Later On

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

Archive for March 12th, 2021

“I Spent 25 Years Monitoring Domestic Terrorism for the U.S. Government — No One Listened”

leave a comment »

Daryl Johnson, one of the foremost experts on domestic extremist groups in the US who previously held a number of government positions, writes in /Newlines:

It seemed like I was the only one driving down Fourth Street, headed into the downtown area of Oklahoma City. The road led me to a vacant lot where the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood. There was nothing to see, just a ruin of concrete, gravel, and dirt encompassed by a chain-link fence stretching around the entire block. At first, I thought it was a construction site. The remains of the building had already been demolished a week earlier and, to my surprise, all the rubble and debris had been cleaned up. It might have always been this way — vacant and soulless. Except everyone knew what happened on April 19, 1995.

As I exited my Honda Accord, crammed floor to ceiling with my college belongings, a slight breeze was kicking up dirt and pushing dead grass and trash across the weathered asphalt street. A large, warehouse-like building directly across from me was boarded up. I walked the sidewalk alone looking at the makeshift memorial to the victims: the 168 killed and 800 wounded by a 4,800-pound bomb hidden in a rental truck. The flowers, teddy bears, and handwritten notes were still tied to the fence, while candlelit vigils long since extinguished lay burnt on the sidewalk.

As I walked the grounds, I reflected on a few fateful moments in my young adulthood that seemed directly tied with my desire to travel on my own to the site of this deadly, American terrorist attack.

As a 17-year-old boy scout working on his Eagle rank merit badge requirements, I had to write a letter to an elected official discussing a relevant issue in my community. In October 1986, I wrote to then Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia) to warn him about the threat of domestic terrorism. I was influenced by recent events: the 1985 standoff between the FBI and an insular community of white supremacists called “The Covenant, The Sword, The Arm of the Lord”; the violent criminal activities of The Order, another white supremacist group operating in the Pacific Northwest; and the cult of Lyndon LaRouche, an extremist political figure who lived on a fortified compound in Loudon County, Virginia, near where I lived in Warrenton.

“Terrorist activity has increased in recent years,” I wrote to Warner. “With each passing week, we hear about more bombings, the hijackings of planes, the kidnappings of political figures. I, as an American citizen, begin to wonder how much longer will it take for terrorism to arrive here in the United States.”

At 19, I served as a missionary for the Mormon Church in southeastern Michigan, proselytizing in suburban and rural areas. The harsh winter climate, large swaths of wilderness, Great Lakes, industrial landscape, and cloistered demographics make Michigan inviting to survivalists, white supremacists, Black nationalists, and other extremists, a few of whom became interested in the Mormon faith. There was the homeowner who displayed an upside-down American flag and who wouldn’t shake my left hand because he believed it was “a communist handshake.” Another potential convert had a large painting of Hitler hung on the wall in her home. In time, I found the Book of Mormon had to compete with flyers from the Ku Klux Klan in the Detroit suburbs of Madison Heights, Warren, and Clawson.

So as I stood in downtown Oklahoma City, I couldn’t help but think of the Michigan background I shared with two of the perpetrators of this atrocity: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. They were both enlisted men who were transitioning out of service — they were U.S. Army veterans who had served in the same unit during the Gulf War. Once committed to defending U.S. national security interests through their military service, they became enemies of the state, hellbent on undermining American society through an ideologically motivated act of mass violence. I’d run into guys like these before, individuals who shared their outlook, and had tried to reach them spiritually.

A few days after visiting the attack site, I arrived home in rural Virginia. My new job was as an Intelligence Research Specialist at the Army Counterintelligence Center (ACIC) at Fort Meade, Maryland, where I’d monitor threats to the U.S. military coming from within the continental United States, a program called CONUS force protection.

At the time, CONUS force protection was focused on a bygone era of far-left violence against the military in the 1970s and early 1980s by communist sympathizers and Puerto Rican nationalist groups like the FALN and Macheteros. There hadn’t been an attack by these groups on military personnel or facilities in the U.S. for over a decade. Many left-wing terrorist members were incarcerated, while a few remained fugitives, forgotten phantoms from an outdated, radical era.

