January 3, 2018 in 5,127 words

Scientific study of fake news reveals pretty much what you’d expect

Here’s some real news about fake news that most people will probably find wholly unsurprising: It’s usually pro-Trump, and most people who fall for it are Republicans who are over 60. That shocking stuff comes from a “the first scientific, data-based study of Americans’ exposure to fake news,” which has recently been published (via Mashable). The study looked at survey responses and browser history information from a “representative sample” of 2,525 Americans, a quarter of whom ended up visiting a fake news website between October and November of 2016—though the study didn’t include mobile browsing, limiting its usefulness significantly. (Also, as always, “fake news” means news that is not real, not news that is critical of a certain orange butthead.)

As predictable as some of the results are, there are some interesting revelations. For instance, the average person who reads fake news reasons a ton of fake news, but these people are only about 10 percent of the public—which is still a depressingly large number. Also, sites that try to hold back the tide of fake news, like Snopes or PolitiFact, are simply ignored by most people reading fake news, with the study indicating that nobody who read a fake news story went back and looked up a corresponding fact-check story to see if they’d been duped.

The Most Irresponsible Tweet in History

The platform encourages impulsive hostility. That’s bad enough for the masses—and potentially catastrophic for the most powerful politicians on earth.

Before 2017, a president taking to Twitter to taunt a nuclear power would’ve been unthinkable. But Tuesday, Donald Trump, whose bygone impulsiveness contributed to two failed marriages and the bankruptcies of numerous businesses, engaged in a geopolitical boasting contest with North Korea, sacrificing the benefits of considered diplomacy to satiate his impulsiveness and need for attention:

This may be the most irresponsible tweet in history. Julian Sanchez articulated the best-case scenario: “The good news is, other countries won’t take talk like this too seriously because they understand Trump is a small man who blusters to make himself feel potent. That’s also the bad news; there’s nowhere left to go rhetorically when we need to signal that we’re serious.” Most likely, that’s the fallout.

But what if this needless social-media saber rattling escalates into war?

The Gimlet Media host P.J. Vogt asks a key question: “Imagine if you were the person who invented Twitter.” If I were that person, I would ban President Trump immediately.

And I would ban all other world leaders, too.

Dem senator: Trump’s remark on nuclear button ‘borders on presidential malpractice’

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said on Tuesday that President Trump’s claim that the U.S. nuclear launch button is “much bigger” than North Korea’s “borders on presidential malpractice.”

“Imagine being a servicemember or the family of a servicemember stationed in Korea and reading this,” Markey tweeted. “This borders on presidential malpractice.”

Markey’s tweet followed one by Trump, in which the president warned that the U.S. nuclear launch button was “more powerful” than the one North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claimed to have in a New Year’s Day speech this week.

In that speech, Kim said that the world would have to accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, saying the fact that he had a nuclear launch button on his desk was a “reality,” as opposed to a threat.

A New Year’s pledge: Don’t let politicians and pundits say Social Security and Medicare ‘reforms’ when they mean ‘cuts’

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a serial exploiter of weasel words to conceal his intention to cut social benefits.

Just before New Year’s, economist Jared Bernstein published the second in what may be an annual feature: A plea to the media to call out politicians who try to conceal their intention to gut Social Security and Medicare by talking about “reforms” instead of “cuts.”

Bernstein, who served as chief economist for former Vice President Joe Biden, originally raised the alarm about this sort of weaseling a year ago. I seconded the motion then, and do so again now.

One expects politicians to conceal their intentions behind a obfuscating scrim. The problem is that news organizations become complicit in their underhanded efforts to cut social program benefits by employing the benefit-cutters’ terminology.

Just after Christmas, for example, Politico achieved a multi-fecta in an article about disagreements between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over Medicaid and Medicare.

Reading from the top down, the article referred to “overhauling” the programs, to “reform,” “welfare and entitlement changes” and “policy modifications.” These are Republican terms for benefit cuts. There’s no excuse for journalists repeating them without defining them. But one has to drill pretty deeply into the Politico piece to find the first mention of benefit “cuts” (to paragraph 12, actually).

