Category Archives: Technical Stuff

Science Strikes Back: Is Mark Robinson Learning?

Who says blog posts don’t have impact?

Yesterday, August 24, we shared a post:  Our Work Cut Out For Us – A Preview of 2024 Governor’s Race in NC.”

It got close to 40 “hits,” small stuff on the big web, but not bad for a “local” news item.

The book.

The post concerned a new book that will be out next month, by NC Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, a very conservative Republican who is preparing a likely run for governor in 2024.

In the book, We Are the Majority, Robinson declares that, as part of his efforts to clean up public education in the state, he would drop studies of science and social studies from curricula through fifth grade:

“In those grades,” Robinson wrote, “we don’t need to be teaching social studies. We don’t need to be teaching science. We surely don’t need to talk about equity and social justice.” 

There’s more, much more, in the text and the post (as a local paper said, Robinson “has a reputation for making incendiary and controversial comments.”)

But that particular declaration seemed to raise eyebrows and hackles. Less than 24 hours after our post was up, and a longer report was on WRAL TV, — well, Robinson was singing something of a different tune.

As noted in the August 25  Raleigh NC News & Observer:

NC’s Mark Robinson backs off his call to stop teaching science  in elementary school

BY LUCIANA PEREZ URIBE GUINASSI UPDATED AUGUST 24, 2022

When North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson spoke on education at a round-table event Tuesday night in downtown Durham, he didn’t publicly broach a topic likely to have been on many attendees’ minds: a call in his upcoming book for eliminating science and history from the first through fifth-grade curriculum and shuttering the State Board of Education.

Duke’s clinical Research Institute, Durham NC. There’s no skimping on science here.

In the book, set to be published on Sept. 13, Robinson writes that schools should “demand proficiency in reading, writing, and math in grades one through five. In those grades, we don’t need to be teaching social studies. We don’t need to be teaching science. We surely don’t need to talk about equity and social justice.”

Following the public panel, The News & Observer asked him about that stance.

Robinson said he didn’t want to discuss the book at the event and that he or his representatives would talk separately.

Science March, Raleigh 2017.

But shortly afterward, in comments to CBS-17 at the event, he appeared to backtrack from at least one statement in the book. He told the station he was not saying that science, at least, should be eliminated from the curriculum, but instead that proficiency in reading and mathematics should be the priority.

“We’re not talking about not teaching science to elementary school children,” he said Tuesday. “What we’re talking about is putting reading, writing and arithmetic – making that paramount in elementary school.”

Robinson, who is the top Republican in North Carolina’s executive branch, has a reputation for making incendiary and controversial comments. A viral 2018 speech on gun rights started his political career, and just two years later he was elected by voters as the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.


RTP’s bird logo, symbolizing the flocks of thousands of scientific researchers gathered there every day.

It’s apt that Robinson, er, adjusted his statement in Durham. He was speaking just a stone’s throw from science-intensive Research Triangle Park, which modestly claims to be “the largest research park in the U.S.,” and only a block or two from the mammoth high-rise Duke Clinical Research Institute; to mention only a couple the city’s science-related landmarks. One could also mention that “social studies” are the focus of several other local institutions, such as the art museum with its striking civil rights mural.

For that matter, in Raleigh, the town Robinson hopes to take over in the 2024 election, science also seems to be, you know, a thing. In 2017, when science, especially government science, was under assault from a know-nothing White House occupant, Raleigh hosted a stunning and inventive pro-science march.

It begins to look as if Robinson might be making some last-minute revisions to his book text; lucky for him, science has made it possible to do such things even as the presses are getting ready to roll.

So science in Carolina may save Robinson’s bacon this time. And science in Carolina is something the next governor better not ignore or slight, from kindergarten up. I’m pretty sure some would-be candidates already understand that.

Science march, Raleigh 2017.

 

 

 

Stunning New Artificial Intel Programs Are Here Now—Look!

  • Good grief!

The two images below  look like professional quality photographs, but no camera made them. No person or object posed for them. Nor did a human artist paint or draw them.

Well, not exactly.

