“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
It’s no secret that companies like Facebook and Google scoop up personal information to serve users ads. But if anything became clear this year, it’s that consumers have a lot more to learn about what happens to their data online—how it’s gathered, who gets to look at it, and what it’s worth.
American corporations are expected to have spent over $19 billion this year acquiring and analyzing consumer data, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, from names and emails to the unique way we fumble with our smartphones. That info is used by marketers, advertisers, analysts, and investors for a host of purposes that remain largely opaque to the average person. In some places, seemingly irrelevant factors like the type of device you have, your email address, or the time of day you make a purchase may be used determine whether you qualify for a loan. Despite all the power and value this data can have, there are few laws in the US regulating the collection and sale of it.
This year’s revelations about Facebook served as a wake-up call, starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In March, news broke that the political firm improperly obtained the info of some 87 Facebook million users via a personality quiz app. It quickly became apparent that the social network had allowed a plethora of third-party applications to hose up the information of its users. (Facebook said it implemented new restrictions around user info, although a recent Timesinvestigation revealed more than 150 companies still had access to data.) A backlash erupted among lawmakers, advocacy groups, and everyday users, and nascent movements like #DeleteFacebook were born.
Facebook, for its part, began emphasizing the word “control.” The company stressed that users have the power to see and adjust what information it can collect about them, but a series of reports this year suggest that’s not always the case. After Cambridge Analytica, people began downloading and examining their Facebook data and were surprised to discover the company had gathered things like private text message and call logs. (Facebook insisted that users have always had to opt in to provide this information.) That was creepy in itself, but the downloadable file Facebook provides is far from the only information it has on users. Gizmodo reported in September that Facebook uses information you never shared with it—but that might have been shared by someone else—to target ads to you. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, the company may collect your information, it admitted in April, and there’s few ways to control it.
How can we get people to do more good: to go to the polls, give to charity, conserve resources or just generally act better towards others? MIT research scientist Erez Yoeli shares a simple checklist for harnessing the power of reputations — or our collective desire to be seen as generous and kind instead of selfish — to motivate people to act in the interest of others. Learn more about how small changes to your approach to getting people to do good could yield surprising results.
It’s time to grade Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s packing his thousands of books and leaving the Capitol campus for good.
No need to think twice. He earned an A for his final two terms as governor.
For his 34 years in five elective offices, including a record 16 as governor? He deserves an A for all that too. Give it to him for durability alone.
“Perhaps Gov. Jerry Brown’s most important contribution…was to restore public confidence in state government,” Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, wrote last week.
Baldassare, who’s also the policy institute’s pollster, bases that glowing praise on approval ratings for Brown and the Legislature, and also the citizens’ view that the state is headed in the right direction.
His latest poll shows 51% of California adults approving of Brown’s job performance, with only 31% disapproving. That’s 10 points higher than when he returned to the governor’s mansion in 2011.
Brown’s job rating has never slipped below 47%, Baldassare says, despite tax increases and controversies over such heated issues as the bullet train and state protections for immigrants living here illegally. The Legislature’s approval rating is 47%, up from the teens several years ago.
“Perhaps the Legislature rode the coattails of Brown’s success,” Baldassare writes. “Brown and the Legislature took the drama out of the annual budget process.”
That’s giving the governor and the Legislature way too much credit in my view.
What finally ended summer budget gridlock in Sacramento was voter passage of a 2010 ballot measure. It reduced a two-thirds legislative vote requirement for budget passage to a simple majority. That, more than anything else, polished the Legislature’s tarnished image and helped Brown succeed.
Here are some things Brown did in his last two terms:
— Budget: When he came to office, the state budget was bleeding $27 billion in red ink, a deficit caused by the recession. Brown leaves with a projected $15-billion surplus, plus a $14.5-billion rainy day reserve.
Credit three things: The national economic rebound, Brown’s keeping Democratic spenders in check and his persuading voters to greatly increase income taxes on the wealthy. That tax hike is expected to generate $8.3 billion this fiscal year.
What California really needs is to update its tax system, which is way too reliant on rich people’s incomes. When the inevitable recession hits, their capital gains nosedive and state revenue dwindles. Crucial state programs are whacked. To reduce the revenue volatility, we need to flatten the income tax and extend the sales tax to certain services, such as legal.
