The Affinities. Facebook that doesn’t suck, and the consequences

It wasn’t that long ago it struck me, watching the Twitter-war of the nanosecond: the social media killer app is just really fast ethnogenesis, the process by which a nation is created. Or was it: thank God these people haven’t got a finance ministry and can’t collect tax, or else there’d be a no kidding war?

The Affinities is the book for that feeling. In the near future, someone’s invented a social network app that actually works. Using a variety of survey-based, psychological, neurological, and biochemical tests, InterAlia will find the people you can get things done with.

It’s not that they’re like you. That would be mediocre at best. It’s not an IQ test, or anything that corny or racist. It’s that they’re…your people. The scene you were looking for when you buggered off. The right people to have in your Dunbar number.

The beauty of it is that they might come from any walk of life, enriching the gang – sorry – the affinity – with ideas, skills, and perspective. A while ago I watched the film Man on Wire, about the Frenchman who walked a high wire between the WTC towers just after they were built. The detail that stuck with me was how much engineering, or perhaps seamanship, was involved.

The wire had to get from one side over to the other, be anchored home, and hove taut. Clearly. But it also had to be stabilised in the Z-axis, against the tendency to twist or roll, and that was complicated. It needed two or more other wires as guys on each side, all of them made fast somewhere in the buildings. And the job had to be done on each tower simultaneously, so two independent teams were required. The wirewalker had a devoted St. Peter/crew chief figure who took care of these things, but he wasn’t going to be enough for the whole job – just carting all the kit up the fire stairs would be an athletic challenge.

Where to find the people, master craftsmen and gleeful pranksters you could trust with your life? Without breathing a word until the great moment? The answer was that they just kinda hung out in the right place and the right people seemed to fall into their lap once they hit on someone who had the right connections. The great welcoming Babylonian city was a reality. Al-Qa’ida’s suicide pilots were aiming for that as much as anything as they rolled out of their turns.

So, bottle it. Rather, implement it in software. That’s the Affinities. It thunders away because a secret society is the flip side of an open society you can’t trust any more.

The ambivalence of the project bites pretty quick. The protagonist is a hipster UX designer in Toronto who’s there because you’ve got to get out of the valley, as we used to say in Wharfedale, and because he can’t stand his Fox News-glued father. Like the big forces in life that take us towards ourselves – love, education, emigration – joining the Tau affinity also takes him away from home, family, and certainty.

As it turns out, it also takes him away from the wider society. Even though Tau feels a lot like the IETF – it’s full of unmaterialistic, creative, but argumentative potheads – a secret society dedicated to its members is always a dangerous thing. It starts off by looking after mates in trouble. Doesn’t it always? But it’s one of those irregular verbs. I am part of a deeply rooted community. You are privileged by the old boys’ network. They are no better than the Mafia. Or: I am part of a network of activists linked only by solidarity. You are a tiresome old-school social democrat. They are a dangerous entryist vanguard.

Another problem that comes up is that InterAlia Inc. owns the intellectual property to the test. Tau, at least, has the instinctive solution to this and the hacker chops to pull it off: reverse-engineer the process, improve it, and release an open-source implementation. It’s a cool project, but it runs them into conflict with the Hets, the people who really like hierarchy, who naturally also like software patents. Things get ugly and suddenly it becomes very significant indeed that the Affinities usually manage to collect a tithe from their members.

Unfortunately, it was around here that I started to worry about the plot. For example, fairly early on, we’re told that very rarely, people “drift” out of the requirements for their affinity. Periodic re-tests are carried out. This gun having been placed on the Chekhovian mantelpiece, it gets fired at the protagonist when the Tau leadership want to ease him out for political reasons.

But…he is the guy who led the open-source test kit project. Surely there is nobody who would be harder to fool, especially as he has already used the test to detect a spy in the organisation? He doesn’t even bother to check, which is odd seeing as we know he also re-tested during the development project at least once.

Also, rousting him is itself deeply un-Tau. The leadership – a problematic concept in itself, they’re lousy with The Tyranny of Structurelessness – is angry about an incident in the conflict with the Hets in which he displays the Nelson touch and ignores a directive from above in favour of the man on the spot’s judgment. And it works, at least tactically. The strategic-level plan doesn’t work out, but that’s because it was ill thought-out from the beginning. Actually I think this is unconvincing in itself, but it’s in the totalitarian powers of the author to decide how characters respond, so.

