Later On

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

Archive for November 6th, 2019

The basic epistemological problem: It’s impossible to see the world as it is

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Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

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Trump’s ‘conscience rule’ for health providers blocked by federal judge

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Yasmeen Abutaleb reports in the Washington Post:

A federal judge on Wednesday voided the Trump administration’s “conscience rule” that would have allowed health-care providers to refuse to participate in abortions, sterilizations or other types of care they disagree with on religious or moral grounds.

U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer in Manhattan declared the rule unconstitutional in a 147-page decision that said it was “shot through with glaring legal defects.” The rule had been set to go into effect later this month.

The judge said the administration’s central justification of a “significant increase” in complaints related to conscience violations “is flatly untrue. This alone makes the agency’s decision to promulgate the sule arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit brought this spring by New York and nearly two dozen mostly Democratic states, municipalities and health advocacy groups. They argued the rule illegally favored the personal views of health-care workers over the needs of patients, and threatened to hobble the ability of state-run health-care facilities to provide effective care.

“The refusal of care rule was an unlawful attempt to allow health care providers to openly discriminate and refuse to provide necessary health care to patients based on providers’ ‘religious beliefs or moral objections,’ ”New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led the groups, said in a statement Wednesday.

Many physician and health advocacy groups contended that the rule would have disproportionately harmed certain groups of patients, including LGBTQ patients. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

It was part of the administration’s broader efforts to bolster the rights of religious health providers and restrict abortion access. The administration prevailed in earlier lawsuits against a rule that barred federal family planning grants from going to providers that perform abortions, most notably Planned Parenthood. It has also cut international aid to groups that provide or offer abortions. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 3:55 pm

Evolution is an effective method: Computers Evolve a New Path Toward Human Intelligence

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Matthew Hutson writes in Quanta:

In 2007, Kenneth Stanley, a computer scientist at the University of Central Florida, was playing with Picbreeder, a website he and his students had created, when an alien became a race car and changed his life. On Picbreeder, users would see an array of 15 similar images, composed of geometric shapes or swirly patterns, all variations on a theme. On occasion, some might resemble a real object, like a butterfly or a face. Users were asked to select one, and they typically clicked on whatever they found most interesting. Once they did, a new set of images, all variations on their choice, would populate the screen. From this playful exploration, a catalog of fanciful designs emerged.

Stanley is a pioneer in a field of artificial intelligence called neuroevolution, which co-opts the principles of biological evolution to design smarter algorithms. With Picbreeder, each image was the output of a computational system similar to a neural network. When an image spawned, its underlying network mutated into 15 slightly different variations, each of which contributed a new image. Stanley didn’t intend for Picbreeder to generate anything in particular. He merely had a hunch that he, or the public, might learn something about evolution, or about artificial intelligence.

One day Stanley spotted something resembling an alien face on the site and began evolving it, selecting a child and grandchild and so on. By chance, the round eyes moved lower and began to resemble the wheels of a car. Stanley went with it and evolved a spiffy-looking sports car. He kept thinking about the fact that if he had started trying to evolve a car from scratch, instead of from an alien, he might never have done it, and he wondered what that implied about attacking problems directly. “It had a huge impact on my whole life,” he said. He looked at other interesting images that had emerged on Picbreeder, traced their lineages, and realized that nearly all of them had evolved by way of something that looked completely different. “Once I saw the evidence for that, I was just blown away.”

Stanley’s realization led to what he calls the steppingstone principle — and, with it, a way of designing algorithms that more fully embraces the endlessly creative potential of biological evolution.

Evolutionary algorithms have been around for a long time. Traditionally, they’ve been used to solve specific problems. In each generation, the solutions that perform best on some metric — the ability to control a two-legged robot, say — are selected and produce offspring. While these algorithms have seen some successes, they can be more computationally intensive than other approaches such as “deep learning,” which has exploded in popularity in recent years.

The steppingstone principle goes beyond traditional evolutionary approaches. Instead of optimizing for a specific goal, it embraces creative exploration of all possible solutions. By doing so, it has paid off with groundbreaking results. Earlier this year, one system based on the steppingstone principle mastered two video games that had stumped popular machine learning methods. And in a paper published last week in Nature, DeepMind — the artificial intelligence company that pioneered the use of deep learning for problems such as the game of Go — reported success in combining deep learning with the evolution of a diverse population of solutions.

The steppingstone’s potential can be seen by analogy with biological evolution. In nature, the tree of life has no overarching goal, and features used for one function might find themselves enlisted for something completely different. Feathers, for example, likely evolved for insulation and only later became handy for flight.

Biological evolution is also the only system to produce human intelligence, which is the ultimate dream of many AI researchers. Because of biology’s track record, Stanley and others have come to believe that if we want algorithms that can navigate the physical and social world as easily as we can — or better! — we need to imitate nature’s tactics. Instead of hard-coding the rules of reasoning, or having computers learn to score highly on specific performance metrics, they argue, we must let a population of solutions blossom. Make them prioritize novelty or interestingness instead of the ability to walk or talk. They may discover an indirect path, a set of steppingstones, and wind up walking and talking better than if they’d sought those skills directly.