And yet, the data told a different story. At the ACIC, I noticed that much of the law enforcement and open-source reporting involving threats to the military at home were linked to right-wing extremists, specifically militia members and white supremacists. Extremists had been arrested for stealing military weapons and equipment as well as plotting to attack the military, motivated by various conspiracy theories related to black government helicopters, the New World Order, and citizen detention camps, among other bogus claims. I raised the issue through my chain of command, which allowed me to begin careful, limited monitoring of these groups to assess the threat they posed to the Army. At the time, some questioned why I even bothered. By 1998, the emerging new threat to U.S. national security was Islamist extremism overseas, embodied by al Qaeda, which had begun bombing our embassies in Africa.

Yet the threat of homegrown, non-Islamist extremism persisted, as I discovered in 1999 when I joined the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. White supremacists, militia extremists, and others still violated federal firearms, arson, and explosives laws. There were intelligence threat concerns related to right-wing extremists plotting violence as the millennium approached, combined with the usual paranoid fears of Y2K and the cult hysteria about the year 2000 ushering in the end of the world. In fact, there were a couple of high-profile, ongoing criminal investigations related to militia extremists plotting attacks on critical infrastructure in California and Florida.

In 2000, I traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to assist agents as they arrested two neo-Nazis for manufacturing dozens of improvised explosive devices and illegal firearms. Two years later, I helped with an investigation into a Ku Klux Klan faction in Benson, North Carolina, responsible for the murder of a fellow KKK member who they suspected of being an informant. The same faction was also being investigated for plotting to bomb a county courthouse and assassinate the local sheriff.

If monitoring domestic terrorism wasn’t a high priority before 9/11, after that event it became almost a coy relic of a distant past. Nevertheless, I continued to work for the U.S. government in the same capacity, joining an agency created expressly because of al Qaeda’s gruesome attack on U.S. soil. In 2004, I joined the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis as its only domestic terrorism analyst. Even flying solo, I found, there was plenty of work to do supporting projects related to critical infrastructure threats, developing talking points for DHS leadership, and writing strategic intelligence and policy reports. By year two, I finally had four contract analysts working alongside me, with plans in place to hire three more. I wanted this program to grow, but I also realized that I needed to be extremely judicious about the type of analysts that were hired due to the highly charged social and political issues encompassing domestic terrorism. Debates about gun rights, abortion, immigration, and taxation permeated the various far-right extremist movements. But they were also mainstays of the American conservative movement. Monitoring these issues within the right context, and with U.S. taxpayer money, was essential.

I was also caught in something halfway between boondoggle and PR exercise. My higher-ups at DHS viewed the work my team did as a tertiary responsibility and a potential political liability. Nevertheless, they also thought it gave DHS convenient political cover against any allegation of racial profiling of Muslims in the heightened post-9/11 security climate. Perhaps for that reason alone, I got what I asked for. When the contractors left, I was able to hire five staff analysts, some of whom had extensive backgrounds in monitoring and assessing domestic extremism gained from their work in civil rights organizations, other DHS agencies, as well as intelligence fusion centers. Even if this was the department’s nod to professional tokenism, it kept us vigilant against threats having nothing whatsoever to do with al Qaeda.

Less than a year after assembling this analytical team, I authored the 2009 DHS report on right-wing extremism meant for law enforcement only. It was subsequently leaked to the press and a political backlash ensued, the aftermath of which scuttled my unit’s work at DHS.

The Republican Party and conservative media were offended by the term “right-wing extremist” (a legitimate term used in the counterterrorism community and academia) and objected to a vague definition of it that they intentionally misconstrued, claiming it was an attack on conservatism, the GOP, and the newly formed Tea Party, a grassroots populist movement that coalesced in opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency and what it saw as the administration’s radical leftist agenda.

The American Legion, too, was angry that my findings raised the prospect of returning veterans becoming targets of recruitment by right-wing extremists. No one on the right wanted to hear that the U.S. threat environment was shifting from homegrown Muslim extremists aligned with al Qaeda to violent, right-wing extremists. As is customary with inconvenient intelligence, my work was politicized, and my team was dissolved.

Within a few weeks of the release of the 2009 DHS report, the first in a series of violent, right-wing terrorist attacks occurred. First, there was the killing of three police officers in Pittsburgh by a white supremacist, then the murder of an abortion doctor in Kansas. These attacks were soon followed by the fatal shootings of two sheriff’s deputies in Florida by a militia sympathizer and the fatal shooting of a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The new wave of domestic terrorism I had predicted was upon us.

