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Archive for March 17th, 2019

DeepMind and Google: the battle to control artificial intelligence

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Hal Hobson writes in The Economist 1843:

One afternoon in August 2010, in a conference hall perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, a 34-year-old Londoner called Demis Hassabis took to the stage. Walking to the podium with the deliberate gait of a man trying to control his nerves, he pursed his lips into a brief smile and began to speak: “So today I’m going to be talking about different approaches to building…” He stalled, as though just realising that he was stating his momentous ambition out loud. And then he said it: “AGI”.

AGI stands for artificial general intelligence, a hypothetical computer program that can perform intellectual tasks as well as, or better than, a human. AGI will be able to complete discrete tasks, such as recognising photos or translating languages, which are the single-minded focus of the multitude of artificial intelligences (AIs) that inhabit our phones and computers. But it will also add, subtract, play chess and speak French. It will also understand physics papers, compose novels, devise investment strategies and make delightful conversation with strangers. It will monitor nuclear reactions, manage electricity grids and traffic flow, and effortlessly succeed at everything else. AGI will make today’s most advanced AIs look like pocket calculators.

The only intelligence that can currently attempt all these tasks is the kind that humans are endowed with. But human intelligence is limited by the size of the skull that houses the brain. Its power is restricted by the puny amount of energy that the body is able to provide. Because AGI will run on computers, it will suffer none of these constraints. Its intelligence will be limited only by the number of processors available. AGI may start by monitoring nuclear reactions. But soon enough it will discover new sources of energy by digesting more physics papers in a second than a human could in a thousand lifetimes. Human-level intelligence, coupled with the speed and scalability of computers, will make problems that currently appear insoluble disappear. Hassabis told the Observer, a British newspaper, that he expected AGI to master, among other disciplines, “cancer, climate change, energy, genomics, macro-economics [and] financial systems”.

The conference at which Hassabis spoke was called the Singularity Summit. “The Singularity” refers to the most likely consequence of the advent of AGI, according to futurists. Because AGI will process information at high speed, it will become very smart very quickly. Rapid cycles of self-improvement will lead to an explosion of machine intelligence, leaving humans choking on silicon dust. Since this future is constructed entirely on a scaffolding of untested presumptions, it is a matter of almost religious belief whether one considers the Singularity to be Utopia or hell.

Judging by the titles of talks, the attendees at the conference tended towards the messianic: “The Mind and How to Build One”; “AI against Aging”; “Replacing Our Bodies”; “Modifying the Boundary between Life and Death”. Hassabis’s speech, by contrast, appeared underwhelming: “A Systems Neuroscience Approach to Building AGI”.

Hassabis paced between the podium and a screen, speaking at a rapid clip. He wore a maroon jumper and a white button-down shirt like a schoolboy. His slight stature seemed only to magnify his intellect. Up until now, Hassabis explained, scientists had approached AGI from two directions. On one track, known as symbolic AI, human researchers tried to describe and program all the rules needed for a system that could think like a human. This approach was popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but hadn’t produced the desired results. Hassabis believed that the brain’s mental architecture was too subtle to be described in this way.

The other track comprised researchers trying to replicate the brain’s physical networks in digital form. This made a certain kind of sense. After all, the brain is the seat of human intelligence. But those researchers were also misguided, said Hassabis. Their task was on the same scale as mapping every star in the universe. More fundamentally, it focused on the wrong level of brain function. It was like trying to understand how Microsoft Excel works by tearing open a computer and examining the interactions of the transistors.

Instead, Hassabis proposed a middle ground: AGI should take inspiration from the broad methods by which the brain processes information – not the physical systems or the particular rules it applies in specific situations. In other words it should focus on understanding the brain’s software, not its hardware. New techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which made it possible to peer inside the brain while it engaged in activities, had started to make this kind of understanding feasible. The latest studies, he told the audience, showed that the brain learns by replaying experiences during sleep, in order to derive general principles. AI researchers should emulate this kind of system.

A logo appeared in the lower-right corner of his opening slide, a circular swirl of blue. Two words, closed up, were printed underneath it: DeepMind. This was the first time the company had been referred to in public. Hassabis had spent a year trying to get an invitation to the Singularity Summit. The lecture was an alibi. What he really needed was one minute with Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who funded the conference. Hassabis wanted Thiel’s investment.

Hassabis has never spoken about why he wanted Thiel’s backing in particular. (Hassabis refused multiple interview requests for this article through a spokesperson. 1843 spoke to 25 sources, including current and former employees and investors. Most of them spoke anonymously, as they were not authorised to talk about the company.) But Thiel believes in AGI with even greater fervour than Hassabis. In a talk at the Singularity Summit in 2009, Thiel had said that his biggest fear for the future was not a robot uprising (though with an apocalypse-proof bolthole in the New Zealand outback, he’s better prepared than most people). Rather, he worried that the Singularity would take too long coming. The world needed new technology to ward off economic decline.

