April 12, 2019

Posted by orrinj at 6:38 PM


U.S. mayors decry Trump sanctuary city threat, 'prepared to welcome' migrants (Reuters, 4/12/19) 

Democratic U.S. mayors said on Friday their cities would welcome illegal immigrants, dismissing President Donald Trump's threats to transport people detained at the border to "sanctuary cities" as illustrating the White House's callous approach to the issue.

Posted by orrinj at 6:35 PM


Trump told CBP head he'd pardon him if he were sent to jail for violating immigration law (Jake Tapper,  April 12, 2019, CNN)

President Donald Trump told Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan he would grant McAleenan a pardon if he were sent to jail for having border agents block asylum seekers from entering the US in defiance of US law, senior administration officials tell CNN.

Posted by orrinj at 6:22 PM


Head of Sudan's military council steps down, a day after Bashir toppled (Khalid Abdelaziz, 4/12/19, Reuters) 

Sudan's defense minister stepped down abruptly on Friday as head of the country's transitional ruling military council after only a day in the post, as protesters demanded quicker political change following President Omar al-Bashir's ouster by the armed forces.

Posted by orrinj at 6:11 PM


Do you compute?: We're certainly on to something when we say the brain is a computer - even if we don't yet know what exactly we're on to (Kevin Lande, 4/12/15, aeon)

[T]he claim that the brain is a computer is not just a metaphor. The cognitive sciences are full of hypotheses to the effect that the brain computes such-and-such in so-and-so a way. Many of our perceptual capacities, for example, are understood in computational terms, and there aren't any viable alternatives around. Here are a handful of widely accepted hypotheses about what the brain computes, though I will leave out the details:

Direction of sound from interaural time difference: if a loud crash occurs directly in front of you, its soundwaves will reach your left and right ears at the same time. If it occurs to your left, its soundwaves will reach your left ear slightly before they reach your right ear. When you hear a loud crash as being to your left or your right, your auditory system is computing, according to trigonometric principles, an estimate of that crash's direction on the basis of the difference in times between when the sound waves arrived at your right and your left ears.

Depth from disparity (or stereopsis): most things reflect light to both your eyes. Take one of your fingers and hold it arm's length away from you, and take another finger and hold it halfway between the farther finger and your face. Now fix your gaze on the closer finger. Your farther finger will reflect light to a different part of your left eye (relative to its centre) than it will to your right eye (relative to its centre). To see this, keep fixating on your closer finger. Close one eye and pay attention to the space that's visible between your nearer and farther finger. Now switch the eyes - open one and close the other. You'll notice that the visible space between your fingers is different. If you now bring your farther finger a bit nearer to you and repeat the eye-closing experiment, the effect is less dramatic. When you see one thing as twice as far away as another, part of what is happening is that your visual system computes an estimate of depth by first computing which retinal cells are responding to the same point in the world, and then determining the relative difference ('disparity') in the positions or coordinates of those retinal cells (greater disparities = greater depth).

Contour integration: when looking at the outline shape of an object in a cluttered scene, your visual system initially registers a bunch of tiny, individual segments of lines or contours (imagine lots of dashed lines). The visual system has to determine which line segments go with each other - which segments are parts of a common object's outline, and which belong to different ones. The visual system computes outlines from line segments on the basis of, among other things, how close together those segments are, how similar in orientation they are, and whether they form an approximately straight line.

Surface colour from illumination: the light that reaches your eye from a surface is a product of that surface's colour and the colour of the illumination. So, your white shoes will reflect different types of light depending on whether it is daytime or dusk, or whether you are on the dance floor or in a fluorescent-lit bathroom. Still, you can usually tell that your shoes are white under these different conditions. When you see something as having a certain colour, your visual system is computing an estimate of the object's colour by taking into account the nature of the illumination. The reason some people saw that dress as blue and black, and others saw it as white and gold, is that their visual systems are computing colours from different estimates of what the illumination is like.

Progress in cognitive science regularly consists in saying with mathematical precision exactly what is being computed - what direction should be estimated from some interaural time difference? - and exactly how the computation is performed. Hypotheses concerning these details can be and are tested against experimental observations, both of how people perform on tests (point to the loud noise, please) and of how populations of neurons respond to stimuli. There's pretty stable agreement about what would count as evidence for or against hypotheses of this sort. Nobody has any real idea of how else to understand our abilities to, for example, perceive the locations of sounds or the depths, outlines and colours of objects.

