Wednesday October 06, 2021
Personalized Algorithmic Amplification and Its Discontents
“Our social media feeds are full of unbidden and fringe content, thanks to social media's embrace of two key technological developments: personalization, spurred by mass collection of user data through web cookies and Big Data systems, and algorithmic amplification, the use of powerful artificial intelligence to select the content shown to users. ...
”When data scientists and software engineers blend content personalization and algorithmic amplification — as they do to produce Facebook's News Feed, TikTok's For You tab and YouTube's recommendation engine — they create uncontrollable, attention-sucking beasts. ... They perpetuate biases and affect society in ways that are barely understood by their creators, much less users or regulators. ... Social media platforms [also] have a fundamental economic incentive to keep users engaged. This ensures that these feeds will continue promoting the most titillating, inflammatory content.
“The solution is straightforward: Companies that deploy personalized algorithmic amplification should be liable for the content these algorithms promote. This can be done through a narrow change to Section 230, the 1996 law that lets social media companies host user-generated content without fear of lawsuits for libelous speech and illegal content posted by those users.
”As [Facebook whistleblower Frances] Haugen testified, 'If we reformed 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.'“
-- Roddy Lindsay, ”I Designed Algorithms at Facebook. Here's How to Regulate Them," a guest editorial in The New York Times
Tuesday August 10, 2021
The Stupid Giant
My research on screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner for “The Mind Reader” made me want to see more of their work, so I was checking out the 1933 Edward G. Robinson movie “The Little Giant” on Amazon Prime. (Review here.) First I noticed the description had a bit of wit for a change, though it's a little sloppy: “...don't let the door smack your backside on way out.” Then I noticed the three credited actors and thought, “Huh, there was an actor named Ewan McGregor back then?”
No. It's the same Ewan McGregor. Amazon Prime just has him listed in a 1933 Edward G. Robinson movie. Because Amazon.
I noticed this last week, told them about it via Twitter, it still hasn't been fixed. And yes, they, or IMDb (the same parent company), still haven't fixed the “Monster” and “Millionaire” glitches from earlier this year and last year.
I know there are way worse problems in the world. But to paraphrase Hal Holbrook in “All the President's Men,” I hate inexactitude.
Friday February 26, 2021
Sacha Baron Cohen: 'This handful of people has the power of emperors'
“When I did bump into people from Silicon Valley at Hollywood parties—because, yeah, billionaires want to go to Hollywood parties and meet celebrities—I would try to get them in a corner and say, 'Listen, this is going on, and it's going to lead to the end of democracy.' I'd give them my whole schpiel, and they were ultimately, 'Oh, I thought you were going to be a bit funnier.'
”So at one point I had quite a heated discussion with one of them at an art gallery thing in San Francisco about Holocaust deniers, just asking why they were allowing Holocaust denying, and he said, 'No, we're not, we've sorted all that out.' And I pulled up their website and said 'What about this?' And it was a [link to a] website saying that six million was a lie; it was a Holocaust denial site. And he said, 'No, that just really shows both sides of the argument.' And I said, 'What — what argument??? There's an argument about whether the Holocaust existed?'
“You have this fundamental realization that a lot of these people, they're incredibly smart in a tiny area, but they should not be given the reins of power. I mean, it's so mad that this handful of people has the power of emperors. This period will be looked on as absurd: that government did not intervene earlier; that these people are allowed to profit off of spreading lies that lead to mass death.
”When Mark Zuckerberg says he is a defender of free speech, he is lying. The U.S. Constitution says that Congress—not companies, Congress—shall make no law abridging free speech. So that does not apply to private businesses like Twitter and Facebook. If they want to ban violent rhetoric and harassment, they have every right to do so. And the analogy I made at the ADL [speech in 2019] was that if a neo-Nazi comes goose-stepping into a restaurant and starts threatening customers and says he wants to kill Jews, the resturant owner has every legal right, and actually a moral obligation, to kick that Nazi out. And so do the internet companies. The idea that they were the defenders of free speech is ludicrous. I mean, they make editorial decisions continually. They don't allow nipples but they did allow Nazis.
“It's a lie. It's a lie that they're using to make money.”
-- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Sacha Baron Cohen Has a Message for Mark Zuckerberg,” on The New York Times website. Worth listening to.