Other weasel words often found creeping into what purport to be objective reports about social programs are “reshape,” “revamp,” “modernize” and especially “fix.” As we’ve observed in the past, Republican plans for Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and other such programs are “fixes” in the same sense that one “fixes” a cat or the Mafia “fixes” an informer.

The world’s largest clothing maker isn’t betting on automation replacing cheap human labor

Man Made

Crystal Group is investing in more workers like these in Vietnam, not robots.

Hong Kong’s Crystal Group makes clothes for many of the world’s clothing giants, including H&M, Gap, Fast Retailing (owner of Uniqlo), and L Brands (owner of Victoria’s Secret). It’s the world’s largest apparel maker by production volume, according to research firm Euromonitor, and attracted attention in October for having the biggest IPO on the Hong Kong stock exchange since 2015.

It’s the sort of company you might expect to be pouring R&D money into automation, as labor costs rise in China and the world prepares for a future of robots taking over more repetitive, manual tasks, such as stitching clothes. But that’s not the case, says Andrew Lo, CEO of the Crystal Group.

In an interview with the Financial Times (paywall), Lo says high-tech sewing robots are “interesting” and could change how some companies make clothes, but in the near-term they still can’t beat cheap human labor on cost. Crystal Group plans to increase its human staff in Bangladesh and Vietnam—garment hubs with some of the lowest wages in Asia—by 10% annually in the years ahead. Currently about two-thirds of its sales are made from clothes produced in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, which have all become more attractive to garment manufacturers as producing in China, still the global leader in clothing production, gets more expensive.

Experts are cautiously watching how automation might affect the garment industry, which is a lifeline to millions of less-skilled workers in Asia and elsewhere, even as many of the jobs can be exploitative and dangerous. The International Labor Organization warned in 2016 that robots could replace the majority of textile, clothing, and footwear workers in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the coming decades. These workers could move into better jobs, but only if governments and employers start training them for those more skilled roles sooner than later.

Half of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have power—104 days after Hurricane Maria


More holidays will be spent in the dark.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico more than three months ago. And the latest figures show 45% of electricity customers in Puerto Rico still don’t have power.

Data on the extent of the outage has been hard to come by. Puerto Rico’s electrical utility says it is operating at 69% of normal capacity—but that figure doesn’t indicate how many of the island’s residents are actually receiving power. The system that monitors the extent of distribution is not working. On Dec.29, the governor put the official estimate of those in the dark at more than 660,000 people, 45% of the island’s 1.5 million electricity customers.

So now, 104 days since Maria hit, the 660,000 figure is the first to come directly from the Puerto Rican government. A group of local engineers estimated on Dec. 11 that roughly half of the island’s total 3.4-million population still had no power, according to the Associated Press.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has said it would take until May to get power back to all of Puerto Rico, with mountainous regions likely to be the last. That means some Puerto Ricans could go a total of eight months without power.

Climate change will make it feel even worse than it is

It’s the heat and the humidity.

If you’re in the Continental US at the moment, you’re probably giving lots of thought to how the wind chill makes things feel notably worse than the frigid temperatures might indicate. And, if you’re not, your local weather forecaster will probably be happy to inform you of what it really feels like outside, regardless of what the temperature says.

This isn’t something meteorologists made up to make cold snaps feel worse; the wind really does enhance the chilling effect of cold air. And it works on the other side of the comfort zone as well, as humidity combines with high temperatures to enhance heat stress.

The rising temperatures driven by climate change are expected to change human comfort levels in a way that mostly balances out—uncomfortable heat in the tropics is expected to be offset by fewer cold problems at higher latitudes. But rising temperatures will also affect wind patterns and humidity levels, so there’s a chance that things will feel different from simply “it’s a bit warmer.” To find out, a Canadian-Chinese research team used a set of historical records and climate models to figure out how humans are perceiving their changing climate.

The team combined measurements of air temperature near the Earth’s surface (where people are generally located) with specific humidity at two meters and wind speed at 10 meters. These measurements could be combined to calculate the apparent temperature, or roughly how cold or hot a human feels. The apparent temperature was contrasted with the air temperature obtained in the same experiment. The temperature, wind, and humidity were taken from a set of historic weather records; future conditions were pulled from the output of a panel of seven climate models.

