February 14, 2021

Posted by orrinj at 2:32 PM


New Machine Learning Theory Raises Questions About the Very Nature of Science (PRINCETON PLASMA PHYSICS LABORATORY, FEBRUARY 12, 2021)

The process also appears in philosophical thought experiments like John Searle's Chinese Room. In that scenario, a person who did not know Chinese could nevertheless "translate" a Chinese sentence into English or any other language by using a set of instructions, or rules, that would substitute for understanding. The thought experiment raises questions about what, at root, it means to understand anything at all, and whether understanding implies that something else is happening in the mind besides following rules.

Qin was inspired in part by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom's philosophical thought experiment that the universe is a computer simulation. If that were true, then fundamental physical laws should reveal that the universe consists of individual chunks of space-time, like pixels in a video game. "If we live in a simulation, our world has to be discrete," Qin said. The black box technique Qin devised does not require that physicists believe the simulation conjecture literally, though it builds on this idea to create a program that makes accurate physical predictions.

The resulting pixelated view of the world, akin to what is portrayed in the movie The Matrix, is known as a discrete field theory, which views the universe as composed of individual bits and differs from the theories that people normally create. While scientists typically devise overarching concepts of how the physical world behaves, computers just assemble a collection of data points. 

Qin and Eric Palmerduca, a graduate student in the Princeton University Program in Plasma Physics, are now developing ways to use discrete field theories to predict the behavior of particles of plasma in fusion experiments conducted by scientists around the world. The most widely used fusion facilities are doughnut-shaped tokamaks that confine the plasma in powerful magnetic fields.

Fusion, the power that drives the sun and stars, combines light elements in the form of plasma -- the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that represents 99% of the visible universe -- to generate massive amounts of energy. Scientists are seeking to replicate fusion on Earth for a virtually inexhaustible supply of power to generate electricity.

"In a magnetic fusion device, the dynamics of plasmas are complex and multi-scale, and the effective governing laws or computational models for a particular physical process that we are interested in are not always clear," Qin said. "In these scenarios, we can apply the machine learning technique that I developed to create a discrete field theory and then apply this discrete field theory to understand and predict new experimental observations."

This process opens up questions about the nature of science itself. Don't scientists want to develop physics theories that explain the world, instead of simply amassing data? Aren't theories fundamental to physics and necessary to explain and understand phenomena?

Science is technique, not theory. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:05 PM


The role of officer race and gender in police-civilian interactions in Chicago (Bocar A. Ba, Dean Knox, Jonathan Mummolo, Roman Rivera, 12 Feb 2021, Science)

In the wake of high-profile police shootings of Black Americans, it is important to know whether the race and gender of officers and civilians affect their interactions. Ba et al. overcame previous data constraints and found that Hispanic and Black officers make far fewer stops and arrests and use force less than white officers, especially against Black civilians. These differences are largest in majority-Black neighborhoods in the city of Chicago (see the Perspective by Goff). Female officers also use less force than male officers. These effects are supportive of the efficacy of increasing diversity in police forces.

More policing, just not by the police. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


This is Trump's heaping list of legal problems post-impeachment (Kara Scannell, Sonia Moghe and Jason Morris, February 14, 2021, CNN)

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander review - clear-eyed and distressing  (Colin Grant, 23 Jul 2019, The Guardian)

In 2008, months before his election as president, Barack Obama assailed feckless black fathers who had reneged on responsibilities that ought not "to end at conception". Where had all the black fathers gone, Obama wondered. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has a simple answer to their whereabouts: they've gone to jail.

Her clear-eyed assessment, published in the UK almost a decade after it first stunned America, is an indictment of a society that, since the 1980s, has been complicit in the explosion of its prison population from around 300,000 to more than 2 million. Drug convictions have largely fuelled the increase, and an extraordinary number of those new felons have been black. This is not coincidental. The Reagan administration's "war on drugs" shifted the legal goalposts, Alexander asserts, so that mass incarceration "emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialised social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow".