The Tau are really out of character punishing him over this, because they’re Auftragstaktik all over. They may think they’re a bunch of ineffectual artists, but they’re also the Artists’ Rifles – out of the only two ex-military Tau we meet, one is ex-SF and the other light infantry, which is telling. They’re precisely the people who volunteer for desperate things because they’re so very bored and they won’t put up with petty discipline. Their scheme on the night goes to rat shit, so does the revised scheme, but in the end, the third improvised plan kills. Without killing anyone.

I was also not particularly happy about the off-stage plot furnishing. This book includes a war between India, Pakistan, Iran, and China that starts off with real combat between proxies, escalates to offensive electronic warfare/CNE that leaks into the global Internet, and ends up with a Chinese strategic air offensive that stays conventional but causes most of Mumbai to burn down with not far shy of a million deaths. This seems hard to achieve with a few precision guided munitions, no nukes or mass bombing, but then Bomber Command failed to get Hamburg alight for three nights until they got a lucky direct hit on the telephone exchange.

Hey. That wasn’t my point. This was my point. All this war serves only one purpose in the plot: to turn off the phone network in a corner of upstate New York for a few hours. This is a pretty poor reason to casually kill off a million brown people to make room for the backswing of the hero’s sword. And in the Tau/Het conflict, you don’t need to take the Hets’ radio network down to give the Tau an advantage – people who like authority that much will only get themselves into a bigger tangle if their comms setup lets them ask permission from the boss more often. Nelson could have put his glass to his good eye, after all, but he chose to see no ships.

I thought this was actually worth reading. It’s built on a good idea rooted in intelligent foresight. It deals with big universal themes through the consequences of technology. It has atmosphere and pathos. I just wish he hadn’t burned Mumbai for plot convenience.

IDS and the Great Skip of Initiatives

So I was having a long talk with Declan Gaffney on Twitter about incapacity benefit and the Department for Work and Pensions. The Gaffer mentioned that when he’d been working for the Greater London Authority with John Hutton’s DWP in 2006, nobody seemed to have been aware that the IB caseload was rapidly ageing-out, and that therefore it was increasingly ridiculous to expect people to launch a new career with only a couple of years to go before retirement age and anyway the problem was going to solve itself.

I nearly fell off my chair – the big run-up in IB happened in the 80s and early 90s. A lot of ex-industrial workers had at least one problem that could justify IB, and the political imperative to make claimant count unemployment look better led to them being transferred from unemployment to inactivity, in the dry statistical terms. Further, the older people were naturally less likely to get on their bikes, etc, etc. And by 2006, it was all twenty years in the past. Wasn’t all this trivially obvious? Apparently no.

I said to the Gaffer that the main problem with DWP is that it’s always fighting the last war. He agreed, saying that by the mid-90s it had just about come to terms with unemployment and therefore missed inactivity as an issue. By 2006, I said, it had been trained as an organisation to worry about inactivity and especially incapacity, as unemployment seemed to have gone away.

This led it to see its mission as dealing with relatively small groups of people with complex and entrenched problems, justifying more intervention and a sort of pseudo-medical attitude. It also led DWP to engage with the NGOs that had sprung up in the post-industrial north, mostly, to look after the long-term unemployed. It’s worth remembering that A4e started off as a charity called Action for Employment in Sheffield.

It was around this time Iain Duncan Smith was in the process of reinventing himself. Having decided to “faire du social” as the French say, he, most of all politicians, needed to import some ideas about how. He got the ideas from the US neo-conservative Lawrence Mead and his circle’s idea of a culture of poverty. This seemed to fit the facts, ish, and also fit with his own Christian-inspired self presentation. The IDS package consists of Mead-ian moralising, DWP treatment-ism, and charity capitalism.

But of course, none of this stuff was in the least bit applicable to the 2010s. First of all, unemployment made a comeback in a big way. DWP struggled to realise the world had changed. Then it began falling, but two new problems emerged: underemployment, and soaring housing benefit calls. Meanwhile, the post-industrial IB caseload was aging out, leaving the group subjected to Atos assessments enriched with people whose problems were much worse than a bad back.