It’s so cold in the US that sharks are freezing to death

The Big Chill

Beware the artic outbreak.

From coast to coast, the US is in a deep freeze.

A shot of bitter, arctic air has brought record low temperatures and sub-zero wind chill. The arctic front will continue at least through the end of the week, shattering cold records across North America in what meteorologists are calling an “arctic outbreak.”

Though 2017 was the second hottest year on record (and the hottest without an El Niño), the year ended with record lows and sub-zero wind chill. Meteorologists in Embarrass, Minnesota recorded a mind-blowing -45°F without the wind chill. Even in south Texas it feels like -10°F in some places. At least five deaths are being blamed on the cold.

It’s so cold, sharks are washing up on beaches

In Massachusetts, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy found three thresher sharks washed up in Cape Cod, “stranded due to cold shock,” which can cause cardiac arrest in animals.

The conservancy collected tissue samples from the sharks that will be examined “once they thaw.”

6 Insane Law Enforcement Stories (That Are 100 Percent True)

Law enforcement is always mixed up with politics. It’s hard to so much as mention the police without someone bringing up racism or corruption. We’re not here to tackle those issues today. We’re just plain not smart enough. Instead, we’re here to tackle much simpler subject matter: bumbling doofus cops, and the dingus mistakes they make. Please enjoy.

#6. When A Yorkshire Police Lineup Couldn’t Find Any Black People, They Improvised

If you had to sum up 1990s England with one phrase, “racial diversity” would probably not be it. That was part of the problem facing South Yorkshire police in 1997, when they wanted to put suspected blackmailer Martin Kamara in a lineup. Kamara was a 6’3″, 16-stone (220 pounds), balding, middle-aged black man in a country where, at the time, white people made up roughly 94 percent of the population. This made filling out the rest of the lineup problematic.

Their solution was as elegant as it was simple: One thing that South Yorkshire didn’t lack was 6’3″, 16-stone, balding, middle-aged white people. You see where this is going — yes, they did blackface. What you may not have seen coming: They did it with eight different men!

And they didn’t even do it very well. The makeup “artists” didn’t remember to paint the white men’s hands, which made an already very desperate deception into a failure contest between stupidity and racism.

Unsurprisingly, Kamara’s solicitor took one look at the “lookalikes” and “conceded that it was not a fair likeness.” Kamara was identified as the criminal, but the case was thrown out of court almost immediately, after the judge described the identification procedures as “a farce.” No, we liked “failure contest between stupidity and racism” better. It’s not as punchy, but it’s far more accurate.

Report: All Intel Processors Made in the Last Decade Might Have a Massive Security Flaw

There’s small screwups and big screwups. Here is tremendously huge screwup: Virtually all Intel processors produced in the last decade have a major security hole that could allow “normal user programs—from database applications to JavaScript in web browsers—to discern to some extent the layout or contents of protected kernel memory areas,” the Register reported on Tuesday.

Essentially, modern Intel processors have a design flaw that could allow malicious programs to read protected areas of a device’s kernel memory (memory dedicated to the most essential core components of an operating system and their interactions with system hardware). This flaw could potentially expose protected information like passwords. Since the error is baked into the Intel x86-64 hardware, it requires an OS-level overwrite to patch—on every major operating system, including Windows, Linux, and macOS.

The exact details of the design flaw and to what extent users are vulnerable are being kept under wraps for now, per the Register, though since developers appear to be rushing towards patching systems in coming weeks it is likely very bad. In the absolute worst-case speculative scenario, something as simple as JavaScript running on a webpage or cloud-hosted malware could gain access to some of the most sensitive inner workings of an Intel-based device.

The Dutch plan to build an artificial island to support the world’s largest wind farm

Ice-Age Dreams

21st century Doggerland.

Wind farms need a lot of space—not something the world has much to spare. That’s why they’re being pushed out into the sea.

TenneT, the operator of the Netherlands’ electric grid, has come up with an ambitious plan to build an artificial island in the middle of the North Sea that on completion would support the world’s largest wind farm.

