Later On

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Archive for December 19th, 2020

“I started crying”: Inside Timnit Gebru’s last days at Google—and what happens next

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Karen Hao writes in MIT Technology Review:

By now, we’ve all heard some version of the story. On December 2, after a protracted disagreement over the release of a research paper, Google forced out its ethical AI co-lead, Timnit Gebru. The paper was on the risks of large language models, AI models trained on staggering amounts of text data, which are a line of research core to Google’s business. Gebru, a leading voice in AI ethics, was one of the only Black women at Google Research.

The move has since sparked a debate about growing corporate influence over AI, the long-standing lack of diversity in tech, and what it means to do meaningful AI ethics research. As of December 15, over 2,600 Google employees and 4,300 others in academia, industry, and civil society had signed a petition denouncing the dismissal of Gebru, calling it “unprecedented research censorship” and “an act of retaliation.”

Gebru is known for foundational work in revealing AI discrimination, developing methods for documenting and auditing AI models, and advocating for greater diversity in research. In 2016, she cofounded the nonprofit Black in AI, which has become a central resource for civil rights activists, labor organizers, and leading AI ethics researchers, cultivating and highlighting Black AI research talent.

Losing her job didn’t slow Gebru down. The following week, she took part in several workshops at NeurIPS, the largest annual AI research conference, which over 20,000 people attended this year. It was “therapeutic,” she says, to see how the community she’d helped build showed up and supported one another. Now, another week later, she’s just winding down and catching her breath—and trying to make sense of it all.

On Monday, December 14, I caught up with Gebru via Zoom. She recounted what happened during her time at Google, reflected on what it meant for the field and AI ethics research, and gave parting words of advice to those who want to keep holding tech companies accountable. You can also listen to a special episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, for highlights from the interview. (Google declined a request for comment on the contents of this interview.)

The following has been edited and condensed.

I wanted to first check in with how you’re doing.

I feel like I haven’t really had the time to process everything that happened and its repercussions emotionally. I’m just sort of going and going and going. So I feel like I’ll probably fall apart at some point when there’s a little bit of a lull. But right now I’m just highly concerned about my team and the people supporting me, and the types of risks they’re taking, and making sure that they’re not retaliated against.

There have been so many accounts of what has happened. I wanted to start from a much earlier point in this story. What made you originally choose to work at Google, and what was Google like back then?

I think Samy [Bengio, a director at Google AI] and Jeff [Dean, the SVP of Google Research] were at the Black in AI workshop [at NeurIPS in 2017]. They were asking me what I did, and they said, “Oh yeah, you should come work at Google.” I wasn’t planning on it. I was doing my postdoc at the time at Microsoft Research [MSR]. I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do next. But I knew I wanted to go back to the Bay Area, and they were creating an office in Accra, Ghana. I thought it would be good for me to help with that.

I had a lot of reservations. I was in New York City at MSR, and there were a lot of vocal women there—Danah Boyd, Hannah Wallach, Jen [Chayes], Kate Crawford, Mary Gray. There weren’t really women of color. The only Black women I know out of all of Microsoft Research are Danielle Bellgrave in the UK and Shawndra Hill in New York. But still, even the men were very supportive. I was very hesitant to go to an environment where I knew Google Research was not well known for its advocacy for women. There were a number of issues that I had heard through my whisper networks. In fact, when I said I was going to go to Google Research, a number of people actually sat me down. So I was just already dreading it, like “Oh, man, okay, what am I going into?”

They did not disappoint. It was just constant fighting. I was trying to approach it as talking to people, trying to educate them, trying to get them to see a certain point of view. I kept on thinking that they could do better, you know? With Samy, he has become such a huge advocate. People were complaining that this organization [Google Research] hired just 14% women. Samy, my manager, hired 39% women. It wasn’t like he had any incentive to do that whatsoever. He was the only reason I feel like this didn’t happen to me before. It’s probably because he was protecting us. And by protecting us, he would get in trouble himself. If other leaders are tone-policing you, and you’re too loud, you’re like a troublemaker—we all know that’s what happens to people like me—then if someone defends you, they’re obviously going to also be a problem for the other leaders.

So that was my two years at Google. I actually thought that maybe we were making progress until the last incident, because our team grew. It went from almost disintegrating—two months into my time at Google, my co-lead, Meg Mitchell, was going to quit. But then we expanded our team, and we are now, like, 12 people. So I thought that we were inching forward.

There was so much talk about diversity and inclusion, but so much hypocrisy. I’m one of 1.6% Black women at Google. In [Google] Research, it’s not 1.6%—it’s way lower. I was definitely the first Black woman to be a research scientist at Google. After me, we got two more Black women. That’s, like, out of so many research scientists. Hundreds and hundreds. Three out of God knows how many.

