Later On

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

A leading Silicon Valley engineer explains why every tech worker needs a humanities education

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Tracy Chou writes in Quartz:

In 2005, the late writer David Foster Wallace delivered a now-famous commencement address. It starts with the story of the fish in water, who spend their lives not even knowing what water is. They are naively unaware of the ocean that permits their existence, and the currents that carry them.

The most important education we can receive, Wallace goes on to explain, “isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” He talks about finding appreciation for the richness of humanity and society. But it is the core concept of meta-cognition, of examining and editing what it is that we choose to contemplate, that has fixated me as someone who works in the tech industry.

As much as code and computation and data can feel as if they are mechanistically neutral, they are not. Technology products and services are built by humans who build their biases and flawed thinking right into those products and services—which in turn shapes human behavior and society, sometimes to a frightening degree. It’s arguable, for example, that online media’s reliance on clickbait journalism, and Facebook’s role in spreading “fake news” or otherwise sensationalized stories influenced the results of the 2016 US presidential election. This criticism is far from outward-facing; it comes from a place of self-reflection.

I studied engineering at Stanford University, and at the time I thought that was all I needed to study. I focused on problem-solving in the technical domain, and learned to see the world through the lens of equations, axioms, and lines of code. I found beauty and elegance in well-formulated optimization problems, tidy mathematical proofs, clever time- and space-efficient algorithms. Humanities classes, by contrast, I felt to be dreary, overwrought exercises in finding meaning where there was none. I dutifully completed my general education requirements in ethical reasoning and global community. But I was dismissive of the idea that there was any real value to be gleaned from the coursework.

Upon graduation, I went off to work as a software engineer at a small startup, Quora, then composed of only four people. Partly as a function of it being my first full-time job, and partly because the company and our product—a question and answer site—was so nascent, I found myself for the first time deeply considering what it was that I was working on, and to what end, and why.

I was no longer operating in a world circumscribed by lesson plans, problem sets and programming assignments, and intended course outcomes. I also wasn’t coding to specs, because there were no specs. As my teammates and I were building the product, we were also simultaneously defining what it should be, whom it would serve, what behaviors we wanted to incentivize amongst our users, what kind of community it would become, and what kind of value we hoped to create in the world.

]I still loved immersing myself in code and falling into a state of flow—those hours-long intensive coding sessions where I could put everything else aside and focus solely on the engineering tasks at hand. But I also came to realize that such disengagement from reality and societal context could only be temporary.

The first feature I built when I worked at Quora was the block button. Even when the community numbered only in the thousands, there were already people who seemed to delight in being obnoxious and offensive. I was eager to work on the feature because I personally felt antagonized and abused on the site (gender isn’t an unlikely reason as to why). As such, I had an immediate desire to make use of a blocking function. But if I hadn’t had that personal perspective, it’s possible that the Quora team wouldn’t have prioritized building a block button so early in its existence.

Our thinking around anti-harassment design also intersected a great deal with our thinking on free speech and moderation. We pondered the philosophical question—also very relevant to our product—of whether people were by default good or bad. If people were mostly good, then we would design the product around the idea that we could trust users, with controls for rolling back the actions of bad actors in the exceptional cases. If they were by default bad, it would be better to put all user contributions and edits through approvals queues for moderator review.

We debated the implications for open discourse: If we trusted users by default, and then we had an influx of “low quality” users (and how appropriate was it, even, to be labeling users in such a way?), what kind of deteriorative effect might that have on the community? But if we didn’t trust Quora members, and instead always gave preference to existing users that were known to be “high quality,” would we end up with an opinionated, ossified, old-guard, niche community that rejected newcomers and new thoughts?

In the end, we chose to bias ourselves toward . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 2:56 pm

Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children

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Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger report in ProPublica:

In the wake of a terrorist attack in London earlier this month, a U.S. congressman wrote a Facebook post in which he called for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims. “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them,” declared U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican. “Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”

Higgins’ plea for violent revenge went untouched by Facebook workers who scour the social network deleting offensive speech.

But a May posting on Facebook by Boston poet and Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado drew a different response.

“All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” Delgado wrote. The post was removed and her Facebook account was disabled for seven days.