That's a level of clarity and commitment to a premise that is uncharacteristic of metaphorical claims.

Posted by orrinj at 6:03 PM


Our Political Fights Are Bad Because We Don't Agree on the Rules (JIM GERAGHTY, April 12, 2019, National Review)

One of the reasons our politics is so contentious and angry is that we can't agree on what the rules are. Some of us want to argue that certain policies are good and certain policies are bad. But a vocal chunk of Americans don't really care about what the policies are; they would much rather argue that their side is right. They don't care if these are the same policies or comparable to those they denounced earlier. The system is clogged with bad-faith arguments, hypocrisy, and flip-flopping.

What do most Americans and most American policymakers think of running trillion-a-year deficits? It depends upon whether their party's president is the one running up the debts. When the other guys are in power, it's reckless endangerment of our children's future. When their own guys are in power, it's a necessary step to ensure economic growth.

When someone prominent is accused of a crime, is the bigger concern the rights of the accused and the burden of proof, or the rights of the victim to have her account heard and for the crime to be punished? For many people, it depends upon the partisan status of the person accused. Some people believed the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh instantly and adamantly insisted his confirmation to the Supreme Court was a great injustice; some of those same people take little interest in the women accusing Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax -- and some people reversed their responses in the other direction.

The antiwar movement around Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be an anti-Bush movement; once Obama was in office, the protests grew more sparse and less covered. When one side's leaders take military action, it's protecting Americans in a dangerous world; when the other side's leaders take military action, it's irresponsible warmongering.

For many Americans, when the side they like uses heated rhetoric, it's speaking truth to power. When the side they don't like uses heated rhetoric, it's hate speech and dangerous incitement.

We have so few policy differences at the End of History that all we have left to argue about is which sneeches have star bellies. After all, the deficit doesn't matter; Bret Kavanaugh is indistinguishable from Merrick Garland judicially; and we all agree that Saddam needed to be removed.

Posted by orrinj at 5:59 PM


How migrants' values change after moving to Sweden (The Local, Apr. 12th, 2019)

A majority of those questioned (57 percent) in the survey, which was carried out on the request of the Swedish government, reported feeling 'very at home' in Sweden. A further 32 percent felt 'quite at home' and only six percent didn't feel at home at all. Almost as many (55 percent) felt at home in the specific municipality they were living in. 

When these responses were broken down by nationality, people from Somalia felt most at home, followed by those in Eritrea and Turkey (only seven countries had enough respondents to be included individually: Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, Iran and Turkey). The majority of respondents came from Middle Eastern and North African countries, while around one fifth were from Sub-Saharan Africa, and others came from South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia, and from Central and Eastern Europe. [...]

Puranen explained that in the World Values Survey and two other major surveys (the European Values Study and the European Social Survey) carried out since 1981, only a tiny proportion of interviewees in Western countries have been Muslims who have moved to those countries (including Western European countries, North America, Australia and New Zealand) from overseas. 

"It's a democratic issue that we should have a better representation of these groups," said Puranen, explaining the motivation for the study, which focused primarily on Muslim migrants.

Around 6,500 non-EU migrants living in 54 municipalities, from PiteƄ in the north to Vellinge at the southern tip of Sweden, answered questions about their personal values and how they felt in Sweden. The survey included people who had moved to Sweden for a variety of reasons: more than half or 52 percent had arrived as refugees, while 37 percent moved to join a partner in Sweden and eight percent moved for work.

Most of those questioned felt equally proud of Sweden and their home countries, with 72 percent saying they were proud to be Swedish and 77 percent proud to be from their country of origin. [...]

One interesting finding was that respondents were typically closer to Sweden on the cultural map than their home countries, which could be due to people being more likely to move to a country where their values were similar, or could be a marker of integration of these groups.

"The relatively fast switch to some parts of the emancipated values also surprised, like acceptance of equality (but not segregated choices), acceptance of women's work, democracy, (making your voice heard, et cetera)," the researcher said.

Posted by orrinj at 4:19 AM


U.S. political consultant tied to Russia probe sentenced to 36 months of probation (Reuters, 4/12/19)

 A U.S. judge on Friday sentenced Republican political consultant Samuel Patten to 36 months of probation, 500 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine in a case spun out of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Posted by orrinj at 4:13 AM


New Government Data Shows Trump Wanted to Close the Wrong Border (Noah Lanard, 4/12/19, Mother Jones)

Last week, Trump threatened to close officials ports of entry along the Mexican border, citing security concerns. But of the foreigners convicted of crimes in the United States or abroad who were stopped by CBP at ports of entry from October 2016 to February 2019, 43 percent arrived at the northern border, 42 percent at airports or ports, and just 15 percent at the southern border, according to a CBP spokeswoman.

