Facebook in trouble?

Facebook appears to know it is in trouble over the experiment it conducted (see previous post). On CNN, I read this morning that a spokesperson said it was research “to improve our services”.

It looks like Facebook is trying to jump through hoops. But Facebook doesn’t fit through the hoops.

When users consented to their data being used to improve Facebook’s services, most users will have assumed that this referred to services provided to the users, not services Facebook provides to advertisers. (When you’re happy, you are more optimistic, hence more likely to click on advertisements. Pessimists have a more realistic view of the world than optimists, but optimists likely see themselves as more successful than pessimists.)

And when Facebook users consented to their data being used to improve the services, they sure as hell did not consent to psychological experiments being conducted on them.

They may have expected Facebook to analyse the data and make use of the results of those analyses, yes, but they were likely thinking in terms of technology or something along those lines. Upgrading server x that delivers Facebook to country y. They may also have expected to see baby products being advertised to those who clicked on such ads and posted baby pictures, and office products being shown to people who stated that they are self-employed.

Facebook tweaking the streams of users to bring them the items it thought users wanted to see, that is one thing. I can be annoyed about Facebook not showing my friends’ posts in my timeline, no matter how many boxes I tick to try and get them to show and I can be annoyed about commercial posts I get shown no matter how many boxes I tick in an attempt to get rid of posts about products I cannot even buy because I am many miles away on the other side of the world, but that is an entirely different ballpark compared with Facebook deliberately tweaking the streams of users to make them feel happy or make them feel miserable, or even attempting to see whether it can or not.

Facebook – and the two university researchers along with it – has crossed a line, again. This time, Facebook has made an unforgivable mistake.

It is true that other media manipulate us all the time. But we expect that. We know that the BBC only reports what it wants to report and does not present an objective overview of society. We know that commercials feed us bullshit, that buying that car or buying that dress or perfume won’t make glamorous models suddenly find us irresistible. And I know that when CNN – CNN Money, that is – writes that “it does not appear that Facebook faces any legal implications”, CNN is trying to manipulate its audience too.

That does not apply when it comes to messages from our friends. It may still be true that we have one or two friends – or children – who may consciously or subconsciously try to manipulate us, but when it comes to messages our friends post combined, we do not expect those messages to be manipulated by a third party in such a way that we become happier. And we certainly don’t expect our Facebook streams to be manipulated to make us miserable.

Happy or sad?


Facebook could have conducted this experiment equally well after explaining what it wanted to do and allowing users informed consent. It chose not to.

The US Army provided some of the funding for this experiment. That does not help.

I have meanwhile realised how Facebook may be able to get away with this in a court of law. Facebook could claim that it was carrying out this experiment because it was concerned about the number of suicides and other problems precipitated by bullying on Facebook. It could say that it was trying to figure out how it could tweak the streams of its users to prevent such problems for its users. Unless some whistleblower provides evidence to refute this, that might very well work.

Facebook in for a major battle?

I just learned that Facebook made the blunder of conducting a massive psychological experiment on the users of its English-language version without their explicit consent. This is extremely unethical.

This is bound to have legal consequences.court

The Independent published about it today. The paper reporting the results of the experiment appeared in PNAS.

I hope to see class actions in every country that uses the English version of Facebook because this is most definitely not right. No amount of word-twisting by Facebook (or the researchers) can cover up that no users ever consented to this kind of experiment being carried out on them.

In addition, the university researchers involved in the study should be investigated and disciplined. If they were in my employ, I would sack them instantly.

They have damaged the scientific reputation of their universities and, in my view, do not belong in academia. I trust that Cornell University and the University of California will take the appropriate steps.

On the other hand, these researchers are highlighting a serious danger that lurks behind social media, but it does not appear that this was the motivation for their unforgivable conduct.


A lack of funds can trip up a litigant in person

I promised I would elaborate.

How can a lack of money trip you up?

Some filings are crucial, which means that paying the fees for them is crucial as well. If you have to rely on a fee remission, the fee remission process can take you past the filing deadline. It means that a judge can order you to file the crucial form as soon as possible if you don’t want your case to be thrown out.