Now, more than a decade on, America has  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 6:50 pm

The Antikythera Cosmos

leave a comment »

See also this report in Vice.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 6:23 pm

Could COVID-19 Have Escaped from a Lab?

leave a comment »

This article is intriguing, though I’m not sure I buy it. Still, she makes a case. Rowan Jacobsen writes in Boston:

In January, as she watched the news about a novel virus spreading out of control in China, Alina Chan braced for a shutdown. The molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT started stockpiling medicine and supplies. By the time March rolled around and a quarantine seemed imminent, she’d bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of fillets from her favorite fishmonger in Cambridge and packed them into her freezer. Then she began to ramp down her projects in the lab, isolating her experimental cells from their cultures and freezing them in small tubes.

As prepared as she was for the shutdown, though, she found herself unprepared for the frustration of being frozen out of work. She paced the walls of her tiny apartment feeling bored and useless. Chan has been a puzzle demon since childhood, which was precisely what she loved about her work—the chance to solve fiendishly difficult problems about how viruses operate and how, through gene therapy, they could be repurposed to help cure devastating genetic diseases. Staring out her window at the eerily quiet streets of her Inman Square neighborhood, she groaned at the thought that it could be months before she was at it again. Her mind wandered back to 2003, when she was a teenager growing up in Singapore and the first SARS virus, a close relative of this coronavirus, appeared in Asia. It hadn’t been anything like this. That one had been relatively easy to corral. How had this virus come out of nowhere and shut down the planet? Why was it so different? she asked herself.

Then it hit her: The world’s greatest puzzle was staring her in the face. Stuck at home, all she had to work with was her brain and her laptop. Maybe they were enough. Chan fired up the kettle for the first of what would become hundreds of cups of tea, stacked four boxes on her kitchen counter to raise her laptop to the proper height, pulled back her long dark hair, and began reading all of the scientific literature she could find on the coronavirus.

It wasn’t long before she came across an article about the remarkable stability of the virus, whose genome had barely changed from the earliest human cases, despite trillions of replications. This perplexed Chan. Like many emerging infectious diseases, COVID-19 was thought to be zoonotic—it originated in animals, then somehow found its way into people. At the time, the Chinese government and most scientists insisted the jump had happened at Wuhan’s seafood market, but that didn’t make sense to Chan. If the virus had leapt from animals to humans in the market, it should have immediately started evolving to life inside its new human hosts. But it hadn’t.

On a hunch, she decided to look at the literature on the 2003 SARS virus, which had jumped from civets to people. Bingo. A few papers mentioned its rapid evolution in its first months of existence. Chan felt the familiar surge of puzzle endorphins. The new virus really wasn’t behaving like it should. Chan knew that delving further into this puzzle would require some deep genetic analysis, and she knew just the person for the task. She opened Google Chat and fired off a message to Shing Hei Zhan. He was an old friend from her days at the University of British Columbia and, more important, he was a computational god.

“Do you want to partner on a very unusual paper?” she wrote.

Sure, he replied.

One thing Chan noticed about the original SARS was that the virus in the first human cases was subtly different—a few dozen letters of genetic code—from the one in the civets. That meant it had immediately morphed. She asked Zhan to pull up the genomes for the coronaviruses that had been found on surfaces in the Wuhan seafood market. Were they at all different from the earliest documented cases in humans?

Zhan ran the analysis. Nope, they were 100 percent the same. Definitely from humans, not animals. The seafood-market theory, which Chinese health officials and the World Health Organization espoused in the early days of the pandemic, was wrong. Chan’s puzzle detectors pulsed again. “Shing,” she messaged Zhan, “this paper is going to be insane.”

In the coming weeks, as the spring sun chased shadows across her kitchen floor, Chan stood at her counter and pounded out her paper, barely pausing to eat or sleep. It was clear that the first SARS evolved rapidly during its first three months of existence, constantly fine-tuning its ability to infect humans, and settling down only during the later stages of the epidemic. In contrast, the new virus looked a lot more like late-stage SARS. “It’s almost as if we’re missing the early phase,” Chan marveled to Zhan. Or, as she put it in their paper, as if “it was already well adapted for human transmission.”

That was a profoundly provocative line. Chan was implying that the virus was already familiar with human physiology when it had its coming-out party in Wuhan in late 2019. If so, there were three possible explanations.

