Later On

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

Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Free Speech on Trial

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Matt Stoller writes in Big:

Today’s issue is about how a subtle form of speech control works in 21st century America, as seen through two ongoing antitrust cases. The first is a merger trial where the government is trying to block the combination of publishing giants Penguin/Random House and Simon & Schuster, and the second is a lawsuit where conservative video service Rumble is suing Google for monopolization.

In both, dominant firms are trying to gain or protect market power, and in doing so, end up with too much power over the public square. It’s not intentional, but monopoly power fosters centralized control of what we can discuss.

Speech and Concentration Creep

In the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks star as two business rivals who hate each other in ‘real life’ but connect and fall in love anonymously over the internet. Hanks plays Joe Fox, a tycoon who owns a Barnes and Nobles-style corporate book chain, trying to crush the small store owned by Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan. After a noisy but adorably silly protest, the movie ends with Kelly losing her store, but getting Tom Hanks as a soulmate. It’s a delightful film, a Nora Ephron-written classic.

What’s interesting about this movie from an anti-monopolist standpoint, however, is not the romance, but the politics. The movie is almost aggressively apathetic about concentrations of power. We tend to look at corporate concentration as a relatively recent phenomenon. Big tech emerged in force in the 2000s, that’s when offshoring to China happened in force, and the key major ruling ending monopolization cases didn’t occur until 2004. But here’s a movie showing that almost 25 years ago, before all that, consolidation was so well-known as to be a relatively unremarked central plot element of a popular film.

You’ve Got Mail is also a movie about a specific industry, publishing. Indeed, in many ways, the book industry has been a canary in the coal mine for concentration in the American economy. Books were the very first industry dominated by Amazon, but it isn’t just the retail giant. Every part of the book business, from retail stores to distribution to printing to retail to audio and ebooks to publishing houses, has been consolidating for decades. In the movie Tom Hanks is kind and charming; in real life, Barnes and Nobles used its power over shelf space to act as the industry bully, until Jeff Bezos came along and turned market power into performance art. Then, ten years ago, Penguin and Random House merged, allowed by the Obama administration’s antitrust enforcers. The book business is an increasingly cruel and lawless world, not a romantic one. . .

Continue reading. Interesting stuff.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2022 at 11:44 am

Planet eBook offers good free ebooks

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Planet eBook, like Standard Ebooks, offers well-edited, carefully proofread ebook editions of a wide variety of classics. However, Planet eBook offers books in just 3 formats — epub, pdf, and mobi whereas Standard Ebooks has more formats, including the native Kindle format.

But if you get ebooks, you certainly should download and install the ebook management app Calibre. Calibre will import your free ebooks (so that if you get a new device, you can upload the books from Calibre to the device), let you edit the metadata, allow you to change the cover art, and — important for users of Planet eBook, convert ebooks from one format to another (e.g., from epub to azw3, the Kindle format).

More info in the ebook section of my list of often-recommended books.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2022 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

Why does the IRS need $80 billion? Just look at its cafeteria.

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click to enlarge

Catherine Rampell has an excellent article (gift link, no paywall) in the Washington Post with photos by Matthew Busch. It’s truly worth reading, and scrolling through the working environment of the IRS shows why they need the money. The article begins:

[The cafeteria in the Austin office of the IRS] is part of what the IRS calls the “Pipeline”: a 1970s-era assembly line used to process tax returns at several locations around the country. And it might give you a sense of why Congress is on the verge of handing the agency $80 billion through the Inflation Reduction Act — not only for more enforcement but also for tech modernization.

As of July 29, the IRS had a backlog of 10.2 million unprocessed individual returns. Blame the pandemic, sure, but also the agency’s embarrassingly outdated, paper-based system, which leaves stacks and stacks of returns cluttering shelves, hallways and even the cafeteria.

On the Pipeline, paper tax returns aren’t scanned into computers; instead, IRS employees manually keystroke the numbers from each document into the system, digit by digit.

Even if you, Joe Taxpayer, file your taxes electronically (as most Americans do), you still might land in paper purgatory. Any issues with your “e-filed” return, and the IRS sends you a letter; then, you must reply by snail mail or fax.

Remember fax machines?

Taxpayers are trapped in this time warp because Congress has systemically underinvested in the IRS. Its funding was cut for most of the past decade, despite the agency receiving evermore responsibilities: stimulus checks, child tax credit payments, Obamacare enforcement, foreign bank account tracking and, lately, hunting down Russian yachts. Without reliable, long-term funding guarantees, the IRS has struggled to upgrade its systems.

I recently took a (chaperoned) tour of the Pipeline, which is usually off-limits to journalists. Imagine Willy Wonka’s secretive chocolate factory, but instead of gumdrops and lollipops it’s … paper. Everywhere, paper.

Keep scrolling and see for yourself. . .

Continue reading. (gift link, no paywall) 
.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2022 at 11:34 am

A Uranium Ghost Town in the Making

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Mark Olalde and Maya Miller report in ProPublica:

The “death map” tells the story of decades of sickness in the small northwest New Mexico communities of Murray Acres and Broadview Acres. Turquoise arrows point to homes where residents had thyroid disease, dark blue arrows mark cases of breast cancer, and yellow arrows mean cancer claimed a life.