So at some point I was just like, you know what? I don’t even want to talk about diversity. It’s just exhausting. They want to have meetings with you, they don’t listen to you, and then they want to have meetings with you again. I’ve written a million documents about a million diversity-related things—about racial literacy and machine learning [ML], ML fairness initiatives, about retention of women, and the issues. So many documents and so many emails.

So it’s just been one thing after another. There’s not been a single vacation I took inside Google where I wasn’t in the middle of some issue or another. It’s just never been peace of mind. Imagine somebody’s shooting at you with a gun and you’re screaming. And instead of trying to stop the person who’s shooting at you with a gun, they’re trying to stop you from screaming. That’s how it felt. It was just so painful to be in that position over and over and over again.

You successfully built one of the most diverse teams in the AI industry. What did it actually take to do that?

We had to battle all sorts of stuff. I had to be a manager, and then people did not want me to be a manager. I was like, “Okay, I’ve started a very well-known nonprofit. Why do you have ‘concerns’ about me being a manager?” Samy didn’t say this to me, but he had to deliver this message: “Does she know that she can get fired for things? Does she know that if she becomes a manager, then she’s going to have to be a representative of Google?” Then people raised concerns about me seeming unhappy at Google. It’s not like, “Oh, there’s a toxic culture that’s making people like her unhappy. So let’s fix that culture.” No, that was not the conversation. The conversation was “She seems to be unhappy, so let’s not make her a manager.”

I was livid at that time. I was so angry. I was asking every other person who became a manager at my level what their experience was. I’m like, “This person became a manager and nobody ever asked them if they knew they were going to be fired for X, Y, and Z. This other person became a manager. Nobody had to talk to them. There was no discussion whatsoever.” For me it wasn’t like that. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more — and there’s audio at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 10:34 pm

The Japanese Bob Ross

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Just watch this 5-minute rose:

You can find more on his YouTube channel “Watercolor by Shibasaki.” And here’s an article about him.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 9:46 pm

Posted in Video

Trump Asked About Imposing Martial Law to Run a New Election

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Kevin Drum picks up on something the NY Times seems to view as inconsequential:

Here is the front page of the New York Times at the moment:

Down below the fold, just barely beating out “Biden Introduces His Climate Team,” is a story headlined “Trump Weighed Naming Election Conspiracy Theorist as Special Counsel.” The conspiracy theorist in question is Sidney Powell, who is indeed a complete loon. However, if you click the link and read down to the sixth paragraph, you learn this about Friday’s meeting at the White House:

Ms. Powell’s client, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser whom the president recently pardoned, was also there….During an appearance on the conservative Newsmax channel this week, Mr. Flynn pushed for Mr. Trump to impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election. At one point in the meeting on Friday, Mr. Trump asked about that idea.

Now, I’m not a Times editor with decades of experience with this stuff, but doesn’t this seem a wee bit more important than whether a nutter is appointed special counsel for a few weeks? And also perhaps more important than “Britain Tightens Lockdown” at the top of the page?

It does to me! The president of the United States asked a bunch of his advisors about the feasibility of imposing martial law and having the Pentagon run a new election. In other words, staging a military coup. Sure, everyone at the table shot it down, because even Rudy Giuliani isn’t that far gone. But he asked! The president of the United States! What does Trump have to do these days to rate a bigger headline? Invade Canada?

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 8:28 pm

Decisions Traps: A summary

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Decision Traps: 10 Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, by Russo and Schoemaker, is on my list of books I repeatedly recommend. Decision Traps provides clear guidance to making big decisions (not what-to-order-for-lunch decisions, but whether-to-take-a-new-job-that-requires-relocation decisions). They describe a four-stage process for making a decision, along with two other steps (getting ready and subsequent evaluation). The book examines the most common errors people make along the way: one error each for getting read and subsequent evaluation and two errors for each of the four stages.

It’s a good read, informative as well as entertaining. I highly (and repeatedly) recommend it. I just came across a clear and useful four-page summary of the book (though it certainly does not replace the book).

You can download the summary (PDF) and see what you think.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Books, Business, Daily life

An “Other Vegetables” dish

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The day is dark and rainy, a good day to stay indoors. I ran out of my “Other Vegetables” dish, so I decided to go with things on hand. (The “Other Vegetables” label is from Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen.)

I used my 6-qt 11.3″-diameter All-Clad d3 Stainless pot. It makes quite a bit, and the 4-qt sauté pan would be at best full, more likely overflowing.

