Reading Harry Potter as a Sacred Text

“What if we take this seriously? What gifts is it going to give us if we love something, and we love it with rigor, and we love it with commitment?”

Reading Harry Potter as a Sacred Text

Strikes me as an important question for many things in our lives that we trivialize because they aren’t “important” enough. What happens when we choose to love something, whether it deserves it or not, and how does it change it/them/us in the process?

The only caveat is to try to love wisely. It’s impossible to know where love will lead us, but if the chances are good a love will lead us down a bad path, perhaps it would be better to choose a different one.

Eat [and Drink] Less Plastic

Drink water from your tap. Drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, but bottled water has about double the microplastic level of tap water, according to Mason, making it a poor choice for those who want to consume less plastic. Some bottled waters have also been found to have high levels of PFAS chemicals. Mason says that unless you know your tap water is unsafe, you should opt for that over anything in a plastic bottle.”

-Kevin Lorea, “How to Eat Less Plastic.” Consumer Reports. August 13, 2019.
  • Drink water from your tap.
  • Don’t heat food in plastic.
  • Avoid plastic food containers.
  • Eat more fresh food.
  • Minimize household dust.
  • Reducing plastic pollution is going to require government intervention.

Open question: Does microplastic pollution and its effects on hormones and reducing fertility an existentional threat to the human species?

More Confounders | Slate Star Codex

“So why did they get such different results from so many earlier studies? In their response to Kripke, they offer a clear answer:

They adjusted for three hundred confounders.

This is a totally unreasonable number of confounders to adjust for. I’ve never seen any other study do anything even close. Most other papers in this area have adjusted for ten or twenty confounders. Kripke’s study adjusted for age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, BMI, alcohol use, smoking, and twelve diseases. Adjusting for nineteen things is impressive. It’s the sort of thing you do when you really want to cover your bases. Adjusting for 300 different confounders is totally above and beyond what anyone would normally consider.

Reading between the lines, one of the P&a co-authors was Robert Glynn, a Harvard professor of statistics who helped develop an algorithm that automatically identifies massive numbers of confounders to form a ‘propensity score’, then adjusts for it. The P&a study was one of the first applications of the algorithm on a controversial medical question. It looks like this study was partly intended to test it out. And it got the opposite result from almost every past study in this field.”

—Scott Alexander, “More Confounders.” Slate Star Codex. June 24, 2019.

Open question: Are sleep aids bad for you?

Open question: Are confounders one of the central problems of reproducibility in science?

Outer Limits — Real Life

“Today, one of the best predictors of one’s political orientation is the density of the neighborhood they live in; people who live in the suburbs are also more likely to get their news from broadcast and local television. Taken together, this means suburbanites see fewer strangers in their everyday lives, and fill that void with sensationalized accounts of ever-present, creeping danger.

This creates fertile ground for reactionary, conservative political movements. While most suburbanites still get a majority of their news from these older media sources, more of them are getting it from apps like Facebook and Nextdoor, where the ideas broadcast through outlets like Fox can fester person-to-person. In this way the suburbs get the social functions of the city street, but with suburban-style tools of control and segregation.”

—David A. Banks, “Outer Limits.” Real Life. June 20, 2019.

Something that occurs to me is that the prevalence of far-right conservative ideas among the 65 and older set in the United States might be a symptom of loneliness.

If you have few friends and little social connection, are unemployed, and are considered a marginal Other, you might start looking for belonging wherever you can find it. A Ku Klux Klan outfit might give a sense of relevance back to a person who has grown old and has no experience with being marginalized.

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us | WIRED

“Each of us has our precious things, and as we care for them we locate the essence of our humanity.”

—Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Wired. April 2000.

Figured it was time to revisit this old classic and get a feel for how prescient it was almost 20 years on. Still feels right on, particularly around CRISPR. The problems of runaway nanotechnology still seems far off, but it’s visible on the horizon.

Open question: Can technology’s risk of causing human extinction be mitigated?

Why Is It So Important For You to Have a Baby? Quiz

“Number a sheet of paper from 1 to 70. Beside each number rate how important each statement is to you. Zero (0) means that the statement is not very important or is least descriptive of you. Five (5) means that the statement is very important or very descriptive of you. Use the numbers between 0 and 5 to show graduations between these extremes. If the statement doesn’t seem to apply to your situation, place an X beside it. There are no right or wrong answers. Have your spouse take the evaluation separately. Then compare the two answer sheets and discuss where you agree and differ.”

Why Is It So Important For You to Have a Baby?

American Concentration Camps

“No, Trump is not doing any of this because of illegal immigration—an issue that had been in decline for a decade before took office. His iceboxes and dog cages are part of an explicitly nationalist project. The goal is putting the country under the control of the right kind of white people. Trump has made it clear that he wants to stifle all non-white immigration, period. And the reasons aren’t hard to figure out. His administration just got caught using a literal question of immigration to suppress opposition votes and boost “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” The GOP simply can’t win national elections without doing that sort of thing anymore.

And as history shows, when a leader starts putting people in camps to stay in power, it doesn’t usually end with the first group they detain.”

