Later On

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

Archive for April 5th, 2017

Roland Barthes – How to Read the Signs in the News

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I found this brief video that describes how Roland Barthese looked at TV news to be quite interesting:

And then I found this series of four brief videos on YouTube. Worth watching especially nowadays. It’s an interesting way to look at media, for example: peeling off and lifting up the cultural overlay on reality, removing the memes to see what is underneath.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 7:22 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Media, Memes

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Part 4 of the LA Times editorial series on Trump: “Trump’s War on Journalism”

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The editors of the LA Times write:

In Donald Trump’s America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as “enemies of the people.”

Facts that contradict Trump’s version of reality are dismissed as “fake news.” Reporters and their news organizations are “pathetic,” “very dishonest,” “failing,” and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, “a pile of garbage.”

Trump is, of course, not the first American president to whine about the news media or try to influence coverage. President George W. Bush saw the press as elitist and “slick.” President Obama’s press operation tried to exclude Fox News reporters from interviews, blocked many officials from talking to journalists and, most troubling, prosecuted more national security whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous presidents combined.

But Trump being Trump, he has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.

Most presidents, irritated as they may have been, have continued to acknowledge — at least publicly — that an independent press plays an essential role in American democracy. They’ve recognized that while no news organization is perfect, honest reporting holds leaders and institutions accountable; that’s why a free press was singled out for protection in the 1st Amendment and why outspoken, unfettered journalism is considered a hallmark of a free country.

Trump doesn’t seem to buy it. On his very first day in office, he called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

Since then he has regularly condemned legitimate reporting as “fake news.” His administration has blocked mainstream news organizations, including The Times, from briefings and his secretary of State chose to travel to Asia without taking the press corps, breaking a longtime tradition.

This may seem like bizarre behavior from a man who consumes the news in print and on television so voraciously and who is in many ways a product of the media. He comes from reality TV, from talk radio with Howard Stern, from the gossip pages of the New York City tabloids, for whose columnists he was both a regular subject and a regular source.

But Trump’s strategy is pretty clear: By branding reporters as liars, he apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality. By undermining trust in news organizations and delegitimizing journalism and muddling the facts so that Americans no longer know who to believe, he can deny and distract and help push his administration’s far-fetched storyline.

It’s a cynical strategy, with some creepy overtones. For instance, when he calls journalists “enemies of the people,” Trump (whether he knows it or not) echoes Josef Stalin and other despots.

But it’s an effective strategy. Such attacks are politically expedient at a moment when trust in the news media is as low as it’s ever been, according to Gallup. And they’re especially resonant with Trump’s supporters, many of whom see journalists as part of the swamp that needs to be drained.

Of course, we’re not perfect. Some readers find news organizations too cynical; others say we’re too elitist. Some say we downplay important stories, or miss them altogether. Conservatives often perceive an unshakable liberal bias in the media (while critics on the left see big, corporate-owned media institutions like The Times as hopelessly centrist).

To do the best possible job, and to hold the confidence of the public in turbulent times, requires constant self-examination and evolution. Soul-searching moments — such as those that occurred after the New York Times was criticized for its coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war or, more recently, when the media failed to take Trump’s candidacy seriously enough in the early days of his campaign — can help us do a better job for readers. Even if we are not faultless, the news media remain an essential component in the democratic process and should not be undermined by the president.

Some critics have argued that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 4:10 pm

Surely it’s easier to store stuff digitally…. isn’t it?

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But what about an effort to preserve old software as software has changed, mutated, and evolved? Where can one find the grand early firsts? In the physical world, we can review how, say, buildings of worship evolved over the millennia through the Darwinian process of meme evolution, structures that show the incredible diversity of such structures: Mayan pyramids, Greek temples, (Somehow I can’t picture an Egyptian house of worship), Muslim mosques, Russian Orthodox onion-shaped roofs, the great cathedrals of Europe, the plain simplicity of the Shakers, the steeples of New England, ..  and that’s not even scratching the surface of that one meme.

But suppose you wanted to see the same sort of historical display of software, which certainly is as real as houses of worship: they are both memes. But one is hard tissue that fossilizes readily, and the other is soft tissue that disintegrates quickly and thus is lost to fossilization. And that’s whay software will not be able to be seen in the same way.

Jordan Pearson reports in Motherboard:

Code is heritage.

Software has shaped our lives and culture for decades, and now the United Nations will make a push to get world governments to work toward preserving it.

On Monday, UNESCO, one of the founding agencies of the UN, announced a partnership with the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) to preserve every piece of software under the sun. Last year, INRIA kicked off its Software Heritage project with the mission of collecting software source code and ensuring it’s never forgotten. The project has so far logged 58 million projects and billions of source files.