The location for the artificial island is a region called the Dogger Bank, about 100 km (60 miles) off the coast of Yorkshire in the UK. During the last Ice Age some 20,000 years ago, when sea levels were 100 meters lower than today, Dogger Bank was actually a landmass called Doggerland, which connected mainland Europe to the British isles. The bank’s shallowness means it won’t require ungodly amounts of sand to build the island, and it will be able to support the thousands of wind turbines that need to be tethered to the sea floor. Its location also puts any electricity generated from the farm within reach of five countries.

Wind power generators are searching for better locations because wind farms are a much less dense form of electricity generation compared to fossil-fuel power or nuclear power. A nuclear power plant can generate 400 times as much energy per unit of area compared to a wind farm.

Why Do We Need to Sleep?

At a shiny new lab in Japan, an international team of scientists is trying to figure out what puts us under.

Outside the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine, the heavy fragrance of sweet Osmanthus trees fills the air, and big golden spiders string their webs among the bushes. Two men in hard hats next to the main doors mutter quietly as they measure a space and apply adhesive to the slate-colored wall. The building is so new that they are still putting up the signs.

The institute is five years old, its building still younger, but already it has attracted some 120 researchers from fields as diverse as pulmonology and chemistry and countries ranging from Switzerland to China. An hour north of Tokyo at the University of Tsukuba, with funding from the Japanese government and other sources, the institute’s director, Masashi Yanagisawa, has created a place to study the basic biology of sleep, rather than, as is more common, the causes and treatment of sleep problems in people. Full of rooms of gleaming equipment, quiet chambers where mice slumber, and a series of airy work spaces united by a spiraling staircase, it’s a place where tremendous resources are focused on the question of why, exactly, living things sleep.

Ask researchers this question, and listen as, like clockwork, a sense of awe and frustration creeps into their voices. In a way, it’s startling how universal sleep is: In the midst of the hurried scramble for survival, across eons of bloodshed and death and flight, uncountable millions of living things have laid themselves down for a nice, long bout of unconsciousness. This hardly seems conducive to living to fight another day. “It’s crazy, but there you are,” says Tarja Porkka-Heiskanen of the University of Helsinki, a leading sleep biologist. That such a risky habit is so common, and so persistent, suggests that whatever is happening is of the utmost importance. Whatever sleep gives the sleeper is worth tempting death over and over again, for a lifetime.

These psychedelic stickers blow AI minds

Machine learning systems are very capable, but they aren’t exactly smart. They lack common sense. Taking advantage of that fact, researchers have created a wonderful attack on image recognition systems that uses specially-printed stickers that are so interesting to the AI that it completely fails to see anything else. Why do I get the feeling these may soon be popular accessories?

Computer vision is an incredibly complex problem, and it’s only by cognitive shortcuts that even humans can see properly — so it shouldn’t be surprising that computers need to do the same thing.

One of the shortcuts these systems take is not assigning every pixel the same importance. Say there’s a picture of a house with a bit of sky behind it and a little grass in front. A few basic rules make it clear to the computer that this is not a picture “of” the sky or the grass, despite their presence. So it considers those background and spends more cycles analyzing the shape in the middle.

A group of Google researchers wondered (PDF): what if you messed with that shortcut, and made it so the computer would ignore the house instead, and focus on something of their choice?

‘I just want to cut it off’: the weight-loss patients who no longer fit their skin

Bariatric surgery is a highly cost-effective way to lose life-changing amounts of weight – but the NHS rarely removes the excess skin that is left behind. Desperate patients are now crowdfunding their operations while struggling with anxiety, depression and identity issues.

Haze Atkin: ‘It invades my thoughts, my feelings, all the time.’

When Haze Atkin passed the 32kg (5st) mark on her weight-loss programme, something strange began happening to her skin. First it grew softer. Then it grew emptier. By the time she had shed her 64th kilo, her body had shrunk so much that her loose skin needed to be folded into her clothes. Now, when Haze sits, a “hovercraft” of skin skirts her seat. When she takes a bath, her spare skin floats. In bed, her husband Chris accidentally rests an elbow on it; he can’t always be sure where Haze ends. The edges of her have become mistakable.