Perhaps it was just staggeringly bad luck: The mutations had all occurred in an earlier host species, and just happened to be the perfect genetic arrangement for an invasion of humanity. But that made no sense. Those mutations would have been disadvantageous in the old host.

Maybe the virus had been circulating undetected in humans for months, working out the kinks, and nobody had noticed. Also unlikely. China’s health officials would not have missed it, and even if they had, they’d be able to go back now through stored samples to find the trail of earlier versions. And they weren’t coming up with anything.

That left a third possibility: The missing phase had happened in a lab, where the virus had been trained on human cells. Chan knew this was the third rail of potential explanations. At the time, conspiracy theorists were spinning bioweapon fantasies, and Chan was loath to give them any ammunition. But she also didn’t want to play politics by withholding her findings. Chan is in her early thirties, still at the start of her career, and an absolute idealist about the purity of the scientific process. Facts were facts.

Or at least they used to be. Since the start of the pandemic, the Trump administration has been criticized for playing fast and loose with facts—denying, exaggerating, or spinning them to suit the president’s political needs. As a result, many scientists have learned to censor themselves for fear that their words will be misrepresented. Still, Chan thought, if she were to sit on scientific research just to avoid providing ammunition to conspiracy theorists or Trump, would she be any better than them?

Chan knew she had to move forward and make her findings public. In the final draft of her paper, she torpedoed the seafood-market theory, then laid out a case that the virus seemed curiously well adapted to humans. She mentioned all three possible explanations, carefully wording the third to emphasize that if the novel coronavirus did come from a lab, it would have been the result of an accident in the course of legitimate research.

On May 2, Chan uploaded the paper to a site where as-yet-unpublished biology papers known as “preprints” are shared for open peer review. She tweeted out the news and waited. On May 16, the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, picked up her research. The very next day, Newsweek ran a story with the headline “Scientists Shouldn’t Rule Out Lab as Source of Coronavirus, New Study Says.”

And that, Chan says, is when “shit exploded everywhere.”

Chan had come to my attention a week before the Newsweek story was published through her smart and straightforward tweets, which I found refreshing at a time when most scientists were avoiding any serious discussion about the possibility that COVID-19 had escaped from a biolab. I’d written a lot about genetic engineering and so-called gain-of-function research—the fascinating, if scary, line of science in which scientists alter viruses to make them more transmissible or lethal as a way of assessing how close those viruses are to causing pandemics. I also knew that deadly pathogens escape from biolabs with surprising frequency. Most of these accidents end up being harmless, but many researchers have been infected, and people have died as a result.

For years, concerned scientists have warned that this type of pathogen research was going to trigger a pandemic. Foremost among them was Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, who founded the Cambridge Working Group in 2014 to lobby against these experiments. In a series of policy papers, op-eds, and scientific forums, he pointed out that accidents involving deadly pathogens occurred more than twice a week in U.S. labs, and estimated that just 10 labs performing gain-of-function research over a 10-year period would run a nearly 20 percent risk of an accidental release. In 2018, he argued that such a release could “lead to global spread of a virulent virus, a biosafety incident on a scale never before seen.”

Thanks in part to the Cambridge Working Group, the federal government briefly instituted a moratorium on such research. By 2017, however,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And see also the Politico article “In 2018, Diplomats Warned of Risky Coronavirus Experiments in a Wuhan Lab. No One Listened.”

And another, in New York, The Lab-Leak Hypothesis.”

And a research summary from Science Daily is also interesting. From that article:

Pond comments, “what’s been so surprising is just how transmissible SARS-CoV-2 has been from the outset. Usually viruses that jump to a new host species take some time to acquire adaptations to be as capable as SARS-CoV-2 at spreading, and most never make it past that stage, resulting in dead-end spillovers or localised outbreaks.”