“We live in a digital world, but we don’t know how it works—what’s behind the machine? It’s software,” said Davide Storti, a UNESCO spokesperson, over the phone. “If you know how software works, you might better understand the world you live in. So, it’s important for education, and that kids have access to this notion.”

“It’s something that governments should participate in,” he said.

Read More: Programmers Are Racing to Save Apple II Software Before It Goes Extinct

Software preservation is a massive undertaking, especially outside of sought-after programs like video games, and one that requires a lot of collaboration and time. That’s why, with the current partnership, UNESCO will strike up a conversation among its 195 member states about how they can work to preserve code-as-cultural-heritage.

“Member states might agree that they want to do this, but nothing will happen,” Storti said. “So, we’re partnering with a public institution that is doing this.”

“[INRIA’s] software is real, it’s there, it contains millions of software projects, so it’s thanks to our partner that we can bring value to the conversation,” he continued.

There are a few software preservation projects out there right now, many of which are run by hobbyists, obsessives, and enthusiasts. For example, a group of hackers led by Jason Scott of the Internet Archive are currently on a mission to crack and preserve every piece of Apple II software before they’re lost forever.

“It’s important to not only discuss the preservation itself, but also how these small initiatives can talk to larger initiatives,” Storti said. “As we see it, we look forward to organizing debates on exactly this kind of subject.”

There’s clearly a lot of firming-up to be done, but UNESCO is ready to start the conversations that may lead to government-led software preservation. And with . . .

Continue reading.

Memes stand out quite clearly in this example, and the fact that they evolve is clear.

It’s also clear that this sort of preservation is specifically a job for the government. Businesses come and go and cannot (any longer) be expected to focus on anything other than maximizing shareholder value: profits uber Allës is the current mindset/meme. So business won’t do it. But, as the article explains, it is worth doing. The only funded entity in sight is the government, and governments in general take on the responsibility of preserving the nation’s cultural heritage (which quite specifically consists of memes: that’s what culture is).

In the future it seems likely that people will want to know, “How did we end up in this situation?” and at those times having a record of the software family of meme evolution would be very helpful. Example: Shortly after the moment our new AI overloads take over completely, we might well be curious as how that happened, since no one was working toward that.

But that’s the nature of evolution: no one was working toward bringing about those weird courtship rituals in the previous post. Those are due purely to the process of evolution, not with a purpose in mind. Just as the random combination of letters will in time produce a masterwork, so the random interactions of meme-creators will in time produce the Great AI. Thus the emergence of the Great AI will similarly be due not to our actions’ specific intentions—that is, we are not working toward that purpose—but as an outcome of meme evolution much as the courtship rituals emerge from lifeform evolution. In particular, our minds are rooted in the evolution of lifeforms. Mind is an emergence, a phenomenon seen in various contexts (life itself being an emergence). And with minds we got memes, which evolve extremely rapidly—look at meme evolution since 1700, for example. And ultimately one would expect another emergence, which might well be the Great AI.

It will just emerge, and as a result of our own activity— building faster computers with more memory and figuring out machine learning and how to apply it, and hooking things together. As with lifeform evolution, not all mutations are beneficial, and many meme mutations are in effect pruned by natural selection. But the ones that work continue to evolve in various directions, so culturally we develop things as odd as those courtship rituals. All those working on various aspects of the Great AI are, in effect, parts of it: the cells, as it were, whose intelligence is directed toward doing things from which the Great AI will emerge: not designed, but evolved.

That does offer one possible way to increase the odds that the Great AI will be benign. (It’s clear already that memes themselves may not be benign—cf. North Korea.) Note the environment determines which variants are adaptations that survive and flourish and which are maladaptations that weaken and go extinct. That’s true for lifeforms and for memes. As the oceans become more acidic with climate change (absorbing CO2), that affects how well different lifeforms fare. Some will go extinct, others will flourish, giving rise to many species. When the environment change, natural selection picks winners and losers. The change be very slow, or quite sudden (e.g., the asteroid strike) The effect is a change in the direction of evolution. Evolution is like a snowflake: the patterns show the humidity and temperature of the air at the snowflake as the snowflake formed, so the snowflake is a record of those changes. Similarly, the evolution of lifeforms is a record of environmental change (with the environment in this including other lifeforms).

For memes, we are the environment. That is, we are the hosts for cultural knowledge (memes), so we determine the survival value of various memes. Indeed, in history you can trace out how certain memes arose, flourished (or not), branched, etc. Take a man’s tie. It originated as a scarf, divided at bow ties and long ties, has various small variants in knots, and branched off in various subspecies: the Western string tie, the lanyard, and so on. So if we want the Great AI to evolve in a benign direction, we need to provide an environment that encourages that—and we are the environment.

