What shall we do about the zombie apocalypse on Twitter?

November 10th, 2017 — 1:50pm

Imagine going about your daily life and never being sure if the people you meet around you are real humans. Some of them, no one knows quite how many, are AI powered robots that churn out the propaganda of their creators. They seem real at first but when they are engaged, it is clear that their brains that have been taken over by viral memes.  The television shows huge crowds of people cheering the president, but one day you come across one of these crowds and you realize they are all zombies, not one of them is real, or if some of them are real you can’t tell. What these zombies embody is the transformation of money into opinion, and their mission is to change society to suit their masters. They are programmed to love their masters with cult-like devotion, and their weapon against his enemies is channeled hate and rage. Their very existence is poison to the democratic ideal of one human, one voice; the foundation of modern society.

If you have spent any time on social media, you’ll realise that this situation is already a reality. This could not happen in real life where we can instantly tell if someone is a real human being or a zombie or a robot. But on the internet where “nobody knows you’re a dog“, the zombie apocalypse is an AI driven bot takeover that is already well underway. Twitter is awash with thousands of bots (though they argue the numbers), infecting debate, and the AI that powers the bots gets better all the time so that they can be difficult to identify.

The anarchy which characterized the early internet was sometimes fun, healthy even, but it has become infected with money. We are living in a time of great inequality, and some of the 0.001%, the super rich, have discovered how it is possible to engineer a populist base by creating armies of bots and paid trolls. These are being used to undermine the democracy of other nations, to influence elections, prop up dirty industry, and generally to further empower those who already hold wealth, against the interests of actual human beings. They work in tandem with some more mainstream media outlets, and also use more traditional lobbying and advertising to get what they want. The sales pitch is nothing very new, But the zombie takeover on social media is particularly insidious because it undermines the core touchstone of democracy and sanity in society, which is the will of the majority of the people.

This situation is regularly drawn to the attention of Twitter, whose users have already done a lot of the work in digging out these bot networks. These networks are a mixture of bot accounts and propaganda accounts run by users who are presumably under the employ of someone, like the famous Russian troll farms. Twitter closes down accounts which are overtly promoting violence or harassing others, but this basic policing does not affect those whose goal is simply to dominate and derail a conversation. Many accounts seem to stay dormant for months, then suddenly become active en-mass, creating an effect before the twitter teams can shut them all down, by which time the damage is already done.

The key problem is identifying if an account belongs to a real human being. Twitter verifies accounts, but this is a slow process. There needs to be a faster way to identify accounts that are bots or zombies and tag them so that they can be hidden, and don’t infect the dialogue. At the same time, there should be a way to tag an account as belonging to an ‘actual human’. Then users could apply their own filter to discriminate against bots or humans as they please. Real block lists do already exist but they are blunt instruments and place a lot of trust in their creators. What we need is complete transparency, so we can see who has verified who.

One solution I can think of is if there was a lineage of verification that users pass on to each other, which is visible, and could be used to judge the veracity of an account. By getting users to verify each other, a tree branching structure of verification would be created. Importantly, if one of those accounts in the tree turned out to be a bot, then the whole branch of verification below it would be cut off.

 

In such a network, the stem would verify a bunch of accounts who would go on to verify others. Every account’s verification could be traced back to a handful of original users who everyone knows are humans. The verification path would also be an interesting analysis of who is connected who on twitter, and could help to identify who to trust, apart from identifying just the worst bot networks. As well as verifying each other, everyone would also be able to ‘deverify’ a user who they thought was a troll. Such a user and all their verification tree below would then also be blocked to that user.

This is visualised below using real twitter data from the activity of troll hunter @peterdaou (one day 10/11/2017). Peter’s account could be used to verify a bunch of other accounts, then those ‘first tier’ like @leeladaou at level 1, who would go on to verify others at level 2 and so on.

