June 7, 2018 in 4,068 words

The G7 minus one: Trump packs wrecking ball for Canada summit

Trudeau and EU and Japanese allies stymied in trade tussle where ‘everyone loses’

The Québécois police have been erecting high steel fences this week, braced for the demonstrators who normally flock to G7 summits to rail against the leaders of the global liberal order behind the security perimeter.

The difference this year is that one of those leaders will be railing from the inside.

Donald Trump has let it be known he is coming to this year’s summit of the world’s rich liberal democracies spoiling for a fight, and he does not mind wrecking established practice and old alliances if it plays well among his supporters.

This year’s conclave, opening on Friday, is being referred to as the G6 plus one, or the G7 minus one. It promises to be a showdown between the US president and everyone else.

Usually by this point the sherpas, diplomats who prepare for the summit, are working on the punctuation in the final communique. This time no one knows whether there is enough common language to put together any kind of joint statement by the meeting’s end on Saturday.

Trump finally did the one thing that will drive powerful Republicans away


Do Republicans still have his back?

As president, Donald Trump has insulted US allies and top Republicans, threatened nuclear war on Twitter, shared top-secret intelligence with Russia, and pushed immigration policies that are ripping apart families and damaging the US’s image abroad.

Until now, though, the Republican Party stood by its president. The majority of Republican senators and representatives have confirmed Trump’s nominees, agreed to blow up the US deficit, and generally declined to comment on unsavory details about his personal life. Trump’s approval ratings have also remained strong among Republican voters. As former speaker John Boehner recently said, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party.”

But last week, Trump went too far.

On May 31, in the name of national security, the president passed steel and aluminum tariffs that threaten trade with the US’s closest allies. The announcement drew furious criticism from members of his party, because it goes against their pro-business agenda. Now some of the biggest Republican donors have launched a war against Trump’s tariffs, and once-loyal senators are trying to curb Trump’s powers as the country’s 45th president.

Donald Trump is costing us one precious thing: time

The constant sense of crisis that the president creates robs us of the concentration we need to focus on long-term issues like climate change.

‘We’ve all but stopped paying attention to climate change, the single greatest crisis the planet has ever faced.’

Donald Trump may be costing us many things: a sense of national decency, a stable global order, a generation of professional civil servants and diplomats. Or maybe not. Maybe we can claw those losses back – perhaps the reaction will begin with the midterm elections and we’ll slowly return our way towards something that looks like the old normal.

But he’s definitely costing us one precious thing, and that’s time. It rolls past every day as we stand necessarily transfixed by his transgressions, and since it can’t be rolled back there are victims who – whatever the future holds – are paying an unrefundable price.

These thoughts were on my mind as I protested outside the Vermont governor’s office with other local members of the Poor People’s Campaign, the nationwide renewal of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s final crusade. (We were hoping to do a sit-in, but the door to the governor’s office had been cleverly locked, perhaps after they’d heard us singing We Shall Not Be Moved for 20 minutes outside. If you need a crime performed efficiently, perhaps best not to hire an idealist.)

This Poor People’s Campaign has been by many measures a great success, moving tens of thousands of people to action in every state capitol, around issues ranging from immigration and racial justice to healthcare and environmental justice. But it has barely broken through the president’s nonstop noise into the national news, and so the stories of the people involved have been too little heard. “Grinding poverty” is a cliched phrase but it has a real meaning: the day-in day-out erosion of lives when there’s too little money for doctors, for food, for transportation. This is happening, now. Real lives are being lived, and lived in needlessly cruel conditions. Real lives are being lost.

Climate change killed the aliens, and it might kill us too, new simulation suggests

Easter Island’s demise suggests all of human civilization may face a similar fate.

A case study of the inhabitants of Easter Island served in part as the basis for a mathematical model showing the ways a technologically advanced population and its planet might develop or collapse together.

Did climate change already kill all the aliens we’ve been searching for?

According to astrophysicist Adam Frank, it’s certainly a possibility — and whether humans are doomed to the same fate may already be out of our hands.

Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York, is the lead author of a new paper published May 1 in the journal Astrobiology that aims to take what Frank calls a “10,000-light-year” view of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Using mathematical models based on the disappearance of a real-life lost civilization here on Earth (the former inhabitants of Easter Island), Frank and his colleagues simulated how various alien civilizations might rise and fall if they were to increasingly convert their planet’s limited natural resources into energy.

“The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet,” Frank said in a statement. “Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it.”

The results, as you might expect, were generally pretty grim. Of four common “trajectories” for energy-intense civilizations, three ended in apocalypse. The fourth scenario — a path that involved converting the whole alien society to sustainable sources of energy — worked only when civilizations recognized the damage they were doing to the planet, and acted in the right away.