In the years following the civil war southern legislators designed "Jim Crow" laws to thwart the newly emancipated black population, notably curbing voting rights. Under the laws, black people also, increasingly, found themselves "relegated to convict leasing camps that were, in many ways, worse than slavery". If Jim Crow was an effective means of controlling the black population, then modern mass incarceration, Alexander argues, is its successor.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Democratic values compete with Buddhist ones in Myanmar (Mark Silk, Feb. 13th, 2021, RNS)

Briefly, Burmese Buddhism understands political legitimacy as derived from a species of spiritual potency called hpoun. The source of hpoun is the monastic order, or Sangha, which acquires it by renouncing power and forswearing worldly things.

Political leaders, like everyone else outside the Sangha, obtain hpoun through their support of the Sangha, emblemized by placing of food in the monks' begging bowls. In this system of what Jordt calls "karmic kingship" (the title of her forthcoming book), hpoun is what differentiates a good (legitimate) ruler from a bad (illegitimate) one. 

Although monks are required to be apolitical, they do have the right to act in order to protect the teachings of the Buddha. They do this by refusing accept food donations from those they believe have violated those teachings. By "turning over the bowl," they withhold hpoun.

That is just what happened in 2007, during public protests over an unannounced removal of fuel subsidies by the military government.

After a brutal crackdown on several hundred monks who had joined the protests in the name of relieving human suffering (a core Buddhist teaching), tens of thousands of monks protested this assault on religion by marching through the streets holding their bowls upside down. In the end, junta leader Than Shwe earned the title "Monk Killer," lost his legitimacy, and in 2011 resigned the position of head of state he had held since 1992.

Not surprisingly, the military was anything but happy with this development. So they did what Burmese leaders in similar situations had always done: denounced those who denied them hpoun as false monks and found monks who would support them.

The campaign against the Rohingya was spearheaded by one of the latter, who sold the campaign to the Burmese public as all about preserving Buddhism against alien religious power and influence.

None of this is to say that Western ideas of democracy and human rights have been absent in Myanmar. In 2007, some younger Burmans, including monks, embraced them -- but their standard-bearer, Aung San Suu Kyi, only up to a point.

The daughter of the martyred independence leader Aung San, Suu Kyi spent 15 years in house detention as head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 the generals refused to accept. Despite the name, the party has been less pro-democracy than anti-dictator -- in traditional Burmese terms, opposed to illegitimate kingship.

According to Jordt, the arrangement of shared civilian-military rule that has just been overthrown was a diarchy, an awkward shared rule that pitted Senior General Min Aung Hlaing against civilian leader Suu Kyi. The coup led by Min Aung Hlaing was grounded in his hope that, at age 75, her power was on the wane.

His own current effort has been to build up his hpoun by donating to monks and important pagodas, and consulting with the monastic leadership. He is seeking to demonstrate that the entire country, supernatural as well as natural, is with him and that he is the legitimate ruler in the traditional way. It remains to be seen whether he can bring the Sangha with him. 

This time around, however, exposure to social media has made the Burmese people far more aware and supportive of democracy as such. Gen Z has been at the forefront of a civil disobedience movement far more inclusive than anything that occurred in the past.

As Ike put it: 

And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: 'we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator...' not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but 'all men are endowed by their Creator'. In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Ben Sasse's Conviction: Trump's Lies Caused This (CHARLES C. W. COOKE, February 13, 2021, National Review)

What happened on January 6 of this year, Senator Ben Sasse told me on Monday night, represented "one of the most egregious Article II attacks on Article I in all of U.S. history."

For Sasse, who was one of only six Republican senators to argue that the impeachment was constitutionally sound, at stake in the trial was nothing less than the integrity of the Constitution itself.

"This is not," he told me, "really about Donald Trump. It is really about a signal to future office holders about what kind of behavior is appropriate." After all: "The old meaning -- the nonpolitical meaning -- of the word impeach, to impeach someone's character, is to decry certain kinds of behavior."

