2012 - %3, April

Human Beings Not As Impressive As You Think

| Sun Apr. 29, 2012 10:55 AM PDT

A recent study suggests that computers can score student essays about as well as human beings. Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, isn't impressed:

While his research is limited, because E.T.S. is the only organization that has permitted him to test its product, he says the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.

The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.

Sounds like another win for e-graders to me! An excessive deference to facts is just an obstacle to success these days, best left to the little people responsible for the drudge work of implementing plans and tactics. If you have higher ambitions, an ability to bullshit persuasively is far more important, and apparently our robot essay scorers know that. Besides, they can grade nearly a thousand essays a second. What's not to like?

On a more serious note, I suspect that Perelman's criticisms are off base. He says that electronic grading programs can be gamed, and I have no doubt that he's right. But here's the thing: the study that started all this didn't say that robot graders have discovered some cosmically valid measure of writing quality. The study just said that computer graders handed out the same scores as human graders. In other words, apparently humans don't care much about facts either; are easily impressed by big words; and have idiosyncratic likes and dislikes that can be easily pandered to. The average human being, it seems, can be gamed just as easily as a computer.

If you want a broader moral about computer intelligence from all this, I've got one of those too. Here it is: People who don't believe in "real" artificial intelligence natter on endlessly about their belief that computers will never be able to truly replicate the glorious subtleties and emotional nuances of human thought. The problem is this: most of them overestimate just how impressive human thought really is. Human beings, in most cases, are just a bundle of fairly simpleminded algorithms that fuse together in enough different combinations that the results seem ineffable and impossible of reduction. But that's only because most of the time we don't really understand our own motivations. We aren't nearly as impressive as we like to think.

In the end, this is my big difference with the AI naysayers: I'm just not as impressed by human intelligence as they are. All those human essay graders probably think they're making use of deep human values and intelligence as they score those essays, but in fact they're mostly just applying a few hundred (or maybe a few thousand) linguistic algorithms they've learned over the years and spitting out a number. And before you scoff about the poor drones doing this grading, who are nothing like you because you have subject area knowledge and do care about facts, well, how long do you really think it's going to be before robo-graders have that too? If a computer can win Jeopardy! and act as an expert system for medical diagnoses, how long will it be before their judgement of factual material is as good as ours? Ten years? Twenty?

The future success of AI doesn't fundamentally hinge on the fact that computers will someday be far more impressive than they are today. It hinges on the fact that human-level intelligence isn't all that high a bar in the first place. My guess is that we don't have very much longer to get used to that.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

No, Irvine is Not the Most Fashionable City in America

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 10:40 AM PDT

My hometown of Irvine, California, is mostly famous for being one of the most heavily planned communities in America. We are not just boring, we are deliberately and proudly boring. But it turns out that we're #1 in more than municipal planning. According to the Daily Mail, we are also the most fashionable large city in America. My sister is properly skeptical and asks what's going on here. "None of the Real Housewives lives in Irvine," she points out, and the accuracy of the Mail piece is also called into question by the suggestion that Irvine was "made famous by the hit show The OC," which, as I recall, was set in Newport Beach, not Irvine.

So here's the scoop: the Mail has its facts, such as they are, right. A site called Bundle, which promises "unbiased, data-driven ratings," says that Irvine is indeed "an unexpected number one" in its fashion rankings:

We selected the 50 largest cities by population in our data set and created a fashion-conscious index, with 1.0 being average. We based our index on the percentage of "fashion-conscious households" in our sample, which we defined as households that had at least four transactions at top-end designer merchants in the past 30 months.

Okey dokey. Basically, if you have lots of people who buy clothes at expensive stores, that makes you "fashionable." This is, needless to say, a debatable proposition. What's more, if you click on "50 Places in the OC that the Fashion-Forward Frequent," you get lots of shops in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles and virtually none in Orange County. And it turns out that the Bundle folks are also the source of the Mail's confusion about American TV, calling Irvine "Home of the OC." So I think we can all take this with a grain of salt. I suspect that even the Irvine Chamber of Commerce will have a hard time making a silk purse out of this particular sow's ear.