I put into the pot:

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 turmeric roots, chopped small (about 1.5″ each; I don’t peel these)
• 8 cloves garlic, chopped small (the last of the garlic — would have used more; I do peel these)
• 1 large leek, sliced along with all the green part
• 2 leek tops, sliced (leftover from when I roasted leeks)
• 2 bunches scallions, chopped, also with all the green part
• about 5 small tops of celery (i.e., short inner stalks with some leaves)
• at least 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper (for the turmeric)

It’s important to rinse the leek tops well, since dirt often collects there. I started the heat at this point, stirring occasionally as I chopped and added:

• 1 large carrot, diced (I don’t peel any of the root vegetables, just rinse them well)
• 1 good-size beet, diced
• 1 large turnip, diced
• 4 slices daikon radish, diced
• 1/2 bulb fresh fennel, cored and diced
• 1 yellow bell pepper, chopped

At that point it was cooking well, so I added:

• 1 can Ro-Tel Original
• 1 small can chipotles in adobo (makes it spicy, can omit)
• about 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
• a good splash of apple cider vinegar
• several good dashes fish sauce
• 1 thin-skinned lemon, ends discarded, cut into slabs and then diced

I wish I had mushrooms on hand. Chopped mushrooms would be good. Also a zucchini or patty pan squash would have been nice.

I simmered it — once all has been added and stirred — for 30 minutes (so total cooking time is longer, since it had started simmering while I was adding ingredients).

It’s spicy, from the chipotles in adobo. If spicy is not your thing, just omit that. Quite tasty. Vegetables tender but far from mushy: al dente, I would say.

It makes plenty. At 1/2 cup per serving, two servings a day, it will last a week.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 12:38 pm

“Why I chose to study classics”

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Charlotte Higgins writes in Prospect:

In my final Classical Musing column, I wanted to try to set down what it is about classics that I find worthwhile. In my day job, I am a writer on the Guardian. Journalism is, by definition, about the events of the day, which rush past at a bewildering speed. The literature of the deep past offers a respite and, to an extent, an escape. This was certainly true on a personal level in the early months of the pandemic, when I was on leave, immersed in writing a book of retellings of stories from the Greek myths.

Disappearing into the world of Arachne, Penelope and Medea offered a defence against the anxieties of the moment. But classics also offers a new perspective on the modern world; a different lens through which to see our own times. Encountering the literature of the past is a dynamic process. When we read, we cannot leave behind our contemporary baggage; we see ourselves reflected back in those old books. In turn, reading ancient texts can cast light on our own moment. You can understand a lot about power in the time of an epidemic by reading Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus; you can get an intriguing perspective on modern patriarchy by reading Aeschylus’s The Kindly Ones.

I’m often asked why I chose to study classics. It was mostly because I fell in love with the stories. The world of Catullus and Euripides was so familiar and yet so thrillingly alien, so hard to decode. I have also come to realise, though, that it was also because I wanted to escape having to compete intellectually with my father and brothers, who were all gifted in the sciences. Honesty is required: I also liked classics partly because Latin and Greek sounded impressive, especially to my parents, neither of whom were from the kind of background where Greek epigrams ran in the veins. These days, I would put it in terms of cultural capital. Classics held lots of traditional cachet, and I wanted to partake of it.

This cachet, of course, was unfairly bestowed. The discipline is currently beginning to face up to its historical role in shaping a damaging worldview that put the Graeco-Roman world at the centre of a rhetoric of white European and north American exceptionalism and superiority. But this history does not mean classics should be abandoned—or written off by the left, as it sometimes is, as “elitist”. (It’s always worth remembering that Karl Marx was a classicist, and that his PhD in Greek materialist philosophy palpably shaped his theories of historical materialism.) It means, rather, that classics should constantly be reshaped, opened out, rethought—and some really exciting scholarship in the field is doing exactly that.

The death of classics has been predicted for centuries. It is indeed suffering setbacks. As I sat down to write this column, I heard that an attempt to reintroduce a route for trainee teachers to qualify in Latin in Scotland has been unsuccessful. This kind of knockback is being energetically fought by educators and organisations such as Advocating Classics Education. Classics in the culture at large continues to find a ready audience: one thinks of the popularity of Madeline Miller’s novels, Mary Beard’s history books and television programmes, and Emily Wilson’s brilliant Odyssey translation. Classics generates creativity—I think not just of  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 11:04 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education

Dr. Selby and the Chubby, with Speick and the Testina Gentile

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Extremely smooth result today: good shaving soap (or in this case 3X concentrated shaving cream, according to the label), good prep, good razor, and fresh blade.

I loaded my barely damp Simpson’s Chubby 1 Best well with Dr. Selby’s product — which, as you see, has a tub that rests nicely on the cover as a pedestal — and worked the lather up on my face, first coating all the stubble with the rich paste from the brush and then working in a small amount of water to allow the lather to blossom (or “explode,” a more violent metaphor preferred by some).

Fatip’s Testina Gentile is a very nice razor, very comfortable and efficient. I have had heard rumors of QC problems in recent months, so I’m not sure of the quality of current production, but I’m quite happy with mine (and the three I purchased for the younger grandsons, who won’t be needing them for another decade). Three effortless passes left my face perfectly smooth.

A splash of Speick, one of my favorite aftershaves, and now the weekend begins.

Written by Leisureguy

19 December 2020 at 10:06 am

Posted in Shaving

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