Sasse, the junior senator from Nebraska, was among the seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump on "incitement of insurrection" Saturday. In a series of interviews with National Review over several days leading up to that vote, Sasse sought to explain his thinking. The question at hand, he contended on day one of the impeachment trial, should be seen as "chiefly an Article I vs. Article II conflict, not chiefly as a partisan tribal conflict.

"The president is supposed to be not the just barely-smaller-than-King executive figure in the American system," Sasse told me. "It's supposed to be an administrative job where you faithfully execute the laws. When you're affirming the peaceful transition of power and the Article II branch tries to stir people up by sowing more distrust in that, I have a really hard historical time coming up with anything analogous in terms of an Article II attack on the constitutional order. That is an unbelievably egregious attack on a constitutional system."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Biden Is Already Uniting America -- His Agenda Is Wildly Popular (Eric Boehlert, Feb. 13th, 2021, National Memo)

He began his presidency 25 points more popular than Trump, and then began signing a flurry of executive orders designed to eradicate his predecessor's most divisive policies. While Republicans whined about the moves not "uniting" the country, polling show that many of Biden's executive orders enjoy overwhelming public support. They include banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation (83 percent support), requiring masks be worn on federal property (75 percent), overturning the ban on transgender people being able to serve in the military (71 percent), restarting the federal DACA program to protect undocumented "Dreamer" children (65 percent), rejoining the World Health Organization (62 percent), and rejoining the Paris climate according (59 percent).

The list goes on and on as Biden forges a path with policy markers that unify the country.

That includes the proposed Covid relief bill. Depicted in the press as being a deeply partisan and divisive issue, simply because the Republican Party stands opposed to the Democratic legislation, the bill enjoys sweeping support nationwide. Nearly 80 percent of Americans support sending $1,400 checks, 79 percent support federal assistance for state and local governments, and 73 percent are in favor of extending unemployment benefits.

There's a reason Donald lost twice by a total of 13 million votes.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


FBI Informant Panic Is Ruining Friendships All Over the Far Right (Will Sommer, Kelly Weill, Feb. 13th, 2021, Daily Beast)

In the Trumpist "America First" movement and the far-right paramilitary group the Proud Boys, alliances are fracturing as extremists brand each other as potential informants. Now racist live-streamers are accusing their former comrades of attempting to turn over followers to law enforcement, while Proud Boys chapters are splintering from the national organization over similar fears. [...]

[T]he federal heat is on after Fuentes received roughly $250,000 in a much-scrutinized bitcoin transfer, then appeared outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot. The FBI is reportedly investigating the bitcoin transfer, though Fuentes has not faced charges over the money or the riot.

On Thursday, Casey distanced himself from Fuentes and America First in a live-streamed video, slamming Fuentes' decision to gather his followers in Orlando later this month for a conference right as other America First supporters face charges over the riot.

"Some people who were at the Capitol are going to flip," Casey said in his video.

Declaring the aftermath of the Capitol riot "a million times worse" for the far right than the crackdown that followed the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, Casey claimed, without offering evidence, that Fuentes' bank accounts have been frozen by federal authorities. He also accused Fuentes of planning to drive cross-country, rather than fly, to the Florida conference because he suspected he was on the federal no-fly list, then concealing that possibility from his followers.

Worst of all, Casey argued, Fuentes planned to gather all of his supporters in Orlando, where they could be easily recorded by federal investigators or informants. He went on to suggest America First's members would see the conference for what he thinks it could be: an FBI trap.

"He wants you to give him your real name, to show up to his event where your face will be visible, where your cellphone data will be in close proximity to his," Casey said.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Vermont study finds traffic stops of Black drivers outpace Black population in Upper Valley towns (ANNA MERRIMAN, 2/13/21, Valley News)

Police in Hartford, Woodstock and Royalton stopped Black drivers at rates that rival the statewide average of the percentage of Black drivers who are pulled over, according to a study released last month by the University of Vermont.

Still, stops by Hartford and Woodstock police significantly exceeded the rate that would ordinarily be expected given the number of Black people living in the two towns.