New, Interesting, Diverse

After Picbreeder, Stanley set out to demonstrate that neuroevolution could overcome the most obvious argument against it: “If I run an algorithm that’s creative to such an extent that I’m not sure what it will produce,” he said, “it’s very interesting from a research perspective, but it’s a harder sell commercially.”

He hoped to show that by simply following ideas in interesting directions, algorithms could not only produce a diversity of results, but solve problems. More audaciously, he aimed to show that completely ignoring an objective can get you there faster than pursuing it. He did this through an approach called novelty search.

The system started with a neural network, which is an arrangement of small computing elements called neurons connected in layers. The output of one layer of neurons gets passed to the next layer via connections that have various “weights.” In a simple example, input data such as an image might be fed into the neural network. As the information from the image gets passed from layer to layer, the network extracts increasingly abstract information about its contents. Eventually, a final layer calculates the highest-level information: a label for the image.

In neuroevolution, you start by assigning random values to the weights between layers. This randomness means the network won’t be very good at its job. But from this sorry state, you then create a set of random mutations — offspring neural networks with slightly different weights — and evaluate their abilities. You keep the best ones, produce more offspring, and repeat. (More advanced neuroevolution strategies will also introduce mutations in the number and arrangement of neurons and connections.) Neuroevolution is a meta-algorithm, an algorithm for designing algorithms. And eventually, the algorithms get pretty good at their job.

To test the steppingstone principle, Stanley and his student Joel Lehman tweaked the selection process. Instead of selecting the networks that performed best on a task, novelty search selected them for how different they were from the ones with behaviors most similar to theirs. (In Picbreeder, people rewarded interestingness. Here, as a proxy for interestingness, novelty search rewarded novelty.)

In one test, they placed virtual wheeled robots in a maze and evolved the algorithms controlling them, hoping one would find a path to the exit. They ran the evolution from scratch 40 times. A comparison program, in which robots were selected for how close (as the crow flies) they came to the exit, evolved a winning robot only 3 out of 40 times. Novelty search, which completely ignored how close each bot was to the exit, succeeded 39 times. It worked because the bots managed to avoid dead ends. Rather than facing the exit and beating their heads against the wall, they explored unfamiliar territory, found workarounds, and won by accident. “Novelty search is important because it turned everything on its head,” said Julian Togelius, a computer scientist at New York University, “and basically asked what happens when we don’t have an objective.”

Once Stanley had made his point that the pursuit of objectives can be a hindrance to reaching those objectives, he looked for clever ways to combine novelty search and specific goals. That led him and Lehman to create a system that mirrors nature’s evolutionary niches. In this approach, algorithms compete only against others that are similar to them. Just as worms don’t compete with whales, the system maintains separate algorithmic niches from which a variety of promising approaches can emerge.

Such evolutionary algorithms with localized competition have shown proficiency at processing pixels, controlling a robot arm, and (as depicted on the cover of Nature) helping a six-legged robot quickly adapt its gait after losing a limb, the way an animal would. A key element of these algorithms is that they foster steppingstones. Instead of constantly prioritizing one overall best solution, they maintain a diverse set of vibrant niches, any one of which could contribute a winner. And the best solution might descend from a lineage that has hopped between niches.

Evolved to Win

For Stanley, who is now at Uber AI Labs, the steppingstone principle explains innovation: If you went back in time with a modern computer and told people developing vacuum tubes to abandon them and focus on laptops, we’d have neither. It also explains evolution: We evolved from flatworms, which were not especially intelligent but did have bilateral symmetry. “It’s totally unclear that the discovery of bilateral symmetry had anything to do with intelligence, let alone with Shakespeare,” Stanley said, “but it does.”

Neuroevolution itself has followed an unexpectedly circuitous path over the past decade. For a long time, it has lived in the shadows of other forms of AI.

One of its biggest drawbacks, according to Risto Miikkulainen, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin (and Stanley’s former doctoral adviser), is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 3:48 pm

Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups

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Yeganeh Torbati reports in ProPublica:

Last November, a top Trump appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development wrote a candid email to colleagues about pressure from the White House to reroute Middle East aid to religious minorities, particularly Christian groups.

“Sometimes this decision will be made for us by the White House (see… Iraq! And, increasingly, Syria),” said Hallam Ferguson, a senior official in USAID’s Middle East bureau, in an email seen by ProPublica. “We need to stay ahead of this curve everywhere lest our interventions be dictated to us.”

The email underscored what had become a stark reality under the Trump White House. Decisions about U.S. aid are often no longer being governed by career professionals applying a rigorous review of applicants and their capabilities. Over the last two years, political pressure, particularly from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, had seeped into aid deliberations and convinced key decision-makers that unless they fell in line, their jobs could be at stake.

