Skip to content

Algorithmic skepticism

October 21, 2020

Assuming your cellphone can identify you in a way that isn’t easily hacked, and that there is reliable communication from it to the servers that tabulate votes, why shouldn’t it provide your voting platform? Well, there are issues. Not the least of which is that there any number of ways that your cellphone might have been infected with malware designed to alter your vote.

What is interesting is that the same set of issues are relevant to banking applications. The large differences are 1) that the harm from infiltration is personal rather than social, and 2) that your bank might provide some comfort that if you follow their recommended protocol, they will correct errors or fraud. That said, I don’t trust banking apps.

Can blockchain fix all that? Not really. But surely it is good for something?

Mind the cold water

October 20, 2020

Unsurprisingly, hibernation is not good for the brain:

Brain connections are lost when hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats bed down for their winter sleep. About 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for winter. But when they awake in the spring, those connections are miraculously reformed.

A protein that seems to enable that regrowth, RBM3, also is elevated in mice that are made hypothermic. It isn’t detectable in people. Except, in those who swim in icy water. Be cautious, though, before you plunge into cold water. Not only might it kill you, but none of the research described in that article shows it actually will help you. This research still is at the level of discovering interesting biology, at the expense of helpless and disposable lab mice. There is a reason the swimmer in the photo said, “I hate swimming in ice cold water.” Kudos to the Tai Chi group, for serving as controls.

Bullshit and the law

October 19, 2020

Legal proceedings have a way of exposing bullshit.

Trump went on talk radio and said of the Mueller investigation, “I’ve fully declassified everything. Everything’s been declassified. They have so much information.” Journalists, taking that seriously, went to court to get the Justice Department to release the redacted material. The Justice Department and White House lawyers responded that there was no such order. What Trump had said on talk radio was just his typical bullshit, on a talk radio show well-known for dealing in bullshit. It shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But. He is the president. When it comes to something under presidential prerogative, doesn’t his saying it make it so? This put the court in the unusual position of ordering White House counsel to go back to the president, to determine whether a) he was just bullshitting, or b) he meant to declassify that material by so saying? Do any Trumpistas want to guess what the answer will be?

A prosecutor leaving the Justice Department describes Barr’s corruptions there. It will be interesting to see what comes to light from future inspector general reports of some of that.

Update: Trump now says his public statement was bullshit, and the court should ignore it.

“Do your research!”

October 15, 2020

QAnon is one of those cults whose beliefs are so deranged (youtube), that like Scientology and those who believe in lizard people, the only serious questions raised are about the psychology and sociology of it. One of its component conspiracy theories is that Osama bin Laden wasn’t killed, and that the Obama administration staged that, including the deaths of American soldiers and killing of a body double. Yesterday, disappointed that his own Department of Justice failed to find anything to the fake unmasking scandal he once hyped, Trump touted that QAnon conspiracy theory.

It should go without saying that this kind of lie is far beyond normal behavior, far outside what we would expect from a politician on national stage or even just someone not crazed. Alas, we live in an era where that has to be said, because Trump supporters want so hard to pretend that it is mere politics that divides us. We left that behind when Trump took over their party.

Update: Savannah Guthrie went after Trump for this. Anyone who thinks his response (youtube) is anything other than a bullshitter’s evasion is themselves lost.

2020 isn’t all bad

October 14, 2020

I suspect it will be the case in future years that the world looks back at 2020 with some measure of relief. But as with all years, there also will be signal good things that happened. Many of which went not much noticed at the time. In a small patch of Arizona, the general public now can call autonomous Waymo taxis, that will take them on rides to any destination within that small area, on public roads, now with no safety driver present. Some will harp that the vehicles still aren’t completely autonomous, because:

Waymo says the cars still have remote overseers. These Waymo staffers never steer the vehicles directly, but they do send high-level instructions to help vehicles get out of tricky situations. For example, a Waymo spokeswoman told me, “if a Waymo vehicle detects that a road ahead may be closed due to construction, it can pull over and request a second set of eyes from our fleet response specialists.” The fleet response specialist can then confirm that the road is closed and instruct the vehicle to take another route.