Studying the mutational processes of SARS-CoV-2 and related sarbecoviruses (the group of viruses SARS-CoV-2 belongs to from bats and pangolins), the authors find evidence of fairly significant change, but all before the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans. This means that the ‘generalist’ nature of many coronaviruses and their apparent facility to jump between hosts, imbued SARS-CoV-2 with ready-made ability to infect humans and other mammals, but those properties most have probably evolved in bats prior to spillover to humans.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 6:13 pm

Current brush collection

with 8 comments

Pictured above is my current collection of shaving brushes. (To enlarge, click photo and then click again.) Besides those,I have three synthetic brushes en route from Yaqi, two with 22mm knots and one with a 19 mm knot. I’m unsure how I can rearrange things to fit them in (though the WSP row can easily take another brush). That will be a total of 55 brushes, enough to cover shaves for more than two months given that I shave only 6 times week. The breakdown by type:

3 boar
1 mixed boar-badger
3 horsehair
1 mixed horsehair badger
1 disputed: either horsehair (my guess) or boar (vendor’s call). It’s 5th from the left in the bottom row
19 synthetics of one sort of another (including the 3 Yaqi brushes not shown)
1 European Gray (from Plisson: top row, second from right)
26 silvertip badger

The Yaqi brushes not shown:

19mm Bunny tuxedo knot in blue
22mm Cola synthetic
22mm Soft cashmere synthetic, orange handle

A few points of interest:

Top row

At the left are a few miniature brushes: the Wee Scot (badger), a tiny Omega badger, the Omega Mixed Midget (badger and boar), and a small Vie-Long horsehair, along with another smallish Vie-Long horsehair. The three boar brushes are all Omegas and well broken in and quite soft on the face, with the Italian-flag-handled one being extremely gentle with less resilience than the Pro 48 and the 20102.  The two Rooneys — Victorian and butterscotch Emilion, both in size 2 — have hooked tips, resulting in a velvety feel along with good resilience. The snakewood handled brush I got from Strop Shoppe years ago (third from the right) is another very gentle brush. The Plisson European Gray (next to last) has a wonderful grainy feel on the face, very unlike a synthetic or silvertip. It’s not in the least harsh, but rather as if the bristles are blunt. 

Second Row

The two Mühle brushes, third and fourth from the left, are worth a note. The butterscotch handled one is silvertip badger and very gentle, with a fluffy knot of mild resilience; the other is Mühle’s Gen 2 synthetic, intended to mimic the feel on the face of a badger brush, and the Edwin Jagger synthetic, seventh from the left, is a knot much along the same lines. Both of these have good resilience. I especially like Phoenix Artisan’s synthetics — there’s the Starcraft in the top row (right after the three boar brushes) and in this row the Amber Aerolite (second from left, right after the Vie-Long horsehair), Solar Flare (fourth), and Green Ray (fifth). These all have 24mm knots are, though all are synthetics, their knots different somewhat in feel. The Fine Classic, at the right end of the row, is another gentle brush with a fluffy knot. I do like such brushes, and there’s never a problem in loading them or getting a good lather. (I do have soft water.)

Third Row

The first brush is the mixed horsehair and badger from Vie-Long. Following that are six Simpson brushes. The “3”(the third Simpson) is a Duke 3 Best, followed by two Emperors, a 3 and a 2. (I also had a 1 that worked fine, but it was culled on one of the several occasions when I cut back the collection.) The last five brushes on the row are all Wet Shaving Products, and I like them all. The brush just to the left is a limited edition synthetic from Chiseled Face. The WSP brush with a hidden logo is a Baroness, and there are two Princes. The two Monarchs have somewhat different feel, one being slightly stiffer/more resilient than the other. I somewhat prefer the gentler of the two. I might secure room for the Yaqis by sacrificing a Prince and crowding the brushes in this section. I would like to keep both Monarchs, but maybe one must be deposed.

Bottom Row

The first is a Plisson HMW 12 with a horn handle (horn being a material from Vietnam, once a French colony until, as they say, they threw off the colonial yoke). The next is a Plisson with a Plissoft knot, which was oe of the first better synthetic knots. The third and fourth are knots mounted in a screw base; these two share the same handle, the synthetic being the Target Shot pattern (black or white in quadrants) and the other a silvertip knot. That set is from Yaqi. Sixth from the left is my least expensive silvertip, a $35 brush from Whipped Dog and next to ti is a Rod Neep one-off. Next to that, on the other side of the vertical bar, is an ebony-handled Sabini, and then my Rooney Style 2 Finest, my most expensive brush (north of $300 in today’s dollars). The two other Rooney brushes, Style 3 size 1 and Style 1, size 1 in Super Silvertip (as they call it) and two G.B. Kent brushes, the Infinity (a resilient synthetic) and the BK4 (a gentle silvertip).