DeepMind ended up raising £2m; Thiel contributed £1.4m. When Google bought the company in January 2014 for $600m, Thiel and other early investors earned a 5,000% return on their investment.

For many founders, this would be a happy ending. They could slow down, take a step back and spend more time with their money. For Hassabis, the acquisition by Google was just another step in his pursuit of AGI. He had spent much of 2013 negotiating the terms of the deal. DeepMind would operate as a separate entity from its new parent. It would gain the benefits of being owned by Google, such as access to cash flow and computing power, without losing control.

Hassabis thought DeepMind would be a hybrid: it would have the drive of a startup, the brains of the greatest universities, and the deep pockets of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Every element was in place to hasten the arrival of AGI and solve the causes of human misery.

Demis Hassabis was born in north London in 1976 to a Greek-Cypriot father and a Chinese-Singaporean mother. He was the eldest of three siblings. His mother worked at John Lewis, a British department store, and his father ran a toy shop. He took up chess at the age of four, after watching his father and uncle play. Within weeks he was beating the grown-ups. By 13 he was the second-best chess player in the world for his age. At eight, he taught himself to code on a basic computer.

Hassabis completed his A-levels in 1992, two years ahead of schedule. He got a job programming videogames with Bullfrog Productions. Hassabis wrote Theme Park, in which players designed and ran a virtual amusement park. It was a huge success, selling 15m copies and forming part of a new genre of simulation games in which the goal is not to defeat an opponent but to optimise the functioning of a complex system like a business or a city.

As well as making games, he was brilliant at playing them. As a teen, he’d run between floors at board-game competitions to compete in simultaneous bouts of chess, scrabble, poker and backgammon. In 1995, while studying computer science at Cambridge University, Hassabis wandered into a student Go tournament. Go is an ancient board game of strategy that is considerably more complex than chess. Mastery is supposed to require intuition acquired by long experience. No one knew if Hassabis had even played before.

First, Hassabis won the beginners’ tournament. Then he beat the winner of the experienced players, albeit with a handicap. Charles Matthews, the Cambridge Go master who ran the tournament, remembers the expert player’s shock at being thrashed by a 19-year-old novice. Matthews took Hassabis under his wing.

Hassabis’s intellect and ambition have always expressed themselves through games. Games, in turn, sparked his fascination with intelligence. As he observed his own development at chess, he wondered whether computers might be programmed to learn as he had, through accumulated experience. Games offered a learning environment that the real world couldn’t match. They were neat and contained. Because games are hived off from the real world, they can be practised without interference and mastered efficiently. Games speed up time: players build a crime syndicate in a couple of days and fight the battle of the Somme in minutes. . .

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There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 5:56 pm

We’re Losing the War on Corruption

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Franklin Foer writes in the Atlantic:

It’s too bad that Felicity Huffman has been indicted. That probably so poisons her acting career that she can’t be cast as Paul Manafort’s wife, Kathleen, in the inevitable biopic of the lobbyist’s life. But Huffman and Manafort are spiritually connected, and the fact they are packed together above the fold today is more than an accident of timing. They are twin avatars of an elite that acts with impunity.

When Paul Manafort’s lawyers pressed their case for leniency in court on Wednesday, they made the argument that everyone knew about Paul Manafort’s malfeasance—and therefore, how bad could it possibly be? They pointed to the fact he met repeatedly with top government officials to kibitz about his clients in the government of Ukraine. (I wrote about such meetings in my profile of Manafort.) Obviously, those government officials knew him to be a lobbyist. So, really, what’s the harm of his failing to register as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

In fact, the lawyers had a point. Manafort is being sent to prison for crimes that are systemic, hardly hidden, and usually elicit little more than a yawn or shrug. According to a Justice Department report in 2016, there had been seven prosecutions for failure to comply with FARA since 1966. What makes this figure so galling is how many eminent ex-government officials have served as “strategic advisers” to dictatorial governments.

They might represent foreign governments, but technically do not lobbyCongress on their behalf; they make millions, while never subjecting their work to public scrutiny—or themselves to personal embarrassment. (From filings in the Mueller case, we now know that the Justice Department investigated Manafort for brazen disregard of FARA in 1986, just as he was setting out in his career as a lobbyist representing foreign governments. But it could apparently never summon the will to prosecute someone so well connected.)

Or take the more rampant problem of tax evasion. While Manafort will serve time for failing to pay his bills to the government, armies of lawyers and accountants are feverishly devising novel methods of enabling the rich to cheat the IRS, depriving the U.S. of nearly $200 billion in revenue each year. As one old joke holds, the difference between tax avoidance (which is legal) and tax evasion (which is not) is the wall of a prison.