Neighbors built the map a decade ago after watching relatives and friends fall ill and die. Dominating the top right corner of the map, less than half a mile from the cluster of colorful arrows, sits what residents believe is the cause of their sickness: 22.2 million tons of uranium waste left over from milling ore to supply power plants and nuclear bombs.

“We were sacrificed a long time ago,” said Candace Head-Dylla, who created the death map with her mother after Head-Dylla had her thyroid removed and her mother developed breast cancer. Research has linked both types of illnesses to uranium exposure.

Beginning in 1958, a uranium mill owned by Homestake Mining Company of California processed and refined ore mined nearby. The waste it left behind leaked uranium and selenium into groundwater and released the cancer-causing gas radon into the air. State and federal regulators knew the mill was polluting groundwater almost immediately after it started operating, but years passed before they informed residents and demanded fixes.

The contamination continued to spread even after the mill closed in 1990.

The failures at Homestake are emblematic of the toxic legacy of the American uranium industry, one that has been well-documented from its boom during the Cold War until falling uranium prices and concerns over the dangers of nuclear power decimated the industry in the 1980s. Uranium mining and milling left a trail of contamination and suffering, from miners who died of lung cancer while the federal government kept the risks secret to the largest radioactive spill in the country’s history.

But for four decades, the management of more than 250 million tons of radioactive uranium mill waste has been largely overlooked, continuing to pose a public health threat.

ProPublica found that regulators have failed to hold companies to account when they missed cleanup targets and accepted incorrect forecasts that pollution wouldn’t spread. The federal government will eventually assume responsibility for the more than 50 defunct mills that generated this waste.

At Homestake, which was among the largest mills, the company is bulldozing a community in order to walk away. Interviews with dozens of residents, along with radon testing and thousands of pages of company and government records, reveal a community sacrificed to build the nation’s nuclear arsenal and atomic energy industry.

Time and again, Homestake and government agencies promised to clean up the area. Time and again, they missed their deadlines while further spreading pollution in the communities. In the 1980s, Homestake promised residents groundwater would be cleaned within a decade, locals told the Environmental Protection Agency and ProPublica. After missing that target, the company told regulators it would complete the job around 2006, then by 2013.

In 2014, an EPA report confirmed the site posed an unacceptable cancer risk and identified radon as the greatest threat to residents’ health. Still, the cleanup target date continued shifting, to 2017, then 2022.

Rather than finish the cleanup, Homestake’s current owner . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2022 at 12:16 pm

Stanford Designer is Making Bricks Stronger than Concrete Out of Fast-Growing Mushrooms

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Andy Corbley reports at Good News Network:

While there aren’t any species of mushroom large enough to live in, one Bay-area designer thinks he can make one if he only cranks out enough of his patented “mushroom bricks.”

In fact, he knows he can do it, because he’s already build a showpiece called “Mycotecture”—a 6×6 mushroom brick arch from Ganoderma lucidum or reishi mushrooms.

Phil Ross doesn’t use the mushroom, or fruiting body of the reishi; he uses mycelium, the fast-growing fibrous roots that make up the vast majority of fungus lifeforms.

Mycelium grows fast, and is incredibly durable, waterproof, non-toxic, fire-resistant, and biodegradable.

Ross uses it to build bricks by growing mycelium in bags of delicious (to mushrooms) sawdust, before drying them out and cutting them with extremely heavy-duty steel blades.

This works because mushrooms digest cellulose in the sawdust, converting it into chitin, the same fiber that insect exoskeletons are made from.

“The bricks have the feel of a composite material with a core of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2022 at 1:55 pm

The war against printing

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Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) an Italian humanist. Engraving by Yenetta, 1880. Credit : Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

Technological progress frequently is met with resistance because almost always such progress involves trade-offs, and for some what is traded off is too central to the enterprise to be discarded. Alexander Lee provides an example in Engelsberg Ideas. He writes:

The pen is a virgin,’ wrote Filippo de Strata in the late fifteenth century, but ‘the printing press is a whore.’ And that wasn’t the half of it. Born into a wealthy Pavian family, Filippo had joined the Dominican Order at a young age and had spent most of his adult life at the convent of San Cipriano, on the Venetian island of Murano. One of the smallest religious communities in the lagoon, it could boast no special intellectual renown, yet its members still attached great importance to the production of manuscripts, and Filippo was no exception. He translated texts from Latin into Italian, copied sermons and biblical commentaries, and even penned a few works of his own. Yet he was also a pompous, even arrogant man, who seemed to be at war with the world around him. His invectives were legion. He attacked the French for spreading heresy among unsuspecting Italians and wrote a rather clunky elegy against the use of organ music in church. But it was printing which attracted the worst of his ire. In a Latin address to Doge Nicolò Marcello, written at some point between August 1473 and December 1474, and in a vernacular poem composed about 20 years later, he lashed out at it with unconcealed hatred. He not only called the press a ‘whore’, but also accused printers of being ‘asses’ — and even asked the Doge to ban printing altogether.