As those who have had a teenage driver in their family will aver, it is not uncommon for human drivers to call for backup! It will be interesting  when the automation reaches the point that a taxi that experiences a drive-train failure automatically pulls over, detects that it is inoperable, verifies by voice that the occupants are unharmed, informs them that another taxi will arrive to deliver them to their destination, giving them an updated ETA, and arranges for its own tow service. 

If someone in 2004 were to guess who would own the cellular platform today, they might have said Nokia or Microsoft. There is no guarantee that Waymo will dominate driving automation in 2040. Still, I am long Alphabet. 


October 13, 2020

Mike Godwin, a contemporary of mine from the University of Texas, explains why Tyler County’s pornography prosecution of Netflix will fail. The cause of the prosecution is Cuties, a Netflix movie portraying a Senegalese-French family living in a poor suburb of today’s Paris. Purely from religious commitment, the mother supports her husband’s plan to bring home a second wife. Their tween daughter Amy, the protagonist, pursues popularity with schoolmates, partly as an escape from her home life.

The movie could be seen as an argument for French President Macron’s recently proposed law requiring all children to attend secular schools, to prevent the rise of “parallel society” in France. Critics — of Macron, not the movie — claim that he is trying to pull the teeth of Islamophobic challengers from the right.

Americans are taught to hail our 1st amendment as guarantor of free speech. It’s interesting, though, that the cases routinely testing it so frequently involve books and films that were created and published first in Europe. Photo shows Joie de Vivre, in Trocadero gardens.

Bad boy, bad boy…

October 12, 2020

Every election, Republicans regularly turn up their outreach to blacks, consisting of three contradictory efforts: telling blacks the GOP is best for them, claiming discrimination in the US has disappeared, and working to suppress the black vote. Jacob Wohl, who aspires to be his generation’s Roger Stone, has been arraigned in Michigan for voter suppression. I wonder if he has any cute political tattoos on his back?

From my youth, I remember some Catholic girls had a penchant for chapels. I would expect familiarity to make that less a fetish for priests.  But you never know in Louisiana.

Evening sail

October 8, 2020

The current epidemic has led me to largely refrain from my usual sailing activities, despite the fact that they are mostly outside. I have made an exception for a friend who tried dinghy sailing as the year was starting, and then decided to purchase a larger boat for his family. We tried out his good old boat in the Wednesday night race. Just a practice run. His first sailboat race ever, my first race in too many months. My, it felt good! The sun was setting during the downhill leg, so I grabbed my phone from below for a sunset shot. It was dark when we came back through the breakwater gap, the waning moon not yet up to provide any light.

The murkiness of social change

October 7, 2020

Virtually any history of the gay liberation movement in the US spotlights the Stonewall riots as a key event that changed broad perception of those issues. Yet no one realized that at the time, or even for a while after. Their key role was apparent only in retrospect. That is not unusual. Current events that go almost unnoticed at the moment can seem hugely important in the decades following, while those that seem hugely important in the moment may, in a few years, seem not to matter much. That is not because we are blind to what is going on in our own culture, but because we are bad at predicting how culture changes. We read impact into current events, and that embeds some foretelling of how we think the future unrolls. It usually unrolls differently.

The boat market is hot?

October 6, 2020

According to the NYT, the boat market now is hot:

Boats haven’t quite achieved sold-out pandemic panic-buy status, like toilet paper, bicycles and baby chickens, but they’re in increasingly short supply. With families looking for a way to vacation in as close to a bubble as possible, they’re plowing money they might have spent on trips and summer camps into all manner of boats.

Interestingly, my friend who bought the good old boat shown right also has acquired backyard chickens. I approve both! In his case, I don’t know that either are much related to the current epidemic. We live in a neighborhood where there is a boat for just about every house, and where there have been backyard chickens, ducks, and rabbits long before this virus showed.