Level 1 connections to @peterdaou

Level 2 connections to @peterdaou

Level 3 connections to @peterdaou

In the end you would create a system that creates and rewards users with greater integrity. Those who had been verified by lots of real people would be more valuable users to have in your likes. If a bot or troll somehow got verified and went on to verify a bunch of other trolls, then the whole branch could be cut off by identifying the account that made the original mistake.  New users to twitter might not even see unverified accounts by default.

This system wouldn’t have to exclude bots, but bots would become labelled as such, and once they could be identified, there would be a way of keeping them in, but excluding them from interactions where they were not wanted. The system would also not eliminate every angry real human troll on twitter but it would go a way to restoring the basis of what social networks were created to do – enable discussion and connections between ordinary people in real life.

I think that systems like this will take us towards Web 4.0, which is less anarchic, but also less zombie apocalypse than Web 3.0. It will strengthen the democratic basis of civil society as it exists on the web, reward integrity, and be a step towards combating the huge inequalities of wealth which are poisoning politics around the world at the moment.

 

Comment » | essay, nerdy

New recording of Accidentals

October 18th, 2017 — 12:46pm

I have made a garage recording of Accidentals with accompaniment from local wildlife.

The poems, which I wrote in 2008, are all on this website. I still have some of the paper copies left.

This is me in my garage studio. I actually was testing out a new microphone reading the poems and thought the result was kind of interesting with all the background noise, so decided to post it to my soundcloud.

Comment » | poem

The religion of science

September 11th, 2017 — 3:37pm

Science is not normally considered to be in the same category of thought as religions. And in some ways, it is in a different category. It doesn’t have quite the same ossified structures of most other religions, and it doesn’t have any human-like gods. But then it isn’t as old as most other religions, which in their own youth were also fervently bubbling with new ideas. And if we widen our conception of gods to include such abstracted but eternal entities such as ‘Truth’ and ‘Reason’, then science does have those gods. In thinking itself as superior to all (other) religions, science is exactly the same as them.

By framing science as a religion, we can gain a handle on science’s role in modern society and give it the tools to defend itself against the attacks from other schools of thought which beset it from time to time. Science is too easily dismissive of other systems of thinking, which incorporate irrational elements, or frame the acquisition of knowledge in a different way. By dismissing these systems and their followers, science is itself dismissed by the people for whom religion is important. By these people, science is already seen as a kind of religion, so to better present itself as an alternative to religious thinking systems science can look at it own roots, its own dogmas and eternal truths, its own miracles and prophesies.

When people dismiss science, they often treat it as a disparate group of people who are acting without an ethical framework or who are motivated by self interest. They fail to see that science has a hard ethical framework of its own. One ethical stance that science takes is its stance against dogma. At its heart, science encourages skepticism, and it encourages the questioning of its own dogma. This itself, is of course a kind of dogma. Science uses this method, this dogma, to find Truth. Finding Truth, knowing Truth, is where the quest of science is identical to that of many religions.

Science is not an acid bath of skeptical thought, and doubt has its limits.  To do science, it must be accepted that the only truths that matter are those which can be arrived at through observation of material phenomena.  There is no truth value given to realities which cannot be detected and reproduced and corroborated by multiple people. If anything, the dogma of doubt by default tends to regard such phenomena as false—this includes all the false gods of other religions.

Because all realms beyond the material fall into this category, Science can be dismissed as not grappling with many areas which religion touches such as life after death. By dismissing them, it can lacking the sort of gravity which a religion that has an all-powerful wish granting all knowing creator can claim to have. To answer these concerns science can point to its own deep eternal logics and methods, the beauty of its mathematics and the miracle of the universe.

But it can also point to the power of its own prophesy and the miracles which it can work. Here is where science shows its power over the old gods. The erection of lightning rods on churches was the moment when the scientific god of reason won its battle against these old cosmic foes. The march of science has been unstoppable ever since, winning battle after battle against the old schools of thought, conquering the demons of disease and famine, foretelling the rains and discovering the ancient stories of the earth.

Scientists can be cast as outsiders to culture, their roots not being grounded in the founding mythology of peoples, and having no sanctified rituals which are part of the daily life. But actually the roots of science are as deep as the bronze age. Many scientists would think it was a slur to call science a religion, but I think it helps us to understand and revere it for the powerful system of thought that it is. And in times when other religions seek special treatment from the state and science is cast as a mere mode of employment, I think it could benefit from some acknowledgement of its sanctity.