Yet Another Retired Spook Says Netanyahu is a Nutcase

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 9:36 AM PDT

I know Israeli politics is even crankier and more partisan than ours, but even so it's hard not be impressed by the number of national security figures who have recently suggested that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is basically a nutcase. Here's the latest:

“I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” said Yuval Diskin, who stepped down last May after six years running the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the F.B.I.

“I have observed them from up close,” Mr. Diskin said. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.” Echoing Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, Mr. Diskin also said that the government was “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

....Ronen Bergman, an Israeli analyst and author of the 2008 book “The Secret War With Iran,” said in an interview that Mr. Diskin’s comments were significant because he left the government in good standing with Mr. Netanyahu — unlike Mr. Dagan, who was forced out — and because he was widely respected “for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.”

In somewhat related news, the LA Times reports that President Obama is playing good cop to Netanyahu's bad cop:

U.S. officials said they might agree to let Iran continue enriching uranium up to 5% purity, which is the upper end of the range for most civilian uses, if its government agrees to the unrestricted inspections, strict oversight and numerous safeguards that the United Nations has long demanded.

....A senior administration official said that if Iran fulfills U.S. and other world powers' demands for strict enforcement of U.N. monitoring and safeguards, "there can be a discussion" of allowing low-level domestic enrichment, "and maybe we can get there, potentially." But the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, emphasized that such discussions remained only a small possibility because Iran has shown so little willingness to meet international demands.

Like Diskin, I continue to have my doubts that Israel could effectively take out Iran's nuclear facilities on its own. I say this with a keen appreciation that I don't know squat about operational military affairs, but even so, I still don't see it. They could unquestionably do a bunch of damage, but given the distances involved and the size of the Israeli Air Force, it's really hard to believe that they could do much more than set back the Iranian program a year or so.

All of which keeps me wondering what's really going on here. Is Netanyahu really hellbent on a military strike? Or is there some kind of complicated Israeli-U.S. bluff unfolding? Neither option quite seems wholly believable, so I don't really know what to believe. Stay tuned.

Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

When I'm constructing a quick meal, I typically try to balance a protein, a complex starch, and some richly colored vegetables and/or herbs. (I buy into the nutritional school of thought that says the more colorful the food, the more nutrition it packs).

For this low-fuss, high-flavor, minimalist lunch, I did just that. Hit it with your favorite spicy condiment—like my own choice, salsa macha—and you've got something fun to eat that won't take up lots of time or dirty lots of dishes.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad
(Serves one; can easily be doubled—if you do, use the largest skillet you have.)

1 large sweet potato
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A bit of butter
1-2 eggs (I can never eat more than 1 fried or baked egg at a time)
1 good handful of parsley
2 slices of a big red onion (the rest reserved for another use)
A little fresh lemon juice or vinegar

Preheat oven to 475°.

Slice the sweet potato crosswise at a slight angle into quarter-inch rounds, then stack the rounds into two piles and slice them into sticks (see photo, above left). Drop them into a bowl, give them a few good drizzles of olive oil and a good lashing of salt and pepper, and toss them to coat. Now lay them out in a single layer in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, and bake in oven. After about 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 300° and flip the potato sticks over with a spatula. Return them to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the parsley and onion and add them to the same bowl that you tossed the potatoes in. Give them a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or a bit of vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to combine, taste, and adjust seasoning as you like. Set aside.

The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. After the potatoes have had their second 10 minutes in the oven, remove the skillet and make a clearing in the middle with a spatula. Add a little pat of butter and let it melt, using a spatula to coat the clearing. Crack your egg or eggs to the sizzling butter in the clearing, season the egg(s) with salt and pepper, and return the skillet to the oven. Cook until the whites are set and the yolk(s) are as you prefer (I like them a bit runny).

