Archives for February 2018

The immobilization of life on Earth

One of the defining characteristics of life is movement, be that in the form of locomotion or simply growth.

What is inanimate is not alive and yet humans, through the use of technology, are constantly seeking ways to reduce the need to move our own limbs.

We have set ourselves on a trajectory that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will eliminate our need to possess a fully functioning body as we reduce ourselves to a corpse-like condition sustained by a multiplicity of devices.

As Amazon advances on its path to gobble up the retail market, its next step, sweeping away the last vestige of foraging (mindlessly pulling food off supermarket shelves and then transferring them from one wheeled vehicle to another) is the introduction of grocery deliveries in two hours.

(Amazon Go offers a stepping stone in the deconstruction of the physical marketplace where shoppers no longer need be troubled by the need for human interaction.)

Just as automation in manufacturing has driven the growth of unemployment rather than leisure time, dispensing with the need to go out grocery shopping is likely to make people more sedentary rather than more motivated to exercise.

The maximization of customer satisfaction will be that Amazon Prime Now customers can quietly rot away in the comfort of their own homes.

Noteworthy are the efforts Amazon’s competitors are making to impede its rapacious growth by countering with the acquisition of drug stores. A hidden rationale here may be that retail corporations hope to ensure their survival by servicing the growth market of diabetes — a disease that afflicts 25% of Americans.

We are turning into creatures who have forgotten what it means to be alive, as we succumb to a torpid state that prizes ease above anything involving discomfort.

Paradoxically, this addiction to ease is now at the root of many of the most prevalent forms of human disease.

In the context of this life-denying human condition, it’s hardly surprising that our loss of appreciation for the core attributes of life is having a devastating impact on the lives of other creatures.

As walls get built to obstruct human migration, we are also blocking the migratory pathways of animals across our planet through an evermore intricate web of barriers, pipelines, and highways. Likewise, in our relentless quest for resources, we plunder and destroy vast regions of wilderness.

What we often think of as a world defined by its networks of connectivity, is increasingly a world sliced up by a matrix of divisions.

Where in the wild, animals once moved across continents in behavior patterned by terrain, climate, and the availability of food, their lives are now subject to constraints defined by economics and human desires.

As the New York Times reports:

Snow comes early to the Teton mountain range, and when it does the white-bottomed pronghorn that live here get the urge to move.

Following an ancient rhythm, they migrate more than 200 miles to the south, where the elevation is lower, winter is milder and grass is easier to find. Come the spring green-up, they make the second half of the round trip, returning to the Grand Teton National Park.

After thousands of years, biologists are concerned about the future of this migration pattern. While there have been efforts to protect the journey, such as highway overpasses and antelope-friendly fences, some new barriers are looming. Most immediate is the prospect of 3,500 new gas wells planned on federal land at the southern end of the pronghorn’s migratory path. And then there’s the nearby Jonah Natural Gas Field, which is already intensively developed.

“The challenge is understanding how many holes you can punch in the landscape,” said Matthew Kauffman, a professor of wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming, “before a migration is lost.”

Room to move is critical for a wide range of species, but it has long been difficult for researchers to capture where and when they travel.

But a new and growing field called “movement ecology” is casting light on the secretive movements of wildlife and how those habits are changing.

A global study of 57 species of mammals, published in the journal Science, has found that wildlife move far less in landscapes that have been altered by humans, a finding that could have implications for a range of issues, from how well natural systems function to finding ways to protect migratory species. [Continue reading…]

Why moth’s learn so much faster than machines


Technology Review reports:

One of the curious features of the deep neural networks behind machine learning is that they are surprisingly different from the neural networks in biological systems. While there are similarities, some critical machine-learning mechanisms have no analogue in the natural world, where learning seems to occur in a different way.

These differences probably account for why machine-learning systems lag so far behind natural ones in some aspects of performance. Insects, for example, can recognize odors after just a handful of exposures. Machines, on the other hand, need huge training data sets to learn. Computer scientists hope that understanding more about natural forms of learning will help them close the gap.

Enter Charles Delahunt and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, who have created an artificial neural network that mimics the structure and behavior of the olfactory learning system in Manduca sexta moths. They say their system provides some important insights into the way natural networks learn, with potential implications for machines. [Continue reading…]

Google Chrome now blocks ads in order to promote advertising

The New York Times reports:

Google did not become the creator of the world’s most popular browser and a dominant advertising force by running its business in a manner that did not serve its own interests.

With the Chrome update, the company hopes to come out ahead by lessening the temptation of web users to install more comprehensive ad-blocking software. In other words, Google is betting that ridding the web of especially intrusive ads will render it more hospitable to advertising in general — and more profitable for advertisers and Google itself.

The new filter will be rolled out gradually to the browser’s hundreds of millions of users. Website operators had a few months before the launch to become compliant; going forward, those who violate the standards will be given 30 days to get in line. If they don’t, Google will demonstrate its leverage not by simply removing offending ads from a noncompliant site, but by disabling all of its ads. Revenue to the offending websites would presumably plummet as a result.

Utilizing Chrome’s popularity in this way is yet another example of Google’s singular position in the modern web. [Continue reading…]

Vietnam’s internet is in trouble


Dien Luong writes:

Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and “bad and dangerous content.”

Yet the fight against either “fake news” or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.

Other countries, including democratic states, are also scrambling to rein in toxic information online. But while Germany, for example, specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging that directly affects the masses, Vietnamese leaders are more fixated on content deemed detrimental to their own reputation and the survival of the regime.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has repeatedly urged Facebook and Google to block “toxic” information that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google sort of conformed by removing more than such 5,000 clips; Facebook also flagged about 160 anti-government accounts at the behest of the government. [Continue reading…]

Facebook poses an increasing threat to journalism

Mathew Ingram writes:

Author and journalism professor Dan Gillmor recently described a future in which “we will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.”

In addition to the economic threat it represents to media companies, Facebook also arguably poses a threat to journalism itself. Into this bucket we can throw things like fake news and misinformation, which works primarily because Facebook focuses on engagement—time spent, clicks, and sharing—rather than quality or value.

In many ways, sociologists say, Facebook is a machine designed to encourage confirmation bias, which is the human desire to believe things that confirm our existing beliefs, even if they are untrue. As a former Facebook product manager wrote in a Facebook post: “The news feed optimizes for engagement, [and] bullshit is highly engaging.” [Continue reading…]

Amazon behaves like a planned economy

Malcolm Harris writes:

Although they attempt to grow in a single direction, planned economies always destroy as well as build. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union compelled the collectivization of kulaks, or prosperous peasants. Small farms were incorporated into a larger collective agricultural system. Depending on who you ask, dekulakization was literal genocide, comparable to the Holocaust, and/or it catapulted what had been a continent-sized expanse of peasants into a modern superpower. Amazon’s decimation of small businesses (bookstores in particular) is a similar sort of collectivization, purging small proprietors or driving them onto Amazon platforms. The process is decentralized and executed by the market rather than the state, but don’t get confused: Whether or not Bezos is banging on his desk, demanding the extermination of independent booksellers — though he probably is — these are top-down decisions to eliminate particular ways of life.

Now, with the purchase of Whole Foods, Bezos and Co. seem likely to apply the same pattern to food. Responding to reports that Amazon will begin offering free two-hour Whole Foods delivery for Prime customers, BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara tweeted, “Stuff like this suggests Amazon is going to remove every cent of profit from the grocery industry.” Free two-hour grocery delivery is ludicrously convenient, perhaps the most convenient thing Amazon has come up with yet. And why should we consumers pay for huge dividends to Kroger shareholders? Fuck ’em; if Bezos has the discipline to stick to the growth plan instead of stuffing shareholder pockets every quarter, then let him eat their lunch. Despite a business model based on eliminating competition, Amazon has avoided attention from antitrust authorities because prices are down. If consumers are better off, who cares if it’s a monopoly? American antitrust law doesn’t exist to protect kulaks, whether they’re selling books or groceries.

Amazon has succeeded in large part because of the company’s uncommon drive to invest in growth. And today, not only are other companies slow to spend, so are governments. Austerity politics and decades of privatization put Amazon in a place to take over state functions. If localities can’t or won’t invest in jobs, then Bezos can get them to forgo tax dollars (and dignity) to host HQ2. There’s no reason governments couldn’t offer on-demand cloud computing services as a public utility, but instead the feds pay Amazon Web Services to host their sites. And if the government outsources health care for its population to insurers who insist on making profits, well, stay tuned. There’s no near-term natural end to Amazon’s growth, and by next year the company’s annual revenue should surpass the GDP of Vietnam. I don’t see any reason why Amazon won’t start building its own cities in the near future. [Continue reading…]

 

The case for impeaching Clarence Thomas


Jill Abramson writes:

[Clarence] Thomas, as a crucial vote on the Supreme Court, holds incredible power over women’s rights, workplace, reproductive, and otherwise. His worldview, with its consistent objectification of women, is the one that’s shaping the contours of what’s possible for women in America today, more than that of just about any man alive, save for his fellow justices.

And given the evidence that’s come out in the years since, it’s also time to raise the possibility of impeachment. Not because he watched porn on his own time, of course. Not because he talked about it with a female colleague — although our understanding of the real workplace harm that kind of sexual harassment does to women has evolved dramatically in the years since, thanks in no small part to those very hearings. Nor is it even because he routinely violated the norms of good workplace behavior, in a way that seemed especially at odds with the elevated office he was seeking. It’s because of the lies he told, repeatedly and under oath, saying he had never talked to Hill about porn or to other women who worked with him about risqué subject matter.

Lying is, for lawyers, a cardinal sin. State disciplinary committees regularly institute proceedings against lawyers for knowingly lying in court, with punishments that can include disbarment. Since 1989, three federal judges have been impeached and forced from office for charges that include lying. The idea of someone so flagrantly telling untruths to ascend to the highest legal position in the U.S. remains shocking, in addition to its being illegal. (Thomas, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on a detailed list of queries.)

