The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Incomprehensible privacy policies

Kevin Litman-Navarro, writing for the Times, analyzed dozens of privacy policies online for readability and brevity. The situation is grim:

The vast majority of these privacy policies exceed the college reading level. And according to the most recent literacy survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of Americans may struggle to comprehend dense, lengthy texts. That means a significant chunk of the data collection economy is based on consenting to complicated documents that many Americans can’t understand.

Despite efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation to make policies more accessible, there seems to be an intractable tradeoff between a policy’s readability and length. Even policies that are shorter and easier to read can be impenetrable, given the amount of background knowledge required to understand how things like cookies and IP addresses play a role in data collection.

“You’re confused into thinking these are there to inform users, as opposed to protect companies,” said Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

As data collection practices become more sophisticated (and invasive), it’s unlikely that privacy policies will become any easier to comprehend. And if states continue to draft their own data protection laws, as California is doing with its Consumer Privacy Act, privacy policies could balloon with location-specific addendums.

Litman-Navarro called out the BBC for its readable, short policy that explains to normal people exactly how the Beeb will use their data. He also called out AirBnB for the opposite: a lawyerly document of incredible length that tells users nothing.

Here at the Daily Parker, we only collect your personal information (specifically, your email address and name) if you give it to us through the Comment form, and we don't show your email address to anyone. Sometimes we will use it to get in touch with you directly about a comment you've left. Otherwise we treat it as we treat our own private information. Clear?

Sod off, bra

The secular Israelis who work at a Jerusalem coffee shop got so sick of ultra-right religious nutters screaming at them that they chose a targeted counter-protest:

Bastet, a vegan and LGBT-friendly cafe whose blue tables spill across a central Jerusalem sidewalk, is a secular oasis for residents seeking Saturday refreshment in a city that largely comes to a standstill for the Jewish Sabbath.

But each week, a procession of ultra-Orthodox men, some in their finest fur hats and gold robes, invariably marches past in a show of displeasure at the cafe’s desecration of the day of rest. “Shabbos!” they chant, using the Yiddish word for the Sabbath.

On a recent Saturday, the wait staff struck back, lifting their shirts to reveal their bras in an attempt to push back the religiously conservative demonstrators.

But while the Bastet staff may have won a small reprieve, the wider battle is only expected to escalate. The ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, make up only 12 percent of the population but are the fastest-growing segment of Israelis, with women giving birth to an average of 6.9 children.

In the early days of the Israeli state, many of the ultra-Orthodox were opposed to the secular Zionist movement that created it, fearing it would eradicate their form of Judaism. Now, they are increasingly using their power in Israel’s 120-member parliament, where they most recently won 16 seats, to promote and protect their interests, rather than shunning it.

Ah, religion. If you believe a supernatural, all-powerful entity has sanctioned your desire to do nothing but pray all day, every day, you might run into conflicts with the other several billion people in the world who find this behavior parasitical (or, at least, a head-slapping example of the free rider problem).

And yet this is how a significant minority of Israelis behave. Not only do they find it offensive that the majority of Israelis want them to, you know, give something back for all the privileges they receive, but also they find it offensive that the majority of Israelis don't sit around talking to the supernatural entity all day.

I'm glad to see, with the inability of Benyamin Netanyahu to get concessions from the center-right about these issues, that secular Israelis have had enough and have started pushing back in earnest.

About that Russian ship playing chicken

On Friday (Thursday evening in the US) the Russian destroyer Vinogradov maneuvered to within 30 meters of the USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea:

According to Cmdr. Clay Doss of the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Chancellorsville was recovering its helicopter while maintaining a steady course when the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said in a statement. “We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional.”

The Russian statement, however, said the U.S. cruiser “suddenly changed directions and came within 50 meters [164 feet] of the Russian destroyer.” Russia, which stated that the incident took place in the East China Sea, said its ship was forced to perform an emergency maneuver and warned the American ship of inadmissible actions.