From the start, be aware of which filings are crucial and how much the fees are. Set the funds aside or borrow the money from friends. File the document and file the fee remission paperwork at the same time. Pay your friends back as soon as you receive the cheque from the court and your bank has processed it.

Also, make sure you do not run out of ink or paper at the wrong time. Have enough envelopes in stock and don’t run out of stamps or money for stamps.

What trips up English litigants in person?


Below are some hurdles that I believe can trip up English litigants in person (LIPs). I will elaborate on each of these hurdles in following posts.

  1. A lack of funds;

  2. A lack of organisation;

  3. The dislike of confident people;

  4. A misunderstanding of rules and deadlines;

  5. The use of euphemisms and confusing language;

  6. A lack of understanding of the legal foundation for a case.

As a litigant in person, you also have be able to spend the time as and when required and you may need access to resources you don’t have or are not aware of, such as databases.

Pro file-handling tips – 2

One of the cornerstones of legal undertakings is good organisation. Earlier, I mentioned the usefulness of Jalema clips and cable ties. Here are three more tips.

Stock up on bulldog clips or, preferably, foldback binder clips to keep your pages together when you’re still working on them and haven’t punched holes in them yet. Foldback binder clips come in all sizes and are usually black, but are also available in brighter colours and without any colour (metal).

If you’re copying many pages and are worried that one of the pages might accidentally get lost, print the information (what document the page belongs to) on the paper sheets before you copy onto the other side of the sheets. (If you include page numbers, have hundreds of pages, and something goes wrong, consider inserting pages like 18a, 18b and 18c if that means you don’t have to start all over again. It’s not elegant, but it’s practical.)

If you have a ring binder and are concerned about pages falling from it, tie a ribbon (or a piece of string) around it, so that each of the three open sides has one piece of ribbon safety pinor string that will stop a page from falling out. It can also help you identify your binder quickly.

White shoes and magic circles

England often seems to have a big problem with them. White shoes. Sneakers. Trainers.

trainersI’ve been wearing them for decades. No, not the same pair, ha ha.

I love to walk and I love to run and I love being able to make that bus, train or tram on account of a last-minute sprint instead of being hampered by my high-heeled footwear. Wearing those white shoes also helps if you have to traverse long corridors and many staircases in university buildings a lot, like I used to do.

My Dutch GP used to compliment me on my sensible shoes, but many English people seem puzzled and amused or even alarmed by it when I wear white shoes. Trainers. Sneakers.

I don’t know the exact background for the strange looks I sometimes get because of my white shoes – something to do with ‘chavs’ ? – but I can’t be the only one who gets them. Those looks. Next time you catch one or dole one out, remember the following, and smile.

A white shoe firm is a top firm in law, management consulting or investment banking. Clifford Chance, as one example, is usually seen as part of the magic circle, but would be called a white shoe law firm much more often if it weren’t English and the description weren’t of American origin.

And next time someone comments on my white shoes? Maybe I will smile, and counter that I work at a white shoe firm.

If the British pay more attention to substance and less to color-coordinating their acccessories, and hire more people on the basis of their capabilities instead of on size of tits and perceived fuckability or the fact that someone is the son or nephew of the Duke of Dipshitz, Britain may soon be in much better shape than it is today and be a better place for everyone.

I usually wore my white sneakers while at work at Clifford Chance. Because Clifford Chance cared more about what I was able to do than about what I was wearing. (Might that be because HR was Dutch?) Yes, I was on a contract. Yes, I quit, but I was overqualified, only there to make some extra money, and they were aware of that. They looked after their legal secretaries pretty well and most of their lawyers were pretty damn good. Some were even better than pretty damn good.

The power of peaceful negotiation

Negotiation is an important part of civil proceedings. Even before you start those proceedings, you must have taken reasonable steps and reached out to the other party without the involvement of a court. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, slinging mud at the other party and voicing anger are rarely useful, but when you feel wronged, remaining reasonable can be hard.