Posted by orrinj at 4:06 AM


Welcome to the Yeehaw Agenda: The Black Cowboy Trend Behind the Internet's Favorite Song (RACHEL TASHJIAN, April 9, 2019, GQ)

And then, suddenly, a "country-trap" song called "Old Town Road," by a 19-year-old Atlanta rapper who called himself Lil Nas X, was everywhere. Since early December, it had been humming along as a meme on TikTok, but became known to the rest of the world in late March, when, after it charted on the Billboard Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B/Hip Hop charts, it was unceremoniously plucked off the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, with the company telling Rolling Stone that, "While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version." The move ignited a conversation about genre and race, and last week, Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on a remix, adding to Lil Nas X's descriptions of his "Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty" with lines about "Fendi sports bras" and "ridin' down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car." The song is currently Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Finally, the yeehaw agenda has its anthem.

The yeehaw agenda wasn't the only piece of internet ephemera behind the explosion of Lil Nas X's song, though. In fact, the song is a perfect, algorithmically engineered combination of internet savvy and trends. As New York reported last week, Lil Nas X started as a Tweetdecker, or an anonymous account that creates and rips off viral content from smaller accounts in a kind of "forced, gamed virality." In October of last year, Lil Nas X spent $30 on the beat, created by a producer from the Netherlands, that would become "Old Town Road," and wrote the lyrics with Twitter in mind, he told Rolling Stone. (Truly: a song that mentions both Gucci and Wrangler is basically daring you not to tweet about it.) He was thinking about the cowboy video game Red Dead Redemption 2, he said, although he wasn't necessarily responding to the "yeehaw agenda," which "definitely wasn't at the level it's at now," he told Rolling Stone. By the time he was ready to release it, he had the audience to make it go viral, and, as multiple reporters have pointed out, was smart enough to label the song as country rather than hip-hop, thereby giving himself a less competitive playing field.

But even if Lil Nas X geniusly Svengali'd his single, it was the fervor for cowboy clothing that propelled "Old Town Road" to worldwide popularity. On TikTok--the Chinese social media platform that has everyone above 25 scratching their heads, and every teenager in suburban America coordinating complex dances with large groups of friends after football practice--the song emerged in December as the "yeehaw challenge," a 10-second-long fantasy about total cowboy transformation. By allowing users to view videos based on the soundtrack, and by making relatively complex editing techniques--you know, the quick jumps and cuts that made comedy gold on Vine--easy to use, TikTok is built for memes, making it easier than ever for someone, or something, to go viral. In the yeehaw challenge, a user stands in front of the camera for the song's first few banjo plucks, and--after taking a swig of liquid labeled "yeehaw juice"--is suddenly dressed into head to toe cowboy apparel when the beat drops.

It seems crazy that teens across suburban America have enough cowboy apparel laying around their house for so many of them to make this meme--what kind of 16-year-old has a Stetson and leather boots just sitting in their closet? But whether the song revealed that most bored teens do, indeed, harbor a secret stash of Americana gear, or that they were simply compelled to head to their nearest costume store or Western clothing dealer and cop the goods, the virality of the meme makes it clear that the internet was primed to embrace the style.

Posted by orrinj at 4:00 AM


Inside the Russian effort to target Sanders supporters -- and help elect Trump (Michael Kranish, April 12, 2019, Washington Post)

 After Bernie Sanders lost his primary campaign for president against Hillary Clinton in 2016, a Twitter account called Red Louisiana News reached out to his supporters to help sway the general election. "Conscious Bernie Sanders supporters already moving towards the best candidate Trump! #Feel the Bern #Vote Trump 2016," the account tweeted.

The tweet was not actually from Louisiana, according to an analysis by Clemson University researchers. Instead, it was one of thousands of accounts identified as based in Russia, part of a cloaked effort to persuade supporters of the Vermont senator to elect Trump. "Bernie Sanders says his message resonates with Republicans," said another Russian tweet. 