Thomas’s lies not only undermined Hill but also isolated her. It was her word versus his — when it could have been her word, plus several other women’s, which would have made for a different media narrative and a different calculation for senators. As the present moment has taught us, women who come forward alongside other women are more likely to be believed (unfair as that might be). There were four women who wanted to testify, or would have if subpoenaed, to corroborate aspects of Hill’s story. My new reporting shows that there is at least one more who didn’t come forward. Their “Me Too” voices were silenced. [Continue reading…]

Pistachio trees ‘talk’ to their neighbours, reveals statistical physics


Philip Ball writes:

The number of nuts on pistachio trees in any given year could be explained with a model from statistical physics that is normally used to study magnetic materials. That is according to researchers led by Alan Hastings, a mathematical ecologist from the University of California, Davis, who have used the “Ising model” to analyse the yields of pistachio trees in one particular orchard in California. Their work explains why the orchard does not always have a uniformly good crop one year followed by a uniformly bad crop the next, arguing that the patchiness in nut production in certain years is due to interactions between neighbouring trees.

It might seem odd there should be a link between pistachio trees and magnetic materials. But the statistical physics developed to understand systems like magnets or liquid–vapour transitions has been found to apply to a wide range of biological systems, from the flocking of birds to patterns of neural activity in the brain. In particular, various biological systems seem to operate close to a critical phase transition like that in iron when the spin magnetic moments switch from a disordered to an ordered orientation as it is cooled below the Curie temperature.

Close to the magnetic critical phase transition, each spin in the material becomes acutely sensitive to the orientation of the others, with their alignment exhibiting long-range correlations. Patches of aligned spins can therefore develop on all length scales from just a few neighbours to the entire system, making the patches “scale-invariant”.

Critical behaviour might be useful in biological systems because it leads to extreme sensitivity to external influences, with the long-range correlations meaning that a small disturbance can spread rapidly through a system. The system therefore has access to many different configurations and will not get trapped in a particular arrangement. Indeed, biological systems might deliberately sit close to critical points to benefit from this responsiveness – a flock of animals, for example, could then quickly adapt to the presence of a predator. [Continue reading…]

Facebook gave Russia everything it needed to help Trump become president, but we gave Facebook its power

By the admission of Facebook’s own VP of advertising, Rob Goldman, Russia’s goal of sowing division in America has been served “incredibly well” through its use of Facebook:


Is Facebook’s success in enlisting two billion members a testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s genius in creating the social media platform, or does this tell us more about the frail condition of the human mind?

To a significant degree, our attention is hardwired to be grabbed. We need the capacity to respond to unexpected triggers in our immediate environment in ways that ensure our physical survival.

But in a world where dire threats are not so commonplace, we have acquired the attention of domesticated herd animals whose waking state is occupied by foraging. It is our willingness to passively be fed that attaches us to our feed.

We have succumbed to a form of slavery in which our slave masters need apply no shackles because we have largely lost a sense of agency.

The fact that Facebook could give Russia the attention of so many million Americas was a consequence of the willingness (largely unconscious) of each of these individuals to freely give away their attention.

Until each of us reclaims the power to direct our own attention, we will continue casting out an open invitation to be led astray.

Inside the two years that shook Facebook — and the world

At Wired, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein report:

One day in late February of 2016, Mark Zuckerberg sent a memo to all of Facebook’s employees to address some troubling behavior in the ranks. His message pertained to some walls at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters where staffers are encouraged to scribble notes and signatures. On at least a couple of occasions, someone had crossed out the words “Black Lives Matter” and replaced them with “All Lives Matter.” Zuckerberg wanted whoever was responsible to cut it out.

“ ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t,” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” the memo went on. But “crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.

All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, lashed out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic support of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just defeated Bernie Sanders in Nevada, only to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d made two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by blasting out messages like “American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.”

So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and sent the image to a friend named Michael Nuñez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nuñez promptly published a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.

A week later, Fearnow came across something else he thought Nuñez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.

Fearnow, a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, worked in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topics, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a team of about 25 people with backgrounds in journalism. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed.

Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Fearnow and his team weren’t the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook. Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans—because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team—who served partly to train those algorithms—would be expendable.

The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a video­conference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.

That same day, Ahuja had another conversation with a second employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nuñez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he certainly hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the story about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nuñez on Facebook. “Do you think leaks are bad?” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The company had given him $15 to cover expenses, and it wanted the money back.

The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge—and Nuñez kept digging for dirt. He soon published a story about the internal poll showing Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he published an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The piece suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal stories and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the piece popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.

The post went viral, but the ensuing battle over Trending Topics did more than just dominate a few news cycles. In ways that are only fully visible now, it set the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence—triggering a chain of events that would distract and confuse the company while larger disasters began to engulf it.

This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.) [Continue reading…]