Five months before Ferguson sent the email, his former boss had been ousted following a mandate from Pence’s chief of staff. Pence had grown displeased with USAID’s work in Iraq after Christian groups were turned down for aid.

roPublica viewed internal emails and conducted interviews with nearly 40 current and former U.S. officials and aid professionals that shed new light on the success of Pence and his allies in influencing the government’s long-standing process for awarding foreign aid. Most people spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration’s efforts to influence USAID funding sparked concern from career officials, who worried the agency risked violating constitutional prohibitions on favoring one religion over another. They also were concerned that being perceived as favoring Christians could worsen Iraq’s sectarian divides.

“There are very deliberate procurement guidelines that have developed over a number of years to guard precisely against this kind of behavior,” said Steven Feldstein, a former State Department and USAID official during the Obama administration. When politics intrude on the grant-making process, “you’re diluting the very nature of what development programs ought to accomplish.”

USAID regulations state that awards “must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization, or lack thereof.”

Last month, USAID announced two grants to Iraqi organizations that career officials had previously rejected. Political appointees significantly impacted the latest awards, according to interviews with officials and other people aware of the process. Typically, such appointees have little to no involvement in USAID grants, to avoid perceptions of undue political influence on procurement.

One of the groups selected for the newest awards has no full-time paid staff, no experience with government grants and a financial tie that would typically raise questions in an intense competition for limited funds. The second organization received its first USAID direct grant after extensive public comments by its leader and allies highlighting what they described as a lack of U.S. assistance to Christians. The two groups — a charity that primarily serves Christian Iraqis and a Catholic university — were not originally listed as front-runners, according to a document seen by ProPublica.

The Wall Street Journal and BuzzFeed have previously reported Pence’s interest in increasing foreign aid to Christians and his displeasure with USAID’s activities in Iraq.

Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Waldman, did not respond to questions. A USAID spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions, including about Ferguson’s email, but said the latest grants were appropriate.

“The Trump Administration has made responding to the genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) against religious and ethnic minorities a top priority,” said the spokeswoman, Pooja Jhunjhunwala. “Assistance to religious and ethnic communities targeted by ISIS is not a departure from the norm, but rather a continuation of USAID’s rich history of promoting inclusive development and defending human dignity and religious freedom in our partner countries.”

Approximately 97% of Iraq’s population is Muslim, according to the most recent U.S. figures available. Religious minorities — including Christians, Yazidis and others — make up around 2% to 3% of Iraq’s total population.

The Trump administration’s efforts to steer funding to these minorities in Iraq stand in stark contrast to its overall approach to foreign aid. It has repeatedly proposed cutting U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance budgets by billions of dollars. In August, as the White House was considering cuts to an array of foreign aid programs, it shielded funding for religious minorities abroad, according to news accounts.

As Trump mounts a 2020 reelection effort, he is taking steps to solidify his conservative Christian base, including his decision last week to install his spiritual adviser, Florida televangelist Paula White, in a White House position. Increasing aid to Christians abroad is a core value for his supporters.

In a speech last month at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, a major gathering of the religious right, Trump touted his administration’s work on behalf of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

“Other presidents would not be doing that,” he said. “They’d be spending a lot more money, but they’d be spending it on things that would not make you very happy.”

Late in the Obama administration, USAID’s activities in Iraq focused on an effort by the United Nations to restore basic services as soon as cities had been liberated from Islamic State rule.

By the end of 2016, the United States had contributed over $115 million to the effort through USAID, and other countries had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars more. U.S. officials credit the U.N.’s work with enabling millions of Iraqis to return to their homes soon after the fighting was done instead of languishing in refugee camps.

“Here’s another example of when the U.N. and the United States work together, really good things can happen,” said John Allen, the former special presidential envoy to the global coalition formed to defeat ISIS, at an event at the Brookings Institution in September.

Robust U.S. support for the U.N.’s work initially carried over into the Trump administration. In July 2017, the administration announced that USAID would provide an additional $150 million to the U.N. Development Program’s Iraq stabilization fund, bringing the total U.S. contribution to more than $265 million since 2015.

But by then, U.S. officials in Iraq were sensing dissatisfaction among some Iraqi Christians and American religious groups with the U.S. strategy and the U.N.’s work. Trying to head off problems, U.S. officials urged the U.N. in the summer of 2017 to pay special attention to the Nineveh Plains, an ethnically and religiously diverse region of northern Iraq where many of the country’s Christians live.

U.N. officials were reluctant, arguing their assistance could go further in dense urban areas like Mosul, as opposed to the Nineveh Plains, a stretch of farmland dotted by small towns and villages.

“They were going for the biggest bang for the buck,” one former U.S. foreign service officer said. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 3:05 pm

When government goes bad: A Michigan Man Underpaid His Property Taxes By $8.41. The County Seized His Property, Sold It—and Kept the Profits.