Negotiation is a skill that most Britons lack, at all levels in society. Even British Prime Ministers regularly behave as senseless raging bulls or adolescent bullies when it comes to negotiating internationally. It makes them look like utter fools. It works only when they are dealing with the likes of George W. Bush, who was not exactly known for his finesse, intelligence and diplomatic skills either.

yay!In 1985, a stranger broke into my home overnight and raped me in my own bed. When he was done, he reached around for something to tie me up with. One thing he grabbed and tugged at was the cable of a lamp. Oh no, I thought, if this guy ties me up, it may take weeks before anyone discovers me! I had just started my Master’s and was living in a high-rise filled with student flats. One of my neighbours was deaf, and the other one didn’t give a toss and was rarely home anyway.

So I negotiated.

I quickly spun a story of how I was in bad mental shape, already seeing a shrink (nope) and how tying me up would be very damaging to me psychologically, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it, that it would break me.

You know what? He listened. He took one of my pullovers and tied that around my head, and not too tightly, so that I wouldn’t be able to see him or wack him on the head with something and knock him out instantly as soon as he’d turned his back. When he was gone, I took the pullover from my head, and dialed the numbers of a friend and of the police. (Of course, I would never have called police if this had happened in the UK.) A women’s self-defence course was part of how I chose to deal with the matter. I also did a great deal of reading, talking, writng and some painting.

Later, I had a downstairs neighbour who blasted me out of bed many nights with loud music. Oh no, I thought every time while the bass shook my bed till 4 or 5 because I had to be in class at 9 in the morning.

One day when I was well-rested, I knocked on his door.

I asked him if he was ever bothered by noise coming from my place. It is usually very hard to tell whether someone in an adjacent home can hear what goes on in your own home or not. No, he said, and then he asked if he himself was ever loud. So I told him. Indeed, he had not been aware of the effect of his music at all.

He paid attention to it for a while and then slowly, the noise built up again. He was on mental disability benefits so he was home all day and all night, didn’t have a place where he needed to be at 9 the following morning. So I bought him headphones. I knocked on his door again, and gave him the headphones. Problem solved.

When I was walking back from the Winn-Dixie supermarket in central Saint Petersburg one day when I was living in Florida, there was a sudden pull and tug and gone was my shoulder bag. Oh no, I thought, my passport is in that bag, and my bank cards, and my driving licence! As a foreigner, I had to carry ID with me at all times.

I negotiated.

a sense of elationFirst I put my shopping bags down, then picked them up again. No way I was going to lose my groceries too. I walked after the thief and kept calling out to him. “I am a foreigner and my passport and driving licence are in that bag. I need those. Please let me keep my passport and my driving licence.” I didn’t give up.

You know what? He listened. He stopped and told me to stay back. He went through my bag and my purse, took the money – peanuts – and dropped the bag with the rest still in it on the ground. Then he took off. I picked up my bag and got to keep everything that mattered to me. It made my day! I was elated!

People asked me what I would have done if he had pulled a gun on me. I had no idea. Duck behind a car? The thought had never crossed my mind. I focused on what was important to me, and went for it, by negotiating.

I do this without thinking. If you believe in astrology, you might say that my zodiac sign explains it. You know what I think? It comes from having had a partly crappy childhood, and also from being Dutch.

When I was a young child, my parents often fought on Sunday. I hated it. I hate senseless fights. I would often buy pastries (“gebakjes”) after church or the day before and hide them in my dad’s walk-in cooler room where he stored his dairy products. I would wait until the fight seemed to be reaching an impasse, and then I’d shuffle to the back of the building where the cooler was, and timidly shuffle back with my pastries, hoping fervently that they would create a breakthrough distraction and end the fight.

When I was a teenager after my mother had passed away, my dad would often go berserk, as if he had a sudden short circuit in his brain. He would for instance threaten to crash the car with my siblings and me in it, and floor the pedal. For some reason, this often happened while we were on a twisty German Autobahn with plenty of bends to lose control in. Let me tell you that that is bloody scary when you’re a youngster and don’t know how to drive a car. No degree of phantasizing about grabbing the wheel gets you out of such a situation.

So I’d negotiate.

I’d talk to my dad like crazy, trying to find the words that would pull him out of his craze and make him slow down the car again. I always succeeded, otherwise I would not have been typing these words here today. I guess that’s how I learned to negotiate. I don’t think in those moments. I act.