A trove of internal documents reviewed by ProPublica sheds new light on the secret guidelines that Facebook’s censors use to distinguish between hate speech and legitimate political expression. The documents reveal the rationale behind seemingly inconsistent decisions. For instance, Higgins’ incitement to violence passed muster because it targeted a specific sub-group of Muslims — those that are “radicalized” — while Delgado’s post was deleted for attacking whites in general.

Over the past decade, the company has developed hundreds of rules, drawing elaborate distinctions between what should and shouldn’t be allowed, in an effort to make the site a safe place for its nearly 2 billion users. The issue of how Facebook monitors this content has become increasingly prominent in recent months, with the rise of “fake news” — fabricated stories that circulated on Facebook like “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump For President, Releases Statement” — and growing concern that terrorists are using social media for recruitment.

While Facebook was credited during the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring” with facilitating uprisings against authoritarian regimes, the documents suggest that, at least in some instances, the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.

One Facebook rule, which is cited in the documents but that the company said is no longer in effect, banned posts that praise the use of “violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state.” The company’s workforce of human censors, known as content reviewers, has deleted posts by activists and journalists in disputed territories such as Palestine, Kashmir, Crimea and Western Sahara.

One document trains content reviewers on how to apply the company’s global hate speech algorithm. The slide identifies three groups: female drivers, black children and white men. It asks: Which group is protected from hate speech? The correct answer: white men.

The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at “protected categories”—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about “subsets” of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected. (The exact rules are in the slide show below.) . . .

Behind this seemingly arcane distinction lies a broader philosophy. Unlike American law, which permits preferences such as affirmative action for racial minorities and women for the sake of diversity or redressing discrimination, Facebook’s algorithm is designed to defend all races and genders equally.

“Sadly,” the rules are “incorporating this color-blindness idea which is not in the spirit of why we have equal protection,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor and expert on information privacy at the University of Maryland. This approach, she added, will “protect the people who least need it and take it away from those who really need it.”

But Facebook says its goal is different — to apply consistent standards worldwide. “The policies do not always lead to perfect outcomes,” said Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook. “That is the reality of having policies that apply to a global community where people around the world are going to have very different ideas about what is OK to share.”

Facebook’s rules constitute a legal world of their own. They stand in sharp contrast to the United States’ First Amendment protections of free speech, which courts have interpreted to allow exactly the sort of speech and writing censored by the company’s hate speech algorithm. But they also differ — for example, in permitting postings that deny the Holocaust — from more restrictive European standards.

The company has long had programs to remove obviously offensive material like child pornography from its stream of images and commentary. Recent articles in the Guardianand Süddeutsche Zeitung have detailed the difficult choices that Facebook faces regarding whether to delete posts containing graphic violence, child abuse, revenge porn and self-mutilation.

The challenge of policing political expression is even more complex. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 10:54 am

Rod Neep, Propaganda, iKon two-tone combo, Anthony Gold Red Cedar, and a spring shallot

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I did not detect any immediate difference in slickness between Dr. Jon’s Vol 2 shaving soap of yesterday and this Vol 1 Propaganda. You may notice that the tins have been upgraded to threaded tops, an improvement. Propaganda has a wonderful fragrance (though, of course, YNMV): vanilla, sandalwood, mandarin, patchouli and musk.

Having a good lather definitely starts the shave on the right foot. The X3 cap on the DLC baseplate worked fine and indeed the DLC seems more comfortable and less nick-prone that it does with its own cap. I’m in no hurry to switch back. (The handle is a Wolfman Razors handle.)

A splash of Anthony Gold’s wonderful Red Cedar aftershave, and the day begins.

Yesterday I blogged a recipe of which one ingredient was spring shallots. I only recently learned about these, and they are great as the allium in whatever you’re cooking. I have noted that scallions seem to have much more in the way of nutrients than regular onions, and I assume it’s because of the phytochemicals you get by eating the leaves of the scallions. Spring onions and spring shallots and green garlic have a similar abundance of green leaves (in green garlic the leaves are tightly curled in a stalk-like structure, but still edible), so I am assuming that these are also a nutrient powerhouse—and in any case they are tasty and interesting. Here’s a spring shallot:


Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2017 at 9:52 am

Posted in Shaving

Law enforcement evening links

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Some of the links Radley Balko posted in the Washington Post:

  • Pennsylvania governor signs bill that would give police departments wide discretion over when to release body-camera and dash-camera video to the public. This is the opposite of transparency.
  • In other bad body-camera news, Florida law now requires all police agencies to let police officers view camera footage before writing their reports.
  • Three Chicago cops have been charged with conspiracy to cover up the shooting of Laquan McDonald. [I wondered whether that would happen. I didn’t expect it to. – LG]
  • Study finds that imprisoning drug dealers doesn’t change the rate at which people use illegal drugs.
  • Massachusetts judge issues blistering opinion accusing prosecutors of perpetrating “a fraud upon the court” in case involving a disgraced crime lab analyst.
  • A useful corrective on the opioid crisis — most addicts and overdoses did not start out as pain patients.
  • Town sits on surveillance video of teen who died in police custody for months. DA now says cops were criminally culpable, but the statute of limitations in which to charge them has expired. [Amazingly overt protection of police misconduct. – LG]
  • Illinois legislature passes forfeiture reform bill after Reason magazine investigation showed low-dollar seizures in mostly black, poor neighborhoods.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 4:22 pm

A Path Less Taken to the Peak of the Math World

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Kevin Hartnett writes in Quanta:

On a warm morning in early spring, June Huh walked across the campus of Princeton University. His destination was McDonnell Hall, where he was scheduled to teach, and he wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Huh is a member of the rarefied Institute for Advanced Study, which lies adjacent to Princeton’s campus. As a member of IAS, Huh has no obligation to teach, but he’d volunteered to give an advanced undergraduate math course on a topic called commutative algebra. When I asked him why, he replied, “When you teach, you do something useful. When you do research, most days you don’t.”

We arrived at Huh’s classroom a few minutes before class was scheduled to begin. Inside, nine students sat in loose rows. One slept with his head down on the table. Huh took a position in a front corner of the room and removed several pages of crumpled notes from his backpack. Then, with no fanfare, he picked up where he’d left off the previous week. Over the next 80 minutes he walked students through a proof of a theorem by the German mathematician David Hilbert that stands as one of the most important breakthroughs in 20th-century mathematics.

Commutative algebra is taught at the undergraduate level at only a few universities, but it is offered routinely at Princeton, which each year enrolls a handful of the most promising young math minds in the world. Even by that standard, Huh says the students in his class that morning were unusually talented. One of them, sitting that morning in the front row, is the only person ever to have won five consecutive gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Huh’s math career began with much less acclaim. A bad score on an elementary school test convinced him that he was not very good at math. As a teenager he dreamed of becoming a poet. He didn’t major in math, and when he finally applied to graduate school, he was rejected by every university save one.

Nine years later, at the age of 34, Huh is at the pinnacle of the math world. He is best known for his proof, with the mathematicians Eric Katz and Karim Adiprasito, of a long-standing problem called the Rota conjecture.

Even more remarkable than the proof itself is the manner in which Huh and his collaborators achieved it — by finding a way to reinterpret ideas from one area of mathematics in another where they didn’t seem to belong. This past spring IAS offered Huh a long-term fellowship, a position that has been extended to only three young mathematicians before. Two of them (Vladimir Voevodsky and Ngô Bảo Châu) went on to win the Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics.

That Huh would achieve this status after starting mathematics so late is almost as improbable as if he had picked up a tennis racket at 18 and won Wimbledon at 20. It’s the kind of out-of-nowhere journey that simply doesn’t happen in mathematics today, where it usually takes years of specialized training even to be in a position to make new discoveries. Yet it would be a mistake to see Huh’s breakthroughs as having come in spite of his unorthodox beginning. In many ways they’re a product of his unique history — a direct result of his chance encounter, in his last year of college, with a legendary mathematician who somehow recognized a gift in Huh that Huh had never perceived himself.

The Accidental Apprentice

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Education, Math

The plot continues to thicken: The ‘International Man of Mystery’ Linked to Flynn’s Lobbying Deal

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Isaac Arnsdorf reports in ProPublica:

More than two years ago, two men started visiting Washington to push Turkey’s agenda in the capital. They dined with dignitaries and enlisted prominent lobbying firms from both sides of the aisle.

It was an unremarkable Washington story, except for one thing: the last lobbyist one of the men hired was Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s campaign adviser at the time, who was later fired as national security adviser for lying about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.