It was, perhaps, not the most obvious of targets. Between the development of the first writing systems in ancient Mesopotamia and the dawn of the internet age, nothing so revolutionised communication as the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400–68). Indeed, as the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) later wrote, it was one of the three innovations ‘unknown to the ancients’ which could genuinely be said to have ‘changed the appearance of the whole world’.

Granted, the idea behind it wasn’t completely new. For some time, Europeans frustrated by traditional forms of scribal production had been looking for ways of speeding things up. Back in the thirteenth century, the so-called pecia system had been introduced at the universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Books which were in high demand were divided up into sections and rented out a piece at a time, so that several students could copy the same text simultaneously. A little over 100 years later, some Rhenish or Burgundian carvers may also have experimented with printing very short texts using wooden blocks. But even at their best, such methods were clumsy, expensive and fraught with problems.

What made Gutenberg’s innovation so remarkable was his use of movable metal type. This not only allowed compositors to set any text, but it was also so durable that it could be used hundreds — if not thousands — of times without any significant loss of clarity. Combined with a press (modelled on that used for producing wine), a stickier variety of ink and large sheets of paper, Gutenberg’s type allowed a printer to produce books in greater numbers and more quickly than anyone had ever thought possible. As the humanist Benedetto Brugnoli (1427-1502) later observed, ‘twenty men may [now] print in a month more books than one hundred could previously have copied in a year.’

After Gutenberg established his press in Mainz in c.1450, printing spread rapidly — if rather erratically — throughout Europe. Within less than 20 years, . . .

Continue reading. Complaints about readily available books are specified later in the article.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2022 at 1:45 pm

“Princess Mononoke”: The masterpiece that flummoxed the US

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Princess Mononoke is currently available via Netflix, and it is certainly worth (re)watching. Stephen Kelly writes for BBC Culture:

In 1997, the British fantasy author Neil Gaiman received a call out of the blue from then-head of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein. “This animated film, Princess Mononoke,” Gaiman recalls him saying, “it’s the biggest thing in Japan right now. So I thought I’ve got to get the best to do it. I called Quentin Tarantino and said, ‘Quentin, will you do the English language script?’ And he said, you don’t want me, you want Gaiman. So, I’m calling you.” Miramax, a then-subsidiary of Disney, had acquired the rights to distribute Princess Mononoke, the newest film from Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, in the United States, and Weinstein wanted to fly Gaiman to Los Angeles to watch a cut of the movie.

“I had zero plans to do it,” Gaiman tells BBC Culture. “But the moment that changed everything for me was the scene where you’re looking at this large pebble. And then a raindrop hits it. And then another raindrop hits it. And then another raindrop hits it. And now it’s raining and the surface is slippery and wet. And I’m like, ‘I have never seen anything like this. This is real filmmaking. This is David Lean-level filmmaking. This is Akira Kurosawa-level filmmaking. This is the real deal.'”

When Princess Mononoke was first released in Japan on 12 July 1997, 25 years ago this week, it represented something of a departure for master animator and director Hayao Miyazaki. During the late 80s, Miyazaki had built his reputation (along with the success of Studio Ghibli, which he founded with fellow director Isao Takahata) on films like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro; formally ambitious, thematically rich works, but generally affirming in tone and family-friendly in nature. But something changed during the 90s. Firstly, he began to bristle at the popular idea that Studio Ghibli only makes gentle movies about how great nature is. “I begin to hear of Ghibli as ‘sweet’ or ‘healing,'” he grumbles in Princess Mononoke: How the Film Was Conceived, a six-hour documentary about the film’s production, “and I get an urge to destroy it.” Yet even more significant was his growing despair at a world which he had increasingly come to believe was cursed.

“He used to be what he called leftist in sympathy, a believer in people power,” explains Shiro Yoshioka, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University. “But for obvious reasons [the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the escalation in ethnic conflicts across Europe], his political beliefs were totally shaken in the early 1990s.”

Japan itself was also going through something of an existential crisis. The country’s bubble period, an economic boom during the late 80s, burst in 1992, stranding Japan in a seemingly endless recession. Three years later, in 1995, the country was hit by the Kobe earthquake, the worst earthquake to hit Japan since 1922. It killed 6,000 people, and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands more. Only two months after that, a terrorist cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo launched a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, killing 13 and injuring thousands. Miyazaki, who was sickened by the materialism of the bubble period, was now living in a country traumatised and confused – both by its relationship with nature, and a creeping sense of spiritual emptiness.

“He began to think,” says Yoshioka, “maybe I should not make this entertaining, light-hearted stuff for children. Maybe I should make something substantial.”

A new anger

Set during the 14th Century, the Muromachi period of Japan, Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young prince cursed by . . .

Continue reading. But perhaps it’s best to read the article after you’ve watched the movie. The article has many spoilers.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2022 at 12:56 pm

Clive Thompson: “After Going Solar, I Felt the Bliss of Sudden Abundance”

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Clive Thompson writes in Wired:

I USED TO worry about using too much electricity.