So what’s going on here? Meet Michael D. Cohen and his Garbage Can Model of decision making. Cohen observed that organisations do not, in fact, observe problems and proceed to derive solutions to them. Instead, having met a problem, they reach into the garbage can, the stock of unused proposals that is always lying around, and try to force-fit anything that seems likely to the problem. This explains why the same old rubbish comes up every time there’s a crisis. In the UK, rather than a garbage can, we might say we have a skip full of initiatives.

We will now pause to consider the Labour Party leadership contest.

That done, back to the DWP. They’re always behind because the stuff in the can is always the surplus of ideas from a while ago. That’s why it’s garbage. We could think about how to do better, but that would probably take us in the direction of why cache invalidation is a notoriously hard programming problem. Also, it strikes me that the history of DWP from the 1980s is the history of our movement towards a low-trust society. I just found it in this skip.

These 9 Government E-Mails I Just Got Disclosed Show Just What a Dick George Osborne Really Is

So I got an answer to my FOI request! On the 12th of June, National Savings and Investments disclosed some e-mail regarding the Tories’ fake government mailshot. You can get the dump at the link, and read the related meta here. My original blog posts are here and here.

The upshot, as usual with these things, is both less and more interesting than you expected. NS&I certainly was asked for a “fact check and compliance view”, by someone whose name was suppressed, presumably a Treasury SPAD. This referred to a draft text emanating from Osborne’s office (“CX” in the documents). Jane Platt, the NS&I CEO, passed the job to their head of retail, Julian Hynd, who also discussed it with the head of compliance and delivery, whose name is suppressed, and with the assistant director for retail experience, also anonymous, as well as at least one lawyer.

They also discussed it with a mainline Treasury official, whose name is suppressed but whose job title is given in full, as with most of the anonymice, as the Head of Delivery, Debt and Reserves Management, Fiscal Group, HMT. What did they discuss?

Well, some of it was trivial stuff – should it mention that calls might be recorded for training purposes? Should the NS&I phone number and e-mail address appear or just a Web site? Should it refer to “income” given that the codgerbonds don’t pay interest monthly? What about the fact that some of the £10 billion issue would already have been sold? But there was also this.

In the extracts below, [out of scope] marks where the NS&I information officer redacted something and [S40] marks where someone’s name was redacted under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act relating to privacy.

1. NS&I Thought The Mailshot Was “Misleading” and “Unclear”

The draft text referred to “pensioners”. In fact, the bonds were sold to anyone over the age of 65, whether or not they were actually in receipt of a pension. It seems pedantic, but it exposed something interesting. NS&I civil servants, specifically Hynd, wanted to strike the reference to pensioners out and substitute “[those] aged 65 and over”.

The letter refers to “pensioners” throughout, when in fact the qualifying criteria to be eligible for the investment is not actually that you are a pensioner, but that you are aged 65 or over. From a regulatory/FCA/clear communications to prospective customers perspective, we believe the reference to “pensioners” should be removed when we talk about the 65+ Bonds – it’s misleading and unclear. We accept that the letter is aimed at how the government has made things better for pensioners, but where the copy is Bond specific we should avoid the “pensioner” references.

2. Regulations Are For The Little People, Aren’t They?

Somebody heavily redacted with no name or job title pushed back, claiming that NS&I didn’t need no stinking regulations.

Can I just check that we are ok in term of FSMA restrictions around financial promotions? Our advice is that this would be exempted because (a) its non-real time communications, and (b) its communicated by and relating to controlled investments issued, or to be issued, inter alia, by governments. Does that match your understanding?

3. NS&I Retail Director Hynd Wasn’t Having That

Hynd stands pat.

To your question, on a) I cannot comment and will ask my compliance team to comment, but on b) that would be my understanding, hence my point was about the reputational risk. We have communicated to customers and the market that NS&I will behave “as if FCA regulated”, i.e. “shadow compliant”.

4. Bureaucracy Rules. NS&I Civil Servants Rally Round Hynd

The NS&I compliance and advice delivery manager then weighs in to support Hynd:

Under the FCA, all providers of financial products, regardless of whether the product is a designated investment, have an over-arching requirement under the TCF principles to ensure that customers are adequately informed before, during and after the point of sale, and that all communications are clear, fair and not misleading. Regardless of what the communication is promoting.

