Kevin Drum - November 2013

Will Robots Dream of Electric Anythings?

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 3:38 PM EST

Today Paul Waldman interviews James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. I thought this was an interesting assertion:

Furthermore, at an advanced level, as I write in Our Final Invention, citing the work of AI-maker and theorist Steve Omohundro, artificial intelligence will have drives much like our own, including self-protection and resource acquisition. It will want to achieve its goals and marshal sufficient resources to do so. It will want to avoid being turned off. When its goals collide with ours it will have no basis for valuing our goals, and use whatever means are at its disposal for achieving its goals.

But why? Animals have these drives because we evolved them. In the biological world, these are extremely survival-adaptive traits, and species that have them will outbreed species that don't. But they have nothing to do with intelligence or consciousness. They're mindless drives that we possess for no reason except that all of our ancestors possessed them and then passed them down to us.

Intelligent machines might end up having these drives, but then again, they might not. There's no special reason that an AI construct would be especially curious, or fearful of death, or expansion-minded, or any of the other things we almost automatically associate with intelligence. Intelligent machines might not care one way or the other if they're shut off. They might not want more resources. They might not care about running the world. All of these mindless drives that so dominate biological life might be matters of no urgency at all to a machine that didn't evolve them.

Then again, they might be. But I don't think it's inevitable.

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Quote of the Day: Chris Christie Suddenly Gets Shy

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 11:55 AM EST

From Chris Christie, suddenly getting shy about expressing an opinion on immigration reform:

Well, listen, I can have an opinion about lots of things, George, but we’re not going to go through all that this morning are we?

This came after Christie had wasted a good chunk of the morning by evading three previous questions about his views on immigration. I guess that once you become a serious presidential contender, that old-school Jersey bluntness has to be mothballed. Apparently Christie has caught the John McCain disease.

7 Questions CBS Is Dodging on Its Bogus Benghazi Story

| Mon Nov. 11, 2013 1:47 AM EST

When someone does something wrong, the press demands answers. But when the press itself does something wrong, the usual response is to stonewall and "stand by its story." And even when the jig is finally up, they typically resort to a short apology that explains nothing. This, however, is supposed to satisfy us all. Move along, nothing to see here.

The latest example of this is 60 Minutes, which tonight aired a correction of its Benghazi report from two weeks ago that relied on the testimony of an anonymous security consultant who turned out to be a bullshitter:

The apology lasted only 90 seconds and revealed nothing new about why CBS had trusted Mr. Davies, who appeared on the program under the pseudonym Morgan Jones. Off-camera, CBS executives were left to wonder how viewers would react to the exceptionally rare correction.

While veteran television journalists spent the weekend debating whether the now-discredited Benghazi story would cause long-term damage to the newsmagazine’s brand, some media critics joined the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America in calling for CBS to initiate an independent investigation of missteps in the reporting process.

But the CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, who is also the executive producer of "60 Minutes," has not ordered an investigation, and on Sunday a spokesman indicated that the program was going to let its televised apology be its last word on the issue.

There you have it. This will be their last word on this issue:

  • They will not explain why they apparently failed to vet Davies' story with anyone else on the scene.
  • They will not explain why, in an investigation they say lasted over a year and involved more than a hundred sources (!), they failed to get hold of a copy of the FBI debriefing of Davies—surely the absolute minimum level of scrutiny they should have given Davies' account.
  • They will not explain why they failed to mention that Davies was promoting a book published by a CBS affiliate that specializes in right-wing agitprop.
  • They will not explain why Lara Logan—who has very publicly demanded "revenge" for the Benghazi attacks and pretty obviously has a strong personal agenda—chose to raise the "lingering question" of a better military response without bothering to mention that this question has been addressed over and over by the Pentagon.
  • They will not explain why they aired an interview with Gregory Hicks as if it were something new and damning, without mentioning either that he testified before Congress months ago or that his testimony has been called into question.
  • They will not explain why they vigorously backed up Davies for over a week after learning that he had filed an "incident report" that conflicted badly with his 60 Minutes interview—something that should have set off alarms since Davies had kept that report a secret and then provided a wholly implausible explanation for the discrepancy when it became public.
  • They will not explain why they weren't skeptical of a source that Fox News (!) dropped because he started asking for money.