Sunday February 14, 2021
- Go to Lon Chaney's IMDb page
- Click on The Monster from 1925
- Near top, there is a blue bar urging you to “Watch on Prime Video”; click on it
- You are taken to Amazon Prime's page for the 1975 movie, “The Monster,” starring Joan Collins
- The Lon Chaney movie
I wrote about this phenomenon last May, when IMDb's page for the 1931 George Arliss movie “The Millionaire” took me to the 2015 Russian TV series “The Millonaire.”
A few months ago, I contacted Amazon's customer service about this, hoping they'd fix it, but it was like customer service most places these days: not very service-oriented. For one thing they kept saying they were sorry “about the trouble you are facing,” when I was just trying to alert them to a bug they have. At one point, the rep wrote “I understand while searching in prime video it shows different movies and you like to correct this bug, Am I right, Erik?” I was like “Sure ... don't you?”
Of course, neither bug has been fixed. Probably sev 4s. If they still use such designations. If they still fix bugs.
Wait. Oh, shit, it gets worse. That 1975 Joan Collins movie? It's not even called “The Monster” on IMDb. It's called “Sharon's Baby,” or “I Don't Want to Be Born,” or, in the trivia section, “The Devil Within Her,” but never “The Monster.” Prime, meanwhile, has a separate “The Devil Within Her” listing, which at least gets the IMDb rating correct (4.1); Prime's “The Monster” lists the Chaney movie's IMDb rating (6.2).
Someone should make a movie about a giant tech company that swallows other tech companies, and whose left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing. They can call it “The Monster.”
Thursday January 14, 2021
More IMDb Disconnect
When Michael Apted died last week, most headlines referenced two of his acclaimed movies/projects: “Coal Miner's Daughter” from 1980, and the “Up” series, which began in 1964 and continued into 2019. It's what people who care about cinema think of when they think of Apted. It's what I would've thought of.
Meanwhile, over at IMDb, now owned and operated by Amazon, this is what its algorithms say Apted is known for:
“Rome” is a good, truncated HBO series. “The World is Not Enough” is lesser, lesser Bond. Haven't seen the others.
I remember a time when IMDb felt like it was a place for people who cared about cinema.
Monday November 23, 2020
Suspended from Twitter for 12 Hours
Last week, former Bush speechwriter and current senior editor at The Atlantic David Frum tweeted that Congress was approving more conservative judges during this lame-duck session, which was without precedent, and my anger at Mitch McConnell was stoked anew. I dashed off this response, then, whistling a happy tune, went for a walk:
When I returned and logged onto Twitter, I found, instead of the usual feed, a message telling me I'd been suspended from the site for 12 hours for violating its rules against abuse and harassment. “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm.”
They had a link where you could argue your case, and I believe I had one: It was obviously a joke, or a metaphor, and anyway the harm Mitch McConnell is visiting upon our country is a million times worse than my little tweet. But then I just thought: Naw, fuck it. Besides, I really do mean it. I want Mitch McConnell kicked in the nuts. On some level, it's unfathomable to me that the man is able to walk around D.C. without at least three people a day taking a shot. So I didn't argue my case. I took the punishment. If it was punishment. It was kind of freeing, to be honest. I had to delete the tweet, but I could still scroll through Twitter; I just couldn't tweet, retweet, like, or comment on anything. Sometimes I forgot and tried to like something, but mostly the 12 hours, half of which were sleeping hours, went like that. I spent more time on legit news sites. I spent more time reading.
I'm glad they're policing. I just wish they did it better. Mis/disinformation is the battle and we're losing it every day on all of these social media platforms.
Monday October 26, 2020
What is Bo Derek Known for?
Bo Derek in “10.”
Yes, it's another KNOWN FOR debacle from IMDb. These are fun. Wish I didn't have to do them. I wish Amazon cared about its film site.
So, according to IMDb, what is Bo Derek known for? Wait. First for the kids: Who is Bo Derek?
In the late 1970s, Bo has a supporting role in the Blake Edwards/Dudley Moore comedy “10” as the titular fantasy fixation. That was the first time I'd ever heard of this rating system, by the way. I was 16 and thought: “Wait, what? We're supposed to do what? Rate women on a scale from one to what?” Don't know if I ever used it much, and I doubt young men use it today, but I guess for a time men rated women in this manner, and Bo was supposed to be the pinnacle: the perfect 10. The movie got good reviews, did great at the box office (it was the seventh-biggest grosser of 1979), piqued interest in Ravel's “Bolero,” and made a star out of Dudley Moore. But it was Bo who became the phenomenon. Everyone was talking about her. She was on the cover of every magazine. I'm sure tons of movie offers rolled in.