This is the same pattern made visible by the college admissions scandal. The public gets inflamed over a supposedly outrageous piece of behavior that is really not so far from the standard elite procedure. When a wealthy donor contributes $10 million to a university, imagining that their child will someday attend, administrators call it a “gift” and applaud the gesture of philanthropy. But it is, in effect, institutionalized bribery, and it creates new templates of moral behavior. It makes recognizing as wrong under-the-table payments to college coaches harder for parents, when these payment so resemble the gift-giving they see officially sanctioned.

America never had an edenic period, when the country resided in a state of pristine civic virtue. But the past half century has ushered in an era of rank indifference to the perils of corruption and bribery. Not so long ago, the United States had a far more robust definition of what counted as a bribe. That broad definition constrained the growth of the American lobbying industry. Back in the 1960s, lobbying hardly existed in Washington—at least not in the form and on the scale that we now know it. The ledger of officially registered lobbyists extended into the high double digits. By the 1990s, the population of lobbyists had swelled to well over 10,000.

If Americans are more comfortable living in a world of bribery, perhaps it’s because American jurisprudence has legalized so much of it. One accelerant was Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the Citizens United case, in 2010. Kennedy gave the Supreme Court’s official sanction to anonymous campaign contributions, overturning a long trajectory of reforms that prodded the political system in the direction of transparency and rigid limits. Kennedy’s decision made tracing how political giving shapes political decisions nearly impossible. But it was even worse than that. Kennedy’s justification officially circumscribed the legal definition of bribery, constraining it to encompass only the most explicit bribes and quid pro quos. He scrubbed away the Founders’ concern with the corrupting influence of gifts, which had been enshrined in the Constitution.

Paul Manafort also helped invent this world. He pioneered the . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 5:01 pm

How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger

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Michaeleen Doucleff and Jane Greenhalgh write at Goats and Soda:

Back in the 1960s, a Harvard graduate student made a landmark discovery about the nature of human anger.

At age 34, Jean Briggs traveled above the Arctic Circle and lived out on the tundra for 17 months. There were no roads, no heating systems, no grocery stores. Winter temperatures could easily dip below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Briggs persuaded an Inuit family to “adopt” her and “try to keep her alive,” as the anthropologist wrote in 1970.

At the time, many Inuit families lived similar to the way their ancestors had for thousands of years. They built igloos in the winter and tents in the summer. “And we ate only what the animals provided, such as fish, seal and caribou,” says Myna Ishulutak, a film producer and language teacher who lived a similar lifestyle as a young girl.

Briggs quickly realized something remarkable was going on in these families: The adults had an extraordinary ability to control their anger.

“They never acted in anger toward me, although they were angry with me an awful lot,” Briggs told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview.

Even just showing a smidgen of frustration or irritation was considered weak and childlike, Briggs observed.

For instance, one time someone knocked a boiling pot of tea across the igloo, damaging the ice floor. No one changed their expression. “Too bad,” the offender said calmly and went to refill the teapot.

In another instance, a fishing line — which had taken days to braid — immediately broke on the first use. No one flinched in anger. “Sew it together,” someone said quietly.

By contrast, Briggs seemed like a wild child, even though she was trying very hard to control her anger. “My ways were so much cruder, less considerate and more impulsive,” she told the CBC. “[I was] often impulsive in an antisocial sort of way. I would sulk or I would snap or I would do something that they never did.”

Briggs, who died in 2016, wrote up her observations in her first bookNever in Anger. But she was left with a lingering question: How do Inuit parents instill this ability in their children? How do Inuit take tantrum-prone toddlers and turn them into cool-headed adults?

Then in 1971, Briggs found a clue.

She was walking on a stony beach in the Arctic when she saw a young mother playing with her toddler — a little boy about 2 years old. The mom picked up a pebble and said, “‘Hit me! Go on. Hit me harder,'” Briggs remembered.

The boy threw the rock at his mother, and she exclaimed, “Ooooww. That hurts!”

Briggs was completely befuddled. The mom seemed to be teaching the child the opposite of what parents want. And her actions seemed to contradict everything Briggs knew about Inuit culture.

“I thought, ‘What is going on here?’ ” Briggs said in the radio interview.

Turns out, the mom was executing a powerful parenting tool to teach her child how to control his anger — and one of the most intriguing parenting strategies I’ve come across.

It’s early December in the Arctic town of Iqaluit, Canada. And at 2 p.m., the sun is already calling it a day. Outside, the temperature is a balmy minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A light snow is swirling.

I’ve come to this seaside town, after reading Briggs’ book, in search of parenting wisdom, especially when it comes to teaching children to control their emotions. Right off the plane, I start collecting data.

