x47b takeoff

The peaceniks at Amnesty International have been worried about killer robots for a while, so as the international community convenes in Geneva to talk about weapons of the future, they once again launched a media blitz about what they see as an urgent need to ban killer robots. In the future they envision, merciless killer bots mow down soldiers and civilians alike with virtually no human intervention, kind of like in the opening scene of the Robocop remake. In an age of vast global trade empires with far too much to lose by fighting with each other use their soldiers and war machines to tackle far-flung low intensity conflicts, in military wonk parlance, where telling a civilian apart from a combatant is no easy feat, Amnesty International raises an important issue to consider. If we build robots to kill, there’s bound to be a time when they’ll make a decision in error and end someone’s life when they shouldn’t have. Who will be held responsible? Was it a bug or a feature that it killed who it did? Could we prevent similar incidents in the future?

Having seen machines take on the role of perfect bad guys in countless sci-fi tales, I can’t help but shake the feeling that a big part of the objections to autonomous armed robots comes from the innate anxiety at the idea of being killed because some lines of code ruled you a target. It’s an uneasy feeling even for someone who works with computers every day. Algorithms are way too often buggy and screw up edge cases way too easily. Programmers rushing to meet a hard deadline will sometimes cut corners to make something work, then never go back to fix it. They mean to, but as new projects start and time gets away from them, an update breaks their code and bugs emerge seemingly out of nowhere. If you ask a roomful of programmers who did this at least a few times in their careers to raise their hands, almost all of them will. And the few who did not are lying. When this is a bug in a game or a mobile app, it’s seldom a big deal. When it’s code deployed in an active war zone, it’s going to become a major problem very quickly.

Even worse, imagine bugs in the robots’ security systems. Shoddy encryption, or lack of it, was once exploited to capture live video feeds from drones on patrol. Poorly secured APIs meant to talk to the robot mid-action could be hijacked and turn the killer bot against its handlers, and as seen in pretty much every movie ever, this turn of events never has a good ending. Even good, secure APIs might not stay that way because cybersecurity is a very lopsided game in which all the cards are heavily stacked the hackers’ favor. Security experts need to execute perfectly for every patch, update, and code change to keep their machines safe. Hackers only need to take advantage of a single slip-up or bug to gain access and do their dirty work. This is why security for killer robots’ systems could never be perfect and the only thing its creators could do is make the machine extremely hard to hack with strict code, constantly updated secure connections to its base station, and include a way to quickly reset or destroy it when it does get hacked.

Still, all of this isn’t necessarily an argument against killer robots. It’s a reminder of how serious the challenges of making them are, and they better be heeded because no matter how much it may pain pacifist groups and think tanks, these weapons are coming. While they’ll inevitably kill civilians in war zones, in the mind of a general, so do flesh and blood soldiers, and if those well trained humans with all the empathy and complex reasoning skills being human entails cannot get it right all the time, what hope do robots have? Plus, to paraphrase the late General Patton, you don’t win wars by dying for your country but by making someone does for theirs’ and what better way to do that than by substituting your live troops with machinery you don’t mind losing nearly as much in combat? I’ve covered the “ideal” scenario for how all this would work back in the early days of this blog and in subsequent years, the technology to make it all possible isn’t just growing ever more advanced, it’s practically already here. It would make little sense to just throw it all away to continue to risk human lives in war zones from a military standpoint.

And here’s another thing to think about when envisioning a world where killer robots making life or death decisions dominate the battlefield. Only advanced countries could afford to build robot armies and deploy them instead of humans in conflict. Third World states would have no choice but to rely on flesh and blood soldiers, meaning that one side loses thousands of lives fighting a vast, expendable metal swarm armed with high tech weaponry able to outflank any human-held position before its defenders even have time to react. How easy would it be to start wars when soldiers no longer need to be put at risk and the other side either would not have good enough robots or must put humans on the front lines? If today all it takes to send thousand into combat saying that they volunteered and their sacrifice won’t be in vain, how quickly will future chicken hawks vote to send the killer bots to settle disputes, often in nations where only humans will be capable of fighting back, all but assuring the robots’ swift tactical victory?

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jail cell

Pretty much every documentary about jails and prisons proclaims that three out of four inmates you’ll see released on your screen will be incarcerated again within five years, often citing many possible reasons as to why. Criminal records keep them from finding legitimate work, lack of an effective rehabilitation program didn’t help their drug habits, their mental illnesses weren’t really addressed and are dooming them to vagrancy and crime, overzealous policing and sentencing that takes a disproportional toll on the poor and minorities, and so on. All of these may be good reasons why so many people studied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics end up in jail and each should be talked about and addressed to drive down recidivism. But the public at large and the politicians they elect have taken this information to mean that our justice system is not only very badly broken, but has become little more than a rotating door for 75% of American criminals, so all sorts of reforms must be promptly instituted to end the constant cycle of incarceration.