If one of my family members left their bedroom and forgot to turn off the air conditioning? I’d snap at them: “What, you want the planet to cook extra fast?” If I found lights left on overnight, I’d fume.

Reader, I was insufferable. In my defense, I’d been worrying about climate change ever since Jim Hansen’s 1988 landmark congressional testimony about it. With every cool blast of AC, I knew more carbon was being dumped into the atmosphere. So I turned into an energy miser. I’d go around the house turning lights off; if no one else were home, I’d leave the AC off entirely, even on blazingly hot days.

But then, three and a half years ago, something happened that changed my entire psychology around electricity: I installed solar panels on my house.

I quickly found myself awash in more energy than I could use. The installers had predicted the panels would produce 100 percent of what my household needed. (Since battery systems aren’t yet legal in Brooklyn, New York, where I live, any surplus I generated during sunlight hours would get sold to the grid, and I buy energy back at night.)

But the installers underestimated: It turns out I generate a lot of net surplus. According to the “smart meter” that my utility installed, in a 24-hour period my house frequently generates 25 percent more juice than I need, even on a hot summer day. On sunny spring and fall days, it’ll crank out 50 percent more than I use. I’m saving about $2,000 a year, so I’ll amortize the cost of the array in seven years; then the electricity is damn-near free.

It’s had a fascinating effect on me: I’ve stopped worrying about electricity use, both economically and ethically.

I no longer walk around finger-wagging at my family members. Want to blast the AC? Crank away. It’s coming from the sun, and I can’t use all that electricity even if I try. And I’ve tried! I’ve charged an electric bike, run multiple loads of laundry, had many computers and a game system and a TV going, and still those panels were kicking out a net surplus. I’ve idly thought of running a power strip out to the sidewalk with a sign saying “FREE ELECTRICITY,” just to be the Johnny Appleseed of solar.

In essence, I went from a feeling of scarcity to a sense of abundance.

And it occurs to me that this is, really, an emotional shift we ought to foreground when we promote renewables.

Right now many people are doubtful about solar and wind. Thanks (in good part) to fear-and-doubt messaging from Republicans and fossil-fuel interests, renewables are too often associated with privation and rationing—needing to be an efficient-but-miserable hippie instead of gunning the motor and having fun. “Most people believe a clean-energy future will require everyone to make do with less,” as the inventor and energy thinker Saul Griffith points out in his book Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean-Energy Future.

Yet when I talked to other folks who’d put solar on their roofs, most had precisely the same epiphany I’d had: They realized they had way more juice than they expected. And it had the same emotional effect—going from feeling guilty and weird to devil-may-care.

Consider the case of Christopher Coleman.  . .

Continue reading.

BTW, Wired has a special discount now: 1 year for $5. That seems worth it to get past the paywall, especially since I find their articles interesting and useful. They will automatically renew my subscription next Aug 5 for $30/year, so I put a reminder in my calendar to call them on Jul 31 next year to cancel the subscription. I might change my mind — that’s what they’re counting on, obviously — but right now I’m not sure their articles are worth $30/year to me. We’ll see.

But $5 for year seems like a bargain.

Written by Leisureguy

5 August 2022 at 8:15 am

Nancy Pelosi, China and the Slow Decline of the U.S. Military

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

As military tensions flare between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, it’s easy to put all eyes on Nancy Pelosi and her visit to the island. Symbolism matters deeply in international relations, and this event is setting the direction for how Chinese and U.S. leaders will relate to one another. But six weeks ago, an obscure military bureaucrat named Cameron Holt offered another, equally important signal about this relationship. Holt is the head of acquisitions for the Air Force, which means he oversees the buying of everything from drones to nuclear missiles. And in a fascinating and spicy speech, he said that if the U.S. doesn’t get better at buying weapons, America will lose in a future conflict to China. “It’s simply math,” he argued.

The reason is that China is better at procurement. China is getting weapons “five to six times” more rapidly than the United States. “In purchasing power parity,” he said, “they spend about one dollar to our 20 dollars to get to the same capability.” This problem is directly related to market power in the U.S. Holt went over the business strategy of U.S. defense contractors, noting their goal is to lowball contracts but keep control of intellectual property. Then, he said, they create vendor lock-in, and raise prices later. In other words, they underprice upfront so they can eventually exploit pricing power over the Pentagon. Chinese acquisition strategies are more efficient and less brittle, which means over time their military will overtake ours.

Nothing Holt said is a surprise. Everyone knows how screwed up U.S. procurement is, the warnings come in almost daily. For instance, the U.S. can’t replace its stocks of Javelins and Stinger missiles sent to Ukraine, it’s going to take years to restart some of the assembly lines. Raytheon and Lockheed are having supply chain issues, and are unable to deliver weapons despite strong orders. We can’t even make the chips for weapons systems like the B-2 bomber, because semiconductor firms are shutting down the fabs that made the old parts. One could argue these are anomalies, unusual situations, but war is the ultimate moment of supply chain disruption, so that’s cold comfort.

