Home > Uncategorized > Ernie Davis: The Palantir of New Orleans

Ernie Davis: The Palantir of New Orleans

March 6, 2018

Did you hear that Palantir, the big data company founded by Peter Thiel, has been secretly building predictive policing algorithms for New Orleans?

Well, when my buddy Ernie Davis found out, he decided to write a poem. He’s generously allowed me to reproduce it here:

Six years ago, one of the world’s most secretive and powerful tech firms developed a contentious intelligence product in a city that has served as a neoliberal laboratory for everything from charter schools to radical housing reform since Hurricane Katrina. Because the program was never public, important questions about its basic functioning, risk for bias, and overall propriety were never answered.— Palantir has secretly been using New Orleans to test its predictive policing technology, Ali Winston, The Verge, Feb. 27, 2018.

In Eldamar, so long before
Our time, that none can tell the count in years,
The elven craftsman Féanor
Devised the seeing stones, the Palantirs.

The men of old, in seven towers,
Installed the stones that Féanor had wrought
And used their extrasensory powers
To see far off and to converse in thought.

But using a device whose might
Exceeds your wisdom risks a fearful fall.
The fates of Saruman the White
And Steward Denethor are known to all.


The enterprising Peter Thiel
Built Paypal and became a billionaire.
A man of business nonpareil
But arrogant as Féanor the Fair.

He scorned the college education
That piles useless knowledge in your head,
And so established a foundation
So youths could start up businesses instead.

He scorned the privileged elite,
Self-righteous, over-educated, smug,
And thus endorsed the loathsome cheat
Who honors every autocratic thug.

Since folks online are always willing
To publish on the web all they can tell
Thiel saw that he could make a killing
By mining it for content he can sell.

His team of workers then designed
The mightiest program they could engineer
To sift the data to be mined.
He named the company “The Palantir”.

The palantirs of Féanor
Could show what was long past and far away.
Thiel’s Palantir sees vastly more:
It knows right now what men will do some day.

It studies billions of relations
‘Twixt men as they develop over time.
And finds the key configurations
That augur the committing of a crime.


To prove, past reasonable doubt,
Who’s guilty of specific criminal acts
Requires reasoning about
An awful lot of pesky little facts.

Who was where and when and why?
What show the footprints, blood stains, DNA?
An inconvenient alibi
Can ruin any prosecutor’s day.

A human being is still needed
To comprehend these kinds of evidence
No AI program has succeeded
In mastering the basic common sense.

But building an AI detector
For criminal propensity’s no sweat.
You map a person to a vector
And classify it with a neural net.


New Orleans, fair but troubled Queen
Has not in full recovered from the blow
Dealt by Hurricane Katrine
In storm and flood, a dozen years ago.

Gangs that trafficked in the sale
Of heroin and methampetamines
Fought turf wars, and they left a trail
Of murder on the streets of New Orleans

James Carville, famed politico,
Lived in New Orleans and held it dear
And Carville also chanced to know
About the products built at Palantir.

Carville convinced the company
(He was a paid advisor at the time)
To share their software, all for free
To help N.O.P.D. to combat crime.

An altogether secret deal:
Only N.O.P.D. and the mayor,
The folks at Palantir and Thiel
Were any time informed or made aware.

“Fool!” Thus Saruman was named
For secret hid from Council long ago.
And should not those be likewise shamed
Who thought the city council need not know?

Policing with predictive code
The guardians of security delights,
But leads us on a risky road
Toward bias and ignoring civil rights.

Matalin, James Carville’s wife
Assures us all that we will be OK
As long as, in the course of life,
No cousin or acquaintance goes astray.

So Palantir in place remains
And now that we have heard of it, we must
Conclude that those who hold the reins
Of power have betrayed the public trust.

This is part of the collection Verses for the Information Age by Ernest Davis

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 6, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    I feel a vague disquiet, as though
    A mysterious voice says don’t go down in the basement;
    I wonder, should we buy it, the risk of woe?
    Do you foresee a monster in the window casement?


  2. March 23, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    Fabulous poem! I look forward to seeing how poets take on the new surveillance age. I’m glad that the recent scandal with Cambridge Analytica & Facebook has finally made headline news. Well in Britain it has. I’m obviously thinking about this too much: this evening whilst lying down for a well earned rest I suddenly saw Alexander Nix, the Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica look over my shoulder at me. That was creepy. I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve a ghostly and hallucinatory appearance from Mr Nix! Luckily, he’s been suspended now so perhaps he’ll lay off. First they read your profiles, and then they will read your minds…!


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