Right now, as Congress is trying to figure out how to fix today’s overburdened justice system to make sentencing guidelines saner, and keep people who don’t need to be imprisoned for minor crimes out of jail and into rehabilitation and parole programs, knowing who is in jail, why, and if they’re likely to find themselves back there, is crucial for effective, smart changes. And against this backdrop comes a study showing that the public and the government misunderstood what the data collected by the BJS actually measures and what it means for us. The BJS just wanted to know what happens to prisoners year over year. As they do that, the statistical picture skews very heavily to frequent offenders because they’re the most likely people to be caught in those samples. The analogy the study’s lead author, public policy analyst William Rhodes, likened the difference in his methodology and that of the BJS to trying to build the demographics of who is visiting shopping malls over a week rather than over a year. The longer the period studied, the more accurate gauge you have over long term trends, and the more likely you are to catalog all those people who analysis over much shorter windows of time will more than likely miss.

Looking at records spanning 15 years across the country, indexed by prisoners’ ID numbers, it became very clear that 68% of people who serve a prison sentence do not re-offend, and of all those who do, only one third will re-offend more than once. So the chronically incarcerated who become the focus of BJS reports because they keep on getting caught in the sample again and again, actually represent a little more than a tenth of all prisoners. This means that far from the revolving doors for cons which do nothing to help curb crime, American prisons are actually an effective deterrent from further offenses. That said, the fact that 32% of people who did serve a sentence are ending up back behind bars is a problem which points to the need to address the aforementioned challenges of leaving jail with few resources to get one’s life back on track. For Rhodes, this is a clear indicator that there needs to be an investment in rehabilitating those with the highest risk for return, and considering that instead of having to focus on every prisoner we actually need to work with as little as a quarter of them, that investment is manageable.

This is why statistical literacy is so important. If we didn’t assess whether the methods we have been using accurately reflect long term trends, we’d end up having to take a wrecking ball to all the jails and prisons to truly fix things. Considering how much was spent on building them, it’s a politically and economically painful proposal no one would want to back. No one willing to fix the entirety of a broken system over decades means that much needed reforms would’ve died very slow and painful deaths while more and more prisons were being built on the incorrect notion of having to keep people sentenced for longer and longer stretches of time so they don’t re-offend as the BJS predicts most of them will. Now, we can take this policy advice to focus on reforming the chronic, most dangerous offenders to keep as many of them out of jail for good as possible and rehabilitating minor ones who are only being sent to jail now because the judges and most of the public are convinced that they’ll keep going right back to crime unless they’re jailed.

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viruses render

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about using viruses to fight cancer and as the best vector for gene therapy to finally conquer diseases once thought incurable. But aside from several promising trials in the lab and in select hospitals, not much from this research has been cleared for use in real world patients. Until now, as a genetically modified herpes virus received the formal green light to help combat advanced melanoma in clinical practice. Considering how many ups and downs this technology had over the last 35 years, this is very important first step in showing that we finally know what we’re doing and the science is mature enough to treat the average Joe and Jane. Labs which may have put viral therapy on the back burner, worried that the current regulatory climate would be too conservative to ever approve their products can get back to work and ramp up their viral pipelines. And of course, millions will soon benefit from this promising new class of drugs to send more and more cases of cancer into remission.

But of course there are some limitations. The currently approved drug, T-VEC, hasn’t shown all that much life-extending potential in the lab and needs to be injected directly into the tumors. It gave patients with advanced melanoma an additional 4.4 month which was just a whisker away from desired statistical significance for the population being tested. However, since these were very advanced cases, with many likely comorbidities, and it triggered an immune response that finally saw the tumors as foreign invaders and helped control their attempts to spread. Given in concert with existing therapies, it should be very effective, and if it is, its manufacturer can seek approval for use in less advanced forms of melanoma against which it should do even better. In short, it may not be the “cure” we’ve always wanted, but it’s a very important step forward and a very encouraging sign of things to come, and widespread clinical use of viral therapies will give us new insights into how to better refine them to make them safer and more potent.