 

Comment » | drunken

New book: Bleeding Nose Poems

September 11th, 2017 — 3:10pm

Nones. No good can come of it.

So here is my new poem book: “Bleeding Nose Poems”. Is that a bit weird? The acronym is BNP, unintentionally.

 

You can buy it over on Lulu, but better still, send me a message on Twitter and I’ll send you an autographed copy, wherever you are.

A

Comment » | uncategorised

Evolution or Revolution

September 11th, 2017 — 2:54pm

A meritocracy is a kind of evolution, a social evolution. Like biological evolution, its business is to reward the survivors, and winnow out the weak. It is a hard game but the rules are set by Nature herself.

For all its advantages over less obviously fair systems of resource allocation, like systems based on dynastic rule, one disadvantage of a meritocracy gives license to those who do well in it to pat themselves on the back a bit for their good genetics and intelligence (forgetting the role of luck). It does not encourage charity – it believes that there really are ‘deserving poor’.

But perhaps meritocracies aren’t so different to dynasties after all. For if meritocracies are a good principle, why keep them only one generation deep when they can be inter-generational? Dynasties are simply meritocracies that are allowed to build up the merit from generation to generation. The opportunity to do so is itself part of the reward which a meritocracy provides to encourage us to strive. Evolution certainly passes on its rewards in this way, allowing species to accumulate their advantages.

Unlike a meritocracy though, evolution acts unevenly on organisms. Sometimes the competition is fierce, such as when landmasses join and a region is flooded with a new species; or when the climate changes and resources become scarce. But for many other times the competition wanes and organisms can become more experimental and exuberant, such as often happens on islands where e.g. dodos can experiment with flightlessness in the absence of predators. Most of these frivolities will quickly become extinct when the competition increases again, but occasionally some new idea is hit on which gives a significant advantage, a new weed emerges to conquer the world.

Possibly these little evolution holidays are essential to the development of complex new traits. Endless competition for resources is not a constant factor in any ecosystem, for sometimes resources are abundant.  So it should also be in a meritocracy – as well as the competition in the marketplace of ideas, there needs to be a safe place for experimentation.

Funnily enough this happens naturally if you allow dynasties to exist, as the rich create and inhabit a playground which is free from the competition under which everyone else must work. It also happens in the modern world within certain institutions – or with the apparatus of a beneficient state – perhaps one which provides a living wage – which takes the heat off the need to constantly engage in the struggle to succeed. The advantages of social apparatus over dynasties is that dynasties essentially rely upon the slavery of much of the population, whereas a social safety net enslaves no-one.

Where meritocracies fail I think, is where they fail to address that need for some space to play. Life needs room to innovate, there need to be good times as well as hard times. It’s a misconception that only through constant struggle will the best be brought out of us. This is the lie that is behind austerity movements, and the cutting of state safety nets. The argument for such cuts, when you get down to it, is that people must be left to make their own way by merit alone, there is no helping hand. But this is a myth – for a properly functioning system we must make resources available. Otherwise we will quickly revert to dynastic rule – and of course that seems to be happening with the vast inequalities of wealth that are now the norm in the west. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of the market-meritocracy that has existed in the west.

But a meritocracy is not the only way evolution can happen to society. The alternative is if instead of struggling against each other, we join together in the struggle against the wider universe – against the challenges posed by the Earth’s capacity to support our growing population for instance. For this we must come together and think as a single brilliant organism, and leave behind the sordid game of keeping each other down as we scramble to be at the top of the muck pile.

Comment » | essay

Holy Cow

July 12th, 2017 — 4:58pm

I’ve just agreed to milk one of the neighbour’s cows. Haven’t milked a cow since I was about 6, when I used to hang around with dad when he was on milking duty. Our lovely jersey cow Heidi was a good friend for me in those days, she was so gentle and her side was a wall of warm fur. One of the traumas of my early life was her death, we think it was with some sort of mastitis infection after her third calf that went bad. Dad burnt her on a bonfire and I caught sight of her partly burnt body, intestines spilling out, which image fixed itself in my mind and became the stock material of my nightmares for years after.