5. NS&I CEO Jane Platt “Proposes” a “Compromise” in “Quotes”

NS&I CEO Platt proposes a compromise, through bursts of redaction. What about “pensioners” in scare quotes?

Thank you for the heads-up [S40]. [Out of scope]Can “pensioner” appear in inverted commas please?
 [Out of scope]

The English language groans in pain.

6. Bureaucracy Rules 2: Treasury Officials Back Hynd, While Tories Keep Pushing

Meanwhile, the HMT Head of Delivery, like a good civil service scout, backs up NS&I over the pensioner issue, and also reports that George Osborne’s SPADs want something. Something redacted.

I’ve just got some additional info (and an additional request) from the CX’s spads.
 
[Out of scope] 

But they had one more change that they were going to make to the letter which they wanted to check from a compliance perspective. This was to remove the NS&I phone number and the wording that said that calls may be recorded. I couldn’t see that this would cause a particular compliance issue, but I said that I would check with you. I’m afraid they asked for a response on this in the next half hour.
 
I’m afraid I lost track of the final version of the letter, as I think [S40] was dealing with this. I think we previously made the point about “pensioners” appearing in inverted commas. I’m happy to make it again though, in the context of the recent press coverage.

7. You Said What?

Then Jane Platt says something really surprising, which also gets heavily redacted:

Thanks [S40]– realise I have not responded to your point on “Pensioner”. Please do make the point again particularly in the light of the press coverage highlighting alienated older women.
 [Out of scope]

I don’t know about you but that sounds rather too much like political advice for a civil servant. Or does she mean that the alienated older women are potential buyers? I can’t help but suspect a lot of interesting stuff got redacted here.

8. Chancellor, That’s Illegal

The negotiating back and forth goes on. The HMT Head reports that the Tories reject the inverted commas, and that he considers that the text as it stands is non-compliant (or in other words, illegal).

The phrases in red would not pass compliance in my opinion.

9. Bureaucracy Rules 3: The Bureaucrating

It’s at this point that Platt passes this view on, but also tries to distance NS&I from the project and hints that someone else – i.e. the Treasury – should satisfy themselves they weren’t giving financial advice.

Please note that the letter has not been through our formal sign off process and is not being issued by NS&I. Whoever is issuing the letter will need to be satisfied that it does not constitute giving advice. The text in red is my take on what compliance will have a problem with. I am trying to get a compliance opinion asap.

Trying to push the responsibility onto somebody else isn’t always a cop-out, though. If you know they don’t want it, it’s also a route to getting your way.

The text goes for another swing through the compliance manager and the HMT official, before being accepted in its final form. The final text doesn’t use the scare quotes, and does mention pensioners a lot, but it does refer to “people 65 and over” in a key graf and it tones down “a better return” to “a good return”.

Final Thought

So, we can conclude that: Yes, the text of the mailshot was subjected to a compliance review, although not by the FCA as stated. However, during this process, something which was very likely the Chancellor’s office tried to circumvent the review by claiming immunity from the regulations. Civil servants at NS&I and the Treasury resisted this, successfully.

The Chancellor’s personal staff did this because they wanted a wording that emphasised “pensioners” as the target group. This wording was considered misleading by the NS&I compliance officer and non-compliant with financial regulation – i.e. illegal – by HM Treasury officials, who eventually got it amended, although the changes were pretty minimal.

Despite this creditable resistance, the NS&I CEO also seems to have taken a view on the political presentation involved. This is not the sort of thing civil servants should be doing. It’s possible, however, that the e-mail in question, no.7, has been so mangled by redactions that this impression is false.

This matters, a hell of a lot. Anthony Wells reports back from the polling industry’s inquiry into how they completely failed at the last election:

Opinium identified a couple of specific issues with their methodology that went wrong. One was their age weighting was too crude – they used to weight age using three big groups, with the oldest being 55+. They found that within that group there were too many people who were in their 50s and 60s and not enough in their 70s and beyond, and that the much older group were more Tory. Opinium will be correcting that by using more detailed age weights, with over 75s weighted separately

That is to say, the recipients of the mailshot.