Humans produced them. One set of humans, software developers, made the tool, called DALL-E2. One other, tech columnist Kevin Roose, used it to “create” them, for the New York Times.

”Create” feels like the most appropriate term here, because Roose’s procedure reads as if it were lifted right from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:

Roose said, “‘Let there be . . . ‘

— And there WAS — a hyper-realistic image of a complete fantasy.

Let Roose describe it:

For the past few days, I’ve been playing around with DALL-E 2, an app developed by the San Francisco company OpenAI that turns text descriptions into hyper-realistic images.

OpenAI invited me to test DALL-E 2 (the name is a play on Pixar’s WALL-E and the artist Salvador Dalí) during its beta period, and I quickly got obsessed.

I spent hours thinking up weird, funny and abstract prompts to feed the A.I. — “a 3-D rendering of a suburban home shaped like a croissant,” “an 1850s daguerreotype portrait of Kermit the Frog,” “a charcoal sketch of two penguins drinking wine in a Parisian bistro.”

Within seconds, DALL-E 2 would spit out a handful of images depicting my request — often with jaw-dropping realism.

Here, for example, is one of the images DALL-E 2 produced when I typed in “black-and-white vintage photograph of a 1920s mobster taking a selfie.” And how it rendered my request for a high-quality photograph of “a sailboat knitted out of blue yarn.”

Voilá!

If I had DALL-E2, I’d be saying, “Show me with my mind boggled,” and the image would be what I saw in the mirror a few minutes ago, something like this:

Roose: DALL-E 2 got a lot of attention when it was announced this year, and rightfully so. It’s an impressive piece of technology with big implications for anyone who makes a living working with images — illustrators, graphic designers, photographers and so on. It also raises important questions about what all of this A.I.-generated art will be used for, and whether we need to worry about a surge in synthetic propaganda, hyper-realistic deepfakes or even nonconsensual pornography.

“Big implications.” An understatement:

Roose:

Only a few years ago, A.I. chatbots struggled even with rudimentary conversations — to say nothing of more difficult language-based tasks.

But now, large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-3 are being used to write screenplays, compose marketing emails and develop video games. (I even used GPT-3 to write a book review for this paper last year — and, had I not clued in my editors beforehand, I doubt they would have suspected anything.)

Note that he didn’t include writing blog posts on this list. But is it just my paranoia, or will the next version — let’s call it DALL-E3 — soon be sending pre-breakfast emails advising me that:

“Attached you’ll find three posts, one each on Ukraine, the newest blossoms in your yard, and the former president, plus a pair of recycled Quaker jokes. Click on the link to upload them, and then go back to bed.”

Is this ridiculous? Maybe. But maybe not for long:

Roose:

“An A.I. breakthrough at Google or OpenAI today doesn’t mean that your Roomba will be able to write novels tomorrow —“

[I don’t have a Roomba; whatever.]

“But the best A.I. systems are now so capable — and improving at such fast rates — that the conversation in Silicon Valley is starting to shift. Fewer experts are confidently predicting that we have years or even decades to prepare for a wave of world-changing A.I.; many now believe that major changes are right around the corner, for better or worse.”

Did Roose really write that? Or is DALL-E2 now finishing his column, and not just illustrating it?

At least, I can still supply my own cliche: Stay tuned.

Supreme Court Dissents: Naming The Outrages, Painting A Better Future — Someday

Joan E Greve in Washington — Mon 11 Jul 2022

Opinions from Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor send stark warning about increasingly radical court abandoning long-held principles

Taken together, the dissents written by the three liberal justices this term send a clear warning about an increasingly radical court that is abandoning long-held principles and even the facts of a case to enact an extreme conservative agenda in America.

While supreme court opinions can frequently become mired in legalese that is incomprehensible to the average reader, the wording of the liberals’ dissents is often simple and direct. The opinions can read like a desperate attempt to reach beyond the court’s standard audience of legal experts to speak to the millions of people who will feel the impact of these rulings.

“Today, the court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion to conservatives’ decision in Carson v Makin. She concluded: “With growing concern for where this court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.”

