July 7, 2018 in 2,939 words

Known Unknowns

Here’s a story about how machines learn. Say you are the US Army and you want to be able to locate enemy tanks in a forest. The tanks are painted with camouflage, parked among trees, and covered in brush. To the human eye, the blocky outlines of the tanks are indistinguishable from the foliage. But you develop another way of seeing: you train a machine to identify the tanks. To teach the machine, you take a hundred photos of tanks in the forest, then a hundred photos of the empty forest. You show half of each set to a neural network, a piece of software designed to mimic a human brain. The neural network doesn’t know anything about tanks and forests; it just knows that there are fifty pictures with something important in them and fifty pictures without that something, and it tries to spot the difference. It examines the photos from multiple angles, tweaks and judges them, without any of the distracting preconceptions inherent in the human brain.

When the network has finished learning, you take the remaining photos—fifty of tanks, fifty of empty forest—which it has never seen before, and ask it to sort them. And it does so, perfectly. But once out in the field, the machine fails miserably. In practice it turns out to be about as good at spotting tanks as a coin toss. What happened?

The story goes that when the US Army tried this exercise, it made a crucial error. The photos of tanks were taken in the morning, under clear skies. Then the tanks were removed, and by afternoon, when the photos of the empty forest were taken, the sky had clouded over. The machine hadn’t learned to discern the presence or absence of tanks, but merely whether it was sunny or not.

This cautionary tale, repeated often in the academic literature on machine learning, is probably apocryphal, but it illustrates an important question about artificial intelligence: What can we know about what a machine knows? Whatever artificial intelligence might come to be, it will be fundamentally different from us, and ultimately inscrutable. Despite increasingly sophisticated systems of computation and visualization, we do not truly understand how machine learning does what it does; we can only adjudicate the results.

‘I was shocked it was so easy’: ​meet the professor who says facial recognition ​​can tell if you’re gay

Psychologist Michal Kosinski says artificial intelligence can detect your sexuality and politics just by looking at your face. What if he’s right?

Michal Kosinski: ‘I don’t believe in free will.’

Vladimir Putin was not in attendance, but his loyal lieutenants were. On 14 July last year, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and several members of his cabinet convened in an office building on the outskirts of Moscow. On to the stage stepped a boyish-looking psychologist, Michal Kosinski, who had been flown from the city centre by helicopter to share his research. “There was Lavrov, in the first row,” he recalls several months later, referring to Russia’s foreign minister. “You know, a guy who starts wars and takes over countries.” Kosinski, a 36-year-old assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, was flattered that the Russian cabinet would gather to listen to him talk. “Those guys strike me as one of the most competent and well-informed groups,” he tells me. “They did their homework. They read my stuff.”

Kosinski’s “stuff” includes groundbreaking research into technology, mass persuasion and artificial intelligence (AI) – research that inspired the creation of the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Five years ago, while a graduate student at Cambridge University, he showed how even benign activity on Facebook could reveal personality traits – a discovery that was later exploited by the data-analytics firm that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

That would be enough to make Kosinski interesting to the Russian cabinet. But his audience would also have been intrigued by his work on the use of AI to detect psychological traits. Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful – although he admits the results can change “depending on whether I include beards or not”.

How did this 36-year-old academic, who has yet to write a book, attract the attention of the Russian cabinet? Over our several meetings in California and London, Kosinski styles himself as a taboo-busting thinker, someone who is prepared to delve into difficult territory concerning artificial intelligence and surveillance that other academics won’t. “I can be upset about us losing privacy,” he says. “But it won’t change the fact that we already lost our privacy, and there’s no going back without destroying this civilisation.”

An anti-suffrage poster from 1920 epitomizes today’s fears about women’s progress


Still fighting the good fight.

To understand today’s anxieties about women’s progress in the workplace and the dismantling of traditional gender roles, we’d be smart to rewind the clocks to August 1920, the climax of American women’s century-long fight for suffrage. The epicenter of this tension: Nashville, Tennessee.

Summer 1920: The context

Throughout the sweltering summer of 1920, the battle between suffragists and anti-suffragists mounted, as both sides lobbied furiously to secure votes among Tennessee legislators either for or against the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which would grant women the right to vote.

By August of that year, 35 of the 36 necessary states had ratified the Susan B. Anthony Amendment (which would become the 19th Amendment), leaving Tennessee as a crucial vote. While nearly every other southern state had rejected ratification, the resolution passed swiftly in the Tennessee state senate on August 13. The state’s house of representatives, however, was deadlocked.