MAYOR!

I just got the statements from the various people who want to be the Labour candidate for mayor of London.

The good news is that candidates Christian Wolmar, Diane Abbott, and David Lammy all seem to be supporting some version of the simple plan. Wolmar wants to set up a London Housing Development Agency. Abbott wants “an agency that builds homes”. Lammy, and this is a surprise, specifically wants to issue London housing bonds to finance a building programme.

That’s about as specific as any of them get, although Gareth Thomas wants to raise the minimum wage. The rest of Lammy’s statement is mostly about how great he is. The fourth sentence is as follows:

London has given me all I have – going to Harvard, becoming a barrister and later a government minister

Sadiq Khan’s doesn’t say anything at all about what he might do, but does say:

My story is the story of the best of London

Tessa Jowell’s is like you might expect:

I believe I can win, and I promise you I will deliver.

Neeraj Patil, apparently, feels your pain. There, there. And the NHS. Which the mayor isn’t in charge of. Christian Wolmar is very pleased with what the Guardian said about his campaign, and lots of stuff about trains. Keran Kerai didn’t bother to proofread:

We need to make the city think that they can achieve in getting housing. Building homes will change some of that by helping the supply and we can also create social housing to give people a place to have shelter. Homelessness need to be solved. Polices times can be improved. Waiting in need needs to be improved by the NHS.

We need to build better backbone to the city. Transport need to be upgraded. We need to look to convert the city to the future by investing in green tech. We need to spread the wealth of the city by linking it to UK and foreign cities.

My past in mathematics has given me the logical step towards building a better London. I how to use data to predict treads and how best to serve those options. I have lived in London and know the big problems we face in housing and transport. The way I lay out way to do it by creating a system of learning and adapting to change in the future of the nation.

We need to build a legacy for Londoners to have a dream to feel that London is their home and that the future is brighter than ever. Investing in trade links will help to create wealth for London as well, using it to help Londoners with their problems. Policing and health care is one of the things people want improvement in.

Diane Abbott should get some credit for managing not to use me or I even once in her statement, quite a literary achievement.

Rugby League links.

Something completely different. There’s been a lot of Rugby League lately and a lot of it was good.

Who thought Fiji would beat Papua New Guinea? 22-10, and it sounds like a terrific match, especially going by this.

kyjvt

More boringly, who could imagine both that this is the first time the Kumuls and Fiji have had a game, and that even I couldn’t find a way to watch the damn thing?

But that’s League for you. So is this; the UAE RFU has had the local RL expansion bod locked up.

New Zealand beat Australia, again, and they’re now officially ranked No.1 in the world, so they’re coming to beat us this autumn. The Guardian‘s Patrick Skene has a cracking interview with Kiwi legend Olsen Filipaina, including the killer detail that Graham Lowe got him riled up to beat seven bells of shit out of Wally Lewis and stymie the 1985 Kangaroos by getting his mum to threaten to “clip his ears”.

787

Yeah.

And it’s incredible to see Cougar Park full again. But not in these circumstances.

Update. Department of “what it’s all about”, Leigh vs Wakefield yesterday.

The coalition had a majority of 76.

While we’re rejecting stuff, here’s something else to reject. The notion of a progressive alliance or progressive majority involving the Lib Dems wants rejecting, badly. You might think 2010 killed it, but it stumbles on. (Before you all write at once, yes, I believed in it, but I got over it and there’s no reason you can’t.)

Back then, everyone thought the new government would be unstable and chaotic because it was a coalition. There were those of us who started a whole web site. As it turned out, though, it was chaotic because the Tories and Lib Dems together kept pratfalling, like that time Cameron left the West Country in the pub and it went all soggy and Francis Maude tried to dry it out with petrol. The coalition, as such, could not have been more stable.

There were maybe three reasons for this. First of all, the Lib Dems were never going to pull out of it because what happened to them at the elections would have happened to them at the elections. Second, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act constrained the Tories from pulling out of the coalition. As such, it was a costly signal, a self-binding commitment that made a stable agreement possible. And third, the Lib Dems and the Tories agreed on much, much more than they would ever have admitted, basically everything with a £ sign in front of it. Clegg was even willing to give up their support for the EU in the election campaign. The ultimate evidence of this is how many of their voters seem to have swung to the Conservatives.