Paul Schiff Berman, a professor at George Washington University Law School, said dissenting opinions help foster “a culture of argument” around America’s laws. . . . Continue reading Supreme Court Dissents: Naming The Outrages, Painting A Better Future — Someday

Putin’s Orthodox Enabler; and the Magic of War Logistics

UNHOLY ALLIANCE: Putin’s Holy Man Pushed for the ‘Eradication’ of Ukraine

The Daily Beast
A. Craig Copetas — Mar. 22, 2022

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill appears to be just as bloodthirsty as Vladimir Putin himself.

Beneath the gold onion domes of the Danilov Monastery a few miles south of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin’s chief shaman explains why Russia is hell-bent on destroying Ukraine.

“If we see [Ukraine] as a threat, we have the right to use force to ensure the threat is eradicated,” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill recently preached to his church’s 90 million faithful followers. “We have entered into a conflict which has not only physical but also metaphysical significance. We are talking about human salvation, something much more important than politics.”

The wartime coalition between Putin and his patriarch is called symphonia, an ironclad alliance between church and state that assures reciprocal reverence, with neither institution presuming to dominate the other. Theologians have spent centuries bickering over the fine points, which have now impaled 44 million Ukrainians as the victims of a bloodthirsty land-grab that Putin and the Patriarch have packaged as a holy campaign to cleanse souls.

“A new world order is born before our very eyes,” is how Putin described the relationship in a statement published at the start of the war, later warning those who disagreed with him “inflict maximum damage on people.” He said: “The Russian people will be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”

. . . Byzantine and Orthodox church historian Henry Hopwood-Philipps reckons NATO and all those who stand against Putin’s klepto-theocratic regime are in for a long wait.

“The information war, the military war against Putin looks to be effective,” Hopwood-Philipps says. “But for all the West’s digital gunpowder, we’re up against nearly 700 years of a deeply entrenched otherworldly belief system.” Continue reading Putin’s Orthodox Enabler; and the Magic of War Logistics

Risky Business: Hackers for Ukraine vs Putin’s Techies

‘It’s the right thing to do’: the 300,000 volunteer hackers coming together to fight Russia

The Guardian: Ukraine appealed for a global army of IT experts to help in the battle against Putin – and many answered the call. [The Guardian spoke] to people on the digital frontline.

Kali learned how to use technology by playing with his grandfather’s phone. Now, the Swiss teenager is trying to paralyse the digital presence of the Russian government and the Belarussian railway.

Kali – and many others who contributed to this article – declined to share his real name because some of the action he is taking is illegal and because he fears Russian retaliation. He is one of about 300,000 people who have signed up to a group on the chat app Telegram called “IT Army of Ukraine”, through which participants are assigned tasks designed to take the fight to Vladimir Putin. In so doing, they are trying to level the playing field between one of the world’s superpowers and Ukraine as it faces bombardment and invasion.

The sprawling hacker army has been successful in disrupting Russian web services, according to NetBlocks, a company that monitors global internet connectivity. It says the availability of the websites of the Kremlin and the Duma – Russia’s lower house of parliament – has been “intermittent” since the invasion started. The sites for state-owned media services, several banks and the energy giant Gazprom have also been targeted.

“The crowdsourced attacks have been successful in disrupting Russian government and state-backed media websites,” says Alp Toker, the director of NetBlocks. He adds that Russia has attempted to mitigate the attacks and deter hackers by filtering access to certain websites, which has caused further disruption.

Like many of his peers, Kali was directed to the Telegram group, which has Ukrainian- and English-language versions, by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. Fedorov, 31, has been using his vastly expanded Twitter profile to plead with executives at the world’s biggest tech firms to cut ties with Russia. . . .

While his home country has long maintained a policy of military neutrality, Kali was spurred to action when he saw Fedorov’s tweet. “I wanted to help and use my attacking skills to help Ukraine,” he says via Telegram. “I’m from Switzerland, but I’m a strong hacker and I’m so sorry for every Ukrainian. I do it because I stand with Ukraine and I want to help somehow. I think if we hack Russia’s infrastructure they will stop, maybe, because nothing will work any more.”