Slide the sweet potatoes onto a plate with a spatula, slide the egg on top of the potatoes, and top it all with the salad. Enjoy.

Film Review: "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth"

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
Zeitgeist Films
82 minutes

Jennifer Baichwal's new documentary, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, is all about debt, but it won't help you consolidate credit card payments or pay off student loans. The film is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's book-length essay of the same name, which is itself an adaption of a series of lectures.

Atwood focused on rethinking the concept of debt, meandering through classic stories from the Orestes to Michael Corleone, accumulating trivia along the way. Ancient Aramaic uses the same word for both debt and sin; when Genghis Khan ransacked cities, he spared the scribes so they could track of the empire's debits and credits; an old Welsh custom allowed the poor to "eat the sin" of the recently deceased, taking on spiritual liabilities in exchange for food or cash. Stockpiling these anecdotes is not unpleasant, but it is slow going.

Baichwal's film is more entertaining. Atwood makes several appearances reading from her work, but instead of floating freely, the writer's ideas are anchored to actual people, and used to frame four stories of debt and payback. None of them are purely financial.

First come two Albanian families locked in a blood feud. One man moved a fence, the other hit a pregnant woman who defended the new fence, the first man shot the second man as revenge. The man survived, but the shooter's punishment is that he and his family can never leave their home—if they do, the other family can kill them. Imprisoned in their home for seven years, the debtor family has nothing to do but hang around their house bony and hopeless while their father plays a guitar and wails songs about forgiveness. The "creditor" has a leather jacket and constant sneer. His vindictive delight makes the punishment seem too harsh, even when he shows his gunshot scars. Whenever he appears you have to suppress the urge to shout at the screen, "Get over it already!"

WATCH: Football Hero Charles Woodson Doubles Down on Union Rights in Wisconsin

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 2:22 PM PDT
Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.

Divided as they may be, the people of Wisconsin still unite behind at least one cause: Green Bay Packers football. The "Pack" is a religion in Wisconsin, its followers fanatical, each home game at Lambeau Field awaited and attended with the fervor of a Papal visit. And unlike every other NFL team, the Pack is a nonprofit owned by the people, not some 1 percenter friendly with Mitt Romney.

It was no surprise, then, that when Packers defensive stalwart Charles Woodson spoke out in February 2011 against Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans' "unprecedented attack" on workers' rights, Woodson's words reverberated throughout the state. "I hope those leading the attack will sit down with Wisconsin's public workers and discuss the problems Wisconsin faces, so that together they can truly move Wisconsin forward," Woodson said at the time.

In Washington on Friday, Woodson, a member of the NFL Players Association union, doubled down on his support for workers' rights in Wisconsin. "Wisconsin workers and workers in general should have their right to be a union and have a right to fight for whatever rights they believe in," Woodson told Politico's Mike Allen. "We talk about having freedoms in this country. They should have the freedom to fight for their rights."

Here's the video:

Woodson has yet to take a public position on the recall fight targeting Walker. Nor, for that matter, have any other members of the Pack, many of whom flee Green Bay each offseason for warmer climates. But if Woodson or any of his teammates do weigh in on the recall rumble before the June 5 election, you can bet it will tip the scale in one of the most vicious and cash-drenched elections in Wisconsin history.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Reef Sharks Vanishing Around Populated Islands

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:45 PM PDT

Gray reefs sharks: Albert kok via Wikimedia CommonsGray reefs sharks: Albert kok via Wikimedia Commons

A new study finds that sharks living on reefs near areas populated by people have declined by between 90 and 97 percent compared to relatively pristine reefs where few or no people live.

"We estimate that reef shark numbers have dropped substantially around populated islands, generally by more than 90 percent compared to those at the most untouched reefs," says Marc Nadon, lead author of the study.

The authors of the paper in early view at Conservation Biology deployed 1,607 towed-diver surveys—that's where scientists are used as shark bait (kidding, sort of)—to count sharks at 46 reefs in the central-western Pacific Ocean. They combined those data with information on human population, habitat complexity, and reef area, as well as with satellite-derived measurements of sea surface temperature and oceanographic productivity.