Of course we need to keep in mind that the result of all this work will not be the mythical cancer cure advertised by many quacks and snake oil peddlers. Cancer seems to have existed almost as long as multicellular life on Earth, and while some creatures found ways of coping with it, it’s still a constant threat because it’s such a complex degenerative condition affecting virtually any cell type there is in our bodies. We probably can never hope to completely eliminate it, but it’s a realistic goal to develop a wide array of treatments that quickly send it into remission, which will turn what was once a death sentence into a fight we can win more often than not. With several types of cancer that’s exactly the case with conventional treatments. Imagine how much better targeted viral therapies which could spare more healthy cells than chemotherapy and radiation will be for patients over the next decade. And while there will always be a ghost of a recurrence hanging over their head no matter how hard we try, knowing that there is a really good chance to once again beat it, may make up for nature’s insistence on turning some of our cells evil…

[ illustration by Art of the Cell ]

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head in sand

Here’s an extremely uncomfortable truth no one currently running for office in the U.S., or even remotely considering doing so ever wants to publicly admit. There are a lot of voters who really, really don’t like experts, scientists, or anyone well educated in anything other than medicine. In their eyes, any sign of intellectualism is not something to cheer or aspire to, to them it’s nothing more than pretension from someone they’re convinced thinks he or she is better than them and feels entitled to tell them what to do. At the same time, they’re extremely paranoid that they will have something valuable or important taken away from them to be given to all the undeserving moochers on lower socioeconomic rungs than they are, convinced that the American poor have already been living it up with free spending money, free food, and free world-class medical care for decades. So when a politician decides to cozy up to this constituency, his best bet is to start witch hunts against their most nightmarish moochers: government-funded scientists.

In his tenure as the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, a haven for a disturbing number of peddlers of anti-scientific twaddle, congressman Lamar Smith decided to do exactly that with his open-ended fishing expeditions into every possible aspect of scientists’ research in his quest to find some grand conspiracies to publicly squash for his science-averse, paranoid base’s delight. In his investigation of climate scientists working for NOAA, he specified absolutely no instances of misconduct he thinks occurred, only asked for ever more raw data to be provided to him, even though the data and the methods used to analyze it have been on the web for years, provided by NOAA to anyone even slightly curious. But data is not what Smith is really after, because he has no interest in the actual science. He and his donors are upset that updated data for atmospheric warming gathered from additional sources after years of looking over more and more observation stations eliminated the “pause” to which denialists cling. Since the only possibility in their minds is that the data is faked, they want evidence of fakery.

Really there’s no other way to put it. Smith wants to have private communications between the scientists funded by NOAA to create another Climategate, which denialists are still convinced is an actual scandal despite the scientists being cleared of any wrongdoing, and if he doesn’t find something badly worded when taken out of context, or something politically incorrect, he will be taking something he doesn’t understand — which is likely most of the things being discussed by climatologists — and is being paid by oil and gas lobbies to continue not understanding, way out of context and manufacture a scandal out of that. When the chairman of the science committee which decides on funding for countless basic research projects his nation needs to maintain the top spot for scientific innovation in the world thinks his job is to harass scientists he doesn’t like because his donors’ business may be adversely impacted by their findings, until some pretense to interrogate them comes up, no matter how flimsy, we have a very serious problem. While all abuses of power are bad, abuses by partisan dullards have a certain awfulness about them, as they ridicule when they seem to utterly lack the capacity to understand in the first place

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pig out ad

If there was an award for the most reputable organization with the worst track record of making scientific pronouncements to the public, needlessly scaring millions while giving militant granola types and snake oil salespeople like Mike Adams and the Food Babe ammunition to make their fear-mongering and scamming look legitimate at first glance, the IARC would win it hands down because no one else even comes close. Pretty much every other press release they issue just makes experts and doctors want to smack them upside the head, and it’s no different with their latest announcement which sent much of the internet into a state of despair. Bacon, they say, is carcinogenic, so all that sweet, sweet processed pig with which the web is in lust, increases the odds of certain gastrointestinal cancers by as much as 18% according to studies they reviewed in their capacity to rule on the strength of evidence for whether something causes cancer. With that came worldwide weeping and gnashing of teeth as countless breakfasts were ruined.

This traumatic event for bacon-lovers everywhere, this Aporkalypse as none might call it, is the result of a systematic review of studies showing that a diet high in processed meat is linked to a slight increase in certain types of bowel cancers. That by itself doesn’t necessarily seem like an alarming finding in and of itself. After all, we’ve known that for many years. What was alarming, and very much remains so, is how the IARC communicated its review of these studies and how its classification system works because it turns generally well known research about what might cause cancer into an arcane classification system for carcinogens which often misinforms much of the public. Because the group only rates the quality of evidence found by studies rather than notes the true risks posed by the studied carcinogens, according to its system, bacon seems as dangerous for you as smoking and breathing asbestos fibers while taking a nap on a bed made of uranium. But it’s not. If anything, smoking accounts for a fifth of all diagnosed cancers while a diet of red and processed meat might be linked to a sixth of that amount of diagnoses.