I like all these brushes and they all perform quite well. They differ in materials, aesthetics, and feel in the hand and on the face. I’ve had many brushes. These are the ones I kept.

UPDATE 6 Apr 2021: I received the three new brushes and, with a little rearrangement, found them places. Here is the collection as of today (click photo to enlarge):

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation

leave a comment »

Karen Hao writes in MIT Technology Review:

Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook, was apologizing to his audience.

It was March 23, 2018, just days after the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, had surreptitiously siphoned the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence how they voted. It was the biggest privacy breach in Facebook’s history, and Quiñonero had been previously scheduled to speak at a conference on, among other things, “the intersection of AI, ethics, and privacy” at the company. He considered canceling, but after debating it with his communications director, he’d kept his allotted time.

As he stepped up to face the room, he began with an admission. “I’ve just had the hardest five days in my tenure at Facebook,” he remembers saying. “If there’s criticism, I’ll accept it.”

The Cambridge Analytica scandal would kick off Facebook’s largest publicity crisis ever. It compounded fears that the algorithms that determine what people see on the platform were amplifying fake news and hate speech, and that Russian hackers had weaponized them to try to sway the election in Trump’s favor. Millions began deleting the app; employees left in protest; the company’s market capitalization plunged by more than $100 billion after its July earnings call.

In the ensuing months, Mark Zuckerberg began his own apologizing. He apologized for not taking “a broad enough view” of Facebook’s responsibilities, and for his mistakes as a CEO. Internally, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, kicked off a two-year civil rights audit to recommend ways the company could prevent the use of its platform to undermine democracy.

Finally, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, asked Quiñonero to start a team with a directive that was a little vague: to examine the societal impact of the company’s algorithms. The group named itself the Society and AI Lab (SAIL); last year it combined with another team working on issues of data privacy to form Responsible AI.

Quiñonero was a natural pick for the job. He, as much as anybody, was the one responsible for Facebook’s position as an AI powerhouse. In his six years at Facebook, he’d created some of the first algorithms for targeting users with content precisely tailored to their interests, and then he’d diffused those algorithms across the company. Now his mandate would be to make them less harmful.

Facebook has consistently pointed to the efforts by Quiñonero and others as it seeks to repair its reputation. It regularly trots out various leaders to speak to the media about the ongoing reforms. In May of 2019, it granted a series of interviews with Schroepfer to the New York Times, which rewarded the company with a humanizing profile of a sensitive, well-intentioned executive striving to overcome the technical challenges of filtering out misinformation and hate speech from a stream of content that amounted to billions of pieces a day. These challenges are so hard that it makes Schroepfer emotional, wrote the Times: “Sometimes that brings him to tears.”

In the spring of 2020, it was apparently my turn. Ari Entin, Facebook’s AI communications director, asked in an email if I wanted to take a deeper look at the company’s AI work. After talking to several of its AI leaders, I decided to focus on Quiñonero. Entin happily obliged. As not only the leader of the Responsible AI team but also the man who had made Facebook into an AI-driven company, Quiñonero was a solid choice to use as a poster boy.

He seemed a natural choice of subject to me, too. In the years since he’d formed his team following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns about the spread of lies and hate speech on Facebook had only grown. In late 2018 the company admitted that this activity had helped fuel a genocidal anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar for several years. In 2020 Facebook started belatedly taking action against Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, and the conspiracy movement QAnon. All these dangerous falsehoods were metastasizing thanks to the AI capabilities Quiñonero had helped build. The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by. Fixing this problem, to me, seemed like core Responsible AI territory.

I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?

But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.

“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.

“They always do just enough to be able to put the press release out. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think it’s actually translated into better policies. They’re never really dealing with the fundamental problems.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

With new machine-learning models coming online daily, the company created a new system to track their impact and maximize user engagement. The process is still the same today. Teams train up a new machine-learning model on FBLearner, whether to change the ranking order of posts or to better catch content that violates Facebook’s community standards (its rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the platform). Then they test the new model on a small subset of Facebook’s users to measure how it changes engagement metrics, such as the number of likes, comments, and shares, says Krishna Gade, who served as the engineering manager for news feed from 2016 to 2018.

If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored. On Twitter, Gade explained that his engineers would get notifications every few days when metrics such as likes or comments were down. Then they’d decipher what had caused the problem and whether any models needed retraining.