To her children’s delight, Haze can wobble her skin and make it talk like a puppet. Sometimes her daughter holds out her hands like a set of scales and Haze places her stomach skin on them. She thinks it weighs a stone. It has become oddly plastic, so that Haze can gather it in her hands and stretch and shake it, fold and mould it. But the one thing she can never do with her skin is forget it.

Like many people with excess skin, Haze lost a lot of weight after bariatric surgery. In the 10 months after her gastric bypass – an operation the NHS has come to see as highly cost-effective – she shrank from 149kg (23.5st) to 70kg (11st). She met all her targets. Her surgeons called her a “model patient”. And yet, just when Haze should have felt she had achieved her goal, her skin held her back. The scales said she had reached the end of her journey, but the mirror told a different story.

Haze is one of the 9,325 UK patients who in 2013 underwent bariatric surgery on the NHS, according to statistics held by NHS Digital. The same year, NHS England reported that the price of keyhole bariatric surgery for diabetes patients with a BMI of 35, for instance, is recoverable in just 26 months. According to projections from the Department of Health, the cost to society and the economy of people being overweight and obese could increase to almost £50bn in 2050, so it is easy to see why bariatric procedures make financial sense. But is the surgery causing a different kind of health crisis? Is such massive weight loss – MWL, as healthcare professionals call it – solving one problem only to create a new one, a generation of weight-loss survivors tormented by anxiety and depression because they no longer fit their skin?

Haze has a simple message to the NHS. “You don’t just leave people half-done. Finish it.”

Man takes taxi from Copenhagen to Oslo, runs from fare

An inebriated man took a taxi in Copenhagen in 2017 and arrived in Oslo in 2018, but did not seem keen to pay the fare.
The man, upon arriving at his home in the Abildsø neighbourhood of the Norwegian capital, left the vehicle that had just transported him 600 kilometres through three Scandinavian countries without paying, reports broadcaster NRK.

Police received a report from a rather angry Danish taxi driver at around 1am on January 1st, according to the report.

“The driver saw the man had disappeared into the apartment. We were subsequently able to contact the man. He was sleeping in his own bed,” Oslo Police operation leader Vidar Pedersen told NRK.

The man, who is in his forties and does not have a criminal record, was quickly woken by police.

He then coughed up the money for the trip – around 18,000 Norwegian kroner (13,700 Danish kroner, 1,850 euros).

The year we wanted the internet to be smaller

Why tiny, weird online communities made a comeback in 2017.

Americans got tired of big social media in 2017. Or at least, we stopped wanting to look at it, and we stopped pretending to like it.

This feels true to me as someone who uses the internet every day, but I also know it’s true because when The Verge partnered with Reticle Research to conduct a representative survey of Americans’ attitudes towards tech’s biggest power players, 15.4 percent of Facebook users said they “greatly” or “somewhat” disliked using the product, while 17 percent of Twitter users said the same. That made them the most disliked of the six companies in question, which also included Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. More than 10 percent of respondents described Facebook’s effect on society as “very negative,” and 10.5 percent said the same about Twitter — in both cases a higher number than the other four companies combined.

The survey doesn’t reveal why Americans feel the way they do, but last December, writing about the impulse to call 2016 “the worst year ever,” The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino articulated a pretty good guess as to why spending your time on the web’s massive, news-saturated platforms might feel so bad: “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the internet,” she says. 2016 couldn’t possibly be the worst year in history, Tolentino decided, but it was the year that convinced her the promise of the social media had been false, and that “the internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.”

The mainstream social internet is so big; everyone is connected to everyone, over a billion on Facebook alone. The consequences of connection — fake news, radicalization, massive targeted harassment campaigns, algorithmically-generated psychological torment, inane bullshit — were not part of what we were sold.

Bad News, Everybody: Hydrogen Peroxide Is Useless

OK, so hydrogen peroxide is good for some things, such as creating an uninspired volcano for your school science fair. But what it’s not great at is disinfecting cuts and scrapes.