The Tennessee Assembly would cast its final vote on August 18—the suffrage movement’s Alamo moment, as Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win The Vote, calls it. Nashville was flooded with the nation’s leading pro- and anti-suffragists, corporate lobbyists, religious and political leaders, and huge quantities of Jack Daniels whiskey, which anti-suffragists pushed upon legislators so they’d be too intoxicated to congregate.

Want to love your job? Read this article


This coffee matters to someone.

The new dream job is none at all. A contingent of ambitious upper-middle-class types are devoting themselves single-mindedly to achieving early retirement, with the goal of liberating themselves from work to later travel the world or pursue a creative passion.

Perhaps the contemporary quest for future unemployment stems from the fact that many jobs seem meaningless and unfulfilling. According to anthropologist David Graeber, author of the recently published book Bullshit Jobs, much work today features a lot of unnecessary busywork. Society didn’t consciously design work this way, Graeber argues, but it’s preventing people from making a “meaningful contribution to the world.” In his 2013 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” Graeber explains:

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

So let’s talk about it. Is your job bullshit? I’d argue that it’s not—no matter what you do. The scar across our collective soul comes not from the work itself, but from our perceptions of meaninglessness.

5 Stupid Things You Won’t Believe Have Been Around Forever

This particular era of human society, along with all of the stupid things that surround us, will probably have the shelf life of bagged lettuce, right? This isn’t “the good old days.” This isn’t “history.” This is a bunch of jerks just wingin’ it until something better comes along, right? Right! Except absolutely everyone in every era before now thought the same thing. It turns out we’ve not only always been this dumb, but have also been dumb in this exact same way for a staggeringly long time. Behold honored and ancient traditions like …

5. Giving Someone The Middle Finger Dates Back 2,500 Years

The next time someone flips you the bird, consider that you’re now part of a tradition stretching back millennia. The act of raising that particular lone digit to insult someone was first documented in ancient Greece, where it appears in a play written by Aristophanes in 419 BCE. Around that time, philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (who would undoubtedly be prolific on Reddit today) used his middle finger to express disdain toward an Athenian politician — a moment that has been immortalized in at least one statue.

For context, the middle finger was supposed to represent a penis, with the rest of the hand being some very deformed testicles. More specifically, in ancient Rome, the finger became synonymous with the anal penetration of men — literally “Fuck you.” The Romans even had a special name for the middle finger: digitus impudicus, which translates to modern English as “the indecent finger” or “the unchaste finger.” Either way, great names for punk bands.

The middle finger eventually managed to find its way to America through Italian immigrants. The first documented use in the U.S. (and the first ever picture of someone flipping the bird) was in 1886, when legendary baseball player Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn decided to give the camera the old Bronx salute while posing with a rival team.

The middle finger was redundant. That mustache clearly says “Fuck you.”

So technically, when you give someone the finger, you’re citing the works of ancient Roman philosophers. Ain’t you a classy motherfucker?

The mind-bendy weirdness of the number zero, explained

We explain nothing.

Dude … have you ever, like, even thought about the number zero? It’s wild.

The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.

Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer … equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.

Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.

So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why.



Welcome to America overseas.

When the Park Lane Hilton opened in London in 1963, on the eastern edge of Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace was reportedly not pleased.

At 28 stories, it was the city’s tallest building—and the first to be higher than St Paul’s Cathedral, 2.5 miles to the east. According to news reports at the time, the Queen had a row of trees planted to hide herself from the prying eyes of tourists stationed on the hotel chain’s top floors. “Buckingham Palace now nestles in a valley of tall buildings” one headline read. It was seen as scandalous that Americans would look down upon the Queen and her palace.

In the thoroughly globalized context of modern day London, the Park Lane Hilton still feels no less American. Its lobby is vigorously air conditioned, has an outpost of the cheerfully tacky Polynesian themed restaurants called Trader Vic’s, and guests with large amounts of luggage sip Starbucks Frappuccinos purchased nearby.

Outside, it remains somewhat of an anomaly on the skyline, which in fact indicates its legacy. Along with several other structures from that era, its construction spurred restrictions on where tall buildings could be placed in London. Planners wanted to avoid turning Hyde Park into Central Park—or an open green space abutted by imposing skyscrapers.