But this approach soon caused issues. The models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff. Sometimes this inflames existing political tensions. The most devastating example to date is the case of Myanmar, where viral fake news and hate speech about the Rohingya Muslim minority escalated the country’s religious conflict into a full-blown genocide. Facebook admitted in 2018, after years of downplaying its role, that it had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”

While Facebook may have been oblivious to these consequences in the beginning, it was studying them by 2016. In an internal presentation from that year, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a company researcher, Monica Lee, found that Facebook was not only hosting a large number of extremist groups but also promoting them to its users: “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the presentation said, predominantly thanks to the models behind the “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features.

In 2017, Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer, formed a new task force to understand whether maximizing user engagement on Facebook was contributing to political polarization. It found that there was indeed a correlation, and that reducing polarization would mean taking a hit on engagement. In a mid-2018 document reviewed by the Journal, the task force proposed several potential fixes, such as tweaking the recommendation algorithms to suggest a more diverse range of groups for people to join. But it acknowledged that some of the ideas were “antigrowth.” Most of the proposals didn’t move forward, and the task force disbanded.

Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.

The researcher’s team also found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health. The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers. (A Facebook spokesperson said she could not find documentation for this proposal.)

But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down.

One such project heavily pushed by company leaders involved predicting whether a user might be at risk for something several people had already done: livestreaming their own suicide on Facebook Live. The task involved building a model to analyze the comments that other users were posting on a video after it had gone live, and bringing at-risk users to the attention of trained Facebook community reviewers who could call local emergency responders to perform a wellness check. It didn’t require any changes to content-ranking models, had negligible impact on engagement, and effectively fended off negative press. It was also nearly impossible, says the researcher: “It’s more of a PR stunt. The efficacy of trying to determine if somebody is going to kill themselves in the next 30 seconds, based on the first 10 seconds of video analysis—you’re not going to be very effective.”

Facebook disputes . . .

And there’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 12:20 pm

The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And it still is.

leave a comment »

Frank Hyman, a carpenter and stonemason and policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback and resident of Durham, has an interesting article that initially appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It begins:

I’ve lived 55 years in the South, and I grew up liking the Confederate flag. I haven’t flown one for many decades, but for a reason that might surprise you.

I know the South well. We lived wherever the Marine Corps stationed my father: Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas. As a child, my favorite uncle wasn’t in the military, but he did pack a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun in his trunk. He was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Despite my role models, as a kid I was an inept racist. I got in trouble once in the first grade for calling a classmate the N-word. But he was Hispanic.

As I grew up and acquired the strange sensation called empathy (strange for boys anyway), I learned that for black folks the flutter of that flag felt like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And for the most prideful flag waivers, clearly that response was the point. I mean, come on. It’s a battle flag.

What the flag symbolizes for blacks is enough reason to take it down. But there’s another reason that white southerners shouldn’t fly it. Or sport it on our state-issued license plates as some do here in North Carolina. The Confederacy – and the slavery that spawned it – was also one big con job on the Southern, white, working class. A con job funded by some of the ante-bellum one-per-centers, that continues today in a similar form.

You don’t have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks – a third of the South’s laborers – to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. And not just in agriculture. A quarter of enslaved blacks worked in the construction, , manufacturing and lumbering trades; cutting wages even for skilled white workers.

Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-per-centers were southerners. Slavery made southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England. But that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than northern whites.

My ancestor Canna Hyman and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”

Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing that blacks had no slice at all.

How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting: how a population has been manipulated and misled to benefit the wealthy and powerfu.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 9:19 am

June Clover is my favorite Booster aftershave fragrance

with 3 comments

My Phoenix Artisan Bay Rum is their kokum butter formula, and a very nice soap it is. My Plisson HMW 12 easily brought forth a fine lather, and the comfortable and efficient Maggard V2OC head (same as the Parker 24 and Parker 26 head) was even more enjoyable with Grooming Dept pre-shave. I noticed something about this head that I’ve not taken note of previously: it’s especially nice in the across-the-grain pass.

Three passes to a perfect result, and then a good splash of Booster June Clover to finish the job. I’m rushing the season somewhat, but I’m eager to be into spring. Only 10 days more…

My tea this morning is wasabi-strawberry. Delicious.

Written by Leisureguy

12 March 2021 at 8:18 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: