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The future is inching closer

February 28, 2023


Waymo is rolling out its driverless taxis in Los Angeles. As with other cities, that is starting with a limited test program.

It now can charge for driverless rides in San Francisco. The deployment of driverless taxis there has brought some headaches, when they get so befuddled their software doesn’t know where to go next. I’ve had that experience a couple of times. Both when driving and developing software.

Photo allegedly shows The Bombay, London, 1880.


Officeholders pushing the Big Lie

February 27, 2023

On the heels of the Dominion motion revealing the intentional lies of Fox News, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes releases reports summarizing investigations into the 2020 election in that state, undertaken by that office under her predecessor:

Despite Arizona Attorney General Office (AAGO) agents and support staff spending over 10,000 hours investigating voting irregularities and alleged instances of illegal voting by high-profile election deniers, a September 2022 summary prepared by AAGO’s Special Investigations Section stated: “In each instance and in each matter, the aforementioned parties did not provide any evidence to support their allegations. The information that was provided was speculative in many instances and when investigated by our agents and support staff, was found to be inaccurate.”

Despite the fact that former AG Mark Brnovich’s own investigors were showing the Big Lie to be bogus, he went out of his way to give the public appearance that something terribly wrong had happened in Arizona’s election.

That official malfeasance likely isn’t criminal. But, Brnovich is admitted to the bar. He now faces professional risk because of his deceit. Alas, he can expect that to forward his standing in MAGA politics. Despite any professional sanction. Maybe more, if it comes. As Vince McMahon’s biographer explains, MAGA politics is all kayfabe.

Maybe Zuckerberg read my post

February 23, 2023

Meta plans on verifying people’s identity, and marking identified accounts. Once those become popular, it’s easy to imagine how they acquire privileges, and how those account differences are used to marginalize bots and scammers. I wrote about that last year.

The difference between Musk’s thrashing and what Meta is rolling out is this:

In order to qualify, users must be at least 18 years old, meet minimum account activity requirements and submit a government ID that matches their profile name and photo.

The importance of a verified account comes not just from the fact that it costs money — thought that could eliminate swarms of bots — but also from the fact that the platform takes some actual steps to verify identity. In my opinion, the right way to do it is to mail a token to upgrade the account to the postal address on the government ID.

Google is missing the ball here. They should provide identity service attached to their accounts. Quite a few web services already piggy back on their single sign on. My prediction is that the first large mover  in this area will acquire significant value. And Meta seems to be moving quickest out of the gate.

The south and credit scores

February 21, 2023

CreditScoreByCountyWhen I started reading this exploration of why the south has low credit scores, I’ll admit my first thought was that the rating agencies study country-western lyrics as a check whether they have omitted any obvious risk factors. It turns out that a likely factor is more prosaic.

Marjorie Taylor Greene is proposing a national divorce. If ever that happens, I recommend moving to the side with the better credit rating.

Fox News dissected

February 20, 2023

Last week, Dominion Voting Systems filed a brief requesting summary judgment in its defamation suit against Fox News. The filing is getting significant news attention for good reason. The brief is built on prior depositions of Fox personalities and management, showing a company that cynically and knowingly feeds lies to engage and enrage its audience:

“Here,” Dominion’s legal team wrote in its filings, “every person acted with actual malice.” It offered one example after another that key Fox figures knew what the network was putting on the air was false. On Nov. 5, 2020, just days after the election, Bret Baier, the network’s chief political anchor texted a friend: “[T]here is NO evidence of fraud. None. Allegations – stories. Twitter. Bulls—.” The following week, a producer for Ingraham sent a note conveying similar disgust. “This dominion s— is going to give me a f—ing aneurysm.”

Fox pushed those stories for ratings, and from the fear that their viewers would move to outlets that were more openly deranged:

The brief shows that Fox News stars and executives were afraid of losing their audience, which started to defect to the conservative cable news alternatives Newsmax and OAN after Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden. And they seemed concerned with the impact that would have on the network’s profitability.

Are those other outlets equally cynical in how they attract their viewers? OAN rolled over and pissed itself like a scared puppy, when it was sued by Ruby Freeman. Which suggests at least some of its executive team recognizes the nature of its own product.

Importantly, this is not a case that raises 1st amendment issues. US law sets a high bar for a plaintiff pursuing a defamation suit. Dominion does not push the boundaries of established law. It asserts (full brief, pdf) simply that the facts carry it well over that bar:

This case is the rare defamation case with extensive direct evidence of actual malice. The very fact that Fox understood it had to thread the needle of appeasing viewers on the one hand, and not spreading election fraud conspiracy theories on the other, demonstrates that Fox knew these claims about Dominion were false. Fox’s many, many other documents and testimony all confirm the same.

There is a sense in which none of this is surprising. Every American with any sense knows that Fox  often strays far from the facts. A common response from its supporters is that other news outlets do likewise, each outlet reflecting different biases.

What Dominion shows is something worse. Fox’s major personalities were not just reporting sincerely, from their subjective outlooks on the world. Rather, they were intentionally and repeatedly pushing claims they knew to be false, to satiate their audience’s desire. Hannity, Carlson, Dobbs, Ingraham, Bartiromo don’t fall into error merely because they see the facts available from their own perspectives. As do we all. Rather, they consciously deceive. Knowing the facts, having the evidence in front of them, discussing among themselves how far reality is from what they present, they choose to supply the false conspiracy theories their audience craves:

Not a single Fox witness testified that they believe any of the allegations about Dominion are true. Indeed, Fox witness after Fox witness declined to assert the allegations’ truth or actually stated they do not believe them, and Fox witnesses repeatedly testified that they have not seen credible evidence to support them.

They are grifters. Their management is in on the grift, and the company’s business model is built around it. Which puts Fox in a different and more contemptible category than most major media outlets. Though most everyone paying attention suspected that to some degree, it still is a bit eye-opening, to see the scope of it, in their own testimony and internal communications.

Whether or not Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic eventually prevail in their lawsuits, their efforts serve to expose the workings of businesses like Fox that cater to conspiratorial political views. From a tactical viewpoint, I suspect this filing increases the likelihood of a negotiated and closed settlement. The lawyers for Fox are having their noses rubbed hard in the prickly facts. Given what the depositions already expose, Dominion no longer has as much need for a public verdict or admission. The filing creates more incentive and more room for negotiation.

The false accusations against Dominion make a small part of the Big Lie. The depositions show Fox personalities were equally duplicitous in pushing other parts. Trump has launched his own string of related lawsuits. Those are getting dismissed, getting sanctioned, and getting his lawyers in trouble. Someone who leans in the MAGA direction might look at its relative poor showing before the bench, and wonder if the courts are biased against it? The answer is: yes! Yes they are! Courts have standards of evidence. They require factual claims to have known provenance and citation. They deploy legal mechanisms to uncover those. They insist that arguments are built on such facts, draw reasonable inferences from them, and reach legally relevant conclusions. They penalize those who testify or plea in bad faith. Those epistemic standards and procedures form a large bias against cultic bullshit. Instead of treating such bias as persecution, someone favoring MAGA should view its weakness in the legal arena as a wake-up call. Get smarter.

In a strange land

February 16, 2023

Many of the Russians who are are fleeing Putin’s war are moving to Armenia:

Given the shared religion and use of language, Russians typically do not face animosity or social stigma in Armenia. Obtaining residency permits is also straightforward, and living costs are lower than in the European Union. Yerevan has attracted thousands of IT workers, young creatives and working-class people, including families with children, from across Russia. They have established new schools, bars, cafes and robust support networks.

Hamals_on_the_Karakoy_BridgeWhile some no doubt think of that move as temporary, so is life. In short months, they will establish routines, make social ties, and their children will start learning the culture where they now reside.

It is easier for tech workers to make such moves than many others. They carry skills they can use abroad, can pursue work that is largely or mostly remote, and more likely have the capital and travel credentials to aid the transition. A Chukotka fisherman and friend, who crossed some of the Bering sea in a small open boat, made the more daring trip. In part, because they now face the US asylum process:

Like most of the Russians who have begun arriving at America’s doors, they have received no firm assurances that they can stay. Asylum petitions can take a year or more to process. Winning them means being able to prove the threat they faced in Russia — something their lawyers in the United States feel confident enough about. In the meantime, they have tried to sort out what a new life in the United States might mean. They signed up for English classes, and Sergei put out feelers on a new business venture.

The Biden administration continues to reunite children taken from parents who sought asylum across the southern border.

Gig professors

February 15, 2023

I agree with Jill Filipovic, that universities cannot be safe spaces. Students who are offended by art, repulsed by philosophy, or squeamish about anatomy can avoid the courses that rile them. And by doing so, miss out on the unique opportunity a good university provides.