To put the problem simply, we spend massively on weapons and get too little for it. Why? Just like health care or most other bloated sectors, it’s the prices, stupid. We consolidated economic power in the hands of a few dominant defense contractors and financiers, and they have become slothful and expensive. Fortunately, since it’s a problem caused by policy, it’s also a problem that can be solved by policy. And there are useful legislative attempts to do so.

Let’s start with how the U.S. organizes its defense thinking around procurement and economics. Traditional American strategy was laid out after the Revolutionary War, when U.S. policymakers recognized that to be an independent nation required domestic manufacturing and shipping capacity to reduce dependency on foreign actors, which through much of the 19th century was Great Britain. The idea we should be able to supply ourselves with industrial goods that could be repurposed for weaponry was key to every U.S. war, both then and since. For instance, in World War II, the U.S. became the ‘arsenal of democracy’ largely by transforming its peacetime industrial capacity to focus on industrial-scale warfare. Instead of cars, Ford factories churned out tanks and aircraft. Similarly, the Cold War aerospace industry in the form of Boeing and regulated airlines such as Pan Am served both civilian and military purposes.

Until the early 1990s, this basic strategy held; retain an industrial base for security purposes, so as to be able to produce lots of cheap interoperable machines and weapons if necessary. Public control over the defense part of this base occurred through competition; during World War II, there were more than a dozen prime contractors for every major weapons system. So if one entity screwed up or under-invested, military officers could procure elsewhere.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. strategists changed this successful model of governance. The national security world and Wall Street, whose relationship had always been somewhat tense, became more aligned in their vision of how to project U.S. power. They coalesced around . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2022 at 11:41 am

MIT engineers develop stickers that can see inside the body

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Amazing. Jennifer Chu reports for MIT News:

Ultrasound imaging is a safe and noninvasive window into the body’s workings, providing clinicians with live images of a patient’s internal organs. To capture these images, trained technicians manipulate ultrasound wands and probes to direct sound waves into the body. These waves reflect back out to produce high-resolution images of a patient’s heart, lungs, and other deep organs.

Currently, ultrasound imaging requires bulky and specialized equipment available only in hospitals and doctor’s offices. But a new design by MIT engineers might make the technology as wearable and accessible as buying Band-Aids at the pharmacy.

In a paper appearing today in Science, the engineers present the design for a new ultrasound sticker — a stamp-sized device that sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.

The researchers applied the stickers to volunteers and showed the devices produced live, high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach. The stickers maintained a strong adhesion and captured changes in underlying organs as volunteers performed various activities, including sitting, standing, jogging, and biking.

The current design requires . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2022 at 11:01 am

Posted in Medical, Technology

The power of zooming

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Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2022 at 1:02 pm

Two toddler tools: car seat and high chair

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Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2022 at 6:12 am

Posted in Daily life, Technology

Inside an international network of teenage neo-Nazi extremists

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Nick Robins Early, Alexander Nabert, and Christina Brause report in Insider:

Last year, a 20-year-old named Christian Michael Mackey arrived at the Phillips 66 gas station in Grand Prairie, Texas, hoping to sell his AM-15 rifle to make some quick cash. He’d said he wanted to buy a more powerful gun, something that could stop what he called a “hoard of you know what.”

Mackey told an online group chat he’d started looking at Nazi websites at around 15-years-old, when he began spending hours on white nationalist message boards and talking to other extremists on Instagram and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. Five years later, he was active in a network of violent neo-Nazi groups that organized and communicated through online group chats. He described himself as a “radical Jew slayer.”

When Mackey met his buyer in the gas-station parking lot in January 2021, he didn’t know he had walked into a sting. The woman purchasing his rifle was a paid FBI source with numerous felonies, and Mackey was arrested as soon as the gun changed hands. At his detention hearing a month later, an FBI agent said authorities had found a pipe bomb in Mackey’s parents’ house, where he lived.

Mackey’s stepfather told local news soon after the arrest that his stepson had been radicalized online, and footage showed him ripping up a copy of “Mein Kampf” in Mackey’s bedroom. FBI records and court documents indicated that Mackey had posted more than 2,400 messages in one neo-Nazi Instagram group chat alone, and had told another user “I’m just trying to live long enough to die attacking.”

Stories like this have increasingly played out across the US and around the world in recent years — young people, overwhelmingly white and male, who have become involved in a global network of neo-Nazi extremist groups that plot mass violence online.

Canadian authorities earlier this year arrested a 19-year-old on terrorism charges after they say he tried to join a neo-Nazi group similar to the ones Mackey was involved in. In April, a 15-year-old in Denmark was charged with recruiting for a neo-Nazi organization banned in the country. A 16-year-old became the UK’s youngest terrorism offender after joining that same group, where he researched terror manuals and discussed how to make explosives. Others made it further along in their plots, like a 21-year-old who planted a bomb outside the Western Union office in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.

As far-right extremism has grown over the past decade, so too has the notoriety of various groups and their leaders. Far-right gangs such as the Proud Boys as well as suit-and-tie-wearing white nationalists like Richard Spencer regularly make headlines. But there are also lesser-known groups with more directly violent aims that follow an ideology called accelerationism — the belief that carrying out bombings, mass shootings, and other attacks is necessary to hasten the collapse of society and allow a white ethnostate to rise in its place.