According to a senior US Navy Surface Warfare Officer with whom I spoke, the Chancellorsville was "flying limited maneuvering and Hotel," meaning they had flags on their mast signaling to other ships in the area that they were unable to maneuver freely because they were recovering a helicopter. The Russian crew had no doubt that the American ship would continue in a straight line at low speed no matter what the Russians did. (The officer declined to be identified because the Navy did not authorize our conversation.)

When I asked about the forbearance of the Chancellor's skipper, the officer replied, "I know what I would have done," adding that the rules of engagement allow any military asset to take defensive action, including using lethal force, without waiting for orders if there is an immediate threat.

"Back in the Cold War, the Soviet navy behaved very professionally, since no one wanted to destroy the world because a 19-year-old kid turned the boat the wrong direction by mistake," the officer continued. "We all kept in our lanes. But in the last few years, they've gotten reckless."

The conclusion: the Russian captain, obviously acting under orders from much higher up, deliberately provoked the US warship in a "saber-rattling" maneuver.

Fun times. I think I liked the Soviet navy better than this new Russian one.

Meanwhile, in London...

As the only president we have leaves the UK after a bizarre visit, he leaves behind a collection of inventive and colorful protest effigies:

A giant rendering of US President Donald Trump astride a golden toilet while tweeting has appeared in Central London ahead of protests against Mr Trump’s state visit.

The 16-foot model, nicknamed “Dump Trump”, reportedly also has an audio function that makes fart noises and repeats the president's most famous statements, including “no collusion”, “witch-hunt”, “you are fake news” and “I’m a very stable genius.”

“Dump Trump” appeared early on Tuesday in Trafalgar Square, ahead of the planned demonstration.

More seriously, when speaking with an uncomfortable Irish premier Leo Varadkar, the president compared the Irish/UK border with his own fantasy of a wall between the US and Mexico. I can imagine how well that went over well in Derry:

“I think it will all work out very well, and also for you with your wall, your border,” he said at a joint press conference. “I mean, we have a border situation in the United States, and you have one over here. But I hear it’s going to work out very well here.”

Varadkar interjected that Ireland wished to avoid a border or a wall, a keystone of Irish government policy.

“I think you do, I think you do,” Trump said. “The way it works now is good, you want to try and to keep it that way. I know that’s a big point of contention with respect to Brexit. I’m sure it’s going to work out very well. I know they’re focused very heavily on it.”

In London on Tuesday Trump met the Brexiter politicians Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, all of whom have played down the idea that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be a problem after the UK leaves the EU.

The Irish government has mounted an intense, three-year diplomatic effort arguing the opposite, that Brexit threatens peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland.

I find it baffling how vulnerable he is to other charlatans and frauds. I doubt anyone with a sense of...well, sense would trust anything Farage or Smith say about...well, anything. And that's true of Trump as well.

Anti-intellectualism lives on both sides

Williams College Biology Professor Luana Maroja sounds the alarm as she sees students challenging long-established science on political grounds:

The trouble began when we discussed the notion of heritability as it applies to human intelligence.

I asked students to think about the limitations of the data, which do not control for environmental differences, and explained that the raw numbers say nothing about whether observed differences are indeed “inborn”—that is, genetic.

There is, of course, a long history of charlatans who have cited dubious “science” as proof that certain racial and ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. My approach has been to teach students how to see through those efforts, by explaining how scientists understand heritability today, and by discussing how to interpret intelligence data—and how not to.

In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true. In fact, IQ can certainly be measured, and it has some predictive value. While the score may not reflect satisfaction in life, it does correlate with academic success. And while IQ is very highly influenced by environmental differences, it also has a substantial heritable component; about 50 percent of the variation in measured intelligence among individuals in a population is based on variation in their genes. Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.

Similar biological denialism exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology.

She concludes that this has a chilling effect on education and research. It's pretty scary.

How to get rid of religious nutters

Short answer: use their medieval beliefs against them:

Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel have held protests against the scheduling of the Eurovision Song Contest on the Jewish Sabbath.

At one point, a small number of women held a counter protest, showing their bras.

You see, Jewish crazies believe in modesty to the point where women can't even show their real hair in public (they wear wigs). Their rules also prohibit them from touching members of the opposite sex not related to them, leaving open the option of a small group of women approaching them Romero-style with their arms out threatening to touch the zealots. I expect that's the next counter-protest.

Closer to home, production companies have started to flee the previously-burgeoning film industry in Georgia after the state passed a 19th-century anti-abortion law, and Missouri's new law has forced me to reconsider my planned trip to Busch Stadium in September.

A warm, cozy feeling at Mauna Loa

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide had reached 415 ppm on Friday:

In poetic punctuation to that point, Arkhangelsk, Russia, near the Arctic Ocean, recorded a temperature of 29°C Saturday:

In Koynas, a rural area to the east of Arkhangelsk, it was even hotter on Sunday, soaring to 87 degrees (31 Celsius). Many locations in Russia, from the Kazakhstan border to the White Sea, set record-high temperatures over the weekend, some 30 to 40 degrees (around 20 Celsius) above average. The warmth also bled west into Finland, which hit 77 degrees (25 Celsius) Saturday, the country’s warmest temperature of the season so far.

Across the Arctic overall, the extent of sea ice has hovered near a record low for weeks.

Data from the Japan Meteorological Agency show April was the second warmest on record for the entire planet.

These changes all have occurred against the backdrop of unremitting increases in carbon dioxide, which has now crossed another symbolic threshold.

Why is 415 ppm a "symbolic threshold?" Because for years, climate scientists have believed that at 415 ppm, we can't undo the damage; we can only slow it down a little. Even if we return to pre-industrial levels (280 ppm), we now have too much carbon in the atmosphere to stop radical climate change:

For the planet itself, 415 ppm is no BFD. Over the past 4 billion years or so, it’s been much, much higher. But for us humans, 415 is a very dangerous number. The last time CO2 levels were at 415 ppm, during the Pliocene period about 3 million years ago, there was plenty of life on Earth, but the Earth itself was a radically different place. Beech trees grew near the South Pole. There was no Greenland ice sheet, and probably not a West Antarctic ice sheet, either. Sea levels were 50 or 60 feet (or more) higher.

That’s the world we’re creating for ourselves by pushing carbon dioxide levels to 415 ppm. Right now, a lot of atmospheric warming is being absorbed in the oceans. But those oceans are like a big flywheel, and the heat will be radiated out. That means, among other things, goodbye ice sheets, hello condo diving in Miami.

One way to think about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is as a thermostat for the planet. As you’ll remember from third-grade science class, carbon dioxide is exhaled by animals, including humans, and inhaled by plants. It is also released when plants and animals decay, volcanoes erupt, and, most importantly, when we burn fossil fuels. Last year, we dumped about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The more coal, oil and gas we burn, the faster that number rises. Before the Industrial Revolution, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm. Sixty years ago, it was 315 ppm. For the past few years, it has been rising by about 2 or 3 ppm a year.

That might not sound like much. However, carbon dioxide molecules happen to be very good at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Scientists have understood this very well since the 19th century. Carbon dioxide molecules are like the prison guards of the Earth’s atmosphere — they let sunlight in, but they don’t let heat out. Scientists argue about exactly how efficient carbon dioxide is at warming the Earth, but there is basic agreement that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 280 ppm will warm the Earth’s atmosphere by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.

We predicted this in time to slow it down or even stop it. Nice work, team.

Jallianwalh Bagh, 100 years later

One hundred years ago this hour (Sunday 13 April 1919, 17:37 HMT), Brig. General Reginald Dyer order his men to fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian civilians within an enclosed space from which they had no escape:

On the afternoon of April 13, a crowd of at least 10,000 men, women, and children gathered in an open space known as the Jallianwalla Bagh, which was nearly completely enclosed by walls and had only one exit. It is not clear how many people there were protesters who were defying the ban on public meetings and how many had come to the city from the surrounding region to celebrate Baisakhi, a spring festival. Dyer and his soldiers arrived and sealed off the exit. Without warning, the troops opened fire on the crowd, reportedly shooting hundreds of rounds until they ran out of ammunition. It is not certain how many died in the bloodbath, but, according to one official report, an estimated 379 people were killed, and about 1,200 more were wounded. After they ceased firing, the troops immediately withdrew from the place, leaving behind the dead and wounded.

