Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trying to be a little bit more sophisticated about "profiling" has, as far as I’m aware, never asked me a question about my race. On the other hand,, based on my purchasing record, keeps on suggesting to me that I would enjoy "Reinventing Hell: The Best of Pantera", "Wainwright's Pictorial Guides Boxed Set" and "Superfreakonomics". In other words, it knows that I'm white.

Or to put it another way, (because I can think of precisely one nonwhite person who might, possibly have similar recommendations, hiya Darren), Amazon knows that I'm either a fairly laughably stereotypical white guy, or a nonwhite person who has exactly the the same tastes as one. Given what it knows about my purchasing history, and even though people of different races do have different tastes in entertainment purchases, if I were to fill in a racial questionnaire for, like the one I regularly fill in for Camden Council[1], I very much doubt that the information would be any use to them at all.

The reason is (and stay with me here, I'm going somewhere) that "white guy" is a very big category, and as a result is not much use for data-mining applications. When Amazon recommends something to me, it tells me why, and the answer is never a generic characteristic of mine - it's always something specific that I've done in the past; when Sainsbury's or HSBC sends me junk mail, it's doing so on the basis of my postcode and purchasing habits, not sending out a blanket untargeted mailshot to all five million people in my demographic.

Where I'm going with this is that if we're going to have profiling at airports and for special-treatment law enforcement searches, would it not be possible to reduce the alienation factor by handing profilees a little slip of paper along the lines of "You have been recommended for a body cavity search because you bought ten litres of hydrogen peroxide and the complete works of Sayyid Qutb. I suspect that the law enforcement objection to this would be that it might conceivably make it easier to reverse-engineer the profiling system but I have a hard time taking this objection too seriously - I have no idea how to reverse-engineer Amazon's recommendation system, for example, and it is not as if jihadis don't take precautions against being detected anyway.

[1] Department of "I mean really". Full marks to LB Camden for giving it the old college try when it comes to continually monitoring itself for incipient institutional racism, but a lot of these things don't actually appear to have had much thought or effort put into them - also, the ethnic taxonomy they use seems pretty wildly eccentric and is not consistent from form to form, suggesting to me that nobody is tabulating this data and that the ethnic origins questionnaire is just made up of whatever racial categories come off the top of a random council worker's head. I still maintain that it was highly unlikely that Bangladeshis would be differentially impacted compared to Turkish Cypriots by the removal of two residents' parking spaces on Arlington Road.[2]

[2] These two parking spaces were actually removed on the (perhaps not necessarily wonderfully thought out) advice of the Met Police Anti-Terrorist squad, in order to create a slightly larger cordon sanitaire around the Jewish History Museum, to protect it from car-bombers (specifically, from car-bombers with residents' parking permits). This gave rise to the Camden Gazette headline "TERRORISTS FOILED BY DOUBLE YELLOW LINES", discussed here before. Strangely, neither "Jewish" nor "Palestinian" were listed as ethnic categories on the form, despite their being the only two ethnic groups that could possibly have been relevant! (Quite apart from anything, if someone had listed their ethnicity as Palestinian and objected a little bit too vociferously, we could have profiled him).
13 comments this item posted by the management 1/13/2010 10:02:00 AM

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