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Eric Boehm reports in Reason:

An 83-year-old retired engineer in Michigan underpaid his property taxes by $8.41. In response, Oakland County seized his property, auctioned it off to settle the debt, and pocketed nearly $24,500 in excess revenue from the sale.

Under Michigan law, it was all legal. And hardly uncommon.

Uri Rafaeli, who lost his property and all the equity associated with it, is just one of thousands of people to be victimized by Michigan’s uniquely aggressive property tax statute. The law, passed in 1999 in an attempt to accelerate the rehabilitation of abandoned properties, empowers county treasurers to act as debt collectors. In the process, it creates a perverse incentive by allowing treasurers’ offices to retain excess revenue raised by seizing and selling properties with delinquent taxes—even when the amount owed is miniscule, and even when the homes aren’t abandoned or blighted at all.

Organizations representing property owners like Rafaeli say the practice is unconstitutional, inequitable, and unreasonably harsh. They call it “home equity theft”—a process that’s a close relative to the civil asset forfeiture laws that have been used by police departments to similarly deprive innocent Americans of their property without due process. They are now asking the state Supreme Court to restrict the practice.

“Michigan is currently stealing from people across the state,” says Christina Martin, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm now representing Rafaeli and other homeowners in a class-action lawsuit that will go before the Michigan Supreme Court in early November.

“Counties have been authorized to take not just what they are owed, but to take people’s life savings.”

A Win-Win Situation

Rafaeli’s case—which has the potential to stop the predatory behavior of county treasurers across the state—began with a simple mistake.

In August 2011, Rafaeli purchased a three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot home in the predominantly African American community of Southfield, Michigan, a lower-middle-class suburb just north of Detroit. “The investment was good to the state economy, and [at] the same time, it may produce a good rent for my retirement. A ‘win-win’ situation,” says Rafaeli, who lived in neighboring Macomb County at the time. (He no longer lives in Michigan.)

The $60,000 purchase was recorded by the Oakland County Register of Deeds on January 6, 2012. About six months later, in June 2012, Rafaeli was notified that he had underpaid his 2011 property tax bill by $496. Rafaeli made subsequent property tax payments on time and in full—and, in January 2013, he attempted to settle the unpaid tax debt, according to court documents.

But he made a mistake in calculating the interest owed, resulting in another underpayment of $8.41.

A little more than a year later, in February 2014, Rafaeli’s rental property was one of 11,000 properties put up for auction by Oakland County. It was sold for $24,500 in August of the same year—far less than what Rafaeli had paid for the property just three years earlier.

Today, real estate service Zillow, which rates the Southfield region as a “hot” market in the Detroit region, estimates the property is worth $128,000, But Rafaeli has missed out on reaping a financial reward for being an early investor in the area.

“I believed in the power of the U.S. to withstand the difficulties,” says Rafaeli, “and I believed in its fairness and dignity in doing business there.” Now, he says, he thinks differently.

“Punitive for Property Owners, and Profitable for the County”

In court documents, Rafaeli’s attorneys estimate there have been more than 100,000 properties—along with the “entire equity in them”—that have been taken by Michigan counties since 2002. “In thousands of instances each year, the proceeds for a given property sold at auction far exceed the delinquent tax amount and are far less than a delinquent taxpayer’s equity in the property,” they argue. “This results in millions of dollars in surplus proceeds and equity for the counties and tax sale purchasers.”

At the root of those seizures is a 1999 update to Michigan’s general property tax statute. That legislation, Act 123 of 1999, gave Michigan’s 83 county treasurers the authority to act as the primary agents for handing the foreclosure and auction of properties with unpaid taxes. It also expedited the process for seizing and auctioning homes that owed taxes, allowing county treasuries to sweep aside liens and other speed bumps in the tax foreclosure process.

The legislation’s goals were . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Daily life, Law

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudi Arabia by digging into the accounts of kingdom critics

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Our technology puts too much of our personal information up for grabs, and those grabbing it often do not have our best interests in mind but rather the opposite. Ellen Nakashima and
Greg Bensinger report in the Washington Post

The Justice Department has charged two former Twitter employees with spying for Saudi Arabia in a case that raises concerns about the ability of Silicon Valley to protect the private information of dissidents and other users from repressive governments.

The charges, unveiled Wednesday in San Francisco, came a day after the arrest of one of the former Twitter employees, Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen who is alleged to have spied on the accounts of three users — including one whose posts discussed the inner workings of the Saudi leadership — on behalf of the government in Riyadh.

Abouammo is also charged with falsifying an invoice to obstruct an FBI investigation.

[Secret recordings give insight into Saudi attempt to silence critics]

The second former Twitter employee — Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen — was accused of accessing the personal information of more than 6,000 Twitter accounts in 2015 on behalf of Saudi Arabia. One of those accounts belonged to a prominent dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who later became close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was killed by Saudi government agents last year.