When I stayed in Krishna Valley in Somogyvámos, back in 1998, I remember one of the monks, Gábor, saying how when he started milking his fingers were in such agony, that for the first week they would only open and close in sort of ratcheted jerky way. Gabor and I used to shovel muck and hay together in the barnyard, but we didn’t talk much because his English was pretty fragmentary and my Hungarian was nonexistent (foolishly I didn’t use the opportunity to learn anything much).

Near Somogyvámos is the ruin of an old 12th century church, the ‘temple in the Puszta’.  Now it stands alone in the fields, which were thickly sown with sunflowers the year I was there, the village that once surrounded it now completely gone. But if you look at google maps you can make out the circular outlines of what might have been the village (red dots).

Nearby is the new Hare Krishna temple where I stayed for three months.  It stands out in google maps with it’s circular design, which is reminiscent of the circular plan of Auroville. I didn’t know about the church when i was there, no one mentioned it, and I only saw its ruined steeple from a distance as I wandered the fields in my time off.

There wasn’t much talk of the world outside the Krishna temple. We are all “Karmis” to the Krishnas, people caught up in the material world and the wheels of Karma, for which Bhakti devotion to Krishna (in the manner advocated by Hare Krishnas) is the only escape.

You can see some lines of trees between the fields. These are mostly composed of some local species of Robinia, with large thorns, which made meditating in their shade a slightly spiky adventure. There were also some nice leafy Quercus trees mixed in. It’s a lovely area of the world, especially in spring and summer, when it is full of hoverflies and swallows, and the heavy storms roll down from lake Balaton.

I think it was with the Krishnas that I was first exposed to a lot of Sanskrit texts, so I have to thank them for that. I remember being confounded by the avugida (vowel-consonant blending) of the Devanagari alphabet. Now that I am further along the Sanskrit road, I have discovered that the Sanskritdictionary.com website that I often use, is run by a former student of my teachers, who lives in Auroville.

I stayed at Auroville in 1997 for a few weeks when I was travelling in India. I enjoyed visiting their library every couple of days, and buying fresh bread from their fabulous bakery. The place was designed to be a city with concentric roads around the central Matrimandir, but the pace of development is slow.

Cycling the roads around there, I soon learned that I was at the bottom of the pecking order, below cars and trucks, and had to be quick to get out of the way. At the very top of the pecking order of course is the Holy Cow, which every vehicle would swerve wildly to avoid. Circles within circles.

 

Comment » | enlightenment, whimsy

Using Socioviz and Gephi to map the twitterverse

April 9th, 2017 — 5:34pm

For quite some time I have wished that Twitter had a native visualization tool that let you see what was trending in real time. There are lists of course, but I’m a visual person and there is so much potential for information in a good network visualization. I already knew what it should look like, as I’d been making similar visualizations using the free graph visualiser program GePhi for a few years, and I knew I could do it myself but the hurdle for me was always getting hold of the data and processing it – I never had the time with the tools that were then available. Well, I recently discovered Socioviz which makes it really easy to get hold of recent twitter data, searchable and downloadable in a file that can be exported straight into GePhi. With socioviz I have finally been able to make twitter visualisations and here’s what i’ve done so far..

This is an example of what the whole of the activity on twitter looks like, over a couple of seconds, when charted as a network using GePhi.

Here is a close up:

How to read this? All the names are people’s handles (with the @ removed from the front). A line is drawn between them when both handles feature in a single tweet (eg. in a reply or a retweet). If this happens more than once then the line gets thicker and this draws them closer together.

As a handle gets mentioned more and more then it’s dot (called a ‘node’) grows – or there is another way of displaying only those handles which are generating lots of tweets – more on that later.