Brown dismissed that notion as politically impractical in an interview last week.
“Put the ‘Skelton tax’ on the ballot and it’d be a loser,” he told me. He scoffed at the idea of telling the middle class it would have to pay higher income taxes in order to lower levies on the rich “so there’ll be less volatility in the tax system.”
It wouldn’t need to be done that way, but there was no interest by Brown in trying.
— Climate change: Brown unquestionably has been a world leader in trying to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, he signed legislation to reduce petroleum use in vehicles 50% by 2030.
— Highways: He maneuvered legislative passage of a gas tax increase to raise $5 billion a year for highway repairs and other transportation improvements. Then he led the successful fight against a repeal effort on the November ballot.
— School funding: He pushed through legislation changing the K-12 spending formula to provide extra money for low-income students and English learners.
— Prisons: Under orders from three liberal federal judges, Brown greatly reduced the state prison population by locking up more criminals in county jails. Sentences also were lowered.
Brown fought the judges, but acknowledges that their intervention was “a very good thing. Without them, there’d be massive overcrowding.
“That’s proof of the wisdom of separation of powers,” he added. “The judiciary can stop a state from doing what it wants.”
Brown has been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty. But when there were ballot measures in 2012 and 2016 to abolish capital punishment, he didn’t endorse either and they lost. I asked him why at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon last week.
“The essence of leadership is knowing when to hold and when to fold, when to move forward and when to stay still,” he answered. “I’ve focused on reforming criminal justice.”
What Brown didn’t say was that in 2012 his “soak the rich” tax hike was on the ballot, and in 2016 he was pushing a proposition to overhaul criminal sentencing. He figured that wading into the death penalty fight might jeopardize his ballot propositions.
Brown’s a skilled political practitioner and as feisty at age 80 as he was when he first became governor at 36.
Asked at the press club about the fate of his embattled bullet train and Delta twin-tunnel projects after he’s gone, Brown answered without hesitation: “They will be built.” Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom wants to scale back both projects.
I asked Brown how the $77-billion bullet train — way over budget and far behind schedule — could possibly be paid for. “Easy,” he said: The federal government must kick in.
And the $17-billion water tunnels?
“Listen, George, I know you don’t like the tunnels,” he said. “But without the tunnels the Delta will die.”
It may die as a plumbing fixture, but not as a recreational haven and the largest estuary on the West Coast, a vital producer of salmon and steelhead.
There are Brown policies many of us don’t like. But he fully participated in the democratic process rather than use his family connections and talent to make a mint in the private sector.
He enjoyed public service and making a difference, instead of just complaining. For the civic contribution alone, he deserves an A.
And the unfailing entertainment will be missed.
Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for more than 50 years and for The Times since 1974. He has been a Times political writer and editor in Los Angeles, Sacramento bureau chief and White House correspondent. He has written a column on California politics, “Capitol Journal,” since 1993. Skelton is a Santa Barbara native, grew up in Ojai and received a journalism degree at San Jose State.
“We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” he has said, a theme he has returned to while trying to strike a delicate balance as the chief justice.
WASHINGTON — In his first 13 years on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s main challenge was trying to assemble five votes to move the court to the right, though there were only four reliably conservative justices.
Now he faces a very different problem. With the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and his replacement by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, the chief justice has the votes he needs on issues like abortion, racial discrimination, religion and voting. At the same time, he has taken Justice Kennedy’s place as the swing vote at the court’s ideological center, making him the most powerful chief justice in 80 years.
But all of that new power comes at a dangerous time for the court, whose legitimacy depends on the public perception that it is not a partisan institution. “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” Chief Justice Roberts said in 2016, and he reiterated that position in an extraordinary rebuke of President Trump last month.
He seemed to underscore that point again on Friday, joining the court’s four-member liberal wing, all appointed by Democratic presidents, to reject a requestfrom the Trump administration in a case that could upend decades of asylum policy. This month, he drew sharp criticism from three conservative colleagues for voting to deny review in two cases on efforts to stop payments to Planned Parenthood.
The Trump administration has tested the chief justice with a series of applications and petitions asking the court to ignore its ordinary procedures in cases on issues like the census and climate change. After what has often appeared to be intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, Chief Justice Roberts has so far assembled coalitions that mostly denied the requests, often over the dissents of two or three of his most conservative colleagues.