Prosecutors said a third individual, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, acted as an intermediary between Saudi officials and the Twitter employees. He is also charged with spying. Alzabarah and Almutairi are believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Analysts said it is the first time federal prosecutors have publicly accused Saudis of spying in the United States.

The case is noteworthy in that it targets a strategic Middle East ally, whose de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been linked by the CIA to Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

[CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination]

“The criminal complaint unsealed today alleges that Saudi agents mined Twitter’s internal systems for personal information about known Saudi critics and thousands of other Twitter users,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “We will not allow U.S. companies or U.S. technology to become tools of foreign repression in violation of U.S. law.”

Twitter restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees,” said a spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity “to protect the safety” of Twitter personnel. “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.”

The three men are accused of working with a Saudi official who leads a charitable organization belonging to Mohammed. Based on a description of the charity, the official is Bader Al Asaker, which was confirmed by a person familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. Asaker’s charity, MiSK, belongs to Mohammed bin Salman, who is referred to in the complaint as Royal Family Member 1.

According to the complaint, Asaker was  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

It’s too bad that Saudi Arabia so totally pwned Donald Trump and Jared Kushner (with Kushner apparently passing along classified information).

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 2:12 pm

The Ethical Algorithm

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Jenna Marshall of the Santa Fe Institute points out a new book published by Oxford University Press:

Algorithms have come to dominate today’s modern life. From advertisements and consumer lending to college admissions and hiring, our day to day is increasingly moderated by technology. At the same time, complex algorithms are also routinely violating the basic rights of individual citizens. How we choose to address the issue of misbehaving algorithms will have widespread implications, not just for the business and technology fields, but for society as a whole.

In The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design, leading experts Michael Kearns, an SFI External Professor based at the University of Pennsylvania, and his Penn colleague Aaron Roth offer a set of principled solutions based on the emerging science of socially aware algorithm design. While most of the discussion to date has focused on traditional fixes like laws, regulations, and watchdog groups, these approaches have proven woefully inadequate on their own. Kearns and Roth instead propose fixing the technology from the inside, by building better algorithms that have precise definitions of fairness, accuracy, transparency, and ethics embedded within their design.

As theoretical computer scientists, Kearns and Roth argue “it’s essential that the scientific and research communities who work on machine learning be engaged and centrally involved in the ethical debates around algorithmic decision-making.”

Addressing critics who might call out computer scientists as the source of our algorithmic problems, the authors recall an example from Kearns’ 2017 SFI Community Lecture. After World War II, many Manhattan Project scientists worked tirelessly to curb the use of the atomic weapons they had invented. In the case of algorithms, “the harms are more diffuse and harder to detect” than in the case of the nuclear bombs, but both are examples of irreversible technologies that can be controlled, but not undone. Those who design machine learning algorithms can play a critical role in identifying the inherent limits of algorithms and designing them to balance predictive power with social values like fairness and privacy.

Kearns and Roth present technological solutions to real-life issues like leaked sensitive personal information; algorithmic models that reflect racial and gender bias; or users that “game” search engines, spam filters, and navigation apps — and show how we can better protect humans from the unintended consequences of technology. Weaving in fascinating real-life examples from the business, legal, and medical fields, Kearns and Roth demonstrate how we can instill human principles into machine code, without halting the advance of data-driven scientific exploration.

[Source: Oxford University Press]

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 1:00 pm

Can white graduates of racist schools unlearn hate?

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Good question, but I have to admit that I tend toward pessimism on this. I just got a newsletter from Mother Jones that included this:

As kids, they were thrown into “segregation academies” in the South—private all-white schools where parents could send their children to avoid the integration of public schools, and where kids were, as one put it, “conscientiously and misguidedly furnished with an unbending white universe.”

At least 3,000 of these schools opened in the South in the early 1970s. By 1975, as many as 750,000 white students were being what they thought was “educated” there. Now, graduates of those all-white schools are telling stories about the resounding racism they learned—and the decades that some have spent unlearning or trying to unlearn it. A new website,, is posting their stories in hopes of striking a chord with other people raised with and steeped in white supremacist ideologies who are trying to critically dismantle and understand their own hate.

“I want to gauge how the thinking bred in such a culture — growing up inside a white society that invested huge energy and money into the segregation academy’s creation — lingers inside our heads still,” wrote Ellen Ann Fentress, a longtime journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, and a documentary filmmaker who is spearheading the project with support from the Mississippi Humanities Council.

Fentress told me that some graduates of the academies are opening up about their years through self-reflection, while others say they wish she and outlets like the Jackson Free Press had never shed a spotlight on the schools. “To some of them, it looks like a personal attack on parents and faculty,” said Fentress, who posted the first essays and a call for submissions last week.