I sit with elders in their 80s and 90s while they lunch on “country food” —stewed seal, frozen beluga whale and raw caribou. I talk with moms selling hand-sewn sealskin jackets at a high school craft fair. And I attend a parenting class, where day care instructors learn how their ancestors raised small children hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of years ago.

It’s early December in the Arctic town of Iqaluit, Canada. And at 2 p.m., the sun is already calling it a day. Outside, the temperature is a balmy minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A light snow is swirling.

I’ve come to this seaside town, after reading Briggs’ book, in search of parenting wisdom, especially when it comes to teaching children to control their emotions. Right off the plane, I start collecting data.

I sit with elders in their 80s and 90s while they lunch on “country food” —stewed seal, frozen beluga whale and raw caribou. I talk with moms selling hand-sewn sealskin jackets at a high school craft fair. And I attend a parenting class, where day care instructors learn how their ancestors raised small children hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of years ago.

Across the board, all the moms mention one golden rule: Don’t shout or yell at small children.

Traditional Inuit parenting is incredibly nurturing and tender. If you took all the parenting styles around the world and ranked them by their gentleness, the Inuit approach would likely rank near the top. (They even have a special kiss for babies, where you put your nose against the cheek and sniff the skin.)

The culture views scolding — or even speaking to children in an angry voice — as inappropriate, says Lisa Ipeelie, a radio producer and mom who grew up with 12 siblings. “When they’re little, it doesn’t help to raise your voice,” she says. “It will just make your own heart rate go up.”

Even if the child hits you or bites you, there’s no raising your voice?

“No,” Ipeelie says with a giggle that seems to emphasize how silly my question is. “With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.”

Traditionally, the Inuit saw yelling at a small child as demeaning. It’s as if the adult is having a tantrum; it’s basically stooping to the level of the child, Briggs documented.

Elders I spoke with say intense colonization over the past century is damaging these traditions. And, so, the community is working hard to keep the parenting approach intact.

Goota Jaw is at the front line of this effort. She teaches the parenting class at the Arctic College. Her own parenting style is so gentle that she doesn’t even believe in giving a child a timeout for misbehaving.

“Shouting, ‘Think about what you just did. Go to your room!’ ” Jaw says. “I disagree with that. That’s not how we teach our children. Instead you are just teaching children to run away.”

And you are teaching them to be angry, says clinical psychologist and author Laura Markham. “When we yell at a child — or even threaten with something like ‘I’m starting to get angry,’ we’re training the child to yell,” says Markham. “We’re training them to yell when they get upset and that yelling solves problems.”

In contrast, parents who control their own anger are helping their children learn to do the same, Markham says. “Kids learn emotional regulation from us.”

I asked Markham if the Inuit’s no-yelling policy might be their first secret of raising cool-headed kids. “Absolutely,” she says.

Now at some level, all moms and dads know they shouldn’t yell at kids. But if you don’t scold or talk in an angry tone, how do you discipline? How do you keep your 3-year-old from running into the road? Or punching her big brother?

For thousands of years, the Inuit have relied on an ancient tool with an ingenious twist: “We use storytelling to discipline,” Jaw says.

Jaw isn’t talking about fairy tales, where a child needs to decipher the moral. These are oral stories passed down from one generation of Inuit to the next, designed to sculpt kids’ behaviors in the moment. Sometimes even save their lives.

For example, how do you teach kids to stay away from the ocean, where they could easily drown? Instead of yelling, “Don’t go near the water!” Jaw says Inuit parents take a pre-emptive approach and tell kids a special story about what’s inside the water. “It’s the sea monster,” Jaw says, with a giant pouch on its back just for little kids.

“If a child walks too close to the water, the monster will put you in his pouch, drag you down to the ocean and adopt you out to another family,” Jaw says.

“Then we don’t need to yell at a child,” Jaw says, “because she is already getting the message.”

Inuit parents have an array of stories to help children learn respectful behavior, too. For example, to get kids to listen to their parents, there is a story about ear wax, says film producer Myna Ishulutak.

“My parents would check inside our ears, and if there was too much wax in there, it meant we were not listening,” she says.

And parents tell their kids: If you don’t ask before taking food, long fingers could reach out and grab you, Ishulutak says.

Then there’s the story of northern lights, which helps kids learn to keep their hats on in the winter.

“Our parents told us that if we went out without a hat, the northern lights are going to take your head off and use it as a soccer ball,” Ishulutak says. “We used to be so scared!” she exclaims and then erupts in laughter.

At first, these stories seemed to me a bit too scary for little children. And my knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss them. But my opinion flipped 180 degrees after I watched my own daughter’s response to similar tales — and after I learned more about humanity’s intricate relationship with storytelling.

Oral storytelling is what’s known as a human universal. For tens of thousands of years, it has been a key way that parents teach children about values and how to behave.