And it’s clear that we can change the meme environment. Donald Trump has had a very strong impact on which memes flourish and which are struggling. I fear, however, that the meme environment now being developed reduces the chance that the Great AI will be benign for humans. (Again: North Korea is a bunch of memes that turn out not to be good for their hosts.)

The control we have is very indirect, but it does seem important to go a direction different from the one President Trump is headed.

I hope you’re a fan of singularity sci-fi. You may be living it pretty soon.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 2:30 pm

The NYPD’s doppelganger problem and racially unfair policing

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Another interesting post at Kottke.org:

For years, a white woman named Lisa Davis was paying the price (sometimes literally) for tickets issued to other women named Lisa Davis living in NYC.

Finally, the DMV told me that I wasn’t the victim of identity theft; there was simply another Lisa S Davis with the same birthday in New York City. Our records were crossed. When cops run a license, they don’t check the person’s address, signature, or social security numbers. They check the name and the birthday, and both the other Lisa S Davis’s and mine were the same. We were, in the eyes of the law, one person, caught in a perfect storm of DMV and NYPD idiocy.

In fighting all of these improperly filed tickets, Davis learned that most of them issued for bullshit “broken windows” misdemeanors in predominately minority neighborhoods.

It was then that it became clear to me: the reason for the tickets wasn’t that these Lisa Davises were petty criminals. The reason was likely that they lived in highly policed areas where even the smallest infractions are ticketed, the sites of “Broken Windows” policing. The reason, I thought, was that they weren’t white.

That could have been the “proof” I offered to the judge. Brownsville’s population is less than 1% white. It almost couldn’t have been me. . .

Continue reading.

And the ProPublica story he mentions at the link is well worth reading and thinking about, with empathy. Feel what it is like to be privileged—the things one doesn’t have to even think about, the comfortable illusion that one’s life is “normal, nothing special.” The essence of privilege is to be unaware of having privilege: it’s just there, and just as Queen Victoria could sit in the secure knowledge that the chair will be there when she does (or so legend has it), so a privileged person is not really aware of the privilege—but those not privileged are acutely aware of their lack of privilege. The privileged, for example, do not find it important stress to their children how important it is to be very careful in any interaction with the police, and how to act if they are stopped for no reason by the police and frisked. That’s not a big conversation for the privileged, but it is common among those oppressed by the police. But the privileged do not see that and do not want to see it. Perhaps it’s so hard on people to lose privilege because they were unaware of how extensive it was, and they knitted privilege into their sense of identity, as though it is part of themselves rather than a social convention (a meme).

It’s no much evil that privileged are deliberately evil as they are blind (though quite often the blindness is self-imposed, a deliberate turning away one’s gaze,  preserving one’s ignorance—everyone wants deniability, and recognition involves emotions that may be uncomfortable: cf. Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, in which he describes exactly the mechanism at work: self-deception as a way to avoid pain).

Or view it with empathy from the point of view of those neighborhoods that get charged more for the same risk. That’s a different reality, much less comfortable but equally “normal, just the way things are.” The effects of the daily stress of such profiling may well be one of the reasons that the life expectancy of African-Americans is so much less than that of White Americans.

Minority Neighborhoods Pay Higher Car Insurance Premiums Than White Areas With the Same Risk.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 1:49 pm

Evolution can go in weird directions: Two different courtship rituals

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Evolution really is “creative” in the way printing random characters would, given enough time (we’re taking billions of years), produce not only Hamlet, but also all possible variations: parodies of Hamlet, Hamlet the Musical, Hamlet the Rom Com, and every possible work that could ever exist, along with those same works with and without typos. (That process is not very efficient, however—to say the least. Evolution is assisted by natural selection, which does tree-pruning of less effective adaptations.

And look at what evolution has produced in these courtship rituals. Videos via Kottke.org.

and another:

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 1:32 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science, Video

The IRS took millions from innocent people because of how they managed their bank accounts

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Government agencies (police departments, DEA, et al.) love civil asset forfeiture because it gives them a license to rob people with impunity, and they take full advantage of it. Sometimes a civil lawsuit will restrain them, but they get away with it often enough that they defend the privilege fiercely. And the IRS is on the take, as Christopher Ingraham reports today in the Washington Post:

The Internal Revenue Service has seized millions of dollars in cash from individuals and businesses who obtained the money legally, according to a new Treasury Inspector General’s report.

The report covers IRS cash seizures against businesses and individuals suspected of deliberately trying to avoid federal reporting requirements for large bank deposits.

In order to combat criminal activity, individuals and businesses are required to report all bank deposits greater than $10,000 to federal authorities. Intentionally splitting up large sums of cash into sub-$10,000 amounts to avoid that reporting requirement is known as “structuring,” and is illegal under the federal Bank Secrecy Act.

