[Plura-list] Rewarding CEOs for failure; DIY giant chalk; Fairness and machine learning; Facebook overrules its own fact-checkers

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Fri Aug 21 11:55:12 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Rewarding CEOs for failure: Heads they win, tails we lose.

* DIY giant chalk: Tempura paint, plaster of paris, and water.

* Fairness and machine learning: Open access computer science textbook.

* Facebook overrules its own fact-checkers: The far right works the refs.

* This day in history: 2015, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🥀 Rewarding CEOs for failure

You could not ask for a better example of the meritocratic fallacy than
the treatment of CEOs of bankrupt companies. This FT article documents
the multimillion-dollar "retention bonuses" paid to execs who drove
their companies into bankruptcy.


And even more pointedly, Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith marks up the
article to point out just how ludicrous and indefensible these payouts are.


The theory behind the bonuses is that the companies are already facing
traumatic disruption as they restructure in bankruptcy, zeroing out
worker pensions, destroying key suppliers by stiffing them on their
bills, etc.

With all that going on, keeping the CEO on is vital to preserve
continuity during difficult times.

But those difficult times are the fault of the CEO.

And before you think, "Wait, you can't blame it all on one exec," recall
that if the company had thrived, all *credit* would have accrued to the
same empty suit.

Smith: "Are we to believe that the stipends these boards approve has any
relationship with the market value of these CEOs, even charitably
assuming someone would hire them after their companies collapses
underneath them? Are we to believe there was no able lieutenant worth a
battlefield promotion? No retired industry greybeard who could be
engaged for an eighteen month to three year gig? No one in the ranks of
turnaround expert or 'temp for hire' CEOs who would do?"

And the closer you look, the worse it gets. Brad Holly, CEO of Whiting
Petroleum, signed on in Nov 2017. In April, Whiting filed for
bankruptcy. Days before, the board approved a $6.4m pay package for
Holly. Holly chairs the board.

Holly has announced that he will quit after the Chapter 11 restructure
is done. When he does, the board will pay him another $2.53m. As Smith
says: "$6.4 million for Holly for at most five months of babysitting
bankruptcy lawyers? Seriously?"

Whiting's board showered millions on its execs moments before its
bankruptcy: $14m looted and disbursed just before they announced that
they were broke.

It's the same all over. Briggs and Stratton - engine part makers - gave
its CEO $1m to stick around through the bankruptcy, part of a $5m exec
payout, FOUR DAYS before it stiffed its bond holders on $6.7m in interest.

Smith: "Why are these losers who have nowhere to go being paid in
advance? Why aren’t they instead getting $1 per year and working for a
contingent payout to be paid when the company emerged from bankruptcy,
say tiered based upon results versus specified targets?"

As Smith points out, the whole thing reeks of "fraudulent conveyance,"
but business-friendly courts, especially those in Delaware (where these
companies maintain fictional HQs in the form of rented mailboxes) are
unwilling to call it for what it is.

Smith puts a button on it: "It's clear the top echelon realizes it may
well be on the receiving end of violence, hence the boom in panic rooms.
It’s not clear how much further this can go, given how many Americans
own guns. Sadly, we may be on track to finding out."


🥀 DIY giant chalk

The resurgent significance of chalk is one of the weird, unpredictable
squares that no one had in their Apocalypse 2020 Bingo Card, but there
you have it: from messages of hope to BLM protest slogans, chalk is the
expressive medium du jour.

You don't have to shell out to Big Chalk to get yourself some big chalk.
Giant sidewalk chalk can be made for pennies from tempura paint, plaster
of Paris and water. Your shameful plague-binge Pringles cans make a
dandy mold.


As Friedpotatoes describes in their Instructables howto, the process is
simple and cheap, and makes little-to-no mess.


🥀 Fairness and machine learning

"Fairness and machine learning" is a new open access machine learning
textbook from Solon Barocas (Harvard) and Moritz Hardt (Berkeley) and
Arvind Narayanan (Princeton).


The book is still a work-in-progress with a few major chapters missing
("Legal background and normative questions," "A broader view of
discrimination," etc), but the chapters that *are* there are just
terrific reading.

In Chapter 2, "Classification," the authors unpack how statistical
classification works, and how the creators of classifiers assess their
efficacy, suitability and accuracy.


They deal with the problems of "fairness through unawareness," in which
sensitive data are omitted from calculations, the limitations of
independence in variables, how variables can be fairly separated, and
the difference between independence, separation and sufficiency.

In Chapter 4, "Causality," the authors delve into the philosophically
and mathematically fraught question of what is a cause and what is an
effect and what is merely a correlation.


