Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 14th, 2016

Has there been a Russian coup in the U.S.

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 6:20 pm

The Great A.I. Awakening; or, The Threshold of the Synchronicity

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in the NY Times Magazine:

Prologue: You Are What You Have Read

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, stood to make a few opening remarks. A friend, he began, had recently told him he reminded him of Google. “Why, because I know all the answers?” the mayor asked. “No,” the friend replied, “because you’re always trying to finish my sentences.” The crowd tittered politely. Khan concluded by introducing Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who took the stage.

Pichai was in London in part to inaugurate Google’s new building there, the cornerstone of a new “knowledge quarter” under construction at King’s Cross, and in part to unveil the completion of the initial phase of a company transformation he announced last year. The Google of the future, Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be “A.I. first.” What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company’s products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but “machine learning.”

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial “neural networks” that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility. This notion is not new — a version of it dates to the earliest stages of modern computing, in the 1940s — but for much of its history most computer scientists saw it as vaguely disreputable, even mystical. Since 2011, though, Google Brain has demonstrated that this approach to artificial intelligence could solve many problems that confounded decades of conventional efforts. Speech recognition didn’t work very well until Brain undertook an effort to revamp it; the application of machine learning made its performance on Google’s mobile platform, Android, almost as good as human transcription. The same was true of image recognition. Less than a year ago, Brain for the first time commenced with the gut renovation of an entire consumer product, and its momentous results were being celebrated tonight.

Translate made its debut in 2006 and since then has become one of Google’s most reliable and popular assets; it serves more than 500 million monthly users in need of 140 billion words per day in a different language. It exists not only as its own stand-alone app but also as an integrated feature within Gmail, Chrome and many other Google offerings, where we take it as a push-button given — a frictionless, natural part of our digital commerce. It was only with the refugee crisis, Pichai explained from the lectern, that the company came to reckon with Translate’s geopolitical importance: On the screen behind him appeared a graph whose steep curve indicated a recent fivefold increase in translations between Arabic and German. (It was also close to Pichai’s own heart. He grew up in India, a land divided by dozens of languages.) The team had been steadily adding new languages and features, but gains in quality over the last four years had slowed considerably.

Until today. As of the previous weekend, Translate had been converted to an A.I.-based system for much of its traffic, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: The rollout included translations between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. The rest of Translate’s hundred-odd languages were to come, with the aim of eight per month, by the end of next year. The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

Pichai has an affection for the obscure literary reference; he told me a month earlier, in his office in Mountain View, Calif., that Translate in part exists because not everyone can be like the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. In London, the slide on the monitors behind him flicked to a Borges quote: “Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.”

Grinning, Pichai read aloud an awkward English version of the sentence that had been rendered by the old Translate system: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.”

To the right of that was a new A.I.-rendered version: “You are not what you write, but what you have read.”

It was a fitting remark: The new Google Translate was run on the first machines that had, in a sense, ever learned to read anything at all.

Google’s decision to reorganize itself around A.I. was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium. Over the past four years, six companies in particular — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu — have touched off an arms race for A.I. talent, particularly within universities. Corporate promises of resources and freedom have thinned out top academic departments. It has become widely known in Silicon Valley that Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, personally oversees, with phone calls and video-chat blandishments, his company’s overtures to the most desirable graduate students. Starting salaries of seven figures are not unheard-of. Attendance at the field’s most important academic conference has nearly quadrupled. What is at stake is not just one more piecemeal innovation but control over what very well could represent an entirely new computational platform: pervasive, ambient artificial intelligence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 4:21 pm

Trump’s popularity matters a lot—and I think he’s wearing out his welcome

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Trump’s shtick doesn’t wear well, as I’m sure his wives could testify. (There’s a reason Melania is seizing the opportunity to live separately.)

Jennifer Rubin makes some interesting points in a column that begins:

President-elect Donald Trump’s periodic “thank you” tour rallies strike me as a “fix,” a way to recapture the high he got from the campaign, reassurance that “they love me, they really love me!” And who can blame him, cooped up in his office most days listening to apple-polishing job seekers and Republicans — eye roll — who want to talk about this or that policy? Each new nomination brings critics out of the woodwork, and with the exception of Jim Mattis, no one has received bipartisan acclaim. Moreover, without Hillary Clinton as his punching bag, expectations all center on him. “But Hillary. . .” no longer matters.

Trump likes to recount the campaign and double down on his favorite gripes (e.g., the media) when he’s out with his fans. Oh, and he still loves to talk about campaign polls. It beats looking at current approval ratings and the raging controversies over Russia and his conflicts of interest. Gallup reports:

Americans are evenly divided in their assessment of the way Donald Trump is handling his presidential transition, with 48% approving and 48% disapproving. By contrast, 65% or more approved of the way the past three presidents-elect were handling their transitions at similar points in time, including 75% for Barack Obama in December 2008. . . .