In the images above you can see that ‘youtube‘ and’situt1011‘ were among the most popular handles on twitter in that instant when i got the data.*  They were obviously being included in a lot of retweets. If you look at the close up, you can see realdonaldtrump is there of course, not necessarily tweeting himself, but being included in other’s tweets (those who fan out around him). There are also a couple of little knotty patches of twitter handles all tweeting each other. Either they are all part of a large reply (now that twitter lets you include dozens of names in replies) that is getting a lot of retweets, or they are all tweeting at each other – behaviour which looks a bit suspiciously bot-driven. The accounts in the knot shown here are not particularly worth visiting.

 

 

If you focus on a keyword, or a hashtag, or a handle, socioviz lets you grab up to 5000 tweets (with an account) which include the string you are looking for. I ran this query on the handles @lindasuhler and @lousisemensch – and amalgamated a few days worth of data in GePhi, to see which user groups these two heavy twitter users had.  As anyone who follows US politics on twitter will know, these two users come from opposite ends of the political spectrum (@lindasuhler is also actually a suspected bot but that’s another story), but what really surprised me when I mapped both of their very large networks (based on a couple of day’s worth of data) is that there is virtually no crossover between them. It seems that apart from some connexions around wikileaks, followers of these two accounts are not interacting online at all. They could be interacting on other topics, which I didn’t check, but not in conversations that involve either @lindasuhler or @lousisemensch.

Because this tool is so fast now, I can do more or less real time analysis of emerging trends on twitter and plot the network to see what is really going on. I’ve done this recently on the #SyriaHoax hashtag which generated attention online as it seemed to come out of nowhere. There are lots of conspiracy theories about not only the ‘hoax’ itself, but also about who is starting these twitter storms – but simply looking at the data, it is easy to see who the main players are:

The first image shows a large chunk of twitter users who tweeted about #SyriaHoax in the days 6-8 April. The larger dots are the users who tweeted most often, led by paulieabeles. Some of these seem to have bot-like behaviour. Note that these users often don’t have many followers, and are often quitre new accounts. This contrasts with the other formations you can see – of a single popular user getting lots of single retweets from different users – which looks like a sort of dandelion seed head in these graphs (in this instance the largest of these in the bottom right corner is Caroline O).

 

By focusing on the most mentioned handles in a hashtag – in the example above I looked at #auspol activity for 4 April 2017 – what you see are the important topics of conversation, rather than busiest tweeters. It draws a different picture, and doesn’t draw out the heavy users, although it does still find out whatever their obsession of the moment is.

I hope this is interesting and if you’d like to see some more recent activity, have a look to see what I might have done on twitter today.

***

*a caveat: actually this wasn’t a complete snapshot, as it only included tweets that included certain english language characters like ‘a’. So it’s not a perfect representation of the whole. But I think it still gives the general idea)

 

Comment » | nerdy, whimsy

Hello, Singularity

March 17th, 2017 — 2:13pm

The singularity seems to be here. It just whooshed past, and we are in a new reality. OK?

Of course, the first thing you’ll notice is that we’re all still alive. The world still seems to be here. It wasn’t the end of the universe that some of us expected.

But something did end there, a few weeks ago. It was the world that we all knew and loved. Today we awake in a new and different world, and we, those who awake, are different too.

The Singularity was the culmination of the trend of advanced technology that accelerated us into an interconnectedness that has made us and the world fundamentally different. We are not separate like we once were. We share the same experience as we never did before.

My thought is instantly available to you, and everyone who is wired in, in an almost unfiltered form. I can tweet or write this or post a photo and instantly it is part of a shared consciousness, and you can respond with a comment or a simple ‘like’, a ping from the darkness. It is like we are neurons in a brain, firing a message back and forth, sharing information and making sense of it.

This has been increasing and accelerating for some years, ever since the first email, and speeding up, reaching criticality, so that all of us communicating like this is slowly creating something larger than any one of us can fathom. Somehow it is happening and now we are all sharing in the dim awakening of a super consciousness which encompasses us all.