While much attention has focused on the question of whether the Trump campaign encouraged or conspired with Russia, the effort to target Sanders supporters has been a lesser-noted part of the story. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in a case filed last year against 13 Russians accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign, said workers at a St. Petersburg facility called the Internet Research Agency were instructed to write social media posts in opposition to Clinton but "to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump." 

Bernie is Donald. More importantly to Vlad, neither is Hillary, his enemy.

Posted by orrinj at 3:54 AM


Netanyahu Is King Of Israel Now -- But Not King Of The Jews (Jane Eisner, Apr. 11th, 2019, The Forward)

I've been saying for some time that we need to recalibrate the relationship between Israel and what is known as the Diaspora -- a term I increasingly dislike. The very language of Israel and Diaspora, hub and spoke, center and periphery, homeland and exile no longer speaks to the lived reality of the majority of Jews who reside outside Zion, and likely always will.

The consolidation of politically right wing, religiously conservative power in Israel accelerates the process. It is not my place to tell Israelis how to vote; nor is it their place to shape my political values and behaviors as an American. For many decades, I didn't have to choose, because those values and behaviors were generally compatible. Increasingly now, it seems, they are moving in opposite directions.

Responsibility for this growing divide lies with American Jews as much as with Israeli politicians. In the short term, I don't see how it can be reversed.

Netanyahu's re-election, while not surprising, is revealing. It tells us that many Israeli Jews see the world as he does: so hostile externally that allies can be forged with anyone, regardless of their autocratic and fascist tendencies; so hostile domestically that democratic norms can be disparaged and destroyed; so devoid of Palestinians that their suffering can be ignored.

Even a coalition of centrist former military men in macho black leather jackets couldn't galvanize enough of the voting public to deny Netanyahu another term.

As American Jews, we have to respect that democratic choice -- while decrying the attempts to suppress Arab voters -- and seek to understand it. But it should not change who we are. [...]

I'm not sure that these American trends would be much different had the Blue and White coalition won enough votes to form the next government, as their policies were roughly similar to Netanyahu's, even if their rhetoric was notably more civil and inclusive.

The prime minister has embodied Israel's rightward lurch, encouraged and enabled it, but like all political trends, it is driven by a combination of sociological and demographic factors along with his leadership. Similarly, the trends among American Jews are propelled by a variety of factors, and some -- including rapid assimilation and intermarriage -- don't necessarily bode well for our sustainability, either.

And yet a distinctively American Jewish vernacular has begun to flourish in the last few years, and while it references Israel, it is not always rooted there. I predict that we will see more money, effort, creativity and intention focused on nourishing the Judaism here, while -- I fervently hope -- maintaining an engagement with Israel that transcends politics.

We are witnessing the establishment of two central "homes" for the Jewish people. Netanyahu firmly rules one. He does not rule the other.

Posted by orrinj at 12:04 AM


Ilhan Omar targeted with racist insults and conspiracy theories over 9/11 comments (Rex Santus, Apr 11, 2019, Vice News)

The New York Post published a front page Thursday morning that used imagery from the 9/11 attacks to criticize Omar's remarks.

A day earlier, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade pondered if Omar was an American. "You have to wonder if she's American first," Kilmeade said. (Like the New York Post, Fox News is also owned by Rupert Murdoch.)

Even a sitting member of Congress -- Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican -- joined the pile-on by calling Omar's comments "unbelievable."

Additionally, Donald Trump Jr. called Omar a disgrace and retweeted a racist, Islamophobic conspiracy theory that linked the congresswoman to terrorism. Laura Loomer, a far-right media figure who's been banned from Twitter, used Instagram to accuse Omar of treason and asked her fans to "rise up" against the congresswoman.

...that the Islamophobes can't distinguish between Islam and terrorism.

Posted by orrinj at 12:02 AM


Are we living in a simulation? This MIT scientist says it's more likely than not (Dyllan Furness, April 9, 2019, Digital Trends)

Digital Trends: The simulation hypothesis is a complex and controversial topic. What first got you interested in writing a book about it?

Rizwan Virk: I had an experience playing virtual reality ping pong and the responsiveness was very real to the point where I forgot that I was in a room with VR glasses on. When the game ended, I put the paddle on the table but, of course, there was no paddle and there was no table, so the controller fell to the floor. I even leaned over onto the table and almost fell over. That experience really got me thinking about how video game technology is evolving and how it could end up being so fully immersive that we would be unable to distinguish it from reality.

Describe the simulation hypothesis for people who aren't familiar with it.