“This isn’t a proud narrative, but it’s essential U.S. history that shapes how both towns and individuals live their lives now,” as well as how structures and institutions continue to operate, Fentress said. “The conversation is unsettling” but necessary.

On the website’s first day, Fentress she got half a dozen new writers. Author and journalist Kristen Green, an early contributor, wrote that her all-white Virginia academy had “normalized and centered whiteness for me in my formative years.” For decades afterward, she said, “I didn’t have the skill set to make friends with people who looked different than me, to report knowledgeable stories about people of color” as a journalist.

Some graduates, such as Jackson, Mississippi, lawyer Lynn Watkins, have spent their lives trying to fight the racial hate that created their schools. “From the tenth grade forward, I attended and ultimately graduated from a white Citizens’ Council School; at one time, it was reportedly the largest private school system in the country,” Watkins wrote, describing her eventual work in journalism and law to expose the very systems she grew up benefitting from. “Later, as a journalist and later still as a lawyer, I learned the real lessons of history.” (The Academy Stories)

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 11:57 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Government, Memes

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Change in mise en place

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As I note in the cooking section of this post, after bringing produce home from the supermarket, I like to prepare it for cooking — dice, chop, slice, mince, whatever — and put each veggie into a Glasslock storage container labeled with the veggie and date (using masking tape and an extra-fine Sharpie, “fine” being too coarse). Then when I want to cook something, I bring out the veggies I want to use and take out as much of each as I want, putting them all into a bowl. (I found that it’s better to have what I want to cook all in one bowl, ready to dump into the pan, so that when the pan’s hot, I can add a little olive oil and all the vegetables at once. If I wait until the pan’s hot and then take out some from each storage container, it takes too long to get them all into the skillet. FWIW, I like to use a cast-iron skillet, lately the Field Company No. 10.)

One change is that formerly I would go ahead and cook some of the vegetables that I was preparing: I would steam beets, roast carrots, roast winter squash (delicata, acorn, carnival). Now I find I prefer to dice them small and store them raw. They cook quickly enough, and they seem to keep better if raw. If they are not totally tender (still a little al dente), that’s fine.

Another, more recent change is that I mix veggies a bit. Examples: In the container labeled “Garlic,” I have minced garlic and minced ginger. (And the local garlic and ginger are really terrific.) The garlic-ginger mix is quite nice — I just scoop out as much as I need. “Tomatoes” contains both fresh cherry tomatoes — halved or quartered — and cut-up sun-dried tomatoes (dry pack, not oil pack — most easily cut using kitchen shears rather than a knife). “Jalapeños” contains a mix of jalapeños chopped small and ancho chiles cut into small pieces (again with shears).

I’ve stopped slicing mushrooms, and now I just chop them coarsely.

I use my Field Company No. 10 skillet — the workhorse size. Worth noting: the Duxor Cookware Glass Replacement Lid (11 Inches) fits the No. 10 perfectly — just an FYI. Heat the skillet on the burner (or in the oven), and when it is a good cooking temperature, add:

1.5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Then immediately add:

chopped scallions
minced garlic and ginger
small-diced beet
small-diced daikon radish
small-diced delicata squash
French green beans cut into 1″ lengths
jalapeños chopped small and cut-up ancho chile
celery chopped small
chopped tomatoes, mix of fresh and dried
about 1.5 Tbsp tomato paste (no salt added)
chopped domestic white mushrooms
chopped broccolini
chopped baby bok choy
diced tempeh (red kidney bean and kamut wheat)
about 1 Tbsp minced fresh turmeric
about 1 Tbsp dried marjoram
about 1 Tbsp dried mint
about 1.5 Tbsp freshly ground black pepper

If the amount is not shown, it means “some.” I just take out a small amount—generally around 1/4 cup, though at least 3/4 cup scallions. Use your own preferences to guide you. I use a smaller amount of minced garlic and jalapeños — around 2-3 Tbsp.

After sautéing that for a while, I added

about 1/2 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

When everything seemed cooked enough — vegetables don’t have to be cooked to complete doneness as does (say) pork — I put into a bowl:

about 1/3 cup cooked intact whole grain emmer wheat
1 Tbsp flax seed, ground
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast flakes
1 Tbsp hemp seed (without hulls: hemp hearts)
1/2 tsp ground tumeric

I topped that with about 3/4 cup of the cooked melange, stirred to mix, and had that with a glass of unsweetened almond milk. Nice warmth, very filling, good taste.

I think the next time I make this I’ll include a 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach as the leafy green.

This time, for lunch I’ll add a good handful of chopped bok choy (from a bag of bok choy I had already chopped) and cook that in the breakfast stew; and for dinner I’ll add a bag of shiritaki noodles (chopped) and heat it up again: cook once, get three meals.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 11:11 am

Why the Sum of Three Cubes Is a Hard Math Problem

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Patrick Henner writes in Quanta:

Given that humans have been studying numbers for thousands of years, you might think we know everything about the number 3. But mathematicians recently discovered something new about 3: a third way to express it as the sum of three cubes. Expressing a number as the sum of three perfect cubes is a surprisingly interesting problem. It’s easy to show that most numbers can’t be written as one cube or the sum of two cubes, but it’s conjectured that most numbers can in fact be written as the sum of three cubes. Finding those three cubes, however, can be quite a challenge.

