Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Research scientist Janelle Shane writes a blog called AI Weirdness, examining how artificial intelligence isn’t always so intelligent. Here’s a post on what happens When algorithms surprise us:

Something as apparently benign as a list-sorting algorithm could also solve problems in rather innocently sinister ways.

Well, it’s not unsorted: For example, there was an algorithm that was supposed to sort a list of numbers. Instead, it learned to delete the list, so that it was no longer technically unsorted.

Solving the Kobayashi Maru test: Another algorithm was supposed to minimize the difference between its own answers and the correct answers. It found where the answers were stored and deleted them, so it would get a perfect score.

How to win at tic-tac-toe: In another beautiful example, in 1997 some programmers built algorithms that could play tic-tac-toe remotely against each other on an infinitely large board. One programmer, rather than designing their algorithm’s strategy, let it evolve its own approach. Surprisingly, the algorithm suddenly began winning all its games. It turned out that the algorithm’s strategy was to place its move very, very far away, so that when its opponent’s computer tried to simulate the new greatly-expanded board, the huge gameboard would cause it to run out of memory and crash, forfeiting the game.

To paraphrase friend of the blog James Grimmelmann, I’m not worried about humanity being killed off by a super intelligent AI, I’m worried about us being killed off by a dumb AI that just has a lot of resources at its disposal.

Published on under Algorithm and Blues

Film Crit Hulk wrote an article for The Verge called “Don’t feed the trolls, and other hideous lies,” and it’s excellent from start to finish. Here are a couple of my favorite bits:

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now so large that they are considered “unmoderatable” communities. We like to pretend this was a pure facet of their size, but it is inescapably a part of their ethos. They are platforms forged in the fires of troll culture, founded and operated by techno-libertarians who didn’t understand why they had to care about any of this. They set out with no intention to moderate at all. Zuckerberg just wanted to rate hot girls, after all. But in 2018, the staggering effects of non-moderation are just starting to hit them, and they have little idea how to address or even intellectually engage with the idea. […]

It all harkens back to Cliff Pervocracy’s analogy of the “missing stair,” where everyone works around the obvious dangers of a situation because they are so used to “dealing with it” by outright ignoring it. If someone speaks up about the danger, they are dismissed. Why complain when you can “just hop over” the missing stair? But on a systemic level, it all adds up to something so much more than a mere missing stair. For many people on the internet — especially women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community — it is an entire broken staircase, full of loose nails, jutting floorboards, and impossible leaps. And there are so many others who don’t notice it because they either get to use the elevator or are already on the top floor.

​That second paragraph is a really nice and succinct explanation of why I’ve always had pretty good success ignoring the trolls: because I’ve had a pretty comprehensive set of privileges going for me. Most of that didn’t really dawn on me until sometime around the worst of Gamergate. Guys like me were making fun of Nerds Angry About Girls In Video Games, but we never seemed to catch a lot of flak, especially not compared to what women saying the same thing caught.

It definitely strikes me as weird that big tech platforms just abandoned the idea of moderating their platform at all. I guess that says more about the kinds of people who can afford to start a company in their dorm room than it says about the users, but at least the users can get some better advice than “don’t feed the trolls.”

Published on under but please feed the hulks

Today, Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s team of attorneys filed an indictment against twelve Russian nationals in a US District Court. This is the Special Counsel’s third indictment with Russian defendants; because Russia does not extradite its nationals to the US, it’s vanishingly unlikely any of these folks will see the inside of a jail cell or even a courtroom.

You’ll remember that in February 2018, the Special Counsel indicted three Russian companies and thirteen Russian nationals for “violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes.” Today’s indictment is different because these defendants weren’t stirring up Twitter drama and committing a little light wire fraud. The July 2018 defendants are all members of Russian military intelligence services with the GRU. The indictment provides their names, ranks, workplace locations, and a couple of fun surprises.

Things that jumped out at me

The Russians spearphished dozens of Clinton campaign staffers starting in March 2016 and continuing through July 2016. (¶21) The story of how John Podesta’s emails were hacked has been fairly widely reported for a while now. But what hasn’t been widely reported, and what’s the first big bombshell in this indictment, is that on the night of July 27, 2016, the Russians attempted for the first time to spearfish email accounts at Clinton’s personal email provider. (¶22) Up until July 27, the Russians were hacking into DCCC and DNC work email accounts. But July 27 was the day of Candidate Trump’s ”Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you find those 30,000 emails” press conference. You should be losing your mind over this.

Katy Tur, NBC’s reporter embedded with the Trump campaign at that press conference, remembered that line today:

Trump and his campaign tried to claim he was kidding. He was not. At that same press conference, minutes later, I asked if it gave him “pause” to ask a foreign government to hack into the emails of any American citizen. He said no and then accused me of trying to “save” Clinton.

Joking or not (hint: he wasn’t), Trump made a request to Russian military intelligence officers, who did their best to fulfill that request hours later. That’s absolutely flabbergasting, and it’s going to get worse before we’re done here.

Published on under Tales of The Mueller, Vol. XI

The New Yorker’s mandatory long read on the new president of New York City Transit: Can Andy Byford Save the Subways? leaves me feeling more hopeful about the future of the subway than I have in a long time. There are too many fascinating tidbits to choose from, but this bit about a press conference at a railyard really works for me on a couple of levels:

Byford caught a 4 train at Bowling Green and then switched to the Coney Island-bound D. It was a swift, on-time ride on relatively clean trains. Byford, who often points out that most subway trips are successful and therefore forgettable, stood in a half-empty car and considered his position. “I need the Governor’s confidence that I will turn things around,” he said. “I sense the crest of my honeymoon period. It’s a gut feeling—a bit like political antennae. If I ignore it, I always regret it.”

[New York State’s Governor Andrew] Cuomo arrived, with his aides, in black S.U.V.s. Trackside, he greeted Byford warmly. The Governor, wearing pale chinos and a dark windbreaker, watched a worker demonstrate the magnetic wand, then squatted and ran the instrument under a rail flange himself. With news cameras recording the action, he came up, triumphantly, with a wandful of metal filings.

Published on under You're a wizard, Andy

Vox’s Matt Yglesias has a new piece on the limits of normcore politics. It’s a warning to liberals that Donald Trump isn’t necessarily a disease that America needs to resist at all costs, but he might be a symptom of an underlying issue. In Yglesias’s view, “normcore” politics incorrectly assumes Trump is some wild aberration that popped up more or less out of nowhere, and we need to get back to “normal.” But he makes a pretty persuasive argument that “normal” wasn’t that great anyway:

The failings of normcore politics start with a somewhat blinkered and romantic view of American history which, as Ezra Klein recently argued in his review of much of the democratic crisis literature, is actually quite ugly. The country was founded on the brutal genocide and dispossession of its native population, relied on chattel slavery as a cornerstone of its economic development, fought a deadly civil war, had the outcome of that war challenged by a largely successful campaign of terrorist violence, and by the 1940s was locking up the Japanese-American population in internment camps.

That second sentence is one of the most succinct appraisals of America’s biggest moral failings since before our inception. It’s not strictly relevant to Yglesias’s argument, I just found that bit an impressive bit of wordsmithing.

Here’s the really persuasive thrust of his argument, though:

Consider, for example, the hardball saga of the “Blue Slip Rule”:

  • Up through 1994 or so there was a tradition in the United States Senate that a judicial nomination could not be brought to the floor unless the nominee received at least one “blue slip” — i.e., favorable recommendation — from a home-state senator.
  • Then in 1995, Republicans won control of the Senate and changed the principle to require two blue slips to advance a judicial nominee, which made it easier to block Bill Clinton’s appointees.
  • In 2001, George W. Bush became president, so they changed the rule back to one blue slip. Jim Jeffords’s defection then gave Democrats control of the Senate, so they moved back to two blue slips to make it easier to block his judges.
  • The two slip rule, critically, remained in effect as long as Democrats controlled the Senate even once Barack Obama took over as president — with Democrats choosing to uphold a senatorial courtesy over partisan advantage.
  • Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2015 and, of course, not only kept the two slip rule in place but basically stopped confirming judges altogether — up to and including holding a Supreme Court seat vacant.
  • When Trump took office, he filled the Supreme Court vacancy with Neil Gorsuch and the GOP swiftly went back to a one blue slip standard, until this May when they broke the seal on confirming judges who had zero blue slips.
  • These shenanigans have profoundly shaped the federal judiciary over the past quarter-century, a period of time during which the courts also handed an election to Bush, dismantled much of federal campaign finance legislation and the Voting Rights Act, and acted to make it virtually impossible to successfully prosecute political corruption cases and a wide array of other white collar crimes to boot.