The basic idea is that everything we see around us, including the Earth and the universe, is part of a very sophisticated MMORPG (a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) and that we are players in this game. The hypothesis itself comes in different forms.

In one version, we're all A.I. within a simulation that's running on somebody else's computer. In another version, we are "player characters," conscious things that exist outside the simulation and we inhabit characters, just like you might take on the character of an elf or dwarf in a fantasy RPG.

So, for example, in The Matrix there's that famous scene where Morpheus gives Neo the choice between the red pill or the blue pill. When he takes the red pill, he wakes up (in a vat) in the real world, where he controlled his (simulation) character. He was jacked in through a physical cable in his neocortex. In that particular version of the simulation hypothesis, we are conscious or biological beings outside of the simulation and each of us controls a character. 

When The Matrix first came out, the simulation hypothesis seemed purely science fictional. Why do you think it's taken more seriously today?

The first reason is that video game technology has advanced and we can now have millions of players on a shared server. Also, 3D-rendering technology has gotten really good. We can actually represent 3D objects in 3D worlds. In the '80s and early '90s, there wasn't enough computing power to render a world like World of Warcraft or Fortnite. It relied on us being able to build optimization techniques that allowed us to render just what the character sees. A third of [my] book is dedicated to video game technology, how it evolved in the past, and what the stages are to get from where we are today to a "simulation point," (where simulation is indistinguishable from reality).

The other big reason why scientists and academics are starting to take it seriously is Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, who wrote an article in 2003 called "Are You Living in a Simulation?" He came up with a clever statistical argument for the simulation hypothesis. He says, suppose some civilization somewhere gets to the simulation point and can create highly realistic "ancestor simulations." With more computing power, they can spin off new servers and new civilizations really quickly. Each of those servers can have billions or trillions of simulated beings within them. Therefore, the number of simulated beings is way more than the number of biological beings. If just one civilization reaches the simulation point, probability says you are likely a simulated being because there are way more simulated beings in existence than biological ones.

Posted by orrinj at 12:01 AM


A Charred Gas Can, a Receipt and an Arrest in Fires of 3 Black Churches (Alan Blinder, Richard Fausset and John Eligon, April 11, 2019, NY Times)

OPELOUSAS, La. -- While the victims prayed for the soul of the arsonist who burned down their houses of worship, investigators rushed to assemble clues, worried the assailant would strike again.

The detectives had noticed the same pickup truck in surveillance video footage near each of the three predominantly black churches that had been set ablaze and destroyed. They found the charred remains of a particular brand of gas can sold at a local Walmart.

Then the pieces came together, and the authorities announced the arrest of a 21-year-old white man who is the son of a local sheriff's deputy and an aficionado of a subgenre of heavy metal, called black metal, whose most extreme practitioners in Norway have engaged in church burning, vandalism and killing.

...for these fires to be hate crimes.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Letters from Joe Biden reveal how he sought support of segregationists in fight against busing (Jeff Zeleny,  April 11, 2019, CNN)

In a series of never-before-published letters from Biden, which were reviewed by CNN, the strength of his opposition to busing comes into sharper focus, particularly how he followed the lead of -- and sought support from -- some of the Senate's most fervent segregationists.
"My bill strikes at the heart of the injustice of court-ordered busing. It prohibits the federal courts from disrupting our educational system in the name of the constitution where there is no evidence that the governmental officials intended to discriminate," Biden wrote to fellow senators on March 25, 1977. "I believe there is a growing sentiment in the Congress to curb unnecessary busing."

Biden, who at the time was 34 and serving his first term in the Senate, repeatedly asked for -- and received -- the support of Sen. James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a leading symbol of Southern resistance to desegregation. Eastland frequently spoke of blacks as "an inferior race."

"Dear Mr. Chairman," Biden wrote on June 30, 1977. "I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week's committee meeting in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote."

Two weeks later, Biden followed up with a note to Eastland "to thank you again for your efforts in support of my bill to limit court ordered busing."

Biden, who would go on to lead the Judiciary Committee a decade later, got his start on the panel under Eastland. Few senators were more virulently outspoken against desegregation than the Mississippi senator, who was known for incendiary floor speeches on race.

Yet Biden invited Eastland to speak on the Senate floor in support of his anti-busing bill.
"I want to personally ask your continued support and alert you to our intentions," Biden wrote on Aug. 22, 1978. "Your participation in floor debate would be welcomed."