These methods allowed them to fill in the blanks on the numbers of missing sharks. Their models showed that:

  • Densities of gray reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos), whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), and other reef sharks increased substantially as human population decreased. 
  • Densities of reef sharks increased substantially as primary productivity and minimum sea surface temperature (which correlates to reef area) increased.

From the paper:

Simulated baseline densities of reef sharks under the absence of humans were 1.1–2.4 [per hectare] for the main Hawaiian Islands, 1.2–2.4 [per hectare] for inhabited islands of American Samoa, and 0.9–2.1 [per hectare] for inhabited islands in the Mariana Archipelago, which suggests that density of reef sharks has declined to 3–10% of baseline levels in these areas.

 

Blacktip reef sharks: Jon Rawlinson via Wikimedia CommonsBlacktip reef sharks: Jon Rawlinson via Wikimedia Commons

"[Sharks] like it warm, and they like it productive," said Julia Baum, Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, referring to the increase in reef sharks the team found in areas with higher water temperatures and productivity. "Yet our study clearly shows that human influences now greatly outweigh natural ones."

The paper:

  • NADON, M. O., BAUM, J. K., WILLIAMS, I. D., MCPHERSON, J. M., ZGLICZYNSKI, B. J., RICHARDS, B. L., SCHROEDER, R. E. and BRAINARD, R. E. (2012), Re-Creating Missing Population Baselines for Pacific Reef Sharks. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01835.x

 

Friday Cat Blogging & Fundraising - 27 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 11:57 AM PDT

On the left we have a rare action shot of Inkblot. This isn't rare because he never walks around, it's rare because I'm not a quick enough photographer to catch him very often before he either flops onto the ground or else rushes up to nuzzle the camera lens. But this time I did, right in the middle of all our glorious spring foliage. And on the right, we have a classic: a cat in a bag. It never gets old, does it?

But you know what else we get in spring aside from glorious foliage? Spring fundraising! Over on the right Clara and Monika have 15 reasons you should help support our investigative journalism, and it's an impressive list that includes pink slime, Vivian Maier, exploding Pintos, redefining rape, and our invention of the po' boy. But I'll add two more right below, because there's more to life than investigative journalism, right? Here's how to donate:

As always, many thanks to those of you who throw a few dollars our way. It's what keeps us going, cats and humans both.

Water Really is More Important Than Money

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:54 AM PDT

Burt Likko has today's Complaint of the Day™:

Why is it that I need to create a not-less-than-twelve-character username, consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and then create a unique password of not less than twelve characters, also consisting of at least one capital letter, at least one lowercase letter, at least one punctuation symbol, and at least one number, and go through a 258-bit double-encryption process to get my water bill from the County of Los Angeles online?

Impressive! Congratulations, DWP! I just went through my annual ritual of changing all my online passwords because, you know, it seems like a good idea, right? And I didn't find a single site that wouldn't accept an 8-character password with at least one uppercase letter, one lowercase letter, and one number. That includes three or four passwords for various financial institutions. But I guess water is super special or something.

Why You Should Be Worried About the California Mad Cow Case

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:50 AM PDT

Move along, nothing to see here.

That sums up the USDA's public reaction to news that a downed California dairy cow was discovered to have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. The cow had an "atypical" case of BSE, one that likely doesn't come from BSE-infected feed, but rather from a genetic mutation, the agency insists.

Moreover, it never came close to entering the food supply, USDA stressed—it had shown up dead at a rendering facility, where it was randomly chosen for testing as part of the USDA's BSE-testing program. USDA chief Tom Vilsack, ever ready to jump to the meat industry's aid at a time of need, declared on CNN, "I'm having beef tonight for dinner. And that's no lie."

Global food and health agencies echoed the USDA's assessment, Bloomberg reports: "The U.S. finding of a case of mad cow disease shows the country’s surveillance system is working, according to the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health."