“The last scenario is the most frightening,” Frank said. “Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse.”

Climate Change Can Be Stopped by Turning Air Into Gasoline

A Harvard professor says his company should be able to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, at industrial scales, by 2021.

A liquid fuel, synthesized from water and carbon dioxide by Carbon Engineering

A team of scientists from Harvard University and the company Carbon Engineering announced on Thursday that they have found a method to cheaply and directly pull carbon-dioxide pollution out of the atmosphere.

If their technique is successfully implemented at scale, it could transform how humanity thinks about the problem of climate change. It could give people a decisive new tool in the race against a warming planet, but could also unsettle the issue’s delicate politics, making it all the harder for society to adapt.

Their research seems almost to smuggle technologies out of the realm of science fiction and into the real. It suggests that people will soon be able to produce gasoline and jet fuel from little more than limestone, hydrogen, and air. It hints at the eventual construction of a vast, industrial-scale network of carbon scrubbers, capable of removing greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere.

Above all, the new technique is noteworthy because it promises to remove carbon dioxide cheaply. As recently as 2011, a panel of experts estimated that it would cost at least $600 to remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The newest green-tech idea: drown data centers at sea


Take a deep breath.

In a bid to save the planet while making some money, Microsoft just drowned one of its data centers at sea. Project Natick is now operating at about 100 ft below the surface of the North Sea near the UK’s Orkney islands, fully powered by renewable energy.

The logic is sound: Bringing data centers close to hubs of computing power benefits customers, enabling smoother web surfing or game playing by cutting down the back-and-forth between users and servers. Microsoft says nearly half the world’s population lives within 150 km (120 miles) of the ocean. And because oceans are uniformly cool below a certain depth, keeping the machines under the sea would cut down the cooling costs that make up a large chunk of the operating budget of data centers.

The Project Natick data center is made up of 864 servers packed in a 40 foot container that now sits about 22 km (14 miles) from the coast. That’s a tiny fraction of some of the huge servers—covering hundreds of thousands of square feet—that tech companies like Microsoft operate. But it may be enough to do a pilot test, and prove that the server could be deployed at commercial scale.

For this pilot project, Microsoft says it will operate the data center for 12 months. First it’ll put the servers through a battery of tests to check on power consumption, humidity levels, noise creation, and temperatures. Then the company will let some customers use the data center. If successful, Microsoft will keep operating the servers, and allow its customers to use it to run their own computations. Currently, Project Natick sits on sea bottom owned by the Scottish government, but the data center is designed such that it could fit into standard shipping containers and delivered where it’s most wanted.

This Obituary Is So Harsh That It Doubles As A Cremation

We’re told from a young age that we should never speak ill of the dead. It’s disrespectful, pointless, and unkind to their relatives in mourning. And besides, it’s not like they can fight back — at least until the zombie apocalypse happens and your smack talk earns you a bite in the throat. But what happens when the deceased is a bad person? Do you stay quiet, or let ‘er rip and get something resembling closure? There’s no clear consensus, but one family just kick-started the conversation by choosing to memorialize their mother with an obituary that spits more pure fire than a thousand crematorium ovens.

click to embiggen

The obituary was dedicated — although that word seems oddly inappropriate here — to Kathleen Dehmlow, an 80-year-old woman who (if the piece is to be believed) passed away after living a full, happy life with her husband and two kids … and then abandoning everyone to go and live another full, happy life with her husband’s brother. The two kids she tossed away, Gina and Jay, have been holding onto some major anger ever since, hence why they wanted to wish their ol’ mom good luck with the newest man in her life: Satan.

The obituary soon went viral, and a civil war broke out in the comments of The Redwood Falls Gazette (the newspaper responsible), with righteously indignant people on both sides of the metaphorical aisle arguing over whether the memorial was inappropriate or righteous, man.

Death of Canadian man living in 24-hour coffee shop sparks housing outcry

Homelessness advocates say elderly man’s death at a Tim Hortons is an indictment of Vancouver’s housing crisis.

The homeless man was a familiar figure at the Tim Hortons 24-hour coffee shop in the city’s downtown.

Battling cancer and attempting to get by on a fixed income in one of the world’s least affordable housing markets, he turned a Vancouver Tim Hortons into his makeshift home.

Now his death – while sitting alone at a table of the ubiquitous Canadian coffee chain – has cast a spotlight on the toll the city’s housing crisis is taking on Vancouver’s most vulnerable.

Believed to be in his 70s and known to his friends as Ted, the man was a familiar figure at the Tim Hortons in the city’s downtown. Friends described him as a kind and easygoing man who had lived out the past decade at the 24-hour coffee shop, sleeping and eating at a table near the washroom.

Witnesses said he may have spent hours slumped at his table last week, unresponsive, before a passerby alerted staff.