In other words, while cigarettes and bacon are classified the same way by the IARC, the former is much less dangerous for you than the latter, depending on your genetics and lifestyle. If you shovel a dozen strips of bacon into your mouth every morning, follow that with a bottle of beer, then smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for a decade, you’re pretty much guaranteed a very nasty form of cancer in your future. We know this because it’s been very extensively studied by multiple scientists in both animals and humans, the IARC thoroughly reviewed all the published work, and was satisfied that the methodology behind them was sound. That’s why it exists, it’s a formal peer review committee on public health policy advice about cancers. But because of the confusion around the classification system it adopted for how it feels about studies, its decisions about the real world implications of the research it reviews are incredibly confusing. Not only do we get bacon on the same list of carcinogens as smoking, but we end up with the infamous and much abused Group 2B and Group 2A, which list countless things as maybe carcinogenic.

Basically, things in these groups “possibly” or “probably” cause cancer, which means that there was some sort of study in a cell culture, or on mice, showing that the chemical in question could somehow be linked to a cancerous tumor and the IARC thought it wasn’t a terrible study. Based on how well it felt about this study and others like it, the group would assign the chemical to one of these “maybe” categories. They don’t actually mean that something possibly or probably is a carcinogen, but that some scientists presented studies that made the group question if there is some chance that a particular chemical or compound causes some form of cancer. This is how cell phones ended up Group 2B, despite there being no biologically plausible mechanisms for a cell phone to trigger cancerous tumors. Someone adjusted enough study parameters to create some hints that maybe in some cases electromagnetic radiation could be linked to one specific type of cancer, or shot enough of it at cells in a petri dish to do some damage that looks like the start of a cancerous tumor, and the IARC chose not to take too much issue with the papers.

This is how it was with bacon. In studies showing links between processed meats and cancer, a diet disproportionately high in these things was found to be the culprit. Eating anything, even an apparently evil, carcinogenic sausage or bacon strip, once in a while, won’t increase your odds of being diagnosed with a bowel cancer in any significant way. So really, the proper advice is to moderate your daily intake of both red and processed meat, which the IARC actually said. But it did so in a way that put the onus of actually determining what moderation looks like, and how to go about it to an amorphous worldwide community of doctors and medical bureaucrats. Bacon, sausages, and steak, cause cancer just like cigarettes, they tell the world without noting that a cigarette is far deadlier than a bacon strip, figure out how you want to deal with that, have your doctors and researchers, who we’ve now just informed that this is a real problem, tell you what you should do to avoid killer tumors in your tract. Gee IARC, thanks for that helping hand.

And this is where we get to the heart of the problem. The IRAC’s very confusing and convoluted pronouncements which rely on its arcane, opaque classification system gives people little in the way of useful guidance by refusing to differentiate between the levels of risk posed by exposure to confirmed carcinogens, and by listing things in two confusing “maybe” piles with weak or very inconclusive evidence behind their carcinogenic potential, they hand quacks and modern snake oil salespeople a goldmine for new outlandish claims by which they can scare people to buy the random, over-priced crap they peddle. Can you think of a bigger disservice to the public than a scientific group that just issues random lists of scary things that can kill you with virtually no real elaboration and tells you to figure out what to do about it with your doctor? How had could it be to go into a little more detail? These people are scientists. Don’t scientists love to talk about the finer details of their work? And trust me, if it’s about cancer, people will definitely listen…

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voodoo doll

In another edition of people-can-be-awful news following last week’s post about why it’s indeed best not to feed trolls, it’s time to talk about online harassment and what to do about it. It seems that some 72 social activist groups are asking the Department of Education to police what they see as harassing and hate speech on a geo-fenced messaging app, arguing that because said geo-fence includes college campuses, it’s the colleges’ job to deal with it. Well, I suppose that it must be the start of windmill tilting season somewhere and now a government agency will have to do something to appease activists with good intentions in whose minds computers are magic that with the right lines of code can make racists, sexists, and stalkers go away. Except when all of them simply reappear on another social media platform and keep being terrible people since the only thing censoring them changes is the venue on which they’ll spew their hatred or harass their victims. Of course this is to be expected because the internet is built to work like that.

Now look, I completely understand how unpleasant it is to have terrible things said about you or done to you on the web and how it affects you in real life. As a techie who lives on the web, I’ve had these sorts of things happen to me firsthand. However, the same part of me that knows full well that the internet is in fact serious business, contrary to the old joke, also understands that a genuine attempt to police it is doomed to failure. Since the communication protocols used by all software using the internet are built to be extremely dynamic and robust, there’s always a way to circumvent censorship, confuse tracking, and defeat blacklists. This is what happens when a group of scientists build a network to share classified information. Like it or not, as long as there is electricity and an internet connection, people will get online, and some of these people will be terrible. For all the great things the internet brought us, it also gave us a really good look at how many people are mediocre and hateful, in stark contrast to most techo-utopian dreams.