The court’s newest member, Justice Kavanaugh, did not note a dissent in any of those cases, suggesting that he was following Chief Justice Roberts’s lead. That changed on Friday in the asylum case, casting the new dynamic at the court into sharp relief.
Chief Justice Roberts was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005 after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died. Above, his swearing-in ceremony in 2005.Doug Mills/The New York Times
Controlling the pace of change on a court whose conservative wing is eager to move fast will be the central problem of the next phase of Chief Justice Roberts’s tenure, said Daniel Epps, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“If he’s smart, and he is, what he’s probably thinking is, ‘I do have a substantive agenda of things I want to accomplish. But it’s a lot easier to do that when the court retains its legitimacy. Let’s do as much as we can get away with, but maybe that’s a little less than some of my colleagues to my right think we can get away with,’” Professor Epps said.
Leading the court through an ideological minefield at a time of intense political partisanship will tax the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts, who has earned the respect if not affection of his colleagues during his time as the court’s leader. He is a skilled administrator with a light wit and exceptional legal skills. But some justices say they miss the “old chief” — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, his predecessor, who had a knack for not taking himself too seriously.
Fat bears, a new kilogram, and the stunning power of trees: our favorite science stories from 2018.
As science journalists, we cover a huge range of phenomena — from the minute to the outer reaches of the universe. But the best stories of 2018 all had one thing in common: They hit us in the gut with a sense of awe.
These stories taught us about the incredible scale and power of distant objects in the universe, like a special type of galaxy called a blazar. They showed the ingenuity and compassion of fellow humans, like vaccinators trying to stop a deadly Ebola outbreak amid a war in central Africa and divers navigating a flooded Thai cave for a daring rescue.
Here are some of our favorite stories from the past year that, very simply, made us say “whoa.” They fan our excitement of science and the natural world and give us a glimpse into the future. We hope they’ll do the same for you.
The kilogram was redefined in terms of the Planck constant
In November, scientists from around the world met at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, France, and voted to change the definition of a kilogram, tying it to the Planck constant, a universal, foundational concept in quantum mechanics.
That sounds incredibly nerdy. And it is. But what made us go “whoa” was not exactly the science behind this change (which is enormously impressive) but the philosophical victory it represents.
Until the change goes into effect in May, the kilogram has a very simple definition: It’s the mass of a hunk of platinum-iridium alloy, called “Big K,” that’s been housed at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France, since 1889. That artifact is imperfect. It can get lost or stolen. There’s even evidence that it’s lost some mass over the years.
The kilogram is the world’s standard unit of mass, recognized universally, even in the United States. (The US’s pounds are technically defined in terms of kilograms.) By affixing the definition of it to a universal force of nature, we make it permanent — celestial even.
Scientists estimated the weight of all life on Earth
By weight, human beings are insignificant.
There are an estimated 550 gigatons of carbon of life in the world, according to a study published in May in PNAS. We humans make up less than 1 percent of that. (A gigaton is equal to 1 billion metric tons. A metric ton is 1,000 kilograms, or about 2,200 pounds.)
The “whoa” factor really kicks in when you see this data visualized. The graphic, by Vox’s Javier Zarracina, is a bit too large to post here, but you should check it out.
Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Martin Rees and others answer the question: What’s your utopia?
Unless you are too stoned or enlightened to care, you are probably dissatisfied with the world as it is. In that case, you should have a vision of the world as you would like it to be. This better world is your utopia. That, at any rate, is the premise of a question I’ve been asking scientists and other thinkers lately: What’s your utopia?
I presented students’ responses to this question last year. This final column for 2018 (if aliens land in Central Park or CERN discovers a portal to a parallel universe, I’ll let major media handle it) offers responses from scientists and others I’ve interviewed lately. My hope is that these visions will cheer up readers bummed out by my previous post, “Dark Days.” See the end of the post for my utopia.
Noam Chomsky: I don’t have the talent to do more than to suggest what seem to me reasonable guidelines for a better future. One might argue that Marx was too cautious in keeping to only a few general words about post-capitalist society, but he was right to recognize that it will have to be envisioned and developed by people who have liberated themselves from the bonds of illegitimate authority.
Richard Dawkins: My utopia is a world in which beliefs are based on evidence and morality is based on intelligent design—design by intelligent humans (or robots!). Neither beliefs nor morals should be based on gut feelings, or on ancient books, private revelations or priestly traditions.
