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Sunday, February 12, 2023

Dysmis Information

Throughout human history, breakthroughs and social advancements have led to great upheaval. We seem to be in such a moment in history now For millennia, humans communicated primarily via word-of-mouth. News from other parts of the world were virtually non-existent. A common language didn't even exist if travelers were able to physically show up. Then came writing, then the printing press, radio, TV and finally the internet.

Up until the internet, all forms of disseminating information had one thing in common -- a relatively small group of people got to decide what information was shared, how it was shared, and to whom. If we trusted those sources, everything felt right with the system. If we didn't, there were few choices to spread our concerns about the veracity of the information being shared.

The internet changed all that. Now, we all have a voice. If that wasn't enough, we've added artificial intelligence to the mix. We can only imagine the secrets that have been kept from the masses over the course of human history because it was so easy to keep them. Now, it is almost impossible to keep secrets. Once more than a few people know a secret, it gets much easier to spread it because the source of the "leak" will be hard to ascertain.

Secret-keepers need new tools to combat leaks. Mis & dys information are those tools. Hidden among all the completely made up stories about would-be events and activities are actual secrets that have been leaked out. Of course, just as anyone can make a claim about "the true story," others can claim its falsehood. Good luck sorting out the mess. The whole idea here is that you can't.

Case in point: there is a pervasive claim that the U.S. has bioweapons labs in the Ukraine. In an attempt to search for "the truth," here's what I was able to uncover.

  1. China and Russia both claim they have evidence of the U.S. facilities and are seeking an investigation
  2. I was unable to find any evidence that U.S. officials would welcome such an investigation (which you'd think they'd want if the allegations were false)
  3. U.S. based scientists agree that there are U.S. funded bio-research facilities in the Ukraine (but not for weapons research)
  4. U.S. officials categorically deny the existence of said labs
  5. Some speculate that Russian accusations about bioweapons is a pretense to prepare their own bioweapon attack (because bioweapons are illegal by global treaty, so someone has to break the treaty first)
  6. The Russians have repeatedly used bioweapons or sanctioned their use (such as in Syria), whereas there is no record of such usage by the U.S.
These "facts" leave only speculation about the two possibilities: 1) the U.S. does have secret bioweapons labs in the Ukraine and is covering it up by denial, or 2) the Russians have manufactured this story for their own purposes. To date, I was unable to find any actual hard evidence of a U.S. lab. If such facilities did exist, secrecy and security would be at a maximum, so hard evidence would be unlikely.

A small number of people know the real truth. Too bad we have no way to distinguish the liars from the truthers. We will each choose to believe what we want. Our leaders use this ambiguity to divide us. They tell us which of these stories is true, but of course only one of them can be true and that means the others are lying. Maybe they know it or maybe they don't. It's all a big mess.

If we're all going to get along, we need to stop being manipulated by the people we trust. We must learn to live with the ambiguity of not really knowing and demand hard evidence before we declare something factual. The absence of evidence isn't enough. Sadly, it's usually near impossible to disprove a negative. So, if there are no U.S. bioweapons labs in the Ukraine, nobody will ever find evidence that there is, but just because we don't have evidence doesn't prove that they don't exist. It's a conundrum. Those usually suck and this time is no exception.

My advice to you, dear reader, is be skeptical and open-minded. When somebody tells you something that you "don't believe," take a beat to recognize that you're debating over beliefs -- not facts. Acknowledge possibilities and spread skepticism. Only through this widespread practice can "we, the people" start demanding real hard evidence for claims, because as long as leaders can manipulate us with conjecture, they own us.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Beaming Solar Power From Space: A Really Bad Idea!


The European Space Agency is seriously considering options for beaming power from orbit to a location, presumably in Europe somewhere. Now, my first thought was that maybe you could use lasers, but of course those beams won't penetrate clouds. Furthermore, I can only imagine the slice that would put through the area under it should it ever get knocked out of position.

What are they planning, you ask? Microwaves! Yes that's right people! The very same waves you use in your kitchen to cook your food. Whereas a laser beam might need to be a few inches wide, a microwave beam...wait for it...this is gonna be good...would need to be about a kilometer wide!

We use microwave towers on Earth already for communications. Those relatively narrow beams kill 6.8 million birds per year. Those don't even have to be pointed down! How far away from everything can you even get in Europe? If there were no people anywhere around, what are the odds that there's lots of non-human life? Do we give a shit about non-human life? I mean is 6.8 million birds per year too high a price for good communications?

The great irony here is that they are doing this to save the planet! If I were a bird, I'd be thinking...wat! What aspect of the planet are we saving here and for whom? Do we know what a kilometer wide microwave beam will do to the atmosphere, let alone anything that happens between the beam site and the ground station?

Assuming that they ever even try this, I'm sure history will put it right along side firing people out of a canon into a net as a commuter transport system - possibly effective, but maybe a tad dangerous.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Letter from a Former Independent Voter

 Dear Republican Party,

Credit: Utah Public Radio
I have always prided myself for keeping an open mind about different approaches to addressing the challenges we face in our country, state, and local area. Over the years, I have chosen to vote for both Republican and Democrat candidates and have come down on both the conservative and progressive side of issues.

The last Republican presidential candidate I voted for was George H. W. Bush. I would have voted for John McCain too if it weren't for his running mate. These people believed in a philosophy of how to balance government interference and pursuit of freedom that looked to address the same issues as Democrats, but in a different way. They actually had a defined philosophy of governance.

Since then, it seems like the Republican party just left the table. The whole party has declared war on our two party system and seems unwilling to participate. A case in point is proposition 3 on the 2022 mid-term ballot in Michigan. It is a bill obviously written by Democrats. There's no compromise in it and some of its provisions are thereby extremely left-leaning. Rather than work with Democrats to craft a more palatable bill for conservative voters, the Republican party clearly chose to allow the bill to be written exclusively by Democrats, so they could condemn it as extreme.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. Compromise is at the core of finding solutions that attempt to address the concerns of citizens with different philosophies about how government should work. When politicians engage in "winner take all" strategies designed to create "enemies" rather than philosophical differences, everyone loses.

Rather than attempt to appeal to all citizens that their approach is better, you seem to have decided to activate single issue voters. You know that there are a certain number of pro-life/anti-abortion voters out there that will forsake their economic well-being to see abortion made illegal. You know that there are a certain number of gun owners that will forsake all else to avoid reduction in the right to bear arms. You know that there are a certain number of people who think that white people are the rightful dominant class in this country and that it should remain that way. This group wants to keep immigrants out and maintain the status quo for people of color, so they can continue to enjoy the privileges once bestowed on whites in this country. They will forsake all else to ensure this. And finally, there are the wealthiest among us. You have protected this group above all else. Your party works to keep taxes on the wealthy low and minimize regulation to ensure that corporations can exploit capitalism to the maximum possible -- unabated by the negative effects on society. This has been the real mission of the Republican party for a long time and possibly the only appropriate mission left standing.

Between these disparate groups of people, your party has discovered you can reliably garner about 40% of the national population. With some clever districting, that's good enough to keep things pretty even between the parties.

The thing is, these aren't really the pressing issues of our time. You know this, but you just stopped caring. Your party offers no policies to address climate change, working class support, deficit spending, healthcare bankruptcies, infrastructure decay, and reversing the slide of the once premier US education system into mediocrity. You just wait for the Democrats to offer solutions to these things and just shoot them down with no alternative plans of your own. What happened? Your party used to think about these things and offer alternatives.

I'd really like to have that party back. I'd like to see Republican leaders who think about conservative ways to solve all the issues we face. Rather than carving out voting blocks and using anger to activate them and keep them on your side, why not actually start doing something that will improve their lives? 

Until you do, I'm out!

-- Currently a Straight Democratic Ticket Voter

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Who Made You Hate?


Almost everyone I talk with these days hates some group of people. My Trump supporter friends hate Democrats. My progressive friends hate Trump supporters. My anti-vax friends hate the CDC, WHO, and the FDA. My friends who don't trust anyone in government hate Bill Gates and the drug companies.

It seems that everyone has someone or some group to hate. Is hate a natural response to people and ideas we disagree with? I don't think so. In the six decades or so that I've been on the planet, I have seen people vehemently disagree and actually still like each other. They were able to compartmentalize their differences and recognize that good people aren't necessarily the same as them.

I sat next to an older woman on a plane once and having struck up a conversation with me, she determined that this was an opportunity to share her evangelical message with me. Her hope was to convert me to her brand of Christianity during the flight. When that didn't happen, she offered to pray for me. How can you argue with that? Even if you don't think it will make any difference, her response to our disagreement was a hope to save me -- not to see me dead.

I've been reading a book entitled Cultish. While I don't think it is a great book, the ideas in it have caused me to realize that lots of groups have coopted the tactics of cults to manipulate us into isolation. They have essentially cut us from the herd, so that we can become "us." As you know, for every "us" there must be a "them." Or does it? Must we have "them?" I heard someone say recently that there really is no "them." It is a political construct. "Them" is used to divide us and create stark lines of right and wrong.

We would do well to show some empathy to the people we disagree with. In all likelihood, there is some truth in the ideas about which you disagree. 

A good example of an issue we face in the US can be found in Israel. Maybe you have asked yourself why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so intractable. It seems to me that the answer to this question is simple. The Israelis want a democracy. However, they also want a Jewish state. The problem with this is that there are so many Palestinians living in Israel, that if they made the West Bank and Gaza Strip part of the country, Jews may not be a majority anymore and Israel wouldn't be a Jewish country.

The alternative would be to give up the Gaza Strip and West Bank to the Palestinians so they could for their own country. However, if they did that Israel would have an enemy combatant right on their border with all the protections that Statehood provides. Other Arab nations might decide to trade with and financially support an independent Palestine. This could make retaliation for military strikes more difficult for a separated Israel. So, there's no incentive for Israel to support the separation.

The parallels between this situation and how some white people feel about black people in the United States are hard to ignore. When they say "make America great again," the "again" refers to a past in which white people didn't have to compete with non-white people for the full privileges of citizenship. Most people reading this won't understand this, but if you are a working class white person, who is struggling to make ends meet, you can't help but think that life would be a lot better for you if you didn't have to compete with so many immigrants and people of color.

These feelings are part of a cultural transition that will take many generations to complete. We are not through it yet. You can respond to people that feel this way with hate, or you can recognize that these feelings are real and despite the good intentions around building a nation where true equality exists, the road to it is messy and tolerance and empathy will get us down it faster than hate.

Our leaders aren't interested in tolerance and empathy. They win by keeping us divided. If all people stand together in seeking a reasonable path forward, our so called leaders would need to work together to enable real solutions to the many challenges our nation faces as this would be the basis for judging their performance. That's hard! Hate is easy. The language of division is simple to learn and easy to use to keep people from expecting anything other than the other side loses.

When us citizens are divided in a win-lose situation -- everyone loses except the people manipulating us to hate. It's time we come together to take back our government and demand less hate and more collaboration.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Can AI Really Be Biased?

AI machine learning models use training data, usually from the internet, to "teach" the algorithm. This "learning" is essentially a statistical method that finds clusters of similar patterns and then "assumes" that the pattern represents the "correct" answer. Seems pretty obvious, right?

So, let's say you give a machine learning algorithm a million photos of people, each labeled with their current title (doctor, prisoner, Uber driver, etc.). The algorithm groups all these photos by title and studies the characteristics of the group to come up with a likely pattern for that role.

Now, let's say a group called OpenAI builds such an AI system that allows you to type in a title in words and it renders a picture of its own design that represents a person in that role. You can even type things like "doctor shaking hands with a prisoner" and it will render the image. Pretty cool, huh!

I suspect that it wouldn't surprise you to learn that the doctor is NEVER black and the prisoner is NEVER white. Why would it be? The training data told the AI that this situation is highly unlikely. Imagine the disappointment of the authors of the DALL-E 2 system (yes, this system exists!) when they discover the bias in their system.

But wait! Is their system biased? They thought so. In fact, they released it without allowing it to render faces at all until they could "fix" it. What does "fix it" even mean? They want to remove the bias from their system. Sadly, the bias isn't in their system, dear Watson. It's in the data! 

Now, they could select data for how they WANT the world to be. Or, we could all take a lesson from the unbiased algorithm that our world is what needs fixing. Maybe it's time to stop hiding the bias and expose it; however uncomfortable it may be.

Making people uncomfortable is...well...uncomfortable. What do we do when we're uncomfortable? If you're like me, you seek to move to a more comfortable state as quickly as possible. Fixing an algorithm is a lot easier than fixing social injustice.  Quicker too! So, it's natural to use that approach. 

To the developers of DALL-E 2, I say, "turn on the faces!" Let's live with our discomfort until we can fix it the "right way." It will take longer and a lot more work, but papering over it will not help us in the long run.

The creators of said system might argue that by showing the world as we want it to be, we will be subtly indoctrinating people to change their assumptions. I'm sure there is some validity to this argument for fixing the algorithm. I contend that those who want to see the world the way the repaired AI represents it will relax in the knowledge that all is right and those who don't like what they see will be motivated to push their agenda all the harder. Thus, let's motivate the right people to be pushing their agenda. Don't fix the algorithm!

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Should DEI Be For Everybody?


I live close enough to Oxford Michigan to be indirectly impacted by the acts of young Mr. Crumbley. Now, the whole Crumbley family is in it together. If you've been watching this story unfold, you know that "someone" helped the parents hide (by the time you read this, the authorities may have rounded them up, too).

You may be wondering who would want to help them? If you pause to think about it, you probably already know. There are a considerable number of Americans who have become very disenfranchised from official society. Their de facto leader is Donald Trump. They are "his people" and he knows it.

Here's the thing: "we" had better decide soon whether we want to work to bring these people into the tent, or continue the current escalation of what is evolving into a civil war. Shootings like Oxford aren't going to go away. It's time to wake the fuck up and see what's happening. Put your hindsight glasses on and ask yourself, "if things turn ugly, what would I have been willing to do to prevent it?"

At no time in modern history has a war been won outright in battle. Ultimately, both sides have had enough and dialog puts an end to it. So, how about we skip that battle bit? What kind of dialog are we willing to have with our free spirited, nationalistic, and gun toting, fellow Americans? Are we willing to listen? I mean REALLY listen with your curiosity hat on, not your "I'm going to prove you wrong" hat?

One thing I have observed is that most often, there is some truth in any position. For example, here's some truth (at least as I know it). The Second Amendment was put in place because the colonists had just used their personal armory to overthrow their sovereign leadership. They recognized that when the citizens become so disenfranchised from their government, they must have the means to take back control.

So, we can sit here and call all these people, who are showing up in public with automatic weapons, criminals and keep trying to lock them up. Or, we can figure out how to reach out now and avert any further escalation. de Klerk and Mandela had it right: truth and reconciliation is the best path forward. In your heart, you know this.

So, I ask you to start by looking into your own heart and see your hatred for what it is. Can you let go of it? If not, don't be surprised when the people you hate, hate you back! We're all capable of love. We just need more of it.

Okay, so why that title? Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can't be selective. If one group co-opts the definition of these words to exclude a group summarily, they have missed the point. DEI is hard. Really hard! If you want to actually practice it, then EVERYONE gets a seat at the table. If there is real hatred between people for one reason or another, we must start with tolerance and empathy on the road to acceptance. I guess it's the struggle. Hopefully, we shall overcome one day.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Life Is Too Good

 People are always complaining about how screwed up the world is. Politics! Global warming! Plastic in the oceans! Too many people! To be certain, there is some really serious suffering going on in the world right now. I mean, as you sit and read this on your fancy electronic device, there are some peeps out there that are fucking dying!

Here's the thing: you don't know those people. You probably don't even speak their language in a lot of cases. They're probably not even on your continent. So, maybe you cut a monthly check for them. Then, you go about your daily life, totally unaffected.

This is the problem. Life is too good for you. You, who have the means to do something about the problems in this world, don't really feel it. That's a problem because humans, and I'm assuming that you are one of these, are great problem-solvers and horrible problem-avoiders. Like right now if your TV remote broke, you'd be all over that! If the brakes were a little soft in your car, you'd be on the phone to your favorite mechanic within the hour.

Let's say the fish are dying in the river near your house. Would you be doing anything about it? It's near your house, but do you care? Probably not unless you fish in that river. Then, you'd be on the phone to the DNR asking what they plan to do about it within the hour. What if a river in India is polluted and dead? Send a check! Right? And, that's if you're thoughtful. You might just say "fuck em if they didn't take care of their river!"

So, what is it going to take for some of the big problems that the "world" faces to become YOUR problems? California has always had a fire season, but now it's every year and the fires get larger and more complex (meaning multiple fires are so close together that they merge). Here's some light reading about how it is. The good news is, if you live three or four states away, you hardly even need to worry about all the smoke. So, that aspect of climate change isn't YOUR problem unless you live out west.

Whatever problems exist out there, as long as YOUR life is good, you probably won't be changing your plans much. Here's THE THING: some problems get so big, that they can't be fixed by the time YOU are affected. So, while you're watching OTHER people's problems get worse, their problems are gradually becoming YOUR problems...and by the time they do, THE problems will be a lot worse than they are now. Maybe we will be able to fix them before mass chaos sets in. Or not.