There are probably several other things that CBS will also refuse to explain. This list is just off the top of my head. But I'm afraid that CBS no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. Someone there needs to demonstrate that they actually care about accuracy these days, rather than treating a huge fraud as a minor issue requiring only a short correction. And Lara Logan, who reported the story, and Jeff Fager, who is both CBS News chairman and the executive producer of 60 Minutes, really need to be held more accountable for both the story itself and their response to its obvious problems after it aired. "We made a mistake and we're sorry" just doesn't cut it.

Jay Rosen has more here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 4:00 PM EST

Here is Domino staring up into the camera as she prepares to jump onto the couch. This is always a huge production. The sofa is a grand total of 18 inches off the ground, but she walks back and forth, meows piteously, gets on her hind legs to look at the cushions, then walks back and forth some more, and then some more—and then, finally, after a bit of butt twitching and tail swishing, finally makes her grand entrance. You'd think she was Evel Knievel preparing to jump the Grand Canyon or something.

President Obama Doesn't Much Care What Benjamin Netanyahu Thinks Anymore

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 1:53 PM EST

The United States and its allies appear to be close to an interim deal with Iran, one that would modestly ease some of the economic sanctions currently in place in return for some kind of freeze on its centrifuge activities. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apoplectic at the prospect of a deal, but no one seems to be paying much attention to him. Jeffrey Goldberg explains why:

Two reasons. The first reason is that U.S. President Barack Obama has him boxed in. Netanyahu can’t launch a unilateral strike on Iran now that the U.S. is actively negotiating with its leaders.

....The second reason is one Netanyahu, so far at least, has refused to comprehend. His unwillingness to permanently freeze settlement growth on the West Bank, to make the sort of grand gesture toward the Palestinians that would advance the peace process, has caused even those in Washington and Europe who are sympathetic to his stance on Iran to write him off as generally immovable and irrational.

....Netanyahu argues that these are two separate issues, and he’s correct. Except that, in the world of international diplomacy, they are inextricably linked. The Obama administration hears Netanyahu’s demands for more action on Iran and tries — so far, fairly successfully — to meet that call for action. But when the Obama administration turns around and asks Netanyahu to make the sort of gestures that might advance the peace process, it more often than not gets stonewalled.

I'd put it more simply. Netanyahu has made it clear that he's just flatly opposed to any plausible bargain at all. His idea of a deal is that Iran first destroys its entire nuclear infrastructure and then—maybe—sanctions should be eased or lifted. This is pretty plainly not a deal that any national leader in his right mind would ever accept, and Netanyahu knows it. So he's essentially saying that no deal should ever be made with Iran.

Given an attitude like that, who's going to take him seriously? Nobody. Add to that an unending string of personal affronts against President Obama, and it's a credit to Obama's self-control that he's still willing to talk to Netanyahu at all. Obama has been endlessly accommodating toward Netanyahu's interests, and it's gotten him nothing in return but condescending lectures and blunt dismissals. So now he's acting on his own. More here from Andrew Sullivan.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in October

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 12:44 PM EST

The American economy added 204,000 new jobs in October, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 114,000. That's not bad. In addition, revisions to previous months increased previous estimates for August and September by 60,000 new jobs. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the labor force participation rate fell, and the headline unemployment rate increased from 7.24 percent to 7.28 percent. However, unlike the job growth numbers, this is based on a separate survey that counts furloughed government workers as unemployed, so it's not very meaningful. It will bounce back down next month.

Overall, then, the news was reasonably good, if not spectacular, but tainted by some artificial job losses due to the shutdown. We'll have to wait until next month for a clearer picture.

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Lara Logan Admits Her Benghazi Report Was a Mistake

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 11:44 AM EST

Lara Logan appeared on This Morning a few hours ago to admit that she had been misled by Dylan Davies, a security manager who told her a dramatic story two weeks ago about his actions on the night of the Benghazi attacks last year. Logan made Davies the centerpiece of a 60 Minutes segment about Benghazi, and shortly after it aired we learned that an after-action "incident report" contradicted Davies' on-air account. Today, Norah O'Donnell asked the question that's been on my mind ever since:

O'DONNELL: Last Thursday, The Washington Post ran a report that questioned the central parts of what Davies had told you. They cited this incident report right after the attack that he gave to Blue Mountain, the security firm that he worked for. He told them that he never made it to the compound, that he was at his villa there. Did you know about that report, that incident report?