(Okay, except that time when my dad tried to set fire to me. Then I froze because there are limits to what a human being can handle. That’s when my two younger sisters acted for me.)

reaching outReal-life situations without an immediate urgency are often very different. Then, it can really help to think. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and focus on a compromise that benefits all sides.

It’s amazing how two parties can be equally convinced that they’ve been wronged and that they’re in the right until they start looking at the situation from other angles and gain some distance.

Food bank row

This morning, the first news today’s papers informed me of was a row over food banks.

fruitApparently, someone – an aide to the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – threatened to have food banks shut down if they continued to raise awareness about their activities and about food poverty in the UK. This aide has the wrong idea.

Only a few years ago, in 2011, I noticed a major discrepancy in this area. The Trussell Trust – which runs the food banks in the UK – wasn’t accomplishing even 10% of what Dutch food banks were doing.

  • UK food banks handed out 40,000 parcels per year.
  • 900,000 per year were handed out by Dutch food banks.
  • The population of England & Wales on 27 March 2011 was 56,075,912. The population of Scotland on that day was 5,295,000.
  • On 1 January 2011, the population of the Netherlands was around 16,700,000 persons. That’s almost 45 million people less!

So, while British food banks were handing out 0.00065 parcel per person per year, Dutch food banks handed out 0.054 parcel per person per year. Or did my calculator trip me up badly?

cheeseAround 83 times more food parcels were being handed out in a tiny country with much greater equality and almost none of the appallingly deep poverty of the UK!

That is not the Trussell Trust’s fault.

While the number of food parcels handed out in the UK has gone up substantially since then, it still is nowhere near enough. The Trussell Trust gave emergency food to 913,138 people in the UK in 2013-2014. Presumably, that means ‘once’.

According to the Trussell Trust, 13,000,000 people in the UK live below the poverty threshold. (That’s what it also said three years ago.)

Addressing the UK’s persistent poverty problems would improve the lives of everyone here, not just the lives of the poor. When UK scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett investigated the impact of inequality on society, they had to conclude that a higher degree of equality would lead to overall improvements for everyone, not just for the so-called vulnerable.

Conquering poverty would also benefit the nation’s budget, as the estimated cost of child poverty alone in the UK is £25 billion per year in terms of costs to business, the police, courts and health and education services.

Inhabitants of the Netherlands rank among the happiest people on the planet, year after year after year. Dutch children consider themselves very happy children, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The same cannot be said for British children.

At the end of 2010, UNICEF research into child inequality in 24 developed countries showed that income poverty has the greatest impact on child inequality in the UK. The UK ranks alongside countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. There is little inequality in the Netherlands, however, and the lives of children from the richest families differ little from the lives of the poorest Dutch children.

UNICEF UK commented that addressing income poverty is the crucial factor. ‘David Bull, Executive Director UNICEF UK said:

‘We must not lose sight of the importance of family income to eradicating child poverty in this country. We must ensure that no family with children has to live on an income which cannot provide the warmth, shelter and food they need.’

We need to hand out many more food parcels. There is no shame in handing out food, and none in accepting it either. The embarrassment is in not handing it out.

Pro file-handling tips

Staying organised is one of the corner stones of legal undertakings. Never forget this name: 
J A L E M A.

Jalema clips are the ultimate when it comes to keeping papers organised. I have been using Jalema clips for decades. The video at the bottom of this post shows you how they work.

cable tiesBut what to do when you’ve run out of Jalema clips and you have bundles to bind? Grab some cable ties! Less elegant, but effective enough when you’re in a hurry.

For cases and businesses with a lot of paperwork that needs to be filed, I have one more tip. If you are lucky enough to pass through the Netherlands every once in a while, see if you can purchase some of those patented Loeff’s file boxes.

They come as flat packs, so you can stack them against the wall behind your desk or bookcase to fold and use them as needed. They’re great. I haven’t spotted them in the UK yet, but in the Netherlands and Belgium, you may be able to purchase them at professional office stores or order them from Viking Direct.