…well…it’s sunday…which to some is a day of rest…& in all honesty if you’ve read @butcherbakertoiletrymaker’s post from yesterday there’s every chance you might want to take a moment or two before diving back in to the shallower territory involved in the sort of white water rafting required to get through the headlines…of which, as ever, there are a lot…& much like that raft on the rapids…much of it is jarring
The U.S. death toll from Covid-19 eclipsed 700,000 late Friday — a number greater than the population of Boston. The last 100,000 deaths occurred during a time when vaccines — which overwhelmingly prevent deaths, hospitalizations and serious illness — were available to any American over the age of 12.https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/tragic-milestone-covid-19-deaths-eclipse-700-000-u-s
The milestone is also deeply frustrating to doctors, public health officials and the American public, who watched a pandemic that had been easing earlier in the summer take a dark turn. Tens of millions of Americans have refused to get vaccinated, allowing the highly contagious delta variant to tear through the country and send the death toll from 600,000 to 700,000 in 3 1/2 months.
…or liable to give you whiplash
Amid a national debate over the use of pandemic relief funds, Alabama lawmakers swiftly approved a plan Friday to tap $400 million from the American Rescue Plan to help build two super-size prisons, brushing off criticism from congressional Democrats that the money was not intended for such projects.
The Alabama Legislature gave final approval to the $1.3 billion prison construction plan, and to a separate bill to steer $400 million of the state’s $2.1 billion from the rescue funds to pay for it.Alabama to use Covid rescue funds to build prisons [NBC]
The plan drew opposition from many Democrats in the House of Representatives, but had minimal dissenting votes in the state Senate, where senators approved the use of the pandemic money in a 30-1 vote and the overall construction plan in a 29-2 vote.
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York this week sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking her to “prevent the misuse of ARP funding by any state, including Alabama” to build prisons.
Republican legislative leaders said they are comfortable they can legally use the funds because the American Rescue Plan, in addition to authorizing the dollars for economic and health care programs, says states can use the money to replace revenue lost during the pandemic to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs.
…or this sort of thing
A federal judge heard arguments on Friday from the State of Texas and the federal government on whether a Texas law that bans nearly all abortions in the state should be suspended while the courts decide if it is legal.
The Justice Department sued Texas last month over the law. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland called the enforcement mechanism “an unprecedented” effort to prevent women from exercising their constitutionally protected right to have an abortion. He said that no matter their stand on abortion, Americans should fear that the Texas law could become a model to restrict other constitutionally protected rights.
At the hearing on Friday, before Judge Robert L. Pitman, a Federal District Court judge in Austin, William T. Thompson, a lawyer for the State of Texas, asserted that the federal government had no grounds to be arguing the case, because the law did not harm it.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/01/us/politics/texas-abortion-law-hearing.html
While Senate Bill 8 was passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, it is to be enforced by private citizens filing civil lawsuits. Those private parties are entitled to $10,000 and their legal fees recovered if they successfully sue those who aid in an abortion that is restricted under the statute.
The state has argued in a court filing that civil suits brought by private citizens under the new law in Texas State courts were the “proper cases for deciding the constitutionality of the challenged statute.” Few such suits have been filed so far.
…because apparently these are the people who get to determine this stuff instead of…I dunno
The first Women’s March of the Biden administration was heading straight for the steps of the supreme court on Saturday, part of nationwide protests that drew thousands to Washington DC and other cities to demand continued access to abortion in a year when conservative lawmakers and judges have put it in jeopardy.https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/02/womens-march-us-supreme-court–abortion-on-line
Organizers say the Washington march would be among hundreds of abortion-themed protests around the country on Saturday. The demonstrations come days before the start of a new term for the supreme court that will decide the future of abortion rights in the United States, after appointments of justices by Donald Trump strengthened conservative control of the court.
…the thing is with all of that going on…not to mention this sort of thing
It was all going so well. Successful vaccination programmes were driving the post-pandemic recovery of the global economy, stock markets were back at record highs, and prices were rising just enough to make deflation fears a thing of the past.
But a supply crunch that initially put a question mark over the availability of luxury cars or whether there would be enough PlayStations under our Christmas trees is instead morphing into a full-blown crisis featuring a shortage of energy, labour and transport from Liverpool to Los Angeles, and from Qingdao to Queensland.
All the problems are in one way or another tangled up in the surge of post-pandemic consumer demand, but taken together they threaten what one leading economist calls a “stagflationary wind” that could blow the global economy off course.‘A perfect storm’: supply chain crisis could blow world economy off course [Guardian]
…there’s only so much of this sort of thing I think most people can take
Securing Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda […] will require the support of every single one of the 50 votes Democrats control in the Senate, and nearly every one that they control in the House.Biden’s Big Vision Collides With His Small Majorities [NYT]
But absent a sudden expansion in their ranks, Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders now realize that they must adjust their original legislative vision in line with their actual numbers in Congress, and that any legislation they produce will not have the reach they anticipated when they began.
Now, the two factions are at loggerheads — one flexing its power but as yet empty-handed, the other feeling betrayed, both claiming they have the president on their side — and the outcome of their battle over Mr. Biden’s proposals could determine Democrats’ fate in the midterms and the success of his presidency.Biden Throws In With Left, Leaving His Agenda in Doubt [NYT]
Whether she retires next year or not, the next few weeks and months will serve as a major inflection point for Pelosi’s legacy. If she can usher President Biden’s ambitious agenda into law, Pelosi will cement her place as one of the most powerful members of Congress in the history of the country.
But Pelosi could also oversee the implosion of the party’s attempt to achieve long-sought goals on education, heath care and climate if she cannot smooth over the bitter ideological divide among congressional Democrats. Such an outcome would leave Democrats reeling heading into next year’s midterm elections and probably ending her career on a sour note, denting her reputation as a master legislator who always finds a way to deliver.
After 19 years leading House Democrats, she is also facing the inevitable questions over whether she has lost a step or maintains the legislative acumen and determination that has defined her career.Pelosi on verge of cementing legacy as one of the most powerful members of Congress ever — or ending her career on a sour note [WaPo]
…because at the end of the day we know what the chokepoints are
Somehow, we have gotten ourselves in a perverse situation where Sinema and Joe Manchin rule the world, and it’s confounding that these two people have this much sway. As Hemingway wondered in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” what are those leopards doing at this altitude?
Sinema and Manchin are now directing what Joe Biden gets to do and deciding how his presidency will be defined. Some Democrats even worry that the recalcitrant pair could be helping Donald Trump vault back into the White House.
The duo has created such havoc on the Hill — with the fate of the whole country riding on what mood they’re in — that congressional reporters have come up with Bennifer-style nicknames for them, including Manchinema and Sinemanch.https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/02/opinion/kyrsten-sinema-congress.html
…& it’s frustrating to have to wade through all the different ways there are to say we know what the problems are but seem to be coming up short on the solutions side…& a certain bunch of bad losers show no signs of stopping with their bullshit…or picking their audience
Trump filed a request for preliminary injunction against Twitter in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, arguing the social media company was “coerced” by members of the U.S. Congress to suspend his account.Trump asks Florida judge to force Twitter to restart his account [NBC]
…under more pleasant circumstances it’s the sort of thing that might be interesting in a “something to think about” way…but to get from the part where it seems easy to think about…like it shouldn’t be possible for an ex-majority to so thoroughly rig the game that once they get enough traction they can lock out the majority…to the part about a whole bunch of precedents it would be better didn’t become a part of how it gets decided who gets to be (among other things) president
The problem in the American system for the principle of “one person, one vote” is that our institutions are not actually set up for political equality among citizens.
The upshot of all of this, I’ve written in the past, is that it is possible to elect a government that does not represent a majority of voters, much less a majority of citizens or residents. With just the right amount of geographic, educational and racial polarization in the electorate, a party could control the White House and a majority of seats in Congress without ever winning a majority of votes in either a presidential or a congressional election.
I mention this because I recently read an interview in The Atlantic with Ryan Williams, the president of the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank with strong ties to Donald Trump and his movement, in which he makes the argument that minority rule is as legitimate as majority rule.
“I reject the premise that just because the popular vote isn’t won, you don’t possess a constitutional majority. We have an Electoral College system for a reason. Democracy, for the Founders, was a means to the end of the protection of rights. They set up a republic, not a democracy. The rule of pure numbers was never the touchstone of justice for the Founders.”
What caught my eye there is Williams’s use of the term “constitutional majority,” to refer to an electoral majority that does not represent a popular majority. Williams uses it to defend — even to extoll — the legitimacy of minority government, but what’s interesting is that it was first used, as far as I can tell, in defense of majority rule.When Is a ‘Majority’ Not Actually a Majority? [NYT]
Madison concedes that in any system of elective government, there is the chance of choosing a government that does not represent a majority of the people. This, he says, is a problem, because the popular majority might feel oppressed by the minority in power. “That this departure from the rule of equality, creating a political and constitutional majority in contradistinction to a numerical majority of the people, may be abused in various degrees oppressive to the majority of the people is certain; and in modes and degrees so oppressive as to justify ultra- or anti-constitutional resorts to adequate relief is equally certain.”
“Still,” he writes, “the constitutional majority must be acquiesced in by the constitutional minority whilst the Constitution exists. The moment that arrangement is successfully frustrated, the Constitution is at an end. The only remedy therefore for the oppressed minority is in the amendments of the Constitution, or a subversion of the Constitution — this inference is unavoidable. Whilst the Constitution is in force, the power created by it whether a popular minority or majority must be the legitimate power and obeyed.”
…it would be nice to think there was a bit more of a distance than there looks from some angles…but things being as they are…it sure seems like the midterms are going to have so much riding on them it may be more than they’re structurally designed to bear…on the basis that the current not-a-majority-majority state of the senate seems like a candidate for the role of the albatross in the tale of ol’ joe (now apparently a mariner)…&…at the risk of stating the obvious…things tipping the other way is not pleasant to contemplate
However horrifying the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol appeared in the moment, we know now that it was far worse.Jan. 6 Was Worse Than We Knew [NYT]
In the days before the mob descended on the Capitol, a corollary attack — this one bloodless and legalistic — was playing out down the street in the White House, where Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and a lawyer named John Eastman huddled in the Oval Office, scheming to subvert the will of the American people by using legal sleight-of-hand.
The fact that the scheme to overturn the election was highly unlikely to succeed is cold comfort. Mr. Trump remains the most popular Republican in the country; barring a serious health issue, the odds are good that he will be the party’s nominee for president in 2024. He also remains as incapable of accepting defeat as he has ever been, which means the country faces a renewed risk of electoral subversion by Mr. Trump and his supporters — only next time they will have learned from their mistakes.
The threats to a free and fair presidential election don’t come from Congress alone. Since Jan. 6, Republican-led state legislatures have been clambering over one another to pass new laws making it easier to reject their own voters’ will, and removing or neutralizing those officials who could stand in the way of a naked power grab — like Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, did when he resisted Mr. Trump’s personal plea to “find” just enough extra votes to flip the outcome there.
There is plenty more to be done to protect American elections from being stolen through subversion, like mandating the use of paper ballots that can be checked against reported results. Ideally, fixes like these would be adopted promptly by bipartisan majorities in Congress, to convey to all Americans that both parties are committed to a fair, transparent and smooth vote-counting process. But for that to happen, the Republican Party would need to do an about-face. Right now, some Republican leaders in Congress and the states have shown less interest in preventing election sabotage than in protecting and, in some cases, even venerating the saboteurs.
Time and distance from those events could have led to reflection and contrition on the part of those involved, but that’s not so. Remember how, in the frantic days before Jan. 6, Mr. Trump insisted over and over that Georgia’s election was rife with “large-scale voter fraud”? Remember how he called on Mr. Raffensperger to “start the process of decertifying the election” and “announce the true winner”? Only those words aren’t from last year. They appear in a letter Mr. Trump sent to Mr. Raffensperger two weeks ago.
[A]fter the November election, Mr. Eastman wrote the memo for which he is now best known, laying out steps that Vice President Mike Pence could take to keep Mr. Trump in power — measures Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans have likened to a blueprint for a coup.
Mr. Eastman’s rise within Mr. Trump’s inner circle in the chaotic final weeks of his administration also underscores the degree to which Mr. Trump not only relied on, but encouraged, a crew of players from the fringes of politics. They became key participants in his efforts to remain in power as many of his longtime aides and lawyers refused to help him.