So keeping in mind that some denizens of the web will always be awful human beings who give exactly zero shits about anyone else or what effect their invective has on others, and that there will never be a social media platform free of them no matter how hard we try, what should their targets do about it? Well, certainly not ask a government agency to step in. With social media’s reach and influence as powerful as it is today, and the fact that it’s free to use, we’ve gotten lost in dreamy manifestos of access to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and yes, the dreaded Yik Yak, being fundamental human rights to speak truth to power and find a supporting community. But allowing free and unlimited use of social media is not some sort of internet mandate. It’s ran by private companies, many of them not very profitable, hoping to create an ecosystem in which a few ads or add-on services will make them some money by being middlemen in your everyday interactions with your meatspace and internet friends. If we stop using these services when the users with which we’re dealing through them are being horrible us, we do real damage.

But wait a minute, isn’t not using the social media platform on which you’ve been hit with waves and waves of hate speech, harassment, and libel, just letting the trolls win? In a way, maybe. At the same time though, their victory will leave them simply talking to other trolls with whom pretty much no one wants to deal, including the company that runs the platform. If Yik Yak develops a reputation as the social app where you go to get abused, who will want to use it? And if no one wants to use it, what reason is there for the company to waste millions giving racist, misogynist, and bigoted trolls their own little social network? Consider the case of Chatroulette. Started with the intent of giving random internet users a face with a screen name and connecting them with people they’d never otherwise meet, the sheer amount of male nudity almost destroyed it. Way too many users had negative experiences and never logged on again, associating it with crude, gratuitous nudity, so much so that it’s still shorthand for being surprised by an unwelcome erect penis on cam. Even after installing filters and controls banning tens of thousands of users every day, it’s still not the site it used to be, or that its creator actually envisioned it becoming.

With that in mind, why try to compel politicians and bureaucrats to unmask and prosecute users for saying offensive things on the web, many of which will no doubt be found to be protected by their freedom of speech rights? That’s right, remember that free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say things you personally approve of, or find tolerable. Considering that hate speech is legal, having slurs or rumors about you in your feed is very unlikely to be a criminal offense. You can be far more effective by doing nothing and letting the trolls fester, their favorite social platform to abuse others become their own personal hell where other trolls, out of targets, turn on them to get their kicks. Sure, many trolls just do it for the lulz with few hard feelings towards you. Until it’s them being doxxed, or flooded with unwanted pizzas, or swatted, or seeing their nudes on a site for other trolls’ ridicule. No matter how hard you try, they won’t be any less awful to you, so let them be awful to each other until they kill the community that allows them to flourish and the company that created and maintained it, and allow their innate awfulness be their undoing.

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fable troll

Every internet community has them and many have been killed by them. They crave two things most of all: attention and a platform to broadcast whatever comes to mind, and every time they appear, you can safely bet that someone will admonish users engaging with them not to feed a troll as per the common axiom. But what if, just to propose something crazy here, maybe there are reasons to talk to them, downvote them, and otherwise show your displeasure because an appropriate amount of push back will finally solidify the message that they’re not wanted? They could either leave or give up on their trollish ways. Either way, it would be an improvement. So, following this hypothesis, a small group at a Bay Area college collected 42 million comments on huge gaming, political, and news sites with a grand total of 114 million votes spanning as many as 1.8 million unique users, to figure out once and for all if you can downvote trolls into oblivion or force them to productively contribute. Unfortunately, the answer is a pretty definitive no.

After creating an artificial neural network to gauge whether comments deserved an upvote or a downvote after using the actual discussion threads as a training set, the researchers decided to follow users’ comment histories to see how feedback from others affected them over time. They found that users who were ignored simply stopped participating, which seems quite logical. It’s simply a waste of time and effort to shout into the digital aether with no feedback. But when the computer followed the trolls, the data showed that even withering negativity had pretty much no effect on what they posted or how much. Their comments didn’t change and they did not seem to care at all about the community’s opinions of them. If they wanted to antagonize people, they kept right on doing it. We could say that not every person who provoked a flood of negativity in response is a troll, true. Some of the political sites used in the sample are extremely partisan so any deviation from the party line can provoke a dog pile. But by the same token, while not every maligned comment is trollish, most trollish comments are maligned, so the idea still holds.