Regarding the politics of academia, David Parry is more on point:

López Prater was an adjunct, a gig worker with no guarantee of future employment. This is a massive problem in academia, of course, where there has been a generational shift from stable, full-time employment to contract work.

friedrich-nietzsche-1906Turning the faculty into gig workers has been part of shifting the institutional power of the university into the hands of administration and academic marketing. Alas, the faculty are part to blame. Tenured professors had too little concern for those behind them. They failed to put effort into campus politics and accreditation that might have altered that course.

Trolls and nuts

February 14, 2023

Researchers from the University of Regina and MIT provide some evidence that what leads people into conspiracy theories is inappropriate overconfidence, including overestimation of how much others agree with them. (Cite, preprint.) Whenever I feel overconfident, I review my recent investment mistakes.

Online trolls are not nice people. Sometimes, they aren’t even real people. That article reiterates something I long have thought:

The internet offers (at least) one important tool that makes life easier for bullies: anonymity. As both research and common sense attest, allowing users to hide their identity abets abuse. A colleague of mine, a fellow professor who holds many views outside academia’s political orthodoxy, has a particularly strong approach to dealing with trolls: Once a year, he takes a few hours to review his followers and block anyone who doesn’t use their real name.

Hazel_Cline_PaintingI once had hopes that Musk’s experiments with Twitter might create an environment highlighting real personas, pushing the anonymous to the background. Now, he seems more interested in acting as a concern troll.

“This land is your land”

February 9, 2023

The New York Times looks at how large landowners are sequestering public land, by surrounding it, or mostly so, and at how hunters and others who would wander it are finding their way around:

In 2020, Bradly Cape, a bow hunter from Missouri, drove to Wyoming to hunt with three companions. A meticulous planner, he had spent months poring over maps, perusing message boards and studying Wyoming law. Ultimately he settled on Elk Mountain. Using OnX, Mr. Cape identified a route that began on a county road and climbed up a rattlesnake-infested hillside. Within minutes of hiking, he had found the corner, which the Eshelman ranch had carefully obstructed with two “No Trespassing” signs positioned inches apart to prevent corner-crossing.

GuthrieThose hunters now are being sued by one of the landowners, because their bodies must have been partly in the airspace over private property in making that corner crossing. Those in Norway and other nations that institute a “right to roam,” even over private property, might be stunned that the US legal system gives so much power to landowners. There now are apps that help connect American venturers with land owned by those who don’t mind having a tent pitched on their land.

When the lights go out

February 7, 2023

Tens of thousands of homes in Austin have been without power since the ice storm January 30th. Some may go days more before their power is restored. Austin’s beautiful sea of trees wreaked havoc on the network of cables running through it, when branches burdened with ice came crashing down. Friends in Austin spoke about the frequent booms they heard the couple of days after the storm, as limbs gave way.

Winslow_Homer_Camp_FireHere on the coastal bend, hurricanes are the more frequent threat than ice. Weather events and technical snafus will remain the more frequent cause of power outages. Some recent outages around the nation came from hostile action. A couple in Washington state were the work of would-be burglars wanting cover for their planned crimes. Others remain unsolved. Right-wing terrorists recently were charged for targeting Maryland’s power grid, fortunately being arrested before they acted.

All of which suggests most everyone should have a plan for coping with multi-day power outages. The easiest thing might be to go elsewhere. That works, if you are mobile and have choices where you can boogie in such event.

I imagine many in Austin soon will run out to buy generators. Anyone thinking about doing so should first do three things. 1) Make a power inventory. Put into a spreadsheet every device you want to power during an outage. Next to each, put how many watts it draws. Don’t forget lights and digital equipment such as modems and routers. Sum up those wattages, to get some idea of how much power you will need. Not everything needs to be on at once. But when your refrigerator’s condenser kicks in, that typically is a spike of 700 watts or more. You will find that most everything that heats or cools demands a surprising amount of power. 2) Figure out connections. The simplest thing is to run extension cords from the generator to the devices you want to power. Powering your house’s outlets requires a cut-over switch. Do not use the aptly named suicide cord. 3) Plan fuel. Small generators are inefficient, and suck down the fuel. Even when they’re not powering hardly anything. Though you don’t have to run it around the clock. You can plan a few hours a day to keep your fridge cool and to charge your devices, and turn it off at night.

I have posted before about the risks of most everyone relying on the same, large power grid. Any move away from that will take decades. In the meantime, everyone should give some thought to what they will do when the lights go out. At some point, they will.