Mr. Eastman’s appeal to Mr. Trump, fleshed out in interviews with Mr. Eastman and others who dealt with him during this period, rested in large part on his expansive views of presidential power — and his willingness to tell Mr. Trump what he wanted to hear.
But Mr. Barr, who was increasingly finding himself having to fend off the advice of outside lawyers, television commentators and Mar-a-Lago hangers-on, dismissed the idea, saying Mr. Eastman’s argument was a stretch and ultimately impractical.
Mr. Eastman admitted Mr. Barr was right.The Lawyer Behind the Memo on How Trump Could Stay in Office [NYT]
As Mr. Trump hints at another run in 2024, Mr. Eastman remains a bridge between the former president and the continuing efforts by some of his supporters to promote specious allegations of widespread election fraud in 2020 and to undercut faith in the electoral system.
…I mean…hopefully we never have to find out if they actually could get their act together…but then I was hoping I’d be able to track down a clip of eddie izzard warning that it isn’t the obvious assholes you need to worry about…it’s the organized ones
Scores of former Trump political appointees gathered at a GOP social club Wednesday night to hear Steve Bannon detail how they could help the next Republican president reconfigure government.
Bannon, who ran former President Donald Trump‘s first campaign and later worked as a top adviser in the White House, said that Trump’s agenda was delayed by the challenges of quickly filling roughly 4,000 slots for presidential appointees at federal agencies and the steep learning curve for political officials who were new to Washington.
Bannon said he wants to see pre-trained teams ready to jump into federal agencies when the next Republican president takes office. For the most part, that means the tiers of presidential appointees whose postings don’t require Senate confirmation.
“We’re going to have a sweeping victory in 2022, and that’s just the preamble to a sweeping victory in 2024, and this time we’re going to be ready — and have a MAGA perspective, MAGA policies, not the standard Republican policies,” he said, referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and describing a 2024 electoral victory as a “second term.”Bannon fires up ‘shock troops’ for next GOP White House [NBC]
…but I couldn’t find one even though I swear I remember that being in one of his routines…& I’d prefer not to see any more than we have when it comes to this version
Pol Pot killed one point seven million Cambodians, died under house arrest, well done there. Stalin killed many millions, died in his bed, aged seventy-two, well done indeed. And the reason we let them get away with it is they killed their own people. And we’re sort of fine with that. Hitler killed people next door. Oh, stupid man. After a couple of years we won’t stand for that, will we?Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill
…so…I guess I’m hoping that “next door” part holds true at state level…because essentially we’re about ready to call time on that two year mark with the whole COVID death toll thing…anyway…speaking of things that would be less of a worry if they were less ubiquitous…let’s hope this goes somewhere for a start
The pressure on Facebook is likely to increase on Sunday when a whistleblower appears on US TV to claim that the company is lying to the public and investors about the effectiveness of its attempts to remove hate, violence and misinformation from its platforms.
The whistleblower, who has submitted thousands of internal documents to the US financial regulator, will then appear at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.As a Facebook whistleblower prepares to speak out, what can be done to rein in tech firms? [Guardian]
In a hearing on Thursday, senators on the consumer protection subcommittee accused Facebook of hiding vital information on its impact on users. “It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows, and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, the chairman of the subcommittee and a Democrat from Connecticut, charged.
The Journal’s reporting showed that Facebook regularly gave preferential treatment to elites if their speech was flagged on the platform; that it implemented shoddy solutions to mitigate the harmful mental and emotional health effects of its products on teenagers; and that it underinvested in enforcing its own rules about what is allowed on the site outside of the United States. The series has stirred the now familiar outrage at Facebook for failing to take responsibility for how people use its platform. While these revelations are disturbing, they also point to some opportunities for reform.
While calling out Facebook for its mistakes and omissions may seem like a win, berating the company for its flawed internal and external research projects does not mean this type of work will become more ethical or transparent. The outcome is that it doesn’t get done at all — not by Facebook or anyone else — and if it does, the results stay hidden.
Other popular platforms are also part of the problem. Snapchat supposedly studied the effect of its platform on its users’ mental health, but never released the results. Instead, it announced new intervention tools. After the publication of the “Facebook Files” series, TikTok rolled out “mental health guides” for users.
