Bellovin's talk about the paper outlines the difficulties they found in trying to apply this long-held distinction to IP-based communications under US law. UK law is somewhat different, but the difficulties they found seem to me to still apply: some metadata can be analyzed to reveal content; and content and metadata are much harder to separate than they were, a point made by the late Caspar Bowden back in 2013.

Phone bills were and are produced as a necessary part of billing for telephone service. This has never been true of internet connections, which are billed at a flat rate with, these days, some element of being based on the bulk amount of data you use every month. The systems that retain logs of what we do, where we go, and what we buy online are all aimed, in one way or another, at surveilling us, whether it's for the benefit of data-mining advertisers or data-mining governments. The benefit to us, other than the vague promise of "personalized" services, is unclear. As a separate issue, we are all able to look at and dispute our phone bills; probably only the technically savvy know how to analyze their internet connections using Wireshark.

But what happens in the future as the Internet of Things grows around us? Is the contact between your child's Hello Barbie and its mother ship an internet connection? When your fridge alerts your online grocery store that you're out of milk, is that one, too? Today, content and metadata are no longer fully separable; soon the physical and virtual worlds won't be either. The Scottish Daily Record reports that Suspect Search software running on Glasgow's CCTV system can track individuals as they move around the city - exactly what we were reassured years ago that CCTV couldn't do. Will these involuntary check-ins be internet connection records?

Run a few years into the future, and it's entirely possible that this bill will have granted the state far greater powers to probe deeply into our intimate lives than it ever dreamed of: basically, everything we touch will have to be regarded as a spy.


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. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.