(A thought: does anyone have a read on how much Tory-Lib Dem tactical voting existed? Everyone tends to think of this in terms of Lib-Lab tactics, but there’s no reason why it doesn’t work the other way.)

Since it was a stable government, it’s no surprise that it was able to push its programme through. It had, after all, a parliamentary majority of 76, and the coalition whip worked reasonably well until they let Michael Gove have a go. Although they often had to give Tory backbenchers the Gina Ford controlled crying treatment, the margin provided by the Lib Dems was easily enough to keep them in line when it came to anything important. The whips could simply use Liberal votes, denying the troublemakers any leverage.

Compare the current situation. The Tories no longer depend on the Lib Dems, but then they don’t have no 76 majority no more. Rather than depending on the Lib Dems, they depend on the 6 most marginal backbenchers on whatever issue is up for a vote. Unlike the Lib Dems, Tory backbench rebels usually aren’t facing certain termination in the event of an election, so it’s entirely down to the whip to keep them in line. Every substantial vote can be a crisis. It’s the political version of Back To ’95, good times for lobby correspondents. Ironically, the coalition had the effect of concealing the Tories’ internal coalition.

Question: were the Lib Dems more of a “restraining influence” than the 6th most marginal Tory? Well, the only issues they ever disagreed with the Tories about were the civil libertarian ones. On things like the budget, they didn’t do any restraining, so that’s no loss. The 6th most marginal Tory on, say, the snoopers’ charter is likely to be a lawyer, so I think we have a reasonable chance on that one. The only reason to be defeatist about this is if you still, after all I’ve said, believe in a progressive majority with Lib Dems.

This calculation changes, of course, if the SNP suddenly discovers it doesn’t mind Tories that much after all as long as it gets what it wants.

I am the party of no.

Something I left out of this piece, because it doesn’t really fit my self-imposed terms of reference for the Pol, is my own two cents on what the Labour party should do. (Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?)

The problem, according to me, was defining a political statement that addressed about four quite divergent constituencies. The cliché options – Blairism, Blue Labour, imitation SNP, Socialist Labour like the party of that name – only seem to address two out of four at best. Ed Miliband tried to identify a constituency that cut across them, in essence, people discontented and robbed by the design of the UK-wide markets in energy, housing, transport, labour, and media created by Thatcher and Major. This didn’t work but at least he recognised the problem, which is more than you can say for the entire leadership field from Tristram “literally the least popular MP in the country” Hunt across to Liz “Who?” Kendall via Andy “I worked for Gordon y’know” Burnham and Yvette “So did I” Cooper and even Keir “let’s impress the ‘kippers with a human rights lawyer, that’ll work” Starmer.

Here’s my suggestion. What about rejectionism?

All the constituencies can, at least, agree that we reject the Tories. Rejectionism doesn’t aggravate the divisions among them. Rejectionism mobilises, which is good. Rejectionism is tactically appropriate in the context of a parliament with a majority of 11. Rejectionism will put us in the right place for the London Mayoral elections, the EU referendum if it happens, and the Holyrood elections.

I think it was Graham Lowe who said that you should work on your best performances and your worst performances. (Years later I realised this was just the principle of management by exception, but there you go, and it’s worth having a Rugby League quote that’s not from Jack Gibson.) It’s not just that the best outperform when they’re playing at the top of their game, it’s that they don’t collapse completely when they suck, as they inevitably do some of the time. It’s important not to let the Tories repeat the 2010 experience, rushing to action while we’re arguing.

The lesson here is from the US Republicans and the French conservatives. Like Labour, they were in charge when the great financial crisis blew up and were punished by the voters. They have, however, managed to cause a hell of a lot of trouble in opposition. Even if the teabaggers are no closer to the White House than they were in 2008, they have managed to colour public discourse, advance their agenda at the state and local level, and keep the activist base mobilised. French conservatives have the advantage that France is stuck with the euro, but we ought to be impressed by the speed with which they went from utter rout in the 2012 elections to filling the street with numbers against the mariage pour tous. The only parties who were in charge in 2007 who have managed to renew themselves did so through hairy-arsed, gut rejectionism, and especially, through an aggressive campaign in local government.