“It is a nearly unimaginable scenario,” said Jeremy Hunka of the Union Gospel Mission. “To have somebody dying for hours in a public restaurant at a table, where customers are drinking their coffee, coming and going, and nobody is noticing this person’s dying breath.”

The Tipping Point When Minority Views Take Over

A new study says that small groups can overturn established norms if they reach a critical mass of 25 percent.

In the 1970s, the business professor Rosabeth Kanter published an influential account of an American company that had recently recruited women to its sales team. The quality of those women’s working lives, Kanter noted astutely, depended on their representation. When they made up just 15 percent of the workforce, they faced stereotyping, harassment, isolation, disproportionate performance pressures, and other disadvantages. But when they made up something like 35 percent of the workplace, they started shifting its culture in their favor by forming alliances and establishing a counterculture.

Decades of work in sociology, physics, and other disciplines have supported this idea. Small groups of people can indeed flip firmly established social conventions, as long as they reach a certain critical mass. When that happens, what was once acceptable can quickly become unacceptable, and vice versa. Two decades ago, most Americans opposed gay marriage, bans on public smoking, and the legalization of marijuana; now, these issues all enjoy majority support.

How big do minority groups have to get in order to trigger these tipping points? Is it something like 30 to 40 percent, as Kanter and others have suggested based on sociological observations? Or is it as low as 10 percent, as physicists have predicted using mathematical models that simulate social change?

After running a creative experiment, Damon Centola from the University of Pennsylvania says that the crucial threshold is more like 25 percent. That’s the likely tipping point at which minority views can overturn majority ones. “A lot of models have been developed, but they’re often people speculating in the dark, and writing equations without any data,” Centola says. “Our results fit better with the ethnographic data. It’s really exciting to me how clearly they resonate with Kanter’s work.”

MIT fed an AI data from Reddit, and now it only thinks about murder

Norman is a disturbing demonstration of the consequences of algorithmic bias.

For some, the phrase “artificial intelligence” conjures nightmare visions — something out of the ’04 Will Smith flick I, Robot, perhaps, or the ending of Ex Machina — like a boot smashing through the glass of a computer screen to stamp on a human face, forever. Even people who study AI have a healthy respect for the field’s ultimate goal, artificial general intelligence, or an artificial system that mimics human thought patterns. Computer scientist Stuart Russell, who literally wrote the textbook on AI, has spent his career thinking about the problems that arise when a machine’s designer directs it toward a goal without thinking about whether its values are all the way aligned with humanity’s.

A number of organizations have sprung up in recent years to combat that potential, including OpenAI, a working research group that was founded (then left) by techno-billionaire Elon Musk to “to build safe [AGI], and ensure AGI’s benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible.” What does it say about humanity that we’re scared of general artificial intelligence because it might deem us cruel and unworthy and therefore deserving of destruction? (On its site, Open AI doesn’t seem to define what “safe” means.)

This week, researchers at MIT unveiled their latest creation: Norman, a disturbed AI. (Yes, he’s named after the character in Hitchcock’s Psycho.)

Still in their infancy, AI algorithms need parenting

AI might be able to play Jeopardy on its own, but it can’t avoid bias without some help.

A common analogy for the way that AI systems learn is the way a child learns: Not by being told rules for how to recognize an image or walk, but by taking in information from many examples and drawing connections that we can’t necessarily articulate.

You wouldn’t leave a child without supervision. And we shouldn’t leave AI systems without supervision, either.

The simple fact is that, despite the learning potential of AI, it is in its infancy and cannot be left unattended. From over-optimized GPS sending unwitting tourists into barely existent dirt paths inside Death Valley to Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot going rogue after Twitter pranksters filled its brain with hate speech; whether unintentional or by malicious design, algorithms behaving unexpectedly are now a fact of life.

Unlike humans, algorithms, don’t have experiences of their own. They are not able to reflect upon past experiences to course correct. While humans may use common-sense skills to wrap around their job-skills, algorithms don’t have that option. They rely entirely on the data presented to them during ‘training.’

AI algorithms ‘learn on the job’ by using human feedback. They are under the influence of millions, if not billons, of people interacting with them. If companies aren’t careful, the tendencies of these people influence algorithms toward unintended outcomes.

People Are Changing the Way They Use Social Media

Posts are getting less personal—and privacy breaches like Cambridge Analytica could be partly to blame, an Atlantic survey finds.

Connection is the watchword.

That’s what Facebook is about, if you haven’t heard. “My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in testimony before Congress in April, after tens of millions of Facebook users learned that their private data had been compromised and shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

What Facebook is not about is data misuse. That, along with spam, fake news, and clickbait, are things that happen on Facebook, as a recent apology ad from the company put it, but they’re not what Facebook is about. What does Facebook do? It connects. What is Facebook? A community. What is Facebook for? It’s for friends.