Sheldon Solomon: Staying alive long enough to see that my children are relatively settled and economically secure and knowing that there’s a decent chance that the earth will not be reduced to a festering heap long before the sun explodes!
Sabine Hossenfelder: That we finally use scientific methods to restructure political and economic systems. The representative democracies that we have right now are entirely outdated and unable to cope with the complex problems which we must solve. We need new systems that better incorporate specialized knowledge and widely distributed information, and that better aggregate opinions. (I wrote about this in detail here.) It pains me a lot to think that my children will have to live through a phase of economic regress because we were too stupid and too slow to get our act together.
Scott Aaronson: Since I hang out with Singularity people so much, part of me reflexively responds: “utopia” could only mean an infinite number of sentient beings living in simulated paradises of their own choosing, racking up an infinite amount of utility. If such a being wants challenge and adventure, then challenge and adventure is what it gets; if nonstop sex, then nonstop sex; if a proof of P≠NP, then a proof of P≠NP. (Or the being could choose all three: it’s utopia, after all!)
Over a shorter time horizon, though, maybe the best I can do is talk about what I love and what I hate. I love when the human race gains new knowledge, in math or history or anything else. I love when important decisions fall into the hands of people who constantly second-guess themselves and worry that their own ‘tribe’ might be mistaken, who are curious about science and have a sense of the ironic and absurd. I love when society’s outcasts, like Alan Turing or Michael Burry (who predicted the subprime mortgage crisis), force everyone else to pay attention to them by being inconveniently right. And whenever I read yet another thinkpiece about the problems with “narrow-minded STEM nerds”—how we’re basically narcissistic children, lacking empathy and social skills, etc. etc.—I think to myself, “then let everyone else be as narrow and narcissistic as most of the STEM nerds I know; I have no further wish for the human race.”
On the other side, I hate the irreversible loss of anything—whether that means the deaths of individuals, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, genocides, the flooding of coastal cities as the earth warms, or the extinction of species. I hate when the people in power are ones who just go with their gut, or their faith, or their tribe, or their dialectical materialism, and who don’t even feel self-conscious about the lack of error-correcting machinery in their methods for learning about the world. I hate when kids with a passion for some topic have that passion beaten out of them in school, and then when they succeed anyway in pursuing the passion, they’re called stuck-up, privileged elitists. I hate the “macro” version of the same schoolyard phenomenon, which recurs throughout cultures and history: the one where some minority is spat on and despised, manages to succeed anyway at something the world values, and is then despised even more because of its success.
So, until the Singularity arrives, I suppose my vision of utopia is simply more of what I love and less of what I hate!
David Deutsch: Of course I’m opposed to utopianism. Progress comes only through piecemeal, tentative improvements. I think the world will never be perfected, even when everything we think of as problematic today has been eliminated. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. Never satisfied.
Stephen Wolfram: If you mean: what do I personally want to do all day? Well, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to set up my life to let me spend a large fraction of my time doing what I want to be doing, which usually means creating things and figuring things out. I like building large, elegant, useful, intellectual and practical structures—which is what I hope I’ve done over a long period of time, for example, with Wolfram Language.
If you’re asking what I see as being the best ultimate outcome for our whole species—well, that’s a much more difficult question, though I’ve certainly thought about it. Yes, there are things we want now—but how what we want will evolve after we’ve got those things is, I think, almost impossible for us to understand. Look at what people see as goals today, and think how difficult it would be to explain many of them to someone even a few centuries ago. Human goals will certainly evolve, and the things people will think are the best possible things to do in the future may well be things we don’t even have words for yet.
Peter Woit: Besides the peace, love and understanding thing, in my utopia everyone else would have as few problems and as much to enjoy about life as I currently do.
Martin Rees: A utopian society would, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal. Two trends are reducing interpersonal trust: firstly, the remoteness and globalization of those we routinely have to deal with; and secondly, the vulnerability of modern life to disruption –- the realization that “hackers” or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life – security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth — but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire Internet more secure. But their current applications – allowing an economy based on crypto-currencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions –seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)
And the world is so interconnected that no utopia could exist on the scale of one nation-state. Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair– with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries and the plight of the “bottom billion.” And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritize projects that are long-term in a political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.