LOGAN: No, we did not know about that incident report before we did our story. When The Washington Post story came out, he denied it. He said that he never wrote it, had nothing to do with it. And that he told the FBI the same story as he told us. But as we now know, that is not the case.

So here's what we know. Davies never told Logan about the incident report. He never told the co-author of his memoir about the incident report. When the content of the report was revealed, he invented an entirely implausible story about lying to his supervisor in the report because he respected him so highly and didn't want him to know that he'd disobeyed orders not to approach the compound. And yet, in a story that should have set off all sorts of alarms in the first place, this still didn't set off any alarms for Logan. She continued to defend Davies and her reporting until news emerged yesterday that the incident report matched what Davies had told the FBI in a debriefing shortly after the attack.

In her report, Logan also failed to mention that Davies' book about Benghazi is being published by a sister corporation of CBS, one that specializes in right-wing nonfiction. "We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report," Logan told the New York Times, but somehow that little tidbit about Davies' publisher was inadvertently left out of her 60 Minutes segment.

I don't know what's going on here, but it was clear from the moment the segment aired that Logan was heavily invested in a Benghazi narrative of some kind. I'm not even sure what it is, but Davies was an iffy source from the start, and the other two folks she interviewed were well-known Benghazi critics who had told their stories many times before. They had nothing new or very interesting to say, and there were lots of reasons to be skeptical about their accounts. But Logan never mentioned any of that. She just offered them up as unimpeachable sources.

Something isn't right here. This wasn't a deeply reported segment that took a year to prepare. Nor was it the product of a neutral reporter. CBS needs to investigate what happened, and they need to do it with the same thoroughness that they investigated Dan Rather and Mary Mapes five years ago when they got snookered on the George Bush National Guard story that they obviously wanted to believe just a little bit too badly. Something like that seems to have happened here too.

Chart of the Day: The Price of Austerity

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Paul Krugman is attending the annual IMF research conference and reports that the presentations have covered a wide range of topics:

It’s pretty clear, however, that the blockbuster paper of the conference will be one that focuses on the truly ugly: the evidence that by tolerating high unemployment we have inflicted huge damage on our long-run prospects.

How so? According to the paper (with the unassuming title “Aggregate Supply in the United States: Recent Developments and Implications for the Conduct of Monetary Policy”), our seemingly endless slump has done long-term damage through multiple channels. The long-term unemployed eventually come to be seen as unemployable; business investment lags thanks to weak sales; new businesses don’t get started; and existing businesses skimp on research and development.

....The evidence is overwhelming that by failing to respond effectively to mass unemployment — by not even making unemployment a major policy priority — we’ve done ourselves immense long-term damage. And it is, as I said, a bitter irony, because one main reason we’ve done so little about unemployment is the preaching of deficit scolds, who have wrapped themselves in the mantle of long-run responsibility — which they have managed to get identified in the public mind almost entirely with holding down government debt.

The authors of the study conclude not merely that GDP growth slowed down during the recession and its aftermath—that's pretty obvious—but that potential GDP has also taken a hit from our continued economic weakness. In other words, even running at full tilt our economy's productive capacity is now about 7 percent below its pre-crisis trend level—which represents a loss of about $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. This is the price we're paying for four years of austerity mania.

"60 Minutes" Getting Ready to Eat Crow Over Benghazi Report

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 9:45 PM EST

From the New York Times earlier today:

Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, told the F.B.I. he did not go there the night terrorists attacked it on Sept. 11, 2012, an account that contradicts a version of events he gave in a recently published book and in an interview to the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”

From CBS a few minutes ago:

60 Minutes has learned of new information that undercuts the account told to us by [Davies] of his actions on the night of the attack on the Benghazi compound. We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.

Roger that. I'll be waiting for an extensive investigation into how 60 Minutes let itself get snookered yet again.

New NAEP Scores Show Continued Improvement in American Schools

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 4:32 PM EST

Good news, ed geeks! The 2013 NAEP scores for reading and math are out today. Here's the executive summary: math scores are up 1 point since 2011 for both 4th and 8th graders. Reading scores are up 2 points for 8th graders and are flat for 4th graders.

I'll probably dig into this in more detail later, but for now here's a quick taste. The table below shows the 8th grade math results for all states. It's sorted by black scores, so you can see which states seem to do the best job of educating their black students. If you want to know how or why some states do better than others, I have no answers for you right now. This is just raw data. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed up and posted 4th grade scores instead of 8th grade scores. It's been corrected now.