—Jonathan M. Katz, “Concentrate on the Camps.” The Long Version. May 31, 2019.

Check out Dorothea Lange’s Censored Photographs of FDR’s Japanese Concentration Camps, if you want a point of comparison.

Open Question: Is the prison industrial complex in the United States a system of concentration camps?

Knife Missiles

“Designated the Hellfire R9X, the missile has no explosive warhead—instead, its payload is more than 100 pounds of metal, including long blades that deploy from the body of the missile just before impact.

‘To the targeted person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky,’ according to the WSJ. Some officials referred to the weapon as ‘the flying Ginsu,’ because the blades can cut through concrete, sheet metal, and other materials surrounding a target.”

—Sean Gallagher, “Drones used missiles with knife warhead to take out single terrorist targets.” Ars Technica. May 9, 2019.

Coming soon to a law enforcement department near you. Thanks, Iain M. Banks (no. 6); I feel safer already!

Open Question: Augmented Humanity / Transhumanism, Good or Bad?

Open question: If you had the opportunity to expand your senses or your abilities via an outpatient medical procedure, would you do it? What about using a procedure like preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) to select among embryos for specific traits? What happens to evolution when individuals begin to self select for traits they consider desirable? What happens when/if human beings become a manufactured product?

These might seem like ideas from the far future, so let’s bring them into the possible present. Let’s start with Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision:

“Mammals cannot see light over 700 nm in wavelength. This limitation is due to the physical thermodynamic properties of the photon-detecting opsins. However, the detection of naturally invisible near-infrared (NIR) light is a desirable ability. To break this limitation, we developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles (pbUCNPs). These nanoparticles anchored on retinal photoreceptors as miniature NIR light transducers to create NIR light image vision with negligible side effects. Based on single-photoreceptor recordings, electroretinograms, cortical recordings, and visual behavioral tests, we demonstrated that mice with these nanoantennae could not only perceive NIR light, but also see NIR light patterns. Excitingly, the injected mice were also able to differentiate sophisticated NIR shape patterns. Moreover, the NIR light pattern vision was ambient-daylight compatible and existed in parallel with native daylight vision. This new method will provide unmatched opportunities for a wide variety of emerging bio-integrated nanodevice designs and applications.”

— Yuqian Ma, Jin Bao, Yuanwei Zhang, Yang Zhao,
Gang Han, and Tian Xue, “Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantennae.” Cell. February 28, 2019.

Using the example of an injection of self-powered retinal nanoantennae into the eye, a few questions are raised in the abstract that have ‘negligible side effects’ for lab mice might not meet that standard for human augmentation:

  • What are the possible complications and their complication rates?
  • What are the benefits of near infrared vision for humans?
  • How does it effect other human abilities, such as our normal or night vision?

These are top of mind from issues raised by the article. I’m sure there are many more issues to take into consideration beyond these few when applied to a human augmentation context.

This is another example of social and ethical limits to testable hypotheses. While most people’s conception of science are hypotheses that lend themselves to repeated experimental testing, with the randomized clinical trial format being the gold standard in human populations, it’s a really small subset of inquiry.

Another is testing plausibility in animal models or N of 1 tests conducted by scientists on themselves, such as Barry Marshall establishing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers, the Russian scientist Anatoli Brouchkov injecting himself with ancient bacteria to see if it would extend his life, etc.

Life extension presents a particularly good example. The only two methods we have good evidence to suggest that may extend life span in humans is calorie restriction without malnutrition and for men, castration.

But, how can these be studied? It is near impossible to experimentally control diet in humans for extended periods in an ethical fashion in modern society. However, perhaps the requirements for space travel may open up some opportunities to test this kind of diet in a rigorous way. Presumably, we will either need strict rations because of limited carrying capacity in space, or we will need to master human hibernation given the requirements of space travel.

Like calorie restriction in lab animals, there are numerous studies that suggest that castration in other mammals tends to extend life span. But, again, we are in N of 1 territory because castration to extend life is unethical if we do not know what life extending benefit it may offer. It’s a chicken and egg problem. It also comes with serious social stigma.

With human augmentation, this problem becomes even more pronounced when we expand the field of action to making decisions for other people, such as selecting traits for our children with preimplantation genetic testing (PGT):

“PGT is a method of scanning embryos outside the womb to identify genetic abnormalities. After eggs and sperm are fertilized outside the body in the beginning stages of IVF, a thin needle is used to extract just a few cells from the resulting embryos. Those cells are tested for select genetic conditions, like Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome in the case of Pinarowicz and her husband. Parents can then choose which embryos they want to use, and the rest of the IVF process proceeds as usual. (The other embryos are frozen, discarded, or donated for medical research.) The technology gives families the ability to root out deadly genetic diseases like Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis, or Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome from their family tree.”

—Emily Mullin. “We’re Already Designing Babies.” February 27, 2019.

Suppose you have a dormant gene to be a tetrachromat, a person with four cones rather three cones. The additional color receptors in their eyes enable tetrachromats to see color two orders of magnitude better than the average person. But, what are the consequences of having this ability? It is believed that mammals used to have this ability, and evolution selected against it. Why? Is this something that we should be selecting for in human populations? What consequences, over the course of all of human evolutionary history, will a decision of this sort have?

Also, if we assume a technology like human hibernation or cryogenic containment, the incentives to wait for technology would be significant. However, it would mean essentially dying to all of our family and friends, and it could also include less certain possibilities, such as never awakening again or awakening in a worse circumstance, such as a dystopian society.

Of course, eliminating “birth defects” is how it starts, the question is what happens when traits can be selected? What happens when babies become a manufactured product? What are we giving up when we restrict the possibilities driven by random chance? What happens when these kinds of options start impacting other behaviors, such as choosing to hibernate for extended periods of time?

Who Watches the [Artificial Intelligence] Watchmen?

Open Question: What are the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence in the surveillance domain?

Recently, I came across a good basic guide for finding hidden cameras and bugs with a level of detail I’ve never seen online before. As with everything related to security, the first question to ask is: what is your threat model?

For most people, the need to look for hidden cameras and bugs is not something they need, or at least they don’t think they need it. But, there are situations where the kind of operational security used by spies could also be useful for everyone. The most obvious example is something like AirBnB, where there may be good reason to suspect the risk for hidden cameras and bugs might be higher for everyone than in other similar circumstances, such as a reserved hotel room at a reputable hotel chain or in our own homes.

So, it is useful information to know. If using a service like AirBnB is something you do regularly, it may be worth investigating these techniques in greater detail, or at least have it handily bookmarked.

The problem of recording devices in an AirBnB strikes me as similar to the case where you travel a lot and regularly use open wifi networks. The increased risk to your threat model might warrant the services of a virtual private network provider, if you don’t already use one. Again, it depends on your threat model.

This issue got me thinking about the larger pattern of surveillance, not just of online spaces but of physical space. Police departments are using overhead surveillance drones to monitor areas indefinitely (the level of which can be increased to monitor public spaces during large gatherings), registering private security cameras, automated license plate scanners, body and squad car cameras and so forth. These are being combined with online surveillance technologies to map social media to physical spaces. All of these technologies are being combined together:

“By combining drone, body-camera, police-car-camera, and closed-circuit-TV footage, Axon is clearly hoping to create a central hub for police to cross-reference and access surveillance data—a treasure chest of information that, according to Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California–Davis who studies civil liberties and police surveillance technology, police departments could find difficult to stop using once they start. “Not only is there no real competition from other vendors,” said Joh, “but once a police department has bought into a certain contract with a company, it’s very hard to drop it and move on. There’s a lot of investment in training the agency and the officers how to use it.”

April Glaser, “The Next Frontier of Police Surveillance Is Drones.” June 7, 2018

Companies like Palantir that cut their teeth on developing anti-terrorism surveillance and big analytic products that are now being rolled out to local police departments. All of this is happening with relatively little oversight.

Of course, big data means that artificial intelligence is being trained on all of this surveillance data. One task is to train artificial intelligence algorithms to recognize facial, gait, voice and other identifying characteristics of individuals. Another is to create a time series to be able to track those individuals in time and space. It will change the way police interact with their population, because they will have a good idea of who was in the area, so the software will offer them a list of possible perpetrators and witnesses, without necessarily good indication of which is which.

It reminds me of a quote:

“One of the major purposes of state simplifications, collectivization, assembly lines, plantations, and planned communities alike is to strip down reality to the bare bones so that the rules will in fact explain more of the situation and provide a better guide to behavior. To the extent that this simplification can be imposed, those who make the rules can actually supply crucial guidance and instruction. This, at any rate, is what I take to be the inner logic of social, economic, and productive de-skilling. If the environment can be simplified down to the point where the rules do explain a great deal, those who formulate the rules and techniques have also greatly expanded their power. They have, correspondingly, diminished the power of those who do not. To the degree that they do succeed, cultivators with a high degree of autonomy, skills, experience, self-confidence, and adaptability are replaced by cultivators following instructions. Such reduction in diversity, movement, and life, to recall Jacobs’s term, represents a kind of social ‘taxidermy’.”

― James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

So, it isn’t hard to imagine a situation evolving where police work reduces to following up leads that are generated by artificial intelligence. The amount of data, the kind of data, the assumptions being employed, and so forth will all be a black box to the officer on the street. The simplified map will become the territory. The beat cop will become the instrument of the algorithm designers, who may or may not be getting feedback on failures of the system. Many of these problems of these tools will be subtle, such as how their use changes the culture of the police department. People won’t know what to look for, and by the time the problems are identified, they may already be baked into the culture. It will certainly be too late for the individuals effected by software bugs, with errors being miscarriages of justice against individuals and prison sentences.

It isn’t hard to imagine a mature industry progressing to Philip K. Dick concepts of “pre-crime”. Artificial intelligence systems will be expanded to look for larger patterns in the data that tend to lead to crime, and there will be compelling arguments to use this information to stage interventions.

Who will watch these artificial intelligence watchmen? Is it even possible? In the mad dash to implement these systems, what kind of oversight is there? Sadly, the answer is: none.