Stars, limos, clubs … Andy Warhol’s life exposed in unseen images

Book and exhibition will be followed by digitisation of pop artist’s photographs, giving public access to extraordinary ‘visual diary’

Detail from the contact sheet of a Warhol shoot with Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1982.

Tens of thousands of unpublished pictures taken by Andy Warhol of celebrity friends such as Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Debbie Harry are to be made public for the first time in what is described as an unparalleled collection of his photography.

More than 130,000 individual frames have been made available by the Andy Warhol Foundation for a forthcoming book, exhibition and the digitisation for the general public of every single image – most of which have not been seen before. Markings on 3,600 contact sheets show that Warhol printed only 17% of his photographs.

Spanning 11 years leading up to the artist’s death in 1987, the images open doors to both his dazzling social circle and his private world. In one photo, the writer Truman Capote is shown stretching out on a couch. In a series of hundreds of pictures capturing an unfolding romance, Jon Gould, Warhol’s last boyfriend, is shown on the beach, in the snow and on a boat.

The Contact Warhol project to make the photographs available for public viewing is headed by Peggy Phelan and Richard Meyer, arts professors at Stanford University, California, which acquired the archive from the Warhol Foundation.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Dinosaur Kingdom II is a theme park where dinosaurs defeat the Union Army in a Civil War battle forgotten by history. It has a mock Ken Burns-style documentary and everything. Of the more than 1,700 monuments and markers for the Confederacy across the country, this is one of the strangest.

The sci-fi alt-history theme park was built in 2016 by Mark Cline — someone people in the south would call “a character.” Admission is $10 and Cline says the park can bring in $10,000 on any happening summer weekend.

“The Yankee troops wanted to use these dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South. It kind of backfired on them,” Cline told VICE News. “And this is the story that was left out of most of the history books. So I’m trying to bring the story to light to make sure that history is told the way it’s supposed to be.”

VICE News visited to ask the creator about why he built the park and why he wanted to see the South win.

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

Ultra-endurance bicycle racer Lael Wilcox puts more miles on her bike every year than most people do on their cars. Here’s how she trains for and rides some of the toughest races on earth.

Welcome to Ballarat, California, population one. Located in the heart of the unforgiving Death Valley, the former mining supply town has been abandoned for nearly 100 years. Were it not for Rock Novak, the town’s only resident, Ballarat would belong to the vultures.

“I’m the caretaker, the mayor, the sheriff, the judge, and the undertaker [of Ballarat],” Novak says in Mickey Todiwala and Monika Delgado’s short documentary, The Mayor of Ballarat. “I like it out here. It’s peaceful, quiet…you do as you want.”

A year ago, Google’s Gmail said it stopped its practice of scanning users’ inboxes to personalize ads. But it still allows outside app developers to scan inboxes, according to a Wall Street Journal report. John Yang talks with tech reporter Douglas MacMillan, who broke that story.

THANKS to PBC Newshour for making this program available on YouTube.

CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Me commentary the pure skill of juggling and solving the Rubik’s cube.

Welcome to my life and enjoy the sounds of nature.


The Secret Price of Pets

The care and feeding of America’s “fur babies” has grown increasingly baroque.

Miles, our pug puppy, was 5 months old and mounting everything he could wrap his front paws around. “We’re having him fixed soon,” my partner and I repeated like a mantra to friends as they politely extricated their legs. This is how we found out about Neuticles.

Neuticles, one plugged-in acquaintance revealed, are prosthetic testicles for neutered pets. Kim Kardashian West’s boxer was Neuticled, as were Larry Flynt’s Doberman pinschers. Altogether over 500,000 animals have been surgically implanted with the silicone testes, according to Gregg A. Miller, who invented them in 1995.

“Some people throw the dog in the car and have him turned into a eunuch because they don’t care,” Mr. Miller said recently. “But there’s a certain segment of pet owners that do care, and that’s where Neuticles come in. And it’s not only canines and felines. We’ve done an elephant, we’ve done prairie dogs. I Neuticled a monkey in Pocahontas, Ark., and a colony of rats for the University of Louisiana.”

But the majority of his clients, Mr. Miller said, are “everyday pet owners who opt for Neuticles so their pet will maintain its dignity and self-esteem.”

I was not entirely unfamiliar with such indulgences. When our late pug Weenie had to have a diabetes-ravaged eyeball removed, we replaced it with a fake eye that cost roughly 15 times what we had paid for Weenie himself. No one mistook it for the real thing, but it did lend him a raffish Sammy Davis Jr.-like charm.

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