They take the reader through "structural causal models," "confounding"
and "randomization" as a prelude to creating crisp definitions of often
loosely defined concepts like "structural discrimination," with real
world examples like Harvard's admission policies.

In Chapter 5, "Testing Discrimination in Practice," they tackle the
problem of defining what is a "difference" between two people and then
testing whether the difference MAKES a difference, in scenarios like
hiring, peer review and parole hearings.


This leads into real-world examples of incredibly nuanced accounts of
algorithmic bias scandals, from Youtube's discrimination against LGBTQ
vloggers to gender bias in search results, to racial bias in ad targeting.

Understanding algorithmic fairness requires a melding of computer
science, social science and statistics. Every critique turns on
questions that can only be answered by considering all three domains.

Barocas, Hardt and Narayanan are doing incredible work here, crossing
boundaries and making all three disciplines legible. It's a real

Cryteria (modified)



🥀 Facebook overrules its own fact-checkers

Many of Facebook's critics think that the company's problems can be
solved with adequate oversight - factcheckers, content juries, etc.

Facebook agrees.

That fact alone should really worry Facebook's critics.

Any external oversight for Facebook is a fiction: the "external"
fact-checkers depend on Facebook to sign their paychecks, as do the
external "content Supreme Court." As with corporate arbitrators, these
allegedly neutral parties are inevitably beholden to their paymasters.

As for government regulators, so long as they are operating from the
assumption that Facebook should exist in the first place, they will
never take steps that might pose an existential threat to the company.

Until and unless the regulatory posture is, "If you can't fix this, then
you can't do this," regulators will always be dependent upon Facebook's
own assessment of the practicality of any measures they seek to impose.

To understand how "external oversight" is a fiction in Facebookland,
consider the "neutral fact-checkers" whom Facebook pays to decide thorny
political questions about whether content is "disinformation" or


It turns out that the judgments of these independent fact-checkers are
subject to modification or complete overruling by Facebook in order to
assuage key political constituencies (eg the conservative ideologues who
work the ref by claiming their speech is unfairly targeted).

So when right-wing extremists falsely claim that "abortion is never
medically necessary," and the fact-checkers flag it, Facebook unflags it
to assuage Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

Consider that Zuckerberg defends leaving disinformation online - but
tagging it as such - as a means of spurring debate - and then consider
that he removes these tags when it is politically expedient to do so.

In Fast Company, Alex Pasternack runs down multiple examples of Facebook
top management putting its thumb on the scales to remove disinformation
labels from moneyed, influential right-wing sources.

For example, when Prageru - a Koch-backed far-right propaganda
organization - claimed "there is no evidence that CO2 emissions are the
dominant factor" in climate change, Facebook overruled its fact-checkers.

Facebook made the change after an employee argued in favor of Prageru,
partly on the basis of Prageru's lavish spending on Facebook ads. The
change also removed one of Prageru's disinformation strikes: get enough
strikes and Facebook deletes your account.

Dozens of fact-checker verdicts have been "escalated" by Facebook
employees since the crisis started, and the beneficiaries are often
far-right disinformation operations like Breitbart and Diamond and Silk.

According to internal Facebook docs, the justification for overruling
fact-checkers in these cases turns in part on how much the
disinfo-peddlers spend on ads, and the PR consequences of calling out
their lies.

The result is that disinfo spreads. Prageru's climate denial video has
millions of views. Other climate denial materials, like the CO2
Coalition's "The Great Failure of the Climate Models," have also had
their labels removed.

The sordid details of these back-room arrangements really came to light
when a Facebook engineer revealed them to Buzzfeed.

That reporting did spur action from Facebook.

They fired the engineer.



🥀 This day in history

#5yrsago EFF-Austin panel commemmorating the 20th anniversary of the
Steve Jackson Games raid https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChPS4H-nqiQ

#5yrsago Judge: City of Inglewood can't use copyright to censor videos
of council meetings

#5yrsago Make your own TSA universal luggage keys https://imgur.com/a/JQD7l

#1yrago "The Stab": a forgotten nearly-was Haunted Mansion changing

#1yrago The world's largest occult library has a public online archive


🥀 Colophon

Today's top sources: Hackaday (https://hackaday.com/), Four Short Links
(https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links), Slashdot

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 522 words (52119 total).

Currently reading: Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum.

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 13)

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
to pluralistic.net.


Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are
included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the
basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


🥀 How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and


Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):


*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: signature.asc
Type: application/pgp-signature
Size: 195 bytes
Desc: OpenPGP digital signature
URL: <http://mail.flarn.com/pipermail/plura-list/attachments/20200821/7769c22f/attachment.sig>

More information about the Plura-list mailing list