Countries including the United Kingdom and Canada have designated accelerationist groups such as Atomwaffen Division, Feuerkrieg Division and The Base as terrorist organizations. Atomwaffen, which is now largely defunct, was linked to at least five murders in the US alone. The Base’s leader was sentenced in May to four years in prison after plotting to kill minorities and instigate a race war.

Experts trace the origins of groups like these to a neo-Nazi website called Iron March that went offline in 2017, and which notoriously helped extremists from many countries forge international connections and spread accelerationist propaganda.

The ideology has been linked to the 2019 Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, where a white nationalist killed 51 people at two mosques while livestreaming the attack online, and a shooting earlier this year at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY where 10 people were killed.

As part of a joint investigation that Insider undertook with Welt Am Sonntag and Politico, reporters gained access to two dozen internal chat groups linked to a broader network of neo-Nazi accelerationists. Comprising 98,000 messages from about 900 users, the data includes photos, videos, text, and voice messages.

Various participants in the groups have been charged with a range of crimes related to plots to bomb or burn down synagogues and gay bars, attack anti-fascist activists, and illegally traffic firearms. In chat logs that reporters reviewed, members showed off homemade explosives, encouraged one another to kill minorities, and discussed how to get access to weapons.

The scores of messages and propaganda in these chats provide a glimpse into one of the most dangerous corners of modern far-right extremism. It is increasingly international, intent on radicalizing young people, and committed to using violence to further its fascist ideology.

Rather than a centralized group, it is a loosely connected network that rises and falls as its members are killed or arrested — but never seems to entirely go away. And unlike extremist groups that want to integrate their beliefs into political parties or run for local office, the aim of accelerationist groups like these is primarily to create violent chaos. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 July 2022 at 4:57 pm

Cross-pollination among neuroscience, psychology, and AI research yields a foundational understanding of thinking

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Paul S. Rosenbloom, Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, University of Southern California, Christian Lebierem, Research Psychologist, Carnegie Mellon University, and John E. Laird, John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering, University of Michigan, write in The Conversation:

Progress in artificial intelligence has enabled the creation of AIs that perform tasks previously thought only possible for humans, such as translating languagesdriving carsplaying board games at world-champion level and extracting the structure of proteins. However, each of these AIs has been designed and exhaustively trained for a single task and has the ability to learn only what’s needed for that specific task.

Recent AIs that produce fluent text, including in conversation with humans, and generate impressive and unique art can give the false impression of a mind at work. But even these are specialized systems that carry out narrowly defined tasks and require massive amounts of training.

It still remains a daunting challenge to combine multiple AIs into one that can learn and perform many different tasks, much less pursue the full breadth of tasks performed by humans or leverage the range of experiences available to humans that reduce the amount of data otherwise required to learn how to perform these tasks. The best current AIs in this respect, such as AlphaZero and Gato, can handle a variety of tasks that fit a single mold, like game-playing. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) that is capable of a breadth of tasks remains elusive.

Ultimately, AGIs need to be able to interact effectively with each other and people in various physical environments and social contexts, integrate the wide varieties of skill and knowledge needed to do so, and learn flexibly and efficiently from these interactions.

Building AGIs comes down to building artificial minds, albeit greatly simplified compared to human minds. And to build an artificial mind, you need to start with a model of cognition.

From human to Artificial General Intelligence

Humans have an almost unbounded set of skills and knowledge, and quickly learn new information without needing to be re-engineered to do so. It is conceivable that an AGI can be built using an approach that is fundamentally different from human intelligence. However, as three longtime researchers in AI and cognitive science, our approach is to draw inspiration and insights from the structure of the human mind. We are working toward AGI by trying to better understand the human mind, and better understand the human mind by working toward AGI.

From research in neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology, we know that the human brain is neither a huge homogeneous set of neurons nor a massive set of task-specific programs that each solves a single problem. Instead, it is a set of regions with different properties that support the basic cognitive capabilities that together form the human mind.

These capabilities include perception and action; short-term memory for what is relevant in the current situation; long-term memories for skills, experience and knowledge; reasoning and decision making; emotion and motivation; and learning new skills and knowledge from the full range of what a person perceives and experiences.

Instead of focusing on specific capabilities in isolation, AI pioneer Allen Newell in 1990 suggested developing Unified Theories of Cognition that integrate all aspects of human thought. Researchers have been able to build software programs called cognitive architectures that embody such theories, making it possible to test and refine them.

Cognitive architectures are grounded in multiple scientific fields with distinct perspectives. Neuroscience focuses on the organization of the human brain, cognitive psychology on human behavior in controlled experiments, and artificial intelligence on useful capabilities.