When you pour hydrogen peroxide on a wound, that telltale foam is surely the death rattle of a thousand screaming bacteria, right? Well, it turns out it’s nothing but a chemical reaction to the enzyme catalase, which is found in our blood and cells. When hydrogen peroxide meets catalase, it turns into oxygen gas and water, and boom! Medically reassuring fizz ensues.

ollowed by the medically reassuring stinging and crying … uh, so we’ve heard.

But after centuries of blindly trusting the stuff, scientists have found that hydrogen peroxide doesn’t prevent bacterial growth or reduce the risk of infection at incision sites. In fact, it may actually slow the healing process. Thanks, brown bottle of lies!

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

When California’s regulators scrambled to make rules for the state’s new legal market, one issue was near the top of their list: How to deal with pot’s pesticide problem.

For years, pesticides used on black market and medical marijuana have affected water, wildlife, and consumer health. But until recently, the state had no way to prevent farmers from treating their crops with dangerous pesticides, fungicides or rodent killers. That’s all supposed to change with weed going legal, but growers, regulators and scientists say guaranteeing clean cannabis will be an uphill battle.

After a phase-in period of six months, which kicked off this week, any weed sold on California’s legal market has to test clean for residues of 66 pesticides — listed by the new Bureau of Cannabis Control. Growers say they’re already being tested at such minute levels that even weed grown organically could fail these tests. One problem is pesticides that drift from farms, which don’t have to comply with the same strict rules.

“Other crops can use fungicides and pesticides. For weed, nothing is allowed because cannabis is still illegal under federal law,” Shawn Webber, a licensed grower in Sonoma County, told VICE News.

Scientists say regulators have forgotten to extend their strict standards to the labs themselves. “It’s zero tolerance for pesticides, but at what level,” said Reggie Gaudino, Chief Science Officer at Steep Hill Labs, which offers cannabis testing in Berkeley, CA. “The regulations have no minimum standards for the machines that test the weed. People are going to shop around for the worst lab so they don’t fail.” And, as there aren’t enough labs to go around, product will spoil while it waits to be tested.

Growers who fail the tests or don’t want to invest in meeting the state’s rigorous standards, will likely return to black market. In other words, despite regulators’ best intentions, tainted weed won’t be off the menu just yet.

THANKS to HBO and VICE News for making this program available on YouTube.

Animal eyes come in the most spectacular range of styles, shapes, and sizes. There are eyes with lenses made of rock, eyes that can look up and down at the same time, and eyes that can spot prey from a mile away. But one animal has the most incredible—and certainly the strangest—eyes of them all.

Anti-government protests erupt in Iran as economic inequality grows, and Kim Jong-un touts his readily-available nuclear button and claims he’s open to talks with South Korea.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

Stephen fights fire with fire. Or in this case, stupid argument with stupid argument.

Supreme leader Kim Jong-un is using the New Year to turn over a new leaf. They have those in North Korea, right?

Disney really nailed the behavioral realism in its latest animatronic addition to the Hall of Presidents.

The Late Show’s intern and resident pothead gives Stephen an update on California’s second day as a legalized state.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

The continuation of the torment. Until Max is finally banned from putting his bird lips on the door.

Max just relaxing with his bell and toy.


The internet revives The Simpsons’ greatest joke, ‘Steamed Hams’

Let us now praise ‘Steamed Hams’

Here is a very cold take: The Simpsons is the greatest sitcom — nay, TV series — of all time.

It’s an oft-repeated claim that, at this point, stands as fact. Sure, it’s had some rough years; now in its 29th season, The Simpsons has had more lackluster episodes than all-star ones. But recent weeks have reminded us all of its indelible greatness, thanks to absurdly wonderful reinterpretations of what may be the show’s best scene.

If you haven’t seen the original “Steamed Hams” bit — officially known as “Skinner and the Superintendent,” from classic season seven episode “22 Short Films About Springfield” — please watch it below.

OK, now you’re prepared for the next steps. While the internet has praised “Steamed Hams” for years, a specific take on the goof caused a resurgence in mid-November. I’ve tracked this back to a highly upvoted Reddit thread, which started off as a basic conversation praising the scene.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?