With this in mind, how do we police trolls? Not feeding them does seem to be the best strategy, but considering how many of us suffer from SIWOTI syndrome — and yes, I’m not an exception to this by any stretch of the imagination since half this blog is a manifestation of it — and will not let trollish things go, it’s not always feasible. This means that shadow banning is actually by far the most effective technique to deal with problematic users. Because they won’t know they’re in their own little sandbox invisible to everyone else, their attempts to garner attention are always ignored so they get bored and leave. Of course this method isn’t foolproof, but a well designed and ran community will quickly channel even repeat offenders into the shadow banned abyss to be alone with their meanderings. In short, according to science, the best thing we can do to put a stop to trolling is to aggressively ignore them, as paradoxical as that sounds at first blush.

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amazon boxes

It’s been a few months since NYT savaged Amazon’s work environment in the national press to several stammering professions of utter bewilderment from Bezos. We’ve heard little since, but just as it seemed that most of the unpleasant attention died down, something bizarre happened to bring the article back into the spotlight. Amazon’s new chief of PR decided to very publicly hit the newspaper with detailed criticisms of its coverage as if the story was still fresh. As you may expect, the head editor of the Times did not take it lightly and posted very stern rebuttals to the rebuttals, and the two are likely to go back and forth on the topic for a while while the rest of us are left to figure out exactly how bad of a place Amazon is to work. Personally, I have not heard any good things about working there and the consensus I’ve found basically says that if you’re willing to bite the bullet and suffer for two years, you’ll come out with a resume booster to find a job where you can actually enjoy what you do while working saner hours.

Amusingly enough, many internet commenters reacted to these sorts of discussions with close to the same scorn they reserved for the wealthy who feel they need affluenza therapy. Does it really matter whether 20-somethings making six figures are or aren’t happy with how their boss treats them? They’re making bank while people who loathe their jobs and whose bosses are so cruel, it seems like there’s a management competition in sadism, work sunup to sundown for a wage that still makes them prioritize rent and food over long overdue basic car maintenance. In some ways, I can understand that attitude. IT definitely pays well, and in many places there are so many jobs for someone with a computer science degree and a few years of experience that receiving multiple offers in the same day is not uncommon. As said in Eastern Europe, it would be a sin to complain about a fruitful computer science career, especially when your job title has the words “senior” or “lead” in it. But that said, I will now proceed to commit that exact sin.

For many programmers, insane hours aren’t just expected, they’re required. If you don’t put in your eight to ten hours a day, then go home and spend another four to five hours studying your first few years on the job, you’re going to struggle and find that your contract isn’t renewed. The lack of sleep and subsistence on caffeine, adrenaline, and electronic music are not just badges of honor, but the price of admission to the club. And now, on top of working around the clock, a lot of employers want to know what code you’re publishing on open source repositories, and to what programming groups you belong. You’re expected to live, sleep, breathe, eat, and cough comp sci to have a fruitful career that allows you to advance past the sweatshop setting. Suffer through it with a stiff upper lip and you’ll be given a reward. More work. But in a cozy office with snacks, game rooms, free coffee and even booze — all to keep you in the office longer — along with at least some creative freedom about how to set up the code structure for your project.

Just like doctors, lawyers, and architects, techies have to run a professional gauntlet before the salary fairy finally deems you worthy, waves her wand, and puts a smile on your face when you see your paycheck along with the money you saved while spending all your time at work. That’s your reward for all the blood, sweat and tears. And trust me, when you see the complex pieces of code you wrote roar to life and be relied on by thousands of people alongside, that’s more or less the exact moment you’ll either realize it was all totally worth every minute of frustration and exhaustion and you’re in love with what you do, or that the people who just pulled this off only to celebrate by doing it all over again must be completely insane, and should be swiftly committed to the nearest mental health facility. If it sounds like IT is very pro-hazing, it is, because we want to ensure that those willing to put in the hard work and have the tenacity to solve problems that seem like a real life hex placed by a dark wizard on machinery, are the ones who get rewarded, not people whose only job skill is to show up on time and look busy for enough of the day.

And that brings us back to Amazon. Since a lot of programmers expect a long grind until they’ll land that coveted spot in a startup-like atmosphere, there are a lot of companies which gleefully abuse this expectation to run a modern day white collar sweatshop. You’re shoved in a cubicle, assigned a mountain of tasks, and told to hurry up. If you have a technical boss, all he wants is to know when the code is finished. If you have a non-technical boss, he’ll watch you for signs of slacking off so he can have a disciplinary talk with you because unable to manage the product, he manages the people. And after being whipped into a crazy, unsustainable pace, you deliver someone else’s vision, then told to do the same thing again even faster. This is not only how all the stories the NYT quoted paint Amazon, this is exactly how Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and IT at large banks and insurance companies work, by the sweatshop system. Working for them is just one long career-beginning hazing that never really ends, and most IT people simply accept it to be the way their world works, and share their time at a sweatshop as a battlefield story.