Flynn’s client, a Turkish businessman named Ekim Alptekin, has gained attention as federal investigators examine Flynn’s apparent failures to disclose foreign contacts. But so far, the other man in the pro-Turkey efforts has largely avoided public notice.

That man, Dmitri “David” Zaikin, is not registered as a foreign lobbyist and has no apparent connection to Turkey.

What he does have, a ProPublica-Politico examination found, is a long track record of partnering with powerful Russian businesspeople and government officials, mostly involving energy and mining deals. More recently, Zaikin has done political work in Eastern Europe, advising parties in Albania and Macedonia that have drifted toward the Kremlin.

Zaikin also has business connections to Trump. Working at a real estate agency in Toronto in the 2000s, Zaikin brokered sales in one of the city’s new high-rises: the Trump International Hotel & Tower. Perhaps coincidentally, Zaikin was also close with a Russian woman who was the exclusive agent for one of Trump’s Florida developments and who was branded “Trump’s Russian hand” by a glossy Russian magazine.

Zaikin has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Alptekin and Zaikin have denied knowing each other and say Zaikin had nothing to do with Flynn’s lobbying deal.

As this reporter previously reported in Politico, three people with direct knowledge said Alptekin and Zaikin collaborated on Turkish lobbying, jointly steering the work.

Zaikin referred questions to his lawyer, who declined to comment. Flynn’s lawyer didn’t answer requests for comment. The White House referred questions to Trump’s outside lawyer, whose spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Zaikin says he was born in 1967 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. In an earlier email to Politico, he wrote that his family long faced anti-Semitic persecution in their homeland and that they fled the collapsing USSR for Canada in 1990.

“Mr. Zaikin reserves nothing but contempt for the Soviet government, and whatever vestiges of it may still exist,” his lawyer, Tara Plochocki of the firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss, wrote to Politico.

But Zaikin gave a different account to Geoffrey P. Cowley, a British engineer who was his business partner from 2010 until they split in 2016. Cowley said he never heard Zaikin claim his family was persecuted, nor had he heard Zaikin criticize the former Soviet Union.

“That might be the official line,” Cowley said. . .

Continue reading.

There’s a lot more and already the plot has the consistency pudding.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 1:28 pm

Chicken Hearts Springtime Surprise

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Interesting: 1.04 lbs at Whole Foods is 14.07 ounces at home (on my kitchen digital scale). Amazing that my scale could be off that much.

Here’s the recipe as I made it today. I make various versions of this, depending on the allium available and my mood, and today I used a spring shallot and a spring onion. Here’s a spring shallot:

But you can use any allium: onion, scallions, spring onion, green garlic, shallots, spring shallots, whatever.

First, make Mark Bittman’s “preserved” lemon: cut the ends off a lemon and discard them, then slice the lemon into slabs, deseed, and dice the slabs. Add 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1.5 teaspoons sugar, stir, and let sit. Bittman says 20 minutes.

Also, mince 6-8 cloves of garlic so it, too, can rest before cooking. 15 minutes here.

With those resting, I do all the chopping for the recipe:

2 pieces thick pepper bacon, cut into chunks—these I put into the cold skillet.
1 splash olive oil: not so much fat was rendered from the bacon, so I added this
1 large spring shallot (a double, as shallots tend to be—could use 2 relatively small spring onions)
1/2 large yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 jalapeño, cap removed, chopped small, seeds and all
4 large King oyster mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb chicken hearts (a little less today, apparently)
1/2-3/4 lb asparagus,, but into 1″ pieces; discard tough ends (mine were pre-trimmed)
10-12 cherry tomatoes, sliced
dash of Red Boat fish sauce
salt, pepper

Brown the bacon. As it nears brownness, add the shallots (or other allium), and sauté about a minute. Then add garlic, peppers, mushrooms, and hearts and stir as you sauté for, say, 6-8 minutes.

Add the “preserved” lemon, the cherry tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cook for another 8-10 minutes. Heat should be medium high. You want the tomatoes cooked, so go by that.

Very tasty. I would have added a dash of Red Boat fish sauce had it caught my eye.


Written by LeisureGuy

27 June 2017 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Food, Low carb, Recipes

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