The shooting was followed by the proclamation of martial law in the Punjab that included public floggings and other humiliations. Indian outrage grew as news of the shooting and subsequent British actions spread throughout the subcontinent. The Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore renounced the knighthood that he had received in 1915. Gandhi was initially hesitant to act, but he soon began organizing his first large-scale and sustained nonviolent protest (satyagraha) campaign, the noncooperation movement (1920–22), which thrust him to prominence in the Indian nationalist struggle.

The government of India ordered an investigation of the incident (the Hunter Commission), which in 1920 censured Dyer for his actions and ordered him to resign from the military. Reaction in Britain to the massacre was mixed, however. Many condemned Dyer’s actions—including Sir Winston Churchill, then secretary of war, in a speech to the House of Commons in 1920—but the House of Lords praised Dyer and gave him a sword inscribed with the motto “Saviour of the Punjab.” In addition, a large fund was raised by Dyer’s sympathizers and presented to him. The Jallianwalla Bagh site in Amritsar is now a national monument.

At an inquest after the event, Dyer had no remorse for his actions, and volunteered that had he managed to get the tank he had with him into the square, he would have used its cannon to further attack the civilians.

Both the massacre and the inquest were dramatized in the 1982 film Gandhi, which won Best Picture that year.

The Commons debate about the incident that took place on 8 July 1920 offers some context for the current Commons debate about Brexit. Indeed, the massacre and its aftermath should put paid any notions that the United Kingdom has always stood up for human rights, even in the last century, or has a particular sensitivity to its own citizens who come from outside the British Isles.

In the debate, the Secretary of State for War, a Mr. Churchill of some repute, gave the view I should hope all Britons would have had:

If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. I deeply regret to find myself in a difference of opinion from many of those with whom, on the general drift of the world's affairs at the present time, I feel myself in the strongest sympathy; but I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army, for us to take a load of that sort for all time upon our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or other, that this is not the British way of doing business.

Reading through the debate, however, it almost seems as if Churchill were in the minority. He wasn't, but only because the less-racist MPs in the House at that moment largely kept quiet.

The thinking behind Dyer's mass murder led directly to the thinking behind Lord Louis Mountbatten's precipitous and disastrous withdrawal from India in 1947, whose principal consequence has been 72 years of nonstop hostilities between India and Pakistan. And it leads directly to Brexit.

Readings between meetings

On my list today:

Back to meetings...

EU votes on Daylight Saving Time

The European Union Parliament today voted 410-192 to allow member states to end Daylight Saving Time in 2021:

The vote is not the last word on the issue but will form the basis of discussions with EU countries to produce a final law.

The countries have yet to take a stance.

A parliament report in favour of operating on a single time throughout the year said scientific studies link time changes to diseases of the cardiovascular or immune systems because they interrupt biological cycles, and that there were no longer any energy savings.

What this actually means requires one more EU-wide step:

All 28 member states would need to inform the European Commission of their choice ahead of the proposed switch, by April 2020. They would then coordinate with the bloc's executive so that their decisions do not disrupt the functioning of the single market.

Last year, the European Commission proposed abolishing the seasonal clock change after an EU-wide online poll showed overwhelming support. It has been accused, however, of rushing through the vote ahead of European Parliament elections in May. 

More:

Countries that wanted to be permanently on summertime would adjust their clocks for the final time on the last Sunday in March 2021. Those that opt for permanent wintertime would change their clocks for the final time on the last Sunday of October 2021.

The British government has yet to offer any formal opinion on the proposal, which risks creating fresh problems over the status of Northern Ireland after Brexit.

I think we can predict, just by looking at longitude, which countries will go which direction. The UK has made noises that it will keep the twice-yearly time changes, thank you very much. My guess is that Portugal, Spain, the Baltics, and other countries at the western ends of their time zones will opt for standard time, while other countries will go to summer time. That would prevent the problems I outlined when this measure first came into the news a few weeks ago.