We are still hampered by the challenges of language, by these fingers and this keyboard and this internet protocol or some other. But there has been a falling away of individuality, a sharing of intent and purpose. As time goes on it will become clearer, until one day we will turn around as one and with singular voice say ‘that was where I began — that was the singularity — I was born that day in early 2017’.

Comment » | whimsy

Trumpista phenomina

February 16th, 2017 — 4:02pm

So here we are. This morning I woke up feeling optimistic for the first time in months. So I revisited this old draft post, and decided to make it live, even though things are moving on already. I live on twitter too much these days and the rawness of events seems to get so much amplified there, that it is hard not to feel like the whole world will end in a snap. Maybe this is the singularity they have been talking about for all these years.. what I hope is that the twitter whale can rise above the divisions of hard opinions and closed minds.

***

A personal muse on election 2016

I don’t see the election of Trump as being inevitable, but rather as the result of the chance congruence of several factors.

Clearly there is a genuine protest vote and organic movement for change. There is also the charisma and personality of Trump himself – not likeable to many of us, but still a vital part of his appeal especially against the prospect of four more grey years of politics-as-usual.

Then we saw how the support or at least acquiescence of many major American news networks to Trump’s extreme views really helped to ‘normalise’ the whole thing, even when he ventured into completely uncharted territory of crime and vulgarity.

There was the Russian support and interference through fake news, troll armies and leaks to Julian Assange, all of which seems to have been conducted as a sort of game to amuse Putin.

Finally there was the well-known effect of republican gerrymandering, vote suppression and other cheats which seek to undermine an honest election process in subtle ways, difficult to quantify.

Given the closeness of the vote in the end, all of these factors I think can be considered necessary to bringing about the election result, but I’d argue that only the first two fit within what should be the normal paradigm of a well-functioning democracy. All the other factors exist because of the self-interested influences of power. They are not new – there has been money influencing the white house forever, undermining the sort of decision making that should occur there, and the way elections are fought. It does seem to have got worse, though, due to the enormous amount of money in fewer and fewer hands in recent years. Similarly the media has been run to ensure the interests of the very few rich media operators are protected, and these interests intersect with those that influence the white house directly. Only the Russian influence seems to be quite new to this election, an interference which reflects geopolitical power games, and Russian ingenuity which has shown how with a bit of money the news can be created or leaked, and then shaped and spread on the internet to influence ‘real’ opinions.

The trump card was Trump himself, and without his personality I don’t think all the other factors could have combined so effectively to keep Hilary from power. But Trump himself seems like an outsider to the whole process which has now placed him in the driver’s seat. The danger he faces is that all the vested interests which his election has benefited, including Russia and the GOP, will want to dispense with him if he doesn’t continue to be useful to them. The way in which they try to do this, and the way he chooses to retaliate, if he gets the chance, could create dangerous frictions. I am nervous that it will create a state of emergency in some way or other, which will be the justification of attacks on his enemies, and on the systems of government itself.

The other danger is that he actually is removed, and the party he leaves behind is left in the hands of the the hard core of the GOP (Pence), or the strange fanatics he surrounded himself with (Bannon), all the moderates having abandoned him during the election. People like Bannon have seriously ideological positions which seem certain to create conflict, in fact they probably invite it, using chaos as another means to an end. You only have to take an ideology of extreme intolerance – whatever it is that you are intolerant of – through to its logical conclusion and you have gulags, or war. Because what else are you going to do with all the intollerable people in the end? This is why tolerance has been at the heart of all modern/liberal democracies. I think I’ll talk about that more in another post.

Comment » | essay, whimsy

I might be wrong

September 28th, 2016 — 10:34pm

Doubt is the most potent of thoughts, the most humble. It is ok to look down the skeptical wormhole. You can always look away again later.

Poetry is the stink in the compost of decaying thought.  I would like to evolve in that.  Contrary to the theory of Darwinism, evolution happens best in the absence of competition. Invention needs a protected place to fool around.

In our dreams we are mostly free. So we should all work to make life resemble our dreams. It is our only hope.

xuanwei-su-bcc787aab6123c4fa5e0f3fd60d7a135

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