Modern hunter-gatherer groups use stories to teach sharing, respect for both genders and conflict avoidance, a recent study reported, after analyzing 89 different tribes. With the Agta, a hunter-gatherer population of the Philippines, good storytelling skills are prized more than hunting skills or medicinal knowledge, the study found.

Today many American parents outsource their oral storytelling to screens. And in doing so, I wonder if we’re missing out on an easy — and effective — way of disciplining and changing behavior. Could small children be somehow “wired” to learn through stories?

“Well, I’d say kids learn well through narrative and explanations,” says psychologist Deena Weisberg at Villanova University, who studies how small children interpret fiction. “We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting in a way that bare statements don’t.”

Stories with a dash of danger pull in kids like magnets, Weisberg says. And they turn a tension-ridden activity like disciplining into a playful interaction that’s — dare, I say it — fun.

“Don’t discount the playfulness of storytelling,” Weisberg says. “With stories, kids get to see stuff happen that doesn’t really happen in real life. Kids think that’s fun. Adults think it’s fun, too.”  . . .

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There’s much more, and I think parents will find it particularly inteeresting.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 4:47 pm

Scientists Found Worrisome New Evidence About Roundup and Cancer

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Tom Philpott writes in Mother Jones:

The long-simmering debate about whether the world’s most widely usedherbicide causes cancer has bubbled up anew. Glyphosate is the key component of weedkillers such as Monsanto’s Roundup. On March 12, attorneys made closing arguments in San Francisco on the first phase of a closely watched lawsuit against German chemical giant Bayer, which acquired Monsanto last year. Plaintiff Edwin Hardeman claims his use of Roundup caused him to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a type of cancer.

The jury is expected to decide Friday whether glyphosate-based weedkillers were a “substantial factor” in causing Hardeman’s cancer, as US District Court Judge Vince Chhabria put in his instructions to jurors. If they rule unanimously in Hardeman’s favor, the trial’s second phase will consider Monsanto’s liability in the case. A split decision from the jury will result in a mistrial and likely trigger a new trial for Hardeman.

Major regulatory agencies in the United States and Canada have concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. But the chemical remains under scrutiny. Just weeks before the start of the Hardeman trial, several researchers who once served on a government panel assessing glyphosate’s safety released a new study suggesting people exposed to large doses of the chemical have a heightened risk for NHL. Two of the expert witnesses in the Hardeman case cited the study during their testimony.

The researchers performed a meta-analysis of the epidemiological research around glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In a meta-analysis, scientists combine and analyze data from multiple studies and look for broad trends in the research. The team found a “compelling link” between exposure to glyphosate-based weedkillers and NHL. The study concluded that people exposed to glyphosate at the highest levels have 41 percent higher risk of contracting non-Hodgkin lymphoma than people who aren’t, a measure known as “relative risk” in epidemiology.

Rachel Shaffer, a co-author of the paper and a PhD student in environmental toxicology at the University of Washington, put that number into context ina blog post: The results suggest that people who are highly exposed to glyphosate have a roughly 2.8 percent risk of contracting NHL, versus about 2 percent for the overall population.

A spokeswoman for Bayer flatly disputed the study’s findings, writing in an emailed statement that it contains “no scientifically valid evidence that contradicts the conclusions of the extensive body of science demonstrating that glyphosate-based herbicides are not carcinogenic.”

Agencies including the US Environmental Protection AgencyHealth Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority have concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer, and they continue to allow its widespread use. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, on the other hand, decided in 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” That finding prompted charges that IARC had reached that conclusion by willfully ignoring then-unpublished research that might have exonerated glyphosate, a controversy my colleague Kiera Butler laid out here. IARC, in turn, has pushed back against those allegations.

Monsanto grew into one of the globe’s largest agribusiness firms largely on the strength of its blockbuster glyphosate weedkillers and associated products. In buying the smaller US company, Bayer inherited not only those assets but also lawsuits from approximately 11,200 plaintiffs claiming “personal injuries resulting from exposure to those products, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma,” Bayer noted in its 2018 annual report. Last August, a California jury awarded $289 million in damages to a groundskeeper who argued glyphosate exposure gave him NHL. (A judge later reduced the award to $78 million, but didn’t strike down the jury’s judgement that Monsanto had acted with malice—a ruling Bayer is appealing.) Bayer stock has lost nearly 30 percent of its value since last August’s big jury award—a possible measure of just how much the question of glyphosate’s status as a carcinogen hangs over the company.

Glyphosate has had a rocky road through the US regulatory process, a journey all too familiar to three of the new NHL study’s co-authors: Berkeley toxicologist Luoping Zhang, Mount Sinai epidemiologist Emanuela Taioli, and University of Washington biostatistician Lianne Sheppard. All three scientists served on the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel that evaluated the chemical in 2016. While the EPA ultimately declared the herbicide non-carcinogenic, the 15-member panel was divided, as the EPA’s final report on the panel’s feedback and the transcript of its December 2016 meetings show.