One major reason Trump’s transition approval lags well behind his predecessors’ is that members of the opposition party are far more critical of Trump than they were of prior presidents-elect. Whereas 17% of Democrats approve of Trump’s presidential transition, the ratings for Obama and Bill Clinton among Republicans and for George W. Bush among Democrats were near 50%.

Moreover, Trump’s approval is likely to get worse. (“On average, recent presidents’ transition approval ratings have been about eight points higher than their first presidential job approval ratings.”) He’d be back in the territory of George W. Bush — after Hurricane Katrina hit.

During the campaign, Trump gave lip service to bringing Americans together, but in fact he is more polarizing than President Obama, who was more polarizing than George W. Bush. (“Democrats’ low level of approval of Trump may foreshadow a high degree of political polarization in his forthcoming job approval ratings as president, which has been the case for Obama during his time in office.”) That will get worse as he starts to lose support from voters who really thought he was going to drain the swamp or bring back jobs from Mexico.

Trump may be an unconventional president, but we suspect some political phenomenon will not change. Members of Congress who have to run in two years, even in gerrymandered districts (where primary challenges are very possible), watch the president’s approval as much as their own. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 2:26 pm

Those to whom America’s fate is handed: Trump’s picks for the “A” team

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Take a look. (Clicking photo provides text information.)

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 1:58 pm

If we took ‘Gamergate’ harassment seriously, ‘Pizzagate’ might never have happened

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These are those damned “interesting times” that were used in the Chinese curse. And remember that some Americans are truly frightened, and with good reason. There have already been quite a few attacks, and I don’t see it getting better. In the meantime, police continue to shoot people with impunity. I thought “all lives mattered.” I guess it’s only lives that don’t happen to be standing in front of a frightened or angry cop. Nine shots to a demented man who was near his own home and who was carrying a crucifix. And. Nothing. Will. Happen. It’s a good shoot. And why? A cop made it.

Sarah Jeong writes in the Washington Post:

A feedback loop of half-baked rumors and willful misinformation whips a corner of the Internet into such a frenzy that someone shows up, armed, in broad daylight, to confront the target of their paranoid hatred.

This time, it happened in Washington, D.C., when police said Edgar Maddison Welch drove from North Carolina earlier this month in hot pursuit of an Internet conspiracy theory revolving around the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. Authorities say he walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and fired it; fortunately, harming no one. Now he faces a federal charge of transporting a firearm across state lines.

The alleged gunman came from a corner of the Internet that is utterly convinced that Comet is harboring a child sex trafficking ring that implicates Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and other Democratic Party operatives. Media reports to the contrary are viewed as additional evidence of collusion. Comet, its owner, any bands that have played there and even neighboring businesses have become targets of harassment, too.

But “Pizzagate” isn’t the first time the darker parts of the Internet have delivered up sustained, orchestrated harassment on the back of a convoluted nest of lies. The same tactics, the same platforms, even some of the same people have been at this before.

In 2016, it’s Pizzagate. In 2014, it was “Gamergate.”

If Pizzagate is surprising, it’s because memories of Gamergate have been locked away in a “pink ghetto,” marginalized as a women’s issue that can be safely ignored.

Gamergate started with a man lashing out at his game developer ex-girlfriend through a blog post crafted to incite the Internet against her. The maelstrom of subsequent accusations and threats sent Zoe Quinn into hiding. The furor soon sucked in anyone associated with her and those who sought to defend her. Targets were barraged with hatred via email and social media. Their employers were pressured to fire them. Sometimes their home addresses were publicly disseminated. Harassers made fake 911 calls to dispatch SWAT teams to their targets’ houses.

When discussion of online harassment exploded into the mainstream a few years ago after Gamergate, I thought it would mean change was on the horizon. Today, I can see these years have been an utter waste. A federal bill to punish “swatting”sits in limbo. Reddit is still convulsed in the same battle with itself that it’s been fighting since 2014. A handful of bad actors are permanently banned from Twitter(though white nationalist Richard Spencer was un-banned this week).

After I wrote a book about online harassment last year, conference organizers began to regularly contact me to speak at their events. I have spoken at the invitation of universities, law schools, technology companies and governmental organizations. At first, I was hopeful that it might spark some change. Over time, I saw that the issue of online harassment was being relegated to a pink ghetto.

Panels about online harassment, stacked with women, became an easy way for conferences to pad their diversity statistics. Too frequently, speakers were not asked what the solutions should be, but simply expected to relive personal trauma for the edification of the audience. Institutions and corporations behaved as though “addressing online harassment” meant the mere act of passively listening to someone recount what had happened to her. But now I wonder if even that happened. If people had listened then, would they be so surprised by Pizzagate now, which follows a pattern uncannily similar to Gamergate?

Back then, just as in Pizzagate, the mob had no rhyme or reason — some of their targets were Quinn’s friends, some of them were other women in the video game industry and still others were simply random individuals speaking out against the emerging harassment.

The frenzy reached extreme heights. In 2014, the Game Developers Conference received a bomb threat in response to a scheduled appearance at its awards ceremony by Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist games critic. While her appearance went on as planned, a month later, she canceled a speech at Utah State University after an email threatened a shooting massacre at the event.