We are not upset about it, we just know that companies like Amazon only care about speed and scale, and can afford the golden shackles with which to chain roughly enough warm bodies to a computer to crank out the required code, and make our employment decisions with this in mind. For many techies a company that will chew them up and spit them out, but looks good to one of the countless tech recruiters out there when highlighted in an online resume, is a means to the kind of job they really want. Sure, you’ll find stories of programmers rebelling that we can’t wear jeans and t-shirts to the office, or tales of on-site catered meals on demand and massages, but that’s a tiny minority of all techies, primarily in California’s tech hubs. Most programmers wear a selection of outfits best fit for Jake from State Farm, spend their days in a cube farm, and game rooms with pool tables, consoles, and free booze for coders whose work at a company isn’t just acknowledged in passing, like a long lost uncle’s stint in jail, are things they read about between coding. To them, Amazon isn’t a particularly cruel or bruising employer. It’s a typical one.

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worried monopoly man

Being rich, especially when you’re a member of the much talked about 1%, has its problems to work though and they’re completely legitimate, according to therapists for the wealthy who took to the pages of The Guardian to explain that for one percenters, coming out as rich is a lot like coming out of the closet for gay people. No, that’s really what they really said, no paraphrasing or embellishing for comic effect on my part here. As it so turns out, today’s wealthy suffer from an interesting new strain of what some call affluenza. With rising income inequality being by far the number one concern of many economists, they’re feeling guilty about their wealth and find themselves both isolated from people who won’t dismiss their problems as non-existent simply because they’re flush with cash, and unjustly vilified by the media and political activists for their financial success and good luck rather than celebrated as before. In short, as we are instructed by the immortal words of the late Notorious B.I.G., mo’ money, mo’ problems indeed.

Some of the wealthy are even starting to lash out, demanding what they feel is the proper level of respect from the White House, and fuming about not being given the proper recognition as a vitally important job creating class by the general public, even after they’ve damaged the global economy and had to rely on cheap loans to survive. One venture capitalist even compared the plight of being rich in America today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. For the nearly all of us, it sounds like temper tantrums of entitled, spoiled children. We have bills to pay and ends to meet every month, they always have money in the bank and paid for their mansions in cash. What in the name of Cthulhu’s sweaty jock strap do these fat cats want from us? To fawn over them or praise them for having money? To nod sagely as they worry whether their beach house would be too ostentatious for the visiting plebes? Why couldn’t they just look at their account total and be happy with what they have? If they feel so bad about being wealthy, why not just donate the sum they deem excessive to pay away their guilt? Where do they get the gall to complain?

It seems that after three decades of being publicly praised as a mighty creator class by supply-side economics proponents, the wealthy have forgotten that American’s relationship with them hasn’t always been so rosy. While since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution stories about how hard work can turn one into a tycoon have been immensely popular, the actual tycoons weren’t, thanks to their mistreatment of workers and blatant bribery of elected officials. They responded with the same red-bating they do today, declaring that only communists could protest inequality and if their workers didn’t like how they were being treated, they are free to go work elsewhere, and if they can’t find a job, well they can start their own businesses, as if that’s a panacea. The simple fact of the matter is that the wealthy don’t have the same interests that those not as well off as them do, and they have the resources to divert the attention of those who govern us from making things better for everyone to making things better just for them. They’ve left us so very far behind that we simply can’t catch up, and the result feels like a professional hockey team is on the ice with high school athletes and is running up the score for its own amusement.

Now, the public doesn’t think that all rich people are evil. It’s true that we’re biologically wired to reject extreme inequality and unfairness, but we also understand that no matter what we do, a certain class striation will always exist and that’s actually a good thing. We want people to make something of themselves, to aspire to greatness and financial security. And we also take why a certain someone is wealthy into account, which is why a seasoned expert surgeon taking home some $500,000 a year, or an engineer who designed and built something groundbreaking and popular are praised as deserving of every penny, while some hedge fund manager who cashed in after the economy took a nosedive is painted as a vulture fattened on human misery. Almost every time income inequality is debated, it’s through a prism of the haves vs. the have-nots and filled with cries about class warfare, but that’s the wrong way to approach the problem because there are two debates to be had. The first is what society finds worthy of huge rewards and why these people are being rewarded. The other is whether there’s truly equality of opportunity that the current have-nots can seize to become wealthy, or at least firmly financially secure.

Right now the situation seems to contentious because the answers to both concerns seem very unsettling. Those with the most cash are hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and scions of wealthy families. Almost a quarter of the Forbes 500 basically got on that list simply by being born to the right family, and nearly half got a big chunk, or all of their startup capital from family members. Only a third are really, unarguably self-made and that number has been decreasing over the last decade. There our judgment of who deserves this wealth also plays a role, since a number of people on that list are engineers and inventors who got a serious leg up from family, but they’re often skipped over when debating inequality. Likewise, with the skyrocketing cost of college alongside employer demands for long stretches of unnecessary, overpriced education that doesn’t actually get them what they want anyway, and stagnant wages, makes it seem like instead of climbing corporate ladders on our way to financial stability, we’re locked in a race to the bottom, offering ourselves at a hefty discount not to just get knocked off those ladders.