Judging the carcinogenic potential of a pesticide is tricky. For one, you can’t ethically dose people with potentially harmful chemicals and then see what happens. And even if you could, cancers can take years to develop. So researchers generally take a three-pronged approach: They study populations known to have been exposed to the chemical and look for disease patterns, a practice called epidemiology; they study the effects on animals like rats or mice dosed with the chemicals; and they test whether the chemical shows potential in a lab setting to harm a cell’s DNA and thus potentially cause cancer, also called genotoxicity.

The EPA’s scientific advisory panel was charged with sifting through studies of all three types and making a judgement based on the weight of evidence. On all three fronts, dissenting voices emerged. The final report noted that based on studies of populations known to be exposed to the herbicide, “some Panel members believed that there is limited but suggestive evidence of a positive association between glyphosate exposure and risk of NHL.” On animal research, the report found that in “the view of some Panel members, there are sufficient data to conclude glyphosate is a rodent carcinogen.” On genotoxicity, members pointed to “remaining uncertainty” about several potential ways glyphosate might damage cells.

“Far from settling the matter” of the carcinogenicity of the chemical, “eight of the 15 experts expressed significant concerns about the EPA’s benign view of glyphosate, and three more expressed concerns about the data,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported in 2017. Ultimately, the EPA “tied themselves in knots to reach the conclusion that they reached—the evidence and the conclusions just didn’t align well at all,” Sheppard, a panel member and co-author of the new NHL study, told me.

Frustrated by the process, Sheppard and co-panelists Zhang and Taioli decided to band together and investigate what they thought was a particular point of concern in the existing epidemiological research: whether glyphosate might be linked to increased risk to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Three previous recent meta-analyses had detected an association—see herehere, and here. (All three surfaced in testimony during the Hardeman trial.) When Sheppard and her co-authors embarked on their own meta-analysis, they were able to incorporate an important cache of data that the earlier studies had not: the latest results of the Agricultural Health Study, a large, multi-decade project led by scientists at the US National Cancer Institute to track health outcomes among US agricultural workers and their families.

The AHS results had previously been analyzed by a research team led by Gabriella Andreotti of the National Cancer Institute for a 2018 paper that found “no association” between glyphosate and cancer, “including NHL and its subtypes.”

Sheppard’s team focused on one subset of the same AHS data: the study participants who were exposed to the chemicals at the “highest biologically relevant” levels, with a long-enough time lag for cancer to develop. In their statistical analysis, Andreotti and her team sorted participants who had been exposed to glyphosate into two groups—those with a 20-year lag since exposure, and those with a five-year lag. Among those groups, they broke them into four groups, from least exposed to most exposed. Sheppard and her team used data from the highest-exposed, 20-year-lag subset. This group showed a . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 3:46 pm

A close look at Donald Trump’s buddy MBS: It Wasn’t Just Khashoggi: A Saudi Prince’s Brutal Drive to Crush Dissent

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Mark Mazzetti and Ben Hubbard report in the NY Times:

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia authorized a secret campaign to silence dissenters — which included the surveillance, kidnapping, detention and torture of Saudi citizens — more than a year before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, according to American officials who have read classified intelligence reports about the campaign.

At least some of the clandestine missions were carried out by members of the same team that killed and dismembered Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul in October, suggesting that his killing was a particularly egregious part of a wider campaign to silence Saudi dissidents, according to the officials and associates of some of the Saudi victims.

Members of the team that killed Mr. Khashoggi, which American officials called the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group, were involved in at least a dozen operations starting in 2017, the officials said.

Some of the operations involved forcibly repatriating Saudis from other Arab countries and detaining and abusing prisoners in palaces belonging to the crown prince and his father, King Salman, the officials and associates said.

One of the Saudis detained by the group, a university lecturer in linguistics who wrote a blog about women in Saudi Arabia, tried to kill herself last year after being subjected to psychological torture, according to American intelligence reports and others briefed on her situation.

The rapid intervention team had been so busy that last June its leader asked a top adviser to Prince Mohammed whether the crown prince would give the team bonuses for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, according to American officials familiar with the intelligence reports.

Details about the operations come from American officials who have read classified intelligence assessments about the Saudi campaign, as well as from Saudis with direct knowledge of some of the operations. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from disclosing classified information or, in the case of the Saudis, from angering the Saudi government.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said the kingdom “takes any allegations of ill treatment of defendants awaiting trial or prisoners serving their sentences very seriously.”

Saudi laws prohibit torture and hold accountable those involved in such abuses of power, the spokesman said, and judges cannot accept confessions obtained under duress. The kingdom’s public prosecutor and the Saudi Human Rights Commission are investigating “recent allegations,” he said.