But she didn't do any of those. Instead, she made movies written and directed by her husband, John Derek.
Also for the kids: Who is John Derek? He was the reason I was looking at Bo's IMDb page in the first place. The other night I was watching Nicholas Ray's “Run for Cover,” starring James Cagney, and Derek has the secondary role, which ... which was him. In the 1950s, he was the cute, lightweight, second. He played Joshua, for example, in “The Ten Commandments” (his own “10” movie), but apparently he didn't like acting much, and in the mid-1960s he traded it in for a directing career: “Nightmare in the Sun” with Ursulla Andress, and “Childish Things” with Linda Evans, among others. These actresses weren't just his stars, either; they were his wives. He was married to Ursula 1957-1966 and to Linda Evans 1969-1975. In 1976, at age 49, he married Bo. She was 19. It was kind of creepy. It was like he kept trading in the same beautiful, high-cheekboned, Nordic woman for a newer model.
It gets creepier. In 1981, in the aftermath of all the “10” attention, a low-budget, soft-core movie, “Fantasies,” starring Bo, and directed by John, was released. Except it wasn't filmed in the aftermath of “10.” It was filmed in Greece. In 1973. Back when Bo was called Mary Cathleen Collins of Long Beach, Calif. And she was 16.
In the real aftermath of “10,” instead of making any of the studio pics she was offered, Bo played Jane in John Derek's “Tarzan, the Ape Man.” It did OK box office ($36 mil, the 15th highest-grosser of the year), but the reviews were scathing (10% on Rotten Tomatoes). Three years later, John directed her in “Bolero,” about a 1920s movie fan who travels to Europe to lose her viriginity. It made less money ($9 mil, the 83rd highest-grosser of the year), and the reviews were even more scathing (0% on RT). Five years after that, John directed her in “Ghosts Can't Do It,” which made ... $25k? I guess? It's hard to figure its box-office take because the movie was barely released in theaters. It was certainly never reviewed. By then, no one cared. By then, the national “Bo” was somebody else.
And that was that. There went her career. She was in “10,” did crap for her husband, disappeared.
So back to the original question: According to IMDb's algorithms, what is Bo Derek known for? Here you go:
Yes. Not “10.”
I guess I kind of see it? “Tommy Boy” is there because Farley/Spade are still popular, “Bolero” and “Tarzan” are for the soft-core boys, and “Ghost Can't Do It” because it includes a cameo by Donald Trump. For which he won a Razzie. Back then.
Plus who watches “10” anymore?
But it's still wrong. The chart below is how often her name comes up, historically, on newspapers.com. That peak in 1980 is more than 26,000 mentions. Then the long slog downward.
The question for IMDb is this: How do you incorporate such historical information into the “Known For” algorithm? Or should they keep the algorithm as it is—about who comes to IMDb—but just change the title? That would be the easy solution. But I expect no solution. Since I doubt they see a problem.
The bigger lesson here is the Hamiltonian one: Don't throw away your shot.
Here's a bonus via newspapers.com: My father's 1984 review of “Bolero.”
Saturday September 26, 2020
Still Waiting on that Universal Translator
Tacoma News Tribune, April 11, 1953, although it was syndicated all over the place.
Can't find much on Sullivan. Retired from Pacific Telephone and Telegraph in 1961, was on the board of New York Life, was elected chairman of Allied Properties in 1973, and his wife, Alice, died in 1980 at the age of 85. He survived her. Can't find his obit.
Tuesday June 30, 2020
Leaving Facebook VII
“The frenzied push-pull [RE: Trump threatening to send the military to the Minnesota protests in late May] was just the latest incident in a five-year struggle by Facebook to accommodate the boundary-busting ways of Trump. The president has not changed his rhetoric since he was a candidate, but the company has continually altered its policies and its products in ways certain to outlast his presidency.
”Facebook has constrained its efforts against false and misleading news, adopted a policy explicitly allowing politicians to lie, and even altered its news feed algorithm to neutralize claims that it was biased against conservative publishers, according to more than a dozen former and current employees and previously unreported documents obtained by The Washington Post. One of the documents shows it began as far back as 2015, when as a candidate Trump posted a video calling for a ban of Muslims entering the United States. Facebook's executives declined to remove it, setting in motion an exception for political discourse.
“The concessions to Trump have led to a transformation of the world's information battlefield. They paved the way for a growing list of digitally savvy politicians to repeatedly push out misinformation and incendiary political language to billions of people. It has complicated the public understanding of major events such as the pandemic and the protest movement, as well as contributed to polarization.
”And as Trump grew in power, the fear of his wrath pushed Facebook into more deferential behavior toward its growing number of right-leaning users, tilting the balance of news people see on the network, according to the current and former employees.“
”Zuckerberg once wanted to sanction Trump. Then Facebook wrote rules that accommodated him," in The Washington Post
Sunday June 07, 2020
Leaving Facebook IV
When I was clearing out my Facebook account last fall, and I deleted all of my photos, this was what was left on the page:
You see it? That ghostly image under “Create Album” in the upper left? I saw it right away. Maybe because I see it in my nightmares. Maybe because it's been our national nightmare three years running. Apparently it's also the ghost in the Facebook machine. It's so weird and unnecessary. It's not like any of the albums had anything to do with him. So why was it there?
And if it's not Trump, who or what is it?
I searched online but haven't seen anyone else commenting on this phenomenon. Maybe because no one else deleted all their shit before deleting their account? FB recently changed its design so it's probably not there anymore. But why was it there to begin with? A final “fuck you” from Facebook before I headed out the door? Part of its idiot algorithms? “Hey, you keep writing ”Yankees“ [suck], so why not buy some Yankees memorabilia?” “Hey, you keep posting about Trump, so we‘ll leave you with this ghostly image under your photos. Oh, don’t bother thanking us. We enjoy doing it.”
I really do wonder about Zuckerberg sometimes. Winklevoss twins, we hardly knew ye.
Monday June 01, 2020
Leaving Facebook III
From last week's Wall Street's Journal article, “Facebook Knows It Encourages Division. Top Executives Nixed Solutions: The social-media giant internally studied how it polarizes users, then largely shelved the research”:
The high number of extremist groups was concerning, the presentation says. Worse was Facebook's realization that its algorithms were responsible for their growth. The 2016 presentation states that “64% of all extremist group joins are dude to our recommendation tools” and that most of the activity came from the platform's “Groupss You Should Join” and “Discover” algorithms: “Our recommendation systems grow the problem.”
No shit. Sadly, the man in charge didn't give a shit:
The debate got kicked up to Mr. Zuckerberg, who heard out both sides in a short meeting, said people briefed on it. His response: Do it, but cut the weighting by 80%. Mr. Zuckerberg also signaled he was losing interesting in the effort to recalibrate the platform in the name of social good, they said, asking that they not bring him something like that again.
Message to Mark:
Wednesday May 27, 2020
Leaving Facebook II
Follow-up to yesterday's post about deleting my Facebook account: They don't make it easy.
I'm not talking about what I went through—deleting everying in the account before actually deleting the account. I'm talking about the latter: the hoops FB makes you jump through.
(Quick aside: They also seemed to send me more friend suggestions the more friends I deleted from my account. I was down to six total friends, and I'd be off the site for, say, two months, and come back to a huge red number (interactions or whatever it was) in the upper right, and they were all friends suggestions from FB's algorithm. And they were all wrong.)
OK, so after deleting everything in the account, I googled to see how you actually deleted the account, then navigate to that spot on the platform. First, FB gave me a choice:
- Deactivate Account
- Permanently Delete Account
The latter came with a big, redundant warning about what this meant: “Deleting your account is permanent.” I clicked that option and then clicked: CONTINUE TO ACCOUNT DELETION. Done and done.
Except the next page reminded me that deleting would mean losing Messenger. Wouldn't I rather simply Deactivate? So as not to lose Messenger? Since it's so great? FB also gave me the option to download my informaton. According to FB, I still had 140 photos and 42 posts somewhere in my account. I was vaguely curious—I thought I'd scrubbed every corner—but I said “screw it” and pressed on: DELETE ACCOUNT. Done.
Except this time I got a pop-up: password. Right. CONTINUE.
Another pop-up. Yet another confirmation message. Yet another “Are you sure?” I clicked: DELETE ACCOUNT.
And that was the click that finally worked. Sort of. FB was giving me 30 days to think it over.
Nothing has made me happier to leave Facebook than the leaving of it.