The Common Model of Cognition

We have been involved in the development of three cognitive architectures: . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2022 at 10:08 am

A major publishing lawsuit would cement surveillance into the future of libraries

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One problem with corporations is that, though legally treated as persons, they lack some essential attributes of personhood, such as empathy, a moral compass, and any sense of the public good (since their sole focus is private gain). As corporations accumulate wealth, they also become more powerful, and they use that power exclusively to benefit themselves (aka increase shareholder value without regard of the impact on employees, customers, and community). This results in monetization and degradation of the commons and of daily life.

Lia Holland and Jordyn Paul-Slater write in Fast Company:

Amid the inflection point of library digitization, publishing corporations want to reduce and redefine the role that libraries play in our society. Their suit seeks to halt loans of legally purchased and scanned books, cementing a future of extortionate and opaque licensing agreements and Netflix-like platforms to replace library cards with credit cards. If successful, they will erode the public’s last great venue to access information free from corporate or government surveillance. This dire threat to the privacy and safety of readers has gone largely unnoticed.

Big Tech monopolies like Amazon and its Kindle e-reader shamelessly collect and store data on readers. They do this in order to exploit readers’ interests and habits for advertising and to gain an advantage in the market—but that same data can be shared with law enforcement or bounty hunters to prosecute people exploring topics such as abortion or gender affirming healthcare. Libraries, on the other hand, have a centuries-old practice of vigorously defending the privacy of their readers. Even the Oklahoma library system that recently threatened librarians if they so much as “use the word abortion” is still doubling down on providing better anonymity for patrons. The function of a library is antithetical to the prerogatives of surveillance capitalism.

Today, libraries generally are blocked from purchasing and owning digital books—and readers are in a similar boat. Instead, publishers offer only high-cost licenses for which libraries rely on emergency funds and may only be able to afford the most popular works. These costs put libraries at a disadvantage in serving traditionally marginalized communities, including particularly young, disabled, rural, and low income readers who may rely on e-books. Already, public schools bound by state law to protect the data of their students are having to pay $27 per digital copy of Anne Frank’s Diary of A Young Girl each year. Publishers are sending a clear message that privacy will be a premium feature if they have their way.

This lawsuit is a digital book burning to end libraries’ most viable avenue to loan and preserve diverse, surveillance-free digital books: scanning the books themselves. If libraries do not own or control the systems for accessing digital books, or can only afford digital books with a “let our corporation surveil your patrons” discount, people who rely on digital books from libraries are much more likely to be surveilled than those privileged enough to travel to check out a paper book.

But it is not only readers whose opportunities are on the chopping block. If publishers are able to charge more money for a smaller list of books, authors will be in a more dire position for publishing opportunities, making an already exclusive and white industry even less hospitable for diverse and emerging authors. To be published at all, even more authors will be forced to turn to Amazon’s extractive self-publishing e-book and audiobook monopoly. To access those books, readers already have to pay both in dollars and in data.

Surveillance endangers traditionally marginalized people the most, and publishing urgently needs to confront this blind spot. The authors listed in the suit appear to be about 90% white, 60% male, and 17% deceased. While it would be ludicrous to blame deceased authors for not speaking out, the others have been resoundingly complicit: allowing publishing companies, associations, and other institutions to outrageously claim that the existence of libraries in the digital age harms their intellectual property and smear librarians as “mouthpieces” for Big Tech.

Authors listed in the suit include James S. A. Corey, best known for The ExpanseA Game of Thrones’ George R.R. Martin, Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love. Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly as well as multiple titles by Lemony Snicket are also listed. Sarah Crossan’s YA novel Resist, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven are also among titles the Internet Archive is being sued for owning and loaning. Ironically, Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath is also among publishing giants’ arsenal.

This lawsuit illustrates a new level of unabashed greed from publishing corporations and their shareholders, swathed in a record-profits-fueled PR campaign using inadequately compensated authors as human shields. Not only will

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Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2022 at 9:58 am

Webb v. Hubble

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A slider-comparison of 4 images from Webb vs. the same 4 from Hubble.

Written by Leisureguy

27 July 2022 at 8:54 am

Posted in Science, Technology

Pacemaker 6-week checkup

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I updated the pacemaker post with what the six-week check-up produced. You can read the full report in the section added to the end of the post at the link, but three things I thought important:

  1. Expected battery life is now 12 years. (At that point, a new pacemaker will replace the one I have now.)
  2. The Wife commented today that, since the pacemaker’s been installed, she’s noticed that I seem to have lost a dullness of edge that I had gradually developed. It’s as though the pacemaker’s operation has sharpened my cognitive processes, so that my responses are quicker and more on target. It took a while to notice the difference, but it’s definite.
  3. They gave me a remote monitor — a passive recipient of data from my pacemaker, which the monitor will ping each night then transmit the data to the pacemaker clinic for review. They’ll then let me know if I should ever need to come in for adjustments to the pacemaker programming. (The monitor only receives data from my pacemaker; it cannot transmit data to the pacemaker.)

I post this information about my pacemaker adventure for those who might be considering such a thing or know someone who’s been through it.