The Saudi government insists that the killing of Mr. Khashoggi — a dissident journalist living in the United States who wrote for The Washington Post — was not an assassination ordered from Riyadh. The decision to kill him was made by the team on the spot, government officials say, and those responsible are being prosecuted. Turkey and American intelligence agencies say the killing was premeditated.

The kingdom says that 11 Saudis are facing criminal charges for the killing and that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of them, but officials have not publicly identified the accused.

After the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Saudi officials acknowledged that the Saudi intelligence service had a standing order to bring dissidents home. What they did not acknowledge was that a specific team had been built to do it.

Saudi officials declined to confirm or deny that such a team existed, or answer questions about its work.

Saudi Arabia has a history of going after dissidents and other Saudi citizens abroad, but the crackdown escalated sharply after Prince Mohammed was elevated to crown prince in 2017, a period when he was moving quickly to consolidate power. He pushed aside Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who oversaw the security services, giving the young prince sway over the intelligence agencies.

Since then, Saudi security forces have detained dozens of clerics, intellectuals and activists who were perceived to pose a threat, as well as people who had posted critical or sarcastic comments about the government on Twitter.

“We’ve never seen it on a scale like this,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst now with the Brookings Institution. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 3:31 pm

Nordic walking taking hold again

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38.8 minutes today, 106 steps/minute. Beautiful day: shirtsleeves and note cloudless sky in photo below. Three of the blocks I walk along have a cherry tree in front of each house, both sides of the street.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 2:26 pm

Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA): “Why I don’t support Trump’s national emergency declaration”

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Senator Toomey wrote this op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple. Until the American people are convinced that we will stop future flows of illegal immigration, we will make no progress on dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants who are here now, and on rationalizing our system of legal immigration. That’s plain and simple and unavoidable.”

Those words were not spoken by President Donald Trump or any Republican. They’re from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in 2009 – and he was right.

Since then, our government has failed to secure the border. Large numbers of individuals, including some who are violent criminals, cross the southern border illegally. On the dangerous journey to the U.S., many migrant women and children are exploited by human traffickers. And deadly illicit drugs, like fentanyl, are smuggled over the border through and between ports of entry, coming into our towns and ruining lives.

For these reasons, President Trump has sensibly made securing the southern border a central goal of his presidency. Last year, I voted for $25 billion in border security funding because I support him in these efforts to keep Americans safe, including his recent request for $5.7 billion to build 234 miles of physical barriers at the 10 most critical locations as determined by the border patrol.

Unfortunately, when the president’s request came before Congress, Sen. Schumer and his Democratic colleagues changed their position on border security. After having voted for up to $24 billion in funding for physical barriers in 2018, this year, Democrats agreed to fund only a small fraction of the amount needed to build physical barriers.

The president’s most recent predecessors – two Republicans and two Democrats – built physical barriers at the border. None faced the obstruction that President Trump has. This unreasonable opposition led the president to declare a national emergency that reallocates funds from future military construction projects toward construction of physical barriers.

The president has, under existing law, adequate discretion over funding sources that would enable him to secure $5.7 billion without having to invoke emergency powers. Nevertheless, the president decided to declare a national emergency, which gives him virtually unlimited access to funds that Congress specifically dedicated for military construction projects.

I share the president’s frustration and goal of securing the border, but I have serious concerns about his national emergency declaration. Well before the president declared an emergency, I made clear that such a declaration was ill-advised.

While past presidents have, on rare occasions, used national emergency declarations to reallocate federal funds, never has one been used to circumvent duly enacted legislation after Congress refused a president’s funding request.

Our Constitution specifically gives Congress, not the president, the power to authorize federal spending. Congress’ “power of the purse” limits the executive branch from spending the people’s money without the consent of their representatives. This feature reflects a key pillar of our constitutional government: Responsibilities are to be separated between the different branches of government so as to prevent any single branch from centralizing power.

Were the president to successfully circumvent Congress using an emergency declaration, not only would our Constitution’s separation of powers be weakened, but a dangerous precedent would be set. Future presidents, frustrated by Congress, could declare national emergencies to unilaterally advance whatever controversial policy they might favor. It’s easy to envision a Democratic president declaring a national emergency on climate change to impose the very harmful provisions of the so-called Green New Deal. This isn’t just idle fear-mongering. Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would declare a national emergency on climate change.

Regardless of the party in the White House, it is unacceptable for presidents to do what the Constitution only gives Congress the responsibility to do. I repeatedly criticized President Obama when he did this by unilaterally rewriting Obamacare, making unconstitutional executive appointments and granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

It was wrong when President Obama did it and it is wrong for President Trump to do so now. It would be wrong for a future president to do it, too, which is why Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and I are supporting reforms to the National Emergencies Act that protect the separation of powers. There’s no reason why Democrats, who have said they oppose President Trump’s emergency declaration on constitutional grounds, shouldn’t join us.

I’ve worked with President Trump when I think he’s right and will continue to do so. Together we have gotten many important things accomplished, like reducing taxes and regulations to grow our economy. But I promised Pennsylvanians I would never be a rubber stamp for any president, even one in my own party. While I agree that the situation on the southern border is terrible, I will not support unilateral action by this president or any other president when it undermines fundamental constitutional principles. That is why I joined a bipartisan majority of Senators in voting to terminate the president’s emergency declaration.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 1:18 pm

Unfollow: How a prized daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church came to question its beliefs.

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An absolutely fascinating (and somewhat lengthy) article by Adrian Chen in the New Yorker:

On December 1, 2009, to commemorate World aids Day, Twitter announced a promotion: if users employed the hashtag #red, their tweets would appear highlighted in red. Megan Phelps-Roper, a twenty-three-year-old legal assistant, seized the opportunity. “Thank God for aids!” she tweeted that morning. “You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse! #red.”

As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that aids was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of aids and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “god hates fags” and “thank god for dead soldiers,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.

Westboro had long used the Internet to spread its message. In 1994, the church launched a Web site,, and early on it had a chat room where visitors could interact with members of Westboro. As a child, Phelps-Roper spent hours there, sparring with strangers. She learned about Twitter in 2008, after reading an article about an American graduate student in Egypt who had used it to notify his friends that he had been arrested while photographing riots. She opened an account but quickly lost interest—at the time, Twitter was still used mostly by early-adopting techies—until someone e-mailed Westboro’s Web site, in the summer of 2009, and asked if the church used the service. Phelps-Roper, who is tall, with voluminous curly hair and pointed features, volunteered to tweet for the congregation. Her posts could be easily monitored, since she worked at Phelps Chartered, the family law firm, beside her mother, Shirley, an attorney. Moreover, Megan was known for her mastery of the Bible and for her ability to spread Westboro’s doctrine. “She had a well-sharpened tongue, so to speak,” Josh Phelps, one of Megan’s cousins and a former member of Westboro, told me.

In August, 2009, Phelps-Roper, under the handle @meganphelps, posted a celebratory tweet when Ted Kennedy died (“He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Ted’s in hell!”) and a description of a picket that the church held at an American Idol concert in Kansas City (“Totally awesome! Tons going in & taking pics—even tho others tried to block our signs”). On September 1st, her sister Bekah e-mailed church members to explain the utility of Twitter: “Now Megan has 87 followers and more are trickling in all the time. So every time we find something else to picket, or have some new video or picture we want to post (or just something that we see on the news and want to comment about)—87 people get first-hand, gospel commentary from Megan Marie.”

A couple of hours after Phelps-Roper posted her tweet on World aids Day, she checked her e-mail and discovered numerous automated messages notifying her of new Twitter followers. Her tweet had been discovered by the comedian Michael Ian Black, who had more than a million followers. He was surprised that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church was on Twitter at all. “I sort of thought they would be this fire-and-brimstone sort of Pentecostal anti-technology clan that would be removed from the world,” he told me. He tweeted, “Sort of obsessed w/ @meganphelps. Sample tweet: ‘aids is God’s curse on you.’ Let her feel your love.” The director Kevin Smith and “The Office” star Rainn Wilson mocked her, as did many of their followers.

Phelps-Roper was exhilarated by the response. Since elementary school, she had given hundreds of interviews about Westboro, but the reaction on Twitter seemed more real than a quote in a newspaper. “It’s not just like ‘Yes, all these people are seeing it,’ ” she told me. “It’s proof that people are seeing it and reacting to it.” Phelps-Roper spent much of the morning responding to angry tweets, citing Bible passages. “I think your plan is back-firing,” she taunted Black. “Your followers are just nasty haters of God! You should do something about that . . . like tell them some truth every once in a while. Like this: God hates America.” That afternoon, as Phelps-Roper picketed a small business in Topeka with other Westboro members, she was still glued to her iPhone. “I did not want to be the one to let it die,” she said.

By the end of the day, Phelps-Roper had more than a thousand followers. She took the incident as an encouraging sign that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 9:11 am

Use the Dutch Reach to open your car door and save a cyclist

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Open your car door using the hand farther from the door: the hand away from the door. This requires you to twist so you can clearly see whether a cyclist is barreling down alongside the car. See this post.


In the video (clearly made by people for whom English is not a native language) there’s the statement “Reaching to open the door with the hand that’s furthest away,” which has two errors. First, when referring to distance, use “farther,” not “further” (which is used to refer to degree). Second, since one has two hands, not three or more, the comparative is used rather than the superlative. Correct would be: :”Reaching to open the door with the hand that’s farther away.”

Written by Leisureguy

17 March 2019 at 7:00 am

Posted in Daily life, Health

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