Research shows that people become closer to each other through intimate self-disclosure. But there’s only so much connecting social-media platforms can do if people are too concerned about privacy to use them for the full breadth and depth of human communication. Paradoxically, these tools that were built to bolster relationships may, by their very nature, be keeping people at a distance from each other.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

On Tuesday, ICE agents raided a plant nursery in Ohio, where they arrested 114 people in the Trump administration’s biggest immigration raid to date.

Undocumented members of the community are now living in fear, and many cannot currently locate their children, husbands, siblings, and friends.

VICE News spoke with two women feeling the impact of the raid: Amanda, who ICE arrested and later released so she could take care of the five children she parents alone, and Marilu, who was late to work because of a pediatricians’ appointment and missed the raid — but now can’t find her husband and sister. The coming days will determine the trajectory of both of these women’s lives; for now, they are in limbo.

“It’s a lot of suffering and having your kids ask you and not knowing,” Marilu told VICE News. “We’re not hurting anyone. All we do is work hard to survive and get ahead in life.”

Ever since a caravan of Central American migrants started heading north from Southern Mexico in early April, Presiden​t Trump has used the occasion to accuse the Mexican government​ of doing nothing to prevent migrants from reaching the United States.

But that isn’t true. In the summer of 2014, when record numbers of Central American children and families were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration pressured Mexico to stop the migrant flow closer to the source: At its own southern border with Guatemala.

Mexico readily complied, deploying unprecedented numbers of immigration agents, police, and military to shut down migrant routes, primarily in the southernmost state of Chiapas. By some measures, the so-called Southern Border Program was successful: In its first two years, immigration arrests in Mexico shot up by 85 percent, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America.

But four years later, it’s clear that the Southern Border Program has created more problems than it’s solved.

The migrant crisis is far from over, and will continue as long as intense violence, poverty, and political instability push Central Americans to flee their home countries. Instead, the crackdown has pushed migrants onto more remote and dangerous routes, where they’re vulnerable to predatory criminals who rob them — or much worse.

​Those migrants who are apprehended often wind up stuck for months in southern Mexico while they await for their cases to be processed. Many apply for asylum in Mexico, but even they, in many cases, want papers only so they can continue their journeys north undisturbed.

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

As Facebook faces increased scrutiny over its use of private data, Trevor highlights the company’s reliance on the human impulse to argue.

Welcome to Bar Facebook, where the human impulse to get into an argument, never back down, and then die before ever conceding pulls in $40 billion per year.

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

With Kim Kardashian, Sylvester Stallone, and Martha Stewart, Executive clemency is looking more like ‘The Celebrity Apprentice.’

Move over, Drake and Pusha T. The new rap beef is between Stephen Colbert and Kellyanne Conway.

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

We tried discussing migrant children last week and were derailed. Here is an update on that story with help from our new censors.

Gather ’round the fire cowboys, here’s the story of the time someone in Texas sorta did the right thing for almost the right reasons.

THANKS to TBS and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for making this program available on YouTube.

While the NRA is taking a well-deserved break, Jordan offers a very clear message for the organization and the politicians they support.

Dick’s Sporting Goods is the latest company to turn against the NRA, and Jordan is pissed.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper for making this program available on YouTube.

Many short clips added together with a special guest at the end.


The best parts of your childhood probably involved things today’s kids will never know


A million memories.

The endless stretch of a lazy summer afternoon. Visits to a grandparent’s house in the country. Riding your bicycle through the neighborhood after dark. These were just a few of the revealing answers from more than 400 Twitter users in response to a question: “What was a part of your childhood that you now recognize was a privilege to have or experience?”

That question, courtesy of writer Morgan Jerkins, revealed a poignant truth about the changing nature of childhood in the US: The childhood experiences most valued by people who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s are things that the current generation of kids are far less likely to know.

That’s not a reference to cassette tapes, bell bottoms, Blockbuster movies, and other items popular on BuzzFeed listicles. Rather, people are primarily nostalgic for a youthful sense of independence, connectedness, and creativity that seems less common in the 21st century. The childhood privileges that respondents seemed to appreciate most in retrospect fall into four broad categories:

The ability to take risks

“Riding my bike at all hours of the day into the evening throughout many neighborhoods without being stopped or asked what I was doing there,” was one Twitter user’s answer to Jerkins’ question. Another commenter was grateful for “summer days & nights spent riding bikes anywhere & everywhere with friends, only needing to come home when the streetlights came on,” while yet another recalled “having a peaceful, free-range childhood.” Countless others cited the freedom to explore—with few restrictions—as a major privilege of their childhood.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: American children have less independence and autonomy today than they did a few generations ago.

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