But many business owners engaged in perfectly legal activities may be unaware of the law. Others are covered by insurance policies that don’t cover cash losses greater than $10,000. Still others simply want to avoid extra paperwork, and keep their deposits less than $10,000 on the advice of bank employees or colleagues.

While structuring is technically a crime, it’s something of a secondary one. The reporting requirements were enacted in order to detect serious criminal activity, such as drug dealing and terrorism. They “were not put in place just so that the Government could enforce the reporting requirements,” as the Inspector General’s report puts it.

But according to the report, that’s exactly what happened at the IRS in recent years. The IRS pursued hundreds of cases from 2012 to 2015 on suspicion of structuring, but with no indication that it was related to any criminal activity. Simply depositing cash in sums of less than $10,000 was all that it took to arouse agents’ suspicion, and the eventual seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash from people not otherwise suspected of criminal activity.

The Inspector General took a random sample of 278 IRS forfeiture actions in cases where structuring was the primary basis for seizure. The report found that in 91 percent of those cases, the individuals and business had obtained their money legally.

“Most people impacted by the program did not appear to be criminal enterprises engaged in other alleged illegal activity,” according to the Inspector General’s press release. “Rather, they were legal businesses such as jewelry stores, restaurant owners, gas station owners, scrap metal dealers, and others.”

More troubling, the report found that the pattern of seizures — targeting businesses that obtained their money legally — was deliberate.

“One of the reasons why legal source cases were pursued was that the Department of Justice had encouraged task forces to engage in ‘quick hits,’ where property was more quickly seized and more quickly resolved through negotiation, rather than pursuing cases with other criminal activity (such as drug trafficking and money laundering), which are more time-consuming,” according to the press release.

In most cases, the report found, agents followed a protocol of “seize first, ask questions later.” Agents only questioned individuals and business owners after they had already seized their money.

In many cases, the property owners provided plausible explanations for their pattern of deposits. But these explanations appeared to have been disregarded or ignored.

“In most instances, we found no evidence that [agents] attempted to verify the property owners’ explanations,” according to the report.

It is unclear whether structuring forfeiture cases make up a small or large percentage of all IRS forfeitures, because the IRS does not publish that information and denied FOIA requests to make it public.

“Today’s report confirms that the IRS used civil forfeiture to seize millions of dollars from innocent business owners,” said attorney Robert Everett Johnson of the Institute for Justice, a legal firm fighting for forfeiture reform, in a statement. “The IRS’s own internal watchdog found that the IRS had a practice of seizing entire bank accounts based on nothing more than a pattern of under-$10,000 cash deposits.”

The Treasury report comes on the heels of a separate Department of Justice report finding that the DEA has seized billions of cash from individuals never charged with criminal wrongdoing. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 10:49 am

If white America is in ‘crisis,’ what have black Americans been living through?

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Jeff Guo makes an excellent point in his report in the Washington Post:

For the past year and a half, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have been ringing the alarm about rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.

The pair have attracted a bit of controversy for pointing out these facts. Recently, Pacific Standard’s Malcolm Harris suggested that their research, and the way it was presented, put too much emphasis on white mortality — when black mortality has always been worse. “American white privilege is still very much in effect, and no statistical tomfoolery can change that,” he wrote.

Sam Fulwood III, a fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, worried that Case and Deaton’s work would further amplify a growing narrative about white working class woes, to the exclusion of the African American experience. “I worry about how political people will manipulate Case and Deaton’s findings to argue for more aid for white people, but ignore the same, long-standing concerns of people of color,” he wrote last week.

Case and Deaton point out that the trend of increasing white American mortality — higher death rates in middle age —  is noteworthy because those death rates have been going down for nearly everyone else: for African Americans, Latino Americans, for people in the U.K. and Germany and France. When we’re used to life getting better, it’s unusual to see life getting worse.

“It’s not as much news if people’s mortality rates are falling the way you would hope they are falling,” Case said in an interview Monday. “What seems like news is when mortality has stopped falling, and no one has noticed that it has stopped.” That’s what happened in the case of white Americans, she said.

But the critics on the left do have a point, which is that the statistics about black mortality may have not gotten enough attention in the media. So it’s worth straightening that out right now: Black Americans have long been dying faster than white Americans. They’ve long been less happy than white Americans.

Now, though, the two groups are starting to look more and more alike. Particularly among those on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, class has become equally — if not more important — than race as a predictor of people’s health and emotional well-being.

Case and Deaton have a chart showing the declining mortality gap between black and white people without a college degree. Back in 1995, black Americans with a high school education or less were dying at more than twice the rate of similar white Americans. Since then, black mortality has been declining, while white mortality has been climbing. In recent years, the two groups have more or less met in the middle. . .

Continue reading. The article includes some charts that show what he’s talking about.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 10:35 am

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