I would point out that this should not be confused with your favourite left-of-the-left campaign. The problem with those is that they always come with a shopping list of nice things as long as your arm, half of which is unacceptable to one important constituency or another. Rejectionism skips this in favour of the clearest possible message: no.

So here’s my advice. Appoint Tom Watson as combined Opposition Chief Whip and Defence Commander. Appoint somebody party leader. I’m not sure I really care who. Then pick a highly emotive issue (it doesn’t much matter which) and start the biggest possible row.

This may not be a policy, but then, who cares? Ed Miliband had one of those and look what they did to him. In the end, perhaps my point is that we all spent too much time being an alternative government rather than yelling NO. Anyway, as the Germans say, kommt Zeit, kommt Rat. With time comes counsel. We can work out detail later. For now, we need a big fuck-off row, and hairy-arsed rejectionism. This is the only option I can see that minimises the damage and contests both UKIP and the SNP as well as confronting the Tories.

if you can’t spell this you might be a troll

So I got round to reading the original paper about automatically predicting who’s likely to be a troll. This was always likely to be fun:

obummer

Defining trolls as those who get banned for trolling, a pragmatic solution if nothing else, they obtained a large corpus of comments from three high-volume sources, CNN, a gamer news site, and Breitbart. (Clearly they weren’t about to risk not finding enough trolls.) They paid people to classify the comments on various metrics, and also derived a lot of algorithmic metrics, and used this to train a machine learning model to guess which users were likely to be banned down the line.

The results are pretty fascinating. For a start, there are two kinds of troll – ones who troll-out fast, explode, and get banned, and ones whose trollness develops gradually. But it always develops, getting worse over time.

trollytroll1
In general, we can conclude that trolls of all kinds post too much, they obsess about relatively few topics, they are often off topic, and their prose is unreadable as measured by an automated index of readability. Readability was one of the strongest predictors they found. They also generate lots of replies and monopolise attention.

trollytroll

Not surprisingly, predictions are harder the further the moment of the ban is into the future. However, the classifier was most effective looking at the last 5 to 10 posts – it actually lost forecasting skill if you gave it more data. Fortunately, because trolling is a progressive condition that tends to get worse, scoring the last 10 comments on a rolling basis is a valid strategy.

Their algorithm, in the end, identified trolls with about 80% reliability. Very interestingly indeed, its performance didn’t suffer much if it was trained against normal below-the-line noise and then used on gamergate, or if it was trained against gamers and then used on libertarians (perhaps less of a surprise), or whatever. The authors argue that this is an indication that it’s picking up some kind of pondlife tao, an invariant essence of disruptive windbag.

trollytroll2

The really interesting bit, though, was when they got to the feedback-loop between potential trolls, moderators, and the civilian population. You might think that being able to identify potential trolls within the first 5-10 comments presents the possibility of an early-intervention strategy. My own experience with Fistful of Euros back when it had 150-comment threads about the Middle East was that explicit early warnings – yellow cards – often worked. They found, however, that earlier and more aggressive intervention from moderators and other users was correlated with faster escalation. Specifically, those who had posts deleted early saw their readability index scores worsen rapidly, one of the strongest markers of trollness.

Now, you might say this doesn’t matter. Just stick the OtoMerala Super-Rapid 76 in automatic close-in defence mode and let the machines do the work!

But there’s a serious issue here and it’s our old pal, the Terroriser algorithm. They make the excellent point that 80% is pretty good but it’s a lot of false-positive results. Given that the principal components we mentioned above are basically conventional norms of discursive civility, there’s also the problem that our filter might be both racist and snobbish. The fact it worked well across dissimilar communities, though, is encouraging.

The distinction between fast and slow trolls – Hi-FBUs and Lo-FBUs in the paper – also suggests that there’s something going on here about different strategies of anti-social behaviour. Perhaps trolls with more cultural capital adopt strategies of disruption that allow them to persist longer and do more damage? More research, as they say, is needed. That said, I wouldn’t write off early intervention completely, and neither do the authors – the question may just be an optimisation.

Obviously what it needs now is an implementation.