Kali says his parents aren’t especially keen on what he is doing, although he tries not to tell them much about it. And he is not the only one.

Caroline, a twentysomething from the New York metropolitan area, told her parents she had enlisted into the IT army just hours before we speak on the phone. “They’re starting to get concerned,” she says.

. . . Caroline felt compelled to act when she saw Fedorov’s tweet. She had seen how destructive the spread of disinformation had been during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. . . ,

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister and minister for digital transformation. Photograph: Ukrinform/Rex/Shutterstock

There was just one problem: she didn’t know what Telegram was. Unlike Kali, the former preschool teacher isn’t much of a hacker. At first, she was concerned that the app – which was founded by the exiled Russian billionaires Pavel and Nikolai Durov – was a trap. But, after some research, she downloaded it and joined the group.

She felt out of her depth when the group’s administrators asked for hackers to bombard Russian state websites with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, by which websites are bombarded with traffic to make them unreachable. This is how many Russian government websites have been disabled since the invasion began.

But Caroline realised things were getting lost in the torrent of information. . . . She spends hours every day sharing information in the Telegram chat to help the masses of subscribers. “I can’t explain it,” she says. “It’s just something that’s so innately human that has been inspiring me, the more involved I get. I recognise I’m not special by any means, so all I’m doing is gathering all this information to try to dismantle these campaigns of disinformation that are going on.”***
Enrique is a Lithuanian IT expert in his mid-30s. He felt that joining the Telegram group was “the right thing to do”. “Growing up with your parents telling you stories about how they were exiled to Siberia lives with you your whole life,” he says. “We are scared that we will be next.”

. . . He is less focused on wrecking the Russian internet and more on co-opting ordinary Russians to rise up against their dictator.

“I hope the world can put pressure on Russian people so much that they would be willing to re-evaluate their upbringing, understand that people are asking them to help, look at what is really happening and perhaps they will rise up that way,” he says.

Enrique has been inspired by the bravery of the Ukrainian people. That includes those who have taken to the streets to defend their country – and those who have taken to their keyboards. Ukraine has 290,000 people who work in IT and is the world’s outsourcing tech desk. While many of them have given up their day jobs to fight for the army, others have signed up to the IT army.

That includes Sam, who works for a global advertising-technology company. He has been using his expertise to send what he calls “counter-propaganda” to Russians through advertising platforms. “We’ve been in a hybrid war and a direct war with Russia since 2014,” he says. “It was the same, but on a smaller scale. We understand how Russia acts: they do propaganda here, then inside their country, then try to share their vision to the global community.”

The Ukrainian advertising industry has sent what Sam calls “aggressive” videos that show captured Russian soldiers pleading with their mothers and trying to convince them about the reality of war in Ukraine. Others highlight the impact of sanctions on Russia and the strength of the Ukrainian army. “They will move everyone to act,” says Sam.

About 100 advertising specialists from 50 agencies are designing and disseminating adverts to try to raise awareness within Russia and Belarus of what Russia is doing, ducking and diving around advertising bans and platform closures.

Enrique has been impressed by the teamwork of the volunteer IT army. “I have never seen so many people wanting to do something in my whole life,” he says. “You ask for participants to crash something [break it] or run something and you have it.” . . .

Alex, a Ukrainian software engineer, says the Telegram group is mostly used for DDoS attacks. “I wish there were more things to do in terms of helping the IT part [of the war].” He doesn’t want to cut off Russia from the internet, but rather find a way of showing Russians images of the war.

This is what Anonymous, a hacking collective, claimed to have done with Russian TV channels this month. “My ideal way would be to do something that will demonstrate the truth for [Russians],” says Alex. However, suggestions for DDoS attacks are eagerly carried out. When links for target websites go up in the Telegram group, he says, “all of them are down” within half an hour.

Some cybersecurity experts are worried, though. “There are some risks in having this volunteer army,” says Alan Woodward, a professor of cybersecurity at the University of Surrey. He is concerned about the lack of accountability regarding who is directing the battle plan and the overarching strategy.