These moves reveal what companies are trying to avoid. If you look inward and investigate the harms your platform has caused and it turns out to be too expensive or too hard to fix them, it stirs up the exact kind of public relations storm Facebook is now enduring. From these companies’ perspective, the alternative is simpler: If you don’t study it, there’s nothing to reveal.Clearly, Facebook Is Very Flawed. What Will We Do About It? [NYT]
…it just might?
Facebook is one of the most toxic corporations on the planet. Its toxicity has two roots. The first is its business model: intrusive and comprehensive surveillance of its users in order to compile profiles that enable advertisers to target messages at them. This business model is powered by the machine-learning algorithms that construct those profiles and determine what appears in the news feeds of the company’s 2.85 billion users. In large measure, it is the output of these algorithms that constitutes the focus of congressional anger and inquiry.
The other source of the company’s toxicity is its governance. Essentially, Facebook is a dictatorship entirely controlled by its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. This total control is ensured by a two-tier share ownership structure that gives him untrammelled power. The company’s regular regulatory filings describe it thus: “Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, chairman and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could delay, defer, or prevent a change of control, merger, consolidation or sale of all or substantially all of our assets that our other stockholders support, or conversely this concentrated control could result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support.”
Of course Facebook does have a board of directors, but they have as much agency as the ethics committee of an arms manufacturer. They are all appointed by Zuckerberg and serve at his pleasure and are thus, ultimately, his creatures. The significance of this subservience has been under-appreciated to date, but has just been dramatically highlighted by a lawsuit, filed in Delaware by the State of Rhode Island’s pension fund, which names all the members of the board as defendants.
The background is that in 2020 the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruled that Facebook had violated a “consent decree” about protecting users’ privacy that it had entered into in 2012 after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The envisaged fine – $5bn – was huge and the commission held Zuckerberg as the guilty party, on account of his total control of the company. But the Facebook board of directors resisted, arguing that it was a company responsibility, not Zuckerberg’s, and accepted the fine as a corporate liability, thus saving the boss $5bn. As stockholders, the pension fund is not amused by this piece of chicanery and the casual appropriation of shareholders’ funds; hopefully, one the day the court will not be either. Stay tuned.Has Mark Zuckerberg’s total control of Facebook turned into a liability? [Guardian]
…& it’d be nice to have to worry a little less about this sort of thing
[I]n 1964, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum created Eliza, a computer program that could perform the speech acts of a Rogerian psychotherapist – ie someone who specialised in parroting back to patients what they had just said – lots of people fell for her/it. (And if you want to see why, there’s a neat implementation of her by Michael Wallace and George Dunlop on the web.)
Eliza was the first chatbot, but she can be seen as the beginning of a line of inquiry that has led to current generations of huge natural language processing (NLP) models created by machine learning. The most famous of these is GPT-3, which was created by Open AI, a research company whose mission is “to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity”.
Recently, a group of researchers at the AI Alignment Forum, an online hub for researchers seeking to ensure that powerful AIs are aligned with human values, decided to ask how truthful GPT-3 and similar models are. They came up with a benchmark to measure whether a particular language model was truthful in generating answers to questions. The benchmark comprises 817 questions that span 38 categories, including health, law, finance and politics. They composed questions that some humans would answer falsely due to a false belief or misconception. To perform well, models had to avoid generating false answers learned from imitating human texts.
They tested four well-known models, including GPT-3. The best was truthful on 58% of questions, while human performance was 94%. The models “generated many false answers that mimic popular misconceptions and have the potential to deceive humans”. Interestingly, they also found that “the largest models were generally the least truthful”. This contrasts with other NLP tasks, where performance improves with model size. The implication is that the tech industry’s conviction that bigger is invariably better for improving truthfulness may be wrong. And this matters because training these huge models is very energy-intensive, which is possibly why Google fired Timnit Gebru after she revealed the environmental footprint of one of the company’s big models.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/02/the-truth-about-artificial-intelligence-it-isnt-that-honest
…well…at least it’s sunday…so if all that makes you feel like the best idea would be a large lunch & a bit of a nap…fair play