Of course, this visit and the monitor were free: I live in Canada, which like other advanced nations includes healthcare as a government service. Parking, however, was not free, so this visit (and bringing home the monitor) cost $3.50 in parking fees.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2022 at 2:41 pm

How a mechanical watch works, with interactive illustrations

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An excellent explanation of an ingenious and highly evolved complex of memes.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2022 at 6:20 am

A.I. and the fiction it writes

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Josh Dzieza has an interesting article in Verge on AI-assisted fiction writing. (Careful disclaimer: There is no AII involved in the writing of my blog, though I have indeed seen ads for AI software to assist in writing blog posts. I write my own.) Dzieza’s article begins:

On a Tuesday in mid-March, Jennifer Lepp was precisely 80.41 percent finished writing Bring Your Beach Owl, the latest installment in her series about a detective witch in central Florida, and she was behind schedule. The color-coded, 11-column spreadsheet she keeps open on a second monitor as she writes told her just how far behind: she had three days to write 9,278 words if she was to get the book edited, formatted, promoted, uploaded to Amazon’s Kindle platform, and in the hands of eager readers who expected a new novel every nine weeks.

Lepp became an author six years ago, after deciding she could no longer stomach having to spout “corporate doublespeak” to employees as companies downsized. She had spent the prior two decades working in management at a series of web hosting companies, where she developed disciplined project management skills that have translated surprisingly well to writing fiction for Amazon’s Kindle platform.

Like many independent authors, she found in Amazon’s self-service publishing arm, Kindle Direct Publishing, an unexpected avenue into a literary career she had once dreamed of and abandoned. (“Independent” or “indie” author are the preferred terms for writers who are self-publishing commercially, free of the vanity-press connotations of “self-published.”) “It’s not Dostoevsky,” Lepp said of her work, but she takes pride in delivering enjoyable “potato chip books” to her readers, and they reward her with an annual income that can reach the low six figures.

However, being an Amazon-based author is stressful in ways that will look familiar to anyone who makes a living on a digital platform. In order to survive in a marketplace where infinite other options are a click away, authors need to find their fans and keep them loyal. So they follow readers to the microgenres into which Amazon’s algorithms classify their tastes, niches like “mermaid young adult fantasy” or “time-travel romance,” and keep them engaged by writing in series, each installment teasing the next, which already has a title and set release date, all while producing a steady stream of newsletters, tweets, and videos. As Mark McGurl writes in Everything and Less, his recent book on how Amazon is shaping fiction, the Kindle platform transformed the author-reader relationship into one of service provider and customer, and the customer is always right. Above all else, authors must write fast.

Lepp, who writes under the pen name Leanne Leeds in the “paranormal cozy mystery” subgenre, allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months. Writer’s block is a luxury she can’t afford, which is why as soon as she heard about an artificial intelligence tool designed to break through it, she started beseeching its developers on Twitter for access to the beta test.

The tool was called Sudowrite. Designed by developers turned sci-fi authors Amit Gupta and James Yu, it’s one of many AI writing programs built on OpenAI’s language model GPT-3 that have launched since it was opened to developers last year. But where most of these tools are meant to write company emails and marketing copy, Sudowrite is designed for fiction writers. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. “Sudowrite” is, I assume, a gentle acknowledgment that the product is not actually “writing.” (Sudowrite = Pseudowrite)

Written by Leisureguy

22 July 2022 at 4:24 pm

Geoengineering is humanity’s last hope to combat climate change, but we’re not doing that, either.

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Kevin Drum has a good post that begins:

Last night was dex night, so I spent some time hanging around Twitter. At one point I ended up writing something that I’ve hinted around at here but have never quite come out and said outright. So let’s take care of that.

I’ve been watching the climate change fight for 20 years now, waiting and waiting for evidence that the public takes it seriously enough to do something about it. Not just say it’s important when a pollster calls, but demonstrate a real-world willingness to make lifestyle sacrifices that would make a difference. By chance, Paul Krugman wrote about this today:

It has long been painfully obvious that voters are reluctant to accept even small short-run costs in the interest of averting long-run disaster. This is depressing, but it’s a fact of life, one that no amount of haranguing seems likely to change…. Emission taxes are the Econ 101 solution to pollution, but realistically they just aren’t going to happen in America.

Needless to say, I agree. Two years ago I wrote a long piece for Mother Jones based on exactly this observation, and I’d add that it’s true of other countries as well. Neither Chinese nor Indian voters have any interest in freezing or lowering their standard of living at a quarter of our level just because we happened to get rich first. And it’s hard to blame them. Nevertheless, it just adds to the mountain of evidence—which I outlined in my article—that the public simply can’t be counted on to support any serious action.

Not in time, anyway. A decade ago I wrote in Democracy that by 2024:

The fact of climate change will become undeniable. The effects of global warming, discernible today mostly in scary charts and mathematical models, will start to become obvious enough in the real world that even the rightest of right wingers will be forced to acknowledge what’s happening.

I was only half right. The effects of climate change are becoming undeniable, but it hasn’t made even a lick of difference. The Republican Party remains unanimously opposed to clean energy because they oppose anything that raises the possibility of corporate regulation. This is very unlikely to change by 2024.

At the time I wrote about all this two years ago, my conclusion was . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

19 July 2022 at 1:35 pm

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