“At best, what they’re doing is running interference,” he says. “It may be a nuisance to the Russians, but the attacks we’ve seen so far haven’t really affected the Russian fighting capability to any decisive effect.”

Woodward says an army of 300,000 hackers will invariably include some bad seeds. “These volunteers might start attacking targets that are not really what the Ukrainian government wants,” he says. “This could be accidental. How often has ransomware spilled over and affected, say, a hospital? I don’t think anyone wants that.”

There is also a risk that such an open call could easily be co-opted by the Russians to generate negative headlines. “You never quite know who is in a volunteer group,” he says. “Not only could they do something unwanted in the name of Ukraine, but they could also do something that plays directly into the Russians’ rhetoric.”

The fear of infiltration is something that also concerns Agnes Venema, a national security and intelligence academic at the University of Malta. “How useful they are depends on how well you can vet them, how well you can coordinate them and how skilled they are,” she says. “Renaming Putin’s yacht is cute, but does the hacking of Russian television stations to play the Ukrainian anthem help the Ukrainians achieve their strategic goals?”

Despite her misgivings, Venema finds the corralling of volunteer forces remarkable. “I’m not one for throwing superlatives around, but I would say this level of civic engagement is unprecedented,” she says. Nonetheless, she says, it could quickly backfire. As soon as hackers start taking orders from the Ukrainian army, they drop their status as civilians and could be considered combatants, she says. “That means that these people are legitimate military targets,” she says.

Whether those defending Ukraine’s right to exist know or worry about that is another question. “I don’t care about it,” says Kali, who as we spoke was trying to DDoS a Russian news website that the Ukrainian IT army administrators had flagged as a source of disinformation. “I’ve never worried about it.”


 

 

When Jeff Bezos Personally Apologized. No, Really.

The first time I heard the Jeff Bezos Apology story, it was from my big brother just the other day, and I immediately thought: No way.

There is just no way Jeff Bezos publicly apologized. And he simply could not possibly be dumb enough to do what he had allegedly apologized for.

A scene from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”

Not that he’s some paragon or guru or the Dalai Lama of Prime. Most of the bad things people say about his Amazon empire are true, and I kept rooting for the union drive at his Alabama warehouse right til the organizers drove off the cliff.

But this other story, new to me, was so ridiculous that it had to be one of those floating internet legends. Had to be.

I mean, sure, sometimes Amazon gets caught with its corporate pants down; or at least unzipped. Take its initial dismissal earlier this month of the charge that many Amazon delivery drivers are so driven that some have to pee in bottles to stay on their inhuman schedules.

The company first tweeted a disdainful denial of the reports, which were echoed by a Democratic Congressman from Wisconsin, Mark Pocan. Continue reading When Jeff Bezos Personally Apologized. No, Really.

250,000 Hits Later: Taking Stock of a Quaker Blog

Yesterday I spent a few hours hunched over my laptop screen, waiting for a number to arrive: the 250,000th hit on this  blog.

250,000: A quarter of a million. Imagine.

The hit counter said that number was near, and it felt like a major milestone for me. Sure, I realize that big time blogs can get close to that many hits in a day or two; but a Quaker blog speaks to what they call a “niche market.” And the blogging here, active and archived goes back to 1998,  but has been significantly active since 2009.

I started out in February 1998, with one of the shortest posts, one which noted some, um, uncertainty. Here’s the whole thing:

  I need a blog like I need a hole in the head.

But it’s clear that these days, it’s an increasingly important way of getting one’s views and convictions into the broader public discussion and debate.  And before it is too late, there are some things I’d like to get into circulation.

My overriding concern now is the mad course down which my country’s rulers are headed, and what faith groups can do about it.   My perspective is “sectarian,” rooted in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.)  As the saying goes, I’m proud to be a humble Quaker.

But my sense is that people from other faith groups, or none, can learn things from our experience and discussions — and we can learn from others.

So let’s do it.

This hesitant opening was soon followed by what is beyond challenge  the longest post ever: 45800 words, with several thousand more added in followups. It was a nearly-book-length investigative report called “Fleecing The Faithful.”