For example, we knew we could write 3 as 1³ + 1³ + 1³ and also as 4³ + 4³ + (−5)³, but for over 60 years mathematicians wondered if there was another way. This past September, Andrew Booker and Andrew Sutherland finally found a third solution:

3 = 569,936,821,221,962,380,720³ + (−569,936,821,113,563,493,509)³ + (−472,715,493,453,327,032)³

(If you want to check, don’t bother grabbing your calculator: Most aren’t built to remember this many digits. But WolframAlpha can handle it.)

In finding this new solution for 3, the mathematicians used techniques developed earlier this year, when Booker found the first-ever sum of three cubes for the number 33. But why did these breakthroughs take so long? Well, in the hunt for the right cubes, there is a lot of territory to cover, and there are few clues to lead us where we want to go. So the trick is to find smarter ways to search. To get a sense of the challenge and the solution, let’s start with a simpler question: How can we write 33 as a sum of three integers?

We can write 33 = 19 + 6 + 8, or 33 = 11 + 11 + 11, or 33 = 31 + 1 + 1. We can use negative numbers too, so we can write 33 = 35 + (−1) + (−1). There are infinitely many ways we can do this, since we can always increase one or two of the numbers and decrease another to compensate, so that 33 = 36 + (−1) + (−2), 33 = 100 + 41 + (−108), and so on.

What about writing 33 as a sum of three squares? We would need to find three “perfect squares” — numbers that are equal to an integer times itself, like 1 = 12, 9 = 32, and 64 = 82 — that add up to 33. After playing around, you might find that 33 = 4 + 42 + 12 and 33 = 52 + 22 + 22. Are there any more? Not really. You could replace a 4 with −4 and still get 33 = (-4)2 + 42 + 12, giving us a few different ways to write our solutions, but however you count them, there are only a handful of ways to write 33 as a sum of three squares.

That’s because when summing squares we don’t have the same flexibility we have when summing integers. We have fewer choices, and, more importantly, adding will only ever increase our sum. This is because perfect squares are never negative: Squaring a positive or negative integer always results in a positive integer.

The squares are more restrictive, but something good comes from those restrictions: Our search space is “bounded.” In trying to find three squares that sum to 33, we can’t use any number whose square is bigger than 33, because once our sum of squares exceeds 33, there’s no way to decrease it. This means we only have to consider combinations of 0², 1², 2², 3², 4² and 5² (we’ll ignore their negative counterparts, which don’t really add anything new).

With only six options for each of our three squares, we have fewer than 6 × 6 × 6 = 216 ways that three squares could possibly sum to 33. That’s a small enough list to allow us to check each possibility and make sure we didn’t miss anything.

Now let’s turn our attention back to the sum-of-three-cubes problem for 33. It’s not hard to see that it combines the limited choices of the sum-of-squares problem with the infinite search space of the sum-of-integers problem. As with the squares, not every number is a cube. We can use numbers like 1 = 1³, 8 = 2³ and 125 = 5³, but we can never use 2, 3, 4, 10, 108 or most other numbers. But unlike squares, perfect cubes can be negative — for example, (-2)³ = -8, and (-4)³ = -64 — which means we can decrease our sum if we need to. This access to negative numbers gives us unlimited options for our sum, meaning that our search space, as in the sum-of-integers problem, is unbounded.

An unbounded search space means we might have to look for a very long time to find an answer. And people have been looking for decades. It took a supercomputer and some clever math to finally find the right combination of cubes. Let’s see how.

Suppose you wanted to search for a solution to:

33 = x³ + y³ + z³

A simple approach would be to map out a region of numbers and try each one until something works. If you don’t find anything, then you define a new search space and start again. It’s kind of like using a telescope to methodically scan the sky for new planets.

Imagine your initial search space is all the x’s, y’s and z’s between −100 and 100. So first you try:

(−100)³ + (−100)³ + (−100)³

No dice. Then you try:

(−99)³ + (−100)³ + (−100)³

This doesn’t work either. You keep going until you get to (100, −100, −100), at which point you flip to (−100, −99, −100) and continue the hunt. In the end you’ll check around 200 x 200 x 200 = 8,000,000 sets of numbers without finding anything that works. You’ll have to set up a new search space and start again.

A better approach is to start by rewriting the equation like this:

33 – (x³ + y³) = z³

Now, instead of running through all the triples (xyz), we will run through the pairs (xy). For each pair, we compute and then check a list of perfect cubes to see if our result (z3) is on it. If it is, we’ve found a combination that works. If it isn’t, we keep looking. This substantially reduces the size of our search space: Instead of the 8,000,00 triples (xyz), we’re now searching the 200 x 200 = 40,000 pairs (xy). It’s a big savings, but it’s still not enough to make finding a solution computationally feasible.