Proponents claimed their movement was about . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Daily life, Technology

The excuses Congressional Republicans offer for supporting Trump still

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Jennifer Rubin collects some in a column worth reading:

The excuses for not objecting when he does egregious things include (these are real examples uttered by one or more Republicans on the Hill, operatives, advisers, etc.):

  • He’s not president yet. (No, really, they say such a thing, as though he’ll be more responsive or Congress will have more leverage after he gets control over the IRS, CIA, FBI, etc.)
  • Maybe he’ll do the right thing (e.g. divest). (Again, they utter this kind of rubbish despite heaps of evidence that he lacks any ethical compass.)
  • But we need to get tax reform and repeal Obamacare. (As if reducing marginal tax rates would justify constitutional violations, or as if their forbearance will make Trump more agreeable on policy issues.)
  • If we criticize, he won’t listen to us later. (No, seriously, they seem to believe that if they are patsies now, they will have influence later.)
  • He doesn’t mean what he says. (We are back to not taking seriously the man who will be commander in chief.)
  • He’s not going to get involved in specifics anyway. (Like negotiating over how many Carrier employees should stay in the United States?)
  • He’s hiring good people. (Mike Flynn? Ben Carson? Stephen K. Bannon?)
  • We cannot do anything. (Didn’t they run for weeks on a message of acting as a check on Trump?)

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 1:00 pm

The threat of authoritarianism requires all hands on deck.

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Clara Jeffrey writes in Mother Jones:

Decades from now, when the election of 2016 is distilled to its essence, what will that be? Many hoped the central lesson would be a shattered glass ceiling and a cementing of the Obama legacy. An expansion of rights and tolerance.

Instead, a small electoral majority chose a candidate who openly embraced bigotry, who slurred war heroes and mocked the disabled, who bragged of sexual assault, who said he’d roll back the protections of a free press, who was cheered on by white supremacists, who said he’d upend our alliances and the world’s long-overdue climate deal, and who is ignorant and cavalier about the basics of safeguarding a nuclear arsenal.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. The election of Donald Trump is a brutal affront to women, people of color, Jews and Muslims, and all who value kindness and tolerance. Paranoia and divisiveness won the day. If we feared that the Trump campaign would give white nationalists and other political predators a road map for a lasting presence as a disruptive opposition, we have instead handed them the keys to the Oval Office, and the nuclear codes.

In the horrible months leading up to the election, there were moments we all crossed our fingers and hoped the Trump campaign’s predilection for inflaming bigotry might, ultimately, improve the health of the body politic. Maybe he represented a high fever that, once broken, would leave us more immune to old hatreds. Maybe, just as videos of police shootings shoved the most heinous forms of structural racism into the social-media feeds of white America, so would the actions of Trump and his most virulent supporters cast a light on an ugliness that needed to be confronted to be at last overcome.

Except, it seems this ugliness was far, far more pervasive than we had let ourselves imagine. With every chant of “build the wall,” with every racist tweet, with every “Trump that bitch” T-shirt, his supporters hardened—to the horror of more than half of those who voted (and many who didn’t), and despite the entreaties of political, diplomatic, scientific, and economic experts.

It would be counterproductive to say, as some have, that all those who voted for Trump are stone-cold racists. People voted for him for various and complicated reasons. But it must be said that all who voted for Trump did not find naked bigotry and misogyny to be disqualifying. Some discounted it, and some thrilled to it. That is gutting.

The next weeks and months and years will be spent analyzing how we got here. It will be a grim accounting for every institution, and a painful airing of recriminations among families and friends.

As the author and comedian Baratunde Thurston put it, Trump’s campaign is best understood as a denial-of-service attack on our political system. Despite or perhaps because he is a thin-skinned, shallow narcissist, he instinctively found weaknesses in our national firewall. He knew that with 16 primary opponents, each would happily support his attacks on the manhood, looks, and dignity of the others, until it was too late and the momentum was on his side.

He realized that his bombastic, bigoted statements would be heralded by some corners of the media, mocked by others, and given wall-to-wall coverage by all. Newsroom traditions of putting separate teams of reporters on each candidate also helped ensure that Hillary Clinton’s email scandals were given the same weight as the mountain of evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing. The nation’s great newspapers and networks did vital work, but when it came to proportionality, they utterly failed. And the obsession with polling aggregators and fancy widgets, coupled with the failings of the polls themselves, lulled people into slacktivism, inaction, or even showy obstructionism.

And social media failed us most of all. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

Authoritarian movements rise by dividing us and can only last so long as they do. My heart broke on election night to see my Twitter feed full of quotes like “I knew my country hated me, but I didn’t know how much,” or “I don’t recognize my country.” In the days after the election, there was a surge of hate crimes. Parents had to answer questions like: What will happen to my friends? What will happen to us? Why does he hate us?

I repeat: United we stand, divided we fall. If we don’t find a way to come together, we’re toast.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 12:30 pm

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