In the late ’90s, two major church frauds stole tens of millions from Evangelical Friends. It could happen again. (It has, to others.) This shocking report, which took four months of intensive research & writing, showed how.

Not long after that, blogging lagged behind outward events, particularly September 11, 2001, which jolted  me out of my routine in central Pennsylvania, and saw me shipped off to be Director at Quaker House, the peace project next door to FortBragg in North Carolina.

With two big wars getting underway, I was  pretty  busy for several years. But the net kept developing, and by late 2009, the pace picked up.

Since then, along with the hits I’ve accumulated 626 “items” on the blog.

In this outpouring, topics varied, though religion was often nearby. In fact, it was the focus of what is undoubtedly the very shortest post of all 626, from May 21, 2011, Here it is, in full:

Since the world seemed likely to persist for awhile, I went ahead and retired from Quaker House in late 2012. Meantime, the blog had had its share of scoops;  it unearthed two official letters from Kenyan Quaker officials endorsing brutal treatment for LGBTs in its country and region; internal budget documents from Philadelphia YM detailing its budget struggles; breaking the news of appointments to various major Quaker positions; etc.

Soon I began foraging for new blogging subject matter. By late summer, 2014, a dominant new subject dropped into my lap:

The Quaker trouble in North Carolina lasted three full years, and I ended up covering it in three ways: in print and online in the journal Quaker Theology, and through the blog as both a reporter and an engaged member of one of the monthly meetings targeted to be purged. There are too many of these posts to list here, and I won’t try to summarize their many twists and turns.  (A summary/review is here.) It ended in August 2017 with the body involved, North Carolina YM-FUM, committing corporate suicide and going out of business after 320 years. At the same time, purge fever spread to two other yearly meetings, with new splits beginning to boil over.

Some readers who were intrepid enough to keep up with this reporting might think I’m something of Quaker conflict junkie, and I can understand how that impression develops. But just this morning after worship at my meeting, I was prompted to mention to one of our stalwart members that in only a few weeks it will be a full year since all that agony in North Carolina YM-FUM finally went up (literally) in smoke. She and I were both overcome with relief.

Besides, in this struggle’s last year, the catastrophe of Eleventh Month 2016 pushed most of our intramural Quaker squabbling to the margins. (Not entirely; because Quaker divisions here in NC mirror many of those in the larger culture; we still have our discernment and work to do among Friends in this new and very gloomy context.

The evolution of technology also made it possible to be “active” in struggles physically located elsewhere. Say, for example, Standing Rock. I cheered on the pipeline protesters there, but had no leading to join them.

Then, just a few weeks after the 2016 election, I read that the paramilitary contractor TigerSwan, based near Fort Bragg and run by veterans of secret military units, was doing “security services” for the pipeline backers and possibly various police agencies. Beyond the name, few in the outside media knew anything about it.

I knew of it from my time at Quaker House, and dug up a batch of background on the company from public sources, then put up a substantial post on November 26. In 24 hours it drew more than a thousand hits, which is a lot for me — but such independent remote exposure could also be vulnerable to electronic pushback: suddenly, the post and my whole blog disappeared.It took a week of insistent appeals to the host to get the blog back up — and when it reappeared, the TigerSwan post was still gone, completely scrubbed from its files.

Fortunately, with the help of readers who had saved copies, we reconstructed the suppressed post, and uploaded it again; it is still there.  

Yesterday, the “All time” counter, which updated fitfully, abruptly jumped ahead a dozen or so, and flipped right past the number I was waiting to see. Whatever.

I’m still busy, as way opens, keeping up with more recent stories I broke in the “blogosphere,” about the two teachers at Friends Central School in Philadelphia who were fired for inviting a Palestinian pacifist Quaker speaker. That, plus the resistance, the resurgence of racism, and other topics, yield a continuing stream of blogging subject matter, some not so controversial. I’m hoping the blog can still build its readership and that I’ll last until the next big milestone (500,000) is reached.

 

If this post is of interest, pleased pass it on.