An even better approach is to rewrite the equation like this:

33 – z³ = x³ + y³

Now we search through the z’s. For each z, we compute, and then we use a neat little trick from math class. The expression  can always be factored in the following way:

x³ + y³ = (x + y)(x² – xy )

This is known as the sum-of-cubes formula. To verify this, we just multiply out the right side using the distributive property:

(x + y)(x² – xy ) = x³ – x²y + xy² yx² – xy² + y³ = x³ + y³

How does this formula help us in our search? Once we’ve computed 33 – z³, we factor it into primes, which is something computers are pretty good at, at least in the range of numbers we’re looking at. And once we’ve factored 33 – z³, we check if the factors can be arranged like (x + y)(x² – xy ). If they can, we’ve found a solution.

For example, let’s say we were trying to find a way to write the number 34 as a sum of three cubes, and our search led us to z = −6. We compute 34 – z³ = 34 – (-6)³ = 34 – (-216) = 34 + 216 = 250, and then we see how we can factor 250.

After some investigating, we realize that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 9:17 am

Posted in Math

More evidence that autism is linked to gut bacteria

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The gut microbiome seems to play a key role in many ways—for example, it’s been linked to depression and to food cravings. The gut microbiome relies on dietary fiber for its sustenance and health, and about 97% of Americans do not get the minimum recommended daily amount of dietary fiber (and of men age 18-50 the percentage who consume the minimum recommended daily amount is zero. 0%. That means less than 0.5% eat at least the minimum recommended amount. That is stunning to me. The recommended amount:

The national fiber recommendations are (for ages 18-50) 38 grams a day for men and 25 grams a day for women, and (for ages 51 and older) 30 grams a day for men and 21 grams a day for women. Another general guideline is to get 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories in your diet.

I eat about 55g-60g per day, which is easy since my diet consists of whole foods (i.e., no refined foods or processed fods) from plants (dietary fiber comes only from plant foods—meat, dairy, eggs, fish: zero fiber). At the right you can see a link to the post where I describe my diet and the lessons learned in working it out.

If you search “gut microbiome and autism” you will find a list of articles. Nature has an article on the long-term effects of treating the gut microbiome. The abstract reads:

Many studies have reported abnormal gut microbiota in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), suggesting a link between gut microbiome and autism-like behaviors. Modifying the gut microbiome is a potential route to improve gastrointestinal (GI) and behavioral symptoms in children with ASD, and fecal microbiota transplant could transform the dysbiotic gut microbiome toward a healthy one by delivering a large number of commensal microbes from a healthy donor. We previously performed an open-label trial of Microbiota Transfer Therapy (MTT) that combined antibiotics, a bowel cleanse, a stomach-acid suppressant, and fecal microbiota transplant, and observed significant improvements in GI symptoms, autism-related symptoms, and gut microbiota. Here, we report on a follow-up with the same 18 participants two years after treatment was completed. Notably, most improvements in GI symptoms were maintained, and autism-related symptoms improved even more after the end of treatment. Important changes in gut microbiota at the end of treatment remained at follow-up, including significant increases in bacterial diversity and relative abundances of Bifidobacteria and Prevotella. Our observations demonstrate the long-term safety and efficacy of MTT as a potential therapy to treat children with ASD who have GI problems, and warrant a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in the future.

Indeed, if you search “gut microbiome and heart disease” you will find many interesting articles. Try searching “gut microbiome and X” where “X” is a condition of interest.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 9:09 am

The Palmolive shave stick, with iKon 101 and Vie-Long horsehair

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I had ordered a copy of the Palmolive shave stick while I was still in the middle of the shave-stick series and hoped it would arrive in time to be included, but it arrived only yesterday. You can read the ingredients on the label. It’s a tallow-based soap, and it does indeed include Palm oil (Elaeis Guineensis) and Olive oil (Olea Europaea), hence Palmolive. It also has coconut oil, so overall a good formulation. And it lathered like a champ, using the Vie-Long brush shown.

I’ve been thinking this brush was one of the horsehair+badger mixed-bristle brushes that Vie-Long offers, but on looking at it this morning, I see that it is pure horsehair. And it did a fine job of making lather and holding plenty for the entire three passes—three very comfortable passes, thanks to iKon’s superb Shavecraft 101, and the result was perfect smoothness sans damage.

A good splash of Musgo Real finished the shave and set the day in motion, best foot forward. (Or should that be “better foot forward,” given that we have but two feet? I suppose the expression may have originated with (say) horses, who do have enough feet that they could have a “best.”)

Update: Nope. Phrase originated in reference to humans, but not by a grammarian, obviously.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2019 at 8:06 am

Posted in Shaving

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