That said, should we actually make colleges optional for the 73% of jobs that don’t actually use the degrees those who hold them receive, promote and boost vocational schools to handle the job training employers want as a perfectly viable career path, encourage community college to public state university routes for those still undecided about their careers, and generally put the workforce more in tune with the workplace, we can help people feel like they have a better path to financial security. Meanwhile, if we regulate Wall Street’s fiscal snake oil into nonexistence to limit the terrifying financial shenanigans of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, on top of adopting a policy of refusing any bailouts should they fail, and sticking to it, we can stem one of the top sources of malicious, toxic income inequality today. And for the wealthy who still feel the pangs of their affluenza badly enough to need treatment, their therapists should tell them to either contribute to charity if they’re so guilty about their wealth, start a company to do the sorts of incredible projects we’d all support, like Tesla or SpaceX, or just deal with the fact that when they whine about having too much money, the rest of us just aren’t going to react well to it.

[ illustration by Bill Mayer ]

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math is logical

When you live in a world filled with technology, you’re living with the products of millions of lines of code, both low, and high level. There’s code in your car’s digital controls, all your appliances, and sprawling software, with which yours truly has more than just a passing familiarity, are way more often than not behind virtually every decision made about you by banks, potential bosses, hospitals, and even law enforcement. And it’s that last decision maker that warrants the highest scrutiny and the most worry because proprietary code is making decisions that can very literally end your life without actually being audited and examined for potential flaws. Buggy software in forensic labs means that actual criminals may go free while innocent bystanders are sentenced to decades, if not life in jail or death row for their actions, so criminal defense attorneys are now arguing that putting evidence in a black box to get a result is absurd, and want a real audit of at least one company’s software. Sadly, their requests have so far been denied by the courts for a really terrible reason: that the company is allowed to protect its code from the competition.

Instead of opening up its source code, the company in question, Cybergenetics, simply says its methods are mathematically sound and peer reviewed, so that should be the end of discussion as far as justice is concerned. So far, the courts seem to agree, arguing that revealing code will force the company to reveal its trade secrets despite the fact that its entitled to keep them. And while its unlikely that Cybergenetics is doing anything willfully malicious or avoiding an audit for some sort of sinister reason, the logic of saying that because their methodology seems sound, the code implementing it should be beyond reproach is fatally flawed. Just because you know a great deal about how something should be done doesn’t mean that you won’t make a mistake, one that may completely undermine your entire operation. Just consider the Heartbleed bug in the open source OpenSSL. Even when anyone could’ve reviewed the code, a bug undermining security the software was supposed to offer was missed for years, despite all the methodology behind OpenSSL’s approach to security for the package was quite mathematically sound.

So what could Cybergenetics not want to share with the world? Well, knowing what I’ve had the chance to learn about code meant to process DNA sequences, I can provide several educated guesses. One of the most problematic things with processing genetic data is quantity. It simply takes a lot of time and processing power to accurately read and compare DNA sequences and that means a lot of money goes solely to let your computers crunch data. The faster you could read and compare genetic data, the lower your customers’ costs, the more orders you can take and fulfill on time, and the higher your profit margins. What the code in question could reveal is how its programmers are trying to optimize it and tweak things like data types, memory usage, and mathematical shortcuts to get better performance out of it. All of these are clearly perfectly valid trade secrets and knowing how they do what they do could easily give competition a very real leg up on developing even faster and better algorithms. But these optimizations are also a perfect part of the code for evidence-compromising bugs to hide. It’s a real conundrum.

It’s one thing if you’re running a company which provides advanced data warehousing or code obfuscation services, where a bug in your code doesn’t result in someone going to jail. But if a wrong result on your end can cost even one innocent person a quarter century behind bars, an argument centered around your financial viability as a business just doesn’t cut it. Perhaps the patent system could help keep this software safe from being pilfered by competitors who won’t be able to compete otherwise while still keeping the code accessible and easy to review by the relevant experts. Otherwise, if we let commercial considerations into how we review one of the most important types of forensic evidence, criminal defense attorneys have an easy way to do what they do best and raise reasonable doubt by repeating how the method of matching is top secret and is banned from being reviewed solely to keep up the company’s revenue stream. Or ask the jury how they would feel if an algorithm no one is allowed to review not to compromise the creators’ bank accounts decides their ultimate fate in a complicated criminal case.

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