Pluralistic: 21 Aug 2020

Today's links

Rewarding CEOs for failure (permalink)

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 (permalink)

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 (permalink)

"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 accomplishment.

Cryteria (modified)


(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

Facebook overrules its own fact-checkers (permalink)

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 "misinformation."

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.

(Image: FOX 52, CC BY-SA, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago EFF-Austin panel commemmorating the 20th anniversary of the Steve Jackson Games raid

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

#5yrsago Make your own TSA universal luggage keys

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

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

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Hackaday (, Four Short Links (, Slashdot (

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