It’s not just the judiciary.

Democrats aren’t entirely innocent in the ratcheting up of tensions that provide the backdrop for eroding norms. But it’s pretty clear that there’s been a systematic problem with “normal” for decades, and even if Trump were impeached tomorrow, we wouldn’t suddenly exist in a Golden Age of democracy. There might never have been one.

Published on under I'm more into post-synthwave now anyway

Nobody is reading and writing more thoughfully about the Special Counsel’s investigation than freelance national security journalist Marcy Wheeler. Over the weekend, she published an eyebrow-raising note on her continuing obsession with Paul Manafort’s iPods, which the FBI seized in August 2017. Really, her whole note is an exercise in details that make you go “huh, that’s odd,” so let’s just get into it.

First, the Special Counsel’s Office has asked the judge to schedule three weeks for the trial, up from two weeks. The first huh:

Remember that Mueller originally asked for 70 blank subpoenas (35 sets) to call witnesses for the trial. But after the trial got moved, they asked for 150 subpoenas (75 sets). Now we learn they would like 50% more time for the trial. This shouldn’t be a difficult case, given how much paperwork there is. I wonder why the scope of it has expanded. We know, however, that Mueller neither wants nor will be permitted to raise issues related to Trump.

So the scope of the trial keeps increasing, even though Mueller’s folks aren’t going to use the T-word at all. I’m with Wheeler here: tax evasion and money laundering are complicated but not exactly difficult to argue. Maybe the FBI keeps digging up new shell companies and new money laundering, and it’s going to be hard to argue twenty new charges in addition to the twenty-odd from the two Manafort indictments. Or maybe there’s been a lot of developments on the “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States” charge that undergirds the broader investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.

Which is where the second huh comes in:

Because of my continuing obsession with Manafort’s iPod habit, I’m also really interested in this passage in [Buzzfeed reporter Zoe] Tillman’s report: “On the home search issue, Manafort is arguing that the search warrant was too broad and that investigators had failed to explain at the outset why they reason to believe there would be evidence on various electronic media devices that they seized.”

As I’ve laid out, Manafort’s lawyers focused on his iPods from their first suppression motion, claiming, falsely, that the iPods might only be used for music: “For example, the search warrant inventory of electronic devices seized or imaged includes things such as an Apple iPod music device and some Apple iPod Touch music and video devices. No agent could have reasonably believed that he was seizing electronic devices used in the commission of the subject offenses.”

Now, I’m no fancy big-city lawyer, but even I know that iPods are great secure communications devices. They run all the same end-to-end encrypted applications as iPhones, but you can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy one with $300 cash instead of giving AT&T your billing address and driver’s license. You can use Signal, you can use WhatsApp, you could even use the iPod as a voice recorder for meetings, such as the June 9 Trump Tower meeting that Manafort attended.

And at the hearing Tillman’s reporting on (and Wheeler’s writing about), Manafort’s lawyers again argued about the seizure of the contents of those iPods. The judge has already decided the search of Manafort’s house (in which the iPods were seized) was proper. Manafort’s lawyers aren’t arguing with the judge because he might overrule himself; they’re arguing with the judge because they want an appeals court to decide the judge was wrong. That’s the long game.

And then there’s the last huh:

Rather than stating that “the government will not be introducing any evidence obtained from those devices at the trial in this case,” Manafort instead claims that “the Special Counsel stated that he would not seek to introduce evidence from the iPods seized from the residence.” Mueller’s team only said they wouldn’t be introducing evidence from the iPods “in this case,” not that they wouldn’t introduce evidence from them “in some future case.”

Wheeler correctly points out that Manafort is the only one who can raise the “improper search and seizure” defense against whatever evidence is on those iPods. Mueller’s team isn’t splitting hairs for no reason. Maybe there’s a recording of that meeting on that iPod, and maybe hypothetically incriminates one of the other attendees from the Trump campaign; it’s up to Manafort to suppress that evidence to protect that other attendee in that—hypothetical—future case.

Published on under Oh geez I was thinking maybe some Drake